Attack, Defence and the Quest for Balance

The 2011/12 Premier League season:  A season voted the best ever in the league’s 20 year history (in its current guise). While one may argue that the outright level of quality wasn’t at its highest this season, no-one can deny the sheer amount of excitement generated throughout culminating in an exhilarating end at the Etihad stadium. The moment the ball left Kun Agüero’s right foot and hit the back of the net encapsulated this in an instant. Mass euphoria for the blue half of Manchester. Heart-wrenching despair for the red half. Football at its dramatic best.

Some are fascinated by the minutiae of tactical changes over the course of a game while the heartbeats of others are raised by a good, old-fashioned crunching tackle. The staple diet of the majority, however, is goals and there were plenty this season. In fact, Agüero’s late effort was the 1065th goal of this remarkable campaign, a record for a 20-team Premier League season. As you’d expect on the back of that an exceptionally high 2.81 goals per game were scored, the highest ratio in the English top-flight since magic picture boxes were still showing black and white images (3.03 in 1967/68). Which begs the question, what were the defenders doing?

There’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that there are still players highly skilled in the art of defending playing in the Premier League. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott formed an impressive pairing at the back for Manchester City and along with Joe Hart were a key reason for their title success this season. Other players once derided even by portions of their own fans, Jonny Evans and Laurent Koscielny, have shown fantastic improvement this season and become vital components in their respective teams’ defensive phase. In contrast to Liverpool’s woes in front of goal, Martin Skrtel has proved to be a rock in a defence that allowed the opposition the fewest shots on target of any Premier League club this season (132).

Fabricio Coloccini’s fine season was acknowledged with a place on the PFA Players’ Player Team of the Year, Pablo Zabaleta was his usual reliable self whenever called upon by Roberto Mancini while Younes Kaboul’s performances have resulted in him being Harry Redknapp’s first choice pick at the heart of his defence and being awarded a provisional place in the France squad for Euro 2012. I could go on listing skilled Premier League defenders as there are many more but, in short, my point is that the individual quality is certainly there.

What isn’t there, at least on a regular basis, is efficient collective organisation. Consider the following results: Manchester City (final position 1st) 6 Manchester United (2nd) 1, Manchester United 8 Arsenal (3rd) 2, Arsenal 5 Tottenham Hotspur (4th) 2, Tottenham Hotspur 5 Newcastle United (5th) 0. These are remarkable results between teams who weren’t separated by that much in the final reckoning (gap between 2nd and 3rd apart). Granted, there were mitigating circumstances for some of these scorelines but on the whole they show a rather naïve tactical approach either in the initial setup of the respective losing teams or during the carnage.

These examples don’t even include Chelsea who themselves have been on different ends of cricket scores (albeit very low ones) in some of the ‘big’ games. Their 3-5 loss to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season was a prime example of excitement induced by kamikaze defending. Both sides gave master classes in how not to play a high defensive line. A lack of pressure higher up the field meant both defences were extremely vulnerable to even the most rudimentary long ball. The difference between the sides on that day, and where Arsenal won the match, was seeing this and making a change to rectify the initial error. The team in red dropped slightly deeper in the second half and weren’t as immediately susceptible to the long ball unlike their London rivals who were steadfast in their approach. André Villas-Boas was subjected to a lot of flak that day but his philosophy wasn’t the issue, it was more its implementation. Gradually, as he saw his squad weren’t willing to accept his methods, he adopted a more conservative approach but sadly for him the die had already been cast.

That away victory was one of many in the Premier League this season. 30.5% of games have ended in this fashion, higher than in any other Premier League season. It’s clear that managers have had a more offensive mindset when setting their team up which is another reason for the glut of goals this campaign. The rationale for this change in mentality is somewhat less clear-cut. It could be that the top teams seem, and in fact are, more vulnerable than they once were resulting in the ‘smaller’ clubs taking the handbrake off rather than travelling to the big grounds, parking the bus and waiting for the inevitable breakthrough.

Courtesy of The Independent

Premier League managers are also currently more progressive in their philosophy. The ambition of the ‘lesser’ clubs has meant an increase in attacking play throughout the league. There seems to be a greater number of teams adopting a certain ethos of playing, namely with the ball on the deck, and not altering that approach when they come up against sides they might traditionally expect to be battered by. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan, with their 3-4-3 and Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea with their 4-3-3 have both surprised opposition at times with their attacking transitions and technical quality on the ball. We’ve also seen this with other promoted teams in recent years.

Ian Holloway’s Blackpool devoted almost no time in their game to defending and though they paid for it in the end their attacking play brought them many plaudits and large scalps along the way. Paul Lambert’s Norwich are possibly an exception to this rule of sticking to one particular style. He’s a manager that often changes the shape of his team dependent on the opposition but the attacking intent generally remains. Despite only keeping 3 clean sheets all season, goals from all over the team helped them to reach the safe haven that is mid-table. The more success these types of teams have with this approach the more expansive styles will be integrated into the English game.

So, is Premier League defending dead? All the signs certainly point to it being in a lull at the moment. Gone are ‘the Mourinho years’ in which Chelsea’s defence was at its resolute best. Looking back it’s quite remarkable they only conceded 15 goals in the 2004/05 season. Mourinho’s success at Chelsea brought in a wave of cautious tactics across the league and a drop in the number of goals as a result. Managers adopted the thinking that it’s easier to destroy a masterpiece than create one and with José showing results could be gained with a controlled style why should they bother implementing a more open system? Of course, this generalises a bit. Mourinho’s Chelsea was hardly lacklustre. They were a well-drilled machine well capable of exploiting weaknesses in the opposition but what can’t be disputed is the fact that defence always came first.

This was something that Roberto Di Matteo grasped immediately when taking over the reins from Villas-Boas. Given the personnel at his disposal he decided the most logical approach, especially in high-profile games, was to instruct his team to sit deep and compact before springing to life on the counter-attack. Though this tactic didn’t help Chelsea climb the table in the league it did aid them in knockout competition where purity, and to some extents naivety, is often trumped by pragmatism. Of course, Bayern still had ample opportunities to triumph in Munich but Chelsea’s defensive display in the Camp Nou especially (where similarities with Mourinho’s Inter success were very apparent) was in stark contrast to those of most English teams throughout the season both in European competition and on their own shores.

Manchester City have this year won the league conceding 29 goals, almost double Chelsea’s record, and a tally higher than the average over the last 10 years (25.7) . Perhaps fittingly the newly-crowned Champions also scored the most goals yet the word ‘United’ rather than ‘City’ could well have been inscribed on the Premier League trophy had the red half of Manchester defended with a collective cohesion in the dying minutes at home to Everton. Nevertheless, in the end the trophy was won (or lost) on goal difference and for this reason it’s impossible to forget the 6-1 between the two sides earlier in the season. Had Manchester United not been so cavalier against City that day perhaps the ending of this tumultuous season might have been different.

Open, expansive football may conjure excitement but it doesn’t necessarily get results. As ever, a balance is needed. An ability to attack and defend as one. For most teams the elusive search for balance continues.

Many thanks to Opta (@OptaJoe) for their continued provision of stats galore.

If you enjoyed this piece you can follow me on twitter ~> @hazzaboy21

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4 comments on “Attack, Defence and the Quest for Balance

  1. oranjesky says:

    Some interesting points you make about Mourinho and his influence on tactics at the time. Why do you think Managers have changed their tactics now? I loved having Blackpool in the Prem but would they have been better playing more defensively?

    • hazzaboy21 says:

      I certainly believe the practices of some managers on the continent have influenced current styles in the Premier League. It’s hard to look past the work of Spain and Barcelona in recent years and that’s evident especially in Swansea’s style of play. Walter Mazzarri’s success with Napoli has seen the 3-4-3 become utilised by Wigan, and Liverpool have also adopted the 3-man defence that is commonplace in Serie A.

      With regards to Blackpool, though their football injected a breath of fresh air into the Premier League you can’t help feeling that had they reined themselves in a bit they may have survived. However, you have to consider the quality of their individual defenders and Ian Holloway clearly thought, perhaps with this in mind, that their best method of defence was to attack.

  2. r_zana says:

    Enjoyed reading this Hazza. I was thinking how incredible Chelsea’s record of conceding 15 was, we may not see that in a long time! Do you think a proper defensive midfielder will help solve Arsenal’s disorganised defence? I don’t particularly think we need new defenders, which is strange but if you look at each one individually, they’re all talented and can form a solid 4 even though fans are so quick to blame them (understandable considering the amount we’ve conceded). A top club like Arsenal definitely shouldn’t be the subject of such defensive numbers!

    • hazzaboy21 says:

      Indeed. Arsenal’s defensive woes don’t partcularly lie with their individuals, though some have flaws that could be ironed out. My belief is that organisation is the way to go if we’re to improve our defensive record.

      Pressing as a team, rather than individuals; teammates covering for others when one moves out of position; simply showing as much desire to track back and defend the situation as to attack. Too many times we’ve seen a lack of effort in the defensive phase which just isn’t acceptable. Stepping up and hoping for the flag to be raised for offside, as well as we do it, is sometimes a cop out.

      Arsenal have shown this season that defensive flaws can be worked on, just look at our set piece security *touches wood*. Now, we have to put the work in in open play situations.

      With regards to a defensive midfielder it would certainly help to recruit one. Song has become more creative and is no longer focusing on defensive duties as much (by design or otherwise). Arteta uses his experience to fill in where he can and it was apparent in his absence just what a good job he does. Without him we lack balance and though Coquelin shows great promise and could do that job on a regular basis some time in the future it seems wise to bolster our options for that role.

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