OF DEFENCES & CLEAN SHEETS

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Manchester United players observe a minute’s silence in the Champions League in midweek against SL Benfica

A look through football’s history books at some of the best defensive masterminds in days gone by would make Jose Mourinho’s claims to defending pale in comparison. The notion that a mean defence alone is only apt for Cup football is oblivious of the evidence to the contrary at a time when defenders were just as important to a result as goal-scorers. And there’d be no better place to start than in the country that transformed defending into an art.

In 1994, Fabio Capello led AC Milan to the Serie A title by scoring 36 goals in 34 games! Capello’s side won 1-0 nine times and kept 22 clean sheets across the season. Goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi was only beaten 15 times, accruing 929 minutes without conceding a goal at one stage. It was a record that stood for 22 years. Roberto Donadoni famously stated that Capello would have made a great prison guard! No statistic however puts this achievement in perspective as much as the fact that the Serie A Champions were out-scored by 10 of the 18 teams in the division! Third placed Sampdoria scored almost twice as many goals as the Champions but could only finish third!

Thore Haugstad juxtaposes that Milan season with some of the great defensive teams as follows: ”The average of 0.441 goals conceded per game put that campaign in the pantheon of defensive efforts among the top four European leagues—Italy, England, Spain, Germany. Only four teams have ever managed a lower rate: Nereo Rocco’s Milan in 1968/69 (0.400), José Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004/05 (0.395), Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in 1978/79 (0.381) and Cagliari in 1969/70 (0.367), who let in eleven goals in thirty games.”

Not that the Italian FA were impressed. Indeed, they were so flumoxed by Capello’s methods that they opted to award three points for a win the very next season in a bid to incentivise ‘attacking football’. There are lesser known records in Europe that could hold a candle to Capello’s strategy. In 1998, for instance, AIK won the Swedish league by scoring 25 goals in 26 matches! But none of these have ever truly won over universal acclaim among neutrals and indeed fans, and yet managers that buy into those methods would let you know else.

United players celebrate Marcus Rashford’s goal against SL Benfica

See, football, ultimately, is one big statistic. That’s why the final score is the most important of all the preceeding 90 minutes. The inquisition will always start with the score. Put another way; the performance is secondary to the score. But that’s not all; One manager’s argument simply states that there’s more than one way to define beautiful football. You stand to miss something if you restrict yourself to a one-dimensional definition. You need to stop, take a step back, maybe two, blink a couple of times and then look again.

This, in effect, is what Jose Mourinho is asking people to do when he drops one liners just to remind whomever it may concern that how he is going about Manchester United’s season so far is not a crime. The biggest disappointment about last week at Anfield stemmed from the fact that Liverpool are not as good as United made them look. In fact, their poverty in ideas is summed up by the fact that United and indeed Mourinho chose to play with one hand tied behind their back but they still couldn’t beat them. That is where fans’ disappointment is justified. But in the business of reducing football to a game of arithmetic, a manager of the ilk that is Mourinho plans out the season in numbers. As far as last week is concerned, the chart read ‘one point’. In isolation, it looks pretty dumb, but over 9 months, he will feel that its is just fine.

In the Champions League in midweek at the Estadio da Luz, he will have felt that United would remain in control of the group for as long as they came away with at least a point. Marcus Rashford’s goal was therefore a welcome bonus, if only because it means that his side could effectively win the group, let alone qualify, with a game to spare. Numbers. That is all it has ever been about. 12 clean sheets in 16 games going from the back end of last season that has allowed United to win 13 of those games. Because when all is said and done and written in the column inches, when the dust starts to gather on this like every other season before, only the numbers remain. Everything else fades. When the local AC Milan fan picks a banter fight with their neighbours and close rivals Inter, that 1994 Serie A title becomes as important a statistic as any other swashbuckling triumph that got fans out of their seats…a litlle more than 36 times across the season!

In Jose’s eyes, yes, the horses will run, but only when the numbers are right! And at Huddersfield Town in the premier league on Saturday, every strategy, every tactic, every move made by the manager will ultimately be defined by getting the numbers right. Right, according to the chart of numbers he will have mapped out in his office at the start of the season.

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