The Greatest Season Never Seen: How Empty Stadiums Have Affected Premier League Goal Scoring

In the early goings of the 2020 season, it’s clear that the lack of fan energy has changed the game — but perhaps not in the way you’d first expect. The empty Premier League stadiums haven’t drained offensive creativity, but they’ve instead diminished defensive integrity.

Football is about goals. Sure, there are folks that would try to tell you differently. (Notably Jose Mourinho and that one coach we all had growing up who said, “Everyone’s a defender.”) But they’re wrong. Goals sell kits. Goals secure TV deals. Goals fill stadiums, win trophies, immortalize legends. So it should feel like good news when I tell you we’re about to witness a never-before-seen Premier League season of scoring. But that comes with some bad news. It’s all happening because we’re not there to see it.

I know it’s bold, if not sacrilegious, to claim that the presence of fans diminishes the prospect of scoring. But that’s the story football is telling us right now.

The tale starts on August 14, a Catalonian day of grieving. What Bayern did to the only team to successfully employ Lionel Messi seemed like an act of God, something unspeakable and unrepeatable. But it wasn’t an emphatic conclusion of something that had been brewing. The 10 goals scored that day were the harbinger of where we find ourselves today — how a team’s will could be broken without us by their side. We may come for goals, but our biggest contribution is helping keep them out.

To prove this, let’s look at what’s happened in the first three weeks of this Premier League season. We’ve already seen a record for the most goals scored in a 10-game weekend (44), and more hat tricks than the opening of the last four seasons combined. But it’s not just a few games here and there, statistical anomalies have made it look like empty stadiums are goal-laden wonderlands. It’s happening every match.

empty stadiums premier league
Empty stadiums have led to more goals in the Premier League — but it’s not for an increase in offense, but rather, a decrease in defense.

Over the last four years, the first 28 games of the season have yielded an average of 73 goals (the highest tally reaching 83 in 2018-19). This year, we’ve seen 103. And it’s not just volume. Teams are also out-scoring their opponents in record sums. What was an average aggregate goal difference of 34 in the last four seasons has ballooned to 51, reiterating what we saw on that fateful August day in Lisbon. Without fans, defenses are breaking down and staying broken — twice as many sides have breached their opponent’s goal four or more times this year than in years past. Teams are shipping goals with nowhere to hide, empty of the hole-patching motivation that droves of supporters have given them in the past.

The story seems clearest when you look at away goals — scoring that in normal circumstances has to happen in spite of the present vocal majority. The most away goals we’ve seen through 28 games in the last four seasons is 37 (2019-20). This year, visiting teams without the dissent of a home crowd have scored 61 times. That’s almost the total number of goals scored in this stretch of the 2017-18 season (63).

I want to believe as a football fan that my voice creates chances. I want my cries to incite brilliant attacking moves. I want my support to mean goals galore. But — and it really pains me to say this — Jose is right (and unfortunately so is my annoying youth league coach). We’re all defenders. What we do best is motivate focus, effort, and organization. We stop people from scoring. And we should be proud of that. So when we are allowed back into the hallowed grounds of our favorite clubs, let’s remember to celebrate everything we come for. Yes, the goals scored. But also the ones we help keep out.

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