This is the third in a series called Total Fútbol, a soccer take on George Will's Men at Work, which analyzed an expert at different positions in baseball. To translate it to soccer, SI has interviewed, in great detail, a goalkeeper (Manuel Neuer), defender (Vincent Kompany), midfielder (Xabi Alonso) and forward (Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez) in regards to how they go about their craft. This the game through Kompany's eyes.
This story first appeared in the June 15, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In soccer, the battle for a header is the subject of countless classic action photographs: muscles straining, arms stretched like flying buttresses, opposing players leap to engage in an age-old struggle. But Vincent Kompany, one of the world’s premier defenders, has a secret to share about those aerial duels.
“Some strikers in England know this, but in the rest of Europe most of them don’t,” he says. “On any longball, people try to outjump each other. I don’t mind a big jump, but to be honest, the only thing you have to do is fight for the spot where the ball is going to land. If you own that zone, it’s going on your head, and you don’t even need to jump.”
Kompany, the 30-year-old captain of Belgium and Manchester City, knows so many tricks of the trade by now that he could write a book called Center Back Confidential. Over an hour-long session in Man City’s video theater, complete with stadium seating, the 6' 4", 187-pound Kompany analyzes topics large and small.
How do you slow down a quick striker?
“If he’s trying to [show for the ball] and then go deep, just let him run into you,” he says. “It takes a lot of energy out of his legs, he gets frustrated and the referee usually doesn’t give a foul for that.”
What if that forward shakes free and tries moving past you?
Simple: “Run in his path when he’s going deep.”
And if the opposing team has the ball out wide, how do you decide how tightly to mark a forward in the penalty box?
This, Kompany says, is one of the basics that many defenders get wrong. Begin by assessing how your teammate is marking the wide man.
“When there’s pressure on the ball, you can go man-to-man on your striker; you’ve got the advantage because the ball pressure means it’ll be a difficult pass to play,” Kompany says. “When there’s no pressure on the ball, the striker has the advantage because he can choose to make a run and the ball is going to come. So: Give a bit of space when there’s no pressure on the ball; close the space when there’s pressure on the ball.”
The belief among soccer cognoscenti is that the sport has fewer world-class central defenders than it used to, and Kompany, who is out for Euro 2016 with a thigh injury, thinks he knows why.
“Even from 10 years ago,” he says, “being a good defender has changed completely. You used to be able to sit back, see the game and just deal with your man. Usually you had support from all over the pitch. But football has evolved. It’s more dynamic. Fullbacks [i.e., outside backs] go all the way [upfield] and turn into wingers. Strikers are quicker, they aren’t naive, and so many players can put in a last pass. To be comfortable in all those new things is a very difficult task.”
What’s more, today’s center backs are expected to be more skillful on the ball; with the increasing use of a high defensive line, closer to midfield, they need to start the attack from a more advanced position than ever. At the same time, forwards are pressing them more tightly in an effort to win the ball in a dangerous position. For Kompany, who grew up modeling his game on another graceful defender with ball skills, France’s Marcel Desailly, modern soccer requires that you study not just the attacking tendencies of opposing forwards but also those forwards’ defensive proclivities.
Take Luis Suárez of Barcelona and Uruguay, the most lethal center forward today. To Kompany, Suárez is like one of Pamplona’s running bulls: a powerful threat whose cleverness should not be overlooked.
“When you’re [carrying] the ball and facing your own goal, he’s always looking for your blind side, and it’s really difficult to turn not knowing where he is,” says Kompany. “He’s an aggressive striker who’s going to try to nick the ball off you. With other strikers you can actually try something [offensively] because they just pretend to press you.”
Kompany could go on like this for hours.
Someday, if he wishes, he will make a dynamite coach or television analyst in one of the five languages he speaks. (He's a studio analyst for ESPN and the BBC this summer.) But for now he’s a defender, and to succeed as one, he argues, you have to possess two qualities: the knowledge of how to defend correctly, and the technical and physical abilities to execute that knowledge on the field. Many defenders, he says, have one but not the other.
“I know exactly how to do it,” he says, “but in a game of 90 minutes, when you’re tired and you’ve played your third game of the week? Mistakes happen. I know I know the right things—but executing them? Eighty percent of the time.”
He lets out a belly laugh.
“It depends on the striker you’re marking too.”
The best advice that Kompany ever received was also the worst advice. When he was a youth player in Belgium, he says, one of his coaches told him, “You’re a big defender; stick to what you’re good at.” In essence, his coaches didn’t expect him to become technically gifted on the ball.
“And that just did it for me,” says Kompany, snapping his fingers. “[I wanted] people to be surprised to see my skills. I was obsessed by it, and I kept working until they said, ‘Vince is really good when he plays from the back!’ They used the words elegant and flair.”
Kompany developed at the Belgian club Anderlecht, where the youth system was modeled on Ajax’s famed academy. Here the emphasis was on producing ball-playing defenders, and Kompany’s obsession with passing and technical skills paid off. Those youth teams almost never played in the air.
“It’s funny, one of the strongest parts of my game today is heading,” Kompany says, “and that only really developed when I started playing at the professional level. In the youth teams all we did was passing.”
The ability to deliver the right pass—short to the side or a diagonal arrow upfield on a dime—is a fundamental skill for the modern center back. Man City has put together clips and divided them into four categories: Distribution, Aerial Duels, Proactive Defending and Goals. In the Distribution footage Kompany regularly completes lengthy passes with just the right weight, direction and distance—the kind that would make Aaron Rodgers proud.
“The biggest pass for a defender is a pass forward,” Kompany says as the video shows him unspooling a ball from the back, over the midfield, to forward Wilfried Bony. “You can actually take out three or four players at a time. But you have to be really careful. If I’m a defender, that’s the ball I’m trying to intercept. When I was younger, I would just try to [make long passes] all the time. Now I’ll [mix in] a side pass every now and then.”
In the Proactive Defending section Kompany repeatedly steps in to intercept passes with an anticipation that borders on eerie. He almost never struggles with his man in picking off the ball—the word he likes to use here is “tidy.”
On defending an opposing striker, he says, “Anticipate. Read his body language. Marking someone is actually just guessing where he’s going. When a quick striker [comes back to the ball], you know he actually wants to go long. When a big striker comes short, he wants to hold the ball and bring someone else into play. You don’t want to be stuck to that guy because he’ll turn you. What he doesn’t want is that little bit of space where he can’t feel you but you can still”—here he claps—“get in and out.”
What becomes clear is that defending is rarely about a single player. Is there pressure on the ball? Is your center back partner close enough? Does he know you’re providing cover for him? Is your back line connected and moving together? “People overestimate the importance of actually being good [individually],” says Kompany. “The most important thing is to be a good defensive unit. I’m 60% better if the guys next to me have an understanding.”
The deployment of those defenders also comes into play. As Kompany notes, Belgium takes a more conservative approach, using traditional center backs at the fullback positions and rarely asking them to join the attack.
Man City, on the other hand, wants its fullbacks to maraud forward constantly, more often leaving defenders in one-on-one situations when things come back their way.
Man City, moreover, plays a high defensive line—the highest in England, Kompany estimates—in an effort to suffocate opponents with pressure. Kompany expects that strategy will only intensify with the arrival this summer of new manager Pep Guardiola from Bayern Munich.
As a center back, Kompany tends to stay at home, but there are occasions when he moves up in front of the opposing goal. If City is desperate, he’ll become another forward, as he did on the famous stoppage-time goal by Sergio (Kun) Agüero in 2012 that clinched the Premier League title for City on the final day of the season.
“I believe to this day that my dummy run made the space for Kun,” Kompany jokes. (Look at the video, he’s not wrong.)
More commonly, though, Kompany creeps up into the opponent’s box just for the scoring opportunities presented by corners and free kicks—soccer’s answer to Greco-Roman wrestling.
On the video screen, in a Premier League clip from 2013, Kompany is being marked on a corner kick by notorious Liverpool shirt-puller Martin Škrtel.
“I usually have the biggest guy from the other team hanging on my shoulders,” Kompany says of the 6' 3" Slovakian.
Stationed 10 yards from the goal, Kompany plants his right elbow on the chest of Škrtel, whose left hand is grabbing so much of Kompany’s jersey that half of the Belgian’s back is exposed. They dance together in an awkward minuet toward the edge of the six-yard box, where Kompany ultimately beats Škrtel to the spot and—just as Kompany described—barely needs to jump before nodding David Silva’s corner kick into the net. The recoil puts Kompany on his back, but he leaps up to celebrate with his teammates.
Kompany says Škrtel is hardly the only excessive grappler in England. In fact, he adds, the Premier League “has a lot less than other leagues. If you play against Italian teams, you feel like the rules have been changed, like they do anything they want. In England it’s usually a fair battle.”
Kompany’s 28 career goals for club and country have allowed him, on occasion, to pop up in TV highlights in a positive way, but largely the task of defending is a thankless one: Center backs typically get attention only when things go wrong.
“If someone just watches the highlights, they probably won’t have a lot of respect for defenders,” says Kompany, “but if they watch the whole game, they will respect what you do.”