Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Paging Nurse Ratched To The Asylum

By Shane Thomas

Want to see goals? Then the Premier League's been the place to be. At the time of writing England's top division has produced 294 goals, 42 more than Spain's La Liga, and 68 more than Italy's Serie A. Matches - particularly those between the established elite - have been thrill-fests; Chelsea's 3-5 defeat to Arsenal on Saturday being the latest in an ever increasing line of high-scoring games.

And while it's no doubt been entertaining, my pleasure at watching Arsenal win at Stamford Bridge for the first time in nearly four years was tainted by a simple thought: What in the name of holy hell is going on with the defences in the Premier League this season?

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, "Once is misfortune, twice is carelessness". So what noun can one attach when we see amateurish defending for a third time? And then a fourth? And then a fifth? The attacking intent of the majority of top-flight sides is a major factor is the deluge of goal action so far this season, but equally as relevant has been defensive error after defensive error. So much so, that picking a title picture for this post almost took as long as writing the post itself.

As well as obviously requiring differing skill sets, the mindset between attacking players and defensive ones also demands a different type of mental focus. Despite what those who hate football will have you believe, the sport is mentally - as well as physically - taxing. It's not as simplistic as, "Kick it in the goal."

The reason why a goal remains the most precious currency in sport is because it's so damned difficult. Not only is the target relatively small, but you have 10 players obstructing your path, and an 11th who stands right in the way of the net, and can use his/her hands to keep the ball out. It's why we see so many matches where the dominant side fails to attain victory.

Often attacking players need to have more than just technique and athleticism. All logic dictates that to score should be an impossibility, due to the aforementioned hurdles. But good attackers possess a confidence that makes them believe scoring a goal is not only a possibility, but a likelihood. It needs wit, and swiftness of thought and deed, a mindset that borders on lateral thinking. These factors coalesce to create that intangible, but essential quality that the world's best attacking players have - devil.

Defenders, on the other hand are the antithetical artisans. They are not required to think outside the box, but protect their own. They need to follow the direction of the ball, the movement of opposition players, and form a roadblock. Creativity is superfluous. Good defenders need concentration, focus, the ability to take instruction, and carry it out to the letter. Attackers are given a degree of latitude to figure it out as they go along. Defenders have no such luxury.

And it is this that has become an increasingly pervasive and damaging trend in the Premier League this season. While sides have attacked with purpose, they have been assisted by defenders who seem unable to execute the most rudimentary of defensive skills.

And while some have exalted in these high scoring matches, I have a real problem with it all. Like fast-food, it seems to bring an ephemeral joy, rather than a sustainable one. Long-term, this standard of defending will not be good for the game. While we should rejoice in the likes of Sergio Aguero and Robin Van Persie, where are the high-class defenders to provide the necessary counterpoint? Where is the next Peter Schmeichel, Tony Adams or Claude Makelele going to come from?

It's easy to understand why defenders are amongst the least celebrated segments of a team. If attackers are the charismatic version of Jack Nicholson in the film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, then defenders are Nurse Ratched; gatekeeper, spoilsport and miserabilist all in one. And it's only since the league season has become so free scoring that I've realised just how much we need them. Because right now, the inmates are causing havoc in the asylum. This is one scenario in which I hope the bad guys win.

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