Defenders (and holding midfielders). There just aren’t enough talented defenders (and holding midfielders) in the world. It’s a funny statement to make. Football players are getting bigger and faster and more agile all the time and that, presumably, doesn’t just apply to attackers. What struck me this weekend, and maybe I’m late to this particular party, is the extent to which the spine of a defense is defined by the system more so than the particular talents of the players acquired and the extent to which managers and pundits are trying to explain their inability to recruit for and implement a system by implying that there is some sort of cyclical dip in the quality of defenders available in a world producing more and more footballing talent every year.
For every Manchester City spending huge on a Nicolas Otamendi (who was very good in Spain) there is a Tottenham getting far superior production from bargain basement Kevin Wimmer. For every Manchester United paying high prices for a Morgan Schneiderlin there is a corresponding Danny Drinkwater playing a similar role to greater effect for pennies on the dollar. We have seen the fortunes of players like John Terry rise and fall at Chelsea based on the system that he’s been playing in. We’ve seen expensive acquisitions of players like Dejan Lovern, who was very good at Southampton, struggle mightily at their next stop along the way. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in today’s Premier League, you don’t play exceptional defense by assembling exceptional talents. You play exceptional defense by creating an exceptional system and populating it with one of many reasonably talented options that fit the profile that that system demands.
The success of Spurs, Southampton, and West Ham might lead us in the direction of the singular answer being a “high press” system but it really isn’t that simple. Leicester City play a counter-attacking style that relies more on absorbing opposing possession in their own half and then exploiting the opposition on quick counter-attacks. Watford, another unexpected success story this season, are doing it with discipline in a more conventional sense rather than pressing their opponents.
If we get into the business of comparing rosters of the big clubs that are disappointing this season to the upstarts that are faring better than expected the gap isn’t talent. Sure, Leicester City, Spurs and West Ham have uncovered some talents in the likes of Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, Kane, Alli, and Payet that would be at home on any roster in the Premier League. That said, if you went man-for-man down the rosters, you wouldn’t want to bring in Robert Huth and Wes Morgan for Koscielny and Mertesacker/Gabriel on talent (or Kompany/Otamendi). You wouldn’t replace Hector Bellerin or Bacary Sagna with Danny Simpson or Nacho Monreal or even a rapidly-aging Gael Clichy with Christian Fuchs. N’Golo Kante has made the case that he is clearly the best holding player from among Leicester City/Arsenal/City but Danny Drinkwater has all the hallmarks of being the right guy doing the right things in the right system more so than being a great fit anywhere.
The reason to discuss this now is that the discussions are already starting to happen with regard to some big teams for next season. How many players will Manchester City or Arsenal have to recruit to catch up with Spurs and Leicester City? How will Pep Guardiola fare without a squad that is clearly more talented than every league opponent that he faces each week? How worried should Arsenal supporters be that the loss of Arsene Wenger could lead to a Manchester United-like drop into the abyss?
Here are a few early thoughts:
Manchester City – Manuel Pellegrini has, to my eyes, won more with talent when he has won than he has with a defined system. City seem to bring players in willy-nilly based on reputation, English-ness, and a seeming desire to flex their financial muscle for the sake of doing so. Whereas Spurs clearly have a “type” at outside back to ensure consistency when an injury crops up or the manager wants to rotate, Pellegrini is choosing between dramatically different options in Kolarov and Clichy on the left and Sagna and Zabeleta on the right. Likewise, if you’re choosing between Fernando and Yaya Toure and Fabien Delph to partner Fernandinho then you’re certainly not running a system in an attempt to impose your will you’re either grasping at straws or trying to play the ultimate reactive game to minimize what your opponents do well. Sir Alex Ferguson could do the latter but there aren’t too many other managers that can at the highest level. The change to Pep Guardiola and his history with the executive team at City should help align a well-defined (and proven) system with activities in the transfer market. It could take a season to make things better but the rest of the big boys are in enough turmoil that there aren’t that many insurmountable hurdles to clear.
Arsenal – Obviously there is a ton up in the air here. We don’t know if Wenger will stay or go and, if he does go, who might replace him. The other thing that isn’t clear is how the club would conduct transfer business after so long with Wenger running the show. What does seem to be clear is that one of the places where Wenger used to be considered an innovator, his early adoption (at least in England) of a passing-focused approach, is one where he has fallen behind. His “system” seems mostly focused on an approach in the attacking half of the field. The systems that are having the most success in recent seasons are ones that are more holistic than that. The high press is effective because it joins the defensive approach with the attacking approach. Likewise the approaches at Chelsea under Mourinho and at Leicester under Reineri count on the team to stay back and defend resolutely and then break with precision. Perhaps I’m not giving Wenger enough credit for having a holistic design but, if he does, then Arsene Wenger the technical director isn’t bringing in players to execute that design or some combination of Wenger and Steve Bould aren’t drilling it well enough for it to look like a holistic approach. Regardless of where the failure happens to fall, there seems to be significant room for improvement in this area of alignment if the Gunners reshuffle the deck.
Manchester United – The cautionary tale for Arsenal and anyone else hoping for an easy transition of power. It has been clear since Sir Alex Ferguson took over that there has been no alignment between the people managing the club and the people acquiring the players. Perhaps David Moyes would have been overmatched under any circumstances but it has been abundantly clear during Louis Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford that transfers have been done to him as often as he has driven them based on what he needs to be successful. Angel Di Maria is clearly a great talent but it is equally clear that his acquisition was more about “hey, he’s objectively great and he’s available” more so than as a fit in what Louis Van Gaal wanted to do. Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have different approaches to how to win matches these days but one thing seems clear, both are very particular about the types of players who can be successful playing for them. Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne were both very good players deemed unworthy of Chelsea under Mourinho. Whether it is Mourinho or someone else, Manchester United need to prove that their transfer committee or whomever is making those decisions has figured out how to get a manager what he needs to be successful or the next manager will fail as surely as the previous two.
Liverpool – The change at manager has already happened here but the dust has yet to settle as far as how aligned the talent acquisition department at Anfield is with their new manager. The defense and the holding midfield, the things that Spurs, West Ham and Leicester City are all clearly getting right in implementing their respective systems are just a mess at Anfield. There is talent but the talent doesn’t seem particularly aligned with a particular system. Buying Rickie Lambert and Christian Benteke to play in a Brendan Rodgers system made no sense. Similarly with the lumbering Martin Skrtel at the center of a pressing defense. Systems depend on the right players, not necessarily the most talented or the highest profile and Liverpool will have to prove that they can do what they never seemed to do for Brendan Rodgers.
I started this introduction with the notion of defenders and the lack of “world class” defenders available on the transfer market with Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United having found acquiring top class reinforcements particularly troublesome. Arsenal have bemoaned the same gap as it relates to holding midfielders with Liverpool and Manchester City finding results at these two positions equally difficult to achieve despite frequent spending. The issue, and the one you should be monitoring as your club starts talking summer changes, isn’t available talent. The issue is how well each manager has defined what he needs at a given position to be successful and how willing/able the people negotiating the transfers are to go and get those players.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Leicester City – Two 1-0 wins since last Monday and the Foxes are staying in a comfortable position at the top despite Spurs continued strong form.
Tottenham – This one was never in any doubt after Harry Kane scored in the first minute. It would have been shocking if Bournemouth took anything off of Spurs but the ease of the task certainly gave some credence to the notion that Spurs might be the better team than Leicester City right this minute. Unfortunately for Spurs, the Foxes have a lead and the benefit of an easier schedule down the stretch so being better right this minute is a moral victory at best.
Arsenal – Arsenal jump back over Manchester City for this spot in my mythical power ranking because the Gunners looked slightly more interested in making a go of it this week. It was all too predictable that just as soon as it looks like they’re completely out of it, they start to look capable again. It is the constant complaint over the past ten or so seasons that they just don’t have the will to overcome high pressure situations. They can beat Bayern Munich when it really doesn’t mean anything to Bayern or crush Manchester United or City early in the season when there is still so much of the season left to play. In the big moments though, they seem to slip on the banana peel just frequently enough to return right back into a position where the closest thing there is to pressure is whether they’ll finish in the top four again. On the plus side, it was a great Premier League debut for Alex Awobi who scored and was the man of the match for the Gunners. Is that the performance that makes one or both of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain available over the summer? The Gunners wouldn’t seem to be in a bad position with Sanchez, Giroud (or a replacement), and Awobi starting with Joel Campbell behind Awobi on the right.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
West Ham United – The Hammers are neither in fourth nor did they have the best result of the weekend but it’s hard not to think highly of their chances coming down the stretch. They got unlucky that they encountered Chelsea post-Hiddink in the second half of the season and that, combined with a questionable penalty, saw them drop two points and at least a little momentum in Week 31. Still, Manchester United’s win looked more like Manchester City being poor than any sea-change in their own fortunes and Manchester City were hideous and lost two more key players to injury. Hard not to like the Hammers’ chances to make it to fourth. What amazing icing that would be on the cake of the most surprising Premier League season in the history of the league.
Manchester United – Again, I’m not going to over-react to Manchester United on the basis of their win at the Etihad. I had that down more to City being poor than United being exceptional. Still, United are regaining injured players and figuring out how to be better than they have been which is at least progress in the right direction. In Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial the Red Devils have two dynamic attackers and with the restoration of Morgan Schneiderlin to the starting line-up, they are actually playing someone who can hope to both shield the defense and bridge the gap from defending to attack with a clever pass. There’s still a lot of work to be done and the fact that Wilfried Bony couldn’t cash in on any of a number of reasonable opportunities to draw even or go ahead are on him and Manuel Pellegrini for not bringing in Iheanacho instead.
Manchester City – Now potentially down Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling for the next month or so. Based on what we saw against an OK, but certainly not excellent Manchester United team, that’s not going to be good enough to retain fourth place with only one point of cushion between them and United’s West Ham and Manchester. Beyond the injuries there were issues everywhere from how City lined-up (playing Yaya Toure deep has been a disaster for some time now and even more so with third and fourth choice center backs), to the inadequacy of their reserves (Demichelis moved like an old man and single-handedly gave the match to United), and the poor choices off the bench (Bony over the ascending Iheanacho was mindboggling). It will be interesting to see how, if at all, summer recruiting is impacted by a potential absence from the Champions League. City have the money and the manager to attract players not currently on the rosters of top teams (think this summer’s version of Douglas Costa) so this shouldn’t be too big a deal until it comes to trying to cherry pick from Barca or Bayern or the company City want to be keeping.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – All the rumors have Remi Garde being relieved of his duties but exactly why Villa would start paying yet another person to be their manager for the remainder of what is clearly a lost campaign is a mystery to me. Perhaps they have an in-house candidate that they want to expose to the pressures and responsibilities of the top job and that would make sense to me but barring that, why not just let Garde go down with the ship and let someone else start with a clean slate next season?
Norwich City – What a huge weekend for the Canaries. They got an unexpected three points while their chief rivals for relegation/survival drew with each other. I still peg the Canaries to go down but this was certainly the sort of shot in the arm that they needed to at least have a fighting chance down the stretch. All three newly promoted sides staying up despite the growing chorus of voices decrying the growing difficulty of teams making the leap from Championship to Premier League is still on.
Newcastle United – A huge late goal in the attempt to stay up and the fun of a “who, exactly, seems more unhinged?” contest between a shirtless Aleksandar Mitrovic and the pitch invader he embraced after the goal. The relegation battle may lack quality but it certainly doesn’t lack for entertaining storylines this season. Looking forward, the Magpies can look to two matches under Rafa Benitez wherein they have put up a good fight even if the results haven’t been too helpful to the overall goal.
Sunderland – I don’t associate blowing late leads with Sam Allardyce teams but I do associate them with recent vintage Sunderland teams so I guess we can surmise that the malaise at the Stadium of Light is more powerful than whatever powers Big Sam still possesses to grind out the results he needs. It could be a depressing next season in the industrial north of England next season if both the Magpies and Black Cats are contesting the Tyne-Wear derby in the Championship.
I do promise to get back to the (even) longer version of MMM at some point before the end of the season but life is busy and getting back to where I can do some of the regular departments justice after some time off is going to take a little time. Hopefully, I can spend some of the necessary time required during the international break when I’m not tracking Manchester City injury reports.