The current Premier League season has so far been the most prolific of all campaigns with three goals per game. So why have there been so many goals in the Premier League?
They were mocked during the summer transfer window for being able to field nine strikers (three have since jumped ship) but it seems Manchester City’s forward thinking is a view very much shared amongst the Premier League coaches. 229 goals have been scored in 76 games as of Gameweek 8 (October 5) which is an average of 3.01 goals per game and of those matches, only 10 have resulted in draws (av 13%). In short, this is the most attacking league campaign in ten years.
Some have attributed the goal rush to the unpredictability of the ball with former Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann complaining during the Champions League semi-final last year that the new balls “speed up in mid-air.” But according to Robin Marshall, Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, this claim is baloney and it is all a matter of perception. In that case Lehmann does have a point as the new balls slow down less (the NikeT90 Ascente carries 2.4% further than the old ball) which is something he and other keepers may have had problems adjusting to and predicting. But we have also seen some fantastic saves and this theory may be is doing some disservice to the forward talent on show, something which Sunderland boss Steve Bruce agrees with.
“The stats are incredible but I don’t think the new balls are making a difference,” he said. “It’s just that teams are spending a lot of money on really good strikers.” £67m was spent by Manchester City this summer to bolster their attacking options with the thinking that the variety will always provide them with a goalscoring threat. This bolder approach is not limited to the bigger clubs.
The positive change in philosophy has seen most sides play with two up front even against the big boys, maybe with the idea that the big four have become weaker. And as Hull boss Phil Brown has mentioned, such teams have also identified opponents where they may get more than a point thereby going for the jugular. Owen Coyle’s Burnley have regularly deployed two forwards and another on the wing underlining their attacking instinct.
Goalscoring is more shared now and as Harry Redknapp has found out, playing a player like Modric on the left who can roam in ‘between the lines’ as Rafa Benitez says adds more unpredictability and variety (think Arsenal’s wingers in a 4-4-2). The Tottenham boss even tried to play Robbie Keane there when the Croatian became sidelined. Slaven Bilic states that the modern game is all about “the movement of 10 players now” which has become even more possible as the fitness and conditioning of players improves. Therefore the next evolution in football is likely to be how the different players interpret their roles. “The ProZone stats show he is right up there with running, distance covered and sprints,” said Shay Given on Craig Bellamy who has been playing as a left winger. “He works his socks off and he’s popped up with some great goals.”
But the biggest trend in the Premier League has been in central midfield, where it rather than being a hub to springboard attacks it is primarily there to block attacks. Teams have usually been set-up in the middle with two holders though they are not necessarily destroyers. It is their role to shield the defence and link up play to the forward players as quick as possible to do the damage.
Such examples include Birmingham and Wolves who have their midfield set out to be typically organised and pressure collectively but without actually being able to keep the ball for extended periods or more appropriately, able to control the zones, it means there will always be pressure on their defence. A case in example is Everton who made a similarly disappointing start to the season last year but by moving Arteta to the middle to dictate play, started making a recovery and keeping clean sheets. You can bet your hedge fund that a return from injury of the Spanish playmaker will result in an upturn in fortune both defensively and in creatively.
On the flip side however, it is understandable by looking at Fulham’s case why teams are focusing more on their attack. Because, with all of Danny Murphy’s enterprising play in midfield, he would love to have more of the chances he’s created to be put away. As a result Fulham have been infinitely vulnerable for not being able to drive the pressure away. The distinct lack of quality in central midfield does seem to have a correlation with the amount of goals scored as teams search for the right balance. “I’ve spoken to 10 managers and all 10 are looking for centre-backs or defensive midfielders,” says Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. “It looks like the offensive players are the most-paid but at the end of the day, in the modern day, all the managers I speak to ask me the same thing. ‘Do you know a player somewhere?'”
Tony Adams’ stark assessment of Thomas Vermaelen also highlights the thinking in the Premier League where the best defenders are thought to be ‘no-nonsense’ and physical types. This extra emphasis on physical strength usually means skimping on positional and tactical awareness and which may be one of the reasons for the ease of which the lower clubs are being dismantled by the top sides such as the 6-1 thrashing by Liverpool of Hull.
Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith also believes the language barrier and the revolving door nature of the transfer window means teams cannot work on partnerships in defence as effectively.
Building on from the analysis of central midfield, the physical development of the game has made it much harder for teams to play an expansive passing style through the middle of the field or maybe even lacking the quality to do so. Instead, matches are thought to be won and lost at two key moments – set pieces and transitions (those moments when possession changes hands from one side to the other). Charles Reep, the first “professional performance analyst of football” famously once said “over 80 per cent of goals result from moves of three passes or less.” This analysis was made almost 40 years ago and little has changed since (that figure has dropped to around 60%). Gaps in the defence from marauding full backs, high intensity pressuring or just bad defending are being more readily exploited by quick breaks while around 40% of league goals have come from set-pieces and for teams like Bolton and Stoke, that amounts to nearly all of their goals.