How attacking football's evolution has impacted defending
Last week, I found myself at the Sugar Club in Dublin, sharing a red sofa with Jonathan Wilson, editor of The Blizzard, and Philippe Auclair, the London correspondent for France Football. The point of the evening was that we would field questions from the auditorium about our respective football cultures or the game in general.
Chatting among ourselves first, on a day of countless friendlies all across Europe, I said it would be interesting to see if Germany coach Joachim Low was going to play with three at the back against Spain, the formation he had first used against Gibraltar.
The back three has recently made a comeback in the Bundesliga thanks to Pep Guardiola. The Bayern coach goes by the mantra that games are decided in midfield. It follows from this that you should put your best players there (hence the Philipp Lahm switch) and that you must try to create superiority in numbers in this part of the pitch, for instance by turning your full-backs into wide men in midfield.
Low would be tempted to follow this blueprint, I said. But not because of any structural convictions or footballing philosophies. "With Lahm retired, we practically have nobody to play at left-back or right-back," I said, adding that the new formation was probably built on the simple assumption that if you are lacking trained defenders, it's worth a try to field only three instead of four and then swamp midfield with, well, midfielders.
After that deep and meaningful analysis, Philippe spoke a bit about France, saying that midfield was the team's main strength. Then he said: "By the way, we haven't got any full-backs, either. We're playing with nobody at the moment, really."
About 10 minutes later, there was a question from the audience. "We always seem to hear about the top-end teams that their weakness is at the back," the audience member said. "Do you think this is more to do with a decline in defensive training or is it just a boom of a type of training?"
It was an interesting question, because it echoed a sentiment you hear very often these days. In late October, English football pundit Gary Neville published a column headed "Premier League football is witnessing the death of defending as I knew it." The former Manchester United right back said: "I look at some teams and feel: They don't know how to defend. They struggle with crosses, they don't deal with set pieces, they don't know how to work one-on-one."
Two days earlier, in his column for Champions, the official UEFA Champions League magazine, Sandro Mazzola had addressed the goalfests that seem to happen more and more often on the biggest stage in club football -- Bayern's 7-1 in Rome, Chelsea's 6-0 against Maribor, Atlético's 5-0 against Malmö, Shakhtar Donetsk's 6-0 away at Borisov. "I wonder whether we are seeing a generational shift," Mazzola said, "with concerns recently voiced in Italy by no less an authority than Paolo Maldini about the 'lost art of defending' now being confirmed across Europe."
Barely a week before the Italian legend Mazzola said this, an American writer by the name of Jon Townshend published a piece called "The lost art of defending: why so attacking?" In it, he said among many other things: "The full-back position has morphed to expose players, for all their attacking capabilities, as fundamentally unfocused on the defensive responsibility the position demands."
Put differently, across generations, continents, professions and nationalities, many people wonder why defending isn't what it used to be.
I was the first to grab the microphone in Dublin and attempt to give an answer, because I'd just made this point about a lack of full-backs in Germany. The reason for our shortage was, I bravely said, rather obvious. When we overhauled the talent development in this country, we looked toward neighbour the Netherlands, a country famous for the quality of its youth setup.
The Dutch focus has always been on producing technically gifted attacking players with playmaking abilities. This doesn't mean that the Dutch aren't interested in defending. Rather, their approach is based on the two ideas that being creative is more difficult than being destructive and that your capacity to learn decreases with the passage of time. Put simply, you start by teaching every kid how to be the next Diego Maradona. If, after a few years, it turns out he can't quite cut it in this role, you remodel him into a defensive player.
Predictably, this leads to an over-abundance of midfielders. In fact, looking at the current Germany setup, you could say that almost every player is a midfielder at heart, including centre-backs such as Mats Hummels. (And, yes, goalkeepers such as Manuel Neuer.)
So that's why there are fewer and fewer trained defenders, I told the audience member from Dublin. Players who've never done anything else but defend. Players who don't struggle with crosses can deal with set pieces and know how to work one-on-one.
However, is that the same as saying there's a decline in the quality of defending? Wouldn't it be more precise to say that in the old days, defending was left to the defenders, while now it's everybody's job, a truly collective effort? As Townshend wrote in his piece: "In many respects, stratagems such as 'Gegenpressing', and to an extent, Total Football, utilize team defending to ostensibly absolve the art of individual defending."
When I was finished, Jonathan took the microphone. "I'm slightly confused by the whole issue," he said, "because if you look at the stats, the number of goals per game, there's actually been a dip this year in the Premier League compared to the previous four years, even though there's all this stuff about the decline in defending in English football."
The same trend is evident in Germany. (If you know my end-of-season columns about goals per game, you'll be familiar with the odd fact that while this stat is in constant flux, it tends to go up or down across domestic leagues at the same time.) After 12 rounds of games, the goals-per-game average in the Bundesliga stands at 2.71 -- way below the 3.16 racked up during last season.
Still, 2.71 is a pretty decent, normal figure. The far more unusual number was last year's 3.16, the highest goals-per-game average in Germany since 1987. And Jonathan had a similar story to tell from England. "What's interesting is that there was actually a step up, four or five seasons ago, from around 2.6 to 2.8," " he added. "That step has happened. Now, whether that's statistically significant, you could argue about."
I looked it up and Jonathan was by and large right. Between 1995 and 2009, the average in England only once got anywhere near the 2.8 goals-per-game mark, but in the five seasons since it has always hovered around it. The same case can be made for the Champions League. The goals-per-game average was usually around 2.5 or 2.6 in this competition. Then, in 2011 it jumped up to 2.8 and later even cracked the 2.9 barrier.
But again: Does this mean that defending suddenly deteriorated four or five years ago? If that's the conclusion you draw from the stats, then you'd have to say that our teams are not defending as well as they did in the '90s, but much better than they did in the '80s, which many of us remember as brutal and dour, dominated by rugged enforcers. (In Germany, the magical three-goal barrier was broken a staggering nine times during the 1980s. In fact, the highest-scoring season in Bundesliga history was 1983-84, when the games produced 3.56 goals per 90 minutes.)
No, it's probably that something else has changed over the past few years. In the old days, some teams attacked and some counter-attacked. This had nothing to do with quality; it was a matter of style and choice. There was a school that said you take the game to the opposition, because it means the other team can only react, and since football is all about time, sooner or later they will react too late. But there was another school that said football is all about space, and the team that moves forward might dictate the pace of the game but loses control of the space behind them.
But today it's very rare to find, using the expression of the Irish audience member, a "top-end team" that doesn't prefer having the ball to letting the other team play. Even Chelsea, who've had so much success with sitting back and waiting for the right moment to strike, attempt "to dominate," as they say today. Maybe the reason is that Guardiola's Barcelona proved that counterpressing allows a team to control both time and space.
"The top teams are more focused on attacking than they were," is how Jonathan put it back in Dublin, while Mazzola wrote in his column: "Attacking tactics seem to be evolving much faster than coaches can react to them by developing effective defensive countermeasures." If you combine these two statements, it means we haven't lost the art of defending, but rediscovered the art of attacking.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.