This World Cup has so far been a narrative about goals, a celebration of attacking football where teams have often pressed high on the park, and about shot-stoppers playing like super heroes. But with 56 of the 64 games gone, there hasn’t really been much of a conversation about defenders.
Gerard Houllier replied to HT’s question with a rhetoric question. “Do you remember seeing a defender who has stood out so far? I think I saw some good defending in the Confederations Cup last year, Thiago Silva for instance. But in the World Cup, no defender has caught my eye yet,” he said.
The former Liverpool coach and assistant to Aime Jacquet during France’s successful World Cup campaign of 1998 also said in their bid to attack, teams are often sacrificing “balance at the back. Maybe because it is in this country, all coaches are saying ‘let’s give it a go.’ Even 0-0 draws have been entertaining. The tempo has been so much higher than 2010.
“Earlier, if one defender overlapped, the other would hold back. Now both are sometimes going into attack, sacrificing the balance of the team. Brazil would always do that and play a kind of defensive triangle with one of the midfielders staying back as the wing-backs moved up but now even the other teams are doing that,” said Houllier, a member of the Fifa Technical Study Group.
Rule changes over the years have contributed to the rise in attacking football we see here, he said. “The last defender rule, the rule against tackling from behind, or the backpass to the goalkeeper are some of the initiatives taken by Fifa that have helped attacking football. Referees too are now in better physical condition and read the game better. But most importantly, we now have a generation of great strikers.”
Houllier also pointed out how some teams have done away with playing four at the back. “One thing you can notice in this World Cup is how some successful teams have come back to defending with three. Of course, the midfielders drop back when the teams lose the ball. Brazil defend differently but Chile, Holland, Uruguay have three defenders on the same line. They are now trained to defend with three. Teams defend together, do their job in the zone and with high intensity. You will not see wild chasing anywhere.”
Speaking separately, former Nigeria skipper and defensive midfielder Sunday Oliseh didn’t agree with Houllier saying a number of good defenders have caught his eye. “I can’t give you names because that will be in our report,” said the two-time World Cup player, who played 63 internationals.
“But about defenders I will say this: notice the timing of their runs into the midfield. It is not just to create numerical superiority; it is to help the team in attack. Costa Rica suffered when they lost a player to a red card (against Greece in the pre-quarter final) because of that,” said Oliseh.
When conversation moved to the other end of the pitch as it were, Houllier said the form of some goalkeepers has had a lot to do with improvements in coaching techniques. “It is the most improved aspect of football over the past 20 years. Now each team has a former goalkeeper and a specialist in that job. Like strikers whom you need to give confidence, you can’t always be antagonistic with goalkeepers and people have realised that,” he said.
Houllier mentioned Frans Hoek’s nearly three-decade career as a goalkeepers’ coach. Hoek is here as the Dutch goalkeepers’ coach.