Attack Is Proving The Best Form Of Defense

Daniel examines an old cliche that Premiership clubs are proving truer every week.

Watching the Chelsea v Spurs F.A. Cup game last week, the first thing that struck me was that when Mido came on he showed a level of thrust-into-a-new-situation panic that I had only previously seen when my mum once drove in the outside lane of a motorway.

But Mido’s ‘Oh sh*t, what am I meant to do’ performance deflected attention from the more important fact that Martin Jol’s (say it loud, I’m not gay and I’m proud) second half decisions cost Spurs a famous victory. Spurs are better at attacking than they are at defending and get jittery trying to hold onto leads late in games. Chelsea looked more vulnerable than ever before under Mourinho and went from a back four, to a three and finally a back two. All the signs therefore showed that Spurs had a great chance of scoring a fourth goal that would have killed the game off, yet Jol took off his best two attackers, put five in defence and let Chelsea back into the game.

The crazy thing was that Jol’s decisions were as predictable as they were illogical. Not because Jol in particular makes a habit of trying to ‘hang on to what we’ve got’, but because so many managers do. Take Liverpool in the second leg of their Champions League game against Barcelona. In the first half, they were all over Barcelona and were only denied by the woodwork and a goal line clearance. Barca looked woeful, but in the second half Liverpool went to one up front, defended deeper and handed the initiative (and possession) to the opposition and just scraped through. On the international stage, England have become masters in recent years of the panicky last 20 minutes. In the World Cup with attacking players such as Beckham, Joe Cole, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and Owen the tactic appeared to be, “Let’s nick a goal from a set piece then defend in our own area and hoof it.”

Playing more defensively is understandable if your opponents are looking really threatening or you are playing with 10 men, but if you are not under this pressure then trying to stop the opposition from scoring by gifting them possession, territory and momentum is self-defeating. Fear of losing something is a stronger motivating factor than a desire to gain something and so managers focus on keeping a clean sheet and don’t give enough consideration to how their team will score and win the game. Whether you are trying to win a league or avoid relegation from it you need wins not draws.

Which is why I am going to make a statement I never thought I would make – I am pleased to see Manchester United winning the Premiership this season. They play attractive, attacking football and it is bringing them success. It is no coincidence that United were less successful when trying to play more defensively. But now they have a midfield that are all better at attacking than they are at defending (which shows you don’t need a big, bruising shin-kicker to do well in England) and their full-backs get forward a lot.

Has this attacking set-up cost them defensively? No, it has contributed to them having the joint best defensive record in the Premiership because opponents struggle to gain possession in advanced positions. And when his team are level late in a game, Fergie is prepared to gamble more than any other manager on risking losing the one point his team would gain for a draw by going for the extra two points they would gain for a win. Yes, it is much easier for Fergie to be bold given the resources he has, but smaller clubs can be rewarded for playing attacking football too. No club has exceeded expectations more than Reading this season and they’ve done it by having a real go at teams.

So bravo United and bravo Reading and may fortune, and the league table, continue to favour the brave.

P.S. Before someone comments on the fat lot of good playing attractive, attacking football has done Arsenal (though not so much against Everton). I think their failure to win the league in recent seasons is not due to their style of football but their lack of experienced leaders in tight games, the exceptional points totals racked up by Chelsea in the past (and United this season), and because they have Phillip Senderos.