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Mar 21, 2013

The case for the defence

Democracy, Winston Churchill once said, is the worst system apart from all the others. Sometimes that is because of the voters, sometimes because of the candidates. Occasionally, in a perfect storm, it is because of both.

And so it is, as the ballot papers arrive at training grounds across the country, that the electorate of the Professional Footballers' Association have two difficult decisions. In Gareth Bale, Juan Mata, Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie, there are too many compelling choices to be named Player of the Year. When they select their side of the season, however, there are too few deserving contenders in a key position: centre-back.

Consider the fate of last season's popular choices, Vincent Kompany and Fabricio Coloccini. The captains of Manchester City and Newcastle respectively have both had extended absences and periods of poorer form. The Belgian might win an election to determine the best defender in England; the finest this season, however, is another matter.

Others to earn acclaim 12 months ago have seen a swift fall in status. Either side of Stanley Park, Martin Skrtel and Johnny Heitinga were named Liverpool and Everton's players of the year. Now neither ranks in the first-choice team. Joleon Lescott, a title winner, and Thomas Vermaelen, anointed Arsenal captain, have been downgraded to the role of substitutes. John Terry, too, finds himself on the bench for many of Chelsea's premier matches.

Without falling as far and as fast, still more have suffered. Daniel Agger and Laurent Koscielny enjoyed their finest campaigns in England last year; this has been more mixed for both. One by one, runners and riders can be ruled out. Jan Vertonghen has impressed but around half of his league appearances have come at left-back. David Luiz's idiosyncratic approach to defending makes him unlikely to garner support from the pragmatists but some of his season has been spent in midfield.

As many footballers' default reaction is to vote for either the league leaders' players or Manchester United personnel, the commanding advantage Sir Alex Ferguson's side boast may simplify the decision. Yet while United's recent defensive record, with only three goals conceded in eight games, is excellent, for much of the year it was unusually bad. United were fallible at set-pieces and, at times, exposed by quick runners. Since his return, Nemanja Vidic has been defiant, but has still only featured in a minority of matches. Rio Ferdinand has been imperious for much of 2013 but he and Jonny Evans have to hope memories of their awkward autumn have faded swiftly.

The 34-year-old Ferdinand would nevertheless get this vote, along with the precocious Matija Nastasic, in a pairing of opposites: old and young, right-footed and left, United and City. That, however, is partly due to the absence of alternatives. Ashley Williams would be a worthy choice while Michael Dawson's progression from unwanted to invaluable at Tottenham is also laudable. The pacesetters at the half-way point, however, have faded from contention as clean sheets have become rarer.

Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth represent throwbacks in many respects. The job description is simpler for the Stoke pair than their counterparts elsewhere. Like centre-halves of the 1980s, they are employed to be stoppers, not footballers. Positional play, aerial expertise and communication with the rest of a well-drilled rearguard are vital, but they are not told to emulate Fernando Hierro. Brendan Rodgers, discussing Agger, once said he likes "a playmaker in behind". Tony Pulis makes no such demand of his back four.

If there are modern-day comparisons, perhaps they are provided by James Collins, Winston Reid, now at West Ham, Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, who flourished briefly together at Birmingham but floundered when parted. In a defensive team, they were tightly flanked by full-backs, shielded by deep-lying central midfielders and given a smaller area to patrol.

The widespread stylistic switch to a more expansive game, however, means many a centre-back needs to display a midfielder's quality and a sprinter's speed. It is an ever more complicated job and they are judged on their pace and passing. A glass ceiling is erected to prevent the out-and-out stopper, with no illusions of footballing ability, leaping too high. When he jumps in with too much vigour, the sort of full-blooded tackle that long drew praise can be deemed a red card for excessive force.

But the other factor, and one that helps account for the decline in Premier League teams' performances on the continental stage, is simpler: their top centre-backs aren't as good as they used to be. In the English era of dominance, Ferdinand, Vidic, Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and Jamie Carragher were all formidable performers. In 2007-08, United, Chelsea and Liverpool conceded a mere 76 league goals between them. The following year, again from a combined 114 games, that number went down to 75. The European elite found it as difficult to defeat them as English attacks.

In both seasons, Ferdinand and Vidic were the players' pick for places in the PFA team of the year. But as they have aged, the wait for another golden generation of central defenders goes on. And so the men crowned the cream of their crop by the footballing democrats will either be ageing incarnations of those peerless performers or lesser players.

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