Statistics chart a shift over the past five years to a more patient game that features greater subtlety in passing and finishing
• Jonathan Wilson on why more goals are being scored
More passes, less "hoofs" from back to front, and a slicker goalscoring rate: the Premier League has become a more technical "continental" competition that is a fusion of English pace and power and European subtlety.
These are the implications of statistics from Opta that chart a shift over the past five years from a direct approach to a more patient game that now features greater precision in passing and finishing. The national team continue to see little benefit from this evolution, with experts citing the prime factors as the influx of foreign players and coaches, better club pitches and training facilities, a clampdown on tackling and the influence of a Champions League dominated by Barcelona's carousel-passing style.
Since the 2007-8 season until matchday 11 of the current campaign, there have been more goals per game, rising from 2.64 to 2.82, the chance conversion rate has increased from 11.6% to 13.5%, and the average passes-per-game has gone up from 717 to 862. There are also fewer tackles – 47.2 down to 38.7 – and fewer fouls, 26.5 to 23.4.
Ray Wilkins, who assisted the Italian Carlo Ancelotti as Chelsea manager in 2009-10, says: "We'd all love to play like Barcelona. If we play the ball on the floor and at the same pace as we play the game in our country, there's no two ways about it, it will be wonderful. When we get a cracking game in our country, it's played with pace, power and very accurate passing."
Short, intricate football is more the norm now, to the extent that English clubs play more passes per game than in the Spanish and Italian leagues and with greater accuracy. But any suggestion that the Premier League might have become more ponderous is countered by a 98% increase in player sprints in the last decade, and average recovery time from high-intensity activity being cut from 55 seconds, five years ago, to the current 38 seconds.
This season a gung-ho emphasis on attacking has left the top sides defensively vulnerable. Manchester City, the champions, have managed only three clean sheets, yet their forwards have rescued them from defeat six times. Manchester United, who missed out on last season's title on goal difference, have also conceded first on six occasions yet still won five of these and lead the league with 29 goals and City, by two points. Third-placed Chelsea's summer recruitment added the pace of Eden Hazard and Oscar's creative destruction and they now trail only United and Fulham with their 23 strikes.
That pair have joined Juan Mata in forming a flair-filled attacking midfield trio at Stamford Bridge. They are part of another latest fashion, that of the small playmaker, with David Silva and Santi Cazorla other exponents of the kind of football Barcelona have exhibited with such outstanding success. Since 2006 Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta et al have dominated the continent, claiming three Champions League trophies through a kaleidoscopic pass-and-move game.
Andy Roxburgh, who was Uefa's technical director for 16 years and is now sporting director at New York Red Bulls, says: "The Premier League is a reflection of the Champions League – it falls in line with it. As we have seen in the Champions League there is a definite trend towards possession-based football. We found that five hundred passes has become almost the dividing line – last season the team that averaged more than five hundred passes per game were successful: 14 of 16 that went to the knockout stages. Teams like Barcelona and Spain have almost become a role model."
Wilkins, a former England captain who played for United and Milan, adds: "We've had a lot more coaches coming from outside and the majority of players they've brought in are foreign, therefore they're used to playing in this fashion with the ball on the floor. Now if our guys can learn from that all well and good because the higher you go if you give the ball away you're in trouble."
Giving the ball away is indeed a sin, meaning the art of winning it back is all the more significant. Yet the number of tackles per game has dropped markedly, the English player's love for getting stuck in being stymied to the extent that Premier League players are now flying into challenges less frequently than in La Liga or Serie A. Nigel Winterburn, the left-back in Arsenal's celebrated defence of the 1990s, is unsurprised. "With the outlaw of tackling from behind, and the pace of the game now as well, it's more about anticipating and interceptions," he says, explaining that fewer lunge tackles have led to challenges being better timed and therefore referees awarding a smaller number of fouls, again with the Premier League showing the lowest number.
Another factor is that there are fewer aerial 50-50s now, which often result in free-kicks being given. This is because of the fall-off from 38.8% of passes being played long from back to the final third to 30.9%, further evidence of a pan-European influence. "We're trying to move to a more technical game, although I don't think we're quite there yet," Winterburn says. "Direct play is not as fashionable as it was a few seasons ago, maybe due to the introduction of foreign players."
This phasing in of a more hypnotic passing approach is reflected in the average per match rising from 717 five years ago to 862 this term, on pitches which are almost always perfect. There are some dissenters, however, reflecting the English desire for thrills and spills. Lou Macari, an MUTV pundit who played over 400 times for United, says: "I agree it's become more patient and technical but I don't for one minute think it's better. I'm at Old Trafford most weeks and there are some where the crowd is actually waiting for something to happen because there are too many passes. Manchester United over the years has been rip-roaring football and that's why they've been so successful and I don't think United will ever drift away from that.
"But there can be 20 passes, actually not going forward at any great tempo and you've not gone anywhere. In the case of United that's crept in a little bit but it will never overtake what has been, especially Alex Ferguson's, stamp on the game – the fast attacking football."
Roxburgh reflects how Spain's success, winning the last three major tournaments, stemmed from a passing philosophy formed at youth level. "The one thing the Spanish have said is that their style – the national team's – does not come from the top down. It came from the bottom up. In other words, the way their youth teams train is the way the national team play. The way Xaxi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets were brought up as youth players has now evolved to the way the team play at national level. Xavi said a very interesting thing. He thought five, six years ago his style of player could become 'obsolete'. And he said it was only because Barcelona then Spain became successful that 'our success justified our style.'"
Roxburgh adds that if academies play the way their first teams are now doing, this evolution could have a positive impact on future England teams. "There are a lot of foreign players and coaches in the Premier League," he says. "What influence is that having on the next generation and those involved in player development?"