During my playing career, I had the good fortune to work with some excellent coaches. In fact, my decision to leave Darlington FC to join Dundee United FC was made primarily because of the coaches I would be working with.
Paul Sturrock was the manager, with John (Sloop) Blackley as his assistant. Terry Butcher was the youth team coach, and Maurice Malpas was still, at the age of 36, the best defender at the club – and probably in the SPL.
Paul was brutally honest with me when I met him for the first time in Dundee. Rather than blowing smoke up my backside and telling me what a great player I was – which is often what happens when a club is courting a potential signing – he told me I was very raw, given that I had missed out on the “apprenticeship in the game” that most players get in the UK.
While I was 24 at the time, he felt I was still a teenager in terms of my football knowledge. Given that I grew up in a country without a rich footballing culture, he was absolutely right. But he told me he felt that he and his coaching staff could teach me all of the things that I needed to be a good defender, if I was willing to learn. It was just what I wanted to hear.
I reasoned that if I couldn’t learn how to defend from legends like Blackley, Butcher and Malpas, then I shouldn’t be playing the game.
After making the decision to join United, the next 24 months of my career were like a crash course in how to defend. I made so many mistakes, did my best to learn from them, and relied heavily on the combined knowledge of Sloop, Butch and Mo. And to this day, I find myself repeating those lessons and the principles of defending that I learned under their tutelage.
“You do your best defending when we have the ball.”
This was one of Sloop’s principles. By this, he meant that when we have possession of the ball, you get yourself in the right position to be able to win it back if we give it away.
It is about “smelling” danger on the field – sensing where the ball is going to be and getting yourself there before your opponent.
That ability, to see where the potential threat lies, seems to be a forgotten art these days. Players rely far more on their physical abilities, like strength and speed, than on their most important asset – their brain.
So far this season in Major League Soccer, there have been plenty of examples of how not to defend, and very few examples of how to do the job correctly. So much so, that when a player consistently defends correctly, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
Toronto FC’s Torsten Frings is a perfect example of this. He reads the game exceptionally well, and what he lacks in pace, he makes up for in his ability to see danger. It really is a pleasure to watch someone of his calibre play the game, as he makes it look effortless.
Frings is a midfielder by trade, yet he understands that the principles of defending apply to every position on the field. He seamlessly transitions between playing as a holding midfielder and as a central defender/sweeper, because he rarely finds himself out of position.
Unfortunately for TFC, Frings is now out of action with a hamstring strain. His absence over the last two games has seen his side concede 6 goals, which is a major concern for head coach Aron Winter. The inability of his other players – both in midfield and in defence – to pick up the slack left by Frings’ absence, could see TFC struggle to keep pace in the Eastern Conference.