Ben Gibson is part of a new generation of English centre-halves who are starting to transform the way we view the art of defending. In an in-depth interview with Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson, the Middlesbrough defender discusses building from the back, shackling Diego Costa and the way that Premier League football is helping to transform Teesside

THE art of being a centre-half, it seems, has changed. If Gareth Southgate’s interim spell in charge of England has taught us anything, it is that retaining possession and building from the back is more than a passing fad beloved of the leading teams in Spain and any side being managed by Pep Guardiola.

Southgate’s insistence that if England are to achieve anything, they have to be prepared to take the occasional defensive risk, as epitomised by the ball-playing and occasionally panic-inducing John Stones, marks something of a sea change when it comes to the footballing philosophy of the national team. More Plan A than a frantic search for Row Z.

The sight of Stones pinging passes into Eric Dier’s chest on the edge of his own penalty area will take a bit of getting used to, but it reflects an increasingly widespread acknowledgment that as teams become more tactically astute, retaining possession becomes crucial. It used to be said that a team’s centre-forwards were the first line of defence; now, the centre-halves have become the starting point for attacking.

Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson, who finds himself at the vanguard of a new generation of emerging English centre-halves, knows Stones well having played alongside him repeatedly at Under-21 level.

He is not surprised to see the Manchester City defender being hailed as a template for others to follow, indeed he has made a conscious attempt to adapt certain parts of his game to model his former, and perhaps future, team-mate.

Aitor Karanka, another ‘ball-playing defender’ who was comfortable with the ball at his feet during his illustrious playing days, has long preached the need to cherish possession, and having spent the last three months getting used to life in the Premier League, Gibson understands the growing shift in emphasis.

“I think what’s expected of a centre-half now is different,” said the Teessider, who will resume his partnership with another talented young English defender, Calum Chambers, when Middlesbrough entertain high-flying Chelsea tomorrow.

The Northern Echo:

“Over the last ten or 12 years, Spain and Germany have set the standard for the game. They’ve basically taken over European football in terms of their success, and I think people then take that model and try to use it to improve their clubs and their national teams

“The stuff this week has been interesting. I know John personally, and he’s always been a fantastic ball player. He’s great coming out with the ball, and he is a ball-playing centre-back, he always has been.

“For me, I also feel like I’ve always been quite good on the ball. I was a central midfielder coming through the academy, and in my head I’ve always been a ball player anyway. Mind you, other people might have seen something different!

“The way the Championship is played makes it more difficult. Things are dictated to you as a centre-back and the Championship’s a lot different, you’re constantly under pressure. In the Premier League, you can often get a bit more time on the ball, but you know that if you give it away, you’re not getting it back for ten minutes. So you have to look after it more.”

That realisation has been borne of experience. As Middlesbrough have gradually come to terms with the Premier League, so their style has moved away from the helter-skelter attitude of the Championship to the more cerebral approach that tends to hold sway in the top-flight.

Gibson, in particular, looks like a player who is tailor-made for the highest level, with his reading of the game and calm, calculating nature already having enabled him to successfully shackle Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero.

Those performances hit the national headlines, leading to a raft of stories linking him with a potential England call-up and even a possible January move to tomorrow’s opponents Chelsea.

“Of course it’s a dream (to play for England),” said Gibson. “It’s any young boy’s dream in this country – growing up in the playground, thinking you’re at Wembley, doing Gazza’s goal where you flick it over somebody’s head. Everyone wants to play for England, but I’m certainly not focusing on that.

“I let other people mention me to be honest. My next step is trying to play a full season for the first team in this division, and trying to stay in the Premier League. I’m not looking at anything other than that.

The Northern Echo:

“I’m a young, inexperienced player at this level. I’ve played 11 Premier League games now, and that’s not a lot. I’m learning with every game, and I have to make sure I continue to do that and let other people do the talking for me.”

Tomorrow’s game represents another learning curve, with Gibson set to face the belligerent Diego Costa, who currently tops the Premier League goalscoring charts with nine league goals this season.

For all the talk of a new defensive mindset, taking on Costa is something of a throwback to the days when defenders had to be prepared to wrestle first and think later.

Gibson is fully expecting a verbal and physical assault, but is confident he can handle the Spaniard’s gamesmanship as well as his goalscoring threat.

“It’ll be a different challenge,” he said. “You know what you’re going to get from him. He’s going to be hard, he’s going to want to wrestle and fight you. It’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to. He’s obviously a different type of striker, but to be at the top level and be the best, you have to be able to mix it.

The Northern Echo:

“I’ll play the same way I always want to, and I don’t mind the verbals. I’m quite vocal, and I’ve always been a talker. I try to organise people and let people know what we demand off each other.

“That’s what you need to do. I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the game, but I’m very much looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think I’m a shrinking violet – I think I know that now anyway.”

As one of the most vocal presences in Middlesbrough’s dressing room, Gibson is an embodiment of the ‘Spirit of Teesside’ that was constantly championed as promotion was secured last season.

Born in the Boro, and raised in Nunthorpe, the 23-year-old is proud of his roots as well as the intrinsic relationship that has developed between his own family name and the history of the town’s football club over the last 30 years.

Gibson still lives on Teesside, and is only too aware of what this season’s return to the top-flight means to his hometown and the people who live and work in it.

“It is everything,” he said. “I know a lot of people say that, but it actually does mean everything. The town has had a real upturn. Since we’ve been promoted, it feels like it’s bouncing.

“You only have to go down there to see how vibrant it is, whether it’s markets on the streets or new restaurants and bars opening. I think you only have to ask the owners of bars or hotels in the town, and they’ll say their profits have gone up big style. For small businesses, it’s huge.

“It’s not just that, it’s people’s happiness too. I think it’s well publicised with Middlesbrough that people might not have a lot. They might use a large amount of their disposable income to have a season ticket and come to the games.

“So it’s important we make that their release at the end of the week, and make them happy with what they’re paying for. We have to give 110 per cent, and give them the results they want.”