EPL defences aren’t what they once used to be

Last weekend witnessed 40 goals and calamities at the back

By (Agencies)

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Published: Fri 24 Oct 2014, 3:34 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 10:45 PM

In its own way, it was a thing of beauty. Santiago Vergini, under no pressure as the ball arced slowly towards the edge of his penalty area, swooped towards it, ready for the simple task of hoofing it to distant safety.

Instead, bewilderingly, the Sunderland defender caught the ball sweetly on the half-volley, simultaneously curling it at breakneck speed into the corner of the net. His own net. His goalkeeper, Vito Mannone, could only perch on one knee, forlornly contemplating the glory of one of football’s most exquisite own goals as up in the stands at Southampton’s St Mary’s stadium, watching his side go one down in historic fashion, an elderly, bespectacled Sunderland fan was caught by the cameras shaking his head in dismay.

Not in my day, his old face seemed to scream in a snapshot which stood as a symbol of a weekend of comedy rearguard action in the Premier League. Does nobody know how to defend anymore?

It was not just poor old Santiago, of course. It was the rest of his pitiful colleagues, who went on to ship seven more goals against Southampton in one of the most abject displays of capitulation the Premier League has witnessed.

It was Richard Dunne, expertly bundling in the 10th own goal of his career for QPR. It was Steven Caulker following suit with another ‘og’ to gift victory to Liverpool, whose own defending was described by their former stalwart Jamie Carragher as ‘awful’ in the mad 3-2 victory. It was Manchester United’s obliging crew offering free passage for West Brom’s Saido Berahino to score as he liked with no central defender within five metres, prompting an apoplectic Rodney Marsh to cry on the radio: “That for me is Sunday morning football defending. Terrible, terrible defending.”

Basically, then, one of those weekends that intermittently crop up when gnarled defenders of the old school bark, as Lee Dixon, one quarter of the famed Arsenal back four of legend, did four years ago after watching a weekend of 35 goals flying in from all angles: “The quality of the defending...seems like it is at an all-time low.”

Well, last weekend witnessed 40 goals and a series of calamities at the back which would have had Alan Hansen, the old Liverpool maestro who recently retired after a career on the BBC’s ‘Match of the Day’, as the guardian of quality defending, spinning in his old pundit’s seat. Only once before in Premier League annals had more goals been scored in a single round of games — 43 in February 2011.

After eight rounds of the current season, the average number of goals per game is running at 2.95.

If that continues, it will easily be the most goal-laden of any Premier League campaign and will continue a trend. All but one of the six biggest-scoring Premier League seasons have occurred over these past five years.

Does this indicate defences, as events like last weekend’s keep wooing us to believe, are generally more inept than a generation ago?

There is, naturally, no need to ask that question to Liverpool fans, who are still feeling a little shell-shocked at witnessing Sunday’s back four of Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and Jose Enrique. Or, rather, is it merely further indication of just how Fifa rule changes over the last 20 years, including revamped offside laws and greater protection for strikers from robust challenges, have begun to shift the odds in favour of attackers? Remember when cricket was a game for bowlers and batsmen before Twenty20 demanded six-hitting hoopla? Defenders now moan that football, as part of the entertainment industry, has become a game for strikers.

‘Bite yer leg’ challenges in the style of former Leeds United hardman Norman Hunter that once earned nothing but cheers more than a generation ago are now deemed dangerous yellow or sometimes even red card offences, leading to the old chestnut about football increasingly becoming a non-contact sport. It makes defenders like Dixon fear the new breed, worried about over-committing to tackles have become almost neutered. “I genuinely think players are a little bit nervous of making tackles now because there are so many yellow and red cards flying around,” he told the BBC.

“But I will be saddened if the art of defending is eradicated from the game. It certainly looks like it is going that way.”

The game, television audiences and particularly the Premier League itself, is in thrall to attack. Clubs like Manchester United have invested in adventure rather than security and with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Angel Di Maria now rampaging up and down the land, following Luis Suarez’s dazzling brilliance last year, you could argue Premier League defences have never had it so tough.

Indeed, the game has moved on to such a degree, now played at such a pace and with such a level of technical excellence from players like those, that defenders are now presented with having to halt high-speed excellence like never before. Or, as another old Arsenal rock, Martin Keown, once put it a couple of seasons ago: “We now have managers who want to play football.” Of course, we still have Jose Mourinho. His Chelsea look likely to win the title, not just because they have virtuosos dotted around the field, from Cesc Fabregas to Hazard, but mainly because they have a settled, experienced, streetwise defence patrolled by the most unsung, but splendid policeman in Nemanja Matic.

And before we get too misty-eyed about hard-bitten, no nonsense, organised defences of old under the meanest of managers like Arsenal’s George Graham, let us drift back to 1991, and a wonderful, floating 30-yard back pass looping over the head of David Seaman and into the net. Yes, it was Lee Dixon. Eat your heart out, Santiago Vergini!

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