On the 19th May Chelsea sealed the unlikeliest of European victories by beating Bayern Munich on penalties. This success was built on a defensive system so rock solid that, playing against Barcelona, Jose Bosingwa was made to look like an accomplished centre half. However at the start of this season the top teams, aside from Arsenal, have all struggled to keep clean sheets. This was already the case for the top seven in the league last year, where there was a succession of incredible results when they played each other. Now with Chelsea determined to abandon the two banks of five approach that took them to the Champions League title, there is little to suggest that we won’t see several more goalfests this year. This may make for another exciting domestic season, but will likely end in disaster in Europe. Athletico Madrid have already given a stark warning to English teams by demolishing Chelsea 4-1 in the Super Cup. As Falcao was sauntering through the European champions’ exposed back four, their best defensive midfielder was sealing a loan switch to Real Madrid. Essien was quickly followed out the door by Raul Meireles, another of the few Chelsea midfielders able to play in a withdrawn role.
This wilful disregard for defensive midfielders has been mirrored at other top clubs in the Premier League. Arsenal have let Alex Song go to Barcelona, relying on the enigmatic and injury-prone Abou Diaby to fill his boots. Manchester United have ignored the position altogether. Throughout the summer Yann M’Vila, who has the potential to become one of the very best defensive midfielders in the world, was waiting to be signed from Rennes for a fee reportedly as low as €12 million, yet he ended up staying in France despite many reports linking him with a move to England. There has been a similar lack of activity amongst the back fours of the top teams. Jan Vertonghen standing out as the one top class centre back that has been brought to the Premier League, with Maicon the best full back signed, and the Brazilian is almost as valuable for his attacking work as his defensive. There is an argument that Manchester United had Vidic coming back, almost acting as a new signing, but they also desperately needed to sign a left back, with Evra’s performances becoming increasingly erratic. Instead they let the promising Ezekiel Fryers leave for Standard Liege.
To say that every English team in Europe needed to strengthen their defences drastically would be an exaggeration, but defensive frailties have seemingly been ignored in preference of signing attacking players. Perhaps inspired by Swansea’s 14 premier league clean sheets last year, and indeed Barcelona’s excellent defensive record in Europe, there has been a focus on signing technically adept midfielders who will keep the ball and limit the opposition’s attacking opportunities that way. There is also the spectre of Financial Fair Play regulations on the horizon, which may have led to some teams choosing an attacking player over a defender, where they would previously have signed both. A possession based defence can be very successful, but having the correct personnel is an integral part of it, and when it goes wrong it can be disastrous; West Bromwich Albion 3 - 0 Liverpool and Athletico 4 - 1 Chelsea are already testimony to that. Over a season in the premiership these kind of slip ups will lead to exciting matches, in the Champions League they will lead to elimination.
Manchester City stand out as the team with the strongest defensive unit, adding Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia to their midfield in place of the departing Nigel de Jong, and Maicon and Nastasic to their defence. Coupled with their attacking power they can be said to have the best English chance in Europe despite their lack of experience. But being grouped with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund won’t help, neither will Mancini’s awful record in the continent’s premier competition. You can easily see Manchester United and Chelsea crashing out on the back of a defensive shocker if they play with the same reckless abandon they’ve shown so far this season. With the playing staff they have available, it’s hard to see how they can change this without further signings in January. Arsenal have looked strong at the back under the stern eye of new coach Steve Bould, but are weaker as a unit than the real elite teams of Europe (and will most likely draw Barcelona the first chance they get anyway).
Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle can be seen to have a better chance in the Europa League, with all three of them indicating that the competition will be taken more seriously this year than it has in the past. But with opponents of the quality of Athletico Madrid and Napoli already in the draw, and the third place finishers from the Champion’s League to come, their own defensive problems may be exposed in the early knockout rounds. Of course all these teams may settle rapidly and stop conceding the goals they have in the early weeks of the premiership. There are plenty of good defensive players at the clubs I’ve spoken about, and perhaps there really has been enough of a sea change in English football that these teams can successfully defend through possession.
On the other hand, I’d bet that Falcao’s hat trick will not be the last scored against England’s elite teams this year.