Imagine how your reaction would be if a cricket match ended with one team scoring 6 runs against the other’s total of 8. How about a basketball game with a 3-1 final score? 150-148 runs over nine innings in baseball?
We expect certain types of scores in various sports. Results like those mentioned above would cause serious seismic activity in the world of professional sports. In fact, it seems safe to say it just won’t happen because these are completely against the nature of each sport.
In the same way, we have come to accept football as a low scoring game. An average of around 3 goals a game through a league season or any major tournament would be considered pretty good. 10-8 is the kind of scoreline one would see in friendly games where no one really cares about the results and anything in the high two digits is practically unthinkable.
Being low scoring is the inherent nature of the game and most of it comes from the rules. Now, I like it this way and I’m not saying it needs to change. But as fans and people who have a lot vested in the game (in an emotional and financial sense) we need to really understand this so that it is deeply imbued in any analysis we make of players, game situations, tactics, results, etc.
At this point, if you fully understand just how much easier defending is compared to attacking, skip straight down to the section titled “Why this matters”. If not, ponder on the reasoning presented next.
Let’s start with a very simple but extremely important question – How often does a team try to attack and how often does it succeed?
Before going forward we need to be completely clear about a couple of points –
1) I’m talking about defending being much, much easier than attacking but not saying that defending is easy in itself. You and I could form a team and keep clean sheets on the way to major trophies if defending were easy, per se. Ensuring the ball stays out of the net is very hard work and demands qualities like discipline, concentration, determination, physical strength, and intelligence to name a few. This is strictly a comparative discussion and at no point should we lose sight of that.
2) There are certain specific moments in the game when defending is indeed harder than attacking. For instance, a penalty results in a goal more often than it is saved. But these are isolated and comparatively rare cases, and are often a result of one or more avoidable mistakes so we can ignore them from this discussion.
With that in mind, let’s come back to the question at hand. Obviously, every time someone takes a shot at goal they are trying to attack.
Last season Manchester City scored 102 League goals from 673 shots for a conversion rate of just over 15 percent. Liverpool got 101 from 651 at a marginally better success rate. I don’t want to spend time compiling data for all the clubs but my past experience crunching such data suggests that between 15-20 percent is about the average range for a team’s chance conversion rate. Sometimes it’s a little higher but very rarely does it cross 25 percent.
One of the excellent graphs in this phenomenal article on Messi tells us that of the 866 players who’ve played over 50 games in the last few years, only two have a conversion rate greater than 25 percent. And these are players with a low volume of shots taken. Messi is around 22 and Ronaldo is below 15 percent. It seems the numbers are relatively consistent whether we are looking at individual players or teams in general.
Let’s say on an average 20 percent of the shots go in across the board (Various leagues, international competitions, etc.). It’s hard to be exact about this number but a little variance won’t matter too much as you’ll soon see.
If 1 in 5 attempts to attack are successful, we can also say 4 in 5 attempts to defend are successful. That’s a huge difference right there. A crude but not entirely incorrect way to look at this would be that defending is four times as successful as attacking, ergo that much more easier.
Someone might argue, at this juncture, that a lot of those shots don’t even hit the target. Could this be a case of bad attacking rather than defending being easier?
Imagine for a moment that an average Premier League player is alone on the pitch with no constraints of time and space. Would he miss an unobstructed, ‘Keeper-less net from the kind of locations most of the shots are actually taken? The biggest factor in shooting inefficiency is not the player’s own quality but the fact that he is being closed down by the opponents, has very little time in which to react, and has to find a way to beat a goalkeeper in the net.
Even the absolute best players around the world only complete around 1 in 2 of the so-called gilt-edged chances and less than 1 out of 4 regular chances. This has less to do with them being rubbish and more to do with the difficult nature of scoring. Commentary like, “He’d have scored that 9 times out of 10”, does not help because it’s hardly ever backed up by facts.
This is also linked to the aforementioned case of penalties being harder to defend. Many of the variables affecting the striker adversely are taken out of the equation when a penalty is taken.
Once you move beyond the highlights and start observing the details that are edited out to pack in all the excitement in a short period of time, it’ll become clear that missed shots are not as much a case of bad attacking (although in some individual instances they are and can be very frustrating) as they are an indication of defence having a negative influence on the efficiency of attack in one way or another. It is important to remember that I’m not saying there isn’t a difference between quality of individual attackers or the offensive potential of various teams. The point is that even the absolute best have fairly modest conversion rates and the others are only worse.
Moving on, let’s consider other indicators of a team trying to attack. Do you think a player crosses the ball to admire the flight of the ball across the face of goal? There are 20-25 crosses per game on average in the Premier League. Usually, less than 5 are successful. That’s another 15-20 attempts to attack that are unsuccessful. They don’t even lead to a shot.
How about through-balls that are intercepted or run out of play? What about unsuccessful dribbles?
If we pause and think about it, almost every clearance, tackle, interception, foul, or the ball going out of play, result in an attack being thwarted. Sometimes we tend to think of attacks only when the ball is in the final third. That’s not completely correct.
A team could be consolidating its position at the back so that it’s players can get into a position to attack after they’ve retreated deep to defend. Or they could be in the build-up phase in the midfield and trying to unlock the oppositions organization. These are not obvious moments of attack but they are part of the attacking process. Any event that breaks this process means the defence has won a minor battle and one attack is blunted.
Let’s say a team takes 15 shots and scores 3 goals for a 20 percent success rate. Now we add in say 10 fouls, 12 interceptions, 18 tackles, and 35 clearances by the opposition (again I’m relying on past experience to think the numbers should be close to the averages). We’d have 3 goals in 90 attempts for a success rate of about 3.33 percent. And we haven’t even counted the ball going out of play.
I believe it’s safe to say that most teams are successful with 1-5 percent of their attacks. Some might have even less success but very few will be higher.
As far as I’m concerned, this should no longer be a topic of debate but really the first rule of football – Defending is much, much, much easier than attacking.
Why This Matters
Managers and analysts at the top of the game understand this unwritten law instinctively. It’s one of the fundamental reasons defensive players cost so much less than attackers. This will never change. To me, 30 million spent on a pure defender is about as sensible at 100 million spent on a striker. It also makes the fee paid for David Luiz the most senseless transfer amount ever, but I should control my tendency to digress.
If you’re an Arsene Wenger fan, think of the effort he put in to keep Fabregas or even RvP at the club, and contrast that with the ease with which he sold someone like Song even though the Cameroonian came up with some assists in the season before he was let go. Players who can consistently make decisive contributions in the attacking third are very hard to find. Defensive players can be replaced by others more easily or by tweaks to the system of play.
Defending is about redundancy over and above anything else. There are at least three lines of defence in any team. And if they do their job well , often players from one line get a time to join the others and redouble the redundancy. That means you can make mistakes and get away with it. It happens all the time.
Attack, on the other hand, is all about precision. Everything must fall into place for the ball to go into the net. And each attack has multiple points of failure. That’s why it can be broken up in different areas of the pitch.
Usually, there are multiple defensive mistakes when a goal is scored. Some of those are forced by the quality of the attack while others are entirely avoidable.
Granted, there are times when a goal seems to materialize completely out of luck. But once you develop the habit of looking past individual instances onto the broader patterns, the battle between defence and attack becomes apparent and you start to see probabilities instead of luck.
There was a phase in the recent past when it seemed that Arsenal played really well in game but the opponents had one or two good moments and scored a freakish goal which cost the Gunners valuable points. In the early days, I used to think it was just dumb luck. But as it happened over and over, a closer analysis revealed deeper issues in the Arsenal defence. It had to do with shape, choices, concentration, and other important details. Having worked on that over the last couple of seasons, Arsenal have been able to cut down on many of those freakish goals that they conceded.
The second vital reason to understand this unstated law is that it helps one assess the quality of defending and attacking much better. If we know that the game is stacked in favour of the defence, a clean sheet can then be seen in a different light. In other words, a clean sheet, in itself, should never be seen as a sign of great defending.
In my opinion, there are two fundamental ways to defend-
1) Control the ball
2) Control the space
The great Barcelona side of recent years did both and exceptionally. They didn’t have particularly great defensive players but by reducing the number of times the ball got to their defensive third and the number of opponents who could get there in a staggering manner, they created a very strong defensive system. This, of course, is the best form of play and, quite naturally, the hardest to execute.
The second way is to control the ball but a little bit inside your own half. A little compromise is made in terms of control of space. Even then, pick and choose the moments to attack carefully and your defence will be fairly safe. Most of the top teams do this. You’ll notice in such performances that the goalkeeper is almost a spectator.
The third way is to let the opposition have more of the ball, if necessary, but to defend with great energy and cohesion around the centre line. A compromise is made on possession but greater counter-attacking threat is available, which can, in turn, deter the opponent from pushing numbers forward.
Then the team could drop deeper, midway through their own half or on the edge of their box. This is the approach most of the smaller teams use.
The worst case scenario is a parked bus with almost all the players in and around one’s own penalty box.
In a given game, any of these methods could be successful. That is why I said a clean sheet, or even a result, should not be used to judge the quality of defending.
Short term success is achievable through various means. A relegation candidate could beat one of the other top sides with a parked bus and a smash-and-grab at the other end. But in the long run they won’t win much that way.
Similarly, teams like Inter Milan could even park the bus all the way to the Champions League trophy. What happens after that? They’re now playing play-offs for the Europa League. Chelsea were in the Europa League soon after their Champions League triumph. These teams cannot build a legacy like Barcelona did or find the kind of consistency we’ve seen from Bayern.
Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to say that every team should try and play like Barcelona or Bayern. That’d be incredibly daft. Each team has different types of players, different circumstances, varying managerial capabilities, and so on. And each has to find its own unique solutions.
The understanding of the ease of defence and related issues discussed above is more for analytical purposes. Various questions need to be answered when we watch a team like Inter Milan win the Champions League or a relegation candidate scalp a title contender in the league. For instance, how repeatable is that performance?
A lot of people get so caught up in the result that many superlative narratives of heroism are built around the result. These are useless. They take focus away from the specifics, which can help us understand the game better as well as hinder any preparation one could make for future games.
The best managers know how to step away from the result and look at the game but very few people who write or talk about the game get this.
The problem is not limited to developing an understanding of any team’s qualities. Narratives develop around individual players too and many myths are created.
Sticking with the Inter Milan example for continuity, do you recall Julio Cesar being hailed as the world’s best goalkeeper and Maicon as the best right back? What happened to them when Mourinho and that solid defensive system went away?
The general narrative shifts to form. “He’s lost form”, they say. That’s total nonsense. The reality is that the guy had very specific skills that shone in a given approach and it led to excellent results. The moment that approach was gone the players lost their magic and became ordinary.
This happens in the case of many defenders and goalkeepers who look good in a tight, deep-lying, defence. But they don’t quite succeed when the organization of the team changes or they transfer to a different club where the requirements are not suited to their qualities. The reverse can also happen. Pique, for instance, is a much better defender in the central third of the pitch than he is in his own box.
Remember the big, strong defender Arsenal desperately needed? Chris Samba was the answer at one time. What happened to him after he moved away from the parked bus of Blackburn Rovers?
The performance of Chelsea’s defenders has been fascinating to watch as their managers and tactics have changed. Did you see how many of them struggled when playing a high line? John Terry became a joke for a while. Now he’s supposedly regained form. Not a coincidence that Mourinho is back at the club.
We must also understand that defence is always the work of the collective. Organization, coordination, communication, tactical intelligence, and practice are the key to building that redundancy so vital to a consistently strong defence.
Unfortunately, the limited nature of stats available and the general idea that defenders and goalkeepers are responsible for defending has led to common acceptance of a fallacy, but it’s crucial that we realize-
Goalkeepers do not keep clean sheets. Back Fours do no keep clean sheets. Only the whole team can keep a clean sheet.
Look at the number of defenders Liverpool has bought in recent years. Has it really made their defence better? In contrast, Arsenal’s defensive improvement over the last couple of years has mostly been related to structural solidity and the work done on the training ground.
Of course, quality of players matters to an extent. But it’s imperative that people don’t get caught up in that alone. In order to break out of that habit we need to start seeing defence for what it is and focus on the specifics.
One example of looking at relevant details is the role of the so-called DM. Most of the top teams have strong defences because they minimize the action in front of their goals. This is done by controlling the ball and for that they need a deep-lying midfielder who is extremely intelligent at recycling possession. A lot of the passes that seem meaningless and frustrating to the casual observer are actually very good tactical choices that keep the defence safe.
In many of the games where Arsenal suffered heavy defeats, one of the primary causes could be traced back to Cazorla, or Chambelain, or Özil, or someone else losing the ball cheaply in midfield just in front of the exposed defence. This happens very rarely when Arteta is in those areas but others also need to take up responsibility for shielding the ball because the midfielders have to rotate and interchange positions at times.
The whole idea that a mythical, superman of a DM would somehow jump in a break play up after a terrible loss of possession is ludicrous. Just look at the big defeats suffered by Spurs last season and the physical qualities of their midfielders. Capoue, Paulinho, Dembele, and Sandro all fit the profile of the kind of player some Arsenal fan’s have been demanding. Indeed, Capoue and Paulinho were both quite in demand as far as certain Gooner circles were concerned. It didn’t work for them at Spurs and there is no reason to believe they’d have done much better at Arsenal. That’s because the problem is not one that can be solved primarily by physical qualities but is more tactical in nature.
The Purpose Of This Reading The Game Series
This is not an article on Arsenal’s defence or defensive midfield issues so I’m going to stop now and let you ponder on the points made above. It is very important that you don’t get caught up in examples but just use them to understand the broader points made for that is the purpose of this article.
For a long time now I’ve been meaning to write a series of articles on various aspects of the game to describe how I see football. It’s not complete, it’s not perfect, but I’m hopeful it’ll help some readers observe more from the same 90 minutes of action that they see.
My hope is to create a thread that connects the philosophy of managers, general principles and tactics in football, and the impact of qualities of individual players, so that we can better understand what we see on the pitch.
In the future I want to write about the importance of off-the-ball movement, the physics and maths of football (space, time, angles), impact of our own limitations, and other such topics. In a way, this series is anti-reductionism. The articles will be long and detailed as this one is (although this is much shorter than it would have been if I’d gone into compiling data and dug up more examples for each point), but the points are fairly straightforward once you see them.
It is crucial that you don’t reflexively respond with dismissive oversimplifications. For example, someone might say, “Yeah, that’s all well and good but in the end it’s all about balance.” Such a sentence would be completely accurate and utterly useless because it doesn’t help us understand the specifics of the game that matter.
Also remember that in football everything is interconnected. Some of the examples above are very selectively presented to illustrate a point. For instance, teams often use more than one way of defending from the classification given above. I did not go into that because this isn’t an article on how a team should or can defend. It can come later once the basic building blocks are in place and beyond dispute.
Please let me know if such a series is of interest to you. Since the readers of the blog have varying levels of knowledge and interests, such articles take up a lot of my time because it’s hard to figure out the level of detail I need to go into. I have to decide whether it’s worth putting in that time to develop this series. All thoughtful comments, critical or encouraging, are most welcome.