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Old-fashioned centre-halves becoming an endangered species

IT would be unfair to single out the player but an incident at a League of Ireland game several years ago summed up how central defenders are generally viewed. Coming out of defence with the ball, the player had few options and, as he nervously shifted towards the half-way line, his touch was so heavy that it tempted the striker into trying to win possession.

Having gone from 100pc control to creating a 50-50, the centre-half then launched into the tackle where his opponent flew into the air, the ball flew onto the roof and, in recognition of both, most of the home crowd applauded him for his efforts.

Everyone knows it's impossible to score from Row Z but those who were present that night also knew it was impossible to score from the roof of Tolka Park.

Had this happened in Spain, Italy or other countries where possession is valued above passion, there would have been an outcry, but it's a peculiar quirk of the game in this part of the world that a central defender who enjoys being on the ball is viewed with suspicion.

The likes of Rio Ferdinand and John O'Shea are as comfortable in possession as most midfielders yet both have spent large parts of their careers fighting off accusations of being a little bit windy and afraid to put their head in where it hurts.

There is very little corroborating evidence for this theory but their desire to pass the ball to a team-mate rather than boom it up the pitch has been used in the case for the prosecution.

Jamie Carragher or Richard Dunne have never had to put up with such accusations. What they have probably gone through is the mickey-taking from team-mates who make beeping noises like a HGV whenever the player is running backwards or come up with classic one-liners like their second touch usually being a tackle. The revenge for such jibes, as always with a centre-back, is to smash the perpetrator the next time you have a chance to tackle them.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with attempting to keep possession, but by demanding that of players who aren't comfortable carrying out the instructions, it can create a scenario where the opposition are never as dangerous as when your team has the ball.

Already this season, Liverpool have given away seven goals -- four of which came within seconds of being in good possession of the ball -- and defenders weren't the only ones culpable. To his credit, Brendan Rodgers accepts the danger as an occupational hazard of the style he is trying to implement at Liverpool, but results and nothing else will determine whether that philosophy will be acceptable.

There isn't a coaching manual in the world that would encourage Martin Skrtel's attempt to keep possession against Manchester City while, last year under Rodgers, Swansea lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United when Angel Rangel's idiotic pass enabled Ryan Giggs to intercept and Javier Hernandez to score the game's only goal.

To Swansea, a self-inflicted 1-0 home defeat to United is almost laudable, but if it happens when Liverpool host United in three weeks' time it would be a different story.

There have been many defenders comfortable in possession in the past but, like most modern ideologies, the defenders-as-footballers phenomenon has its roots in Barcelona, who seem determined to turn the humble, old-fashioned centre-back into an endangered species. Javier Mascherano's conversion into a 5'9" centre-back has worked reasonably well, but the main reason for this is because Barcelona have so much possession that defending, in its normal sense, is strictly limited.

With Mascherano, Gerard Pique and now Alex Song in the mix, Carles Puyol is now probably the only outfield player at the club more concentrated on preventing goals going in at his own end than scoring them at the other.


Any centre-back would wince at the goals they conceded against Real Madrid last week. Song and Mascherano are both adept at the last-ditch tackle which gains huge cheers from the crowd but, in reality, it usually means they were out of position in the first place.

The school of thought that would encourage every team to play like Barcelona is laudable but, unfortunately, not every team has players like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Alves or Busquets who are so good at finding pockets of space that almost anybody could find them with a pass.

In the wake of their Euro 2012 struggles, Ireland's inability to keep the ball was cited as one of the biggest reasons for their failure, and Giovanni Trapattoni's distrust of his own players was high on the list of his faults.

But if, on Friday night, Darren O'Dea decided to impersonate Franco Baresi with an attempted pass to Glenn Whelan that was intercepted and allowed Kazakhstan to score, would O'Dea be slaughtered for his misdemeanour or applauded for his idealism?

Like Trapattoni and many of the Ireland support when it comes to their centre-halves, most would be happier if the ball ended up on the roof.

Irish Independent