Why are we seeing more goals per season in the Premier League?




By Tony Attwood

Here’s a bit of a sad fact.  The English league season which saw the most goals per game ever was 1889/90.  There were 4.63 goals a game in that campaign.  Unfortunately, Arsenal didn’t play in the league that season, but we do have records of their FA Cup results which shows the sort of thing that was going on… (details from 11v11).

Date Match Result Score
05 Oct 1889 Royal Arsenal v Lyndhurst W 11-0
26 Oct 1889 Thorpe v Royal Arsenal D 2-2
16 Nov 1889 Royal Arsenal v Crusaders W 5-2
07 Dec 1889 Royal Arsenal v Swifts L 1-5


I have the feeling that Thorpe scratched from the competition after the 2-2 draw so there was no replay, but we can see the overall score – 19 for Arsenal and nine for the opposition.  A total of 28 goals in four games meaning an average of 5.6 goals a game.  Quite good entertainment I’d have thought.

In their first season Arsenal came ninth,  scoring 52 goals in 28 games, while conceding 55.  That makes 3.93 goals a game.  

Overall the season with the second highest number of goals ever was 1888/89.  Third was 1891/2.  Fourth was 1890/91.  A bit of a pattern there in fact.

But there is another factor that could be borne in mind.  Those games were played under the old three-player rule, which meant that to be onside on receiving the ball, the attacking player had to have no less than three players between him and the goal he was attacking, to avoid being offside.

Now one of those would of course be the goalkeeper, but that still meant two outfield players needed to be in front of the attacker.  And still there were almost four goals a game on average.

The two-player rule (ie the keeper and a defender) was brought in, in 1925.  But that last season with the three-defender rule was the last record scoring season with 3.95 goals per game.  

The 2022/23 season however became the highest-scoring campaign in Premier League history, after 33 goals went in on the final day.   Those goals  meant 2.85 goals per game.  But this season (2023/24) is at the moment I write on 3.24 goals a game after 283 games – a huge leap forward.

In fact during the 380 game seasons in the Premier League (that is to say leaving out the first couple of seasons as the league adjusted itself to being a 20 team league) no season before now has ever had over three goals a game on average.

However this season it seems things are going to be different.  For the last time I checked Newcastle United’s games were seeing 3.82 goals a match.  Arsenal were in eighth position on 3.36 goals being scored a game.

And just to reiterate in order to be quite clear – these are goals scored by both teams added together, per game.   Thus Luton Town after 29 games were in third place in the goals per game league, on 3.52 goals a game while Sheffield United were in fifth.   The trouble for Sheffield is that after 28 games they have only scored 24 and conceded 74.

However during the years of the Premier League generally speaking the number of goals has remained fairly constant, the total going up one year and then down the next.

I won’t bore you with the whole table but here’s a rundown for the last seven seasons

Season Goals scored Compared to previous campaign Goals per game
2016/17 1064 Up 2.800
2017/18 1018 Down 2.679
2018/19 1072 Up 2.821
2019/20 1034 Down 2.721
2020/21 1024 Same 2.695
2021/22 1071 Up 2.818
2022/23 1,084 Same 2.853


So it looks like there might be something different happening this year as a review of the top three clubs suggests that by the end of the season, if they carry on as now they will have scored 12% more goals than last season.  

But if we are seeing more goals per game this season why is that?   My guess would be it has less to do with the clubs being more adventurous but rather to do with two other factors.

First clubs that come up are not buying lots of bulky 35 year old defenders, but staying with their existing players, keeping the extra money and resigning themselves to going straight back down.

Second, the fact that games are now on average about 10 minutes longer than before, due to the arbitrary PGMO decision to play lots of time added on.

In short, those older defenders brought in by clubs just promoted or regularly near the foot of the table, get tired more readily, and younger sharper players beat them near the end.

That plus Arsenal’s radical new policy of having (last season) six players scoring nine goals or more in the league, rather than one or two big hitters – which also makes a difference.  That is really confusing defences and is part of the reason why Arsenal is the top scoring club in the League at the moment.

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