Is Defending Easier Than Attacking?


Abhisar Gupta tries to answer an age-old question: Which is easier – defending or attacking?

Do you ever wonder why defenders and goalkeepers don’t get more credit? Why attacking players tend to dominate the Ballon d’Or and other awards? How many of the world’s most expensive players, particularly in terms of transfer fees, are those who protect the goal instead of creating or scoring one?

There seems to be this inherent bias in football towards the forwards and their cohorts in offence. But when we really sit down and think about it, a very clear reason appears that justifies this partiality towards the creative minds and clinical finishers.

Defending is easier than attacking.

Don’t mistake it to mean defending is easy per se – or you and I would be keeping clean sheets on our way to major trophies. Just that when compared to the nuances of attacking, breaking play down is a relatively straightforward task.

Ask yourself this – How many times does a team, any team, try to score a goal in a game, and how often do they succeed?

At the simplest level, we can safely assume that every time a player shoots at goal he is trying to score a goal. Let’s consider the teams in the Premier League; that’s as good a set as any for this discussion. At the time of writing, according to stats on the excellent website, Reading’s 252 shots is the lowest total in the league. From these shots they’ve scored 33 goals at a conversion rate of around 13 percent. At the other end of the table, Manchester United have scored 62 goals from 391 shots. That means the Red Devils convert close to 16 percent of their chances.

Most teams are in the same ball park when it comes to shot conversion rates. Some websites tend to leave out blocked shots from the calculation and show a higher rate of chance conversion, but for our purpose we will include all shots.

Since we are simply trying to understand how often a team tries to score, every shot counts – whether it hits the post, goes off target, is saved, or actually results in a goal.

When we say teams succeed with 13-16 percent of their attempts at goal, there is an interesting corollary that is not to be missed. It is this – the defending team succeeds in keeping 84-87 percent of the shots out.

Right there we can see the difference in success of an attack and that of a defence. I’ll come to the reasons later but let’s explore this further because it’s not just about shots. Shots at goal are the culmination of an attempt to score but there are many other attempts that don’t even reach the stage of a shot.

For example, most teams put in 20 or more crosses into the box during a game. And the average success rate is between 20-25 percent. Of the successful crosses, only one or two result in a shot. Now, players don’t put crosses into the box just to enjoy the flight of the ball. The hope from every single attempt is to find a teammate who can score a goal. So we have to add crosses to shots attempted when we are trying to answer the question – how often does a team try to score?

Let’s add the crossing number for Manchester United to see how the math works. Ferguson’s side have attempted 542 crosses and delivered 131 corners into the box so far this season, of which only 141 have been accurate. I don’t have stats that say how many of the successful crosses actually led to shots so let’s leave all the successful ones out for the time being. We still have 532 balls put into the box with the hope of finding a teammate who can score, that didn’t result in a goal. Let’s add this to the number of shots attempted (shots cannot be attempted from unsuccessful crosses!).

391+532 gives us a total of 923 attempts to score. In reality, this number will be even higher because many of the successful crosses didn’t actually result in a shot. But calculating that would make things more complicated so we’re leaving it out.

In 26 games this season, the Red Devils have 62 goals from 923 attempts at a meagre conversion rate of 6.7 percent. Don’t forget they’re among the best attacking teams around!

Those with a keen analytical mind would have noted that we don’t have to stop with crosses. Every failed through-ball, every pass into the box that is intercepted or cleared, every time a player running with the ball is tackled, and so on, is an attempt to attack that has been successfully thwarted. We don’t have to go into numbers for all these cases, but suffice it to say that the conversion rate will drop below 5 percent quite easily. Most teams succeed with 1 or 2 percent of their attacks (although Barcelona this season probably have a slightly higher number). As a corollary, most teams succeed with 98-99 percent of their defensive efforts.

Often when watching matches, what happens is that we take the tackles, the misplaced passes, the interceptions, and other facets of the game for granted. Few of us see it as another attack that has been broken down. Furthermore, when we see highlights, we usually see goals and great saves. It tends to affect our perception. For instance, in a highlights package we see so many crosses headed in to goals, and so many spectacular long distance shots either going in or rattling the bar, that we tend to think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But I’d be surprised if more than 2 percent of crosses actually resulted in goals. Similarly, very few long distance shots genuinely trouble the goalkeeper leave alone result in goals. Highlights make us forget the failed events and with that we forget just how difficult it is to score.

I like to think that a team tries to score a goal every time it gets possession of the ball. And they succeed with 1 or 2 percent of their attempts. However, there are times when it appears that a team wants to sit back and protect its goal rather than going forward and scoring one. Why do you think they do that? Why do teams park the bus against an opponent like Barcelona?

Teams defend instead of attacking because they feel that’s the easier option. Getting bodies behind the ball and protecting the lead is safer than going out in search of another goal because defending is easier than attacking.

It is an incontrovertible, albeit unwritten, tenet of the game.

Now let’s ask why defending is so much easier than attacking. As with any aspect of life, creation is infinitely harder than destruction. A great deal of precision and coordination is needed to put the ball in the back of the net. When a striker has to put a header towards goal he needs a great deal of accuracy. In order to get that, his positioning, body shape, and timing have to be flawless. For a defender, on the other hand, it is usually just a matter of getting some body part on the ball. Anywhere out of the danger area is fine. Just keep it away from the striker and you’ve done your job for that moment. Execution becomes so much easier.

Similarly, the passing has to be inch-perfect in the attacking areas as space gets tighter. A slightly shorter pass, a longer one, or a heavier one can all break an attack down. A bad touch, a wrong turn, or even a slight delay in making up one’s mind can spell the end of the offensive threat in a given move.

In attack, the players also have to think on their feet and combine instinctively. Attacking is about fluidity and spontaneity. Every move cannot be taught. In contrast, defending is about structure and discipline. Defensive players can be drilled meticulously.

Of course, doing it over and over demands a great deal of concentration, positional awareness, reliable decision-making, physical strength, and other attributes. That’s the reason I said defending in itself is not easy. It’s just easier than attacking.

The rules of the game also play their part. In basketball, for instance, there is no goalkeeper (basketkeeper?). So an accurate attempt often results in a score. Let’s conduct a couple of thought experiments.

What would happen if the goalkeeper in football was not allowed to use his hands at all? Suddenly, a lot of those diving saves would no longer be possible! The keeper won’t be able to catch or punch crosses. Players will be able to shoot from a distance and if they place the shot sufficiently high and wide of the keeper, their odds of scoring will increase exponentially. All-in-all, the gap between attacking and defending efficiency will decrease significantly.

Similarly, imagine a situation where the goal is replaced by a basketball hoop with no goalkeeper allowed. Do you think the scores will be higher? What if everything remains the same but the height and width of the goal is increased by a couple of yards from its current size? What if off-side is removed entirely?

I’m not advocating these changes but thinking about how they are likely to impact the scoring patterns will give you a better understanding of how the rules of the game affect the balance of play. At the moment, they heavily favour the defensive side.

As a consequence, the magic on a football pitch comes from the attacking players and that’s the reason they’re more valued. Many defenders are great players in their own right but few can compete with the Peles, Messis, and Zidanes of this world.

Defensive teams can get good success in cup competitions. Chelsea and Inter Milan’s Champions League wins in recent years are proof of that. But did you note they’re both playing in the Europa League this year? In contrast, Bayern Munich – who lost to both these teams in the final – are still up there as favourites. Barcelona have won Europe’s premier competition thrice in recent years. Sometimes a defensive team does get the better of them, but over a long period it’s their offence that dominates. Defensive teams can have their moments of glory, the truly great offensive ones have eras.

The next time you watch a match, see if you spot how often and for what reasons an attack fails. It just might change the way you watch the game.

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