The Real Battle for the Premier League Title Will Be Fought in Central Defense
Everybody loves a goal. Let them rain down on us this Premier League season, and let every weekend be a frenzied feast of attacking football to gorge on until our sporting stomachs explode.
Just think of the arsenal (no pun intended) of forward-minded players at the disposal of the league's top clubs. It's mind-blowing.
Chelsea have added the precocious talents of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Marko Marin to a squad that already includes Fernando Torres, Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge.
Manchester City can pick a forward line from Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli and Sergio Aguero. Roberto Mancini could play all four of them if the situation required. He could well sign another striker before August 31, too.
And then there's Manchester United, who now boast potentially the best strike force in world football after linking Robin van Persie with Wayne Rooney—thus marrying the Premier League's top two scorers last season in a deal you'd be thrilled to pull off in a football manager simulation game.
Even if "fatman and Robin" don't deliver the combined 50 goals we expect them to, Danny Welback, Javier Hernandez and—for now—Dimitar Berbatov are all capable of chipping in. As are Shinji Kagawa, Nani and Ashley Young.
RvP-less Arsenal are not without their thrills, either. Lukas Podolski and Oliver Giroud are both capable of blasting a hole in opposition defenses, while Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all come with a "potentially devastating" warning in the final third.
Such wealth of attacking riches is the stuff of football fantasy.
But in our unquenchable thirst for goals, there's a tendency to overlook perhaps the most important area when it comes to getting consistent results and winning titles. It's all very well scoring when you want, but if you can't defend properly, you're nowhere.
Manchester City's success last season was built on Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. Both played 30 or more games in the Premier League and formed a central defensive partnership without equal.
It was their influence, more than anything else, which proved the biggest difference between the red and blue halves of Manchester. United's pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans proved fallible and Sir Alex Ferguson had no way to compensate for the loss of Nemanja Vidic to injury.
Had Vidic stayed fit, United would have won the title. You only need to watch the replay of their 4-4 draw with Everton at Old Trafford to see why.
Chelsea were another team let down by their central defense. David Luiz was all over the place at the start of the season, while John Terry suffered dips in form and was far from the commanding presence we know he can be.
City weren't once ripped apart in the manner Chelsea were at home to Arsenal, in a game they lost 5-3 that signaled they weren't ready to make a serious challenge.
Arsenal's defense improved as the season went on, but the malaise that resulted in losing eight goals at Old Trafford and four at Ewood Park had already done its damage.
The worrying thing for City fans about their dominant pairing of Lescott and Kompany is how vulnerable they might be if one was lost to injury—as Vidic was to United last season.
City don't have a viable replacement right now. Stefan Savic is young and inexperienced, while Kolo Toure appears to be grappling with some serious frustration and is clearly not somebody Mancini has tremendous trust in.
You'd imagine Mancini is desperately keen to bring another defender in before the window shuts. If he fails, he better hope Kompany and Lescott stay fit.
Which is the best defensive pairing?
Ferguson will be thinking the same of Vidic. The Serbian is United's best defender by some distance and can come together with either Evans or Ferdinand to form a solid partnership capable of going the distance.
Roberto Di Matteo is hoping some combination of Luiz, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill can do the same for Chelsea. Because for all the firepower of Torres, Hazard and Co., his team stands no chance of winning the Premier League title if they're leaking goals too frequently.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will be looking to Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen to continue the kind of form they showed in the second half of the season. If they can, it's quite possible the Gunners will exceed expectations—such is the importance of getting things right in the central defensive area.
Of course goals will be a defining factor, but with each of the major contenders packing such a fearsome punch, you could argue the real battle to win the Premier League title will be fought between the men keeping guard in defense this season.
As things stand, Kompany and Lescott remain the team to beat.
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