Sauharda Karki analyzes the numbers surrounding the growing trend of counter-attacking goals in the Premier League and discusses some of the possible implications.
With several teams in Europe’s top leagues incorporating counter attacking systems into their game-plans, we’ve seen an increasing amount of exciting counter-attacks and resulting goals in the past few years. This period has also seen many Premier League sides put additional focus on playing on the break.
One could probably tell what’s happening without even looking at the numbers, just by following the league over the past few years. Let’s take a look at a graph depicting the average percentage of goals scored by Premier League teams on the counter over the last five seasons.
The increasing trend is pretty clear, with the values for the two most recent seasons crossing even the five-season average for the top 4 European leagues (6.2%).
What about the other leagues?
Let’s look at what has been happening in a few other top tier leagues across Europe in the last five seasons. For this, we’ll follow the UEFA country coefficients and add La Liga, Serie A and the German Bundesliga to make up our top four leagues.
The Bundesliga has been a hub for some exciting end-to-end football and blistering counter-attacks in recent years, and the numbers indicate just that. However, there is no incremental trend, rather we see the average settling to a more consistent and acceptable value.
There is a slight increasing counter-attacking trend in Serie A. However, the averages are still below the European average for the last five seasons. This seems plausible considering the tactical nature of the league and continued focus of teams/managers on scoring from buildup play.
The averages for La Liga do not show any specific trend and, except for the 2015/16 season, all season averages are well below the European average. (For those wondering, the 2015/16 season averages were pulled up by two teams, Real Madrid – with Benitez and the mid-season arrival of Zidane, and Deportivo with a rather weird season with Victor Sanchez as they were held to an astonishing 18 draws).
When did the Premier League trend begin?
Most people could probably guess when this incremental trend in counter-attacking goals started.
Looking back at the average proportion of goals on the counter over the last 10 premier league seasons, the answer is quite evident. The trend seems to have started following the 2015/16 season, the year Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester were champions. The season also saw the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and Josep Guardiola from the Bundesliga.
Before this, the averages show no specific trend and do not exceed the current 5-season average across the top 4 European leagues.
Why is there an increasing trend?
Apart from various managerial influences, the most likely explanation would be a probable relation between tactical styles favouring counters and league success. The proportion of goals scored on the counter would not be the sole determinant of league performance. However, it may have quite a significant contribution towards league success.
If we look back at the league Champions/leaders in the past five seasons, we can see that a majority of them implemented game plans geared towards success in high tempo play and on the break.
The exception, of course, is Guardiola’s Manchester City, who were champions twice in this period, and had a style focused on patient build-up play, resulting in an astonishing proportion of such goals rather than on the counter. Similar averages were seen this season with regard to the proportion of counter-attacking goals scored by Manchester City.
If we look at the Premier League teams with a positive goal difference this season, we can see that the only team whose position is greatly under-predicted is Guardiola’s side.
Arsenal and Manchester City also seem to be the only teams with a positive goal difference with a percentage of goals scored on the counter below the 5-season European Top 4 leagues average (6.2%). Considering the apparent similarities in tactical styles, we may see Arsenal move towards similar numbers under Mikel Arteta. There have also been noticeable similarities in the emphasis of tactical fouling between the two sides as discussed further below.
Red and Blue: The contrast at the top
The current top two teams in the league table show an interesting contrast in styles. Although the number of goals scored is very similar for Liverpool (66) and Manchester City (68), the source of the goals for the two teams are quite different.
Guardiola’s City have continued to rely on systematic build-up play for most of their goals while Liverpool have scored quite a few on the break.
Implications of the trend
Defensive focus on preventing goals on the break: Setting up teams to be more wary of conceding on the break and deploying active measures to kill off counter-attacking moves could prove fruitful for teams. We’ve already seen several examples of this in the current season, with teams like Spurs, Wolves and Leicester yet to concede a goal on the break.
Tactical fouling: With an increasied emphasis on reducing goals conceded on the counter, the league may see an increasing number of tactical fouls. Paired with the sinking level of refereeing in the league, this combination may be an annoyance for managers, players and fans.
To nobody’s surprise, most analysis points toward Manchester City and Arsenal as the major culprits. This may perhaps have been emphasized to compensate for the contrasting styles of play in comparison to the rest of the league.
- Finnis, A.(2019/10/10). Are referees clamping down on Manchester City’s ‘tactical fouling’? A statistical analysis. I-News.
- Pitt-Brooke, J. (2020/02/18). Man City and Arsenal the worst offenders but Liverpool buck trend of Tactical fouls. The Athletic.
- DCunha, C. (2020/02/18). Manchester City, Arsenal Lead Premier League in Tactical Fouls Despite Guardiola’s Claims. Republic World
Making the most of set-pieces: As a significant number of teams in the league develop styles of play with a similar focus, defending and scoring from set-pieces can become increasingly impactful. The possible increase in tactical fouling and chances when on the break could provide for more opportunities (corners and free-kicks) to score off of, and also concede from.
A focus on set pieces could be pivotal, especially for teams chasing the top spots in the league, where even marginal gains could make a difference. This is one aspect Klopp’s Liverpool team seems to have focused on in the last 2 seasons.
Doyle, I. (2019/08/28) The unexpected truth about Liverpool’s set-piece record and why it matters in Man City title battle. Liverpool Echo.
With the Premier League season set to resume soon, it will be interesting to see what further impact this increasing trend of counter-attacking goals makes on the league. How long will it continue to rise? Could it possibly reach levels similar to the explosive style of the Bundesliga, or will it stagnate/descend like the previous era? It will most certainly be an interesting trend to follow through the next couple of years.
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