What You Don’t Know About: Being a Defender

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Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough to explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? This is “What You Don’t Know About,” where we ask athletes to explain their jobs without any cliches.

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Want to know the best way to figure out what a defender does? First, become a striker. Seriously. At least that’s the method that worked out best for me. Let’s call it a happy accident.

When I was 14, I played on the left wing for a Berlin youth team … Well, right up until our team showed up for a match in Sweden with our entire defensive line out with injuries.

“Okay, Jérôme, you’re playing defense,” my coach said.

Sure. Why not? I’d been playing offense since I was six years old, so it was like having the top-secret plans. The codes. I had infiltrated the mainframe. I knew where the strikers wanted to go, what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it, because I was one of them. That experience still serves as the foundation for my play as a defender today.

But for those who don’t have the secret codes, allow me to share with you what I’ve learned on the pitch.

You know the obvious: I have to stop the other team from scoring. But what exactly does that look like? It’s not just about being part of an actual wall front of the ball (even though that does happen, which we’ll get into). Rather every movement, every pass, every tackle, every clear, every time I cover man-to-man — everything I do on the field is a factor. Every decision is one small part of my team’s overall strategy to make sure the other team does not score.

It starts with talking to guys around me. Communication — it probably comes as no surprise — is crucial for our defense. Usually at Bayern we’ll play with three or four guys in the defensive line, and whatever the formation I play center back. This means I have to speak a lot to the guys next to me and to the midfielders in front of us about which direction we want to send the ball up. The vibe changes if I’m playing with the German national team. With the national team, I only see my teammates a handful of times every couple of months, so we need to talk more. I work every day with my guys at Bayern, so I know exactly what they’re going to do, or what they don’t do, what they like, where they run on offense and defense, and whether I should play them on the right or left foot. We’re just technically in sync on the pitch, so we don’t need to say too much to each other.

And our mission to prevent a goal never ends. As soon as we stop one attack it pretty much starts all over again. I’m the first one with the ball after our goalkeeper, so it’s my job to space out the other team and to open the game up. A big part of that is setting up our offense for a quick attack. So for me, whether I win the ball or get it from a teammate, I’m looking immediately for our striker. He’s the guy who is furthest up the field, and if I can get the ball to him, it will open up the field and start a counterattack. That can be a lot more difficult than it seems, because teams in the Bundesliga often play heavy on defense. Most times when I get the ball at my feet there are already eight or nine guys from the opposing team back up the field. So I’m trying to get off a perfectly timed and perfectly placed kick through a minefield. No big deal, right?

If I do make that connection, I hardly have time to rest, because once the ball goes through, I’m already thinking about the opposition’s counterattack. At our level there are a lot of touches and changes of possession, so even if our team is taking shots on goal you’re constantly getting ready for their strikers to come bearing down on you. And it won’t be long before they do, especially against teams like Barcelona and Madrid, who are, without a doubt, the toughest offenses we face. Each has a solid line of three strikers up front, and they all work together seamlessly.

So what do you do when a player like Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar is coming at you full speed?

You have to assess the tactical situation. Quickly.

Am I covered, with my other defenders on my back? If I have cover, I can risk going for the ball in a duel or tackle. But if I’m the last man on the line, I can’t risk a tackle. I need to do whatever I can to slow the ball down by using my positioning, hoping I can buy time for my teammates to track back.

With Ronaldo or Messi, whatever option you choose is difficult if they come at you with open space. They’re just so fast. Neymar and Messi are low to the ground and can turn quickly, so it’s difficult for defenders like me, who are tall centerbacks (I’m 6-foot-3). Ronaldo, he’s got the height, but he’s also got incredible speed, strength and a good header. You can’t be lazy or caught on your heels with those players, because they will win and they will score. They are just too good for you to make even a little mistake. More than speed or technique though, as a defender you need confidence. Ronaldo, Messi, Suárez, Neymar — they can all smell if you’re afraid to duel with them. One whiff and then they destroy you. So you gotta show up.

Confidence is a huge part of my job.

That’s the biggest growth in my game over time: I’m more confident, I’m more calm. I know when I have to tackle or duel or just try to slow down a break. When I was younger, if my team lost the ball I wanted to get it back as quickly as possible, and then I’d make stupid mistakes. That doesn’t work in the Champions League. The speed of the game is so quick that any stupid a mistake can cost you a goal.

And if we do give up a goal, this is my one rule: I can’t lose my mind. I can’t think, Oh, my God! Come, come! Quick, quick! We have to score a goal! There’s 90 minutes in a match. Even if the clock is at 80 minutes, you still have time and extra minutes to get it back.

Now let’s talk about everyone’s favorite part of my job — tackling.

Tackling all comes down to timing. Before I go in for a tackle, I have to be 100 percent sure I can get the ball. If I’m not, then I just stay close to the striker. It’s not worth the risk of getting a red card and setting my team back. Of course, the difficult part is you have all of two seconds before you have to decide. You start sprinting asking yourself, Are you gonna tackle? Are you sure? Or do you keep running and make time for other players to get back? But nothing feels better when we’re under pressure than when a tackle goes well and I can clear for my team.

In the World Cup matches against France and Brazil in 2014, I had a couple of good tackles, plus a few more in the final against Argentina. It was a huge step up from my debut with the German national team when I was 20 years old. I got both a yellow and a red card. I was nervous and eager to earn my place on the field and made poor plays.

Which brings me to another point: So much about being a defender is about what’s going on in your head, and that varies from player to player. Some guys may have a tweak, a small injury or aren’t 100 percent fit, and they are totally fine. But for me, I have to be completely focused. Like if my knee hurts, or even if there’s something going on in my own life off the pitch, then I know I’m not going to be fully there. Honestly, it’s like any other person who has a job and is sitting at their desk worrying about something else that might be going on. And that’s when things can fall apart: I make a bad tackle, I’m a little late to the ball. I’m not playing the best I can.

All of this so far has been about defending when the ball is rolling. But let’s talk about the other 50 percent of my job — set pieces.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the small group of defenders who line up before a free kick. Our faces probably look all twisted, preparing for one of the hardest kickers in the world to launch a ball directly at us. What’s going through my head? Take one for the team.

It’s a human reaction to want to turn away. One time in a match, the ball came straight at my face. I just turned a little bit to take the hit on my shoulder instead — and the referee called handball. (It wasn’t, by the way.) But you gotta learn to stand there and just take it. And it sucks, but there’s the other guys who are right out there with you.

Especially the goalkeeper. If you are defender, there’s probably no one more important to you than that guy. That free-kick line? He’s telling you how to form the wall. You can see him screaming on TV. The same goes for corner kicks. He’ll yell out instructions:

What’s going through my head? Take one for the team.

“Right!”
“Left!”
“Jump!”
“Don’t jump!”

He’s running things back there, and you better listen.

For us back there, set pieces are the most technical aspect of our game. For those, we’re always moving so we’re not too concentrated or leaving too much space between us. Then, when the ball comes, the nearest player jumps to it and tries to and clear it away.

With Madrid and Barcelona it can be pretty difficult to get a good clear (are you seeing a pattern here?). They’re quick on the ball and relentless. So if I’m in the box, I can’t just swat the ball away up the pitch. They’ll get it and keeping coming back and keep pressuring us.

Which is why clearing, like most things on defense, is another time where you need to assess the situation pretty quickly. You’ve seen defenders who kick the ball out, giving up another corner kick. You’re probably asking why we’d set up the other team again. The only answer I can give you is that it’s usually the lesser of two evils.

Obviously, the first thing I hope I can do is clear the ball up the field to my teammates. But sometimes the ball pops up, and you just need to get it out of there without taking the risk of handling it and turning it around right in front of your own goal. It may seem like a haphazard move, but there’s actually a lot of strategizing behind it. I’d rather take my chances with another corner than give a player like Messi or Neymar even one more second with the ball right in front of the net.

And when you’re on the pitch, seconds become luxuries. If I’m guarding a striker, I’m feeling where he is, trying to sense where he’s going. I try to be one second before him on the ball. Just one second is what I want against a guy. A second is my biggest weapon.

That, and my early days as a striker. I know what’s going on in their heads. When you watch them play often enough, you know their movements and think, O.K., most of the times he’s going to cut inside and try to shoot with his left foot.

It’s almost like poker. Every striker in the world has their signature move, their tell. But when you’re facing the really good ones, there’s no secret plans on how to stop them. What makes Ronaldo so difficult is he can shoot so brilliantly with both his right and left foot. You don’t know where he’s going most of the time.

That’s why, as good as I try to be at my job, I am thankful for the one guy who will always be behind me. My keeper.

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