The art of defending is being swept away in a Premier League in danger of becoming overwhelmed by bulging nets
The Premier League continues to rain goals and flooded defences are struggling to cope with the deluge. For the supporters of winning teams, along with winning managers and the editors of television highlights, the more goals the merrier but surely a point must be reached when the increasing frequency with which the ball enters the net does the game more harm than good.
Take Arsenal's encounter with Newcastle United at the Emirates. What for the most part was an open, evenly matched contest descended into farce in the last half hour as any semblance of efficient defending disappeared. Arsenal won 7-3 having scored three times in the last six minutes but Newcastle could have had two or three more, so easy had the business of finding the net become.
As a one-off the game was a bit of festive fun but these high-scoring affairs are becoming a habit in the Premier League, witness Newcastle's 4-3 defeat at Manchester United on Boxing Day and Manchester City's victory at Norwich by the same score three days later. Four of Chelsea's eight goals against Aston Villa came in the last 15 minutes as their youthful opponents appeared to give up defending in order to treat their acne.
Last season both the Premier League and the Champions League were won through solid defending. Manchester City conceded only 29 goals in winning the English title and Chelsea's European triumph owed everything to their dogged resistance in the second leg of their semi-final against Barcelona after John Terry had been sent off.
This season the defences of City and Chelsea have been the most parsimonious in the Premier League, each having conceded 19 goals, but in European competitions both have looked porous at the back. England's survivors in the Champions League, Arsenal and Manchester United, will probably have to score more than a few times to progress given their defensive uncertainties.
Not that the present glut of goals is evenly spread. The followers of Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers are approaching starvation point having seen their teams score only 17 times apiece in 21 league games.
Yet goals in the Premier League are on the increase with 1,063 scored in 2010-11 and 1,066 last season, the highest total since the top clubs broke away from the Football League in 1992. Obviously better finishing has something to do with this but at least as much is surely down to indifferent defending. And cheap goals cheapen the game.
Something is fundamentally wrong when so many goals are the results of back fours being caught out by simple lobs over their heads with opposing forwards allowed to move on to the ball unchallenged. This is happening as much at the top of the table as the bottom. Even United are being caught out by these sucker punches.
Since the International Board began relaxing the interpretation of the offside law in the mid-90s, defending teams have become increasingly reluctant to push up behind the ball and cramp their opponents for space, with the result that attacking teams are finding more room more easily in the approaches to goal.
Defenders are also struggling to adjust to the increasing number of sides who employ only one striker while relying more on players making runs from midfield to get into scoring positions. With next to nobody to mark, the centre-backs start to wander and are often having to move across to counter the threat from the flanks when attacking full-backs have been caught on the break. And with defenders less inclined to pick up opponents at corners and free-kicks, goalkeepers are being asked to perform miracles as a matter of routine.
After the original offside law was altered in the mid-20s, when the number of defenders required to keep an attacker onside was reduced from three to two, the seasonal number of goals rose from 1,192 to 1,703. Herbert Chapman's Arsenal responded by making the centre-half a third full-back and while they still scored a healthy number of goals, the strength of their defending remained the bedrock of their success.
This season only three teams in the Premier League – Manchester City, Chelsea and Stoke – have conceded fewer goals than Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, but the hearts of Gooners still miss a beat when the opposition catch their heroes with a quick pass through the middle and must pine for the days when Tony Adams could deal with the danger simply by raising an arm.
Happy, boring memories …