The Analyst Diary – September 13
Comebacks, Come Back
It’s been incredibly enjoyable to have the Premier League back in its classic format (fans, 3 p.m. kick-offs, a faint sense of desolation about Christian Benteke) but for a competition that styles itself as unpredictable, there haven’t been many comebacks. These days it’s widely accepted that a two-goal lead isn’t dangerous, but so far in 2021-22 even a one-goal lead is a pretty safe. The opening Saturday of the season saw Brighton come from a goal down to win at Burnley and Everton do the same against Southampton. Then West Ham came from behind to win 4-2 at Newcastle a day later. And since then… nothing. Not a single comeback win of any kind since. It feels unusual and it pretty much is. If we look at 2018-19 as the last “normal” season with no Covid impact and starting in the usual mid-August slot, then there were comeback wins on matchdays two, three, four, five and six. Everyone invested in Our Game loves a comeback, it’s time for Premier League teams to ensure they come back.
*since this was written Everton came back to win 3-1 against Burnley on Monday night, their second 3-1 comeback win at Goodison Park this season. As it stands, this makes them spiritual champions of England 2021-22.
Manchester United have scored nine goals in two home games this season, so attacking productivity is not a pressing issue. With 17 games to go, United are only 17 short of their entire goal total at Old Trafford in 2016-17. But the team is a long way from the perfectly functioning side of 2007-08, one which Cristiano Ronaldo might well remember, which scored 47 and conceded only seven. Contemporary United look vulnerable and given the continued lack of investment in defensive midfielders, it isn’t really a surprise. Against Newcastle, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer named a front four of Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Ronaldo, with Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic behind them. Pogba, as befits a man who has raced to a Premier League record of seven assists in the first four games, registered all of his defensive actions in a narrow band on the right of midfield, leaving most of the rest of the pitch to an overworked Matic.
And as the map of Newcastle’s successful recoveries below shows, Steve Bruce’s side were able to win possession back fairly regularly in that sizeable gap between Matic and Pogba. A better team would have made more of these chances, and better teams will surely do so at some point this season. Solskjaer does seem to be enjoying good fortune currently, though, and getting to face West Ham next weekend with David Moyes missing the suspended Michail Antonio could well be the next slice of luck. Of course, you need luck to win league titles, but you usually need a midfield general too.
Split The Defence
One of the early trends we’ve seen in the Premier League this season is the number of through balls being played. Ronaldo’s second goal against Newcastle came from a beautifully weighted pass from Luke Shaw. Ronaldo was not expected to score goals like this as a 36-year-old, but this is the season of the threaded ball, so why not.
Last season Premier League games averaged around 1.2 through balls. So far in 2021-22 that has leapt to 4.3 per game, with Bruno Fernandes, Sadio Mane, Ilkay Gundogan and João Cancelo all leading on five. With top Premier League managers invariably demanding relentless movement from their forwards, and a summer of actual rest for many leading actors in the division, it’s not surprising to see this trending upwards. Arsenal’s new signing Albert Sambi Lokonga has played four through balls and has thus endeared himself to the supporters already. People notice this stuff, you see. On World In Motion, John Barnes sang “there’s only one way to beat them/get round the back” but he was incorrect. In 2021 the best way to beat them is to split the defence using weight and guile.
Posh Pain & Not Much Game
Seasoned EFL observers were concerned about promoted Peterborough’s chances of establishing themselves in the Championship this season, and after a reasonable start the club are now second bottom of the division, with a 6-2 hammering at Sheffield United on Saturday a worrying development. Peterborough were in the second tier back in 2009-10 and let in six goals in a game that season too, losing 6-0 at Reading with a couple of weeks of the campaign left on their way to a 24th-place finish. They were back again in 2012-13 and won 15 games, as many as 12th placed Birmingham, but still went down. The jump from the third tier to the second is one of the biggest in English football and it seems that no club is immune.
Meanwhile, West Brom’s 1-1 draw with Millwall is more likely to go down in the record books for unseemly antics from the fans outside the game than it is for producing a high-quality match. The fans that actually made it into the Hawthorns were treated to 39 minutes, 54 seconds of ball-in-play time, the first game in the top two divisions to dip under 40 minutes of action this season. Sometimes football can produce a classic game of two halves. For WBA and Millwall supporters, in terms of actual action, this wasn’t even a game of one half.