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The Premier League has become playground football – and that's great

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There are two types of entertaining football games.

There are those in which some of the best players in the world join forces in team maneuvers and individual blitzes to create captivating moments of sporting drama. There are also those where some of the best players in the world forget years of physical and mental training for reasons best known to themselves and insane chaos ensues.

The 2023/24 Premier League season has offered a heady dose of both. The richest league in the world, home to some of the most technically and physically gifted players in the world, has produced games in which spectators can see the sport's limits being pushed… and also games in which teams forget the need for a central midfield and give talented attackers complete freedom in standard situations.

Neutrals who complained about the “tactically demanding” chess game in Manchester City's 0-0 draw with Arsenal on March 31 would have been delighted by the ridiculous scenes that unfolded between Chelsea and Manchester United four days later Erik ten Hag's team was 3-2 and took the lead in the 100th minute but still managed to lose.

But the truly striking thing about what happened at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night was that it wasn't even a surprise. At least not this season. This was the sixth game to end 4-3 this season, more than ever before in the Premier League era, along with 1994-95 (when the Premier League had 22 clubs) and 2001- 02.

This season has also seen a sharp increase in the number of goals per game, reflecting the significant added time at the end of each half. Teams are improving rapidly on both sides of the ball, but courageous rest defense and cohesive form out of possession can only go so far in a league full of tactical variation, a worrying rise in injuries and refereeing controversy.

When it was founded in 1992, Sky Sports promoted the Premier League as a competition in which any team was capable of beating another. The 2023-24 competition took this marketing idea and tweaked it: Any game can end with virtually any outcome, with games swinging from complex tactical battles to incomprehensible melees on the swing of a foot.

To paraphrase Mike Tyson's famous quote: “Every Premier League team has a plan until someone hits a cross towards the back post.”

To add to the sense of drama, we're also seeing more late goals than ever before in the Premier League era (another consequence of all that extra stoppage time). After 303 games played (exactly as of April 5th), no other Premier League season has seen more goals after the 85th minute.

season Goals after 85 minutes

2023-24

146

2009-10

133

2016-17

127

2008-09

126

2007-08

125

2010-11

125

Andrea Agnelli and Gerard Pique have both tried (somewhat misleadingly) to suggest that young people with short attention spans have little interest in watching games in their entirety. The 2023/24 season seems to want to put this to the test by offering even more drama in the final stages.

Jürgen Klopp, Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola may be fighting for the league title with their carefully constructed squads, but this season there are also a handful of teams that want to play a defensive style of football but find it difficult to defend well (Crystal Palace). and Brentford for example).

There is another group of clubs that are most dangerous on the counterattack but have little idea how to defend (Manchester United and West Ham).

And some teams want to apply pressure high up the pitch but have players who are (understandably) too tired/injured/prematurely aged from playing too much football since 2019 to meet the physical demands (Tottenham and Newcastle United).

The result is a season that has more comeback points per game than ever before.

And the numbers keep coming.

  • There have only been 10 goalless draws so far – with 77 games remaining we have the lowest percentage of 'boring draws' in the competition's history.
  • Almost half of Luton's results this season have been decided by goals scored after the 80th minute.
  • Brighton have not recorded a second Premier League win since September and have never been in the bottom half this season.
  • Fulham beat Manchester United, Brighton and Tottenham by an aggregate score of 8-1 in four games and then conceded six goals in games against Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, two of the last four.

Is this shift towards fast-paced scoring a happy side effect of exceptionally talented players competing over longer games? Or an unfortunate culmination of successive seasons of compressed football calendars and revisions to offside and handball laws? Your mileage may vary.

season 0-0 draw % Games played

2023-24

10

3.3

303

2002-03

21

5.5

380

2019-20

21

5.5

380

1999-2000

22

5.8

380

2018-19

22

5.8

380

Ultimately, the question is whether this kind of high-priced pandemonium is a good thing or a bad thing.

Was it edifying for the league that two of the most expensive squads in world soccer spent Thursday night wrestling each other with the style and vigor of two drunken amateurs throwing haystacks?

Maybe not, but the Premier League prides itself on its narrative grudge matches and games of technical excellence. Chelsea 4-3 Manchester United fulfilled the former, while Thursday's other game, Liverpool 3-1 Sheffield United, fulfilled other needs.

Football is at its best when every player on the field performs at their best and fights for dominance over the others. It's in full swing funniest when very talented people start making very stupid mistakes and control methods turn into chaos.

There's a certain joy in seeing the supposed pinnacle of club football resemble a schoolyard foosball table.

Because of its financial weight, the Premier League claims to be the “best” league in the world. The fact that this season is dedicated to high-octane ridiculousness might confirm it as the most entertaining in the world.

(Top photos: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)