The Last Defender: Cynical fouls

Sarah Winterburn

I play a little game when I’m reporting on a match. The teamsheets usually come in squad number order – particularly the subs’ benches – and although it’s not a requirement, I like to put the bench in order from defensive to attacking players. The problem is that because I mostly report on the Championship and League One and see most away teams once or twice a year at most, I have no idea what position half their bench play. So I like to try and guess based solely on their names.

Sometimes it works. Forwards need to have the flashiest names – Fernando Torres, Raheem Sterling and Zlatan Ibrahimovic being prime examples – but midfielders’ names should either have an understated cool (like Adam Lallana or Yanick Bolasie), or have a name befitting the kind of guy who you could trust to run your stag do without venturing into PFM bantz involving lampposts, bicycle pumps and half a kilo of Honey Nut Cheerios. Darren Ambrose, Darren Anderton and Darren Fletcher all fit the bill here, so if you’re expecting a child – boy or girl – and want them to grow up be a dependable top-flight midfielder, your choice of name is sorted.

Goalkeepers should ideally have gently amusing, slightly eccentric names: Dean Gerken, Kasper Schmeichel and David Seaman work well for this. Defenders should have simple ‘manly’ names, like Neil Ruddock or Sol Campbell, and score extra points if their surname is also a first name, as with Tony Adams, John Terry or Gary Neville. Frankly, Trent Alexander-Arnold could have all the pace, positioning and eye for goal of a young Michael Owen, but as far as I’m concerned with his surname for a first name and two first names for a surname, he is doomed only ever to play at full-back. Jurgen Klopp seems to agree with me.

There are some glaring exceptions to this. Alan Shearer is the name of a plodding League One centre-back if ever there were one, and Cardiff centre-back Sol Bamba should obviously be a tricky winger. And then, of course, there is Claude Makelele, whose ability to sit deep and read the game was so superlative that he went completely the other way and had a whole bloody position named after him.

Thanks in part to Makelele we in England now have a greater appreciation of the purely defensive midfielder, but there’s still one aspect of their game that is either maligned or, worse, ignored altogether. You see, I have long maintained that apart from magically causing an injury crisis in the Liverpool squad the moment any of his managers has tried to sell him (which happens approximately every three weeks), the thing Lucas Leiva does best is commit cynical fouls.

When he was a regular in the Liverpool midfield, Lucas seemed to snuff out a promising counter-attack at least once per game with a judicious hack of the shins 45 yards from goal, before trotting away from the sound of the referee’s whistle without even looking at the yellow card he knew was coming. (This raises the existential question: if Mike Dean gives Lucas a no-look yellow card, and Lucas jogs off without looking at it, has anyone actually been booked?)

Yet despite this, Lucas has only been sent off twice in his ten years at Liverpool, the most recent of which was in 2010. That he does it so regularly and so brazenly but is punished so rarely is absolute mastery of a true craft. Winty tells me David Silva is also highly proficient at this particular dark art.

It is so patently cheating, and yet so obviously the smartest and most efficient thing to do, that it serves as the purest possible demonstration of partisan fans’ hypocrisy: they will scream bloody murder if it halts their side’s attack, but lambast their own defenders in exasperation if they play fair when they could have ‘taken one for the team’.

I’m inclined to agree with them: very little in football confounds me as much as a player scrupulously allowing a runner to pass them rather than risk trying to rob him of the ball in a harmless area, and almost nothing in the game pleases me as much as a well-deployed tactical foul. There’s obviously great joy to be gained from names like Faustino Asprilla, David Ginola or Cristiano Ronaldo, but I’ll take a robby fouler any day.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter