The Premier League, where scoring first doesn’t matter anymore – The Athletic

By Jacob Whitehead and Duncan AlexanderMar 27, 2024

It takes commitment to support Norwich City.

There’s the flitting between the Premier League and the Championship. There’s your arch-rivals becoming very good at football. There’s competing in a financial world that feels increasingly distant from Carrow Road. And speaking of distance — the travel distances from East Anglia make every away day an odyssey.

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In the 2019-20 season, on their return to the Premier League after three years in the Championship, the expectations were not high. The reality was even worse.

They were relegated as the bottom-placed club — and, humiliatingly, failed to win a single point after going behind over the entire 38-game season.

(Lindsey Parnaby/Pool via Getty Images)

Consider that for a moment. Norwich went behind 27 times… and they failed to respond on every single occasion.

Over the season, even taking into account the games played behind closed doors during Project Restart, their fans spent a combined 112 hours on coaches travelling to away matches — nearly five days — only to know their fate as soon as the first goal went in against them.

But if only Norwich had clung on in the Premier League a little longer, that might have changed.

This season, more points have been won from losing positions than ever before.

Think of the quick turnarounds, the battling draws, the late-late shows. Think of Bournemouth’s comeback from 3-0 down against Luton Town, Manchester United’s Boxing Day display of backbone at home to Aston Villa, and Sheffield United’s Ollie McBurnie scoring the latest Premier League goal on record (102 minutes and seven seconds) in the match against West Ham.

On average, 0.72 points per match have been won from losing positions — around 70 per cent higher than the low of 0.43 in the 2005-06 season. One way to think about it might be this: if four teams in a set of 3pm matches go 1-0 down, the statistics suggest that one of them will come back to win.

This season, there have already been 48 comeback wins — just 11 off the record of 59 turnarounds, dating from the strange outlier campaign of 2012-13. If the current pace continues until the end of the season, we could see 64 comebacks this season, potentially eclipsing the previous mark by the end of April.

The trend is being driven by the elite teams.

This season, second-place Liverpool have already rescued 23 points from losing positions, with third-place Manchester City hauling back 21. Extrapolated over their final 10 games, and both clubs could challenge the all-time highs; Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle team in 2001-02 won 34 points from losing positions, but Liverpool and City are on track for 31.2 (second-most ever) and 28.5 (fourth-most) respectively. Neither club has trailed by more than a single goal all season, with Liverpool matches within one goal around 90 per cent of the time.

Top of the league Arsenal, by contrast, have only managed eight, despite spending a similar amount of time trailing as their title rivals.

It sounds like a negative, but a dive into the data shows that this is an illusion. Arsenal have gone ahead in 22 of their 28 games this season — four more than any other club in the league — with eight points from the six games they trailed in representing an excellent return. There have been winning comebacks against Manchester United and Luton already this season.

So why is this happening more than ever?

This season has seen goals scored at the highest rate since the 1960s, at an average of 3.24 goals per game (the highest since 1964-65’s 3.34). The correlation is simple: more goals equals more comeback possibilities.

A newfound focus on timewasting from referees means that games are longer too — on average, each game has 11 minutes and 42 seconds of stoppage time this season compared to an average of six minutes and 54 seconds in the last 10 seasons.

To highlight what that means, matches last season averaged 0.57 goals per game after the 75th minute. This season, that figure has ballooned to 0.76.

But there are also other reasons, some due to stylistic shifts that have encouraged attacking football. The majority of teams now employ a proactive approach — in and out of possession — which can lead to openings. For example, as noticed by The Athletic’s Ahmed Walid last month, the average amount of possession regains in the attacking third has risen by 37 per cent over the last five seasons.

GO DEEPER

Why are so many goals being scored in the Premier League this season?

This applies throughout the league, with even promoted teams such as Burnley pursuing an open and attacking style, despite being repeatedly punished for it. The three sides in the relegation zone — Nottingham Forest, Burnley, and Sheffield United — have conceded an average of 2.19 goals per game, with Sheffield United on course to become only the second team in Premier League history to let in 100 goals in a single season.

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This also fits into another relevant trend: the gap between the league’s best teams and its worst sides is increasing. According to FIFA’s ‘competitive balance report’, released in 2021, the Premier League is the seventh-least competitive league in Europe, and bottom of the ‘Big Five’ leagues.

Essentially, the attacking ambition of the league’s weaker teams gives them a better chance of opening the scoring — but the gulf between them and the elite means that they are more likely to be hauled back in. Bottom-half teams are less equipped than they were in more defensive times to set up in a low block for long periods, and the Premier League’s top sides now possess more ability to break down opponents anyway.

So who’s the best? Any mention of Jurgen Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ may now elicit a collective groan from the rest of the league, but most myths contain a kernel of truth. Since 2019-20, Liverpool have won 96 points after falling behind in games — significantly more than any other team in the league.

Three months before the start of this dataset came Liverpool’s two-legged comeback against Barcelona. But, as the numbers suggest, this is just an extremity in the comeback stakes, rather than totally unique.

This season alone has seen Klopp’s team record comeback wins against Bournemouth, Newcastle United, Wolves, Fulham (in thrilling circumstances), Crystal Palace, Brentford, and Luton Town — they have scored 40 per cent of their goals after the 75th minute.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Here are the reasons. Despite snarling at suggestions to the contrary, Liverpool have struggled early in games on several occasions this season, conceding the first goal 12 times — it’s double the number of title rivals Arsenal. That provides the opportunity to launch a comeback. And, so far, they have responded well.

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Klopp’s in-game management is an underrated part of his management oeuvre. It shouldn’t be a surprise; in-game tweaks are just as much about reading people as they are about reading formations and pressing patterns.

This season, Liverpool’s squad depth has been impressive. They have both an impressive youth academy crop coming through, as well as players — especially in midfield and defence — who are comfortably able to rotate with the starting XI without representing a significant downgrade.

But there is unmistakably another psychological aspect to it. Whereas last season, Liverpool kept conceding the first goal and losing, this campaign they have been able to rebound. It speaks to a multiplier effect, also known as the ‘Matthew Effect’, whereby the more something happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

For example, if Liverpool’s squad go behind, they are more likely to be able to regroup because they have the experience of successfully problem-solving mid-game from earlier in the season. Correspondingly, the opposition are more likely to be negatively affected against Liverpool, hyper-aware of their ability to launch a comeback.

Trailing 1-0 against Luton last month, Klopp revealed that he reminded his team of the Barcelona semi-final at half-time — where they similarly faced a deficit and several key injuries — and received four goals in return.

GO DEEPER

The Comeback, No. 14: Liverpool deepen Barcelona’s Champions League trauma

This will all provide brutal reading to city rivals Everton, who have earned just 41 points from losing positions since 2019, the lowest of any club who spent each of those five years in the Premier League. (They have earned 15 points fewer than Leicester City, despite the East Midlands side’s Championship status this season).

But this is the lesson: if scoring first matters less than ever this season, the subsequent reaction still does.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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