Monday 1 June ~
It was perhaps fitting that Manchester United concluded the title formalities at Old Trafford with a soporific 0-0 draw against Arsenal. It was the penultimate of 42 goalless fixtures, the joint most common result in a season when Gary Lineker had to drain every last ounce of cheeky schoolboy charm to plug the gaps on action-bereft episodes of Match of the Day. Where have all the goals gone? It’s the most nil-nils in a season since 1998-99 and a big increase on the previous season’s tally of 26. A couple of manic 4-4 draws have dimmed memories of the barren weekend in November when the “Big Four” couldn’t manage a single goal between them. The goals-per-game ratio has slipped back below 2.5 again, while it’s nearly 20 years since the champions netted fewer. The Championship, meanwhile, was even worse with 54.
"The most exciting league in the world" didn’t compare too favourably with its rival “products” in Europe. Spain’s La Liga rattled nicely along at nearly three goals a game with 17 goalless draws, likewise the Bundesliga, which managed a genuinely tight title race and only 15. Supposedly defensive Italy only recorded just two more and the goal-shy French league still managed fewer shutouts than England. Meanwhile the Champions League was smothered rather than dominated, with games involving English sides averaging at 2.34 goals and accounting for a third of all nil-nils.
A blog on the Guardian website in March with analysis from Graham Taylor and David Platt suggested three influencing factors: continental systems, pragmatic foreign coaches and vast amounts of money. The first point somewhat generalised the continent as playing with one prevailing, defensive 4-5-1 philosophy that we have adopted. If so the above figures and the unparalleled parsimony of our top teams (Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea all conceded less than anybody in Spain, Italy and Germany) suggests either we have perfected the defensive system or others have abandoned it. As for foreign coaches, Roy Hodgson and Steve Bruce oversaw the most nil-nils with eight and six respectively.
With regards to money, the shared nature of the Premier League’s mammoth TV deal may have bred a more anxious relationship towards relegation than the each-to-their-own deals abroad. With Champions League places far more entrenched than elsewhere at the top and the Europa League treated in increasingly Eurosceptic terms there doesn’t seem much ambition beyond avoiding the drop. Platitudes such as “no easy games” and “anybody can beat anybody else” abound, but there were precious few “shocks” this season so perhaps the big boys have been earmarked for a point at best or goal difference limitation at worst. The results list looks staid compared to Barcelona and Real Madrid handing out hidings, but also being held by (never goalless) or losing to bottom-half sides.
This all comes despite huge sums spent on attacking talent and various measures supposed to encourage more goals. Sympathetic talk of formations, rotations and tactics can’t disguise the fact that Nicolas Anelka topped the scoring charts on 19, a total equalled or bettered by seven different players in Spain. With the combined transfer fees of Berbatov, Keane (twice), Pavlyuchenko, Johnson, Jo, Bellamy and Saha standing at well over £100 million a few more strikes might reasonably have been expected.
Hopefully for entertainment’s sake this isn’t a long-term downward trend. Can anything be done to prevent a goalless repeat? Traditionalists would no doubt be aghast at suggestions such as half a point for a goalless draw, or two points for a scoring one, so perhaps the only deterrent would be automatic entry into the Europa League for the three teams that inflict the most bore-draws in a season. Matthew Knott