“Football’s not like it was in the good ol’ days,” people grumble. “Back when men were men, when you were allowed to stand and smoke in the ground, sing your heart out for ninety minutes and pay two bob for your ticket.”
Yes, football has changed a great deal over the years, with the big change taking place with the introduction of the Premiership and Sky Sports.
Money plays a bigger role than ever, thanks to foreign owners, with clubs on the brink of bankruptcy going on to win League titles and reach European Cup finals, whilst other clubs who have gone over three decades without a trophy can afford to spend more money on a player than any English club ever has done before.
But how has football changed within these Premiership years?
Much has been made of United’s recent defensive record, with us last conceding in the league on November 8th. Defensive records are not something we’re famed for, with us spending most of our successful years based on the philosophy of outscoring our opponents. They might score a goal or two, but we’ll score a goal or two more. Before claiming the record for longest stretch without conceding in the Premiership, then English football, then British football, United held the record for the most goals scored in a Premiership season. However, we’ve seen a greater focus on defensive football more recently.
Our away performances against Roma and Barcelona last season, making it our priority to keep the opposition out of our penalty area, showed a different side to the United we’d seen lift the European Cup just nine years earlier. We didn’t concede and scored just two goals between the two matches. During the group stages in 1999 we conceded three goals at the Nou Camp against Barcelona, but scored three ourselves to leave with a point. Away to Bayern Munich, we conceded two goals, but again, left with a point, and away to Brondby we conceded two, but put away six in their net. Away to Juventus in the semi-final we conceded twice, yet still managed to score three to book our place in the final.
Football has changed even since 1999, with that gung-ho approach unlikely to get you anywhere in the Champions League these days. The new style has been adopted in our own league, with plenty of teams more concerned with shutting the opposition out than they are with attacking.
When Chelsea won the Premiership in 2005, their first title in fifty years, they did so thanks to the solid defensive foundation that Jose Mourinho put in place. They were an efficient machine, controlling the match from the back, letting the opposition come at them but rarely allowing them to penetrate the back line. Then they would nick a goal or two to sure up the three points.
If we compare Chelsea and United’s best Premiership seasons, we can see the end product in terms of points, goal difference and games won is fairly similar. However, how they reached their conclusions was vastly different. Just five years separates these seasons but the style used to win the title varies greatly.
In 2000, we lost three games, had a goal difference of 54, won 74% of our games and set a Premiership points record of 91. In 2005, they lost just one game, had a goal difference of 57, won 76% of their games and set a Premiership points record of 95.
We scored a massive 97 goals that season, an average of 2.6 goals per game. They scored 25 fewer goals, an average of 1.9 per game.
We conceded a massive 45 goals, an average of 1.2 goals per game. They conceded just 15 goals, an average of 0.4 goals per game.
Whilst United still pride themselves on attacking football, dominating the possession and shots on goal in every game they play, the football of 99-00 is a distant memory. The better English teams became in Europe, the more necessary it was for the successful style of Champions League football to be a part of our own league.
Arsenal became the first Premiership winning side to concede fewer than 30 goals in a season in 2004. Before that season, Premiership Champions conceded 37 goals a season on average. The 26 goal record of Arsenal was smashed the following season though, with Chelsea’s 15 goals. Since then, the most goals a side has conceded but still gone on to win the league is 27 goals, by United in 2007 (it’s interesting to note our goal difference was just one goal worse off than Chelsea’s in 2005 though, when they let in just 15 goals).
Mourinho watched United’s 1-0 win over West Ham, where a British football record was broken, with us going thirteen league games without conceding, and I wonder if TNSSO was aware of the trend he helped introduce to our game. In 2000, the average goals conceded by a Premiership team was 53. In 2005, it was 48.75, a difference of 4.25 goals a season. That might not sound a great difference, but that works out at a total difference of 85 goals! In five years, the defences of football teams in this country have bettered themselves by 85 goals!
If United carry on conceding at the rate they have done so far this season, there will be between fifteen and sixteen goals scored against us this season, a third as many as were scored against us when we won the title in 2000.
As much as this may be attributed to European styled football, the approach needed to be successful against sides in Italy, Germany and Spain, I’d say the money of the game plays a big role.
They say the price of being relegated is £30 million. For a lot of clubs, they simply cannot afford to be £30 million down and stay in business, or at the very least, plan a return to the Premiership any time soon. So rather than going on the attack, seeking out a win, whilst risking being caught on the break, a lot of teams would prefer to fight for the point.
Take for example Reading last season, who were relegated on goal difference. They won as many games as the side that finished 13th and just one game less than the team that finished 11th, showing their desire to go out and try and win. However, in doing that, they were obviously caught out too many times, losing on twenty two occasions. That’s what got them relegated and that’s what cost them £30 million this season. Is it any wonder then that teams focus on securing one point rather than risking them all in a bid to win the game? Fulham won just eight matches last season, the same as relegated Birmingham, but picked up a crucial twelve points with draws, and stayed in the Premiership.
Inter Milan scored just 69 goals last season and were crowned Champions, German Champions, Bayern Munich, scored just 68, and the season before last Real Madrid won La Liga with just 66 goals to their name! It surely won’t be that long now before our league reflects the same defensive-minded style, if even Manchester United are claiming records for their defending!