What a difference ten days makes. This little burst of Premier League action that traverses November and December certainly focuses the attention around what exactly is going on in the league. The main winners were as usual, the top five, who all scored a minimum of two wins and happily bamboozled the watching world by failing to clearly reveal who was in any kind of crisis. Chelsea moved on from a role of “the team that Tottenham destroyed”, dipped their nose into the crisis zone by getting beaten by Wolves, then rose gloriously to become “the team that beat Man City”. Tottenham moved from being “destroyed in the North London Derby” to quietly picking up straightforward wins against weaker teams, while even Man Utd got a break from the whip by rolling over Fulham with ease. Nice work when you can get it. Playing Fulham that is.
With Liverpool marching on relentlessly (three wins out of three on the week) and Arsenal picking up seven points through variously impressive and grinding methods, it rather leaves Man City facing the music, at least for now. Mainly the focus will land there because it is so rare that they falter, despite the fact that all they did was get sucker punched in a tough away game, which can happen. At least it keeps things interesting for some weeks longer as the red side of Liverpool giddily consumes their now exclusive hold on an unbeaten start, and title dreams live on.
Chelsea’s result against City did a lot to keep the crisis-mongers at bay. The manner of the Tottenham defeat and the mere existence of the (more unfortunate) Wolves defeat would have been compounded had they been on the wrong end of another result, even allowing for the Man City effect. Pens were at the ready to supply Maurizio Sarri thinkpieces to a willing world. At times these result-reactive prevailing narratives are hard to inhibit, and can be erratically accurate, so Chelsea proving that they have some residual quality–despite the result being more impressive than the performance–created an new layer of protection. As time stood still, N’Golo Kanté strode through to make the decisive contribution and rocket the ball into the roof of City’s net. His arrival in the box was so late, as if to question the nature of his new box-to-box role, but he still arrived quicker than if had he still been sweeping house in his traditional defensive midfield position.
Sarri is no doubt tired of explaining why he wants a passer and not a provocateur in the heart of his midfield. While it may be hard for home tacticians to understand why any team would line up with Kanté playing anywhere but his best position, if we consider him as a high class player regardless, perhaps it’s not that outlandish to presume he will adapt. The Tottenham game was an aberration that didn’t reflect wider progress, and while early in the season Kanté looked a little lost, recently that’s less often been the case. And after all, elsewhere in the league among sometimes troubled clubs, we occasionally see squad deficiencies bravely masked by defensive midfielders lining up among defenders in the back line, and that’s okay! Kanté at least still gets to play in midfield. If you must, Mateo Kovačić has zero goals this season, go pick on him.
Chelsea remain the third best team in the league via expected goals; they shoot with good volume, their opponents do not but nor are they a patch on Liverpool or Manchester City who remain all conquering in metric land. That said, their overall profile fits to a tee as a superior team in the league. There’s no magic here, Chelsea are just a strong team and given the talent they have accrued within their squad, they really should be. The down years where they don’t win the title or compete deep into the season are the outliers, and while the current climate means Sarri has a big task on his hands to get anywhere near the top two, it’s not dissimilar to the first season of Jose Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea in 2013/14. Liverpool and Man City fought out that title too, while Chelsea were the “other team” that were less exhilarating but racked up the points nonetheless. The next season they were better and won it.
The true weirdness in the Premier League 2018-19 remains in the battle for the top four. It might appear odd to class Tottenham and Arsenal behind Chelsea, but whatever they are doing to succeed is taking a different format to historical teams. Tottenham are currently a negative shots team–they’ve taken just 48% of shots in their games–and while shot quality has enabled them to peek ahead of par for expected goals, it’s still true that Leicester’s title winners are the only team in recent seasons to shoot near par volumes and land anywhere in the top four. It’s unusual, moreso when you consider Tottenham have been a team that takes 65% or so of shots in the least three seasons. It feels like change is afoot with the club going from the one of the highest proportion of shots from outside the box to the absolute least proportion year to year. Some of that is Harry Kane, but not all and right now their attack is more Cardiff (headers, close in) than cavalier. Only time will tell if this is a blip or more is going on, but against Southampton and Leicester, Tottenham kept the opposition at arms length. Once they had a decisive lead, they sat right off. They used to routinely put plus-ten shots on teams, yet this week they’ve had three games in a row in which they’ve been outshot.
There are hints in their defensive numbers that over the course of the season they have prioritised there, but a week after being shredded by Arsenal, can that really be the case? At least at some level Tottenham have body-swapped their defensive work; see here their average defensive distance dropping like a stone, while the pass volumes they allow before intervention have gone right up:
They are still pretty active in the press, generally, it’s just it’s less targeted as unlike the old days they haven’t been camping out in the opposition half:
The home/away split now lines up at 6 home and 10 away, so that will account for some of the changes but nowhere near all. It still feels like the metrics should move towards the results eventually rather than the opposite (talent counts, right?), but they could do with a few more home ground stompings just to bolster that idea a bit more. They remain a conundrum, albeit one that has 36 points from 16 games, so dissention is a hard sell.
Arsenal’s victory against Tottenham kept them right in the mix for the top four and they backed it up with 4 more points across the week. They also remain perplexing from a broad metric perspective. Over the season, they are a 51% shots team (as are Man Utd for that matter) and their expected goal rates peek above the parapet similarly to Tottenham’s. Things are moving though, and over the last couple of months, the wild overperformance in their metrics has cooled, and it’s possible we’re now getting a much better idea of how good this team is. It’s easy to miss positive movements in short spells when considering season aggregates, and if as seen recently, they can continue building great opportunities via through balls and land shots in the six yard box, they’ll score plenty. As risk of stating the bleeding obvious, if their attack can continue to perform better than their defence as it has been recently, they should continue to point upwards.
But it’s still odd that we have two traditionally big teams, both putting up only mediocre expected goals and shots numbers, yet routinely winning matches. If Arsenal and Tottenham were sitting alongside Man Utd a way off the pace, you could cast your eye over their metrics, happily nod and get why.
The comfort of the middle tier
Elsewhere in the league we have the embryonic growth of a middle class once more with potential usurpers at either end. It’s taken 16 games to shake out but between Everton in seventh and Watford in thirteenth there are gaps above and below with only Man Utd–undecided as to which camp they want to be in this year–existing within them. Brighton are the other usurpers, a defeat at Burnley far more reflective of their still unpleasant looking underlying numbers than the 21 points they have picked up otherwise. Beyond that, Everton, Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester, Wolves and West Ham look to be the current middle order. Safe as can be with fewer than a handful of wins needed to avoid any looking over of shoulders and thoughts of more.
To a degree, the natural order might mean that Watford (prone to post-Christmas decline) and Bournemouth (dropping back now the schedule has bitten and they’ve coughed up wins to the top sides) had good starts that weren’t quite reflective of their overall quality and could well find themselves drifting towards the bottom of this group as time goes on. Again, all this is more than fine. We have seen small and not so small clubs such as West Brom, Aston Villa, Stoke, Swansea and Hull to name just five, all drop away, and for at least half this league, not following them and landing in the relegation mix at all is a fine plan to fulfil.
Of the others, Everton appear solid and gritty and probably favourites to hit the heights of seventh, Leicester are stoic but flawed and feel as if they haven’t yet quite managed to be a sum of their parts. West Ham are the big recent movers and are finally reaping the benefits of intriguing summer investment. Their three wins in a week have slotted them cosily into mid-table and much more from Felipe Anderson might garnish them an “entertainers” tag. A 2-1-4 start comprised of teams in the top half so time was always likely to help out, and once again, it’s worth filtering somewhat to form rather than the whole season. Since the start of October they rank eighth in expected goals, and the idea that if you can’t beat the good teams you had better beat the rest has certainly borne fruit for them.
Special mention for Cardiff at the bottom, who are doing it differently. They were the only team from the bottom tier to come through this three game mini run with any more than three points–they got six. Their shot profile looks a bit er… Tottenham (lots close in, headers) but is of course the inevitable by product of that type of football and so few teams are doing that these days it feels churlish to complain about the one that unerringly is. Getting out of your half and sending men forward is both the Warnock way and a close proxy for early twentieth century warfare and it’s worked fine enough for many a general before. There must be a pretty decent chance it can again.