Recently Gabriele Marcotti reflected about the lower quality of centre-backs of top clubs playing in present-day football. As main culprits, he identified the increasing importance of full-backs and defensive midfielders, the decline of man-marking and simple cycles: occasionally the quality decreases. On his analysis I believe he missed one obvious follow-through: the quality of strikers at the moment (Messi, Ronaldo, Huntelaar, van Persie, Gomez, etc, etc, etc) may give the impression that centre-backs are less capable than just a decade ago. On the other hand, of course, it may be that the lower quality makes the attackers shine more. A reflection for another day.
There is however one other possibility that has probably played a role: the changes in rules – or rather the changes in the instructions given to referees. Until about 10 years ago there was still some allowance on the challenges by defenders (and here, “defender” refers to a player who is in a defensive moment of the play). Players could go for hard sliding tackles knowing that they would expect, at most, a yellow card. More often than not they would get a simple slap in the wrist and continue playing as usual. Only out of the ordinary or repeat offending would bring the caution. Red cards were reserved for harsh dissent or violent/unprofessional behaviour. That is how players such as Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Ronald Koeman, Diego Simeone, Gattuso, etc, made their living. There is no need to go back to analysing the Crazy Gang and the infamous Vinnie Jones tackle on McMahon.
For many years, the “reducers” were used to intimidate talented opponents, achieve psychological superiority or assert dominance in certain areas of the pitch. These tactics were the ones most used by dominating centre-backs, stoppers who would make clear to opposing attackers what would happen if they tried to take them on. More often than not, tackles which could bring today red cards would warrant little action from the referee. This meant that teams went frequently the standard of one strong and powerful centre-back being paired with a pacey and positionally aware partner. This remains the mould of many sides (Manchester United, Chelsea under Mourinho, Barcelona when playing Puyol and Piqué, etc).
The issue is that with the focus being more and more on letting the game flow and protecting the talented players, football is being changed into a more non-contact sport. Many simple challenges which would be completely ignored in the past are now being called as fouls and some of them even bring yellow cards. Because of this, man marking started being less important (if you cannot perform hard tackles on the opponent there is little point in sticking with him) and movement and positioning took precedence.
Unfortunately such paradigm shift is not achieved easily nor rapidly. Player who have been trained on the art of hard tackling, physical presence and last ditch blocks find it hard to adapt. it is no coincidence that some of the players mentioned by Marcotti are also adept (or started their careers) in other positions. Thiago Silva, Hummels and Kompany played often as defensive midfielders. When Pepe moved from his native Brazil to Portugal it was as a defensive midfielder. Chiellini started as left-back and Vermaelen played often in that position. All of these positions focus strongly on positioning, movement and anticipation, which is why these players have managed to switch easily to the new concept. Other have not been so lucky. Even David Luiz plays extremely well the position when concentrated, maybe because he started as attacking midfielder (which may explain his lapses in concentration).
Of course there are generations which bring brilliant defenders and others which are not so fortunate. Italy has always produced tactically aware defenders and produced the most impressive defensive pairing I can remember watching, that of Nesta and Cannavaro, two players basing their game on positioning, reading of the game, speed and anticipation. Still, in recent years Italy has been little active in that respect, with Chiellini being the most remarkable defender produced in the last 10 years.
Still, even taking these concepts into consideration, we can probably expect more and more players coming through who have been trained within the boundaries of modern football and the quality of centre-backs will again increase. One possible future trend may even be the reassignment of full-backs and defensive midfielders into centre-back positions. On tuesday, at the Barcelona-Chelsea match, we saw how Bosingwa (himself originally a midfielder) adapted perfectly to that role in the absence of an aerial threat from Barcelona. This could be the beginning of a future trend.