Let's all take a deeeeeeeep breath ...
|Feb 26||Public post|| 2||1|
This is it! The last newsletter before the start of subscriber-only content! I am using an especially egregious number exclamation points because the medium of text does not offer a better way to express excitement!
If you don’t want to miss anything, make sure you subscribe before Friday (March 1). It’s $7 a month or $70 a year, and if you do sign up before Friday, the charge still won’t kick in until March 1. Here is the bright-green button:
If you don’t subscribe to the premium stuff, you’ll continue to receive the Tuesday edition, but you won’t get the Friday crib sheet or any of the other subscriber-only stuff I’m planning to roll out. To anyone who’s already subscribed: This is gonna be fun! And to everyone who’s read along: This has already been fun! It’s been really cool to find a passionate audience for a what I like to think is an occasionally nerdy, often unconventional, and always curious way way of looking at the game. Or, as one reader put it: a “rambling, manic, lengthy newsletter about soccer”.
On to those rambling, manic thoughts! Since this is the last newsletter of its era, I have, approximately, three million words for you to read.
We’re 27 games into the 38-game Premier League season, and so much of the coverage and so much of how each fanbase feels is fueled by what happened this weekend and how it relates to last weekend. Following along with the volatility of week-by-week results is fun, and it’s how most people experience the sport, but it’s also bad for your health. Anyone who’s read this newsletter before will not be surprised to hear that I think it’s way more useful to take a longer view of things.
So, I looked at the 27-game point totals for all 17 teams who were in the Premier League last year, and compared them to their point totals this year. (Chelsea and Brighton have only played 26 games, so I used that as the comparison point for those two clubs.) Then, I ranked them, in descending order, based on how much they’ve improved since last season. If there was a tie, I put the team with fewer total points (and thus a larger proportional improvement) higher up.
Last year: 54 points
This year: 66 points
Was this all just a ploy for me to ensure that Liverpool win something this year? Perhaps! But despite whatever weird subconscious-emotional games I’m playing with myself here, this remains true: Through 27 games, only one team in the history of the Premier League has had more points and a better goal-differential than this current Liverpool side. The only team to concede fewer goals than Liverpool’s 15 was Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea side, which had somehow only allowed eight freaking goals at this point in the 2004-05 campaign. However, Jurgen Klopp’s team has scored nine more goals (59 to 50) than that group, giving them a slightly better GD (plus-44 to plus-42), too. This is, inarguably, one of the best Premier League teams of all time — and it’s certainly the best Liverpool squad. The other two legit title-challengers to come out of Anfield were the 2013-14 and 08-09 iterations, and neither one was even within single digits of Liverpool’s current points total.
Now, of course, the one team with both a better goal differential and higher points total is last season’s Manchester City, or, you know the team comprised of an almost identical (but probably slightly weaker!) collection of players to the team that is currently one point behind Liverpool in the table. Thanks to an underwhelming run to start 2019 — 12 points from a possible 21 — Klopp and Co.’s lead has shrunk down from seven. Betting markets have City as a one-point favorite to win, while FiveThirtyEight’s projections, well, see for yourself:
Sure, they’ve already lost six points off their lead, but I don’t know, man. Take a step back for a second. The title race is pretty much a coin-toss at this point. A year ago, Liverpool were 18 points back of first place. I’m a Liverpool fan, and the difference between those two things is the margin I’ve decided to stay focused on.
Last year: 30 points
This year: 40 points
Coming into the season, betting markets pegged Watford … to finish the season with 40 points. Watford have 40 points … with 12 games remaining. Also, this improvement happened after the club sold its best player, Richarlison, for a club-record fee over the summer. As far as “achievement vs. expectation” goes, these dudes are having the best season in the Premier League. Javi Gracia deserves Manager of the Year consideration.
And maybe Elton John for Symbolic Executive of the Year? From ESPN:
Sir Elton John is involved in Watford's recruitment process on a "daily basis" and often gives recommendations about which players they should buy, chairman Scott Duxbury has said.
The multi-platinum selling singer is Watford's honorary life president and was chairman during their rise from the old Fourth Division to the top flight during the 1970s and early 80s.
Watford plays every Top Six team other than Tottenham over the remaining 11 games. That’s a rough stretch, but their season is already success; now they get to ruin someone else’s.
Last year: 45 points
This year: 53 points
The points improvement is certainly there, but whether there’s been any genuine progress is an open question. The attack and defense have both regressed in Unai Emery’s first season with the club:
They’ve also taken fewer shots than they’ve attempted, which typically goes hand-in-hand with a place far down the table, but here they are: one point ahead of fifth-place Manchester United for the fourth and final Champions League spot. Grab that, and the particulars of their underlying performance don’t really matter; this season will have been a win.
Now, Arsenal’s front-office is still an absolute mess — there’s a never-ending power struggle among various vaguely-titled decision-makers, they continue to let their best players run down their contracts, and their highest-paid player (who they signed to his most recent contract a little over a year ago) has spent the season being yo-yo’d in and out of Emery’s doghouse; oh, and they also might not have any money — but they finally do seem to have a new, young core of likely stars who can both contribute now and should only get better. Lucas Torreira is just 22 and is already one of the better defensive midfielders in the league, Alex Iwobi is also 22 and is eighth in the league in expected assists per 90 minutes, and 19-year-old Matteo Guendouzi looks like the kind of do-it-all, passing-and-pressing midfielder that all the top teams crave nowadays.
He’s a top-top prospect, and as someone who was once referred to as “Kenny G” by one of his soccer coaches in college, I feel a deep, inexplicable kinship with this French teenager.
Last year: 52 points
This year: 60 points
Listen, I only care about four things: The Green New Deal, the fact that Bernhard Langer has topped the money list in 10 of the previous 11 Senior PGA Tour seasons, you (My Subscribers), and Tottenham’s inability to draw games. The streak is at 31; the previous record was 28. Can they run it out all the way through mid-May and get this bad boy all the way up to 42? Well, Mauricio Pochettino’s team has survived injuries to/international duty for their quartet of attacking stars — Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Son Heung-min, and Dele Alli have made just 71 of a possible 108 starts in the Premier League — and still managed to rack up more points through 27 games than all but 20 teams in the Premier League era. They also punted the current Bundesliga leaders, Borussia Dortmund, into the sun in the first leg of their Champions League tie. Tottenham are not gonna win the title because 1) they currently have the underlying numbers of closer to a 47-point team, and 2) City and Liverpool have gone supernova. But as for that draw streak? Doubt them at your own peril.
5. West Ham
Last year: 30 points
This year: 36 points
Sometimes this stuff can be pretty simple. In the offseason, West Ham added a manager, Manuel Pellegrini, who has taken multiple teams to the Champions League semifinals, led Real Madrid to a then-record point total, and won the Premier League with Manchester City. West Ham also added Felipe Anderson, a not-always-healthy player who, when healthy, produced like a superstar for one of the better teams in Italy from ages 21 to 24. Why are they better? Pellegrini has put the existing pieces in the right places, and Anderson has played more minutes than any West Ham outfield player.
OK, there’s one more thing: They got rid of Joe Hart, and getting rid of Joe Hart is like soccer’s version of the discovery of penicillin. It automatically makes everything better. Keep reading for more info.
6. Crystal Palace
Last year: 27 points
This year: 30 points
Considering that Palace started last season with zero points from their first eight games, I’m not sure there’s that much improvement here — if any. (Their underlying numbers at this stage last season were actually slightly better, too.) Their attack has kept its head above water almost solely on the back of Luka Milivojevic’s league-leading seven penalty goals. (He’s scored one from open play.) That spot-kick salvation is necessary due to not a single player who you’d classify as a “striker” playing more than 474 minutes for Palace so far this season.
While we’re here, let’s all just meditate for a minute on the man who’s played those 470-some minutes: poor Christian Benteke. Since leaving Liverpool for Palace in the summer of 2016, the Belgian striker has scored 15 non-penalty goals. That’s compared to … 26.63 expected goals. Over the past two seasons, he’s scored two non-penalty goals, despite racking up 12.32 xG worth of shots! Palace just signed Michy Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea, so they don’t seem too interested in letting Benteke keep trying to shoot himself out of a slump. But if and when he eventually changes clubs, he’ll eventually start scoring goals … I think … right?
Last year: 31 points
This year: 34 points
I was surprised that Bournemouth weren’t higher on this list; they seem like a totally different team from last year — more focused on gaming the end product (creating space by counter-attacking, limiting the opposition’s attacking space by defending deeper) rather than dominating possession like they were in their first three seasons in the Premier League. In fact, they’ve been way better this season — their non-penalty xG differential is minus-6.87 in 2018-19, compared to 16.36 in 2017-18 — but their results haven’t quite borne that out yet.
Time for a sheepish hand-raise: I, uh, picked Bournemouth to get relegated before the season. What????? They had the underlying numbers of a relegated team last year! So, credit to Eddie Howe for realizing that what they were doing wasn’t working despite a 12th-place finish. One thing to watch for over the remainder of the season: Their dorm-room-refrigerator-on-wheels, Ryan Fraser, is leading the league in expected assists — 9.11, more than double any of his teammates. But in Bournemouth’s past six games, he has no helpers and just around 0.5 xA total. That’s quite the drop-off for a player they’d become so reliant on. Whether he bounces back — and what they do if he doesn’t — could define their homestretch.
Last year: 27 points
This year: 27 points
Brighton’s player recruitment set off some “This Team Might Know What They’re Doing!” alarm bells this summer. They bought 24-and-under young players who got a lot of playing time for teams that were better than Brighton — Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, Yves Bissouma from Lille in France, and Bernardo from RB Leipzig in Germany — and then they took a low-risk flier on Martin Montoya, who’s been at Valencia, Inter Milan, and Barcelona.
And yet! They’re right where they were last year.
What happened? Well, I can tell you what hasn’t happened. Those four guys have combined for just 31 total starts, and 18 of those went to Montoya, who’s a fullback, which is arguably the least impactful position on the field. An aphorism: The team’s not gonna change if you don’t change the team.
9. Newcastle United
Last year: 28 points
This year: 28 points
This is what happens when you take an incredibly consistent and accomplished manager … and then then sell £43.5 million worth of talent in the summer and replace it with in-coming players worth £22.5 million. Newcastle’s personnel didn’t really improve over the summer, but they hung on to Rafa Benitez, and it’s eerie how similar the performance has been. Last year, their goal differential at this point was minus-11; this year, it’s minus-10. Last year, they scored 25 goals and conceded 36; this year, they’ve scored 24, conceded 34.
Yes, the spent a club- and MLS-record £21 million on Miguel Almiron last month. And also yes: He looked like Greek god Hermes out there this weekend against Huddersfield:
But Huddersfield had a guy sent off 20 minutes into the game, and Huddersfield—yeah, let’s just say you’re gonna have to scroll for a long time before you get to them.
Last year: 50 points
This year: 50 points
At least when it comes to the big teams, my favorite way to get a sense of the Prevailing Media Narrative surrounding a specific club is to flick through the headlines on the Guardian. Here are a couple for the Blues:
“Sarri and Kepa try to play down substitution ‘misunderstanding’”
“Kepa’s shootout mutiny emblematic of Sarri’s sinking ship at Chelsea”
“Ross Barkley refuses to let 6-0 drubbing darken Chelsea’s glory bid”
“Maurizio Sarri heads to Carabao Cup final as dead man walking”
“Chelsea’s transfer ban forces club to make major decisions on recruitment”
“Maurizio Sarri says Chelsea struggles are not down to his tactics”
“Chelsea stick with Maurizio Sarri for now but manager on thin ice”
And that’s just from the past week! Chelsea lost the Carabao Cup final (if you’re a new soccer fan who doesn’t know what this is, I literally have no idea how to explain it to you, and your life would actually be better off remaining stuck in Carabao-adjacent naivety anyway, I promise! ) in penalties to Manchester City, and their keeper refused to be subbed off in the waning minutes of extra time. Last week, the club was handed a two-window transfer ban for illegally using unregistered underage players and dabbling in “third-party influence”. (They’ll appeal the ruling, so, at worst, the ban will get pushed back a window or two and they’ll be able to at least sign players this summer.) And it sure seems like they’re getting ready to fire their manager. Incredibly, Sarri only took over this summer, and his tenure — were he to lose his job over the next month or so — would only be the sixth-shortest managerial stint at the club since the Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, bought the club in 2003.
Add all that up … and everything is the same.
Last year: 34 points
This year: 33 points
Here’s a team that fired its manager mid-season last year, and then ultimately replaced him with another guy who was fired mid-season last year. Anyone sensing a theme here? So many of these teams go through this constant upheaval, they rend their garments in public, they splash a bunch of cash on new players … and barely anything changes! To me, this suggests that not a lot of people really know what they’re doing. If none of your investments or your hirings or your new players lead to your team winning more games … then maybe you don’t actually have any knowledge re: what actually wins games? Just a thought!
Anyway, I don’t wanna get mad; I’m actually laughing; etc. OK, some brief analysis: Everton definitely are better than they were last year, as their xG differential is 12 goals better than it was last season. But the current number is still just 11th-best in the league, which also happens to be their current place in the table. The club spent around €118 million on players last summer, and they brought in a new manager—only to see results remain stagnant. Everton are one of the 20th richest teams in the world. And according to Transfermarkt’s player valuations (which Stefan Szymanski has found to be a better predictor of results than anything other than betting odds), they have the 17th-most-valuable squad in the world. That makes them the seventh-most valuable team in England, but they’re definitely not the seventh-best. (That would be Wolverhampton, imo, who were playing in the second-division last season and who I’m not allowed to write about here because of this self-imposed structural restraint. Sorry!) This tweet seems apt for at least half the teams on this list:
Last year: 26 points
This year: 24 points
When Southampton fired Mark Hughes in early December and replaced him with Ralph Hasenhuttl, they were in 18th place, one-point away from the safety of 17th. Today, in late February, Southampton are in 18th place, one-point away from the safety of 17th! Now, the club’s results have improved — 1.15 points per game under Hasenhuttl, compared to 0.64 under Hughes — but the performances don’t look much better, if at all:
I included PPDA (“passes per defensive action”) because it serves as a rough proxy for pressing, and Hasenhuttl last coached at RB Leipzig, where frenetic defensive pressure is a way of life. Southampton’s been a little more aggressive since he came to town, but not hugely different. I loved this hiring when it happened. Hasenhuttl took Leipzig all the way up to second place in the Bundesliga in the club’s first-ever season in the German top-flight a couple years ago, but maybe it’s tough to implement such a proactive style halfway through a season?
Southampton probably won’t get relegated, but they could’ve made this a lot easier on themselves if they didn’t lose to Cardiff—twice.
Last year: 35 points
This year: 32 points
Leicester just fired their manager, Claude Puel, after losing, 4-1, to Crystal Palace at home. They’ve taken one point from a possible 18 in their last six games. And yet, I’m more bullish on Leicester’s future than pretty much any team outside of the Top Six, and maybe even one or two teams in the Top Six.
The club briefly struggled with the comedown from winning the Premier League in 2015-16, and how could they not? They had to figure out what stars to sell, who to hold onto, and what kind of club they were going to try to be — that’s not easy! They bumbled around for about a year, signing a bunch of older, semi-accomplished players without much upside perhaps in an effort to re-charge for another once-in-a-lifetime title run, but they seem to have eventually settled on a smart path forward: buy a ton of young players and give them a ton of playing time. Premier League teams don’t rebuild because Premier League teams don’t want to risk getting relegated, but Leicester have almost completely overhauled the side that won the championship less than three years ago. Here’s Michael Caley for The Athletic:
Back in the title-winning season of 2015-16, the only player 23 or under who had any significant minutes was Jeffrey Schlupp. Over the last few seasons, Leicester has turned over its roster, going from 5% of Premier League minutes played by players 23 and under in 15-16 up to 15% in 16-17, then 25% last season, and now the Foxes have thrown nearly half their available minutes at the youth.
Quietly, without ever coming particularly close to relegation, Leicester City has turned over its squad and turfed out nearly every important contributor to that title-winning side. Among the regulars, only Jamie Vardy, Marc Albrighton and Wes Morgan remain—and all three have seen their minutes decrease this season.
Plus, during the recent winless streak, Leicester played Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham. They took only one point, despite out-playing all three sides to the tune of 5.6 xG to 3.21 over the course of the three games. They’ve shown the ability to be a good team right now. And as long as the next manager keeps giving minutes to the kids, this team has a legitimate chance to turn into something special, once again.
14. Manchester United
Last year: 56 points
This year: 52 points
I mention betting markets all the time here because the people behind them know as much as anyone — and they almost definitely know more about what wins soccer games than a lot of the people running professional teams. I thought this little piece from Guy Rogers about how the markets view Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was pretty insightful. He’s talking about how many points the markets projected United to have come the end of the season, at various points throughout the current campaign:
The effect of Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment to Manchester United’s rating was immediate; after their victory at Cardiff they immediately jumped up 5 points. However, despite winning 7 and drawing 1 of their next 8 games, their rating has only increased a further 0.6 points and is still 2 points below their rating at the start of the season. This suggests that the initial bump in rating may have been more about Mourinho (and Pogba’s position on the bench) than the new manager.
It seems like we’re headed for a world where Solskjaer gets the United job full-time. He’s certainly not a bad manager; he’s getting United’s best players on the field, and he’s got them performing, roughly, right around where their preseason expectations were. The defensive performance against Liverpool this past weekend was especially impressive — just one long-range shot on target allowed — a new wrinkle that we hadn’t seen from the side under him.
At the same time, there are a ton of managers out there who could probably get United functioning at this same speed, given the squad’s talent. United are in a weird spot, in a way: They have so much money that if they buy the right players — which remains a humongous “if” — they could probably win titles with a coach who just keeps things moving along. Except, they also have so much money that they can afford to hire a coach with a history of managing overachieving sides. Going after someone like Pochettino, and then falling back on Solskjaer if they can’t get him to leave Tottenham, doesn’t seem like the worst Plan A/Plan B.
Last year: 36 points
This year: 30 points
For the uninitiated, Burnley have a multi-season history of allowing fewer goals than expected. Last year, the discrepancy between G and xG was slightly more than 13! The potential reasons on offer were plentiful: they were lucky; their defense was doing something that the numbers couldn’t pick up; their keepers were pretty good; the manager, Sean Dyche, was an actual witch.
And then they signed Joe Hart this summer. I have no idea why they did this! Nick Pope and Tom Heaton, their other two keepers, had been two of the better keepers in the league when healthy over the past couple seasons. Joe Hart hasn’t been effective at preventing balls from entering the net he is tasked with protecting for a really long time!
Anyway, Hart started the first 19 games of the year; Burnley took 12 total points and found themselves in 18th, three points back of 17th. Tom Heaton has started the eight games since; Burnley now have 30 points and are six clear of the relegation zone.
Statsbomb’s Mike Goodman wrote this two weeks ago:
Heaton has been much better at stopping the shots he’s faced this season than Hart was. In 19 games this season, Hart gave up roughly four more goals than expected. Not great.
The difference between his save percentage of 66.7% and his expected save percentage of 70.1% is negative 3.4%. Of the 24 keepers who have played more than 600 minutes this year only five have a larger negative difference.
Heaton, on the other hand, has been fantastic.
He’s already saved 3.32 more goals than an average keeper would. His save percentage of 83.3% is not only the highest in the league, it’s 11.1% higher than his expected save percentage. That gap is also the highest in the league. He’s been absolutely phenomenal.
And here’s that info in visual form:
On top of that, Heaton has been way more aggressive about claiming crosses into the box than Hart was, so he’s not only stopping shots from going in; he’s stopping the shots from even happening in the first place. The Hart-to-Heaton swap isn’t the only reason behind Burnley’s turnaround, but it’s — by far — the biggest one. Supposedly, Hart’s now angling for a move to MLS. Zero out of 10, would not recommend!
16. Manchester City
Last year: 72 points
This year: 65 points
Here’s the scary thing about Manchester City: Despite the seven-point drop-off, they’re basically as good as they were last year, when they were the best Premier League team we’ve ever seen. Ignoring penalties, City’s expected-goal differential through 27 games is plus-47.69; last year it was 47.31. OK, there’s another scary thing: Kevin de Bruyne scored eight goals and added 16 assists last year. This year, he’s only played 525 Premier League minutes; he’s scored one goal and doesn’t have a single assist!
Coming into this season, de Bruyne seemed to be close to City’s consensus best player, and he came in at no. 8 in the Guardian’s annual list of the best 100 players in the world. If City start getting any production out of him, they’ll probably win the title. Hell, they still might, even if they don’t.
Last year: 27 points
This year: 11 points
These poor freaking guys. Barring multiple miracles, they’re getting relegated, but the amazing achievement here, to me, is that they were even able to make it past last season, when they finished 16th. Transfermarkt had the market value of 2017-18 Huddersfield at a Premier League-low £57.96 million. That’s just under £30 million less than Burnley, who were second to last, while Chelsea led the way (thanks to a massive roster) at £584.69 million.
The other impressive thing about Huddersfield is that they played a unique style, where they pressed their opponents really aggressively and didn’t allow many passes to be completed in their final third — neither of which are typical characteristics of such a small team in the bottom fourth of the table. It didn’t work this year, but so few teams dare to even attempt something different.
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