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Chelsea vs Man Utd exposes Premier League niche

Two beautifully taken headed goals – not to mention Oliver Giroud’s equally sublime effort that was ruled out for offside – made Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea on Monday night something of a rarity in the Premier League this season.

Headed goals are going out of fashion and in truth probably have been ever since the days of Chris Sutton, Dion Dublin and Niall Quinn devastating Premier League defences with their swan-like lunges through the air.

Compared to last season, the number of headed goals per game has decreased by 0.06, while its percentage of overall goals has dropped by 2% as well. Both are incredibly small margins (worked out by yours truly), but they do point towards a downward trend. In fact, the current average of headed goals per game (0.43) is at its lowest point of the last six seasons.

And when placed in the context of modern football, it certainly makes sense. How many teams these days build their attacks around aerial bombardment, whether that’s knocking the ball down or directly into the net?

Pep Guardiola’s impact on British football has been as vast as it is profound, and most teams nowadays are at least to some extent an iteration of the tactical ideals he’s brought to Manchester City. City cough up with their fair share of headed goals (seven this season) because they create so many chances and win so many corners, but the vast majority of City’s forward play is based around breaking teams down on the deck.

And it seems that has reverberated amongst the top of the Premier League. Over the past two seasons, no out-and-out Big Six striker (excluding Liverpool’s wide forward Sadio Mane) has scored more than three headed goals in a Premier League campaign. Compare that to 2017/18, the term previous, and four Big Six strikers – Giroud, Aguero, Harry Kane and Alvaro Morata – exceeded that number. Clearly, headed goals are becoming more a luxury and less a necessity for the richest teams in the Premier League.

Yet, football has a knack of moving in cycles. Just when Barcelona’s possession-retaining style that lead them to two Champions League titles appeared to create an indisputably perfect way of playing, Borussa Dortmund proved otherwise by reaching the 2013 Champions League final as shock underdogs through the sheer electricity of their counter-attack.

Likewise, just as Leicester City’s Premier League title win, followed by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea doing the same, looked set to shepherd in a new era of teams prioritising defensive resilience over quality-laden attacks, Guardiola turned up at City and completely redefined the stylistic expectations of English football’s biggest teams.

And there are signs too that forwards famed for their heading ability might well start claiming the limelight again in coming years. For starters, while the number of headed goals seems to be on the wane, the number of crosses per gameweek in the Premier League is on the rise: this season it’s jumped up by around 10% from 2018/19.

Combine that with the changing nature of modern centre-backs, particularly in terms of how involved they are in the air, and suddenly a niche emerges. This season, from the ten players to average the most aerial duels won per game when playing at centre-half (minimum nine appearances) have a combined average of 4.9 per match. Go back to 2014/15, and that number stood at 6.4 – a pretty drastic difference.

While most top teams still employ one centre-back capable of battling in the air, the other usually possesses qualities almost as much akin to the midfield as the defence: Joe Gomez, John Stones, Fikayo Tomori, Victor Lindelof and David Luiz fall into that category. Interestingly enough, all measure in at a maximum of 6 foot 2 and with the exception of Stones have averaged less than three successful aerial duels per match this season.

So if crosses are on the rise and centre-backs are becoming less versed in the ways of the air, surely the smartest thing a top Premier League club could do in the next transfer window is sign a striker notorious for nodding it into the net and take advantage of the increased deliveries from out wide.

What could’ve been… Can you name the clubs these football legends almost joined?

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Who meets that remit? Well, from strikers already in the Premier League, Burnley’s Chris Wood finished joint-top for headed goals last season and is first this time around as well. Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin has bagged four already this term (36% of his overall goals), while Wolves’ Raul Jimenez is probably the obvious choice. As well as three headed goals and eleven in total, he boasts six assists this season.

Of course, whether any Big Six club actually decides to take up this opportunity remains to be seen. The assumption is that most strikers who provide threat in the air will struggle to press aggressively from the front or provide the deftness of build-up play needed for possession-retaining styles, simply because they are traditionally such sizeable, relatively immobile specimens.

But amid the Premier League’s lust for exciting and expansive football, there’s something to be said for effective play too. Actually, it’s largely the clubs keeping things more simple this season – most notably Sheffield United, Palace, Burnley and Newcastle – who are enjoying better results than the sides who try to play their way to success – Norwich, West Ham, Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Brighton.

And whichever Big Six club is prepared to go against what’s generally fashionable in the Premier League right now might just realise they have a crucial advantage over the rest of the pack.

Article title: Chelsea vs Man Utd exposes Premier League niche

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