Today I am going to talk about what is most likely to happen in the rest of the 2013-14 English Premier League season. These aren’t necessarily things that will happen, but I fully expect the internet to rip me to shreds when the predictions don’t come true. That’s why we make predictions in the first place, right?
EPL advanced stats look surprisingly like they have in years past, but maybe not in the way you might think. In recent seasons, there has often been a cluster of teams at the top of the heap, though this year the cluster might be a touch bigger and has Manchester United situated toward the bottom of that cluster as opposed to nearer the top.
Initially, I thought there was a big difference at the bottom of the league. Relegation battles among a rotating host of teams are a regular thing, and this year is only slightly different. Instead of having a couple of clear cellar dwellers and maybe one or two more teams desperately trying to claw their way out of 18th, this season has six teams fully in the mix. It looked a lot more like normal before December, but suddenly there were just a ton of bad teams all sitting on top of each other, playing awful football.
My model has hated on Cardiff for almost the entire season, and at various points Sunderland, Norwich, and Crystal Palace have joined them as teams most likely to go down.
Let that sink in for a moment.
The team currently in 18th place, who currently have the fewest goals in the league, and who at one point I deemed 90% likely to get relegated seem almost metrically certain not to be.
Well, Tony Pulis has brought defensive solidity to this squad and - this is key – there are a horde of other poorly performing teams this season, some of whom have always been there, and some of whom have suddenly appeared over the Christmas fixture pileup.
The Sixteen Shot Principle
I was sifting through the data for relegated teams recently, and came across a surprisingly consistent finding. An easy baseline indicator of potential relegation candidates is the 16 shot cutoff.
If a team is giving up 16 shots or more defensively per game, they are a relegation candidate.
Last season, teams flagged by this indicator were: Reading, Fulham, Sunderland, Aston Villa, West Ham, and QPR. Reading and QPR were obviously relegated. Sunderland and Villa were candidates for most of the year. West Ham were very Stoke-like in that they gave up a bunch of shots, but most of them didn’t matter, and Fulham were powered by an amazing run early in the season where they looked good, before eventually turned into the team that got Jol fired.
(Note: Wigan were weird in that they only gave up 14.1 shots a match, but were daggered by hideous individual errors at the back and shocking goalkeeping.)
Two years ago, teams tripping this indicator were: Wolves, Bolton, QPR, Blackburn, Sunderland, and Norwich. Three were relegated and QPR finished one point out.
Three years ago, it was Blackpool, West Ham, Birmingham, and Blackburn cracking 16. The first three were relegated.
My current list of teams circling the Premier League toilet bowl is as follows:
Cardiff (on probation for five matches because of a manager change)
Stoke (likely safe)
Five of those teams are serving up the dreaded 16 shots against poo poo platters every week. Stoke is “only” giving up 15.1, but couples that with the second most anemic offensive production in terms of shots. They are prooooobably safe up in 12th, but you may end up seeing a bunch of angry Potters at the end of the season.
The Story of West Ham
As of November 4th, West Ham’s shot dominance – a measure used to evaluate how teams are faring in the battle to take as many shots as possible while giving up few – was 1.02. They were taking 13 shots a game while giving up 12.7. They were poor offensively at getting shots on target, but this type of performance usually yields a mid-table finish.
As of January 2nd, West Ham’s ShDom was .72, and they were giving up 16.8 shots per game. Shot dominance is now 17th in the league, and shots against is 18th. Offensive production is still bad, while defensively they went from slightly above average to OMG relegation. They went from a steady central defender pairing of Tomkins and Reid (who was really good) to one of Alou Diarra and Joey O’Brien, with George McCartney playing left back.
The lesson: Center backs matter a lot, and so do injuries. They tend to be boring transfers, but don’t underestimate their importance. Aston Villa experience similar problems every time Ron Vlaar has an extended stay on the sidelines.
Who is actually getting relegated?
You hear me bang on about this through most of the topics I cover, but managers matter. Their systems play a significant role in determining statistical outputs, which in turn help determine who is most likely to win matches.
Every time a team changes managers, the model goes into a cloud while waiting to evaluate how a team plays under their new manager. The only two model relegation candidates who haven’t changed managers yet are Norwich and West Ham.
West Ham get Winston Reid back soon, which means their defensive performance is likely to change back to what we saw the first ten games. That would save them from relegation.
The model thinks strongly that Tony Pulis will save Crystal Palace.
I am still kind of in shock about this, but that’s the case.
I was wrong, Hatman. You go on wit yo bad self.
Just answer the damned question!!!
Right. Sunderland are still going down, as has been the case since the beginning of the season. Most likely to join them are Cardiff (but this is cloudy because I don’t know how Solkaer will change them), and …
Either Fulham or Norwich.
Fulham have shown flashes of not terribleness since Jol was fired. But they also let Hull post the second most shots on target of any team this season, just last week. HULL! Norwich have talent, but Hughton can’t figure out how to make them perform offensively. Maybe they can be the ones to hire Pepe Mel.
Who Is Winning?
A funny thing happened on the way to the title… For most of the season, Manchester City have been heavy leaders in model coefficients. This is true not only for my model, but for almost everyone else’s models as well. However, Chelsea have been hanging around, grinding out results, and through 20 matches sit third in the table, one point back of City and two points back of league leaders Arsenal.
There is a wafer (pronounced “wah-fur”) thin margin on model coefficients between City and Chelsea. There is another super thin margin between Liverpool, Arsenal, and Everton, though Everton’s will likely drop more due to injuries, etc. City played a ton of the best teams in the league at home during the first half of the season, with Chelsea the only real contender they played away. Obviously that flips now, and City have their toughest challenges on the road this time around. The swings in win probability when playing a team at home versus meeting them away are considerable.
Given the tightness of the race, and the strength of schedule differences going forward, that might actually matter.
Arsenal only have two of the contenders at home during the second half of the season. Liverpool have all of them except Manchester United. So Liverpool have the easiest schedule going forward and they don’t have any European commitments. All of the other contenders have harder schedules and are still in the Champions League… Hrm.
Because of this, and because of the tightness in the current table, I think the league could be won in the transfer window. I know, I know! Usually this football cliché is a chocolate truffle full of bullshit, but this year it might actually matter. If Liverpool fill their midfield holes, or if Chelsea do, they might just have enough in the tank to cross the finish line in first. If Arsenal spunk on a forward with a better than league average conversion rate, they might win it. If none of this happens and City stabilize their defensive performances away from home, then the title should be theirs.
I guess what I am trying to say is that when you account for strength of schedule, I don’t think the title is clearly City’s anymore. In fact, I don’t think it’s clearly anybody’s right now. This was not a conclusion I expected to come to.
Who will actually win?
Ask me again February 1st.
Who is Making Top 4
Arsenal, City, Chelsea, Liverpool. Everton’s squad isn’t quite big enough to overcome injuries and Spurs had little bit inflexible manager niggle to overcome followed by a return to Traditional English Football™.
Waaaait a second…. Where will Manchester United Finish?
6th or 7th seem the most likely. They still aren’t making the Champions League. The more important question will be: Will David Moyes keep his job?
Who will win the golden boot?
Who will break the Premier League record for goals in a season?
Who will score the fewest goals in the second half of the season? Luis Suarez.
Sorry, there seems to be a glitch. I chose Sturridge for the golden boot winner in the preseason based on the fact that Suarez had a lengthy ban to serve. He burned me there, and thus all goalscoring answers from here out, regardless of the actual question are: Luis Suarez.
(Note: He’s scoring goals faster than anyone ever has in the Premier League. Ignore the whole “he only scores in bunches against lower teams” argument, because that is true for all goalscorers. What Suarez is doing right now is unprecedented, and might even be sustainable for the rest of the season.)
Steven Gerrard. But STATS! 3 goals, 6 assists from midfield in 15 matches. THE CAPTAIN!!1!1!!
Sorry, Liverpool play better overall without him.
Look, Stevie G is still producing well, especially for a 33 year-old. But… Liverpool could get more out of that position. The ball moves better/faster and LFC seem more capable both offensively and defensively without the Gerrard/Lucas axis in place.
Stick Cabaye/Badelj/Gonalons in that Gerrard role and Liverpool are title contenders.
(Yes, I realize that I am arguing against stats argument this time. The analysis in this case is systemic, and more complex than simple player production. However, I will totally understand if you respect me less in the morning.)
Who has been the best manager of the 1st half of the season?
It’s difficult to see past Arsene Wenger right now. Leading the league after 20 matches, with those pieces and injuries, plus getting through the group in the Champions League is a serious accomplishment, even if there was some luck behind it as well.
Honorable Mention: Steve Bruce
File that one under more things I never expected to say. Hull aren’t great, but they aren’t anywhere near relegation right now, either in the table or in the model. According to Ed Thompson, that’s on the back of the second lowest wage spend in the league.
The Premier League Needs a Winter Break
This argument has nothing to do with the success of the English national team, and everything to do with the product Premier League teams put out on the field. There is one match too many during the Christmas period, and it results in a massive amount of injuries to players. Additionally, teams with smaller squads are the ones who suffer the most from this, as they can’t afford to rotate players like the teams who run 25 deep. Cut the New Year’s Day match and/or move the FA Cup ties to that day so that teams who want to rotate stars for a break can, and then take 10-14 days off or so. That time period is short enough not to screw up too much in the schedule, and it will change the injury pattern we are seeing in the league over recent years.
The data is fairly overwhelming at this point. The only thing preventing it is greed and greed, but by being greedy, teams are actually costing themselves better chances to win games.
(Injury images courtesy of @benjaminpugsley)