After the first four matchdays of the 2020/21 season the Premier League has seen 144 goals scored in 38 fixtures. At this rate the season would end with an incredible 1,440 goals being scored. To put this into context, last season 1,034 goals were scored and the most goals scored in a 20-team Premier League season to date is 1,073 which came in the 2018/19 season. Incredibly, there has also been no 0-0 draws so far in the Premier League in the 38 games this season. Is the early goal fest a coincidence or are there factors at play that are causing this pattern? This post explores the factors that are potentially contributing to the Premier League goal rush.
There is no doubt that the interpretation of the new handball law has resulted in a hugely increased number of penalties in the Premier League this season. It appeared that in the last round of fixtures before the international break Premier League referees had adopted less of a black and white approach to the handball law and applied more of a common sense approach. However this can not be said for the first few weeks of the new season. Some of the penalty decisions were astounding and if it were allowed to continue were sure to significantly reduce fans’ and players’ enjoyment of the game.
Graeme Souness said while working as a pundit for Sky Sports that this would see an increase in goals and drama and should be encouraged, however few fans seemed to agree with this notion and the danger that it posed to football as a spectacle. This being said, the early high number of penalties, 25 given in the 38 games so far, is a key factor to the high number of goals we have seen so far in the Premier League.
Lack of pre season
Due to Covid-19 extending the last season, Premier League clubs only had six weeks between the end of the 2019/20 season and the new season. When international fixtures and the European club competitions were also thrown into the pre-season, players really had very little time to rest at all. This lack of pre-season means that clubs were in difficult situations where they were trying to get their transfer business done and get their teams in shape for the new season with very little time to work things through on the training ground. Most clubs had only one or two pre-season friendlies, while Manchester City started their season having not played a single friendly match. This preparation is of course far from ideal and has meant that new signings have had to be integrated straight into competitive fixtures.
It has also meant that new tactics that clubs wish to utilise and implement have had very little time to be worked on and we are witnessing clubs and players trying to play new styles or use new tactics for the first time in important competitive fixtures. This is where the lack of pre-season is sure to have contributed to the high number of goals we are seeing in the early weeks of the season. One feature of this that was very much evident in the last Premier League fixture prior to the international break was the way that Liverpool’s high defensive line was carved apart by an Aston Villa side who barely survived relegation last season. It could be argued that there is no need for Liverpool to change a defensive set-up that proved so successful for them last season but Jurgen Klopp has looked to implement a high line which has proved problematic for Liverpool so far this season with the champions conceding 11 goals in four Premier League games so far. This has not just been a problem for Liverpool. Southampton’s high defensive line were the recipients of five Tottenham goals in a 1-5 home defeat with each goal seemingly all too simple as Tottenham picked off their opponents with ease by playing balls in behind. Had these sides had more time to work on this in pre-season would we be seeing them conceding so many goals in the same fashion?
A theme of the early weeks of the season has been managers speaking of the issues they have with the condensed fixture schedule. Jose Mourinho has been particularly vocal on this, although the fact that his side were made to play four games in seven days means that he may well have a point. Fatigue will be a major issue this season. The season itself feels almost like an extension of last season and players have had literally no time to recharge before the new season starting.
The need to accommodate all competitions as well as international fixtures means that there doesn’t look as though there will be any respite in the schedule. Fatigue leads to mistakes and mistakes often lead to goals. When players are fatigued they can often lose concentration which is where mistakes creep in and although the season is still very young this may already be contributing to the high scoring fixtures.
Another issue that the fixture schedule and subsequent fatigue will bring is the need for increased rotation on previous campaigns. This will result in teams not always being able to field their strongest side and, although this won’t have been too much of a characteristic of the early weeks of the season, it could still have had an influence on the goals seen in the fixtures so far. Also, the inevitability of team’s being struck by positive Covid-19 tests and having to isolate or have players miss out unexpectedly will lead to further need for utilisation of the whole squad.
As was the case when the season resumed last season, fans are still not allowed to attend Premier League games. This has undoubtedly had an impact on the games, with the lack of fans meaning that there is no atmosphere in the stadium and home advantage has seemingly disappeared as a factor when considering the outcome of matches.
Initially the lack of fans meant that matches were played at a slower tempo and had something of a friendly feel but as this has slowly become the norm the intensity of fixtures has increased. The problem with having no fans in the stadium is that there is a huge loss of emotion in the fixtures. Many players thrive off the atmosphere that fans generate and the emotion and importance of games increases their performance levels. This can give players the extra energy to push on when behind in a game or the energy to battle to hold on when winning. The lack of fans and subsequent lack of motivation inevitably has lead to lapses in concentration from players. Without the heightened importance of the games provided by fans, players have certainly switched off at times and this has potentially led to an increase in the number of goals we are seeing.
While it is easy to say that fans not being present has been a negative there are some elements of games that have changed as a result. There is no question that everyone involved in football should be desperate for fans to return when conditions permit. However, players who have been underperforming and receiving negative reactions from their fans may be somewhat relieved by the lack of abuse they are now receiving from the stands. Without fans in the ground there isn’t such a negative response to things not working out and as such players may be more willing to try things that they would have thought better of with fans in the ground. A lot of sides are increasingly playing out from the back and this is certainly more comfortable without the anxiety of the side in possession’s fans. This increase in playing out from the back has seen mistakes made and this leads to the opposition gaining possession high up the pitch which has contributed to goals.
As a consequence of empty stadiums there is also less pressure in front of goal without fan noise as a distraction which is surely having an influence on the amount of chances converted in the Premier League. There is also less pressure on penalties without crowd noise and this will likely give penalties a training ground feel which means players are more likely to score. This has been evidenced by a remarkable 92% of the 25 penalties so far this season being scored, meaning only two have failed to be converted so far. This, coupled with the increase in penalties being awarded, has led to high scoring games and lots of talking points.
Some may say, like Souness, that the more goals and the more talking points the better. However, for the football purists this doesn’t sit right. Goals should be earned, they should not be almost given out as easily as they have been this season. While every fan loves to see goals, no proper football fan wants to have to wait with baited breath every time a ball hits a defender in the penalty box. The increase in goals is no bad thing but is the consequence of a number of variables with fans not being allowed in stadiums, harsh penalty decisions, and the disruption to the conventional football schedule due to Covid-19 pandemic all variables at play. The sooner football returns to normality the better but for now sit back and enjoy the Premier League goal rush.