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English defences generous to a fault

Published: Friday 7 December 2012, 14.40CET
Two of the four Premier League teams involved bowed out at the end of the group stage, and Simon Hart reckons their aggregate goals-against tally may be the key to England's malaise.
by Simon Hart
Published: Friday 7 December 2012, 14.40CET

English defences generous to a fault

Two of the four Premier League teams involved bowed out at the end of the group stage, and Simon Hart reckons their aggregate goals-against tally may be the key to England's malaise.

As the dust settles on the UEFA Champions League group stage, one statistic stands out when it comes to making sense of the English teams' efforts – namely, that between them, Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC and the two Manchester clubs managed just three clean sheets in a combined 24 matches.

This was one of the stats flashed up on Sky Sports on Wednesday night as the studio panel mulled over the elimination of holders Chelsea, who joined Manchester City FC in exiting the competition, to leave just Arsenal and Manchester United FC standing.

©Getty Images

United's defence has looked shaky without Nemanja Vidić

Another stat of note was that Chelsea had bowed out despite finishing as the leading scorers in the group stage, yet this seemed somehow fitting. The last two seasons have featured the highest goals-per-game average in the two decades since the UEFA Champions League's conception but the evidence is that, at this moment in time, England's finest have not quite got the balance right.

The Sunday Times spoke recently of "the thrilling but rather reckless course that English club football is following" after another of the high-scoring games the Premier League has produced this term. It is a notable trend in the domestic game that the goals are flowing but defences are faltering and it seems no coincidence that the aggregate of 35 goals that England's representatives leaked in this UEFA Champions League campaign should by some distance be the highest number in a group stage featuring four Premier League teams. The previous worst was back in 2002/03 when they conceded 28 and then, at least, three of the four made it through.

Since United and Chelsea contested the UEFA Champions League final in 2007/08, the combined goals-against record for English sides has risen steadily. From 15 in 2007/08, it has gone from 18 the next season to 22, 23, 24 and now 35.

©Getty Images

John Terry has been badly missed

Of course, there are different factors involved in each case. Chelsea had John Terry available for only two matches, and he was badly missed. City, meanwhile, have lacked the defensive authority of last season and individual mistakes and inattention at set pieces cost them dear in several matches. Their campaign might have taken on a completely different complexion had they been able to defend a 2-1 lead for the last five minutes of their opening fixture at Real Madrid CF.

Their neighbours United were the only English group winners but they too have struggled at the back, where Nemanja Vidić (one appearance) and Rio Ferdinand (two) have been unavailable for significant stretches. Back in the Premier League, United's defensive record is no better, as Sir Alex Ferguson admitted this week when referring to the "Cartoon Cavalcade" of mistakes in the 4-3 win at Reading FC.

United have now kept two clean sheets in 18 games but keep coming back to win games. Arsenal, for their part, have kept three in their last 20 outings and had their own madcap match at Reading, that incredible 7-5 League Cup win at the end of October. In England, it is simply easier to outscore the opposition than in the UEFA Champions League, where mistakes are more likely to be punished.

The end product of it all is that the Premier League quartet won fewer games (ten) in this group stage and lost more (nine) than ever before – food for thought as the two survivors look ahead to the last-16 draw.

• For fellow stattos out there, the best combined defensive effort by a Premier League quartet in the group stage was in 2005/06 when Arsenal – who went on to reach the final – Chelsea, United and Liverpool FC conceded only eight between them, and kept 17 clean sheets. Indeed José Mourinho's Chelsea and Rafael Benítez's Liverpool shipped only one goal apiece.

Last updated: 07/12/12 15.08CET

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