Is The Middle Class Rising In The Premier League?

By James Yorke | October 26, 2015

Is The Middle Class Rising In The Premier League?

Farewell to Tim

More than ever, the cold hard financial reality of dropping out of the Premier League is firmly at the forefront of club owners' minds, so it is relatively unsurprising to see Tim Sherwood flung onto the managerial scrapheap alongside Dick Advocaat. Both men hit a simple goal after coming in late on last season- to survive- and both oversaw a terrible run of results at the start of 2015-16. That's the crux here, throughout the history of the game results have been the fundamental currency for measuring success and underlying metrics and strategies run a distant second to losing six straight and eight of ten when gauging a manager's survival chances. Sherwood's season win percentage was closer to none than second to none and that was that.

Many were sceptical about his appointment in the first place, such was the negative emotion generated by his brief time in the hot seat for Tottenham. Fans had been overwhelmingly against his retention and this was a man who had earned kudos within the club and had worked for many years in the background, with youth and structure. Yet personality issues were cited and now having had two short tenures in the Premier League and found no great sadness among either fan base he's left behind, one might presume that he's had his chances.

This is a shame from a light dramatic perspective. Although we rarely saw the full range of “media Tim” at Villa, the league has lost a character, in the broadest sense. He managed par shot ratios last season and distinctly sub-par ratios this; Villa just haven't been very good, and haven't created enough, so whoever takes over has a tricky task. Sunderland having blinked first and played a quick joker in hiring Allardyce, may well have secured a minor edge.

Middle Classes

The new TV deal that kicked in this year has lead to a lot of talk about a rising “middle class” within the Premier League. That Crystal Palace could prise Yohan Cabaye from PSG's bench, Swansea could pay big money for Andre Ayew's contract and West Ham could attract an elite chance creator such as Dimitri Payet have all been cited as indications of this new order. That these players were secured from Ligue Un, a familiar yet less prosperous league to raid, is less important than the perception that maybe, in seasons past, these players would have landed at richer clubs.

But things have changed in that regard too. The richer clubs have changed some of their buying focus. Arsenal don't get involved outside unwanted superstars or teenagers, Chelsea didn't much bother this summer and Man Utd pay top table fees for talented but available types. Man City finally realised they needed to back-up Silva and did so to the tune of around £100m, Spurs have returned to a more careful approach and Liverpool once more took a chancy dive into the chocolate box.

There simply aren't very many spaces in these top squads for this second tier of players who are now arriving in the league. But there are plenty of spaces in the squads of these mid-range cash-rich clubs, and so this is where this apparent new breed of “I can't believe xyz club has signed xyz player....” ends up. So far, so what? This perception of a bubble of improvement in the middle of the league has gained more support based on the early season performances of variously, Swansea-to start with, West Ham, Leicester and Crystal Palace. Swansea's early season promise involved performing well against three teams that in subsequent weeks have proven to be dodgy, bad or both. Dominating a broken 10-man Chelsea, and beating Newcastle and Sunderland has shown to be less remarkable than it seemed and they've quickly reverted to their 2014-15 level and recently struggled for points.  Similarly Crystal Palace's early promise has taken a more generic turn as they've now posted five wins and losses apiece.

So that leaves Leicester and West Ham to fly high on 19 and 20 points and continue to be regarded as the embodiment of this new order. No matter that Newcastle spent freely and have one win from ten games or that Stoke are meandering with a who's who of intriguingly talented players...

Is this any different to what we've seen in other years?

Not really.

The middle class have risen before- at least within the parameters of the early season, and while some have managed to stretch that out across a whole year, the difficulty to maintain any kind of position among the money clubs has been obvious. Take Newcastle's freak 2011-12, they started 6-4-0 and lay third before holding on for an unlikely 5th place at season's end. In 2012-13 West Brom had 17 points by now and lay 5th (they finished 8th). Southampton have started the last two seasons strongly, posting 19 and 22 points respectively across ten games and West Ham themselves had 17 points this time last year.

As ever, more focus is put on the early form of a team than at any other part of the season. Good results give a perception of good form when the metrics that may be powering such a run are less sustainable. What links all of those teams just cited was that they were either converting their chances at a notably high rate or were saving the opposition's shots at a rate far above average.

The illusion of improvement and new found success can be hard to resist in simple narrative terms but the two teams seemingly transcending their mid-range roots and attacking the top order are again doing it via tenuous means. Leicester's appear slightly more likely to sustain as their shot numbers are above par, but are still running a high conversion, while West Ham have been posting 50% goals to shots on target for a good while now, a rate that would cause vertigo in a lumberjack.

The new middle class is the same as the old middle class. A rotational place in the bottom end of the top seven- variously inhabited by Newcastle, Everton and Southampton- is the realistic limit of their ambition and whether such an achievement could be repeated must be considered unlikely- for now.

Low Points

Linked to this, OptaJoe had this tweet out on Sunday:

On the surface, it might look like this is more evidence of a degree of parity within the league but dive into some shooting numbers and it's not really the case.  2009-10 Chelsea are still the shots benchmark and Man City, and in particular their shot on target ratio, are currently ranking close behind them.  Arsenal too have strong attacking shot numbers for this stage in the season and the distance between these two and the rest is significant.  I'll get into this a bit further in a couple of weeks, but for now it's straightforward to reflect on.

That they haven't turned these strengths into more than seven wins from the first ten games, isn't very indicative.

Obligatory Tottenham Untroubled Win

Unbeaten in the league since the opening day and generally undominated are not words one may have presumed to be writing about Tottenham coming into the season.  As it is, the bizarre fortune of finding strength despite injuries continues.  Having lost Bentaleb and Mason previously, midfield options had started to be looking somewhat limited.   Step forward Alli and/or Dembele to fill the gap and prod and poke next to Dier. All of whom have been in solid form.  Rolling over a Bournemouth side who appear to be staring down the barrel of a tough season was as routine as it could possibly get and when we look at some season numbers, we find Tottenham's performance levels as currently of top four standard.

Indeed, depending on how harshly you want to treat Man Utd for failing to create any high volume shot counts whatsoever, Spurs are arguably performing at a level only behind Arsenal and Man City.  The goal glut against Bournemouth also went some way towards balancing what were underwhelming conversion metrics and it's been fascinating to see both teams and players gradually-or in some cases rapidly- catching up with a reasonable expectation given by underlying numbers.  As noted last week, Aguero and Sanchez had each seen their goal return catch up, and Tottenham have now done that to a degree at team level.  As each game passes, our understanding of the qualities of players and teams increases and having reached the ten game mark, we are finally in a position to be a little more concrete in analysis than before.

As for Tottenham's prospects, the continued mediocrity of Chelsea acts as an ever widening door to the top four.  Far be it from me to fuel an increase in fan expectation but the league is at their mercy things are shaping up very encouragingly.

Thanks for reading!