The top six. You know them and probably hate them.
Watford may currently sit in fourth place, but only the most ardent of Hornets supporters would argue that there aren’t at least six better teams than them. Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United are England’s elite. Everyone else has to make do with simply being, well, everyone else.
But who is closest to the cream of the crop? Which side deserves to be considered the Premier League’s seventh best? Let’s take a look at the contenders.
Watford are, to put it honestly, not the most exciting team in the league. The side consists of many veteran players (weighted by minutes played, Watford have an average age of 29.2) that manager Javi Gracia instructs to play solid, defensive football. But it’s hard to argue that Gracia has not built a good defensive side. When looking at the xG trendlines since the Spaniard’s arrival in January, there’s a distinct decrease in the volume of expected goals conceded. Most pleasingly, the attacking numbers haven’t had to suffer for this, indicating a clear improvement overall.
The way the team defend might not be what you’d expect for a side that aims to keep it tight. The defensive activity map shows that Watford actually press quite high, with much more of the work being done in the opposition’s half. The usual aim of high pressing defensive systems is shot suppression, and Watford tick that box, with their 9.83 shots against per 90 the fourth best of any side in the Premier League this season.
While it’s hard to argue with Watford’s defensive credentials, on the attacking side they leave something to be desired. At first glance, things seem good, with their 11 goals scored the joint sixth best in the league, but this comes from just 6.75 expected goals, merely the twelfth best in the division. Considering Watford did not beat xG under Gracia last season, the expectation should be that this is merely a hot streak that will come down to earth soon. One of the reasons for this is a lack of creative passers in the side. In terms of completing deep progressions (defined as “passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third per 90 minutes”), Watford’s most prominent progresser of the ball is Abdoulaye Doucoure. While not a player without merit, Doucoure’s passing has been described by StatsBomb’s Mohamed Mohamed as “like watching a golfer hacking helplessly from a bunker”. The second most prominent ball progressor is Jose Holebas, a veteran fullback who has never in his career shown himself to be a hugely expressive passer. If these are the guys you’re relying on to move the ball forward, you may not be very good at moving the ball forward.
If you can’t beat them, join them? Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth have spent most of their time in the Premier League since 2015 attempting to defy the normal rules and play entertaining football on a budget. The cost was of being rather atrocious defensively, but Howe’s side were usually able to offer just enough going forward to counterbalance it, and attempts to make the team more solid were abandoned after bad results.
As we can see from the xG trendlines, Bournemouth have managed a fairly dramatic drop-off in expected goals conceded since the final games of last season. Like Watford, for now at least, they have been able to do this without seeing much in the way of a dip in attacking production.
The change in approach is obvious from the adjustment in personnel. Lewis Cook, the 21 year old central midfielder who was Bournemouth’s key ball progressor last year and tipped by many for bigger and better things, has yet to start a league game this season. The current central midfield pairing of Dan Gosling and Andrew Surman are nobody’s idea of entertaining football, but they do offer more solidity. While neither Gosling nor Surman are completing as many deep progressions as Cook did last season, both are delivering more pressures than the England international. Usually playing a 4-4-2, Bournemouth are now more reliant on David Brooks and Ryan Fraser in wide midfield roles than last season, with central midfield offering better protection.
The other dramatic shift for Bournemouth is in the quality of the chances they both attempt and concede. The xG per shot that the Cherries create for themselves has risen from 0.09 to 0.11, while the xG per shot they face has itself fallen from 0.11 to 0.09. Games featuring Bournemouth are less event heavy than ever, but Howe’s side are much better in making sure the shots they do take and concede are the right ones.
The huge asterisk is of course the relatively soft schedule the team has dealt with. The only top 6 club Bournemouth have faced are Chelsea, a match they lost 2-0. October is another relatively easy month for Howe, so this team may not find things difficult until a rough November and December involving every other top 6 side. If Bournemouth are the real deal, they will have to show that this more conservative style is better able to get points in the harder games.
For all the frustration about Claude Puel’s time in charge at Leicester, the club currently sit in a perfectly respectful ninth place in the Premier League. The Foxes continue to transition away from the ageing side that won the title in 2015-16, with Jamie Vardy and Wes Morgan the only starters from that team that still regularly get a game. This shift has been felt in attack more than defence, with this season’s 1.06 expected goals per game down from last year’s 1.30. The loss of Riyad Mahrez is obviously a significant factor here, with new signings Rachid Ghezzal and James Maddison not yet offering the same attacking threat. Maddison in particular offers a great creative passing threat, but combines it with a frustrating willingness to shoot from bad locations. This is part of a broader trend in recent months that has seen Leicester’s attacking play decline without adding any extra solidity on the defensive side:
With Puel having instigated a move away from the fast paced counter-attacking style associated with Leicester under Claudio Ranieri and maintained under Craig Shakespeare, it’s not all that obvious what the point of this team is. The squad probably has more talent than any other team on this list, and that may be enough, but a lack of a cohesive style of play may prove to be their undoing.
So, Wolves have been good. Really good. There’s obvious reluctance to go too far in rating a newly promoted team, but there surely hasn’t been a side in the modern era to come up to the Premier League with as much talent as Wolves. 9 points from 6 games and a neutral goal difference is solid work for any promoted side, but what sticks out most is that Wolves have so far underperformed expected goals at both ends. Their expected goal difference of +3.13 is fourth best in the league, ahead of Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs among others.
How Wolves go about it is interesting. Without the ball, Nuno Espirito Santo’s men stay deep and compact, allowing the opposition to hold onto the ball largely untested. The side’s high press rating (based on StatsBomb’s pressure data) is the fifth lowest in the league. The aim of low press systems is to restrict the quality of the chances conceded rather than the volume, and this is exactly what Wolves have managed, with their xG per shot conceded of 0.07 the best in England’s top flight. When Wolves do manage to get the ball back, the midfield is extremely effective at moving the ball forward. The double pivot Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho achieves a combined 16.47 deep progressions per 90, a fairly remarkable number for two midfielders alongside each other. That Wolves are able to get so much ball progression out of their midfield without sacrificing defensive solidity might be the most impressive thing about Nuno’s system, and while there is an instinct to suggest this will eventually be exposed, Wolves have faced a fairly tough schedule so far and done fine with it.
It feels too soon to proclaim Wolves as the seventh best team in England. The history of the Premier League is littered with promoted clubs that have started strong before falling by the wayside fairly rapidly. Perhaps Everton will get over their start so poor they didn’t make this article to take back their eternal “best of the rest” trophy. Leicester remain a club still integrating new talent and could well find themselves in a stronger position toward the end of the season.
Nonetheless, if you’re asking me to name the seventh best team at this very moment, Wolves are the best bet. The West Midlands club have so far been able to arrange their considerable attacking talent in a way that allows them to do their thing while maintaining a defensive structure. We will see if it works over a full season, but if it does, we could have the best newly promoted team to the Premier League in a long time.