Looking at the table is supposed to provide clarity, right? The Premier League seems to be in a strange place right now. Fifth placed Arsenal (16 points) are closer to Watford at the bottom of the table (5 points) to Liverpool at the top (28). It’s all a big mess and none of it seems to make much sense. So let’s see if we can find some answers in the mulch.
The title race is on?
Liverpool sit six points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table. The main way this has been done is by having a slightly stodgier defence, as the Reds have conceded 9.71 expected goals to City’s 11.35. It hasn’t yet mattered so much that Pep Guardiola’s team have a far stronger attack, generating 27.58 xG to Liverpool’s 16.85. Thus their xG difference looks a whole lot better, despite not translating this into points at quite the same rate. This doesn’t seem to correlate with what we know about football. City are playing a more open, more high scoring at both ends style than Liverpool. Those kind of games should theoretically lead to the better team winning more frequently. Football’s status as a low scoring sport leads to frequent occasions where the best side does not win, and increasing the scoring should decrease the frequency with which that happens. We haven’t seen it yet. It’s definitely something to watch out for as the season goes on, particularly if Liverpool’s cagier style ever starts producing more draws. Chelsea are hot on the heels of the big two. By xG difference they look only a shade behind Liverpool, though there are still perhaps some ways in which this side is incomplete. The Blues complete relatively few deep completions into the final third, with their 36 so far being below average in the Premier League. They have then turned this into just 21 passes inside the opponent’s box, also below average. The attack has been incredibly effective at turning this lack of passing in dangerous areas into good shots, and it remains to be seen whether this approach can be sustainable.
Can Leicester do a Leicester?
The record equalling 9-0 win at Southampton marks the highlight of a so far very enjoyable season for Foxes fans. In third place with 20 points, and considering the general mediocrity of much of the rest of the league (more on that later), Brendan Rodgers’ team look well in the mix for a top four spot. This is mostly through a mean defence (third best in the league by xG) counting more than a middling attack. But there’s an important asterisk here: Leicester have had two games this season featuring first half red cards to the opposition. In both these matches, the Foxes then went on to demolish their opponents (Southampton and Newcastle). In the time spent just eleven against eleven, Leicester’s xG difference is at -0.38, or -0.04 on a per 90 minute basis. The attack is particularly worrying here, generating just under an expected goal per 90. They have the points in hand, which puts them ahead of the mulch, but the position in the table looks kind right now.
What of Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham?
Leicester’s good start has looked all the brighter due to the dimming of half the so-called top six. Arsenal are, somehow, currently the best of these sides in terms of points. In recent weeks they’ve been able to get the shots conceded under control a little more, but this is still just not an interesting team. They’re moderately above average, they don’t have many exciting players, they don’t play a distinct style of football. They’re just there, and could finish anywhere from the top four to midtable in May. Things are looking a little better for Manchester United after they got a moral victory (read: a draw) against Liverpool and a comfortable win at Norwich. And things never looked as bad in the numbers as the results. United have the best xG conceded in the league, combining both a low volume of shots against with a low quality of those chances. The problem is that the pairing of this with the 12th best attack makes them deathly boring at times. It looks as though Paul Pogba’s fitness problems are set to continue, which isn’t good news for anyone who likes football teams with players who can pass the ball forward. As for Tottenham, well, they’re just not very good. The xG trendline of the past few seasons describes it better than I can. This side has had problems for some time, but now it’s really getting ugly.
The best of this lot might be, surprisingly, Burnley. It used to be that Sean Dyche’s ability to get results defied all metrics, that they could put up terrible numbers and the Englishman was such a warlock that it wouldn’t matter. But right now, the numbers actually look good. The main thing that stands out is that they have the lowest xG per shot conceded in the league by a fair margin. The shot map shows it: even when you work the ball into dangerous areas against Burnley, your shots end up as cheap headers or situations with a lot of bodies in the way. And then there’s the rest. Really you can throw some of the above teams in there as well. Save for the top two, Chelsea (and maybe Manchester United, but that’s a whole article), and some things going on right at the bottom, everyone else falls into a state of nothingness. 12 teams fall into an xG difference range of +2 to -4, including Leicester, Arsenal and Tottenham. At this point a team like Crystal Palace is surely favoured to finish above, say, Southampton just through having amassed more points, not by playing better football. Considering most are in the range of 10-13 points, though, any have the possibility of either pushing on and challenging for a European place or getting sucked into the relegation fight. It’s really something that we’ll have a better sense of in the new year. But there could well be a team with perfectly decent metrics who end up kicking off in the Championship come August 2020.
So who looks really bad?
By xG difference, we’re looking at Norwich, Brighton, West Ham and Newcastle as the poorest sides. Brighton are the flip side of Leicester in that they’ve suffered two early red cards themselves. Strip those minutes out of the numbers and they look like a side well within the mulch, as their points tally would suggest. Norwich look around what anyone who has watched them would expect: a respectable league average attack met with the second worst defence. That kind of high variance style isn’t typically the way to stay in the Premier League, though if it leads to fewer draws, that might be the trick. We’re still talking something of a hurdle, granted. West Ham look fine by the table, but their numbers are so completely atrocious that they could easily drift down into a relegation fight if something doesn’t change. And there’s Newcastle. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone in Tyneside needs me to tell them that it’s just not good right now. Steve Bruce has coached a nearly nonexistent attack paired with a below average defence. Big money signing Joelinton remains an able striker when it comes to winning balls in the air, pressuring opponents and linking up well, but he seems like a terrible fit for a side who just want to punt it long to a target man, despite his size. He’s getting less than two shots per 90 and most of them poor quality headers. The new midfield pairing of brothers Sean and Matty Longstaff looks like it’s ready to challenge West Ham’s double pivot in prioritising passion and loving the club over things that help you win football matches. Sean seems to have a more varied game and offers more in possession while Matty, if we’re completely honest, would probably benefit in his development by staying at Newcastle if they play in the Championship next season. These two are both young enough that they could develop into real players, but for now, this is not a serious Premier League midfield. But what, you say, of the team that’s actually bottom of the table? Where are Watford in all of this? Well, in pure numbers terms, they look fine. An apocalyptically bad finishing run in attack sees them in this position. Just on points, they’ve dug themselves a hole that it could take a long time to work their way out of. But they can be fine if they trust in what they’re doing. It’s a strange sport. Header image courtesy of the Press Association