We’re four games in and have a little more to chew on. Statistical categories are a fair way off providing strong answers and schedules are masking plenty of truths but the hints are getting stronger and even at this early juncture the new order is starting to look a hell of a lot like the old order, or at least the order we used to know before all the cards got thrown up in the air last season. Let’s have a quick spin around the league and see what we can pick up.
It’s fascinating to see that Antonio Conte has predominantly laid his faith in Mourinho’s team. Swap out Cesc Fabregas for N’Golo Kante and more or less this is the same Chelsea team that both landed the title in 2014-15 and utterly failed to defend it the following season. Freshly installed in Manchester, it could indeed be argued that less has been made of Mourinho’s abject failure last season than it could have been, and he’s already blaming players again in his new job. But for Conte, to rely on proven players feels symptomatic of an Italian football temperament, and so far beyond that we can see further aspects that are entirely in line with what we might have expected when the Italian took the helm.
His Juventus sides were built on strong defences, they conceded very few shots and subsequently, few goals. While Chelsea may rue the goals they have conceded this season, the process is extremely good. They have played four moderate to bad teams and are yet to concede more than seven shots in a game and seven shots on target in total. So what? Chelsea should beat these teams. Well, yes but in outshooting them 3:1 and entirely dominating the ball and resultant opportunities they are going to continue to rack up wins in these types of matches. We do not know how they will be able to fare against better teams and Friday’s match against Liverpool will be a good test for both sides.
Fans are justifiably getting excited about the vigour in Liverpool’s attack. It’s been noted that Liverpool have scored more goals this calendar year than any other Premier League side and in particular, the addition of Sadio Mane to a revolving attack of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and an Adam Lallana who is currently punching way beyond his long term averageness is proving exciting. Jurgen Klopp’s entire tenure is characterised by free scoring matches and having failed to pursue a dominant central midfielder in the transfer market, it remains to be seen if the high energy “we’ll score more than you” style has enough about it to avoid banana skins.
The flip side is the defence–in 2016 they rank 13th for goals conceded–and errors and a 50% save rate for on target shots this season are familiar woes and still impacting. But then, if the onus is on overall improvement, and if Klopp’s emphasis is attack then who knows how far it can take them? It nearly worked for Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14 but it’s too early to say. This league looks tough.
Styles, Manchester City
That links into a broader point about football. While there will always be revered styles and methods that excite the more cerebral football fan, the various tenets of successful football are not fixed. Manchester United’s fixture against Manchester City provided a marvellous spectacle but it was impossible to say that beyond the first half hour, in which Manchester City were hard to resist, it was a coherent match of dueling strategies. As each team tore forth into one another, I was reminded that the random factor–where two teams end up unable to exert true dominance over one another–often provides the finest entertainment, and that talent, or mistakes, will divide the best.
United and City will no doubt move forward and comfortably defeat many inferior teams by adhering to well theorised strategies, but in the heat of a well contested derby game, fine uncontrollable margins persist.
So far City are a slightly chaotic but joyful mess of attacking talent. They look like they have the most potential of the larger teams in the league and having set up with 5:5 attackers/defenders and been largely successful so far it will be interesting to see how their shape evolves once Ilkay Gundogan recovers from injury. Numbers wise, they’re running a little on the hot side off solid totals: they’re taking two thirds of the shots in their games but their own shots are going in at a generous rate, but have navigated these early games and a new system pretty easily. The bookies have bounced them into odds on for the title and I for one am ruing the bet I never placed at around 5/2.
“Stoke have had a tricky schedule and tend to start slowly” is something I’ve heard. It mildly masks that Stoke’s schedule has been a little bit tricky and they’ve started appallingly. Through four games, seven shots on target is league low (with Burnley) and when you factor that the two goals they scored were a Bojan penalty and a Xherdan Shaqiri free kick it means they are yet to score from open play.
To some degree, they overshot expectation last season and were pretty abject for large swathes, supported by sub par numbers. This year, all of their shot rates are so far bad and all of their conversion rates are so far poor. You can’t be bad at everything for long in this league before you suffer consequences and Wilfried Bony is going to need to start scoring quickly, or else Mark Hughes’ tenure will begin to look rather frail.
Yet another team that overall overshot expectations revealed by probing numbers last year were West Ham. Their autumn was a string of great fortune and while they generally improved as the year went on, many of their later games turned into goal filled shootouts and they never projected to be quite as high up the table as they finished. That this new season has found a little early strife is not a huge surprise. The bad defensive numbers have continued, but this time round the opposition is finishing it’s chances, and when you ship four in a home match to stoic Watford, it’s probably time to take stock. There are concerns about creating “home” in a new stadium, but i’d be more worried about the potential integration of a hatful of new signings into a team primed for a bit of reversion.
Already some cheap points are being scored by Liverpool and Hull fans having “beaten the reigning champions” and the hangover from 2015-16 will continue this week with the strange sight of Leicester and Tottenham both Champions League bound and inhabiting prime roles in defence of the coefficient. The gods of fortune never really caught up with Leicester last season and unless N’Golo Kante was a one man repellent, it looks as if they may be happy to descend on the East Midlands fresh for this autumnal run. Leicester’s process–being shredded by Liverpool apart– is so far quiet good. Leicester’s ability to run hot at both ends of the pitch, is not. A cursory look at some early expected goals numbers suggests that after four games, Leicester are the team least close to expectation, which continues to leave a tasty open query as to how good they will be this year.
It’s a funny old game.
Thanks for reading!
(I’ll likely write this column less frequently this year, but keep checking StatsBomb for content, plenty to come, moreso as the season progresses and the storylines take shape.)