John Terry’s 22-year playing career with Chelsea came to an end, in typically hubristic style. The ostentatious manner of his 26th-minute exit with accompanying guard of honour was not to everyone’s taste, but it was in keeping with a man happy to revel in the slogan of Captain – Leader – Legend.
It feels an appropriate time to look back on Terry’s career and assess whether he was as good a central defender as many – including himself – seemed to think.
Let’s start with his undoubted virtues: strong, commanding, brave and driven; an individual who looked after himself to allow such longevity; a peerless player at commanding his own penalty box aerially, and often opponents boxes too where he was a perpetual goalscoring threat.
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But there’s something about that banner and those celebrated Terry qualities that rankle. Captain, Leader and Legend represent quintessentially English values which are still unduly prized and conjure up all those fist pumping, vein throbbing and chest puffing stereotypes – where central defenders of stout yeoman spirit never flinch when it comes to putting their heads in where it hurts and would be good men to have alongside you in the trenches.
We can blame in part Terry Butcher and his bloodied national team performance in 1989 for the curious English fixation with traditional central defenders and war metaphors.
So John Terry is rated as a great central defender in England partly because he possesses the elements to his game and the personal qualities that are most prized for central defenders in England. But what if you have a preference for a central defender who could be known as Organiser – Anticipator – Distributor? Could John Terry have commanded that (admittedly much less catchy) moniker too?
Fortune favours the brave
The most underrated value a footballer can possess is luck; specifically to be fortunate in being the right player, at the right team and at the right time. By this measure John Terry’s long career is one blessed by tremendous good fortune. His personal trajectory dovetailed perfectly with the rise in Chelsea fortunes following the arrival of Roman Abramovich and the injection of hundreds of millions of pounds to strengthen the playing squad.
John Terry benefitted greatly from one particular virtue almost all of the managers he worked under took very seriously. Claudio Ranieri and Carlo Ancelotti were Italian and understood the basis of any good team comes with a solid and ruthlessly organised defence that is well protected by those playing in front of it. Mourinho and Scolari aren’t Italian but shared a similar pragmatic outlook.
Each understood Terry’s strengths and even more importantly his weaknesses too. To ensure his lack of pace was not exposed, none of them tried to push him up the pitch to play in a high back line. To compensate for his average touch and composure on the ball, Terry’s managers placed technically superior defenders like Gallas and Carvalho alongside him. To protect his limited mobility from being exposed by quick and direct runners from deep, Terry’s managers constructed a formidable shield in front of him with brilliant deep-lying midfielders like Makelele, Essien and Matic. Having world-class keepers like Cech and Courtois behind him made his job that bit easier, too.
So the net effect was that Terry’s weaknesses were cosseted and protected thus enabling him to focus exclusively on the virtues he does have that are beyond doubt.
Now in an ideal world every player like John Terry would be cleverly used so as his qualities appeared in their most flattering light, but we know that’s rarely the case. Imagine instead that John Terry had spent the past couple of decades playing under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, a manager for whom defenders and their drilling and organisation has rarely appeared to be an area of particular interest to him. How we might be assessing John Terry’s career now had he been forced into a Guardiola-aping high line with not a midfield ball-winner to be found ahead of him, nor reliable partner alongside him, nor confidence-inspiring keeper behind him?
The Villas-Boas interlude
We were of course granted a small window onto this seemingly imaginary scenario back in 2012 when André Villas-Boas briefly took charge of Chelsea. The Portuguese manager had an ideology he believed in implicitly, one which put the sort of technical demands on his defenders that Arsene Wenger routinely has imposed on his Arsenal charges.
The results were, predictably, disastrous and pushed some considerable distance out of his comfort zone, John Terry found the attempted transition of his role harder than any other player. Villas-Boas was sacked, Roberto Di Matteo was installed as his replacement and John Terry promptly returned to his traditional role.
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One further aspect of John Terry’s fortunate career timing worth mentioning lies with the changes in the game we have started to see just as the Chelsea captain has drifted to the fringes. Terry’s pomp came at a time when he played for a dominant team feared by opponents who invariably stuffed their team with defenders and midfielders in an attempt to play for a draw. The Chelsea skipper could collect the ball from his keeper safe in the knowledge he had time to pick a pass and find a teammate while under no great pressure from the opponent’s single striker.
Football’s brave new world is a different place with Klopp and Guardiola leading the charge towards an approach in which opposition defenders are mercilessly pressed and hounded as soon as the ball lands at their feet. It’s hard to imagine even the John Terry of 2007 coping with this dramatic technical and tactical shift. He’s probably lucky to be getting out of the big-time when he is.