When people talk about the art of defending, they tend to reference the great Italian men’s teams in the late 80s and early 90s, and in the women’s game, the great German teams of the early 2000s. This summer, many fans will tune in to watch teams from across the world compete at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and while goals are the name of the game in football, great defending should be celebrated as well.
The women’s game continues to evolve and with that will come all the growing pains that come with adjusting to better tactical awareness and even more skillful attackers. This summer will showcase some of the best defenders in the world who have consistently made their position look easy.
Becky Sauerbrunn – USA – Utah Royals FC
Becky Sauerbrunn may not be the fastest player on the pitch whenever she plays but once she has her placement, she comes into her tackle as quickly as the intro to the Marriage of Figaro and steps away with ball like the volleys the violins play throughout one of Mozart’s most highly regarded pieces. The Utah Royals FC captain’s tactical awareness, smoothness in transition and the ability to read an attacker’s intent before the attacker themselves can implement it make her one of the premier defenders in the world.
Sauerbrunn can also be relied on to be a steady, though quieter, leader of any team she lines up for. She manages an entire backline and ensures that if her teammates get exposed, she will be there to at least try and slow down the opponents without even giving away a foul. Sauerbrunn has won honours for both club and country, and as a key cog of the current defending World Cup champions, Sauerbrunn looks to add another accolade to her illustrious career.
Wendie Renard – France – Olympique Lyonnais
Olympique Lyonnais captain Wendie Renard is a colossus in the women’s game, not just in her stature, but also with the amount of trophies and titles she has earned in her club career. Multiple league and cup titles with OL leave her as one of the most highly-decorated players the game has ever seen and she will be looking to replicate that kind of success with France in a few weeks time.
For a player of her height, Renard moves like a player more suited in attack. Her capacity to put in well-timed challenges and then turn around quickly to help her team launch attacks make her a remarkable player to watch. She then adds on to this defensive nous with a passing ability that is as good as her compatriots, whether it be short or long range, and her smoothness on the ball make her the Rolls Royce of the women’s game. An example of just how good Renard has been over the course of the season can be seen in the lack of yellow cards she has accumulated. Over three competitions; the Division 1 Féminine, the Coup de France Féminine and the UEFA Women’s Champions League, Renard only got three yellow cards. That’s how good the veteran defender is when it comes to tackling, and when she goes up to attack, Renard is one of the more lethal finishers currently playing as a defender as she finished her 2018/2019 season with 14 goals.
Nilla Fischer – Sweden - Linköpings FC
Nilla Fischer has been an ever-present for Sweden and after this summer, will leave German champions VfL Wolfsburg for Linköpings FC. During her time on the world’s biggest stage, Fischer has been the heartbeat of every team she has played for. She plays with a toughness and intensity that keeps her teammates on their toes and lets the opposition know that she is watching their every move. Fischer’s ferocity and intelligence give her the ability to position those around her in the right places for her to best effect the game and it has led her to success time and time again.
Fischer does not have a burst of speed but she more than makes up for that with sure tackles, a propensity to be ready to put her body on the line, and a willingness to lead by example, no matter the occasion. During World Cup qualification, Fischer was adjudged to have committed eight fouls but only picked up two yellow cards. She may toe the line when it comes to how strongly she tackles but Fischer more often than not wins the ball off of her opponent. This has led the Swedish international to league titles in Sweden and Germany, as well as UEFA Women’s Champions League title.
The ability to remain fully engaged for over 90 minutes and not only keep goal-scorers away from your goal but also now start attacks, has made defending one the most crucial forms of play in the game. When teams are on the backfoot, the very best wait, monitor and then move decisively to regain possession with as little fouling as possible. On top of that, a full-blooded tackle can be just as gratifying to an observer as a well-taken goal. For years, those further forward have always received the attention and that will probably never change, but at this year’s World Cup, we should look to glorify those who have taken defending to another level.
With how easy it is to overlook the defenders in football, the various backlines of teams should be examined at every possible opportunity. The best teams in the world, past and present, have excellent defenders and as the saying goes, defense wins championships. If anyone wants to see how accurate that statement can be, look no further than the three mentioned players. With all of them over the age of 30, we don’t know how much longer we have to witness them perform at a high level so take a second and enjoy them now while they’re showcasing their abilities on the biggest possible stage.