4 Premier League title winners analyze the lost art of defending

The round leather game has evolved in the last decade for footballing positions and roles on the pitch of play.

The footballers who plied their trade in the past have seen changes in the game over the years and it’s no more news that some of them are not impressed.

This is with regards to positions attack, midfield, and defense in Premier League football.

In a recent chat with the likes of Mikael Silvestre, Nigel Winterburn, Lauren, and Gary Pallister, they aired their views on how the job of defenders has changed over the years.

Silvestre opined: “If you switch off, you’re done,” “You can’t rest as strikers or midfielders can.”

It can be recalled that Silvestre played in the Premier League for Manchester United (1999 to 2008) and Arsenal (2008 to 2010) respectively. The former French defender amassed a whopping 249 appearances for the Red Devils before moving to Arsenal where he played 26 games. Therefore, he has earned the right to speak on the topic based on the experience he garnered in his playing days in the Premier League.

Regardless, the game has changed a lot as typical defenders are now expected to contribute in building attacks from the back and maintain a high line.

It appears that the old-style whereby defenders could give as good as they got and put their bodies on the line is becoming obsolete and less trendy.

“When I played, you had to be an outstanding defender or you wouldn’t get into one of the top four teams,” says former Arsenal left-back Nigel Winterburn, who won three league titles at the club between 1987 and 2000.

“Now you don’t have to be as good defensively, but if you don’t have that quality on the ball then you probably wouldn’t get into a top team.”

It’s no more mainly about the brawn and grit by defenders in the Premier League.

Emphasis is now being placed on their technical abilities as well, and this is evidenced in how the stats of completed passes by a defender is now being used as a factor in ratings.

Meanwhile, one club where the defenders being technical is a priority is Manchester City under the management of Spaniard Pep Guardiola. Winterburn also contributed his argument to the recent development in the role of defenders in the Premier League.

According to him, the newly found craving to play out from the back is very risky in comparison to the ‘hit it long’ era.

It can be recalled that the 57-year-old played under the management of George Graham for 8 years, with the latter establishing himself as a manager who demanded defensive discipline from his defenders.

“The way that teams are playing out from the back, modern defenders and full-backs have got be very comfortable on the ball because they’re often in advanced areas,” he says.

“But we were always judged by what we did defensively under George.

“Down my side I could go and play, but you knew that Lee [Dixon] would have to tuck round alongside the other two center halves and vice versa if Lee went.

“Yes, we did play it out from the back at times when Arsene Wenger took over, but as soon as the goalkeeper got the ball, it’s up to the halfway line and you’d play from the knockdowns.

“I think the whole ethos of the game, particularly how quick it is, has changed.

“When I first started, the game was a lot slower. You think about the conditions, very rarely would you get a green pitch after Christmas.”

Well, as the game has evolved, so has the quality of pitches improved over the years and this is another major factor that has influenced footballing styles in the Premier League over the years. Gary Pallister in a chat with the Betway Insider spoke concerning this supposed lost art of defending in the Premier League in recent times. The oldies appear not to be too impressed with the baggage being added to the role of traditional defenders. However, he noted the influence of pitches.

“A lot of the issues were to do with the pitches,” says Pallister.

“If you look at the pitches I played on in the early part of my career, they looked like rugby pitches. Nowadays they’re like bowling greens and you can take more risks if you trust the pitch.”

The ball is being played mostly on the ground in the Premier League in recent times. Even the newly-promoted Premier League sides try to deploy this style of play and it has worked to perfection for some as they’ve remained in the top tier.

This is all down to how good the pitches have been in recent times, unlike when long balls were the order of the day to ensure that the game progressed smoothly.

Speaking further, Winterburn said: “I think if we were to go out and walk through some of the training sessions that George put on for our back four with a modern player, they might look at you in disbelief”

“We used to go out a couple of times a week and it would just be the back four with the manager on the training pitch. There wouldn’t even be a goalkeeper and we wouldn’t have the ball on the floor.

“He would be jogging through positions that we would have to react to, imagining there was a piece of rope in between each player so the lines always stayed the same and you move in sync.”

“There was a lot more discipline involved compared to now.”

Another notable change in the defensive approach in the Premier League is that tackles and challenges have become softer than they were in the past.

The tactic of false 9 was non-existent in the 90s as teams mostly deployed two typical strikers, considering that the defenders were always in the best physical condition and raring to go for every game. They had to be and so did the strikers to ensure that they prevailed eventually.

“In the early part of my career you’d get a lot of center-forwards who were pretty robust,” says Pallister.

“You think about some of them – Mick Harford and John Fashanu, for example. It was the job of these guys to mess with the center-half and intimidate them.

“Physically, you’d have to be up to that kind of challenge, and it was something that I found hard when I first started in football because I was very slight.

“You got pushed around by some of these bigger guys and it’s something that I had to try and learn to deal with. That included weights and maybe a few glasses of Guinness to try and beef myself up.”

Speaker further, former Arsenal right-back Lauren who joined the North London outfit as a midfielder in 2000 is no stranger to the opinions of the aforementioned veterans.

“I had to change my position and I had a few problems defending in the beginning, especially when the ball was on the other side I was caught ball-watching a lot,” he says.

“But now, they are asking defenders for more things. We have to re-adapt ourselves to the new era.”

Meanwhile, Silvestre who made most of his days at Manchester United before moving to Arsenal believes that he wouldn’t have any challenges if he was playing presently although he pointed out that it was difficult for defenders to blossom in these times.

“The game is not in their favor,” he says. “Some people would go as far as saying the art of defending is gone.”

However, Lauren begged to differ. He said: “Not everything from today’s game is fantastic”

“But to be the best now, you have to combine the best of the most traditional skills and the best of the modern-day skills.

“Evolution is good.”