In the sport of association football, a defender is an outfield player whose primary role is to prevent the opposition from attacking.
There are four types of defender: centre-back, sweeper, full-back and wing-back. The centre-back and full-back positions are essential in most modern formations. The sweeper and wing-back roles are more specialised for certain formations.
The job of the centre-back (also known as the centre-half, central defender, or stopper) is to stop opposing players, particularly the strikers, from scoring, and to bring the ball out from their penalty area. As their name suggests, they play in a central position.
The position was formerly referred to as centre-half, although the emphasis of the centre-half was more forward thinking in action. In the early part of the 20th century, when most teams employed the 2–3–5 formation, the two players at the back were called full-backs and the row of three players in front of them were called half-backs. As formations evolved, the central player in this trio, the centre-half, moved into a more defensive position on the field, taking the name of the position with him. The right and left players in the trio were called the right-half and left-half respectively.
In the modern game, most teams employ two centre-backs, stationed in front of the goalkeeper. There are two main defensive strategies used by centre-backs: the zonal defence, where each centre-back covers a specific area of the pitch; and man-to-man marking, where each centre-back has the job of covering a particular opposition player.
The sweeper (or libero) is a more versatile type of centre-back who "sweeps up" the ball if an opponent manages to breach the defensive line. His position is rather more fluid than other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. Because of this, the position is sometimes referred to as libero ([ˈlibero]; from the Italian word meaning "free", as used by the sports journalist Gianni Brera). Though the sweeper may be expected to build counter-attacking moves, and as such requires better ball control and passing ability than a typical centre-back, his talents are often confined to the defensive realm. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, employed a purely defensive sweeper who only "roamed" around the back line. The more modern Fundell-Libero possesses the defensive qualities of the typical libero whilst being able to expose the opposition during counter attacks. Whilst rarely seen in professional football the position has been extensively used in lower leagues. The Fundell-Libero sits behind centre backs as a sweeper before charging through the team to join in the attack, otherwise known as "turning on the afterburners". A modern example is David Luiz of Chelsea FC.
Some sweepers move forward and distribute the ball up-field, while others intercept passes and get the ball off the opposition without needing to hurl themselves into tackles. In modern football, its usage has been fairly restricted, with few clubs in the biggest leagues using the position.
The full-backs take up the holding wide positions and traditionally stayed in defence at all times, until a set-piece. Modern full-backs take a more attacking role, overlapping with wingers down the flank. There is one full-back on each side of the field except in defences with fewer than four players, where there may be no full-backs and instead only centre backs. The traditional English full-back was a large, strong man who would make substantial use of "hacking" – deliberately kicking the shins of opponents, a practice that was accepted as legal in Britain but not in other countries, and caused major controversy as the game became increasingly internationalised from the 1950s on. It is now effectively banned everywhere, and it is this in part that has given rise to a different set of defensive roles.
In the modern game, full-backs have taken on a more attacking role than is the case traditionally. Wingerless formations, such as the diamond 4–4–2 formation, demand the full-back to cover considerable ground up and down the flank. Some of the responsibilities of modern full-backs include:
Due to the physical and technical demands of their playing position, successful full-backs need a wide range of attributes, which make them suited for adaptation to other roles on the pitch. Many of the game's utility players, who can play in multiple positions on the pitch, are natural full-backs. A rather prominent example is the Real Madrid full-back Sergio Ramos, who has played on both flanks as a full-back and as a defensive midfielder, and in central defence throughout his career. In the modern game, full-backs often chip in a fair share of assists with their runs down the flank when the team is on a counter-attack. The more common attributes of full-backs, however, include:
The wing-back is a modern variation on the full-back with heavier emphasis on attack. The name is a portmanteau of "winger" and "full-back". They are usually employed in a 3-5-2 formation, and could therefore be considered part of the midfield, although they may also be used in a 5–3–2 formation, in which they would have a more defensive role.
In the evolution of the modern game, wing-backs are the combination of wingers and full-backs. As such, it is one of the most physically demanding positions in modern football. Wing-backs are often more adventurous than full-backs and are expected to provide width, especially in teams without wingers. A wing-back needs to be of exceptional stamina, be able to provide crosses upfield and defend effectively against opponents' attacks down the flanks. A defensive midfielder is usually fielded to cover the advances of wing-backs.
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