Football is not a one-dimensional game. A team that scores goals will not win any games if they cannot prevent their opponents from scoring more. Likewise, a team could produce a clean sheet in every game of the season, but if they cannot score, they will not win. There are two sides to every successful football team, and the best clubs are the ones that utilise both sides. Football is a game of balance.
In a world based purely on logic, teams would value not conceding goals as much as they would value producing goals, but that is not the case in the real world. There are teams that defend through possession (most notably Barcelona), and there are teams on the opposite spectrum of that—teams that seem to be completely comfortable defending until they have an opportunity to mount a quick and efficient counterattack. Borussia Dortmund would be an example of a team that fits into that mold.
But perhaps the most obvious difference between the real world and the logical world is the value of players.
During the most recent transfer window, Premier League teams made 59 transfers that had disclosed fees. There were, of course, several undisclosed transfer fees, but for now, these are the numbers that are available to the public, and this is how they break down:
- 18 midfielders purchased for an average of £12 million per player (total amount spent on midfielders: £215 million)
- 17 attacking players purchased for an average of £9.3 million per player (total amount spent on attackers: £167 million)
- 17 defenders purchased for an average of £4.3 million per player (total amount spent on defenders: (£73.6 million)
- 3 goalkeepers purchased for an average of £4.4 million per player (total amount spent on goalies: £13.2 million)
The massive discrepancy between the value of attackers and the value defenders and goalkeepers is not only disproportionate to what one would expect to see in the logical world, but it’s also disproportionate to what one should see in the real world.
Based on studies used by David Sally and Chris Anderson in their book, The Numbers Game, being the league’s top scoring team will win a club more championships than being the leagues top defending team, however, teams with the best defenses consistently finish slightly higher than teams with the best offences.
That’s not as confusing as it sounds. It’s basically saying is that scoring the most goals in the league will win more championships than conceding the least amount of goals will, but when it comes to consistency throughout the table, defense provides more stability than offence. There are a variety of theories as to why this could be, but the theories aren’t relevant to this article. What is important, however, are the following three things:
- Conceding ten fewer goals than another club throughout the course of a season results in an average difference of about +3 points, but scoring ten more goals than another club throughout the season will result in an average difference of just +2 points.
- Premier League teams that ranked in the top-five for goals scored in a season during the past 10 seasons have an average finishing spot of 3.7 on the table, while teams ranked in the top-five for fewest goals conceded during that time period have an average finishing spot of 3.4. In fact, teams in the top-five for goals scored have finished 10th or lower three separate times, even placing as low as 16th. The lowest a top-five defense has finished is eighth (Fulham, 2010-11).
- Since the 2003-2004 season, 68 teams have conceded fewer than 45 goals. Of those teams, 50 (73.5%) have secured a top-five finish, and none have been relegated. In that same timetable, 81 teams have scored over 50 goals, and of those teams, 57 (70.4%) have secured a top-five finish. One team (Blackpool, 2010-11) has been relegated.
While conceding fewer goals isn’t drastically more important than scoring goals, it is slightly more valuable in terms of attaining points, which is what ultimately determines a team’s success. This is actually good news for teams, though, because improving a team’s defense is easier tactically – and economically – than improving a team’s offense. The problem is some teams don’t seem to realise this.
Take Swansea City, for instance. Swans had a top-ten finish last year, a massive feat for a club of their stature. However, during the recent transfer window, the club spent nearly £18 million, but just £2.5 million of that was used on defenders. In other words, 86.2% of Swansea’s transfer budget was spent on midfielders and/or attackers. In fact, the only defender they bought was Jordi Amat, a 21-year-old center back. And with good defenders going to the Premier League for transfer fees between £5-7 million, perhaps some of the £12 million spent on striker, Wilfried Bony, should have been invested in a defender.
After all, Swansea was very close to both of the “magic numbers” in the third bullet above: Allowing fewer than 45 and scoring more than 50 goals. Last season Swansea scored 47 goals and allowed 51, so the club scored four goals too few and allowed seven goals too many, but as it’s been stated, not conceding goals is easier, both tactically and economically, than scoring goals is.
Plus, Swansea’s outside backs, Angel Rangel and Ben Davies, were well below average on a number of statistics. Davies may improve given his age, but Swansea had a wonderful opportunity this season to replace the aging Rangel and allow Davies time to grow, but the club opted to spend a large part of their transfer budget on one striker.
Another team to get it wrong was Tottenham. The club had a payday that they may well never encounter again with Gareth Bale being sold to Real Madrid, and Spurs had a chance to solidify their porous defence from a year ago, but only £8 million of their £103 million transfer budget was used on defenders (about 7.8%). Spurs not only could have missed their chance to overtake teams like Arsenal and Chelsea, but also may have fallen behind a team like Liverpool, whose final place on the table last year wasn’t an accurate representation of how good the team was by the end of the season. As is evident from watching Tottenham they require some experience at left back as Danny Rose is a weak option for them.
In fact, Liverpool’s goal differential was 5th best in the Premier League, and in my last article I mentioned that the recipe to getting into the Champions League was scoring 71 league goals while conceding just 37 (which was almost exactly what Arsenal did last year, as the Gunners scored 72 and gave up exactly 37). Liverpool just barely missed that mark, scoring the 71 goals, but coming up just short in the goals allowed department by allowing 43 goals—six too many.
Liverpool seems determined to change their fate this season, though, having quite possibly the most efficient transfer window of any team in Britain—or in Europe, for that matter.
Liverpool distributed funds throughout all parts of the field, spending roughly £6 million on attackers, £6 million on midfielders, £7.5 million on goalkeeping, and a whopping £21 million on defending. Over 50% of the transfer budget was spent on defending, but frankly, that is exactly what the club needed. Liverpool improved in all the right areas, and it wouldn’t be a bit surprising if Liverpool find themselves, at worst contending for a top-four finish, and at best, contending for a league title as the season winds down.
Like always, there were several winners and losers during the latest instalment of the transfer window, but it needs to be said that spending a lot of money doesn’t necessarily make a team a “transfer market winner.” Teams like Manchester City and Tottenham spent more than Liverpool, but Liverpool’s efficiency this transfer period was second to none. There’s a lot of football left, but after the improvements they have made, I truly believe the Reds are primed for a Champions League finish this season.