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The case for the defence

by Sebastian Hassett on Nov 28, 2011

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"For whatever reason, we could never string a consistent partnership together. I knew that upset Alex more than anything. He wanted consistency there. If you want consistency in any position as a manager, it's with your two centre-halves."

That's a quote from the immensely talented Kevin Moran, a player so blessed that he conquered two sports, and probably one of the few people in the world who has earned the right to call Sir Alex Ferguson by his first name.

The book I've lifted that quote from is Paul McGrath's autobiography 'Back from the Brink', an extraordinary read about the game's more flawed geniuses. The quote refers to how McGrath and Moran were the first-choice defensive pairing at Manchester United in the late 1980s but due to injuries and off-field distractions, couldn't keep their positions.

McGrath would obviously go on to greater things at Aston Villa and with the Republic of Ireland - and this is not to downplay the memory of him as a footballer - but Moran's comment takes you inside Ferguson's mind.

So he concludes the original quote: "That's what he got with Bruce and Pallister. They hardly missed a game between them in four-and-a-half years."

I often find it an excruciating exercise when ones tries to draw far-fetched parallels, so I'll respect those who want to bow out of this read now (feel free to drop me an abusive line Twitter) before I make one of my own.

Defenders are not a sexy topic. Reams and reams of copy are churned out on strikers, why they score, why they don't, and comparatively little about the men at the back. They are the forgotten part of the discussion.

However, let me pose you this question. How many teams have you seen over the years punch above their weight all because they had a rearguard that protected their goal like Robben Island?
In the A-League, I find that managers which have been able to lock down two quality centre-halves have been able to achieve much better results than those who haven't.

A classic example is the Central Coast Mariners, who have consistently played with a minuscule budget but have always had a solid defensive pairing to see them into three grand finals. Alex Wilkinson has been one half of all three: first pairing up with Michael Beauchamp, then Tony Vidmar, and finally - and perhaps most impressively - with Patrick Zwaanswijk.

Wilkinson has always lifted in the company of a class stopper, and when the combination has been strong, the Mariners have been competitive.

When Newcastle had an interchangeable trio of Andrew Durante, Adam Griffiths and Jade North at the back, they won their only title. This year, Nikolai Topor-Stanley has looked much shakier without Ljubo Milicevic by his side. Whatever you think of Ljubo, he made the Jets' back four walk taller, and offered much more than what we've seen from the injury-plagued Tiago so far. If it wasn't for Kasey Wehrmann and Ben Kennedy on either side of the defensive line, they'd be in all sorts of strife.

The league is littered with examples from the first seven years. Perth's most competitive period in the A-League came when Andy Todd and Chris Coyne had their act together. Ditto Wellington, when Durante and Jon McKain held firm. Luke DeVere and Matt Smith gave Ange Postecoglou the platform he needed at Brisbane. Melbourne Victory always looked tougher when Kevin Muscat was pairing Adrian Leijer or Roddy Vargas, even if age has now caught up with the latter.

At Sydney FC, they battled for years with their central defensive woes, and it wasn't until Simon Colosimo and Stephen Keller - a solid rather than spectacular duo - locked down the positions in 2008-9 that Sydney rose from their malaise. They won the championship. Of course, Colosimo then left and Sydney's defence fell apart.

This year, however, the combination of Beauchamp and Pascal Bosschaart, whilst not perfect just yet - still conceding too many goals - has real potential to grow. It gives Vitezslav Lavicka something to work with, and might go a lot further to explaining Sydney's good start to the season than some people might like to think.