Is defending dead?

Former Manchester United and England right back Gary Neville has recently bemoaned the lack of defensive qualities in Premier League teams. Defences may, as Neville suggests, have become less stable, or attacks may have become more effective. Or perhaps it is a bit of both, writes Brian Glanville.

Under the heading ‘Defending as I knew it is dying, never to return,’ the former Manchester United and England right back Gary Neville has written a polemical, fascinating and in some sense alarming article. Now a television pundit and as a coach, attached to the England team, Neville as a player was always a controversial figure. One remembers an occasion when, after United had beaten fierce rivals, he ran to the end where the opposing fans were stationed and pulled out his jersey to emphasise the United crest.

Then there was the Rio Ferdinand affair, which seems of late to have been strangely forgotten, in the turmoil over his three-match suspension and fine for using a derogatory slang word in response to a critic on the internet. I am referring to the occasion when he missed or allegedly dodged a dope test at the Manchester United training ground, driving out of the place before the test could be given with the palpably feeble excuse that he was going to shop for bed linen. The Football Association sentenced him to an eight-match ban from England’s international matches.

Gary Neville rose up in arms almost at once; at the very time the England team were training, billeted at a hotel in Hertfordshire, threatening and trying to implement a strike by the whole squad before the imminent international match for which they were preparing. It was a gesture well in tune with the militant Trade Union tendencies of the time, but it failed; England duly played.

Now the burden of Neville’s song is that the pendulum of play has swung all too sharply from defence to attack. And he has the statistics which tend to prove it. “If you look at the Premier League goal scoring charts,” he says. “it bursts into the thousands from 2010 on. There were 942 goals in 2009 and 1052 last season.” I suppose you could look at these figures in two ways. Defences may, as Neville suggests, have become less stable, or attacks may have become more effective. Or perhaps it is a bit of both.

But Neville goes into substantial detail in proving his point. In coaching he says, “My era of men who retired in 2009 to 2010 were the last group of predominantly defensively trained players. Coaching has shot off in another direction, towards the technical. I’ve had that confirmed by people at academies. The technical and attacking work is now around 80 percent with 20 percent reserved for defensive skills.”

He declares, “I look at some teams and feel: they don't know how to defend. They struggle with crosses, they don't deal with set-pieces, they don’t know how to work one on one. They have a weak understanding of the game.” And he describes in such detail just how he as a Manchester United youngster used to be coached by the formidable Eric Harrison and later, when playing for England, by the notable coach Don Howe, a former England World Cup right back and a crucial coach at Arsenal.

Under the aegis of Harrison and the England World Cup winning right half little Nobby Stiles, “We would do back four work two or three times a week for forty minutes. Plus one-on-one defending and a game called man-to-man marking, down the whole length of the pitch, whereby you could tackle only that man… We did a heading game… you could score only with your head. So you were continually doing heading practice and being tested in back-fours.

“Don Howe talked to me specifically about my feet and head movements… In youth team football I had problems one-on-one with moving my hips. I was quite stiff. United sent me to a mobility coach who worked on my feet movements to increase traction.” Yet when all is said and done, it is surely easier to defend than to attack, if you like, to create rather than destroy. And in at least one of his pronouncements, Neville becomes confusing.

“A Patrick Vieira of 10 years ago is now a Mikel Arteta. A Roy Keane is now a Daley Blind. And a Bryan Robson for England is now a Jack Wilshere.” Really? I saw not the slightest valid comparison between the big, powerful Vieira, such a huge force in the Arsenal and France midfield, and the far lighter Arteta, certainly a skilled footballer who tends to lie deep in the Arsenal midfield, but never the physically commanding force Vieira was. In essence, and in the old parlance, more of an inside forward.

Roy Keane now a Daley Blind? Surely not! Here comparisons become not so much odious, as is the old saying, but supremely irrelevant. Keane, who has just successfully published an outspoken and provocative autobiography, was with United and — when he cared to play for them — the Republic of Ireland. He was a dynamic force of nature in midfield, skilled on the ball, ruthless in the tackle, an inspiration to the rest of the team. Blind, who joined United after playing for Holland in the World Cup, son of a former Dutch international defender, is altogether less physically powerful, a left back who can play in midfield. Wilshere a Bryan Robson for England? Please! Wilshere for me, wherever Roy Hodgson decides to use him with England, is essentially and classically a natural inside forward, clever on the ball and above all a supreme passer of the ball. Robson, whom you might in his day have called the embodiment of Total Football, such was his versatility, might be better described as an attacking wing half, a doughty defender capable of sudden bursts for goal with foot or head.

“Wingers are full backs,” Neville pursues, but surely the boot is almost literally on the other foot. Overlapping full backs, especially with the Brazilian international team, attack like wingers yet wingers, encouragingly, have made a substantial comeback in recent years and, classically, can get to the goal-line to pull the ball back which few backs can do.

Neville’s argument is cogently and perceptively made in an era when so many teams, especially in England, function with a solitary attacker up front. Can it really then be said that the balance has tipped so dramatically, whatever the goal statistics, from defence to attack? But at least English soccer is free from the idiocies of long ball football — itself a relic of the 1950s — preached at the Football Association by the dogmatic chief coach Charlie Hughes, and practiced for a short successful time at Watford by Graham Taylor. Certainly any club who can find a coach like Eric Harrison should be deeply grateful.