The rebirth of solid Premier League defending

Vincent Kompany

Vincent Kompany

Over the last few years, the standard of defending in the Premier League has been at an all-time low. Between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 seasons, top flight matches have averaged 2.79 goals per game, with the 2.81 per game averaged in the 2011-12 campaign being the highest in history.

In recent years, Manchester United won the title by 11 points despite having centre-backs that were long past their best, Manchester City competed for top spot with an unconvincing defence (post 11/12), and Liverpool nearly won the title whilst shipping 50 goals. And yet, at the start of this 2015-16 season, the aforementioned 3 teams are yet to concede a goal in their first 3 games. The question is: are we finally seeing Premier League teams rediscover the art of defending?

It seems Chelsea’s success last season has forced other teams to adapt their philosophy. The Blues won the title by 8 points, and yet it was not attacking quality that set them apart from the chasing pack. Without underestimating the ability of key men Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, comparisons between those players, and players who play in a similar position at other clubs, are widely debated.

What set Chelsea apart from the teams around them was their defensive strength and discipline. Whenever Chelsea lost the ball, every player knew what their roles and responsibilities were. Players who might have been looking to attack seconds ago, were willing to rush back and help protect the defence. Players such as Oscar and Willian, who are at times criticized for a lack of skill and flair, are loved by Jose Mourinho for their incredible work rate. Such strong defensive balance in midfield is the reason why Chelsea conceded more than just 1 goal in a league game on just 6 occasions last term, and ultimately won the title.

In the first half of last season, many teams were guilty of neglecting their defensive duties. Arsenal kept possession for long spells of games, but when they were hit on the counter-attack, their players did not track back with enough diligence. Everton pushed their full-backs, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines, so far forward, their centre-backs were dangerously exposed. West Brom looked very open under Alan Irvine, and Crystal Palace lacked tactical discipline under Neil Warnock.

And yet, all of these teams improved defensively in the second half of the season. Intriguingly, they tended to have less possession than they had had before the turn of the year, when the defence was struggling. It seems that many Premier League managers had looked at the way Jose Mourinho set his Chelsea team up, and felt they had something to learn.

Instead of focusing entirely on dominating possession, these teams began operating with a tighter-knit defence and a faster-paced style of play. Arsenal benefited from the arrival of holding midfielder Francis Coquelin, while their playmakers, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil, began to look more defensively aware. Everton became less reliant on their full-backs to provide width, perhaps due to the mid-season arrival of winger Aaron Lennon. West Brom kept 8 clean sheets from a possible 19 with the defensive discipline demanded by new manager Tony Pulis. Crystal Palace, on the other hand, reaped the benefits of a counter-attacking style of play under Alan Pardew.

Chelsea

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 14

Wins with less possession – 5

January – May 2015

Goals conceded – 18

Wins with less possession – 2

Difference

Conceded 4 more goals. Won 3 fewer games with less possession.

Notes

Chelsea were perhaps less exciting to watch in the second half of the season, but the team’s organization remained strong.

Man City

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 17

Wins with less possession – 1

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 21

Wins with less possession – 3

Difference

Conceded 4 more goals. Won 2 more games with less possession.

Notes

Manchester City’s defence showed no improvement. They attacked with more pace in the last 2 months of the season, hence more games were won with less possession.

Arsenal

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 23

Wins with less possession – 1

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 13

Wins with less possession – 5

Difference

Conceded 10 fewer goals. Won 4 more games with less possession.

Notes

Arsenal looked much more solid when Francis Coquelin came into the team halfway through the season. After the 2-0 win at Man City in January, they found a way to win games without dominating possession.

Man Utd

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 19

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 18

Wins with less possession – 0

Difference

1 fewer goal conceded. 3 fewer wins with less possession.

Notes

No changes half-way through the season. Manchester United struggled to find a settled centre-back partnership, but looked stronger with Michael Carrick protecting the defence.

Tottenham

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 24

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 29

Wins with less possession – 0

Difference

5 more goals conceded. 3 fewer wins with less possession.

Notes

Tottenham retained possession more in the second half of the season. This may have been due to the physical demands of their high pressing game, in a campaign that involved runs in the League Cup and in Europe.

Liverpool

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 25

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 23

Wins with less possession – 3

Difference

Conceded 2 fewer goals. Won the same number of games with less possession.

Notes

Found good form between February and March. The team played at a quicker tempo and looked more dynamic in Steven Gerrard’s absence.

Southampton

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 15

Wins with less possession – 1

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 18

Wins with less possession – 4

Difference

3 more goals conceded. 3 more wins with less possession.

Notes

From December onwards, Southampton picked up their 4 most impressive results of the season: wins against Everton, Arsenal, Manchester United and Aston Villa all came when they had less possession than their opponents.

Swansea

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 23

Wins with less possession – 5

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 26

Wins with less possession – 4

Difference3 more goals conceded. 1 less win with less possession.

Notes

9 wins with less than 50% possession suggest Swansea are showing a more disciplined side to their game than they did under previous managers.

Stoke

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 23

Wins with less possession – 6

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 22

Wins with less possession – 5

Difference

1 less goal conceded. 1 less win with less possession.

Notes

11 of Stoke’s 15 wins last season came when they had less possession than their opponents, thanks largely to a disciplined midfield partnership of Glenn Whelan and the now-departed Steven N’Zonzi.

Crystal Palace

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 30

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 21

Wins with less possession – 10

Difference

9 fewer goals conceded. 7 more wins with less possession.

Notes

Once Alan Pardew took over in January, all 10 of Crystal Palace’s subsequent wins came when they had less possession than their opponents.

Everton

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 31

Wins with less possession – 0

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 19

Wins with less possession – 4

Difference

12 fewer goals conceded. 4 more wins with less possession.

Notes

Everton’s post-Christmas improvement had a lot to do with the introduction of John Stones at centre-back, but they also had less of the ball. 3-0 win over Manchester United in April (35% possession) suggested a modified approach.

West Ham

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 23

Wins with less possession – 6

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 24

Wins with less possession – 0

Difference

1 more goal conceded. 6 fewer wins with less possession.

Notes

West Ham ran out of attacking energy in the second half of the season. Their post-Christmas decline was down to poor forward play rather than defensive problems.

West Brom

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 28

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 23

Wins with less possession – 6

Difference

5 fewer goals conceded. 3 more wins with less possession.

Notes

West Brom looked a lot more organized under Tony Pulis, who built a rigid defence and midfield and encouraged long balls forward.

Leicester

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 31

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 24

Wins with less possession – 6

Difference

7 fewer goals conceded. 3 more wins with less possession.

Notes

Leicester’s defence looked stronger once Robert Huth joined in February. The team’s drastic improvement in the last 2 months of the season was largely down to fast-paced counter-attacking play.

Newcastle

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 28

Wins with less possession – 4

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 35

Wins with less possession – 3

Difference

7 more goals conceded. 1 less win with less possession.

Notes

Newcastle’s back-line leaked goals in the second half of last season, and they nearly paid for their defensive deficiencies with relegation.

Sunderland

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 29

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 24

Wins with less possession – 2

Difference

5 fewer goals conceded. 1 less win with less possession.

Notes

Sunderland stayed up last season thanks to a strong defensive record. The Black Cats kept 4 clean sheets from 9 games under Dick Advocaat, and secured survival with a sturdy display in a 0-0 draw at Arsenal.

Aston Villa

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 22

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 35

Wins with less possession – 1

Difference

13 more goals conceded. 2 fewer wins with less possession.

Notes

Contrary to the general theme, Aston Villa’s post-February improvement under Tim Sherwood was not down to defensive organization. Their attacking players benefited from being given more creative freedom.

Hull

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 27

Wins with less possession – 1

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 24

Wins with less possession – 3

Difference

3 fewer goals conceded. 2 more wins with less possession

Notes

Hull City’s relegation was not down to poor defending, as they conceded fewer goals than 5th place Tottenham. They simply lacked quality in front of goal.

Burnley

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 28

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 24

Wins with less possession – 4

Difference

4 fewer goals conceded. 1 more win with less possession.

Notes

Similarly to Hull, Burnley’s defence last season looked strong, but they did not have enough quality in the final third.

QPR

Aug – Dec 2014

Goals conceded – 34

Wins with less possession – 3

Jan – May 2015

Goals conceded – 39

Wins with less possession – 3

Difference

5 more goals conceded. The same number of wins with less possession.

Notes

QPR scored more goals than each of the 5 teams directly above them. However, they finished below fellow relegated sides Burnley and Hull due to a terrible defence, which Chris Ramsay failed to fix when he took over in February.

Total difference: 15 fewer goals scored/conceded. 8 more wins with less possession.

As the statistics show, we are seeing a minor gravitation towards a more disciplined style of football in their Premier League. Moving onto the beginning of this season, only 6 of the first 30 games have seen the home team emerge victorious, while 13 of them have seen an away win.

In a standard match, the onus is on the home team to be proactive in their play. The home side will typically look to get the ball in the opposition half and gradually build attacks, while the away side, perhaps happier to accept a draw, is more willing to defend deeper and wait for counter-attacking opportunities. At the moment, it seems that the way the away teams are playing is proving more successful:

Crystal Palace 3-1 win at Norwich – 37% possession

Villa 1-0 win at Bournemouth – 42%

Liverpool 1-0 win at Stoke – 53%

West Ham 2-0 win at Arsenal – 38%

Man City 3-0 win at West Brom – 69%

Man Utd 1-0 win at Aston Villa – 54%

Leicester 2-1 win at West Ham – 30%

Norwich 3-1 win at Sunderland – 56%

Everton 3-0 win at Southampton – 46%

Arsenal 2-1 win at Palace – 59%

Bournemouth 4-3 win at West Ham – 54%

Man City 2-0 win at Everton – 54%

Chelsea 3-2 win at West Brom – 56%

As one might expect, the top 4 clubs had most of the possession in their away wins, because opposing teams were wary of their attacking quality. However, if one were to eradicate matches involving the top 4 (including West Ham’s win at Arsenal for balance), teams that won away from home had an average of 43.7% possession.

It was proved last season that the teams who had a most successful season in the Premier League, Chelsea, Southampton, Swansea, Stoke, Crystal Palace and West Brom, all showed organization without the ball. Top flight managers are now realizing that they are better off setting their team up to defend first, and then hit teams on the counter attack with early balls forward. Managers and teams unwilling to compromise an attacking philosophy are in danger of being left behind.