Liverpool have hit the post/crossbar more times than any other team in the Premier League this season, but how much of an impact would that have in a world without woodwork?

We’ve all been there; we’ve all said it.

Picture the scenario: Your Team FC is drawing in the latter stages of a match. The big man up top, Terry Striker, gets a great connection on a shot but it cracks against the crossbar and bounces away to the safety of the relieved defenders.

With the team’s fate sealed at full-time, that late miss ultimately proving costly, you imagine an alternate reality in which that shot flew just a few centimetres lower. Almost as clear as day, you can see that league table from this hypothetical other dimension, Your Team FC basking in the glory of two additional points and thus that bit closer to the title/European qualification/safety/any other rudimentary league table target. You then snap back to reality.

“If that had gone in…”

Shots hitting the crossbar or post probably account for most of the what-if moments in football because of that so-close-and-yet-so-far nature of hitting the woodwork. The difference between success and failure in professional football can be minimal, especially when you consider the potential ramifications of a shot hitting the post or bar instead of going in during a tight end-of-season encounter.

In fact, in such instances you can even put an actual measurement to the difference between success and failure; the width of the post/crossbar is 12 centimetres, so your team could feasibly fall short of tangible success by literally a few inches.

But how much of an impact does hitting the woodwork actually have in the grand scheme of things? It’s all well and good daydreaming about the late one that denied you [insert football achievement here], but all teams see shots denied by the post or crossbar. Your Team FC almost certainly benefited from a similar such near miss against Bitter Rivals AFC or Fellow Title Challengers United earlier in the season.

If you’re pondering what might have been had that screamer not hit the bar, then surely this alternate reality should account for all the other occasions the frame of the goal came to the rescue/denied someone a goal?

Thankfully, at Opta Analyst, not only do we have the data to see what such a world would look like, we also have a surplus of time on our hands. It’s the perfect recipe for exploring fun, albeit unrealistic – verging on irrelevant – hypotheticals, which we’ve done by sorting through every match in the Premier League this season and adding to the scoreline where a team has hit the post or bar. We’ve then been able to generate a new league table.

So, here we are; the Premier League 2023-24 but without the constraints of goalframes. Don’t ask how the nets are suspended, we don’t have time to get into a discussion about the realism or feasibility of the theoretical physics at play here. Just accept that they don’t have a frame.

The bottom line is, if every shot that hit the post or crossbar (not including the ones that hit the woodwork and went in) in the Premier League this season had gone in, we’d have seen an extra 222 goals for starters.

Liverpool have been the unluckiest in that respect as they’ve been denied by the post or bar 21 times; Sheffield United, perhaps unsurprisingly as the team to have attempted 71 fewer shots than anyone else, have hit the frame of the goal the joint-fewest times (5, level with Burnley).

Jürgen Klopp’s men have also only been rescued by the frame of the goal six times. So, their net goal-difference improvement on that basis would be 15, which is obviously a significant amount. You can certainly imagine 15 goals being the difference between winning a league title or not; for pretty much any club you’d expect that to have a sizeable impact.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Manchester United. Just eight times they’ve hit the post or bar this season, whereas their opponents have done so on 18 occasions; that would give them a net goal-difference deterioration of 10. Again, in real terms that’s an amount of goals that could easily have telling consequences, and it’s not that surprising conceding how open they’ve been.

But of course, the key lies in when you’re kept out by the woodwork. For instance, we’ve already touched on the contrasting records of Liverpool and Sheffield United, yet, in this alternate, woodworkless dimension, each of them would only gain three extra points despite the Reds having a net goal-difference improvement of 15 and the Blades’ being -7 (hit the woodwork 5 times, rescued by it 7 times).

At the end of January, Liverpool thrashed Chelsea 4-1 and hit the woodwork four times; in September, they beat Aston Villa 3-0 and hit the woodwork twice; in December, they edged Fulham in a 4-3 thriller while also hitting the woodwork two times. The long and short of it is, 15 of their 21 instances of being denied by the frame of the goal simply wouldn’t have impacted the end result because of how often they’ve won comfortably – it might have boosted Darwin Núñez’s goal tally, though:

Players times hit woodwork Premier League

Nevertheless, Liverpool would’ve turned draws with Arsenal, Luton, Brighton and away to Chelsea into victories had shots not hit the woodwork; the flipside is they’d have also only taken a combined total of one point instead of six from trips to Newcastle United and Crystal Palace had the frame of the goal not been their saviour.

As already alluded to, no team have been saved by the woodwork more than Man Utd (18, level with Fulham), and that’s also reflected in the impact that’s had on their results. Their 2-1 win at home to Chelsea would’ve ended in defeat without the post/crossbar, while slender one-goal victories over Burnley, Wolves and Luton would’ve been disappointing draws.

In fact, United would’ve lost more points than any other team in the Premier League if all shots that hit the post/crossbar went in. They’d be nine points worse off than they are now, which would give them a total of 41; that’d see them slide down to 10th place in the table, dropping behind West Ham, Brighton and Chelsea. They’d also be closer to the relegation zone (14 points) in this alternative table than the top five (16 points).

Premier League table points vs woodwork points
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Everton would be the biggest gainers in our fictitious scenario. Only in one match would they have seen the result impacted negatively from their perspective if all shots that hit the post/bar went in; that was their 2-2 draw at Sheffield United in September. The Blades hit the woodwork three times that day, meaning they’d have won 5-2 in a woodworkless universe.

However, Everton would have gained points in four matches, turning a 2-1 defeat at Spurs into a 3-2 win, draws with Fulham and Newcastle into victories, and snatching a point from Wolves instead of a 1-0 defeat.

Manchester City are the only team in the whole league who’d have not seen the result of a match change negatively from their perspective. Their opponents have only hit the woodwork four times this season: two were in games they won by at least four goals, one was in a 4-2 win at Palace, and the other came at Villa in a game they lost anyway.

As such, they would gain four points in the woodworkless table, second only to Everton’s seven and enough to give them a three-point cushion at the summit of the Premier League.

With that in mind, the impact of removing posts and crossbars from Premier League grounds probably isn’t as massive as you might have expected; or maybe it is in terms of an increase in goals, but not so much with respect to transforming the table.

The conclusion of this very serious and highly important investigation into a world without goal posts is that, yes, it’s possible for there to be a 12cm (or less when you consider the curvature of the goal frame) margin between glory and despair. But there’s really not much point fretting about the what-if moments because there’s so freaking many of them.

Just enjoy the ride.

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