Defending appears to be a lost art in 2012. In English football this week an incredible set of Capital One Cup games have furthered highlighted teams dependence on attack over defence.
Lots of England’s top teams appear to be using attack as the best form of defence. As Chelsea look to bring an expansive attacking, Barcelona-esque football, to Stamford Bridge, abandoning the rigid style synonymous with the London club under Jose Mourinho. Chelsea leave themselves more susceptible to counter attacks, then they were under the Portuguese, but there’s not that much Roberto Di Matteo can do to stop this when implementing this style. The London club have entertained football fans across the country with their three exceptional attacking midfielders, Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. However none of these players offer much protection to Chelsea’s defence and Sir Alex Ferguson exposed this with winger’s Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young taking the game to Chelsea’s full-backs. It could be argued this would be more of a non-issue if Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel read danger quicker and did more as holding midfielders, but that might be harsh. Also Chelsea’s inclusion David Luiz as arguably now first choice centre back shows an emphasis on style over defence. Linked with a £30 million move to Barcelona, the 25 year old is technically brilliant, with pace, exceptional skill and brilliant aerial ability. However in terms of the unspectacular side of defending the Portuguese is often found wanting as he doesn’t read the game very well and lacks positional discipline and loses concentration too easily. It is Luiz’s ability on the ball alongside Gary Cahill, in John Terry’s absence, that has allowed Chelsea to shift further towards a Barcelona style of football, splitting to very composed centre backs and pushing on their full backs. The Blues certainly seems to be sacrificing their defence to play expansive football.
While Chelsea are the perfect example of a team whose expansive style is greatly responsible for their defensive difficulties, however this isn’t the sole reason English clubs are leaking goals. Emphasis on speeding up the game and quick advantages often being played by referees, makes it harder for midfielders to slow down the game with fouls. Other rule changes in terms of what justifies a yellow card and less room for aggression in midfield has also made life more difficult for defenders. There’s a feeling that extra protection for creative midfielder’s has allowed the likes of Gareth Bale to flourish in a way that David Ginola and players who came a decade earlier couldn’t do as great an extent.
Football works in cycles and many fans are now accepting that the five year period of English dominance is over. With the emergence of the outstanding Barcelona team, the Premier League losing its greatest star at the time, in Cristiano Ronaldo, along with the Hicks Gillett fiasco at Liverpool saw the league get weaker. In my opinion during this transition period the quality of defenders has diminished. Chelsea during their pomp under Jose Mourinho had the excellent Claude Makelele supporting a fantastic centre back partnership of Ricardo Carvalho and Terry, both players are now in their twilight years. Manchester United’s defence has become less stingy due to the aging of their best defenders. For my money the best centre back partnership in England for the last ten years, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is also beyond its peak. Ferdinand has lost the pace and athleticism which allowed him to live with and deal with the best strikers in the world. Also Vidic though younger than Ferdinand, has seen his playing time restricted due to injury and may never reach the previous heights that made him one of the world’s best defenders. Arsenal to an extent have always relied on possession and out-scoring the opposition, but Liverpool the other member of the traditional ‘top four’ during the recent period where the Premier League was the world’s best have gone backwards defensively. At their best two world-class operators Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano sat in front of their defence. While Jamie Carragher and whether it was Dan Agger or Sami Hyypia formed a formidable partnership behind them. To further highlight this point, Manchester City who often used to holding midfielders and had consensus of opinion the best defender in the league, in Vincent Kompany conceded the fewest goals. Suggesting quality of team and players is as significant as anything in keeping clean sheets and being stingy defensively.
The amount of goals being shifted in English football currently represents an all round current degeneration at the top of the Premier League. As the quality of teams at the top of English football has got worse so has the defending off those teams. There is a great emphasis on attack currently among the top teams; United went all out attack to great effect at St James’s Park this season, while attack was Chelsea’s best form of defence against Tottenham Hotspur was attack. Attack minded managers mixed with lower quality of teams are my main explanation for the current Premier League goal-fests.
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