With all the media hype about false No9s, inverted wingers and marauding full-backs, the role of the centre-back is often overlooked. Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund's swashbuckling defender, is doing his best to change that.
His expansive interpretation of the role – in which the defender can choose to be a playmaker or extra attacker – may have perplexed some purists, but if you consider the longer-term history of European football, it is not that unusual.
The immediate and obvious inspiration for Dortmund's highly-rated 23-year-old is Franz Beckenbauer. He was a libero whose impact on the German game was so profound that he defined the tactical template for club and national sides until the 1990s, even though he played his last Bundesliga game in 1982.
Yet tactical historians will tell you that Hummels' playmaking ability harks back to the 1950s, when attacking centre-halves like the great Austrian Ernst Ocwirk were still in vogue. As Peter Chapman notes in his book, The Goalkeeping History Of Britain: "Ocwirk performed in a manner that made the conventions of the centre-half a joke.
"He took the field with No5 on his back but showed this was a deliberate attempt to deceive. Instead of holding back, he advanced to something more like his team's central attacking position. Had he had any decency he would have worn No9."
Instead of a false No9, Ocwirk was a false No5. Hummels is heir to that glorious, yet often neglected, tradition. As an attacking centre-half, he was absolutely furious with himself for missing from the spot against AFC Ajax on matchday one. It did not affect the result, but he will be more determined than ever against Manchester City FC on Wednesday.
Raphaël Varane is not as buccaneering as Hummels, but Real Madrid CF's promising French star knows where the goal is, scoring with a flying back-heel against Rayo Vallecano de Madrid last season. Just as Hummels has been hailed as the new Beckenbauer, 19-year-old Varane has been likened – by Zinédine Zidane no less – to French defensive colossus Laurent Blanc. He is versatile enough to play as a sweeper, defensive midfielder or in the heart of the back four.
In the blockbuster entertainment of Madrid's 3-2 victory against City, Varane's contribution was largely overlooked, but his pace, talent and penchant for running at opponents with the ball at his feet have already won him his first call up for France under Didier Deschamps. He says he is "obsessed" with progressing as a player and José Mourinho's eye for detail should help him realise that fixation.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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