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Why I'm still not convinced about short centre backs in the Premier League
Man Utd are bringing one in. Does it matter?
Hi, sorry this one took longer than I would like. I've been having some dental issues that slowed me down a bit this past week, but fingers crossed I should be ok to write more frequently going forward. Anyway, enjoy the article.
Lisandro Martínez is on his way to the Premier League. Manchester United have agreed a deal with Ajax to pay a base fee of around £47 million, with up to £8.5m in potential add-ons. United still have a little bit of paperwork to do on the deal, but it’s all but a sure thing the Argentine international will be playing at Old Trafford.
But this article isn’t really about his ability. I don’t watch a lot of the Eredivisie and I’m not going to give you a clear opinion about him as a player. It’s about the broader idea of short centre backs in English football. I tweeted my scepticism a couple of weeks ago that someone of his height (generally listed as 5’9 or 1.75m) can effortlessly slide into playing at centre back in the Premier League. Some people agreed with me, but it was clear others think this rationale is just flat out wrong or even backwards.
I should note here that we’re using famously inaccurate heights listed on the internet. I’d love it if we had more accurate data, but this is just what we have to work with.
If you want to read the case in favour of short centre-backs, I’d highly recommend both Casey Evans’ newsletter and Kees van Hemmen’s Twitter thread. Those are both well-reasoned and I completely understand where they’re coming from, but consider this a counter-argument of sorts.
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First of all, how short is “short” here? Last season, 41 different footballers played more than half the available minutes at centre back (at least according to WhoScored’s far-from-perfect position listings). Of those 41, the shortest was Ben Mee, standing at 5’11/180cm. As far as I can tell, that seems to be the floor for Premier League centre backs. So when we’re talking about a 5’9/175cm player, this really is someone totally outside the normal height range.
I know what some of you are thinking right now. “Ben Mee? He played for Burnley, and they have to win loads of headers! If it’s good enough for Sean Dyche football, it should be good enough for everyone”. And it’s a fair point. Burnley won more aerial duels last season than any other team in the league, despite having a short centre back. And Mee actually won 71.3%1 of his headers, the highest of any Burnley player (though James Tarkowski won more on pure numbers, Mee had a higher win percentage). But that’s the thing: my concern isn’t necessarily about winning in the air, counter-intuitive as that might be.
Football is about choices
One of the most basic ideas in football is that attacking teams want to give opposing defences a choice. If a team has lots of quick forwards, the opposing defence will classically tend to drop a little bit deeper. If they have an attacker who completely dominates in the air, they’ll want to push up a little more and get tighter. If they have lots of brilliant technical midfielders, you probably want to close them down quicker, but if they also have fast attackers running in behind, then you can really be in trouble.
The attacking side wants the defenders to be stuck as to what decision they make. They want the defenders to not know whether to get tight or drop deep, not know whether to show a winger to the byline or let them come inside, not know what to do and get stuck in no man’s land between two choices. Defenders want to know what the attacker is going to do, and aim to know that by only giving them a single option. Attackers want to be able to make choices, while defenders want to have the decision made for them. The moment the attacker can choose the next move, they have the critical advantage.
The more attributes a defender has, the easier this is. Virgil van Dijk is a player who almost always waits until the last possible moment before getting involved. The famous “dribbled past” stat is mostly a consequence of how little he contests such things. Earlier in his career, it seemed some traditional scouts weren’t totally convinced. “Arsenal’s chief scout [Steve Rowley] thought he was too nonchalant”, former Celtic midfielder John Collins claimed. Rowley clearly got that one wrong in hindsight, but he was an excellent scout and you can see why he would think that. Conventional defending would say that Van Dijk doesn’t commit early enough, often waiting until it’s too late. But Van Dijk is not a conventional defender, and the almost unique control of his body alongside his other attributes means that he can wait much longer before sliding in. His natural qualities buy him time to wait and avoid making a decision he might regret.
The more limited you are in terms of any of these attributes, the more you have to make decisive choices early on. Harry Maguire is tall but slow, and that means he can’t end up in a foot race with an attacker. So he has to be more careful about the situations he ends up in. Of course, a fast attacker knows this and thus will try to get into a foot race with Maguire whenever possible. This is the big problem: more often than not, attackers dictate the situation to defenders, rather than the other way around. So while attackers can afford to be specialists in a few key areas, a defender has to be a jack of all trades. And if they’re lacking in one department, they have to make up for it by being that much better at everything else.
Of course, being short doesn’t necessarily mean a player is bad in the air, but they obviously have to be exceptional at leaping to compensate. The lack of height also makes a defender less physically imposing for obvious reasons. None of this is a dealbreaker, but it does restrict the leeway a player has on everything else.
Now, does this matter for Martínez and Man Utd? As I said, I’m not an expert on the player. If it’s going to, it will probably be a bigger issue this season than in subsequent years (providing Erik ten Hag is successful). United are going to be adapting to a complex pressing system and that takes time. It took Pep Guardiola a full season before Man City got to grips with what he wanted without the ball. It took Jürgen Klopp over two years to get to the same point. Man Utd will probably be doing all of this without a defensive midfielder, and that adds up to one thing: the centre backs will get exposed. That means more situations where we will know if Martínez has enough of everything else to make up for his short stature. Part of the reason Mee could do it for Burnley was that he was so well protected, defending a very small space and having to make relatively few choices.
I don’t think short centre backs cannot play at a high level in the Premier League, but the challenge is that much greater. Anyone lacking in a particular physical attribute has to be that much better at everything else to make up for it. We will see if Martínez fits the bill, and it’s certainly what I’ll be paying close attention to when watching him in a Man Utd shirt.