Monday, December 14, 2009

The Premier Goal Rush

(Also in the Talk section of the December issue of Man's World)
For the first time in the 18 years of the English Premier League in its present format, there were no drawn games on the opening day. No drawn games! In the land of hard tackles and defensive coaches obsessed about avoiding losses.

But what was a bit of trivia on Day One has now escalated into a fascinating debate. One that has football pundits scratching their heads. That of the cash-rich and star-studded but boring Premiership suddenly becoming more exciting than the Serie A in Italy or the Spanish La Liga –in terms of goalscoring.

It’s true, and to help put things in perspective, chew on these figures: The EPL is seeing 3.03 goals being scored per game after well over a hundred games being played, whereas La Liga tocks in at 2.72 and the Serie A 2.52.

And that’s not all, the EPL itself saw goals scored at 2.48, 2.64 and 2.45 in the last three seasons and has now jumped up to 3.03 for the ongoing season. In fact, it’s stayed at over the three-mark all through the season.

Soccernet confirms that striker accuracy has gone up by 3.04 per cent and conversion rates have gone up by 1.59 per cent over last season.

More statistics (or trivia, if you like): this is the first time in 11 years that the EPL has seen goals scored at over three per match (after at least 50 games). And finally, this is the first time since 1968-’69 that England has seen more goals scored than in Spain or Italy.

Why though? Is it because the gulf between the big clubs and the small clubs have widened so much that the Big Four are walloping the minnows? Or have all the clubs suddenly bought themselves brand new scoring shoes?

Well, the truth is actually somewhere in the middle. Look at the big wins so far. On August 15, Arsenal beat Everton 6-1. A week later, Manchester United beat Wigan Athletic 5-0. Liverpool beat Hull City 6-1 on September 26. On that day, Tottenham Hotspur too beat Burnley 5-0. Arsenal beat Burnley 6-2 in an eight-goal thriller on October 4, while Blackburn Rovers had no clue where they were against Chelsea on October 24, losing 5-0. Away from the limelight, West Ham United beat Burnley 5-3 on November 28. And very recently Spurs again underlined the changing times with a 9-1 hammering of Wigan. Five of those goals came from one man — Jermain Defoe. Expected results from United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool then, but nine goals from Spurs?!
Expected results from United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool then, but five goals from Spurs?!

Or Manchester City, who are, surprisingly, in the Top Five at the moment; the same club that lost 1-8 to now-nowhere Middlesbrough in May 2008. As are Spurs. As well as Aston Villa. In fact, so unique is the Top Four that you’d think you are following a different League altogether.

So, from a four-horse race, the Premiership has suddenly become a seven-horse race. And it’s not just that. Wigan Athletic have beaten Chelsea 3-1. United have lost to Burnley 0-1.

The question, though, is: why?

Well, there are five evident reasons: (a) poor defending, (b) the new Total 90 Ascente balls, widely described as a ‘keeper’s nightmare’, (c) the realisation that floating around within the EPL doesn’t bring in money, (d) refereeing in favour of forwards, and (e) the rising stature of the smaller clubs, which has been discussed already, and of which City is the greatest example.

Everton manager David Moyes clearly blames club owners for investing in goalscorers, when he says, “all clubs big and small are guilty of playing with patchwork defences”. While Blackburn Rovers manager Sam Allardyce only says, “Poor defending”, when quizzed.

Case in point: the seven-goal Manchester derby, where City scored two of their three goals from defensive lapses, and United scored three of their four when no defenders were anywhere near the scorers; they missed a dozen more from similar situations. The guilty included Rio Ferdinand.

Let’s discuss the monetary angle now: former British footballer and coach Bill Adams, now in Delhi as Director of Super Soccer Academy, explains: “TV means the rewards for finishing in the top six are substantial. Getting into Europe gets you 23 million pounds. Merchandising for a top club will get between 20 and 40 million quid, and good gate receipts will get you half a million a week. On top of this, England is a tax free haven for multi-billionaires.”

So the billionaires (mostly Middle-Eastern) have come in, bought some of the less-privileged clubs, pumped in money and bought big-ticket stars – mainly strikers.

But is it only for the moment? Is this is a temporary high or will the bubble last – especially when it comes to Spurs and City and Villa? Adams shakes his head on this one: “In the short term, it’ll work. But both have tactical and strategic weaknesses. City is unbalanced and need two or three more defensive players, and Spurs do not have the sophistication of the other top four clubs. Villa will always be there and thereabouts.”

But at the same time, in the long term, there is no reason why there should not be more than four big clubs. Consistently getting into Europe is the key and all teams know that now. And most importantly, the billionaire bosses of the ‘smaller’ clubs know that. For years now, the bulk of EPL clubs have done just enough to stay in the top flight. Finish anywhere above 17th on the table and your salary for next year is guaranteed. Most clubs never believed they could do better. Most clubs didn’t even try to do better. Except the one time in 1994-95 when Blackburn won the title – the only time in 18 years that the title has gone to a club outside of, you guessed it, the Top Four. And blame that on Alan Shearer, who played for Blackburn then and scored 34 goals.

That’s changing. Fast.

Even Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill appears to agree: “City might not be favourites right now, but they should be soon. They have as good a chance as anybody of winning it.” Adams agrees, saying, “This year is a bit too soon for City to win, though they can be in the Top Four. Spurs will take longer. But City can be a contender next season if they strengthen their defence.”

The new, improved Premiership, it appears, is here to stay. No more dreary draws. No more long clearances that are aimed at nothing in particular. Goals are in. Goals are hot. And goals are happening.

And, here’s one other bit of trivia to wrap things up: six of the top 10 goalscorers (6 and above) at the moment are not from United or Chelsea or Arsenal or Liverpool. Hurrah!