The Brass Donkey

Sports and culture writing from overenthusiastic man-child Nicol Hay.
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December 7, 2011 5:44 am

The Rise of Soccer’s Offensive Tackle

No one really knew what Phil Jones was. We were aware that the boy Sir Alex Ferguson had stumped up a surprisingly large number of pounds for was a supposedly decent defender, but very few people seemed to have actually seen him defend, decently or otherwise. Perhaps this is because being a decent defender at Blackburn is like being a decent road-sweeper in Dundee – all the individual excellence in the world isn’t going to make that street or sheet any cleaner.

But then, Manchester United! And bit-by-bit, we came to realise that Phil Jones was indeed a decent centre-half, all youthful muscle and endeavour. Later on in the season, we had to get used to the idea that he was a decent right-back, all tireless running and joyfully accurate deep, lobbed passes. The waters were muddied, but despite the confusion we could shout to the heavens ‘This is Phil Jones! He is a decent defender!’ and be confident we were at the very least, not incorrect.

Until Anfield, where Decent Defender Phil Jones strode confidently over the touchline and into midfield, leaving the viewing public lost and afraid, pining for the positional certainties of yesteryear. Confusion reigned as, although Phil Jones was playing high up the pitch, he was still defending. As his powerful scampering proved decent enough against Liverpool, and then later surprisingly effective against Spain in England’s 1-0 burglary at Wembley, we saw that this deployment of Jones was part of a plan – he had moved into a modern position: the offensive tackle.

For all the bewilderment of the punditocracy – who could scare fathom a defender stepping in the final third without the dispensation of a corner, or the last ten minutes of a cup-tie where you desperately need a goal, so stick the big fella in the mixer – Jones wasn’t the first offensive tackle in football, or even in Manchester United shirt. Ferguson has deployed Park Ji-Sung in this role in countless big games over the last few years, asking the titanium-lunged Korean to buzz around in the faces of the continent’s finest wingers and deep-lying playmakers, forcing them to curtail their runs, give up the ball, and camp out in sight of their own goalkeepers, making life so much the easier for Rio Ferdinand and his gossamer-thin ligaments.

José Mourinho, ever the tactical innovator – as long as those innovations are designed to prevent any football being played on a football pitch – decided to take Ferguson’s model of an energetic midfield irritant and augment it with 16 stones of muscle and spite by sending his centre-back Pepe high into Real Madrid’s midfield during April 2011’s marathon series of clasicos. Having been humiliated 5-0 at Camp Nou five months earlier, Mourinho decided to stop Barcelona playing by having Pepe step on Xavi Hernández’s lungs every time he threatened to make a pass (something Xavi does once every six nanoseconds). The plan worked to an extent, with Real securing a scrappy 1-1 draw in the league, and an even scrappier 1-0 extra time victory in the Copa del Rey. They even managed to keep the first leg of the Champions League tie to an even scrappiest 0-0 up until Pepe was sent off for momentarily turning his attention away from Xavi’s lungs to the air surrounding Dani Alves’s ankle instead.

The advantage of using an offensive tackle is not only in disrupting the passing of your opponents, but also that it opens up space for your own deep midfielders to pick a pass and impose their own tempo on the game. What is apparent however, is that the offensive tackle is only effective in games against superior opponents – which is why Park Ji-Sung’s Man Utd career consists of a high proportion of games at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates, and relatively few home ties against Any Team Managed by Steve Bruce. If you’re playing against a midfield that is more than capable of disrupting its own passing movements, fielding an offensive tackle simply reduces your team’s attacking options; the offensive tackle is in effect an inverse-luxury player, a Bizarro Glen Hoddle.

Perhaps football’s next evolution will be to become more like rugby, with the muscled galoots up front fighting it out while the nimble artistes prance around behind them. Perhaps Wigan Athletic will poach four stout lads from the rugby league team and become a world power by launching precise long-balls over the wall of gristle to whichever former-SPL journeyman is masquerading as their striker that season.

And Phil Jones will have been a decent part of this process.