Premier League defending isn't worse, as Ferdinand says: it's just evolving
It's hardly surprising to discover a former professional footballer suggesting that standards have slipped since his day, but there was plenty of truth in Rio Ferdinand's recent suggestion that centre-backs are no longer as defensively solid. It's a common refrain from both former defenders and former attackers: ex-defenders complain that skills simply aren't valued any more, while former forwards boast that they would score a colossal amount of goals in the modern era with such poor defending.
Allegations of poor defending, however, ignore the fact that the goals-per-game average has barely changed over the years, which suggests that defending itself hasn't necessarily got worse: it's simply changed. There's been a shift away from defending as a back four to defending as a unit.
"Defenders have to start attacks now. That is what [the coaches] want you to do," said Ferdinand this week. "You look at Daley Blind now and Man United have played him at centre-back ; that says it all. The reason he is playing centre-half is to start attacks. He's not a centre-back and was signed as a full-back, but he can start the attack and that is the philosophy in the modern game."
It's worth remembering, however, that Ferdinand was precisely that type of player in his early days. He grew up idolising Diego Maradona and was initially deployed in midfield in his West Ham youth team days, often alongside Frank Lampard. Ferdinand was renowned for being mazy and adventurous in possession, a quality he retained in his formative days as a centre-back. He was widely considered a futuristic, ball-playing centre-back who was prone to lapses in concentration that affected his defending, which meant he was considered more suitable to a three-man defence rather than a flat back four: it meant he could play as a sweeper and bring the ball forward.
Ferdinand has always been entirely honest about his positional development, admitting to considerable frustration with his defensive brief.
"Defending came naturally to me but it certainly wasn't a pleasure," he wrote in his autobiography. "I had a strangely unfulfilled feeling after games, even if we'd won. Admittedly, I did enjoy racing against a centre-forward and beating him for speed but the art of defending just left me cold." This was the reality for many modern centre-backs: they were ball-players reluctantly converted into defenders, and the emphasis was now on passing rather than defending.
It's peculiar, then, that Ferdinand now says such things about the nature of modern defending. "Pace is huge for defenders now. When I started at West Ham, we had Alvin Martin there and he was a great defender, but he was not quick. The same for guys like Alan Hansen or Tony Adams. Now, having that pace is vital."
Clearly, Ferdinand is correct but it's worth remembering that it was Ferdinand himself who depended so much upon his speed during his early days as a defender. Indeed, he was a game-changing centre-back during the Premier League era: a quick, technically gifted footballer who was converted into a defender. He's the obvious role model for a player like John Stones, and the most influential individual in determining the modern style of centre-back he seems less enamored with.
In the modern age, defenders have the relative luxury of outstanding protection from the players in front of them. Watch a Premier League match from the mid-1990s, when Ferdinand started his career, and it's notable how open teams are: wide midfielders half-heartedly retreating into defence, strikers doing little without possession, one central midfielder given license to burst forward and leave his partner exposed.
The rare exceptions like George Graham's Arsenal, who defended in numbers behind the ball, were considered boring and lacking in imagination. But the Graham model largely dominates the Premier League these days: when a new manager is appointed, his first priority is improving the organization of a side, which usually means working on the midfield and attack. At Ferdinand's first club, West Ham, their defending hasn't improved under David Moyes because of significant changes to the defence itself, but from those in front. The increased work-rate of attacker Marko Arnautovic, for example, has been been a major factor in their turnaround.
For all Ferdinand's complaints that defenders are no longer defenders, it's worth remembering that the opposite is true: strikers are no longer strikers. In years gone by, it would have been considered lunacy for Jurgen Klopp to omit clinical finisher Daniel Sturridge from his side in favour of Roberto Firmino, more of an attacking midfielder, for the primary reason that Firmino contributes more in a defensive sense. But that's precisely what happened and with relatively little dissent from Liverpool supporters or the media.
Sure enough, just as the likes of John Stones have learned how to defend, Firmino has learned how to score goals and he increasingly feels like a proper striker, scoring his fair share of tap-ins. But his work rate means Liverpool are better defensively, they're tested less frequently at the back and therefore, Klopp has license to field more proactive, ball-playing defenders who play on the front foot, and boast the speed to cover the space in behind.
Ferdinand's point isn't necessarily incorrect, but neither is it necessarily relevant. Ex-professionals of various positions can reasonably say that strikers aren't as prolific, wingers aren't as good at crossing and defenders aren't as good at marking. But this has been offset by improvements in their all-round game, and Ferdinand surely appreciated, for example, playing in a Manchester United team where Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney's energy provided the first line of defence, meaning he was less exposed.
These days, specialist skills generally come with more experience. Ferdinand, the ball-playing defender who hated defending but grew into this country's finest defender, is a perfect example.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.