The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Walker has a theory, in his book The Captain Class, that the truly dominant teams of sport all have one thing in common – their captain. World class stars, one-of-a-kind managers, and bags of money come and go, but in all of the truly Greatest Of All Time teams their period of dominance (he says) coincides with the presence of a particular captain’s time with the side.
Whether you believe that or not, captains are generally thought to be emblematic of their team, a representative in sporting achievement as well as spirit. John Terry is Mr Chelsea, and the defensive pragmatism of their twenty-first century successes matches up well with his image as a player.
The pendulum can swing both ways though. Chelsea started the 2016/17 season limping, struggling through games in what looked to be performances which were below their true powers. And Terry looked much the same.
Watching their first game of the season, at home against West Ham on the 15th of August, hindsight plays on the mind as Terry jogs across the screen. Is there anything there which would indicate why he would never fight his way into the side following his injury in September, relegated in the pecking order behind Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill?
Kinda, is the answer.
The move to the back 3 may have been what truly did for Terry. In his old-age, a veteran of back fours alone, it’s highly unlikely that he’d have been able to cut it as one of the wider centre-backs. The middle centre-back’s job is to mop up, but David Luiz was a natural fit into that role and, being a little younger and a little more physically adept at this, was better able to play a sweeper role than Terry.
As if to prove this, there was precisely one moment in the opener against West Ham where Terry needed to rush across to cover for Cahill. The ball was bouncing free down the left wing, Terry coming across from the middle at a similar distance away from the ball as the West Ham winger on the left flank. It was a scenario where you’d always bank on the defender getting there first.
If you’ve seen Captain America: Civil War, you’ll remember the scene where Captain America clings onto a helipad with one arm and a helicopter, trying to get away, with the other. He will not let the helicopter escape. He strains, the feat pushing himself beyond his superhuman abilities.
John Terry looked much the same rushing across to cover, only he was making up ground that you’d expect any normal centre-back to. Age makes mortals of us all.
But there was something else throughout the match which, with hindsight, took on the shadow of his impending spot on the bench.
A centre-back’s feet need to be light, they need to be ready. Footballers are occasionally put through ballet lessons for a reason, and Rio Ferdinand (for example) used to do ballet as a kid. Terry’s feet tell you that he’s old.
Throughout the match, his footwork was a little clunky – think video games where you’ve got a little bit of lag and the resolution isn’t as high as it could be. Feet were flat a little more than they should be, and there were distinct moments where he needed to force himself to bounce up from flatter feet to a lighter mode of moving.
This matters because bad footwork (or, at Premier League level, non-elite footwork to be more accurate) means a player takes longer to turn, longer to speed up to chase a loose ball, longer to flick out their leg for a tackle. Strikers get away or fouls are made, and balance issues are more likely.
Unfortunately, this is the time where experience of playing football at a high level would come in handy. I imagine that keeping footwork light for a full match is the kind of actually-quite-difficult thing which players start to lose as they get older. I imagine, though could be wrong, that it puts a little more strain on knees and other leg muscles and joints, having to keep them tense and ready. (If you work with pro-players then by all means let me know if I’m on the right track).
There wasn’t too much difficult defensive work for John Terry to do throughout the rest of the match. He won several decent headers against Andy Carroll, and that was one area where he still generally looked his dominant best.
Did the switch to the back 3 act as the final nail in Terry’s coffin as a starting player for Chelsea? Probably. Would he have been dropped eventually even if the side had stayed in a back 4? I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been, and – in terms of Terry as a footballer alone – that’s a sad thing to have to say.
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