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Is attack the best form of defense?

Arsenal v Newcastle United - Premier League

Theo Walcott celebrates after scoring his hattrick against Newcastle. Arsenal won 7-3

It is said that attack is the best form of defense, and that seems to be the way football is moving. Looking at the recent 4-3 and 7-3 victory for Manchester United and Arsenal respectively against Newcastle United and the general trend of the season so far there is enough evidence that football clubs now hold true to this philosophy. Gone are the days when teams followed the simple philosophy that ‘if you don’t concede, you don’t lose’. Who can forget the Italians winning the World Cup in 2006, by conceding just two goals the entire tournament (an own goal from Zaccardo and a penalty in the final from Zidane) with their captain Fabio Cannavaro leading the team from the heart of its defense?

The new idea that seems to have come up is ‘we can score one more than you’ and this is being used by teams like Manchester United and have resulted in games ending with remarkably exciting score lines. The change of attitude has been so profound that those teams who were once renowned for their defensive stability has started to concede at a worrying rate. Manchester United has already conceded 25 goals, which is just 8 short of what they conceded in the whole of last season. But the fact that they have managed to take 24 points from losing positions tells us about the strength of their attack and the team’s mentality. So is the art of defending no longer a vital cog in the modern game?

Last season, UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea did show that art of defending is still alive, but they used it more as a necessity than anything else. While Chelsea faced a lot of flak for their attitude of ‘negative football’, the fact that they played to their strength with what resources they had and defended with their hearts on their sleeves (albeit with a little luck helping them at times) is often overlooked.

So what has changed in the modern game? The defense is no longer considered as a wall in front of goal to stop the other team from scoring but rather as the first line of attack. The quality of the defender, especially the full backs, is now measured in his ability to pass or to score from set pieces. This switch in priority has lead to the growth of numerous players like Patrice Evra, Rafael, Glen Johnson etc. who are all more effective going forward than at the back. With the full backs playing up the field and more often than not going forward together leaves huge gaps behind them that teams exploit.

Also the tremendous success of the ‘Barcelona way’, where the attack begins all the way back from the keeper with the defenders playing high up field and playing a major role in the teams attack, has influenced lot of English clubs like Chelsea and Liverpool who often take short goal kicks and try to move the ball forward from the back. The change in focus of the defenders job and their advanced position has made teams more exposed to counter attacks (as Chelsea so aptly demonstrated against Barcelona) and has lead to teams conceding larger number of goals. The offside trap is now sprung more out of striker’s impatience to get on the end of the ball than defenders holding a straight line.

The demand of playing attractive and attacking football has grown so much that even Jose Mourinho, who was known for the defensive solidity of his teams(both Chelsea and Inter Milan), had to adjust his tactics at Real Madrid, which has lead to them conceding more goals this season.

Is this a change in the game necessarily a bad one? The TV ratings say otherwise. The anticipation of an upset every week will only increase the ratings. Even the fans prefer to watch such nail biting action rather than a low scoring game. The constant hope that the any side can get something out of a game against the bigger clubs and goes out with an attacking mentality adds an air of uncertainty and mystique to the league.

With greater action provided every week, especially by the Manchester clubs who have made habit of winning games from behind, it looks unlikely that there is going to be any change in the current trend. With more importance given to the attacking form of the game, it looks to be a bleak time for goalkeepers.

As  fans, we say ‘More of the same please!’

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