Part 1: Boring, Boring Chelsea?

In case the devoted readers of this blog were wondering, I am interested in topics besides foreign languages. One such topic is European soccer (which will henceforth be referred to as “football,” because that is what the world calls it).   As much as my schedule and children allow it, I follow several leagues, including the Barclays Premier League in England.

Accentuating the negative

Although the season is two weeks from completed, the 2015 BPL champion will be Chelsea, as they have amassed an insurmountable points cushion over all challengers. However, a common complaint among fans and pundits is that Chelsea, under once and current head coach Jose Mourinho, play “negative” football, which is to say that they are, well, boring; they pragmatically minimize the risk of losing by emphasizing defensive tactics over attacking ones. To wit:

  1. Chelsea are happy to play defensively when they face skilled teams on the road, settling for dull, aesthetically displeasing draws.
  2. At home and against inferior opponents, they either use a defend-and-counterattack strategy, or methodically break down defenses until they get a lead; at that point, they zealously guard that slender lead rather than attempt to pile on more goals (unless a counterattacking opportunity presents itself).

This style is effective--patently so--but  for the so-called “neutral” fan, who watches a match purportedly for the spectacle of the sport or for high-energy, high-speed action, it is an aesthetic nightmare. Likewise, many commentators bemoan Chelsea’s success because it comes as a result of this blunt and boorish style of play, which they claim is antithetical to the idea of the Premier League and the “beautiful game,” the catch-all descriptor for matches featuring graceful attacking moves, intricate passing, and balletic athleticism. 

you don't know your history

Recently I was lured into reading an ESPN FC article about these tactics, entitled “Chelsea’s winning style is not new.” Author Michael Cox takes the position that negative football—or at the very least, defensive football—is not new, and that in fact the Premier League, since its inception in 1992, was mostly a pragmatic, defensive league; only in recent years have teams generally tended towards a more attacking, open style of play. 

Nothing in his article is wrong or misleading, but I did not find it compelling...although, initially, I couldn't figure out why not.  I soon realized the reason: the article, while stats-heavy, was graphics-light; in fact, there were no charts of any kind to be found. With even the simplest of visual aids, the article would have been more engaging.

let me draw you a picture (or Seven)

I decided to take it upon myself to visualize some of the states Cox presents. One thing he says is:

In the 22 Premier League seasons, 15 of the title winners have also been the league's top scorers (including once jointly in 2005-06 when Chelsea and Man United both scored 72 goals). That's 68 percent and suggests something simple: you have an excellent chance of winning the title if you're an attack-minded side that scores goal after goal.

This could be shown with some very simple charts. Here are a few different options:

This certainly helps to show how often the top-scoring team wins the Premier League, and makes it more intuitive for the reader. (Not to mention, the pictures help to break up the text and keep the reader interested for longer; also, they help with retention for people who are more visually-oriented.)

Then, he goes on to refine his assessment:

The figures are fascinating, suggesting there's been a significant shift over the past few years, in terms of champions being relentless goal scorers....It's only recently that we've expected [champions] to be relentless attacking machines, and previously, it wasn't unusual for the best attacking side to be also-rans.
The top goal scorers have won the title for the past five seasons (100 percent), and also for eight of the last nine seasons (89 percent). Before that period, from 1992-93 until 2004-05, the situation was very different. In that period, the top goal scorers triumphed just seven times in the 13 seasons (54 percent).

Well, in that case, here are some other charts that support THAT argument:


But, rather than summarize these findings with arbitrary dividing lines between eras, we can easily use Tableau to visualize all of the goals scored by every team, in every season of the Premier League, since it began in the 1992-93 season. Champions are shown in gold, and relegated teams (those finishing in the bottom three places) are in red.


Here, it was easy to visualize what the author was talking about: league champions are, in fact, most commonly at the very top of the “Goals For” category.  But in the situations where they are not, it's hard to assert that they are, as Cox put it, "also-rans." The top scoring team has finished no worse than third place in every year of the Premier League's existence.

The author's conclusion--at least, for the first part of his article, is this:

Chelsea are being judged in a recent era of unusual attacking brilliance. In the context of the Premier League era as a whole, they aren't a particularly defensive side.

This could be visualized as well...if it's actually true. Part Two of this post will explore that contention more deeply, and will look to see whether there are any hallmarks of a successful--or championship--team that are consistent throughout all Premier League seasons, beyond simply "top scoring club."

But for now, the bigger point I wanted to make was that a few simple visualizations, in the body of an article based on statistical analysis (even rudimentary analysis), would have made for a more compelling and memorable story.


Michael Brinn is on Twitter at @brinn_official
Mike Cisneros (@mikevizneros) also contributed to this post.