Discover more from Grace on Football
Premier League Previews: Saturday Afternoon Fever
Bournemouth, Brighton, Palace, Leicester, Watford, West Ham and Wolves
More! Premier League! Football!
If you’re mainly here for the top six, Saturday’s games don’t offer a lot for you. But for everyone else, there’s plenty to dive into. Let’s preview some teams, shall we?
All stats are from Football Reference with data provided by StatsBomb, unless otherwise stated.
How were they doing before the crisis? Worse than you might think.
It feels like Bournemouth can’t go down just because they’re Bournemouth. They do the same thing every year and they’re a bit flakey but Eddie Howe has them comfortably safe. Rinse and repeat. And yet there are nine games left with the Cherries in the bottom three. It’s always been up and down for Bournemouth, getting their results in streaks, but they just haven’t gone on a good one this year. Only twice all season have they won two consecutive league games. The xG difference has them around the general mulch of bottom half sides, but that’s not much help right now when they don’t have the points on the board.
The target is then pretty obvious. The bookies imply there’s around a 55-58% chance of Bournemouth going down. It’s against them, but it’s tight. Howe has never coached a particularly good defence since the Cherries were promoted, so that probably won’t change. The attack looked really rough for a long time, with Callum Wilson barely getting a sniff in a lot of games, but things did look on the up there before the break. In Bournemouth’s last six games they’ve created a more pleasing 1.7 xG per game. That has to continue for Howe’s side to stay up.
One to watch: David Brooks. With Ryan Fraser on his way out, it looks like Brooks is returning just in time. Whether Bournemouth can slot him in on the left, when his natural game is about appearing to be in central areas but very much coming from the right, remains to be seen.
Brighton and Hove Albion
How were they doing before the crisis? Knee deep in a relegation scrap.
The good news is that Brighton are two points clear of the bottom three. The bad news is that five of the next six games are against Arsenal, Leicester, Man Utd, Liverpool and Man City (sorry, Norwich). Perplexingly, the bookies still remain fairly high on the Seagulls, having them with only around a 27% implied probability of going down. The reason is probably that Brighton really do look solid in the numbers, as an xG difference per game of -0.22 is better than Arsenal. Then again, they have a better goal difference than a lot of their rivals anyway at -8, but the distribution of goals seems to have been poor.
Not unlike Ralph Hasenhuttl at Southampton, Graham Potter has been implementing a very different style of football at Brighton that can take a long time to teach. What we’re seeing is why it’s so hard for clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League to make any serious long term plans. You can’t have a “transition year” if you’re Brighton. Liverpool, for example, had years of finishing seventh or eighth, but that was fine since that’s as far as Liverpool can fall. It’s obviously paying dividends now. For Brighton, a bad year is going down. It remains to be seen whether this is a bad year.
One to watch: Pascal Gross. It’s always him. Leads Brighton in progressive passes, passes into the box and xG assisted per 90. A pressing machine. If he had any pace, he’d be playing for a much bigger club than Brighton.
How were they doing before the crisis? They’ve done enough that they can just enjoy these games.
Palace are eleventh in the league table. They’re exactly one draw away from the mythical 40-point mark. They’re safe. Job done. The drinks are on Roy. It’s not exactly fun to watch, and the numbers don’t stand out too much, but dammit if he doesn’t get results. Just stick whoever you want out there and Hodgson will get them defending in a decent shape enough to earn 44 points. You could put Messi out there and it’ll still happen.
Unless. Palace are going to be absolutely fine this season and there’s almost no story to tell about them here. But the club are gradually getting older and older. Transfermarkt says the average age is 29.3, but it might be even worse than that. No one under the age of 27 has played 700 minutes this season. Hodgson does have a genuine skill for getting results with lesser talent, but there has to come a point eventually where you just can’t coach around players who can’t run anymore. The answer looked simple before: sell Wilfried Zaha for everything he’s worth and rebuild the squad wholesale. But with the market completely changing thanks to Covid, that might not be so easy.
One to watch: Come on. It’s Zaha. As I wrote last December, “Zaha is a zone mover. He’s really quite good at getting the ball into dangerous positions. What makes it complicated is that he’s the only player at Palace really progressing the ball at any real clip. As such, it might be forgivable that he doesn’t really take or create many shots”. He’s having to do it all himself in this dull team, and somehow he’s pulling it off.
How were they doing before the crisis? You’d say it’s the best season ever, if not for the fact that they had the actual best season ever a few years back.
He’s done it. Brendan Rodgers has gone and brought Champions League football back to the King Power Stadium. It’s all but certain now. They’ve had the rub of the green in some ways, scoring eleven more goals than xG would imply and conceding seven fewer, but they’ve also been pretty good. When they’ve been willing to take the handbrake off and let James Maddison and Youri Tielemans play together in midfield, they do some really enjoyable stuff in possession. Rodgers has long copied (or if you’re being harsh, stolen) tactics from whoever is doing well at the moment, and this team often feel like a budget Manchester City.
A few good results and Champions League qualification should be in the bag. Beyond that, we might expect Rodgers to continue to bring in some new tactical ideas and freshen up the side a little before next season.
One to watch: Harvey Barnes. Worth about half an expected goal or assist per 90, he’s blossoming into a really talented wide forward. England should probably come knocking soon enough.
How were they doing before the crisis? Significantly better results, but still in it.
I’ll start this with a confession: I was wrong about Nigel Pearson at Watford. There really has been a turnaround from a side that looked gone before Christmas. Their xG difference per game since the manager’s arrival of -0.05 looks like that of a solid midtable outfit. They really might just be a solid football team. Not that interesting, granted, but good enough to stay up.
It’s really not a done thing, though. Watford are on the same number of points as Bournemouth in 18th. The bookies are in their corner, giving them only about a 28-30% implied probability of the drop. All of Pearson’s wins have come when the Hornets had less than 50% possession, which tells its own story. Watford tend to be better running into space with the threat of Ismaila Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu. With the first game coming against possession-loving Leicester, another match like the win over Liverpool will surely be the model here. I think it will be close, but Watford have a really good chance of staying up.
One to watch: Ismaila Sarr. His dribbling threat has never really been questioned, but he looks like he’s adding some good shots to this as well. He should add to his five goals this season.
How were they doing before the crisis? Come on, feel the Moyes.
Again, they’re in the relegation mulch. Again, they’ve turned to David Moyes to get them out of it. Again, it’s not much fun to watch, but that was a given. What matters is whether it will work. Five points from his nine games in charge before lockdown suggests it hasn’t so far. An xG difference per game in his brief time in charge of -0.86 is abysmal, though there were some tough fixtures in there. It doesn’t really get any easier in the short term, with the next three coming against Wolves, Tottenham and Chelsea.
We all know how Moyes will approach these last nine games. They’ll sit deep, they’ll try to become a compact side, playing low variance games and getting some results along the way. It’ll be very boring. Key question is whether the midfield can protect the back four as much as Moyes would like. Declan Rice is reasonable enough, and to have played this much Premier League football at age 21 is impressive, but he’s not exactly all action. He needs someone high energy to compliment him, and too often he’s had a 75 year old Mark Noble. Tomas Soucek was brought in to fix this, but we just haven’t really seen whether he’s capable of doing it. He might not even have his loan extended until the end of the season. No midfield solidity, no Premier League survival.
One to watch: Christ, this is hard. Let’s go with Felipe Anderson. He’s one of the players on this squad who you’d actually enjoy watching, much as Moyes will thus leave him on the bench.
How were they doing before the crisis? There’s only one Jorge Mendes.
Wolves are good. Really good. People keep thinking they’re not good, but nope, they’re just a legit football team. Seventh in the league is great for a team playing Championship football two years ago, but it’s not their ceiling. They have the numbers to back their position up, with an xG difference per game of +0.38 the sixth best in the top flight. If Man City’s ban is upheld, Champions League qualification should be a real target. It’s still a tough ask, but there’s no reason why they can’t make a push for it.
As well as it works, Nuno Espirito Santo’s style probably does put a bit of a cap on what Wolves can do. I understand bad things might happen if Conor Coady was consistently getting exposed 1v1, and the solidity has been a real strength, but it’s not always the best option as they add more quality. But more of the same should guide them to the Europa League places.
One to watch: Adama Traore. He’s added a bit to his best-in-the-world ability to run past people. He’ll never be as good as he is fun to watch, but he’s quite good at this point.