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    The Defensive Dilemmas of the Premier League: Analysing the 'Modern' Defender.



    The Premier League can boast the likes of Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Aguero going forward as well as many more top class offensive players. But is their undoubted ability aided by poor defending? Is there such a thing as the ‘modern’ defensive player, and if so, why do those you’d associate with the tag seem to be criticised week in week out for mistakes?

    The Goalkeeping Dilemma
    I should point out that that very few are capable of being a goalkeeper to a professional level but, because of the nature of the position, when they make a mistake, there is no hiding place. Loris Karius has talent shown from his time in Germany at Mainz and certainly has years on his side but his mistakes in recent weeks have been scrutinised heavily. It would seem that Karius is being put in a similar bracket to Claudio Bravo at Manchester City, who shipped 4 this weekend (although none were glaring mistakes). Both of these keepers, new to the league this season, play in a system like so many teams at the moment where play is constantly encouraged from the back. Both are pretty good with the ball at their feet, but they are also susceptible to making crucial errors of judgement such as when to come for crosses and when to simply ‘get rid’. Long gone are the days when a goalkeeper would only use their feet to take goal kicks. This is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, but there are many football fans who would argue that the fundamental requirement for a goalkeeper is their ability to claim crosses and save shots. Using David De Gea as a case study does, to some extent, blow this theory out of the water. When the Spaniard first joined Manchester United in 2011 he was crucified nearly every week for poor decision making directly leading to goals. Now, given time to toughen up a bit and gain some experience, he is for me the best goalkeeper in the league. He still has the reflexes he always had but he also knows when to come for crosses and will claim the ball if he does go for it.

    De Gea went from an inconsistent prospect to one of the best keepers around in 3 short years

    A real pet hate of mine at the moment though is watching keepers unnecessarily punch out crosses. Watford’s ever erratic Heurehlo Gomes was the culprit this week, awkwardly punching away a cross that basically landed at his feet, unchallenged There is always a feeling of relief when your goalkeeper claims a cross and holds it. It relieves the pressure that a punch simply doesn’t. Punching can start counter attacks quicker than a catch, but there always that inherent risk that comes with not being in full control of the football. Maybe I just need to get with the times a bit more and get off the ‘modern’ goalkeeper’s case.

    Centre Backs: Clear the danger or start the attack?
    I never thought I would say this but the most impressive display this weekend by a defensive duo came from Marcus Rojo and Phil Jones. They worked as a unit and, crucially, they cleared their lines when they had to. Too many times we see defenders losing the ball in dangerous areas. I still believe that John Stones will become one of the best centre backs in the English game but he has been responsible for several mistakes leading directly to goals. His wayward pass to gift Leicester a 4th on Saturday proves this. Looking back to when I first got into football around 15 years ago, the best defender in the Premier League was John Terry. After him, Nemanja Vidic took the mantle and then after injuries took their toll on the Serbian in came Vincent Kompany. All of these centre back were happy to pump it into row Z if necessary, very rarely getting caught out on the ball. I must stress that I am by no means discouraging defenders from bringing the ball out. It is brilliant to see a player who is confident on the ball, it can be a major asset to any side if they have a technically excellent defender in their midst. But a pattern is beginning to emerge of managers imposing this system on players who don’t necessarily have the capability to actually play it yet. It is a difficult conundrum to solve. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have been famed as two of the best defensive coaches in Premier League history. Their teams compact and difficult to break down, opting to hit it long in most circumstances. They also don’t score a lot of goals though. There is still that dilemma of either sacrificing attacking flair by having a solid but ‘traditional’ defence like Pulis’ West Brom or risk shipping goals but always be capable of scoring more. Exceptions do exist; Jan Vertonghen is particularly excellent at bringing the ball out of defence and when he does get it right there are few better in this aspect than Stones. The best Centre Backs at the moment are indeed players comfortable on the ball such as Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Sergio Ramos. The ambition isn’t wrong, but are there really enough centre backs in the Premier League at the moment capable of playing this style without sacrificing their defensive duties?

    John Terry was one of the best in his position and wasn't afraid to hit it long

    Are Fullbacks just Wingers?
    The modern full back can almost work as a winger for many teams. They provide width, allowing wingers to cut inside and link up with the strikers. Two classic examples of this modern full back in the Premier League would be Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines in their prime. Adept at creating chances going forward, they also always carried out their defensive duties. This is where the issue begins to arise at the moment. There seems to be a tendency now for full backs to (to a lesser extreme) “do an Andre Santos” and abandon all defensive duties simply to support the attack. Aleksander Kolarov is an example at the moment. Yes, he is always a threat from a dead ball and scored an excellent free kick against Leicester at the weekend but he was also caught out for 2 of their goals. Alberto Moreno is a constant threat going forward but is also prone to a frequent positional meltdown.

    I mean, I'm not going to tell Kolarov to his face that he needs to mark his man

    For attacking full backs to work, there generally has to be a centre midfielder willing to sit back, fill in and break up play. Chelsea have this with N’Golo Kante and Matic, as well as Spurs with Victor Wanyama. In Idrissa Gueye, Everton also have the highest tackler in the league this season. His and either James McCarthy or Gareth Barry’s discipline allows whoever is at full back to bomb on and help the attack. This paid dividends yesterday, when Everton’s equaliser against Arsenal was scored by Seamus Coleman just outside the 6 yard box after a cross from fellow Full Back Leighton Baines. Holding midfielders with discipline and stamina offer freedom for full backs without the risk of them being caught out. They are becoming essential if a team wants defenders to join the attack.

    Idrissa Gueye: One of the best summer signings this season?

    Overall, there are still defensive issues in the Premier League. But teams seem to be adapting to this new technical impetus through methods such as employing defensive midfielders. It will take time for it to work, but it will be worth it if we want our defenders to emulate the likes of Jerome Boateng and Sergio Ramos. In the meantime there’ll continue to be plenty of goals though so who’s really complaining?


    George Kelsey
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