Week six of the Premier League is upon us. As we head into the weekend, here are six surprising stats from the season so far.
That’s Bournemouth’s expected goals per shot. It’s the highest mark in the Premier League. Eddie Howe has his team playing an entirely different attacking style so far this season, moving from back to front quickly, rather than trying to build possession methodically. The results have been a huge success. It’s still early and their strong start of ten points in four games might well be due to an easy schedule. Their wins came against Cardiff, West Ham, and Leicester and they picked up a draw against Everton. We’ll see if the newfound style lasts as they play against a more representative range of opponents. Regardless, managers rarely change style so dramatically year to year, so it’s notable to see just how differently Bournemouth are approaching the game this season.
The average distance of a Wolverhampton defensive action from their own goal is 41.27 yards. Only six teams in the Premier League defend closer to their own net on average. Wolves have been an extremely strong defensive team so far this season. Their expected goals conceded tally of 0.77 per game is the second best in the league, behind only Manchester City. They concede 11.40 shots per game, the seventh best total in the league, but only 0.07 xG per shot, tied (again with Manchester City) for the lowest xG per shot. Wolves, with their back three system have been incredibly difficult for teams to break down, and they do it largely by maintaining a disciplined tactical shape, not by pressuring the ball. Their defensive heatmap sure doesn’t look like the heatmap of a team which doesn’t give much away. Squint and you can just about see a team which funnels opponents to the sides and then pounces, it’s just that the actual pouncing happens fairly rarely. This approach is all the more surprising when you consider how they played last season. Wolves dominated the Championship. They were the most talented team, and they played like it. They kept the ball, and used the ball to create chances, break down opponents, and generally do the kind of incisive attacking things that good teams do to less talented ones. So, to see them deploying a more conservative defense this season, and doing it so well is interesting. It certainly speaks well of the team’s flexibility and their chances to end up solidly midtable this season.
Burnley are conceding 2.02 expected goals per match. That’s…that’s a lot of expected goals. It’s the third worst mark in the Premier League, behind only Fulham and West Ham. The success of the Sean Dyche warlock program was always built on being a roughly average defensive team with a bit of magic thrown in (combined with a lot of goal scoring from half chances at best on the attacking side of the ball). This is not that. This just looks like a bad defensive team performing badly. Burnley simply aren’t denying high quality chances in the same they did last year. They’ve already conceded seven shots with an expected goal value over 0.40 this year. Last year they gave up a total of 19. There are any numbers of reasons this might be happening. From Joe Hart taking over in goal, to the fact that they’ve had to open up to try and overcome deficits against sides like Fulham and West Ham, Burney’s path this season has thus far not been much more rocky than last. But, the bottom line is that the team’s defense is currently broken in boring and easy to see ways. They need to fix that before even beginning to worry about where the Dyche magic has gone.
Christian Benteke still hasn’t scored a goal. Benteke is supposed to be Crystal Palace’s target man, And he seems to be doing an effective job of it in every way but the way that matters. Last year he had a hellacious finishing season. He scored a grand total of two goals from open play on 57 shots, despite having an expected goal total of almost 9. For his struggles he was benched as Roy Hodgson went with an unconventional striker partnership of Wilfred Zaha and Andros Townsend down the stretch. Still, those numbers suggest that there was reason to believe Benteke would bounce back this season. And yet. This season is simply more of the same for Benteke. He’s putting up respectable numbers in almost every category. He’s taking 3.72 shots per 90 minutes, which is tied for eight in the league (among players with 180 minutes or more played). His xG per 90 of 0.53 sneaks him right in at the bottom of the Premier League’s top ten. He is comfortably his teams most potent attacking threat, leading Palace in total xG. But still, no goals. Coming off the heels of one horrible no good very bad finishing season, Benteke is hard at work on the sequel. He’s currently sidelined with a knee injury, and set to miss his second game in a row. When he returns, if the goals don’t start coming soon, there’s a real chance Hodgson won’t keep waiting for them.
Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has had limited run this season. He’s only been on the field for 270 minutes. But, in that time he’s been an absolute beast when it comes to progressing the ball. He’s averaging 13.30 deep progressions per 90 minutes. That’s second in the Premier League (again among players who have played over 180 minutes). He’s one of only three players in the top 20 who aren’t on a top six team. The others are Ruben Neves with 10.44 in ninth and Fulham’s Tom Cairney right at the bottom of the top 20 with 7.79. Højbjerg arrived at Southampton from Bayern Munich two seasons ago after never quite making the grade at the German super club. But, he’s still only 23 years old and should just be starting the prime of his career. It’s often difficult to assess exactly what creative passing midfielders can bring to a side, and in restrictive systems, like the ones deployed both by Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino, those skills can often be left to atrophy. If these progression numbers are real though, and through only five games that’s a big if, then Southampton have a midfielder they can build around. Southampton have had a mediocre start to the season with five points from five games, and things are about to get more difficult with matches against Liverpool and Chelsea in two of the next three weeks. This season may be a bumpy one, but if Højbjerg emerges as a true midfield maestro, there’s at least some reason for optimism.
Wonder winger Mohammed Salah is off to a great start to the season. He’s averaging 0.67 expected goals per 90, the fourth highest total in the league (for players with over 180 minutes) and he’s taking 4.64 shots, the fourth highest total in the league. Those numbers are both better than his totally from last year of 0.58 and 4.21. What’s changed is that Salah’s finishing through the first five games has been poorer, leaving him with only two goals. Last year Salah spent the season unable to miss. This year, even as his underlying numbers have gotten better, that’s been masked by more mediocre finishing. What’s scary for the rest of the league is that despite Salah’s shooting hiccup, Liverpool have been basically unstoppable. Imagine what might happen if his scoring catches up to his numbers.