Two clubs at opposing ends of the Premier League produced eerily similar away performances last weekend upon visiting the two most potent attacking sides in the division.
Both utilised 3-4-3 formations, both elected against deploying a powerful centre-forward who could hold up the ball despite having the opportunity to do so, and both averaged less than 30% possession as they settled for damage limitation rather than showing any real interest in winning the match, or even affecting the scoreline.
While one of those teams, Newcastle United, was promoted from the Championship last season though, the other, Chelsea, are the reigning champions of England and boast one of the finest attacking talents in world football in the form of Eden Hazard. The latter club have spent over £230million on new signings this season: the former, who lost 2-0 to Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday, have spent less than a fifth of that and are still relying on players who made tough work of the second tier at times last term.
Indeed, Chelsea’s passive performance against Manchester City on Sunday, which actually far exceeded Newcastle’s in terms of intent and apathy, has moved the debate over defensive football to the very forefront of the English top flight.
There has been an unwritten law during the first 25 years of the Premier League that, excepting special circumstances, every team attempts to win every game. Methods of doing so may differ greatly, but whether it’s through sticking ten men behind the ball and hoping for chances at the other end or attempting to play attacking sides at their own game, there has been an unwavering belief that every Premier League match should at least start out as a genuinely competitive affair.
But this season has seen a subtle difference in style as a consequence of a far larger, far more significant change in mindset. We’ve seen ultra-defensive philosophies in the Premier League before, but we’re now seeing sides set up in the same way without any intention of finding a way to win the match – particularly upon visiting the Big Six away from home. Instead, they’re settling for merely keeping the reduction to their goals conceded tally as minimal as possible.
For Newcastle, perhaps that mentality is more understandable. They have one of the most modest squads in the Premier League and as things currently stand, the most competitive relegation race the Premier League has ever seen will likely come down to goal difference.
Add in the fact there have been just four occasions in which teams from the rest of the league have recorded away victories against the Big Six since the start of last season, highlighting the expanding gap between those inside and outside the European spots, and there is an obvious pragmatic logic to what Rafa Benitez is doing; Newcastle’s goal difference away at the Big Six is two better than four of the sides in the bottom five and their overall goal difference is accordingly the second-best of any team in the bottom eight.
But if the pragmatism of the teams fighting for survival remains a painful yet acceptable pill to swallow, the concern is how the mentality has spread to all levels of the Premier League, including those at the very top of the game. Manchester City won Sunday’s match on reputation alone before a ball was kicked and for all the undoubted quality they’ve shown this season, their only success to date under Pep Guardiola is still the League Cup. Chelsea, on the other hand, are the reigning champions of England and should still be competing with this current City side, even if they can’t quite match them right now.
For both Chelsea and Newcastle too, there is an obvious flaw in their approach – which is why the Premier League has stood on the opposing side of the defensive football debate for so long. While goal difference may well be worth a point in the races for survival and Champions League qualification come the end of May, and while Chelsea have escaped the Etihad Stadium and Newcastle their away trips to the Big Six with comparatively better results than their closest divisional rivals, a single win in those games would be worth at least two points more than any advantage goal difference offers them. In fact, West Brom’s mere two points against the same calibre of teams is already a greater return than what Benitez hopes to achieve this season.
But looking forward, the signs suggest these kinds of performances which have unfortunately peppered the 2017/18 season will only become more frequent, especially from those in Newcastle’s position. After all, the gap between the Big Six and the rest of the league only appears to be growing larger, and that process will be amplified if the movement to end collective bargaining and give top clubs more power to organise their own TV rights agreements reaches a point of fruition.
Not that it would excuse Chelsea from repeating the mentality they took into Sunday’s game; financially, they are more than capable of competing with City – the problem, however, is that if Newcastle avoid relegation and Chelsea claim a point in the top four on goal difference, both managers will feel their approaches were justified and that mindset will filter out through the rest of the league.
However, there is an important flipside to the moans and groans. If we want Manchester City and Liverpool’s brands of gorgeous football in the Premier League, and if we want that to influence the philosophies at the division’s other major clubs, damage limitation exercises like what Newcastle exhibited at Anfield on Saturday are perhaps an inevitable part of the parcel – the kind of performances often witnessed when the rank and file of La Liga and Serie A visit the Bernabeu, the Nou Camp and Turin Stadium. In some senses, you can’t hope for one without accepting the inevitability of the other.
And thus, it feels like the Premier League has reached something of a crossroads. Because of the pressure at all layers of the division, because it now boasts six clubs that have the money and infrastructure to win the title in any given season, and because the rest of the league is such a level playing field, the mentality is changing. Defensive football is now seen as the safest option amid a Premier League era defined by its relentless unpredictability and it’s telling that goals scored per game by clubs outside the top six has dropped from 1.7 during the 2015/16 season to just 1.4 this term. It may seem a marginal difference, but that translates as 114 goals disappearing from the bottom 14 of the Premier League in comparison to just two years ago.
At this point, it’s hard to envisage quite what or who could break that cycle, but it’s clear the dynamics at all levels of the Premier League are drastically changing. Right now, it feels for the worse than the better.