What Makes a Good Defender? (Center Back Edition)

In the world of football, there are many styles one can have at certain positions. For example, wingers, are all different. Some rely on their speed and others rely on their technical abilities. Forwards --  some like to run in behind, others like to check in for the ball. Styles vary.  

Center Backs

Center backs come in different styles and sizes. Some center backs are better on the ball, some off, some are fast, some slow, some like to hit long balls only, some opt towards playing short every time. Joe Funicello, professional scout, former professional player and professional coach, also the director and CEO of SoccerViza, tells us a what he thinks is a good center back. 

Joe Funicello playing for IFK Mariehamn

“A good center back is composed, fearless, and reads the game well,” said Funicello. “I always think the game evolves from the back so if a center back can lead by example through winning a ball, we must have ourselves a good defender.”  

Although Funicello played center back throughout his varsity years in high school, he was placed as an outside back while playing professionally in the United States and in Europe.  

“When I got to the Metrostars I got placed as a right back because they wanted big center backs,” said Funicello. “In Europe, I also played center back during friendlies and I did really well, but coaches were scared to place me at center back in a real game because of my height."

“It just goes to show that even at the professional level, it’s all a game of opinions because there are players who are considered short that can outplay a big at the center back position. It all depends on what the coaches want,” said Funicello.  

Historically, small defenders have made an impact in football worldwide. Fabio Cannavarro, captain of Italy’s world cup winning team in 2006, was listed at 5’9”. He ended up winning the Balon d'Or that same year. Carles Puyol, former captain of FC Barcelona and, at times, Spain’s national football team, is regarded as one of the top defenders of his generation. He was listed at 5’10”.  

“There are top defenders who are considered small but don’t get me wrong there are many big center backs that can play as well. Just look at Van Dijk,” said Funicello. 

“One thing I notice here that you’ll never see in europe is a center back complaining that no one's open. In Europe, they move the ball just to move it even if it’s a pass that’s not dangerous or people don’t applaud for, that’s how the game opens up,” said Funicello.  

“On the ball, you have to be sharp and be able to move the ball and yourself quickly,” said Funicello. “Off the ball, you have to be sharp as well. Do you ever see Van Dijk stuck on sprint mode? No. It’s all about reading the game and seeing situations ahead of time.”  

Holding your line is very important, according to Funicello. Where to hold it and when to drop or push up is something good center backs have in their arsenal. Another quality a center back has is his ability to slow the play down and effectively disturb the other teams attack.  

“Many center backs win the ball and do too much with it,” said Funicello. “I tell all my center backs they have two jobs: to win balls and play simple.”  

SoccerViza’s pro scouting tour in Los Angeles California is coming up in November and many players are asking how they can get recruited at the center back position. Funicello said in the past, it all depends on what coaches like and what they're looking for. Coaches look for center backs that can consistently hit a long ball, play short, win a tackle, lead a team, but what's most important?  

According to Funicello, the most important aspect about playing center back is the ability to read angles.  

“Soccer has all types of shapes and angles,” said Funicello. “If you’re a good center back, you will read the angles and be a step ahead every play. You’re constantly cutting off passing lanes and getting to a position quickly because you’ve calculated where the defender was going or where to meet the ball and make that right interception. On the ball, when you’re moving it, can you interpret the angles of yourself by supporting teammates and showing them a good angle or can you read a teammates angle and place a ball into his foot or his running path? There's a lot to it.”  

If you don’t know how to read angles, Funicello said professional coaches will see a lack of quality. Watching professional center backs is a way to enhance your knowledge and practicing the movements and habits of top players will also improve a player's overall quality.

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