Sports Nut

The Great Leveling

Why soccer teams score fewer goals than they did 100 years ago.

England's Wayne Rooney (C) celebrates his goal with teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in front of Brazil's Neymar during their international friendly soccer match at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
England’s Wayne Rooney celebrates his goal in Rio de Janeiro on June 2, 2013

Photo by Pilar Olivares/Reuters

This piece was adapted from Chris Anderson and David Sally’s book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong.

There are two histories of soccer. One is a tale of wonderful players, of ingenuity and guile and wizardry, constantly finding new ways to improve on (what at the time looks like) perfection. It explains the great defining geniuses who have illuminated soccer’s various ages: Di Stefano, Pelé, Maradona, Zidane, Messi—all finding new ways to take the game to the next level.

And there is a second history, one of the men who did all they could to stop them. Not the defenders, but the managers, who dreamed up catenaccio and zonal marking and the sweeper system, all of it designed to stop the virtuosos showcasing their talents. Even the tiki-taka style honed and perfected by Barcelona and adopted by Spain has been labeled a primarily defensive approach—passenaccio—because its emphasis is on starving the opposition of the ball.

Players have improved as the game has matured: They run faster, they shoot harder, they dribble quicker, and they pass more accurately. And as they have improved, so structures have been built to contain them. These structures—offside traps, pressing, triangular passing—are the reason that goal scoring has largely withered on the vine, moving from an average of 4.5 goals per game in 1890 to 2.6 goals more than 100 years later.

There was a time when seven players on any given side were given over to attacking, with two halfbacks and one fullback. That soon morphed into the W-M formation as two attackers were pulled back, and then came the 4-2-4 of Hungary and Brazil, the 4-4-2 so beloved of English managers, and now, the trend is to deploy just one striker. Barcelona and Spain do not even do that, since the rise of what has been called the false nine. As the title of Jonathan Wilson’s magisterial history of tactics suggests, the pyramid has been inverted.

That says a lot about the nature of the game we love. Where once soccer was purely an attacking sport, it is now focused on developing a symmetry between scoring and not conceding. It has grown into a more balanced game of offense and defense. When tactical changes produced teams that were more defensive but still won (or perhaps won even more), their opponents adapted their playing styles in response. Over time soccer was discovered as a game that is fundamentally about avoiding mistakes and punishing the other side for theirs.

That bears itself out in the numbers. Had the analytics firm Opta been present at a league game in 1910, we suspect they would have recorded hundreds of touches of the ball from forwards, but very few from a team’s ineffectual defenders. A century later, that too has been inverted. Opta’s figures show that defenders averaged 63 touches of the ball per 90 minutes in the 2010–11 Premier League season, with midfielders on 73 and forwards down to 51.

This is a worrying trend, not least because the loss of two goals per match since the dawn of the 20th century—together with the switch in emphasis from an attacking to a defensive game—suggest that, at some point, the goal, already endangered, may die out altogether.

To find out quite how fast that event horizon may be approaching, we gathered recent information, focusing on soccer after World War II. Since one season can be unusual for a host of reasons—the weather, luck, a few particularly dire teams—we wanted to be certain we were homing in on a historical trend not distorted by random fluctuations. When we employed a statistical technique known as lowess smoothing that cuts away much of that “noise,” a startling picture emerged.

Instead of the consistent and insistent downward trend in goals we have seen over a century and a half of play, in the last 60 years or so there appears to be a leveling off. Goals are not dying. They are plateauing. Scoring has remained essentially stable in the last two decades, perhaps even as far back as the 1970s.

This means a dynamic balancing between two forces: offensive innovation and defensive technology.

Over time, as knowledge about the game spread and successful ideas were copied all over the world, teams have become more alike. Many of the higher scores in the early days of the game had less to do with variations in players’ abilities and playing conditions, and more to do with some select clubs having huge advantages in training, setting up tactically, and organizing and coordinating instantly on the pitch. Slowly but surely, intentionally and through trial and error—and mostly by eliminating errors and weaknesses—teams have become more similar to one another over time.

To draw an economic parallel, we would say that the manufacturing technologies—the best ways of playing—have been diffused over time: Through sharing and imitation, along with an opening to a global pool of talent everyone has access to, teams have grown more similar. Soccer, in this sense, is just another economic sector. Today, a Toyota car is scarcely different from a Honda or a Volkswagen; in the very early days of the car industry, each manufacturer was identifiably different.

That suggests that one of the sport’s great truisms—that the power and wealth of elite clubs has unbalanced leagues across the world—may be a myth, at least when examined from a long-term, historical perspective. If anything, league soccer is more competitive now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

The relative rate of improvement for the worst clubs has been greater than that of the best, so there are no longer regular games between fully professional teams and those comprised of tinsmiths, gasfitters, and cricketers. Derby, 2007–08 vintage, may have been the worst team in Premier League history, but they were closer in collective ability to champions Manchester United than Birmingham would have been when they propped up the division a century earlier as United secured their first league title.

One of the great misunderstandings about soccer is the belief that fans come to see goals. That was behind the change in the offside rule, the introduction of three points for a win, and the abolition of the back-pass—a misguided belief that all supporters want to see is the ball in the back of the net. But it is the rarity, the preciousness, of each and every goal that makes them mean so much. What we really want to see are matches in which every goal is essential and potentially decisive. With the leveling off of total goals and the continued decrease in goal difference, the industry of soccer has delivered its customers exactly that—tight, nail-biting matches in which no team is guaranteed a thrashing or is facing insurmountable odds.

Currently, goals in English soccer are manufactured at a rate of around 2.6 for every game played, across the divisions and ability levels. Sometimes that goes up a little, sometimes it goes down, but overall it is remarkably stable. So you will see 1,000 goals, give or take, in the Premier League this season, and the season after that, and the season after that. Soccer seems to have found its equilibrium.

This piece was adapted from Chris Anderson and David Sally’s book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong.