Premier League Review, weeks 9, 10, 11 and 12: Attack the best form of defence?
The past few weeks confirmed a trend dominating this Premiership season: big game, big scoreline. So far, 46 goals have been scored in the matches between last term’s top 6, compared to a measly 25 during the corresponding 2010-2011 fixtures. Open and exciting games have come to define the Premier League era, yet such a distinctive statistic cannot be attributed solely to this characteristic. Initially, Manchester City’s 5 – 1 demolition of Tottenham and Arsenal’s 8 – 2 loss to Manchester United were viewed as explainable, one-off results. However, City’s 6 – 1 victory in the Manchester derby alongside Arsenal’s thrilling 5 – 3 win at Stamford Bridge, suggested these scorelines were far from exceptions to the rule. The reasons for this shift are multifaceted and inherently tied to matters both on and off the pitch.
Show me the money
It is far from surprising that Manchester City are proving most consistent at (literally) hitting opponents for six. Since his arrival in 2008, Sheikh Mansour has spent £1 billion on transfers. The £300 million injected during 2010-2011, in contrast to the collective outlook exhibited over previous seasons, focused almost exclusively on bolstering attacking options. The arrival of Dzeko, Aguero and Nasri, for over £25 million each, blew Abramovich’s £50 million pound purchase of Fernando Torres out of the water. Additionally, the breadth of these summer signings demonstrated how City can plausibly sustain such a multi-dimensional outlook, intent on securing offensive fluidity – desired but financially unattainable for all other Premiership sides. Therefore, rather than setting Chelsea apart, the investments in Torres and David Luiz affirmed their loss of primacy and inability to compete in this altered landscape. City meanwhile have made the best ever start to a season in the Premiership era: remaining unbeaten in 12, drawing 2 and outscoring all. Indeed, Liverpool, the side who pushed the Sky Blues all the way this weekend, were also the last team to stop City from scoring in the league. Since that defeat in May, City have scored 52 in 18 games.
Yet, it is not financial clout alone which is responsible for the blue moon rising. Mancini has utilised Mansour’s finances to steadily realise a philosophy that is both typically continental and equally supercharged on Premier League steroids. As discussed previously, the other title rivals, especially Manchester United and Chelsea, lack creativity in the middle of the pitch; a dynamo who can play between the lines. Only Tottenham, with the trio of Van der Vaart, Modric and Parker can boast similar balance, dynamism and invention. Other sides may be equal in certain areas, but cannot compete with the overall package. For example, during the Manchester derby, United’s central midfield immobility conceded the initiative, thereby rendering the potency of the front quartet helpless. This is turn disrupted the overall chemistry of the side; Evra and Rafael continued to push forward despite the back four being overwhelmed. Elsewhere, Chelsea’s defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool exposed their defensive fragility both individually and as a unit. Terry is becoming an increasing liability, needing to be carried through games whilst Andre Villas Boas’s desire for a high-line has yet to be successfully implemented. Thus, as much as City’s finances give them an undeniable advantage, other top sides have hastened their own downfall by failing to address more pressing areas of concern.
Considering a record £229 million was spent on forwards by Premier League sides this summer, with only £90.4 million on defenders, it appears the immediate response to City’s millions has been to fight fire with fire. Gary Neville’s quip that Luiz’s defended like ‘a 10-year-old on a PlayStation’ against Liverpool, not only accurately described the Brazilian’s performance but also the mindset of the chasing pack.
The deficiency of this altered perspective is most prevalent in the Champions League – outside the Premiership bubble. For all their firepower, English sides are struggling to cope defensively. As we head into the final group games, Arsenal are the only representatives to have secured their passage into the knockout stage. Indeed, City, who have failed to keep a clean sheet in any competition since October 1st, have been unable to replicate their free scoring form against more defensive, secure opponents.
Fortunately, even if at present there is no team in the Premiership that can compete on the pitch or at the same pace off it; the league still remains the most competitive in Europe. However, there is no doubt the current financial model is unsustainable and finds no basis in reality. Over the last fortnight, City announced £197 million loss, the largest in Premier League history – eclipsing Chelsea’s £141m loss in 2005. This, all in the face of impending Fifa Fair Play regulations. In many ways, the situation is eerily reminiscent of the global economy prior to the downturn, regulation is waived while the times are good but craved once it is too late. The potent mix of foriegn ownership and attacking philosophy makes the league an exciting package but inherently unstable. Once one club falls, there will be little left to defend.
R.I.P Gary Speed.