And so we reach the end of another season of “The Premier League”, the wildly popular and occasionally thrilling sporting serial transmitted to viewers around the world. The scriptwriters had work to do to improve on the 2014-15 season which in truth meandered at times, and boy did they deliver. Kindly, genteel Italian Claudio Ranieri returned from a long hiatus to take all the plaudits and in a delightful twist we waved farewell to familiar villain “JR” Mourinho, who once more got his comeuppance; an unforeseen and controversial plot this time found him failing to embrace feminism. Last year’s entertaining entrant Louis van Gaal had a quieter run this time and the joke wore thin quickly for “Tactics” Tim Sherwood and Brendan Rodgers. Mauricio Pochettino brought some Argentinian grit in his second year at Tottenham and brooding Slaven Bilic brought intensity to the Hammers. Jurgen Klopp wore a dazzling smile throughout and was loved, and Roberto Martinez just smiled and was not. Nobody really knew who was managing Swansea and rather preposterously, another familiar face in Rafa Benitez taught Andros Townsend to shoot, for all the good that did.
Killed off at the end of season 2014-15, Sam Allardyce was soon to make a lazarus-like return but the big story was what was organised in advance for the show’s 2016-17 run. Superstar coach and all round hipster idol Pep Guardiola signed on for a big fee and expectation was tangible: could he build a team without centre backs to beat Tony Pulis’ team of all centre backs? A ridiculous conceit surely, but when one is a fan of the Premier League, it’s worth remembering, anything can happen, it already has and it won’t again. Leicester that is.
Roll on August.
Last season we saw a significant drop in the shot volume in the league from the few seasons prior and the lower rate has continued into 2015-16, with a further though very slight decline. Over three shots per game have vanished from matches compared to the free and easy days of the early 2010s and it’s interesting to speculate why that might be. With our analytics hats on we might posit ideas around shot quality theories taking hold and we could cite Arsenal, particularly this season, as a team that focuses on this. Maybe the Dutch connection of Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman who preside over the 1st and 9th least shot-involved matches are influential here, or Mourinho, gone but with impact not forgotten?
In truth it’s hard to know as if we look longer term these rates tend to oscillate up and down depending on fashion or styles. Where 2014-15 was a lull for both shots and conversions, 2015-16 has at least picked up in the latter:
We can see that while goals and shot rates are at the low end, the rate in which shots or shots on target are being created is high when compared to the seven seasons nominated. Accuracy is also at the higher end too. Over the course of these seasons, wider perception of the quality of top Premier League teams has changed, the best sides in Europe are now seen to be elsewhere, so it’s interesting to note that across the whole league, there seems to be a slow but distinct trend towards teams becoming more efficient in their attacking play. Even with such broad strokes we can see an evolution and that Leicester, the ultimate low volume, high conversion team should triumph is a wry reflection of wider trends.
Swansea and identifying the mean – or not
While the Leicester story has mischievously run roughshod over most of the world of prediction and expectation–while offering mortgage paying joy for pub liars across the nation– other teams have behaved almost entirely as expected, a case in point being Swansea.
Across four previous seasons in the Premier League, Swansea have managed to become reliable performers; never worse than 12th and peaking with an 8th last year. This year they stared down the spectre of the bottom of the table before slowly righting themselves and now stand 13th, with anywhere from 11th to 15th seeming the most likely outcome. Bobby Gardiner dug deeper than most into them at the end of March and there isn’t too much to add but suffice to say, Swansea’s baseline has been almost identical throughout their time in the league:
Some years, say 2014-15, they get a few more breaks than others and they look like they might be better than previously thought. On other occasions, namely this year, it takes time for them to get close to their true level– around mid-table– and all manner of chaos can ensue in between. As ever, unless managerial relationships have broken down entirely, which may well have been the case with Garry Monk, it’s probably smarter to play the long game and see how it pans out. That they have created a halfway house with the appointment of first Alan Curtis and then Francesco Guidolin at least allows some room to make a bigger decision in the summer, if required.
The real point here is broader. Sometimes it’s reasonably straightforward to predict long term movement for a club when you have access to performance statistics, be they expected goals, shot numbers or more. In this case, Swansea’s 8th in 2014-15 caused positive reflection, raised expectations and may well have contributed to the reaction from the board in removing Monk, when in fact, this last autumn they were simply going through a period of reversion, to a pretty long term and solid mean.
Identifying such a mean is a problem that continues to test analytical practitioners and gamblers and we have a few teams this season that may provide a larger challenge than is often the case. Various shot metrics and expected goals peg Leicester as around the 4th or 5th best team in the league, and while fortune has beamed widely upon them in the shape of injuries, penalties and periodic conversion rates, it’s also true that they look to have improved as time has gone on. A broad analysis of their entire season would show one level when a trajectory will slightly differ; this season’s Champions must be good, right? Well, up to a point yes, but with few confident of their future likely performance levels, beyond the idea that they will fall off to some degree, it’s hard to get a clear idea of where they might end up, or indeed what their true talent level is. Claudio Ranieri, refreshingly seems happy to once more play down expectations and should be respected for doing so, even if it’s just part of his schtick.
See also West Ham. Very similarly to Leicester they have spent much of the year defying their sub-par shooting and expected goal figures. With a new coach in Bilic and a slow move towards improvement as the season has gone on, we are once more left pondering which aspects of their performances are likely to prove repeatable, and which could be remedied or stymied by personnel changes or simple skews. I make West Ham three season overachievers on their defensive end and the quandary here is do we give credit to Sam Allardyce and his methods and accept a skew this year, or do we assume in a league of twenty teams, that at least one team will at any one time be experiencing a skew lasting this long at any given time? We know little about Bilic’s methods to be able to make strong measurements and gauge his influence, but maybe he is adept in similar ways to Allardyce? It can’t be ruled out. Interestingly Johannes Harkins placed these two in the same group in an analysis he performed last week on the Optapro blog and they currently share both style and over performance, and the question going forward remains how much or if even these things are interlinked.
Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea
Also notable in that analysis were the co-grouping of the three traditional giants of the modern league: Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. All good passing teams, generally decent at controlling play and (usually) dominating shot counts yet each has firmly underperformed expectations this year, and in different ways.
Arsenal’s external mean seems to find them landing 3rd or 4th in any league they compete in and that they haven’t managed to challenge longer and harder for the title can largely be attributed to struggling to match expectation at home. In winning only 11 of 18 homes games so far, and scoring only the 9th most goals in the league in their home stadium, the problem here has been clear. Both expected goals and shot analysis show their attack has left a ton of goals behind there and while their defence has been fine at home and their results have more obviously matched their metrics away from home, the Emirates is where it’s gone awry. The latter half of the season, Santi Cazorla apart, has not even been affected by a typical injury malaise. They got largely fit and then since beating Leicester on Valentine’s Day have gone 4-5-2. Perplexing stuff. So it’s still hard to peg Arsenal’s true level: same as they ever were or foiled by a cold streak?
Manchester City have oddly continued to underhit against their strong shooting numbers and with an aging squad and a lame duck coach, only the Champions League run has kept the season alive, until now. Their defence is in line to concede the fewest shots per game in the Enlightened Era (2009-10 onwards) yet it feels as though Alexis Sanchez’s equaliser this last Sunday was all too representative of the shots and goals they have conceded; the back line shredded and concession all too easy. Again, like Arsenal they have failed to win seven home games–far too many for Championship contenders– and in losing five times at the Etihad, they match the home loss record of Swansea and Newcastle. All the while expected goals only prefers Arsenal and shot metrics prefer Tottenham, they are not a bad team but are currently facing down a potential 5th place; that’s a skew downwards about as large as Leicester has up. Baffling stuff. It’s highly probable that Pep Guardiola has a little more to work with in his squad than current perception suggests, but further large transfer investment, with little opportunity to sell, seems inevitable. Surely their trajectory must be up?
And Chelsea, who careered through the autumn with declining performances and acted too late in removing Jose Mourinho to save their season. On the ball they still look like they could be a decent side, but even a generous expected goals model will struggle to value them above seventh or eighth and their shots numbers are no better than par. Guus Hiddink has had a nice run of balancing out his team’s conversion rates but they look to be a reasonable distance away from a title shot and even top four may be a tricky task next year. Antonio Conte, much like Guardiola, is sure to want new recruits to galvanise his squad and the spine of 2014-15, so strong in the early part of that title winning season, looked to have slipped a disc this time round. Maybe Eden Hazard will stick around and build upon the flashes of form we are now seeing, his injuries behind him? Regardless, if any team can benefit from the “No Europe” skew, then it’s Chelsea, but they will have to improve on their baseline, for during 2015-16 there simply wasn’t enough there.
Newcastle’s Transfer Window Trophy wasn’t enough
Newcastle vs Villa had a fascinating shape from a shots perspective. With a combined 11 shots, only the strange nine shot 1-1 draw between Bournemouth and Leicester back in August has had fewer this season. In isolation, Newcastle’s limitation of of Villa to two shots in total is admirable but it seems as if Rafa Benitez’s natural pragmatism may well have finally cost his team a place in the league. The Match of the Day analysis from Ian Wright noted simply how Newcastle were offering no pressure to Villa in possession and you can’t escape the fact that Newcastle absolutely had to win this game, given it was against the league’s clear worst team and they face Tottenham to finish.
By ensuring that not getting beaten was his team’s primary aim, Benitez clearly offered Villa too much respect. Since joining the club, it seems clear that he has focused on reducing events within the game. The last nine games of Steve McClaren’s reign featured roughly 26 shots per game (across both teams) and under Benitez that has dropped to around 21. But why? What has this achieved? Not a lot. McClaren had tangibly improved Newcastle from Christmas onwards, albeit from a horrifically low base, but was getting annihilated in the shot conversions. Benitez has supervised a zero goal difference but has taken away three shots a game from his attack over these periods and where McClaren posted a differential of +7 shots on target in those 9 games, Benitez is basically the same with +8. Can we identify a slight increase in efficiency? Maybe. Expected goals suggest a little but probably without effecting enough real progress to save them.
Two wins hasn’t been enough and Newcastle aren’t a good team. Their squad looks to have been bought erratically and while they have talent in among their individuals, there are weaknesses throughout. They spent a fortune in January and it looks like it will be to no avail but regardless, if you’re playing Villa, you must be looking to create more than nine shots in a game. Volume will always have a huge importance, and it seems Benitez and Newcastle are going to find out to their cost that you need to do more than try and edge games against the league’s bottom team.
What else? (and apologies to any omitted teams)
- Manchester United continue to be straitjacketed by Louis van Gaal’s methods, yet could find an unlikely late run into the Champions League, Expected goals or shots don’t paint a kind picture (7th-8th) yet they remain in the hunt, and should they win the FA Cup or land in the top four, it’s going to take a brave man to tell Louis to go away.
- Southampton’s solid rise continues. They’ve now had four years of extremely competitive defensive numbers and have consistently failed to miss their departing stars. The Team Most Likely To Get Among The Big Boys title may have been handed on to Leicester for now, but i’d happily bet that they will be in the mix for the European spots once more next year.
- Stoke rode their numbers for half a season, were extremely erratic and then had spells of utter dreadfulness from there on in. It’s hard to think that Mark Hughes has taken them forward and beyond the fact that they’ve never been in any serious trouble this year, it’s been largely forgettable.
- Liverpool might end up in the Champions League yet if they do not will surely rue that they did not collect a handful more points and pressurise the top four. If this Manchester United team can go into the final week of the season still in contention, that Liverpool are not is a poor reflection. At times they have been irresistible–everything except their save percentage and the resulting goals against look like a top four team– at times entirely baffling, but that their near future rests on a pivotal coin flip of a cup final against the owners of the Europa League is a fascinating gambit.
- Everton have had a curate’s egg of a season, the metrics say they’re okay, as in mid-table, but the post Christmas malaise has been entirely poisonous and it looks as though Martinez’s position has become untenable. The weirdly timed signing of Oumar Niasse continues to baffle and bringing in an attacking reinforcement when their defence needed help seemed ill advised. Farhad Moshiri looks on, and one wonders how much influence he will have going forward. Everton do have talent in their squad, it feels like rigour may be needed to harness it.
- Aston Villa are in clear contention for having created the worst Premier League season of the decade and I use that cut off to spare them comparisons to the legendarily bad Derby 2007-08 team. In particular their attack has been utterly bereft of quality and their rate of shots on target per game (2.9) now interrupts a three season Tony Pulis Stoke City salvo at the very bottom of the seven season chart. They have also conceded all shots at a rate (14.9%) only superceded oddly by Bournemouth this year (15.1%) across the same period.
Obligatory Tottenham Finale
It would be remiss of me to finish without at least giving a few words to Tottenham. Benefitting from the vague ineptitude of the larger teams in the league and finding the top four would have been a great achievement in any other season, but to do so as a dominant team bouncing forward from the weird chaotic systems of 2014-15 has been fascinating to see. Second or third place are secure, meaning the Champions League, and while Tottenham are well built for European competition, it’s refreshing to feel that the upgrading required is mainly in the squad. With a fit first 11 to rival any team in the land, it seems highly likely that they will be able to build on this season’s fine efforts in the coming years.
Shooting metrics loved them, expected goals loved their defence and volume was their biggest friend throughout at both ends. Too many draws, rather flat conversion rates driven by ranged shooting and Richard the Third’s malign influence finished their title bid but coherence was finally achieved and they even learned to fight when things didn’t go their way. In among the metrics of small concern, both they and Leicester managed to create shots on target and prevent the opposition at historically super high rates: they rank 1st and 3rd here over the last seven seasons and it’s a measure that is prone to regression. When you see them in and around Liverpool 2013-14, Chelsea 2014-15 and Manchester United 2012-13, all teams that fell dramatically out of the top two after skewing positively here, it’s worth noting. Unlike these teams and Leicester though, Tottenham had no attacking boost in their shot conversion, so are perhaps better set to maintain than some of those mentioned.
Player wise it was all good: Harry Kane continued to score, Christian Eriksen kept them ticking over and it’s been many, many months since a “waste of money” Erik Lamela article. All the while Eric Dier and Dele Alli found love in the midfield, Mousa Dembélé showed that his skills are entirely unique and useful, Danny Rose came of age, Kyle Walker reminded us how he won a Young Player of the Year Award, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen remained steady and largely impenetrable and Hugo Lloris stayed on his line. Between Tottenham and Leicester, it was hard to find a first team starter that had disappointed this year.
It’s been a good one.
(This season wrap is a week early because i’m going on holiday, so you either got this now or nothing 🙂 )
Thanks to everyone who has read this column this season and before, to all who have shared it, promoted it, criticised it or ignored it: it’s always fun to write. Meanwhile, here at StatsBomb we will aim to continue to bring you quality content from the smartest analytical writers over the summer, so keep checking back. The season may end but there are always new angles to pursue and stories to tell.
Find me on twitter @jair1970