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Has something significant changed in football?


Last weekend, Manchester United lost 6-1 to Spurs, and Liverpool were thrashed 7-2 by Aston Villa.  Those results were newsworthy on their own, but they also reflect a bigger story this season: the Premier League is seeing a glut of goals.  Is this just a short term blip, or has something seismic happened in football?

Here are the raw statistics:

MORE GOALS PER MATCH

There have been 144 goals in 38 matches, an average of 3.8 goals per game.  This compares to an average of around 2.6 goals in a typical season (the highest ever goal average was 2.82 in 2018/19, and the lowest was 2.45 in 2006/7).

FEWER DRAWS

In a typical season, about 1 in 5 games is a draw.  After 38 games, we'd expect there to have been 7 or 8 draws.  So far, there have been only three.  (Fewer draws is a direct consequence of more goals - for a start, it means that there will be fewer 0-0 draws.)

MORE AWAY WINS

Playing at home is normally considered an advantage, with the home team winning about half the time, and the away team about one third of the time.  This season that's almost been reversed.  Half of the matches so far have been away wins, and only 42% have been home wins.

 

So what's going on?

Well - maybe nothing at all.  We can't rule out that this has just happened by chance.  Over a short period statistics can include all sorts of anomalies.  If you flip a coin 100 times, you shouldn't be surprised if at some point you get a run of six heads or tails.  It doesn't signify anything.

But the football stats this season look different.  We've seen at least 40 more goals than we might have expected at this stage.  There have been enough games to suggest it's proving easier to score goals this season, and easier to score them away from home.

And the explanation?  I'd suggest two reasons:

1.  Absence of crowds.  'Home advantage' is largely down to the intimidating atmosphere of tens of thousands of fans cheering you on.  Without the Kop and Stretford End crowds behind them, Liverpool and Man Utd are missing that cliched "12th player".  And perhaps the players on both sides feel less tense, so are playing with a freedom they normally experience only in practice games.

2. VAR and penalties.  There have been more penalties than normal so far, several of them due to "hand balls" that would not have been regarded as offences before this season's controversial rule change.

It's worth noting that the goal glut only seems to apply to the Premier League.  The lower football divisions - who have smaller crowds and don't use VAR - are so far seeing results that look normal.

What will happen next?  My guess is that the extreme results we've seen so far won't continue at quite this level.  Part of what we've seen has probably been a fluke, and therefore there will be what is called a regression to the mean.  I also think that with defences leaking so many goals, some managers will change strategy and focus on closing down games at the back.  And (surely?) crowds will return at some point this season.

However, I'm still going to make a prediction: the previous record of 1,072 goals in the Premier League will be broken.  This season we'll see a total of more than 1,100 goals in the Premier League for the first time.  But don't ask me which team will come top.