Premier League strikers are not scoring goals like they used to. In the last three campaigns the Golden Boot has been awarded to a player scoring 23 or 22 goals, whereas in the seven before that at least one player scored over 25 goals and three times over 30.
But the pattern has become particularly acute across a 2021-22 campaign in which Liverpool players make up the top three spots - Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota - and nobody outside the club has scored more than 10 times. At this rate, that means no non-Liverpool player will hit above 15, an unprecedented situation in the modern game.
Surprisingly, this has not translated to fewer goals overall. In fact the 2.77 goals-per-game average across the division so far is slightly higher than the 10-year average of 2.70.
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Consequently, reasons for this trend could well be tactical; part of a wider cultural shift about the role of the striker in the modern game and changing patterns of play at the top end of the Premier League table.
Perhaps there is an increasing expectation on wide forwards to contribute goals, as Jurgen Klopp’s side have done throughout the era of Roberto Firmino starting as the central striker, or perhaps it reflects an advancement in the Premier League’s tactical intelligence.
Since 2016, an influx of astute tacticians who favour highly-organised attacking patterns over individualism (namely Antonio Conte, Klopp, and Pep Guardiola) have reshaped the Premier League into a systems game. It follows that the goals will be spread more evenly once roles become less specialised and, with structure and shape taking precedence, players becoming more universal in their skill set.
But this might be reading into the goalscoring data a little too deeply. After all, outside the ‘Big Six’ clubs, strikers haven’t been notably scoring less over the last few years, while last summer Chelsea and Manchester United spent big on elite goalscoring strikers and Man City tried to.
In reality, the downturn this season is due to a series of discrete reasons. But before we get onto those, a word on the exhausting impact of the pandemic years. Injuries just happen to have hit some of our best goalscorers, with Jamie Vardy (12 games missed), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (17), and Patrick Bamford (20) all struggling with stop-start seasons.
City are on track for 90 league goals this season but only Raheem Sterling is in double figures, while recent performances have highlighted why Guardiola wanted Harry Kane in the summer. There is a sense of things slowing down in the final third as City miss the movement of a poacher; they’ve scored a single goal in five matches over the last three months.
Should Guardiola land Kane or Erling Haaland in the summer we can expect City to once again contribute a top striker to the charts, as they so consistently did when Sergio Aguero was at his peak. The striker-less system is not by design.
At Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku’s difficulties settling are well documented. His performances have been very poor and it would seem that he does not suit Thomas Tuchel’s system, with the Belgian working best at Inter in a two alongside Lautaro Martinez.
Chelsea’s desire to play quickly in the transition does not necessarily suit Lukaku, nor does their increasing use of him as a target man, expecting the No.9 to play with his back to goal. Things have not been helped by injuries to Lukaku (nine games missed) and to their first-choice wing-backs, whose crossing would have helped their talisman score more frequently.
Without Lukaku, Chelsea don’t have a reliable goalscorer. Kai Havertz prefers to come short and create while Timo Werner’s finishing is very poor, hence why Mason Mount is the club’s top goalscorer with seven.
Manchester United’s creativity issues have seen them average 1.63 goals per game, putting them on course for their worst return in five years. A large part of this problem is signing the wrong striker in the summer; Cristiano Ronaldo is clearly a bad fit for both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.
Ronaldo does not do enough off the ball, when his team have possession and when they don’t, to operate in the high-intensity environment of the modern Premier League. His age and playing style prevent him from coming near the top of the goalscoring charts.
What’s more, United continue to build attacks too slowly to make the most of their quick forward line and continue to look imbalanced across the pitch, allowing opponents to sit deep and frustrate them. However, more recently they have hit high expected goals [xG] figures but failed to convert their chances.
Arsenal lost their main striker Pierre-Emerick Aubayemang in January, although he was already having a poor season. Again, their issues are simply a case of lacking a good striker, rather than a deliberate tactical decision to share out the goals.
Finally Kane’s transfer saga over the summer badly affected his first half of the season, but Tottenham Hotspur’s No.10 is back to his best now and will likely rise rapidly up the goalscoring charts by May.
There was a concerted attempt last summer to improve the state of Premier League strikers towards the top end of the table, but it did not work. Lukaku and Ronaldo have under-performed while Kane remained at Spurs and was unsettled by Man City’s pursuit.
It is a strange quirk that in the age of the goal-per-game striker across Europe – Salah, Kylian Mbappe, Haaland, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, Dusan Vlahovic – the Premier League, arguably the strongest division, has so few of them.
This summer, the super-clubs will again try to correct this. There is no wider tactical reason for the peculiarity of this season’s race for the Golden Boot. Next year it is likely to return to normal levels after Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Man Utd all go searching for an elite striker to complete their teams.