Goals galore – what is happening in the Premier League?

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Since the start of the new Premier League season late last month, 141 goals have been scored in just 38 games (at the time of writing), seven clubs are yet to keep a clean sheet and Liverpool and Manchester United have both conceded 11 times. 16 clubs have played four games, and four only three.

There are anomalies – three of Aston Villa’s goals in their 7-1 win over Liverpool were a result of freak errors and five of Leicester City’s 11 goals have been penalties, for example – which suggest an element of luck, as does the fact that the total number of goals exceeds total expected goals (xG) by  a large margin of 34. Nevertheless, the scale and regularity of goalscoring gluts suggest that there is more to them than pure coincidence.

The first and most obvious contributing factor is the absence of supporters. For all their quietness at certain Premier League clubs, the impact of a loud, boisterous and passionate crowd is undeniable. It elates in times of triumph, encourages when heads are about to drop and pours scorn when expectations are not met, raising the stakes and adding emotional meaning in each instance.

Without them, sterile stadiums play host to matches which are effectively meaningless except as tactical experiments or points on the table. It should be no surprise, therefore, that defenders are less focused and attackers are more clinical in an environment devoid of the pressure provided by massed spectator ranks. Without the adrenaline boost of a crowd, mental and physical fatigue also comes to the fore sooner and to a greater degree.

Another point worth noting is that the Premier League season ended in late July after several intense weeks of crammed fixtures. Players had no extended end-of-season rest as they would usually do and pre-season was shorter, particularly at clubs involved in European competitions. As a result, players’ physical conditions will not be as optimal as they usually would and there will also have been less tactical preparation for the current campaign.

Games are consequently more open affairs with plenty of space and time for players to move around. The significance of reduced physical fitness is best shown by a comparison with other European leagues where the number of permitted substitutes has been increased from three to five, a change not made in England. In Ligue 1, there have been 160 goals in 60 games, 92 in 27 in the Bundesliga and 95 in 43 in La Liga. With the ability to freshen their teams up more, clubs in these leagues score and concede fewer goals.

The role of spot kicks must also be acknowledged. 25 penalties have been awarded so far this season, with 23 of those put away, and this works out at an average of 0.66 penalties given per game. Last season, there were just 92 given in the 380 games played (0.24 p/g) and in 2018/19 there were 103 awarded (0.27 p/g). Although the sample size for this season is much smaller, the size of the gulf between these seasons indicates that there has been a substantial change.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that all spectators, watching from pubs or their own home, are now instantly able to watch any incident from all angles. It would be understandable for referees, knowing that any mistake would be criticised like never before, to want to make sure they get every decision right and therefore check with VAR a lot more often. That they identify a greater number of infractions, whether minor or major, is the natural outcome, especially when combined with this season’s extension of the handball rule. Officials’ seeming inclination to penalise contact in the box is also likely to mean defenders are less willing to make potentially goal-saving tackles, again leading to more goals.

Regardless of its roots, this veritable goalscoring frenzy has certainly been entertaining.

Image: Mat Fascione via Creative Commons.

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