Jamie Carragher has made his case about Arsenal looking less like potential champions this year than last – Gary Neville has said he disagrees…so what do the numbers say about if you need a better attack or defence to win the Premier League title?
Neville’s argument is one we’ve heard many times before, that this current Arsenal side might be producing less free-flowing attacking football than last season, but they are better equipped to get over the line in difficult games when they’re not at their best. Neville probably subscribes to the view of his former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who certainly knows a thing or two about winning titles, who said that “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”.
While it wouldn’t be right to say Fergie and Neville don’t know what they’re talking about, and there are more intricacies in the twists and turns of a season-long title race than the final league table might suggest, it seems the numbers don’t back up this claim.
Since the start of the Premier League in 1992/93 season to the last completed campaign in 2022/23:
- The team that scored the most goals won 20 of the 31 titles
- The team that conceded the fewest goals won 15 of the 31 titles
- The team with the best attack but not the best defence won 11 of the 31 titles
- The team with the best defence but not the best attack won 5 of the 31 titles
- In 31 seasons a team has both scored the most and conceded the fewest ten times – only once did this fail to result in winning the title (Tottenham in 2016/17)
Ferguson should really know a thing or two about this, as his Man Utd sides came out on top of teams with better defensive records a few times. On one notable occasion, you may remember his team winning the treble, despite conceding 37 league goals to the 17 let in by runners-up Arsenal, with the 21 extra goals from his side clearly making the difference over the course of the campaign.
Later, in 2006/07, United finally overcame Jose Mourinho’s rock-solid Chelsea side by putting together a world class attack containing Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, rather than doing a great deal to his defence. When Manchester City snatched the title from them in dramatic fashion in 2011/12, Fergie’s response was to sign Robin van Persie, and he was pivotal in firing the Red Devils back to first place the following year, even though City still ended with the better goals-against record.
Is this perhaps a problem, then, with the way that Arsenal are perceived? So often stereotyped as playing attractive attack-minded football but lacking discipline and making silly mistakes, perhaps this is why many have been led to believe that the Gunners need to tighten up if they are to bring silverware back to the Emirates Stadium again.
Still, Arsene Wenger won two doubles without his side having the best attack or defence, though they were in 1st place for both in the 2003/04 Invincibles season – their last title. As noted above, however, it was their lack of goals that saw them finish behind United’s treble winners, rather than conceding too many. This trend definitely changed later, however, as they had the best goals-scored record for each of the 2002/03, 2003/04 and 2004/05 seasons, but won the league only once in that time, and in a season when both their goals scored and goals against columns had lower numbers.
It’s often forgotten that the Arsenal Invincibles did play a slightly more cautious brand of football than the team that surrendered a five-point lead at the top of the table the year before. While of course there were plenty of magical moments from the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp (how could there not be?), there were also a lot of hard-fought one-goal-margin victories along the way.
It’s perhaps not surprising that this is the route Arteta appears to have chosen to go down, but it’s highly debatable if it’s reflective of the reality of what we’ve seen throughout the history of the Premier League.