Defining attacking football: By the Numbers


This week, Jonathan Wilson¹ wrote a piece for the Guardian which asked the question what is attacking football? Apparently the question had to be asked because Man Utd’s Aloysius van Gaal is perplexed by fans who chant “attack” at Man U when they have the ball. Van Gaal’s response will sound weirdly familiar to Arsenal fans who suffered through Arsenal’s sterile possession era:

We are always more dominating than our opponents. When we have a lot of ball possession, you have a lot of ball possession to create chances and not to play the ball around and don’t score.

But as we all know, the problem with Man U is that they don’t create chances: they are 1st in the League in possession but 14th in the League in shots. And as I write this they are playing Sheffield United, it’s the 74th minute, and United still don’t have a shot on target. That is just the way that van Gaal’s team’s play; they are risk averse.

Wilson highlighted risk as one of the hallmarks of attacking. Fans like to see players take chances. We want to see players try to get the ball into dangerous areas and create chaos. Because we know from experience that chaos creates goals.

Managing that risk is sort of what football is all about.  Simply put, if you’re a possession based team, and most technical teams are, what you don’t want to do is take stupid risks, such as a dribble in a dangerous area, that will allow your reactive opponents a chance to create a break away. And if you’re a defensive team, you also don’t want to take risks, such as a tackle in the box, which will leave your team exposed to the more proactive, patient, opponent. Getting that balance exactly right is impossible so managers take different stances on risk.

For van Gaal’s Man U, he wants to play high in the opposition box in order to create chances but it looks like he doesn’t trust his defenders to clean up if his team loses possession and so he’s ultra risk averse. So much so that his team won’t even take shots for fear of losing possession.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal used to play the super high line and bomb forward with both fullbacks. That led to teams exploiting Arsenal’s defenders and scoring on their very first shot. Wenger has learned to be a little more risk averse over the last few years and Arsenal are benefitting from that.

Teams that sit deep are risking the opposition breaking their lines in a dangerous position. But they do so while patiently waiting for the opponent to tire of their toothlessness and thus generate a counter-attacking chance — which is in itself risky because it dissolves the organization!

And even teams that press, like Barcelona did under Pep Guardiola, managed risk by only pressing high up the pitch for a few seconds after possession was lost. Every team takes chances, they all just do it in different ways.

But Wenger is and always will be an attacking manager and unlike van Gaal encourages his team to take more risks than most managers. In the match against Gumderland² today we saw the benefits and the drawbacks of risk taking as Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners.

For the first goal, scored by Sunderland, Gibbs wins the ball back but then makes a bit of a silly pass to Koscielny. Koz compounds the silliness by trying to beat his man in the stupidest area ever. He loses the ball and Lens scores.

But Arsenal’s second goal was classic Wenger attacking football and it started with the sub. Wenger wanted to bring on another player to make runs into the box. People may hate what Ramsey does, calling it Hollywood (which I will often jokingly participate in), but he’s a known quantity at this point and bringing him on was like bringing on another forward, albeit one who works a lot harder than most forwards. Wenger also encourages his fullbacks to play an advanced attacking role and Bellerin is one of the finest examples of that. So it’s no surprise that both players combined for the go ahead goal.

Bellerin picks up Pickford’s errant goal kick and immediately carries the ball forward into attack. Bellerin passes off to the midfielder and stays high up the pitch. When the ball eventually gets back to him, from Ox, he spots Campbell dropping to support, passes to him and then crashes the box. Campbell plays a great through ball, Ramsey sees everything developing and gets on the edge of the 6 (in front of Giroud who looked tired all day), Bellerin wins the footrace and crosses for Ramsey to tap in. In stats terms it looked like this (image courtesy


The yellow triangle is Bellerin’s ball recovery at 70:23, the goal is scored at 71:13. 50 seconds of attack!

And notice that Arsenal passed the ball around the edge of the 18 before it got back to Bellerin who then took a big risk — if Cambell can’t get him the ball back Sunderland have a great counter attacking chance down the right because so many Arsenal players are so far forward. Think about it: Ramsey is in the box, Bellerin is in the box, and Arteta is the DM with Ox his only help. If Campbell loses the ball in a tackle, they are off to the races.

Wilson ends his piece with a bit about how attacking is like porn, you know it when you see it. But for me, I think attacking football is about taking risks. The more risk you take, the more attacking your team. Notice I didn’t say “the better your team” because as with all things, you need balance.

But most fans love it when our team takes chances and scores.

And when we take chances and get scored on?

That’s because the player is garbage, a numbskull, he should have known better. Sell him! But three new! Sack the manager! Fire the board!


Sources:, the Guardian

¹Author of Inverting the Pyramid (USA or UK) the seminal book on the history of football tactics. Check it out from your local public library if you haven’t already.
²I assume that the city formerly known as Sunderland is wall-to-wall carpeted with Sam Allardyce’s used gum given the fact that he casually flicked a wad of gum on the ground at Arsenal today.

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