Mythbuster: Does a good attack or a good defence win the Premier League?

There are champions of both of these methods, but does perfection at the top or bottom of the pitch matter the most...

9:00am on Wednesday 11th November 2020
Martin Macdonald

When it comes to the pursuit of the Premier League title, there are usually two schools of thought and whereas some will espouse the belief that a cast-iron defence will lead you to the championship, others proclaim that attacking prowess will eventually take you to the promised land.

Which means, these opposing factions provide fertile ground for another footballing myth to be potentially debunked and by looking at the 28 completed Premier League seasons, we are going to see just which is the preferred method of success.


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Looking at matters from a more attacking point of view, the benchmark for a championship winning side was set back in the 2017/18 season, as Pep Guardiola’s men not only became centurions in terms of points but also surpassed that figure when related to goals scored.

One-hundred and six efforts would eventually breach the opposition defence and at 2.78 goals per game, the Etihad outfit were head and shoulders above their Premier League contemporaries. While in addition to that, they also possessed the meanest defence.

For all their attacking virtues, their defensive generosity would only allow for 27 goals conceded and this means that for every single goal they shipped, they would go on to score an average of 3.97 at the sharper end of the pitch.

Therefore, if we take Manchester City of 2017/18 as the model of perfection in both attack and defence, we can now look at how many championship winning teams did the “double” in terms of this method of analysis (including joint high tallies).

A roll call that included just five other championship winning teams and the short list is as follows:

Premier League champions with the best attack and defence double

SeasonPositionGFGAGoal Difference
00/011Man Utd7931+48)
07/08)1)Man Utd)80)22)+58)
11/12)1)Man City)93)29)+64)
17/18)1)Man City)106)27)+79)

Which means, if we know which teams were the absolute masters in terms of defence and attack, we now need to discover just how many champions were either the highest scorers or possessed the meanest defence:

In terms of scoring the most goals – 17 champions (including joint high tallies) have also led the overall goals scored chart at the end of each season and this equates to 60.71%

In nine of the 13 seasons that Manchester United won the Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson, they also scored the most goals. Which means of all the highest scoring champions, they make up 52.94% of the data sample.

While their crosstown rivals Manchester City, have always used goals as a badge of honour and for each occasion that they’ve won the Premier League, they’ve also scored the most amount of goals.

In terms of conceding the least goals – 12 champions (including joint high tallies) have also led the overall least goals conceded chart at the end of each season and this equates to 42.86%


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In five of the 13 occasions where Manchester United won the Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson, they also conceded the least goals that season and it was also this method, that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool utilised on their way to championship success just a few months ago.

While if we look at those teams in the table above that have mastered both, this equates to 21.42% (6 out of 28)

This indicates, that at a most rudimentary glance, the art of scoring goals rather than keeping them out, is the key to leading you to a Premier League title. However, there is perhaps scope to dig a little deeper in all of this.

Because results ultimately need some frame of context and if you are winning a game by three goals to one, it might end up being better than snatching a late victory by a solitary goal and this means, we should also factor in goal difference to this analysis piece.

If we were to add a further question to this and ask: Does the team with the best goal difference win the Premier League, it turns out that on 19 previous occasions (67.86%) this has been proven to be the case.

Of the 19 individual champions that met this criteria, it seems as if Sir Alex Ferguson bought into this notion the most, as 10 of the Red Devils’ Premier League championship wins saw them record the league’s best goal difference that season.

While this has also been the blueprint as far as Manchester City are concerned, as all their four Premier League titles have also seen the club accrue the best goal difference in their quartet of championship winning seasons.

Therefore, if a team can combine the powers of both attacking and defending, it then stands to reason that they will further increase their chances of being crowned the kings of English football’s top tier.

What is also interesting is the patterns in which champions win by either scoring or keeping out goals and in the five seasons between 2009/10 and 2013/14, those who finished on top spot also scored the most.

While in terms of the meanest defences also being crowned champions, there was a four-season streak between 2002/03 and 2005/06 which saw shutouts converted into Premier League winning medals.

Then again, it must also be noted that two of those clubs (the invincible Arsenal of 2003/04 and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea v1.0 of 2005/06) also scored the most goals, so it was not necessarily a case of just being stingy in defence.

However, it is interesting that this was the period of the competition, when formations such as 4-5-1 and the squeezing of the midfield were in vogue and therefore, greater rewards for great defences can be of no great surprise.


If we were to go back to the original question and ask whether most goals scored or least goals conceded go on to win the Premier League title, it certainly seems to favour the former. However, if you can perfect both elements of the game, your hopes of success will only increase further.

Which means if we were to try and debunk the myth: Scoring the most will win you the Premier League title, there is more truth than false in that.

Then again, on the flipside, having a mean defence does not necessarily equate to championship gold at the end of each arduous eight-month campaign.

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