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A Farewell to Cannavaro

A couple of years ago, when Brian was running his “Inner Life of … ” posts, I wrote to him to suggest that this would be a good representation of the Inner Life of Fabio Cannavaro. Cannavaro may be the calmest defender I’ve ever seen, and his on-pitch serenity stemmed directly from his uncanny positional awareness. One way to think of Cannavaro is as the defensive counterpart to Xavi: just as Xavi with the ball at his feet sees angles and opportunities invisible to other players, so Cannavaro, when he was in his prime, saw attacking developments earlier than anyone else and intervened incisively to stop them.

This is the sort of thing that’s hard to capture in video highlights, but here’s an example. Notice how when other defenders might be rushing back to cover their goal Cannavaro just takes a step forward and clips the ball neatly away. There’s a surgical precision to it. But what can’t be captured in video highlights at all is the regularity with which he did this kind of thing: the point is not that he made one or two highly visible plays per game, but that he was continually disrupting attacks, and disrupting them early in their development, before they could become truly dangerous.

Here’s another way in which Cannavaro resembles Xavi: if you ask “How fast is he?” the only really honest answer is “I’m not sure.” Extreme anticipatory awareness reduces the need for speed. In his best years you hardly ever saw Cannavaro at a full sprint: when his teams were on the pitch everyone’s focus would be other players who were moving around and obviously doing things, and then Cannavaro would just be there—as though he had gotten to his position by materializing rather than running.

And yet pace—or at least the ability to make quick changes in direction—had to have played a greater role in Cannavaro’s success than it appears, because as he got older and more injury-prone he started getting caught out of position more and more often. Surely he saw the pitch as well as he ever had, but just couldn’t arrive at the critical junctions of the action on time. I found it painful to watch his performance in the last World Cup: to see the formerly rock-like Cannavaro scrambling to catch up with an attacker who had just blown by him . . . I didn’t like seeing that. It was time for him to go, as he clearly recognized.

I’m going to miss him, and I hope we see his like again.

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A Farewell to Cannavaro

by Alan Jacobs · August 3, 2011

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