Recent results in the EPL especially amongst the ‘bigger’ teams have shown a trend of increased defensive frailties and a massive increase in goals. Manchester United not only beat Arsenal 8-2 but also lost against rivals Man City 6-1. Chelsea too have had their problems at the back compounded by the recent 5-3 defeat to Arsenal. Such crazy results have prompted much speculation about whether the quality of defending in the EPL is in decline or whether there is an increased emphasis on attacking both in training and on the pitch.
United have conceded on average 19 shots a game conceding 12 goals in the process. Chelsea, traditionally tight defensively, have conceded 15 goals this season, Arsenal a massive 21 and Spurs 14. More generally this season there have been 291 goals conceded after 98 games compared to 251 after 100 games last year.
One reason for this is that generally teams are attacking more this season. Even the ‘weaker’ teams are looking to attack some of the bigger sides as Norwich did at Old Trafford where they lost 2-0, despite really threatening on occasion with 13 attempts on goal. Previous trends would have led to a side like Norwich parking the bus as Reading famously did on the opening day of the 07/08 season resulting. All three promoted teams this season have been a breath of fresh air in an attacking sense. Swansea’s impressive 3-1 victory over Bolton being the most recent example of this.
Manchester City have contributed to this change by adopting more offensive tactics. The team that won 6-1 at Old Trafford was distinctly different in approach to the side that ground out a 0-0 draw at the Emirates in January. Mancini traditionally opted for a defensive 5 man midfield with two holding players, but now they almost plays a 4-2-3-1 formation with the ‘3’ being free role support strikers.
With regards to Chelsea at the weekend it was clear that whenever Chelsea got possession both Cole and Bosingwa would surge forward to act almost as left and right wingers, which resulted in both full-backs exploiting gaps behind the Arsenal defence early on in the game. The implication of this was an increased number of chances for Arsenal on the break. Andre Santos’ goal being an example of this. As Chelsea lost possession Bosingwa was caught high up the pitch, and Sturridge not a traditional right sided player failed to track back leaving Santos in acres of space to slot past Cech.
The reference to Sturridge is also an interesting development. Many teams used to play wide men who would tuck in and support the midfield players. Under Mourinho Robben and Duff were expected to track opposition full-backs, but now the wide-men appear to have much more attacking freedom. Neither Mata nor Sturridge are well versed in their defensive capacities leaving gaps in behind especially when the full-backs charge forward and the same can be said for Arsenal with Gervinho and Walcott operating out wide in their 4-3-3.
The lack of defending from forward thinking players is also notable with United. Nani and Young have been widely praised for their flamboyant wing play. However both wingers lack defensive discipline and at times fail to track their respective number. Ashley Young for example was caught ball watching as James Milner escaped him to get in behind United’s back four completely unmarked to cross in for Balotteli’s second goal. In United’s case this is exacerbated by their lack of a midfield ball winner. Their lack of a player in the position was evidenced by Ferguson opting to play Jones in the DM role against Liverpool.
Thus perhaps defenders are not getting worse, but are getting much less support. Even Parker will look to move the ball along quickly and effect the game in the attacking third. Song as well looks to go forward rather than holding his position which can leave huge gaps between the midfield and defence when Arsenal lose the ball, with the pace of counter-attacking in the EPL this can quickly lead to Arsenal being on the defensive.
Lucas at Liverpool is a rare exception as is Tiote at Newcastle and both sides have conceded a meagre 10 and 7 goals respectively. In City’s case too they usually have De Jong operating as a midfield destroyer, an insurance policy to break up opposition attacks and cover for players out of position. A player of this nature is vital when teams counter-attack with so much pace as they’re needed to stay back and cover for the players who have ventured forwards (most commonly full-backs).
Squad rotation and injuries have not helped the top sides defensive records. Chelsea have not played a regular settled back four yet and due to injuries neither have United or Spurs. The inability to form a regular defensive partnership is hampering sides. Previously Chelsea boasted Terry and Carvalho and United had Vidic and Ferdinand. Injuries, suspensions and squad rotation are preventing pairings develop. Defending is more about the system and the relationships than the individuals. The same is clear at Arsenal who have had allsorts of problems with injuries at the back and have also had little time to bed in Per Mertesacker.
What is for certain is that the EPL is certainly becoming increasingly entertaining. Especially in contrast to Serie A were last weekend only. Although when your side wins it seems irrelevant how many your team concede. At the most basic level football is about outscoring your opposition. Without defensive coaches like Benitiz and Mourinho in the league the emphasis to attacking football is certainly evident. For Chelsea and for United they’ll need to improve their defensive record if they’re to challenge Manchester City. The return to form of Nemanja Vidic could be key for United in this regard, for Chelsea it could well be too late even at this early stage of the season.