Michael Caley stated over the weekend that his model had Liverpool finishing 4th “by default.” He said basically the same thing about Arsenal finishing 3rd. After a weekend when so many “contending” teams imploded, this felt right on so many levels.

Those two teams are classic “hey, we’re not very good right now, but at least everyone else is worse!” material. Spurs are still wandering through the desert of Pochettino’s press, trying to find themselves. They registered all of seven shots against West Brom on Sunday while playing at home.

Seven. Spurs fans don’t even need their toes to count that high.

In fact, they’ve only averaged 11.6 shots a game so far this season, good enough for 12th in the league. Eeeeew. Poch is a good manager, but his style will take some getting used to. Spurs aren’t there yet. They will need to get there soon, or Thursday will remain Spursday forever more.

Speaking of teams that also aren’t there, Everton are waaaay down in 14th right now, only notching a solitary win across five matches. To be fair to them, they have faced Arsenal and Chelsea, plus the mighty Leicester in three of those five, and the loss to Palace was probably a bit unlucky as well, but a point a match to start the season just isn’t going to get you to the Champions League. They also have a tiny squad compared to most of the PL teams competing in Europe, meaning accumulated injuries will be a real problem.

Sitting just above Everton in the league table, but only because of goal difference, are the Gaalacticos. Despite finally opening and spending the entirety of Scrooge McDuck’s vault (normally used as a Glazer swimming pool) on players this summer, Manchester United have struggled. The shocking thing is that the struggles have come against the softest stretch of schedule they will have all season. Common wisdom had United roaring out of the gates, as the quality of their new purchases was likely to prove too much for Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, QPR, and Leicester to handle. That hasn’t happened and now it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take for van Gaal to turn this band of highly paid misfits into a real football team.

For neutrals, the struggles of Manchester United stretching into a second season make for glorious theater. For United fans, they must feel like they are looking in the mirror and see themselves staring back, glassy-eyed and wearing Liverpool kits.

Despite their own issues, I think Arsenal are okay. Much like Liverpool last season, they have enough firepower up front to blow through most of the middle-to-bad teams without much resistance, though they will ship goals on occasion. This is what happens when despite years of pleas, Wenger once again fails to strengthen the squad at defensive midfielder and center back. The positive news is that their shot differential is finally good again. If they can avoid further defensive injuries and potentially strengthen in January, they should be able to keep the top of the table in sight.

Liverpool is another matter…

Tactical systems have tradeoffs. If your tactics are too defensive, your team will struggle to score goals. Sell out in attack, and even teams at the lower end of the table will score against your defense. Press poorly and teams will break through it and find themselves with great chances in transition. Fail to press at all and your team will likely be bit regularly by the jaws of probability, as at some point all those longer range shots will start to fall.

Last year, Liverpool opted for offense and a fairly aggressive press. In a sense, they sold their souls to the devil in exchange for old Steven Gerrard’s legs being able to both break up opposition attacks, and fire long passes out to Sturridge and Suarez on the counter.

This year the bill seems to have come due.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

What happens when Gerrard, playing regista, no longer racks up defensive stats? Apparently, you lose. I think Liverpool upgraded along their back line, with Moreno, Manquillo, and Lovren all improving their quality at the back. That said, most teams have one or two other bodies in midfield to break up opposition attacks. Liverpool frequently have none. Even the best center backs in the league are going to look foolish when facing top attackers running at them constantly. At some point you have to conclude that the problems for Liverpool either lie with the personnel in front of the center backs or that they are systemic, or both.

Steven Gerrard is a legend, but either the system changed for the worse this year, or Gerrard just can’t put in the same miles as he did last season. Emre Can is talented, but 20. Joe Allen is frequently (read: constantly) injured and he doesn’t even have to train for Roy Hodgson. Lucas Leiva is… well, Lucas.

It’s possible Rodgers could try and keep the system intact by putting either Henderson or Allen in the Gerrard role. It’s also possible Liverpool should have bought an identical-output-but-differently-named regista this summer as succession planning for when Stevie finally hit the wall. All I know is that Rodgers needs to fix this problem fast or one of these abysmal challengers will finally start performing at a decent level and take their Champions League spot.

Quick Stats
The current top 10 for non-penalty goal scoring rate looks like this (had to have played half the available minutes so far to qualify).

top_goals_epl_sept22

While the top 10 for combined scoring rate looks like this:

top_scorers_epl_sept22

It’s too early to draw any real conclusions other than uncontroversial things like, “Angel di Maria is a outrageously talented footballer.”

If you tried to draw additional conclusions at this point, you might end up being really confused by the fact that both Joey Barton and Leroy Fer are in the top 10 in key passes thus far, and say ridiculous things like, “Hey, QPR must be really good.” Not so fast, my friend.

The only thing I can promise is that both of these lists will change a bunch between now and the end of the season.

Burnley have played 5 games and scored a grand total of 1 goal. Sean Dyche’s team were promoted last year on the back of a stout defense, and they seem to have brought that with them to the Premier League, only conceding  4 goals in the campaign. The problem is that they will need to score occasionally too – 33 more more 0-0 or 1-1 scorelines won’t be enough for safety.

Interestingly, Burnley’s shot ratio looks alright, especially for a promoted club that has faced Chelsea, Swansea, and Man United already. We’ll see if the goalscoring regresses to expected levels, or if Burnley fans are in for a long, hard, boring season. The math models suggest have a better chance of staying up than preseason odds indicated, assuming that at some point they actually manage to score a couple of goals.

In January, I looked at what usually gets teams relegated from the Premier League and discovered that teams conceding an average of 16 shots or more per game almost invariably circled the toilet bowl. (For the record, last season’s relegated teams conceded 18.2, 17.8, and 15.4 shots a game. Norwich were the oddballs, while both West Ham and Sunderland gave up more than 16 shots a game but survived.) Early season numbers have a ton of volatility, but the three teams over the 16-shot threshold are: Leicester, Hull, and Swansea, with Palace fourth worst at 15.4. This will be something to keep an eye on through the autumnal months.

Four games, 11 goals scored, 0 goals against for Barcelona. And Luis Suarez hasn’t been anywhere near the squad. They are conceding six shots a game so far. That’s obscene, even by Barcelona standards.

Through four matches in the Bundesliga, Hoffenheim have conceded 2 goals. They gave up more than two per game on average last year. They are still conceding a ton of shots though, so expect this one to come back to earth, and soon.

Oh, and Paderborn and Mainz currently top the table in Germany. Just like we all expected…

An Apology
I am currently transitioning between two jobs right now, which means content from me is more infrequent and likely to stay that way until the first of the year. As much as I enjoy writing and researching, there just aren’t enough hours in a day right now to keep up with the demands of my career and family, while still producing high quality stuff here as well.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be writing at all, but it does mean updates from me may be spotty. I merely look at it as a good occasion for the rest of you to maybe start writing your own material and fill in?

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