The top five teams are only separated by a pair of points with the top three separated by only goal difference. Taking a deeper looks reveals one thing: City are still miles above the rest and are looking better than last season (at least domestically). Manchester United are the only side of the traditional big six that is not two points of the top as they are stuck in the mid-table doldrums. Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City are unbeaten with a quarter of the way through the league season. Both Arsenal and Tottenham have surprised everyone and are ready to pounce should any of the top three teams are to falter. A quick glance at the table indicates a title-run that will go down to the wire and every day till will be full of flair and excitement. Once you take a closer look, the table will say otherwise. They might be similar in points though their respective abilities say otherwise. The points tally is not an indicator of an exciting title chase but an inflated version of the results that will soon normalize. Here is a quick history of how the table came to be and a prediction if this will continue to be the trend for the season.
5. Tottenham – Their best start yet though they are silently treading water
Defense has been Spurs’ forte since Mauricio Pochettino joined the club during the summer of 2014. He instilled a relentless and aggressive press that forced teams into bad decisions that the capitalized on. This seasons, it looks as though Poch’s press has never existed. They have been an average defense. Over the past couple of seasons, Tottenham were among the league leaders in goal difference, suppressing shots and consequently expected goals. This season, they are just above average in these numbers. While they only conceded 1.05 expected goals per 90, this is the same side that concedes just under 12 shots per match – with 7 other teams conceding less. Tottenham’s defense works because they can defend shots well and not because they can prevent the other team form shooting. Their defense is not completely gone. They are not dreadful but they certainly are not the same side that they once were.
Similar to their North London rivals Arsenal, the Spurs’ attack is simply not good enough to nullify their average defense. In past seasons, Harry Kane was the clear focal point of their attack and led the Spurs in shots per 90, goals and assists per 90 and in expected goals. This is the norm for one of the best No.9’s in the league and in club football. Kane has not been the same player since he injured his ankle against Bournemouth last season. While Kane has gotten over his inability to score in August, he simply does not look like the same physical specimen in previous seasons. The England captain had a monopoly on the number of shots the Spurs took. So far this season, there has been a more even distribution with everybody getting their fair share of the pie. Also, Kane is well behind Dele Alli in expected goals per 90 (he leads the Spurs with 0.48 per 90) and this is despite the fact that Alli has not played in a month.
The Spurs are still a decent defensive side and are above average on the attack. That is normally the kind of team that is on the fringes of a Champions League spot though is it simply not good enough for a team that wants to compete for the Premier League title.
4. Arsenal – Ironically, they are happy to be here
After losing their first two games against league leaders City and Chelsea, Arsenal have won seven straight and eleven in all competitions. This is the perfect start for their new manager Unai Emery. He has earned the trust of the fans, players and possibly of the Arsenal board. Emery now has earned enough goodwill with these results and has started to erase the bad habits that plagued the club during Wenger’s tenure. Year after year of constant negativity and lethargic play left Arsenal in need of a drawn-out but inevitable divorce. The results so far have been fantastic and the Gunners faithful deserve to revel in the fact that this is a good side away from home. While their results might be an indication of a bright future, Arsenal’s performances say otherwise. Their sheer talent against the likes of Cardiff and Newcastle were enough to get them over the hump. Unless something is to change and change quickly, their winning might be unsustainable.
Arsenal biggest problem – for years – has been their backline. The new additions of Sokratis and Stephen Lichtsteiner are not exactly inspiring given that both of them are halfway through the fossilization process. The Gunners have conceded 10 goals for the campaign so far (granted, five came in their first two games against City and Chelsea). This does not show the full story. Arsenal have conceded a touch under 12 expected goals in their 9 league games so far that that averages to about 1.5 expected goals per game. In laymen’s terms, this is the fifth worst in the league. Forget title contention or a top-four spot, fifth worst out of 20 teams is expected for a team that is on the fringes of demotion. Again, their opening two games against City (where conceded 2.13 expected goals and 2 for the game) and Chelsea (2.38 conceded expected goals and 2 for the math) skews the results. In their seven league games since Arsenal have conceded 5 goals in 7.21 expected goals in total; or just a shade above 1 expected goal per game. They have played plenty of average teams in their 7 game win streak and once the level of competition evens outs, those numbers may even rise.
Even if Arsenal improve slightly, they will not be a good defensive side given their personnel and their injury history. If they are to somehow find a way to hang on to their fourth place spot, the Gunner’s attack has to get a lot better. And so far, their numbers are yet to indicate this. They averaged 1.44 expected goals per game – solid for fifth place with the other four teams being the other teams currently in the top 5. That being said, the fact that they conceded 1.5 xG per 90 cancels this out. Their back four was torn apart by Watford, Cardiff and even Everton though none of these sides have the talent or competence to consistently slot the ball in the back of the net. Arsenal have only taken 12.5 shots per 90 so far which is not good enough or a team that struggles to generate quality chances. Aubameyang and Lacazette are solid finishers with Granit Xhaka starting their attacking play and Ozil being the glue that brings everything together. A good attack though, not one that can consistently bail out their leaky defense.
The only way Arsenal can improve is if their attack improves by Biblical proportions because defensively, they still do not have the right back four to get the job done. Else, their chances of keeping their top four spot are very slim.
3. Chelsea: Surprisingly third
Nobody could have predicted that Sarri ball would be working its wonders this early into the Italian’s tenure. Their possession-based play brings a welcome change to a side that was primarily known for their pragmatism for a better part of the past decade. With Jorginho as the base of their three-man midfield, Chelsea have a killer edge to them. They are ruthless in the final third as they push teams deeper into their own third. Shockingly, the Blues are leading the league in passing with 745 per game. Chelsea still are not the fluid and seamless machine that Sarri engineered with Napoli. They dominate with the ball though they are inefficient with it and have struggled to create high-quality chances. Instead, they are burying their opposition under a flurry of second-rate shot attempts. The lead all teams par one the England in shots per game with 17.50 and are third in expected goals with 1.79 per 90. However, Chelsea average 0.10 xG/shot with five other teams in the league taking better quality shots than them. Hazard is playing like a man possessed. There is no doubting that Sarri has allowed the Belgian winger to unleash a new gear that we always thought he had. That being said, the rate at which he is creating chances for himself has reduced which indicates he has become a lot more efficient with his goal scoring. Should he want to continue with this trend, he’ll either need to remain just as efficient or find new ways to create chances for himself or both?
On the other end of the pitch, there are reasons to be worried. In their new system of possession-based football, the fact that they are conceding the fourth fewest shots per game (at 9.65) should be surprising to nobody. Nonetheless, the quality of chances they are conceding should be ringing alarm bells at Stamford Bridge. But still, they are one of the best teams in terms of the difference between the expected goals they concede and the ones they create which correlates with their top four position. The big question facing them will be their ability to keep up with Liverpool and City for the next 29 games. The fact that they are still unable to create quality chances while they continue to conceded good shots will keep them a level below the two real title contenders. With a little more accuracy in the final third Chelsea might be able to break into the uppermost echelon. They can be great but are a step or two away from getting there.
2. Liverpool: Our saving grace for a title race
Liverpool are great though some of their results might say otherwise. They came against the best possible version of this current Chelsea side and at home, they rutted out a draw against the defending champions. This came with a Champions League loss at Napoli between those two fixtures. Bad but things could have been a whole lot worse and the team has come out relatively unscathed. Their attack is a stark contrast to that of Chelsea. They are among the league leaders with shots attempted per game (at 14.75) and managed to maintain the second highest xG goal total per 90 (at 1.92). Also unlike Chelsea, they are the Reds are fantastic at getting the best possible shots off. Liverpool are persistent and unforgiving with their press and spring forward whenever they create turnovers. They create unsettled and scrambling backlines. Then there is their defense that embodies everything one would want of a wall.
A year ago they had a shaky backline with James Milner playing heavy minutes as a makeshift left-back. Now, they are simply fantastic. Liverpool have reduced the intensity of their press to preserve the leg of their attacking players and this has correlated with an improvement in their back four. The addition of Virgil van Dijk was a godsend and the development of Joe Gomez has boosted a once-porous team. They concede 0.86 xG/90 which is second only to Manchester City and conceded 8.13 shots within the same frame. Liverpool have outperformed these numbers by conceding only three goals for the season so far.
The one knock that anyone can have on Klopp’s squad is that they seem to have cold feet in the final third. While they have one of the best-expected goals in the league, Liverpool have only scored 15 goals so far. Bournemouth have scored more than them. Salah has been a shadow of the player who lit the world on fire last season. He only has three in his eight league games so far. The Egyptian forward went through a scoring slump at the beginning of the last season. There is a bright side in the fact that his xG/Shot, xG/90, shots per game, and touches in the box are all equal to or slightly less than his numbers from last season.
Salah is still one of the most striking forwards in the game and the analytics will soon result into goals. He was never going to repeat the unheralded heights from last season but the fact that looks like a shadow of the player he was might be cause for concern if Mane and Firmino do not get back to being themselves. The problems that currently ail Liverpool have little to do with Jurgen Klopp – the biggest of them being Manchester City.
Manchester City: The Defending Champs
Numbers can barely describe how good The Citizens really are. They take over 22 shots per game – at least four more than any other game in England. They are the only team to average above 2.00 xG/90 with 2.8. City are also the best defensive team have conceded an average of 6.67 in their 9 games so far. They also only conceded 0.54 xG/90, miles better than everyone else in the top tier in English football. They are just that good and more.
Normally, the winners of the league have most – if not all – things go their way. Their attacking players cannot miss the back of the net, their goalkeeper makes otherworldly saves, and they demolish their expected goals numbers on either or both side of the game. A few bounces and touches go their way with lucking always favoring the brave. Sometimes, that it all it takes to separate a team from the rest of the pack. Chelsea won the league two seasons ago led by Antonio Conte and the pragmatism of his defensive philosophy. While they were fantastic in preventing their opponents for scoring (conceding a league-leading 29 xG for the duration of the season) they are averaged at the other end of the park with just over 61 xG for their 38 league games. Their 13 game win streak in the middle of the season separated themselves from any of the other title contenders. Chelsea finished the year with 85 goals and a margin of seven points. A slim margin in comparison to the juggernaut that was City’s run last season. City were a country mile ahead of everyone and it looks like there is no stopping them. They are simply too good of a side to rely on luck. If everything falls right for Liverpool and Chelsea and if a bounce or falls the wrong way; City are still favorites to win the league. It would take a tremendous amount of bad luck (for City) and a perfect season, Liverpool, to even be in the running.
The likelihood this will happen is ridiculously low. Leicester won the league with 5000/1 odds at the beginning of the season though everyone knows that odds were a lot steeper. Anything can help if one is to convince themselves. The question should be will it happen? Is it possible for City to be toppled? Day by day, the thought of this happening becomes more distant. Multiple anomalies of Biblical proportions need to occur.
Under normal circumstance, a great team in Liverpool, a very good one at Stamford Bridge, a Spurs side who have had their best start ever, and an upstart Arsenal would be enough to take the title race down to the wire. But Manchester City are not normal. The 2017-18 title winning side smashed the 100 point mark and won the title by 19 points. They beat everyone last year and are on a mission to break the spirits of all teams this season. Only two points separate 1st from 5th but let’s face, Manchester City in a league of their own.