x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Premier League managers are left with little defence amid goal flurry

Such has been the shift in attacking emphasis in the Premier League that David de Gea, is officially the busiest shot-stopper in the country.

Manchester City's Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring the opening goal of the English Premier League football match between Fulham and Manchester City at Craven Cottage in London. AFP
Manchester City's Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring the opening goal of the English Premier League football match between Fulham and Manchester City at Craven Cottage in London. AFP

"Of the first class; of acknowledged excellence."

The dictionary definition of classic is indisputable. But consider it in the context of the Premier League season.

Six games so far are bona fide classics, including the last two each at Old Trafford - Manchester United's 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal and 3-1 defeat of Chelsea - and White Hart Lane, where Tottenham have lost 5-1 to Manchester City and beaten Liverpool 4-0.

Include City's 3-2 triumph at Bolton Wanderers and Arsenal's 4-3 defeat at Blackburn Rovers and the drama has been a constant.

First-class entertainment? Definitely. Acknowledged excellence? Going forward, yes, but certainly not defensively.

Forwards are flourishing and it would be curmudgeonly to ignore their contribution.

At this embryonic stage of the season, the annual awards look a straight shoot-out between Wayne Rooney (nine goals in five games) and Sergio Aguero (eight in five), though Emmanuel Adebayor (three in two) looks an intriguing outsider. Each has been terrific.

But it is worth remembering the views of the Italian journalist, polemicist and defender of catenaccio, Gianni Brera.

The perfect game, he argued, would finish 0-0, because no one would make any mistakes. In contrast, the Premier League has been enthrallingly error-riddled.

When Arsene Wenger spoke of "a lack of concentration, communication and co-operation", he was discussing the Arsenal defence, but he could have been talking about several other faulty rearguards.

Statistically, the two worst - his own and Bolton's - meet today at the Emirates Stadium.

The teams seem to carry a mutual disregard for defending, but Wenger said: "We work on it every day and practise." The surprise has not been so much the number of goals scored - 132 in 49 games, an average of 2.7 per match - but the identity of those who have conceded them and allowed their opponents chances.

By conceding 14 goals (all the more remarkable as they have kept two clean sheets), Arsenal have a record that only two teams in Premier League history - Derby four years ago and Southampton in 1998/99 - have topped at this stage of the season.

The manner of them has been as damning as statistics. Set-piece confusion, haphazard attempts to play offside and own goals have pockmarked their first five games.

They can cite misfortune, too, and they are not alone in that.

Several of the division's finest defenders have missed much of the campaign.

Goals might have been at more of a premium had Thomas Vermaelen, William Gallas, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Glen Johnson been ever-presents.

Others have been below par, and not merely at Emirates Stadium: this has not been a vintage start for Jamie Carragher, Joleon Lescott, Patrice Evra and Gary Cahill.

As significant, perhaps, has been the lack of support for those left beleaguered at the back.

As Wenger said: "The modern game is a team sport more than ever because everybody has to defend completely. All the big teams do it. You do not get away with just seven or eight and the rest watching."

Yet defensive midfielders threaten to become an endangered species, with Nigel de Jong and Alex Song absent for different, but enforced, reasons, John Obi Mikel losing his place in the Chelsea side and Sir Alex Ferguson seeming to dispense with anchormen altogether.

United were never a byword for caution, but the consequence is that they are now more cavalier. The goalkeeper with the division's most saves tends to play for one of the strugglers. Not now; David de Gea, their new Spanish import, is officially the busiest shot-stopper in the country.

A commitment to open football may suit United, reasoning they are equipped to score more in a game of chances. Yet it is something others are equally willing to embrace. Chelsea and Arsenal both had more than 20 attempts on goal last week. Both lost. Were George Graham still in charge of the Gunners or Jose Mourinho at the helm at Stamford Bridge, such facts would not be unlikely as much as impossible.

As it is, the pragmatists are being quietly rewarded.

The league's top five includes Stoke and Newcastle, both with three clean sheets so far.

Long intrinsically associated with excitement, Newcastle are the unlikely misers, their five games producing only six goals.

They have been admirable, but not exactly memorable.

For that, we have to turn to the flawed masterpieces elsewhere.