This is my thirtieth weekly blog post I know, how time flies. Having started back in August we are now entering the final straight so it feels as good a time as any to reflect on what has happened over the last seven months. The 2020/21 season did not begin in August as is the norm primarily because the old season had only just finished following the enforced break in proceedings between March and June. With the last Premier League games being played on 26th July and Fulham’s Championship Play-Off Final win not taking place until 4th August, the football authorities had little room for manoeuvre.
A mere 39 days later, on 12th September, Fulham were back in action, facing Arsenal in the opening salvo of the new season, leaving barely time to draw breath before in the time-honoured phrase “we had to go again.” Without any opportunity for a decent amount of R&R the demands on players’ fitness were particularly arduous, as backed up by the number of injuries sustained. Many thanks to Ben Dinnery of Premier League Injuries for providing the following numbers:
Over the course of the season so far a total of over 2,200 games have been missed by injured players with the worst hit club Crystal Palace chalking up 197 while the average number of games per club is 110. By comparison at this stage last season, a total of 1,844 games were missed so this figure has risen by 16% and time lost to injuries has increased by 22%. Such is the impact of the concertina effect of the current season.
The season started with a flurry of goals, the first 100 goals coming in double quick time. The 100th goal of the season was scored in just the 27th match and if that rate of almost four per match had been maintained a total of 1,440 goals would have flooded in by the end of the season. Considering the most scored in the Premier League is 1,222 in the very first season, and that was with 82 more matches, this glut of goals was unprecedented. This was unlikely to continue and so it proved.
By contrast the last 100 goals have come in over 50 matches as the hectic pace set in the opening weeks has dropped off considerably. At the current rate there will be fewer than 1,000 goals this season which will be only the second time in the last twelve seasons that the final tally will be less than four figures. This is despite the high frequency of penalties being awarded with 98 so far, of which 81 have been converted. This season is well on course to surpass the record of 85 successful spots kicks from the 106 awarded in 2009/10.
Almost 11% of goals scored this season have come from penalties, by far the highest proportion in Premier League history with the previous highest 9% in 2006/07, which means that there have been proportionally fewer goals from open play. Certainly, the hat-tricks have dried up. In the early part of the season hat-tricks were coming thick and fast with seven scored in the first 98 matches. In the subsequent 188 matches, only two have been added with the latest being Kelechi Iheanacho’s against Sheffield United last weekend.
One of the conundrums of the season is Liverpool’s rapid fall from grace. The swing between being impressively impregnable at Anfield to improbably impotent is so extreme that laying the blame entirely on key injuries does not wash. As has been pointed out earlier nearly every club has been hampered by the loss of players and although Liverpool’s absentees were mainly at the heart of the defence, which is usually the bedrock of a successful team, other factors must be at play. It is worth bearing in mind that the 7-2 hammering at Villa Park came with both Van Dijk and Gomez in the starting line-up.
The implosion has been of such a violent nature that it cannot be down to one reason. Prior to their defeat against Burnley in January Klopp’s team had gone 68 league games without defeat, stretching back to April 2017 when Sam Allardyce’s Palace won 2-1. If that loss to Burnley was a shock to the system then what has followed would test football’s equivalent of the Richter scale to the limit. Defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City were not beyond the realms of possibility but going down to Brighton and Fulham would previously have been unconscionable.
Amidst this disastrous run perhaps the most painful loss was to Everton who had not won on their Stanley Park neighbours’ turf for 22 years. This was also Liverpool’s first defeat in the second Merseyside derby of a Premier League season. Having previously established a few positive records under Klopp, it was time to smash a few negative ones with possibly the most striking being that they had not lost six games at home in a single season (let alone consecutively) since 1953/54 when they finished bottom of Division One. They had never lost more than four on the bounce until now so having lorded it over all-comers for almost four years they are now particularly accommodating to their visitors.
Taking full advantage of Liverpool’s faltering form, City have more than just crept up on the rails after an uncertain start they have left all contenders floundering in their wake and it would take a Devon Lock like collapse to halt their third title in the last four seasons. It seems apposite that in a season when goals are somewhat at a premium the team which does not regularly play with an out and out striker are walking away with the league. Gabriel Jesus has only seven goals to his name and is behind Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling in the scoring charts.
In their last victory over Fulham, City’s other centre forward Sergio Agüero completed his first 90 minutes and scored his first goal since January last year as he has struggled with injury and illness. For a player who had scored at least twenty goals in five consecutive league campaigns up to 2018/19, this solitary goal in an increasingly sterile season came almost inevitably from the penalty spot. In a season when away sides have collected more wins than those at home, when the collective injury list has reached new depths, when penalties are aplenty as goals have dried up Sergio Agüero finally broke his season’s duck. And almost inevitably it was from the penalty spot.