Ladies and gentlemen. It’s time. Well, nearly. The new Premier League season kicks off in just a few days, and there’s plenty to unpack ahead of it. Let’s get into all we have to look forward to in the 2022/23 season.
Expected Goal (xG) Performance, Premier League 2021/22
But first, we’ll quickly hark back to last season. Manchester City beat out Liverpool by just one point in a close title race in 2021/22, with both teams once again finishing well clear of the chasing pack. Was that disparity evident in the underlying numbers? The table here shows the expected goal difference for each team in red and their actual goal difference in blue – with penalties excluded from both.
- If any other team wants to break into the title race, they have a chasm to make up. This was the fifth season in a row that City finished at least 0.50 expected goals per game better than third place. Liverpool are the only team in that time to get close to them, and – in underlying terms – last season was the closest they’ve come yet, powered by the second-best Premier League attack we have in our data. Only Manchester City in 2019/20 created more xG over a season than Liverpool did in 2021/22.
- It was a successful first season at Crystal Palace for Patrick Vieira. He inherited a team with the 18th-best expected goal difference in 2020/21, and his coaching – along with some canny recruitment – saw them vastly improve in 2021/22 with underlying numbers that suggested they could easily have finished in the top half or better. In 12 months, Palace have transformed an ageing squad that was barely surviving relegation into one that’s young, vibrant, and thriving. It’s been an impressive turnaround.
- Brentford went about their business in typically efficient fashion, finishing midtable in their first Premier League season and never looking in danger of going down. They kept the 9th-best defence by expected goals conceded.
While Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp remain in town, it goes without saying that City and Liverpool will compete for the title yet again. Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel will be looking to close the gap, but what about Tottenham Hotspur under Antonio Conte?
Can Spurs challenge for the title under Antonio Conte?
If you want to get a sense of how far Tottenham have come in half a season, cast your mind back to last year when they’d just appointed Nuno Espírito Santo. Two seasons of José Mourinho had the Spurs fanbase longing evermore for the increasingly-distant memories of managerial beau Mauricio Pochettino and feeling like The Good Old Days had been and gone. Three months of Espírito Santo only heightened the malaise.
Enter Antonio Conte, and quite possibly the most distinct case of “Elite Manager Go Brrrr” we’ve ever seen on these shores.
A team that had lost its image was quickly whipped into shape to launch an assault on the table. Under Conte, Spurs went W17 D5 L6 in 28 games to qualify for the Champions League.
The Good Old Days may just be back.
That said, unlike during the Pochettino era, the current state of play in the Premier League dictates that even those standards may not be high enough to truly compete in the title race. Even in the 28-game sample in which Spurs were the third-best team in the league, they were still only that – the third-best team. Their +0.94 xGD per game under Conte was still lagging behind the +1.24 and +1.44 xGD per game that Liverpool and Manchester City* respectively put up over the same period.
*yes, even in smaller samples, the 0.50 goal forcefield for Manchester City seems to apply
But you never know. If Hugo Lloris can continue to perform in a season he turns 36; if Harry Kane can motor through a season that straddles a World Cup; and if Son Heung-Min can finish his chances ahead of xG for the eighth season running, then maybe, just maybe, Spurs do have a chance.
On-Ball Value: Where did Premier League teams create their threat on the pitch?
On-Ball Value (OBV) is our possession value model, a method of measuring the value of each action that took place on the pitch based on the positive or negative impact it had on a team’s likelihood of scoring (or conceding). This allows us to give credit to the most valuable actions in a possession chain – those that had the greatest impact on increasing a team’s chances of scoring – beyond the pass before the shot or the shot itself.
We can use OBV to assess where each team created the most value: which areas were they most dangerous to the opposition?
We can see:
- Tottenham had very little threat from their left flank. Perhaps this explains why Conte was keen to recruit trusted left wing back Ivan Perišić – a player with the 2nd-highest OBV per 90 minutes in Serie A last season – to add more thrust and creativity to that flank.
- The majority of Leeds’ threat came down the right-hand side. How will they cope with the loss of Raphinia this season?
- The teams most reliant on crosses – West Ham, Wolves and Everton –generated most of their attacking value from wide areas.
Let’s head across North London to look at one of the most eye-catching teams for how they create their value in possession.
Arsenal: The Middle Men
The Mikel Arteta era started showing signs of bearing fruit in 2021/22. A combination of tactical tweaks and young starlets beginning to come of age saw Arsenal make their strongest push for Champions League qualification for several seasons.
The Gunners’ approach in possession saw them emphasise the central channels when entering the final third, with Emile Smith-Rowe and Bukayo Saka given licence to come in off the flanks to overload the half spaces and combine with Martin Ødegaard to cut through opposition defences.
The signing of Fábio Vieira from FC Porto should only cement this approach. Whether the attacking midfielder rotates with Ødegaard or plays alongside him remains to be seen, but it’s clear how Vieira fits in with Arsenal’s style of play: only Lionel Messi played more Throughballs per 90 minutes (0.81) in the Big 6 leagues last season.
Fabio Vieira, FC Porto 2021/22
Vieira had the highest Open Play Assists per 90 (0.68) in the Primeira Liga last season, and only Lionel Messi played more Throughballs per 90 (0.81) in the Big 6 leagues #AFC pic.twitter.com/f6EgIvWH1E
— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) June 17, 2022
To illustrate the point further, here’s Vieira’s open play passes into the box compared with Arsenal’s leading creators last season.
Where do Premier League teams press?
We’ve looked at some aspects of the league’s play in possession. But what were they doing without the ball in 2021/22?
Don’t worry. We’ll get to Leeds.
- Despite the hiring of Ralf Rangnick, there was not much indication that he attempted or was able to implement a pressing game at Manchester United. We may have to be patient for Erik Ten Hag to get his complex pressing game drilled into the United players. After all, it also took Guardiola and Klopp at least one season before things started to click into place at City and Liverpool.
- Brentford and Burnley were happy to cede the wings in their defensive third to prioritise keeping bodies centrally to defend their penalty box.
- Manchester City’s evolution into a slightly less aggressive pressing side is visible here. And it’s worked: their xG Conceded and xG per Shot Conceded numbers have improved since the change.
Leeds United: Marsching On Together
It feels like the dawn of a new chapter at Leeds United.
Several key protagonists of the Bielsa era have departed the club: Bielsa himself, defensive midfield stalwart Kalvin Phillips, and space invader Raphinia.
So there’ll be a bit of a fresh look to Leeds this season, but one thing we can be sure will not change is the aggression that Leeds plays with out of possession.
For all the talk that Leeds’ players were suffering from Bielsa Burnout last season, Leeds started to press MORE after he was replaced by University of Red Bull graduate Jesse Marsch.
Only Norwich conceded more goals than Leeds in 2021/22, and the hope will be that Marsch’s zonal press – which he’s now had a full summer to implement – will be more structurally sound than Bielsa’s man-oriented approach. Improving defensively should be the first objective for Leeds’ season.
Line Breaking Passes
What’s a StatsBomb season preview without having fun with our latest metric?
Using our StatsBomb 360 data – freeze frame event data containing the location of all players in the frame around every event – we’re now able to identify when a pass has broken an opposition defensive line.
Here are the top line-breaking passers from 2021/22.
There’s a nice blend of centre backs, deeper-lying midfielders, and creative full backs here. But today, we’ll put some respect on a name that doesn’t often get lauded outside of his team’s fanbase.
Adam Webster: Making Progress
For several seasons now, Webster has shown up as one of the best centre backs in the Premier League for progressing the ball out of defence.
When Brighton signed the defender from Bristol City in 2019, the £20m fee raised some eyebrows, given it’s the kind of sum usually reserved for attacking players when recruiting from England’s second tier. However, Brighton recognised that the centre back would be perfect for Graham Potter’s system, and Webster’s performances since joining have justified the fee. Looking just at passes played from the defensive third, no other player made as many line-breaking passes from that area on a per 90 basis as Webster did last season.
Not only does he progress play from the back with his passing, but he’s also capable of carrying the ball out of defence. Webster regularly draws pressure and then plays through it with composure. He ranked sixth out of 70 centre backs with at least 900 minutes played last season for On-Ball Value added from dribble and carries. He struggled with injuries in the previous campaign but, with a full pre-season behind him, expect to see Adam Webster breaking lines in East Sussex again in 2022/23.
Erling Haaland – Borussia Dortmund to Manchester City
It’s impossible to talk transfers without discussing the transfer of Erling Haaland to Manchester City.
The arrival of one of the best young players in the world has been covered extensively. However, there’s still room to point out that Haaland has put up three of the five best goalscoring seasons by under-25 forwards in the last three seasons, measured by non-penalty goals per 90. He’s outperformed xG in those three seasons, but that will be no surprise to anyone who has ever watched the Norweigan strike a football.
There’s been some debate as to whether Haaland is a good tactical fit for this City team, but one imagines Guardiola and the City management have considered this extensively and have a game plan to get the best out of him. Perhaps more importantly, City add another younger piece to the puzzle.
Darwin Nunez – Benfica to Liverpool
Also retooling their attack to get younger are City’s close rivals Liverpool. In the last six months, the Reds have added Luis Díaz, Fabio Carvalho and now Darwin Núñez to their frontline to compete with Mo Salah, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino. It’s a stacked attack, and the succession planning and thought process that’s gone into it is evident.
Though players with differing profiles when examining the more nuanced aspects of their play, in blunt terms Núñez shares some key similarities with the departed Sadio Mané. They’re both forwards that play off the left but can also play centrally, they’re both capable in 1v1 duels, they both create for teammates, and they both get a lot of touches in the box and chances on goal.
Darwin Núñez vs. Sadio Mané 2021/22 Percentile Radar + Shot Maps
Proportion of shots from throughballs:
Núñez 13% – 15% Mané
Proportion of shots from crosses:
Núñez 20% – 21% Mané pic.twitter.com/L1exfiXsEx
— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) June 13, 2022
A notable difference between them is that Núñez was much less involved in Benfica’s build-up than Mané was with Liverpool’s, with 6% of Núñez’s touches being a shot compared to Mané’s 4%. Whether Liverpool plan to use Núñez as more of a single-minded goal outlet than Mané or coach him to adapt to their current style of play remains to be seen.
Cheick Doucouré– RC Lens to Crystal Palace
Cheick Doucouré looks like being yet another sensible pickup by Palace. The 22-year-old broke into the RC Lens team at 18 when they were still in Ligue 2 and has impressed in his two Ligue 1 campaigns since helping them to promotion.
Doucouré profiles as a destroying central midfielder that can also look after possession and play forwards. He’ll be the long-term successor to Cheikhou Kouyaté (32) and James McArthur (34) but also clearly has the potential to be a much better player than those two. Doucouré will likely feature heavily over the next few seasons as Palace look to build a side to establish themselves in the top half of the Premier League.
Dean Henderson – Manchester United to Nottingham Forest
Newly promoted Nottingham Forest have made no fewer than 11 first-team signings at the time of writing, as they waste no time preparing for their first Premier League season since 1998/99.
Perhaps the most crucial signature could be that of Dean Henderson from Manchester United. Unable to claim the #1 spot at United from David De Gea, Henderson again finds himself out on loan at a newly promoted side. Forest will be hoping he can repeat the heroics performed at Sheffield United in 2019/20 when he prevented 6.2 goals with his shot-stopping as he helped the Blades to a top-half finish.
Finally, we look at someone else joining us following promotion from the second tier.
Aleksandar Mitrović: Too good for the Championship
We welcome Fulham back to the Premier League again. Their Championship title win was a formality almost from the get-go, asserting dominance and superiority over the rest of the league from start to finish.
Aleksandar Mitrović’s contribution shouldn’t go unmentioned. Though he’s so far struggled to do it on the Premier League stage, last season he put it beyond doubt that he’s far too good for the Championship, breaking the second-tier record for the most goals scored in a season with 43(!) goals in 46 Championship games (37 excluding penalties).
The new season is nearly upon us. Strap yourselves in, enjoy it, and keep an eye out for the rest of our Big 5 league season previews over the next week or so.