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June 2021

Are Premier League teams really so bad in defence as the media suggest?

By Tony Attwood

“Why are so many Premier League teams so bad in defence?”

You’ll know, if you have read my meanderings across the years, that I rather like evidence.  Not “The evidence of my own eyes” but actual numbers.   So when someone rages in a bloggetta that “Xhaka is clearly not up to standard, he should be sold, we must take the loss and buy better,” I like to point out that he had more successful passes of the ball than anyone else last season save one player.

And that given that was his adjustment season, we can expect this year to be even better.

That latter is my opinion and everyone may disagree but I would also note that in the one game so far this season in the league he provided two assists.  Not bad on day one.

And while on assists, I would point out that two Arsenal had players in the top six assistants list last season; Alexis with 10, Ozil with 9.  So when people talk about Ozil not doing his job I would point out his job changed during the season as the team structure changed.

And so on.  Evidence in terms of numbers and their analysis.

Thus when the Guardian, a newspaper that likes to be taken seriously, runs the headline “why are so many Premier League teams so bad in defence?” my first reaction is, “is that really true?”   And to my disappointment I find that they present not evidence.  Instead they say…

“Even before the Premier League got round to the traditional kick-off time, 13 goals had been scored in two games. A total of 31 goals were scored over the opening weekend as the first three of last season’s top six to play all conceded three. Take that, Spain, with your Cristiano Ronaldo controversies! Take that, Italy, with your resurgent Milan! Take that, Germany, with your finely tuned pressing structures! Take that, France, with your Neymar, your Bielsa and your Balotelli! For drama and giggling hilarity, the Premier League remains king.”

All jolly amusing and all that, but is it true?  Is it true that “for excitement and spectacle, for the sense that any daft thing could happen at any moment, it still rules.”

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Just based on one weekend?

Well, yes, according to the Guardian you really can analyse the league based on just one weekend of matches, because after this they are straight onto conclusions – which tell us that it is “partly to do with the number of high-quality managers and players in the league, it’s partly to do with a general competitiveness and it’s a lot to do with the fact that a number of the top sides simply cannot defend. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea all have major issues to resolve before a weekend in which they face Stoke, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, all sides who have troubled them in the recent past.”

And the evidence is – well still, just one weekend.

So next, having established the “fact” the causes are given – the propensity for a back three, and the incompetence of managers.  Oh yes we can be sure if only one club was far sighted enough to employ Jonathan Wilson who wrote the piece, well, his team would be top of the PL in a trice, and no mistake.  Indeed it is only the sheer stupidity of PL team boards of directors that stop such far sighted journalists from getting a proper job.

And be in no mistake, this article lays it in thick and hard on management.  “It’s as though English football exists in such a swirl of comings and goings that the idea of working things out on the training pitch doesn’t exist any more. The one manager who did do that last season, Antonio Conte, now has to handle a squad that appears weirdly fraught and demoralised, a situation exacerbated by his own clear dissatisfaction at a lack of signings.”

The solution?  “Now might be a good time to start addressing basic flaws of concentration and structure.”

This is serious stuff.  Big time stuff.  Major league stuff.  It strikes at the heart of football.  The most popular league in the world is managed but a bunch of drongos who can’t get the basics right!!!!

Well, let’s see with something quite simple: goals conceded per game across time.  Here is the chart for that statistic across four years in four countries.  GpG is goals per game counting league games only…

Country Lowest season GpG Highest season GpG
Germany 2.83 3.05
England 2.77 2.79
Spain 2.71 2.87
Italy 2.51 2.69

So in this four year period the number of goals per game in the PL was almost static, but constantly lower than in Germany.  Spain was more variable – sometimes lower sometimes higher.  Italy, as we have always known (at least those of us who watch Italian football) was consistently lower during that spell.

Thus far from being a bunch of useless idiots, the managers of PL clubs, could actually defend better than the managers of German clubs, and were in a band in the middle of the ability of managers of Spanish clubs.

Ah, I hear you say, (or I would if you wouldn’t mumble so much), “but maybe it has changed of late.”

Well, in 2016/17 the average number of goals per game in the Premier League was 2.80.  It had indeed leaped up by… 0.01 goal per game.  Wow.  Defences really are crumbling.  That is a whole seven more goals per season across the league!!!!!!!!!

Yes this is particularly higher than the 2.45 goals per game of 2006/7 where the PL sank below even Italian levels, but the figure for last season in the PL shows we are still pretty much in the same range.

So what to make of this “reporter” with his wild and whacky accusations which are, as I write this, shown as the top story of the day on the Guardian website?   Well, thanks to the Guardian we know a little of him.  Here is his cv:

“Jonathan Wilson writes regularly about Eastern European football and tactics. He has written five books, including Inverting the Pyramid, a history of football tactics that was named Football Book of the Year in 2009. His most recent book is Nobody Ever Says Thank You, a biography of Brian Clough. He is also the editor of The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of football writing.”

And he is treating his audience with contempt, laying down a story which has not an ounce of truth in it, on the basis that football supporters are pathetic idiots who are so stupid and so lazy that not a single one of them could be arsed to check the facts.

Sorry mate.  This one did.

(Tony Attwood is the author of two football books – “Making the Arsenal” and “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football”, and the publisher and lead author of “Untold Arsenal” and “The Arsenal History Society” websites.  He has also published on line the complete story of Arsenal in the 1970s, and of Arsenal in the 1930s.)

8 comments to Are Premier League teams really so bad in defence as the media suggest?

  • Andrew Crawshaw

    Given a sufficiently large improvement in defence virtually every goal could be prevented. To try and extrapolate anything from the opening matches of a season is here lunacy. Despite the club’s efforts during pre-season many players will not have reached full match fitness, particularly with players returning late due to international committments.

    You could equally well have done an article saying that the managers were brilliant as the attackers had scored more goals but that piece would be equally misguided.

    A truer picture may emerge once the league has been running for a few weeks but by then the ‘journalists’ and writers of ‘blogettas’ will all have moved on to newer issues they consider more pressing.

  • Andrew Crawshaw

    Sorry should have been “sheer lunacy”

  • Sam Sayyed

    Smashing article Tony! A great read for those of us who actually likes proofs rather than believe “facts” that the journalists conjure out of their backsides!

  • Goonermikey

    Completely concur with Andrew. One weekend does not a summer make! But even if it did, why interpret more goals as a deterioration in defending? Why not an increase in attacking prowess? So if the rest of the season turns in all 0-0 draws, Wilson will see this as an improvement and beneficial to the fans and the Premier league will he? It’s worse than pathetic.

  • AGB

    An this opening PL round, 8 out of 20 teams kept a clean sheet…..

  • jw1

    Nothing wrong with healthy cynicism.
    As I can’t help but recall, that where once there was a derisive statement about writers being ‘paid by-the-word’?
    That Mr Wilson unsurprisingly might be ‘compensated by-the-click’.


  • Ziontrain

    Well put. “Football journalism” is sloppy as hell these days. Ive read that “inverting the pyramid” thing. It’s a feature article overblown into a book…

  • Flares

    To be fair to Wilson, his Clough book isn’t half bad, even if the subject matter is so rich and newsworthy an ape could get good copy from him. He still writes for a vile Leftist rag though. Wouldn’t offend my arse by wiping it with the Guardian.