It has grown increasingly apparent over the last few years in the top leagues around Europe, that there is a lack of defensive culpability among top football teams around the continent.
There has been a systemic failure on the part of coaches to set their teams up in a way which ensures defensive solidity.
The fact remains that the impact of the imperious Barcelona team that Pep Guardiola managed has meant that coaches worldwide have decided to re- route their teams in often dismal attempts at creating aesthetically pleasing sides which result in teams which are devoid of physical presence and defensive organisation.
From 2008 to 2012, Guardiola employed a midfield trio for the most part, with Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta making up what could be considered the most effective midfield triumvirate of all time. Barca’s game plan relied on the retention of the ball as being of primary concern in conjunction with a ferocious pressing game. The results of this due to the quality of players at Guardiola’s disposal were two-fold: They continuously wore teams out who were chasing and pressing the ball for the majority of games and they relied on ball retention as their de facto form of defending.
Despite the fact that Barca swept all before them, in terms of footballing achievement, they did so in a cavalier manner bordering on recklessness.
Indeed, the Argentinian World Cup winning coach, Luis Cesar Menotti, was quoted as saying “we defend by keeping the ball” in the 1980s, so it was not a relatively new concept.
When Arsene Wenger coined the phrase “sterile domination” it encapsulated the way in which Barca made the game look so routine, even against top class opposition.
The problem that Barcelona’s dominance presented for the game of football was that it became in vogue to attempt to retain the ball and play expansively from almost any area of the pitch.
A point in case would be the increasing reliance on midfielders sitting back into the centre-halve position and becoming almost like a quarterback as well as goalkeepers adopting this role when their team is being pressed high up the pitch.
Teams and coaches all over the continent have been attempting to follow in the footsteps of that great Barcelona team.
A major problem has arisen in that many teams do not have the players to implement this vain interpretation of Barcelona’s style. As well as this, many teams do not defend in a genuine manner. By this I mean, ball-playing centre-halves have become the norm, often leading to a lack of physical ability in a key position.
Defences have become more reliant on setting offside traps, this has been particularly prevalent in Spain, with many disastrous results. We have seen Jurgen Klopp rise to prominence on the back of his daring Dortmund teams, which counter-attacked with real venom, but often lacked maturity, some would say cynicism, in defensive areas of the pitch.
He has encountered the same problem at Liverpool where his team show incredible fluidity in attacking areas of the pitch with the likes of Firmino, Lallana, Coutinho all being interchangable in offensive situations, which means they often pose problems for teams by manipulating space.
This is tempered by lacking a reliable goalkeeper in either Karius or Mignolet as well as the defensive limitations shown by Clyne, Loveren and Matip at stages throughout the season. They have conceded 28 goals, one less than Man City and 12 more than Chelsea, which helps to illustrate the problem Guardiola and Klopp have helped to create. There is a dearth of
There is a dearth of top-class defenders in the game at present because managers of this calibre have placed more value on technical ability than game management and defensive awareness.
Conte, on the other hand, has instilled a discipline to be admired at Chelsea. His team are wonderfully balanced and consistently emphasise their shape without the ball as the reason for their renaissance this year.
Out of possession, they play five defenders and then look to counter from there with the two auxiliary full-backs getting forward at every opportunity. One of the striking aspects in the different approaches has been how certain players have flourished and others have shrivelled in radically different environments.
Two cases in point have been Victor Moses and John Stones. Moses was a player not rated as worthy of starting in a league challenging team by 99% of pundits, yet he has been a revelation as a defensive wide player under Conte’s stewardship, despite being use as a very offensive player earlier in his career.
In stark contrast John Stones has been struggling in a City defence where players around him have been played out of position and have looked all at sea, leaving many to question the merits of John Stones as a centre-half when he has been at the heart of a catastrophic defence, which is unable to defend under very little scrutiny while operating with Guardiola’s doctrine of defending through possession.
Mourinho has stuck with the same conservative type of football which brought him success in his earlier years and as the season has progressed, United have become far more assured in games, looking defensively solid while getting late goals in games, by grinding teams down.
Once mocked defenders such as Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have begun to look comfortable in the Premier League and this is a testament to Mourinho and his staff’s coaching expertise and emphasis on defending.
The Premier League has become all the more interesting this year as a result of the coaching superstars that now inhabit it. The progressives such as Guardiola and Klopp appear to be diametrically opposed to more conservative managers like Mourinho and Conte.
These different outlooks on the game make football the game it is, but there is no doubt that slowly but surely conservatives are winning the day.
We cannot forget that English football has always been grounded in defensive stability rather than attacking flair dating all the way back to Herbert Chapman’s implementation of a third defender at Huddersfield and Arsenal, which changed football forever.
No longer were teams bound to play the old WM formation and they now could prioritise defensive structure over possession in a more efficient manner. Guardiola and Klopp represent a conception of football that is somewhat alien to the history of English football. Their present struggles are indicative of their weaknesses in both identifying and coaching defenders.
They have been afforded time and excuses due to their reputations but many fans must be beginning to wonder if their ideas can actually change football in England, in a completely different manner to Chapman.