Perhaps it was a result of a Premier League fixture and broadcasting schedule that has flogged players over the Christmas period. Elite players cannot play twice in three days (and three in six for some) and be expected to perform at peak. The intention of the festive scheduling is to create mass excitement among armchair supporters, but near-constant coverage can actually have the opposite effect. It threatens to shift live football from luxury good to necessity good, thus reducing its ‘special’ nature. You make your choice between quantity and quality; these aren’t robots.
I could surmise that the mostly wretched fare on display between Middlesbrough and Leicester was a direct result of what we can alliteratively label as ‘festive football fatigue’, but it would be a generous assessment. More likely is that we were watching two teams struggling to create chances from open play, signs of promise thwarted more by attacking bluntness than defensive aptitude.
Take Adama Traore, Middlesbrough’s exciting but raw winger. No Premier League player completes dribbles more regularly than the Spaniard, but few Championship wingers produce a final ball of such pitiful average quality. Take Riyad Mahrez, who laboured around the final third in a more advanced role but again failed to create a single chance. Take Gaston Ramirez, the personification of the phrase ‘flatters to deceive’. Even Manchester City’s Navas, the only Jesus unfamiliar with the cross, would have watched and tutted at the pitiful end product.
It was not an entirely dull game, you understand. This was not a tactical battle between two teams sizing each other up; entirely the opposite in fact. Neither manager set themselves up as must-not-lose, but neither team made it past could-not-win. Blood and thunder aplenty, but quality ultimately lacking.
Judging a whole league on the events at the Riverside Stadium is uncharitable. Middlesbrough have scored the fewest home goals in the Premier League and have had the fewest shots on target too. The ten games on Teesside this season have produced just 19 goals.
Yet this is the undoubted flip-side of the astonishing form of the Premier League’s top six, a group of clubs that we can pessimistically label as the dirge and more kindly call ‘the rest’. There is a battle to survive relegation, and it will not be pretty. A quarter of Premier League clubs have taken fewer than one point per game and 12 have taken fewer than one point per away game.
This away statistic is important, because it sums up the lack of ambition on the road by the Premier League rest. With the top six running clear, a lower points total than ever before may be needed to stay up. As it stands, 29 will be sufficient to finish ahead of Sunderland. That makes up the mind of many bottom-half managers: win your home games, play for 0-0s away. Burnley have taken 96% of their points at home, Leicester 90%, Sunderland 71%, Hull 69% and Bournemouth 67%. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we struggle to win away games, so we’ll stop wasting our effort trying; we stop wasting our effort trying so we struggle to win away games.
That lack of ambition is demonstrated in the number of away goals scored. Last season, only five Premier League clubs scored away goals at a rate of one per game or less. This season, that number of clubs has doubled to ten, and includes teams in eighth, ninth, tenth and 11th. Last year Aston Villa had the lowest average number of non-blocked shots away from home with 6.16, comfortably the Premier League’s worst team. This season Sunderland are averaging 5.1, Middlesbrough 5.1 and Burnley 5.4.
Against Middlesbrough, Leicester displayed exactly that strategy. After a balanced first half, Claudio Ranieri’s side sat back, having only 32.2% possession after the break. This was not a return to last season’s counter-attacking blitz, for there was little attempt at that, simply a reflection that one point away having beaten West Ham 1-0 at home represented a good return. Crystal Palace did the same at the Emirates on Sunday, almost accepting a 2-0 defeat as damage limitation. Home is where the heart is.
Unlike in previous seasons, there is no side in the bottom eight attempting to play expansive football. That is not intended as censure of Ranieri or any other bottom-half manager. This is football after all, not horse-dancing or synchronised swimming; there are no marks for aesthetics. Relegation will be determined not by away or home results in isolation but a combination of the two.
For those of us watching however, it is a slightly different story. The gap between the Premier League camps of have and have not is vast. The inter-camp matches are predictable, and the intra-camp matches tight and cagey. As the margins get tighter, expect the fight against relegation to be a scrap in more ways than one. What you see is what you get.