clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the Most Important Attackers at the World Cup Are Defenders

Forget Neymar, Messi, and Ronaldo. England, Belgium, and France have all made the semifinals with offenses built around their center backs.

John Stones, Toby Aldeweireld, and Samuel Umtiti Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The World Cup brings everyone together to watch what are supposedly the 32 best footballing nations on the planet kick a ball around. It’s fun to see South Korea and Sweden duke it out, but for many, the real attraction is watching superstars play for the pride of their country. Harry Kane carried his club form into the tournament and is now the favorite for the Golden Boot. Eden Hazard spent the quarterfinals dribbling circles around the Brazilian defense. And Kylian Mbappé became a household name, if he wasn’t already. But the guys behind them deserve some credit, too—and not just for their defense.

One of the most significant changes to the modern game is the evolution and inclusion of defensive players in the attacking phase. It isn’t just an overlapping fullback or a defender turned striker when a team needs to lump it into the box in the 93rd minute, either. Teams need incisive movement and intelligent passing to break down most organized modern defenses. Much of the onus now falls on center backs like England’s John Stones, Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld, and France’s Samuel Umtiti to start their teams’ attack.

Offensively, Stones is the ideal:

Once criticized for his lack of traditional defensive skills, the 24-year-old is now being asked to play offense more than ever before.

“But … he just passed it back to the keeper,” you might be saying after watching the above clip. Not quite. Stones notices the move is dead as Sweden start to press forward, so he calmly moves the ball back and stretches the defending team upfield. This allows Jordan Pickford to cycle the ball out wide, and it eventually gets pushed up field through the space the pressing Swedes have vacated.

Here, Stones takes three opponents out of the play—first by dropping back to draw Sweden upfield again and then by threading a ball into midfielder Jordan Henderson at the last moment.

Stones shows the virtues of not just lumping the ball in the air like so many defenders did a generation ago, but that doesn’t mean long balls are always a bad idea. When teams employ a counter-press, they’ll often push their defenders high up the field to compress the space their opponents can play in. However, if they’re not careful, opposition players can expose the space they leave behind their defensive line. Several teams have high-pressed Belgium during the World Cup, but doing that against a team with Alderweireld at the back presents its own specific set of problems. Much like Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham do, Roberto Martínez’s side benefit from the 29-year-old’s range of passing when teams try to compress the pitch to catch them in possession.

Alderweireld is one of the most accurate long passers in the world, especially when he’s given time and space. The Belgian can also provoke defenders forward like Stones does, but he’s defined by his ability to ping a pass. The analyst Paul Riley has an expected passing model that tallies the difficulty of passes attempted by a given player and then compares his completion rate to that of an average player. The model shows that Alderweireld is in a class of his own when it comes to long balls.

Expected Pazssing, Premier League 2016-17 (300+ Passes)

Although Umtiti is proficient in many of the same areas that Stones and Alderweireld are, he hasn’t impacted his team’s attack quite as much at the World Cup because of the system he plays in. The 24-year-old would likely see far more direct involvement in the attack if manager Didier Deschamps adopted a more offensive style of play by using attacking-oriented fullbacks Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé instead of converted center backs Lucas Hernández and Benjamin Pavard. However, Umtiti’s passing to France’s attackers still provides a solid alternative when the midfield can’t find a way through. While it still seems like the team is capable of so much more than a succession of unspectacular victories, France haven’t come close to faltering yet. The plethora of options they have in attack helps the conservative approach they’ve taken, but so does Umtiti’s play. It’s not often a midfield featuring Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté can be shut down, but if it ever is, Umtiti’s ability to quickly move the ball to France’s forwards can make the difference. This was on display in the 4-3 win over Argentina:

Chart showing Samuel Umtiti’s passes in France’s win over Argentina

With a maximum of two games remaining, these teams all know who they are–and so do their opponents. With strategies well-established and five games now on tape, expect midfielders to see their space reduced, while attackers won’t find it as easy to isolate and cruise past defenders. But even though Neymar, Messi, and Ronaldo are gone, that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the end of attacking play. As long as Stones, Alderweireld, and Umtiti are on the field, the attacks will keep coming—they’ll just be starting from the back.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of a French national team player. He is Lucas Hernández, not Theo Hernández.