Welcome to the StatsBomb Previews 2016.
As per usual, we have a variety of contributors pitching in to foretell the forthcoming season, with the top clubs in the Premier League covered and we will extend into the Bundesliga and Serie A as their seasons kick off. Starting this weekend, we will bring you a quality series of sharp content, embracing the statistical angles that other sources simply don’t cover.
To whet the appetite, I’ve had a ponder at a simple question. There are six teams that from a boardroom perspective will have a strong intention to finish in the top four, and among them we see Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, who all finished outside last season.
I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in the EPL this year.
— Ragnar Klavan Fan (@ElstonGunn_) 13 July 2016
Hard to predict
The new Premier League season is teed up to be the most fascinating that we have seen in some years. Top tier coaches such as Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte have joined the league at huge money clubs Manchester City and Chelsea. Manchester United have gone full soap opera by signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and hiring Jose Mourinho. Jurgen Klopp finds himself at Liverpool with a new contract, a full pre-season and a transfer window to install personnel and strategy, while at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino is into year three of a project that vaulted past rational year two expectations and Arsene Wenger is on year 21 with Arsenal and guaranteed to be in there pitching.
That’s six clubs, huge expectation and investment; these teams expect to contend, expect to win. And we haven’t even mentioned last season’s champions Leicester City, or surprise European contenders West Ham, or consistent Southampton.
That’s now nine teams set fair to do battle. Surely Everton can right the ship under Ronald Koeman and bounce back up the table? And Stoke City under Mark Hughes are usually fairly solid.
Eleven teams! Finishing in the top half now seems like an ambitious target for the rest.
“But anyone can win, Leicester did”
Well, you go and bet those outcomes then, the bookmakers are happily fielding a multitude of “just in case” bets right this moment, and it will add great ballast to their books. So contenders: we have six and a half. Leicester get a half there because if football had seedings, they would get a (1) after their name but really it’s six teams. That’s it.
Now what this opening ramble is leading towards is a simple truth. The bare minimum requirement for any of these six teams is a top four finish. All else is failure. And six into four does not go. Two of these managers will definitely fail to hit their target. But who?
City might be ageing all over but they’ve a couple of strong aspects in their favour. Last season’s underlying numbers were pretty good. They came unstuck primarily due to a perfunctory away record, a miserable conversion skew when tied and it seems reasonable to presume that Pellegrini’s imminent departure did not have a positive effect. The results looked unsatisfactory and they limped to 4th, but underneath all that, they were still projecting to be a solid top four team. Now, they’re a year older, but some very good things have happened:
I can’t see them out of the top four, hell, I can’t see them out of the top two. Solid basic metrics + Guardiola + talent = go close.
Title odds ~5/2 FAV
If we pull apart expected goals, we find some fascinating truths about Arsenal. The 2015-16 side might have had a finishing slump, but the method was extremely sound. They took the closest shots in the league and limited the opposition to the furthest shots. It looked like that was a strategic plan, and if it was they got it right. Sadly, typical injury issues, the finishing slump and a spluttering mid season meant the end result was all too familiar.
Now they’ve finally signed an option in central midfield in Granit Xhaka and may well buy again. They look strong, and should be in the mix. There is little to suggest they will regress from last year to a lesser mean, and they could well actually contend, injuries, as ever permitting. I can’t see them outside the top four either.
Title odds ~6/1
Van Gaal’s shot shy but defensively robust Manchester United is in transition, and can’t afford a misstep. They are now Jose Mourinho’s defensively robust Manchester United and have added in 80+ goals worth of 2015-16 output in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and maybe Paul Pogba too.
It’s a balancing act to maintain the defensive soundness while allowing the team to create but since van Gaal only missed out on the top four by goal difference, it’s surely possible that Mourinho can eke out a couple of extra wins to insert his team in there. More seems a reach and would require a significant step forward.
Bad attacking metrics plus good defensive metrics minus Louis van Gaal plus Jose Mourinho.
Top four seems a reasonably likely outcome doesn’t it?
Title odds ~3/1
Mourinho malaise followed by a half season holiday isn’t perhaps the ideal preparation for a new title bid and the intensity needs to return to Stamford Bridge quickly. They have the right man for that job in Antonio Conte and the signing of N’Golo Kante seems to flag his intent clearly. Some of their processes around possession and areas in which they controlled the ball mapped like a top four team last year, but their defense was porous and their forwards broadly quiet. Again this is a team that needs a huge step forward, and it has the talent and no European competition, but still the title seems a stretch. Not to all though. The Racing Post interviewed 13 bookmakers representatives in their preview and seven picked Chelsea for the title. They will be harder to beat this year, but will need players like Eden Hazard to fly if they are to land in the top four.
Title odds ~11/2
If Tottenham perform as they did last season they are a lock for the top four and maybe more. Top shooters in the league and alongside Man City and Arsenal in a clear top three for expected goals, the team is still young, is settled and growing together. The Champions League is a new distraction but after endless years of Europa League, the squad is well used to the demands of Europe.
The main problem could be the successes of others, as not everyone can fail as badly as last year, and as we’ve discussed not everyone can finish top four but there’s little in their metrics to suggest that they will fall hard, for all that their on target shot rate was ludicrously high, their conversions weren’t special at all, so it’s a little yin and yang. They will surely be in the mix.
Tile odds ~8/1
Liverpool probably have the biggest chasm to traverse, but with a full Klopp pre-season, some selected players that may suit his systems and some pretty solid top four contending metrics last time round, they have a reasonable shout of improving into the mix.
If they can just discard their propensity for randomised results, incorporate some defensive protection into their high pressing method and keep Daniel Sturridge fit, they are still going to win a lot of games. Not much to ask is it?
Title odds ~8/1
Six into four still doesn’t go.
I’m prepared to reduce it to four into two and give Arsenal and Man City a bye into the top four. Neither has failed to qualify in the last six seasons, and there is nothing to suggest that they will be weaker this year. Beyond that it’s a tricky conundrum; Chelsea and Manchester United have brought in arguably the two most suitable managers for the task, Tottenham have stability and a progressive profile and Liverpool are better set than a year ago. Arguably the only two managers of these six teams who could survive failing to land in the top four this year are Klopp and Pochettino, providing that their general accomplishments continue to point in the right direction. Liverpool have spent very few seasons in the Champions League positions in recent years, 2013-14 apart, and Klopp is likely to be allowed to keep building regardless of whether he makes it this time and Pochettino helms a team that has finished 5th enough times to understand that as long as the process is sound, they will continue to be contenders and occasionally have seasons that allow them to truly contend.
The others have pressure. Arsenal fans have teetered on the edge of Wenger support for many years now, with aspects surrounding his stoicism in the transfer market and a lack of big silverware creating frustration. A 5th or worse place could bring that to fever pitch and might make it hard for him to survive. Mourinho arrives with the brash arrogance of a winner, and failure to qualify for top four would surely mean that his methods had been stymied somewhere along the line and it would be hard for him to sell it as progress. Conte is likely to have top four as a minimum expectation, and any Chelsea manager outside those comforts is liable to removal while similar to Mourinho, Guardiola’s reputation is so high that to fail here would mean something had gone seriously awry.
Six into four doesn’t go but for at least two of Guardiola, Conte, Mourinho, Pochettino, Klopp and Wenger, the summer of 2017 is either going to be very relaxing or full of explanations and pressure.
Who will it be though?
I wish I knew…
Check out our other previews here