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How is the top four race looking?
Which English sides will qualify for the Champions League?
The conventional wisdom among “analytics people” is that you shouldn’t even look at the table and the numbers until ten games in. We’re now ten-ish games in. So can we take a look? Let’s go for it. We’ll assess the top four race right now, then later I’ll write an article looking at the other half of the table for the relegation fight. Now, working from the top of the league down, let’s look at the contenders and how they’re shaping up.
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It’s looking pretty good, isn’t it?
Man City have four points to make up on Arsenal, Tottenham have four, Chelsea have eight (with a game in hand), Man Utd 11 (game in hand), and Liverpool a massive 14 (game in hand). For Arsenal to fail to qualify, four of these teams have to make up the gap. Some of them can do it, but four of them? It would probably take something going seriously wrong at Arsenal.
FiveThirtyEight give the Gunners a 74% chance of making it, while the bookies are going higher at around 85%. Even if all the other teams do well for the rest of the season, Arsenal would have to start playing badly. As anyone who has watched them this season could tell you, that doesn’t look like it’s about to happen. The performances have matched the results, with Arsenal posting the second-best xG difference per game in the Premier League1. It’s all systems go for Arsenal. They have bigger ambitions than top four right now.
2. Manchester City
Come on. Don’t make me pretend this is going to be a close race. Next.
I don’t know what to make of Spurs sometimes. They have the fourth-fewest touches in the final third. But once they get it into those areas, they’re unbelievably clinical at creating chances. Their xG per final third touch is by far the best in the league. And then, to top it all off, they’ve been scoring about 37.5% above their xG.
Tottenham fans will argue a lot of this is about ability and playing style. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are specialists at fast counterattacks that produce high-quality chances from a small number of final third touches. And those players are very good finishers. But by this much? I think they’re going to have to start playing better to keep getting results at this clip. The league table is on their side, but I’m not totally sold on this team right now. FiveThirtyEight have Spurs at 51% to do it, while the betting markets are a bit more confident at about 63%. My gut is closer to FiveThirtyEight on this. I need Tottenham to put in some more dominant performances.
Graham Potter seems to have eased internal tensions, but the squad issues remain. N’Golo Kanté, Reece James and Wesley Fofana likely won’t play for Chelsea again until after the World Cup. They started the 2-0 win against Aston Villa (which was far from convincing) with Raheem Sterling at right wing-back and a midfield double pivot of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovačić. It’s unclear whether Denis Zakaria exists. They just look thin on the ground.
FiveThirtyEight have Chelsea at 52% to finish in the top four while the bookies are at roughly 58%. I think it could swing a lot based on how they get through the next few injury-riddled weeks. With five league games before the World Cup, if they can soldier on and get the results they need, I think they should be fine for the second half of the season as injuries clear up. They just need to hold it together right now.
5. Manchester United
After a disastrous first two games, Man Utd have solidly rebounded to look a decent, if far from perfect, side. They were getting results way over their xG for a minute there, but the football gods decided to bring them back down to earth recently. As it is, they’re the only team on this list with a negative expected goal difference. In their defence, they have played some tough fixtures, facing Liverpool, Arsenal, Man City and high flyers Newcastle in their first nine games.
It’s reminding me a lot of Graham Potter’s first season at Brighton. Potter clearly didn’t have the players for the football he wanted, and ended up in a halfway house between his ideas and the reality of his squad. Of course, things really got going for Potter the following year. Ten Hag can do the same, if he’s given the time and money to reshape the squad the way he wants. Don’t count them out, but I think this season might be a year too early for them. FiveThirtyEight only gives them a 24% chance, while the bookies are slightly better at 30%. Sorry, United fans, but that feels right to me.
Well, this is ahead of schedule. Newcastle continue their remarkable form this calendar year and sit all the way up the table, but some would argue they should be doing even better, with the third-best xG difference in the league. Eddie Howe has them pressing high, with the third largest percentage of pressures in the final third.2 But when they do get the ball, they're pretty direct, and have a below-average passing accuracy. It's fun. Yes, they've spent money, but not so much that this was expected straight away.
So how much do we believe Newcastle can stay at this level? I’m assuming the models out there are pricing in some kind of regression to last season’s average. FiveThirtyEight have Newcastle at just 10% while the bookies peg them at around the same. I’d maybe go a little bit higher, but it’s a long shot. Still, this might be the start of the top six just becoming the top seven.
Ok, I’m going to be blunt about this: Brighton will not finish in the top four, as well as they’ve done so far. After a home game tonight against Nottingham Forest, they will travel to Man City this weekend. After that, they’re facing Chelsea at home. Once those fixtures are done, I do not think Brighton will be seventh in the table. They’re having a great season, but they’re not really in this conversation.
How much do you believe in strong priors?
One version of this story is that Liverpool are still the second-best team in the country, recent results be damned. As such, we should expect them to pull it together and pick up enough points between now and the end of the season to make back the deficit. If Liverpool flicked a switch tomorrow and started picking up results at the same pace as last season, they’d end the campaign on 88 points, easily enough to finish in the top four. It wouldn’t be close.
But how much can you really believe that?
Liverpool have the second-highest xG per shot conceded in the Premier League, way up on last season. They’ve become victims of a leaky high press: it doesn’t give many chances up, but those chances are of brutal quality. Some of that might be down to individual defenders being out of form, though I’d argue the bulk of it stems from a lack of midfield control. Jürgen Klopp is trying to address this with the switch to a 4-4-2 shape, but is that more than a sticking plaster?
I’m optimistic Liverpool will improve, but that doesn’t mean the problems just go away. Injuries have been a big issue and will surely improve. Basic poor form you don’t expect from some individuals shouldn’t last. But where’s the “true level” between this season and last? That will determine where Liverpool finish. FiveThirtyEight have them at 70% to qualify for the Champions League, while the bookies are almost exactly in line with that. The models are clearly heavily pricing in a return to form.
My gut agrees with that. I don’t know shit at the end of the day. If you’re asking me for predictions, I’m just going to go with what the bookies think and say that the top four will be Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and then a very tight race between Tottenham and Chelsea. The bookies know more about predicting results than me.
My kind of poor man’s version of a defensive distance stat. The number of pressures in the final third divided by the total number of pressures. Every team does lots of pressures and I don’t like it as a proxy for “pressing”, but this feels like a shortcut to seeing how high up the pitch they’re taking place.