What takes clubs up and down the league: attack or defence?



Today on the Arsenal History Society site: Arsenal man became the first to play 1000 first class games

This season, as we know, two teams have suddenly leaped up the league.  One is Liverpool last season finished fifth, 22 points behind the eventual winners Manchester City.   The other is Aston Villa who finished 7th, ten points behind the fourth placed team (Newcastle).

So yes clubs can leap up and down the league.  After all, in 2022 Arsenal finished fifth 24 points behind the winners.  In 2023 you will recall Arsenal finished second five points behind Manchester City.

And what I began to wonder was how often we see such dramatic changes, and whether we should be expecting one each year?    Plus in particular, what is the driving force that allows a club to rise up the league?   Clearly it is getting more points, but do they come from a better defence or a better attack?

Arsenal’s great leap forward I have found particularly interesting since the club seemed to have been building for several years   In 2019/20 Arsenal got 56 points, in 2020/21 Arsenal got 61 points, and in 2021/22 Arsenal notched up 69 points.

Now that continual growth in the number of points was hardly commented upon because most people talked about the position Arsenal achieved (8th, 8th, 5th) and of course the media got very worked up about Aubaeyang, and the drop from a top scorer with 29 goals in 2019/20 down to a top scorer in 2021/22 with 12 (Saka).

But in reality, it turned out that the two eighth-place finishes were not the club going nowhere as many pundits claimed but something far more important: that growth in the number of points achieved year by year.

Then after 2021/2 came the great leap forward from 69 to 84 points – a rise of 15 points in one season.  But this was not combined with the arrival of the media’s other great fixation: a 20 goal a year man.   In fact Martinelli, Odegaard and Saka each scored 15 league goals.

So I wondered if this sort of change was unique to Arsenal at that time, or whether in fact I had been missing the important point that clubs can and do change quite dramatically over time.

To get an idea I looked at the goals and points of clubs now and their position at a similar moment last season.  So these changes are just from one year to the next.


Team Goals For Change Goals Against change PoINTS Change
Liverpool 63 +16 25 -4 60 +18
Manchester City 59 -8 26 +1 59 +2
Arsenal 62 +3 23 -2 58 -4
Aston Villa 56 +25 35 -3 52 +18
Tottenham Hotspur 52 +3 38 +1 47 -1
Manchester United 36 -5 36 +1 44 -5


What really leaps out is that the number of goals conceded by each club has hardly changed at all from last season at this point, to this season.   The changes are all between conceding four fewer goals and conceding one more – that is a change of letting in one goal more or less every six games.  It is hardly noticeable in any way.

But the big difference has come with goals scored.   The two clubs that have really risen up the table over the last year have dramatically improved their goal scoring: 16 more for Liverpool and 25 more for Aston Villa.

And those two clubs have also knocked up 18 points more each.  But the problem here is that there is generally a limit as to how many goals a club can score each season.  So I wondered, does the achievement of the top club in the league change very much from season to season?

Here is what the top club has achieved each season in recent years.


Year Team P W D L F A GD Pts
2023 Manchester City 38 28 5 5 94 33 61 89
2022 Manchester City 38 29 6 3 99 26 73 93
2021 Manchester City 38 27 5 6 83 32 51 86
2020 Liverpool 38 32 3 3 85 33 52 99
2019 Manchester City 38 32 2 4 95 23 72 98
2018 Manchester City 38 32 4 2 106 27 79 100
2017 Chelsea 38 30 3 5 85 33 52 93


So the range in the number of points needed to win the league is between 86 and 100 across the last seven years.   And that is interesting in that Arsenal’s total in the unbeaten season of 90 points has been exceeded in five of the last seven years.    Arsenal’s total of 87 points in winning the league in 2002 has been exceeded in six of the last seven years.   And Arsenal’s total of 78 points in winning the title in 1998 has been exceeded each time in the list above.

But although the range of points needed to win the league has varied season by season the number of goals conceded by the top club has varied far less.  In terms of goals scored the difference between the most and least goals scored by the league winners in recent seasons is 26.  In terms of goals conceded the difference is ten.

To conclude that winning the league is all about scoring goals seems rather trite, but basically it is true – defences seem to have reached a set level for the top teams, and the club that wins the league does so not by taking defence to a new level, but by taking the scoring upwards.

In this regard Arsenal are helped by the fact that the club has scored more goals from set pieces, excluding penalties, than any other club, since Nicolas Jover’s appointment as set-piece coach in 2021, as the club has developed the very unusual approach of spreading the goals around, rather than having the majority scored by one player.

And what makes this all so particularly interesting is that we don’t know how far this can go.  Since 2011/12 the top scorer in the Premier League has got between 23 and 36 goals.   Not having such a striker but still getting the goals is Arsenal’s latest revolution.

4 Replies to “What takes clubs up and down the league: attack or defence?”

  1. I’d guess that the significance of a team scoring more than two goals a game is they are unlikely to be tripped up too often. If you are scoring one and holding on for the win there’s always a chance of an equaliser. Once you are two or more ahead the chances of a comeback from the opposition drop significantly. Obviously teams score more in modern football partly because refereeing has changed. Where defenders once got away with murder they are now often penalised for nothing more than making contact. For all the criticism VAR gets it has meant if an attacker is onside his goal will stand. Watch some championship football to see how many good goals are ruled out because of offside being given.

  2. One other factor – penalties! Arsenal incredibly have EIGHT so far in the Premier League! I am convinced that our last 2 away League wins were so big because we got penalties when on top and in front in the match, we score them, the players relax and score further goals. The ‘champions’ usually get awarded the most penalties in a season (see Liverpool 2020, Leicester 2016, Manchester United 2013, etc), apart from the notable exception of…Tottenham Hotspur in recent seasons.

    PS – Arsenal should probably have had double the number of spot kicks awarded this season, but that is another matter for another time!

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