Last Sunday, amid the gleeful chaos of the 7-0 win over Manchester United, Mohamed Salah became Liverpool’s leading scorer in the Premier League. There is always a slight caution about such statistics – football didn’t begin in 1992, you know – but three decades on the Premier League serves as a useful shorthand for the modern era. But what is perhaps more striking is that Salah is not Liverpool’s all‑time leading scorer. That record still belongs to Ian Rush and that makes Liverpool unique among the big six clubs.
Arsenal’s leading all-time scorer is Thierry Henry. Chelsea’s is Frank Lampard. Manchester City’s is Sergio Agüero. Manchester United’s is Wayne Rooney. Tottenham’s is Harry Kane. Those are all players who are either still playing or retired in the past decade. Which, you may think, makes sense. There are more games than ever before. Careers are longer than they have ever been. Football is in an attacking phase: there are more goals per game than at any point for 60 years.
Even though pure goalscorers have in effect been refined out of the game, even though most elite forwards have to press and create as well as score, the conditions are there for individuals to rack up huge tallies. But if this is purely an issue of general environment, why do none of the other 14 Premier League clubs have an all-time top scorer who played in the past decade?
That goalscoring records are falling at top clubs is partly to do with the attacking nature of the modern game and advances in sports science, but it is also an indicator of the profound imbalances in today’s football.
To an extent that is the economic hierarchy taking effect in a world in which transfers happen far more readily. A player scores goals for a smaller team and almost inevitably moves on. Scoring at the rate he did, Wilfried Bony would have had to stay 10 years at Swansea to take Ivor Allchurch’s record. Perhaps that was always unlikely but joining Manchester City ensured it could not happen. Or take Danny Ings who, after 37 goals in his final two seasons at Burnley, might have had George Beel’s record in sight seven or eight years down the line, but instead went to Liverpool and is now at West Ham.
But it is also the case that over the past decade the gulf between top and bottom of the Premier League has become far greater. Goal difference replaced goal average as the means of separating teams level on points in 1976-77. That season, Liverpool were champions with a goal difference of +29. Last season, Manchester City won the league with a goal difference of +73. That is one of only four occasions when the champions have had a goal difference greater than +70. Three have come in the past four years.
Extrapolate Arsenal’s present goal difference of +34 after 26 games over the full season and it would be +50 (City’s would be +60). That is fairly standard these days. Only Leicester in the past 24 years have won the league with a goal difference of under +40, yet between 1976-77 and José Mourinho’s first season at Chelsea in 2004-05 only seven champions recorded a goal difference greater than +50.
In part, perhaps that is to do with changes to the laws that make it harder to close games down. The introduction of three points for a win in 1981 may also have had an impact although, as ever with Jimmy Hill’s big ideas, the consequences were far more complex than he was able to anticipate or acknowledge. But mainly it shows how stretched quality in the Premier League has become. The best have got better far quicker than those lower down the table, and that makes it easier for them to win games, and by bigger margins.
Increasing inequality seems an inevitable consequence of the neoliberal version of capitalism pursued by football over the past four decades. The Premier League, to its credit, has been far more conscious of that than other leagues. It was the great achievement of Richard Scudamore in his time as chief executive that the champions took no more than 1.8 times as much in domestic broadcast revenue as the side finishing bottom.
More than anything else, that has prevented the sort of monopolies or duopolies seen in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The success of the Premier League as an exportable product has multiple causes but it is hopefully not too romantic to suggest that a major factor is that the bottom sides can at least still to an extent compete with those at the top – albeit not as much as they once did.
Spain has acted to address the issue, the top‑to‑bottom ratio falling from around 12:1 to just under 4:1 over the past decade, but the Premier League’s success has been such that its revenues dwarf those of other leagues, to the point that West Ham, Leicester, Leeds and Everton, four of the Premier League’s bottom six going into the weekend, are among the 20 wealthiest clubs in Europe by revenue.
The consequence of that is to make every other league in effect a feeder for the Premier League, which may not be the Premier League’s fault but is not healthy for the global game.
The other problem of that ratio is that it creates a shelf to the Championship, which is why the fan-led review of football governance called for the ratio between top and bottom in both Premier League and Championship to be 1:2, to try to smooth out that cliff edge.
Perhaps that is the right balance, although the danger is of weakening Premier League sides while widening the already significant gulf between Championship and League One. And the truth is that the division of broadcast revenue is of limited relevance when some clubs in effect have the resources of states behind them. The big fish will always gobble up their smaller rivals.
None of which is to diminish the achievements of Henry, Lampard, Agüero, Rooney or Kane. But you don’t have to be a Marxist theorist to recognise that behind every achievement in modern football there is an economic explanation.