Nine, ten or eleven games have passed since the halfway point in the Premier League, with as ever the lack of progression in scheduling contributing to the imbalance. One day the league will realise the strength of its product and create 38 distinct game weekends or midweeks and that irritation will disappear and analysts will rejoice. In League 2 every team has played 40 games, so it’s not impossible to organise and the abandonment of World Cup qualifying, the Carling Cup, the Euro and a full and extremely hard “Brexit” will herald an era of fixture common sense sooner rather than later, perhaps.
Back here in fan and TV company land, we are in the middle of a ten day stretch in which all the teams play three times, which is fun, if wildly impractical given a smattering of players have just returned from playing qualifiers in the four corners of the earth. Injuries have started to mount up across the league as the business end kicks in and the March international break remains as perplexing as relentless Christmas football and the transfer window shutting three weeks into the season. Football evolves slowly–this is not news–but some tweaking around fixture scheduling seems a smart thing to address, for all that it won’t happen while they are giving out “Winter” World Cups to be held in sauna conditions. Anyway…
On the pitch, or at least in the statistical representation of discrete events collected and coded, a few aspects in the league appear to be set, and in particular at the bottom of the table. Sunderland’s woeful season shows no sign of resuscitation and even a Sunderland-style great escape looks likely to be beyond them now. Eight points behind Swansea, albeit with a game in hand, their 20 points accrued is paltry and behind positions they’ve conjured escapes from previously, and significantly so:
It’s been truly dismal stuff once more from the Black Cats, who have consistently shaped like A Bad Team across most of the last four or five seasons. Metrics indicate they were as bad as anyone bar Aston Villa last season, during 2014-15, their attack shot less frequently than any team in the league and 2013-14 was barely better. They have been fortunate that for a number of seasons the Premier League has had a jam of mediocre to bad teams at the bottom and that with no small amount of good fortune has spared them. This time round it’s a step too far. In only two games have they created anything like an impressive shot volume, at home vs Middlesbrough (18) and Leicester (22) and only twice have they limited the opposition to under 14 shots, against Watford (9) and the same Middlesbrough game (8), which they contrived to lose 2-1 anyway.
Jermain Defoe may have carried the goal weight but his limited skillset seems an odd fit here, this is a Moyes team after all. He never heads the ball–he records a headed shot about once in every ten games and hasn’t registered a single one all year–and has noticably failed to get chances close to goal:
At 34, has he lost a bit of speed? Probably. And nobody else is backing up, and Sunderland just don’t get in close. If we define a super close shot as one within 8 yards of the centre of the goal, Sunderland have the worst record of any Premier League team this decade, having notched just twice. Defoe doesn’t get good chances close in, and nor do his teammates. Who does load up the chances and the goals from in there? The list is laden with title winners such as Man Utd 2012-13 or Leicester 2015-16 or Man City 2013-14. Oh and Stoke 2011-12, which may well be peak-Pulis, and clearly represents the difference in how to formulate a defensive strategy but also potentially optimise towards making the most of limited attacking panache. Alongside Middlesbrough and er… Tottenham, Sunderland’s expected goals per shot is at the bottom of the league, so we have the simple problem of a team that creates few, low quality chances. It’s far from ideal.
David Moyes’ devolution is complete. At Everton he appeared to be a methodical and pragmatic coach powered by an extensive knowledge of players and shrewd use of the transfer market. Now he has overseen a truly dismal season, and is reported to be threatening reporters. Internal problems may have contributed to his collection of former charges arriving en masse, but if ever we needed a case study of how a manager’s stock can disappear almost entirely and quickly, this is it. That he remains in a job is curious–is there half a plan for him to rebuild from the lower league? While the club has previously bounced back quickly from Premier League relegation, the added investment in Championship clubs in recent years means that a swift return is less likely, so perhaps the idea that an experienced Premier League dinosaur is the right man to helm a recover appeals. Newcastle look sure to manage a quick return, but their structure was built in such a way that relegation was only ever likely to be an unfortunate blip for what should have been a solid Premier League team. Sunderland, much like Aston Villa before them, have suffered from multi-year failures and a cumulative effect.
Where Sunderland have been traditionally miserable, Middlesbrough have brought a new flavour of demise to the table. Their defense is quite good, or at least fairly limiting. It’s just that it comes at a price; they have no attack whatsoever:
- This decade only that Aston Villa team (2015-16) have created a lower expected goal rate in attack (both around 0.8 xG per game)
- They have only exceeded the league average shots (13) just once in a league game all year (16, v Hull)
- They haven’t exceeded four shots on target in any game
- They have only beaten one team out side the bottom four, Bournemouth. They also beat Sunderland away–and we know how bad they are– and Hull and Swansea at home.
All this is horrible, as is the contrast in Álvaro Negredo’s two seasons in the Premier League. His Man City tenure was part of one of the great attacking seasons in recent league history. This is not. He has four non-penalty goals, a couple behind expectation, but it’s hard to attribute blame; he’s had so little to work with.
Steve Agnew seems a likeable fellow but his enthusiasm that “one win turns the season, and I’m more than confident that win is very close” wildly denies the reality of the extreme peril his team is in. Boro have blinked too late this year and failed to solve any of their problems, which were evident from very early on. Exactly because it took them so much time to descend into the bottom three–even as February drew to a close they were 16th–masked genuine failings. It’s a situation that a rudimentary analysis would have helped with. This team had and still has a huge problem in attack, a stifling lack of creativity and while Karanka deserved his shot in the league, warning signs were clear even in the early weeks and now they look adrift.. Installing Karanka’s assistant as caretaker looks a move loaded with denial. Too little, too late, and another misstep. They will return to the Championship having endured a forgettable season.
We are waving goodbye to those two but the question remains, who else?
West Ham and Burnley are probably a win or so from safety, but having been on six and seven game runs without one, could well do with getting a positive result soon. West Ham don’t project as a bad team per se, but have struggled to keep clean sheets all year in a form similar to the other bottom sides. Only six have been registered, coming in home matches against Bournemouth, Sunderland, Burnley, Hull and Palace and their away game at Palace too. Traveling to Arsenal in midweek, the home game against Swansea this weekend looks an ideal opportunity to get their noses closer to the safety line.
Burnley, well praised for their home record and gritty style, nevertheless project fairly badly as they have done all year. They are still a few goals ahead of expectation, but that Tom Heaton has garnished much of the praise is revealing. Their safety will prove a job well done, but a poor run such as the one they are on now was perhaps inevitable and will need to be halted soon. A forthcoming home fixture against Stoke appears non-threatening as does a trip to Middlesbrough but the schedule gets tougher thereafter. Once the confidence goes and the spirit fades, it can be tough to find leaders in the dressing room… etc etc copyright all papers…
Palace look to have finally hauled themselves to a position of near safety too, thanks to their four game winning streak. Their schedule is still not easy, but it appears the Big Sam method has now taken hold. He said when he arrived that it wouldn’t be until March that his players got to grips with what he wanted from them and their win streak started on the 25th of February, so he was almost right. How Sunderland probably wish they still had him.
It has been an odd season for Palace. Their numbers never painted them as bad as their results, but that was a very typical Alan Pardew problem to have, and Allardyce’s early form looked terrible, crowned by the 4-0 defeat to Sunderland. Stability now could be their ceiling, and if that’s the case then it’s somewhat of a shame as their squad does have talent within. But that’s the flipside of the security Allardyce brings. The team probably won’t go down, but next year it’s unlikely to hit heights.
That leaves Swansea and Hull looking most likely. The tale is similar for both teams. Accepted wisdom is that in Paul Clement and Marco Silva, the two clubs have relatively young, progressive managers with bright futures in front of them. The reality is that while that may be true, the raw tools they have to work with right now–and the reason their are in these jobs–paint a less favourable picture. Life is tough at the bottom.
Results have improved for both teams, and they have given themselves a fair chance of survival, but beneath the surface, they are both Still Quite Bad. While Sunderland and Middlesbrough’s chief problems were the complete lack of a functioning attack, Hull and Swansea had been defensively suspect throughout having conceded more goals than the rest of the league, at rates commensurate with expectation.
Clement has at least partly stemmed the flow in defence. They are still conceding too many goals, but he has got the shot levels down. He’s helmed 11 games now, the same as Bob Bradley, shipped 19 goals to Bradley’s abysmal 29, and the team is conceding around twelve shots per game, which is decent enough, it’s just they aren’t saving enough of them. That looks solvable, but the apparent cost of this limitation in defence is a neutering of their attack. Ten shots per game is weak and lower than his two predecessors, albeit by a small margin. A hot season from Gylfi Sigurdsson and the aerial prowess of Fernando Llorente has distracted from the underlying attacking frailties, and the run of two defeats and a draw featuring just one goal in vital fixtures against Hull, Bournemouth and Middlesbrough really hammers home the problem.
A raft of fixtures against teams preparing for their holidays might help them but the Leroy Fer factor is hard to deny. He appears to be Premier League kryptonite, and can sink any team.
The same recipe holds at Hull. Silva has effected change in defence, but not in attack. His team has been allowing around 13 shots per game, but has failed to increase the attack beyond ten. This is significantly better than pre-Silva in which they were allowing around 18 shots per game with a similar attack to now. Rightly castigated for conducting the summer transfer business five months late in January, Hull have nonetheless have positioned themselves on the coattails of Swansea and with a fair chance of survival.
It’s fascinating that both coaches looked to solve their problems in identical ways, to turn their games low event and hope to eke out points. Stemming the flow was necessary and an obvious strategy, but the combination of the anchor of their early form and misfiring attacks will likely finish with one of them relegated. At some point caution will no longer be enough.
Projections find it relatively hard to separate them, and the forthcoming careers of each of their managers will pivot on their final finishing position. Each has shown enough to think they merit further time in the league, but whether that is next season and with their current clubs remains to be seen.
Thanks for reading