I think it would be fair to say if you were to ask most people to people look back at what has set this Premier League season apart from others the answer you’d get would have to be: high-scoring games. For a slightly more pessimistic view: bad defending.
It is in the big games where this has been most noticeable. Of course, without a clear-cut top four as in previous seasons it might be debatable as to what constitutes a ‘big game’ or a ‘big team,’ but assuming Spurs and Chelsea are still seen as top four challengers even if they don’t make it there this season, games involving the league’s big sides this season have included scorelines such as 8-2, 6-1, 5-1, 5-3, 5-0, 3-3 and 5-2. There have been exceptions, but never before have we seen such open and free-scoring games in the important games, which were formerly approached with much more caution and patience.
Just yesterday, Man United drew 4-4 at home to Everton, only the fourth time Ferguson’s side have conceded four or more at Old Trafford in the Premier League era – but the second time this season. This kind of defending has seen the English sides – Chelsea apart – fare badly in Europe.
What is behind this sudden flood of goals? Has the league got weaker? Or stronger? Are there simply better attacking players now than before? Have tactics gone out of the window? Where are the defenders that the big clubs could sign to improve the situation?
It varies from club to club. To start with, it’s worth noting that Man City are the strongest club in the league this season on goals conceded, and have not been on the receiving end of any of these crazy scorelines mentioned above. When you look at their team, that’s not surprising. Joe Hart has been exceptional in goal, and in front of him he has had great protection from some of the league’s best defenders this season in Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott. However, they don’t break away from the trend of teams being more attack-minded. They, arguably, concede so few goals partly because they keep the ball so well and attack like mad. At the start of the season they were Barcelona-like in their play as they blew teams off the park. When they do lose the ball they have strong midfielders in Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry to help get it back, and they must take some credit here.
However, City are still not top of the league. United, once again, are showing they have enough in attack to make up for a weaker defensive line than in the past. It must be said they have been without their best centre-back and captain Nemanja Vidic for most of the season, and often the vastly experienced Rio Ferdinand. I thought it was strange in the summer when they sold both Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland; there was no need to do so and it’s unlike Ferguson to ignore the value in having old heads in the squad, preferring instead to rely on the younger Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans. These players have all played well for the most part and will no doubt be important players in United’s future, but I think they lost too many experienced players too soon, especially when you add Gary Neville’s and Edwin van der Saar’s retirement last season.
In midfield, they don’t have a great deal of protection for their young defence and occasionally vulnerable goalkeeper; Carrick and Scholes are both playmakers, as are the young Cleverley and the disappointing Anderson. Their most naturally defensive, tough-tackling midfielder Darren Fletcher has also been a big miss through injury for them this season. It will be interesting to see how they decide to spend their money this summer – will a better defender/defensive midfielder be a priority or will they hope for more luck in the injury department?
At Arsenal, as I’ve said many times, it is a matter of coaching and I’m convinced of that. We have had many good players in defence over the years, but since the members of George Graham’s carefully-coached back four retired things have got steadily less certain. At the start of the season we were a disaster, but that was mostly down to injuries and a lack of signings. Once we signed Mertesacker, and Vermaelen returned to full fitness, things were better, until the Christmas period where our full-backs were out. When I look at how well the defence played against Chelsea I don’t feel there is a great need for signings to be made, just a bit more consistency and concentration to be drilled in by our coaching staff. Against Wigan, we weren’t switched on and paid for it dearly, but against Chelsea we dealt very well with their counter-attacks by some excellent last-ditch blocks and tackles by Vermaelen and the vastly-improved Koscielny. Play with the same attitude and desire against the small teams next season and we’ll be fine.
For Chelsea the problem was clearly tactical as well. I say ‘was’ because, as I wrote in my article yesterday, Chelsea’s defence has improved vastly since Roberto Di Matteo took over. Andre Villas-Boas played a high line with old and slow players who didn’t respect him. It looked like the old guard might have been finished, but in recent weeks they’ve shown they just prefer the more Mourinho-like defensive approach to football. They have also been boosted by signing one of the most highly-rated defenders on the market who wasn’t already at a big club – Gary Cahill. The former Bolton man was watched by Man Utd, Arsenal and Spurs before being brought to Stamford Bridge in January.
Spurs are an interesting one. Again, they generally continue the trend in that they are set up to attack. Brad Friedel has been an astute signing in goal, as has Scott Parker for protecting the defence. As for the defence itself, there are a lot of good players there, but arguably nothing special, and they have had some bad luck with injuries. We all know Ledley King is unable to play as often as they would like, and they have missed Michael Dawson and William Gallas for large chunks of the campaign as well. Kyle Walker and Benoit Assout-Ekotto have played well, but are more attack-minded full-backs. All this makes it all the more strange that Harry opted to loan out the likes of Bassong and Corluka. They have suffered from a lack of depth and now look exhausted. As well as that, the vacant England post has distracted Redknapp and his players and as such they have played worse; when you play worse you inevitably concede more goals. What will happen next season is anyone’s guess – the manager could leave as could a few players, and the likes of Friedel, Parker, King and Gallas are all pretty old. Reinforcements will surely be needed.
It would be unfair not to mention Newcastle, who now lie in 4th, only three points behind us with a game in hand. Their defensive numbers aren’t as good as the likes of Chelsea’s and Spurs’, but they have still been impressive, considering the lack of big names in their backline. Tim Krul has been excellent in goal and Fabricio Coloccini was rightly named in the PFA team of the year last night. They are well-organised and hard-working, but generally get the balance between defence and attack right. They are solid, if unspectacular, in basically every area of the pitch.
Should I mention 8th placed Liverpool if we’re talking about ‘big’ sides? Well, I have to, as they actually have the 3rd best defensive record in the league, behind only the two Manchester clubs. They have a good goalkeeper in Reina, and some good individuals in Agger, Skrtel, Johnson and Enrique. Defence is clearly not the problem – they have struggled hilariously to find the back of the net this season. The likes of Suarez, Carroll, Downing and Kuyt have all been disappointing and yesterday’s home defeat to West Brom was the latest in a long line of defeats in which they have dominated the play, had plenty of shots, and continued to miss. They have yet to be involved in any particularly high-scoring crazy games, with some examples of their scorelines against the big sides being 2-1, 1-1, 0-0, 2-0. They don’t score a lot or concede a lot, so they’re not really part of this trend. And, importantly, they’re closer to relegation than to the top four.
Has the league got weaker?
Normally the fact that there are more teams in contention for the title and the top four would be seen as a good thing for the strength of the league, and for the overall quality of English game it is, as it makes for better viewing and more competition. This, in part, is what has brought out the feeling of more big games and more testing opponents every week, perhaps leading to more fatigue and mistakes in defence. However, at the same time this means that the best players are more evenly spread out among the top six or seven clubs, making the overall quality of each big team a little weaker than it was in the Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool ‘top four’ days, when these clubs had their pick of the players a lot more.
In those days players like Modric, Parker, van der Vaart, Silva, Aguero, Kompany and perhaps the likes of Coloccini, Cabaye, Tiote, Cisse and Ba would be more compressed among that elite group. It’s not necessarily that the attacking players have got better, but the big teams are playing against better players more often rather than having them on their side. In the past we had great attacking players like Shearer, Bergkamp, Henry, Owen and many more, but there weren’t the regular goal fests we see now.
Where are the defenders?
Is it just me or is there a lack of big name defenders out there at the moment? There was a big chase for Gary Cahill when he was at Bolton because he was seen as the best defender not already at a big club. It’s hard to think of many out there in the Premier League or Europe who are available and could improve the big teams here. Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen is the only one who comes to mind, being linked with Arsenal a few times recently. Phil Jagielka was reportedly a target for us as well last summer, but is he really good enough? United spent a lot of money on the young Phil Jones from Blackburn, and as youngsters do, he’s had a mixed season.
When the summer transfer rumours really get going, it will be interesting to see if it’s defenders making the headlines.