Do Premier League Teams Care About Defending Anymore?
As Manchester Utd and Reading headed into the dressing rooms after 45 minutes at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson was not a happy man.
Fans around the world had just been treated to a heady first half with seven goals coming in the first 34 minutes. Manchester Utd fell behind twice in the game before winning 4-3 and cementing their role as the Comeback Kings. This was the seventh time this season that the league leaders have won after going behind.
But Fergie was fuming. His side had conceded three times to a side in the relegation zone that has averaged 1.3 goals per game this season. He told BBC Sport:
"It was the worst defending of this season."
"We deserved to get battered today [...] If you make mistakes like that defending then you are going to have to do rescue jobs every week. Today was another rescue job."
While a "rescue job" is fantastically entertaining for fans, it is the product of an epidemic of the Premier League in the past few seasons.
The English top flight has gone goal crazy. Teams have forgotten how to defend.
In 148 games played so far, there have been a whopping 409 goals scored. That works out at an average of 2.76 goals per game. In 2006/07, the average was just 2.45.
Statistics suggest that defences are also becoming much easier to penetrate. Chelsea, for example, conceded an average of 9.8 shots per game in the 2009/10 season. In this campaign, they are conceding an average of 12.4 shots per match, an increase of around 27 percent.
This emphasis on attacking football is not just an English trend. According to Opta, the average goals per game in La Liga this season has been 2.88. The Bundesliga boasts a very similar 2.89.
With defending being such an afterthought across the continent, it's little wonder that Premier League title holders Manchester City have let in 10 goals in the Champions League so far while Chelsea have leaked nine. Paris Saint-Germain, however, have bucked the trend by conceding only twice in Group A.
So why so many goals and so few players preventing them?
Perhaps changing attitudes towards tactics and formations have had an influence. Around the time of the inaugural Premier League season, most teams stuck with a rigid and reliable 4-4-2 formation. With the influence of foreign managers and playing styles, we have seen plenty of 4-3-3, 3-5-2 and 4-4-1-1 formations as well as plenty of midseason tinkering. Some formations, such as playing three at the back, lend themselves to an attacking style.
Chelsea, to use the Londoners as an example once more, employ full-backs who often push forward as makeshift wingers. Branislav Ivanovic is currently the joint-third top scorer for the Blues this season. With an increasing focus on defenders who can attack, a neglect of defenders who can defend is inevitable.
The art of capitulation also seems to have been prevalent in recent seasons. In the past month, there have been four sides who have managed to score four or more goals in a game. On October 20, Chelsea, Manchester Utd and West Ham all scored four in their respective games.
Last season, of course, we saw utter capitulation when Arsenal conceded eight goals at Old Trafford, with Manchester Utd conceding six at the same venue to their neighbors City.
This kind of defensive fragility comes not just from poor tactics or overwhelming attacking prowess, but a collective mentality of "giving up." Throwing in the towel has never been more prevalent among Premier League defences.
Of course, the Premiership's decrease in defensive quality certainly isn't a problem for the league or spectators. It means that we see more goals, which is essentially the reason why we watch the beautiful game.
But as Manchester Utd head to Eastlands this weekend to face a City side who have conceded nearly half as many league goals, a certain angry Scotsman will be searching hard for a cure for the Premier League defensive epidemic.
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