Sloppy, lazy, dopey... why English clubs are shipping goals in Europe
The Weekend Dossier: There has long been a sense that the art of defending is in decline
A dozen matches: two clean sheets. It is not the way to win a Champions League. As England's quartet prepare for their fourth round of group games this week their managers will be wondering why their defences have suddenly become so porous.
In the last round the goals of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United were each breached at least twice with all but United succumbing to defeat as a result. That brought to 18 the number of goals scored against the four in 12 matches to date, nearly half-a-goal-per-game up on last year's competition when the same quartet conceded 37 goals in 35 ties.
Then, despite both Manchester clubs going out in the group stages, the Premier League entrants kept clean sheets in 40 per cent of the matches. This time it is 16.5 per cent.
It could have been even worse. Galatasaray hit the woodwork twice and should have had a penalty when beaten 1-0 at Old Trafford. Petr Cech turned a Nordsjaelland effort on to the post at 1-0 before Chelsea ran out 4-0 winners in Denmark.
The game's shift in balance towards forwards is nothing new, it was set in train by Fifa's post Italia'90 reforms. There has also long been a sense that the art of defending is in decline, especially in England. But there has still been a shocking openness to the top four's back fours (or back three or five in Manchester City's case).
City have been the prime culprits. They have faced the strongest batch of opponents: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, but even so, it is startling to discover City have allowed opponents 64 goal attempts in three games with 27 shots on target.
It is largely down to Joe Hart's brilliance that City have conceded only seven goals. Roberto Mancini's penchant for changing the format of his defence has been blamed, along with his preference for zonal marking, but that is too simplistic. An analysis of the goals they have conceded suggests the fault lies more with the players' attitudes than the manager's tactics.
How City mark is an irrelevance. They have only conceded one goal at a set-piece, the second in Amsterdam, and if Joleon Lescott is not going to attack the ball it does not matter what system City use. As for the structural changes, as Hart said after playing Dortmund, "they were getting chances whether we had four, ten or one at the back."
If there is a pattern to City conceding goals it is a sloppiness in midfield. Two came from possession being squandered with Jack Rodwell and Gareth Barry at fault, another because neither Samir Nasri nor James Milner were alive to the threat. As Graeme Souness said: "The first thing you have got to be in football is hard to play against. City are not hard to play against. They do not press the ball as a unit. [Edin] Dzeko doesn't work hard enough, the midfield are slack. Too many are not doing their jobs."
There is another factor, Vincent Kompany is not playing well. Maybe it is a reaction to last season's efforts, maybe the constant change of partner is an issue. Maybe injury has been a problem. Whatever it is Mancini needs to find out soon.
Curiously his compatriot, Thomas Vermaelen, has also been out of sorts. Perhaps it is time for the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger to follow Tottenham's lead with another Belgian, Jan Vertonghen, and move his captain to left-back because Andre Santos has been even worse. The Brazilian was implicated in both Schalke goals, though he was not the only player at fault. As with City, the fault is more a failure to defend as a team than a problem with the back line.
It is the same with Chelsea. Laudable as their attacking policy is it exposes a defence that seems ill-equipped to cope. David Luiz is the weakest link, but John Terry was in error for Juventus' equaliser while Eden Hazard (right) looks to be one of those players who is a threat to defences at both ends.
The goals conceded by Manchester United are more directly attributed to the back four. Their former great keeper Peter Schmeichel said of the goal Cluj scored: "The defence is too stretched. [Patrice] Evra should have closed [Modou Sougou] down and the centre-halves [Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans] are too far away from each other. United give away too many goals."
The malaise seems widespread. Evra was replaced against Sporting Braga by Alex Buttner only for the Dutchman to lose Alan for each goal. Michael Carrick was turned inside out for Braga's second prompting another Sky Sports pundit, Eidur Gudjohnsen, to remark: "I don't have the same feeling about Carrick in defence as I do with Javier Mascherano at Barcelona. He is not a natural defender and lacks pace."
Questions were also asked, by Gudjohnsen and Glenn Hoddle, about David de Gea's habit of attempting to save low shots with his feet instead of his hands.
Poor marking, positional errors, a laziness without the ball, a slackness with it...if there is any consolation to the frustrated managers it is that for the most part it is not technique, strength or pace that seems the problem. Many of the errors can be eradicated by greater concentration and work-rate. It would help, too, if teams could field a consistent back-line.
George Graham roped his fabled Arsenal back four together before drilling them so exhaustively they moved instinctively as one. Injuries, squad-rotation and increased player movement mean few managers are able to do that now.
It should be pointed out the English teams have scored 22 goals, four more than they have conceded. All share a commitment to attack which inevitably leaves the defences vulnerable, especially as players like Carrick and Luiz are deployed at the back in part for what they bring to the attack .
Concentration and work-rate should naturally improve as the competition progresses, but the question is whether that will happen fast enough to ensure the English teams progress too.
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