Half-term report: No fans, plenty of pens and tightest of title races

At this stage last season Liverpool were already thirteen points ahead of their nearest rivals, Leicester City. While the second half of the season was not exactly a walk in the (Stanley) park, there was the sense of an orderly procession towards their first league championship for thirty years and that elusive Premier League title. Nothing was going to stand in their way and in the end they finished eighteen points ahead of runners-up Manchester City, whose 2017/18 success by nineteen points is the Premier League’s largest winning margin.

By comparison, at this season’s halfway mark, the gap between league leaders Manchester United and Arsenal in 10th is thirteen points and United’s 40 points is a dozen points shy of Liverpool’s tally after 19 games last season. With so many clubs in contention one can safely assume that the title race is going to go to the wire. It is unfortunate that one of the closest contests in recent history is going to be played out in front of empty stadiums, but this levelling out may be partly attributable to the absence of crowds. 

Home advantage certainly seems to be on the wane with the trio of home wins dropping from 45% last season to 38% this season while away wins have increased from 31% to 39%. By comparison, over the previous eight seasons the home win ratio never dropped below 41%, and the highest away win ratio was 34%. Clearly a fortress is less formidable when there are no supporters on the ramparts. And the most formidable fortress of them all finally fell when Burnley broke Liverpool’s unbeaten record of 68 games at Anfield, leaving not one home record unblemished this season. 

There has been only one managerial casualty so far, as Slaven Bilic was ousted from the Hawthorns to make room for Sam Allardyce’s latest joust against relegation. By the midway point last season Watford alone had already dismissed two managers – Javi Gracia and Quique Flores (for the second time) – and overall there had been six managerial changes. Without the pressure of crowds venting their spleen maybe managers are being given more leeway to sort out their problems. Judging by the incandescent vitriol raining down on Steve Bruce’s head from Newcastle fans he may not have survived this long if they had been allowed to express their feelings from the Gallowgate end at St. James’ Park. 

As Newcastle aim to avoid being dragged into the relegation mire, their plight might be helped by the fact that this season the stragglers are really straggling. Unusually one club has been cast so far adrift at the bottom that it seems highly unlikely that they will be able to claw back the deficit. Even Derby County’s record-breaking 2007/08 team had mustered two more points than Sheffield United had done at this juncture but one would assume they will overhaul the Rams’ sorry total of eleven points by the end of the season. They will almost certainly go down but should save themselves the ignominy of taking over the mantle of the Premier League’s worst ever team. 

Sheffield United have won one of their opening 19 games while directly above them West Bromwich Albion and Fulham (albeit having played one game less) have won two each. The bottom three’s five victories is the lowest number of wins at the halfway stage in Premier League history. By comparison, at this stage last season the bottom three already had ten wins and the average over the last 25 seasons has been nine. Previously the lowest was six, which last happened in 2012/13 when all three clubs – Wigan, Reading and QPR – were relegated. After 19 games last season the bottom three already had 43 points, this season they have 28 points collectively and need to improve significantly if they want to survive. 

This season started with an avalanche of goals with the first 100 reached as early as the 28th match. That represents quite a lick, averaging over 3.5 goals per game. If this furious scoring rate had continued throughout the season there would have been close to 1,400 goals, considering the Premier League record is 1,222 in 1992/93, which was a 22-club season, that would have been something quite remarkable. Things have calmed down with the last 100 goals coming in 44 matches, at a more leisurely rate of just over two per game. 

As well as goals becoming a bit scarcer, the plethora of penalties has been diluted significantly over the last few weeks. The current total of 73 after 184 games is still on track to comfortably beat the record of 109 spot kicks awarded in a Premier League season but the rate has slowed down considerably. In the last 31 matches twelve penalties have been awarded at a rate of approximately one per three matches, compared to the previous rate of one in every two games. Maybe the dreaded prospect of VAR and its all-seeing eye has led to defenders realising that they can no longer get away with indiscretions that would have previously gone unnoticed and unpunished. Additionally players are now less likely to dive as any simulation will be exposed. 

In this most extraordinary of seasons, which has been contorted and defined by the Covid-19 pandemic, the continuation of top flight football should be appreciated. Football provides a welcome distraction from the toughest times that the vast majority of us have ever had to face. Admittedly the lack of fans in the stadia has removed the emotional attachment for the majority of supporters and that can never be replicated. However, there is a glimmer of recompense with the prospect of watching the tightest title race in Premier League history unfold, which is something that can keep us going through this bitterest of winters.   

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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