Podcasts, forums, opinion articles and talk shows almost always clash over the standards of todays defending. Are attackers simply much better than they were a decade ago when Italian Serie A sides were disappointed to let one goal in. Do attackers get the benefit of the doubt for big decisions? Or are defenders simply getting worse? Many would argue that defending has simply changed; no longer are tackles from behind allowed. The modern defender must rely on speed, power, ariel presence. But most importantly with the possession based football that has emerged over the past 5 years, be able to distribute from the back outwards.

These five talents from all corners of the globe demonstrate all of the key areas needed to become a top centre-back on a regular basis. Although, only time will tell if they will have glittering careers like Maldini, Nesta and Cannavaro before them, but their first steps to stardom have been impressive ones.

Eder Alvarez Balanta – River Plate

Balanta will be a familiar name to many, a player that almost always pops up on this type of list. But that is because he has yet to fulfil his massive potential. At only 22 years of age the 6″1 Colombian seems to have been around for a number of years and was tipped to have a bright future in the very opening stages of his career, but injuries have curtailed his progression. He has been on the treatment table so much that he has only made 51 senior appearances for River and 6 at international level for Colombia.  Despite his extensive injury list, Balanta is blessed with pace, power and skill – so much so that he drew early comparisons to Colombian legend Daniel Passarella. Couple that with ariel prowess and fine balance Balanta seems destined for the top – if only he could stay injury free.

Jeison Murillo – Internazionale

Another Colombian, Murillo recently secured the first big money move of his career joining Roberto Mancini’s Internazionale for €8m. Murillo comes from similar stock to Balanta – fast, powerful and with delicate feet he impressed greatly for Granada last season despite the Andalusian’s finishing in 17th position. Although there lies a streak of naivety in Murillo’s game current Colombia coach Jose Peckerman has unmatched trust in his ability and used him extensively in this years Copa America. Murillo impressed so much that he was voted into the Team of the Tournament and scooped the aware for the Best Young Player at the tournament. What may be even sweeter was his game winning goal against Brazil in their 2-0 win.

Eric Bertrand Bailly – Villarreal

A €5,7m transfer from Espanyol last January, Bailly has transformed himself into an ever present for the side from Vila-Real. As El Submarino Amarillo have raced up to the heights of La Liga, the Ivorian has impressed with his speed, strength and will to win. Made his tournament, and international, debut at this year’s African Nations Cup and impressed, shoring up an area of the Ivorian team that was deemed to be the weakest. Although Bailly has gained many plaudits, he remains somewhat of a diamond in the rough – his decisions and distribution need work for him to become a top-level central defender.

Jairo Riedewald – Ajax Amsterdam

Another Dutch player with Surinamese heritage, Riedewald was capped in the senior side at a mere 18 years of age after impressing for Holland’s most successful club. As far as comparisons go, Riedewald has been compared to some greats; Koeman and Rijkaard most notably. Many see the youngster captaining the national team in the future. But first, steps must be taken to hone his game at club level. Although impressive in many areas, Riedewald’s earliest forays into the professional game before the departures of Nicolas Moisander and Stefano Denswil shifted him into a central position – as such his ariel game is nowhere near as good as his distribution. As with any Ajax bred defender, Riedewald is exceptional with both feet and can start attacks from his base at the heart of Ajax’s central pairing.

Niklas Süle – Hoffenheim

In a time where the Bundesliga is producing a magnificent crop of defenders, Süle is surely one to look out for. At 6″4 there are not many players who appear as intimidating as the young German, but what many people underestimate about Süle is his footballing brain. Aggressive defending something that the Bundesliga has become known for since it’s revamped fast-flowing counter attacking style came to prominence with the rise of Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern, but Süle’s reading of the game is magnificent. His anticipation is second to none, and he often tops the charts for interceptions per game, averaging at 2.2 last season. As good with his feet as he is with his head, Süle is one of the more complete ‘modern’ defenders and like Jairo Riedewald, is more than adept at distributing from the back. Surely destined for the top with his impressive performances.

About the Author – Ben Jarman

Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.

Twitter: @sonikkicks


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With the score level at 2-2, the ball was placed on the spot and fans huddled in together, holding their breath.

What happened next would shape Napoli’s future, granting them either Champions League or Europa League football and individually, had the possibility of exalting Gonzalo Higuain to something of a higher figure in the crazed footballing city of Naples, Italy.

But it wasn’t to be.

The 27-year-old sent his penalty over the bar in the 76th minute against Lazio and San Paolo’s punters fell back into their seats, shocked by what they had just witnessed. Stefano Pioli’s side would go on to convert two more chances, crushing Napoli’s Champions League dreams from what would’ve been an amazing comeback.

Of course in the aftermath of that glaring penalty miss, no one will remember el Pipita’s brace in the space of nine minutes that brought the Partenopei level. Out of that miss, which was his third effort saved out of six total last season, was born another demon, another nightmare in the mind of the former Real Madrid man.

If Higuain had the possibility of waving a wand to completely wipe his memory from July 2014 to July 2015, he’d do it in a heartbeat.

Although the forward scored 29 goals in all competitions for Napoli last season and two match-winners for Argentina between the World Cup and Copa America, Higuain most importantly, failed to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments of the past year.

It first started in the World Cup final when the forward was gifted an incredible chance from a headed back-pass from Toni Kroos that sent the Argentine one-on-one with Manuel Neuer. But the 27-year-old hurried his wind-up and scuffed the shot, firing it wide left.

Looking past his crucial domestic saved penalties, previously coming from matches where the club failed to win, Higuain had a date in the Copa America final against host nation Chile.

With the match in its final minute of added time, Lionel Messi burst through the centre of the pitch, beating two defenders before finding Ezequiel Lavezzi in space. The 30-year-old played a squared ball to an oncoming Higuain at the far post, but the forward only managed to hit the side netting in the dying seconds of the final that could have own the match.

Higuain then had a chance to right his wrongs in the penalty shoot-out, being chosen as the second kicker after Messi. But this time again, Pipita skied his effort over the bar.

Turning the clock back to the beginning of last season, it must be said that Higuain endured a heavy World Cup hangover, with the forward failing to score in the first seven Serie A matches of the season.

Flailing his arms outwards in frustration with his teammates was a common sight for the former River Plate marksman and his actions portrayed a thoroughly annoyed figure on the pitch.

Napoli’s new coach Maurizio Sarri noticed it as well. When asked about the Argentine this past summer, the 56-year-old responded, “Higuain can improve, lately when I’ve seen him he’s looked too nervous, if he played with a smile he could do more.

“He has to go out there and have fun. Whoever smiles and has fun on the pitch always wins in the long run.”

It felt like salt in the wounds for Napoli supporters when the Biancocelesti failed to reach the Champions League group stages after falling to Bayer Leverkusen in the play-off, so the atmosphere at San Paolo will be even more charged for a revenge match.

And when asked about the tasty fixture, Pioli understands that their last encounter bears no connection to this weekend’s clash, stating, “The 4-2 result in May was a wonderful night full of emotions, but that is the past and tomorrow is our present.”

Although a goal for Higuain against Lazio this weekend won’t help Neapolitans forget what could have been on the final matchday of last season, it will certainly aid in easing the pain.

With two goals to his name so far this term, Higuain is hoping his third arrives this weekend to help to extinguish the demons of his past that have haunted him for so long.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball


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In the wake of West Ham’s first win over Liverpool at Anfield in 52 years, Hammers manager Slaven Bilic lavished praise on their outstanding Argentine, Manuel Lanzini.

“He was fantastic against Liverpool and not only because he scored a goal,” mused Bilic.

“Defensively he not only covered the left back, Joe Gomez, but he cut inside on Philippe Coutinho and James Milner when he went outside. He was great.”

Bilic’s praise was certainly warranted, for Lanzini put in a shift full of purpose, intensity and energy – on both sides of the ball.

From his post on the right wing, Lanzini would’ve known an afternoon consisting of plenty of defensive work lay ahead of him. Within Bilic’s supremely well regimented defensive setup, the Argentine adhered beautifully to the game plan. He pressed when required to, showed off his underrated ability to perfectly time his tackles, plus, as Bilic noted earlier, he tracked his markers and helped out his colleagues when necessary.

Stats from Stats Zone depict just how much essential defensive work he got through, as he completed an exceptional eight tackles and one interception.

On the attacking end, despite his side not enjoying a great deal of possession (only 37% to be exact), the technically gifted Lanzini also demonstrated his offensive quality suitably. While he didn’t touch the ball too often, it didn’t matter in Lanzini’s case, for when he did, he made the most of it. Using his nice blend of power, pace, intelligence and technique Lanzini impacted the contest markedly. Whether it was via mazy forward dribbles on the counter, combining tidily with his teammates in the final third or creating space for his fellow attackers with clever movement, Lanzini illustrated what a vital component of Bilic’s project he is, and can continue to be.

Having a flair player who’s prepared to work hard in all phases of the game was definitely invaluable to West Ham in this contest. He demonstrated his worth brilliantly by playing a key role in two of the Irons’ goals.

For the first, in the third minute, he timed his run perfectly to get on the end of Aaron Cresswell’s scuffed cross to score with a neat side-footed finish. There was no better way for West Ham to begin this pivotal clash at Anfield.

Secondly, for his side’s 29th minute goal, his determination not to allow himself to be beaten served as the catalyst for Mark Noble’s competent finish. Here, after attempting to dispossess Dejan Lovren near the right touchline, the smaller Lanzini found himself knocked to the ground and outside the field of play. Lovren, thinking Lanzini was now out of the picture, dallied about with the ball while he assessed his options. To his dismay, though, West Ham’s new number 28 had sprung to his feet briskly with a keen eye on getting back at the Croatian defender. And he did just that, robbing Lovren and firing a teasing ball into the box that ultimately fell to Noble.

This passage illustrated that Lanzini’s always willing to fight for the cause and not give up on any situation, no matter how badly the cards may be stacked against him. Dedicating himself so vigorously will have undoubtedly endeared him to not only his manager, but also the West Ham faithful. He’ll be hoping the good times will roll on for him, following the international break, when West Ham face a winless Newcastle.

Prior to him signing for West Ham, though, Lanzini had a truly fascinating journey to the top. The man who initially joined the famed River Plate academy as a nine-year-old eventually went onto make his debut for the Buenos Aires giants at just 17, and while he showed glimpses of his undeniable talent, injuries and inconsistency disappointingly hindered his progress.

Not long after, in 2011, the diminutive midfielder ventured over to Brazil, where he played a season on loan at Fluminense. Featuring on 37 occasions and scoring five goals for the Tricolor, Lanzini impressed hugely in the Brazilian top flight, so much so that the club were extremely interested in signing him to a permanent deal. Fluminense weren’t willing to pay the €15 million option to buy clause River had set, though, meaning he returned back home to Argentina.

Handed the number 10 shirt, much was expected of him, but while he wasn’t bad, on the other side of the coin, he wasn’t superb either.

In 2013, the year before he signed for Al-Jazira, Lanzini actually rejected a move to the UAE based club. However, his decision in this instance was completely vindicated, as River went on to win the title that season.

“That time I decided that it was best to stay in River because I felt that I needed to give something to the club and luckily we became champions. Now if another offer comes, I am going to analyze it,” he recalled.

A subsequent offer in 2014 arrived, and after being duly analysed, it was accepted this time. Intriguingly, when he signed for the wealthy club, at 21 years of age, he became the youngest player to ever play in the UAE Arabian Gulf League.

He marked his Al-Jazira debut with a bang, scoring a brace, which included a fine individual effort. Unfortunately, the man nicknamed “The Jewel” could only muster up a further six goals at the club, impressing only sporadically. Questions still remained over his consistency, and this is something that’s plagued him throughout his career to date. When he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant, but when he’s off, he flatters to deceive.

This is precisely why Al-Jazira were willing to offload him to the Hammers on loan.

Now at West Ham under Bilic, who has put his faith and trust in him, and who notably showed a keen interest in the player while managing Besiktas, his encouraging start to life in London might suggest he’s ready to add some crucial consistency to his game under the Croatian’s guidance.

“I watched him two years ago and I wanted to take him to Besiktas, but it was difficult. Now, the chance has come to get him, he’s going to help us a lot as he will add even more creativity in the crucial parts of the pitch,” explained the now West Ham manager.

“He’s a good player, he’s young and it’s good that we have got him on loan with an option (to sign).

“At the age of 20, he was given the No 10 jersey at River Plate who, with Boca Juniors, are a massive club of course.”

Many felt the slightly built starlet would have issues coping with the physicality of the Premier League, but this was importantly not a view shared by his manager, who gave this response when quizzed on the issue: “When he came in some of the people who were not for him and were for other players were slagging him off and said he looks more like a jockey than a football player.

“Maybe, but he rides the challenges. He’s not afraid of them and he goes right into the challenge,” said Bilic.

“He reminds me of Luka Modric. You can have tiny players who go into the tackle. He can do that.”

Lanzini’s joy upon making the move to London was well documented when listening to him speak on his arrival.

“This is a new challenge for me and that can only help in the future. It will test my ability in one of the best leagues in the world, so I am looking forward to getting started,” he said.

“I am someone who always gives 100 per cent. I’m an attacking player, I can change the game’s tempo and I hope to give my maximum for the fans to appreciate me.”

Most encouraging for teammates, fans and the coaching staff alike is his exemplary attitude towards always striving to improve and better himself at his chosen craft.

“I play football, a beautiful profession, and to be able to dedicate myself to it is a pride and a privilege,” humbly stated Lanzini.

For such a gifted, creative, technically exquisite player like Lanzini, questions will constantly be raised in regard to his physicality and value to the team. But in Lanzini, Bilic knows he has a footballer who contributes so much to the team and one who will never take for granted the opportunity the club’s afforded him.

West Ham are grateful to have him and you can guarantee Lanzini is overjoyed to be there. Lanzini will be massively keen to make a name for himself at the historic club, which is something his mindset and attitude should ably assist him in his quest to achieve.

After all, he doesn’t see it as his God given right to be at West Ham, it’s a privilege for him.

About the author – Edward Stratmann

Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.



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