United’s defence: I don’t want to talk about it.

For a minute back there, I thought we were going to be treated (for treated read: not at all treated) to front row seats as David Moyes’ private fantasy – of running a team with Rio and Vidic at the heart of the defence, no matter what – played out all over our goal difference for the remainder of the season. Not that I’m not going to miss Vidic desperately dispersing his (and his opponents) limbs about the pitch, or Rio’s #silks, but of all the items Moyes has on his growing to-do-list, our central defence is not one them. Luckily for him, and us, we’re full up with young talented central defenders, primed to be gradually phased into the first team; and luckily for me too ‘cos I don’t have to talk about it. Defence is not my thing.

There are more myths in football than I’ve had hot dinners, oh no, wait – sorry – that’s cliches. Well, anyway, there’s lots of them. There are some garden-variety football fans who take great pleasure in nil all draws (it even sounds wrong) and would have us believe that there is nothing more valuable in the quest for silverware than a solid defence. They argue that there is an actual art to defending and revel in their favourite exponents of the “craft” chucking their faces in the way of stuff. “Defending’s in his blood” I’ve heard said – like it’s in anyone’s nature?! Yuck.

If you were to set up an experiment in a playground by placing a football in the centre circle and asking a group of children of indeterminate age (to the power ‘X’) to start playing, how many of them do you imagine would instantly rush to the edge of the area and shove his, or her arm in the air to appeal for offside as his, or her classmates made their way towards goal? It’s none. The answer is zero. No, they would all, without exception, descend on the ball, kicking air, shins and anything else within their peripheral boundaries in an attempt to take some sort of control.  Without the budget or relevant paperwork to undertake this trial, you’ll have to just take my word for it that the only conclusion we can draw is that there is no such thing as a natural defender.  If, as part of the research (lets go crazy with this!), you asked any professional footballer what they had dreamed of when they were growing up, do you think the answer would be: a goal in a cup final and/or perhaps in front of their home fans, or kicking the ball into Row Z down by the corner flag? It’s the former. The answer is the attacking one.

Defenders are the misfits: the children who were just about good enough to become professional footballers, but lacked the physical dexterity or creative capacity required of an advanced position.  Centre-backs are the children that were too tall and/or big and/or slow and full-backs* are the children who were closer to the ground than to the crossbar, when teams were being picked – both sets of children possessing more than a passing macabre interest in the sadistic.  There are of course anomalies: Peter Crouch, for example; he’s just too, well, Peter Crouchy, and there’s a few more besides – but no science is exact, just a collection of theories as yet unproven.

(*Left-backs are an altogether different breed.  If you are a left-footed child, then ninety-nine thousand times out of the number one digit above that, you will be made to play at left-back.  That’s why nowhere in the history of football will you find any evidence of one displaying any defensive qualities, and why they are almost always one of the most talented players in the team.  They weren’t all supposed to be defenders, they’re victims of appendagism – so, you might want to leave Patrice alone!  The rare ones that slip through the left-back net, go on to become the most mesmeric of preternatural attacking footballing creatures that you are likely to see.)

Intrinsic to any footballer’s nature is the neccessity to kick the ball in a progressive direction, to control the ball and to score goals.  The prerequisites of being a good defender however are the antithesis of these, meaning you have to be strong enough in character to deny those natural instincts when appropriate and carry out what you have been instructed to do.  The best defenders are the obedient and dutiful.  Namely the ones, who – in spite of themselves – pass the ball into the advertising hoardings when any number of more appealing options are available.

As for the ‘art of defending’, the way I see it, there are three constituent parts to the skillset required in the making of a good defender, seperate to those required of other positions: absolute concentration (yawn!), subordination (boo!) and the ability to cheat like hell, without ever being found out (boo! hiss!).  As far as I’m aware, none of these attributes require even a modicum of genuine artistry to acquire them.

What about things like tackling and heading (I’ll ask on your behalf)?  Well, these, as far as I’m concerned, are basic essentials in any footballer’s toolbag, regardless of position.  I’d also argue that throwing your legs in the direction of the ball when you are without it, is hardly an expression of your technical ability.  Granted, there is knack to the timing, but physics (and luck) play just as significant a role in getting a tackle absolutely ‘spot on’ as an individual’s judgement does. The real aptitude of a defender is in the denial of his, or her own ego: putting the team above oneself and putting duty above personal distinction. Coupled with this, the very fact that it’s unnatural, and not to mention the crippling boredom of it all, make defensive positions an utterly unenviable set of roles to play and ones that only very few can do very well at the highest level.

The evidence in the Premier League over the past few seasons is that proper defenders have had their day.  Players who now occupy the back-line are foregoing the pretence that they give a hoot about anything but gobbling up some of the glory for themselves and the chaos that has ensued has been nothing short of brilliant – a buffet of buffoonery for the eyes.  Amongst the wreckage there are still a stubborn determined few, hell-bent on ruining all the fun, and I suppose I will reluctantly admit that I sometimes fleetingly admire what they occasionally do … sometimes.  However, you will never convince me that you can find wonder and joy in the maneuverings of these artificially created, automated agents of negativity; a lump is not a diamond, and I will never celebrate a nil all draw.

Just imagine if defending was something I’d wanted to talk about – if it was ‘my thing’. Fingers crossed Moyes doesn’t get twitchy and renege on the introduction of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans (and Smalling), for all of our sakes.

This post was originally featured on By Far The Greatest Team.

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