A dying art within the Premier League?

The Premier League has often been trumpeted as the best in the world (mostly by those with a vested interest). Top teams, top players, top entertainment. It’s triffic. The stats suggest a slightly different story, with the much maligned Serie A for example having had fewer 0-0 draws and a greater goal average over previous years – not that stats really solve the argument.

This season however, things have gone a little crazy. The goals are flying in from all angles, and the stats tell their own story. After ten league games this season, Chelsea have already conceded 15 goals – that’s the number they conceded in the whole of their title winning campaign of 2004/05. Before last week, Chelsea hadn’t conceded five goals at home in twenty-two years. With 36 goals, Manchester City have scored more in the opening ten games than any team since Preston got 38 in the league’s inaugural season in 1888-89. There have now been nine Premier League hat-tricks this season, already more than in five previous Premier League seasons. This season, there has been a staggering 2.97 goals per game, the most since 1967/68 when it just so happens that Manchester CIty last won the league. What’s more, the four games involving Champions League teams this season so far have provided a staggering 29 goals. And so on……

Inevitably, this has ignited a debate about defending, or more to the point, the lack of it. Tony Evans claimed on the Times podcast this week that the art of defending was now dead. On Talksport, Danny Kelly said City would win the league by default as they were the only team with a half-decent defence.

Lee Dixon has argued that attacks are getting better and defences worst, but he touched on another possible factor too:
I genuinely think players are a little bit nervous of making tackles now because there are so many yellow and red cards flying around. It has made the game more exciting from a chances or goals point of view – but I will be saddened if the art of defending is eradicated from the game. It certainly looks like it is going that way.

“There is no doubt that year on year there is a change in emphasis and a change in rules. They have stopped the tackle from behind and you would probably say quite rightly. But I still think there’s a place for good defending behind forwards.”

But have things really deteriorated that much? Are we really entering a new period of attacking play and high scores? Or have the rule changes of recent years, such as the ridiculous offside rule, always favoured attackers?

I would argue not. It seems to me that what we have witnessed is nothing more than a set of freak results due to circumstance. Can anyone seriously contemplate the next four games between Champions League teams producing any where near twenty-nine goals? Of course not. What’s more, the emphasis has tended, not surprisingly to focus on the goal exploits of the “big” clubs – the scoring records for many of the mid-table teams are nothing out of the ordinary.

As City’s expensively-assembled squad has begun to really gel, it is no surprise they have hit the goal trail. They were the better side against Manchester United, but were helped by the red card for Jonny Evans, and United’s suicidal attacking tendencies thereafter, which they ruthlessly exploited. Against Everton, the partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans was the sixth different combination United have used at centre-half this term in the league. Consider that Norwich, progressing well in the league, have had an unchanged line up for six games. Alex Ferguson has also introduced new players in defence who despite the hype from the media are young, experienced, and far from the finished article. Coinciding with the likes of Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans being out of form, and the phasing-out of some of the old guard, there was always going to be bad days at the office.

Chelsea too are in transition. A new, young and inexperienced manager is learning about Premiership football the hard way. Mumblings persist that John Terry is on the wane, and off-field controversies won’t help his concentration. Villas-Boas favours a high defensive line and aggressive, hard pressing of the opposition, which leaves Terry even more susceptible, not helped by the fact that Chelsea, like United, have not had a consistent back-line so far this season. Like United also, they have players out of form – most noticeably Bosingwa, but Petr Cech seems a shadow of his old self (though last season it seemed he might be getting back to his best). Chelsea have so far conceded fewer shots per game than on average compared to last season, but are clearly allowing better chances on their goal –the high defensive line is so far leaving them more exposed.

Arsenal were in disarray for a few weeks, and paid the price horrifically at Old Trafford. Spurs too were not ready for the new season, until the introduction of Scott Parker (after the 1-5 reverse at home to Manchester City) helped shored up their defence.

It won’t last. Villas-Boas will find a system that protects his back line better. United have already started taking a more cautious approach on the football field, as seen in their 1-0 victory at Goodison Park. Arsenal have rediscovered their form, and Spurs are flying too – their defences have recovered their mojo at the same time.

Clubs’ defensive coaches did not all die in a swarm of locusts over the summer. Every club manager did not receive a bang on the head in late July that turned them into kamikaze coaches. It was fun whilst it lasted, but expect normal service to soon be resumed – as soon as managers manage to play the same defence for two weeks in succession.


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