In defence of defenders

Jason Dasey extols the virtues of the physical side of football as managers demand greater protection for strikers.

Nemanja Vidic
 Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has called for referees to better protect talisman Suarez [GALLO/GETTY]

They are the men who fans pay to watch and that the TV cameras and journalists love to focus on. Yet how far should administrators go in protecting the beautiful players of the beautiful game?
Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish is the latest manager to call for greater protection for a star striker. Last week he demanded that referees better protect Uruguayan import Luis Suarez who was left battered and bruised at the end of recent matches.
Dalglish can certainly relate to the kind of treatment that the ex-Ajax forward is receiving.

Like Suarez, Dalglish wore the iconic number 7 shirt for the Reds in the 1970s and 80s and was a brilliant attacker who was constantly targeted by opposition defences.
In the past decade or two however, the game has become faster yet a lot less physical. Blood-curdling challenges that may not have even earned a yellow card in Dalglish’s heyday now usually result in instant expulsion from Europe’s top leagues.
Suarez is an expert in pushing the limits of sportsmanship by earning free kicks and penalties, which has led to inevitable questions about his integrity.

He cleverly gets his body in between the ball and his opponent to maximise the chances of his team being awarded set-pieces in potent, attacking positions.

“If I were against Suarez, I wouldn’t mind kicking him either because he’s just one of those annoying players,” said Singapore international defender, Daniel Bennett, capped more than 100 times for his country.

“He is obviously a great talent but he also has a knack for diving and frustrating defences.”

Fine line

So defenders must walk a disciplinary tight-rope. They need to not only halt the progress of creative geniuses but also avoid falling for their well-worn tricks.
“It is even more of an art form for defenders to cope with the theatrics of strikers than in the past,” said 33-year-old Bennett, who also played two seasons with Wrexham in the English football league.

“The likes of Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer were clearly playing a quite different game.
“Chelsea’s David Luiz is one defender who acts like he thinks he’s still playing in the 1960s because while he is willing in attack he sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him. He can be a naive player and naïve players are what managers least like.”
Great defending to shut out opponents will never be acclaimed as much as scoring a hat-trick in a 6-0 rout. But to focus only on dribbling, fancy step-overs and goals is a superficial way to watch matches.

Instead of pinpointing Messi’s failure to score at the 2011 Copa America, why not acclaim the four South American teams who kept him quiet on home soil in Argentina?

Quite rightly, centre back Nemanja Vidic was named English Premier League Player of the Season in 2010-2011 after his gritty displays – built on keeping clean sheets at home – helped Manchester United secure their record-breaking 19th title.

 Vidic was a crucial component in United’s defence during their 2010/11 season [AFP]

The combative Vidic is often in the referee’s bad books: a regular recipient of yellow and red cards.

Turning the tables

But it is not always one-way traffic when it comes to fouling because strikers are increasingly giving it back to defenders in equal measure.

The man who has given away more free kicks than anyone else in the Premier League is actually a forward – Bolton’s Kevin Davies, who was England’s worst offender in terms of fouls for six out of seven seasons.

Two years ago, he had the cheek to slam opposing defenders for hitting the deck too easily after his tackles.
“Davies is a prime example of a striker who repeatedly fouls defenders and yet, more often than not, walks away scot-free,” Bennett said.
Earlier this month, Chelsea forward Didier Drogba was shown a straight red-card for a horrific two-footed lunge on QPR’s Adel Taarabt at Loftus Road. His teammate Fernando Torres was suspended for three matches last month for lashing out at Swansea’s Mark Gower.
These kinds of incidents need to be punished, but the physical side of the game must remain. It would be a mistake to water-down the absorbing physical battles between the constructive and destructive forces at club and international level.
Obviously Nigel De Jong went over the top at last year’s FIFA World Cup final in South Africa, but it was still intriguing to see the Netherlands trying to cope with the sizzling skills of Spain.
The last thing we want to see is strikers and creative midfielders protected to the extent that football becomes like basketball, with scoring every minute, as attackers waltz through the middle of the park before showy finishes and celebrations.
Remember, it is a contact sport. Leg-breaking challenges or off-the-ball thuggery should never be tolerated. But the likes of Suarez and co. can not be pandered to. They need to earn every goal they score. 
Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever (, the world’s first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey

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Source: Al Jazeera