The Evolution of the Modern Day Centre-Back: From Baresi and Beckenbauer to Ruben Dias

Blogpost written by Hugo Ferreira former performance Analyst at SC Braga and AFC Bournemouth.

Over the last few decades, our generation of Football passionate people have grown watching astonishing centre-backs who still fill us with nostalgia when we travel down memory lane to past international tournaments or UEFA Champions league finals back in the 90s and early 2000’s. It is almost impossible to forget the performances of Ronald Koeman for FC Barcelona, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta for AC Milian, or Fabio Cannavaro starring in the 2006 World Cup for Italy, the only centre-back so far to win the Ballon D’Or. More recently, players like Ricardo Carvalho, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, John Terry, Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos have been the references to elite quality defenders and role models for young players emerging in top European clubs and who will for sure be the benchmark for future generations.

We have been also experiencing a lot of changes in Football as a sport over the last decades with the impact of different factors such as developments in science and technology in the study of the game, as well as the reformation of game rules which have been robust reasons for clubs and coaches to adapt and apply new training methodologies and tactical approaches making this game even more attractive and fascinating. If we looked in detail at matches in the 70s, 80s or even in the 90’s, we would easily notice many differences in the way teams defended. For example, man marking was present in almost every team defensive method as well as the presence of a sweeper behind the defensive line with the task of cleaning up any balls that get by their teammates who were man marking, offering extra defensive security. In an offensive perspective, these players would be responsible for starting the build-up as they would not face pressure and players like Franz Beckenbauer and Franco Baresi were examples of how these players were key for elite teams in the past.

As mentioned before, Football has been subject to rule changes causing coaches to introduce new methods of play. For example, the introduction of the offside rule has helped to extinguish the role of the sweeper in football as it would make difficult for teams to set the offside trap and to deal with the forward runs of the opposite attackers. Another example of how a rule change has impacted a specific position on the pitch was set in 1992 when the impossibility of the goalkeeper to pick up the ball and keep hold of it with their hands after a back-pass made by his teammate was introduced. This controversial rule change has been helping to shape a new goalkeeper profile who nowadays is more capable of using his feet to control and pass the ball and therefore initiate the offensive process of the team, offering one more passing solution and facilitating the creation of numerical superiority in that area of the pitch.

It is also imperative to highlight the impact of the expansion of the zonal marking as defensive method on shaping the modern centre-back profile. As said before, man-marking was the main defensive method in the past, increasing individual responsibility which would make the teams to rely on the 1v1 defending capacity of their centre-backs, who would have to be big, strong, and implacable when facing their direct opponents. Thus, this defensive method gives the opponent the power to drag and move the defenders to desirable areas for the team with the ball, exposing central areas and the consequently the goal.

In the zonal marking method, every player of the team has influence and responsibility on how the team will prevent the opposition creating danger around the goal, whether by creating pressing zones in higher areas of the pitch or by closing the gaps between units, keeping the team defensively compact. The centre-back has different references and principles to respect during the game and being focused, committed, and constantly communicating are key factors during the defensive phase. Also, a centre-back who can read and interpret the game and anticipate the opposite movements and intentions is closer to reach a high level in this sport. Usually, coaches set 4 references points for the players to follow in order of importance when defending through this method: the ball, the player teammates’ position, the space, and the opponent. However, according to some coaches, inside the penalty area the opponent gains extra relevance and shall be more considered over the teammate positioning. This method ensures the team covers more space and narrow the gaps, making the defensive block even more compact.

In the beginning of the 2020-2021 season, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City was experiencing one of the most inconsistent starts in years and the lack of a world-class centre back was being appointed as one of the reasons for the poor start, mainly after the defeat against Leicester City (2-5) at the Etihad Stadium in the 3rd matchday. Exactly two days after that game, Manchester City announced the signing of the Portuguese international centre-back Ruben Dias paying £65M. Ruben Dias turned out to be the game changer for Manchester City defensive success in that season, helping the team to recover the Premier League title and to reach the UEFA Champions League final for the 1st time in the club history, winning the Premier League player of the season award. Just to give an example, Manchester City’s goals conceded per game have gone from 0.8 in the 25 games before Ruben Dias signed, to 0.4 in the 25 games since they signed him, with only 10 goals conceded in that period.

But what makes Ruben Dias so crucial in the Man City’s starting line-up?

One of the characteristics recognised by his former coaches in Portugal and by Pep Guardiola is Ruben’s leadership. In an exclusive interview he gave to Sky Sports right after the defeat against Leicester City and the signing of Ruben Dias, Pep Guardiola discussed his new signing:

“We knew all about his personality before we tried to buy him. He’s not just a player with skills, he’s a natural leader – you have to be to be captain of a team like Benfica, one of the greatest teams of all time in Europe, at 23. In a short time, he’ll be captain of Portugal too”.

Pep Guardiola – Manchester City

In matter of fact, Ruben Dias was voted as one of the club’s vice-captain two weeks ago and wore the captain armband for the first time on last week vital win at Stamford Bridge, against Chelsea (25.09.2021). Also, Leonardo Bonucci legendary centre-back of Juventus and who recently helped Italy to win the European Cup by scoring in the final, has recently given an interview to The Athletic where he praised Ruben’s impact in his Manchester City’s first season by saying:

“it is not enough on its own to be great at defending. You must be able to lead a team too. He deserved full marks for his first season in England, 10 out of 10. It was a great season. When you lose a top defender it’s no coincidence that results don’t come. It goes to show how valuable they are within a group”.  

Leonardo Bonucci – Juventus & Italy

When Manchester City is out of possession, we can see how Ruben Dias is key to maintain the defensive concentration, organization, and compactness. When the opponent has no pressure and faces Man City’s goal, we can see how quick Ruben is to rotate and orientate his body to cover the space in depth, anticipating any run in behind keeping a sideways movement, allowing him to switch the direction of his movement if needed.  This constant sideways body shape allows him to change his direction very fast and quickly perceive any bad control made by his opponent, increasing his chances of recovering or intercepting the ball.

However, if the opponent passes the ball back, is under pressure or facing his own goal, Ruben quickly initiates a squeezing movement pushing up the line, keeping a constant communication with his teammates, guaranteeing that a good defensive shape is kept, and a coordinated movement is made. Through this high position of the defensive line, the opposite team has less space to play inside their compact defensive block allowing Man City to press and recover the ball in a higher position in the pitch, leaving the opponent forwards in an offside position.

If we go back on the pitch to the last defensive third, we can also identify some key defensive fundamentals that Ruben Dias constantly expresses when he is required to control the penalty area and the direct opponents around that space. As said before, there are coaches who defend the meaning of controlling and blocking the opponent positioning and movements when he is already inside of the penalty area and ready to finish an eventual cross. In these circumstances, Dias keeps his body opened and in a position which allows him to see the ball and the opponent all the time. Also, we can see him constantly scanning and looking over his shoulders to check any movement or change of direction, being also quick to point out potential threats to his teammates. By keeping an open body shape, he is also ready to intercept and clear the cross as he is already facing forward avoiding a defective clearance which could turn into an own goal.  Additionally, he is also prepared to quickly squeeze the defensive line in the case of any ball recovery or if the opponent is forced to pass back.

In the last UEFA European Championship, Portugal was defeated by Belgium in the round of 16. During this game Ruben Dias had one of his biggest challenges when he had to face Romelu Lukaku, one of the best and strongest strikers in today’s football. During that game, we got to see how Ruben has smartly adapted is marking and body positioning specially inside of the penalty area, a space where Lukaku is lethal and usually uses his physique to win the aerial duels against the defenders. After Lukaku’s signing for Chelsea during this last summer transfer window, we are now lucky enough to watch again this clash between one of the best centre-backs and centre-forwards in European football. Again, Ruben has showed the impact of his positioning between Lukaku and the goal, when defending wide crosses, controlling, and blocking any movement of the Belgian forward, being of the keys to Man City maintain a clean sheet against the European champions.

We are all aware of the way how Manchester City plays when in possession and the high number of players involved in their attacking movements. Therefore, one key tactical aspect which allows avoiding counter attacks and being caught in numerical disadvantage during defensive transitions, is the way they can counter-press and react to press after a loss of possession. Ruben Dias has also improved this tactical feature of the team by being close and alert to the opponent forward who normally is the counter-attack reference, quickly approaching and this way delaying the play or even recovering the ball, allowing Manchester City to regain possession in the opposite half and continue suffocating the opponent.

With all being said, it is important to emphasize that Ruben Dias is not a finished product and has areas of his game to be improved. Before joining the Manchester side, Ruben’s lack of concentration in key moments was being appointed as one of the reasons why he was not ready yet to join an elite European club. Benfica’s former youth coach and current Independiente Del Valle (Equador) manager Renato Paiva, in an interview given early this year to the Portuguese newspaper “Record”, has highlighted the significance of Ruben’s mentality which was key for his development as Football player.

“Ruben Dias was not a technical portent throughout his youth development phase. However, his hard work, dedication and seriousness were key to overpass those issues. And those are already indicators of a strong mentality. Football nowadays needs much of that. The way how Ruben has imposed himself in the Benfica’s first team with naturality and now did the same in Manchester City does not surprise me: the game starts up here (points to his head). Here is where it is all the information about game knowledge, which technical actions the player should use, but above everything, the psychological and mental structure to support this technical-tactical actions. And if it is fragile…”.

Renato Paiva – Equador

Since he has moved to the English football, he has been revealing a real improvement on his mental strength. Pep Guardiola in a post-match interview after a derby against Manchester United, pointed out Ruben’s “professionalism and how he lives for football 24 hours a day”. Still, Ruben lacks the needed top speed to keep up with quicker forwards which he compensates by expressing defending fundamentals such as a good body shape (allowing him to anticipate the opponent movements), a good slide tackle and communication skills (making the team defend as a whole and covering the gaps and spaces).

These are some of the reasons which in my opinion could help to explain why Ruben Dias is one of the best centre-backs in the European football right now and how he has improved the quality and effectiveness of Manchester City’s defensive processes despite being only 6 feet and 1 inch and not as tall when compared to other top Premier League centre-backs such as Virgil Vin Dijk or Harry Maguire.

Hugo Ferreira BSc, MSc, UEFA B – Performance Analyst @hugoferreira_7


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