Are Messi and Co. simply reaping the benefits of the disgraceful state of defense today?

Football has moved to the era of the ‘super-striker’ but Aditya Bajaj wonders if it has anything to do with the slow death of the art of defending.
 Aditya Bajaj
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There was a time when a defender was sold so another one could take his place to maintain the balance of the side.

Gone are the days, when a defender held his own in the team regardless of whether a star striker or a midfielder was warming the bench. He had his own place in the team, his own territory.

Sadly, the good old days are gone.

When last week, the Italian media reported that AC Milan were actually preparing a package to acquire Mario Balotelli by selling two of their defenders in Ignazio Abate and Philippe Mexes, it wasn’t difficult to realize how the game has changed in the past six years since a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and arguably the greatest player of all time Lionel Messi took over from the greats of the previous era.

Milan, a club that not long ago boasted a back four of Paolo Maldini, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta and Cafu all playing together, wouldn’t mind compromising on the fact that their defence today is amongst the weakest in the Serie A to strengthen a department buzzing with forwards by adding another one at the expense of not one but two defenders.

Yes, Balotelli if handled with care, would no doubt form a mouth-watering pair with Stephen El Shaarawy and the pair of Abate and Mexes haven’t really been upto the mark this season but how about finding a replacement for the latter to strengthen an area that is lagging by leaps and bounds both in terms of quality and quantity instead of using them as means of funds?

Having chased and failed to sign French International defender Yanga-M’biwa all through last summer to replace the departed Thiago Silva, there isn’t a whisper of astonishment as to how the former Montpellier center half quietly completed a move to Newcastle United instead and why he wasn’t really pursued this winter?

But the former Italian champions only reflect what the game is all about today.

It wasn’t (still isn’t) a secret that Manchester United desperately needed to shore up their defence and find a replacement for the ailing pair of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand last August. Instead they completed the signing of Robin Van Persie despite having the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa to carry them through while the funds could have been used to buy a quality defender and a central midfielder but hasn’t it worked perfectly for them?

Robin Van Persie | The former Arsenal striker is masking the defensive issues at Old Trafford

The former Arsenal striker scores at will almost every weekend that it really doesn’t matter if United have already conceded 30 goals this season in just 23 games while in the 2007-08 season (their best since the treble winning season of 1998-99) where they lifted the league title and the Champions League, they had only allowed 22 throughout the campaign!  

Already eight more goals in the back of the net and we’re just halfway through the season, but there’s always room for a Wilfried Zaha.

Barcelona have failed to keep a clean sheet in all but only 5 league games this season, having already conceded 23 goals in 20 league games, but how does it matter if Carles Puyol is ageing and they still haven’t found a replacement for the captain while Gerard Pique has spent more time on the treatment table than on the field?

When you have a Lionel Messi who scores more than 90 goals in a calendar year by your side, it really doesn’t matter then that Javier Mascherano who probably can’t recollect the last time he played in his favoured position (he was amongst the world’s best) has featured more than the Spanish duo over the last couple of seasons as the team’s ‘make-shift’ center back.

Never mind, if Osasuna have allowed fewer goals than the Catalans this season and the Los Rojillos are 18th in the table!

Arsenal may be 19 points off the pace in the title race, but when it comes to conceding they are going neck to neck with United. Yet, they pursue Adrian Lopez while a little bit of shuffle and tightening at the back could help them hang on to the number of leads they have failed to cling onto over the past couple of seasons.

But the truth is, or shall we call it a ‘trend’ that teams today make sure that they have a forward line that outscores its own defence when it comes to scoring and conceding to get maximum points. Clean sheets are a thing of the past and win or lose, teams are bound to concede in almost every game.

All the teams in the Premier League this season have conceded at a rate that is greater than a goal per game, with Manchester City and Chelsea being the only exception but they have also just managed to miss the train. It’s the same in La Liga with Malaga boasting the best record having let in 17 goals in 20 games and they lie 5th in the table, some 23 points away from Barcelona!

Once considered a league with the best defensive record, the Serie A has also given way to the current trend with Juventus perhaps the only team (not just in Italy but in Europe) to maintain some discipline at the back, the main reason why they have peaked over the last couple of seasons despite having a very average attacking line when compared to some of the top teams in Europe.

The big question though is if the game has become more attacking because the quality of forwards has boomed or is it because the defenders are slowly turning into a dying breed?

Having terrorized almost every team in the continent regardless of their stature ever since his rise to his prominence, Lionel Messi couldn’t score a single goal in open play against Milan last season and he faced them four times. He did manage to score two goals but both from the penalty spot.

The reason?

Lionel Messi was left frustrated by Alessandro Nesta on four occasions last season

Each time Barcelona played Milan, Messi was being marked by Alessandro Nesta – probably the last of the great line of defenders of the past era. Who can forget that sliding challenge in the penalty box at Camp Nou that left the world’s best player fuming with frustration or that crucial tactical foul to stop a marauding Messi leaving the Argentine dumbfounded in awe of the Italian who pretty much compensated for his lack of speed with his supreme technical abilities so desperately missing in the game today?

Taking nothing away from the Argentine, or the Ronaldos, the Falcaos, the Zlatans and the Van Persies of this generation, but it wouldn’t cost us a pound to wonder if these super-strikers could still score at their current strike rates had the likes of Paolo Maldni, Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, Cafu, Cannavaro, Tony Adams, Alessandro Nesta, Sol Campbell, Roberto Carlos, Gary Neville and the many great defenders , not retired over the last decade and were still leading their teams in their prime?

Surely there was quality upfront back then as well with the likes of Thierry Henry, Andriy Shevchenko, the original Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Van Nistelrooy and the many other great strikers of the past decade but they were confronted with quality defenses everywhere they played.

Even Valencia had the quality of Carlos Marchena and Roberto Ayala.

Today, you can literally count the number of top class defenders on the fingers of one hand and sadly the future doesn’t look too bright either as the current trend suggests that teams have moved on from that age when the success of any team depended equally on the quality of its attack and defense.

Suddenly it’s all about whether the home team has a stronger attack than the away team and vice-versa. Rarely anyone speaks about the defensive aspect of the game.

It might be easy on the eye, but next time when the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Van Persie score a goal just spend a minute analyzing if they have really taken the game to the next level or is it because the age of the ‘super-striker’ is being silently aided by the death of the ‘defender’.

Whatever happened to Newton’s third law of motion?

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