EPL wrap: Lots of fun, but where’s the defence?

by Oliver Brett  Oct 29, 2012 07:38 IST

#EPL   #football   #KickingAround   #Sports  

There will be plenty of writers spewing forth on hopeless decision-making today. I’ve been there too. There might be one or two praising the thrilling spectacle of attack-minded strategies, and there’s no harm in that.

After all, there’s a kind of universal policy among Premier League managers — actually, you can rule out Tony Pulis at Stoke — to play three men up front and not bother with picking tackling midfielders. It’s a policy that reaped 15 goals across Sunday’s four games in the Premier League.

And yet for me, the prevailing feeling after seeing the weekend’s game is this: why doesn’t one of the top teams build itself a reliable watertight defence, the kind that chastises itself every time it fails to keep a clean sheet?

Take Liverpool, for instance. They played some attractive football early on, and raced into a 2-0 lead. But they couldn’t even reach half-time without seeing that lead cancelled in its entirety by a spirited Everton team. If Kevin Mirallas had been fit to start the second half, Andre Wisdom, the young Liverpool full-back notionally marking the Everton winger, would have surely been tormented for a further 45 minutes.

Liverpool's Luis Suarez (L) celebrates with Martin Skrtel after scoring against Everton during their EPL match on Sunday. Phil Noble/Reuters

At times under Kenny Dalglish last season, the one saving grace for Liverpool was the solidity of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger; now they look only workable centre-backs who tend to have rather too much on their plate as so many of the men in front of them are looking to attack all the time.

Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at half-time, essentially shoring up the defence by adding an extra centre-back in the shape of Sebastian Coates. This may have been a 3-5-2 formation, but it was not a Manchester City-style 3-5-2 with one centre-back and two full-backs.

It would have been an irony if the Liverpool manager’s switch to a conservative strategy had reaped the reward of snatching a victory in the Merseyside derby — and yet that’s pretty much what would have happened if a linesman’s flag had stayed down when Luis Suarez, running from a blatantly onside position, smashed Coates’s header into the roof of the net.

Everton — and this is a huge credit to their manager David Moyes — have gone from a team who were a bit too defensive and old-fashioned a couple of seasons ago to one with a real cut-and-thrust going forward. Remember how there recovery from 2-4 down at Old Trafford last April to snatch a draw proved so critical in the title climax? And yet with players like Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in their ranks, they can defend solidly too, as we saw when they beat United at the start of this season.

If four goals was a generous tally on Merseyside, Stamford Bridge provided five for the big clash between the top two — although many pundits had predicted pretty much exactly that.

Brilliant as they are going forward, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata are statuesque when it comes to the less glamorous task of defending, so Sir Alex Ferguson’s brilliant tactic of setting Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young wide on the flanks gave Chelsea early problems — and United established a two-goal lead.

But the Red Devils have had just three clean sheets all season and this wasn’t likely to be one of them. Back came Chelsea with two goals of their own before United grabbed a fortuitous winner to leave themselves, Chelsea and City separated by a single point at the top of the table.

Whichever of these teams wins the title this season, they won’t do it by establishing a ferociously impenetrable defence.

How different the strategy was for a team like Milan, from the late 1980s to relatively recently, with defenders like Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini achieving legendary status and picking up domestic, and European titles for fun.

Perhaps there has been a genuine change in the way football matches are won. But remember this: Spain’s Euro 2012 success came on the back of sterling defensive displays by Ramos, Pique, Arbeloa and Alba, with Sergio Busquets in front of them. Defending well shouldn’t be such an unfashionable concept.

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