Well, that certainly happened. UEFA’s decision to ban Manchester City from European competition for two seasons may well be overturned. It could be suspended. But for now, though, it appears that the fifth-place team in England will play Champions League football next year. This has really opened up the race for what is now the top five. Let’s look at how the contenders stand in this new paradigm.
They’re nearly there. Leicester are eleven points clear of Sheffield United in sixth place. It’s extremely likely that Champions League football will return to the King Power Stadium. The more reasonable question is whether the Foxes will just cruise through the rest of the season or make it look dicey. And they’ve spent the start of this calendar year trying to make it look dicey. As the xG trendline above shows, Leicester’s season so far can be broken into three sections. Back in the autumn, the Foxes were not playing great football, but finishing at both ends broke their way and they picked up some good results. Then in November and December, performances improved in a big way, even as they continued to get the bounce of the conversion rates. As I wrote at the time, “This is the form the Foxes need to put up a title challenge”. Of course this form was, as they say, temporary. The performances have now deteriorated to autumn levels, but this time the finishing gods aren’t quite on their side. This could all be moot, anyway. Leicester probably won’t need that many more points to qualify for the Champions League. Plan your European trips, Leicester fans, even if the team ends up merely limping across the finish line.
The biggest question for the Blues this season is how many times I can write “Chelsea are fine” before drop enough points that I lose all credibility. But again, Chelsea have been a good side all season, even if their finishing tells a different story. The Blues are all of two points clear of sixth, so they’re going to need to play their way into the Champions League. The good news is that they have the best numbers of any team in this race, with an expected goal difference per game closer to Liverpool than Leicester. Even when taking into account that goalkeeping is an issue, they’re still conceding more than the numbers imply. The bad news is that they’re really picking up injuries. Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic have all been nursing various niggles this season, and that’s a lot of attack to lose. N’Golo Kante has now picked up a knock, and he’s quite good at football. If I were to predict a team here to pick up a lot of points before the end of the season, it would be Chelsea. But at the same time, they’re going to need to hope those injuries clear up, as otherwise what looked like a promising season could blow up in their faces.
José’ a comin’. Since Mourinho’s arrival in November, Spurs have taken a strong 26 points from 14 games, putting them behind only Manchester City and Liverpool (by a large margin) over this period. Suddenly they’re right where they want to be in fifth place, although just a point ahead of Sheffield United. Spurs were a catastrophe at the end of Pochettino’s reign and Mourinho really has improved them. But has he improved them enough? Their xG difference per game since the new manager’s arrival is just +0.31, which is less than Chelsea, Southampton (!), Leicester and Wolves (as well as the top two). Spurs have lacked Harry Kane since New Year’s Day, but this hasn’t hurt the attack too much, with the xG created per game actually increasing in his absence. The problem now is with Son Heung-min out for the season, Tottenham are running rather thin on attackers. If Mourinho can rely on Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn and Erik Lamela behind Lucas Moura, it might be enough. With Giovani Lo Celso improving circulation of the ball through midfield, Spurs might be stumbling onto something, but it’s still hard to feel they’re at more than a toss-up for Champions League qualification.
Above Manchester United and they haven’t even had to beat xG that much to do it. Look, the Blades are good. What we’re asking here is at another level, however. The team’s success has been built on a solid defence, with their 1.15 xG conceded per game bettered in no small part due to Dean Henderson’s excellent form. An unimpressive 1.16 xG per game in attack can be forgiven considering where most of this squad were a year ago. I’d love to be proven wrong here, but it does seem like Chris Wilder is currently getting the absolute maximum out of these players. An almost dead even xG difference can be enough to power a side to a top-half finish at times, but to finish higher you do need a little more oomph. United will have to up their performance level to do it.
As joyless a phrase as it might be, you can’t outperform your xG forever. Each of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mourinho and Louis van Gaal had a period at Manchester United when they really crushed the metrics to earn themselves an extended stay, and each eventually saw things come back down to earth to push them out the door. As of right now, the Red Devils are chugging along, moderately under their xG, but as a football team that just kind of . . . exists. Apologies to Odion Ighalo, but the real question for the rest of United’s season is about what Bruno Fernandes can do. The very, very early returns are interesting. Fernandes is already beating every other United player not named Paul Pogba in deep progressions per 90. He’s also leading in shots per 90 with a horrific selection of locations. It’s extremely early days, but a month ago no one would have been surprised to see him produce this shot map. Solskjaer has coached a good defensive side, with their 0.97 xG conceded per 90 level with Liverpool. The problem has been the lack of any forward impetus in possession. If Fernandes can be that man and give this side a creative passing outlet, he could lead them into the Champions League.
It was a fun three weeks at the start of the season when people thought Wolves could go down. Now they’re pushing for a Champions League place. The way Wolves do it is with a mean defence built through a compact shape without the ball. Their 0.93 xG conceded per game is third-best in the division, above even Liverpool. This does come at a cost, and their 1.18 xG created is, as middling as middling can be, tenth best. This is part of why Adama Traore has been so effective: Wolves sit very deep to allow players like him space to run into. Because they’re not often seen by the opposition as a “big club”, they don’t have to deal with breaking down deep blocks as frequently as many of the other sides here. Wolves have performed very similarly to Manchester United this season, but it feels like there’s a little less upside for them. They know how they want to play and do it well, which leaves less room for sudden improvement. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side need to rely on teams above them stagnating to pull it off.
The good news is that the Toffees really have put in some big performances since Carlo Ancelotti arrived. The bad news is that the schedule has been a huge factor here. Of the eight games Everton have played under Ancelotti, seven were against sides currently in the bottom half of the table. And that’s all about to change. Of the remaining twelve fixtures, only three are against bottom-half teams. Shit’s about to get real. While the attack has sparkled, what worries is that the Italian’s defence has produced a mediocre 1.13 xG conceded so far, against well below average opposition. Against much stronger opponents, there’s a real risk that they could get carved open in a way they haven’t so far. Things really need to break Everton’s way for them to reach the Champions League.
Take the name “Arsenal” away from the club and they wouldn’t make the cut for this article. That’s where we’re at with the Gunners. Arenal are currently tenth in the Premier League, but what’s worse is they’re playing like it. Their xG difference per game of -0.01 is, well, you can figure out it’s very close to zero. Mikel Arteta has not substantively improved the performances, but he’s in it for the long term. The best thing for Arsenal’s relaunch might be a season completely out of Europe.