Golden Boot race: Goals dry up for stars at Premier League's smaller clubs
There have been inquests aplenty. The superstar strikers are not scoring in the copious quantities they were in the early weeks of the season. Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette cost the best part of £200 million between them last summer. Between the start of October and the end of Sunday, they scored a combined 14 goals in 60 club games.
They may not attract much sympathy from their counterparts elsewhere, and not just because of their sizeable salaries or the quality of the supply lines at elite clubs. Because a glimpse at the race for the Golden Boot is notable not just for who is in it -- Lukaku in fifth place, Morata sharing sixth and Lacazette tied for 10th -- but for who isn't: the underdog attackers, the forwards delivering goals for smaller clubs.
Because only one striker for a club outside the top six has more league goals than Chelsea's left wing-back Marcos Alonso this season. He is Leicester's Jamie Vardy and it is hard to brand a penalty-taking, title-winning England international who has been linked with Manchester United an underdog. He is the lone representative of the bottom 14 clubs' forward lines among the 19 men with at least seven top-flight goals.
It reflects the trend that specialist scorers at the lesser clubs can be outscored by the growing band of wingers and attacking midfielders at the favourites, players who have broader skill sets but are still prolific: most obviously Mohamed Salah, but also Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and the now-departed Philippe Coutinho. It also shows the forwards found further down the table are being outgunned by supposedly less attacking performers: Riyad Mahrez, Wayne Rooney, whose goals have mainly come from midfield, and, rather improbably, Abdoulaye Doucoure. Now none, Vardy apart, have more than six.
It also marks a stark change from the past. Last season, five forwards got at least 15 league goals for teams in the bottom 14: Lukaku, Josh King, Christian Benteke, Jermain Defoe and Fernando Llorente. The previous season, Defoe and Odion Ighalo did, with Troy Deeney close behind. Rewind to 2014-15 and Charlie Austin was the division's fourth-highest scorer with 18 goals for relegated QPR; Saido Berahino, strange as it sounds now, was only four goals adrift of him. In 2013-14, only five men scored more goals than Swansea's Wilfried Bony. In 2012-13, Benteke delivered 19 goals for Aston Villa and Rickie Lambert 15 for Southampton, who finished twinned on 41 points.
Rewind through the years and the leaderboard has invariably featured valiant challengers from unfancied sides -- until now. There are various reasons, most obviously the impotence of Benteke and Defoe, who tend to be constants in the top 15 scorers, in injury-hit seasons and Everton's sale of Lukaku, the other ever-present, and failure to properly replace him until Cenk Tosun's January move. Similarly, Llorente's move to Tottenham, like Swansea's earlier sale of Bony, indicates that the top clubs can pluck reliable scorers from their inferiors to fill their bench.
Failures in the transfer market are also a factor, and not just Everton's. Rafa Benitez wanted a fine finisher at Newcastle and instead ended up with the cut-price workhorse Joselu. Perhaps priorities were skewed: despite all the money in the Premier League and despite the promise a scorer would secure safety, only one bottom-14 club spent £20 million on a centre-forward last summer: Leicester, on Kelechi Iheanacho.
Certainly some of the bigger buys' returns are unimpressive. Equally, some are bit-part players. Iheanacho and Javier Hernandez joined Leicester and West Ham averaging a goal every 106 and 130 minutes in the Premier League, respectively, but are substitutes now. At least their clubs have healthy goal returns: Southampton do not, but Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini have often been benched for Shane Long, a scorer once in 11 months.
Austin is now sidelined and injuries form individual explanations: perhaps otherwise Steve Mounie, Chris Wood or Callum Wilson, who has a healthy return of a goal every 146 minutes, would figure more prominently. His Bournemouth teammate King, in contrast, now averages one per 490; like Berahino's, his potent past looks an outlier.
This, had Mark Hughes' plans gone right, would have been Berahino's year. Instead Stoke, like Newcastle, Everton, West Ham and Watford, have no out-and-out first-choice forward. Confused selection helps account for the lack of regular scorers. So do negative tactics and a lack of quality: Bony and Tammy Abraham have scarcely been prolific but, as Swansea failed to replace the creative Gylfi Sigurdsson and average 2.26 shots on target a game, would anyone?
But the cumulative effect is that, Vardy and Rooney apart, the top 13 scorers all come from the top six clubs. Last year, 17 clubs averaged more than a goal a game; now that number is down to 11 clubs. Whether teams have failed strikers or vice versa, and it is probably a bit of both, the reality is that, with 60 percent of the season gone, Vardy is the only forward from outside the elite six on course to top 10 league goals. And it leaves the Golden Boot race, without its usual deserving overachievers battling adversity, looking strangely empty.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.