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Do Defences Win Leagues?

Sir Alex Ferguson famously said, “attack wins you games, but defence wins you titles”. This worked in the first season of the Premier League as Man United won the league conceding nine fewer than anyone else, but they were outscored by Blackburn Rovers. A more recent case would be Liverpool signing Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker who are given a lot of credit in Liverpool’s Premier League and Champions League winning campaigns but was the Scot right?

Well, between and including the 1992/93 and 2018/19 seasons, the team who conceded the least amount of goals won the league 12 of 28 times, 43%. In contrast, the team that scored the most goals won the league 17 times or 61% of the titles whilst the team with the best goal difference won 19 titles, 68%.

Only six times have a team topped all three categories, these teams are considered some of the best the league have seen as they include Arsenal in 2003/04, Man United in 2007/08 and Man City in 2017/18. Three sides have won the league and not topped any of the categories, most recently Chelsea in 2016/17 but also Leicester the year before.

Although the team with the best defence won the league in the first season, it only happened three more times up to and including 2003/04. It has since happened eight times showing defensive sides are more of a recent trend. However, it obviously helps to be great at both ends of the pitch which is shown in goal difference. This is highlighted in the 2014/15 Premier League campaign; Chelsea won the league with the best defence as they only conceded 32 times but finished with a goal difference of 41. Southampton had the second-best defence as they only conceded one more, 33, yet finished in seventh place as they found scoring difficult which meant they finished on a goal difference of 21.

The authors of “The Number Game” looked at data from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga between 1991-2010. They found the best defence won the title in 46% of the campaigns whilst the best attack won the league 51% of the time. The Bundesliga and Serie A saw the best defence win the league more whilst Premier League and La Liga saw the reverse. Although it is marginal, it is better to have the best attack. However, the book does point out if you are just looking at the output, you don’t know how the teams won points; this led them to investigate.

They analysed Premier League games between 2001/02 and 2010/11 to look at the values of goals scored, and goals conceded. When looking at avoiding defeat rather than winning, the goals clubs didn’t concede were each 33% more valuable than the goals they scored. This means when winning, scoring goals and not conceding goals are of roughly the same value whilst when considering how not to lose, it’s more valuable to not concede.

Although it is very difficult to look at the value each player brings due to the thousands of actions they bring each game, we can look at Liverpool’s goalkeeper. Even if you can’t contribute winning games to Alisson, he is a huge improvement on their previous goalkeepers. Since 2017/18, Alisson has the highest save %, least goals conceded per 90 and most xG saved per 90 of any goalkeeper Liverpool have used. His goals conceded per 90 is under half that of Mignolet’s. As previously mentioned, these goals that haven’t been conceded are worth nearly a third more than goals scored at the other end.

In Liverpool’s case, upgrading goalkeeper and defence has helped them avoid defeats. This transformed Liverpool into title challengers and eventual winners, turning a shaky defence into the league’s best has also given their attackers more freedom to score goals to win games.

Not only can they avoid defeat, but they can now win them. This combination wins titles.


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