The Four Pillars of Football – Part One: Centerback

Scott Fishkin breaks down the four pillars of football – Mental, Physical, Tactical, Technical – and how Liverpool values each pillar with respect to the Center Back position.

by Scott Fishkin

What’s Required

On 8 October 2015, Liverpool agreed the signing they so dearly needed. Jurgen Klopp arrived at the club with a
promise and plan to reinvigorate the club. In order to achieve the upper echelon performances that fans expected, the first requirement was is that each position on the field “put in their shift.” Klopp’s primary expectation in order to lace up for his teams has always been Effort.

Even so, the intricacies analyzed by all backroom staffs can be boiled down to four pillars:

  • Mental,
  • Physical,
  • Tactical, and
  • Technical

All professionals have various proficiencies at each of the four pillars which have allowed them to make a living playing the game they love. There is, however, a reoccurring theme to what aspects of each pillar Klopp & co. look at when assessing incoming candidates for various positions on the field. This series will analyze the patterns and, in some cases, discrepancies, Klopp looks for from his players by reviewing the four pillars of various positions.

We begin with Center Back. Liverpool Football Club has a rich history of talents at the center back position. Prior to Klopp’s arrival, recent history appeared to be a revolving door of power and promise. Excellent outings were followed by poor performances and costly on-field errors. Of course, there were the early 2000s mainstays of Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher. Yet when one or even both were missing from the team sheet, the player who replaced them was all-too-often the scapegoat if anything went wrong. A player that was clearly talented would have the fingers pointed at him if results were not positive. Reading this, you may even have a specific player from the past that comes to mind. Regardless of how you think of our past center backs, the position is and will always be a vital cog to the Liverpool football machine.

Credit: @karlthyer (IG)

Not every center back Klopp has utilized had supreme abilities of each pillar. Maybe there are only a few players who possess the utmost quality in each attribute (a certain Dutch defender comes to mind…). While you would want every player to play like Virgil Van Dijk, it is nearly impossible to excel at everything – this is what makes him so special. The majority of players have skills in one or two pillars while admitting weakness in one or more of the others. So, how did Klopp transform the position at Liverpool to align with his expectations? Let’s examine how he approaches each pillar for a center back in his system of play that we so love to watch.

Mental

We start off with the mental pillar. The mental pillar is often taken for granted, as it is difficult to quantify with statistics and analyze. We can only assume how deep the thought process is Klopp & Co put toward this pillar.

Mentality is a unique pillar. It is easy to understand and witness how the other pillars can develop with time – you can teach tactical or technical abilities and witness tangible results. Mental toughness, however, is not as overt. In order to earn their reputation as Mentality Giants, there was a meticulous nature of acquiring a squad with the mental capabilities required (hand-in-hand with a ruthless shedding of those players who did not live up to their expectations).

Klopp requires center backs to be constantly “clicked on” and extremely focused. This has to do with every aspect of being a professional and goes beyond the ninety minutes on the pitch in the famous red kit. A constant required focus must be displayed by each player in order to maintain good faith in Klopp’s eyes. Early in Klopp’s tenure, we saw the casualty of center back and former French International player, Mamadou Sakho. At the time, Sakho’s on-field performances were impressive, crucial to the accomplishments that Klopp’s early teams achieved. Sakho’s career became tarnished by a controversial verdict by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) over an allegedly banned substance. After his 30-day ban from playing, he never saw competitive minutes for Liverpool again. That summer, he was sent home from pre-season camp after turning up late to the team flight, as well as for a subsequent medical treatment session… and a team meal time. As a result, Sakho was demoted from the senior squad and only played with the reserves in the Professional Development League (PDL) that season. Despite Sakho paying his fine and perhaps even learning his lesson, it was clear that Klopp lost faith in his center back. At the time it seemed harsh to waste a player who had been involved in heroics like his late equalizer against Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League Quarterfinals. Defending the move, Klopp was quick to point out that Sakho’s nonchalant nature off the field led to lackadaisical errors on it. He had a point – this is something we have seen repeatedly in Sakho’s career at Crystal Palace.

Players who may have appeared less capable on first review have enjoyed unexpected success in Klopp’s teams, such as Ragner Klavan, and more recently Nathaniel Phillips. At essentially opposite sides of their careers, both joined the team as backups for more regularly-utilized players. Both spent extended periods largely sitting on the sidelines… if they made the bench at all. All of a sudden, they were called upon unexpectedly. As I mentioned before, Klopp requires his center backs to be switched on. So when these players get thrown into the fire, they are prepared. While neither will be remembered as the most elite defenders fielded by Klopp, they will be fondly remembered for performing superbly during periods of uncertainty at the back.

The mental pillar is one rich in the current Liverpool squad – in all positions. With center back being such a high-risk position (they are literally the last line of defense before the goalie), focus and determination are unequivocally important attributes. The players fielded in this position cannot approach decisions . While the other pillars of football are more easily analyzed and quantified, Klopp likely won’t bother looking at the other pillars unless the box is checked next to their mentality.

Physical

The physical pillar considers the natural attributes of the player to maintain proper fitness for what Klopp’s teams requires. A players speed, strength, and stamina, must be well-rounded in order to keep up with the current pace of the Premier League. And no team requires such levels of fitness quite like Liverpool. Liverpool’s Gegenpressing playing style requires specific physical traits from players in order for them to flourish in Klopp’s system. Liverpool’s central defenders require strength – both in the tackle and in the air, as a front-footed nature of the defending. Even more important is speed – for the recovery run back towards their own goal when an opponent slips by. This requires intense agility and pace that is not typical of traditional center backs.

Liverpool’s center back pairings of years past have almost always been strong and dominant. The aforementioned pairing of Carragher and Hyypia were always known for their dominance in the tackle. Of all the attributes both possessed, pace was not a strong point for either legend. Even in Klopp’s first few years at the club, players such as Martin Skrtel, Kolo Toure, and center-back-turned-auxiliary-forward Steven Caulker were on the team sheets, but they too were not known for their speed. In order to compete with the higher intensity but maintain defensive solidity, a distinct change what physical abilities were prioritized when recruiting new CB talent. Joe Gomez, a player with gifted pace, spent his first few seasons playing across the entire back line, before his emergence as a center back during Liverpool’s 2019/20 Championship season. Of course by then the Rolls-Royce-with-rockets-for-feet, Virgil Van Dijk, had been recruited to lead the line. Even Joel Matip’s addition saw another player on the team sheet who (when fit) had above-average recovery pace.

Klopp’s system requires his players to have superior pace to compliment the play going forward. If lines are broken, the center backs are responsible for sweeping up danger, whether over the top or through gaps. This persistent physical labor often adds up and can lead to injuries; something that we witnessed in unprecedented levels in the 2020/21 season. Looking forward to seasons to come, Klopp will require much of his players from the physical pillar, in order to maintain the high level of play that won us multiple trophies.

Tactical

Liverpool fans are often knowledgeable about the tactical aspects of their teams. It is often too easy for the casual fan to rhetorically ask why players “aren’t just doing this/that” while watching their television. Liverpool fans, on the other hand, recognize that professional players have an extremely detail-oriented focus on their approach to the game. Their tactics have been studied and practiced to the point where they know certain decisions in situations before the first ball is even kicked. There is a distinct style of play meticulously worked upon by the players and coaches in order to create the seemingly free-flowing play. Center backs work just as meticulously as the rest of the players, though it may be more difficult to see.

The positioning of center backs are not frequently focused on when the camera pans from one side of the field to the other. However, if you look closely, you will see that they are are constantly required to evaluate their location on the pitch. The subtle movements that lead to an opposition long ball finding the feet or heads of our center backs are not coincidental. Some may argue the ball was poor from the opposition, but if we focus on the transition of play we can notice Liverpool’s center backs reading the game and the probably outcomes of each situation. It could have been the accuracy of the opponent’s pass, or it could be the expertise of Virgil snuffing out a chance before it exists. Liverpool central defenders are expected to possess the ability to read the development of opposition passing and positioning, and then moving in a position that maximizes their ability to defend or intercept the ball and regain possession.

On the opposite side of play, astuteness in the tactical pillar can be seen from our central defenders in attack as well. Liverpool’s full-throttle style is instilled through the veins of all positions. Liverpool’s possession statistics tend to lean towards suffocation by football terms. A large reason behind this behavior is the positioning and implications that ball-playing center backs create for themselves and their team. Liverpool’s central defenders main purpose on the offensive side of the game is to create immediate transitions from possession-based play to purposeful placement of their passes. Routes forward can vary in our system, and may be out to a wide back, through the center of the pitch, or over the top of the opposition defense. Klopp demands tactical awareness from his defenders, whom often produce some of the highest-passing statistics in the Premier League. The attacking prowess we see (when all cylinders are firing) is a direct result of this.

Technical

The final pillar is the technical ability of a player; something that we have been blessed to see in countless players in Liverpool’s rich history. The technical skill of a player is usually clearly visible. It is the nuts and bolts of one’s overall football ability. From the graceful control of a keeper’s punt, to a line piercing pass, to a Matip-esque scurry down the center of a pitch, the nuances of the technical ability of a center back should not be taken for granted. As a newborn, the first thing babies do is grab at anything they can with their hands. Then they grow to pick items up and throw items. Maneuvering, controlling, and striking an object with your foot (and other parts of your body) is not something pre-defined by nature. These skills takes years and years of purposeful dedicated practice to hone and perfect.

Liverpool’s central defenders are supremely technical players. Long gone are the days where center backs were known for getting the ball back with hard tackles and booting it down the pitch, but not being able to do much more. There was a stigma that central defenders did not have a good ‘touch.’ Instead, the position had the reputation of being bodies on the pitch to simply getting in the way of the opposition, defending by any means necessary, with no other contribution on the pitch. This is not true about todays’ teams, especially at Liverpool. Klopp’s appreciation for this required skill set is obvious when you look at how players with less technical abilities on the ball have been weeded out of the lineup and, ultimately, the squad as a whole. This goes for center backs just as much, if not more than any other position in Klopp’s teams.

During the early years of Klopp’s tenure, I grew quite fond of watching Dejan Lovren whisk balls from the sky with his chest and controlled down to his foot. In retrospect, it seems to me as though it were an underrated part of his game, often overlooked due to his knack for the spectacular (and not in the good way). Ultimately, he ended up being a backup – yet reliable – player for Klopp. He was notably the sole center back survivor of the initial squad Klopp inherited when entering the job. This was likely due to Lovren’s technical astuteness. This is not to say he was the best technically – even in our own squad – but Lovren was clearly kept for Klopp’s Liverpool due to his technical ability, even when his pillars of mental or tactical abilities began to lag behind.

What’s Next?

As we continue to see the development of the current crop of players in their respective abilities, I cannot help but feel an overriding optimism for our central defenders in the near future. I feel as though any players that come into the squad will require the high level of the mental pillar before leaning on the walls of Kirkby. Physical and Tactical pillars are always being developed in the current crop of center defenders available as well. This, along with the technical abilities already achieved, will lead to a well-groomed group of men capable of being the center defenders for this famed club. As I finish writing this article, a certain Konate has since unveiled. While only making assumptions on what has been seen from his time at RB Leipzig, he fits right in Klopp’s mold of the position. Let’s look forward to the development of him, along with the rest of the defenders in this position.

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