Integrity Audit

Brace yourself: Burnley are bottom of the Premier League. In some ways that feels correct as we are hurtling toward the end of January and they have won one (1) game all season, and yet it also feels a little false as they have three games in hand on Newcastle, four on Norwich and five on the three Premier League sides – Manchester City, Chelsea and West Ham – who are up to date with their 2021-22 fixtures. Five games in hand, Jeremy? Five? That’s insane.

Hated virus Covid-19 is responsible here, of course, and the latest game to be postponed, yesterday’s north London derby, seems to have been a tipping point for many people, especially those that love ordered football seasons in times of calm and plenty. The word integrity has been wielded sternly, while Newcastle manager Eddie Howe said “I don’t think we want half the games played and half not.” Is that true, though? What about the community of people who are genuinely thrilled when they see a league table with a wildly varied ‘games played’ column, or those who see a story of redemption and hope in however many games in hand their team has.

And we also need to remember that football’s history has been littered with seasons where huge disruption has rendered the league table wacky for a bit. Burnley’s five games in hand is the first time that has happened in the top-flight since Liverpool in 1995, but in 1987-88 there were points when Luton had six and even seven games in hand. That season, now largely remembered as “John Barnes + Liverpool = good” was unusual because the First Division contained 21 teams, as part of the league’s plan to reduce the size of the top division. “Hang on,” you’re thinking… “that means that one team had a week off in every matchday. W-w-what about the integrity?”

No team has had eight games in hand since the big freeze season of 1946-47, something that decimated the fixture list yet has retreated into the mists of time. As has West Brom’s “tricky April 1912” where they played on April 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 29, a run that included two FA Cup finals and precisely no wins. No doubt Baggies fans at the time complained about integrity on their equivalent of the internet, but time moves on and seasons get completed. So it was, and so it will be.

George the Second

In 2019-20 Aleksandar Mitrovic scored 26 league goals for Fulham in the second tier. Two years later he has 27 goals in 24 appearances and looks certain to obliterate Ivan Toney’s Championship record of 31, set last season. Fulham have 21 games left this season and, assuming he plays in all of them and maintains his scoring rate, Mitrovic will end the campaign on 51 goals. I mean, it probably won’t happen but if it did, he’d be only the second player post-war to score 50+ league goals in a single season, after Terry Bly who scored 52 for minnows Peterborough in 1960-61. Bly’s season of plenty came in the fourth division; 1936-37 bizarrely saw two players score 55 times, Joe Payne for Luton in Division Three South and Ted Harston in Division Three North. Everybody knows about Dixie Dean scoring 60 goals in the First Division in 1927-28, so that means that the only player to ever score 50+ goals in the second tier is George Camsell, who scored 59 times for Middlesbrough in 1926-27, feasting heartily on the new relaxed offside rule. Mitrovic as the Balkan Camsell? Well, doing something incredible in the second tier only to see it ruined in the top flight a year later would certainly be very Fulham indeed.

Mitro Explosivo

Reality Bites

The Rafael Benitez Everton era was always going to end like this. A sport that thrives on rivalry and memory cannot allow a Liverpool legend to simply go their city rivals and be successful, and so it proved. If Sam Allardyce’s win percentage of 39% was simply not good enough, what does that make Benitez’s 32%? Yes there were early season glimmers that Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend could be low-cost super-catalysts but it was always a long shot (and not the sort Townend specialises in).

One strange number from the Benitez era is the amount of times his players got booked for diving. There have only been eight of them in the entire division this season (yeah, yeah, I know) but five of those eight have been shown to Everton players (Allan, Lewis Dobbin, Richarlison, Gray and Townsend). A refereeing quirk? Or a sign that Everton’s apparent taste for simulation has left them in a very troubled reality.

The English Football League of Late Goals

A commentator once described the Premier League as the ‘league of late goals’ but studies have shown that late goals occur in every competition, almost as if mistakes increase as fatigue sets in. This weekend it was the EFL’s turn to provide plenty of that sweet, sweet late drama: