The back line. The rear-guard. The defence may not be the most glamourous place to play but when it comes to tactics and organization, there is no place on the field where teamwork is more vital.
While it’s important to have some cohesion in midfield, or an understanding between forwards, nowhere else can one player being out of sync with his partners leave a team so vulnerable to its opponents.
But enough of this tactical gubbins. There are far better analysts than I that can school you on the art of defending. Instead, here is an arbitrary list of some of my most fondly remembered back fours.
Parker, Pallister, Irwin, Bruce
…Sharpe and Ince… Hughes, McClair, Keane and Cantona…Robson, Kanchelskis and Giggs!
Ahem… Sorry about that. I guess it’s now only appropriate to say Rick Parfitt, rest in peace. And up yours 2016.
If you’re utterly confused at this point, that squad line-up was sung in that order in Man United’s FA Cup final song “Come On You Reds”, by Status Quo.
Anyhoo, the line-up of Paul Parker, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin and eventual captain, Steve Bruce, was of course the back four that ended United’s 26 year title drought. It didn’t hurt that they had the hulking-but-graceful Peter Schmeichel behind them, making amends for their defensive lapses and keeping them on their toes with his perpetual rage.
However, they were great in their own right. Bruce and Pallister had an amazing rapport and understanding. In terms of dependable performances, Denis Irwin was the Kevin Spacey of football. Paul Parker: he’s a character.
Bruce and Irwin weren’t bad at the other end either. Bruce was the team’s penalty taker for a while and scored plenty of headed goals – though unfortunately he did have a habit of putting them in his own net too. Irwin was infamously lethal on free kicks.
It was in fact Steve Bruce that scored the now iconic goals against Sheffield Wednesday that caused Brian Kidd to do a delirious knee-slide across the Old Trafford turf, while Sir Alex Ferguson raised his arms and shook his fists in unbridled glee. You could tell that league title was a long time coming.
The strangest thing about Bruce’s career was his complete omission from England team selection, despite being so integral to United’s back line at the start of their period of dominance.
Pallister fared better in that respect and even Parker got a few caps. Irwin was unsurprisingly an ever-present for the Republic of Ireland.
Parker and Bruce both departed in 1996. The former had been dogged by injuries after the 1994 double while Bruce at 35, decided to join Birmingham as he felt his playing time would be limited going forward.
Pallister would leave for similar reasons in 1998, as United was bringing in younger defensive talent, joining up with Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough.
Irwin remained with the club, ever reliable until 2002, playing his role in the 1999 treble-winning season.
Ferdinand, Vidic, Neville, Evra
As I stated above, defences aren’t usually glamourous. With this quartet, they came fairly close.
The central pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand boasted two juxtaposed but complimentary styles.
Vidic was the old-school, no-nonsense, hard-tackling, never-say-die, good-in-the-air, relentless-as-this-list-of-cliches center back. He was crude but incredibly effective.
Ferdinand was more adept and skillful than a defender had any business being.
While Vidic would shoulder opposing forwards off the ball with rugged ease, Ferdinand would pluck it off their toe and carry the ball out of the box. That’s not to say one was better.
Rio’s game was a bit easier on the eyes but Nemanja stamped out attacks with machine-like efficiency.
Flanking them were Patrice Evra and Gary Neville. In a way, they had a similar skill vs efficiency dynamic, though were closer in approach.
Neville was the thinking man’s fullback. In terms of skill, technique and natural talented, he wasn’t that remarkable. What he had in spades was a quiet determination and a dizzying football IQ. This was never better demonstrated than in his partnership with David Beckham on the right flank. The two would interchange and overlap to devastating effect. I’ve often felt that the way Neville complimented Beckham’s game was woefully overlooked. Yet despite his forays upfield, he always seemed to know where to be. Rarely was he found loitering up field when opponents counterattacked.
In his prime, Evra was as good as it got as fullback. Solid on the ball, dangerous going forward, supplementing his keen instinct when it came to dealing with opposing wingers. People may have forgotten that his first appearance was an absolute ‘mare. Starting in a 3-1 defeat away to Man City, Ferguson substituted him at halftime.
Nevertheless, after that baptism of fire, he gradually adapted and progressed, ultimately becoming one of the best fullbacks in the club’s history.
For me, this back line is the best I’ve ever seen at United. They emerged to help United break what looked like the dawning of a domination by Abramovich’s “financially doped” (thank you Mr Wenger) Chelsea, to become for at least a brief period, arguably the best side in the world.
They were part of the era that secured United’s third European Cup and a hat-trick of titles. Evra and Ferdinand were as competent on the ball as most skilled outfield players, let alone defenders, while Vidic offered the grit and Neville made the absolute most of what he was given.
Gonzales, DeLaGarza, Franklin, Dunivant
Okay, I’m taking some liberties here. During Bruce Arena’s stint with the Galaxy, his defences saw a number of different configurations.
This line-up was my preferred set-up, rather than Arena’s.
While 3/4 of that line-up was indeed the main back line for the Galaxy during the first half of Bruce’s tenure, AJ DeLaGarza was no ever-present.
Initially, Gonzo started alongside veteran Greg Berhalter, who along with Tony Sanneh, served as mentor to him, AJ and Franklin.
AJ’s biggest rival for the role of center back though, was Leonardo and he frequently lost out to the Brazilian.
There are those of us among the Galaxy faithful who suspect that Leo must have in his possession, something akin to footage of a scantily clad Bruce, serenading Dave Sarachan with a rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings”. It’s the only rational explanation for why his habitual brainfarts didn’t have him glued to the bench.
The existence of such material wouldn’t be a first from the Galaxy, as anybody who stumbled across that performance of the “Careless Whispers” sax solo can attest. George Michael RIP. Up yours 2016.
But enough about Omar Gonzalez’s exhibitionism.
While people tend to associate the Galaxy with big-name acquisitions and aspirations of Superclub status, it’s often overlooked that the true foundation for the success of the Arena era was an organised, stubborn and stingy defence.
The DPs may have got the goals and the glory but Arena’s bigger focus was that rear guard. This was never more telling than in 2012, when Omar missed the entire first half of the season through injury. MLS cap rules meant that getting a solid deputy in his absense was going to be difficult. For reasons only Bruce himself could understand, David Junior Lopez was brought in as the stop gap (and never has a term been less appropriate).
Defensively, the team was a shambles until Gonzo returned, at which point the team returned to business-as-usual and romped to a second consecutive MLS Cup (with Omar getting MVP in the final).
Like Bruce and Pallister, Omar and AJ had a bond. Having partnered each other for their University of Maryland college team, LA made the savvy move of drafting both. Like Rio and Vidic, the two had very different, yet complimentary styles.
Omar was again, a classic defender. Dominant in the air and a strong tackler, he did have limitations in terms of speed and technical ability. However, over time his approach evolved to account for these shortcomings. He developed his positional play to anticipate fast opponents and learnt that composure in possession and keeping it simple was the key to mitigating issues with technique.
AJ is the evolved product of being a physically small man, who nevertheless found ways to become a highly efficient defender. Comfortable on the ball, he has literally played in every position in the back line. So much of his approach is based on reading the game and knowing precisely where needs to be in a given passage of play. Rather than flying into tackles, he will often usher opponents to less advantageous positions, or read and intercept a pass. I’ve long been of the opinion that if he was even of average physical stature, the headlines wouldn’t so often be deferred to Gonzo and he’d get more of a look over the Leonardo’s of this world.
Todd Dunivant was just a plain good fullback. There was little flash to his game. He’d get forward when appropriate but defending was his wheelhouse. You didn’t see many spectacular last-ditch heroics from him. You didn’t have to. He was too solid in the first instance for gut-busting recoveries to be required too often.
Sean Franklin arrived during the nightmare that was 2008 and was a rare bright spot on the season. Capable as a center back, it was at right back where he truly came into his own for the Galaxy. Pacey, he offered a decent outlet on the flank, albeit with limited crossing ability. His eventual departure had more to do with roster composition and salary than issues with his play.
Dunivant would play out his career with the Galaxy, while Omar went on to defy critics by going to Mexico and immediately win a Liga MX title with Pachuca.
AJ remains in-house, his versatility serving as a blessing to the squad and a curse to his starting appearances. These days he’s frequently the go-to guy in any defensive position that needs filling but like so many utility players, when everyone is fit, he loses out to those with more role-specific skill-sets.
England National Team:
Neville, Adams, Southgate, Pearce
This one is less a legendary line-up (though it was certainly strong) and more a bedrock of the last time it actually felt like England might go all the way in a tournament. And by that I mean come the tournament itself, not the pre-tournament hype surrounding the Gerrard/Lampard “golden era”.
Euro 96 was of course held in Blighty and the song “Three Lions” by Skinner, Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds had very effectively urged the nation to stop being so pessimistic and believe in the team.
We did and we were repaid by winning our group, thumping the Netherlands, overcoming Spain and then as so often is our fate, losing out to Germany in a penalty shootout in the Semis.
Neville I already covered above but this was a fairly traditional England back four. Strong, physical with plenty of grit and determination. Gaz was still in his formative years but Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce were as good as it got in the Premiership.
Gareth Southgate was assured and professional.
One of the enduring images of that competition was Stuart “Psycho” Pearce scoring past Spain in the Quarter Final penalty shootout. Any England fan will know this but back in Italia 90, Pearce had missed in the Semi Final shootout (again, against Germany). Netting that goal against Spain was seen as laying that ghost to rest and his reaction was priceless.
Looking typically impassioned, he punched the air and the crowd responded.
Unfortunately, Gareth Southgate would inherit that demon in the following round, as his tame effort sent Germany through to another final and ultimately, the trophy.
Then Klinsi and co sung Three Lions during their welcome home celebrations.
Poor Gareth even got drug over the coals when he, Pearce and Chris Waddle (who also missed in Italia 90) tried to make light of the event in a Pizza Hut commercial.