EFL COLUMN: OVERUSED PITCHES THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE VALIDITY OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP THIS SEASON
The depths of winter are always a stressful time for Football League clubs. The fixture list is at its most congested, the January transfer window provides ample opportunity for teams further up the pyramid to prize away your best players, and, arguably most concerningly, the British weather can turn your bowling green of a pitch into something a farmer wouldn’t even bother planting potatoes in.
Pointing out the poor quality of a playing surface is usually portrayed as the preserve of the desperate manager searching for a fresh reason why his side isn’t doing the business, but a bad pitch makes games far more likely to be called off and also makes injuries more likely when they do go ahead.
A number of half-hearted excuses have been put forward for why this EFL season doesn’t really matter; no supporters in grounds and the most congested fixture list that’s ever been seen prime among them. But something that does seem to be genuinely affecting how teams play in a tangible way is the condition of pitches.
The best example of this has been the two fixtures between Barnsley and Swansea City this season, at both Oakwell and the Liberty Stadium. Swansea’s case is slightly different as the club identified a disease within the playing surface that saw the turf ripped up and replaced over Christmas, but when they hosted the Tykes on 19th December, the pitch looked practically devoid of grass.
Even though Swansea are no longer the keep-the-ball-at-all-costs side they were upon promotion to the Premier League in 2011, they do tend to keep the ball on the floor and build out from the back. However, against Barnsley they were unusually direct, finishing the game with a pass completion percentage of just 39% - their lowest of the season by some distance. The result was a fairly dour 2-0 win for the home side, despite the game looking an exciting one on paper beforehand.
The return fixture in Yorkshire was played on an Oakwell pitch that regularly cut up and turned to mud as storm Christoph began to cause havoc in the north of England. Swansea once again prioritised long passes over keeping hold of possession, and again it worked, as Steve Cooper’s side walked away with another 2-0 win.
“We had to show a different side today, and fair play to the lads we actually did it really well,” said Cooper after the game. Whilst it is obviously good management on his behalf to adapt to the conditions, it does suggest pitches are affecting the football on display.
In each of the last four seasons the Championship has averaged at least 2.5 goals per game across the season, only ever dropping as low as 2.42 in 2015/16 across the last 10 campaigns.
So far in this current season, Championship games are averaging 2.19 goals per game.
Again, this cannot solely be put down to the quality of pitches, but they do seem to be a determining factor as low-scoring games characterised the New Year fixture list.
Whilst it is common for EFL groundsmen to have to work overtime at this point of the season as pitches deteriorate, it is worth remembering - if it were at all possible to forget - that this is a season unlike any other.
Blackburn were forced to postpone a game due to weather for the first time since 2015, as Christoph left them with a water-logged pitch ahead of a scheduled meeting with, somewhat ironically, Swansea. Even though the weather was the catalyst for the issue, Rovers’ head groundsman Trevor Wilkin highlighted the short gap between last season and this as a key issue for pitches across the country.
“With just a small window of opportunity to complete the necessary close season renovation work, we fraise mowed the pitch, before seeding it, but we always knew that as the season wore on, the pitch would become harder to maintain and withstand the intensity of the fixture schedule due to the lack of growing time in the summer,” he told the club’s website.
Although a poor pitch will no doubt continue to be sneered at as little more than a lame excuse to explain away underperformance, the numbers suggest those who want to strike this season from the records should be adding the poor state of EFL playing surfaces to the collection of wishful thoughts beneath their tinfoil hats.
Just how damaging the congested fixture list will be for these overworked surfaces we will only know by the season’s end, but for now we should probably just be prepared to sit through a few more long balls.