Denmark's Kjaer a throwback to ball-playing defenders of old
Dane defender Kjaer is one of the few defenders with exquisite long-passing touch
Over the last 20 years there's been a decline in defenders with this skill-set
Most coaches prefer utlizing short passes to maintain possession
PRETORIA, South Africa -- On Saturday in the Denmark-Cameroon game, there was a moment when Danish defender Simon Kjaer provoked memories of old. Kjaer's long sweeping pass found Dennis Rommedahl on the wing and the Ajax man centered for Nicklas Bendtner to score on the way to a 2-1 win over Cameroon -- the move was a bit of a throwback.
Remember the old school, ball-playing central defenders who would either join in the midfield or launch accurate 40-yarders? Think Fernando Hierro, Laurent Blanc, Ronald Koeman, Daniel Passarella, heck, all the way back to Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer. It's simply not something you see any more in the modern game. (Note that when I say "40-yard pass" I mean "40-yard PASS," not some burly defender launching a desperate hoof up the pitch.)
Not that long ago it was a useful tactic, a neat way to mix things up. Fabio Capello turned it into something of an art form during his first stint at Real Madrid. Hierro would get the ball from the re-start, trot over to the right side of the back four and then launch a pinpoint 40-yard crossfield ball to a streaking Roberto Carlos who would then wreak havoc either by cutting inside or crossing the ball.
"Back then in Spain they loved the short-passing game, but in Hierro I had a guy who could put the ball anywhere in a range of 50 meters and in Roberto Carlos I had a guy who was lightning quick and technically outstanding," Capello told me a while back. "I would have been stupid not to do that. And the threat of this kind of long ball actually made our short passing game more effective, because it meant it was riskier for the opposing team to press or crowd the midfield."
Put like that, it makes a lot of sense. So why don't we see as much of it today?
Part of it is the personnel. You need to have a Hierro-type to do this. And such players are the exception. Look at the central defenders in some of the World Cup's top teams: very few are the kind of long-range passers required. You would not want Walter Samuel (Argentina) or Carles Puyol (Spain) or Nemanja Vidic (Serbia) launching passes like that on a regular basis. A guy like Kjaer is the exception, possibly because until his late teens he played in central midfield. What's more, even players like Spain's Gerard Pique, who potentially might have the skill-set to do it, simply don't partly, because they're not asked to, partly because, like most things, if you lose the habit, you don't think of doing it. But a big part of the reason is tactical. Teams crave possession and, obviously, no matter how accurate you may be, it's riskier to launch a long pass than to hit a nice square six yarder.
Most teams build from the back, but they do it with their fullbacks which is is why statistically fullbacks typically get more touches than any other player on the pitch. Also, many teams employ the standard deep-lying holding midfielder which further clogs up the middle of the park. Often he's the guy to build the play, leaving the central defenders little purpose other than being ready to receive an outlet pass if the midfield runs into trouble. Also, these days, fewer teams press, which means there is less space behind. And when teams do press it's usually because they've fallen behind, which, in turn, means that if you have the ball you're more likely to want to keep it rather than attempt the high-risk, high-reward long pass from the back.
Of course, trends in soccer come and go. But maybe the time is ripe for this one to make a comeback. As the majority of teams play with one central striker, rather than two, there are more opportunities for central defenders to join the attack. (And, conversely, for a back four facing one center forward plus two wingers, it's riskier to push your fullbacks up). The emphasis on having men "between the lines" -- whether they be holding midfielders or "in the hole" or "trequartistas" -- also means teams are less linear which, in turn, offers more gaps for a well-hit long pass to find. And then there's the obvious point: if you always build from the back with short passes, the opposition knows what's coming and it becomes a lot more predictable and easy to defend.
For the heirs to Hierro and Beckenbauer to make a comeback you need someone to break the mold. Someone who has enough success playing this way that others take note and either develop ball-playing center halves or ask their current ones to mix it up with the odd long pass. Who knows? Maybe Kjaer, who is young, gifted and sought after by half a dozen big clubs in Europe, might yet become a trailblazer.