France and Switzerland played out a seven-goal thriller on Friday, and we remain well on course for the highest scoring World Cup since 1958. So why the glut of goals in Brazil, after steadily declining figures through recent tournaments?
Is there a crisis in the quality of defending? Yes and no. Yes, because there are probably fewer truly outstanding defenders than usual at this World Cup. No, because the role of the defender is being redefined.
Winning teams have turned away from Spanish-style tiki-taka, with its obligatory flat back four at the base of a 4-3-3 formation, and towards a back five of three center-halves and a pair of wing-backs, usually in a 5-3-2 formation as deployed by both Holland and Chile in their comprehensive victories over the deposed World Champions, Spain. More defenders has meant more goals.
Playing in a back three is quite different from playing as one half of a defensive pair. Just as strikers had to learn how to play without a hunting partner when formations shifted towards lone strikers and “false 9s,” (the most famous casualty of this shift is Fernando Torres, the Chelsea and Spain striker who has never recovered from losing his strike partner at both club and international level) so too defenders deployed in a trio must rethink how they approach the game in terms of positioning, responsibilities and style.
As ever, changes on the pitch cannot be fully understood without also understanding the wider culture in which the game is played. Gender is always a central question in soccer. Footballers on the pitch perform a wide range of masculinities, and most often these are tied to the particular way in which they choose to interpret their assigned role within the team. No position is more heavily weighted with expectations and anxieties about masculinity than center-half, the position that has traditionally been filled by the strongest and most powerful players.
These expectations are culturally inflected. The English, for example, have a line they love to use in analyzing defenders. What they require, goes the dogma, are "defenders who defend."
The limits imposed on a team’s tactical nous and flexibility by this tautology are becoming more and more apparent. The British retain a deep collective desire to see rugged centre-backs with crew-cuts, putting in crunching tackles, doing lots of shouting, pointing, and wounding themselves in aerial duels (remember Terry Butcher and the abiding love for the image of his bleeding and bandaged head). Above all, central defenders must not get involved in the game in any way other than "defending". Any evidence of "flair" or aptitude further up the park (except perhaps scoring headed goals) is considered deeply suspect.
These cultural mores produce radically different ways of seeing the game and its personalities.
Just before the tournament began, Paris St Germain agreed to buy Brazil centerback David Luiz from Chelsea, for a reported £50 million fee that makes him the most expensive defender in history. In England, the deal was celebrated as a coup for Chelsea, who had rid themselves of a dangerously flamboyant character, a player who was universally judged an inferior defender to Chelsea’s two trusty Englishmen, John Terry and Gary Cahill. Yet David Luiz is highly regarded in Brazil, and has been an ever-present for the Seleção under Luis Felipe Scolari, a coach known for his aptitude in building teams with strong, miserly defenses.
All defenders make mistakes. On Thursday, Gary Cahill’s poor positioning and misjudgment of the flight of the ball left Luis Suarez with a free run at goal to score the 86th minute goal that chucked England out of the tournament. But Cahill will always find forgiveness from English fans because not only is he a talented defender, but he has the short back and sides, steely-eyed seriousness and complete lack of adventure that assures the English that their goal is being defended by a good, honest, straightforward sort of chap. When Luiz made mistakes for Chelsea, these were invariably taken as symptoms of profound personal failure as a center half. Not only had he been caught out of position, or risked dribbling past an opponent, but he had done so with a trademark mop of long curly hair and an unmistakable sense of personal style.
In England, Luiz is seen as a joker above all, an impressive athlete who cannot be taken seriously as a central defender. Guardian journalist Barney Ronay tweeted this week: “Still surprised by the importance in Brazil of David Luiz who seems to be a kind of national mascot. He'll probably be president in 10 years.”
After all, what do the Brazilians know about football? British writer Musa Okwonga, like me a rare Luiz-sympathizer among British football fans, pointed out that Luiz showed up to his press conference yesterday wearing a headwrap -- "He looked like Erykah Badu."
As football undergoes another major tactical shift, the English would do well to think about why they need their footballers to play the game in ways which lead to defeat, time and time again, and to reassess the attachments that mean a brilliant defender who reminds you of Erykah Badu could never be taken seriously.