Plenty has now been written about the dominance of the top six in the Premier League this season but less about the absence of interlopers among the higher European places from the mid range. Usually we find at least one team skewing positively off their metrics and contending well into the season. Alan Pardew’s outlier 2011-12 season at Newcastle saw them land fifth and last season found Leicester win the title after being second at halfway while Crystal Palace–again driven by the inspirational Pardew–were sitting in fifth at the halfway mark before heading in entirely the other direction and West Ham meandered around the European slots before finally finishing seventh.
Does this mean that this year’s selection of eager chasers are bad? Or is it a little more nuanced than that?
There are a couple of ways we can approach this. Omar Chaudhuri provides a helpful service by tracking Sporting Index point predictions as the season progresses.
The most obvious takeaway here is the general stability of the league in relation to pre-season predictions, and given the various travails of Chelsea and Leicester quite understandably very different to last season. The initial points predictions can be loosely tiered into three sections: big six, mid-rangers (Everton, Leicester, West Ham and Southampton) and the rest.
Broadly, the bookies thought there were ten fair to weak sides in the division to start with, and now they think that the outcome of the season will indicate twelve teams picking up below fifty points. Only Bournemouth and West Brom have increased expectation in the bottom half by a win or more (three and five points respectively) and from a low base, it hasn’t done much more than imply that they should be able to secure safety providing the wheels don’t fly off, or “to Pardew” as the kids call it.
Four of the five biggest risers are in the top five positions in the table, and three of the five biggest losers fill the bottom three positions. From August to now, the only real movement between these loose groups has seen Leicester and West Ham appear to fall into the extensive bottom group.
Results have driven these moves, but where do these teams fit in with regard actual performance metrics. What about our old friend expected goals?
If we look from seventh downwards for expected goal difference we find our four “mid-rangers” occupying slots seven, eight, ten and eleven with slight interlopers Stoke splitting them and West Brom a shade behind. It was easy to look at Leicester and West Ham’s metrics last season and expect a drop off, but they haven’t fallen off entirely the map with regard their underlying strength. So why have they fallen off the map with regards results and league position?
Of our four teams, only Everton are pitching in around expectation and the other three are well behind. As a group, the mid rangers are undershooting expectation by a large degree, have plenty of room for positive reversion and it’s realistic to assume each will start to climb the table as the season continues.
So we return to our original question, are the mid table sides weak this season?
If we calculate a typical expected goal value of all ranks we find that not to be the case, even allowing for fluctuations and a relatively limited six season sample:
Positions three to six are understandably very strong this year, but seven and eight come out well too. The real weakness in the league is at the bottom with the five worst performers against the six year average ranking 16th to 20th.
The strength of the top six has been largely powered by the weakness of the league’s worst teams and those in the mid range are in fact broadly on par with their usual standards. It’s just that it is usual to find one or more of them skewing upwards off their mid-range metrics and competing higher up, albeit temporarily. Instead, only Everton have held any kind of level commensurate to their real ability and Leicester, West Ham and Southampton have struggled.
Leicester’s general shooting and conversion metrics are very flat overall, but they have only won two of thirteen games in which one goal separated them (2-6-5) compared to last year’s 14-12-2. West Ham have struggled with accuracy at both ends with historically low accuracy on their attacking end an historically high accuracy of their opponents. Southampton have saved only 58% of their shots faced while their opponents have saved 80%. All of these factors are at the extreme end of each metric and have meant each team has been looking over their shoulder rather than at Europa League qualification, but time will almost certainly move them upwards; simple variance is most likely to be the primary factor.
The mid range might not be representing well this year, but they haven’t been killed off.