Saturday, June 19, 2021
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Have Premier League defensive standards slipped?

John Terry & David Luiz (courtesy of the times)Arsène Wenger’s said some funny shit over the last 18 years. In 2002, Alex Ferguson said his Man United side was better than Arsène’s title-winning team. Ferguson then claimed he’d sent Wenger an apology for saying it. When asked if he’d received the apology, Wenger said:

No. Perhaps he sent it by horse.”

Speaking recently about Arsenal’s new Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista, Wenger said something more curious than funny:

He likes to defend. It’s more and more difficult to find people like that.”

If that’s true, it means fewer young kids want to be defenders now. That wouldn’t be surprising, given the cringe-worthy worship of forwards we get from the mainstream football media. (Can you imagine a Mascherano vs. Pepe debate generating the same number of column inches as Messi vs. Ronaldo?) But if it’s true, shouldn’t defensive standards in the Premier League be falling?


Premier League defending since 1995 – is it worse now?

Here’s a season-by-season summary of total goals scored, average goals per game and the number of teams that finished the year having scored at least as many as they’d conceded.


Season – Total goals scored – Goals per game – Teams with + goal difference

95/96 – 988 – 2.6 – 9
96/97 – 970 – 2.55 – 7
97/98 – 962 – 2.53 – 10
98/99 – 959 – 2.52 – 6
99/00 – 1060 – 2.78 – 11
00/01 – 992 – 2.61 – 9
01/02 – 1001 – 2.63 – 7
02/03 – 1000 – 2.63 – 8
03/04 – 1012 – 2.66 – 9
04/05 – 975 – 2.56 – 8
05/06 – 944 – 2.48 – 8
06/07 – 931 – 2.45 – 9
07/08 – 1002 – 2.63 – 9
08/09 – 942 – 2.47 – 9
09/10 – 1053 – 2.77 – 8
10/11 – 1063 – 2.79 – 8
11/12 – 1066 – 2.8 – 8
12/13 – 1063 – 2.79 – 7
13/14 – 1052 – 2.76 – 9


These numbers don’t support the argument that teams are significantly worse at defending – or better at attacking – than they have been at any other time in Premier League history. There are more goals per game now but the increase is negligible.


The number of teams ending the season with a positive goal difference has remained consistent. We’ve had roughly 115 more goals per season since 2008/09. Not that much of a rise. And even then, it’s only because 2008/09 was an especially low-scoring year.


The difference between Terry and Luiz

I think Wenger was referring to the difference between a defender like John Terry and one like David Luiz, and saying that Gabriel is more like the former than the latter.


John Terry loves to protect his goal. It drives every decision he makes on the pitch. He knows that he is, above all else, responsible for stopping the ball entering his net. When there’s no immediate danger to his goal, he plays simple passes forward to players who are responsible for creating goal-scoring opportunities for his team. He’s happy to be applauded for defending well and to let others win plaudits for trickery and showmanship.


David Luiz is not like John Terry. David Luiz’s inner motor is not set to ‘protect’. It’s set to ‘impress’. Everything David Luiz does on a football pitch is designed to make him look like a star. And in David Luiz’s head, stars are flamboyant, they do tricks and they attack. He isn’t satisfied with doing defensive work and doing it well.


He wants to dribble, to step-over, to score. Keeping a clean sheet is not the itch that David Luiz can’t scratch. Ergo, he makes decisions – bad ones – that John Terry would never make.


Defenders aren’t worse, attackers are just over-hyped

So Gabriel Paulista is a defender who likes to defend. Good for him. But I don’t buy the argument that such players are fewer and further between now than they once were. World class defenders are just as rare now as they’ve ever been – as they ever will be. There are as many truly great defenders in any generation as there are truly great attackers.


The difference is that good defenders are not placed on the ‘great’ pedestal in the same way that just-decent attacking players are. So we’re tricked into thinking that there’s a glut of phenomenal forward playing talent on display now and a dearth of proper defenders. This just isn’t true.



Most Premier League footballers are good. Some are very good. A few – a small number indeed – are great. The fact that we over-hype the ability of some truly mediocre attacking talent does not mean our defenders can’t do their jobs anymore.

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