Top Four Review: Part One, Chelsea, Tottenham and Man Utd
Back in August I kicked off the StatsBomb preview series with an article describing how “six into four won’t go” which looked at the big six clubs and their expectations for the coming season. Each team harboured significant hope of title challenges and comfort within the top four, a desire that could only ever be sated by four of them.
We’re now into the last week so this is where we will start to review what happened. I suggested that only Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp could realistically land their teams outside the top four and expect to survive, yet Tottenham are safe in second and Liverpool have a home game against Middlesbrough between them and Champions League qualification. I had thought lifting Chelsea from mediocrity back to the summit was a huge task for Antonio Conte (ever shrewd bookies reps had tipped them for the title in seven of thirteen predictions…) I thought Pep Guardiola was nailed on to lift Man City into the top two, while who could foretell Arsenal landing outside their eternal top four positions? Not me.
What fascinates beyond the undeniable facts presented by the league table are the changing structure of the competing teams, and how they have evolved season to season. That’s what will inform predictions next time round (with a healthy skew from transfers) as we go again in 2017-18 with the same deal on the table. Six into four won’t go, even if Jose Mourinho can snout out a fifth slot for his team and pretend he wasn’t really playing all along, and next season will find them all on a level playing field with European fixtures for all. This just might open a small window for a well organised interloper to take a run at the orthodoxy, we shall see.
Anyway, what do we know, right now? Chelsea, Tottenham and Man Utd’s destiny is decided, so let’s start with them and part two on the other three teams will land further down the line.
It’s easy to understand how Chelsea were able to shake off the shackles of their dismal 2015-16 and reclaim their title. No European football was huge, team stability and a lack of injuries helped too, as did the talent in the squad, but none of that should take away from Antonio Conte’s achievement to create the basis not just win the title but pretty much crush the league. Autumn’s win streak was the decisive factor, but to win 28 games (and potentially 30) is a devastating return, particularly in a league with such depth in contending positions. He built a dominant team in Turin and has done the same quickly in London with defense the bedrock.
If we get into the stats, we find evidence that Chelsea are one of the best teams in the league but not the decisive aspects that are borne out by the table. Expected goals loves Man City, and puts the rest of the big six--Arsenal apart-- into a fairly narrow band. Specifically for Chelsea, year on year we see small gains in attack but huge gains in defence. The 3-4-3 system got a lot of credit as the decisive change after their back to back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, but they were already limiting their opponents shot levels beforehand and by and large did so all season. N’Golo Kante got the wide praise, and players bought the hype that a workaholic defensive midfielder can improve a team of expensive world stars and voted him in as Player of the Year; that the writers did the same was somewhat surprising. Why so? “Italian defensive organisation” was the real star here and the roles David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses inhabited contributed every bit as much as the diminutive Frenchman, but just lacked the storyline hook that took Kante over the line. This stability allowed Eden Hazard and Diego Costa to once again direct the team’s attack towards another title ably assisted by a sterling second season from Pedro and from his new “special teams” role, Cesc Fabregas.
Part of the disconnect between metrics and their success has been their ability to create and maintain positive game states. They have spent nearly half their time in games in winning positions (last season no team spent more than 37% of time ahead) and if we look at a list of similar teams with such a profile they are familiar: Man City 2011-12 and 2013-14, Man Utd 2011-12 and 2012-13, Liverpool 2013-14 and Chelsea 2014-15. All these teams we know as good teams that ran hot with regard finishing in the seasons noted, and won titles or went close because of it. Time (and Leicester) have demystified Man Utd’s 2012-13 title somewhat and what we see here is the perfect recipe for success: quality plus efficiency and luck. This Chelsea team has a slightly different profile to most of these teams given its reputation for defensive strength, yet they’re still the league’s top scorers, powered by some extremely hot finishing rates. Whichever way you turn, Chelsea’s 2016-17 season had all bases covered. They were an excellent team that made the most of their talent and deserved their title.
However, next season will be different. They will not win 13 straight games through the autumn with Champions League fixtures intervening, and the potential loss of Costa could be big. In his three seasons at the club he has fired the basis of two titles through hitting rare form in two pre Christmas spells. He’s unique for a top striker as he has rarely hit large shot volumes yet has reliably converted at a high rate across multiple seasons. The money in China will be good, but Conte’s best bet is to spend every penny they get in return at the very top of the market for another striker. Michy Batshuayi will get game time next season and is a solid forward, but Chelsea need to put the very best at the head of their attack if they are to back up this remarkable season.
In building on a thrilling 2015-16 and securing a clear “best of the rest” slot behind Chelsea, Mauricio Pochettino deserves almost as much praise as Conte. In another season, it might have been enough to land a title, but to take Tottenham past the “AVB line” of 72 points and bringing his young team clearly forward was a fitting finale for their last year at Old White Hart Lane.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Champions League apathy, too many draws and key injuries overshadowed the autumn. The team looked to be a blunt instrument, bombarding the opposition with shots from all angles but rarely offering the guile to get behind teams and genuinely hurt them. Indeed, title talk was well wide of the mark back them, with a top four slot seeming no more than a coin flip either, and their climb into such positions only occurred as the new year ticked in. Pre Christmas, Dele Alli had not hit the heights of 2015-16 either, Victor Wanyama was getting daggers from more critical circles and even Christian Eriksen’s form was under scrutiny. That each has come through the ensuing few months with their reputation shored up and even enhanced reflects just how positively Tottenham’s second half of the season has gone, Europa League blip apart. In particular, Eriksen, continues to exist somewhat under the radar, despite making the whole team tick, moreso this year in the absence of Erik Lamela, who at least shared some of the delicate creative tasks last year.
Tottenham continued to shoot more than the rest of the league of course, and from a variety of wild, not-so-wild and genuinely good positions. They landed more shots on target than any other team too and the sheer volume of their artillery even allowed expected goals models to rate them, eventually. In that regard they look fairly similar to their 2015-16 brand, with a small uptick in defence, which was boosted in reality by Hugo Lloris (and Michel Vorm) securing an extremely high save percentage, a league leading 78% but that’s the kind of outlying skew that is unlikely to hold long term.
This was the primary difference between the two seasons in metric land: they got the rub this time. Last season had the makings--shots, lots of them-- but none of the special sauce in the conversions. This year they shaved a couple of shots per game off their defensive end, got the breaks at both ends and happily rode the positive variance all the way up to second place. That’s maybe frustrating, and Pochettino knows it, judging by his reluctant acceptance of praise that has come his way. Beyond that, the project is still moving in the right direction--and still ahead of time, by at least a season. The way that the team seems to have learned how to dispatch lesser teams is encouraging. Frustrating post-Europe results have been in decline, as has the fall away in performance on and around the hour mark that was prevalent before. And the squad has grown together--they really know each other well, and the systems their manager employs.
Fears of a mass exodus are unfounded. It looks as though Kyle Walker may leave, but the core of the team will stay on into the wandering year at Wembley. And that’s the biggest challenge. Just as Chelsea surely won’t win 13 straight again, it’s unlikely that Tottenham will win nine in a row or go unbeaten at home all year again. What they need to do is return with the same basic plan: dominate territory, dominate the ball, dominate the shot count, try and rotate effectively, don’t worry about European competition too much and get into the mix.
Oh, and not to screw up the transfers.
What a season!
Jose Mourinho nailed the transfers, empowered Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba to run his attack, played it safe in all the games you’d expect him to, tried to shake the remnants of Louis van Gaal from his team’s mentality, built a team that effectively dominated weaker league opposition and for what? A Europa League slot?
Ah but notsofast. Win the Europa League and six into five comes into view. Neat twist, Jose.
Reality is a stark but familiar comedown but the broad take is simple: despite landing outside the top four Mourinho has done a good job. He’s just been pretty strongly shafted by brother variance and a smidgen of his own caution. From a stats perspective, it’s quite easy to forgive what looks like an underwhelming season. No team has improved its expected rates at both ends by such a combined margin year on year, and it has been split fairly equally between attack and defence. The ten home draws have been frustrating and some of the performance boost can be attributed to the team relentlessly battering on a door that never opened during those games. The bigger picture remains that they are still a work in progress, albeit the most expensive half built team ever known.
But, coming into what is a hugely pivotal game against Ajax, one cannot help but reflect on a former prioritisation of Europe in the face of league opportunities, one in which Mourinho failed; Chelsea 2013-14’s season. The die had been cast earlier with odd, meek defeats away at Palace and Villa, and there was no way of predicting that Man City would win out with five straight but Chelsea were bang there until very close to the end of that year. Ever the pragmatist, Mourinho put out a weakened side away at Liverpool staring down a five point deficit and played for the steal. That he got it yet proceeded to get knocked out of the Champions League with his first team intact, meant that overall the strategy failed. He ended up with nothing.
We once more reach this juncture with all the chips on the European table and none saved for the league. Two points from twelve are his post Zlatan return, and seven points back from fourth, a preferred league finish is long gone. More concerning is that whether by plan or accident, Man Utd haven’t put together a strong attacking performance since Ibrahimovic went down. In fairness, that run includes both legs of their Europa League semi finals and away trips to Man City, Arsenal and Tottenham, but the starkest game on the chart was the 1-1 draw with Swansea. Very different from the 25 to 30 shot 1-1 draws of earlier in the season, this was played out at a flat 12 shots a-piece. Van Gaal-esque.
And so Mourinho’s season could be redeemed publicly with a trophy and one that carries a pass into the Champions League. It’s easy to presume that next year should see further consolidation or with added world stars, improvement. Mourinho has unusually used a large squad in this extended season meaning that although a lot of football has been played across four competitions, the minutes have been fairly well apportioned out. The first two seasons of his Chelsea return were characterised by a lack of rotation and where aspects of burnout definitely impacted the team late on, United may not suffer that way going forward.
If Mourinho is to see history repeat, signings of the calibre of Fabregas and Costa are required to push the team forward. That worked for him at Chelsea, and Man Utd will surely spend. With the Pogba signing showing that money and paying the agent can override the lure of Champions League football the aim will be to pull in top rank talent once more. That Romelu Lukaku shares an agent with Pogba has been noted. We have yet to see the best of Henrikh Mkhitaryan too, he could well be primed for a huge season next year if given support.
With eight titles, three second place finishes and a third across his completed seasons as a manager, this season represents his worst finish to date, and that is following up his role in Chelsea’s mid table finish last year. Has the aura gone? Losing to Ajax would sharpen the criticism in that direction, but next season will tell us a lot more. He finally got the job he craved, and so far hasn’t quite managed to live up to his or Man Utd’s high standards, yet could end up with two trophies. That would be a successful first year for any other manager in any other club, and there’s enough will, good or otherwise, for Jose to go again. Another year outside the top four will simply not pass muster.