Fight for survival should start with a solid defence
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Huddersfield had it right. Defence is more important than attack if you want to stay in the Premier League. The promoted Terriers kept clean sheets in four of their first six games. In the others they conceded once and twice.
After half-a-dozen games manager David Wagner said: “I am very pleased with the defensive work of all the players, and I think we deserved four clean sheets in six games. This is something that is very, very important for us.”
On Saturday in their seventh game Huddersfield conceded four goals, but they were playing Tottenham who have some of the best attackers in the Premier League.
Huddersfield’s priority now will be the same as it was at the start of the season – to stay in the Premier League.
Many people say that for a team striving to avoid relegation a good attack and a bad defence is better than a bad attack and a good defence. If you can score, they say, you will always have a chance of winning.
Historically, though, the opposite has been true: a good defence has been more helpful in evading relegation than a good attack. When you do not concede you cannot lose.
I took Premier League tables from the last 22 seasons, 1995-96 to 2016-17. In all of those seasons there were 20 teams in the Premier League. For each season I ranked teams from one to 20 on attack and defence. The team that scored most goals I ranked first for attack, and so on. The team that conceded fewest goals I ranked first for defence, and so on.
Every season the teams who finish 18th, 19th and 20th in the Premier League are relegated. On average relegated teams ranked 17th for attack and 18th for defence. They were better with the ball than without. It was the goals they conceded when they did not have the ball that sent them down. Overall the differences were small, but big enough to have an impact.
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There is a reason why defence counts more than attack for teams who finish in the bottom half of a table. I will illustrate it with what will sound at first like a paradox. Relegated teams ranked worse for defence than attack. So did Premier League winners. On average champions ranked 2.5 for defence and 1.5 for attack.
So how come having a higher-ranking attack than defence is helpful near the top of a table but a hindrance near the bottom? It is because having, relatively speaking, a good attack and a bad defence means your games will be high-scoring. And high-scoring games are good if you are better than your opponents but not if you are worse.
Imagine a game in which one team are stronger than the other and have a 75 per cent chance of scoring any goal that is scored. If there is one goal in the match there is a 75 per cent chance they will score it and win. If there are three goals in the match the chance that they will score most of them and win is 84 per cent. And if there are five goals the chance they will win is 90 per cent.
For the weaker team the chance of winning drops from 25 per cent if there is one goal to 16 per cent if there are three goals and ten per cent if there are five goals.
For teams who are stronger than their opponents - those with a greater than 50 per cent chance of scoring each goal that is scored - the prospect of victory improves with the number of goals.
For teams who are weaker than their opponents things are the other way round. For all of them the chance of winning goes down as the number of goals goes up.
The graph illustrates only games with an odd number of goals, which cannot be drawn. Overall, though, the same principle holds: the weaker team are more likely do well in a low-scoring game and the stronger team are more likely to do well in a high-scoring game.
Huddersfield’s player budget is probably the lowest in the Premier League. They should be weaker than other teams in the Premier League. Their remaining games may not be so low-scoring. But it is in low-scoring games that they have the best hope of staying in the Premier League.
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