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On dangerous crosses and crumbling defences

As cross after dangerous cross found its way into the uneasy hearts of a few Barclays Premier League defences this past weekend – with FA Cup upsets the ultimate consequence for four big clubs – I found myself reflecting on Tony Adams’ recent visit to our TV studios.

During his afternoon of punditry, “Mr Arsenal” gave his take on a subject that has vexed just about everyone who has clipped on a microphone and offered an opinion this season: the relative inability of teams to defend as well as they used to. Tony’s take was characteristically forthright and his insight fascinating.

Essentially, and not surprisingly, he compared the “modern” approach, with the defensive shield employed, to the success by George Graham during managerial spell at Arsenal. Simply put, Tony said he and his renowned Back Four defended for their lives but, crucially, they tried to not let opponents get the ball into the box in the first place.

The iconic offside trap was just one part of it – Arsenal defended as a team with wide men (either wingers or more versatile players like Ray Parlour) required to work hard defensively in tandem with full-backs to ensure that nothing came in from the flanks. Add to that the presence of a deep-lying midfielder with the ability to “read” danger and you had the ingredients for that near-impenetrable shield.

Even with key players missing, that tactical structure most famously managed to keep out Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin and Faustino Asprilla as the Gunners beat Parma to win the 1994 European Cup Winners Cup.

Things have changed since then. Ten years later, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal beat arch-rivals Tottenham 5-4 in a crazy Premier League game at White Hart Lane. Elsewhere in London, another club’s manager wasn’t exactly swept up by the euphoria of the occasion.

“That is not a football score,” scoffed Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. “It is a hockey score. Sometimes in training, we play matches, three against three. If the score gets to 5-4, I send the players back to the dressing room. If they’re not defending properly, why should we bother?”

Mourinho’s Chelsea cruised to the Premier League title that season, conceding just 15 goals along the way. Jose’s men defended grimly, along similar lines to the Graham-era Arsenal: full-backs rarely crossing the halfway line, a superb central-defensive pairing of Terry and Carvalho letting almost nothing through and the amazing Claude Makelele mopping up everything in front of them.

Skip forward almost another 10 years and it’s hard to find a modern-day version of George Graham and Jose Mourinho’s miserly contenders. Manchester United lead the Barclays Premier League by five points. With 15 games to go, they have already conceded 30 goals – that’s already one more than last season’s champions Manchester City did over the entire campaign. When United won the title in 2009, by the way, they only let in 24 goals in 38 games.

The current deluge of goals is, of course, not restricted to the Barclays Premier League, where we are seeing an average of 2.86 goals per game compared to last season’s 2.81. In Spain’s La Liga, the average game yields 2.89 (last season it was 2.76). In Germany’s Bundesliga you also get 2.89 goals per game (up from 2.86) and the biggest jump has come in Italy where Serie A crowds are witnessing 2.73 goals each match, whereas last season that number was 2.56.

Football has seen a tactical revolution take place over the past few seasons. There has been a switch in emphasis to possession football played (mainly) by 4-2-3-1 formations, which can be vulnerable to counter-attacks as the “channels” are often left vacant and teams are able to penetrate the box more easily.

There also appears to have been a philosophical change, certainly here in England where more and more often we are witnessing 90-minute shootouts in which coaches back their firepower to make up for any defensive deficiencies. The obvious risk to this approach is that bad team selection (rotation in the Cup perhaps?) or bad performances by several players can leave big teams especially vulnerable to defeat by motivated, tactically-direct opposition of any pedigree. As Manchester City also discovered in Europe this season, the Continent’s best will punish any lapse in defensive quality and not necessarily allow a way back into games.

Still, if more goals equates to more entertainment then we should probably feel we are all being royally amused. It would be churlish to find too much fault in what is being served up each week.

Funnily enough, though, and perhaps because our staple diet has become so rich of late, I found myself engrossed by one game above all others recently. It was the one at White Hart Lane in which Manchester United (of all teams) tried to hold out for a 1-0 away win against a team they traditionally beat easily.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s canny tactical attempts to suppress Gareth Bale, followed by Spurs’ efforts to find a way around Vidic, Ferdinand and company, made for a spellbinding viewing experience. The pundits in the studio that day relished the occasion too. Tony Adams wasn’t with us, by the way, but I had a feeling he would have been enjoying what he was watching.

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