Even before the Premier League got round to the traditional kick-off time, 13 goals had been scored in two games. A total of 31 goals were scored over the opening weekend as the first three of last season’s top six to play all conceded three. Take that, Spain, with your Cristiano Ronaldo controversies!
Take that, Italy, with your resurgent Milan! Take that, Germany, with your finely tuned pressing structures! Take that, France, with your Neymar, your Bielsa and your Balotelli! For drama and giggling hilarity, the Premier League remains king.
It’s not king, obviously, if you want success in the Champions League. Nor is it king if you want to develop young players for the national side. And it’s certainly not king if you believe football clubs should have a pastoral role towards the communities they at least nominally represent. But for excitement and spectacle, for the sense that any daft thing could happen at any moment, it still rules.
That’s partly to do with the number of high-quality managers and players in the league, it’s partly to do with a general competitiveness and it’s a lot to do with the fact that a number of the top sides simply cannot defend. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea all have major issues to resolve before a weekend in which they face Stoke, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, all sides who have troubled them in the recent past.
To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.
At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.
Both of those are, of course, hugely positive developments; for everything else that has gone wrong with the game’s governance over the past couple of decades, the law changes have been broadly positive, encouraging teams actually to play the game.
There are also wider tactical issues. Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s demand for the “universal player” and Pep Guardiola’s related comment that he dreams of a side of 11 midfielders may be the abstract concerns of the very elite, but the mentality has percolated the game. There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.
The central defender as auxiliary playmaker is a core tenet of the Cruyffian line of thinking that has shaped the modern landscape, from Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard to Javier Mascherano and David Alaba. It’s why the likes of John Stones and David Luiz are excused their lapses, and why Arsenal on Friday started with a back three featuring two left-backs.
Almost all full-backs these days, meanwhile, are in effect wing-backs. It’s a crude measure but, last weekend, players who started as full-backs or wing-backs in the Premier League made 83 tackles and put in 123 crosses; their job is increasingly to provide attacking width rather than simply to defend. That, inevitably, can create issues: Hoffenheim’s penalty against Liverpool on Tuesday night, for instance, came because Alberto Moreno closed down the goalkeeper, leaving a huge gap on the left side when the ball was played beyond him.
The recent preference for a back three is in part a reaction to the attacking nature of modern full-backs, but the mentality often seems to be that the extra body can hide defensive flaws – only for them then to be exposed by savvy opponents.
But it’s not a coincidence that the Premier League has become the global home of shambolic defending. That seems a natural consequence of the soap opera of the market, the endless lust for new signings. A lot of defending is about drilling, about the same players – not just defenders – doing the same thing over and over and over again until they learn the patterns of interaction that maintain a shape that is difficult to break down. If there is constant flux in a squad, it becomes almost impossible to build up any level of familiarity.
Virgil van Dijk is an excellent defender but if he joins Liverpool today, they won’t suddenly become a side with an excellent defence. There will have to be time spent familiarising himself with the pressing game Klopp favours, getting used to how the full-backs push forward, to how his fellow centre-backs like to play, how Liverpool’s midfield reacts to situations. Dejan Lovren, it may be recalled, also left Southampton with a fine reputation and Liverpool remain far from secure at the back.
But it’s not just Liverpool where that’s an issue. It’s as though English football exists in such a swirl of comings and goings that the idea of working things out on the training pitch doesn’t exist any more. The one manager who did do that last season, Antonio Conte, now has to handle a squad that appears weirdly fraught and demoralised, a situation exacerbated by his own clear dissatisfaction at a lack of signings.
That’s an internal political issue; for a number of others, though, now might be a good time to start addressing basic flaws of concentration and structure.