Desire to emulate Barca’s style leaves defences cruelly exposed

Trevor Steven
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SATURDAY’S goalfest at Stamford Bridge may have made the task of those whose job it is to sell Premier League TV rights easier, but the match showcased just how far the standard of defending exhibited by the top teams has dipped this season.

While Arsenal’s defensive fragility has been long-standing – though Laurent Koscielny’s recent improvement and Thomas Vermaelen’s return to fitness offers them the promise of a solid central partnership – it’s been nothing short of staggering to witness the way Chelsea and Manchester United have been carved apart in recent weeks.

It’s been noticeable that managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Andre Villas-Boas have been keen for their teams to hold a high line this season, but for that system to work, as it does so devastatingly for Barcelona, you need speedy centre-halves and have a midfield that hunts veraciously in packs.

The advantage of holding a high line is that it allows you to win the ball further up the pitch and launch attacks from closer to the opposition goal. Both Chelsea and United have suffered chastening experiences at the hands of Barca in recent times and perhaps they feel the only way of defeating the Champions League holders is to fight fire with fire.

If that’s the case, I’m afraid they’re on a hiding to nothing. Chelsea are really lacking in pace at centre-half, while their midfield trio, while all competent technicians, are nowhere near as energetic as the likes of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
For United, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are no slouches, but they are nowhere near as quick on the turn as they once were, while Johnny Evans was caught in Mario Balotelli’s slipstream several times before he was red carded in the recent Manchester derby.

Furthermore, as hard-working as Ashley Young and Nani are, they did little to prevent Darren Fletcher and Anderson getting overrun in midfield in the same match.

At this rate I’d really fear for Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal were they to draw the Catalans in the next round of the Champions League, while on the home front City already look overwhelming favourites to capture their first Premier League title.

Roberto Mancini had to endure an awful lot of criticism for the dour brand of football City were accused of playing during the early part of his tenure, but by building from the back and then adding a smattering of flair players, the Italian has sculpted a side as likely to grind out a 1-0 win as blow the opposition away.

The early months of this Premier League season has thrown up some preposterous scorelines and while that enhances the universal appeal of the competition, the suicidal tactics employed by certain members of the big four could end up meaning City turn the title race into a procession.

There have been a staggering 28 goals scored in the four matches played between England’s four participants in this season’s Champions League, as a series of long-standing record have tumbled by the wayside.

Manchester United’s destruction of an under-strength Arsenal team back in August was the north London club’s heaviest defeat in 114 years when they lost 8-0 to Loughborough.

City’s mauling of their local rivals earlier this month equalled the biggest margin of victory in a Manchester derby, while it was the first time United had conceded six at home since 1936.

Chelsea shipped five goals at home in the Premier League for the first time on Saturday, while Robin van Persie became the first player to score a hat-trick against the Blues since 1997