Season start shows importance of finding a working defensive partnership

Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Just three defensive pairings that have been instrumental to the success of previous Premier League title winners.

But while Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have received plenty of plaudits in the opening fortnight of the season, it is the sight of Callum Wilson running through the centre of the London Stadium like on a Boxing Day raid of Westfields that is my takeaway image.

In those seven seconds worth of distance run, the Bournemouth striker provided the perfect example of why finding the right defensive double act is paramount to success at any level of the game.

With Fabián Balbuena dangling a leg, former strikers Ian Wright and Chris Sutton debated on BBC 5Live this week how many goals they would score in the English top flight if they were still playing.

It’s not the first time this has been a subject of conversation among TV pundits in recent seasons, but it has never been more pertinent.

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho lamented the club’s failure to land his primary target of a centre-back with the summer transfer window drawing to an end.

Prior to United’s pre-season friendly defeat at Bayern Munich, he said: “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens.

“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.

“If we don’t make our team better, it will be a difficult season for us.”

After the unconvincing win over Leicester, the defeat by Brighton served to underline Mourinho’s point, as Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof showcased their deficiencies with the 34-year-old Glenn Murray running amok against a defensive partnership worth £60million.

The United manager has tried several different combinations involving Bailly, Lindelof, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but with his third season now underway, the highest proportion of games played by a given partnership is Jones and Smalling on 13.

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In a managerial tenure that now stretches to 78 league games, the numbers indicate that Mourinho isn’t convinced by any of the six combinations – and his failure to identify the bedrock of his side has influenced how his team is structured, throughout.

The presence of Toby Alderweireld returning to the Tottenham defence on Monday night against United will be a sore point for Mourinho, even if the Belgian was reportedly overlooked based on his preference to play in a back three.

Conversely, Liverpool look set to thrive this term after solving their defensive issues. From the opening match, the absence of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren has allowed Gomez to form a partnership with Van Dijk.

Gomez is very highly regarded by Gareth Southgate – and would have gone to the World Cup were it not for the need for ankle surgery – but England’s loss is proving to be Liverpool’s gain so far after an encouraging start alongside the world’s most expensive defender and in front of the world’s second most expensive goalkeeper.

For Klopp, it has paid to find a working partnership in defence, and Everton manager Marco Silva had seen enough in a run of five pre-season games without a win to convince his sporting director Marcel Brands that something simply had to be done.

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Brands worked tirelessly to bring Yerry Mina to the club, in the face of United being touted as a potential alternative and with his rising cost following his displays at the World Cup with Colombia.

But Mina has thus far had to watch on from the stands, nursing an injury sustained in Russia, while fellow deadline-day arrival Kurt Zouma will also need to bide his time for opportunities.

While both Zouma – on a season-long loan from Chelsea – and Mina will have been penned in as Silva’s first-choice pairing, the Portuguese has been impressed by Mason Holgate’s first start since January in the 2-1 win over Southampton.

Mina has been ruled out until mid-September, meaning Holgate and Zouma will once more be fighting over one spot against Bournemouth alongside Michael Keane, who looks to have reacted well to two new arrivals in his position.

A clean sheet at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday would further enhance Holgate’s claims to retain the jersey, even when Mina is fit and raring to go. Van Dijk’s £75m fee is now seen as a bargain but unearthing the best defensive partnership doesn’t always come at a price.

Silva has been careful not to blood all five of his new signings at once, an issue that has been handled differently elsewhere in the Premier League, with contrasting results.

Fulham have lost both their opening games having brought in 12 new faces, while Fabri has faced faced 15 shots already this term – more than any other goalkeeper.

West Ham are also on zero points as Manuel Pellegrini seeks solutions to an early-season injury crisis coupled with the need to blood nine new players. Calls for £24m buy Issa Diop to start at Arsenal could be met after Angelo Ogbonna’s horror-show against Wilson.

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Gunners boss Unai Emery and his desire to implement his own style with players who appear incapable of fitting to his set philosophy has filled plenty of column inches this week – but while on another day, more clinical finishing against Chelsea might have brought about a different end result, it was in defence that the same old weaknesses were laid bare.

The absence of Laurent Koscielny coupled with an unkind set of opening fixtures meant that Sokratis Papastathopoulos was always in for a baptism of fire, even before he was partnered alongside Shkodran Mustafi.

Having conceded at least twice in their opening two games, Arsenal’s array of attacking talent face having to score a minimum of three goals to win games at present, and while Chelsea were victorious last Saturday, Maurizio Sarri’s change in formation has left them potentially more exposed at the back.

David Luiz has been reinstated alongside Antonio Rudiger, while Cesar Azpilicueta has been moved to right back. Sarri knows the importance of a strong defensive unit having signed Allan for £10.3m from Udinese to play alongside Jorginho as a protective shield in his first season at Napoli.

But Sarri didn’t seek to sign a centre-back, and in earmarking Jorginho as his primary target and essential to achieving his objectives, the 59-year-old has thus taken a different approach.

Luiz has been identified as the mercurial footballer that he is; ruffle him up the wrong way, and he can be a liability, but he showed he can be a world-beater in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge.

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Sarri will hope that the Brazilian forges a relationship with the Portuguese-speaking Jorginho in front of him, while having a point to prove after being cast aside by Conte last season. If Luiz repays the faith instilled in him, the loss of Thibaut Courtois will be significantly minimised as Kepa Arrizabalaga finds his feet in England.

Pep Guardiola is known for rotating but even the Manchester City manager acknowledges the importance of stability in the heart of defence. John Stones – who was victim of his reluctance to tinker during the run-in last season – has been restored after a good summer with England.

His partnership with Aymeric Laporte looks set to flourish as Vincent Kompany is gradually phased out, and the importance of deciding on a first-choice pairing is only more critical beyond the top six.

Huddersfield conceded six goals at the Etihad in the absence of Mathias Jorgensen, while Crystal Palace lost for the first time in 16 games with Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins as their defensive partnership against Liverpool last Monday.

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The sale of Van Dijk to Liverpool midway through last season severely compromised Southampton’s chances of survival, achieved on the final day despite the 1-0 loss to City, and Mark Hughes will hope the Dutchman’s replacement Jannik Vestergaard provides greater solidity.

Having made an encouraging start in keeping a clean sheet against Burnley, illness kept Vestergaard out of the defeat at Everton, where the Denmark international’s aerial presence would have been felt as Richarlison rose to head in what proved the decisive second goal.

Van Dijk has seen his stock rise at a time when the art of defending has been lost; Jamie Carragher described him as capable of surpassing Alan Hansen at Liverpool.

Tipping him to become a “legend” is high praise indeed and reflects the influence he has since his arrival at Anfield – but the defender’s performances have been accentuated by the struggles experienced elsewhere throughout the league.

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Premier League 2018/19 preview: Liverpool likeliest to push Manchester City in title battle

Manchester City signalled their intentions to continue where they left off in the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, but Pep Guardiola knows a repeat of last season’s exploits will be difficult.

The Catalan failed to win any silverware in his first season in England, while the Premier League has not been retained since Manchester United in 2009, but you get the sense that he is just embarking on his work on these shores.

Competition for places has been boosted by the return to fitness of Benjamin Mendy, while Phil Foden looks ready for this level despite only just turning 18; Aymeric Laporte will be better for his first pre-season at the club, and the only area that City appear slightly light in is cover for Fernandinho at the base of midfield.

Jose Mourinho can only wish for such minor concerns. United were a distant second last season, 19 points adrift, and the Portuguese admits he is relieved a tumultuous summer is coming to an end. He has been unable to strengthen his first-team squad beyond the arrivals of Fred and Diogo Dalot, both of whom will take time to adjust to England.

Liverpool have been hailed by many as the summer’s big winners having kept hold of their star names and added four keys signings to bolster their hopes of a first league title since 1990. The 5-0 dismantling of Napoli in Dublin was further proof of their credentials, and Jurgen Klopp has identified and acted upon areas of weakness.

Tottenham head into a new era at a new stadium having committed Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane to long-term contracts, but a failure to bring in new faces in addition to the uncertainty surrounding the future of Toby Alderweireld means supporters are understandably concerned about whether a title challenge is possible in this transitional year.

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Both Arsenal and Chelsea are under new management and face the prospect of a season dictated by Thursday-Sunday football due to their Europa League commitments; while Unai Emery can reflect upon an unbeaten pre-season within 90 minutes, Maurizio Sarri has swiftly become aware of the difficulties he faces, from choosing his preferred formation to having the right personnel to carry out his tactics.

Chelsea are likely to be without Thibaut Courtois, who has refused to return to training, while Eden Hazard has already set his heart on a move to Real Madrid. Losing both at this stage of the window would be catastrophic to the club’s chances of at least returning to the top four.

With two of the traditional top six at a stage in their cycles that is far from conducive to a title tilt, it does open the door to a possible outsider to break the status quo. Everton had been expected to do so last term, but poor investment left a lopsided squad that did well to recover eighth place. Marco Silva has been streamlining, but defensive weaknesses are yet to be fully addressed, so patience will be needed.

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West Ham co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan backed their new manager Mauricio Pellegrini by bringing in seven new recruits, spearheaded by club-record signing Felipe Anderson, while Jack Wilshere will be hoping to have more joy than Joe Hart in relaunching his career in East London. An intriguing season awaits even if the long-term absence of Manuel Lanzini comes as a major blow.

Leicester manager Claude Puel has thus far been frugal in the market since the departure of Riyad Mahrez, and while Jonny Evans’ arrival for £3.5m could prove the snip of the season, a lot rests on whether they can keep Harry Maguire away from the clutches of United. Kelechi Iheanacho has enjoyed a productive pre-season, scoring four goals in three games, and Foxes fans will hope he can fill the void in supporting Jamie Vardy.

Newcastle finished 10th last campaign, but that was largely due to a terrific spike in results after March, and with the players fighting with the club over bonuses, optimism is in short supply on Tyneside. A lot will depend on whether Rafa Benitez stays, but the Spaniard has at least secured striker Salomon Rondon, a player he rates highly and is capable of becoming a cult figure at St. James’ Park.

Another side who finished last season strongly are Crystal Palace under Roy Hodgson. The Eagles have thus far managed to keep hold of Wilfried Zaha despite interest from Chelsea and Tottenham, and the arrival of Max Meyer is somewhat of a coup, offsetting the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to Chelsea following his loan spell. If Palace can avoid their annual poor start, a productive campaign awaits.

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Bournemouth have taken their time to quietly go about their business with David Brooks joining from Sheffield United, while Diego Rico and Jefferson Lerma have cost a combined £35m, a year after they joined Levante and Leganes respectively for less than £1m. Eddie Howe will continue to play enterprising football that will win games, and keeping hold of Lewis Cook is a major boost, but the club are yet to strengthen at centre-half having conceded 61 goals last term.

Burnley were the surprise package in 2017/18, set on day one by their 3-2 win at champions Chelsea – but they have only added Ben Gibson and Joe Hart to a squad that will be stretched to the limit if they reach the Europa League group stage. Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes are one of the most underrated partnerships in the league, but clubs will be far more alert to their danger this time around. Sean Dyche will have a dilemma when all three of his goalkeepers are fit.

Watford, Brighton, Huddersfield and Southampton – four teams who ended within five points of each other last time out – will all target consolidation but the strength of two of the promoted sides means another wide-open relegation battle looms. Javi Gracia initially steadied the ship at Watford following the departure of Silva, but a poor end to the season and the sale of Richarlison points to an arduous nine months ahead.

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Brighton have added Alireza Jahanbakhsh for a club-record fee in the region of £17m and his versatility across the forward line will take the burden off Pascal Gross. Goals could again prove hard to come by with just 34 scored last term (the fourth fewest), so Chris Hughton’s search for a central defender in the coming days takes on greater significance.

Southampton moved to appoint Mark Hughes on a permanent basis after he managed to keep the club up at the expense of Swansea City, but the 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in their final pre-season game underlines fears that were heightened by Hughes’ admission the further business is unlikely to be forthcoming. Stuart Armstrong will be keen to prove a point having made the £7m switch from Celtic.

Huddersfield performed miracles in staying afloat last season, with Jonas Lossl’s heroics in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea epitomising the team ethos under David Wagner. The Terriers have a new badge while there have been eight new arrivals which have included Terence Kongolo and Florent Hadergjonaj’s loans being made permanent. The players now know what to expect, but offloading Tom Ince to Stoke for £12m could come back to haunt them given their dearth of creative options.

Such attacking flair propelled Wolves and Fulham back into the top flight, and both can be confident of avoiding a relegation scrap. Nuno Espirito Santo has become the Pied Piper of the West Midlands in coaxing big names to the Premier League newcomers; it is a project that will either catch fire or spectacularly fail, but the quality and experience of Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho means a mid-table finish should be the target.

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Fulham have enjoyed a fruitful pre-season with the surprise addition of Jean Michel Seri, while there was a surprising lack of competition in attracting Alfie Mawson and Aleksandar Mitrovic on a permanent deal. Slavisa Jokanovic is hopeful of adding Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal with Southampton now reluctant to strengthen a potential rival by selling Matt Targett. A lot will depend on how Ryan Sessegnon adjusts to the step-up in class having scored 16 Championship goals last term.

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock admits it would be his biggest achievement in football if he manages to keep his odds-on relegation favourites up, but with very little pressure on the Bluebirds, they will take heart from Huddersfield’s maiden Premier League season. Warnock will relish coming up against the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho and Klopp for what could his final time, so expect fireworks if nothing else.

Predicted Premier League table

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Tottenham
  4. Arsenal
  5. Manchester United
  6. Chelsea
  7. Everton
  8. West Ham
  9. Crystal Palace
  10. Leicester City
  11. Wolves
  12. Burnley
  13. Fulham
  14. Bournemouth
  15. Newcastle
  16. Brighton
  17. Southampton
  18. Watford
  19. Huddersfield
  20. Cardiff City