Mamadou Sakho’s ridiculous backheel & the subtle art of maverick defending

In Depth

Mamadou Sakho helped Crystal Palace beat Chelsea on Saturday for their first Premier League win of the season. He also produced one of the most ridiculous pieces of defending you’re ever likely to see. What a hero.

Earlier this month, footage emerged from the East Taiheng Glasswalk in China which terrified near enough anyone who saw it.

The see-through walkway runs over a precipice more than 800 feet below, and a video doing the rounds saw the glass on the surface appear to crack beneath the feet of a man crossing the bridge.

In fact, those who designed the bridge would later confirm the footage merely shows a cruel effect which makes it look and sound like the glass is cracking beneath your feet. No one was ever in danger.

Around the world, people were condemning it as the most terrifying thing they had ever witnessed.

Then, on Saturday, Mamadou Sakho attempted a backheel in his own six-yard box in the closing stages of Crystal Palace’s win over Chelsea.

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It would have been a risky play at the best of times, but let’s not forget that, before the visit of the champions, Palace had yet to score in the league, let alone win. Hence the heart-in-mouth factor was increased tenfold.

Seven games and seven defeats meant even a Chelsea side missing N’Golo Kanté and Álvaro Morata were expected to brush their opponents aside, but derbies in the Premier League – and especially this derby – don’t work that way.

In fact, this most recent victory was Palace’s fourth in eight games against a team which has finished comfortably above them in every single season of the Premier League era. Other victories include a 2-1 Palace triumph at Stamford Bridge which put last season’s title celebrations on hold, and a 1-0 victory at the same ground to put José Mourinho’s Blues out of the running for the 2013-14 title.

Still, even with a surprisingly impressive record against the opposition, and carrying a lead into the closing stages, the last thing you want is your centre-back straying from the script with so much at stake.

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No matter how many times you watch the play back, not once does it become easier to work out what he was even trying to do.

At first glance it seems as though it could be a question of not wishing to slam the ball out of play with his left foot. After all, plenty of players are often reluctant to use their weaker foot in pressure situations.

This would ignore two things, though. The first of these is that Sakho is actually left-footed, something which is easy to forget when watching him opt against an obvious ball into touch. The second, and this is a big one, is that he still used his left foot for the backheel.

It’s like a tennis player going for a hotdog while his opponent lies prone at the back of the court, or a basketball player blindfolding himself for a free-throw; you have so much more to lose than you have to gain.

The best case scenario here for Sakho is…actually it’s tough to say. He can send the ball beyond Cesc Fàbregas and Marcos Alonso and find a team-mate, but even then it’s hard to argue that would be much better than simply kicking the ball out for a throw-in.

Maybe the backheel could go through the legs of one of Chelsea’s Spaniards, something which we’ve already established is the best thing you can do on a football pitch. Even then, we’re on the level of a goalkeeper’s sleight-of-foot leaving an attacking player on his backside. You’ll get a cheer, sure, but no one’s going to be talking about it more than 24 hours after the game.

Broadly speaking, you have so much more to lose than you have to gain in this situation. Succeed, and you win the game…but you were already winning. Fail, and you’ve cost your team two points and set them back in what was already an uphill battle against relegation.

But maybe Sakho knows this, and maybe this is why he has actually succeeded.

The passage of play ends in a goal kick, giving Julián Speroni scope to waste a bit more time and wind down the game.

However, even more importantly, it gets people asking how a £26million defender can do something so stupid, which in turn reminds everyone that he is a £26million defender. Touché, Mamadou.

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READ: Revisiting Attilio Lombardo’s increasingly bizarre Crystal Palace stint

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Sakho is, in a way, your typical 2010s centre-back. Comfortable with the ball at feet and in the air, and with enough positional sense and pace to cover for his own mistakes.

It’s the same combination of attributes which have seen the likes of David Luiz and John Stones lauded by pundits, and has rightly seen the pair take their place among the most expensive defenders in world football (even if Luiz is further along the path of development).

Sakho, like Luiz and Stones, shares the common combination of a complete skill-set and a knack for the unpredictable, but the mistake we often make is suggesting such maverick defenders are beloved for these high-risk plays. The truth is that they’re lauded for the overall package, which couldn’t exist without these elements.

The illogical backheel and the reading of the game to put you in a position where it becomes an option are two sides of the same coin, but when one is so common it rarely gets the same attention.


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It’s the defender’s equivalent of a forward exaggerating contact to win a penalty: when the most important part of your game is only picked up by a very close analysis, often after the fact, your brain can decide to push for any type of attention.

So, yes, a maverick defender can gain attention through his mistakes, but in the long run this can force people to overcompensate when looking for positives in the rest of their game.

It’s not that these other qualities have ever been lacking, it’s just that their passive brilliance means some will interpret them as ‘just doing your job’.

But if maverick defenders were just doing their jobs with the rest of their play, the propensity for error would see them sidelined. The bad parts might still leave hearts in mouths like a tourist crossing the East Taiheng Glasswalk, but the parts you thought were just day-to-day mundanity are actually so much more than that.

By Tom Victor

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