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By Tony Attwood
According to the new edition of Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson “The standard of defending has declined alarmingly among elite clubs, something that’s not just to do with a shift to a more attacking focus.”
It is a statement made in a fulsome newspaper article by the author recently and because it is made without any reference whatsoever to the relevant statistics seeking to prove the point, I really wondered if that were to be true.
Taking as an indicator how the top two in the league each season have defended in recent years, the range of goals against runs from 50 for Liverpool who came second in 2014 and 22 for Liverpool who came second in 2019.
So is it getting harder to score against the top two? To try and get a slightly broader perspective I then took the top two clubs in the PL for each of the last ten seasons and checked how many goals between them they had let in. Clearly if defending was getting worse that number should be rising all the time. But in fact the highest number of goals conceded by the top two in the last ten seasons was 87 in 2014 (50 for Liverpool and 37 for Manchester United). The lowest was 45 in 2019. On that basis defending is getting better.
Indeed, the top two this past season let in between them 76, the same as the top two in 2021, but still lower than in 2014.
In fact the range of goals conceded by either club that finished in the top two in the last ten years is fairly stable. Liverpool’s 50 goals conceded in coming second in 2014 was the worst for the top two clubs in this period. Liverpool also had the best defensive season in this period, looking at the top two clubs: 22 in 2019.
In other words there is no pattern. The top two this past season let in between them 76, the same as the top two in 2021, but still lower than in 2014. On that basis defending is improving.
There is another point made in the extract: “If you expect to win most games comfortably, everything becomes focused on attacking”. So we might ask, how many games have clubs that have ended in the top two in the Premier League these last ten years, actually lost?
That range is from one (Liverpool 2019, coming second in the league) to nine (Manchester City, coming second the following year).
And indeed goalscoring is just as varied as defending. The highest number of goals by clubs finishing first or second in the past ten years is 106 (Manchester City, 2018), and four clubs have reached the 100+ mark. But two of those were the top two in 2014. In the past three seasons neither of the top two have got over 100 goals.
So the defending issue is not right, at least not for the PL. But those figures can be used in a different way: in order to give a target for Arsenal in the coming season. Here’s the record for the last ten seasons for the top two…
- Most wins: 32 (achieved three times)
- Fewest defeats: 1 (achieved once, by Liverpool who actually came second in 2019)
- Most goals: Manchester City 106 in 2018
- Fewest goals: Arsenal, 65 in 2016
- Best defence: Liverpool 22 conceded in 2019
- Worst defence: Liverpool 50 conceded in 2014
- Best goal difference: Manchester City, +73 in 2022
- Worst goal difference: Manchester Uniteed +29 in 2021
The fact is there is very little pattern here. In the past ten years the two clubs that have by and large dominated the top two positions have done so in multiple different ways. So the notion that clubs “the standard of defending has declined alarmingly among elite clubs,” is wrong in the PL. The numbers change season by season.
I would however agree with another comment from the book, and that is that “spending is no guarantee of success. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær Manchester United, while lacking the subtlety to break down massed defences, did one thing very well: they were very dangerous sitting deep and striking at pace on the break. Then, in the summer of 2021, their owners foisted a 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo on the squad. Suddenly, that counterattacking fluency was lost and within three months Solskjær was sacked.”
I do think that is a good point, and I have been pleased to see that Arsenal don’t do that. The club did interfere with Wenger by seriously reducing the money he had available during the time of paying for the building of the new stadium, but otherwise, I think Wenger, Emery and Arteta have been allowed to get on with things in their own way. So when the argument is made that, “Owners are often bewitched by celebrity, and often seem to lack any idea that a team is a complex structure that will function best with the most harmonious, not the most famous, points” that is probably true when we look at Chelsea but not at all the clubs.
At Arsenal the issue was wrestling back control of the game from the referees who were habitually handing out more yellow cards to Arsenal than any other team.
Today, what we can see is that Manchester City has an approach based on money; Arsenal has an approach based on young talent. And both have an approach based on reducing tackling as a part of the game.
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