As the 10th season of A-League football gets underway this weekend, defences around Australia may want to avoid looking to the EPL for guidance. It seems the English domestic game has regressed (tactically, not in entertainment value) to the Mediterranean footballing culture of the 1990’s and 2000’s; ‘as long as we score more goals than you, it doesn’t matter how many we concede’.
The gap between the top and the bottom of Serie A and La Liga has been so vast over the last two-and-a-half decades that great sides like Juventus, Inter and Milan have rarely had to defend. Barcelona and Real Madrid alike piled money into ‘Galaticos’ Romário, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo while ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ went through a run of 12 matches in which neither they, nor their opponents, scored more than one goal.
Through the years of Manchester United’s latest period of dominance, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils would absorb endless pressure without conceding, and strike on the break through Schmeichel’s distribution and the electric outlets Ryan Giggs and co offered. Winners were regularly fired in the dying minutes when opponents were most vulnerable. This was all made possible by the foundations of a stoic defence, from Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister through to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidi?. It was impressive, yet predictable.
Now, the Premiership is, unequivocally, the most exciting league in the world; the unexpected regularly rears its head. To a man, every team enters an arena with warranted belief they can win, whether they face Manchester City or Leicester City.
Indeed, reigning Champions Man City squandered an early two-goal lead against Hull City last month, only to go on and win 4-2. Then Man City beat Liverpool fairly comfortably, just five days after losing 1-0 at home to Stoke City.
In turn, Premiership new boys, Leicester City, won at Stoke the following weekend, before slotting five past Louis van Gaal’s multi-million pound investments. Leicester went on to lose 2-0 to Crystal Palace and draw 2-2 with another promoted side, Burnley. Southampton has conceded the fewest goals in the Premiership this season, with just five goals leaked in seven appearances.
Such is modern-day life in the most unpredictable league on earth.
In terms of goals scored, this season promises to smash all records, with 196 already netted after seven rounds of football. So much for a cagey start. At this stage last season, just 162 goals had been scored, and the total went on to fall only three goals short of equalling the all-time Premiership record. This was set in 2011-12 with an average of 2.81 goals per match.
Find three goals at home to Chelsea, and you expect to walk away with three points. Or even better, net twice in their back yard and, surely, your work is done. But both Everton and Swansea respectively, were left pondering how they conceded double the number of goals they scored in these instances. Aside from the prolific form of Diego Costa (who fired five of his nine Premiership goals so far in these two outings) the answer is that top-flight English football sides no longer concentrate on building from the back. Even Jose Mourinho seems to think that attack is the best form of defence these days.
It is the Portuguese manager who holds the record for masterminding the tightest defence in Premiership history. His 2004/05 outfit built their winning campaign on ‘parking the bus’ and conceding just 15 goals all season. After seven matches in this season’s campaign, they have already been breached seven times. But they have scored 21 goals – seven more than anybody else. In 2004/05, they netted 72 times at an average of 1.89, compared with three goals an outing this time around.
Mourinho is aware of how Premiership football has evolved since he last broke Mancunian dominance. Ten years on, he looks set to do it again.
If Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United are to mount serious title campaigns, they have to stop conceding. Premiership sides are being found out in Europe too, with Spanish, French and German sides looking strong at this early point in proceedings.
The art of defending is certainly not dead, but one or two managers could do worse than cast an eye back to successful campaigns if the title chase is to remain alive all the way through to May. With clubs beating each other at will, the Premiership is in danger of becoming bottom-heavy with Chelsea and Manchester City out of reach.
In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “Football eh, bloody hell”.