More and more as the the pendulum of tactics continues to swing in the elite levels of the game, I have noticed something very strange beginning to happen at various levels of the game. Players who have at one point or another played center back for their team are now being disposed in various positions on the pitch to great success. We see this in various examples in the EPL where center backs are now being asked to play as the #6 or even in wide defensive areas almost as outside backs. This tactic makes sense for various reasons and can work at almost any level as long as you can implement the ideas into the players and the rest of the squad effectively.
Everybody loves center backs, right? Ok that may be a bit of stretch as they are usually the unsung heros of the most successful squads, and usually take the brunt of the blame on any failing squad. Typically center backs are oversized, physical, disciplined, and sometimes struggle to develop a strong comfort on the ball, sometimes described as having a very long way from their feet to their head. But what any center back does not bring to the table with the ball, he or she must make up for in bravery and precision. Learning the position takes years of trial and error, as there is so many game scenarios center backs must be ready to deal with on a regular basis. Sometimes young center backs struggle to deal with the decision making and pressure to be 100% accurate and correct during matches. Thus why placing a young center back into the #6 role where he or she has slightly more room for error can be beneficial for their development over time.
It’s very hard for me to break from talking about Eric Dier and Tottenham for a week, but if you haven’t read my previous articles praising the young English #6 please do as he is the best example of this tactic being put to use. Dier is a center back by trade, at 6’2” he’s built like a brick house, and has developed his craft at Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. As a young player however he struggled to deal with the demands of the position against the world’s best strikers at times in his first season at Spurs in 2015. Dier brings a high level of fitness, comfort on the ball, strength, a willingness to tackle and break up play, and can match the pace of just about anyone, he is essentially the perfect #6. Spurs bought the former Sporting academy player for his ability at center back, but may have stumbled upon one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. Kurt Zuma was deployed as a man marking midfielder at times for Chelsea under Mourinho and was another great example of a player whose athletic ability puts him in the team. Zuma very rarely would take more than two touches on the ball, always finds a simple pass or bombs it up the pitch need be. A knee injury ended the Zuma's season as he had become a regular under Mourinho before he lost his job over the holiday season.
As a player my favorite form of 4-2-3-1 was having three center backs play the #5, #4, and the #6 roles. This is essientally a 3-4-3 when you have the ball allows for the #2 and #3 outside backs to bomb forward at will when we had possession. We had a big 6’ 3” target striker and a sturdy #10 who was more a less a second striker than a natural playmaker. All in all our team was very talented and could keep possession and combine very well at times, but having 3 center backs on the pitch allowed us to match the physicality of the much less skilled teams we played. Our big ball winners in the middle of the park won just about everything in the air, threw themselves into any tackle, and would kick anything that moved in front of them until they won the ball back. A simple pass to the #8 or #10, or a lump down the field to the on rushing wingers and we were off in the other direction. We were never bullied by a less skilled team, never dominated physically, and it freed up our more skilled ball players to then worry more about producing offensively rather than winning the fight and tackling defensively.
As someone who struggles in the height category, it is very easy for me to say that being tall is extremely advantageous in soccer. Being tall doesn’t make you you a good player, but it certainly goes along way when defending set pieces, winning balls in the air from punts and goal kicks, and offensively as well. Having height on your team in areas of the field where quickness and skill is not extremely necessary is almost a necessity at certain levels, especially with teams managed by Tony Pulis who employs an entire back 4 who all stand over 6’1”. It isn’t everything like I said as some of the best center backs in the world struggle to reach 6 feet tall, but it definitely helps.
So how do you instruct a center back to play in the center of the park without losing any sort of ability to keep the ball? First and foremost you must describe what they can and cannot do with the ball. I am of course describing a typical center back who may struggle in tight areas or to throw their size thirteen shoe around the ball on a dribble. You can very well have a John Stones replica at your disposal who may enjoy the casual double stepover and elastico while dribbling out of the back. But for our example, let’s assume the center back we are attempting to throw into the midfield is not as strong on the ball as you’d like out of a typical #6. The coach must explain to the player that their role is to be the pivot in the middle. If they receive the ball they should look to switch the point of attack by getting the ball to the other side of the pitch. If that is not on, pass it to the #8 or the #10 and let them create. If that option has deserted the makeshift #6 as well, kick the ball as far and as high as you can into the channels. Three options for your midfield destroyer to now decide between once he or she is done winning the ball back for the squad.
Never once is it described to them to dribble, or try anything that is overly complicated. The role is perfect for a disciplined center back who may struggle to beat out the other two cbs in the squad for whatever reason. Their fitness will have to improve as the #6 will do more running than a typical center back, but that is something very easy to work on for dedicated players. This tactic is not a well kept secret as it is commonly used by some of the best clubs in the world, Barcelona uses Busquets as an advanced center back which allows their outside backs to bomb forward at will. But whatever level you may be at, if your team is struggling with the physicality of the game, you may have useful tools waiting on your bench that can bring the steel to the squad that may be missing. I for one see the value in a center back who brings strength and height to the #6 role of a squad, even if the player may lack the quality you would like.