Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” John Terry loved defending, and you name it, he’s won it.
The former Chelsea captain, now Aston Villa’s assistant coach, can look back on his triumphs with pride: he accumulated 17 trophies, from domestic victories in the Premier League and FA Cup, to ultimate European glory in the Champions League.
So who better to speak to about title-winning defences than the serial trophy lifter himself?
The Premier League has witnessed some iconic defensive partnerships. Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, Tony Adams and Martin Keown, Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypiä to name a few.
Terry and Carvalho made Premier League history in 2004/05 when they conceded the fewest goals in a season – just 15. It’s still an incredible statistic. And for Terry, his defensive partner brought out the best in him, and vice versa, for years to come.
Terry told Sports Gazette: “It’s one of those records that could be around for a very long time. As soon as Rickie [Carvalho] came through the door, we just struck up a relationship. We complemented each other really well.”
“With certain players you just kind of hit it off, and with Rickie I certainly had that. And I knew things were going to go well. Once you play a few games and you train with top players, you realise just how good they are. I knew straight away that we had something very special.”
Terry had heroes of his own: “When I was growing up, I loved Tony Adams, I loved watching him play for England, Arsenal as well.”
Previously Premier League record holders, conceding just 17 goals for Arsenal in 1998/99, Adams and Keown were knocked off the top spot by Terry and Carvalho.
Terry was also impressed by the defensive displays of Ferdinand and Vidić, who provided Manchester United’s best defensive record of 24 goals conceded in 2008/09.
The former England captain adds: “[Looking at] Vidic and Rio, another great centre-back pairing, two great individual players. But again, complement each other really well.
“Rio was the ball carrier and the ‘Rolls Royce’ of the pairing, Vidic was a little bit more old school and would defend for his life – he’d throw his body on the line but also still play.
“Hyypiä and Carragher, what they did on the European stage as well, cannot be overlooked. Between us three clubs, we were fighting for Premier Leagues. It was a really good era for defenders and centre-backs coming through.”
The modern leader in the backline
In contrast to these solid, club record-breaking defensive partnerships, Liverpool and Manchester City’s best defensive records both came without a definitive duo in the backline.
Van Dijk featured in all 38 league games in 2018/19 and raced to Premier League Player of the Year, helping Liverpool to secure a club-record low of 22 goals conceded. Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren all paired up alongside him.
Manchester City’s record was also seen in 2018/19. Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte, Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones all contributing to a modest 23 goals conceded.
Identifying an iconic pairing for Manchester City that season proves difficult. But Kompany was the standout defender. Despite injury issues, which saw him play sporadically, he held a 0.4 goals conceded per game record, which was doubled when City were forced to play ‘unaKompanied’.
For the champions of recent years, the single dominant figure in the backline is a proven success.
Frank Lampard’s search for a solid defensive partnership
Last season, Chelsea shipped a huge 54 goals. Compare this to the Terry and Carvalho-inspired 2004/05 season; the difference is stark.
There was no definitive pairing in the Blues’ defence last season. Frank Lampard used several combinations of his central defenders Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori throughout, and did not settle on any.
New signing Thiago Silva could be the turning point. He is proving to be a huge boost for Chelsea so far this season, even if Lampard hasn’t completely settled on a pairing. Silva is a natural leader and could become the exemplary defender the Blues require.
Terry continued: “I think with the likes of Thiago Silva coming to Chelsea – he’s one player I’d have loved to have played with.
“It’s so good to have him in and around the football club because the likes of Kurt, Fikayo, Andreas – to have that kind of experienced player, to see what Thiago’s done in the game, to learn from him on a daily basis.
“When I first came through, I had [Marcel] Desailly to guide me through and talk to me – just that communication level is going to serve them so well.
“I hope every defender there is talking to Thiago and learning as much as they can from him – because they certainly look better since he’s been in. It’s a smart move by the owners and a great signing from Frank.”
The problems facing the modern defender
A new ruthless attacking style in the Premier League, driven by Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, is impacting how managers set up their defences.
City and Liverpool are not alone – the fast pace, high press game is seen throughout the league. Take Tottenham’s front three of Gareth Bale, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane as an example. Or Chelsea’s attacking pride comprising Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic. It’s a defender’s nightmare.
Modern day defenders are the ultimate decision makers; the balance between pressing and protecting the backline must be perfected to keep stride with the attacking vogue.
“I think more is expected of defenders now. Like today, a lot of those players like [Roberto] Firmino – [Alexandre] Lacazette – they drift off away from defenders and take them in an area where they’re not too comfortable going,” said Terry.
But for Terry at Chelsea, and throughout the league within that era, the backline was priority.
“I loved the way Carragher defended – he was pretty much similar to me – we could dribble out with it, but our decision making was actually: when we win it, we’re going to get it and give it to our players in front – Stevie G and Lamps – and let them hit the 50/60 yard diagonal because they’re the better players than us,” Terry explained.
The pile-up of fixtures adds to the commotion and has littered injuries throughout the Premier League; the need for increased options and rotation calls for one prominent defensive leader.
Heavy reliance on one centre-half, though, has proven problematic when dealing with individual errors. Even Van Dijk had, on occasion, stumbled prior to his ACL injury. And Liverpool now struggle for a consistent pairing.
Terry continued: “When I played, across the world there were top players – [Carles] Puyol and [Gerard] Pique – there was always those kinds of pairings, but now, it’s more one outstanding player.
“And is that a shortage of centre-backs? Is that a financial thing? Obviously Liverpool spent big money on a defender – would you go and spend another £80million to get another top class centre-back in? I’m not sure. It’s definitely changing or evolving as we go on.”
With consistent defensive partnerships or strong leaders absent, cracks exist in defensive structures. Those can lead to shock results for prominent sides.
Manchester City crumbled 5-2 to Leicester and Liverpool took a hard knock at Aston Villa, where they were drubbed 7-2. Both were distasteful takeaways for the two most recent champions.
Is it time for a defensive partnership comeback?
Sturdy partnerships in the Premier League could yet reform – Rúben Dias and Laporte for City make a fine duo which oozes talent. For Chelsea, Silva and Zouma look to be favoured, and have potential as a duo if both players can keep their fitness.
Liverpool, now riddled with injuries in the backline – with Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold also sidelined for the foreseeable – will have to find a solid pairing, or a robust figure to temporarily step into Van Dijk’s successful boots.
Super strengthening in attacking positions throws further fear into the defensive fire. And rotation seems unavoidable for some of these new defensive cohorts.
So, is the fate of the title now down to which club can settle their back pairing the quickest? Or will a single talismanic leader in the backline be the clincher for the Premier League title?
With Liverpool’s iconic leader in Van Dijk now out, time will tell.