Commentary

Oh dear, defenders feel threatened ... again

Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham’s Belgian defender, is worried. “I think we have to change the way we defend,” he says. What’s upsetting him is the impending arrival (next season) in the Premier League of the VAR and his squadron of assistants and his roomful of monitors and heaven knows what other techno-gizmos.

What Vertonghen dreads is that VAR decisions will turn “standard” fouls into penalty kicks: “I think in the next few years in the Premier League you will see at lest 20, 30, 40 more penalties.”

An exaggeration? I think so. But there is nothing unusual about that. Defenders always feel threatened by rule changes. They lament that their No. 1 weapon -- tackling -- is being weakened, its physical aspects being slowly whittled away. A plaintive where-will-all-this-end? is posed, and answered with the dire warning that tackling is being legislated out of the sport.

Vertonghen does not actually say that. But he does say: “Before it was quite physical but in a fair way. Now you are too scared to get close to someone.”

Another exaggeration. Well, OK, Vertonghen believes defenders are misunderstood, and feels the need to dramatize what he considers the vital point. Things are not as bad as he makes out -- there is still plenty of tackling going on.

The BBC story on Vertonghen referred, in its headline, to “the art of defending.” A high-sounding phrase -- but can it be justified? Is there an art of defending? In theory, yes, of course. But in practice the crudities of modern defending tend to crowd out any idea of artistry.

Something that was neatly illustrated during a recent NBC telecast: April 14, Crystal Palace-Manchester City. Analyst Stephen Warnock (a former Premier League defender) had interesting things to say about the role of “modern-day fullbacks,” and the intricacies, subtleties even, of positional play for defenders. For sure, this aspect of defending can comfortably qualify as an art.

Warnock was worth listening to -- until the 35th minute. That was when Palace captain Luka Milivojevic jumped hard and clumsily into the back of David Silva. Maybe Milivojevic was trying to play the ball, but it didn’t look like it. Whatever, he got nowhere near the ball, but he did flatten Silva. The referee called the foul.

Immediately, Warnock was heard from. Forget about art and subtleties. Forget about the foul, too: “Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to let them know you’re there. Milivojevic was a little bit late, but Silva will be looking over his shoulder next time to see if he’s there or thereabouts.”

A sharp reminder of how defenders range between those who show respect for the rules and those who cynically ignore them. And how commentators have no problem accommodating -- and praising -- both species.

Vertonghen’s answer to what he sees as a looming VAR threat -- that defenders will have to “change the way we defend” -- is intriguing. Not least because it implies that defenders have been “getting away with” fouls that will now be revealed by VAR scrutiny. That those 30 or 40 extra penalty kicks will be justified.

But that is a view that comprehensively undermines Vertonghen’s belief in a golden age of “before” when tackling was “quite physical but in a fair way.” We have come across that claim before -- the venerable and still much cherished English “hard but fair” slogan. I term it the “hardly fair” slogan, and I dislike it. It is the attitude that allows Milivojevic-type fouls to be praised rather than deplored.

The contradiction in Vertonghen’s thinking makes it difficult to fathom exactly what change he is advocating. One plausible interpretation is that he believes defenders will have to become paragons of soccer virtue and abjure the overtly physical and the dubious tackles. That they will have to clean up their act.

I would like to believe that. But decades of watching, studying and listening to defenders (to say nothing of the referees who too frequently favor them), tell me not to believe it until I see it. And I don’t think that will be any time soon.

6 comments about "Oh dear, defenders feel threatened ... again".
  1. Kent James, April 29, 2019 at 9:42 a.m.

    Sometimes PG is a bit confusing; he seems to hate VAR, and he certainly hates offensive players being fouled, yet he derides a defender who essentially concedes that VAR will force him to either stop fouling in the box or concede many penalty kicks.  I guess that's part of being a curmudgeon (and why we love him??).  


    One glaring blind spot in PG's soccer acumen is an appreciation for good defending.  Good defending should be as admirable as good attacking; good defenders force attackers to get better in order to score.  PG rightfully criticizes defenders who rely on brute force, thuggery, or intimidation, but he should recognize (and praise) defenders who read the game well, anticipate play, use their quickness to intercept a pass or prevent a dribbler from getting around them, their bravery for going after a ball that they will win but might get hammered for doing so;  their fitness, communication, and cohesion to plug any holes in their defense.  Good offense is usually pretty easy to see, but good defense is often more sublte.  PG should attempt to appreciate the other half of the game....

  2. beautiful game replied, April 29, 2019 at 10:33 a.m.

    KJ; good defenders are as rare today as they were yesterday. IMHO, Paul's comments are directed at plethora of defenders whose "illegal" aggressiveness is overlooked by the referees. Vertonghen et al use every possible tactic, "legal or illegal" to stop an opponent. It is Vertonghen's comment about VAR in which he makes an admission of "illegal tactics" to be reviewed. Yes, he should have concerns that VAR will be employed in the penalty area where in the EPL referees swallow the whistle more often than not. 

  3. Kent James replied, April 29, 2019 at 8:50 p.m.

    beautiful, my point is two-fold. First, I agree that their is too much illegal defending (grabbing and holding attackers, mostly), but PG should applaud using VAR to detect and punish that. Lax refereeing allows too much non-soccer stuff go on, which then almost forces defenders to engage in the sort of illegal defendng that the referees allow (because if the other team is doing it, they gain an advantage if you don't also do it).  In my playing days, I never consciously fouled anyone (and I played for about 40 years), but I understand why players do (if the referee allows it).  


    Secondly, just once, I'd like to see PG praise the defense, which, after all, is half the game.  While I agree a game without defense would be more entertaining than a game withou offense, I think the best games are ones in which a good defense forces the offense to be even better to beat it.  

  4. Chris Bonawandt, April 29, 2019 at 12:23 p.m.

    Of course there is an art to defending. The only people who don’t acknowledge that are those who have never had to defend against top players. Vertonghen is very much an artist. I’ve never seen Paul Gardener beat Man City in the champions league. 

  5. frank schoon, April 29, 2019 at 2:38 p.m.

    When you can defend, stopping threats of your attacker through positioning, thinking, and rarely having to employ a sliding tackle ,then, in my eyes, you're a great defender....

  6. Bradley Rogers, May 14, 2019 at 4:39 a.m.

    Will VAR also review plays for simulation? If so, then maybe attackers will need to clean up their game too.

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