Scor­ing rates re­veal gulf be­tween haves and have-nots

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - SIMON BURNTON

THESE are his­toric times. Just look at the top of the Premier League ta­ble, where the two Manch­ester teams are di­vided only by the most dizzy­ing of goal dif­fer­ences. It is not un­prece­dented for a team to have a goal dif­fer­ence of plus 20 or more af­ter seven games but it is ex­traor­di­nar­ily rare. It hap­pened four times in the 19th cen­tury and three times in 117 years since, Manch­ester City this sea­son be­com­ing the lat­est side to achieve the feat .

Peo­ple think of the early days of the Football League as wild times, with dis­or­gan­ised de­fences cop­ing mis­er­ably with the fact that no­body had in­vented Tony Pulis yet and al­low­ing for­wards called Ted or Ho­race or Dixie to plunder goals with af­fa­ble ease be­fore pol­ish­ing their boots, comb­ing their mous­tache and pos­ing for a da­guerreo­type with their favourite pipe. In fact, the era we are liv­ing through is threat­en­ing to make those days look pos­i­tively or­derly.

In 1907-’08, Manch­ester United lost one of their first 14 games, win­ning the rest. In ad­di­tion to that soli­tary de­feat, their first seven fix­tures fea­tured two 4-0 home vic­to­ries and two 4-1 away wins, which took their goal dif­fer­ence to plus 20. It was plus 29 af­ter nine games, at which point they calmed down a lit­tle, go­ing on to win the league by nine points and with a goal dif­fer­ence of plus 33.

It would be more than a cen­tury be­fore an­other team started a sea­son so free-scor­ingly, a cen­tury in which it was un­usual for a team to have a goal dif­fer­ence even in dou­ble fig­ures af­ter seven matches. Sud­denly, such achieve­ments have be­come be­wil­der­ingly com­mon: Chelsea were at plus 21 in 2010, while in 2011 United were on plus 19 and City on plus 18. In the last cen­tury six teams have built up a goal dif­fer­ence in ex­cess of plus 17 by the end of their sev­enth game; all but one of them did so in this still in­com­plete decade (the other was Liver­pool in 1978).

This seems to be more than just co­in­ci­dence, and a blow to the English top flight’s boast of be­ing the world’s most com­pet­i­tive league. But we are liv­ing in an age of re­mark­ably honed for­ward lines and shred­ded de­fences: the cur­rent lead­ers of the top divi­sions in Spain (Barcelona), France (PSG), Ger­many (Borus­sia Dort­mund) and Italy (Napoli) also have goal dif­fer­ences of plus 19 or more. The tim­ing of City’s goals is also in­ter­est­ing. The lead­ers have scored seven first-half goals, the same as United, Liver­pool and Tot­ten­ham, and one more than Arse­nal, Burn­ley and Chelsea. In the first half of matches they are merely quite good. Last sea­son, their goals were split fairly evenly be­tween the first and sec­ond halves, and in the fi­nal 45 min­utes they outscored op­po­nents by a ra­tio of pre­cisely two goals to one. This term, they have an ag­gre­gate post-in­ter­val score­line of 15-0.

With Romelu Lukaku (below) fill­ing his boots, United’s is 14-1, and in the fi­nal 15 min­utes the two clubs are 8-0 and 10-0 up re­spec­tively. This al­most cer­tainly re­veals some­thing very in­ter­est­ing about their op­po­nents, pos­si­bly a lack of fit­ness or con­cen­tra­tion but just as likely a grow­ing des­per­a­tion, with the end of the game screech­ing ever closer, to be some­where else. This sea­son we have wit­nessed not only wild over­achieve­ment at the top of the league but spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure at the bot­tom. There is hope for Crys­tal Palace in the fact that of three teams since the start of the 20th cen­tury to have had a goal dif­fer­ence as bad as theirs af­ter seven games, only one went down.

That was the Manch­ester United team of 1930-’31, whose record for con­sec­u­tive sea­son-start­ing de­feats Palace are chas­ing, but Ever­ton in 1948 and Wool­wich Arse­nal in 1909 had a goal dif­fer­ence of mi­nus 20 af­ter seven matches and re­cov­ered (both had at least savoured the en­cour­age­ment of win­ning a game by this point).

Poor Palace. How galling it must feel to be stuck in their un­en­vi­able po­si­tion when a flick through the key sta­tis­tics re­veals that one team stand feet and an­kles below ev­ery other at most things that might cause en­cour­age­ment — shots on tar­get, touches in the op­po­nents’ penalty area, cor­ners — and that this side are not even them. It is Swansea, for whom 18th place looks de­cid­edly like over­achieve­ment at this point.

Palace have had 16 shots on tar­get, two fewer than Brighton and Burn­ley, one be­hind Ever­ton and five ahead of Swansea, but not one has gone in. This is not so much anoma­lous as down­right freak­ish: the next least clin­i­cal side is New­cas­tle, who have scored with 19.4pc of their shots on tar­get (at the other end of the scale, Wat­ford are rolling at a surely un­sus­tain­able 50pc).

Mean­while, on ex­pected goals, a met­ric that takes into ac­count the qual­ity of chances, there are 11 sides below Palace. In other words, given the chances they have cre­ated in ac­tual matches, chance-eval­u­at­ing pro­fes­sion­als would ex­pect them to have outscored most of the di­vi­sion — in­clud­ing Chelsea, who have con­verted 12 of their op­por­tu­ni­ties and sit fourth. In­stead, Palace stand 101 min­utes away from over­tak­ing the 1990 Hal­i­fax Town side to claim the Football League’s worst sea­son-com­menc­ing goal­less run.

Of all the sig­nif­i­cant sta­tis­tics other than the ones that gen­uinely mat­ter — ac­tual goals scored and con­ceded, points won — only on ex­pected goals con­ceded are Palace statistically the di­vi­sion’s weak­est team.

In mit­i­ga­tion, they are one of only two sides to have al­ready been shoved mer­ci­lessly in front of both the speed­ing Man­cu­nian jug­ger­nauts (Ever­ton, uniquely, have played each of the cur­rent top four, a dis­tinc­tion for which many be­lieve Ron­ald Koe­man should be re­warded with the sack). Af­ter seven games, there can be no doubt which team are most wildly ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions. Burn­ley are sixth and have al­ready won more points away from home than they man­aged in the whole of last sea­son. They are also the di­vi­sion’s sec­ond-worst side (above Swansea) on shots taken and touches in the op­po­nents’ box, the third worst on to­tal passes, pass­ing ac­cu­racy, cor­ners won, and shots on tar­get, and the worst of all for al­low­ing their op­po­nents to shoot.

Just like last sea­son, when they were the ninth-best side at home and the 19th away, Burn­ley have split their games in two and are per­form­ing in only half of them. In first halves they lead 6-1 on ag­gre­gate and have the di­vi­sion’s third-best record; in sec­ond halves they are 4-1 down and are 18th.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, teams mak­ing bad starts very of­ten turn out to just be bad. In the last 10 com­pleted sea­sons, half of the 30 teams to have oc­cu­pied the bot­tom three spots at this stage were still among them at the end of the cam­paign. The un­usual thing about great starts is that the great­est teams rarely make them.

In the past decade, only once have the side in the lead af­ter seven games still been there as the cur­tain fell. In the same pe­riod the team sit­ting eighth have won the league twice, though all things con­sid­ered Wat­ford prob­a­bly should not get overex­cited.

For Swansea, 18th place looks de­cid­edly like over­achieve­ment

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