Is new 4-2-3-1 trend to thank for this season's top-flight goal-fest?
Liverpool could join Manchester City in reaching their century this weekend and it may be down to a change in formation
Friday 09 May 2014
Whatever else happens on the final day tomorrow, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool will create a piece of club history with just one goal against Newcastle United at Anfield. Never before have they scored 100 goals in a top-flight campaign and reaching that century would not just underline their own laudable commitment to attacking football but also give statistical weight to the widely held view of 2013-14 as a season to remember.
With Manchester City already on 100 goals, this would be the first top-flight campaign since 1960-61 to end with more than one team in triple figures. And even if it concludes with a City side that cost over £500m to build as champions – leaving Rodgers' revitalised Liverpool as probably the most popular runners-up since Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United in 1996 – in purely football terms this has still been a season for the romantic.
Even Martin Keown, the former Arsenal and England centre-back, was moved to note this week – with a touch of whimsy quite at odds with memories of his old defensive obduracy – that football had "gone back to what football should be about", while another good judge, Pat Nevin, believes we are in a "golden era".
According to Nevin, speaking to The Independent at the BBC's World Cup launch, we are living through the legacy of Barcelona, Spain and tiki-taka. In short, managers are setting their teams up to attack and seeking formulas to get their flair players on the ball and expressing themselves in the final third, rather than focusing on stopping the opposition. And the key to it, he says, is the 4-2-3-1 system.
"We play in the 4-2-3-1 era and the three [behind the striker] are always attackers and the three are always creative," explains the former Chelsea, Everton and Scotland winger. "At the top of the league, Liverpool have been a beautiful team to watch. Look at Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling. Sterling has been allowed to blossom.
"City have got plenty of that too with David Silva, who plays the way I tried to play, and Yaya Touré who has as much vision and skill as anyone." Under Manuel Pellegrini, Touré, 31 this coming Tuesday, has struck a career-best 20 league goals this term.
There is innovation and tactical variation – with City, for instance, going 4-4-2 and even 4-2-2-2 at times, and Liverpool with a midfield diamond – but the basic principle remains. "Some people will tell you it's about [bad] defending, I think it is about better forwards," Nevin adds. "The advent of 4-2-3-1 is basically you've four great attackers and you've thrown a great wodge of money at them." It is not just at the wealthiest clubs either; look at the way Everton's attack-minded Roberto Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton have helped the likes of Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana flourish.
For Alan Shearer, the Premier League's record goalscorer, the quality of world-class forward players like Suarez and Sergio Aguero is one obvious factor, though he also cites "standards slipping" further back. "I am not sure it is trendy to be a defender. It is trendy to be a guy who can spray a pass 40 yards, it's trendy to go and score goals or whip crosses in, it is not as glamorous or as exciting to be a defender and maybe that is one of the reasons."
While Jose Mourinho has bucked the trend with Chelsea's best defensive campaign since 2009, there is an overall year-on-year rise in the number of goals conceded by the Premier League's top four – this term's total of 153 and rising is the highest aggregate since 2002-03 when it was 162.
The modern English game still has some way to go to match two previous high-scoring eras. After the offside law was changed from three players behind the ball to two in 1925, the next decade saw the 100-goal mark reached 11 times in the old First Division, while there was another flurry of 14 "centuries" in the late 1950s and early 60s. Prior to this season, only Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea in 2009-10 had managed the feat since but the way things are going, the Londoners' Premier League record of 103 goals is unlikely to survive the weekend.
Goals galore: The 100 club
Teams to score 100 or more in a top-flight post-WW2:
1956-57 Man United* 103, Tottenham 104 (42 matches)
1957-58 Wolves* 103, Preston 100, Man City 104
1958-59 Wolves* 110, Man United 103
1959-60 Wolves 106, Man United 102
1960-61 Tottenham* 115, Wolves 103, Burnley 102
1961-62 Burnley 101
1962-63 Tottenham 111
2009-10 Chelsea* 103 (38 matches)
This season Manchester City 100, Liverpool 99 (so far)
*won league that season
Aggregate goals conceded by top four in last decade:
*one round of games to play
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