Football is changing.
You don’t need to be Grampa Simpson shouting at a cloud to realise things are not what they used to be. The top level of the men’s game is widely different from how it was even 10 years ago.
Many things are disappearing from football, some of which are slightly intangible — raucous atmospheres, community, the feeling that having so much football available to watch is dulling our senses and making us numb to the excitement of it — but some of them are more measurable.
So we’ve measured them. Here are some things that nobody does anymore in football. Or, at least, are doing an awful lot less…
1) We will not be playing 4-4-f*cking-2
For a long time, the good old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation was the default way of setting a team up, in English football at least. The backbone of Our Game. As English as a cup of tea, orderly queues and a parochial attitude to cuisine.
Occasionally, a radical free-thinker might have experimented with a sweeper, or a manager looking for a point in a tricky away fixture would deploy a dogged 4-5-1. The spectre of a 3-5-2 intermittently emerged, too, but as a rule, managers didn’t complicate things. Two full-backs, two centre-backs, two wingers, two central midfielders and two strikers: football, as guided by Noah ushering animals into the Ark.
Now, though, like some of those animals, it is virtually extinct.
In 2009-10, it was still in use by nearly half the teams in the league — according to Opta, 43.9 per cent of the starting line-ups named that year set up in a 4-4-2. That gradually decreased until a sudden drop in 2012-13, going down from 33 per cent the season before to just 12 per cent.
This season, just 6.5 per cent of the starting XIs have been arranged in a 4-4-2. Burnley, Luton Town and Crystal Palace have been responsible for the majority of those, with most other teams opting for a variation on a 4-2-3-1 setup — 76 of the 200 starting line-ups named this season, in fact.
This could be for all manner of reasons, but the weaknesses of a 4-4-2 have been long-established: the lack of bodies in central midfield, the need for at least one of those players basically being peak-era N’Golo Kante for it to work, the rigidity of the system.
But the evolution of football tactics is fluid and also cyclical: someone comes up with an idea, it gets widely adopted, then others figure out that idea’s flaws, so new ideas are established and old ones revived — a roundabout way of saying 4-4-2 might not be dead, just sleeping. Sleeping quite deeply, admittedly, but it may wake again.
2) The ‘in the mixer’ corner
It is a sight that boils the blood of the proper football man and provokes the ire of the perennially miserable bloke who sits near you, but the short corner has never been hotter.
The traditionally crossed corner has essentially always been a slightly more artful form of ‘getting it in the mixer’, only with the ball whipped into the box by a stylish winger or playmaker rather than humped in there by an uncultured defender.
As such, they’re not particularly efficient ways of attacking and you reluctantly have to agree with Jose Mourinho when he scoffed at the particularly English habit of getting very excited whenever a corner is awarded. In fact, over the past 10 seasons, there have been 40,715 corners awarded in the Premier League, from which 1,409 goals have been scored. This sounds like a lot, but means that only 3.5 per cent of corners actually result in goals — about one in 29.
Therefore, managers inevitably look for more effective ways of using corners rather than just crossing into the box. Many top-flight clubs have either a full- or part-time set-piece coach so that these things are more carefully thought out, but on a more basic level, this search for efficiency has contributed to the rise of short corners.
If we look at the last decade or so, the low point of short corners taken in the Premier League was in 2012-13, when just 11.7 per cent of corners were short. The upward curve hasn’t been smooth, but over subsequent seasons, that has been going up and up, to the point where this season just over one-fifth — 20.6 per cent — of corners have been taken short, with that figure at 17.7 per cent last season. Admittedly, since the vast majority of corners are still of the traditional variety, we can’t really claim they’re dying out, but we can say the numbers are heading towards them being put on the endangered list.
Is the trend resulting in more goals? It’s a bit difficult to tell because of the small sample size and a lack of data (Opta only has numbers for how many goals have resulted from short corners from this season and last), but from this limited information, the answer is: sort of.
The percentage of corners that result in a goal has been creeping up over the past decade. In 2013-14, there were 123 goals from 4,094 corners, or three per cent, and last season there were 151 from 3,830, or 3.9 per cent, which means there has been an increase in goals from corners that sort of roughly tracks with the increase in short corners.
There are a couple of things to take from this. First, three per cent to 3.9 per cent is an increase of 30 per cent, which is significant, but not momentous. And just because there has been a rise in short corners and a rise in the number of goals from corners, that doesn’t necessarily mean one has caused the other. It’s possible, but equally, it could just be that teams are thinking more carefully and working more specifically on what they do with ‘long’ corners.
Premier League corners take half a minute – what do teams do with all that time?
For what it’s worth, 24 of the 151 goals scored after corners last season were from short ones, while this season, it’s three from 29. There’s no real correlation between short corners taken and goals scored from them either: last season, Manchester United took the most with 67 but only scored once, which is exactly the same number of goals as Everton, who took just nine.
Reliable conclusions cannot thus be drawn, but just for fun, would you like to guess the two teams who are yet to take a single short corner this season? The answers are at the bottom of this article.
3) Long shots, long odds
Your average great goals compilation will feature a few different categories. You have your solo goals, your team goals, your spectacular goals, but probably the most frequent are the goals scored from way, way out.
The bad news is that the long shot is gradually disappearing from the game. Well, perhaps not disappearing, but teams are shooting from outside the box much less frequently.
In the retro environs of the 2009-10 season, 45 per cent of shots in the Premier League were taken from outside the penalty area. That figure has, with the odd minor fluctuation, essentially gone down each year to the point where last season, 33.2 per cent of shots were taken from range. This season, we’re at 32.6 per cent.
The reason is pretty obvious: a shot from outside the box is much less likely to result in a goal than a shot from inside. Though 45 per cent of total shots in 2009-10 were taken from at least 18 yards out, only 13 per cent of the total goals scored were. Long-range shooting may be spectacular and enjoyable when it comes off, but it’s a pretty inefficient way of trying to score. The rise of the once-obscure expected goals (xG) metric is not a coincidence.
However, the good news is that, conversely, just because teams are taking fewer long shots doesn’t necessarily mean fewer goals are being scored from a long way out. In 2009-10, 137 goals were scored from outside the box, a number that has gone up and down over the years from a high of 186 in 2013-14 to a low of 120 in 2020-21 — 17.7 per cent and 11.7 per cent of the total goals scored in those seasons.
Now it’s going back up: the last two full seasons saw 143 and 145 scored from outside the box, 13.6 per cent and 13.3 per cent for the total, while this season’s ratio stands at 13.2 per cent. Teams are taking far fewer long shots than 14 years ago but are scoring more goals from them, which suggests those long shots are being more carefully chosen.
As an aside, shout out to the 2019-20 and 2021-22 Watford teams, who managed to go both seasons without scoring a single goal from outside the area. They didn’t score the fewest goals overall in those two seasons, nor were they taking fewer long shots than anyone else (in 2019-20, they had 139 efforts from range, ranking them 15th in the Premier League; two years later, they had 152 at 16th). What’s even weirder is that the season before, 2018-19, when they were admittedly a better side and finished 11th, they scored eight from 154 efforts.
4) Goalkeepers hoofing it
There was a time when a goalkeeper’s primary option — perhaps their only morally acceptable option — of distribution was to ‘get it launched’. The hoof up the field was a noble art form in its own way, a distillation of a certain way of thinking about football.
80s goalkeepers just booting it
I made this little montage a year ago, and then made a weird hobby out of itpic.twitter.com/KRrXE4ad93
— Bryan’s Gunn (@bryansgunn) December 7, 2022
But it isn’t a terribly efficient way of using the ball, to say the least. These days, the disdain for the ‘good old-fashioned’ boot up the field even stretches to the stands, where it will generally be greeted with a disgusted “HOOOOOOOOOOOF” from the opposition support.
Thus, teams are encouraging their ‘keepers to be a little more… precise, which has led to a few bloopers and become prominent in football’s culture wars, but is generally viewed as preferable and more progressive.
There are a few ways of measuring this, but the one we’re going with is pass completion from ‘keepers — and hoo boy has that shot up. Going back 20 years, the average pass completion rate for a goalkeeper in 2003-04 was 42.5 per cent, but that has gradually risen over the years, to the point that this season has seen a whopping 71.8 per cent of passes find their mark (that’s a completion rate a 1990s midfielder would not have sniffed at). Last season, it was 67.1 per cent, the season before 65.8 per cent, before that 64.9 per cent, before that 60.9 per cent… you get the picture.
What is the general conclusion from all this?
Broadly, it’s that teams seem to be gradually reducing the things they do that lessen their control. The things that are statistically less likely to result in them either scoring a goal or controlling the ball are decreasing.
The reductive conclusion would be that numbers are taking over the game and squeezing all of the fun out of it: chaotic football is entertaining football and the meddling nerds should stay out of it.
But that argument is flawed for a couple of reasons. First, there are many different ways to have fun and who doesn’t love a juicy set of stats? But second, teams thinking more quantitively about these things doesn’t necessarily mean the stuff we enjoy is disappearing: as the long shots numbers suggest, teams taking fewer efforts from outside the box doesn’t mean they’re scoring fewer such goals, just that the shots they do take are better.
— FC Bayern Munich (@FCBayernEN) October 31, 2023
Teams are simply going about their business in a smarter fashion than they ever have before, but still providing us with entertaining football.
The short corners answer, by the way, is West Ham United and Luton. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t a colossal surprise.
How Premier League managerial nationalities have changed over time
(Top photo: Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)