Tactical & Statistical Analysis: Why are Premier League teams struggling to defend?

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Top Premier League teams have seemingly had difficulties defending this season. This weekend alone we saw a goal glut in the Premier League which is great entertainment but less good for the competitiveness of the Premier League on the European stage.

Manchester United of old, Chelsea under Mourinho and Benitez’s Liverpool side achieved relative successes mainly as a result of a solid back four and a strong defensive record. With Benitez this was particularly the case in Europe, as well as when the club finished 2nd in the Premier League. Managers now a days seem to put less emphasis on defensive play and spend more time attacking. Manchester United for example have struggled defensively but instead of bringing in a holding player or a defender they purchased Premier League top scorer Robin van Persie.

Statistical look at Premier League defending

The current defending has been woeful. Sides are opting to outscore opponents as a result of defensive weaknesses and all sides look vulnerable. United have epitomized this recently, regularly conceding goals and looking unorganized at the back. City too have had their fair share of defensive problems. This is in stark comparison to the golden era of Premier League defending that I believe took place between 04-09 as we can see below:

Season Goals conc. for top three Goals conc. per game for top three
2012/13 65 1.08
2011/12 111 0.97
2010/11 103 0.90
2009/10 101 0.89
2004-2009 78 0.68

In fact, in 2009 when United won the title, they only conceded 24 goals and the top three combined conceded just 75 goals. Last season however the top three conceded 111 goals, demonstrating a clear shift with regards to defensive solidity. The 1.08 goals conceded per game by the top three this season is the highest average conceded so far, marking this season as a watershed in regards to the poor defending in the Premier League.

A general decline?

In 2004/05 Mourinho’s Chelsea won the title only conceding 15 goals. City conceded almost double this on their way to winning the league last season, with 29.Thus, the period 2004-2009 marked a significantly better defensive period for Premier League teams. During this period five English teams made it to the Champions League final, including two winners. In the period from 2009-2012 only one British side (Chelsea) made the final and that was widely seen to have been fortuitous. I would thus argue that there has been a general decline in the quality of Premier League sides, with several sides being in transition.

Manchester United are an example of such a team. They have recently signed several younger players with Neville, Scholes (temporarily) and van Der Sar retiring. These players have yet to be fully replaced, with the goal keeper issue being problematic for United. David De Gea has genuine quality but has been over scrutinized by the British press which has probably damaged his confidence, at such a young age he will take another season or so to show his best form. Whilst Smalling and Jones have looked promising, albeit having had their spells disrupted through injury.

Chelsea are also in transition. Their best defence came in the Mourinho period and its immediate aftermath. As that defence aged and has been broken up, along with the side as a whole, the defence has suffered. Chelsea never really replaced Claude Makelele adequately and have shifted tactics to a more aggressive approach with younger stars. The mass influx of players in the summer will take time to bed in and thus we won’t see the best of Chelsea this season. The decline of Liverpool has also been a factor with the Anfield club notorious for their organizational ability and rigid defensive tactics under Benitez, who guided the club to Champions League glory as well as a further final two years later.

Tactical failings

One major factor that has contributed to the decline has been a shift in tactics in the Premier League. This shift has been down to shifts in the continental game, with the most attractive sides playing in Spain, particularly Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Their possession based tika-taka football has become a model for clubs to follow, with sides and their fan’s basing a greater emphasis on the attractiveness of their play.

Further to this we have witnessed the emergence of the 4-2-3-1 a variation of which is played by most top teams in Europe as well as England. Chelsea, United, City, Arsenal and Spurs all play a variation of this. This formation is great for helping attacking play flow but it is also riddled with problems, particularly in defensive terms. Clubs find it hard to cover their full-backs without actual wingers in front of them to protect them. This graphic below demonstrates the wide spread usage of this system:

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Previously Chelsea, United, Liverpool and Arsenal, the ‘big four,’ would use variations of the 4-3-3 as well as 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 was a staple of English football for some time, Arsenal and United in particular opted for such a system during the 04-09 period, as well as the 4-3-3. The 4-3-3 was Chelsea’s staple until last season, with the wingers working tirelessly to defend their full-backs.

The 4-2-3-1 has shown a lesser emphasis on width which means that the three attacking midfielders attack centrally, meaning they are less well placed to cover their full-backs when possession is lost. This was a major problem for Chelsea under di Matteo. Benitez has remedied this to an extent by playing Moses as a more out and out wide man, instead of playing the ‘three amigos’ game in game out. Under di Matteo the full-backs received little cover and were left woefully exposed when sides counter attacked them. This was also a key area which Sir Alex Ferguson exploited when his side went to Manchester City. Man United set up more 4-5-1/4-3-3 playing out and out wingers to expose City’s lack of width in their 4-2-3-1 which led to the first two United goals.

Conclusion

There is little doubt that Premier League teams are struggling to defend compared to periods gone by. The most successful period in the Premier League for clubs in Europe, 2004-09 was one in which British sides looked to be well organized and control games through solid defensive tactics. The shift towards a more ‘continental’ style has certainly led to a decline in side’s defensive solidity. As to has the fact that the top British clubs are in transition, replacing old teams with new stars who will take time to bed in. This is certainly the case with Chelsea and United. In fact it is testament to what a great manager Sir Alex Ferguson is that his side still remain competitive domestically given the circumstances. Football is a cyclical game and resultantly the English sides will probably re-assert themselves in a few seasons time.

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3 comments for “Tactical & Statistical Analysis: Why are Premier League teams struggling to defend?

  1. December 31, 2012 at 16:03

    Another point is that I think teams simply work on defensive fundamentals less. It’s jarring when you’re used to watching Spurs, Arsenal, City, and co. to then go and watch Stoke – so well drilled, they all keep a sound line, and they don’t make silly mistakes. Thinking about the top clubs, almost all of them have had multiple bad defensive gaffes the last few seasons that seem to be mostly about bad fundamentals. (David Luiz at Chelsea, Arsenal’s comedy of errors, Spurs inability to clear the ball and keep a good line, etc.

  2. January 2, 2013 at 22:32

    Spot-on analysis, Amit.

    I think the reason why top teams concede so much in the BPL is because while they have managed to shift to 4231 lesser teams exploit this lack of cover in wide areas by playing more traditional formations such as 442 or 433. It can be seen as a blessing and a curse for both sides:
    1. “Big” teams have the technical prowess in their squad to effectively boss the midfield: Chelsea’s three, United’s, Arsenal’s (to some extent)
    2. “Smaller” teams are not as technically strong to outplay through the midfield so they attack through the flanks an long balls A LOT more – Norwich, Everton (Fellaini and Baines says it all), Stoke etc.

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