30 November ~ There was much excitement at the weekend over the high number of goals scored in the Premier League, and so there should have been. For once living up to its hype, there was a surfeit of thrilling games, quality football and excellent finishing. Since August the top flight’s goals per game average stands at a healthy 2.75, comparing favourably with the dreary Serie A (2.25), about on a par with Spain (2.7), but lagging behind the wacko Bundesliga, which leads the way with a remarkable average of 3.21. None of these leagues, however, can compare with the goal-heaviest competition of them all, the English League Cup, which so far this season has boasted an average of 3.44 goals per tie.
I’m on record as having stated that it would be logical to cull this tournament as part of a necessary streamlining of the English calendar that would include reducing the top division to 18 teams and abolishing FA Cup replays. This would relieve the demands on English players that regularly mean they’re too knackered to compete in major summer tournaments. That does not mean that I would actually like to see it happen. In fact, England’s biennial failures are a source of great joy to many, and sacrificing the League Cup and FA Cup replays – often important sources of income to Football League teams – just to see England maybe do better only makes sense if you actually care that Steven Gerrard and John Terry will one day retire without a major international honour to their names.
It’s a paradox that the less important the League Cup has apparently become, the more absorbing it has been to watch. The high number of goals is no coincidence; rather it’s a reflection of a cavalier attitude that it won’t really matter if you get knocked out, so you might as well play positive football. Teams experiment with young or second-string players who are eager to make an impression. In the League Cup, Scunthorpe are not afraid to have a go and attack Manchester United. Newcastle are not afraid to go all out for a win at Stamford Bridge. In general, the thinking seems to be: “Well, if they score four, we’ll just try and score five.”
So the League Cup has unwittingly managed to create a niche for itself as an entertaining sideshow to the big-money competitions. It’s such a throwback in terms of goalscoring that you half expect to see teams lining up in a 2-3-5 formation. There seems to be more space, and there’s definitely more creativity. It’s like every match is the third place play-off at the World Cup. You know, the five-goal games like Turkey versus South Korea in 2002 and Germany versus Uruguay in South Africa this summer. The games that everyone said were great to watch, the most open clashes of the tournament, but that they didn’t really count. Apart from being to decide who’s the third best national team in the world.
But when results “count”, defences must be tight. The common wisdom is that a competition can only be really important with the requisite amount of negative play. And even in the League Cup, once there’s an actual trophy up for grabs the consequences can be dire. Try not to remember the 0-0 final last year that Manchester United and Tottenham – neither team a stranger to flowing, attacking football – bored us with for two turgid hours. Someone must have won on penalties that day, but I can honestly say that I don’t recall which team.
Still, the highest compliment I can think of to pay the League Cup is that it’s fun to watch. And there’s no reason why something you do in your leisure time shouldn’t be fun, is there? Does it always have to be agony, or taunting, or gloating, or ranting, or barracking, or booing? Or counting a loss in terms of income? And maybe the reborn idea of Football as Enjoyment really is spreading to the Premier League too. After the barn-burning Bolton-Blackpool game at the weekend, home manager Owen Coyle cited his attacking substitutions as the reason behind his side’s comeback, despite exposing his team to the risk of counter-attack. Meanwhile, Blackpool's Ian Holloway said he was proud that his team had chased a third goal when 2-0 ahead away from home. A defensive purist might wail “What about the lost two points?” But to us naive fools who like to see goals and action, managers like these are helping to save a sport that at times in recent years has seemed far beyond redemption. Ian Plenderleith