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By moving their central defenders forward into midfield, English managers are taking a tactical step backwards, says Adam Bate

After the initial excitement, it only took a few difficult games for questions to be raised about Phil Jones. “In the end… Jones is there to stop, not start, the fun,” wrote Paul Hayward in the Guardian. And he is right, of course. A defender should be able to defend. Less understandable is the desire to move Jones into midfield – as Alex Ferguson did against Liverpool – simply because he can trap a football. It seems that Jones is just the latest victim of English football’s love affair with converting the centre-half.

Back in the 1920s, the centre-half operated in advance of the full-backs – hence the name – and the 2-3-5 formation ruled supreme. But an innovation was on the way. There was a realisation that the centre-forward could be stifled by the centre-half dropping into the back line. Jonathan Wilson details the transition from 2-3-5 in his book Inverting the Pyramid. Wilson explains how Herbert Chapman hinted at what was to come by deploying his centre-half Tom Wilson in an unusually withdrawn role to win the 1922 FA Cup final for Huddersfield Town. Bizarrely, the FA expressed “deep regret” about conduct during that match. There was some suggestion this referred to Chapman’s tactical masterstroke rather than any infraction of the rules.

This resistance to other formations was perhaps the reason why widespread change came so slowly. Indeed, it was not until the relaxation of the offside rule in 1925 – requiring just two men, not three, to be between the forward and the opponents’ goal – that Chapman took the innovation to its natural conclusion. Now at Arsenal, he realised that, rather than dropping a more adventurous player into defence, it was more effective to play a “stopper” centre-half. That man was Herbie Roberts and the formation was the WM (3-2-2-3).

Although new evidence suggests that Chapman was merely the greatest exponent rather than the inventor of the new formation, there can be little doubt this was a tactical epiphany in the history of football. The switch from 2-3-5 to WM eventually morphed, via “The Diagonal”, into the 4-2-4 made famous in Brazil. It took just a small leap to happen upon the 4-4-2 that dominated the game for decades.

It is perhaps curious then that, having dropped the midfielder into defence, English football is still dabbling with the idea of reversing this move. Kevin Keegan’s decision to play Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder against Germany at Wembley in October 2000 was a notorious failure. It was, even without the benefit of hindsight, an odd decision. Experienced alternatives such as Paul Ince were available, but Keegan  favoured playing a central defender instead. The match ended in defeat and instantly brought Keegan’s resignation amid accusations of that old catch-all, “tactical naivety”.

This chastening experience did not prevent Keegan’s successor, Sven-Göran Eriksson, from attempting a similar experiment prior to the 2006 World Cup. Eriksson elected to use Jamie Carragher as a defensive midfielder in a warm-up game against Hungary. England won but the move was not repeated in the tournament.

More recently, Stuart Pearce’s selection of Michael Mancienne in the centre of midfield at the European Under-21 Championship earlier this year had many baffled. Mancienne had made a summer move to Hamburg and his new employers weren’t overly impressed to see how he was being deployed in Denmark. Michael Oenning, the Hamburg manager at the time, said emphatically: “He doesn’t belong in that position. This won’t happen at HSV.”

In Germany there seems to be a recognition that a defender can be good on the ball and still play in defence. In fact, as football heads toward “universality” – with players being able to take on defensive and offensive roles – it is fast becoming an essential requirement for defenders. The rise of 4-2-3-1 as the vogue formation of the 21st century has left a spare centre-half in the back line. It follows, therefore, that this player should be more than a mere stopper.

Perhaps we can look to Barcelona for a more appropriate response to the modern blurring of the centre-half role. The European champions continue to slot both Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano into defence when necessary, which is surely a more progressive development than pushing a limited player forward. Yet many in England would have been happier to see Carragher in midfield than Mascherano in defence when the pair played at Liverpool.

If players such as Busquets and Mascherano moving into the back line represent the future, let us hope the spells in midfield for the likes of Southgate, Carragher and Mancienne can be consigned to unpleasant memory. It would surely be a waste of Jones’s vast potential if he should be converted into a midfielder at the first sign of trouble.

From WSC 298 December 2011