By David Lynch
“One defends when his strength is inadequate, he attacks when it is abundant.” – Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War’.
When legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu sat down to write this small extract of his life’s work over 1,000 years ago, it is unlikely he was thinking of Premier League football in 2012.
Yet, following a chaotic, goal-laden start to this season, it is quite easy to see how the above quote applies to the English top flight in its modern guise. Never before have we been as spoiled in terms of attacking talent; possessing an unprecedented number of world class forward players is now a basic requirement for teams with lofty ambitions.
Manchester City have Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Edin Dzeko to call upon, and their neighbours United are equally well stocked with Wayne Rooney, Chicharito, Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck amongst the ranks. Chelsea also possess an embarrassment of riches, with Fernando Torres, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard on the books, whilst in Santi Cazorla and Luis Suarez, Arsenal and Liverpool have two of football’s premier talents.
But has this influx of incisive brilliance come at a cost? Has ‘The Art of Defending’ finally been lost in the pursuit of goals?
One man who knows all about keeping out Premier League forwards is former Liverpool right-back Rob Jones, who earned a reputation as one of the game's finest defenders during his eight-year spell with the Reds. And he has certainly noted a recent change in the solidity of defences, citing Arsenal’s famously mean title-winning defences of yester-year as evidence.
He told Goal.com: “At Arsenal years ago, they weren’t the best players in the world but they had a solid back four and that’s what made them the champions. They were solid, Tony Adams had them moving up, moving back, sidewards and they all moved together.”
It is a downturn which John Scales, Jones’ defensive colleague at Anfield for two years during the '90s, has also observed. He said: “I wouldn’t like to say that suddenly the art of defending is lost but I have seen some dreadful examples of defending. Manchester United at times have been very un-United; conceding set-pieces, conceding first and early. But all the teams look vulnerable.”
And the facts certainly back up the pair’s concerns. League leaders Manchester United have conceded a staggering 23 goals in their first 16 games this term, placing their goals per game average at 1.44. The highest goals per game average a league-winning team have ever posted is 1.18, a record carved out by Sir Alex Ferguson’s men during the 1999-00 season.
It is easy to dismiss these statistics as proof that United’s grip on the lead is unsustainable given their defensive malaise, but the league as a whole appears happy to follow the lead. Last season, top-flight teams conceded an average of 2.81 goals per game, and that record will be beaten this term if the current scoring rate persists.
But are there mitigating circumstances for such porousness at the back?
Scales certainly believes so, and added: “You’ve got the likes of Michu coming into the Premier League and causing different problems. There have been so many changes in personnel and teams coming up playing attacking football like Swansea and they’ve asked more questions of teams. Teams that are now in the Premier League are prepared to go at the clubs and challenge them and put them under pressure. I think the game’s changing slightly and that has put more pressure on the top defences.”
Jones doesn’t think this era-defining goal-rush is all bad though, speaking purely from the perspective of a supporter at least. He said: “Clean sheets are rare nowadays but I’m a fan now so it’s nice to see the goals flying in. There are still some great defenders out there but the Premier League has some of the best attacking players in the world so you’re going to concede goals.”
It is this statement from a player-cum-fan which perhaps sums it up best. We can criticise the sheer defensive incompetence on show and yearn for the clean sheets of the past but entertainment is hard to argue against. It is what we all crave from football.
Regardless, Sun Tzu might have been less concerned about defending had the consequences been as mild as a goalkeeper feeling embarrassed.Follow David Lynch on