Attack is the English Premier League's best form of defence

Critics say teams are losing the art of defending, but they certainly make up for this weakness by scoring a lot of goals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 9:57pm

Towards the end of last season and the start of this, numerous doomsayers declared the English Premier League was heading towards the buffers.

They declared the European leagues - chief among them Germany's Bundesliga - were poised to squash the arrogant English competition and all its boorish pretentions into the turf.

Smoke, went the collective sneer, was rising over Babylon. Splurging English clubs were steeped in debt and awash with foreign owners, many shady oligarchs stuffing their dodgy oil and gas billions into a Saturday plaything.

Only Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho possesses the know-how to set up a team to kill off a game and win on the counter
Peter Simpson

Overpaid foreign imports were favoured over home-grown talent and the hackneyed "Best League in the World" claim was but the hollow boast of hype and aggressive marketing; the ludicrous price of TV rights and sponsorships contrived to suspend belief the EPL was the only one to watch.

Add to the excesses was the need to thrill the millions of spectators and keep sponsors happy.

The breakneck pace of domestic football - borne out of desperation to entertain - was holding back English teams in European competitions, the critics claimed.

The game's tempo had been increased and though this made for pleasing attacking football on the eye, the end-to-end mindset undermined the way the game should be played.

Crucially, the EPL's gung-ho style did not travel well on the continent, nor could it compete whenever foreign foes - who have not forgotten the art of defending - arrived in town.

Arsenal and Manchester City failed recently to make the last eight of the Uefa Champions League - proof, sniffed the critics, the self-important EPL was eating itself.

It's a solid exposition of the EPL's complex decadency.

True, the EPL has in recent seasons seen the rise in attacking fullbacks, which has increased the thrust up front.

As a result, goal tallies have soared because the last third of opposing halves are left horribly exposed.

The obsession with attacking means central defenders are now appraised - like midfielders - on their passing rather than tackling ability.

Shape and organisation appear to have diminished. Even keepers are assessed on their ability to control the ball with their feet as much as stopping it with their hands and reflexes.

"The emphasis is on getting forward," lamented one pundit this week, and it "appears to be more important that a young fullback can get into the opposition's half and deliver crosses.

No one seems to care that the same youngster does not know how to force a winger outside and use the by-line as a tool of the trade".

Only Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho possesses the know-how to set up a team to kill off a game and win on the counter without overly exposing his goal-line custodians.

Though we fans get more goals for our buck, purists warn the game is unbalanced and in danger of regression back to lower FA league or semi-pro standard.

The obliqueness - the relentless charges up-field, the poor rearguard action - blights the pulchritude of the beautiful game, groan the connoisseurs.

Better defending will produce a healthier, more competitive and more compelling game that can compete with the sophistication, slickness and flair deployed by the Germans, Italians, French and Spanish, they argue.

Umm. Perhaps. Yes, EPL teams are shipping goals like a holed Spanish galleon on the rocks and scoring them by the bucket load - but isn't it heaven to watch?

Last weekend's blistering showcase saw 42 goals from 10 fixtures over Saturday and Sunday - the second highest in the league's history (43 strikes were celebrated over the February 5-6 period in 2011).

Hours before Manchester United's Wayne Rooney attempted to upstage David Beckham to fire home from long-range against West Ham, Chelsea had completed a six-goal demolition of Arsenal.

The rest of the afternoon went on to produce hat-tricks, several goal-of-the-season candidates, red cards and controversies galore amid an array of twisting plotlines.

It was also the first time that three of the top four sides scored five or more goals in a day.

Liverpool's 6-3 win over Cardiff was the first victory by an away side by this scoreline - keeping Brendan Rodgers' Reds on course to break the EPL's goalscoring record.

Referee Andre Marriner's sending off Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs instead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the only blot on a day of days in EPL history, arguably the most exciting midseason action ever witnessed.

The weekend's howls and whoops of jubilation, the groans and forehead slaps could all be heard in Munich, Barcelona, Paris and Rome.

Yes, the fast-paced EPL is full of mistakes in possession that allows teams to punish each other and so adding to the unpredictable environment - a far cry indeed from the clinical, neat passing and odd spark of panache offered by our cousins across the Channel.

And agreed, defenders do need to offer more of their speciality. Maybe it is the lack of finite technicality that sees top English teams fall short on the international stage.

But if you prefer to watch obsessively competitive football where a galaxy of stars exploit the creative freedom afforded them, and you wish to observe exciting young attacking defenders scrapping like bulldogs for the bone - and all the others thrills and spills in between, then look no further than today and tomorrow's EPL's fixtures.