English Premier League title race: assessing the top six contenders
AN English Premier League title race which is likely to truly involve the reigning champions, the winners over the two previous campaigns, and the most successful club domestically can hardly be construed as surprising.
Still, it’s fair to apply an ‘expect the unexpected’ label to this particular Premier League. The tightness at the top, involving up to eight teams, is very different, as are how certain teams are shaping up.
Offered the descriptions ‘high-scoring but open at the back’ and ‘defensive, but struggle to break teams down’ at the start of the season, and asked to apply them to the two Manchester clubs, most would have said ‘City’ for the first and ‘United’ for the second.
Yet as this campaign has unfolded, the Red Devils have so far arguably been more attacking, with City working on building a stronger defensive base.
Their contrasting approaches have both fared well – and at the end of this season the positions could well be City first and United second.
Champions Liverpool aren’t out of the title race, of course; indeed at the time of writing they were still second, three points behind Manchester United, who visit them this Sunday.
However, their season has morphed from the first description to the second, with their goals drying up; more worryingly for them, their struggles to score have mostly come against lower-ranked sides, Southampton apart - and the Saints inflicted a defeat.
With all due respect to Ralph Hasenhuttl’s splendid side, they’re not title contenders. Nor, despite what their more vociferous supporters may say, are Chelsea – nor Aston Villa. Five defeats already are too many.
The same can be said about Leicester City and Everton, of course, but the old ‘truths’ seem less certain in these extraordinary times, and both are only a point behind Liverpool, thanks to them winning more games; besides, let’s give the Foxes respect as fairly recent champions.
Tottenham, in contrast, would be bridging a gap of six decades, but they have plenty of impressive elements: defensive solidity, attacking star quality, squad strength, and the managerial nous and experience of Jose Mourinho.
In this strange season, the question still lingers from the last campaign’s post-lockdown return to action: do home and away matter any more? Without crowds, traditional ‘home advantage’ has been reduced significantly.
Manchester United have been exceptional away, going without defeat in the league on the travels for a year now. Liverpool have been poor away this term, although the champions are still strong at home…
Obviously their meeting at Anfield this weekend will have an impact on the title race – but the big rivals of both, Manchester City, are now favourites at this stage.
The stats considered are:
Two or more goals scored; Clean sheets; 1-0 wins; 1 goal scored; Failed to score; and More than one goal conceded.
The thinking is to consider both positive and negative aspects about teams. Scoring two or more goals gives a very good chance of winning a match, as do clean sheets (which guarantee at least a point and, statistically, an average of around 2.5 points per game).
Traditionally ‘1-0s’ are the mark of a champion, as they have a bit of everything: a clean sheet, you’ve scored, and you’ve won.
Scoring one goal is a bit ‘meh’: it’s better than nothing but it doesn’t guarantee a win.
Failing to score is worse, generally leading to defeat, bringing a point at best.
Conceding more than one goal is bad – although not so much in this season, when more goals are going in.
After six matches the Red Devils were being written off and ridiculed: just seven points, only one of those at home, where they’d been beaten three times, including a 6-1 humiliation by former boss Jose Mourinho’s Spurs.
After 16 games, they were poised to go top of the table - and duly did so on Tuesday night by beating Burnley, helped by their first away clean sheet of the season.
That extraordinary transformation was largely driven by goal-scoring, 25 in 11 matches, leading to nine wins and two draws – 29 points from a possible 33. The one time they failed to score they still didn’t lose, holding City to a goalless draw at Old Trafford in the derby.
Even with that stalemate, their home record in those 11 has matched their flying away form, with four wins and a draw in the former category, five victories and one draw on the road.
They’re still letting in more goals than they’d like, 11 over those 11 games, but at least they’ve added four clean sheets to the solitary one from their first six matches – when they shipped 13 goals. Still, their 24 against is more than any team in the top half, and more than three of the bottom half.
United have conceded more than two goals on six occasions, more often than City and Liverpool combined.
If they can tighten up defensively then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have the firepower to challenge strongly - although their three failures to score so far have all come against members of what used to be ‘the Big Six’ – Chelsea, Arsenal, and City.
Two or more goals scored - 9
Clean sheets – 5
1-0 wins – 3
1 goal scored – 5
Failed to score – 3 (Chelsea, Arsenal, City)
More than one goal conceded – 6
The champions were going very well up to the Christmas/ New Year period – scoring in every game (for the first 15 matches), scoring two or more on 11 occasions, and only conceding more than once in three games (the opener against Leeds, then at Villa and Everton), despite serious central defensive difficulties.
Indeed, when they did keep clean sheets, in four matches, they then won those games by an average of 4-0, albeit that stat skewed by the extraordinary finishing in the 7-0 win at Crystal Palace.
Yet after that their attacking seriously malfunctioned: first drawing 1-1 with West Brom, then failing to score at all for the first time in a goalless draw at Newcastle, and finally not hitting the net again in their second league defeat, at Southampton. Only at St James’ Park was the opposition goalkeeper regularly troubled.
Having been ruthless in disposing of bottom half teams over the previous two seasons, home or away, the Reds had also dropped points at Brighton and Fulham. Given their continuing central defensive vulnerability, and the knock-on effect of how shifting players back diminishes their midfield, they’ll do well to retain the title.
Two or more goals scored - 11
Clean sheets – 5
1-0 wins – 0
1 goal scored – 4
Failed to score – 2 (Newcastle, Southampton)
More than one goal conceded – 3
City struggled to get their attacking game going, not helped by mostly missing star striker Sergio Aguero, with Gabriel Jesus also absent for a few matches. Indeed, during a run of six games they netted just five times, culminating in a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham.
Yet overall they have still only failed to score in two games – that loss to Spurs, and the goalless draw away to Manchester rivals United, a fixture they lost 2-0 last season, just before (the first) lockdown.
The other side/ end to City’s scoring struggles (at least compared to their high standards) has been their defensive improvement. Since the Spurs defeat they’ve conceded just two goals in seven league games, one of those a deflection against West Brom, the other the (barely) consolation netted late on by Chelsea.
Indeed, since their other defeat, the 5-2 home shellacking by Leicester, Pep Guardiola’s team have let in only seven goals in 13 matches, keeping seven clean sheets.
The summer acquisitions of Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, for more than £100m, have paid off handsomely, as well as the rehabilitation of John Stones as the main partner for the classy Portuguese.
Expect City to be in an even stronger position by the end of January given their run of fixtures.
Manchester City (prior to last night v Brighton):
Two or more goals scored - 6
Clean sheets – 7
1-0 wins - 3
1 goal scored – 7
Failed to score – 2 (Spurs, Man U)
More than one goal conceded – 2
The perception of ‘1-0 to the Tottenham’ under Mourinho isn’t utterly unfair, but they have only recorded that result twice in their favour. Still, there has been an element of ‘what we have we hold’, certainly since they let a three-goal lead slip to draw against London rivals West Ham.
After that Spurs reeled off five clean sheets in the next six matches to lift themselves to the top of the table, boosted by a classic counter-attacking 2-0 win in the north London derby against Arsenal.
Yet the rest of December turned dodgy, with just two points from the next four games, including defeats against Liverpool and Leicester, as well as letting leads slip late on away to Palace and Wolves.
They haven’t been able to put away the teams around their level – failing to score against Everton, Chelsea, and Leicester – which is perhaps a worry. Spurs also aren’t prolific, despite the lethal combination of Kane and Son, and that’s likely to cost them points too. Their goal tally is skewed by the hammerings they gave Southampton and Manchester United, so their main men up front require more scoring support.
Tottenham (prior to last night v Fulham):
Two or more goals scored - 7
Clean sheets – 6
1-0 wins - 2
1 goal scored – 6
Failed to score – 3 (Everton, Chelsea, Leicester)
More than one goal conceded – 4
Of all clubs, you never know with Leicester City, but although they are only one point behind holders Liverpool the sense is that the 2016 champions lose too many matches and are too inconsistent.
The Foxes can score plenty, netting two or more on nine occasions, including putting five past Manchester City at the Etihad. Yet they’ve failed to score on four occasions, more often than any of the other title contenders – and they’ve lost all four of those matches.
Somewhat worryingly, four of their five defeats have come at home, against West Ham, Villa, Fulham, and Everton, and some tricky customers still have to travel to the King Power – including Southampton, Leeds, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Spurs.
Question marks remain over Brendan Rodgers’s ability to build a tight defence, although they have had injury troubles there and in defensive midfield – and they have as many clean sheets as his former club Liverpool, five.
Two or more goals scored - 9
Clean sheets – 5
1-0 wins – 2
1 goal scored – 4
Failed to score – 4
More than one goal conceded – 7
After their flying start, with 13 points from five matches, the Toffees seemed to come unstuck; weakened by injuries at full back, they lost four matches out of five.
Yet they’ve recovered very well, losing just one of their last seven, winning five, and conceding only four goals in that spell.
That apparent defensive improvement is significant: even during their bright beginning they were leaking goals, seven in five matches, and they let in nine over the next four games.
The Blues need more up front, however, despite the dangerous Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s impressive 11-goal return. Richarlison may be the man who makes Everton tick in attack but the Brazilian’s goalscoring has reduced this season, with just two so far.
Boss Carlo Ancelotti’s recent acquisitions have all settled in superbly – Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure, James Rodriguez, and Ben Godfrey – but they’ll surely need even more Farhad Moshiri money to truly compete at the top again with a stronger squad.
As mentioned, ‘home advantage’ doesn’t seem to be as relevant without crowds, but perhaps it’s still worth considering fixture lists: Everton’s remaining away trips, for example, include Villa, Leeds, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City.
Two or more goals scored - 8
Clean sheets – 4
1-0 wins - 3
1 goal scored – 6
Failed to score – 3 (Southampton, Leeds, West Ham)
More than one goal conceded – 7.