For about the 12th time this season, Newcastle United look to looked relegation in the eyes, and gently ushered it in another direction. A goal from Pappis Cisse, later in the day than a Paul Scholes tackle, secured the points at the end of a performance that saw Sylvain Marveaux and Jonas Gutierrez take the plaudits for their displays.
But, as with all 1-0s, the praise tends to be better directed further back the field. Tim Krul made two important saves, Steven Taylor did his best impression of a Challenger tank being driven by an angry eight-year-old, but the outstanding candidate for a pat on the back and an affectionate ruffling of the hair was Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, making only his fifth start for the club.
Since joining from Montpellier in January, the 23-year-old has filled in at full-back and in midfield, but thanks to Fabricio Coloccini managing to knack himself attempting the Die Hard 5 of clearances, he's enjoyed a run at centre-back. Since then, he's demonstrated an ability to expertly read the game, make crucial interceptions, cover great distances in a flash, and bring the ball skilfully and purposefully out from the back.
Interestingly though, he doesn't do any of the things that we've come to associate with an imposing defender. In the air he's far from dominant; not once have I seen him go “touch-tight” with a forward; and as for those chest-beating blood and thunder challenges that we all secretly like to shake our fists in appreciation at? He hasn't made a single one of them.
Basically, he's the epitome of the modern centre-back.
Over the course of the last few years, nothing has changed in football quite as drastically as the art of defending. What players are required to do both on and off the ball is different now. New skill sets are required, and judging by the number of central defenders who have consistently excelled this season (I'm struggling to think of any other than Jan Vertonghen) they're in startlingly short supply.
A quick glance at the league's top scorers gives you a clue. Where once you saw goal poachers, target men, and on-the-shoulder types, there's now Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale. The former two began life as attacking midfielders and look most comfortable in the lines between midfield and defence, and the other is a winger who wanders infield to get a sight of goal. This is basically the norm now - far fewer long balls to bat away and fewer brutes to grapple with. At merely six feet tall, but blessed with the pace of of a Michael Bay movie, Yanga-Mbiwa's physical dominance comes in the form of mobility.
It's all well and good having the physique for the modern game, but defenders now have the added problem of not even knowing who to impose it upon. The popularisation of false nines and systems that employ entire divisions of attacking midfielders often means that those at the back aren't in direct competition with any specific player, but instead have a swarm of nippy goal threats buzzing around them. Charging out to one inevitably leaves holes for the others, but in his handful of appearances Yanga-Mbiwa has demonstrated keen positional sense and unflappable discipline. He shepherds some threats into safer areas, and seeks to break others up at opportune moments.
Which leads us nicely to how you're supposed to do that. Even when a defender does get a clear target firmly within their sights, the rules about how they're allowed to strip a player of possession have tightened in recent years. Leaving your feet is only OK on the condition that you're controlled, front-on, and have obtained written permission from the attacker's parents, making tackling something of a last resort. It's all about the interception now, and forcing players to attempt tougher passes. Whilst Yanga-Mbiwa's personal stats for winning the ball on Sunday weren't anything to shout about (only one interception and one tackle) the number of failed final passes on Fulham's part (they only created four chances) and the number of times they succeeded in going past a player (not once in the final third) shows that Newcastle were a fairly tough nut to crack.
Finally, it shouldn't be underestimated how important a “ball playing” defender is. Newcastle aren't Barcelona (they're not even Swansea) but Fabricio Coloccini has spent the last few seasons growing into one of the most technically gifted centre-backs in the Premier League. If he does swan off home for *remember to Google a cultural reference about Argentina for this bit – steaks, Evita, anything* then having a replacement who has so far managed 90%+ pass completion rates in both his home starts is very welcome.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa isn't what you're used to in a defender, but defending has evolved. He's still in the very earliest part of his career at his new club/country, but if there's anybody who looks equipped to be the poster boy for the new generation of streamlined, cerebral centre-backs, it's him.
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