Poor defending, adventurous tactics, rule changes and VAR: Why the goals are flying in since the Premier League kicked off
- Sportsmail’s Matt Barlow looks at why the Premier League has seen goal-fests
- Plenty of topflight defenders are having to deal with fragile confidence
- The tactics on display are rewarding lightning quick strikers getting in behind
- Defenders have become frightened inside the box due to new rule changes
- The league have replaced the atmosphere, by accident, with a goal frenzy
Sportsmail’s Matt Barlow takes a look at why the Premier League has seen so many goals since its return.
THE ART OF DEFENDING
The transfer window closed with what seemed to be half of the Premier League searching for another centre half, a silver-bullet signing to cure all ills.
Ideally, one who is quick, mobile and good on the ball. Who is capable of dominating in the air, with experience and character to organise and lead the team, and can play in a three or a four.
There is no shortage of good central defenders. They even exist at Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United, clubs who were still fishing around for an upgrade until close to the deadline, but the demands are extreme at the top of the modern game.
Half of the Premier League were searching for another centre half in the transfer window
It is the reason Manchester City suffer a staggeringly low hit-rate on central defenders. And it was the reason Arsene Wenger was ridiculed for failing to sign a good one.
Europe’s elite want to play with flair. They press high, with full backs pushed on. There is space behind, space down the sides and no cover. Centre halves are readily exposed and easily derided: not quick enough, not comfortable on the ball, not strong enough in the air or in the mind. Confidence is fragile.
Everyone wants the complete centre half. They all want Virgil van Dijk. Although they don’t all want to pay £80million, and besides, even Van Dijk — the best centre half in the Premier League, — does not solve every single problem, every single time, as Liverpool discovered at Villa Park.
More than ever in recent memory coaches are committed to attack. Perhaps seduced by Pep Guardiola and the success of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Perhaps feeling an urge to stay on trend and be perceived as daring and innovative. Perhaps simply understanding their obligation to entertain.
Squeezing high, it is all about intensity and energy, winning the ball in advanced areas. Or inviting the press and encouraging defenders to try to play through.
It is a dangerous strategy and the space in behind is the reward for those with lightning quick strikers. Jamie Vardy, Son Heung-min and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are thriving.
There are variations on high intensity play, but more teams are on the front foot, having a go
There are variations on the theme, but more teams are on the front foot, having a go. Even those newly-promoted clubs have ignored the convention that it is impossible to tackle the biggest and richest in the land at their own game.
It wasn’t enough to save Norwich last season, but it proved more successful for Sheffield United, and Leeds are not about to change their style. It makes for knife-edge football.
PENALTIES, VAR, AND RULE CHANGES
The upshot of video precision is that any contact in the penalty area means there’s a good chance of a penalty. When VAR was brought in, referees chief Mike Riley and his PGMOL insisted they did not want to drive contact out of football, and they started out trying not to over-rule the match referee.
However, the natural consequences of VAR plus TV punditry, where everything is analysed to the nth degree, has been for more intervention, and more penalties.
Forwards find any contact and fall over. What is there to lose? No one punishes divers. Any contact looks worse in super-slow motion, regardless of the fact it is a contact sport. Penalties abound. Free-kicks, too, with the lively new footballs wobbling all over the place and skilled dead-ball specialists.
Throw in this season’s ludicrous change to the handball rules and defenders, as Eric Dier says, are terrified inside the penalty area. It has led to more penalties and more goals.
There has been more intervention, and more penalties as defenders are frightened in the box
EMPTY STADIUMS AND POST-COVID FOOTBALL
The first trend identified when football restarted after the lockdown was the proliferation of away wins in German football. The absence of home advantage. The removal of pressure. Teams can play more freely.
Behind closed doors, the football lacks the same urgency. The routines are disrupted. The instant criticism is removed, inviting teams to cave in when they might not in front of their fans.
It is one step closer to a training exercise, which is ironic because there has been no pre-season programme and the competitive games crammed in so tight the coaches have lost their preparation time — time they might have spent on their organisation or the specifics tailored to each opponent.
Mental and physical fatigue will come into the equation, leading to lapses in concentration.
Behind closed doors, the football lacks the same urgency. The routines are disrupted.
THE EMPTY STADIUMS ARE DEFINITELY A FACTOR, SAYS BASSETT
Dave Bassett: ‘There’s no way Manchester United would have conceded six at home on Sunday with 75,000 inside Old Trafford or Liverpool concede seven at Aston Villa if Villa Park had been full. It’s no coincidence we are seeing these freak results now. The empty stadiums are a massive factor.
Not to say Spurs or Villa wouldn’t have won those games, but you won’t see many teams come back from two goals down when there’s no passion in the ground. I went to the Emirates to see Sheffield United and the atmosphere was like a training game. Less pressure, less criticism and easier for players to go through the motions.
All the penalties are going in. Players don’t miss penalties in training, they’re so relaxed. They know when the fans are on their backs.
The same can be said for the referees. It’s easier to send off Anthony Martial and not Erik Lamela when the Stretford End is empty. It is a totally different game without a crowd.’
Money talked and football had to press on. There were bills to pay and global markets to satisfy.
The Premier League might have lost one great asset, the crowd and the unique atmosphere generated by English football’s historic rivalries. They have replaced it, by accident rather than design, with a goal frenzy.
Adventurous styles of football played at a break-neck speed. Littered with imperfections it might be, but it makes for a TV spectacle and will keep the global audience engaged.
The Premier League have replaced the atmosphere, by accident, with a goal frenzy
LOSS OF ROUTINE LEADS TO ERRORS, CLAIMS WILKINSON
Howard Wilkinson: ‘Everything has changed in football as in society. Managers and coaches spend weeks, months and years trying to condition their players and their teams — both tactically and psychologically. Then there’s a major upheaval and the changes have a different degree of impact on every individual inside a club.
The places of familiarity are different, like the training ground and the stadiums. There are red zones and amber zones, one-way routes and partitions in the dressing rooms.
Testing, quarantine, self-isolation. The most firmly set pre-match routines are different. Kick-off times are all over the place. No crowds, the stadiums are empty.
Most players are comfortable with routine and react differently when moved outside their comfort zone. We ran a study when I was at the FA to examine the differences between playing at home and away, and one area concerned physical and emotional stimuli, how individuals cope with large and small differences in the subconscious routines they’ve developed. Sudden change, large or small, can be very unsettling especially as the game draws near. It’s bound to make a difference. It might affect focus or concentration. It might lead to more mistakes.
Even the very best players might find it hard. Experience or intelligence might hinder more than help.
If you have spent your life in the RAF, how do you cope when the advance of technology delivers a plane without pilots?
The key difference is they will have time and training to learn. In football, time is always short and this schedule is like no other.
Without pre-season, managers have lost the preparation time — the part of the year normally devoted to solving specific problems or developing ideas or conditioning new players to the way they operate. Everyone is learning on their feet.’
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