The art of defending died along with Ceefax, says Gary Neville

The art of defending died along with Ceefax, says Gary Neville

neville for webThe art of defending as my generation of football fan knew it is dead. Don’t take my word for it, says Vernon Grant. I’ve spoken to numerous past footballers about defending today as compared to yesteryear. They all say that in football today there is too little time spent coaching footballers on the art of defending.

And now Gary Neville has written well, via his column in the Daily Telegraph, about how defending has changed since he retired.

The former Manchester United and England full back says: “If you look at the Premier League goalscoring chart, it bursts into the thousands from 2010 on. There were 942 goals in 2009 and 1052 last season. That’s a huge shift. Once you have a five-year trend of more goals being conceded and more scored it starts to look irreversible. It points to a permanent change in the sport.

“With old school coaches, 60-70 per cent of your training ground work would be defensive. Where your foot would be, the position of your hips, how often you would have to turn your head to avoid ball-watching. I compare it to a musician stripping a song back to its elements.


“I started off with a high defensive base. Players now are starting out with a high technical grounding and learn the defending later.”

“With England, I worked under a great coach in Don Howe, who was Terry Venables’s defensive expert. He talked to me specifically about my feet and head movements. He would employ physios to lift up different coloured bibs on the opposite side to where the attack was coming. You could see the four defenders synchronizing their head movements. We had to shout the colour of the bib. If you failed, Don would yell: “You’re ball watching!”

“Don had a strong voice. I remember us conceding a goal against Japan in the Umbro Cup in my first game for England. Terry Venables was telling us how well we youngsters had done when Don cut him off and said: “Whoa, you may be happy, but I’m not. We conceded a goal from a set piece and that’s ridiculous. We worked on that in training.

“My era of men who retired around 2009-2010 were the last crop of predominantly defensively-trained players. Coaching has shot off in another direction, towards the technical. I’ve had that confirmed by people at academies. The technical and attacking work is now around 80 per cent with 20 per cent reserved for defensive skills.

“Plainly the rule changes have contributed. Constraints on tackling have made it tougher for defenders. Grappling in the penalty area is hot news this week so you can expect that to be stamped out.”

Sunderland players hang their heads in shame after 8-0 defeat

Sunderland players hang their heads in shame after 8-0 defeat

Gary Neville sees a distinct change in the quality of defending on offer in English football.

He says: “The minimum standards have dropped sharply. When I was brought through from 1991-94, if a full-back allowed a cross it was a crime. Nowadays it barely seems to register.

“According to Opta, in the first year of the 20-team top league 79 defenders played more than 30 games. Now you’re down to 44. So everything we talk about with defences – telepathy, consistency, playing together regularly – starts to break down. United’s back-four, for example, is ever changing.


“But I see no road back to the old ways. It’s like the guy who loves Ceefax pining for its return in the face of the internet. It’s not coming back.”

“Screening players have not offset these fundamental changes to the way defences work. A Patrick Vieira of 10 years ago is now a Mikel Arteta. A Roy Keane is now a Daley Blind. And a Bryan Robson for England is now a Jack Wilshere.

“It’s not the fault of the players. Wingers are full-backs, centre backs are central midfielders, goalkeepers are sweepers, No 10s are central midfielders and wingers are centre-forwards. You’re talking about a completely different game.

“I look at some teams and feel: they don’t know how to defend. They struggle with crosses, they don’t deal with set-pieces, they don’t know how to work one on one. They have a weak understanding of the game. When I look at players now we’re comparing apples and pears.

“We always interpret “philosophy” as the attacking style. We never read into that the defensive approach. Sergio Aguero scores goals where he cuts inside and scores with his right foot. I think: why did the defender not show him his left foot? Sometimes the basic attention to defending is not there.

“The last thing I ever wanted to be was an “In my day” kind of pundit. But I’ll have to change my mindset. It’s not the fault of the players that what we would call “proper defending” is not uppermost in their thinking. I am a product of Eric Harrison (at Manchester United), of Don Howe. I tend to look at every goal from a defensive point of view.

“The speed of the game is so much greater. The technical level is fantastic. It’s electrifying. And perhaps the very bold formations and big scorelines of the 1940s and 50s are what we are heading back to. Maybe attacking football was in hibernation during the 70s, 80s and 90s, when organisation and structure prevailed. Maybe now we are seeing football as it was intended.”


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