That’s Entertainment: Has the Premier League Lost Its Balance?

A friend of mine once commented, ‘I just love watching goals being scored’. A simple pleasure, it has to be said. Though in his way he was right; football would be a pretty joyless vocation if we didn’t see the ball disturb the net with at least a degree of regularity. With this in mind, one risks sounding like a bit of a curmudgeon when postulating the idea that the standard of defending in the Premier League has been in long term decline. Not a dramatic decline perhaps, but a perceptible one.

It is said that there are three types of untruth; lies, damn lies and statistics. Football watchers frequently consume their share of all three. However, in this case the numbers may be of assistance. More goals are being scored now than were scored ten years ago. The past three seasons (August 2011- May 2014) have produced 1,066, 1,063 and 1,052 goals respectively. That equates to around 2.8 goals per game. The three seasons between August 2004 and May 2007 produced 974, 944, 931 goals. That equates to around 2.5 goals per game.

The quantitative data shows a small but significant increase in the number of goals scored in the Premier League. Is this the result of refined attacking play, a drop in defensive standards, sheer coincidence or something else entirely? That’s the question this week’s column tries to probe.

Of course, there have always been anomalous score lines and embarrassing thrashings dished out no matter what era you look at. Liverpool’s 9-0 win over Palace in the early 80’s, Manchester United’s 5-0 defeats to Newcastle and Chelsea in the mid 90’s, and United’s 6-1 win over Arsenal in 2001. Who could forget Portsmouth’s 7-4 home win over Reading?

It is said that there are three types of untruth; lies, damn lies and statistics. Football watchers frequently consume their share of all three.

What has become a noticeable trend in recent seasons though is the number of goals being scored in ‘big’ matches. Changes in playing styles, tactics and personnel are possible explanations for this. It seems beyond coincidence that during the period 2004-2008, when goals and chances were hard earned in big matches, English clubs enjoyed considerable success in Europe.

If you think back to that period, it was a widely held orthodoxy that you needed to play with two holding midfielders. Chelsea had Claude Makélélé and Micheal Essien alongside Frank Lampard in a midfield three. Liverpool played with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano behind Steven Gerrard. Manchester United had Micheal Carrick, Darren Fletcher was Ferguson’s go to man for big games and if fit, they had Owen Hargreaves also. Arsenal were the exception, usually playing with only one holding player. Initially this was Gilberto Silva and later Mathieu Flamini. Even Arsenal though, adopted a 4-5-1 specifically for Europe which enabled them to reach the 2006 final with a team that was on the wrong side of its zenith.

There would appear to be a correlation between English team’s struggles in Europe recently and their goals against columns. Chelsea have been the most competitive English team in the Champions League since their 2012 triumph, and they are the best team defensively of all of the top clubs. Most teams over the past five years have tried to incorporate at least some of the hallmarks of the great Barcelona and Spain sides. Full backs have pushed further forward, centre backs have split, teams like playing out from the back through a midfielder who receives the ball of the back four. When it works, this philosophy is wonderful but it does contain elements of risk, particularly if you give the ball away in your own half. West Ham, Stoke City and to an extent Chelsea are teams who still tend to play the percentages, but the prevalence of more progressive and risk filled playing styles might be one reason for the increase in goals scored.

 It seems beyond coincidence that during the period 2004-2008, when goals and chances were hard earned in big matches, English clubs enjoyed considerable success in Europe.

Another possible explanation is personnel. Are Premier League defenders simply not as good as they were eight or ten years ago? Or are Premier League forwards much better than they were eight or ten years ago? I personally find this hypothesis hard to believe. It is fair to say that there aren’t as many top class English centre-backs now as there were during that era when John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher and Ledley King were all at their peak. But more widely, there doesn’t seem to have been a massive drop in individual quality. Zabaleta, Kompany, Koscienly, Ivanovic, Vlaar, Verthongen or Lovren testify to that. Likewise at the top end of the pitch, the Premier League possessed some of the best forwards in the world back then and has continued to attract them since. Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez have caused havoc recently, but then Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo caused their fair share as well.

What seems a far more pertinent reason for the increase in the number of goals scored are changes in refereeing. Ron Harris or Billy Bremner were long gone by 2004-8, but the amount of physical contact deemed permissible has reduced, even since then. Forward players are given more and more protection as the years pass. Rightly so, they are unique talents who should be shielded from dangerous and potentially career ending tackles. Yet there is no doubt that these changes have made defending much more difficult; a more skilful and subtle art perhaps, but certainly more difficult. Since the tackle from behind was outlawed, forwards have found it far easier to pick up space, turn and face the play. Moreover, the ease with which penalties and dangerous free kicks are now awarded must have contributed to the increased number of goals. Last weekend was a good case study for how minimal contact inside the box now leads to penalties being conceded. Naturally defenders have become far more cautious about committing themselves.

Such changes have been positive for football as a spectacle. We all want to see the game’s best given the chance to express themselves. Nobody wants to spend their ticket money or Sky Sports subscription to see players being kicked off the park. But, to borrow a cricketing analogy, sometimes the balance between bat and ball has to be addressed. That’s not going to come from a reactionary change in the laws of the game, but could come from a change in emphasis from coaches and managers. Successful teams always have the ideal balance between defence and attack. In too many cases in the Premier League, this balance appears to be lacking. As mirthless as that might sound.

Dan Zeqiri

You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan

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