To change the way a footballing position is perceived, you need tactical intelligence to interpret a new role and technical ability to execute its demands. Step forward Bayern Munich and Germany star Jerome Boateng.
Traditional schools of defending glorified a player for exactly that: defending. Think back to Bobby Moore’s tackle on Pele at the 1970 FIFA World Cup, or the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini or, more recently, Carles Puyol. There have been some notable exceptions: Franz Beckenbauer practically invented the attacking sweeper role, and Frank de Boer was a centre-back with a more accurate left foot than many of his attacking team-mates.
Yet few have incorporated so many different attributes, both in a defensive and attacking sense, into the role of centre-back than Boateng. As adept at keeping the ball out of his net as he is at beginning attacks at the other end, he has been called the quarterback of the soccer field, and it is a fitting description indeed.
First, picture the role of the quarterback on an American football field. He has an overview of the field when the ball is hiked; he receives it under pressure and must stay calm, evaluate his options and play a short or long pass to retain possession and gain territory, or he can run with the ball himself; and he must know and co-ordinate all of his team’s offensive plays.
Every one of those duties can be applied to how Boateng is used in an attacking sense for club and country. He is one of the world’s best when it comes to Spielaufbau – playing out from the back and launching attacks – and his accurate long passing makes him a valuable weapon against teams that seek to press and condense the midfield area.
"It's incredible to be able to open up the game like that as a centre-back," says team-mate Thomas Müller, who has been well served with Boateng’s raking long passes down the years. "He's like a quarterback, and has developed into a world-class player." Pep Guardiola, Boateng’s coach at Bayern between 2013 and 2016, added: “When it comes to build-up play, Jerome is one of the best around.”
Watch: Boateng assists two goals against Dortmund from long balls!
So why has Boateng been able to reinvent and revolutionise the role of the centre-back with such impressive results? Simply put, it comes down to his burning desire to be the best in the world, combined with an abundance of natural talent.
Growing up as one of three footballing siblings on the streets of Berlin, Jerome was not as talented as his half-brothers Kevin-Prince and George. The oldest, George, shone for Hertha Berlin’s youth sides but did not make the grade professionally, while Kevin-Prince broke into Hertha’s first team as a teenager and went on to enjoy a distinguished career at Tottenham, AC Milan, Schalke and Eintracht Frankfurt, among others.
Jerome, undoubtedly the more successful of the two, took a different path, first from Hertha to Hamburg, where he established himself as one of Germany’s brightest young defenders, and then to Bayern in 2011, via a one-year stint at Manchester City.
From the beginning of his time at Bayern he has played in his favoured position – central defence – having spent much of his lone season in Manchester, and his early years in the German national team, at right-back. That experience of a different position has helped him become a better central defender, however, since he can think like a full-back, anticipate his team-mates' movements and react accordingly. That ability to extract knowledge from another position even extends to forwards. “I used to be a striker so I know what they want to do,” Boateng said.
Added to his tactical acumen is also a desire to improve his technical skills, which is perhaps best exemplified in this anecdote featuring his siblings: “They could play with their left foot too but I couldn't, so I just started training with that foot. And it paid off.” And how. Right side or left, short passes or long, Boateng’s use of the ball is now impeccable.
Watch: How did Jerome Boateng rise to the top?
The best players use every experience and every piece of knowledge to improve and that’s exactly what Boateng has done. The end result is an elite footballer whose willingness to learn, coupled with an extraordinary technique and work ethic, has allowed him to reinvent the position.
Far from simply keeping the ball out of his net, the modern defender now attacks as well, and it is players like Boateng that the next generation of footballers will idolise. Bayern’s Berlin-born Baresi-Beckenbauer hybrid might be soccer’s first quarterback, but he certainly won’t be its last.