Danny Mills, summarising for BBC Radio 5 Live’s commentary of Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Fulham last Saturday, despairingly commented that “the art of defending seems to have gone completely out of the window”.
Various statistics corroborate Mills’, not uncommon, view on the standard of defending in the modern game. Almost a decade ago, the average number of goals per game in the 2003-04 season was 2.66. Last year the figure was 2.80. With eleven games played in this season’s Premier League, the average is currently 2.82.
The steady incline of goals scored has steepened in the last few years: In the 2008-09 campaign, after eleven games, a total of 246 goals had been scored in the Premier League. At present, despite Reading and Sunderland having only played ten matches, the twenty top-flight sides have found the back of the net 307 times already. Chelsea, four years ago, conceded an average of 9.8 shots per game, whereas this season the figure is 13.1. More shots, and consequently more goals, occur on a regular basis in the Premier League.
On the one hand, the statistics point to greater attacking potency, but the competing nature of attacking and defending therefore suggests a growing deficiency among those playing in the back line. It seems clear that defenders are no longer up to the job; their standards have slipped and they are now getting rightly exposed weekly on the football field. This argument is a popular one, but in reality is far too simplistic. Football may be a simple game, but the reason why Premier League defences are looking more and more leaky is surely more complex than defenders plainly not being good enough.
In fact, there are numerous reasons. Primarily though, it is a question of mindset. Managers and fans alike are now consumed by the power of possession. The statistics most regularly cited in newspaper columns and by post match pundits are those which determine which team has retained the ball for the longest. Barcelona, in recent years, have been the shining example, conquering European and World Football by holding on to the ball for the vast majority of the ninety minutes. As such, the most highly rated players in the world game are those who are expert at looking after the ball.
Consequently, the demand for defenders who are comfortable in possession has risen exponentially. Centre backs in the modern game are urged to bring the ball out of defence; to be the anchor for the team to keep the ball. For those playing at the heart of the defence, the remit is no longer to get it clear. Rather than finding the elusive ‘Row Z’, the centre back is now encouraged to recycle possession and accordingly to not be afraid to carry the ball forward into midfield.
Thus, the modern day defender’s key qualities are no longer superb aerial prowess, or ruthless determination to make last ditch tackles. These are undoubtedly important, and it would be churlish to emphasise the change in defending in such broad binary terms, but ability on the ball is now prized just as highly, a definite disparity from the earlier years of the Premier League. This emphasis on possession has grown to the extent that midfielders are often found filling in at the centre of the defence, notably Michael Carrick at Manchester United in recent months. A greater focus on defending with the ball has accordingly led to the recognised art of defending being sidelined; the safest way to not concede goals is not to concede possession. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball, therefore retaining the ball is vital for defenders in the modern era.
In addition, teams in the Premier League frequently now play with less natural width. Wingers are being transformed into inside forwards, and thus marauding full backs are required to provide width in support of attacks. This is all very well from an attacking perspective, but when the ball is lost, the remaining member of the back four are clearly left more exposed. Such exposure is not aided by the fact that the infamous ‘Makelele’ role is less and less common; a holding midfielder solely focussed on breaking up opposition attacks, as midfielders are now required to be more rounded, their performances aiming at more balanced offensive and defensive efforts.
A case for the defence then, lies in the changing attitudes towards how the game should be played. Football is no exception to the trends of fashion, and currently the trend is firmly to play in a fluent, creative form that is attractive and, importantly, attacking. Winning through stubborn defending is now chastised as winning ‘ugly’, and as a consequence, the traditional school of defending is disappearing from the beautiful game.