Early in the season a constant refrain can be heard from numbers nerds everywhere. Wait. Be patient. A few games is not enough to draw conclusions.
It is important, however, to be specific about what conclusions can and can’t be drawn. It’s certainly true that three games can’t do much to move the needle when it comes to evaluating performance. It can raise some red flags, perhaps point an analyst in the right direction, but saying anything definitive based solely on three performances is a recipe for overreaction. However, the same is not true of results. Early results can change things a lot. Watford are the perfect example.
Watford have taken all nine points from their first three games this season. Are they better than people expected? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Their numbers through three games are certainly better. They’ve only conceded two goals. Only Liverpool’s perfect defensive record is better. And, with 0.68 expected goals conceded per match, they’re also only second to Liverpool on that count. They’re only conceding eight shots per game, yet again second to only Liverpool Those defensive numbers are significantly better than last season’s where they conceded 64 goals, the third most in the league, 1.46 expected goals and 11.18 shots. The trend is similar, if somewhat less pronounced, when only looking at manager Javi Gracia’s time in charge last season, where the team conceded a better 1.18 expected goals per match and allowed 9.35 shots.
Unsurprisingly the same is true on the attacking side of the ball where the side has gone from 1.19 expected goals and 12.13 shots last season (1.25 and 13.35 under Gracia) to 1.45 and 15.67 this year. It’s quite clear that so far in three games this season, Watford have played at a higher level than they did either in total, or specifically under Gracia, last year. That’s the good news.
Here’s the small sample size news. Watford’s three opponents this season have been Burnley at Turf-Moor and Brighton and Crystal Palace at home. Those aren’t the worst teams in the league by any stretch. It’s not like Watford beat up on Cardiff and Huddersfield, for example, but they also aren’t teams that are obviously better than they are. Watford’s performances have been strong, but it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll get worse as the season progresses. In fact, three of their next four matches are against Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal. Let’s see how those numbers look when the end of September comes around.
This isn’t a knock on Watford. Sometimes a team can run up gaudy early season points totals and have numbers that don’t support that the success. That’s not the case with Watford. They aren’t stumbling their way blindly into points. They’ve played some of the best football in the league so far. They’ve just done it against a non-representative slice of opposition. As such, it’s hard to project exactly how well these numbers will hold up when the going gets a little bit tougher.
What isn’t hard to project is exactly how important those nine points are going to be for Watford. They were a side that came into the season on the fringes of the relegation battle. But, nine points from three games changes that picture entirely. While it’s certainly true that hot starts can cool, and freezing cold starts can melt away, the points you do and don’t put on the board early in the season remain. And those points indelibly impact the contours of a team’s season.
Last year Crystal Palace was a team with good underlying numbers and an absolutely brutal start. They didn’t get their first points until into October. The team didn’t get a magical get out of relegation card free for the fact that in a more just world they’d have taken points from matches early in the season. Instead, they had to spend time fighting and clawing their way out of the bottom of the table. They had very little room for error, which meant that in the back half of the season, when they suffered a rash of injuries, they were dragged right back into the race for the bottom. Ultimately, they climbed clear for a comfortable 11th place finish, 11 points clear of danger. They finished well above the drop, but the bulk of their season was defined by the lack of points they ran up early on.
Watford are precisely the opposite. Nine points from three games is a massive haul, and gives the team a huge buffer against the dangers of relegation. It’s a quarter of the way to the total of last year’s worst survivor, Southampton. Watford could play like an absolutely terrible team for the rest of this season and still likely survive. If Watford fell apart tomorrow and played at a 30 point pace for the rest of the season they’d still finish with about 37 points.
There are currently seven teams with two points or fewer. West Ham have none. Burnley, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Southampton all have one, and Wolves and Cardiff have two. If we start from the premise that Watford might magically turn into a 30 point pace team overnight then West Ham would need 37 points to catch them. That’s a 40 point pace. The group of teams with one point would have to play at a 39 point pace and Cardiff and Wolves would need to play at a 38 point pace. It’s certainly conceivable some of these teams could do that. But, in order for Watford to get relegated a full five out of seven of them would. That’s…well it’s a long shot.
At the beginning of the season the case for Watford’s relegation was fairly simple. They were a team without much attacking firepower, that had lost a dynamic young winger in Richarlison and not replace him. Under Javi Gracia they looked like the kind of sturdy defensive team that could scrap their way to survival but might not have enough in attack to get the job done. It’s easy to make the case that if a couple of things go wrong a team like that can find themselves on the wrong side of the most expensive race in football.
Now, three games later, the case for relegation rests on an extremely narrow just so story. Watford would in fact need to be a very bad team, despite their results. That’s not impossible, but given the strong underlying numbers backing up their three wins, it’s at least somewhat unlikely. Then, a large number of teams would have to play at the kind of pace, 38 points and above, that far outstrips what they’re expected to do. Oh, and to top it all off, no other team with fewer points than Watford can collapse.
There’s not a lot it’s possible to say confidently after three games. But, a combination of strong play and great results make Watford the exception to that rule. A team that was an outside contender for relegation is now sitting pretty. Not bad for a month’s work.