What is the most important space on a soccer field?
Some suggest that it is the zone directly in front of the penalty area – referred to as 'Zone 14' – where the largest percentage of goal scoring opportunities originate. Others suggest that the penalty area is the most important, as it is where the largest percentage of goals are scored. Still others suggest that the midfield is the most crucial area of the pitch, as it is often where games are "won and lost".
I disagree with all three suggestions. For me, the most important space on a football pitch is the space between a player's ears.
For me, football is simply a game of decisions. The ability to make the correct decisions consistently is what is often referred to as a player's "football IQ" or "football intelligence". You will often hear analysts refer to a player having a good "football brain", which is simply a way of saying that a player consistently makes the correct decisions on a football pitch.
Does he pass the ball or does he dribble? If he passes the ball, whom does he pass it to? When he passes the ball, how hard does he pass it? Does he pass it to the left side or to the right side of the receiver? Does he pass it on the ground, or does he have to lift the ball in order to get it to its intended target?
Players make thousands of these decisions during a 90-minute game, yet the difference between glory and failure can often rest on just one or two. For defenders, the wrong decision often results in conceding a goal.
Consider Spain's humiliating 5-1 loss to the Netherlands.
Just one minute after Spain's David Villa had a one-on-one with Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen – which would have put Spain in front 2-0 just before the halftime break had Silva scored - the Netherlands scored a fabulous equalizing goal through Robin van Persie. The goal completely changed the course of the game, as the momentum heading into the break turned 180 degrees in favour of the Netherlands.
As wonderful as the goal was for the Netherlands, from Spain's perspective it was a defensive calamity.
When Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi passed the ball to wingback Daley Blind, the assessment of the situation from Spanish defender Sergio Ramos was that there was no imminent danger.
However, Ramos failed to correctly assess the situation because he got caught ball-watching. Ramos focused his attention on Blind, rather than on Robin van Persie's position in relation to the ball at Blind's feet. Had he seen van Persie's positioning on his back shoulder, Ramos would have realized that there was a genuine threat. Had Ramos then decided to run just three or four yards to get back into the correct defensive position, Blind would have opted to retain possession with a safer pass, rather than sending the ball forward for van Persie to attack.
The ball in behind Spain's back line from Blind was inch perfect, matched in quality only by the diving header from van Persie. The goal completely changed the course of the game, as the momentum swung in favour of the Netherlands – who went on to score four unanswered goals in the second half to pull off one of the results of the tournament.
Consider Italy's shocking 1-0 defeat at the hands of Costa Rica.
Usually one of the most consistent defensive teams at the international level, Italy was badly caught out for Bryan Ruiz's game-winning goal.
When Costa Rica's Júnior Díaz picked up the ball on the left flank and shaped to cross, Italy's Giorgio Chiellini (arguably one of the best defenders in the world) never spotted the run of Ruiz off his back shoulder. Why? Because Chiellini never took his eyes off the ball.
Yes, it was clever movement from Ruiz. But Chiellini's decision to focus solely on the ball, rather than on Ruiz's movement in relation to the ball, resulted in a devastating outcome for Italy. A tremendous cross from Diaz and a clinical finish from Ruiz was all Costa Rica needed to separate the two sides, clinching the minnow's passage to the knockout stage.
Consider Ecuador's winning goal in their 2-1 victory over Honduras.
One of the key principles of good defensive play is "see the ball, see the man". A good defender always puts himself in a position where he can see both the ball and the player he is marking. Generally speaking, this is a position that is ball-side and closer to the goal that is being defended than the attacker.
On Ecuador's free kick, Honduran defender Juan Carlos García committed the cardinal sin of turning his back on the ball when marking Ecuadorian striker Enner Valencia. Garcia had no idea that the ball had been kicked, as he was trying to wrestle with Valencia instead. This left Valencia the easy task of wriggling away from Garcia's clutches to head the ensuing cross into the back of the net.
While there have been some examples of very good defensive play at the World Cup – Iran, Greece and Costa Rica have all put on excellent defensive performances in various games – I have been surprised at how many individual defenders are making fundamental defensive mistakes.
As the game changes – fullbacks are now more coveted for their ability to get forward in attack than they are for their one on one defensive abilities – the characteristics of the next generation of defenders will also change. Speed, comfort on the ball and a wide passing range are all characteristics that the modern game seeks in its defenders.
But those characteristics should never come at the expense of situational and positional awareness, tackling, heading, organization and communication. The young players - like France's Raphael Varane and Uruguay's José Giménez – who can marry all of these traits together will go on to be the next "defensive artists" of the modern game.