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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