When we concede a corner or a free kick in the final third I feel a clear sense of anxiety in our defense. Similarly, when we concede throw-in’s in the final third the body language of our players isn’t very comfortable. I guess I am not the only one who feels this way.
To this, we can add our general anxiety when defending a lead in the final few minutes. The most recent example coming against Liverpool where we hacked the ball long at every opportunity. In fact we tried to hoof it quite often, but many of those attempts failed and the ball fell in dangerous areas. Once again the feeling was that no one really knew what was to be done.
In simple terms I would say we tend to panic once the opponent gets in our defensive third. No team really wants the opposition in the defensive third but the top teams and the smaller but well organized defensive teams tend to be comfortable when they have to fall back.
Some might argue statistically that we don’t concede too many goals from throws or set plays. I don’t have the numbers for this but the point is not about how many we concede and how many we don’t. The point is about the general level of confidence in the team about their defensive abilities.
If the team is confident why do we feel the panic and if the team is not confident what is the solution?
For a minute let me assume that the team is confident. In such a case you would expect the defenders to knock the ball out for throw-in’s or corners as a safety first policy. Do we do that? I would say we try to avoid that whenever possible.
For instance, consider the Gary Cahill goal against Bolton. Clichy could have headed the ball for a corner but he tried a very risky attempt to clear it away from the final third. Against Porto, Sol Campbell could have kicked the ball out for a throw-in but didn’t do it. You might argue that he wanted the keeper to come but once it was clear that the keeper was hesitant and given his experience, he should have taken charge of the situation. It doesn’t make him a bad player but it does make us wonder why he didn’t do it.
How many times have we seen our defenders heading the ball back into the danger area instead of putting it out? I can go on and on with examples of when we could have knocked the ball out. The point is, it is very difficult to accept that the team is confident as a defensive unit.
Now, let me proceed with the understanding that we are not confident as a defensive unit. Many fans would be happy to put the entire blame for this on the goalkeeper. My contention is that our defensive problems are far more complex and no matter who we put in goal we will struggle. Not only that, I am convinced that our defense can make the best keeper in the world look like a chump.
At this point some might say if we are so bad we would have never been so close to the top. I feel we are not bad but we lack coordination, organization and initiative in defense. We can get away with it because of a few reasons.
First and most important is that we tend to push most opponents back into their own half thereby reducing the numbers they have in attack. Very few teams are clinical enough to hurt us with two or three attackers. Those that are, have been quite successful against us. Even in the last game if Porto had any quality in the final third they could have scored 4 or 5.
The second reason is linked to the fact that scoring goals in a football game is difficult. If you put enough people in the box it is always difficult for the opposition to score. How man times have we seen a team score from three out of ten corners? It’s very rare even when a premier league team plays a second division team.
Essentially, we defend by numbers. In many games we have started putting eleven players inside our own box while defending a corner. Not in our half but inside the penalty box. That’s madness. On one hand if we get the box as crowded as possible chances are the opposition will not score. On the other, we don’t have anyone to recover the ball once it’s kicked out and it comes back in very soon. Teams like Burnley use such situations to keep us under pressure for long periods.
The third reason is that on most occasions our back four maintain a good line and we can catch the opponents off-side. Many of the smaller teams and even teams like Villa and the tiny totts struggle against this.
Finally, we are greatly indebted to the endeavor of one Alex Song. He is the only one who chases the ball from flank to flank and always has the energy to challenge the opponent. Most footballers even in the big teams are not quick and skillful enough to dribble past an opponent. So when we have someone like Song closing them down it slows their attacking impetus.
This is my understanding of our defending at a general level. It works against the smaller teams and to a great extent against bigger teams. We struggle on counter attacks when the opposition has clinical finishers and we struggle on set plays.
In this article I talked about our need for a defense coach and serious defensive training. I continue to insist on that because even though we see some individual errors the real problems are not down to the individuals.
No matter who our defender is in a given situation, he seems to be afraid of kicking the ball out. Similarly, our players are afraid of tackling probably because they don’t want to concede a free kick. Buying a keeper or a DM will not change this.
In spite of all our quality in passing and movement we don’t create too many opportunities against United or Chelsea. I don’t think this makes our players bad and their players extraordinary. I feel this is down to the high level of organization they have defensively. Every time the ball goes wide the full back gets support from the wide midfielder or attacker. Every time it comes through the middle the central midfield is there to defend it. On rare occasions when someone is caught out of position they know how to stop play with a professional foul. In contrast, how often do we see our players chasing the ball without really stopping the attack.
These skills don’t fascinate but they are admirable and essential nonetheless. They also give the team the confidence to sit back when the opposition is dominating. Soaking pressure in a football game without panic and with assurance sends a clear signal of confidence to the opposition. On the other hand, hoofing the ball at every opportunity and utter chaos in defense gives the opposition a lot of hope and belief that they can get something.
If we have to take the last step towards being champions, we need to sell panic and buy organization and assurance. An individual signing might not do the trick.