After the goal rush
Some of the Premier League’s best strikers are in top form while the art of defending seems to have been abandoned. Rory Smith examines the causes and effects of a sea-change in approach to English game
With the prospect of a new television rights deal to negotiate, the Premier League's chief executive Richard Scudamore could hardly have hoped for a better start to the season.
More goals than any other league in Europe, more goals than ever before, and such unpredictability that even the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea are not immune.
Quite why the beginning of the domestic campaign should have prompted such a raft of goals -- and such a deluge of eye-catching, hair-raising scorelines -- remains open to debate.
To the likes of Andre Villas-Boas and Arsene Wenger, it is the product of a philosophy which prizes beauty at all costs. Others have observed a tactical naivety or, in the case of Alex Ferguson, a kamikaze attitude inculcated by history. Either way, it is good to watch.
It is typical of Wenger's philosophy that the Arsenal manager prefers to see the Premier League's rise to become Europe's highest-scoring, most turbulent league as a product of its attacking excellence, rather than its defensive frailty.
"The quality of strikers is top," he said yesterday, when asked to explain the sea-change in approach, particularly among the league's great powers. Fixtures between title and Champions League contenders have long been marked by their sterility, their caution; this season all of that has been dismissed, with teams pursuing victory with reckless abandon.
"We have never had so many good strikers in the league. At Manchester City, the players who are on the bench, the ones who are not playing, that shows you why we have had so many goals."
The figures, of course, bear him out: Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie all have a ratio of a goal a game or better this season, while the impacts of Luis Suarez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Javier Hernandez must not be underestimated.
Such statistics can be interpreted either as a compliment to the proficiency of the forwards or as a slight on the ineptitude of the defences they face; the Premier League's longest-serving aesthete, of course, would much rather attribute it to the former.
"People always find a way to complain," said Wenger. "Let's praise the strikers and the attacking style. If you do not see many goals, people are quick to ask what is wrong with the strikers. If you score a lot, they criticise the defenders. At the moment I would say it is down to the attacking style. Do I prefer it like this? Of course."
Dearth in defence
Even Wenger, though, would be hard-pressed to suggest the Premier League's top six are anywhere near as resolute as they have been in previous campaigns.
Only Manchester City have succeeded, thus far, in avoiding a drubbing at the hands of any of their rivals.
Manchester United have shipped six, Chelsea and Tottenham five, Liverpool four and Arsenal, of course, eight: such defeats do not suggest back fours operating at their peak.
On an individual level, each of those incidents can be dismissed as a freak: Liverpool were reduced to nine men at Spurs, John Terry slipped for Chelsea, Arsenal were forced to put out a virtual reserve side at Old Trafford. United, meanwhile, were forced by history to keep attacking as City ran riot in their own backyard.
"It's all right playing the history books, but common sense has to come into it," said Ferguson. "When we went to three and four down, we should have settled for that. But we kept attacking. It was crazy."
But so widespread is the epidemic of what Jose Mourinho might term "basketball scores" that those who see the game more defensively than Wenger suspect something is endemically wrong. It could simply be that none of those sides, City apart, have been able to name a consistent defensive pairing; it may, though, be more serious.
"The basic art has been lost," says Phil Thompson, former centre-back and defensive coach at Liverpool in some of their most miserly years. "You see players, the likes of David Luiz, diving in to win every ball, where sometimes it is more sensible to let an opponent gain possession but to jockey him away from danger.
"At set-pieces, too, the basics are not being carried out. You see so many players holding and tussling with their man (Liverpool's Martin Skrtel being a particular example, for Hernandez's goal at Anfield) at corners that they are not watching the flight of the ball.
"I don't know whether they are being coached to do that or whether it is poor personal decision-making, but it is counter-productive."
Changing the laws
Those defenders under such staunch criticism from all sides warrant some sympathy, though. To Lee Dixon, defenders have been rendered virtually impotent by a succession of rule changes effectively outlawing some of the most reliable tools they have had their disposal.
"Players are a little bit nervous of making tackles," he said. "There is no doubt that year on year there is a change in emphasis and a change in rules. They have stopped the tackle from behind -- and you would probably say quite rightly -- and certainly the tackle from the side has been outlawed in as much as winning the ball is not enough."
It is a view with which his former manager is sympathetic. Defences, he feels, must now run a gauntlet of banned tackles, ever-changing and deeply confusing interpretations of the offside law and the punishment of even the slightest handball.
"Maybe they are frightened of tackling, yes," said Wenger. "That said, teams are more mobile now and the offside is more difficult to deal with.
"And compared to previous years, and when I was playing, there are more penalties for handball. I think we have gone overboard with that.
"You need to make 15 good passes to score a goal, but if the ball hits the arm of a guy who did not move his hand, you get a penalty. It is disproportionate."
Wenger's case may be undermined by the record number of penalties missed this season, but historically, significant gluts in goals are accompanied by either major rule changes -- as happened with the offside law in the 1920s -- or tactical shifts, as witnessed in the 1960s, when the proliferation of teams playing with deep-lying centre forwards resulted in record hauls of goals before defences could adapt.
It is not simply tactically -- with the fashion for the so-called 'false nine', the modern term for deep-lying striker -- that the shadow of the best side on the planet looms large over the Premier League. They may be organic, but elements of Barcelona are everywhere.
There is the intense pressing game employed by Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. There are the full-backs functioning as wingers which Villas-Boas prefers at Chelsea. Arsenal's style has long been redolent of Catalunya; United have been compared to them in approach, City in image.
"We move the ball quickly and that is vital in modern football, but we are not thinking about Barcelona," says Aguero.
That may be the case, but others are: Wigan manager Roberto Martinez is not the only observer to draw the parallel.
United are similarly unhappy to be labelled mere mimics, for all they have developed a short-passing, fluid style in attack this season.
"People go on about their passing, but for me when they lose the ball, how quickly they try and win the ball back is the biggest asset they have," says Rooney. "When we lose the ball, we defend from the front really quickly and put the teams under pressure, then we can maybe nick the ball back close to their goal. That's what we've done and worked on and thankfully that's paid off for us."
Such an approach, of course, carries with it attendant risk: the high line Chelsea play, another homage to Pep Guardiola's team, was ruthlessly exposed by Arsenal on Saturday.
United's determination to cling to the style resulted in their mauling by City. Arsenal's refusal to break from their own tradition ensured their defeat at Old Trafford.
But there is a psychological element to the lionisation of the Spanish and European champions, too. Their closest rivals, their would-be usurpers, are clearly affected by the aesthetic standards they have set.
Villas-Boas, for one, has spoken of taking a "stance" on footballing principles. "You have to reflect on what are the values of English culture and British football," said the Chelsea manager, when asked what had changed at Stamford Bridge, once the home of the ultimate win-at-all-costs coach, to promote artistic expression.
"Those values are well present, so end of story for me."
Even Mancini, for so long regarded as a typically Italian, safety-first manager, has encouraged his team to pour forward. Barcelona have successfully twinned beauty with success. Merely winning, in the fashion of Mourinho, is evidently no longer enough. (© Independent News Service)