Fair to say it has flown by. Some things have been very familiar: the usual weekly rotation of “this team could well be set for a title charge” each time a big gun records an impressive result, the bottom of the table becoming less a race to become good but more a desire to be least worst, in which few teams are managing to conceal their ineptitude or Romelu Lukaku reliably scoring goals while grizzled bystanders look on, pipe in hand, sagely noting his inferior first touch.
Is anything different? This time last year I was writing about the “rise of the middle order” as usurpers like West Ham and Leicester did the usual thing a couple of mid-rangers do and run hot for a dozen games and get “talk of European places” bestowed upon them. Or course that…er… came to nothing as per usual as in my imaginary world Leicester dropped back to a plucky 6th place finish and West Ham blew up completely. This year: nothing. It’s too late to describe Southampton putting up decent shooting numbers as anything other than as expected, and Everton, finally rid of the bizarre helming of Roberto Martinez are tidily reverting to their best of the rest role.
The ninth best team in the league could be Crystal Palace?
Let that sink in.
Do or don’t write off Leicester?
Back here in the odd version of reality christened “2016”, it’s painfully obvious that Leicester are prioritising the Champions League.
Let THAT sink in.
They are putting together some genuinely wretched numbers in the league; giving up an extra 2.5 shots on target per game is seriously weak. Expected goals is kinder to them–for all that they are a couple or three goals behind pace– and it’s likely that woeful accuracy (27% of all shots are on target, 3rd worst in league) will pick up over time, but it’s less a title defence so far and more a farewell tour. And within the accuracy stats are further insights: Leicester’s ability to land their own shots on target and prevent the opposition from doing the same was at “top five teams this decade” levels last year (+7.3%), whereas so far this year it’s in the basement (-10%). This is the kind of stuff that bounces around the place and is subject to huge variance, and now, with some aplomb, they’ve landed on the wrong side of it. Their all shot conversion is flat too, which is novel for them, and the last beacon of positive variance to cling on to is that the few shots they are getting on target are flying in (40%) just like the good old days. Of course, in the bigger picture, this team will be fine and will find a safe place in mid table somewhere, but throw all that into the mixer and it’s a different, far more familiar world.
Apart from the part where they top their Champions League group.
West Ham, so drunk on the spoils of 2015-16, are also experiencing a huge hangover that no amount of paracetamol, pre-sleep water consumption or fried breakfasts will fix. Like all good hangovers, time should do something to help matters, but something nagged me about Sofiane Feghouli and Simone Zaza jogging onto the pitch late on against Everton and providing as much impact as if i’d have been out there. It felt like witnessing the West Ham of old, when Harry Redknapp used to fill his benches with seemingly random signings and loanees then throw them on late to “try something”, and rarely did it work out. Is that where West Ham could end up? They must be better than that, right?
I digress: numbers-wise, they are offering a similarly diverse palette to Leicester, except their deficit is at least a handful of goals and their shot stats are plain wonky. They are outshooting their opponents around 15 to 13 per game, yet are registering only three on target opposed to five. Huh? This means that their rate of getting shots on target (19% of all shots) is league low–and comparatively very bad–while the rate their opponents are getting their shots on target (40%) is league high. That is a potent mix which feeds into some odd conversions: those on target are flat–which does you no good when you’re outshot there so severely, while the all shot rates are terrible on the front end and also terrible in defence. There is so much that is extreme here for now that they will also inevitably land long term in some comfy middle ground. Their season will have been deemed “challenging” and the ground will get blamed for things it maybe shouldn’t be; 14% shot accuracy at the Olympic Stadium means they are exploring every tier.
Considering a point separates the top four and Tottenham are unbeaten and two points further back, it’s only Manchester United who can be considered truly underachieving of the big six teams in the league. Eighth and with a 4-3-3 record is all a bit Moyes van Gaal so far, but a wee bit of misfortune has been enough to derail them and the reality is not quite so grim. Home fixtures against Stoke and Burnley yielded 61 shots, with twenty on target and only fourteen with seven on target in reply. While I can accept that the huge volume created is at least in part a function of trying to break a deadlock, that kind of total dominance rarely ends up in two draws. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s recent drought has no doubt contributed to the early difficulties, as has a jumbled squad, but if United had turned those draws into wins, as must surely have been probable, they’d be a point off Tottenham and four off the lead. Jose Mourinho would still be smarting at the decency–or lack of– that Chelsea showed in thumping them 4-0, but they would be in the mix rather than the forgotten ingredient they have become instead.
If, but, if but… yes, I know, but the simple truth is performance metrics are far more content with Manchester United than a plus-one goal difference might imply. In fact we can take a tour around shots and expected goals metrics and ascertain quite a lot about all of the teams in the top four discussion. We cannot ascertain the title winner, and i’ll leave the probability fiends the impossible task of rating and weighting the league this far out, but we can identify a few strengths and weaknesses so far.
All of the big six teams are putting up dominant shots numbers. Liverpool are over plus-ten per game, Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham are all between plus-seven and plus-nine, while Arsenal are on plus-five. None is conceding more than United’s 10.5 per game and Liverpool, United and Tottenham are all taking over 18 per game. This is strong across the board. For City, Tottenham and Liverpool, this backs up good 2015-16 numbers. For Arsenal, this top layer–like 2015-16–only tells some of the story and for Chelsea and Man Utd, the need for them to bounce forward from last season was very necessary, and at week ten, they’ve managed it.
There will always be differences across models here, but we can get a general guide to how the shots have manifested themselves. Here, in attack, I have Liverpool only very slightly ahead of a tight pack of Arsenal, Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea while Tottenham are a couple of goals behind them. In defence, Man City and Chelsea are clear best, followed by Liverpool, then Utd, Arsenal and Tottenham. These changes in position from the shot rankings come out if we look at expected goals per shot: Arsenal have a high expectancy (0.113 per shot)–very much like last season–and Tottenham do not (0.081). The other teams are oscillating around average in attack.
In defence, the good end has Man City (0.080) lead Chelsea (0.084) and Man Utd (0.087) and the bad end has Liverpool, perennially vulnerable to any kind of ball to the centre of their box, on 0.112 and Tottenham, 0.105.
This means, for good or for ill, overall Man City lead Chelsea, Liverpool, Man Utd and Arsenal with only very small differences between them, enough that one or two good or bad games could completely change the order. Tottenham are a clear sixth here with Everton and Southampton snapping at their heels. Of course schedule will have some effect on all these numbers but at ten games it’s starting to shake out a little.
Throw all that together and you get this:
Again models will vary, but the trends should remain similar. Arsenal are running hot on both ends, while Utd are ice cold for both and the variation between a plus-13 goal difference and plus-one couldn’t be more stark. Tottenham’s defence is overachieving by a huge margin (5 goals conceded compared to an estimated 10.5) while Liverpool’s defence is the opposite. As an aside, save percentage is similarly informative here with Liverpool at 57% and Tottenham at 83%.
The two teams that have clear solid profiles and appear to be getting rewarded for this are Man City and Chelsea. Both are enjoying a small skew in attack and are on par in defence. It’s a tricky estimation but by looking at all these aspects we can spot trends quite easily: Tottenham’s attack is a little too “AVB” at the moment (shots from range, little penetration), Liverpool’s profile is a bit “Rodgers 13/14” with the same strengths (attack) and weaknesses (defence). Arsenal look to be once more chasing the god of shot quality, Conte has made Chelsea’s defence robust and City are typically good–a positive skew would serve them well, as it has done in previous titles. And Man Utd, well, even when the structure works, fate conspires…
What it means is that, by some strange confluence of events, the table isn’t actually lying much at the top end. Apart from United’s woes, that there’s barely a cigarette paper between the rest and it is pretty much in line with expectations. After spending so much time behind expectation last season, it’s even possible to give Arsenal a break for bouncing the other way this, and they will always be strong.
It’s all set up quite nicely.
Thanks for reading.
More to come this week on site, so stay tuned.
I will attempt to write another of these somewhere along the line, but these days i’m a bit busy.