wrong side XI: center back

this is part VI in the “wrong side XI” series, where i’ll be selecting my very own starting eleven, assuming of course that i could choose any player from any team in the world. you can read the rules i’ll be following to make my team selection, and what formation i’ll be squeezing them into, on the first post in the series.

gerard pique, ledley king, neven subotic, nemanja vidic, and giorgio chiellini
one of these big men will anchor my defensive line.

After what’s seemed like about ten years, I figured it might be worth getting back to making my picks for my wrong side of the pond XI. It’s been at least a month since my last post in this series, which didn’t seem that horrible until I remembered that I was trying to make this a weekly ritual. So it’s without saying that it’s time to get back on track… no promises of increased frequency quite yet though.

Diving in to the task at hand, let’s pick back up by selecting the last of the defenders in my starting line up: the other centerback. Unlike his libero counterpart from the last post, this centerback tends to be the defensive linchpin of his side. Rarely straying from his back line, he’s the rock on which the rest of the team is built. In most cases, he’s like a general that leads by example.

And it’s those qualities that make this pick such an important one. A player without the adequate skill, intelligence, conviction or personality can cause the rest of the team to crumble around him, like removing a keystone from an arch. Witness Arsenal, a side rich with attacking talent, but unable to scale the highest heights because they lack the strong presence in the heart of defense. Conversely, part of the reason that Manchester United and Chelsea have had such success over the half decade is due to the strong leadership that comes from their primary centerback (Rio and Terry respectively). It’s hardly surprising to see this player wearing the armband for most sides.

So who’s the man I chose to lead my team from the back? Read on…

neven subotic of borussia dortmund
subotic, much like rossi, fell right through the usmnt's hands.

5. Neven Subotić (Borussia Dortmund)
Serbia international (24 caps)

I was partially lying in my first post when I said that only one American would make any of my shortlists for this squad, but that was only because I hadn’t yet picked my five player shortlist for every position at that point. Subotić, born to Serbian and Bosnian parents, spent a good chunk of his life here in the States and playing in our youth national team set up. But in a tale that sounds worryingly similar to Giuseppe Rossi choosing to play for Italy, Neven chose to represent Serbia after being skipped over for the U-20 World Cup. And just like Rossi’s stomach punch to American fans, Subotić has developed into a truly world-class talent.

Physically, he’s a brute at 6’4″ and 195 pounds. But he’s still technically gifted and smooth on the ball. His defensive qualities are one of the main reasons that Dortmund only conceded 0.65 goals per game this past season (a European best). It’s also possible that the player’s development could have been spurred along by playing alongside international teammate Nemanja Vidić. Considering how impressive three years in Germany have been, many are questioning whether the 22-year-old will still be playing with the German champions again next season.

tottenham's ledley king
if king could stay healthy, i'd be willing to bump him up this list.

4. Ledley King (Tottenham Hotspur)
England international (21 caps)
Premier League Player of the month (April, 2004) 

Since he’s normally out injured or hampered by chronic and debilitating knee degradation, I will forgive you if this pick has you scratching your head. But mark my words, if Ledley had been gifted a pair of healthy knees instead of the rusty joints that the gods have handicapped him with, we would be talking about the Englishman being one of the greatest defenders of his generation.

Just look at the difference in Tottenham’s play when he’s on the pitch. Without him, Spurs tend to leak goals and like a sieve, and let opposition attackers wander about at will. With him, they’re much more calm, organized and efficient at the back. Aside from his ailing knees, King is a physical freak. He’s strong in the tackle, massive in aerial play, and an absolute genius at cutting off passing lanes. Thierry Henry even once credited him as being the only defender in England that could stop him without fouling. The fact that he can perform at a world-class level despite not being able to participate in on-pitch training during the week should say enough about King’s capabilities.

Alas, I don’t need to pick a center back that has only made 54 appearances over the last 4 seasons. Hypocritical of me, isn’t it?

juventus defender girgio chiellini
chiellini was sculpted into a defensive beast by fabio capello.

3. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Italy international (42 caps)
Serie A Defender of the Year (2008-2010)

It’s befuddling that I was able to make it through four defensive positions before naming a single Italian to any of my squad shortlists. It’s a sin hardly imaginable when you consider the country is the spiritual home of catenaccio (“defensive”) football. Chiellini earns that privilege as he’s the preeminent Italian defenders at the moment, the likely first name on to the teamsheet for both club and country.

Such is the importance of the big Italian in the Juventus’ squad that when he went down injured towards the end of last season, the Old Lady of Italy droped 21 of the final 33 points available, which was a slip that also saw them fall completely out of the Italian European places.

So why do I rate him so highly? His positional play is outstanding, as is typical of his heritage. Physically, Chellini’s more than capable of handling big men like Milan’s Ibrahimović and Cavani of Napoli. Yet despite three straight Serie A defender of the year trophies back up my decision to consider Chiellini, his lack of titles is still slightly concerning to me.

barcelona's gerard pique
it would be foolish to exclude shakira's boyfriend from this list.

2. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
Spain international (33 caps)
UEFA Team of the Year (2010), FIFA World XI (2010)

It wasn’t long ago that Pique was nothing more than yet another Manchester United cast off, sold back to his old club at a fraction of the cost for which he was purchased. Flash forward four years, and you could say things are slightly different. Now he’s a World Cup champion, grown a weird — yet improbably cool — beard, collected two Champions League winners medals, and started dating international pop music super star Shakira. An epic turnaround, to say the least.

Pretending you know nothing about Barcelona, Pique’s daunting frame would probably lead you to believe that he’s a lumbering, bumbling idiot. But instead, you get a huge guy who’s nimble with an extremely delicate touch. And as the more fluid of Barça’s centerback pairing, Pique is well versed in tiki-taka and easily links into the attack. However, he also has the adept ability to direct and organize a squad defensively, as is evident by Barcelona’s punishing pressing.

And though it’s these qualities that make him an easy choice for my squad, I’m not picking him just so he doesn’t bleed all over me.

nemanja vidic of manchester united
could i have really picked anyone other than vidic?

1. Nemanja Vidić (Manchester United)
Serbia international (54 caps)
Serbian Player of the Year (2005, ’08), PFA Team of the Year (’06-’07, ’07-’08, ’08-’09, ’10-’11), Premier League Player of the Year (’08-’09, ’10-’11), FIFA World XI (’08-’09) 

Honestly, there really only one man that could beat Pique to the job of anchoring my backline, and it’s the big Serb in Manchester. Over the last few years, Vidić has proven to be one of the most consistently high performing players not only in his position, but also in the world. Being vice-captain of United, even with longer serving players such as Rooney in the squad, is also indicative of his growing influence both on and off the pitch. If that’s not enough to convince you, maybe being regularly named in the shortlists for the Premier Leaguels player of the year awards will.

On the pitch, Vidić is — simply put — a beast. He can handle nearly any type of defender you throw at him, big or small, fast or strong, tricky or tactical. Positionally, he’s the one of the best, meaning he rarely needs to leave his feet to halt attacks (a trait he’s picked up very well from Rio). He’s nearly unbeatable in the air, and that includes at the offensive end of the pitch, too. Rarely will he make mistakes in distribution, and he’s finally getting a hold of his temper, too.

Honestly, what really put Nemaja head and shoulders above his competition is his manager’s resolve not to sell him. The Serbian international has long been the subject of transfer speculation linking him to Madrid and elsewhere, and has a wife that would likely murder to leave the gloomy British northwest. Yet Fergie knows that Vidić is an absolutely essential piece of his squad right now, and he was able to convince him as much… at least until I steal him for this squad, right?!

Well, the back four is finally set: Bale, Luiz, Vidić and Alves. There’s no doubt that it’s an offensively-oriented backline (maybe even too offensively oriented), but I feel safer with a general like Vidić commanding the troops. And if Luiz and Bale can mature and hone their defensive skills, this quartet could be a sight to behold. To see how I chose to fill out the rest of that line, check out the links below:

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