Arsenal legends talk about the changes to the Art Of Defending in modern football

In the last few years many of the top managers have had to adapt their tactics to work towards the high-pressing which is essential nowadays, and therefor the roles of defenders have completely changed from the tougher times in the old First Division, and it is interesting to hear what the star Arsenal defenders from the old days think about the differences in the “Art of Defending” compared to the modern style.

Will Crook spoke with former Arsenal stars Nigel Winterburn, Lauren and Mikael Silvestre, as well as former Man United and England defender Gary Pallister about the role changes from when they used to be in the spotlight.

The quartet all believe that the art of defending has changed since their time at the top. We understand that Betway Insider sat down with former Arsenal stars to discuss those changes.

One believes the job of a defender is tougher due to the level of focus needed unlike in other areas of the team, because they can’t let up their concentration for a single minute.

“If you switch off, you’re done,” says Mikael Silvestre. “You can’t rest like strikers or midfielders can.”

Another insists that the strength in actual defending has decreased in recent years due to the new requirements for the back line to play out and be more involved in the build-up.

“When I played, you had to be an outstanding defender or you wouldn’t get into one of the top four teams,” says former Arsenal left back Nigel Winterburn, who won three league titles at the club between 1987 and 2000.


“Now you don’t have to be as good defensively, but if you don’t have that quality on the ball then you probably wouldn’t get into a top team.”

Nigel was asked to elaborate on his comments, and moved to insist that the focus is more on attack in the today’s game. He explained: “The way that teams are playing out from the back, modern defenders and full-backs have got be very comfortable on the ball because they’re often in advanced areas.

“But we were always judged by what we did defensively under George [Graham].

“Down my side I could go and play, but you knew that Lee [Dixon] would have to tuck round alongside the other two centre halves and vice versa if Lee went.

“Yes, we did play it out from the back at times when Arsene Wenger took over, but as soon as the goalkeeper got the ball, it’s up to the halfway line and you’d play from the knockdowns.

“I think the whole ethos of the game, particularly how quick it is, has changed.

“When I first started, the game was a lot slower. You think about the conditions, very rarely would you get a green pitch after Christmas.”

The ex-Man United defender Gary Pallister agreed with Winterburn about the conditions, claiming that the pitches definitely played a role in how football was played previously, with an increase in the quality of the pitches in today’s game.

“A lot of the issues were to do with the pitches,” says Pallister. “If you look at the pitches I played on in the early part of my career, they looked like rugby pitches. Nowadays they’re like bowling greens and you can take more risks if you trust the pitch.”

Winterburn then spoke about how training was even vastly different previously, claiming that he used to have to train without a ball alongside his fellow defenders in some sessions.

“I think if we were to go out and walk through some of the training sessions that George put on for our back four with a modern player, they might look at you in disbelief,”

“We used to go out a couple of times a week and it would just be the back four with the manager on the training pitch. There wouldn’t even be a goalkeeper and we wouldn’t have the ball on the floor.

“He would be jogging through positions that we would have to react to, imagining there was a piece of rope in between each player so the lines always stayed the same and you move in sync.”

“There was a lot more discipline involved compared to now.”

The former Red Devil added that the physique of defenders has even changed now, with some ‘robust’ rivals having been tasked with intimidating the defenders as much as anything else.

“In the early part of my career you’d get a lot of centre forwards who were pretty robust,” says Pallister.

“You think about some of them – Mick Harford and John Fashanu, for example. It was the job of these guys to mess with the centre half and intimidate them.

“Physically, you’d have to be up to that kind of challenge, and it was something that I found hard when I first started in football because I was very slight.

“You got pushed around by some of these bigger guys and it’s something that I had to try and learn to deal with. That included weights and a maybe a few glasses of Guinness to try and beef myself up.”

Former Cameroon and Arsenal defender Lauren insists it was difficult to adapt to the vigours as the game was changing in the early 2000s.

“I had to change my position and I had a few problems defending in the beginning, especially when the ball was on the other side I was caught ball-watching a lot,” he says.

“But now, they are asking defenders for more things. We have to re-adapt ourselves to the new era.”

Former United and Arsenal centre-back Silvestre insists that the game has turned on defenders and made more about going forwards.

“The game is not in their favour,” Silvestre said. “Some people would go as far as saying the art of defending is gone.”

For Lauren, though, that is not the case. “Not everything from today’s game is fantastic,” he says. “But to be the best now, you have to combine the best of the most traditional skills and the best of the modern-day skills. Evolution is good.”

Has modern day defending and football overall improved for the better? Could old-school defending ever make a resurgence with the officials of today?


  1. I agree with them. It’s more difficult to be an elite defender now, because the guy has to build the attack when playing for a top team

  2. People talk about White being too short and thats total nonsense. He’s almost 6 feet (180-182cm), so he loses about few centimeters in height against most forwards in PL.

    Few centimeters is extremely easy to attain by training your vertical. Remember Mertesacker? He jumped less than a 12 year old volleyball player because he was always tall.

    If you take a look at Ronaldo, he has actually trained on his vertical despite being quite tall already. Its weird but so many football defender lacks this physical attribute. You really just need one summer to train it and you will progress nicely (talking from experience).

    1. @DaJuhi
      Good point about Ronaldo. Dude has the vertical leaping ability of a basketball player…

    2. You surely can not compare players to Ronaldo in any term. The dude is insanely professional, hard worker, driven and had ability which he polished. Tell me single English player even in past who possessed all this. Saying if Ronaldo can do then he can do as well is one thing but to do that is another. Plus Ronaldo plays upfront not at the back where he is bullied by big forwards. There have been amazing small defender like canavaro but in EPL which is very physical and where every one in the country knows how to bully Arsenal, White will have to face more arieal battles and bullying then any smaller CBs that have thrived before. Plus these people have one thing which White still needs to work on is positioning and choosing your battles. He is young so I have no doubt he will learn and grow but I think he will struggle if we keep playing the type of football we play which constantly puts defenders under pressure.

      1. Yes, but my point still stands: training your vertical is easy and results will be imminent. No one is asking White to jump as high as Ronaldo. Just a little focus on physical attributes.

        This goes for being too skinny: beef up a bit without sacrificing speed and you wont be bullied around. Height is an advantage which can be worked around if you dont have it. Numerous volley- and basketball players have proven this.

      2. “insanely professional, hard worker, driven and had ability which he polished. Tell me single English player even in past who possessed all this.

        Steven Gerrard lol done.

        1. Dennis Bergkamp was another. Look at most outstanding generational players and what sets them apart is their drive and commitment, first to training last to leave. Watch Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance.”

  3. The demands on the modern day defender are far greater than hitherto ,but to my mind the quality of centre backs in particular has diminished over the past decade.They may be quicker than some of the greats of the past but in terms of actual defensive skill and positional sense ,very few are truly World Class in my opinion and those who were, are now past their best including Silva of Chelsea.Tactically there is no reason why the “hinge ” system mentioned by Winterburn should not be effective in the modern day game.

    1. Grandad, something to be said for George Graham’s specialist defender training, his walk through, his string line and discipline.
      In response to Adajim, some training methods stand the test of time and shouldn’t be discounted.

  4. Yeh let centre backs defend , boot the boot in, get the ball out quick, orchestrate an offside, and generally guard the goal and goalkeeper with their lives…

    Nothing has changed that much or shouldn’t do as the art of defending is exactly the same..prevent the opposition from scoring and even better limiting any kind of attacking movement.

    Loved George Graham and his detail with drilling players for defensive scenarios. what a team and players that man had and developed.

  5. I see no true comparison between how MOST teams “defend” today compared with the the PROPER defenders of Winterburns era.
    Todays defenders are, generally speaking, VASTLY less effective! Imagine and then emit a horse laugh at the absurd idea that such as Bellerin would have even lasted five minutes under George Graham. Bellerin and his kind make my point so well.


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