The Analyst is the home of the complete statistical history of the Premier League. Here are some of the most important building blocks in the competition’s history.
The argument that football isn’t about numbers was brutally undermined in 1888 when 12 of the country’s leading “clubs” formed “The Football League.” Not only did they start awarding points for winning and drawing games, but the organisation compared each team’s performance by ranking them by how many of these “points” they had gained. The fact these “tables” had to be drawn by hand before being printed wasn’t ideal, but the league quickly became popular and inspired others across the planet. When the Premier League was created 104 years later, technology had advanced enough that we have a workable grasp of just what has happened, and when. First player to score a Premier League goal in a short-sleeved shirt? John “the Flying Postman” Williams. First player to assist a Steven Gerrard Premier League goal? Rigobert Song. Last player born in the 1970s to appear in the Premier League? The restaurateur Julián Speroni, the three-star glovesman of the kitchen, at Anfield in early 2019. I mean, I could go on. But the launch of TheAnalyst.com demands more than minutiae. Instead, let’s go through the history of the Premier League and finally settle on the most memorable statistical contributions in the competition’s history. Officially. Forever. Please Discuss.
Gazza, Do You Have a Message for Norway?
Arsenal rescued a point at West Ham earlier this month thanks in large part to the efforts of Martin Ødegaard, their Norwegian loanee, and Premier League clubs are expected to engage in a full-scale bunfight for Erling Haaland this summer. Quite simply: the Norwegian scene is achingly cool right now. But will it ever be as populous as it was in the very early days of the Premier League? Only 52 foreign players appeared in 1992-93 and Norway were the most represented nation, with eight. And given how good the son of Alf Inge Haaland – first seen in the English top-flight in 1994-95 – has turned out to be, you wonder how much scouting attention has been focused on any eligible children of Gunnar Halle, Erik Thorstvedt, Erland Johnsen, Stig Inge Bjørnebye, Frank Strandli, Pål Lydersen, Kåre Ingebrigtsen and Henning Berg. Forget understanding the DNA of the league and start checking the DNA of the Norwegians.
For a man who was an outstanding striker, and who also literally released a single called ‘Outstanding’ which reached number 68 in the charts, Andrew Cole gets much less attention than he should when people are discussing the Premier League’s greatest players. 187 goals, only one of them from the penalty spot, and 73 assists, only one fewer than Thierry Henry, the perpetual winner of the “striker who you’d confidently state got a lot of assists in his career,” is, well, outstanding. Perhaps Cole’s relative lack of appreciation partly stems from the fact his best season in the Premier League was his first, for Newcastle United in 1993-94. Emblematic of the club’s rebirth in the second tier under Kevin Keegan, almost as big a story in 1992-93 as Manchester United’s adventures a division higher, people still wondered whether Cole would be able to handle the step up in quality. His answer was 34 goals and 13 assists, meaning he ended the campaign as the top player in both categories. This is the only time a player has been the outright leader of both goals and assists in a Premier League season, and it is: a) outstanding and b) not given enough credit. So far this season Harry Kane is top for assists and joint-top for goals, so Cole’s record is under threat, and you can be sure that Kane will get more praise for doing it than Cole ever did.
Swindon Town let in 100 goals in a single Premier League season and we may never see it happen again. Yes, sweeper-manager Glenn Hoddle, the architect of their promotion from the second tier, left them for Chelsea before Wiltshire had witnessed any top-flight action. And yes, that 1993-94 team did go and score 47 goals at the other end, which is only one fewer than reigning champions Liverpool have managed in 29 games this season but even so. Swindon were, and remain, the only top-flight team to concede into three figures since Ipswich in 1963-64, and at least the Suffolk side had recent memories of winning the title. Swindon do not. Go back any further and football starts to lurch into its “probably… not that that comparable” era, exemplified by 1957-58, when Manchester City and Leicester let in 100 and 112 goals respectively but neither of whom suffered relegation. No such unrealistic high-jinks for Swindon 36 years later. The 100th goal wasn’t conceded until the 90th minute of a 5-0 home defeat to Leeds on the final day, but the magic roundabout town club had confirmed their exit some time before that.
The Kindness of Les Ferdinand
As described above, Andrew Cole only scored one penalty in his Premier League career, but Les Ferdinand remains the top scoring player in the competition to see none of his total come from the spot. Given he finished his career with 149 goals, just one successful penalty would please base-10 ultras if not Ferdinand himself, although he did tell The Athletic last year that he now regrets not taking them. His generosity wasn’t just limited to on-field activity either. Ferdinand had an excellent 1995-96 at Newcastle United, effectively replacing Cole and scoring 25 goals in the process as the club came a painful second after looking destined to become English league champions for the first time since 1927. The club’s solution to such existential pain was to add youth reject-turned Euro 96 top scorer Alan Shearer to their squad, a man for whom the Newcastle No. 9 shirt had mythical properties. No bother, Ferdinand handed it over after one season carrying that number. Generous to a fault, Ferdinand remains one of only two players to both score an own goal and provide an assist in two different Premier League games. How kind is too kind?
Fifteen to One
United have the treble in 1998-99, Manchester City have their 100-point season in 2017-18 and Arsenal have their unbeaten 2003-04 campaign. All three achievements are rightly cherished, but Chelsea only letting in 15 goals on their way to the Premier League title in 2004-05 outflanks them all. Two of those 15 goals were let in after the club had sealed the title, while Petr Cech, in his debut season at Chelsea, kept 24 clean sheets. If that sounds a lot for a single season but you’re not quite sure then finding out that it is one more than Boaz Myhill managed in 118 Premier League games may help you decide. There’s also a parallel with the Arsenal Invincibles in that the only other team to let in as few as 15 goals in an English top-flight season are Preston in 1888-89, also unbeaten that campaign. Does this mean that Preston are in fact the greatest league side, having matched both Arsenal 2003-04 and Chelsea 2004-05. No, because they only played 22 games, there was no such thing as a penalty and goalkeepers could handle up to the halfway line. Not the same is it?
The Hipster’s Choice
Yes remaining unbeaten all season is cool, but what Arsenal did two years earlier was even cooler. Pro tip: Arsenal fans requiring a 38-digit passcode at some point could always go for 41413122312132311222113311421233222214 [please don’t, it’s easily guessable] because that, of course, was the club’s game by game scoring record in the 2001-02 Premier League, making them the only top-flight team since the 19th century to score in every single game in a league season. Since 2010, the Premier League has seen a number of teams score 100+ goals in a single campaign but all of them have drawn a blank at least once. Scoring is hard, no one’s perfect. But Arsenal in 2001-02 were pretty close.
Edwin the Ready
Cristiano Ronaldo’s final season at Manchester United was a reasonable one. The club won the Premier League for the third time in succession and came quite close to becoming the first side to retain the Champions League in the modern era. But unlike 2006-07 and 2007-08, Ronaldo wasn’t the most important person in the team. 18 goals might have made him the second top scorer in the Premier League, but he invariably looked morose and 16 of them came at Old Trafford. Instead, the star player was actually not a player but the club’s defensive unit, who reacted to a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal in early November by deciding not to let in another goal in the Premier League until late February. 14 clean sheets in a row remains a competition record, and Edwin Van der Sar’s spell of 21 hours and 50 minutes without conceding is surely impregnable in the modern era. Stranger things have happened, but you can also watch the entirety of Stranger Things in the game time that Van der Sar’s net was unsullied.
For many decades, British sport’s main relationship with towels came in the height of summer during Wimbledon. But that changed in 2008 with Stoke’s promotion to the Premier League and the activation of Rory Delap’s medieval arms. Search for Delap on Google images and four of the first pictures are of him taking a throw-in. He took 267 long throws in 2008-09, which was 21% of the entire total in the Premier League that season and by January 2010 had racked up 11 assists from throws in a season and a half, just by drying his hands on an official Stoke City club towel. Aesthetes and purists complained endlessly at the sight of Delap causing panic in opposing defences, but there’s an argument he ended the defensive prowess of the Big Four teams, Arsenal in particular. After half a decade of the top four clubs dominating league games and Champions League matches alike, Delap showed there was a weakness in even the most classy teams. And once the water started pouring in there was no way to stem it, not even with a towel. At least one Premier League team in every Champions League final between 2005 and 2012, bar 2010, and then none for six seasons. Rory Delap did that. A bit.
February 5, 2011 as a Concept
The “David De Gea Performance”
2017 was the year expected goals became sentient in the media and it’s fair to say it was a slow start. Theoretical ideas rarely make it onto half and half scarves. Like a municipal car park, the model needed stories and luckily the Arsenal versus Manchester United game in December that season stepped up. Formerly ‘The Biggest Game of the Premier League Season,’ by 2017 matches between the two were lower on quality but could still entertain. It was also another Arsene Wenger against Jose Mourinho encounter, one of the most precious sub-plots in the competition. The raw facts were these: Manchester United won 3-1 but Arsenal had 25 more shots than them. De Gea made 14 saves. The xG was 4.71 to Arsenal, 1.84 to United. Home fans streamed out of the Emirates saying things like, “How did we not win this match?! If only there was an easy-to-digest metric that applies a numerical value to how good our chances were that we could use to illustrate just how much the scoreline didn’t reflect the passage of play!” Guess what, they were in luck.
The Curse of Stewart Downing
Some players have the most shots in a season without scoring. Some players create the most chances in a season without registering a single assist. Stewart Downing, in his first season with Liverpool in 2011-12, managed to do both. It is arguably the unluckiest season recorded by a player and, naturally, had a direct impact on his reputation at the time. The underlying numbers suggest that Liverpool in 2011-12 were very much the forerunners to Brighton in 2020-21, an incredible combination of bad luck and wastefulness. Back then the media reaction was simple: This is inexplicable, possibly witchcraft, clubs shouldn’t buy players from Middlesbrough. A decade on and we can now smile wisely and say: Peace, brother: Graham Potter is on the right track. What progress we have made as a society.
There are certain myths about Burnley in the Premier League that don’t stand up to examination. “Turf Moor is a tough place to go for the big sides.” No. “You won’t see any Burnley players being booked for simulation.” Again, no. But what does continue to impress is Burnley coming seventh in 2017-18 despite scoring only 36 goals in 38 league games. 1.5 points per goal is wildly effective: compare that to the sheer extravagance of Manchester City only converting their 106 goals that season into 100 points. 44 teams in Premier League history have been relegated having scored more goals than Burnley needed to make the Europa League qualifiers. I can’t satisfactorily explain it, but I like it.
Self-referential publicity unit Zlatan Ibrahimovic only played 33 Premier League games but still managed to score 17 goals and provide five assists. His most important strike came away at Swansea in November 2016 because it was the 25,000th in Premier League history. It was destiny. Can we definitively rule him out of scoring the 50,000th?
Stretch goals are a thing but no one ever said that it had to be applied to football competitions. Liverpool in 2008-09 had lost only two league games but still didn’t win the league, which seemed incredible at the time but 10 years later they lost only once all season, and… came second with 97 points. That total would have won the title for Liverpool in every season bar that one and the previous one when Manchester City became the first and only team to reach 100 points. Based on three points for a win, the average points total for a title winner between World War II and the start of the Premier League was 84.7 (invariably in seasons where clubs played 42 games too). Between 1993 and the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004 it was 84.2. Since then it has averaged 90, with the last four seasons averaging 97.5. Leicester in 2016 were the last champions to win the title with a “normal” points total somewhere in the 80s, but then nothing about that was normal either. Everything’s gone a bit weird, hasn’t it.
Nein Nein Nein
To Ralph Hasenhüttl “nein” means “no”, and “nine” means “oh please no, not again.” To lose 9-0 once is unlikely, to do it twice in the space of two seasons is pretty much unprecedented. Obviously scoring nine or more goals in a top-flight game was once relatively normal, with it happening 15 times in the 19th century, and 21 times between 1900 and 1939. Since then, it’s happened 12 times, four of them coming in the Premier League era. You know which games. Put starkly, in black and white, since the invention of colour television, if you’ve seen your side let in nine or more goals in the English top division then there’s a 17% chance that Hasenhüttl is the manager. That will rise to 23% next season when Southampton record their traditional 9-0 defeat to someone. Make a note.