The basics of a center-back
The center-back position is one of the building blocks of a team. A good center-back can be crucial for the overall team performance, not by being in the spotlight, but by making sure everything goes smoothly. A center-back is responsible for stopping the opponent from scoring and is often the last player before the goalkeeper who can do so. A mistake at the center-back position can have big consequences, as there’s no one there to save him.
The center-back position has evolved a lot, just as all of football. Going from a position that’s only there to defend, kick balls away, or give them to a midfielder, center-backs are now expected to start attacks or buildups as well. Generally speaking the center-backs have the most passes in a game, there are some game tactics where this is not the case, like with many teams in the Championship. But overall center-backs have the most passes in a game. This is why the position went from not only being about defending but also about being the first line of attack.
There are different types of center-backs, and the old school thought that a center-back can only be 1.90+ and only heads balls away is long gone. In modern-day football there’s a variety of center-backs, you have the tall strong defenders that are known for their physicality, like Virgil van Dijk, John Terry, and Harry Maguire, but you also have the more ball-playing type of center-backs, for example Marquinhos, Presnel Kimpembe and Jurriën Timber. We can make many other types of center-backs based on appearance, qualities, and playing style. Others could for example be, the leading center-back, like Chiellini, or the fast center-back like Varane. A fun fact is that the last center-back to to win a Ballon d’Or was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.
What you usually see is that certain leagues/cultures have a way of thinking about football, and this results in a certain type of players that mostly go to these leagues. England has long been known for having big strong heading center-backs, because a lot of teams played with crosses, Italy is known for the tactical smart leader type of center-back, while the Netherlands and Spain are known for technical gifted center-backs that can help teams in attack.
There are also different strategies for center-backs, with the most obvious one being that some teams play with two center-backs and some with three. This has changed the center-back position as well, you now have hybrid center-backs, that can play full-back and center-back, like Kyle Walker and Nathan Aké. But there are also team tactics for center-backs, some teams play a more pulled-back, waiting type of defense, which automatically makes a center-back defend with less space, but has to probably defend more in his own box. But on the other end, you have the high press teams, which leads to center-backs having a lot of space in their back and having to deal with more 1v1 situations and duels higher up the pitch. You also have different strategies in the transition phase to defense, some coaches want their center-backs to step in and press and some coaches want their defense to drop and delay the opponent so that other players can come back.
So there’s a number of possibilities with types of center-backs, and strategies that center-backs have to manage. But the overall theme in recent years is, that the center-back position has become more complete, there’s still teams that rather have center-backs that don’t want their center-backs to pass too much and just play easy. But most coaches nowadays want a center-back who can do most of it, defend well and build the game from the back. Of course Pep Guardiola taking it to the next level by having a center-back in midfield (John Stones).
At Tactalyse we work with fundamentals, a fundamental is an optimal response in a game situation (If you don’t know exactly what a fundamental is, please read more about it in this article). After watching 1000s of matches and making analysis for many different center-backs such as Stefan de Vrij (named best Serie A defender in 2019) and William Troost-Ekong (Former PL, Serie A, and Nigerian National team), we identified that that are 15 defensive fundamentals and 6 attacking fundamentals for center-backs. Within a fundamental, you have a sub-fundamental, which gives more clarity about what the fundamental is. Within each fundamental, there are options/steps, that a center-back has to go through when executing a certain game situation/ (the fundamental).
In the upcoming chapters we will tell you what fundamentals are in our eyes most relevant for a center-back. We will explain them and tell you how to execute them. We will also give you examples of how to develop and train these fundamentals.