Attack to Survive – Struggling sides lack firepower

Listen to Episode 5 (published 29th November) of The Hit Row Z Podcast – now on iTunes – subscribe and share!

Find out more about the Hit Row Z ‘Shots in the Box’ Metric, and what it means for team performance.

Also, join the debate on who will be relegated from the Premier League this season.

It might seem counterintuitive, but for a handful of sides with the worst defensive records in the Barclays Premier League, a failure to shut teams out should not be their biggest concern. Instead, Hit Row Z’s ‘Shots in the Box’ analysis highlights that for Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Stoke, a lack of attacking penetration may be a more important factor keeping them tethered to the bottom of the table.

Defending the indefensible?

What do the numbers tell us? Having conceded 22, 24 and 18 goals respectively, bottom side Palace, second bottom Sunderland, and 16th placed Stoke have some of the worst defensive records in the division. All three sides boast relatively new managers, and each are under big pressure to ensure that this is not the year that they drop out of the Premier League.

So with these factors in mind, and with the busy Christmas period and crucial January transfer window ahead, you might expect Pulis, Poyet and Hughes to be working extensively on tightening their sides up, and planning defensive reinforcements in the New Year.


But Hit Row Z’s new ‘Shots in the Box’ analysis shows that their focus may be better placed elsewhere. Unlike a number of their relegation rivals, Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Stoke’s defensive performances are actually about average when compared to other sides in the Premier League.

In total so far this season, each side has conceded between 90 and 100 shots in their defensive penalty area – around the same number as mid-table sides Aston Villa (93), Hull (94), West Ham (98), and Swansea (99), and even top four chasers Liverpool (91). Assuming each of these sides’ performances remain relatively consistent over the remainder of the season, all of these clubs could reasonably expect to concede a similar number of goals in total.

That’s because ‘Shots in the Box’ tells you more than other metrics about how resilient a defence is to the creation of ‘good quality chances’. If you can limit the number of times an opposing team creates a chance in your box, their chances of scoring diminish greatly.

So even if in the short term the three sides have experienced elements of bad luck or extreme quality that have slightly inflated the number of goals they have conceded (for example, Hatem Ben Arfa’s scuffed shot in the Wear-Tyne derby, or Kasami’s wonder strike for Fulham against Palace), then their ability to stop opposition sides creating a higher than average number of quality chances should eventually reap rewards.

Attack to Survive

What does this tell us about what each of these three sides needs to do to have the best chance of surviving this season?

So far, each of these relegation threatened sides have actually kept the number of shots in their penalty box down to a reasonable number, relative to other clubs in the division. Maintaining this element of their performance will be vital, as Chris Andersen and David Sally’s analysis in the Numbers Game highlighted, sound defending is vital to regular point scoring.

However, it is in the attacking third of the pitch where these sides are most lacking.

Only Fulham have had fewer shots in the opposing penalty box than Crystal Palace and Sunderland, while Stoke are also performing well below the league average. This means they have amongst some of the lowest ‘good quality chance’ creation in the Premier League.

This is reflected in the number of goals each side has mustered, with the bottom two clubs trailing the rest of the league badly, and Stoke not managing many more.

The challenge is clear then. Each of these three sides must work towards maintaining their defensive set up, while significantly improving their attacking play. More than any other individual aspect of their play, Premier League survival ultimately depends on improving the number of goals they can score.

For Pulis, this is likely to mean a sharp change of style to prioritise delivering the ball directly into dangerous goal scoring positions as he did at Stoke. It will also likely mean bringing in reinforcements, as his current suite of attackers and creative midfielders at Selhurst Park is unlikely to inspire confidence.

Poyet, who is blessed with far more attacking options than the Eagles’ boss, must discover how to get the best out of Adam Johnson, Sebastian Larsson, Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher – all of whom are capable of inflicting significant damage on opposing sides, but who have underachieved so far this season.

And Hughes, who is undertaking a major transition of style and form at Stoke, must seek to accelerate the process of change and sharpen Stoke’s goal threat. In shifting from the more direct style of old, Stoke have, in the short term at least, become a less dangerous attacking force. Finding the right players to fit in to their new system will be vital to their chances of survival.

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