Every time something surprising happens, people ask questions. After Newcastle’s unexpected 6-2 victory over Norwich two weeks ago, a Twitter debate began on whether defending has become an afterthought. This was the view of ex-Premier League defender Danny Higginbotham, who posted a short clip of his point before penning this article in the Independent last Friday.
Higginbotham is one of few pundits generally worth listening to, and I can see where he’s coming from. Despite that, I can’t help but feel this is slightly reactionary. For a start, such games have been happening for a long while — it’s already 8 years ago that Reading were losing 6-4 to Spurs and 7-4 to Portsmouth.
England does tend to throw up more ‘freak scorelines’ than domestic leagues in other major footballing countries, and crunching the numbers made for interesting reading. After 9 rounds of games, 251 goals were scored in the Premier League this season. In La Liga the total was 229 – with Real Madrid and Barcelona contributing 41, while the Bundesliga had 227 after 9 games, albeit in an 18-team league. 43 of those came from FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. In Serie A there had been 234 goals, and in Ligue 1 just 214 after most teams had played 9.
Exceptional sides with world-class attacking players will skew the ‘goals for’ column — mainly in Spain and England, but our goal frenzies aren’t limited to the top teams. Why is Newcastle v Norwich more likely to produce a glut of goals than, say, Sporting Gijón v Las Palmas in La Liga?
After witnessing the standard of defending in the Newcastle-Norwich game, people could be forgiven for thinking teams forget about defending nowadays. But does it actually mean that defending is considered less important? Or are Premier League defenders simply not as good as their European counterparts?
Higginbotham’s view was that the ability to push forward and play out from the back are considered more important in defenders nowadays than traditional defensive attributes. My opinion is that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Everyone accepts you’ll get nowhere without a strong defence, so is perfectly aware of its importance. So why do teams continue to defend so poorly? Defending hasn’t so much become an afterthought as the quality of defensive coaching is lacking. At least in England.
If anything, being able to play out from the back is good for your goals against column. Spain conceded 2 goals in the 2010 World Cup, and just one at Euro 2012 — in both cases none after the group stages. Moreover, the three teams with the most possession in last year’s Premier League (Man Utd, Man City and Arsenal) all conceded a goal per game or less. But I digress.
If you listen to shouts at training or in games, you’ll realise that attitudes to defending haven’t come on as much. We’ve worked out the effectiveness of keeping possession, but defensively we’re still to fully learn what’s important and how to address problems.
Every week in every age group, you will still hear shouts for players to win tackles and keep tight on their opposite number. Fine, sometimes these are necessary, but what I find annoying is that these are often used as stock responses to players in midfield and defence getting their positioning wrong or making a wrong decision. Most goals are scored this way — capitalising on players who make an incorrect decision to leave a certain area and playing around them.
If a midfielder for example fails to protect the back four by leaving too much space in a dangerous area, and is then too far away to press the ball when he should, he’ll likely get bollocked for not being strong enough (when pressing the ball). Again fine, you’ll need to be that bit stronger and quicker if your positioning is wrong, but you can’t keep relying on that. It’s much better to get your positioning right.
At professional level where players can be showed videos of their performances, it’s not necessarily a big issue, but even at smaller clubs where the budget doesn’t permit the coaching staff to stretch as far, these things can go unnoticed. If a player who struggles defensively isn’t told where he needs to be, he won’t improve. It’s all well and good having training sessions which work on team shape, but specific roles of individuals also need to be addressed, which is often the additional element required.
For me, this is a far bigger contributor to the standard of defending than players forgetting about their duties without the ball. I’m not saying the Premier League is full of kick-and-rush merchants with an agricultural approach to defending, but when you come up against quality attacking players, you get pulled out of position easily if you’re not equipped to deal with them, and resort to last-ditch measures.
Newcastle’s opening goal against Norwich is a classic example. The visitors are all over the place before the man protecting the back four on the edge of the box dives in and leaves space behind him for Newcastle’s Sissoko to drive into and pass to Wijnaldum. You’ll see similar goals scored every week in the Premier League resulting from poor decisions like this.
If you watch La Liga and Serie A in particular, it is noticeable how little players dive in and are more positionally aware. In turn, teams tend to create fewer chances. People might find it boring to watch because they want to see goals, but the simple explanation is that the defending is better.
The main difference between England and leading footballing nations is how slow we are at fixing a problem we are aware of, which means once we’ve done so the others have moved ahead again. It happened with possession of the ball and it’s happening with defending.