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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Four tactics/things teams don’t do any more – and why they went out of fashion: Part Two

There’s an episode of the TV show I’m Alan Partridge, where the titular hero is trying to pitch a project to a commissioning editor. He lists a large number of detective dramas to which the commissioner, Tony Hayers, reacts by saying the length of that list means there are too many of them.

“That’s one way of looking at it,” says Partridge, undeterred. “Another way of looking at it is: people like them, let’s make some more of them.”

It’s in that spirit that we present to you a sequel to an article we published in November, which people seemed to enjoy, about the things that have disappeared from modern football.

It’s an illustration of how much the game is changing that we have been able to come up with another set of these. In many respects, it’s a completely different sport to the one many of us grew up watching, and incredibly different even to the one that existed at the start of the Premier League, some 32 years ago.

So here is another set of things that footballers simply don’t do — or at least do an awful lot less — in 2024…


Miss penalties

Admittedly ‘scoring goals’ is not a tactic per se, because if it is then you do wonder why more teams don’t adopt it. But it is worth highlighting that the success rates of penalties in the Premier League this season are through the roof.

The reason that penalties are worth 0.78 in xG terms is because that’s historically the percentage of penalties that are scored. In the Premier League before this season, the success rate going way back to 1992-93 is a shade under 77 per cent.

But in this one it’s at 90 per cent: the 20 clubs have taken 61 penalties between them, and 55 have gone in. Ideally, you’d want the full season’s numbers before you made a really robust comparison, but it’s not that many fewer than have been awarded in some full seasons: 1995-96 saw 68 given, likewise 2000-01.

It’s an extraordinary success rate, particularly as last season’s mark of 75 per cent was among the worst in Premier League history. It’s way ahead of the previous single-season record, which was an 84 per cent success rate in 2013-14.

Six penalties have been ‘missed’ so far this season, but even that’s a bit of a misnomer. None of them have actually ‘missed’ the goal frame, and all but one — Erling Haaland against Sheffield United, which hit the inside of the post — have been saved. And one of the saved kicks was by Mohamed Salah against Bournemouth, from which he netted the rebound anyway.

Why is this? It’s tricky to say exactly, beyond making the evident point that more thought goes into taking penalties these days: players are given information about how they should approach penalties, taking in everything from employing a ‘blocker’ to stand at the penalty spot and theoretically absorb pressure while everyone else mills around trying to put the taker off, to the amount of time they should pause at the top of their run before actually striking the ball.

Plus there are greater restrictions on goalkeepers now. In years past, referees tended to be extremely liberal in their interpretation of what ‘Stay on your line before the kick is taken’ meant. It’s a while ago but perhaps one of the more egregious examples came in the 2003 Champions League final between AC Milan and Juventus: watch that back and you’ll note that Milan keeper Dida was basically on the edge of his six-yard box when some of the kicks were taken.

Goalkeepers are no longer allowed to move around on the line or “behave in a way that unfairly distracts the kicker”, according to the laws of the game. VAR also exacerbates the restrictions by more efficiently punishing them. In short, now more than ever, penalties are a striker’s game.


Juan Pablo Angel, who scored five of his 10, is statistically the worst penalty-taker in Premier League history (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

All that said, those conditions have been in place for years, not just this season, so it is slightly unclear as to why the success rate has shot up so much. Perhaps it will correct itself: indeed, the success rate has come down in the past couple of months, from 93 per cent in November to 90 per cent now, so perhaps that trend will continue. The conversion rates aren’t this high in other countries: in Germany it’s 75 per cent, Italy 79 per cent, Spain 81 per cent. Or, if you prefer, about what you’d expect based on historical numbers.

Maybe this will turn out to be a historical outlier, but the fact remains that, this season, penalties in the Premier League are being scored at a historic rate.


Big man/little man strike partnerships

Kevin Keegan and John Toshack. Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn. Emile Heskey and Michael Owen (below). Hot Shot Hamish and Mighty Mouse. In a place known as ‘The Past’, the big man/little man strike partnership was a staple of British football.

The theory was simple: get the ball up to the big man, he’d win some headers and hold the ball up, allowing the scampering little poacher to pick up the pieces and snaffle some goals, like a Yorkshire Terrier in shin pads.

Not so much these days, however. For a start, as we outlined in the original version of this feature, you don’t see the classic default 4-4-2 formation much in modern football (in an attacking sense at least), which was key to the big man-little man paradigm. The two strikers were, as a rule, served by a couple of conventional wingers and the occasional overlapping full-back.

There may also have been a keenness to ‘get it in the mixer’, with passes launched from deep and aimed at the larger of the two strikers.


(Steve Mitchell/EMPICS via Getty Images)

But strike partnerships of any kind are pretty rare these days.

So far this season, there have been 208 games played in the Premier League, meaning 416 starting line-ups have been named. With the caveat that formations can be fluid and sometimes quite difficult to nail down precisely, according to respected data website fbref.com, only 54 of those 400-plus line-ups have featured two up top. Half of the 20 teams have not started a single game with a front two.

There have been 18 different strike pairings, and in 10 of them the height difference between the two players has been 3cm (1.2in) or less. Pleasingly, Bryan Mbeumo and Neal Maupay, who have been paired in precisely one game for Brentford, are exactly the same height — 5ft 8in (173m).

The biggest height difference for any strike partnership in the Premier League this season is between Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins of Aston Villa, with the latter towering 10cm over the former. It’s a far cry from the 30cm between Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch, who played together for both Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth.

There are various reasons for this, the primary one being the broad phasing-out of formations that involved two forwards. But a change in the way wingers are used, with most managers preferring inverted wide players these days and thus changing the nature of crosses is another.

Also, teams tend to place an emphasis on low crosses rather than aerial balls into the box, and as a rule are slightly more structured in their build-up play than just aiming for the big lump up top.


Direct free-kick attempts

Numbers and analysis have seen off quite a lot of aspects of old/classic football and in a lot of ways that is a Very Good Thing. But for fans of the direct free kick, these are dark times.

Firstly you’ll have to ignore a fair amount of recency bias here, because the last round of Premier League action was dominated by Ivan Toney’s controversial direct free-kick effort for Brentford against Nottingham Forest, so it might feel like we are in some sort of foam-flecked golden era for the dead-ball shot, but trust us, we are not.

Around 30 years ago, somebody seizing on the chance to have a free hit from just outside the penalty area was a common sight at football grounds up and down the land.

The first Premier League goal scored in this way was by Warren Barton for Wimbledon in August 1992 — smashing one past (not over) a wall against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, but that decade’s dead-ball master was undoubtedly David Beckham, who by the time he left English football for Spain in 2003, had scored 18 of them in the Premier League, a total which remains the competition record.

And Beckham wasn’t alone — the likes of Gianfranco Zola and Laurent Robert also seemed to score with direct free kicks almost at will in that era. It was a movement, and these were its craftsmen.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s adoption of the knuckleball technique saw an increase in Premier League free-kick shots between 2006 and 2009 but as soon as he left for Real Madrid in that latter year, the numbers began to fall.

Perhaps the last great burst of action was Yaya Toure’s 2013-14, a season in which the Manchester City midfielder attempted to turn the direct free kick into a sort of 19-yard penalty in and around the D. And you have to say, it worked very well for him.

But as the chart above shows only too clearly, once clubs started utilising the expected goals metric at the start of the 2010s, the number of attempts at goal from direct free kicks began to inexorably decline, and, with 2023-24 seeing a record low number of attempts per game, you wonder just how rare this type of shot might become.

It’s simply not a very reliant way of scoring goals and modern coaches, with their clipboards and iPads, know this only too well.

Now that Toney’s sleight-of-hand ball-shifting methodology has been exposed, James Ward-Prowse might soon become the only dedicated practitioner of this fading art. As it stands, the West Ham midfielder is only one direct free kick goal behind Beckham’s Premier League record — but will people even remember what they are by the time he eventually matches him?


David Beckham during the heyday of the direct free-kick (PA Images via Getty Images)

Doing anything quickly in dead-ball situations

One of the things you notice when you watch ‘old’ football is that everything was slower. The passing was slower, the running was slower, the shots were slower. Everything was slower… except the time players took over dead-ball situations. In that distant place ‘The Past’, generally when a free kick was awarded, a player would jog over to take it, then do so in reasonably quick order.

Now, in a world where everything is meticulously planned out and everyone has specific jobs — walls have to be painstakingly lined up, squabbles have to be resolved, foam has to be sprayed then moved — frankly these things tend to take bloody ages.

That’s why the average ball in play time had been gradually dropping year after year — until this season, when rules were put in place to prevent excessive time-wasting, and it has gone up again.

And yet… things still take bloody ages.

Penalties, for example: in years gone by, one would be awarded, there might be some mild arguing and jostling, but generally the kick would be taken fairly quickly. But this season in the Premier League, the average time between the offence a penalty was awarded for occurring and the kick being taken is two minutes and 39 seconds. We remember that madcap game between Tottenham and Chelsea in November as a non-stop riot of constant action, but in the middle of that was a penalty that, somehow, wasn’t struck by Cole Palmer until just over seven minutes after the foul Cristian Romero committed to concede it.

Aha, you say: isn’t all of this because of VAR? Well, yes and no. That Palmer penalty incident did feature a pretty lengthy VAR review, but even those where there isn’t a significant intervention from Stockley Park take their sweet time. A Douglas Luiz penalty for Aston Villa against Burnley in December, without any obvious significant VAR intervention, took three minutes and four seconds to be struck.

The average time for penalties that don’t involve VAR is still one minute and 49 seconds, and only one spot kick all season — Salah for Liverpool against West Ham in September — has been struck within a minute of the offence taking place. Much of the delay will be down to the team who conceded the penalty trying to pile psychological pressure on the player who will be taking it.

It’s quite tricky to judge this rise in delays accurately against the time taken in the past as Opta don’t record these things and there isn’t the full-game footage available for us to check it manually. Thus, this comparison is going to be slightly anecdotal, but what we can do is put penalties in roughly comparable scenarios against each other.


Eric Cantona at the 1994 FA Cup final. A better time? Maybe. A quicker time? Definitely (Cooksey/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Let’s use the FA Cup final for study.

In the 1994 version, Manchester United had two penalties against Chelsea, both scored by Eric Cantona, which took one minute 20 seconds and one minute 12 seconds respectively to be taken. Cut to last year’s final, and, thanks to our old pal VAR, three minutes and nine seconds elapsed between Jack Grealish’s handball for Manchester City and Bruno Fernandes stroking the resultant kick home to get Manchester United level at 1-1.

There have been 2,845 penalties awarded in Premier League history, so picking out one to compare is tricky, so let’s go with the funniest, which as we all know to be when Arsenal gave one away in the 111th minute against Liverpool in 2011, having thought they had won the game with a spot kick of their own in the 108th minute.

That penalty, amid all sorts of chaos, was struck within 59 seconds of the offence involved — a cartoonishly clumsy challenge by Emmanuel Eboue.

It will have felt like an age at the time, but in the 2023-24 Premier League that would be the second-shortest foul-to-kick wait for a penalty all season.

(Top photo: NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)



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