One of the joys of James Ward-Prowse’s elevation into an actual menace from direct free-kicks is just how rare this skill has become. The Premier League is still on course to see a record number of penalties this season (182 at the current rate) but Ward-Prowse by himself is responsible for three of the six direct free-kick goals this season. It’s a lost art being resurrected by an artisan from his beach hut on the south coast. The Southampton man only needs two more to equal the Premier League record, set by David Beckham in 2000/01 and then matched a season later by Laurent Robert. And the 2000s really were the era of the direct-free-kick, with Beckham scoring four in 2001/02, a seasonal total matched by Ian Harte, Gianfranco Zola, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Cristiano Ronaldo (twice) in the same decade, along with Zola again in 1998/99 and Yaya Toure in 2013/14. This prowess from distance was particularly useful because some of those seasons saw extremely low numbers of penalties, including only 68 in 2000/01 and 73 in 2001/02. So while contemporary footballers put the ball wide from 12 yards or rattle the bar or de-invent the Panenka, let’s praise Ward-Prowse for taking the long view and bringing back the arced beauty of the direct-free-kick.
Claret and Gloom
There are no certainties in football. Or at least there weren’t until Burnley embarked on their current existence of going to the Etihad Stadium and losing by five goals to nil. In October 2018 they lost 5-0, in January 2019 in the FA Cup they lost 5-0, in June this year they lost 5-0 and at the weekend they once again scored no goals and let in five. This is the first time in English professional history that a team has lost four away games in a row to the same opponent by the same scoreline whilst letting in at least five goals. The only other fixtures to do it three times are Sunderland at home to Arsenal in the 1920s (three 5-1 wins in a row) and Bristol City at home to Southend in the 1920s and 1930s which also saw three 5-1s in a row but which had been preceded by two 5-0 home wins for City. So, there we have it, Burnley have created history but may not be quite as bad, depending on how you look at it, as Ted Birnie’s Shrimpers were during the Great Depression.
It seems increasingly evident that the UK, or England at least, may well be a glass half empty sort of nation, more comfortable when the signs indicate that good things are wrong and bad things are normal. Take the Premier League scoring rate, for instance. Earlier this season shots were being put into the net at an extraordinary rate and people wondered if the game would ever be the same again. But the last two weeks have seen wastefulness return with incredible vigour. Matchweek nine saw the Premier League games produce 20 goals from an xG of 30.3 and matchweek 10, while not quite as inefficient, saw 25 goals scored from an xG of 28.7. Compare these with the mad days of matchweek two (44 goals from an xG of 30.1 and matchweek four (41 goals from an xG of 27.5). A dispassionate observer would not see anything unusual in these swings, given football is played by humans and is largely based on luck, but it’s telling that the weeks when the goals flowed were seen as abnormal and the recent drier weekends a return to sweet, sweet familiarity.
As we start the final month of 2020 a lot of concepts and beliefs we held on January 1 have gone by the wayside, many of them crushed up and destroyed by the great shaper of history himself, Jose Mourinho. A year ago, the new Tottenham manager surveyed his squad and their resolve, prayed for the end of the season to come quickly and was rewarded by the most elongated campaign in English top-flight history. He might like this season to be wrapped up sooner rather than later too, but only because Tottenham are top of the table and looking like they might have the sort of grit that all title winners need, especially title winners under Mourinho. Tottenham’s fabled and feared “tricky run of games” has so far seen them defeat Manchester City and grind out a goalless draw at Chelsea that could have been faxed straight in from a Mourinho/Rafa Benitez clash in the mid-2000s. So the latest, and greatest, concept that 2020 has seen off is that of Spurs being “Spursy”. In truth, sometimes all teams concede late goals and lose games from good positions and get giddy when they go on a good run of results, but for some reason, Tottenham had managed to patent it as a club ethos. No more: Mourinho’s men have led for 441 minutes this season (more than any other side) and have trailed for only 50, a league-low. Put it this way, we’re in advent calendar season and Spurs have trailed for less time than an episode of MasterChef: the Professionals.
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