Why the Premier League’s top six are under threat

Liverpool and Manchester City are quite clearly the two standout teams in the Premier League, however the situation below them is less clear heading into the 2019/20 season. Top four hopefuls Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United all stuttered towards the end of the season, gaining a combined 52 points during their final 10 matches, a season-long points per match equivalent to Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, Wolves have progressed at an incredible rate under Nuno Espirito Santo in the last two years and Everton and Leicester finally hit their stride during the final three months of the season. This article will discuss how these emerging trends are closing the gap between the established ‘top six’ and the rest and why they could spark a shake up in the final standings next season.

It may not be everyone’s favourite statistical model but an xG analysis of the 2018/19 Premier League season supports this point. Expected values certainly have their faults, however as this is a season-long analysis, trends drawn are invariably more reliable as values gradually regress towards the mean. Using data from Understat, the final table would have looked like this if each side’s expected rather than actual points, goals scored and goal conceded tallies were used.

Expected values of goals scored (F), goals conceded (A) and points (PTS) from understat.com

Whilst this expected table looks similar to the actual one, Wolves would have been the first side since Leicester and Southampton (2015/16) to break up the established top six, as a result of Arsenal’s significant over-performance. Meanwhile, Leicester and Everton would have been within four points of sixth place and six points of fourth.

This does have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The best teams generally have the best players and are therefore able to perform better than the average values that expected data is based upon. However, it is the extent to which those teams over-performed that is telling. For example, Arsenal’s 70 points achieved was 18.7% higher than expected – only West Ham exceeded this value.

West Ham themselves are an interesting case, especially following a £90 million summer spend to revamp Manuel Pellegrini’s squad. In the end, £7 million man Lukasz Fabianski was the main reason for their top-half finish, making the most saves of any goalkeeper (148). At this stage, they appear the least likely of last-season’s top-half sides to break into the top six, unless youngsters Issa Diop, 22 and Declan Rice, 20 can develop into the top-class players that the club’s reported transfer valuations allude to.

There are parallels between their over-performance and fellow London clubs Arsenal and Tottenham. Tottenham are second to West Ham for xGA prevented, thanks to a stellar season from World Cup winner Hugo Lloris. As their squad became stretched in the latter part of the season, results dropped off and could have had more dire consequences but for moments like the Frenchman’s last gasp penalty save against Arsenal. The Gunners themselves were heavily reliant at the other end of the pitch as the usually excellent finishing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette enabled them to score almost half of the club’s league goals. Both of these sides clearly had a better season than they should have done and despite their over-performance being expected, the extent of it cannot be sustained.

Manchester United and Chelsea also did better than expected but to a degree that is understandable when considering the quality of their respective squads compared to average Premier League players. What is more alarming for these two is who they stand to lose. In Chelsea’s case, their best player and manager have departed and will find it nigh on impossible to fill those voids in the short-term given the club’s transfer ban and Sarri’s tactical nous. Christian Pulisic and potentially Frank Lampard have been identified as long-term replacements but neither are likely to hit the ground running straight away like their predecessors.

Manchester United have their own issues to deal with, most notably that their most talented player Paul Pogba is keen for a ‘new challenge’ elsewhere. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial credentials are yet to be tested over an entire Premier League campaign and therefore we are yet to ascertain whether the end of season dip in form was merely a blip or a glimpse into what their fans should expect next season. The fact that 32 of United’s 66 points were gained in the 12-game honeymoon period whilst the Norwegian was interim boss suggests that their season-long struggles were covered up by a brief spell of excellence. A successful transfer window will be vital.

The significance of this is that in one way or another, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham’s part in an anticlimactic top four race was no fluke – all four sides have significant weaknesses that need addressing. This combined with the emergence of Everton, Leicester and Wolves as sides capable of hitting in the region of 60 points across the season is threatening to break up the top six order of recent seasons.

It goes without saying that the right circumstances must fall into place for one of Everton, Leicester or Wolves to finish in the top six. Firstly, it requires a poor performance across the season from one of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham, rather than just an end of season blip. This must then be combined with a side below them outperforming what would be expected of them, as Leicester and Southampton did in 2015/16.

This is far from a formality for any of these sides, given their respective circumstances. Wolves face the difficulty of juggling domestic and European commitments and will not be able to cope with just the 19 players that played more than a minute of Premier League football last season. Leicester must battle to hold onto a talented group of young English players with Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell and James Maddison all linked with moves away from the King Power. As for Everton, maintaining the defensive stability that saw them secure eight clean sheets during their final 11 matches is nigh on impossible.

Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that in the next season or two, the established top six may be broken up. Whether this theory translates into reality come May remains to be seen.

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