What a difference a month makes. The opening third of the season saw growing excitement that, for the first time in several years, we might have a three-way title race on our hands. Chelsea in third were following hot on the heels of the ever-present Liverpool and leaders Manchester City. Just four points separated the three teams. Then Christmas happened.
Such is the strength at the top of the Premier League these days that just a couple of trips or stumbles can see you lose pace with whoever’s steaming out in front. Just four games were all it took for both Chelsea and Liverpool to fall away as City increased their consecutive winning streak to 11 matches, taking 12 points over Christmas where Chelsea could only manage six and Liverpool two.
Looking at the table through the prism of expected goals would tell that you that, in all likelihood, City were always likely to pull away, possibly with Liverpool close by their side.
City’s ten point lead at the top of the table already looks insurmountable. We’ve all gotten used to the sight of Pep shifting them into fifth gear at this time of the season and ready to pull away in the home straight, and now even a 100% record from Chelsea or Liverpool may not be enough to overcome them. How many points will City drop between now and May? More than ten? I doubt you’d find many takers at that line.
With just under half of the season still to play, it’s interesting to benchmark them against previous iterations of the team in the Guardiola era to get a sense of what they might achieve this season.
The 2021/22 edition of Pep’s Manchester City is right up there with… *checks notes*… the 2017/18 edition of Pep’s Manchester City. Ominously for their title rivals, City this season have the most points after 21 games since 2017/18. Their current pace would see them finish on 96 points – the 5th highest total in Premier League history. But the standards this team are setting could see them go better on that tally if they maintain current standards and have a gentle breeze from the Winds Of Variance to carry them on their way.
One thing’s for sure, as things stand City have an easier task of maintaining their standards than Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp’s men were on course to record the best attacking numbers in all StatsBomb Premier League data, a non-penalty expected goals (xG) rate of 2.37 per 90 has so far eclipsed the current best 2.24 xG per 90 that Manchester City managed in 2019/20. The loss of not one but two of the Premier League’s best attackers in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to the African Cup of Nations, plus a problematic winter with injuries and illness, mean they’d do incredibly well to sustain that threat through to the end of the season.
The January absence of Salah and Mané has at least been softened by the emergence of Diogo Jota as a truly elite Premier League attacker. 2020/21 was a disrupted season for Jota, but he’s built upon that with some searing form as the central forward this season and a huge contributor to the league’s best attack.
Unfortunately, therein may lie another issue. Will he be able to keep up that production level with Roberto Firmino coming back into the side through the middle, shifting Jota out to the left? It could work, but Klopp’s having to change a winning formula here.
Chelsea find themselves in the uncomfortably familiar territory of being the third-best side in the league–a cut above what lies below them, but looking not quite at the level of the two teams above them.
Thomas Tuchel has improved the Blues since taking over from Frank Lampard, but Chelsea stakeholders may feel disappointed that he’s been unable to improve further on the initial uptick they experienced when he came in midway through last season.
Chelsea’s metrics are by and large at the same level in both attack and defence as they were in the backend of last season, which won’t be enough to sustain a title challenge in future seasons if Manchester City and Liverpool continue to set the standards that they are. Despite that, Chelsea do remain in a genuine race for 2nd-place, with circumstances around Liverpool’s player availability leaving the door ajar for Chelsea to finish the season more strongly than their rivals.
Below the Big Three is where we find the most exciting portion of the table, with a real scramble for fourth developing between the best of the rest. If we take games against the top three sides out of the equation, we can evaluate how the league has performed against one another in a mini-league containing slightly more competitive balance.
It’s taken a couple of seasons, but the retooling of the squad and patience with Mikel Arteta is finally starting to bear some fruit for Arsenal.
They top this league, but the Gunners have routinely struggled against the bigger sides in Arteta’s tenure. Indeed, their recent fixture versus Manchester City was only the first time they’d conceded under 1.0 xG in 14 fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, and City stretching back to 2019. Just this season, they’ve created 1.8 xG and conceded 12.0 xG in their four fixtures against them. As the team develops, they’ll need to learn how to prevent the washouts against more talented opponents, but there are clear signs this season that Arsenal are improving. That they’ve flourished against weaker opposition offers hope that they could get Champions League football again for the first time since 2016/17.
More encouraging is the age profile of the squad. Seven of their eight most used players are aged 24 or under at the end of this season. The team is gradually moving into their early peak years, and the results are beginning to show.
Should they keep the squad together and recruit efficiently, it stands to reason that the team will improve as a collective through experience and development. It’s common for teams to have a supply line of players that develop and improve to eventually take up more first-team minutes, but having a significant portion of the XI developing simultaneously has unsurprisingly led to inconsistent results at first, but we’re now seeing the first glimpses of what the upside of it looks like. The team could yet get even younger next season too if they bring in youthful legs to replace Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
Arsenal are in pole position to gain Champions League football right now, but mentioning that topic dictates that we shift our gaze across North London. The early signs suggest Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur will be a much stronger side in the second half of the season.
Comparing the metrics between Conte’s first eight games and Nuno Espírito Santo’s ten-game tenure at the start of the season shows a stark difference.
Sample size, schedule quirks and opposition red cards mean it’s too early to know the full extent of the uptick. But vastly improved early performances give us good reason to believe Tottenham will be well in contention to reclaim Champions League football of their own.
Around the rest of the league, we have to take a minute to talk about Crystal Palace.
Palace’s situation was one of the most discussed topics ahead of last summer, as observers anticipated what would happen when Roy Hodgson’s contract ran down at the same time as a significant proportion of the playing squad’s contracts too.
You didn’t need a good imagination to envisage how high squad turnover + new manager + new playing style + poor metrics could equal a downturn that Palace could scarcely afford, but Patrick Vieira has managed the transition impressively smoothly. What was one of the oldest squads in the league scrapping for survival in an organised block has now transitioned into one with several promising talents playing a more ‘modern’ brand of football.
In contrast to last season, Palace are now playing out from the goalkeeper, making just shy of 100 more passes per game, entering the final third five more times per game, taking 2.5 more shots per match, and shooting from much closer to goal (their average shot distance this season is 3rd in the league). All of this equates to them adding 0.36 expected goals per game to their attack, which itself equates to ~14 more expected goals over a full season.
Out of possession, they’re pressing more aggressively, conceding just shy of 100 fewer passes per game, allowing the opposition to enter their defensive third ~20% less often, conceding 1.5 fewer shots per game, and forcing the opponent to shoot from roughly ~1m further out. All of this equates to them shaving 0.34 expected goals per game off their defence, which itself equates to ~13 fewer expected goals over a full season.
It’s been a complete overhaul of the team’s playing style both in and out of possession from Vieira and it’s come together more quickly than anyone could have reasonably expected given the circumstances. For that, Vieira deserves a lot of credit.
One suspects that this change in approach was emphasised to their new signings when pitching the move in the summer, convincing talents such as Michael Olise, Marc Guéhi, and Conor Gallagher to join on the basis that they’d flourish in a system suited to their technical ability. Gallagher in particular has thrived, and is establishing himself as an impressive two-way midfielder at Premier League level after a series of loans in the EFL. On the first half of the season’s showing, he already looks ready to compete for a spot in Chelsea’s engine in 2022/23.
Towards the bottom, it’ll be three from four with Norwich, Newcastle, Burnley and Watford cut adrift at the foot of the table. The points return from the group has been so low that even a single solitary win looks hard to come by at the moment: their collective form over the Christmas period reads P24 W1 D6 L17.
Though it hasn’t translated to results yet, Norwich appear to have stabilised after the stomach-turning set of opening fixtures against Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Arsenal. History seemed to be repeating itself under Daniel Farke, having gained promotion to the Premier League a second time but struggling to acclimatise at this level. Dean Smith was swiftly parachuted in following his ejection from Aston Villa, and Norwich’s underlying metrics in his tenure are much more palatable, albeit from a slightly softer set of fixtures.
Smith should have a pretty clear task at the top of his to-do list if he’s to keep Norwich in the Premier League. Get them scoring.
Six goals from 16 expected is one of the biggest underperformances across Europe in the 2021/22 season. When sorting the 654 teams in our database of European leagues by how much they’ve over/underperformed their expected numbers in attack, Norwich’s underperformance of ~ten goals ranks 646/654*. They’ve also conceded ~six more goals than expected in defence. A repeat of that at both ends in the second half of the season and they’ve no chance.
As for Watford? Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.
The bad news is that their 1.83 xG conceded per game is on course to be a record high in our Premier League data stretching back to 2015/16 (refer to the scatter seen earlier in the article and seek out the lonely blue circle furthest left).
The good news? Emmanuel Dennis. Our On-Ball Value (OBV) model objectively and quantitatively measures the value of each event on the pitch to identify players that consistently add value to their team (or, equally, detract value) and which of their actions are adding the value.
Dennis has been Watford’s standout player this season and OBV ranks him as one of the best players at adding value with his actions in the league–the Nigerian is behind just six players for OBV added per 90 minutes. His dribbling and ball carrying have consistently been a critical outlet to Watford, but it’s his shooting where he’s added the most value, due primarily to converting 4.3 xG into 7.2 post-shot xG (which takes into account shot placement), which has converted into eight goals. Having a player that can maximise the chances created for them can be the difference between retaining your Premier League status and losing it, and Dennis has undoubtedly been doing his bit for Watford’s survival bid.
Finally, there’s one more matter to address before we wrap up. Nutmegs.
Here’s the 2021/22 Nutmegger and Nutmeggee leaderboards. Use the information wisely, and enjoy the rest of the season.
*LASK in Austria are 654th having scored ~12 goals behind expectation. I know you were wondering.
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