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Attack vs Defence: Who of Palace and Boro is in a better position?

It’s quite rare that at this stage of the season, fifteen games in, we have such a perfect comparison to be made as between Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough.

Both teams will have gone into the season wanting to avoid relegation as a first priority, and both teams are still very much in the relegation mix. Whilst at this stage both teams have shown enough to suggest that they won’t run into too much trouble, nevertheless they are both only three points from the drop zone, as they sit in 15th and 16th respectively, both with 15 points. Palace have a goal difference of -2, and Boro -3.

But what makes these two teams so interesting to compare is their totally different strengths and weaknesses, and it’s quite rare to get two teams that are such polar opposites. At 56 goals, only Liverpool have had more goals in games featuring them, as the Reds have scored 37 and conceded 20. As for Boro, the total tally from their games is just 29, which is as many as Palace themselves have conceded. Only Southampton, who also have 29, can come close to that tally, it’s the joint lowest in the league.


So here we have two teams with identical points, separated by just one goal on goal difference, and both very much in the relegation scrap. And yet they are totally different. Palace have scored 27 goals but conceded 29. Boro have scored just 13 goals, but conceded only 16. So, what can we draw from that?


Let’s start with Palace. Their tally of 27 goals is better than anyone outside the top four. It’s 3 more than Spurs, 6 more than Everton and 7 more than Man United, who they play tonight. Only four players have scored more than Christian Benteke, who is level on goals with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and has scored more than the likes of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Sadio Mane. However, on the other hand, they have conceded 29 goals. This tally is more than Leicester, Burnley and even Sunderland. Only West Ham, Swansea and Hull have conceded more goals. So 5th best attack in the league, but 4th worst defence.


Then there’s Boro. Their tally of 13 goals is less than half than Palace’s, and it’s also the worst attack in the league, with even Sunderland and Hull netting 14 each. However, their defence is exceptional, with only three teams conceding less goals: Southampton, Chelsea and Spurs. Three of the top four have conceded more goals than Boro. So worst attack, 4th best defence.


The difference is staggering. These are two evenly matched teams for completely opposing reasons. When they met in September, Palace came out 2-1 winners, one of the rare occasions that Boro made a major defensive error. Palace have kept one clean sheet all season, Boro have conceded more than twice just once. Palace have been losing 5-4, 4-2 and 3-2, Boro mostly 1-0 with the occasional 2-1.


Which leads to the crucial question: which team has a better chance of survival? Well the underlying stats are interesting, but seem to favour Palace. Let’s look first at attacking stats.


Palace have the 8th most shots per game in the Premier League, taking nearly 14 shots per match. And they score at a rate of less than 8 shots per game, working out that they are scoring nearly 2 goals per game, which we knew already. What’s interesting is that this clinical nature is what’s boosting them, rather than their number of shots. Manchester United and Spurs for example, have three and four more shots per game per average, but require significantly more shots per goal. United for example, have over 12 shots per goal, the second worst in the league, whilst Spurs require nearly 11.  What’s worrying about this for Palace is that their chances aren’t of a sufficiently better quality either. Their xG is just over 1.5 per match, which whilst high, is also the 8th in the league again, suggesting that at some point, Palace will stop scoring as effectively as they are the moment.


But whilst this stat is slightly worrying for Palace, there’s no solace for Boro in the attacking sense. Their xG of 0.8 per match shows that they are scoring about as inefficiently as you’d expect. If anything they’re scoring slightly more than they should be. This is because at less than 9, they have the least shots in the Premier League, and worse still, have the 5th worst conversion rate in the EPL, with only Spurs, United, West Ham and Southampton requiring more than them to score, a rate of about 10.7 shots per goal.


But defensively is where Palace should make up if the goals start to dry up slightly. Their xG is only 1.5 per game, instead of the 1.93 that they’re actually conceding, indicating that either they have bad goalkeepers, or that their opposition is very clinical. In terms of shots faced, Palace concede just less than 14 shots per game. The problem is that only Man City, Liverpool and West Ham have a lower shot to goal ratio, as Palace concede almost every seven shots.


As for Boro, this is where things to get a bit worrying. Boro’s average xG conceded is 1.3. This is nowhere near the best in the league, and is in fact miles worse than the likes of Liverpool and City, who they have a better defensive record than. Now this might indicate that Liverpool and City are unlucky, or that they have terrible goalkeepers (and indeed many pundits and fans would agree with the latter point) but what it also indicates is that, alarmingly for Boro, they’re probably going to start conceding more goals sooner or later.


What the evidence suggests is that although the gap between Boro and Palace in terms of goals scored is not a million miles away from what we might expect based on their underlying stats, the amount of goals that they’ve conceded should be much closer than it is. A combination of Palace being unlucky and Boro being lucky, or possibly the discrepancy in goalkeeping, means that the gap in goals conceded is considerably higher than it should be. This indicates that if one of these teams is going to struggle more over the course of the season, it will be Boro.


But away from this question, the other main question is which is more important to a survival fight? Attack or defence? So looking at the last five EPL tables, I thought I’d investigate.


Well truthfully, the signs are good for both teams in this respect. In general, only teams who can neither attack, nor defend tend to get relegated. The general pattern is that teams tend to score about an average amount of goals compared to the rest of their relegation rivals, but the teams who can defend generally stay up. It’s very rare that a team as good defensively as Boro have gone down. The team that has been relegated with the best defensive record in recent years was Hull in 2015, who conceded 51 goals, which was better than the four teams directly above them. Boro are currently on course to concede just 41 goals, which is top half form. Moreover, teams such as West Brom and Stoke have proven over the last five years or so that scoring less than some of the relegated sides means nothing if you have a solid defence.


And as for Palace, they are set to score 68 goals this season. That’s 20 more than any team that has been relegated in the last five years has scored. Much like Boro’s defence, their goal tally is top half territory, rather than relegation territory. In terms of defensively, whilst their defence is relegation level, Bournemouth conceded 67 goals last season and survived. In 2013, Aston Villa and Newcastle conceded 69 and 68 respectively, but both stayed up. The closest immediate comparison to Palace’s situation I can find is Norwich City in 2012, who conceded 66 goals, the joint most outside the drop zone, but scored 52, which was the most outside the top 6. They finished 12th that year.


So overall, the truth is it doesn’t matter whether you’re better at attacking or defending, as long as you’re good enough at one to counter balance the other. Hull are the only team to get relegated in the last five years with a GD of less than -20, and both of these teams are set to get a GD of somewhere around -10, which should be enough to keep them both up.


And the underlying stats will confirm that right now there are at least three teams in the Premier League worse than both of these sides. So overall, if Palace can keep scoring goals, and if Boro can keep defending well, both teams will be absolutely fine.