It is over 10 years since the SSE Airtricity League had such a scarcity of goals.

The current season has had many dramatic games but few with a lot of scoring action.

It is not just that fewer goals are being scored by a slight margin; there is a major decrease from recent years.

The lowest-scoring top division in Europe for 2018/19 was the Bosnian league with 2.19. Ireland (2.26) is the fifth-lowest only above Bosnia, Russia (2.23), Montenegro (2.23) and Armenia (2.25). Leading the way are Faroe Islands (3.22), Slovenia (3.07) and Switzerland (3.05).

The 2018 goal tally would have put Ireland in the top 10. A fall from one of the higher scoring leagues to one of the lower inside a year is dramatic.

There was 12 0-0 draws in 2018 and eight have been reached already. A total of 63 games have had two or fewer goals. If that trend continues, it will go well past last year’s 93.

This year the goals-per-game figure is down over half a goal from three of the last four years at 2.26.

  • 2010 – 2.66
  • 2011 – 2.79
  • 2012 – 2.91
  • 2013 – 2.64
  • 2014 – 2.67
  • 2015 – 2.77
  • 2016 – 2.58
  • 2017 – 2.77
  • 2018 – 2.78

Even Dundalk, who have led the league in scoring for the last five seasons have scored their fewest since before Stephen Kenny came to the club. 31 this year is well below their average of 41 over the first 18 games in the last five years.

So what has happened? Are teams failing to create scoring chances at the same level or have improved defences got on top?

Games involving the promoted teams (UCD and Finn Harps) are having fewer goals than last year’s relegated teams (Limerick and Bray Wanderers).

This is contributing but only by 0.22 goals per game, less than half the overall decrease. So there are other factors.

One thing notable is that the number of goals being scored from set-pieces is on a par with 2018.

There have been 50 so far, with half of the season’s games played. 105 were scored in all of last year. But teams are scoring much less from open play.

There have been 1.43 open play goals per game in comparison to 1.98 a year ago. The English Premier League figure from the season just ended was 1.90.

Have teams lost the creativity to unlock defences?

While goal creation can be a team job rather than individual, it is interesting to look at how last season’s leading assist makers from play and how they are faring this season.

Of the 12 who had five or more open play assists, nine are still in the league so there has not been a significant talent drain.

The other nine, listed below, have gone from 68 last year to being on pace for just 24 this season.

 

2018 open play assists

2019 open play assists so far

Duffy

16

3

Ward

12

2

McGrath

7

3

Cummins

7

0

Carr

6

2

McNamee

5

1

Sheppard

5

0

McEneff

5

0

Akinade

5

1

Are attacking midfielders players creating to their usual levels? It appears not. And it is not just from a creation perspective.

Strikers contributed 150 goals a season ago. This year they are at 73 putting them at a pace to match. Likewise, defenders have 30 goals after accounting for 62 a year ago.

A big drop has come from midfielders. Versatile players can make positions fluid we base our data on where players would be usually expected to play.

There has been a loss from the league of many top scorers from the middle of the pitch. Kieran Sadlier (15), Graham Burke (13), Conan Byrne (7), Ronan Hale (7) and Jimmy Keohane (7) all left. Robbie Benson (9) has been lost to injury. His replacement Sean Murray is producing but other do not appear to be. Cork City, St Patrick's Athletic and Derry City appear to be missing their goal contributions.

Only four midfielders have more than three goals from the 18 matches most clubs have played, they are concentrated mainly on the top teams; Michael Duffy (6), Aaron McEneff (5) and Daniel Kelly (4) are keeping pace with good 2018 seasons while Waterford’s Shane Duggan (4) is having his best scoring year since 2013 – though half have been penalties.

Looking at the scoring charts from 2018’s midway point shows 11 midfielders had reached four goals with those combining for a total of 65 goals.

The returns to the league of Patrick McEleney and Chris Forrester were expected to bring flair, but fitness worries have restricted them to just one goal and no assists combined.

Shooting has reduced in a big way. Games in 2018 had an average of 21.5 shots per game. Only 18.7 are being fired this year. If you don't shoot, you don't score.

The average among the big five leagues in Europe is 24.3 per game while the Scottish league had 20.2 last year. So the figure here is very low.

Some of that may be attributed to a UCD team who value possession but don’t take many shots.

They are bottom of the league but sit third for time on the ball. 

However they take more shots than Sligo Rovers and only slightly trail Finn Harps.

Has improved defending been the cause of less goals?

This is subjective but there is not a lot of evidence to indicate it being the case. While better defending may be a factor you would expect an improved defence to be preventing goals from set-pieces as well as open play.

Bohs' defence has been transformed going from conceding 1.25 goals per game to just 0.55 (which was as low as 0.29 four games ago) and already surpassing their clean sheet total by three (8 to 11).

It took an incredible 16 games for someone to score against them from open play and that required the league’s best team, Dundalk. The goal they scored, as with the other from open play by St Pat’s, came from quality crossing rather than teams breaking through the heart of their defence.

Their personnel gives no obvious reason for improvement. Three of last year’s back four returned (Pender, Cornwall and Leahy) along with midfield protector Keith Buckley. There has also been no managerial change to bring about an increased emphasis on a tight defence.

The losses of goalkeeper Shane Supple (voted best in the league in 2018) and Dan Casey to Cork City would actually have pointed towards a drop in defensive performance.

The overall reduction in goals at Bohs games is the most pronounced. Games not involving them average 2.45 goals. That’s not back to levels of previous years, but a big jump from the totals including them.

Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have improved on already stern defences without any major changes in line-up. New Pat’s manager Harry Kenny’s three-at-the-back defence (with again similar faces to 2018) may be contributing to their improvement. However his last year in the league at Bray Wanderers saw only two relegated teams concede more.

The improvement of Derry City with seven fewer goals from this stage last year is possibly more predictable.

Kenny Shiels had an emphasis on offence while Declan Devine in his previous spell managed them to the fifth fewest goals conceded in 2012 and 2013.

Not spectacular but it equates to where they are now. He has also made changes to the squad with Ciaran Coll, Ally Gilchrist, Patrick McClean and Peter Cherrie joining.

The lack of goals and shots does not appear to be impacting attendances, in the short-term at least. If may be an indicator of a tighter and more competitive league with fewer easy wins.

We wrote last year about the signs pointing to a less egalitarian Premier Division.

It would be a strong indication of a move back towards parity if, as currently stands, two of last year’s teams to qualify for Europe do not return.

Season 2018 also brought very little to be decided late in the season, such was the gaps between different levels of teams.

Although the top two and bottom two currently have a lot of distance to their nearest competitors, the middle six teams appear quite tight.

Just seven points separates fourth to eighth currently. This was 14 points one year ago.

A more competitive league may be worth the price of fewer balls hitting the back of the net.