Is it better to be attacking or defensive in the Scottish Premiership?

Is it better to be attacking or defensive in the Scottish Premiership?

By Stefan Bienkowski

Scottish football tends to get a lot of criticism for the style of football that tends to dominate our top leagues. Although some of it may be fair, there’s no denying that the Scottish Premiership is home to a number of different tactics, systems and ultimately identities. Each portrays a different way of playing the game.


A newcomer to the top division may take some time to acclimatise to the subtle differences, but any avid fan of Scottish football would be able to tell you the difference between a team coached by Neil Lennon or Tommy Wright. But which style, system or simple ethos tends to work the best in the Premiership when it comes to picking up points?


Does attacking football win games?


Perhaps the most distinct style of football in the Premiership is that played by Celtic. Affectionately regarded as ‘the Celtic way’ by their passionate following, the Scottish champions are not only dominant of Scottish football, but are dominant by playing quick, attacking football.


However, they’re not the only team to prioritise attacking intent and the need to pass the ball around the park. When we take a look at the graph below, which shows the correlation between passes per minute of possession and points won in the Premiership we can see which teams are the best at getting the ball around the park and how it affects their points tally.



What seems obvious to me in this graph is that you have a very clear division between the top three or four in the Premiership and the rest. Celtic, naturally, lead the way, but then you have Aberdeen and Rangers pulling away. Hibernian then follow, before Hearts and the rest of the league descend into statistical anarchy.


Intriguingly, you then have a divergence in fortunes. Teams like Partick Thistle, Ross County and Dundee have far better passes per minute stats than corresponding points, while the likes of St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Hearts have all picked up points despite struggling to impose a possession-based style on their game.


However, the latter two of that set – Kilmarnock and Hearts – are two sides that are undoubtedly on the rise and as both come to terms with their new coaches we may find their passes per minute stats increase along with their fortune on the pitch. Does a team have to get beyond 11 passes per minute to break in to the top four in the Premiership? We’ll need to wait till the end of the season to find out.



If indeed there is already a contrast in teams that prioritise passing and holding on to possession and teams that are far more direct it once again shows up in the graph above, which shows how many of a team’s passes were in the final third of their opponents half and how that corresponds to points won.


Celtic are once again in a league of their own, but we also have the other three – Hibs, Aberdeen and Rangers – confirming the theory that the top sides tend to play a completely different style of football from those below them.


Again, we can see teams such as Kilmarnock, Hearts and St Johnstone opting for a more direct approach with around ⅕ of their passes heading directly towards the opposing goal. Motherwell, who had such an impressive start to the season, are undoubtedly the most direct team in the league with 22 percent of their passes heading towards the other end of the pitch.


Defensive priorities


When we then flip things on their head and instead take a look at how defensive each team is, we can once again note the clear differences in not only how each side plays their matches but also the fortunes of any given team.



If we take the number of successful defensive duels – any defensive action (tackle, header, interception, etc) per 90 minutes and compare it to points won, we get the graph above. And, again, we have Celtic leading the way with Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibs following behind.


What’s perhaps most interesting here is that we have the top five teams in the division almost directly rolling from top left to bottom right, while the bottom half of the Premiership once again breaks down below the trend line. For the most part, the fewer defensive duels needed per game tends to lead to positive results until we get beyond fourth or fifth place.


Here we can note some interesting observations. For example, Motherwell’s defensive duels stats are far below rivals like Kilmarnock and St Johnstone, as are Partick’s in comparison to Dundee or Hamilton. While Hearts, having just about figured out how to wrestle back control of games, will surely move to the right and perhaps upwards as well as the season goes on.



At its heart, defensive football is the concept of minimising mistakes and therefore limiting the damage your opponent can do to your chances of winning the game. It’s an ethos that Jose Mourinho, Walter Smith and countless others have used to great success over the years.


When we take a look at how it affects the Premiership’s clubs – in the form of how often each team loses the ball each game – we get the graphic above. Here we once again see the top teams pull ahead with a few exceptions to the rule near the bottom of the table.


Lennon’s Hibs are a notable outlier, who seem to lose the ball more often than any team outside of Dingwall yet still manage to maintain a fantastic points tally. Partick, and to a lesser extend Motherwell, are the opposite, with impressively low levels of dispossession but modest gains when it comes to winning points.


It’s here that we can perhaps note County’s main problems in defence and why they may be rock bottom of the division, as well as the somewhat gung-ho, or at least carefree approach, relatively successful teams like Kilmarnock, Hamilton and St Johnstone take to losing the ball.


So what does it all mean?


Although there are varying degrees of success for each team, there are undoubtedly different styles at play in the Premiership right now. You have teams like Motherwell, who prioritise getting the ball to their attacking players as quickly as possible, bypassing the need to build up passes or sit back and defend, but also take care in ensuring they don’t lose the ball.


Thistle aren’t too dissimilar in that regard, however they take more time with the ball, rarely go as direct as Stephen Robinson’s side and are far better at holding on to the ball.


Outside of Celtic, it’s clear that Aberdeen and Rangers are very similar in almost every aspect of their play, while Hibs would join them in their own mini league if not for their inability to hold on to the ball and their clear need to defend far more often than the two teams that will likely pip them to second or third place.


Indeed, what will perhaps be most interesting is the manner in which both Kilmarnock and Hearts develop over the season. If they can continue cementing a top-half spot then we may see both teams evolve in to sides that aren’t too dissimilar from the aforementioned chasing pack below Celtic.


Celtic and Hibs to a blunter extent have shown that attacking football can pave over the cracks in a leaky defence when it comes to succeeding in the Premiership. However, just five points below Lennon’s side are the very defensive Hearts. A team intent on defending first and winning second. Could they prove to be an alternative to the status quo? We’ll need to wait and see.

4 Replies to “Is it better to be attacking or defensive in the Scottish Premiership?”

  1. I guess what is emerging for me in this read is that an attacking approach gives you a better opportunity for points success, yet the level of success is determined by your ability to retain possession and defend well….

    1. Yeah, I think there definitely seems to be a cut-off point somewhere halfway down the table. It seems to me that the top 4-5 clubs are all far better at keeping the ball, passing with speed, etc and then it gets a little muddled up when you get to the bottom half. Would be interested to see how St Mirren or Dundee United compare to the bottom half of the Premiership.

    2. Retaining possession and defending well work hand-in-hand. Your attacking structure and defensive transition structure prevent you losing territory, and help prevent attacks. Celtic are better organised than anyone to counter press, while most teams have no emphasis on that aspect of the game.

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