Premier League: David Lacey on why there have been 33 goalless draws in the Premier League this season

It the most exciting league in the world, according to some, but the Premier League is heading for a record number of nothing-nothings this seasonFor Winston Smith, the central character in George Orwell's 1984, rats were the worst thing in the world. But for Setanta viewers you suspect that being gnawed by rodents would be a blessed relief from having to watch a rerun of Monday's 0-0 draw between West Ham and West Brom. Even the commentators seemed to find it a turn-off. Certainly it was one bad game of football.It was also the 33rd goalless encounter in the Premier League this season, the highest figure for this stage of the campaign since 1998-99, when the total stood at 38. Already there are noises off suggesting that the game is entering one of its dour defensive periods, that teams are becoming over-cautious and that managers and coaches are stifling enterprise for safety's sake. This is dangerous thinking since it all too often leads to suggestions of panicky panaceas - anything from further fiddling with the offside law to that old favourite, making the goals bigger - which in the long run would only harden defensive attitudes.Nevertheless the statistics cannot be denied. At the present rate the number of scoreless games in the Premier League this season will not fall far short of the peak of 49 reached in 1999 and may even exceed it, especially if the struggle to avoid relegation continues to involve clubs more than halfway up the table. While teams do not by and large set out to achieve 0-0 draws, late in the season when both sides need a point to stay up a goalless result becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.Games need goals or, failing that, the feeling that a goal might be scored. If, as the Americans say, a draw is like kissing your sister then a goalless draw must be akin to shaking hands with your auntie.An analysis of the 33 nil-nils in this season's Premier league shows that the blank encounters are fairly evenly spread among the 20 clubs. Fulham have been involved in the highest number, seven, while Aston Villa, Liverpool and Wigan account for five. Not that Fulham are the league's most boring team, far from it. Roy Hodgson's side frequently play watchable, intelligent football, passing to feet and building attacks with speed and imagination. In any case a 0-0 draw can be as much a consequence of good defending as indifferent finishing.Changing tactical habits are making goals more difficult to score unless teams have the attacking quality to surmount the problem. A five-man midfield behind a solitary striker is the norm, both home and away, which usually means an attacking side having to face a massed defence the moment they gain possession. Any relaxation in the interpretation of the offside law inevitably leads to a temporary increase in the scoring rate followed by fewer goals once defences have learned how to deal with the new threat.The most notable example of this remains the decision to change the offside law in 1925 when the number of opponents needed to keep an attacker onside was reduced from three to two. In its first season the total of goals scored in the old First Division rose from 1,192 in 1924-25 to 1,703. Prolific strikers like Everton's Billy Dean, who loathed being called Dixie, made hay for a time but eventually everybody copied Arsenal's idea of making the centre-half, originally an attacking player, an extra defender and the fun was over.Modern defending has been conditioned, not to say confused, by the declaration that attackers in offside positions are not interfering with play unless they touch the ball. With so many goals scored on the break and defences no longer able to step up in such happy anticipation of an offside flag, managers are now inclined to keep at least six players behind the ball even when their team has possession.In the end it all comes down to the cost of losing and going down, and with the Premier League set to get even more millions from the next TV contract this is bound to rise. There will always be great games but there may also be more ado about nothing-nothings.Premier LeagueWest Ham UnitedWest BromSetantaGeorge © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
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