EPL defenses changed

Source:Reuters Published: 2014-10-24 19:23:01

Goal-laden games reflect questions over the backfield

Sunderland's Santiago Vergini picks the ball from the net behind goalkeeper Vito Mannone after Southampton's Sadio Mane scored his side's eighth goal at St. Mary's Stadium on October 18. Photo: CFP

 In its own way, it was a thing of beauty. Santiago Vergini, under no pressure as the ball arced slowly toward the edge of his penalty area, swooped toward 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 soccer'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.

His old face seemed to scream in a snapshot which stood as a symbol of a weekend of comedy rearguard action in the English Premier League (EPL). Does nobody know how to defend any more?

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 own goal 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 meters, prompting an apoplectic Rodney Marsh to cry on the radio, "That for me is Sunday morning football defending. Terrible, terrible defending."

Gnarled defenders

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 defenses, 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 favor of attackers?

Remember when cricket was a game for bowlers and batsmen before Twenty20 demanded six-hitting hoopla? Defenders now moan that soccer, as part of the entertainment industry, has become a game for strikers.

Non-contact sport

"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 soccer 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, TV 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 defenses 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 defense patrolled by the most unsung, but splendid policeman in Nemanja Matic.

Before we get too misty-eyed about hard-bitten, organized defenses of old under the meanest of managers like ­Arsenal's George Graham, let us drift back to 1991, and a 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.

Posted in: Feature, Soccer

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