With over 100 goals scored already in this tournament, the 2014 World Cup has not been an exhibition for great centerback play. With the game quicker, fitter, more athletic and open than it has ever been before, gone are the days where your central defenders can sit ensconced in front of their goalkeeper and worry about maintaining sound positioning.
It’s like the game of basketball has fully been implemented into soccer, as the back and forth nature of the orange ball sport seem to have unintentionally brought its characteristics of full two way play stretch beyond just box to box midfielders.
While the movement of attacking players has become faster and more sophisticated, the challenges for the modern day centerback have become quite daunting, especially with full backs becoming the new wide players with the job of providing width for their team as important as their original primary tasks of defending.
The current alterations of offensive ingenuity in the game have to make viewers, most importantly those who savor cagey tactical defensive battles, to accept the fact that even a decent offense will get at least one or two chances in a match no matter how “elite” a centerback is. That has been in full evidence in this tournament so far and make the “world class centerback” almost as extinct as a flat midfield four or a Madonna hit song.
A long European campaign further exposed Sergio Ramos and Gerald Pique’s partnership in a forgettable early egress for the world champions Spain. Gary Cahill, coming off a fine season at Chelsea, was culprit of leaving Mario Balotelli open for Italy’s second goal against England and allowed Luis Suarez to get behind him on what proved to be the goal that ended the Three Lions’ tournament.
Italy’s Georgio Chiellini has had the misfortunate of playing on the outside in the first match and then fell asleep on Bryan Ruiz’s game winner for Costa Rica’s famous win. And even the likes of Vincent Kompany and Thiago Silva have been exposed to some unflattering moments in the tournament, with the Belgian captain absent on Aleksandr Kokorin’s blown header for Russia on Sunday while the PSG force failed to clear Eyong Enoh short pass to Joel Matip for Cameroon’s only goal in Brazil.
The quest to locate the next great centerback who can overcome the modern struggles of the game may not even be located by clicking on Google search. But this World Cup has featured three young central defenders who have the growing pedigree to maybe showcase that elite centerback can still be an actual thing in the 21st century.
Raphael Varane, Kenneth Omeruo, and Jose Gimenez are so young that they could compete back in Brazil if they wanted to in 2016 when the Summer Olympic football tournament takes place. And all three of them have become integral parts in their country’s participation this June.
The more well known and oldest of the three, Varane’s role with France this Cup look set to be the #3 centerback behind Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho, similar to how he was the understudy this season at Madrid to Ramos and Pepe. But Didier Deschamps has thought differently and has chosen Varane to be his right footed central defender instead of having two left footers in front of Hugo Lloris. Most were certainly surprised that Deschamps had chosen Varane over Koscielny after the terrific season the Arsenal man had.
Varane has so far been okay at centerback in his first two matches, but that came against a listless (and eventually 10 men) Honduras side and a shell shocked Switzerland team that played uncharacteristically like an inexperienced minnow. It speaks, however, to the immense talent that the 6’3″ 21-year-old is to be trusted with a big nod over the accomplished Koscielny. And if France do continued the good times they’ve had in the first two matches deep into the tournament, Varane will certainly have a full star making performances.
While Varane has the much bigger global reputation, making bigger headlines so far this tournament is Nigeria’s Kenneth Omeruo, the Chelsea owned property who gained valuable playing time at Middlesbrough this season and has showcased why he could be one of Africa’s legendary defenders. The 20-year-old didn’t have to do much against a defensive Iran side in his team’s opening match, but opened global eyes with his active display against Eden Dzeko’s potent Bosnia & Herzegovina.
The Manchester City forward got the better of Omeruo and his backline at the beginning of the match with the Europeans being unlucky to have a Dzeko goal disallowed because of a wrong offsides call. But as the match continued, Omeruo’s reading of Dzeko’s movement dramatically improved and contained the star striker like he was familiar playing against him in massive Premier League matches. His 13 balls won and two timely blocks gave every reason to believe that Jose Mourinho will ponder allowing those Dzeko-Omeruo battles to actually occur at club level this season.
Solving Dzeko and his formidable cohorts is one difficult change, but dealing with the prospect of facing Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Gonzalo Higuain will prove to be the stiffest test in the young 6’1″ defender’s career. Make no mistake, however, Stephen Keshi’s knows his prodigy will not be intimidated by the prospect as a draw at least would send Nigeria finally through to a Round of 16 for the first time since 1998.
Speaking of not being overawed by explosive attacks is Uruguayan 19-year-old wunderkid Jose Gimenez, who may have become his country’s new Diego Lugano after a terrific debut win over England. If you have taken off the names and numbers off of Oscar Tabarez’s jerseys, you would have thought that Gimenez was the much more experienced and top class defender than his mentor and Atletico Madrid teammate Godin. While Godin should have been sent off with two yellow cards in the first half , Gimenez maintained a precocious behavior that assisted in at least containing Liverpool threat Daniel Sturridge.
The adolescent was a breath of fresh air and energy that Uruguay’s backline desperately required, as Lugano is on his last legs while Godin is battling the effects of the longest club season he has ever had. Gimenez’s performance still won’t be the prime reason on whether Uruguay comes even close to the unlikelihood of emulating their magical 2010 run, but he certainly will begin a potential legendary career if he can maintain his level from the England contest.
Still, all three of these uber talented central defenders will have their growing pains to endure, with Varane hoping that his time at Madrid (and the prospects of France being a real contender now) will prevent hard learning lessons in the next few weeks. Their more experienced partners (and in the case of Omeruo with Joseph Yobo and Gimenez with Godin, much more experienced) will have to be firm in their judgements to make these exciting youngsters not awed by the occasion.
The centerback spot, always a vital position, has become the hardest position to play in high level football today. But Varane, Omeruo, and Gimenez would have long tried to move to other spots if they didn’t believe they could be up for the challenge.
And with the way they are going, they could be the three cornerstones who lead a firm revival in a position crying out to be saved.