If you’re watching a Premier League game and less than four goals are scored, you should demand a refund. This season we have come to expect rampant onion bag bulging. Seven at Old Trafford yesterday, and an incredible nine at Villa Park. It’s weird. Something odd is happening. But what?
There have been many theories about why the Premier League is such a goal-fest at the moment. The expected return to the mean has failed to materialise; if anything the football body is becoming more incontinent, absolutely shitting out goals like the Premier League has had a coffee enema.
I’ve been talking to my secret philanthropist Premier League footballer this week because I am currently penning a 30,000 word covid update to my wildly successful book Can We Have Our Football Back? How The Premier League Is Ruining Football And What We Can Do About It. We discussed this trend. This is an extract from that discussion.
JN: Every game seems to be at least three or four goals now, often a lot more. Why is it happening? Are you all talking about it?
Player X: It’s a talking point, yeah. Some are just thinking it’s a blip in the stats and that it’ll even out over the season, but I’m not so sure. I think it’s primarily down to playing in a quiet stadium.
JN: Why’s that? How does that affect them?
Player X: Well, it’s weird Johnny. Whatever you do, good or bad, there is no response. Hit a long diag to feet, there’s no applause or cheering, score a goal and it’s virtually silent, hack someone down in the box, again, there’s just nothing. Honestly, it’s really f*cking strange. When you’ve played all your career to a crowd, even if it was just a few hundred, you subconsciously expect a reaction just because there always has been. Do you get me?’
JN: Yeah, but how does that lead to more goals being scored?
Player X: Two things, right? One. There’s no pressure on defenders from the crowd.
JN: Isn’t that a good thing?
Player X:(shakes his head vigorously) No no no. It’s bad. Without the pressure and the stress of having thousands looking at your every move, it makes you sloppy. You lose focus. Now, think about it, right? That doesn’t matter so much if you’re a striker. I mean, there’s not so many negative consequences for the striker who’s mentally drifted and comes off his game by 5%. If the ball drops to you in the box you’re still putting your foot through it. You get me? But defending is all about positioning and discipline. Lose your way on them two things and you’re quickly very f*cked. That’s also why there have been so many penalties, aside from the stupid handball law, which is f*cking mad. Lads switch off for a moment, a striker gets past them and they bring them down. It’s lack of sharpness. If you’ve got 20,000 behind the goal going at you, you don’t switch off like that as easily.
JN: But surely the pressure is still there from your manager and teammates and just wanting to win: from your competitive nature.
Player X: Yeah, it is. We’re not talking about throwing the whole game in. Most boys are doing most things right. We’re talking about your five percent here. That’s where the lack of pressure from the crowd is missed. Also when you go behind, and you’ve not got your fans to roar you on, there’s less incentive to bust a gut to get back in it. It’s hard to explain. It’s almost like I never knew positive pressure from fans even there until it wasn’t there. Does that make any sense?
JN: Of course. You took for granted that if you f*ck something up, the fans are on your back right away. So you want to avoid that, so you focus 100% to make sure it doesn’t. But even so, we’ve seen the sort of batterings that are once in a season things normally, but they happen every week.
Player X: Without fans, defenders heads seem to go down quicker. I’ve seen it. It’s like, “oh f*ck it, we’ve lost” as soon as you let the second in and so it goes on to be five or six. I could tell you names of players who are prone to that, but it wouldn’t be fair to do it anonymously.
JN: They’re throwing in the towel?
Player X: Yeah, sort of. Some big players. Internationals, even. You can guess who. It’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. But you wrote something a few weeks back saying that players and managers and TV and everyone is all going on as normal, like we don’t care if fans aren’t there. That was totally wrong by the way, you should’ve run that by me! (laughs)
JN: That’s the way it looks though. Players don’t seem any less happy to score goals or win a game. Everyone’s pretending everything is normal.
Player X: Yeah but what you got wrong was understanding what is really going on underneath. The lads are all enjoying playing but take the supporters away and it feels like football just doesn’t matter really. Do you understand me? Yeah, you still try and compete, the way you do in a full-on training game, but ultimately you know it doesn’t really matter. There’s nothing on it without your fans. That’s what playing in a game now feels like to me. I’m playing for the fans first and foremost and they’re not there.
JN: You’re not playing for yourself or your teammates?
Player X: No. It’s fans first, for me anyway. It has to be like that because if you think about it, Johnny, without fans there is no club. Some of the boys don’t always understand that. Not fully. But if you’re really playing for fans, when they’re not there, you’re not playing for them anymore, are you? It all becomes more distant. I can’t see or hear them on their sofas so to me, they’re not there.
JN: So you’re saying that there are more goals being scored because defenders don’t care as much if they make mistakes when there are no fans to get onto them?
Player X: Yeah. Basically, yeah. They don’t want to make mistakes. But underneath, you know if you do, the consequences are not so bad. That gets into how you think about the game. As I run out I know that if I have ‘mare it’ll be OK and I don’t feel like that normally. That’s allowed strikers to play with more freedom knowing that if they try something and it goes in row Z no-one will take the piss, and defenders know that if they don’t press quite fast enough, or lose their man, equally there’s no-one there to slag you off. See? So strikers are scoring more and defenders conceding more, as a reaction to the same thing.
JN: I thought you’d say defenders make less mistakes because of lack of crowd pressure.
Player X: I would’ve thought that as well, but look at the games. The scores don’t lie. Defenders are far worse without crowds. Some of the defending has been shocking. Worse than the players are, if you get me. So it’s obvious to me that the issue is psychological and related to fans not being there. I know that’s it from my own experience.
JN: So why isn’t it happening in Scotland? It’s just the same as ever up here, at big or small grounds.
Player X: I’d have to say they must be mentally stronger and have a better team ethic, maybe. We’re all massively pampered wusses in the Premier League and give up too easily! (laughs) I don’t know. I can only comment on my experience in the Premier League.
JN: Would you say you’re still giving 100% then?
Player X: Well, how do you ever know what percent you’re giving?
JN: I just mean, are you going into every tackle fully committed, making every run at the maximum, trying to get to the ball first. All of that?
Player X: The truth is I don’t know. Not really. All I know is that there isn’t the same tension or stress as there normally is and that must affect how you play. It affects me. Most of your game is instinct and you click into it out of habit. But there’s 10% which is driven on by the game itself and the crowd was all part of that. The stats say I’m running as much though, for what that’s worth, but I feel like I’ve had more time on the ball and I’m just nowhere near as sharp as I’d expect.
JN: I suppose what people like me and almost all fans can never really appreciate is what it’s like to play in front of up to 75,000 people sometimes. How that feels inside your head and how it affects how you psychologically.
Player X: I’ve played with lads who totally freeze under the pressure and don’t want the ball, almost like their legs won’t work properly. And then there’s others who it makes bigger men and they grow to meet the expectation. But take that fan pressure away and you’re so much more relaxed. You can’t help it.
JN: And you think that’s good for strikers but bad for defenders?
Player X: Definitely. It’s obvious to see.
JN: Will it continue?
Player X: Look, I got it wrong on fans coming back in. I was wrong on everything (laughs) So do not place a bet on anything I say! I think someone out of the ordinary will win the league this year. Results are all over the place and you won’t need over 90 points this time. The big six look good one week and poor the next. It’s totally unpredictable. I’d put money on Everton, myself. Maybe this is the new normal. It’s nothing like football was before, so maybe in this version of the game, four or five goals per game is typical and a 1-0 will be the rare thing. One thing I will say though is that football without fans in the grounds, and I don’t care how many are watching at home, is pretty meaningless. The more I’m talking about it, I think that’s a big part of this.
JN: How do you mean exactly?
Player X: If you think about it, actors would feel like it didn’t matter if they were playing to an empty theatre wouldn’t they? If you get your lines wrong, well it doesn’t matter because there’s no-one there to see you f*ck up. So you don’t stress about it. But no-one is paying them thousands per week to perform to no-one. The Premier League is. It must be f*cking annoying for everyone else who has been basically shut down and there we are, raking in the cash like it’s going out of style. Clubs spending millions. Typical sicko Prem. All that.
JN: So you still think PL football shouldn’t be happening?
Player X: Of course it shouldn’t. It’s taking the piss. Think about it, Johnny. We’re only playing so that the clubs can get the TV money and can pay us for playing. That’s weird for a start. That’s the only reason it’s happening. If it wasn’t for the f*cking stupid wage bills, they’d probably not be bothering. All of this, it’s all about money, not about football or anything else. Like I said, no-one will tell you this, but I think it’s hard for many players to care as much as normal about the result, without fans there, especially the boys who know they’ll only be there for a year or two. It’s just a pay day to them. No-one gets their wages docked for letting in four, five or six. You get the same money no matter how shite you are. How bad would you feel on Monday after a loss and for how long as the weekly 100 grand drops into your account? Not for long. They really don’t give a f*ck what happens at the club, they’ll be moving on soon enough. That’s the game now. Badge kissers are everywhere. When crowds are yelling at you, you’re forced to care, but when they’re not, so what if we lose four nil, does it really matter? No it f*cking doesn’t.”
As 41 goals were scored across Saturday and Sunday, it was easy to see what he meant. It’s not that there are different sorts of mistakes being made, just more of them. A lot more.
But given that crowds will be absent for a long time yet, it seems likely this goal glut will continue.
But what will it do to how we view football, a game of traditionally few goals, when they become more common and thus less precious or remarkable? Does it make it better fare or somehow worse? Is this just another way in which forcing football to be played without fans is going to warp, bruise, devalue and damage the game, or is it just a one-off riot of fun?