In defence of the fine art of defending

This season’s Premier League goal-glut sounds good on paper, but stopping the other team is a vital football skill.

Duleep Allirajah

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Is the art of defending dead? There have been some bizarre scorelines in the English Premier League this season – not least Manchester United’s 4-3 win over Reading last Saturday, which triggered a blast of the Fergie hairdryer. ‘It was the worst defending of this season’, fumed Sir Alex. The United manager described his team’s defensive performance as a ‘cartoon cavalcade’. But Keystone Cops-style defending isn’t just confined to Old Trafford. Arsenal’s defending has bordered on the farcical in recent years, while shortcomings at the back have been the main reasons for Chelsea and Manchester City’s premature Champions League exits this season. It’s enough to make Alan Hansen weep.

Look, I feel obliged to declare an interest here. I’m a defender by trade (er, well, maybe more ‘in my dreams’ than ‘by trade’). I’m a devoted disciple of the defensive arts. I adore the unabashed caution of the catenaccio. I have taken the Mourinhocratic Oath which holds: ‘First, concede no goals.’ I get goosepimples when I see a well-marshalled back line step up in perfect synchronicity to play offside. It’s sexy football, no? By the same token, bad defending offends me. It’s an abomination. And incompetent defending is a growing trend. I wake up at night, drenched in sweat, screaming, ‘Track the runners, don’t watch the ball!’.

I’m completely in agreement with Sam Allardyce here. The West Ham manager has bemoaned the erosion of defensive standards in English football. ‘Talking about good defending, I do worry about certain aspects of our game’, wrote Big Sam in his London Evening Standard column. ‘Heading, tackling and defending are three examples of declining footballing skills which have made our games so exciting through the years. For me, there will always be something really special about witnessing the art of top defending, marvelling at a special header or being thrilled by a top tackle.’ Allardyce’s sentiments were echoed by Martin Keown, a mainstay of the legendary Arsenal back four. ‘It pains me to say this as a defender but it seems that keeping clean sheets is becoming a lost art’, complained Keown in a Daily Mail article.

So what’s behind the decline in defensive standards? FIFA rule changes over the past two decades have certainly stacked the odds in favour of attackers. Robust challenges that were considered legitimate 20 years ago are now yellow-card offences. If studs are raised it’s often a straight red. Football, it seems, is increasingly becoming a non-contact sport. Moreover, football’s lawmakers have made a right dog’s dinner of the offside law. Active, inactive, first phase, second phase. HELP! It raises the question: Has the myriad of FIFA edicts made defenders scared to make a tackle? Indeed have modern footballers lost the knack of tackling altogether?

It could be argued that we’re looking at this phenomenon in a topsy-turvy way. Could it be that, rather than defenders getting worse, attackers are getting better? In a Guardian blog, written at the end of October, Kevin McCarra noted that the Premier League had overtaken Germany’s Bundesliga and Spains La Liga in its goals-per-game ratio. ‘This is no time to be a defender in the Premier League, but it is a moment to be relished by spectators’, concluded McCarra. ‘I think the main reason for the leaky defences is a positive one’, suggested Martin Keown. ‘Managers this season are looking to play expansive attacking football.’ Many top flight English teams now employ a 4-2-3-1 system with full-backs given free reign to bomb forward. While this provides a greater goalscoring threat, it also leaves teams more vulnerable to counter-attacks. Former Portsmouth centre half Linvoy Primus attributes the goal glut to the ‘the rise in quality of creative players in the Premier League’. He says that ‘defenders are struggling to stop’ creative overseas players.

Could the problem simply be one of transition? Is it that the old guard of experienced defenders – players like Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Jamie Carragher, Nemanja Vidic – are starting to creak and their youthful replacements are still learning their trade? Manchester United, for example, are constantly chopping and changing not only their back four but also their goalkeeper. It would be hard for any defence to develop a good understanding under those circumstances. While there some truth in this explanation, it really doesn’t excuse the wretched defending we saw on Saturday from United. Premier League teams shouldn’t be conceding goals from corners. That wasn’t inexperience. Those were schoolboy errors.

We’ve had a long debate in England about the respective merits of zonal marking and man-marking at set pieces. Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool team was frequently berated for using zonal marking when defending corners. But zonal versus man-to-man marking is just a phoney debate. Both tactics, if executed well, can be effective. The real polarity is good versus bad defending. ‘This goal glut is down to dreadful defending, simple as that’, says former Liverpool midfielder Ray Houghton. ‘Perhaps they are not doing much defensive work, perhaps the defensive coaches are not good enough.’ Therein lies the problem. Defending is just too sloppy these days. Players are simply not being coached or drilled properly. And it’s not just about the back four, it’s the whole team defending from the front. Look at Barcelona. Their success is built on an extraordinary work rate. When Barca lose the ball – which is invariably in the opposition half – their forward players work really hard to win back the ball quickly.

I’m not denying that FIFA rule changes and new tactical formations have changed the landscape for defenders. But it’s a failure of coaches and managers that teams haven’t adapted to these new challenges. Part of the problem in this country is that defending isn’t properly valued. Managers who set up their teams not to concede goals are seen as boring, negative and cautious. It’s described as ‘anti-football’. ‘Parking the bus’ is used as a derogatory term. By contrast expansive, attacking football is revered. Everyone wants to play like Barcelona, but without being committed to put in the phenomenal work rate that a high-pressing style demands.

We need a correction; a recognition that defending is an artform not a chore. And we need to develop a new breed of defenders who are capable of dealing with the challenges of the modern game: convoluted offside rules, card-happy referees and creative players who operate ‘between-the-lines’. We need to halt the goal glut. It’s time for a Defensive Renaissance.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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