How England Centre-Backs Through the Ages Embody the Evolution of Football Strategy

Relief: Stuart Pearce banishes the demons of 1990 as he thumps home an emotional penalty at Euro ’96 against Spain

The role of an England centre-back has changed. Football is always changing, but it could be argued this position has evolved more than any other. With the Three Lions in the spotlight, there is a clear path of progress that maps the defenders of the late 1800s all the way to Tyrone Mings, Fikayo Tomori, and those most recently capped by Gareth Southgate only a matter of months ago.

Billy Wright, England’s first truly world-class and world-renowned centre-half, represented his country in the 1940s and ‘50s, becoming the first player to reach 100 caps in international football. His defensive style consisted very much of closing attackers down, nicking the ball, and either pumping it up the pitch for a teammate or simply throttling it out of play. The classic play-it-safe centre-half. He did it so well.

If you never concede a goal, you’re going to win more games than you lose.”

Bobby Moore

The late, great Bobby Moore worked on many of the attributes shown by the likes of Wright and Neil Franklin in the generation before his. But there was a natural beauty about the way Moore would approach a tackle. The West Ham United legend would often remark that if you needed to go to ground for a tackle, you were doing it wrong. The irony is that Moore’s famous tackle on Jairzinho at the 1970 World Cup did involve a lunge forward and into to the ground, but even then, it was textbook and Moore was very much in control.

Pressure Match: Bobby Moore facing Brazil in that legendary 1970 World Cup group match
(Getty Images)

And the characteristics that had made good centre-backs good then continued to be so for quite some time. It was aerial dominance and that intent to limit the opposition to as few chances as possible that helped forge a pathway into the England ‘hall of fame’ for the likes of Emlyn Hughes of the 1970s, and Terry Butcher and others in the rather more successful ‘80s.

But the faces in football were changing at that time – who was watching it and who was playing it. Epitomising this was the fierce but fervent Stuart Pearce. He and his intense will to win were inseparable. This emotion wasn’t much of an ingredient in Moore’s or Wright’s day. These were statesmen; diplomats of a then-noble sport.

The do-or-die approach of Pearce and other blooded-shirt defenders in the 1990s and early 2000s became almost a requirement of top centre-backs of this era. Sol Campbell and John Terry would possess half the legacy they do today had they not dominated opponents both physically and mentally in the way they did. Good luck trying to pin either of them down when England had a corner.

Whilst Terry and Campbell came to represent the ‘good old-fashioned English centre-back’, to use that ghastly football cliché, their style had already developed beyond the expectations put on the sport’s first defensive stalwarts. Slicing their careers straight down the middle was a third player – a confident defender Glenn Hoddle would surely have loved to work with beyond his short, experimental time in charge – Rio Ferdinand.

Progressive: Rio Ferdinand paved the way for future ball-playing centre-backs in England
(Go Sport Blog)

West Ham produced him, Leeds honed him, and Manchester United developed Rio Ferdinand into a world-class, risk-taking, tactically capable footballer. Ferdinand was a footballer rather than a defender. He formed a natural partnership with his friend Nemanja Vidić at Manchester United, a more rugged player of the John Terry ilk.

Ferdinand became known for his marauding runs forward. He’d check he was covered defensively and, provided he was, would stroll into midfield with the ball, picking his next pass carefully, so as to ensure the attack would continue and he hadn’t made all the effort in vain. If that wasn’t on, he liked to slide the ball to an unmarked fullback. Although, in a four-man back-line, this is most naturally done with one left- and one right-footed centre-back. That way, any pressing from the opposing side can be more easily played through and around.

“If the ball is there to be won I will go for it, whether with my head or whatever, and if it means us scoring or stopping a goal, I won’t think twice.”

John Terry

Via the likes of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, the profile of an England international centre-back has evolved from here into the 2010s and 2020s, introducing the most adept (but by no means best) footballers mentioned thus far – all-seeing, attack-minded players that are willing to be the one that sits, and to be the one that ‘goes’.

Michael Keane’s square pass against Kosovo, Harry Maguire’s desperate penalty-conceding lunge in the same game, and a couple of John Stones cockups in key matches, show the vulnerabilities that can come with progressive play. But Gareth Southgate’s England have played that way, more than anything else, because it’s how his players’ club sides like to play. Maguire and Stones have both commanded astronomical transfer fees in their most recent moves because of quite how sought-after ball-playing centre-backs now are.

Partnership: John Stones (left) and Harry Maguire (right) formed a good understanding in Russia
(Getty Images)

The footballing dynasties built over the last few years at Liverpool and Manchester City would simply not have been possible without the development (and often costly signing) of these sorts of players. Bodies-on-the-line defenders would not have cut it.

As football pretty much returns home this summer, it’s easy to forget the evolution of the sport’s tactics and how that has impacted the England national team. The first great centre-halves played in an era of efficient and economical solidity. Then the period that started after the 1966 World Cup triumph only really ended midway through the last decade. It was an era of dogged determination, emotional effort, and one that owed a great deal to that extra nudge from an impassioned set of chanting and cheering fans.

“I played international football for England, and in many games, we were technically inferior to the opposition.”

Gareth Southgate

We may only really be at the start of the third phase. But it is shaping up to be the most positive, attacking, ambitious, demanding, and intense football that has ever been played. It’s efficient and economical once more, but not in the conservative way. The tendencies and tactics employed by England’s centre-backs today offer a great lens through which to view a changing of the guard within football systems.

1 Comment

  1. There is a difference between the old and the latest players. I was the old style player, but my game changed as a result of the move from the game known as football to that what is now played as soccer. The centre half of the old day dealt with the centre forward and Yeats and the Burnley centre forward ( name escapes me at present) Andy Lockhead? back in the 1960’s epitomise that contest. There are 2 players that are centre-halfs when the 4-4-2- system is player, and one becomes a sweeper at the appropriate time. There are contrasting aspects I would like to also expand upon. The John Terry quote above, was exactly my attitude in mind time, and although I have not played since 1986, locally, I am well remembered as a ‘ball winner’. Nice article, but I will comment further another time.

    Liked by 1 person

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