Liam Cairns discusses the evolution of the dark art of defending, with a look back at the day Diego Maradona came up against Italian Claudio Gentile.
When one thinks of a defending master class or a conveyor belt of smart, tough, excellent readers of the game Italian defenders always come to mind. Like kamikaze moths to a car head-lamp, these men knew what it took to shut up shop and drown the opposition out of any sight of goal – defending as if their life depended on it.
The yardstick that all nations or clubs strive towards or had striven towards in years gone by; disciplined, hard-working masters of their trade. The list of greats would put a smile on the face of any footballing fan both young and old. Baresi, Maldini, Ferrara, Gentile, Nesta, Cannavaro, Chellini, or the current mix of Lahm, Hummels, Thiago Silva – mainstays in their own respective sides and national teams.
These guys are defensive experts, the personification of class and composure, and have world managers clambering for their signatures. The term ‘Legendario’ conjures up plenty of examples instantly from ones subconscious when analysing the past and present of defending greats. The Italians are and were the masters of this very art as they continue to pour all tactical prowess into this aspect of football.
One example that showed how it was done was the 2010 Champions League semi final between Barcelona and Inter Milan. The match itself is a reference point in what not only a defence should do but what others must try to repeat in dire circumstances. This match showed how every Inter player earned not only their wage but the respect of all others throughout the footballing world.
Jose Mourinho’s war of attrition is what the art is really all about and why he considers this art particularly important. This proved that the art is not dead but was still dormant and waiting for any given manager to bring it back to life. He had given the world another glimpse of its importance that when it’s done correctly you can reap the rewards; a recent coming together at Anfield with his current Chelsea side had footballing factions and ‘armchair pundits’ critiquing its display – a master-class in defending.
Okay, the Inter side in 2010 was lacking an Italian virtuoso or talisman to gloat about; Materazzi remained on the bench, but the Italian defensive premise was there to behold. Two lines of 5 & 4 – albeit a man down after Thiago Motta’s sending off – perfectly camped outside their own box soaking up whatever the Barcelona team could throw at them, including the kitchen sink. The world stoop up and watched in awe. The result is rightly resigned to the history books as a master class, the pinnacle of defending. It is without question a template for coaches to teach in all grassroots levels in the footballing world. Inter went on to complete the treble that very season and all because a master tactician showed the world that when up against it and with extreme concentration and undoubted commitment defending can have its day in the limelight too.
But the art of defending has a darker past, a sort of suicidal approach that looks insane by today’s standards. When looking back, if it were to fit into today’s game or be anyway replicated, a lynchmob would be holding pitch forks protesting outside their respective PFA HQs demanding that the main culprits be instantly banned for bringing the game into disrepute.
A common occurrence not tolerated now, which really is cast-iron proof of this sort of thuggery by today’s standards. With mad-cap sling shot defending there was also glimpse of wizardry for all to see. A show of rough housing depicting a cloud with a shimmered silver lining – ankles beware!! It clearly showed that the game wasn’t for the faint of heart, but it has evolved for the right reasons. The older generation will comment that the game has changed for the worse but the art is almost as important both physically and psychologically today as it was yesteryear. A clampdown on certain ways of tackling has evolved due to serious injuries but the lack of consistency really leaves a lot of people second guessing and reversing decisions. Its importance shows why it needs corrective action, promptly, and at first point of contact; proof video referring is essential – if Rugby has it why not football? Referring is tough at the best of times but the defending aspect, mind numbingly dull and comical at times, is a real joy to behold when executed correctly.
Nostalgia will always leave someone looking back and saying ‘Well it ain’t like if used to be’ and to forget your history is like losing both your eyes but everything must change with the time and football is no exception.
These butcher men plying their trade all over Italy and the world at the time would look surreal in today’s game and spend their career suspended, or to put it bluntly, would not even have a career. Individuals evolving with a changing world now applying the art with one eye cast on its outcome, almost reserved. There was method to the madness, perfectly marshaled from the side-lines, literally putting their lives on the line and for just cause. Looking at what they could get away with – albeit within an inch of being banished with a red card. The expert defenders would take full advantage and use almost all of their nine lives – sometimes before half-time.
This age of tough-as-nails defenders would leave new observers wincing or gasping for air, as it looks like sacrilege that a player could get away with such malice. The Gentile v Maradona battle from the 1982 World Cup is a perfect example; firmly sticking to his job, no deviation, actions that could almost be considered stalking in some respects. At one point when the referee had blown for a free-kick, Gentile, would stroll right up to Maradona letting him know
‘Don’t worry, I’m still here.’
This was psychological warfare at its finest and, coupled with impeccable reading of the game, it still has its place in today’s game and adds to the drama for all to enjoy. Furthermore, it was a true example at stopping the opposition’s main threat at all costs. Maradona’s touch and quick turn of pace was a sight to behold and defending against this, plus the man-marking required, with concentration of the highest calibre. Saying he was unhappy is an understatement and a yellow card for back answering to the referee showed Gentile had him like putty in his hand. The match finished 2-1 to Italy. Job done. Italy went on to win that World Cup and this art was the unsung hero at Espana 82.
Furthermore, Gentile was asked to join the Trapattoni set-up when the latter became Ireland manager. This displayed the height at which Il Trap held Gentile’s know how. The request was kindly rebuffed by Gentile and the Irish team will never know what he could have added. In retrospect it would have had a positive outcome. on reflection a lot of ‘what ifs’ to be honest. Expect more of the same at this year’s edition of the World Cup by the Italians as it is ingrained into the inner workings of each Italian defender.
Football focuses on entertainment value and only the truly exceptional defenders shine bright after they retire; Beckenbauer, Cannavaro, Moore.
This World Cup will hopefully give a masterclass in the art of defending. Tactics win football matches. If you look after the pennies (defenders) the pounds (attackers) will look after themselves.
Liam Cairns, Pundit Arena.
Featured Image By The original uploader was Danyele at Italian Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.