What factors (beside scoring goals) make a team rise up the league table?

By Tony Attwood

What helps a club get to toward the top of the league?  Is it a policy of team rotation and using lots of players?  Or the number of tackles that the side put in?  Or maybe a propensity for fouling.  Or perhaps the opposite – not fouling.  Or maybe it is changing managers.

For want of anything better to do with my time, I decided to have a look at these issues and see if there was any correlation.  So what follows is exactly what anyone working in social sciences is not supposed to do.  We’re all taught to set up experiments and data to prove or disprove a point, not to see what the figures reveal.  And although we looked at a load of statistics over the last couple of years, we haven’t covered all of these.

But it’s my blog so off we go, and the first point is that six clubs have changed managers this season – three of them remain in the bottom five positions in the league.  So no immediate benefit there can be seen.  However some of the newbies haven’t had much time yet.

Players: Arsenal have used more players than any other club this season.  So does using lots of players help?

Yes, as the table below shows, there is a tendency for the clubs who have used the most players to be higher up the league – although two of the top six in the league are right near the bottom when it comes to players used, so it is not that strong a link.  Just a tendency.

Tackling: Five of the top six in terms of league positions are all in the lower part of the table for tackling.  Cutting the tackling, therefore, is a good idea.

Fouls: There is again a tendency for clubs in the upper positions to foul less than those below.

Managers: Of course clubs tend to change their managers when things are not going well – although this is “not going well” by their own standards as the list includes Tottenham and Manchester United.

All of this perhaps means that the table doesn’t tell us that much… but there are a couple of bits and pieces that emerge.

First, Wolverhampton have got themselves into the top six in the league – but  they are very high up the table in terms of tackles and fouls – and completely out of line with the clubs above them in the league table.  I suspect this could lead them into trouble, as that could mean the number of yellow cards mounting up and thus the number of player suspensions could kick in later in the season.

West Ham United on the other hand are maintaining their position near the top while keeping the tackles and fouls under control.  The one oddity with them is that they have only used 19 players which could mean that if injuries start to hit, they could find themselves being forced to play inexperienced players.  This compares with Arsenal who should find that any players they bring in as replacements will already have had some experience with the first team.

Here’s the data – it is in the order of players used.

Club Players used League position Tackles pos Fouls pos Managers this season Injured
5 15 15 1 3
16 14 1 2 8
11 1 17 1 8
1 12 11 1 4
3 18 8 1 9
17 3 2 1 6
15 17 7 2 3
8 20 9 2 6
2 19 16 1 5
7 7 13 2 3
14 8 6 1 8
19 12 18 2 2
9 2 10 1 4
20 6 12 3 2
12 4 20 1 4
13 11 4 1 2
4 13 19 1 1
10 9 3 1 2
6 5 5 1 4
18 16 14 1 4

One other difference that we could note is how many players in a squad went away for the last international break.

  • Arsenal: 15
  • Chelsea: 13
  • Leeds United: 15
  • Liverpool: 14
  • Manchester City: 20
  • Manchester United: 10
  • Tottenham Hotspur: 14
  • Wolverhampton Wanderers: 12

I have always thought that having players go away on the international break would be disruptive, but obviously not always – this number needs to be compared with the strength of the squad in depth.

As for the last column – that is showing a considerable variance in the number of players injured each first team squad has.

This number of injuries doesn’t relate that much to league position – but is probably an indicator of what might happen to the club in the future if some of those injuries are to key players, and they last a long time.

Above all what comes out of this table – which as I had suggested was set up by way of searching for links, rather than proving links I already had in mind – is that West Ham’s position seems to be built on the approach of using very few players and very few injuries.

Norwich and Newcastle near the bottom don’t have multiple players out, whose return could boost the team. 

So to conclude, if a club wants to rise up the league keeping tackles and fouls down can help – which is exactly the tactic that Mr Arteta brought to Arsenal.  While if a club wants to improve its situation, changing managers might not always be the best move – although fans may demand a move as they have done with Wenger, Emery and Arteta.

And if we want to make a single prediction based on this table, it is that Wolverhampton will slip down the league because they are too dependent on fouls and tackles, and have a smallish squad. 

11 Replies to “What factors (beside scoring goals) make a team rise up the league table?”

  1. The key stat is shots on target. If you construct a premier league table by no of shots on target, it is very similar to the premier league table itself.

  2. I’ll certainly do that and have a look David, but that in turn raises the question how the shots on target number vary. Tackles are interesting because defenders can choose to tackle or intercept or harry or back off, but all shots are meant to be on target, so I guess the number just measures how good the players are at shooting.

  3. Shots on target or even off , deflections count just the same .
    With defenders backing away because of the diving the deflected goal is becoming more regular.

  4. Spending money. Then spending some more money. Then spending even more money, and then just keep on spending. It works, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

    Over the last 10 years these are the top 6 net spenders:

    Team – Net Spend – Trophies – Average League Finish

    1: Man City – £1,000M – 10(1st) – 2nd(1st)

    2: Man Utd – £900M – 4(=4th) – 4th(=2nd)

    3: Chelsea – £500M – 8(2nd) – 4th(=2nd)

    4: Arsenal – £471M – 4(=4th) – 5th(6th)

    5: Everton – £343M – 0(—) – 8th(8th)

    *6: Liverpool – £338M – 5(3rd) -4th(4th)

    Apart from Leicester City winning 2 trophies, 5 of the top 6 spenders have won all the trophies. Not only that they have pretty much dominated the top 4 places.

    The correlation between constant high spending and winning trophies as well as top 4 finishes is irrefutable.

    *Although Liverpools net spend is pretty good, their Gross spend is as big as the top spenders, it’s just they’ve had some big sales, one especially, that has kept their net spend to what I believe is an artificially low level. Courtinho was somehow sold for £140 M when at the time, according to transfer market, he was valued at £80M. That’s an incredible £60M reduction in what should be their true net spend, putting them above Everton. Time has since shown that £140M was indeed ridiculous.

    Apart from that there are a couple of honorable mentions.

    Leicester City have, with their 2 trophies, significantly over achieved against their net spend trophy wise. But although their average league finish of 7th looks pretty good, without that remarkable championship season the other 9 seasons see them averaging around where they should be. That title, as admirable as it was, has indeed turned out to be the freak everyone thought it was.

    And it has to be said, despite still lacking a trophy spurs have over achieved in the league, given their moderate net spending.

    As 4th biggest spenders Arsenals 4 trophies (=4th) is about par. Our average 5th place league finish is just below par.

    All this shows that the symmetry between spending and winning trophies is undeniable.

    Although not quite as symmetrical the correlation between league finish and net spend is also undeniable.

    However it is true that short term big spending usually fails. The key is consistently spending big over many years.

    It is also true that a club doesn’t always win things the season they spend big. In fact, they may well win 2 years later, when they have a low net spend, due to offloading some flops or older players.

    The key is constantly spending, improving the squad when needed. Freshening up the squad when needed.

    Of course spending big can go wrong as it has recently for United. But what do you think the answer to United’s problems will be when the new boss arrives?

    You mark my words it will be spending more money. This time they might get it right.They might not.

    One thing is for sure NOT spending more money will not be an option.

    One last point.


    They now have mega rich owners.

    If they spend an average £50M Net per season for the next 10 years (as both Chelsea and City did when their sugar daddies turned up) will they win the league ?

    Maybe, maybe not. It depends if Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool spend their money better than they do.

    But one thing is for absolute certain, relying on your tackling style, not getting injuries, luck, or even getting a great manager, wont be enough.

    Ask Pep, possibly the best manager in the World over the last 10 years. At every club he’s spent £100’s of Millions.

    99.9% of the time even a great manager cannot win the league without money, but an average manager can win it with money.

    Yes of course other factors have an impact, to a degree, but in the end it’s mostly about the money.

  5. Nitram

    That was a really interesting and informative post.

    Wow did I just say that?

    Going into a phase where the likes of Barca and Real are strapped for cash I am not too sure that those two ex cash cows will be throwing stupid money akin to the Hazard and of course Coutinho transfers of the past.

    Personally I think that spending is still going to continue at a pace in the EPL but the demand will be for those that don’t require work permits because quite simply clubs will need to save those as it were for players who pretty much are assured of meeting the criteria. In other words top players who cost a bomb and to be fair I just can’t see cant see a player plying their trade at the likes of Real shipping up at say Burnley

    For me in a way we saw the sort of a different trend in that clubs in the PL have started to come a calling to the likes of Chelsea and yes Arsenal trying to pick up HG qualified players if those players have short term left on their contracts the fee will be circa £5-10 million with potentially a buy back/ sell on, if they have run down their contracts then compensation but if the contract has two or more years left then there needs to be a bigger offer

    I haven’t drilled down into the numbers but it would be interesting to see what % of Italian or Spanish money flowed into the supposed top 6 over that 10 year period . That source of monies isn’t likely to be repeated for a year or two

    In many ways there is a perfect storm brewing.

    Potential reduction in the number of NHG players, EU players requiring work permits, less money in the major European leagues will in all likelihood mean that incoming transfers will be reduced in number

    I have to be honest I can’t believe how many academy products we have reaching maturity all at the same time. By my reckoning there are at least six in our squad who have graduated from the academy and the next two of the rank are Gilmour and Gallagher in a blink of an eye the next set of graduates will see a clear path way but the problems come when those top potential players see that pathway blocked .

    We lost two incredible talents in the likes of Lamptey and indeed Livermnento both were in the last throes of their contracts so had to be sold or they would leave for compensation way before they were going to gain a squad berth.and likewise you have lost a Willock but it’s the likes of Nketiah at yours and Christensen at ours players that have run down their contracts that certainly find a home elsewhere on decent wages and of course playing at a reasonable standard

    Interesting times ahead

  6. Mike T


    I have always argued that the overarching factor behind Premier League, and ultimately European success is money. To me it is so obvious that I find to argue against it really rather odd.

    Even brilliant managers need money.

    When the SKY era began Man Utd got a jump on everyone. A combination of good fortune and brilliant Club strategy came together at the perfect time.

    Just at a time when Ferguson found his stride, that brilliant crop of youngsters came through all at the same time, giving him a foundation on which to base his next 5 to 10 years. He did it brilliantly. But would he of stayed their without the money?

    United became successful and their marketing people capitalized on this to an extent the rest of us can only dream of. On the back of all this they became the richest, most successful club on the planet.

    From there on in we were all playing catch up.

    We acquired Wenger, and as big a genius as he was he always knew that to compete, or ‘catch up’ with Manchester United, we needed to match their spending. Even then Wenger knew it was about money. At the time the way to do it was to up the stadium capacity, hence the commitment made to building the Emirates.

    But who could see what was round the corner?

    As it turned out there was another, simpler, yet ultimately more successful way of ‘catching up’. Queue the arrival of Roman, followed by the Mansours, and in a stroke the financial impact of having a bigger stadium was totally negated. As beautiful and necessary as it was, the Emirates was now never going to be the catalyst to success everybody hoped.

    Basically unlimited funds was always going to trump limited funds from match day attendance, no matter how big the stadium.

    Now through fear of offending anyone I will try to be tactful here with what I call it. Investing ? Sponsoring ? Doping ? Whatever you want to call it, it involved piling unlimited amounts of unearned money into clubs that had previously been run terribly. One bouncing up and down the divisions. One being sold for a pound. Both going through managers at a rate of about one a year. Now whether that was right or wrong. Whether you see it as ‘investing’ or ‘doping’ will almost certainly depend on how it affected your club.

    Either way it is what it is and the fact of the matter is it has become THE way to achieve success. You now face ridicule if you DON’T do it. That is how much the football landscape has changed.

    As far as Arsenal are concerned we have chosen the self sustaining model, and given our recent spend, financially it appears to of delivered, but as I have shown our spending is still less than the ‘Sponsored’ clubs, Man City and Chelsea, the most successful clubs over the last 10 years.

    Even Man Utd, permanently in turmoil it seems, are still successful under any normal measure, it’s just given their status, history and spend they should be more successful.

    And they will be. But not if they STOP spending. They just need to get the right manager spending the money.

    —“I haven’t drilled down into the numbers but it would be interesting to see what % of Italian or Spanish money flowed into the supposed top 6 over that 10 year period . That source of monies isn’t likely to be repeated for a year or two”

    Very true. But ultimately the richest will still have first dibs on players. Whether the market re adjusts meaning the price of players falls dramatically is largely irrelevant. Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd will remain the first in the queue for marquee players. They can pay whatever is asked.

    You make a good point about the youth we both have coming through.

    The difference is you paid £100 Million on one player to augment this influx of youth, something you can do when there is absolutely no financial risk in doing so.

    It would be an enormous risk for us to make such an investment.

    This is why it is so difficult for us the make that step back into title contenders. If our young lads don’t develop into £100 Million rated World class players we all hope they will, we will need to buy them. We cant. That is a fact.

    It CAN be done on a slightly smaller budget, as Liverpool have shown, but you need quite a few ducks to fall in a row.

    Getting the 2nd best manager in the World helps.

    Selling an £80M player for £140M helps.

    Acquiring the best forward and possibly best CH in the World at the same time helps.

    But again, despite Klopps obvious genius, without the enormous amounts of money at his disposal he would not of done what he’s done.

    Yes great youth helps. A great manager helps. But without money, enormous amounts of money 99.99% of the time you will fall short.

  7. Nitram

    “As it turned out there was another, simpler, yet ultimately more successful way of ‘catching up’. Queue the arrival of Roman, followed by the Mansours, and in a stroke the financial impact of having a bigger stadium was totally negated.”

    I think to be fair the % of overall income derived through people passing through the turnstiles has rarely paid for top players or indeed supported the wage bills of clubs that were successful pre PL days. The economics of buying say Trevor Francis for say £1 million in an era where it cost at most a £ or two to watch Forest play at home in what was around a 30k stadium would never be enough to run clubs add to that there wasn’t money of note coming from TV deals or indeed sponsorship suggests to me that money was being “ invested” in football clubs via un earned sources way before the likes of RA shipped up.

    Indeed you need to look at the massive financial input the Moore’s family injected into both Liverpool and Everton or indeed Jack Walker at Blackburn and it’s easy to forget that Sir John Hall injected a wedge at Newcastle in the Keegan era.

    Of course the amount put in by RA dwarfs the monies put in elsewhere. But as you quite rightly say money is paramount to success but money doesn’t actually guarantee it.

    One last point about new stadiums I find the latest accounts published by Spurs interesting and over the next few weeks we will be seeing a whole load of other clubs publishing theirs and I suspect that a different debate will be opened up when we see the levels of debt that is now held by PL clubs

  8. “…there wasn’t money of note coming from TV deals or indeed sponsorship suggests to me that money was being “ invested” in football clubs via un earned sources way before the likes of RA shipped up”.

    Possibly true. There was of course as you say the Littlewoods connection at Liverpool and Walker at Blackburn and Hall at Newcastle. Leeds were catastrophically bankrolled, so it has happened, but what has happened at City and Chelsea is in quite a different league to those.

    But as much as I might not like and don’t want us to do it is here to stay.

  9. Tony

    That is very true, things do always change, except one thing, the importance of money.

    Yes, the ones that have the money may change. Where it comes from may also change, but where ever it may come from in the future. However it arrives, one thing is for sure, the ones with the most of it will be the most successful.

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