Centre backs are key players in any team. Along with the goalkeeper at the back and defensive midfielders in front, centre backs form the spine of the defence. With the speed of play and physicality involved in the modern game and the responsibility of keeping a clean sheet, it can be an intimidating position to play. In this post, we discuss the skills a player must have to be a great centre back.
The most important characteristics that a centre back should possess is awareness and positioning. By knowing where to be at all times, the centre back ensures no opposition player has time or space to take a shot at a goal or assist other teammates.
Because good centre backs anticipate patterns of play before they develop, they hardly ever make a sliding tackle. They can only achieve this by having a strong ability to read the game. Sliding tackles are only their last- resort to stop players.
Positioning is not only required in order to stop the opposition. A good centre back gives the midfield passing options when all attacking avenues are blocked, allowing the team to restart the attack.
Carles Puyol is a legend of the game and a great example of the importance of positioning for a defender. His great positioning skills were key for Barcelona and Spain, teams that are always on the attack and exposed to counterattacks. By being at the right place always, Puyol gave Iniesta and Xavi peace of mind that their backs were covered. The video below is a great showcase of his career.
Centre backs are constantly organizing their defence and receiving information from the goalkeeper. They are often loud and thick skin people, even rude at times. The noise of the crowd and other players requires the centre back to be loud in order to be heard by the rest of the defence and the midfield. And if someone makes a silly mistake, they will certainly hear a word or two from their centre back. In summary, it is not a good idea to play as centre back a shy and quiet player.
Leadership and communication are also key to play with the offside rule. An offside trap requires great chemistry between players in order for it to be successful, defenders need to push forward in unison. Because of their position in the field, centre backs are in charge of pushing players forward and make sure no opposition player is onside with an easy run to goal.
The leadership and communication skills of centre backs are the reason why so many of them are team captains and often become managers when they retire. A legend of the game like Franz Beckenbauer is a clear example of this. Beckenbauer led Germany to win World Cups both as player and manager.
Centre backs are often the enforcer of the team, particularly in the old days when very dangerous tackles were ignored. A good centre back claims the ball at every opportunity with a “though shall not pass” mentality.
Dominating the centre back position involves both outthinking and outmuscling the opponent. A great physique allows the centre back to use their body as a weapon to outmuscle the opposition or to outpace them in a one-on-one. Center backs must be ready to compete against any type of player. Think about it, how do you stop players like Messi or Ronaldo? If they haven’t read a pass before the ball gets to them, they have to outmuscle them between the strict rules of the modern game. A very difficult task indeed.
An example of a tough centre back is Italy’s Claudio Gentile. He was a legendary defender known for his no-nonsense approach that helped shut down Diego Maradona and win the 1982 FIFA World Cup.
Knowing how and when to head the ball is essential for a centre-half. Crossing the ball into the box is one of the most common plays for attacking teams. Having good aerial ability ensures that crosses do not pose a threat. This is particularly important in the last minutes of a game when the centre back team is winning or drawing and the opposition is throwing everything they got to score a goal.
At the other end of the pitch, because of their aerial ability, centre backs often join their teams on corner kicks and set pieces. In this sense, heading is absolutely essential, and of use at both ends.
Daniel Passarella was a maestro of the aerial game on both sides of the field. He is among the top-scoring centre backs in world football, having scored 23 goals for Argentina and 143 goals for his football clubs, many of these goals were scored from headers.
Knowing when to commit to a tackle is of utmost importance. When to stand their ground, when to rush to a player and when to actually make a sliding or standing tackle are key skills for any player, but particularly important for defensive players.
As a general rule, only full backs and centre backs should use sliding tackles, everyone else should avoid them. Even then, sliding tackles are the last resort for a defender. As discussed before, good defenders anticipate the opposition moves and intercept the ball before it gets to a striker. However, from time to time defenders have no other option than going to the ground to tackle a player. Timing these tackles correctly is important to avoid giving away fouls. Another reason for avoiding sliding tackles is that if the tackle misses the ball, and no foul is called, it is hard to get back in your feet and the opposition player will be free to run towards the goal.
Saying all the above, who doesn’t like a good old school tackle? 😉
The following video shows some impressive goal-saving tackles.