No one knows more about winning the Premier League title than Sir Alex Ferguson, and it was interesting to hear his views on Leicester City’s sensational triumph last season. For Ferguson, it wasn’t the season-defining 3-1 victory at Manchester City when he realised they could triumph, but when they kept winning 1-0.
“They’ve won their last few games 1-0,” he said in late March, when the Foxes were on a run of five 1-0s in their past six games. “Those 1-0s are really important because it points out to me that they are a unit; they’re not going to lose. We had a season at [Manchester] United where we had eight 1-0 victories and that won us the league.”
It’s a familiar theme, and Ferguson has said the same thing many times before.
“How many times have I said to you about 1-0?” he said after a 1-0 victory over Fulham in March 2012. “What does it mean? It means championship form. I don’t mind the 1-0s, I really don’t, because it tells you we are determined, we’re going to defend, do the right things and play as a team.”
To managers, there are few better signs than a string of 1-0s.
What’s notable about this season, however, is that not many of the big teams are regularly winning 1-0. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, favourites at the start of the campaign, haven’t recorded a single 1-0 victory this season — and this inability has proved costly. At home to Middlesbrough, one of their easiest fixtures of the season on paper, they led 1-0 through Sergio Aguero, but couldn’t withstand a late spell of pressure and conceded a stoppage-time headed equaliser to Marten de Roon. They didn’t have the defensive resilience to see it through.
There was also City’s 3-1 defeat to Chelsea, another game they led 1-0. Kevin De Bruyne’s miss was the turning point, but a more organised, solid team would have coped better at 1-0 up and frustrated the opposition. City, though, didn’t seem to have that in their locker.
Arsenal and Liverpool, meanwhile, have won 1-0 just once apiece; this probably isn’t entirely surprising given they started the season with a seven-goal thriller at the Emirates, which was so exciting precisely because neither team had any control whatsoever.
Arsenal, of course, were once famous for winning 1-0 — it’s still one of their supporters’ main chants — but they’ve proved unable to hold on to that lead, aside from at home to Burnley. Against Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City they’ve gone 1-0 up, but have collected only one point from those games, with the 2-1 defeats against the latter two opponents last week prompting many to question, yet again, whether Arsenal have the mental strength required to win the title.
It took until Monday night, meanwhile, for Liverpool to collect their first 1-0 win of the season. Again, that 1-0 result over Everton — rather than beating Chelsea 2-1, for example — underlined the efficiency of Jurgen Klopp’s side. Similarly, Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham recently felt like confirmation they were actually a decent side, especially after they’d gone 1-0 ahead against Arsenal, Everton and Stoke before being pegged back to 1-1. It was United’s second 1-0 win of the season, the same number as Tottenham Hotspur.
Chelsea, however, already seem like 1-0 specialists. After a tremendous run of results — 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 2-0, 5-0 — immediately after their switch to a 3-4-3 system, Antonio Conte’s men have been more low-key in the past six games. In the four matches where they’ve taken the lead since then — against Middlesbrough, West Brom, Sunderland and Crystal Palace — Chelsea have hung on to win 1-0. They’ve felt the need to score more than that only when they’ve gone behind, in the 2-1 win over Tottenham and the 3-1 victory at Manchester City.
It feels somewhat like the Chelsea of Jose Mourinho’s first spell, when five of his first 12 matches ended in 1-0 wins. They eventually ended up with no fewer than 11 1-0 victories — more than a quarter of their matches. They finished the season with the best goals-against tally in the league, and also the highest points total. Few sides in Premier League history have offered that level of control over matches and reliability at the back, but just as Mourinho’s move to a new-look 4-3-3 — then very rare in the Premier League — worked wonders, so has Conte’s move to 3-4-3.
It might come as something of a surprise to learn that the other prolific 1-0 winners this season are West Ham. Slaven Bilic’s side have won five matches by that score line, although those are their only five wins all season. They’ve been nervy 1-0s, rather than controlled 1-0s.
However, statistics don’t show much correlation between 1-0 victories and title success. Only seven of the 24 Premier League title winners have finished with the highest number of 1-0s. The obvious reason, of course, is simply that title winners often win by greater margins.
And while there’s a tongue-in-cheek element to the obsession with 1-0s — a 5-0 will do nicely, thanks — a narrow, clinical win like that creates a particular feeling of efficiency, of purpose, of determination. Conte and Chelsea are certainly exuding those kinds of qualities at the moment, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they continued to rack up these narrow, no-nonsense victories in the next five months.