Defending a lost art in England? Comparing GPG in Premier League with European domestic leagues

Yesterday Michael Cox's article in the Guardian described the tactics of top Premier League clubs this season as "anarchic." He suggested that when England's top 5 sides have competed against one another this season, none have employed defensive, reactive tactics even after taking leads in these games. Rather, they have opted to push numbers forward freely, creating remarkably open games with defenses left vulnerable at the back. As a result, these games have been high scoring, often with the team that scores first failing to take control and kill off the game despite having a lead.

Cox contrasts these run-and-gun tactics of the top Premier League teams with those of Spain, Italy, and Germany. He suggests that in Spain there is a well-established hierarchy and teams desperately try to avoid open games against Barcelona and Real Madrid. As a result, opponents of the two Spanish giants are forced to react to the technical superiority of their opponents, play more defensively and keep the space Barca and Madrid are allowed to play in compact. In Italy, the tempo of games is much slower with teams patiently trying to break one another down. In Germany, games between top sides are cautious, tactical, and involve a lot of counterattacking.

The more cautious, tactically-minded approach of top Spanish, Italian, and German sides would seem to indicate that games played between the best teams in each of La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga would produce on average fewer total goals than games played between the Premier League's top teams where games are very open. For the sake of this posting, we have arbitrarily defined "top teams" as those that currently sit in first through fifth place in their respective domestic league. Indeed, the top left graph above shows that games between the top 5 English clubs have produced an astonishing average of 4.86 goals per game. Games between the top 5 Spanish clubs have produced an average of 3.92 goals per game; games between the top 5 Italian clubs have produced an average of 2.33 goals per game; and games between the top 5 German clubs have produced just 1.93 goals per game. The data suggest the less tactics-conscious approach of top EPL teams results in more goals in matches contested between those teams.

The graphs above also provide statistics for the average number of goals conceded by the winning team per game and average goals scored by the winning team per game in matches between top 5 clubs in the four domestic leagues we've looked at. These statistics give us an idea of how cautious and defensive each league's approach to games are. In leagues that are more cautious and defensive, we'd expect the winning team to both score fewer goals and concede fewer goals to their opponent since teams in these leagues will be hesitant to push men forward and leave themselves exposed at the back. Games that ended in draws were not included in these statistics.

Incredibly, in the 11 games played between top 5 Bundesliga teams that have produced a winner (3 ended in ties), the winning team has conceded only once for an average of 0.09 goals conceded by the winning team. However, the winning team has scored only 1.82 goals per game. This is in stark contrast to the Premier League where the winning team concedes on average 1.25 goals per game and scores 3.75 goals on average. In Italy the winning team concedes only 0.43 goals per game on average and scores 2 goals on average. In Spain the winning team concedes 0.78 goals per game and scores 3.33. The data suggest games between top German sides are the most tactically defensive and those between top English sides are the least tactically cautious.

Cox ends his article pointing to evidence that English teams' refusal be submissive and focus on defending has contributed to their poor form in the Champions League. Manchester City and Manchester United failed to advance to the knockout stages. Arsenal trail AC Milan 4-0 after the first leg of the round of 16 and stand virtually no chance of advancing. Chelsea trail Napoli 3-1 going into the second leg and also face an uphill battle to advance. Cox notes:
When the Premier League enjoyed its best run in Europe, between 2004-2005 and 2008-2009, the goals per game average in the Premier League was down at around 2.5. In the previous five seasons, when England had no European Cup finalists, it was over 2.65. Since 2005, it has risen to 2.8.