“We all know what’s coming”

David Rudin:

We all know what’s coming: A slight bump in form, plenty of ingratiating interviews with friends in the press, a modest win streak that provokes talk of moving on to better jobs, pining for players from the 2012–13 Newcastle side, and the inevitable, months-long slide that Pardew has repeatedly proven incapable of arresting that will eventually lead to his ouster. Been there and done that. We all know this script just like we know the corresponding ones for David Moyes, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and all the usual suspects repopulating technical areas in the lower half of the Premier League.

available

“Is Tony Pulis available?”

“No.”

“Is Mark Hughes available?”

“No.”

“Is Harry Redknapp available?”

“No.”

“Is Big Sam available?”

(makes a phone call) “No.”

“Is Alan Par — um, is Roy Hodgson available?”

“Well … yes.”

“Roy it is!”

the home of clownshoes defending

That would be the Premier League, says Jonathan Wilson. He cites several certain or possible causes, among them the uncertainties caused by rosters always in flux and basic “flaws in concentration and structure” — though the latter point is an explanation that calls for further explanation, because why in the world should such flaws exist at this level of player ability and coaching expertise? Are players not being coached well, or are they simply ignoring their coaches?

Two other major points that Wilson makes: first,

There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.

And second,

To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.

At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.

These are very important points, and I think they help us understand some of the major shortcomings, but I still have a few questions.

  1. If you look at the chart on this page, you’ll see the an actual rise in goals per game has been quite recent, and that the overall trend of the past decade has been only slightly upward (and of course remaining far below historic levels of scoring, established when defenders were free to intimidate attackers and balls were badly made but defensive tactics were primitive at best). So do we even have a truly meaningful trend here?
  2. Can we distinguish between errors made by defenders and those made by goalkeepers? On the Okazaki goal against Arsenal mentioned above, it’s true that the short back line Arsenal played that day couldn’t get above someone as small as Okazaki, but the bigger problem was Cech’s indecisiveness: he got himself caught betwixt and between and so could defend neither McGuire’s headed pass nor Okazaki’s headed shot.
  3. My personal observation of Premier League matches — I have no data yet — suggests that the most drastic defensive errors in the past couple of years have happened in set-piece situations. Liverpool are of course reliably catastrophic on set pieces, but Arsenal aren’t much better. Much of the time, it seems to me, the problem is that you get zonal marking schemes in which players understand the “zonal” part but not the “marking,” as when Arsenal players simply ignored Jamie Vardy as he ran to a point on the pitch where none of them happened already to be standing. I need to look into this more carefully when I have time, but if set-piece goals are indeed on the rise, it would be interesting to see how much of the recent overall increase in goals they account for.

Premier League clubs, west to east

The geographical placement of each club is determined here by the location of its current ground (which means Wembley for Spurs). Currently, no Premier League side may be found east of the Prime Meridian — though West Ham would be if they still played at Upton Park — and that situation is unlikely to change until Norwich make their way back to the top flight. It is difficult to imagine that we’ll see a PL club west of Swansea, barring an unexpected rise to prominence by Plymouth Argyle.

  • Swansea
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester United
  • Manchester City
  • Stoke City
  • Burnley
  • Leicester
  • Huddersfield Town
  • West Brom
  • Bournemouth
  • Newcastle
  • Southampton
  • Watford
  • Tottenham
  • Chelsea
  • Arsenal
  • Crystal Palace
  • Brighton
  • West Ham

Premier League clubs, north to south

  • Newcastle
  • Burnley
  • Huddersfield Town
  • Manchester City
  • Manchester United
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Stoke City
  • Leicester
  • West Brom
  • Watford (Vicarage Road: 51.6500° N)
  • Swansea (Liberty Stadium: 51.6427° N)
  • Tottenham
  • Arsenal
  • West Ham
  • Chelsea
  • Crystal Palace
  • Southampton
  • Brighton
  • Bournemouth