Manchester City's Erling Haaland is the Premier League’s leading goalscorer this season

Why the goal glut?

Football — never boring, even when Italy is defending a 1–0 lead — has only grown more exciting


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A few decades ago, football boffins thought the beautiful game was too boring. In 1996, the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, tried quite literally to move the goalposts. He wanted the sticks widened by the diameter of two footballs, and the bar raised by one.

Fortunately, his ridiculous idea was killed quickly, and Blatter and his UEFA sidekick Michel Platini were driven out amidst a corruption scandal. Fans around the world had reacted with horror to the idea, and football — never boring, even when Italy is defending a 1–0 lead — has only grown more exciting.

Take this season’s Premier League, which has seen a stupendous increase in the number of goals. At the time of writing, with most teams having played 28 games, the League has seen 907 goals at an average of 3.25 per match. This is a leap from the 2.85 per match last season, the modern low of 2.45 per match in 2006–7, and 2.36 in 1970–71. It is the highest since 1964–65, when Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law were scoring for fun, and most teams had a twenty-goal-a-season striker.

What is behind the change? Part of the answer is the polarisation of quality between the stronger teams and those at the bottom. At the time of writing, Sheffield United are bottom of the table, having conceded 74 goals in 28 matches — a ratio worse than any side in Premier League history. Burnley, in nineteenth place, have conceded 62 in 28 — more than two goals per game. Last season, only Leeds United had such a leaky defence, and several seasons have gone by in which no team conceded so many.

Sheffield United supporters have had to watch their team — just at home — lose 8–0 to Newcastle, 5–0 to Villa, 5–0 to Brighton, and 6–0 to Arsenal. Just for good measure, Brighton beat them 5–2 at home in the FA Cup, too.

Newcastle players celebrate after their 8–0 drubbing of Sheffield United

The trend is not only caused by low standards at the bottom of the League. Another explanation is the increase in playing time. Last season statistics showed that the ball was in play during Premier League matches for an average of only 55 minutes. The resulting decision to clamp down on time-wasting has, according to some estimates, doubled the amount of additional time this season compared to previous years, with the second half of matches now often extended by ten minutes or even more.

Elementary maths tells us more minutes means more goals — but longer games also mean wearier legs and more mistakes, and more risk-taking by teams searching for an equaliser or winner. For those cynics and sceptics out there, the extra injury time has not just been cancelled out by more feigned injuries and time-wasting. In January, the Premier League estimated that the time the ball has been in play this season has increased on average by more than three and a half minutes.

The increase in goals is proportionately greater than the increase in playing time, though, and this leads us to the most significant part of the explanation: changes in the playing style of Premier League teams. Football has become much more proactive and assertive. In recent years teams such as Manchester City under Pep Guardiola have consciously eschewed tactics such as counter-attacking and aimed, in simple terms, to completely dominate their opposition.

What does this mean in practice? It means maintaining very high rates of possession, requiring patient build-up play and demanding more of players in every position — even goalkeepers and defenders. Gone are the days of meat-headed blockers: modern football asks keepers to sweep far beyond their box, defenders to pass quickly and accurately, and defenders and defensive midfielders to withstand the pressure of a “high press”.

Equally, attacking players are expected to press opposing defenders high up the pitch, hunting together as a pack. The new approach also needs players to be tactically astute enough to play their part in flexible formations, which can move from, say, a 4-4-2 out of possession to a 3-2-5 with the ball.

Now more teams are playing the City way. Arsenal under Mikel Arteta — a former Guardiola apprentice — seek to dominate their opponents too. Spurs under Ange Postecoglou, Newcastle under Eddie Howe and Aston Villa under Unai Emery are all playing in similar ways.

The emphasis on control and high pressing does not only mean more goals for teams seeking to dispossess their opponents in their own half: it also means more opportunities to counter-attack. “Transition”, in football parlance, is when you win back the ball from the other team and seek to exploit the spaces they left as they attacked. This is not just something left to the weaker teams against their stronger opponents who dominate possession. Liverpool might win the title this year, and Jurgen Klopp’s team are masters of the transition.

The pursuit of control — and the flexible formations that come with it — brings opportunities to score for the attackers. More possession means more chances to create, and more high pressing means more chances to take the ball from your opponents in dangerous parts of the pitch. But this creates opportunities for the other side: to counter-attack, yes, but to beat the press by passing through it or even sometimes, more directly, over it.

The result, as the data shows, is more entertainment and more goals than for decades.

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