The question: Do the Premier League’s big games disappoint?
It is undeniable that league fixtures between the best Premier League clubs contain fewer goals than a typical league game.
Over the last few seasons, these matches have produced a steady figure of 0.2 goals per game fewer than the league average, with even the small sample size of 2017/18 aligning with the norm.
Nineteen goals in eight ‘big six’ matches this season equates to 2.38 goals per game. The league’s average? 2.59.
That’s hardly unexpected, of course. Games between two teams of similar ability and with similar aims are always likely to produce tighter contests.
With the Premier League’s best increasingly dominant over the Premier League’s rest, we can expect higher margins of victory. Manchester United beat each of Swansea City, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Everton by four clear goals. Manchester City scored six against Watford and seven against Stoke.
Yet the accusation is that, even accounting for that anticipated drop in goals, the biggest Premier League games are falling short of the standards we expect.
Goals are not the only indicator of entertainment, and the quality on show is failing to justify the high prices we pay to watch it.
The obvious recent issue is that these games have tended to fall into two categories. The first is the mauling, where one team plays to — or near — their full potential while the other capitulates.
These don’t seem to fall into any particular pattern; quite the opposite. Since the start of last season, you can make a handy chain of thrashings: Manchester City beat Liverpool 5-0, Liverpool beat Arsenal 4-0, Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-0, Chelsea beat United 4-0.
United are an appropriate club to pause on for a moment, for the second type of ‘big six’ match is the dour draw. This becomes an argument — accompanied with righteous anger — against Jose Mourinho as much as an argument against the Premier League.
It is hard to argue that Mourinho is not perfectly within his rights to play each game as he sees fit, and his pragmatism (or dogmatism) has worked before and may well work again.
But for those watching his matches as neutral supporters, there is little intrigue to what will follow when United play an away game against a title-challenging peer.
When you have seen the film several times before, it’s easy for concentration to drift. Mourinho’s United sacrificing their league form — including matches against his peers — for the Europa League last season hardly helped.
Yet this is not a problem of capitulation and certainly not of Mourinho, but hype. The anticipation usually builds on a Thursday morning after Champions League or EFL Cup games have been played.
The Europa League is an interesting aside, but only during the 90 minutes of each match.
Television broadcasters, battling for viewers, talk up the game as if it will be season-defining. Websites and newspapers have the same issue in an uber-competitive environment, and so the build-up must begin earlier and be blanketed across every aspect of the game.
How can any game match up to that? We are guilty of forgetting that the Premier League’s ‘best league in the world’ tagline is a Sky Sports advertising slogan. Nothing is ‘just another game’ anymore.
Premier League football as a commercialised product is part of the entertainment industry, but that often clashes with the truths of sport. In sport digging in for a draw may be the logical strategy, but those watching for entertainment have their own preconceived ideas of what constitutes enjoyment.
Yet we are also guilty of communal selective memory, or perhaps we are just products of a culture of negativity in which we have been hardwired by cynicism.
Since August 2015 in the Premier League, United have beaten Arsenal 3-2 and Liverpool 3-1. Chelsea have beaten Manchester City 3-1 and Arsenal 3-1.
Liverpool have beaten Arsenal 3-1 and 4-3. Tottenham have beaten Liverpool 4-1 and Manchester City by the same scoreline. There have been three 2-2 draws and a 3-3 draw between members of the big six. We have not been shortchanged.
Viewers are growing increasingly greedy that every game must sate our ever-increasing demands for entertainment, whipped up into a storm by the frenzied pre- and post-match coverage.
If a match between the Premier League’s best teams doesn’t match up to our expectations, perhaps it is the expectations themselves that are out of sync with reality.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved