In the early 1990s Arsenal had a couple of central defenders – Tony Adams and Steve Bould – who my father used to call ‘gaspipes’. I never really asked my dad to explain what he meant by that term, but always assumed it had something to do with their height and shape: tall and slim. Adams was 6′ 3″ , Bould an inch taller. Not surprisingly these two central defenders were key to Arsenal’s successes in that era, when the long ball was in vogue. If a high centre were to be launched into the Arsenal box you could bet your bottom dollar that one of the two would be on to it.
Let’s get back to modern day. Brede Hangeland of Fulham is 6′ 61/2″ tall – and that, together with his lean shape – would certainly place him in the ‘gaspipe’ category. Not surprisingly he dominates the air in the penalty boxes at each end of the field, very solid in defence, dangerous from corner kicks. His regular defensive partner, Aaron Hughes, is a mere 6’0″ tall. Per Mertesacker of Arsenal is the second tallest Premier League defender at 6′ 6″. Both of Stoke City’s uncompromising central defenders, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross are 6′ 3 “. The same stats apply to the Liverpool pairing of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. By and large Premier League teams typically have two central defenders well above 6 ft tall.
Latics have no gaspipes in their senior squad. According to the club website, of the central defenders who have played for Wigan this season: Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis are the tallest at 6’2”. Maynor Figueroa and Adrian Lopez are 6′ 0 “, Gary Caldwell and Emmerson Boyce are 5’11”. The two tallest players, Alcaraz and Ramis, have played together only twice, in the opening two games of the season.
When Roberto Martinez installed a trio of central defenders midway through last season he bolstered Latics’ aerial defences. All too often over these past years Wigan have been undone with a ‘soft’ headed goal from the opposition at a crucial time in the game. Phil Jagielka’s recent goal for Everton and Ryan Nelsen’s for QPR are two that most Premier League defences would have prevented. You can add to that Hoolahan’s goal for Norwich, although that was more down to the positioning of defenders than their ability to leap. Latics have lacked that type of tall, rugged centre back who can dominate the aerial defences.
One of the pioneers of recruiting big players in the old Football League was Jimmy Sirrel, a canny Scot who was a successful manager at Notts County for over a decade around the 70s. When asked on television why he recruited so many big players he said “If I have the choice between a good big ‘un and a good little ‘un, I go for the good big ‘un.” Larry Lloyd’s promotion winning side of 1981-82 was probably the physically biggest team Wigan had ever had. Both Lloyd and Colin Methven in central defence were around the 6’3″ mark. Add to them the 6’5″ centre forward Les Bradd (previously with Sirrel at Notts County), 6’2″ Graham Barrow and the other 6 footers – Joe Hinnegan, Kevin Langley, Peter Houghton – and you can see why they were well prepared to cope with the aerial and physical challenges of the old Division 4.
Roberto Martinez’ style of football is far from that of the old Notts County and Larry Lloyd’s Wigan team. The current Latics team is typified by its elegance of passing from defensive positions, more than by its physical and aerial power. The top tier of football in England has moved on from the times of the long-ball game, but there is still a need for strong aerial defence. This season injuries have prevented Wigan from fielding their first choice back three, the result being a lack of cohesion as players have had to be shuffled around. Although the lack of a towering central defender puts Wigan at some disadvantage, it is the lack of cohesion and defensive discipline that has cost them dearly. Too many penalties and soft goals have been given away. Having an established back three, who play well as a unit, is the key to success in the second half of the season.
Hopefully Antolin Alcaraz will soon return to fortify the centre of defence. Wigan’s best defensive performances have tended to coincide with his consistent presence in the starting lineup. One for the future is the young Catalan, Roman Golobart, who is 6’4″ and has strong physical presence. Providing he has the necessary pace to match he could become that towering central defender that the defence has been lacking.