Where We Stand Ahead of the Premier League Restart
The Premier League follows in the footsteps of the Bundesliga and La Liga in returning to action this week. Given it has been three months since a ball was last kicked in anger, perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves of how things stand in the major contests at both ends of the table.
Let’s be honest, Liverpool are going to lift the Premier League trophy. They’ve crushed this season, winning 27 of their 29 matches to open up a 25-point lead at the top. They need just two wins (or some other combination of results that yields six points) from their remaining nine to claim their first league title in 30 years.
This is where it gets interesting, particularly if Manchester City’s European ban stands. Remove them from the equation, and do likewise with the third-placed Leicester side who, despite a downward trend in their underlying numbers, enjoy a 10-point cushion over the first non-qualifying position, and things look very spicy indeed in the competition for the two remaining Champions League spots.
Six teams are separated by just eight points; Arsenal, the side at the bottom of that group, have a game in hand.
Results and the underlying numbers over the course of the season to date have Chelsea pegged as a frontrunner, but after that it gets a little more murky.
Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers are separated by just two points, and are pretty much neck and neck on expected goal (xG) difference. The underlying numbers over the last 10 matches suggest the momentum is with Wolves...
...but it is United who have taken more points in that time: 17 to 13. These things often take much longer than nine matches to shake themselves out, especially when the differences are fairly minimal. United will also benefit from the return from injury of Marcus Rashford, their primary attacking contributor.
Tottenham Hotspur have also profited from the pause in action, as it has allowed them to recover some much-needed firepower in the form of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son (as well as January recruit Steven Bergwijn).
That alone is unlikely to turn things around for a side who after an initial surge under Jose Mourinho had combined mid-table results with downright sad underlying numbers in the lead up to the league stoppage, but it certainly won’t hurt their chances.
Sheffield United are a couple of points ahead of Spurs and have a game in hand that if won would see them leapfrog United into fifth. They’ve already defied the odds by coming up and immediately establishing themselves as a very solid top-flight side, and while their numbers aren’t as good as those of some of the teams around them, they are still very much in the mix.
Arsenal are at the back end of the group, and haven’t really shown enough signs of concrete improvement since Mikel Arteta replaced Unai Emery in December to give reason to believe they will end the campaign strongly.
The two Champions League places and the two currently available Europa League places are likely to be filled by four of those six teams. But if the outcome of the FA Cup results in eighth place also yielding a spot in the latter competition, it could open to way to other challengers. Notably, an Everton side who have so far performed well below their underlying numbers.
At the bottom of the table, there are probably six teams fighting to avoid filling the three relegation spots. Southampton, five points up the road from 15th placed Brighton and seven points clear of the bottom three, will likely be okay.
Norwich are four points adrift at the bottom and it’s honestly difficult to see them making up the six points that separate them from safety. Their attempt to transplant their Championship approach and (largely the same) personnel to the top flight hasn’t really worked out for them.
Aston Villa have had awful underlying numbers all season, particularly on the defensive side, where their concession of almost 18 shots per match has inevitably led to the worst xG conceded figure in the league.
When your are conceding an average of two goals per match, you need your attack to be pretty damn good. Villa’s is only okay. They do, though, have a game in hand over those around them.
Then comes the real action, four teams separated by just two points: Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham and Brighton. It is an incredibly hard race to call, and in truth, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if a similar number of points covered them come the end of the campaign.
Watford have the momentum. Since Nigel Pearson became their third head coach of the season in early December, they’ve matched top-half results to top-half underlying numbers. There has been clear improvement, especially in defence.
David Moyes has not yet had the same effect at West Ham. Results and underlying numbers have actually got marginally worse there since he replaced Manuel Pellegrini at the end of December. The stylistic changes are clear: deeper and more passive defending, and a greater reliance on transitional phases to create shots. The end result is all but unchanged.
Bournemouth are one of the worst six teams by the underlying numbers and slipped into the bottom three off the back of three defeats and a draw prior to the league stoppage. They don’t inspire a great deal of confidence at either end of the pitch, and may have to lean on their set-piece ingenuity to steer themselves to safety.
Brighton are yet to win a match this calendar year, and in fact have won only once in their last 14. No team have taken fewer points in 2020. While it is fairly easy to pinpoint the stylistic changes made since Graham Potter took charge last summer, it is not translating to results.
Their underlying numbers are those of a mid-table side, and that would normally be enough to suggest they’ll probably be okay. But then you look at their remaining schedule, which includes encounters with four of the current top five across their next six matches, and it’s hard to be quite so sure.