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Whatever happened to defending? Why every European big club looks shaky at the back this season

Real Madrid
(Image credit: Getty)

It's a wonder that that defence won last season's Champions League. Joshua Kimmich, granted, is one of the best right-backs on Earth. But aside from him, Bayern Munich fielded a 20-year-old Canadian winger, a left-back playing out of position and a post-pace Jerome Boateng. It hardly screams "European champions".

Despite concerns over Hansi Flick's cut-and-paste Bayern backline though, no one seriously troubled the Germans in Portugal. It proved itself to be a unit that could function together despite its unconventionality, like a rag-tag team of crime-fighting misfits who'd never sit on the same table in the school canteen. But the fact still remains. Every team who faced Bayern last season saw the back four as the biggest weakness. 

Flick's defence - which was ravaged with injury, in all fairness - conceded 32 goals last campaign. 32 were let in the season before, too, though Bayern hadn't performed that badly since they finished third in 2010/11. Die Roten are used to conceding 20 goals a season or fewer. Naturally, that's not just down to the four players situated closest to Manuel Neuer - but it is a strange trend of post-COVID football. 

Beaten Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain are seen as a top-heavy team themselves - especially now loyal captain Thiago Silva has departed for Chelsea. Frank Lampard, in turn, has struggled to find a consistent pairing - or trio - in front of his goalkeeper - whoever that may be. He's not alone in England.

Manchester City's spaghetti-like structure in defence prompted Pep Guardiola to purchase £100m worth of reinforcements in the summer. Tottenham Hotspur look hellishly unMourinho at the back. Manchester United were relatively resolute under the Dark Lord himself - and Louis van Gaal before him - but under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they're far more porous. Arsenal are always a loose ball away from a lapse into madness, while Liverpool are learning to live without Virgil van Dijk this season. 

Since Antonio Conte was dumped by Chelsea, an unprecedented number of managers in England - Solskjaer, Lampard, Eddie Howe, Brendan Rodgers, Ralph Hasenhuttl, Mikel Arteta, David Moyes, even Gareth Southgate - have moved to back threes. Most of them have never tried it but done so to add another body into a shaky defence. How many have actually looked resolute for it?

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The continental rocks of our time, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Diego Godin, Giorgio Chiellini and Mats Hummels are all eroding at different speeds. Suddenly, no one feels imperious anymore - even Barcelona can be beaten with eight goals in a game. 

Atletico Madrid stand somewhat alone, as the only European giant who haven't succumbed to the charms of playing attractive, entertaining football - but Diego Simeone would probably admit that he's had much better teams in his time. Inter Milan look like they should be a defence-first team but have proven they can't sit back and soak up pressure like Don Antonio's Chelsea, Juventus or even Italy could. 

And so, while it may seem a very roll-up-cigarette-and-hipster-beard to suggest that Sevilla could possibly have the best defence in Europe, it also shouldn't be such a laughable suggestion right now. To paraphrase The Streets, how did it come to this?

Perhaps it's because we've seen more injuries lately. Perhaps it's that smaller teams are getting better at attacking. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that big clubs are all looking for a "progressive philosophy" in a coach, rather than a clean sheet-keeping organiser. 

Thank god for Jurgen Klopp restoring some balance to the universe - a grinning, heavy-metal enthusiast, of all people - staying calm since the Virgil van Dijk injury, recalculating Liverpool into a sensible 4-4-2 shape out of possession, rather than some bonkers 3-4-3 structure with False 5's, utilising Roberto Firmino as the defensive stalwart.

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This liminal state probably won't last long. Bayern Munich have drafted the now-fit Lucas Hernandez into their defence now, the Champions League trophy finally free from his head. Real Madrid will probably sign Jules Kounde or someone equally impressive come Summer 2021, Guardiola will no doubt forge a steely partnership from Laporte and Dias, while Matthijs De Ligt and Dayot Upamecano surely won't have to wait long to be crowned kingpins to replace Ramos and Pique. 

Sure enough, the insane number of goals scored this season is steadily dropping, too. Everything equals itself out. In time, every other European giant will be stacked with titanium titans in defence - some of whom might have looked rather tin-pot just this summer. Either way, in such a bonkers time to be alive, it's somewhat unnerving that practically no one in European football has a stable base.

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