At his peak, Sir Alex Ferguson famously made his rivals believe the main function of the hands on a referee’s watch was to applaud his side after facilitating a stoppage-time winner.
Given the increase in last-gasp goals during the current Premier League season, the legendary Manchester United manager may be inclined to think he retired too soon.
English football is currently experiencing ‘Fergie time’ on hyperdrive, with 18 goals coming after the 90-minute mark across the first five Premier League match days. At the same point of last season only two stoppage-time goals were registered, while before this campaign the most at this stage since records began was 11.
The timing of the radical shift is no coincidence, of course. This season’s clampdown on time-wasting means the concept of a 90-minute Premier League match is officially dead, added time regularly extending play beyond 100 minutes, giving those teams with a strong bench of substitutes a particular advantage. Fans who prefer to leave the stadium early to avoid travel congestion once thought they were skipping dessert. Now they are increasingly liable to miss the main course.
Tottenham Hotspur’s triumph against Sheffield United on Saturday was the latest late Premier League turnaround, the equalising and winning goals registered at 98 and 100 minutes, respectively.
‘Playing the clock’ has never been more perilous, especially as there is no objective or truly accurate measure of how much time is left beyond what was once the formulaic two or three minutes.
James Maddison gleefully imitating Sheffield United players receiving treatment for cramp in the immediate aftermath of Spurs’ winner was lovingly received on social media by all supporters who have felt frustrated by incessant gamesmanship; players feigning injury, extended team meetings before every set-play, and goalkeepers forming a deep and meaningful relationship with the turf each time they catch a cross.
If football’s governing bodies persist with the new edict, matches will last longer while José Mourinho’s and Diego Simeone’s pre-match meetings will be cut in half, blunting the weapons which have long been their forte.
Attacking coaches may also take perverse pleasure from negative opponents being kept in the dark as to how much time is left to waste. Equally, it could work in a defensive coach’s favour if an away side can hold on in a daunting venue for 90 minutes before taking advantage of a prolonged period of angst-ridden desperation as the scoreboard and time pressure cranks up.
“I’m 100 per cent sure if I stand out there and if we are 1-0 up and somebody tells me 12 minutes, I will not be over the moon,” suggested Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp earlier this season. “In the other way, I think, ‘OK, that’s nearly a half-time, let’s go.’”
The early data makes for a persuasive argument that the Premier League will be more entertaining for the policy shift; late goal feasts potentially becoming the norm. The concept of the centre-back sprinting into the opposition penalty area to hunt an equaliser used to be restricted for the added two or three minutes. The more and longer this happens the likelier the success during prolonged spells of ‘injury’ time, while making the more adventurous teams vulnerable to a counter attack.
More stoppage time also intensifies the prospect of emotional and physical factors overriding tactics and organisation.
When you consider the most dramatic finales ever, the nervousness of the side trying to resist pressure was as influential as the attacking quality of that throwing on another attacker.
Think of Bayern Munich’s players surrendering to anxiety against Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League final; the shock of conceding an equaliser so late undoubtedly leading to schoolboy errors as they gave away another decisive corner seconds after their own kick-off.
Like Ferguson’s United, late goals tend to be a recurring habit of the best, most relentless teams. It speaks to the spirit and mentality of a side as much as their ability to take advantage of a vibrant atmosphere. If the 1999 Treble winners were around in 2023, they would probably score another 38 goals a season.