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The changing face of the central defender

The diminutive Javier Mascherano shone at the heart of FC Barcelona's defence in last season's final, and Champions asks, is the traditional centre-back a dying breed?

Javier Mascherano: the central defender of tomorrow?
Javier Mascherano: the central defender of tomorrow? ©UEFA.com

On 28 May 2011, Javier Mascherano – a 1.7m tall midfielder – played in the centre of FC Barcelona's defence in the UEFA Champions League final against Manchester United FC, and nobody was particularly surprised.

Josep Guardiola's landmark selection could signal the demise of the stereotypical central defender – traditionally renowned for his imposing frame, rugged jaw and thou-shalt-not-pass attitude. Many top European sides now favour a 4-2-3-1 formation, with two midfielders in front of a back four. The attacking quartet can play with greater fluidity than in a rigid 4-4-2, with the lone striker pushing wide or dropping deep to create space for others. So if there is only one striker to mark – and even he is not holding his position – is one centre-back rendered entirely redundant? Or is the spare centre-back free to become a deep-lying playmaker?

When Bayer 04 Leverkusen held Borussia Dortmund 0-0 in August, they restricted the free-flowing Bundesliga champions to a handful of chances. Leverkusen coach Robin Dutt said they had pinpointed centre-back Mats Hummels as Dortmund's playmaker. To underline his point, Dutt repeated: "Not centre-back, but playmaker."

Is this a trend or a fad? Former Scotland captain and Liverpool FC midfielder Gary McAllister says: "What's changed is that there is more emphasis on teams building from the back and playing in a really pure style. Barcelona are the purest team in the world. We've seen their central defenders splitting wide, rather than receiving the ball on the edge of the area, and someone like Sergio Busquets just drops back into the middle to cover.

"Mascherano was outstanding in the final. It was as if he'd played there his whole life. I don't think he got caught out once – some feat given his limited experience in that position."

The prevalence of 4-2-3-1 has helped players like Mascherano manage when they drop back into defence. Teams playing two midfielders in front of the back four often pair an enforcer with a more creative player – like Bastian Schweinsteiger or Jack Wilshere – who might previously have played in the hole, like a traditional No10.

If naturally attacking midfielders are moving back into defensive midfielders' space to build the play from deep, the logical next step is for defensive midfielders to drop into the centre of defence.

Michael Cox, author of tactics website zonalmarking.net, says: "I'm not sure that playing a central midfielder at centre-back is a revolution, it's just a player briefly playing out of position. But footballers shouldn't be defined as a position, they should be defined by a set of attributes." Cox might well be right. Europe's best teams now press relentlessly all over the field, even from centre-back, a tactic that suits a tenacious midfielder.

In an age of statistical analysis, flawed central defenders really have nowhere to hide. Analysis by Opta Sports shows that, with players becoming more athletic, interceptions have replaced tackling as the skill a modern defender cannot prosper without. Matt Furniss of Opta says: "Coaches have footage they can use to identify anyone's weaknesses. If a coach thinks a player is weak with the ball at his feet and misplaces a lot of passes, stats can support – or disprove – this."

Statistics can also identify central defenders who are exceptional readers of the game, able to spot opponents' passes before they are made. "Lúcio, Nemanja Vidić, Thiago Silva and Ricardo Carvalho were strong in the Champions League in this aspect last season," says Furniss. "Mascherano placed highly – possibly why Guardiola thought he'd do quite well in central defence against United in the final – stopping the service to Javier Hernández and Wayne Rooney was always going to be crucial."

Cox has another tactical theory to explain the growing importance of technique at the back. "Last season's Champions League was ridiculously open," he says. "Results from the quarter-finals and semi-finals were 5-0, 6-1, 7-3, 3-1, 3-1 and 6-1. Some of that might just be mismatches in terms of teams, but a few seasons ago we seemed to be having 2-1 and 1-0 aggregate victories all the time. Maybe midfielders playing at centre-back is a sign of things becoming more open?"

While it is easier to imagine a player in the McAllister mould playing at centre-back than at any time since the mid-1990s, that type of player is best suited to a three-man defence. In a 4-2-3-1, tigerish, skilful, workaholics like Mascherano pose the biggest threat to the traditional central defender. It remains to be seen whether this is merely a fashion, or a Darwinian evolutionary change.

This is an edited version of a piece from the new issue of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, which is out now.