The exhilarating start to this latest Premier League campaign has reinforced suspicions that we are watching the most entertaining spectacle in the world. A quick glance at results so far reveals that supporters are far more likely to witness an enthralling 2-2 draw than a dull 0-0. In fact, there have been as many 3-2 and 3-1 scorelines (5) as goalless draws in the opening seven rounds of fixtures, but does this highlight a vast improvement in the final third or the worrying demise of our once reliable defences?
Perhaps it’s best to begin by considering the growing influx of mesmeric attacking midfielders in English football. These individuals are overflowing with creative juices and boast the skeleton key needed to unlock even the toughest defence. The brilliant debut season of David Silva for Manchester City undoubtedly persuaded their rivals that they too needed this particular brand of pint-sized playmaker.
Arsene Wenger opted for fellow Spaniard Santi Cazorla, Sir Alex Ferguson swooped for Asian sensation Shinji Kagawa while Roman Abramovich found some change down the back of the sofa for Eden Hazard. Each new purchase has quickly adapted to the rigours of the Premier League, adding a new dimension to what was already an impressive attacking line-up.
These unique individuals are almost impossible to effectively shackle, as they are gifted the freedom to roam the pitch and seek out pockets of space. I was lucky enough to visit Stamford Bridge on Saturday and observe the brilliance of Oscar, Juan Mata and Hazard as Chelsea cruised past Norwich without ever leaving second gear. The formidable trio interchanged with one another so seemlessly that Norwich soon gave up trying to man mark them and subsequently paid the price. Unless managers can devise an effective way to deal with such players, without harming their own attacking prospects, then the likes of Eden Hazard will continue to flourish.
The vast numbers that make up squads nowadays are vital in dealing with the seemingly growing number of injuries. However, this means that few teams are able to select the same backline every week, especially if they don’t want their fringe players to become demoralised. But how can defenders develop the confidence and sense of trust with one another under this rotation policy? When we think of historic impenetrable rearguards, we think of Seaman-Dixon-Bould-Adams-Winterburn and not a merry collection of seven or eight players.
It has also become apparent that certain teams can no longer depend on the previously indispensible figures of their squad. Liverpool’s Pepe Reina for example has emerged this season as a shadow of his former self, damaging his commanding reputation with a string of unforced errors. Prior to Stoke’s visit to Anfield on Sunday, the Spaniard had saved just 45% of the shots he’s faced so far, which has been a contributing factor to Brendan Rodgers’ indifferent start to life on Merseyside.
The one saving grace at Liverpool is that the supporters appreciate and encourage the attractive style of football currently in development. Every fan wants their team to display a primal attacking mentality even though the risks are far greater, which heaps pressure on managers to deliver. Nigel Adkins has recently declared he will not change the tactics employed by his Southampton side despite the fact they continue to drop points. The Saints sit near the top of both the goals scored and goals conceded charts but how long can they justify such a vulnerable approach, is it fair to say their status in the league is already under threat if they continue in this manner?
Managers have a duty to adapt their strategies to compensate for the way that trends in football continue to evolve. However, some appear reckless with their persistent experimentation as epitomised by Roberto Mancini’s newfound affection for the 3-5-2 formation. I can understand his desire to incorporate the likes of Aleksandar Kolarov and new signing Maicon more effectively into this team but why risk upsetting one of the most dominant defences of last season?
It’s clear that modern full-backs essentially adopt the role of wing-backs anyway as they are urged to flock forward with each new attack. Many full-backs spend so much of their time in the opposing half that perhaps teams are more susceptible to counter-attacks than ever before. With every advantage in football there is a disadvantage, but it appears the more attack-minded teams are increasingly willing to place their defence in jeopardy.
One of the reasons the Premier League is so enjoyable is because it’s always subject to change. Over the past summer we’ve had an incredible number of new arrivals and departures concerning both playing and managerial staff. Swansea and Norwich have both struggled (to various degrees) to replace the popular outgoing figures of Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert, who themselves are finding it difficult to make a positive impact at their new clubs. Resilient defences are the outcome of months of hard-work, a period few managers can depend upon.
As the pace and intensity of the modern game continues to increase, the simple task of defending becomes infinitely more challenging. Strikers nowadays are so prolific that they can punish every mistake and when the likes of Steven Fletcher can score with every shot they have on target, is it any wonder we’re seeing more goals in the Premier League?