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Does attack or defence win Premier League titles?


Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed "attack wins you games, defence wins you titles" - but is that true?

Liverpool host Arsenal live on Sky Sports this Sunday and both sides have displayed potent attacks in the early stages of the season - but they have also shown defensive frailties.

So can teams with weaknesses at the back win the title? Yes they can.

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Unsurprisingly, Premier League champions have typically been strong at both ends - but ultimately they've been better in attack.

Since 1995/96, the average champions have ranked 1.45 out of 20 teams for their goals scored, compared to an average rank of 2.41 for goals conceded.

In total, 14 out of 22 champions have had the strongest attack during the respective season - but only nine have had the best defence.

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LISTEN: Stat Attack podcast

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In fact, Sir Alex was the master for winning titles with an inferior defence - mitigated with a league-topping attack.

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Manchester United only had the seventh best defence when they won the title in 1996/97, shipping 44 goals - Blackburn conceded fewer and finished in 13th place.

Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United gestures before kick off against Manchester City during the FA Community Shield football match at Wembley Stadium in
Image: Sir Alex Ferguson led Manchester United to the title in 1996/97 - despite only having the seventh best defensive record that season

And Fergie continued in the same vein, having only the fourth best defence in 1998/99, the sixth best in 1999/00 and fifth best in 2012/13.

In each of those title-winning seasons, United scored more goals than any other team.

PL champions' defence & attack ranked for respective season

Season Champion Defence rank Attack rank
1995/96 Manchester United 3 1
1996/97 Manchester United 7 1
1997/98 Arsenal 2 3
1998/99 Manchester United 4 1
1999/00 Manchester United 6 1
2000/01 Manchester United 1 1
2001/02 Arsenal 2 2
2002/03 Manchester United 1 2
2003/04 Arsenal 1 1
2004/05 Chelsea 1 2
2005/06 Chelsea 1 1
2006/07 Manchester United 2 1
2007/08 Manchester United 1 1
2008/09 Manchester United 1 2
2009/10 Chelsea 2 1
2010/11 Manchester United 3 1
2011/12 Manchester City 1 1
2012/13 Manchester United 5 1
2013/14 Manchester City 2 1
2014/15 Chelsea 1 2
2015/16 Leicester City 3 3
2016/17 Chelsea 3 2


There have only ever been five 'perfect champions' over the last 22 years - having scored more goals and conceded fewer than any other team.

Manchester City's class of 2011/12 were superior at both ends, as were Manchester United in 2007/08 and 2000/01, Chelsea during 2005/06 and Arsenal in 2003/04.

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If the final table was based on the average rank of each club's attack and defence, six of the previous 22 champions wouldn't have won the league.

Manchester United would have finished fourth in 1996/97, behind would-be champions Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle.

GERMANY - APRIL 09:  FUSSBALL: Champions - League DORTMUND - MANCHESTER 1:0, Team Manchester United 09.04.97  (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)
Image: Manchester United's 1996/97 team would have finished fourth in the Premier League - if the final table was based on average rank for defence and attack

But Arsenal would have had their 1997/98 title stripped, with United lifting the trophy instead - before the Gunners topped United during the 1999/00 campaign.

Again, United would have lost another title in Fergie's final season at the helm during 2012/13, finishing third behind champions Chelsea and Arsenal.

Most recently, Tottenham would have won the Premier League for the last two seasons - stripping Leicester's fairy-tale adventure and Antonio Conte's title-winning Premier League season at Stamford Bridge in the process.


The average goals per game in the Premier League has increased marginally year on year for three consecutive seasons.

However, that 2.8 goals per game average in recent top-flight football is dwarfed by the 4.7 goals per game recorded in 1889/90.

Image: There were 4.7 goals per game on average in 1889/90

Aston Villa scored a remarkable 128 goals in 1930/31 - more than any other top-flight side in the history of English football.

Despite their record goal haul, Villa still only finished the season as runners-up, behind Arsenal - who had scored 127 goals.

Arsenal will be hoping to rekindle that kind of goal-scoring form when they travel to Liverpool on Sunday, while Jurgen Klopp will be looking to inflict a second successive defeat upon their visitors.

Watch Liverpool v Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 3.30pm on Sunday

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