The evolution of the centre-back in modern football has been one of the most interesting developments to track in recent years. Old archetypes have been thrown out, identikits done away with, as the position continues to be redefined by players of wide-ranging backgrounds, influences and developmental paths.
Born of athletic stock thanks to a rugby league-playing father, idolising Thierry Henry as a youngster and spending his formative years as a disciplined yet driving central midfielder, Norwich City‘s Ben Godfrey’s unique central-defensive style is a bubbling melting pot of disparate ingredients.
Godfrey got his chance in the Norwich first team earlier this season, thrown into the fray in central defence when more experienced colleagues were unavailable. And he has has assimilated to life in England’s second tier without missing a beat, an ever-present since his first start, back in December, and keeping senior internationals Timm Klose and Grant Hanley out of the side.
The 21-year-old has played no small part in cementing the Championship-leading Canaries as promotion favourites, with two of his three goals this term the difference between draws and victories, and his blend of robust physicality and technical mastery has reportedly attracted strong interest from Manchester United and Arsenal.
Godfrey’s ascent hasn’t been straightforward. A gifted teen, he was captain and star striker – doing his best to emulate Henry – in the York & District under-13 team who won the English Schools’ FA Inter-Association Trophy in May 2011, beating Southampton the final at StadiumMK.
On the books of local club York City, he was poached Middlesbrough only to be released at 15, returning to sign scholarship forms with York. He broke into the first team at Bootham Crescent in central midfield, impressing sufficiently in 15 senior appearances for the then-League Two side to earn a move to Norwich, who were in the Premier League at the time, on his 18th birthday.
Playing within the Canaries youth set-up, Godfrey was utilised predominantly in central defence, making the most of his powerful physique, that rugby league frame inherited from his father, and tenacity.
A loan move to League One’s Shrewsbury Town last season, though, saw Godfrey return to a central-midfield remit. And he shone as the Shrews narrowly missed out on promotion to the second tier, making losing Wembley appearances in the EFL Trophy and League One play-off finals, as well as an FA Cup run which culminated in an extra-time defeat to West Ham United in a third-round replay at the London Stadium.
“He can use the ball as well. He’s a player you can trust on the ball in midfield,” Norwich team-mate Carlton Morris told the Shropshire Star of Godfrey last season, when the pair were on loan at Shrewsbury. “Especially if teams are pressing up on us where he doesn’t have much time.”
At the base of Shrewsbury’s midfield, Godfrey’s tactical discipline and ability to perfectly select the right time to employ his powerful dribbling ability for forward bursts was a key tenet of how Paul Hurst’s relegation-tipped side were able to so drastically outperform expectations.
A fixture at New Meadow, Shrewsbury’s cup form saw Godfrey clock valuable game time, accumulating 51 appearances for the campaign. But beyond the much-needed minutes, the youngster also gleaned valuable lessons from his time in Shropshire, stronger for the heartache of a promotion campaign thwarted at the last.
“It made me learn that no matter how the table looks it can soon all fall to pieces,” he said. “So it has given me the experience that it’s far from over yet and there’s going to be plenty more twists and turns, and ups and downs, to come.
“I think it has benefitted me mentally to go through what I went through last year. It was a good year but obviously didn’t end the way I wanted it to.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world losing in the play-off final, but it’s an experience that I will cherish and one that has definitely benefitted me in the long run.”
One of the songs Shrewsbury fans coined for Godfrey centred around just how rarely he loses the ball, and this precision in possession has translated to life up a tier with Norwich. The defender’s 88.4 per cent pass accuracy is the second-highest in the Championship, while his average of 49.77 competed passes per 90 minutes ranks him among the top nine percent of the division’s defenders.
The attributes honed in midfield and inspired by Henry – the powerful dribbling, crisp passing and a sense of adventure when the time is right – have been retained at centre-back and allied with his natural physicality.
Godfrey is strong in the challenge but it is his timing of tackles, more than the ferocity of them, which marks him out, anticipating and nipping possession cleanly enough to be able to stride away with the ball, instigating attacking transitions, as is so key to he role of the modern centre-back.
Both a ball-playing and ball-carrying defender, Godfrey’s ability to break the opposition’s lines through confident, sharp dribbles recalls images of Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand, even if his dribbling style may be more blustering and a little less smooth than Ferdinand’s.
Recently called up to the England under-20 side for the first time, and now a key part of Daniel Farke’s promotion-chasing Canaries, Godfrey’s star is rising rapidly. And the 21-year-old has his sights trained on his next destination, whether that’s with Norwich or elsewhere.
“To play in the Premier League is every young boy’s dream,” Godfrey says. “When you start out that’s why you play football, to make the top level.”