By BRUCE DENNILL
At the time of writing, the top four teams in the English Premier League – Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – have goal differences of, respectively, 24, 38, 23 and 25.That is to say, each of those squads have scored that many more goals, cumulatively, than their competition have put past them. Those are impressive numbers in and of themselves, but when you consider that the above teams have often conceded two or more goals in a match, these figures are astonishing.
Pundits have called it “playground football”, referring to the phenomenon when nine-year-olds hoof the ball up one end of the pitch, thunder after it in a grubby herd, somehow shovel it into the net there, then boot it up the other way before repeating the process.
It’s more entertaining than that: these are still professional athletes with skills borne of years or decades of training, and occasionally they do things that suggest they’re worth the multi-million-pound salaries they earn for pulling on expensive shirts that they’ve taken to swapping at half-time in each game.
But happily, there is a proficiency that just about every one of these otherwise talented, ambitious young men appears to have neglected to revise.
Everyone has forgotten how to defend.
It’s one of only three major skill sets in football. You attack, you defend, or you combine the two. Without defending happening on the field, the attackers and the guys who usually attack and defend but have – pay attention! – forgotten how to do the latter just attack (again, the maths is wonderfully simple…) meaning that goals are not only inevitable, but regularly so.
For the gum-chewing, Gaviscon-swilling managers on the sidelines, this is not good news. Even if their teams win, they have to hold endless strategy sessions to try and figure out how to keep clean sheets, if only to provide some sort of salve for the shattered communal psyche of their goalkeepers, the tittering wrecks who form the last line of defence – that word again – against the apparently never-ending assaults.
But sod the managers. For anyone who enjoys watching the beautiful game, and that term is more accurate when dozens of goals are being scored than when clever old men with protractors and compasses are drawing diagrams designed to help their players how to understand how to block every channel and all but guarantee stale draws, the 2013/2014 English Premier League is one of the most exciting in recent memory.
Sure, there are still traditionally powerful and/or financially potent teams at the top, but with exception of Chelsea, perhaps, they all seem to be operating on a plan built around the sentiment, “If you score one, we’ll score two”, and any neutral will know that watching a big team take repeated hits is wonderfully satisfying.
Last year’s champions and the most successful team in the Premier League era, Manchester United, are bogged down in mid-table and, as of January, show no signs of getting out of that slot. It’s a vicious circle, too – fans and investors are fickle types and even 20 league titles don’t seem terribly exciting if they’re the stuff of history rather than current affairs. And when the passion dies, so does the hype that might otherwise attract a top young talent who could be willing to sign for team that currently looks like have no chance of winning the league this year. And when a mid-table club can’t strengthen their squad, they’re more likely to remain in mid-table next season as well.
That problem might be most acute at United because of the weight of expectation, but the same scenario applies when trying to solve the defensive issue overall. Sure, Manchester City have scored 38 more goals than their opponents have managed, but their opponents have managed to pop two or even three through the cracks occasionally, and even in a winning team, no player wants to be seen as the weak link. As long as Aguero, Negredo, Djeko et al are enjoying constant target practice, their colleagues at the back will likely only be in the spotlight is when the forwards from the other team are showing them a clean pair of heels. Scapegoat or superhero – which role would you rather play?
Here’s hoping that nobody figures out the solution to the issue for a while. Games in which three or four – hell, six or seven – goals are being scored provide fantastic entertainment. And for supporters of those teams for whom the new formula is not yet working, the drama and excitement of it all will help ease the discomfort of floundering in unfamiliar territory, sans trophies and guaranteed column inches.
The teams currently on top can’t relax, and taking the chance required to keep their goal averages up means both taking more risks than usual and running more and further than would be required were they simply holding up the ball in midfield and trying to maintain possession.
Result? Fatigue. Tired athletes struggle to maintain focus. Lapses in concentration mean a higher possibility of making mistakes. Mistakes lead to more goals.
Make some popcorn and phone a friend. Football’s fun again.