Manchester United currently sit two points clear of local rivals and current reigning champions Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table, with Chelsea in close pursuit, but all three title contenders have shown a worrying fragility at the back along the way so far this season, even if it hasn’t stopped the cream from rising to the top, and with that in mind, does this mean that it’s possible to win the league with a flawed backline?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s summer purchase of Robin van Persie leads the way for the club this term with eight goals in his first ten league games since making his controversial move from Arsenal in the summer complete. The Scottish manager has spoken of how happy he is with the club’s forward ranks and with good reason, given he has Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck also at his disposal, having lost the title on goal difference last term, something which Sky pundit Gary Neville has stated that the 70-year-old has always dreaded.
It’s hardly as if the side had trouble scoring goals last season and they finished with 89 across the 38-game campaign, crucially four less than City. However, the Dutchman was targeted as the man to turn their fortunes around and in a sense he’ll have to go down as something of an indulgence purchase, even if it has since transpired to be an essential one. The result has seen them plunder 29 goals in their opening 11 games, five better than the nearest challenger Fulham and an emphasis on out-scoring your opponent has clearly taken precedence.
It’s also slightly odd that the league leaders have kept just two clean sheets so far yet have the impressive points tally that they do. They’ve secured wins against Southampton, Fulham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal by a solitary goal, conceding eight goals in the process. In the past, being bailed out time and time again by a truly frightening attack would be considered as an approach bound to failure and which lacks longevity, yet this season it might just be enough to see them through and over the finish line.
Last season, while United kept 20 clean sheets to City’s 17, they let in four more goals and scored four less to hand Roberto Mancini’s side the title on goal difference. There were two options ahead in the summer for Ferguson to choose form about how to best fix this; strengthen the back four or bring in another striker. It’s no surprise given the decline in defensive standards across Europe at the moment, with a real dearth in top quality defenders, that he chose the latter.
Chelsea won back-t0-back league titles in 2004-5 and 2005-06 on the strength of the team’s solid and consistent back five, with Petr Cech, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho all absolutely outstanding, backed up by the presence of Claude Makelele in midfield. They conceded just 15 goals in that first title win under Jose Mourinho and just 22 goals the following year when they retained it, displaying an almost unthinkable resilience along the way by today’s standards. Manchester City clinched the league crown last season having conceded 29 goals, which while not all that bad, points towards a change in tack.
In 2006-7, Manchester United won the title letting in 27 goals and they did so again the year after conceding 22 goals. They repeated the trick to complete a hat-trick in 2008-9 with a vintage side that let in just 24 goals, but Chelsea stole the title off them in 2009-10 shipping a sizeable 32 goals along the way, before Ferguson’s side won it back in 2010-11 letting in a whopping 37 goals. While the trend is far from clear-cut, since that Chelsea triumph back in 2005, you simply haven’t needed the best defence in the league to win the title.
In 2010-11, both Chelsea and Manchester City conceded less goals than United but finished below them, and the fact that they scored 9 and 18 less goals at the other end eventually told down the home straight. In 2009-10, United let in four goals less than champions Chelsea, with Carlo Ancelotti’s free-flowing side breaking the century barrier with 103 goals scored to their 86. In 2004-5, Arsenal finished second to Mourinho’s Chelsea despite scoring 15 goals more. It’s no longer the priority that it once was and times have changed.
Cast your eye around and Chelsea, City and United all have problems at the back and even though it may be early days, they’ve started to break away at the top from the chasing pack of Everton, West Brom, Tottenham and Arsenal who are all currently competing viciously for fourth place.
Roberto Di Matteo’s side have kept just four clean sheets and have let in 11 goals, with a back rotated four between Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and David Luiz and they’ve not been the most difficult to breach. Nevertheless, it’s the sheer amount of talent that they have at the other end which is garnering the most attention and in Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, they have a creative base to trouble any side in the world.
City have been far from imperious at the back this far and Mancini’s needless tinkering with a 3-5-2 formation has hindered them at times, but they still remain well in contention due to their ability to grind out results while not playing well. Similarly to rivals United, they’ve won plenty of games by just a single goal so far, with Southampton, Fulham, Swansea, West Brom and Tottenham all beaten in such a manner.
Having the best attack in the league is normally conducive to a title challenge and all three of City, United and Chelsea boast an embarrassment of riches further forward and a ropey defence further back and that’s far from a coincidence. The impact that substitutes Edin Dzeko and Javier Hernandez have had in recent weeks in terms of winning goals has shown the need to have depth up top, yet the same quality doesn’t appear to be needed to maintain their form at the other end.
As the quality of defending has slowly but surely decreased, the focus on attacking strength has become more and more important, which is why a flawed side will win the league this year, in what promises to be a hugely entertaining battle at the top. Having the best defence in the league is now no longer required to win the title, and you can just about get away without even having a particularly solid unit. However, the need for a consistent and feared attack is absolutely vital, with clean sheets now no longer carrying quite the same currency that they did even seven years ago.
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