Whatever your opinion on which football league is the best, there can be little doubt that so far this season, the top clubs in the English Premier League have offered exceptional entertainment value to the fans. Everybody can appreciate a solid defensive display but it’s goals that everyone wants to see and they have been flying in since the league kicked off back in August. The immediate response, which I have heard from a number of sources, is that the defending is terrible. While I won’t deny that this has sometimes been the case, do we really believe that over the course of a single summer all of the defenders at the top clubs have forgotten how to defend?
Clearly that can’t be the case and if you look at the stats, between this season and the one before, the avergage goals conceded by the top 5 clubs only differs by an overall average of 0.1 of a goal per game across all 5 clubs. Manchester City have the least goals conceeded at 0.89 per game, the same as they did last season. Tottenham are better off with 1.15 goals per game in 2011/12 as opposed to 1.21 in the previous season. This may be down to the fact that Ledley King has already played 7 more games this season than he did for the whole of 2010-2011, or perhaps the addition of Scott Parker has strengthened Spurs’ central midfield. Chelsea have so far suffered more than most having conceeded an average of 1.1 in the current campaign compared to just 0.86 (joint lowest last season with Manchester City). This is possibly due to the change of manager and system.
This season, in the games between the top 5 sides, there has been an average of 4.857 goals per game. This is in contrast to just 2.00 the season before. We have already seen that defending on the whole hasn’t gotten worse at the big clubs. If anything, if we consider this massive upturn in goals per game between these sides, they are actually defending better than they were last year against the rest of the teams in the league.
So why have we seen such an abundance of goals this campaign? Manchester City seemed to take the cautious approach last season: they scored just 3 goals against the other top sides and only managed to win 1-0 when they did score. This season they seem to have become more adventurous in their play, which means they have conceded more goals but they’ve also increased their Goals Scored tally by some considerable margin.
Furthermore, a bulk of that 2.00 average goals per game between the top 5 in 2010-2011 came from the North London derbies. Tottenham won 2-3 at the Emirates while they drew 3-3- in the return leg. Remove those two games and the average drops to about 1.6 goals per game.
One key factor this season seems to be early goals: they open up matches, meaning the conceeding side can no longer take the cautious approach. Almost all the high scoring games have seen the first goal come in the first 25 minutes, many even earlier. In the previous season all of the matches where a goal was scored in the first 30 minutes went on to be games with an average of 3 or more goals. This pattern is repeated this season with the exception of the Tottenham vs Manchester City games; all of the big scoring games have seen early goals. So the number of early goals is clearly a factor in opening up games when teams go head to head.
Back in 1981, the English Football League decided to change the allocation of points with 3 points for a win rather than 2. The idea was to increase attacking play and it seems it might have taken 30 years to catch on. Manchester City’s defensive displays of last season have been replaced with more attractive, attacking football in an attempt to gain those extra 2 points more often. Tottenham have been doing the same to try and break the dominance of Chelsea and Arseal for the top four places. It only needs a small change in playing style from some of the clubs involved to create a domino effect across the rest of the league. Thus, a slow cagey game designed to win points has been replaced by a heavyweight boxing match, each team trying to find that knockout punch. Manchester City and Tottenham have had to raise the bar just as United have been doing for the last 20 years or so, just as Arsenal did during the Invicibles era and Chelsea did under Mourinho. Where in recent years we had a top four there are now six or seven clubs capable of securing a Champions League spot. Consequently, draws are no longer good enough and this has led to the attacking football spectacle of today.
Is it good for English football? Well it’s certainly entertaining to watch. Some people have pointed to the English clubs’ relative failure in the Champions League as further evidence of poor defending. However, I’m not so sure the numbers stack up there either. Chelsea has the second best Goals Against ratio after Real Madrid. The other three (despite the Manchester clubs going out in the group stages) also did reasonably well on a goals conceeded front: Arsenal for example may well have bettered Chelsea’s achievements had they not already qualified and sent out a second string team for the final game of the group stages.
Thus, in my opinion, this is not the defensive disaster it’s made out to be. If anything, it owes more to the strength of the Premier League: there are enough teams capable of scoring goals and giving each other a game which is ultimately what we all want.