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That’s our first full Premier League season done at No Grass in the Clouds. (We started about midway through the 18-19 campaign.) That means it’s also the first season for which we have my preseason predictions. I predicted the full table -- one through 20 -- back in August, so let’s take a look back at what I got wrong, what I got right, and what the hell happened with West Ham.
1. Liverpool (Prediction: 2)
2. Manchester City (Prediction: 1)
Given that Liverpool made no real external upgrades last offseason -- save for the addition of Adrian as backup keeper -- it seemed logical to predict that Liverpool would finish behind Manchester City, given that their goal- and shot-creation wasn’t quite at Pep Guardiola and Co’s level last season. Well, the latter remained true: Liverpool produced a goal differential of plus-52 and an expected GD of plus-29.5 (per FBRef), while City were up at plus-67 and plus-56.1. In other words, Liverpool’s goal differential declined by 15 goals, and yet they won two more points, while City’s dropped off by five and their points haul declined by 17.
Here’s the last two years of Premier League play, combined:
Pretty much everyone is bunched around the line, except for these two. Liverpool have been wildly efficient at turning goals into points, while City have gone the opposite way. I feel pretty confident in saying there are reasons behind this: Liverpool are amazing at set pieces and play both a unique defensive and attacking style, while City’s defense gives up super-high-quality chances that are more likely to turn into goals and they do seem to completely demoralize teams and pour on the goals in already-decided games in a way Liverpool do not. However, I stand by this prediction because I wouldn’t have felt confident in suggesting this kind of over- and under-performance would happen this year, and I don’t feel confident in saying it’ll happen again next year, either.
3. Manchester United (Prediction: 4)
4. Chelsea (Prediction: 5)
5. Leicester City (Prediction: 8)
6. Tottenham (Prediction: 3)
7. Wolverhampton (Prediction: 6)
8. Arsenal (Prediction: 7)
Let’s start with the ones I got “right”. We’re talking “spirit of the law” here, OK people? I had Manchester United finishing top-four: bingo. I had Wolverhampton finishing ahead of at least one Big Six side: yep. And I had Arsenal falling out of the Top Six: uh huh.
The funny part about United’s season is that they actually underperformed their preseason betting-market projection. They finished a spot higher than Sporting Index projected, but they took three fewer points. Not a great year outside the top two. Fact of the matter is, though, that United have been a pretty good team ever since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over. Over that stretch, they’ve won the third-most points in the league: 106 in 59 matches. The Bruno Fernandes Effect is a bit overblown; their xG differential barely budged after they signed him. They’ve just been a relatively competent team since axing Jose Mourinho; whether that equals success for the richest club in England is another question for another time.
As for Wolves and Arsenal: I was skeptical of Wolverhampton’s ability to, simply, score enough goals to get enough points to finish top four, and that was broadly correct. They conceded the fewest xG in the league, per FBRef, but they created just the ninth-most. And with Arsenal, well, the betting-market projection just didn’t seem to make much sense. They were projected to finish fifth on 68 points. That was two points fewer than the previous season despite plenty of expensive offseason additions, but those offseason additions didn’t address the team’s true weakness (giving up goals), and that projection didn’t seem to account for the fact that Arsenal just really weren’t as good as their points suggested last year. In 2018-19, they finished with the 10th-best xG differential in the league. In 2019-20, they finished with the 12th-best xG differential in the league. This team just still isn’t very good.
Now for the wrong ones. I missed Chelsea by just one spot in the table, and I had them higher than the betting markets, but I can’t claim this in good faith. Here’s what I wrote before the season:
Will they ... ever score? Assuming a league-average level of competence for new manager Frank Lampard, the defense should be really good once again, but of the top 10 players in non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes from last year’s team, just half of them will be with the team this year, three of those five will be 30-or-older when the season starts, and the other two are midfielders.
Yikes! Chelsea scored six more goals this season than last, and Chelsea allowed 15 more goals this season than last. Their goal differential was significantly worse -- from plus-24, down to plus-15 -- but the xG went the other way: plus-30.2, compared to plus-23.1 the year before. The guys at the Double Pivot podcast like to call Frank Lampard a “soccer pervert”; he wants to shove as many attackers onto the field no matter what anyone thinks and no matter how destabilizing it is to their defensie structure. The defense, though, wasn’t that much worse than last year -- about a four xG increase. Most of the drop-off comes down to their keeper, Kepa, who, well, uh, yeah. I just feel bad for him at this point:
Tottenham, meanwhile, missed their betting-market mark by a whopping 14 points. They came into the season as what seemed like the clear third-best team in the league. Here’s me:
With the arrival of two already excellent and potentially elite 23-and-under central midfielders (Tanguy N’Dombele from Lyon and Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis) to turn a weak spot into a source of strength, I think they improved more in both the near- and distant-future than any team in Europe this summer.
Neither one made more than 15 Premier League starts this year, and most of that is down to manager preference, not injury. Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks -- the aforementioned “weak spot” -- were Spurs’s most-used midfielders this season. Out of all 20, I think I’m most disappointed in this prediction. I got swayed by their Champions League run, and I really shouldn’t have. Spurs only had the fifth-best xG differential in the league last year -- behind Wolves, United, and Chelsea -- and they ended up finishing sixth this year. They were way worse this year -- under both Mauricio Pochettino and Mourinho -- but I shouldn’t have been as high on them before the season as I was.
The opposite probably applied to Leicester City. Yes, finishing fifth is a historic collapse -- the second in manager Brendan Roders’s career -- given where this team was back in February and March. But fifth is also an incredible success, given where they were before the season began. They beat their projections by seven points and finished three spots higher in the table. The Foxes had the seventh-best xG differential in the league last season, and they were fifth-best after Rodgers was hired last February. Plus, they always had a higher ceiling than Wolves because of their ability to, you know, put the ball into the goal frame using anything other than their hands.
9. Sheffield United (Prediction: 17)
10. Burnley (Prediction: 16)
11. Everton (Prediction: 9)
12. Southampton (Prediction: 11)
I was eight spots off, but I’m still gonna take a sad victory lap for my Sheffield prediction. They were the betting favorites to finish last and just about every preseason prediction I saw had them getting relegated. Well, everyone ignored the golden rule: promoted teams with good defenses are the ones who tend to stay up. Although Sheffield didn’t have the panasch of Norwich or the pockets of Villa, they gave up the fewest goals in the Championship last season, and that’s why I picked ‘em to survive. Looking ahead to next year, Leeds United fans should feel pretty good for the same reason.
I’ll take a W on Southampton, too. One spot off, and I already see myself being bullish on them next season. Ralph Hassenhuttl is fantastic, and Danny Ings finally had his breakout.
Burnley, I ... don’t know what to say. After years of allowing a ton of great shots and not creating many for themselves but still somehow managing to win a not-insignificant amount of points, they’ve now had worse actual goal differentials than expected goal differentials in each of the past two seasons. Last year, that meant near-relegation. This year, that meant ... a 10th-place finish? Sean Dyche is a legitimately good manager with warlock-ian tendencies who barely added any new players and somehow got a not-young side to take a huge internal leap. Can’t feel too bad about whiffing on that one.
As for Everton, I wasn’t too far off, but I also expected them to be on the outskirts of a top-six battle. Instead, they missed their betting-market projection by seven points. My folly, once again, was this: “I love the offseason additions of proven-ish young talent with clear, useful skills in Alex Iwobi and Moise Kean ... “ One lesson to take away from this exercise: Don’t expect offseason additions to make a huge impact.
13. Newcastle (Prediction: 18)
14. Crystal Palace (Prediction: 15)
15. Brighton (Prediction: 13)
OK, OK. Newcastle was a big whiff, and perhaps I underestimated Steve Bruce’s managerial ability here. The thinking was that a great manager, Rafa Benitez, had consistently driven an uninspiring, never-upgraded group of players to consistent mid-table finishes. And without him, they would then slinky down the table. Yet, the Magpies finished in the exact same spot and with only one fewer point than last year. However, the underlying signs? They’re not great! Newcastle had the second-worst xG differential in the league, and their average win-probability (their likelihood of winning any match this season at any time, on average) per Stats Perform was tied for second-worst.
Tied with? Palace! While Roy Hodgson’s side looked a little better under the hood than Newcastle, they pulled a ton of results out of their asses, too. Palace and Newcastle both fall into an undesirable camp: Teams that were never likely to win a given match, managed to win more points than you’d expect (teams below the line in the graph), and yet still ended up with a below-average number of points. Lucky and still pretty bad isn’t the Venn diagram you wanna be sitting in.
On top of that, among the 100 most-valuable clubs in the world, Palace have the second-oldest average age behind only Juventus, who at least won the league. Palace finished 14th. The future isn’t looking too bright for Hodgson or Bruce.
I’ll count Brighton as victory. (I make the rules here!) I thought they’d be a decent side under Graham Potter -- a fresh, forward-thinking manager to replace the relatively conservative Chris Houghton. They were supposed to be in a relegation fight all year, and they finished the season seven points clear of danger. Plus, their xG differential matches up exactly with where I picked them: 13th-best.
16. West Ham (Prediction: 10)
17. Aston Villa (Prediction: 20)
18. Bournemouth (Prediction: 11)
19. Watford (Prediction: 14)
With West Ham, the trend continues. They signed players I really liked -- Sebastien Haller, in particular -- so I was more bullish on them than I should’ve been. They were bad in the second half of last season, and that didn’t really change this year despite their new players.
Their color-way compatriots, Villa, were the opposite. Here’s what I wrote before the season:
Bettors have Villa pegged to finish 15th, and I assume it’s because they spent a ton of money this summer, but other than the addition of keeper Tom Heaton from Burnley, I’m not confident that any of the other moves they made -- mainly from lower-quality leagues with unclear performance exchange rates -- will make the team better. With an average-at-best Championship defense and a departed leading scorer who was on loan from a Champions League team, they seem like the platonic ideal of the right-back-down relegation team.
Congrats to Villa on their great escape; they really did improve after the break. But they also probably don’t stay up if either A) the hawkeye system doesn’t malfunction for the first-time ever in their game against Sheffield, or B) either Watford or Bournemouth manages to step on just one fewer rake at some point over the past 10 months.
Villa had the worst xG differential in the league -- minus-26.2 -- but it matched up almost exactly with their actual differential of minus-26. Bournemouth and Watford, meanwhile, weren’t even in the bottom five for xG differential, but they ended up with the fourth- and second-worst goal differentials. Yet while they were both somewhat unlucky to be relegated, I got them both wrong, too.
With Bournemouth, it really seems like it was just a case of Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser having career years at the same time. They were both suddenly near the top of the league in xG and expected assists, respectively, last year. This was new, and not long for this world, as they both declined to their pre-2018-19 levels again this season. Sometimes two players have their best seasons at the same time, and that’s that. Bournemouth scored 16 fewer goals this year, compared to last. It was probably misguided of me to think that Wilson and Fraser’s hot play would continue, given that neither one had really been anything close to an elite player in the past. (This could also potentially be a warning for Burnley, who saw the previously unspectacular duo of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes take turns lighting up the league this season.)
With Watford, I was banking on the great first-half of last season evening out the terrible second-half of last season. Instead, they were incredibly unlucky to lose the first four games of the season, and then, as their owner is wont to do, they fired manager Javi Gracia. After that, all bets were off, and the team struggled for any kind of consistency and cycled through three different managers over the final 34 games. They were unfortunate in the sense that they didn’t score as many goals as they easily could have, but they also dealt with that bad luck/variation in the worst way possible: panicking again and again and again. Watford entered the season in a precarious position, and I, foolishly, trusted their ownership to be able to deal with that rationally. That’s a clear example of something that numbers would’ve missed.
20. Norwich (Prediction: 19)
I think I got this one right:
Under Daniel Farke, Norwich dominated the Championship with the hybrid counterattack-plus-sustained-possession playing style that the best teams in Europe employ, and they seem committed to maintaining that identity, but they’re gonna be at a severe talent disadvantage in the majority of the games they play in the Premier League; after all, David never would’ve won if he tried to fight like Goliath.
Despite taking the fewest points, Norwich actually attempted the ninth most passes in the league. Tiki-taka was their downfall. However, their Sporting Director, Stuart Webber, recently said the following:
We made a conscious decision last summer to make sure this club is sustainable and healthy within the model we’ve got. We always spoke about being a top 26 club and at the moment we are, we’ve done that for two of the last three seasons, and it’s about trying to achieve that again.
Their approach didn’t work, but it doesn’t sound like they ever expected anything different.