Lisandro Martinez will be one of the smallest centre-backs in the Premier League when he joins Manchester United. Their lack of size didn’t stop some of these guys from being among the best of all time.
One of the tallest to ever make it as a center back was a mother who stood at 5ft 9in. He was neither strong nor particularly fast. But so rarely has he ever skipped, been muscular or faster.
Baresi, the defender whom the great Paolo Maldini considered “an example, a reference”, spent his entire 20-year career at AC Milan and was at least a step ahead of his opponents. The former Milan and Italy crossed through games, as David Platt had seen – and smelled – for himself.
“I swapped shirts with an opponent after every game,” said the former Bari and Juventus Platt midfielder of his time in Italy. “Everyone stank of sweat – except Franco Baresi’s. It smelled like Aramis!”
Nobody wears Baresi’s shirt these days. At the end of his career, which saw him make 719 appearances for Milan and 81 for Italy, the Rossoneri retired the No.6.
“He doesn’t look small with all that hair,” wrote Martin Keown of 5ft 10 in Puyol in 2010. “In fact, he may be the perfect size.”
Keown attributed Puyol’s success against taller forwards to his exquisite timing. If you get off the deck first, “you win the ball because the attacker has nowhere to jump but into you.” Leaping forward also allows defenders to loop their arm over their opponent’s shoulder, effectively pinning them down. Puyol was excellent at that.
The former Barcelona captain was one of the game’s great leaders. Not only did he have his own job to worry about, he talked to Gerard Pique about most of his job. Puyol was never the most sophisticated passer, but Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola recognized that even the best teams need great defenders.
And he could have belonged to Manchester United. Barca were ready to sell Puyol in 2003 when the then 25-year-old said: “Playing in a league like England and for United must be great and a unique opportunity for every player. I know some people who would even pay for the opportunity.
“I’m honored just to be associated with United. To have a coach of Ferguson rank praising you is something to be proud of.”
The Argentina star didn’t let his lack of height or his role as a midfielder stop him from being one hell of a defender.
Mascherano was only supposed to be a centre-back when Barcelona needed cover for Puyol and Eric Abidal in 2011. Guardiola first tried Sergio Busquets but it didn’t work. So Mascherano was relegated – and stayed there for the next six seasons.
The former Liverpool star had played in defense at Anfield but at right-back. And in any case, in his words, being a central defender in the Barca teams Mascherano played in “wasn’t like being a central defender for any other team”.
he explained the guard: “The areas you inhibit are very similar to what I would inhibit in midfield. Where we press, Busquets and I are often practically in the same line. If I have to defend myself in my area all the time, then of course I will suffer because of my physical shape, but we won’t.”
His 5ft 9in height didn’t stop Cannavaro from winning the Ballon d’Or. In fact, he is one of only three defenders to win the Ballon d’Or after guiding Italy to the world title in 2006. One of them was Franz Beckenbauer. who was the other
Cannavaro did not start as a defender. He was a midfielder when he joined Napoli’s youth department until one of his coaches had the foresight to push him to the back row despite being smaller than most.
The former Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan and Juventus star attributes his success and longevity to one key trait.
“The one ingredient you need? It’s not height or speed or even ball skills. You have to have faith,” he wrote The Players’ Stand. “As a defender you can be of many shapes and sizes. They can be short and quick. Or you can be big and jump high. It does not matter. The only requirement is that you are confident on the pitch.”
Johnny Nic: Everyone salutes Fabio Cannavaro, too short and handsome to be THAT good
Football has changed since Wright’s days, but even then, the first footballer to earn 100 caps was considered a small centre-back.
Wright, who patrolled 20 years in the Wolves’ Defense between 1939 and 1959 – 13 of them in the English Defense – was almost written off as a youngster when he was declared “too small” by Major Frank Buckley during a trial. Luckily for Wright, and even more so for Wolves, the major changed his mind.
Wright spent his entire career at Molineux, during which time he was never cautioned or sent off. Admittedly, in those days you almost had to draw a pistol on an opponent to be sent into an early dip, but Wright was something of a pioneer as a ball-playing centre-back who could pass as well as tackle.
The Ironbridge Rocket also flew fantastically, contest its tiny size. It was his leap that took him from a winger to a centre-back. He went on to win three First Division titles, the FA Cup and captained England 90 times – a record he shares with Bobby Moore.
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