Where do Premier League sides attack from?
In an individual match, it’s easy to see that a side have a bias towards one particular flank. In Monday’s 2-1 win over Newcastle, Arsenal constantly attacked down the right, with Theo Walcott staying wide on that flank, and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain moving inside from the left.
That was surprising when you looked at the opposition, because Newcastle were likely to be more secure down their left (where Jonas Gutierrez protects his full-back well) than down the right, where the ill-disciplined Hatem Ben Arfa was reluctantly fielded.
But the bias towards the right, while exaggerated in that game, is actually typical of Arsenal this season, and in the last couple of years. This season, they play 37% down the right, 30% down the left, and 33% through the middle of the pitch. Both their goals on Monday came after right-wing crosses, and Alan Pardew – a coach who likes statistics and analysing the opposition before matches – would have been aware of that threat. Stopping the danger, of course, is a different matter.
With that in mind, a look at the route of attack for each Premier League team over the course of the season, with stats from WhoScored, is interesting. If balance is more important than symmetry, sides have plenty of freedom to attack down one flank much more than the other, and there are plenty of variations between teams.
Here’s a graph showing the percentage of attacking play down the left, through the middle and down the right for each Premier League club:
Clearly, the graph is difficult to read with so many lines close to each other, and the obvious conclusion is that a lot of sides attack in the same way – when they get the ball in the centre, they spread the play to the flanks and drive forward from there.
However, there are some obvious exceptions to this pattern, and some sides stand out. Here are six sides whose approach is of interest, highlighted in different colours:
Orange: Wolves, who attack more down the left than any team.
Grey: Stoke, who attack down the right more than any team.
Black: Fulham, the only side to attack more down the middle than down either flank.
Blue: Everton, who attack down the centre the least of any team.
Pink: Arsenal, rising steadily to the right
Green: Blackburn, rising steadily to the left
To show these six sides more clearly, here they are without the other 14 sides, with the red dotted line denoting the average of all twenty sides:
All of these examples have their reasons. Wolves play through left-winger Matt Jarvis (despite a disappointing season compared to 2010/11), so they usually play down that flank. They don’t really have a permanent right-winger – no single player has started there more than six times this season.
Stoke’s right-sided is slightly more surprising, because Matthew Etherington has enjoyed a better campaign than Jermaine Pennant, and generally stays wide on the left. In fact, the right of the Stoke side is the one area of the team where places are up for grabs, so it’s surprising so much of their play is focused down that flank.
Fulham’s central tendencies have an obvious cause – the wide players generally come inside into the centre of the pitch, because few are natural wingers. Brian Ruiz, Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele are obvious examples, and even Damien Duff has been fielded more frequently on the right than the left, despite being left-footed. Fulham’s style in this respect hasn’t changed too much from their days under Roy Hodgson in 2009/10, despite changing coach twice since then.
Everton’s reluctance to play down the centre owes much to playing so many passes down the left. Despite being a left-back, Leighton Baines is one of their more creative, technically-gifted players, and playing through him is a key part of their approach. The return of Steven Pienaar also maximises this effect.
Arsenal’s right-sided bias was mentioned earlier, though it would be interesting to see how this has changed based upon which full-backs they’ve had available – their play down the flanks suffered significantly when they had to play centre-backs out of position there.
Blackburn’s left-sided bias can be attributed to Junior Hoilett, their best attacking performer this season. Like Wolves, Blackburn don’t have a permanent right-sided player, with no-one starting more than eight games this season on the flank.
Finally, it’s worth considering whether league position is related to attacking approach. This graph shows the top seven sides in green, the bottom five in red, and the eight other sides in orange (using the clear splits in the league table to form the three groupings):
It’s notable that the sides in green are all broadly in the centre of the spectrum.
In fact, the three sides closest to the average (35%-29%-36%) are Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. It’s dangerous to form too many conclusions based upon a small sample size, but this might indicate that the best sides offer a threat from all three angles, and are less predictable than the likes of Wolves and Stoke.