The Premier League teams most likely to collapse like Brazil

Brazil’s crushing defeat to Germany in this summer’s World Cup will probably go down in history as the most famous instance of “floodgates opening” in world football. But the Brazilians are far from the only side who have fallen apart during a game of football. Last season in the Premier League, five teams conceded more than five goals in a single game, including title chasing Arsenal – twice. One team – relegated Norwich City – even conceded seven.

Beyond looking at the number of goals they concede, or the number of clean sheets a side can keep, looking at what happens when they do concede a goal is another way of gaining an insight into how defensively, tactically and mentally sound a team is. If on average, there tends to be around 2.5 goals scored per game in a Premier League (last season this figure was around 2.8), it is vital for a club that concedes a goal to stay in the game, and if possible hit back on the scoresheet as soon as possible. Lose discipline, or be overwhelmed by the opposition, and a game can be lost quickly.

So what does the data from last season tell us about the fallibility of Premier League teams? Let’s take a look at the number of times teams conceded three or more goals (frankly, seven is truly exceptional) to find out more.

First, even the best can have an off day. Even Chelsea, who boasted the best defensive record in the league, conceding the fewest goals and keeping the most clean sheets, leaked three goals on two occasions. Manchester City did so on four separate occasions, Arsenal and Liverpool six times each. This likely reflects the competitive nature of the Premier League – Arsenal’s heavy defeats may have came in games against their title rivals, but Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City conceded big goals against the likes of Aston Villa, Cardiff City and Stoke City.

Second, some Premier League teams are just bad at defending. Seven teams (Norwich City, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, West Ham United, Newcastle United, Cardiff City and Fulham) conceded three or more goals in at least a quarter of their games, meaning that fans would likely see their teams thumped one in every four games they watched. For fans of Cardiff City and Fulham, those odds were more like one in three, and one in two respectively.

Each of these teams face their own specific challenges, but this general trend likely reflects the high quality of attacking talent in the Premier League, and the quality differential that exists between the top teams in the division, and the rest.

Third, some Premier League teams boast good defensive records, but when it goes wrong, it tends to go very wrong. Arsenal, West Ham United, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur were all in the top ten of teams in terms of clean sheets kept last season. Yet, each were also in the top ten of teams most likely to concede three goals should their defence be breached.

West Ham were the worst offenders here, with a record of 14 clean sheets and ten instances where they conceded 3 or more goals – meaning that in 42% of cases if the Hammers failed to keep a clean sheet, they conceded 3 goals. Title challengers Arsenal are also worth of note. The Gunners may have kept 17 clean sheets last season, but in just under a third of their other 21 games, they conceded three or more goals – far from what you would expect of a team with aspirations of winning the league.

Demonstrating a capacity to be both extremely solid at the back, and yet fragile should things start to go wrong, each of these teams has failed to demonstrate sufficient tactical flexibility and mental strength to cope with their gameplan failing, and the opposition taking a lead, ultimately hampering their chances of success in the season as a whole.

Conclusions

The kind of collapse experienced by Brazil is truly rare in the elite of global and national football. But that doesn’t mean teams within the Premier League don’t experience heavy defeats and defensive calamities – they do, and for many, alarmingly frequently.

A closer look at the data from the last full season of Premier League season shows that an inability to effectively manage games, even when the tide of fortune is going against them, has hampered teams challenging in all parts of the league table. This has been particularly true of Arsenal, Tottenham and Southampton in the top eight of the division, and teams like West Ham and Newcastle in mid-table.

If any of these clubs have aspirations of improving their performance this season, that will have to change.

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