Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Anatomy of the EPL Season So Far

It has been one of the most riveting and unpredictable of seasons in the history of the Barclay’s Premier League, with a mere eight games to go until we crown a new champion, find out the three teams that will be joining them in the Champions League, the two to three that will be going to the less-glamorous Europa League and the unlucky three that will be relegated. The only certainties at this point appear to be that Chelsea will not repeat as champions, Manuel Pelligrini will not be at the helm come May, Aston Villa are going down and Klopp will be jumping up and down and running around the pitch, win or lose. Some interesting trends have developed since August, though, and I thought I would share some of them here …

The Top 6 Form Table
If Leicester do go on to win the table, it is clear both Arsenal and Man City will see this as a great opportunity lost.  But who do they have to blame for their failed seasons? In the case of City, it is their inability to perform in the biggest league games, with an incredible 0-3-6 record against the Top 6 so far this season and only one win against the current top 9. Arsenal, on the other hand, actually lead the table of games against the top six (8 played, 14 points, 4-2-2), followed by Tottenham (9 played, 12 points, 3-3-3), Leicester (8, 12, 3-3-2), United (7, 12, 3-3-1), West Ham (7, 11, 3-2-2) and City (9, 3, 0-3-6). Worth noting, Arsenal are the only team to take maximum points from the leaders and United could take the lead in the table when they hit the eight games most of the others have played. West Ham, who have been swinging above their weight for most of the season, could also draw even with Arsenal with their next Top 6 showdown. Looking at the mini-table, however, one can see that Arsenal should be right in the running for the title and have instead dropped points against lesser sides this season that have cost them dearly (including 5 to Southampton, 6 to Chelsea, 2 to Norwich and 3 to lowly Swansea at home).

Road Rules
Home teams usually win at a higher percentage, given the home crowd, attacking football and the pressure placed on road teams. That has not been the case this season, as away teams have faired quite well, possibly a result of the rise of counterattacking football as the most effective strategy for most teams. Even Arsenal appear to play better on the counter and have won as many games at home (8) as they have on the road (8). Overall, there have been 120 home wins, 101 away wins and 82 draws. Leicester have actually won more games away from home (10) than at the King Power Stadium (9) and so have Everton (absolutely abysmal at home), Liverpool and Crystal Palace (though they are having trouble at home and away since the turn of the new year). To round it off, no team has been undefeated at home and no team has failed to win away. Could this be a long-term shift or is a one-off? We’ll have to wait and see, but it does call into question the idea of possession winning football matches as Barcelona did not so long ago.

City Struggles
City looked like the odds on favorite to win the title this season, particularly after Chelsea’s horrific start. And yet they continue to confound with their inconsistent and uninspired play. They did win the first trophy of the season (the League Cup on penalties) and are through the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time, but that papers over their relatively terrible league form this year, particularly since Pep Guardiola was formally announced as the manager that would take over this summer (they went from a record of 23-5-8 (63.9 WP) before the announcement to 3-3-5 (27.3 WP) since, in all competitions). Among the damning statistics for the side: 1. They have lost five home league games already this season, as many as their four previous campaigns combined, 2. Their once potent offense has been held scoreless in 8 games this year, after only three last term, four the year before, six in 12-13 and 5 in 11-12. 3. Only Aston Villa players have covered less ground over the course of a game this season than Man City. 4. Man City have 10 less points than they did at this stage last season. That would still not be enough to lead the table at this point, but beyond injuries, one does wonder what happened to a team that seemed to strengthen in the offseason. By the way, their crosstown rivals have nine less points, courtesy of their derby win on Sunday.

Running Wild
Looking at the teams that have covered the most ground per game can be both an indicator of a successful strategy or an indicator of constantly chasing the ball. The team that has run the most kilometers per game is Bournemouth (72.8), followed by Tottenham (72.1), Liverpool and Klopp’s gegenpress (69.8), West Brom (69.7) and Manchester United (69.2). West Ham, Arsenal and then Leicester follow, but from the bottom up we find Aston Villa (65), City (66.7), Stoke City (67) and Chelsea (67.2). Stoke City have actually played quite well this season, and Bournemouth is closer to the bottom than the top of the table, but it does seem to say something about the hunger of Chelsea and City that they are in the basement in this category, exemplifying the sense that the players are not putting in the effort necessary to win.

Chokers versus the Cardiac Kids
Champions find ways to win games when the chips or down or they are off their best while the also-rans tend to drop points that seem secured. As to the latter, Liverpool leads the charge this year having dropped 15 points from winning positions, including the 2-0 lead they ceded to West Ham last weekend. Next on the list are Chelsea, Everton and Swansea City (14), then Crystal, Southampton, Sunderland and Tottenham (13), Arsenal, Leicester and Newcastle (12). The team that has dropped the fewest, surprisingly, is Manchester City (a mere 3). On the flip side, Tottenham erases those 13 lost points by claiming the most from a losing position by far (18). The overachieving Hammers are second (12), followed by Leicester (11), Liverpool (11), Swansea City (11), Southampton (10) and Arsenal and West Brom (9 apiece). Among the others, Chelsea have hit back for 8, Everton for 7, City for 7 and United for a mere 4. As one can see, for many teams the two cancel each other out, though a few trends do seem to emerge: 1. For the second year running, Tottenham are a hard team to put away and can hit you late on, 2. The three most surprising teams in the league lead in comeback points (Tottenham, West Ham and Leicester), 3. City seem to win or lose based predominantly on who scores first, 4. Many of the teams struggling toward the bottom of the table find it hard to come back in games, including Watford, Norwich and Aston Villa, though United are also devoid of the rousing spirit that once colored their fans red (only 4 points from losing positions all year).

Striking Gold
Teams that end up at the top of the table almost always have a scorer of at least 20-goals. With plenty of games to play, only one striker has reached the 20-goal mark in the league (Kane on 21), though several others are closing in on that rubicon. The currently leaders in the golden boot race are Kane (21), Vardy (19), Lukaku (18), Aguero (16), Mahrez (16), Ighalo (14), Giroud (12) and, impressively in less than a full season, Defoe (12). Costa has fallen to 11 goals while impressive Stoke winger Arnautovic has chipped in 10 and Watford’s striking partner Deeney 9. A few other noteworthy numbers include Wijnaldum’s 9 from the wing, Payet’s 8 from the #10 and Ross Barkley finally living up to his potential with 8. One might also mention the measly return of 7 goals Liverpool have received for their 32.5-million-pound investment in Benteke. Arsenal might look back on their failure this season as resulting from a poor conversion rate (they create the most opportunities in the league) and the fact they lack the threat through the middle that the top teams in Europe always have (particularly as most of us screamed for Wenger to buy a world-class striker this past summer!).

The Creators

Mesut Ozil has had a breakout year and is closing in on the league record (he only needs three more, as he currently sits on 18). However, he could be in another galaxy if the corps of strikers in front of him finished more of the chances created. Almost as impressive, however, is the dual threat Riyad Mahrez, who has 11 league assists to go with his 16 goals. Silva is third with 10, surprising given how poor his form appears to be in recent months. From there we can add the impressive emergence of Dele Alli (9), De Bruyne (9, even as he has been out for months), Ericksen (8), the Barca product Deulofeu (8) and Firmino (7).

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