Former Man Utd and Arsenal stars discuss the lost art of defending
Ex-Manchester United and Arsenal defenders have been discussing how the defensive side of the game has changed since their playing days.
United old boys Gary Pallister and Mikael Silvestre and former Arsenal full-backs Nigel Winterburn and Lauren spoke about how the role of defenders has evolved over the years.
Winterburn noted a change in philosophy at top-level clubs, where defenders were once expected to be strong defensively but are now assessed on their ability on the ball.
Speaking to Betway, he said: “When I played, you had to be an outstanding defender or you wouldn’t get into one of the top four teams.
“Now you don’t have to be as good defensively, but if you don’t have that quality on the ball then you probably wouldn’t get into a top team.”
The change is particularly pronounced for a player who played at left-back in George Graham’s infamously solid Gunners backline.
Winterburn added: “The way that teams are playing out from the back, modern defenders and full-backs have got to be very comfortable on the ball because they’re often in advanced areas.
“But we were always judged by what we did defensively under George.
“Down my side I could go and play, but you knew that Lee [Dixon] would have to tuck round alongside the other two centre halves and vice versa if Lee went.
“Yes, we did play it out from the back at times when Arsene Wenger took over, but as soon as the goalkeeper got the ball, it’s up to the halfway line and you’d play from the knockdowns.
“I think the whole ethos of the game, particularly how quick it is, has changed.
“When I first started, the game was a lot slower. You think about the conditions, very rarely would you get a green pitch after Christmas.”
That point is echoed by ex-United centre-back Pallister – a key figure at the heart of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominant side of the mid-1990s – who believes defensive play was heavily influenced by the quality of pitches.
He said: “A lot of the issues were to do with the pitches.
“If you look at the pitches I played on in the early part of my career, they looked like rugby pitches. Nowadays they’re like bowling greens and you can take more risks if you trust the pitch.”
Pallister also points out that the changing nature of attacking also has a knock-on effect for the style of defending.
He continued: “In the early part of my career you’d get a lot of centre forwards who were pretty robust.
“You think about some of them – Mick Harford and John Fashanu, for example. It was the job of these guys to mess with the centre half and intimidate them.
“Physically, you’d have to be up to that kind of challenge, and it was something that I found hard when I first started in football because I was very slight.
“You got pushed around by some of these bigger guys and it’s something that I had to try and learn to deal with. That included weights and maybe a few glasses of Guinness to try and beef myself up.”
Pallister left Old Trafford in 1998, with Silvestre arriving the following year. The ex-France international believes his recovery pace would make him well suited to the modern game.
He said: “It wouldn’t be a problem for me to play now.”
But he doesn’t believe that a lesser emphasis on defensive solidity has made life easier for defenders.
Silvestre explained: “If you switch off, you’re done. You can’t rest like strikers or midfielders can.”
He added: “The game is not in their favour. Some people would go as far as saying the art of defending is gone.”
Former Arsenal right-back Lauren has a more positive take on things. He doesn’t think traditional defending has been lost but has instead adapted to today’s style of football.
He said: “Not everything from today’s game is fantastic.“But to be the best now, you have to combine the best of the most traditional skills and the best of the modern-day skills.
“Evolution is good.”
The ex-Cameroon international, who converted from being a midfielder after his move to north London in 2000, added: “I had to change my position and I had a few problems defending in the beginning, especially when the ball was on the other side I was caught ball-watching a lot.
“But now, they are asking defenders for more things. We have to re-adapt ourselves to the new era.”