Back in Business

Harry Kane in action. Tottenham struggled against West Ham, but this time, they delivered.

Seventy percent. That used to be the winning odds for Premier League teams that were lucky to score the 1-0 goals six years ago. This statistic alone, widely observed around the time when serious science march into this sport, has reformed the managerial views on football. It was the founding father of the Italian school of tactics, focused on maintaining clean sheets; it certainly influenced José Mourinho in his march from a virtually anonymous boss at Leiria to the ascent of European competition. It signalled the modern teams’ improving ability to protect the lead; it also underlined the seriousness of ramifications caused by one-goal disadvantages. As it turned out: on a professional level, the trailing teams were not able to recover nearly as often as one would’ve thought.

Nevertheless: football has always been about comebacks and the heroes would would make them happen. From Uruguay’s shock upset of World Cup 1950 to Manchester United’s treble-winning Champions League 1999 – the relative rarity of such features, mixed with the thrills of them, has always captured people’s imagination. Premier League was no different: just yesterday, the fans had a chance to recall Newcastle’s 2011, second-half miracle against Arsenal, when tragically deceased Cheick Tioté scored a stunning, late equalizer. Even a year ago, turnarounds were still going strong in England, often having big clubs on the receiving ends. This year though, it wasn’t the case anymore: with top 7 very much back in charge, the comebacks have become even more exotic than the ‘70%’ average would indicate.

Raw Numbers

Diego Costa’s art of manhandling Otamendi was essential to Chelsea’s success at Etihad.

Out of 380 EPL games this season, exactly one hundred (26.3%) featured a comeback of any sort, defined by one team’s ability to overturn the 0-1 deficit and gain at least a draw. Even when we discard the 0-0 draws – that is still well within the general norm. On the other hand: out of those 100 games, 57 have ended by simply splitting the points. This leaves only 43 comeback wins, happening with the average frequency of just 1.13 per gameweek. For a league that features ten games per round, such low ratio spelled doom for all teams that would concede first. Only on three occasions, the fans were able to witness more than two turnarounds in one week; even the grossly expanded week 37 has utterly failed in that department, delivering 0 upsets and 0 salvaged points in 15 games:

In terms of points, comebacks constituted only 17.61% of the total haul (not counting the points earned from draws by the turnaround’s victims). Two gameweeks (#5 and aforementioned, mammoth #37) did not give any spoils of war for those who’d concede first. On the other end of the spectrum, there were weeks like #13, which featured: Manchester City’s tedious, prolonged effort at at breaking Burnley’s defensive wall; Swansea’s hilarious, nine-goal madness against Crystal Palace; Chelsea’s ultra-important home victory against their main title rivals, Tottenham. By the way: it’s Antonio Conte’s lads, who somewhat specialized at snatching crucial three points from the jaws of defeat, as they’ve also done this at Vicarage Road early in the season and at the Etihad in the middle of it.

However: Chelsea excelled in terms of quality of turnaround points; in terms of quantity of them, the Premier League leaderboard looked slightly different.

Fight On or Give Up

The two leaders are hardly a surprise. Liverpool, notoriously mediocre at the back and set up super-offensively, had both the tactical background and the necessary never-surrender mentality to pick up 17 points from losing positions. As of Spurs: despite embracing the best defensive record in England, Mauricio Pochettino’s lads needed several wake-up calls in the second half of the season, when some injuries to their defenders (Alderweireld, Rose) have been compensated by the obscene firepower of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Liverpool have earned five wins and two draws from 0-1 down; Spurs countered with four wins and five draws. Maybe if the London team could learn how to win more of those uphill battles, things at the EPL top would’ve been more exciting?

The third and fourth place for Hull and Crystal Palace… That’s a bit of surprise. Those two, relegation-threatened sides have secured their high positions late, through the collective efforts led by perhaps the most mentality-oriented EPL bosses. Appointed in the middle of the league campaign, Marco Silva and Sam Allardyce have done wonders at their respective jobs, unlocking the goalscoring potential of Oumar Niasse and Christian Benteke as well as teaching their other players how to keep going despite early setbacks. Eagles and Tigers, constantly leaky and prone to errors, had several attacking outlets through the second half of the season and the impact of wingers like Zaha, Townsend, Marković and Grosicki has kept them in the survival race until the end. It wasn’t a happy ending for Hull, though…

Understandably, the tail-enders of this comparison have been the teams that weren’t too keen on scoring goals anyway. Middlesbrough, Burnley, Stoke and Sunderland excelled at parking the bus regardless of the venue and registered only one turnaround win between them – scored by David Moyes’ lads in front of 11.000 Bournemouth fans. If anything, it was them who’d constantly allow others to get back into games: for instance, Stoke did it twice against Liverpool and Boro blew their golden chance at Old Trafford. Interestingly enough: out of nine sides least likely to pick up points from early screw-ups, eight have been either relegated or in a serious danger of going down – the only exception is Manchester United, who won once and drew four times after 0-1 setbacks.

The Tipping Points

Whenever Wilfried Zaha played well, Palace looked dangerous. And he played well quite often.

As it turns out, those rare 43 wins I’ve mentioned before featured 45 equalizers – Tottenham and Swansea had games in which they needed to even up things twice (against West Ham and Palace, respectively). The earliest of those 1-1 landmarks came eight minutes into the final day game between Chelsea and Sunderland, when Willian chalked off Javier Manquillo’s opener. However – since that was merely a friendly between crowned champions and already relegated team, the actual blitz equalizer belongs to Wilfried Zaha, who fooled… Chelsea’s defenders in an upset 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge, started with Cesc Fàbregas’ strike. Runner-up Craig Dawson needed 60 seconds more to bag a delfected, long-range goal against Bournemouth, who earlier got a 1-0 lead through Joshua King’s penalty:

The well-known football truth confirms itself again: regardless of the circumstances, goals scored in the late stages of the first halves are worth their weight in gold. 19 out of 45 equalizers in the winning efforts have been scored between 25th and 45th minute – and that’s a whooping 42.2% of them all. The same time frame between 70th and 90th minute saw only nine of those, suggesting that it’s far more likely to get the 1-1 score on board while the players’ legs are still relatively fresh. To credit the deviations from those rules: Harry Kane (vs West Ham), Fernando Llorente (vs Palace) and Dele Alli (vs Swansea) have all waited until the the final five minutes to destroy the opposition’s leads and still somehow managed to lead their teammates to the ultimate victories.

A Bigger Bang

After losing 2-0 lead to Troy Deeney’s Watford, West Ham’s season has gone completely south.

Out of all these various, crazy matches, three stand out in particular, as their winners have gone an extra mile and overturned 0-2 disadvantages. On September 10th, Watford’s four goals at London Stadium have absolutely stunned West Ham, who then went on a lengthy slump and never even came close to repeating the achievements of 2015/16 campaign. Not long after that, Sunderland had a huge lead after an hour against Palace – and blew it completely after Joe Ledley’s defected goal was followed by two winning headers from James McArthur and Christian Benteke. The third team to join Hornets and Eagles in this glory was Bournemouth, who not only went 0-2 but also 1-3 down before turning the world upside-down in likely the most memorable match of the entire season:

The other three-game oddity happened on Sunday, 18th December, when all matches have turned out to be the fortunes’ reversals. Nathan Aké scored for Bournemouth again, giving them 1-0 lead over Southampton – sadly, Jay Rodriguez’s second-half brace still won it for the visitors. Elsewhere, flopping Moussa Sissoko assisted the winning goal at White Hart Lane which rendered Ashley Barnes’ early strike for Burnley irrelevant. Finally, in a huge game at the Etihad, Martin Atkinson has allowed to blatantly offside goals to stand and Manchester City were fortunate to wipe out Theo Walcott’s fine goal. Super Sunday? Not necessarily – yet, in terms of swinging the balance, it did the trick.

Let’s appreciate the Premier League comebacks while they’re around. As far as I know: the growing disparity between money-fuelled giants and the rest of the field might dwindle the number of these rollercoasters even further.


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