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Sep 8, 2011

Covering all bases

The scorelines came straight from the 1950s, the remedies from the 21st century. When the Premier League paused for the international break, it was with Tottenham and Arsenal conceding a combined 13 goals to the Mancunian rivals.

The response was swift and expressed in the transfer market. But if personnel problems helped explain the thrashings, so did systemic failings. Because the August goal glut has been notable for the absence of defensive midfielders from the contributing sides.

Arsenal provide the most extreme example. As Francis Coquelin was more little boy lost than professional anchorman at Old Trafford, they have played 160 minutes with a recognised holding player, whether Alex Song or Emmanuel Frimpong, without conceding, while their defence has been breached ten times in the 110 minutes without one.

Had Frimpong not been sent off against Liverpool, his tasks ought to have included tracking Raul Meireles when the substitute set up Luis Suarez for the visitors' second goal. Jordan Henderson, Meireles' predecessor on the pitch, was kept rather quieter by Frimpong before both departed, for rather different reasons.

An 8-2 defeat cannot be attributed to a solitary factor but the lack of protection afforded to a decidedly dodgy defence was one as Arsenal capitulated at Old Trafford. Consider the position from which Anderson scooped the pass that enabled Danny Welbeck to give Manchester United the lead, or the ball Wayne Rooney played to set up Nani for the fifth goal: both came from the area that should be the defensive midfielder's sphere of influence.

There is a case for arguing that Ashley Young encroached on his territory for at least one, if not both, of his brace, while Park Ji-Sung's angled run, when the South Korean scored United's sixth, is certainly one that should have been blocked by a midfield shield. Given the lack of pressing, or indeed anything remotely resembling organisation, it would have taken a superhuman effort for one man in the midfield to stem the United tide, but a specialist might have ensured respectability. He represents the insurance policy for porous rearguards, but Arsenal failed to take out cover.

The lack of defensive midfielders had an indirect influence on Tottenham's 5-1 hammering by Manchester City, with the visitors' first four goals arriving via comparatively close-range finishes. Indeed, only one of the eight goals Spurs have yielded - when an unchecked Anderson advanced to score the second of Manchester United's three - can be directly attributed to the absence of anyone policing those sorts of runs. Yet had Scott Parker signed a fortnight earlier, Tottenham's goal difference might be rather better, even if it is exaggerating the impact of even the reigning Footballer of the Year to suggest their points tally would be higher.

Deprived of the Englishman, with Sandro injured and Wilson Palacios preparing to join Stoke, Harry Redknapp's team selections were ludicrously cavalier. Teams that field two central midfielders often risk becoming outnumbered and, as a result, such choices tend to err on the side of caution. Redknapp, however, paired Niko Kranjcar and Jake Livermore at Old Trafford and then opted for the Croatian combination of Kranjcar and Luka Modric against City. The latter's slight frame belies an appetite for work, but both are essentially creators.

One selection can switch the onus from the defence to the attack, as Sir Alex Ferguson proved by replacing Michael Carrick with Tom Cleverley at half-time in the Community Shield. The 30-year-old is scarcely a hatchet man, but he offers positional discipline and tends to be within touching distance of the centre-backs, whereas Cleverley is in rather closer contact with Rooney. Thus far, his impact has been rather greater than a total of one league assist indicates. Anderson, admittedly, provides some steel alongside the young Englishman, but the Brazilian is more box-to-box player than out-and-out nullifier.

The best in the business, at least in the Premier League, is Nigel de Jong. Ascribing City's unexpected transformation into entertainers to the Dutchman's absence since the opening hour of their campaign is harsh. Perhaps boldness has been forced upon Roberto Mancini, but it has reaped a reward. A substitution many wished he would make last season - a forward replacing a holding midfielder - brought an immediate effect against Swansea when Sergio Aguero came on for the injured De Jong. Another significant switch has been in Gareth Barry's mindset. After two years of being utterly unadventurous and passing the ball sideways, the England international appears to have reverted to the role of all-round midfielder, scoring against Bolton, striking the woodwork in the Swansea game and making a goal at White Hart Lane.

Now, as at Aston Villa, Barry no longer seems content simply to sit in front of the back four. While a side with him alongside Yaya Toure can scarcely be accused of having a soft centre - unlike Spurs and Arsenal of late - it seemed improbable that, when Mancini was being castigated for fielding three defensive midfielders last year, he would have none who were purely negative so soon afterwards. The braver change, however, was Ferguson's. A manager must be daring to dispense with a defensive midfielder, but his team also have to be good.

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