Premier League Mid-Season Analysis: Who are the Best Teams?

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It is quickly becoming cliché, but it still rings true: the only predictable aspect of this Premier League has been unpredictability. Start at the top, where Leicester were the league leaders for most of the season until they conceded top spot to Arsenal. For that they can give a large share of credit to Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who between them have 28 goals, or 76% of Leicester’s total. But Claudio Ranieri is also proving himself adept at turning situations around; his side have picked up 10 points from losing positions, more than any other team.

Louis van Gaal may find himself under fire, but he can at least claim credit for his team’s defense.

Shots Against Goal Per GameFigure 1 via WhoScored.com

 

The statistics reveal that only Manchester City allow the same amount of shots on their goal per game. It is, of course, at the other end of the pitch where United are struggling. United have just fifteen goals from open play, the same as Norwich, and are 15th in the league for shots and shots on target per game. The latter numbers leave them in the neighborhood of Aston Villa and Sunderland.

Meanwhile, both Merseyside clubs have caught the eye in recent weeks: Everton for their sparkling football and Romelu Lukaku’s purple patch, and Liverpool for possibly the most exciting managerial appointment this season. But both are still far from the finished product. Everton’s defense is still too porous. Only six other teams concede more shots per game than them, and they have conceded more goals than three of the teams below them. Liverpool are having trouble scoring. The Reds have converted just 10.7% of their shots into goals. Only Aston Villa are worse in this aspect. But spare a thought for Jürgen Klopp – his side have suffered the second most long-term injuries this season, only after Newcastle. It remains to be seen how much responsibility Klopp’s energetic style of play has contributed to this.

All of these deficiencies pale in comparison to Chelsea. Mere statistics do not quite capture how badly they have done. It is by far the worst start to a title defense in the Premier League. ‘Own goals’ has the most goals after Diego Costa. Reigning player of the year Eden Hazard has failed to provide a goal or assist in his last 11 Premier League appearances. Defensively, Chelsea have shipped almost as many goals (29) as they did all of last season (32). Captain John Terry suffered the ignominy of being taken off at halftime (against Manchester City) and receiving his first red card in five years (against West Brom).

While big clubs underperform, several smaller clubs have crept up the table, among them Crystal Palace, West Ham, Watford, and Stoke. All of these sides (along with Leicester) follow the same basic formula: sit back and strike on the counterattack. None of these clubs average more than 50% of possession. And counterattacking is generally considered easier to implement away from home, because home fans will urge their team to dominate the game and the ball. It is most likely not a coincidence that all of these teams have taken more points in away matches. In a league table comprised of only away matches, all of these teams would be higher up the table. And when these teams do take the lead, they rarely relinquish it. For example, in a statistic comparing points taken after a team has taken a lead, Palace are first (2.8 points per lead). The other teams are not far behind: Leicester, Watford, Stoke, and West Ham take sixth through ninth (in that order).

 

Team League position (points) League position (home matches only) (points)* League position (away matches only) (points)
Leicester City 2 (39) 4 (18) 1 (21)
Crystal Palace 5 (31) 8 (14) 3 (17)
West Ham United 8 (29) 11 (13) 5 (16)
Watford 9 (29) 9 (14) 7 (15)
Stoke City 10 (29) 12 (13) 6 (16)

*Crystal Palace and Watford have played 10 home matches and 9 away, while the other three teams have played 9 home and 10 away

The ‘traditional’ clubs in the title race are Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal are flying high, no doubt in part due to Mesut Özil’s magisterial performances. The German has more assists (16) than each of Manchester United and Chelsea. City’s duo of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva have combined for 15 assists. In addition to featuring prolific assisters, Arsenal and City lead the way for possession (second and third), pass completion rate (first and second), and short passes per game (first and second). But Spurs find themselves sixth, eighth, and ninth for each of these metrics, a reflection of Mauricio Pochettino’s desire for verticality over possession. His high-pressing tactics designed to win the ball quickly have led Spurs to commit 237 fouls, more than any other team.

Each team is at risk of mentality issues. In 14 instances, Spurs have taken a lead, and in five of those, they have failed to hold on for a victory. That rate is worse than 13 other teams. This suggests that keeping focus is an issue for Pochettino’s young team. The widely accepted rumor that Pep Guardiola will replace Manuel Pellegrini at the end of the season may curb City players’ motivation to keep fighting under the Chilean. And the debacle at Southampton provided a chilling reminder to Arsenal fans, whose team have so often built up momentum only to be derailed in the second half of a season. In a league of increasing unpredictability, that, at least, would be par for the course.

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