What are some smaller story lines to follow over the last two months of the Premier League season?
As the season begins to wind down, the focus understandably narrows. There’s a title race and a top four race which means all of the league’s top six teams are actively competing for a prize. At the other end of the table Fulham and Huddersfield are all but assured of relegation, which leaves Cardiff, Burnley and Southampton competing to avoid the doom of an 18th place finish. That leaves everybody between seventh and seventeenth more or less forgettable (unless you really want to count the race between Wolves and Watford for seventh place and the last possible Europa League spot). But buried amongst the nothing-to-play-fors are some interesting story lines.
The space in the table between Wolves in seventh place and Chelsea in sixth is a gigantic 13 points. The goal difference gap of 15 is just as large. Yet, somewhat awkwardly, the underlying expected goals numbers tell a somewhat different story about Wolves. The team has an incredibly strong defense.
Based on the back of their defensive performance the team actually has (by a narrow margin) the fourth best xG difference in the Premier League. There are reasons to be skeptical of this of course. The story of Manchester United’s season is one of disfunction that likely spilled over into their performance, for example. Arsenal’s defensive numbers have improved over the course of the season in ways that look like they may sustain. The difference between Wolves and Spurs is so small (.03 xG differential per match) that Spurs might pull ahead next week. But still, while the table presents Wolves as clearly the best of the rest, the numbers suggest Wolves might at least be competitive with the top six.
The reason that this season has presented that story is that the newly promoted side’s early season results were simply well below their performances.
Flip that season around, put the more fortunate results at the beginning and the tougher bounces at the end and Wolves season would look like a possible miracle in the making, a newly promoted team hanging around the race for the Champions League well past Christmas. So, while it’s reasonable to argue that the numbers overstate Wolves abilities, it’s also quite clear that the table is understating how good they are. As the season winds down it will be worth watching to see if either side of the equation budges. Are Wolves just the best of the rest, or are they building to something more?
Leicester City’s numbers looked fine when they fired Claude Puel. They were a little boring to watch perhaps, committed to a fairly rigid but cohesive defensive press. They also played tons of young kids and turned over the roster from the aging group that miraculously won the Premier League to the likes of James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, and Wilfred Ndidi. All of that came with one major problem. The team didn’t really win a lot of games.
Starting in January the bottom just fell out of the teams results, even as the performances seemed to indicate that nothing much was wrong. Sometimes that can happen when there are serious problems behind the scenes. Goals and expected goals always converge eventually, but sometimes eventually means after a manager that the players hate gets fired. Other times the manager really has nothing to do with it, and it’s just the fickleness of how the ball bounces that’s messing with the natural order of things.
Either way, it seems like a smart time for everybody’s favorite old new manager Brendan Rodgers to step back into the Premier League. He is now at the helm of a team that is due to stop somehow fumbling results that they play well enough to capture. He has experience from way back in his Swansea days taking over a project in midstream. And as long as he doesn’t do anything to drastically mess things up, Leicester City should be just fine.
The interesting question to analyze is how much of the team’s expected improvement as the season winds down (and into next year) is actually because Puel did something wrong, something that Rodgers is correcting, and how much is simply that Leicester’s results couldn’t stay that far below expectations forever.
What are Bournemouth?
After a surprisingly strong start to the season, Eddie Howe’s team have trailed off badly. Neither the beginning of the season nor what came afterwards were particularly a fluke. Their results moved in concert with the levels of their performance (at least until a recent swoon).
The culprit seems to have been their defense. After a strong start to the season, Bournemouth’s ability to prevent other teams from getting shots against them has deteriorated dramatically.
There are several possible explanations for this. Bournemouth have had a rash of injuries up and down the squad including to Callum Wilson and David Brooks, two of their three most important attacking players. They also started with an easy stretch of schedule which may have juiced their numbers only for the cold hard light of more difficult matches to bring them back to earth.
The good news for Howe and his team is that if their inconsistency has been schedule driven, then success may once again be just around the corner. The Cherries have seven matches and remaining, but only one against a top six opponent, a home match against Spurs. They also have three matches against relegation candidates, hosting both Fulham and Burnley, and traveling away to Southampton. Trips to Leicester, Brighton and Crystal Palace make up the balance.
A strong close might suggest that the early days of the season weren’t a mirage, but rather a real step forward which injuries eventually derailed, albeit one that was turbocharged by the schedule. However, if Bournemouth continue to struggle right up until the closing bell, well that would end up looking more like a team that’s nothing more than a bottom half side that benefitted from the mirage of a soft opening schedule. Bournemouth may not have anything concrete left to play for besides pride, but there last seven performances will go a long way towards demonstrating where next year’s expectation levels should start.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association