Is the art of defending changing?

Man to man and zonal marking have become the two most common types of marking systems in football today with each system having its different adaptations. But despite the efforts of coaches to improve the defending of set pieces using these systems, defenders, in particularly in the top divisions, seem to have forgotten how to mark from set pieces and stop the challenges that open play causes.

The Premier League is renowned for the high intensity and speed it’s played at but sadly, cases of laziness and lacklustre defending is soiling this perception of England’s top division. Many techniques are taught to centre backs and full backs when defending open play and set piece situations; jockeying, nudging and shoulder to shoulder are very common in today’s game. However, the Premier League seems to have adapted a new style of defending over the past few seasons which has rightly suffered severe criticism.

Grappling is a tactic rugby teams would be accustomed to encounter on a match day, but not Premier League teams.

Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal have underperformed this season and are failing to live up to the immense expectations left by former boss Sir Alex Ferguson. This failure may be due to the leniency of the Dutchman and his inability to eradicate the grappling theme in his defence and particularly with Chris Smalling.

United’s most recent home game which they incidentally lost 1-0 against Southampton was a prime example of how not to defend set pieces. Chris Smalling, who has twenty-one international caps for England and is a regular starter for one of the biggest teams in the world, has recently resorted to shirt pulling and grappling to stop his opponents beating him to the ball. However, Smalling was caught out against the Saints when the person he failed to grapple (Charlie Austin) escaped his grasp and condemned United to their second successive defeat in as many games. Questions were asked why such an established defender had to grapple his opponents to gain control at the back and it seems poor management is at fault. Chris Smalling isn’t the only defender at fault for grappling with Stoke City’s defenders being quite a common example of grappling when they were first promoted to the Premier League.

It has been used to stop attackers from reaching the ball and to put off players whilst they’re in flight from crosses and corners and although it frequently goes unnoticed, particularly on set pieces, it has started to be picked up by referees for what it is, a foul. Holding back a player in a goal-scoring opportunity is usually a foul but questions haven’t aroused as to why players haven’t been penalised for committing these atrocities. This is because of the challenge referees face when spotting incidents from set plays and no one seems to complain at referee. Opposition fans who may fall victim to watching their players get grappled to the floor may argue that referees should have the experience and training to place themselves in the right position to spot incidents like shirt pulling. In reality, referees have to try and spot fouls through clusters of at least sixteen players which makes it almost impossible for officials to spot.

Upcoming defenders need to avoid these conventional methods of defending by learning the trade of their position the right way and not lowering themselves to the ease and laziness of grappling their opponents. This issue sadly continues in today’s game because it is generally impossible to spot and football has to adapt if it’s to avoid the critics of managers who may complain the general art of defending is changing.


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