One Man, One Game: Paolo Maldini (vs Brazil, 1994 World Cup Final)

If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot you can tell about a player from a single game of football (crucially, if you know what you’re looking for, you also know what you *haven’t* learned about a player from a single game as well). In the hopefully regular ‘One man, One game’ feature, I do just that.

It is said that if a defender comes off the pitch with dirty shorts, then they’ve not done their job well enough. Paolo Maldini himself once (according to legend, at least) said that ‘If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake’. Building, or bastardised, from this is the mythos surrounding Maldini and his supposed lack of tackles made.

It is worth noting that in some places in Europe, ‘tackle’ means slide tackling alone. Even so, Maldini – a young 26-years-old on the day of this World Cup Final – clearly had a bad game by his own words, because he made four or so things which could reasonably be called slide tackles. But merely pointing that out isn’t actual analysis (and it should be said that blindly deeming slide tackles ‘bad’ is, in itself, bad anyway).

Maldini started the game at centre-back, though moved to left-back late on in the first half when Luigi Apollino came on for Roberto Mussi. And though I joked about him having a bad game because of the amount of slide tackles he made, Maldini genuinely didn’t look comfortable at times.

This wasn’t because Brazil were overwhelming the Italy back-line though, despite Brazil’s amount of possession – the Brazilians struggled to break through Italy’s forward and midfield lines for long spells of the match.

Oddly, for a player whose legend relies so much upon his positioning skill, Maldini’s positioning was awry at times in the game. Romario got a free header relatively early on when Maldini chose not to move forward a step or two and stick tight to him. About twenty minutes later he was slow stepping up and played two Brazil forwards onside, almost leading to a dangerous chance developing (the Italy backline had problems a few times during the game, and it seems like, contrary to occasional popular belief, defending has improved since the olden days).

In the second half, while he was at left-back there were a couple of times while Italy’s back-line was backing off when he left too great a gap between him and the left-sided centre-back, allowing a Brazilian forward good space between them. He was fortunate that none of these developed into anything serious.

Maldini-positioning-LB

It wasn’t just at left-back that positioning in transition was a problem. At centre-back in the first half, backing off as Brazil broke, he arguably should have altered his positioning slightly and moved backwards a yard as a forward pulled off his back, in order to better cut off passing options. What was less arguable, was that he should have done better in this scenario:

Maldini-positioning-and-reach.gif

This example is as much about ‘body positioning’ (think maneuvering one of those wooden artist dolls) as it is ‘positioning’ on the football pitch in two dimensions (x and y). He’s possibly a smidgeon too far to his left, giving the Brazil forward a lane to turn into space, rather than turning into him. More importantly is that his momentum is still moving forwards as the opponent is already starting to turn past him, and his body is slightly square, making it a little more difficult to turn quickly.

Maldini, though, (because he’s Maldini after all) is able to turn and stretch to hook the ball away, and he’s a little unlucky that his tackle goes straight into the path of the opponent again. There was a similar ‘body positioning’ issue in the second half when he was playing at left-back, when he was too square facing the man on the ball, meaning it took him valuable time in turning to chase a pass made down the line.

However, the ability to reach and time a tackle, shown in the previous gif, was an aspect of Maldini’s game evident throughout the match. On this game’s showing, it was possibly his most major talent. 

Maldini-pace-and-slide.gif

While some of these tackles may have come from moments where his initial actions were less than ideal (like the first gif), some were just situations he found himself in (like the above). While one would rather have a defender who doesn’t get themselves into situations where a lunging slide tackle is necessary, sometimes it just happens, and if it does happen it’s better to be able to deal with it than not. Those who fawn over Maldini’s attractiveness (I see your tweets; personally, meh) will surely enjoy spending time thinking over the benefits of those long, tanned, muscular legs of his.

I’m aware that this article is starting to get as long as those legs, so I’ll speed along through the final points.

He was pretty decent on the ball. Not perfect – there were a couple of aimless forward passes and one particularly iffy pass under pressure – but he was comfortable and put in a couple of pretty nice passes too.

Next. There were a couple of instances where he rushed up to try and tackle someone which were ill-judged, the two most notable being one where he stepped into midfield and took two bites of the cherry, failing (unsurprisingly given the circumstances) both times. The other was when he harrying a Brazilian player in Brazil’s defensive corner (following an Italy set piece). With the Brazil player boxed in with nowhere to go, he – for some reason – tried to get around the player and nick the ball away, but only succeeded in being rolled and giving away a foul.

Obviously, you wouldn’t judge a player based on one game alone, no matter how closely you were watching them. That is an unspoken disclaimer throughout every One Man, One Game. But based on this, what parts of this Final are likely to have been part of Maldini’s overall game?

His timing and reach in tackling was too consistent to be a one-off. His decision on which tackles to go for may not always have been great, although I think that most of his over-eagerness came when the opponent had the ball in some space. He was 26 here, so it’s not exactly like he was young, but seeing as he played until he was 40 I’m sure he calmed down as he went on, and in more compact defensive situations it seems likely that he’d make fewer of these errors.

The positioning is an interesting one. He was a bit slow getting back to position when he’d stepped up the pitch at times, so maybe there was a bit of laxness in defensive mentality. With the benefit of hindsight you can say that one would never have the career of Maldini as a defender without a good defensive mentality, so hey, maybe this was a one-off match, maybe he got better with age. People do often say that players’ understanding of the game improves with age, and their peak years are the perfect combination of physical capabilities and intellectual understanding, and Maldini kept his physical capabilities high until his late 30s.

What I’d say from this, and from recent tweets about Maldini’s tackling stats (although that sparks the cultural understanding of the word debate again), is that I would hazard a guess that Maldini caught peoples’ eyes because he had all-action tendencies.

People watch football and when they watch football they watch *the football*, so it’s natural that that’s when defenders get noticed on the public stage. There were glimpses – though Brazil didn’t force these traits into action much – of some decent awareness and footwork in Maldini’s defending in this game. Those will be traits that the coaches and players value, and which people – once they notice Maldini ­– will appreciate too.

So yeah, that’s Maldini, analysed the ETNAR way. Several of the sentences you’ve just read felt like blasphemy to write, but it’s how I’d have judged anyone else.

***

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