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Why Has Premier League Scoring Skyrocketed?

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Other than the empty stadiums and a 21-year-old American suddenly looking like one of the best players in England, the Premier League’s “Project Restart” last season seemed a lot like the soccer that came before the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a halt. The lack of fans and the addition of two extra substitutions were supposed to upend the traditional dynamics of the game. Instead, managers across England and the rest of Europe mainly refused to take advantage of their new tactical options. And although referees gave out fewer cards to away teams relative to home teams in a typical season, the performance of home and away teams didn’t change at all without supporters present.

In fact, it’s almost eerie how little things shifted. Before the pause in play, the average Premier League match featured 2.72 goals. After the pause in play? Still 2.72 goals.

The game of soccer seemed immune to the upheaval going on around it — and then the current season started. To put it in technical terms, the Premier League has lost its freaking mind. Everton, last season’s 12th-place team, sits alone in first place and is perfect through four matches. Aston Villa, which finished last season one spot clear of the relegation zone, beat defending champions Liverpool 7-2 on Oct. 4. (Yes, you read that right.) Manchester City, winners of two of the last three titles, is currently in 14th place. Manchester United, the richest club in England, is all the way down in 16th.

The chaos has been powered by a never-before-seen explosion of goals, mirroring the rise of offensive output we’ve seen in the NBA and the NFL. What’s causing the sudden shift? And should we expect it to last?

The average Premier League game this season has featured 3.79 goals per game. Per data from Stats Perform, that would shatter the previous record for a full season:

The 3.79 goals per game is also a record for the first four weeks of any season, with the next-highest mark through four weeks being the 2.82 goals scored per game two seasons ago. Not only that, this year’s scoring average is the most goals scored per game in any random four-week stretch in any Premier League season:

No four-week offensive output matches this one

Four-week spans in Premier League history with the highest average in goals per game (GPG)

SEASON From … To Games GOALS GPG
2020-21 Sept. 12 Oct. 9, 2020 38 144 3.79
2015-16 Sept. 26 Oct. 23, 2015 30 105 3.50
2009-10 Sept. 12 Oct. 9, 2009 40 140 3.50
2011-12 Oct. 2 Oct. 29, 2011 32 111 3.47
2009-10 Sept. 19 Oct. 16, 2009 30 104 3.47
2011-12 Oct. 23 Nov. 19, 2011 33 114 3.45

Four-week spans could overlap but must have been completed by the end of the season.

Source: Stats Perform

So … what the hell is going on? An obvious culprit is the increase in penalties awarded. Last season, the International Football Association Board introduced new, more clear-cut, much stricter handball rules. While Premier League referees essentially didn’t enforce the new regulations last year, FIFA has taken over the league’s application of Video Assisted Referee (VAR). With every potential offense now under an instant-replay microscope, the rate of penalties awarded has skyrocketed: It’s 0.66 per match this season, up from 0.24 last season and 0.27 the season before.

More and more of those penalties have come from handballs, too. According to data from the soccer consulting firm 21st Club, 24 percent of penalties this season were for handballs — up from 21 percent last year, 14 percent the year before that and 8 percent in 2017-18. The new rules and their sudden enforcement have required defenders to change the way they approach the game when they’re inside their own penalty area.

“We need to adapt to these rules,” Loran Vrielink, a private tactical coach for a number of top players across Europe, told FiveThirtyEight. He pointed to Inter Milan defender Stefan de Vrij. “Inside the penalty area, he’s always putting both hands behind his back. You need to do that. Otherwise it’s too easy to give up a penalty.”

It’s not just penalties, though. Per 21st Club, non-penalty goals per 90 minutes have also risen by 25 percent this season when compared with the average of the past four seasons — to 3.11 from 2.48.

Vrielink suggests that the lack of a typical offseason, combined with a muted in-stadium atmosphere, has made it harder for players to maintain their typical energy levels and mental focus for a full game. He thinks that’s led to more goals because a defensive lapse is much more easily punished than an attacking error.

“With a defender, one mistake, and it’s a goal, and you played a bad game,” he said. “That’s the cruel thing about football. You could not see a winger for a whole game, he’ll score a goal, and people will say he’s the best player on the field.”

The data lends some support to this theory. According to 21st Club, the number of fouls per 90 minutes this season (23.7) is up by two compared with last season and is at its highest since 2016-17. Thanks to the delayed finish to last season, there were also only 48 days between the end of the 2019-20 campaign and the start of the current one. To put that in perspective, the previous two offseasons lasted for an average of 89 days. It’s even worse for the players whose teams played in competitions that lasted beyond the end of the domestic season: About one-fifth — 21 percent — of the players who have appeared in the Premier League this season had 40 or fewer days between their two seasons.

But none of that explains the main driver of all the goals: Premier League attackers are as hot as they’ve ever been. The number of shots per game has actually declined by about a shot from last season to the current one, but a much higher-percentage of attempts are finding the back of the net: 12 percent of shots have turned into goals so far, compared to an average of about 9 percent for the previous four seasons. Teams are seeking out better shots — the average attempt in 2020-21 has an expected-goal value of 0.16, compared with an average of 0.14 from the previous four seasons — but even that discrepancy doesn’t come close to accounting for all the extra goals.

Despite all of these changing variables, the number of expected goals created over the first four weeks of a season has remained remarkably stable over the past five years. In fact, teams have created significantly worse open-play goal-scoring opportunities this season than in recent years past. This year, they just haven’t missed.

Players are well outperforming their expected goals

Expected goals (xG) vs. actual goals scored, for all goals and non-penalty goals through Week 4 of each Premier League season since 2016-17

All goals Non-penalty goals
Season xG goals xG Goals
2020-21 107.10 144 87.39 121
2019-20 110.80 113 103.70 106
2018-19 107.74 116 96.70 107
2017-18 99.54 101 95.60 97
2016-17 103.05 106 91.23 95

Source: Stats Perform

Unless there’s some MLB-esque ball-juicing shenanigans we’re unaware of or some global manufacturing malfunction for goalkeeper gloves, there’s no real feasible explanation for Premier League players suddenly outpacing a relatively accurate goal-scoring model by nearly 40 goals through just four weeks. Perhaps player fatigue is confusing the model, since this is the first global pandemic of the expected goals era, but not by this much. Instead, it’s likely that this is just a historic hot streak.

On top of that, the Premier League has asked the IFAB for permission to start interpreting the handball rule more subjectively. With regression to the mean likely for the leaguewide conversion percentage and with referees soon to stop calling so many handballs, the Premier League’s goal-fest might be over soon — if it isn’t already.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

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Man United, Arsenal, Juventus, Real, Bayern get Adidas kit makeover via Pharrell

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Adidas have produced a very special array of custom hand-painted jerseys for a selection of the world’s top football clubs.

In collaboration with singer, songwriter, record producer, fashion designer, and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams and his Humanrace creative label, each shirt is inspired by the club in question and significant moments from their respective histories.

Adidas x Pharrell Williams “Humanrace” line of kits have been designed for Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Manchester United, and Real Madrid — as well as London-based grassroots club Romance FC.

The aforementioned moments and memories have been reverse engineered and reworked in a raw and expressive manner to reflect contemporary football culture, as interpreted by Pharrell and the Humanrace design team.

“History is what shapes the future, and sometimes in order to look forwards, first we need to look back,” said Pharrell of the collection.

“The most important part of the process with this collection was to learn of each club’s legacies and how each defining moment of their histories were captured and preserved from a design perspective.

“Each of the new jerseys are symbols of the five club’s legacies and a true celebration of the universality of sport.”

Arsenal

It all started with Pharrell trawling back through the Adidas archives and plucking the cult classic “bruised banana” Arsenal away shirt of the early 1990s as his starting point.

The iconic zigzag design was then reworked with a loose “paint bleed” effect (using spray paint and stencils) to give the jersey a washed-out and watery look, with the badges and club crest hand-stencilled on the chest.

Manchester United

Another classic Premier League away kit was dredged up for United’s offering, with Pharrell selecting the popular white and blue “snowflake” shirt from 1990-92 to remix.

Still a favourite among United fans to this day, the design was originally born of the “Madchester” house music scene that swept the city in the late 1980s and has now been updated using a mottled tie-dye effect.

Bayern Munich

Bayern saw their 1991-93 home shirt selected from their back catalogue to undergo the Humanrace treatment, with the bold and blocky design reimagined using daubs of thick acrylic paint.

Juventus

Rather than their famous black and white stripes, Juventus saw their gaudy pink away shirt from 2015-16 given an blotchy artistic overhaul — quite possibly as it marks a treble-winning season and also the first year of the Italian club’s kit partnership with Adidas.

Real Madrid

Rounding off the main collection, Pharrell decided to use a Madrid shirt which was itself originally created by his friend and past collaborator, Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto.

An instant hit at the time, Los Blancos‘ 2014-15 away kit featured a mystical graphic drawn by Yamamoto, with two dragons entwined around each other on a field of black — a symbol of glory, honour and power.

Pharrell and Humanrace have adapted the illustration using a water technique to smudge the intricate drawing to the point of being almost unrecognisable.

Romance FC

London grassroots team Romance FC also had a bespoke shirt created for them to play in this season, which will make just about every single opponent massively jealous as they are in such illustrious company.

Indeed, the Adidas x Pharrell Williams “Humanrace” jerseys will function as exclusive pre-match apparel for Arsenal and Manchester United before their Premier League games on Oct. 24.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid and Juventus will wear their designs in-match on Oct. 25 and Bayern Munich will sport theirs in their next domestic cup game.

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World Series Daily: Will Julio Urias, Dodgers push Rays to brink in Game 4?

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After all the oddities of the MLB regular season and postseason, the 2020 World Series pits baseball’s top two teams against each other, which doesn’t happen every year. And while we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Dodgers playing for the championship, this is the first Fall Classic for the Rays since 2008 and only the second in franchise history.

Here’s what you need to know for Game 4 on Saturday night, including a look at the pitching matchup, predictions, odds, other key numbers and more.

Key links: Viewers guide | Schedule | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

World Series Game 4: Tampa Bay Rays (Ryan Yarbrough) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias), 8:08 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas

Heading into the series, I thought Game 4 looked like the game that might be the most important, the game most likely to be the tipping point on who ultimately wins. Before Game 1, it looked like a potential bullpen game for both teams, but since the Dodgers did not have to use Julio Urias in their bullpen effort in Game 2, he’s now ready and rested for a conventional start. The Rays, meanwhile, will hope Yarbrough can keep the first three batters (Mookie BettsCorey SeagerJustin Turner) under control well enough to help him get through the first three or four innings.

The pitching advantage on paper in the first half of the game goes to the Dodgers. Urias has been outstanding in the postseason, allowing two runs (one earned) over 16 innings, culminating with his nine up, nine down effort to close out Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Long a heralded prospect, Urias debuted for the Dodgers in 2016 at 19 years old, battled some shoulder injuries and has been nursed along slowly the past couple of seasons. He is still just 24 but has already made 16 postseason appearances, so the moment shouldn’t be too big for him. He works off a 94 mph fastball, with an excellent curveball and a changeup he throws to right-handers. Both the fastball and curveball come with a high spin rate, helping Urias induce a lot of soft contact even though his swing-and-miss rate is below average (although it’s been higher in the postseason).

Yarbrough is a soft-tossing lefty who needs his cutter working to get in on the hands of righties. It was a great pitch for him in 2019 (.200/.230/.338 against RHB), but hasn’t been as effective in 2020 (.317/.376/.510). Given the state of the series, Rays skipper Kevin Cash will have to play all his cards in this game, which could mean a quick hook for Yarbrough if he gets into trouble. Cash can’t let the game get out of hand early without getting his top relievers into the game. That shouldn’t be an issue since Friday’s blowout meant Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo didn’t pitch.

Two wild cards to watch for: First, the Dodgers are playing a little small ball, with Betts stealing bases and the Austin Barnes sacrifice squeeze bunt in Game 3; and we still don’t know who the Dodgers closer will be in a close game. — David Schoenfield


Running World Series odds

Dodgers 81.7%; Rays 18.3%


Game 4 predictions

Schoenfield: The Tampa Bay offense is still struggling, barely hitting over .200 in the postseason. The Dodgers, meanwhile, continue to do a lot of their damage with two strikes — all five of their runs off Charlie Morton in Game 3 came with two strikes (and two outs). I like the way Urias has been pitching and the Rays’ lineup against lefties has featured Hunter Renfroe and his .156 average hitting cleanup. Maybe he runs into something. I’ll bet against it. We are due for a close game, however. Dodgers 3, Rays 2.

Alden Gonzalez: The Dodgers’ offense looks dialed in — almost as much as their Game 4 starter, Julio Urias, who has allowed one earned run over 16 innings this postseason. The Rays will counter with what amounts to a bullpen game, giving the Dodgers a premium opportunity to take control of this series. They know it, too. Dodgers 9, Rays 3.

Dan Mullen: I’m starting to have serious doubts that we’ll have baseball to watch after this weekend now that the Dodgers have a 2-1 series lead as the pitching just does not set up well for the Rays the next two nights. Having Urias head to the mound in Game 4 isn’t quite like having Clayton Kershaw or Walker Buehler, but it is a clear advantage over the bullpen game the Rays are going to deploy. There’s a very good chance that means we see Kershaw on the mound with a chance to clinch in Game 5. Dodgers 6, Rays 3.


Stat of the day

With his ninth-inning home run in Game 3, Randy Arozarena of the Rays set a new MLB record for total bases in the postseason (52) with his 23rd hit of the postseason — a single-season record for postseason hits for a rookie, but now he’s also just three hits shy of Pablo Sandoval’s all-time mark for any player in any single postseason at 26, set with the Giants in their 2014 title season.


Social media post of the day


Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date

Cody Bellinger managed to one-up … Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers outfielder had held this crown since he robbed Fernando Tatis Jr. of a home run in a thrilling Dodgers-San Diego Padres NL Division Series Game 2; but his NLCS-deciding Game 7 home run to put Los Angeles in the 2020 World Series was just enough to take over the top spot.


The running MLB playoffs MVP

Randy Arozarena has gone from an unknown outfielder to this October’s breakout star. Going into the playoffs, you might have been asking, “Who is this guy?” But the Rays’ trade for him has been a huge factor in their postseason run. His MLB-high eight long balls have made a big impression — tying him with Barry Bonds, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Beltran for the record for most home runs in a postseason. Arozarena also leads all hitters in the postseason with a new MLB record for total bases with 52, and is leading in hits while second overall in runs scored. Also, he has been flashing some leather in the outfield and some sweet celebration dance moves on the field.

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The Rays are down only 2-1 in this World Series. Here’s why it feels a whole lot worse

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ARLINGTON, Texas — For the moment, the Tampa Bay Rays have answered a question that lingered even after Wednesday’s six-run output in their World Series Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. It went something like this: Was the Rays’ anemic postseason offense waking up, or did they just get a one-day reprieve because the Dodgers pitched a bullpen game that night?

Games 1 and 3 gave us the answers we need, as the Rays put up little fight in the batter’s box in either contest and now find themselves down 2-1 in the series with their own version of a bullpen game looming.

“We need to find a way to win, that’s for sure,” manager Kevin Cash simply stated after the latest loss.

It doesn’t help that the Dodgers have dynamic lefties Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw lined up for the next two nights. The Rays are just 11-11 this season when a lefty starts against them. In other words, the path to a championship got a whole lot harder for the American League representative. Catcher Mike Zunino is taking the proverbial glass-half-full approach.

“Guys have been hitting the ball hard lately,” he said. “The luck hasn’t been there but that’s all part of it. We have to stay consistent and put our work in. Eventually we’ll get some bounces.”

But are they running out of time?

If the Dodgers were planning several more bullpen games, it wouldn’t be fair to eliminate Game 2 from the Rays’ offensive statistics. But they’re not, so it’s appropriate to look at it this way. Minus that game, the Rays are 10-for-62 (.161) with 23 strikeouts in their two World Series losses. For the entire postseason, minus Game 2 of this series, they’re hitting just .203.

Again, unless the Dodgers are throwing more of their “B” relievers, these are the numbers that matter. And what about all that talk of a Brandon Lowe breakout after his two-home run performance on Wednesday? His three-strikeout night in Game 3 is a nice microcosm of the Rays right now: Their production has been spotty at best this postseason.

“We see it quite a bit when our pitching is on and we go against good offenses,” Cash stated. “That’s what we saw on the flip side [in Game 3]. Just dominant, dominant stuff.”

The scary part for the Rays is Game 3 winner Walker Buehler had a “lofty” ERA of 1.89 coming into the night when compared to Game 4 starter Urias, whose 0.56 mark leads all starting pitchers this postseason. As do his four wins.

The Rays’ best shot is to scratch a run or two across the board as early as possible. They’re a major-league-best 31-7 when scoring first this season.

“We seem to be a much better club when we get early leads,” Cash said. “Whatever we can do to get some runs early.”

Easier said than done for the Rays right now with their 2-1 series hole feeling a lot deeper than just a one-game deficit.

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