Rio Ferdinand: Defending has changed, but there is no stand-out CB anymore
Eyebrows have been raised at the £75million Liverpool agreed to pay Southampton for Virgil van Dijk, but gone are the days that spending such an amount would mean acquiring one of the best players in the world.
Though the Merseysiders have paid a premium for doing the deal in January – and possibly for their approach in the summer – the fee will no doubt soon be usurped and simply made to look like the going rate when the next top-class defender moves clubs.
Certainly, few would argue Van Dijk is the best in the world in his position, but Ferdinand does not believe there is any one centre-back that is obviously better than the rest anymore.
“If I ask you who is the best centre-back in European football, who would you say? It is hard to say at this moment.
“In the past, you would have said straight away it was (Carles) Puyol, it was John Terry, it was (Paolo) Maldini. You can’t do that now. You wouldn’t be able to tell me if Sergio Ramos is better than Jerome Boateng. Or if Boateng is better than Thiago Silva.
“That may be because the game looks towards attacking players more at the moment. I still think there are good defenders out there, but no defender has stood up to the point where you can say he has been consistently brilliant in every game.”
Part of the reason why fewer centre-backs are standing out nowadays may be that the role they are being asked to play has changed. Rather than simply stop attacks, they are required to bring the ball out of defence to start them too.
Ferdinand, of course, is an example of a player that excelled at both, but the BT Sport pundit believes the emphasis has switched more to what a defender can do on the ball.
“Defenders have to start attacks now, that is what they want you to do,” he says. “You look at Daley Blind now and Man United have played him at centre-back. That says it all.
“The reason he is playing centre-half is to start attacks. He’s not a centre-back and was signed as a full-back, but he can start the attack and that is the philosophy in the modern game.”
Defenders have also had to adapt to a new type of forward, with fewer teams now playing with a traditional target man. Players like Roberto Firmino present a very different challenge, as do wide forwards cutting in from the wing, making the ability to cover ground quickly a must for any top-level defender.
“The fundamentals of a centre-back are similar to when I first started, but one thing that is different is you don’t have to deal with the big No.9 so often now…the Duncan Ferguson kind of player,” Ferdinand says.
“Pace is huge for defenders now. When I started at West Ham, we had Alvin Martin there and he was a great defender, but he was not quick. The same for guys like Alan Hansen or Tony Adams.
“Now, having that pace is vital. The game has quickened up so much since I started in the game.
“It has all become a lot more intricate, but the fundamentals of defending are still the game.”
By Kevin Palmer