There is an American sporting expression ‘offence wins games, defence wins championships’. The idiom was typified to a degree perhaps never achieved before when the impregnable, stoic Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season. That season theirs was a story of success that had been built upon the most formidable defence in recent league history, and it came to a head in New Jersey on Super Bowl Sunday when they met the Denver Broncos and the evergreen Peyton Manning, leader of the most dominant offence in league history. It set a striking scene; an immovable defensive object staring down an unstoppable offensive force. In the end, Seattle won the game 48-3. The hierarchy had been confirmed in stunning fashion; here defence reined supreme. The famous idiom was wheeled out by journalists, and there it smugly sat in game reports everywhere, the perfect tagline to attach to a most remarkable of victories.
Turning to the vastly different sporting realm of the Premier League, the phrase seems, if not equally, at least comparably suitable. Liverpool’s title challenge last season was dragged down by their shaky defence, like an escaping convict trying to scale the prison walls while tethered to an unconscious Kolo Toure. It was a warning to all, in a way. And now this season, only a handful of games old, the pain of a defensive injury crisis is already etched across Arsene Wenger’s professorial brow. Again, Arsene? And so soon?
Mathieu Debuchy damaged ligaments in his ankle during the draw with Manchester City and will be out for a number of months. The Frenchman was unable to play in Arsenal’s Champions League tie against Dortmund this week anyway, his red card in the play off second leg ensured this. But now Wenger must cope long term without his starting right back, and the covering options are thin to say the least. Calum Chambers, promising but raw (and preferred by Wenger as a centre back) is nursing a bout of tonsillitis, and besides, he’s not an ideal back up. Chambers could be played in Laurent Koscielny’s place in the centre of defence, and then Koscielny could be moved to right back, but again, that’s a makeshift solution. Nacho Monreal has been largely uninspiring when called upon (and is nursing a tweak himself, anyway), and the very injury-prone Keiran Gibbs is only just coming back from a long term lay off. It looks like a Mathieu Flamini will be asked to fill in on the right side of defence for the Dortmund match.
Once again, Wenger’s transfer practice is being questioned. The marquee swoops for Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez respectively strengthened his options up front, an area that needed reinforcement, and attacking midfield, an area that certainly didn’t. Even before Bacary Sagna left for Manchester City, the options in defence were only an injury or two away from a crisis of personnel. As it stands, only three of Arsenal’s recognised defenders are fit to play. Even for Arsenal, this calamitous situation is overly punctual arrival. How Wenger expects to compete with the super-squads of Chelsea and Manchester City, on multiple fronts, with such a threadbare second unit is something that Arsenal fans have been exasperatedly pondering themselves.
The Dortmund side they are due to face, buoyed by the hero’s return of favourite son Shinji Kagawa, will not be accommodating opponents, and will aim to exploit any defensive weakness. The saga of Falcao, then eventually Welbeck, on deadline convincingly disguised this accident waiting to happen at the opposite end of the pitch. All it has taken is one injury, and suddenly the Arsenal defence doesn’t resemble a group capable of enduring a gruelling campaign. What will happen if they’re hit with a scenario similar to the one West Ham faced last season, when all three of their central defenders were struck down simultaneously? Arsenal have three senior centre backs, and three senior full backs, that’s it. Two starters in each area, with only one covering option.
Manchester United’s situation, though not as immediately dire as Arsenal’s, is worrying too. Though Tyler Blackett is young, fresh-faced and can only improve with more playing time, he surely can’t be the preferred option to start for van Gaal, despite starting every league game this season so far. More perplexing still was the fact that he started in the new defensive back four formation against QPR on Saturday, when the option for a line of Rafael, Evans, Rojo and Shaw was available. Van Gaal elected to leave Shaw, the £30 million signing, on the bench and move Rojo to the left back spot. Whether or not this reflects badly on van Gaal’s opinion of Shaw is hard to say. One assumes that, when Phil Jones returns to fitness, Blackett will make way, but then if van Gaal returns to a back three formation, will it be Rojo or Blackett who takes the open spot?
Regardless, if one or two of injuries hit United in the centre back area, adequate cover suited to the ambitions of the club isn’t there to cope. Chris Smalling has had more than enough time to secure a first team spot, but has failed to do so, the regularity of his poor decision making and positioning has hindered him badly over the past 3 seasons. Similarly, there are still questions hanging over Phil Jones, whose work rate and commitment only barely makes up for his often reckless abandon. There is a reason why Jones has been played in so many positions during his time at United, despite being initially touted as symbolic of their bright defensive future when he was signed.
Again, like Arsenal, United’s sensational deadline-day swoop was for a striker, Radamel Falcao, when it was fairly clear that another top quality centre back was needed. Will this neglect come back to haunt United? Two defensive errors from Rojo and Blackett almost handed goals to QPR, who were otherwise wholly awful on Saturday. Better teams will punish United if such generous gifts are offered up again, and you can’t imagine Sergio Aguero, or Diego Costa, or Raheem Sterling passing up the chances that QPR contrived to miss.
Last season was a season of goals, with City and Liverpool scoring freely. However, City won the title, and Liverpool lost it, because of the comparative quality of their defences, as City finished the season having conceded 13 less goals. Chelsea, without a notable striker to speak of, finished third last season and scored more than 30 goals less than both Liverpool and Man City, but then they were, as per Mourinho-usual, exemplary in defence, conceding 27 goals to Man City’s 37. Now that Chelsea has Diego Costa leading the line, the goal-scoring is largely taken care of, and the already solid defence continues to be strong. Chelsea are, as of now (which is admittedly still very early), the favourites for the title. Brendan Rogers has already spoken this season about how the defensive issues that ruined Liverpool’s title push remain, and that they must be taken care of if success is to be had this season. If Manchester United’s and Arsenal’s hopes of competing with the rest of the top-tier clubs are to be taken seriously, then defence needs to be the priority. ‘Offence wins games, defence wins championships’. The prospect of defensive reinforcement via January transfer window beckons from a distance, tantalising both van Gaal and Wenger. But will the damage have been done by then?