Goals galore – but does the empty grounds theory actually make sense?

Hannah Jane Parkinson
·6-min read

Goals, goals, goals. 4-3. 5-2. 6-1. 7-2. Penalties. Lots and lots of penalties. In the 48 games of the season so far, the Premier League has seen 172 goals; an average of 3.58 per game. Liverpool, runaway title holders, have been thrashed 7-2 by Aston Villa, a team who avoided relegation by a tug of the shirt last time. Manchester City have shipped five at home. There were two 3-3 draws last weekend. The first 0-0 was on Monday, West Brom against Burnley. Written down that looks wrong – two wide eyes shocked at empty nets. And it was yours for £14.95 on pay-per-view TV.

The 3.79 goals per match average recorded this month is unprecedented in the modern era (all data from Nielsen’s Gracenote). The last time football in England was so prolific was in 1930-31, when an average of 3.95 goals were scored per game. 2019-20’s average was 2.9 goals. Why?

Related: Existentialist players and quarterback coaches: the sound of crowd-free football | Paul Doyle

“The obvious answer is the fact the crowd isn’t there,” says Clifford Stott, crowd psychologist and author of a book on football hooliganism. “That relationship is missing. The ‘12th man’ is a common expression, which is why playing at home has such an advantage.”

As supporters, we know it well: the dance one does between sitting and standing when the ball is in the opposition box; the hugging of strangers; the voices worn hoarse. Players sliding into adoration. The drama of dugout dust-ups.

Gary Lineker knows it well too. He only ever played one match behind closed doors in his career. A 1985 replay of a third-round FA Cup tie between Leicester and Burton Albion at the Baseball Ground. “The first time we won easily,” Lineker tells me. Leicester won 6-1 and he scored three. “That game was annulled [ because Burton’s goalkeeper had been injured by a missile thrown from the crowd] so we played again at Highfield Road. We won 1-0, but I had my hat-trick ripped away from me!”

What was it like, playing without fans? “It feels like training but more important. Training plus, I call it. It doesn’t feel like a match. I think, too, when teams are getting battered, home or away, there’s that element: you’ve got to keep going for the fans. It is probably easier for heads to drop and semi-give up without.”

Penalties have played a large part in the weight of scorelines too – fuelled by the introduction of draconian changes to the handball rule (since softened) and the liminal nature of VAR-decided offsides. There have been a record 23 so far this season, with a conversion rate of 92%. Lineker: “Less pressure behind the goal. Both sets of fans give pressure, so you have it double.”

Less pressure also seems to be a key factor in goals from open play, because conversion rates have soared. Players are taking, on average, one and a half fewer shots than last season, but rather than a goal being scored every nine shots, it’s every six. There have already been five hat-tricks (an opening day one from Mo Salah, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Son Heung-min, Jamie Vardy and Ollie Watkins following). Meanwhile, goalkeepers have gone from saving 70% of shots to 59%.

This can’t all be down to Jordan Pickford’s erratic handling and Adrián kindly playing passes to opposition strikers in his own box. So what’s going on?

Ollie Watkins scores one of his three goals during Aston Villa’s astonishing 7-2 win over the champions Liverpool at Villa Park earlier this month.
Ollie Watkins scores one of his three goals during Aston Villa’s astonishing 7-2 win over the champions Liverpool at Villa Park earlier this month. Photograph: Rui Vieira/EPA

Rupert Fryer, a South American-focused football journalist who has spent five years observing Brazilian training sessions, has a theory. Yes, the matches are like training, but a massively congested fixture list and a condensed pre-season mean there is less of the latter. “Attackers are the sport’s kings of improvisation; defenders and defences need to be drilled. A lack of structural organisation will certainly cost you more heavily at the back than it would going forward. Roy Hodgson, for instance, is famed for doing countless hours of mind-numbing shape work with his back-fours in training; and the conditions under which the league is now operating means there’s just nowhere near as much time to do that.”

Dr Victor Thompson, a clinical sports psychologist, mentions something else. Absent fans aside, playing with the lurking threat of a potentially deadly virus is probably fairly stressful. The measures put in place at the ground – the testing; the one way systems to be adhered to – will be unfamiliar. Both will have a psychological impact on players which can lead to under-performing and mistakes.

I’m keen to know, too, if the echoey environs making manager’s bollockings and teammates’ hollering more audible is likely having an impact.

“Managers will shout such nonsense at you,” says Lineker. “But with crowds, either you don’t hear them or you can pretend you didn’t. Last season we had the FA Cup final at Wembley. It was just a few of us, we had Wrighty there. The Arsenal players celebrating winning the cup ran up to him and said: ‘We could hear everything you were saying!’ It’s really weird being at a ground now.”

Related: Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend

The goal glut is being replicated elsewhere. Serie A is rolling in goals. Last weekend alone saw two seven-goal games and two with a total of five. Bundesliga results suggest home advantage is no longer a thing. But it’s not happening everywhere. The increase in Ligue 1 is marginal. The true outlier is La Liga, which is recording the lowest goals per game in a whopping 93 years.

You might say it is fortunate then, that the loss of the match-day experience for many fans who would ordinarily be at grounds has been mitigated somewhat by how exhilarating the games have been, though I doubt that’s much comfort to the clubs’ bottom lines. If the Premier League season carries on the way it has been, it is safe to assume the average number of goals per game will not be below three – for the first time since 1967. For supporters, that’s something to cheer about; even if the players can’t hear us.