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Can Manchester United — Or Anyone Else — Catch Chelsea For The EPL’s Final Champions League Spot?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Hello, and welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s soccer chats! They’re like our football chats, but about the other football, the better football. Every other week or so we’ll be discussing what’s happening in the English Premier League and Champions League.

And who is that we? Three Liverpool fans and a Gunner. My compatriots are also some of the best soccer analysts on the web. Grace Robertson writes for StatsBomb, among other places, and has some of the sharpest team analyses this side of José Mourinho’s halftime interviews. Ryan O’Hanlon is also with us, formerly of The Ringer and now the author of the best soccer analytics newsletter on the Internet, No Grass In The Clouds. (Seriously, subscribe.) And I’m especially excited to have Tony Chow, a FiveThirtyEight video producer and owner of, at last count, 33 different teams’ kits, with us. Tony cares so deeply about Arsenal that he can’t bear to watch its biggest matches. True fandom requires sacrifice.

Today, as we emerge from the EPL’s winter break, we’ll be talking about the scramble for fourth place and the final Champions League qualifying spot. Five teams — Sheffield United, Tottenham, Everton, Manchester United, Wolves — are within 6 points of Chelsea, who sit in fourth. (Some teams have played one more game than the others.) Before we zero in on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match coming up Monday, let’s discuss that scramble. Are some of these teams’ runs more sustainable than others?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): We should start off by saying that out of those five teams, our model gives Tottenham the best chance of finishing in fourth place at 14 percent, followed by Wolves (8 percent), Man. United (6 percent), Sheffield United (4 percent) and then Everton (3 percent). Take that for what you will.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Of this group of sides challenging for fourth, I think it’s clear that Chelsea are the front-runners. They have the most points on the board, SPI likes them the most, and even in their difficult winter, the underlying numbers have always been strong.

cwick: Grace, what are those underlying numbers?

grace: Chelsea are on a horrendous finishing slump. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, from the loss to Man. City in November onwards, the Blues have scored 16 goals from 24 expected goals and conceded 17 from 13.9 expected goals. That’s not something one would expect to continue in the long term.

Frank Lampard might say, “I don’t like xG,” but xG likes him!

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Given that they employ the best player in the world, I’d say Wolverhampton have the best chance of catching Chelsea.

tchow: Uhh Ryan, you’re gonna have to clarify that “best player in the world.” When did Messi transfer to the EPL?

cwick: You mean Adama “Soccer Player In A Rugby Man’s Body” Traore?

ryan: I’m upset that my point even requires clarification. And yes, Chad, I’m referring to Adama Traore. He’s among the leaders in take-ons in Europe’s Big Five leagues this season, but he’s actually turning all that ball-carrying into production this season, too. Per FBRef, he’s eighth in England in expected assists so far this year.

grace: About Wolves, Traore gets all the hype because he’s so exciting to watch, but they might have an even better attacker in Diogo Jota. He’s putting up 0.5 expected goals and assists per 90 this season, which is notable for such a defensively minded side.

ryan: But in seriousness, I do agree with Grace: Chelsea are better than that group, and they’ve got the points advantage.

tchow: To Grace’s point, our model gives Chelsea a 44 percent chance to finish in fourth place, which is the highest of any team. That checks out.

The one thing going against Chelsea is they have a very difficult schedule to close out the season. They still have Man. United this weekend and then Spurs right after. In March, they still have to face Everton and Man. City, and in May they have a meeting with Liverpool at Anfield. Although by the time they play Chelsea, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp might be playing his under-18s.

grace: In the stretch of the season where Chelsea really needed to be collecting points, the data suggests the performances were there, but the finishing wasn’t.

tchow: Yeah, 6 points between Jan. 1 – Feb. 1 is … not great.

ryan: The one thing about their xG numbers, though, is that their keeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, is … really bad.

grace: Maybe they can play the other keeper … who is also bad!

tchow: (Btw Chelsea fans, Thibaut Courtois is having a GREAT season at Real Madrid.)

cwick: I still can’t believe Kepa wouldn’t come off the field when then-Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri told him to last season. I still think about that every time Kepa comes up.

Why has Kepa been so bad? He was so expensive! Are keepers a crapshoot? Or can we identify good ones with analytics?

ryan: Derrick Yam, who’s now an analyst for the Baltimore Ravens, analyzed the Kepa move before he left Statsbomb for the NFL … and he basically found no evidence that Kepa was a Champions League-level keeper, let alone the most expensive keeper of all time!

grace: It seems like a classic case of traditional scouting disagreeing with the stats, and this round goes to the nerds.

ryan: In theory, keepers should be pretty easy to assess — at least when it comes to shot-stopping. You can quantify the likelihood that every shot a keeper faces will end up in the net, and then you can compare it to how many shots the keeper actually allowed in. But even that method can be pretty noisy from year to year.

grace: It’s also the case with Kepa that he came from Athletic Club, who have a unique policy of only hiring Basque players. That ensures it’s very expensive for any other team to pry them away, such is their lack of options for finding replacements.

To compare him to the next-most expensive keeper of all time, Alisson: We know Liverpool pay a lot of attention to analytics, and it almost certainly played a key role in signing Alisson, instead. Stats: they help!

tchow: If we want to continue piling on Kepa, he also has by far the worst save percentage among the starters of those six teams we’re talking about, at 53.6 percent according to Football Ref.

It almost feels like we’re all talking ourselves out of Chelsea finishing fourth. To be clear, I think we all still believe they’ll get that last Champions League spot, right?

grace: We complain about goalkeepers, but ultimately shot-stopping numbers are not hugely predictive. With the few shots on target a keeper faces, just a couple of goals being scored or not being scored can skew the numbers significantly. If they keep playing like they have been and convert chances at a more normal rate, they should get there.

ryan: This isn’t really a year where there’s a hidden great team that’s been unlucky. I just don’t see a strong candidate among the pack to make a run at a top-4 finish.

tchow: Now that the Christian Eriksen drama is over and done with, what about Tottenham?

cwick: It only takes one surprise, Ryan! Is it just a matter of too little too late for Tottenham?

tchow: It’s not too late! Spurs are only 4 points behind and have a slightly easier schedule the rest of the way in my opinion. I’m gonna say whoever wins that Feb. 22 matchup between Chelsea and Tottenham will get the last spot.

(How did I end up being the one defending Tottenham’s chances here?)

grace: I think Tottenham is really only an elite defensive midfielder short of being a Champions League side. With Giovani Lo Celso moving into a deeper role, they’re circulating the ball much better through central areas, but they still lack that control when out of possession. Otherwise, I think Mourinho has, perhaps surprisingly, improved them in a lot of ways.

ryan: But how much have they really improved?

tchow: They did beat Man. City, as fluky as that game was. That counts for something, no?

ryan: The Man. City game is more of a negative than a positive, in my opinion. The points are great! But the performance was … nightmarish.

cwick: This is a special kind of fever dream:

grace: I’m not sure they’re a great side, but at least they no longer appear totally dysfunctional.

tchow: As they say, you don’t need to be great to make the Champions League. You just need to not be dysfunctional. Isn’t that how the saying goes?

grace: Their game away to Chelsea on Feb. 22 is a huge one. Win that and hope Man. United cause Lampard some issues, and the picture looks very different. And no points for guessing how Mourinho will approach that game.

ryan: The FiveThirtyEight model gives ’em a 23 percent chance of winning that one. Better chance than Joe Biden becoming president! (Am I doing this right?)

cwick: Better chance than Biden winning a majority of Democratic delegates to become the party’s nominee, but close enough.

grace: As I recently established, Biden is Crystal Palace.

tchow: Next chat, we’re doing an “Every Presidential Candidate As An EPL Team” discussion.

grace: Mourinho has had some more attempts to work on a big game plan now. I think they’ll be closer to what he wants in this situation than they were against, say, Liverpool.

cwick: Speaking of, let’s talk about the Manchester United vs. Chelsea game this weekend. The two teams seem to be headed in opposite directions despite some obvious similarities: classic player installed as head coach, (arguably) an emphasis on talent over tactics and some big name players who haven’t quite panned out (Paul Pogba, Kepa). But how overly simplistic is that narrative?

tchow: WAIT, Chad! No one wants to make a case for the Sheffield United cinderella story ending in a CL spot?

ryan: They have 28 goals in 26 games. That kind of attack can’t win you enough points to finish fourth … right?

tchow: I keep hoping next game is the game Lys Mousset really catches fire and it hasn’t happened yet. But they’re only 2 points back.

ryan: Pour one out for David McGoldrick, single-handedly trying to destroy the concept of expected goals.

grace: To get to the Chelsea vs. Man. United question, I think United would quibble with “talent over tactics.” It was certainly the case under former managers Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal, but in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era they’ve made a concerted effort to sign younger players who fit the system. It’s just that they’re not especially good players.

Man. United just have had no one capable of passing the ball forward without Pogba. Their most prominent players in terms of moving the ball into the final third per 90, other than the Frenchman, are Fred and Ashley Young. When you’re relying on Fred and Ashley Young to move the ball forward, you have problems. Bruno Fernandes, who they just signed, is obviously the guy hired to fix this, but we’ve yet to see if he can do it at Old Trafford.

ryan: Also not a good sign: Ashley Young isn’t on the team anymore! Also also not a good sign: it being a problem when you lose Ashley Young!

grace: Man. United are very conservative in possession, while Fernandes is consistently an extreme risk taker. It could lead to a perfect balance or a weird mix that doesn’t work at all.

ryan: United have the fourth-best xG differential in the league, per FBRef. Are we underrating them?

cwick: That’s very surprising to me, Ryan — whenever I watch a United game I get the sense that it’s all hanging together by a thread. Maybe that’s the OGS-is-overmatched narrative crowding out my rational side, though.

grace: I think they’re a very solid defensive side. SPI rates their defense as fifth-best in the league, but at basically a dead heat with Chelsea and Wolves. So outside of Liverpool and Man City, there aren’t many more solid units.

ryan: They’ve won nine penalties, which has super-charged their attacking numbers in a probably unsustainable way. But I do think there’s a perception issue with United: They’re rich as hell, so watching them turgidly squeeze out defense-first results that are “fourth-best by xG” feels disappointing.

cwick: Not that they’ve converted them all, Ryan…

tchow: This weekend’s game is gonna be a 0-0 draw isn’t it?

ryan: Not with Kepa back there, Tony!

grace: There’s an aesthetic issue as well. They get good numbers by digging deep with a well-organized but limited group of players, despite having all the money in the world.

cwick: For what it’s worth, we have Chelsea as a 58 percent favorite to win; Man. United with only a 19 percent shot. (Home field has something to do with that.)

tchow: Simply put, if Man. United’s attack was working out the way they think it should, we wouldn’t be hearing the loud rumors of them going after Jack Grealish and James Maddison.

ryan: I think it’s also possible that United’s defense is only as good as it is BECAUSE the attack is so weak and unaggressive.

grace: It feels like this side was configured to let Pogba be the creative hub, but he’s been so absent this season that they have nothing else, at least unless Fernandes clicks straight away.

tchow: Pogba should be returning soon. Now THAT might be a case of too little too late.

ryan: Fernandes should give them some adventurous passing, but I also worry that he’s just gonna exacerbate an existing problem. This team already takes some of the worst shots in the league. And Bruno is the king of long-range no-hopers.

grace: Realistically, if Pogba is leaving in the summer there’s a case that they should spend the rest of this season planning for life without him anyway.

tchow: Exactly, Grace. I think all these midfielder names you see flying around are the start of a plan for a Pogba-less Old Trafford.

cwick: The Pogba void is palpable, for sure. It does make me wonder about team-building models, and whether United essentially overleveraged its squad on a phenom, whereas Chelsea has spread the phenom potential across a few different positions. Or am I being uncharitable to Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford?

ryan: It certainly feels like Chelsea stumbled into this hyper-speed rebuild. They have an army of kids out on loan, and they were also given a transfer ban. So they were forced to play the kids, and it turns out that those kids are all pretty good!

cwick: if only the U.S. Men’s National Team had the same luck.

tchow: Did someone say long-range no-hopers and not mention Hakim Ziyech, Chelsea’s latest acquisition?

grace: I think Rashford really could be a big player going forward, so long as he recovers from injury without issue. According to FBRef.com, he leads Man. United in expected goals and assists per 90. And at 22 we’re likely looking at another 2 years before he hits peak age.

cwick: This is such an optimistic Man. United narrative! I love it. My friends who root for them, and the relentless anti-OGS narrative on NBC Sports, has made me think they were a lost cause. Is there no reason for them to keep Pogba, then? Cut the losses and move on?

ryan: They should keep him because he’s awesome. But I doubt he wants to keep playing for a team that’s not in the Champions League.

grace: Pogba effectively has two years left on his contract, and if he’s not signing another one, they should sell and reinvest.

tchow: It’s tough for me to see a world where Pogba remains in Manchester at this point. They should sell and free themselves of that £290,000-a-week bill. Pogba deserves CL football. Give the man what he wants.

ryan: As for the anti-OGS narrative, I think it goes back to what this team’s expectations should be. They’re one of the three richest teams in the world, and they’re struggling to even finish in the top four of their own league. I actually think OGS has shown himself to be a roughly average manager — gets his team’s talent playing at its proper level. But, there are two issues with that: 1) United should have better talent than this, and 2) They can afford a manager who really lifts all boats.

grace: They do have a clear strategy under Solskjaer and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward that wasn’t the case in the past, so it’s a start. It’s just not clear that the two of them have anything like the expertise to properly execute on it.

ryan: Their quest to sign every player who has a remote connection with Norway is not a good sign.

grace: Connections to Norway, or players managed by Ryan Giggs at international level.

ryan: Sign Gareth Bale this summer.

grace: Joe Allen is the man to solve their midfield woes.

ryan: I hear Aaron Ramsey is getting restless in Turin, too.

tchow:

tchow: OGS has Europa League champion ambitions, and I mean that as a compliment. Kinda.

cwick: Tony, just because Arsenal can’t escape the Europa League doesn’t make the Europa League something worth aspiring to.

cwick: OK, so to review, we are believers in Chelsea but not its keeper scout squad, we are disbelievers in an all-Norwegian team-building strategy, and we have managed to not mention Liverpool seriously a single time in an EPL chat. That’s an impressive inaugural outing everyone.

grace: I think I briefly mentioned Liverpool!

tchow: Talking about Liverpool is SOOOO BORING nowadays.

cwick: They are inescapable!!! (Because they are so good and a platonic ideal of soccerrrrr.)

tchow: CONGRATS ALEX OXLADE-CHAMBERLAIN ON WINNING THE PREMIER LEAGUE!!

cwick: Letting go of Ox is all that stopped Arsenal from doing so every year for the past three years, Tony.

grace: Liverpool right now, with no chat talk:

tchow: End it, Chad!! Three Liverpool fans could go another three hours at this point.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin is a deputy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

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