Defensive issues continue to plague Premier League's top contenders
When the transfer window closed at the beginning of this month, the primary takeaway from many Premier League observers was surprise that so many of the perceived contenders didn't address glaring needs in the spines of their defense. It's still early days in this league season, but the way in which the so-called top teams are shipping goals is providing ample evidence that summer concerns were well warranted.
The situation across much of the top of the league could lead to some heavy overpays in January, as teams chasing the Champions League spots scramble to fill holes, but in the interim, we could continue to see an unexpected number of high-scoring shootouts.
Nowhere are the issues in defense more pronounced than at Manchester United, which already has conceded a staggering 12 goals this season, despite a slate that has seen the Red Devils play Swansea, Sunderland, all three promoted sides, and League 1's Milton Keynes Dons in a cup match. It all came crashing down ingloriously in the final 20 minutes on Sunday at King Power Stadium, when Leicester carved them open for four unanswered goals in a 5-3 defeat.
The seeds of United's pronounced defensive frailty were planted long before that debacle, though. Having missed repeatedly in the summer transfer market for a center back(s) to help replace the departed (and faded) legends Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United has been left playing pedestrian combinations of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and 20-year-old Tyler Blackett, whose relative naivete has hurt United multiple times already this season.
The center backs were (partly) responsible for at least three of Leicester City's shocking five-goal haul. Up 2-0 early after Angel Di Maria's audacious full-speed chip, United had two defenders, including Evans, to mark Leonardo Ulloa, the lone Foxes' presence in the box for a cross coming from the deep right corner. Neither man did much of anything, but watch Ulloa thump home a header from 12 yards to drag Leicester back into the match.
United was then horribly exposed on the eventual game-winner after Juan Mata was caught in possession on the wing and Blackett was caught in no-man's land with no help from a retreating Smalling.
Blackett then finished off a miserable day by getting softly nudged off a long ball and then hacking down Jamie Vardy for a penalty/red card combo. The two other goals United conceded weren't great, either.
Luckily for the club, there are a bunch of other teams with similar issues. A year after conceding the third-fewest goals in the league, Everton continues to wobble, allowing three more in a home defeat to Crystal Palace. The first two were utterly inexcusable, as a miscommunication between American goalkeeper Tim Howard and his defenders led to a cheap penalty conceded, and then Howard terribly misjudged a cross on the second.
On the back of Chelsea potting six against them at Goodison Park, the Toffees have now conceded a sieve-like 13 goals in their five league matches. Sylvain Distin has been a mess in central defense, and Everton already has turned to young John Stones to pair with Phil Jagielka. Like United, Everton has other issues, but dicey center back play has been a major factor thus far this season.
The scene on the other side of town isn't much better, where Liverpool's summer reinforcement Dejan Lovren has failed to settle in so far. The Reds conceded three goals to modest-wattage West Ham on the weekend, marking the third time in five league matches that they've allowed at least two.
They got away with that an unhealthy percentage of the time last season thanks to the goal-scoring (and assisting) magic of Luis Suarez, but he has departed, and this Liverpool team doesn't have 101 league goals in it. Brendan Rodgers already has dramatically declared that Liverpool is not a title contender, but it may find itself out of the Champions League next season if they don't tighten things up in the back.
Arsenal? Yep, still wobbly. The Gunners notched their first clean sheet of the league season at Aston Villa on Saturday after having conceded six goals in their first four matches, plus another two in the midweek Champions League group stage opener at Borussia Dortmund. They're yet another club that looks like a January spine reinforcement will do some good.
Tottenham? Still dicey, with continuing offensive stagnation compounding things, as well.
Even the two heavy favorites have been uncommonly generous. Chelsea has already conceded seven league goals, six in their last three league matches. The Blues made harder work than needed of the Everton match, couldn't see out a midweek Champions League meeting with Schalke, and then conceded late to 10-man Manchester City on Sunday when a win would have created an early eight-point gap with their biggest perceived title rival.
City, meanwhile, hasn't kept a clean sheet since the league opener at Newcastle, albeit against a schedule that has included the other three Champions League sides, as well as Bayern Munich in Champions League.
Add it all up, and last season's top seven have already conceded an alarming 53 goals through their 35 total league matches. As none of those sides allowed that many in 38 matches last season (only Liverpool and Tottenham conceded more than 43), there's reason for some early concerns. Some teams (City, especially) likely will stabilize when the schedule balances out, but for many of the others, there are pronounced issues that won't be addressed anytime soon.
The messes in the back will be good theater for fans, though. The league should continue to be unpredictable for the near term, and the situation should fuel some aggressive behavior in the normally docile January window.