There’s no denying the scintillation behind witnessing a hat-trick in soccer — the array of ways in which a footballer can score a goal is fascinating. But if you ask a Newcastle United fan what has been the most exciting thing they’ve experienced lately, their answer will likely be waiting until the 86th minute to watch Hatem Ben Arfa score a match-winning goal against Fulham that broke a scoreless tie in league play on August 31. Yet, this is exactly the type of game that several prognosticators have complained about — the type of game that is, according to them, dragging down excitement in the English Premier League this season.
At the foundation of their argument: only 78 goals have been scored in the EPL’s first 40 matches this season — an average of 1.95 goals per game. Last year’s average over the entire season was 2.80 goals per game. And over the two seasons before that? In 2011/2012, it was 1,066 goals (2.81 per game), and in 2012/2013, 1,063 (2.80 per game) — talk about consistency.
The biggest problem with worrying about how many goals have been scored through the first tenth of the current season is the fact that it’s way too small of a sample size from which to extrapolate across an entire season. But more importantly, if the EPL does continue scoring at this rate, it’s a cause for celebration: fans should be excited for a more level playing field with closer contested and more competitive matches.
The hand-wringing over the lack of scoring in the EPL doesn’t end here. In this article, ESPN subsidiary Grantland tries to solve the problem and breaks down possible reasons that this phenomenon is occurring. They acknowledge that it will likely right itself — implying that it needs to be righted — and they acknowledge that is too small a sample size to be legit. Yet they continue to diagnose.
Their first hypothesis? “Sometimes weird stuff happens.” Writer Mike L. Goodman explained in his second of two arguments, supported by Infostrada Sports, that if you take 40 matches during any stretch of the season in years past, that there weren’t that many instances where 78 or fewer goals were scored. But if you look into the numbers, it is statistically probable that such a dry-spell, if you will, will occur at least once a season. At least since 1992 when the EPL was formed. There have been 16 such stretches of 40 matches that have produced 78 or fewer goals in that time. In 2006, it happened three times; in 2009, twice. So it really isn’t as rare as Grantland would have us believe.
Other arguments blame players for taking the wrong shots or focus on the fact that the EPL underwent a massive managerial change (only Arsène Wenger of Arsenal has been at his station for three full seasons or more). Plausible — but rarely will you read about the new focus being paid to defensive tactics and why defense has become more important in the game than offense.
The EPL is a big business and staying in the top flight is essential for clubs to make money. Three of the 20 EPL clubs get relegated each season, and the financial penalties of falling into the division below are severe. Clubs know how to avoid relegation: by not losing. Focusing on conceding fewer goals increases the likelihood for more draws, which are worth one point on the table. Over 38 matches, getting at least a draw would give a team 38 points. Other than West Ham United in 2003, who were relegated with 42 points, 38 points should always be enough to maintain the status of a top flight club. A handful of wins and losses interspersed throughout the season will offset the difference, leaving an upper-thirties/low-forties point total achievable for a club that focuses primarily on defense.
At the epicenter of a team’s defense is the goalkeeper. The position is perhaps the most revolutionized position in the game, as clubs have been focused on obtaining ever more skillful stoppers guarding their net. This season might be the product of all that hard work. It’s not that there are fewer shots being taken this year than last year: the goalies are just doing a better job of saving them. Through 380 games last year, keepers faced 24.228 shots per game for 9,207 shots total in league play. This season, through 40 games, goalies have seen 978 shots, or 24.45 shots per game — more shots on goal, in other words, than last season.
It’s long been a foregone conclusion that the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool — often referred to as the big five — will finish the season atop the table. But the disparity between clubs six through 15 is much smaller than it used to be.
There is even a smaller gap between those clubs and the top five. Clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Everton have introduced themselves into the conversation of Champions League qualification. Everton have yet to qualify, finishing in 5th place several times over the past decade, while the Spurs qualified in 2010. As a result of this, the bigger clubs are less likely to pad their stats by dominating the bottom half of the table. Why? The focus on improving defense tactics has been more prevalent than improving offensive tactics — even relegated clubs have improved their ability to keep the top clubs at bay with one or no goals per game.
It is too soon to suggest that the season won’t finish with its typical numbers. Even if it doesn’t, that might be a good thing. We accept that better competition is exciting, no? Well, it has been proven that soccer may actually be the most competitive sport.