Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 20 News List

English football gets defensive as fans become bored


Ticket prices are soaring. Crowd figures are falling. Goals are drying up.

English soccer seems to be losing its appeal. Maybe it's all Jose Mourinho's fault.

Mourinho's Chelsea has won its first six Premier League games this season without conceding a goal, but hasn't won many admirers with its sterile playing style. Chelsea's opponents, meanwhile, have resorted to defensive tactics to try to stop the Blues.

Goals are dwindling in comparison to the start of previous seasons and thousands of empty seats suggest that fans are losing interest at a time when attendance figures in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany are either stable or on the way up.

On the field, Sunday's 0-0 draw between Liverpool and Manchester United illustrated the negative trend permeating through the Premier League.

Most of the game was played in the center of the field, with Liverpool fielding just one striker and stifling Manchester United's attack with five across midfield.

"United strangled by fear of failure" headlined the Times, which pointed out that Liverpool's four Premier League games so far have ended in three 0-0 draws and a 1-0 victory.

Goals per game in Spain, Italy and Germany are all above the Premier League, which is averaging 2.1 compared with 3.0 at the same stage last season and 2.8 the year before.

Graeme Souness, who won five English league titles and three European Cups as a Liverpool player and now coaches Newcastle, says Premier League managers are out to avoid defeat rather than win games.

"Within five years we will be like Italian football," he said. "Teams are becoming successful by not chasing games."

Meanwhile, Premier League attendance is down a reported 4 percent. There were an average 7,000 empty seats at each of last weekend's nine Premier League games. Bolton had 10,000 empty seats for its first ever European game and Middlesbrough drew only 14,191 -- 18,000 down on capacity -- for a UEFA Cup game.

At the same time, ticket prices have gone up to a league high ?70 (103.60 euros) at Tottenham and ?60 (88.6 euros) at Chelsea -- way out of the range of average fans, who are staying at home to watch games on TV.

Tony Cascarino, a striker who played 88 times for Ireland, is among those decrying the lack of entertainment.

"This season has just seen the worst start to a Premiership that I can remember," he wrote in his column in the Times. "I did not expect so many Premiership managers to fall victim of the 4-5-1 epidemic ... Who will be the first crackpot to play 5-5-0 deciding that it's not worth playing even a single forward because it's so unlikely that his team will score?"

If that happens, it could be against Chelsea.

Mourinho's cagey style is to sit back and test the strength of opponents and then grind them down later in the game. The result so far: Six Premier League shutouts, plus one more in the Champions League.

Chelsea edged promoted Wigan on an injury time Hernan Crespo goal, and the Blues' lone strike in a 1-0 victory over Arsenal was a lucky goal that bounced off the shins of Didier Drogba.

The Blues, who won the title last season by 15 points, already top the Premier League by six points. Many believe the championship race is already over.

"It's too early," said Chelsea and England midfielder Frank Lampard. "People are already talking about the points gap. We have started very well but we know that we have got to go on at the same level as we did last year."

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