The dodo. The dinosaurs. Why do all the really cool animals have to disappear off the face of the Earth? Sadly, soccer reflects this reality. For at least half a decade, a position on the pitch has been neglected like no other: centerback. Here’s a thought experiment. Right now, name a young star center back. Okay, easy you say. Thiago Silva. Okay, now name another.
Hard, isn’t it?
Of course, there are quantifiers. Chris Smalling has shown flashes of strength for Manchester United. Ralph Varane alternates lightning speed for Real Madrid with errant passing. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique both admirably patrol the backline for big Spanish clubs, but neither is a spring chicken anymore. John Stones looks smooth on the ball for Everton, but still suffers from dribbleitis.
The list of impostors grows by the day. Dante. David Luiz. Could either of them hold a candle to Lucio in his prime? Boateng, despite a good soccer brain, turns his hips with great difficulty. If you look at two Champions League favorites, Barca and Bayern, they share one thing in common: midfielders that have been converted to centerbacks. I speak, of course, of Javier Martinez and Javier Mascherano.
Of course, players have always moved from the holding midfield role to the centerback position. Rafa Marquez played both for Barcelona a decade ago. Well before him, Franz Beckenbauer moved ten yards back to play centerback and is widely credited as the first libero: a smooth passing centerback who could set up the team’s offense from the back. Arguably, though, neither Martinez nor Mascherano is that type of player. Both are decent passers, but much more “tackling terriers” than liberos.
In terms of the big picture, the job for a center back has gotten harder during the last decade: the outside backs often dart forward and into the attack. This means centerbacks must be comfortable covering those spaces on the sidline and defending against quick and crafty wingers. As outside backs push even further up the pitch, centerbacks find themselves closer to the halfway line during buildup play, and with nobody to back them up. Any mistake is fatal.
Carles Puyol used to complain that he “got dizzy” when he looked at the space between him and his own goal. Modern centerbacks need decent pace to cover more and more acres. And they still have to battle with bruising number nines. Making matters worse, sometimes you even get bitten. Gross.
The job has gotten harder, but the reward is less. Centerbacks are one of the few positions to regularly feature in an attack, so kids prefer any other position. Also, clubs have an incentive to push a promising centerback wide to develop his or her game because goals and assists = bigger transfer value. There’s a huge economic incentive to develop a whirling dervish leftback as opposed to a centerback.
Thus, for the time being, don’t expect to see another young Roberto Ayala or even a passable Alessandro Nesta. The deck is stacked, and only the defense suffers.