A new season of the English Premier League has arrived! We’ve dragged our scarves out of storage, dusted off our Britishisms and settled down at the computer to chat about the season to come.
Chadwick Matlin (senior editor): Hello! I promise not to use too many cliches about the British. Before we start, let’s consult FiveThirtyEight’s new club soccer predictions, which estimate every EPL team’s chance of winning the league and making the Champions League. There’s a lot of uncertainty in which team will win — the favorite has only a 27 percent of winning as of now.
But let’s start there: FiveThirtyEight’s projections say that Manchester City is likeliest to end up on top. Does that make sense, given the transfer market and how last season ended?
Neil Paine (senior sportswriter): Certainly on paper, City is “supposed” to be the best team — just like they were going into last season, for what that was worth. They had the EPL’s best possession rate last season, the best ratio of shots taken to shots conceded, and the top percentage of play in the opponent’s third of the field. So you could argue that even as they finished third last season, they played the best of any team — and they still have the Premier League’s most talented roster, according to sources like the player-valuation site Transfermarkt.
Tony Chow (video producer): I think “supposed to” is the key phrase here. The Citizens certainly seem to have added all the right players. They’ve splashed money on a supposed better goalkeeper in Ederson. They added key players like Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to supposedly help with a spotty defense. I’m not saying City shouldn’t be listed as favorites this season. When you give a coach like Pep Guardiola one full season to get acclimated AND allow him to spend over 200 million pounds on transfers, it should be title or bust for City fans this season. But I still think it remains to be seen how all these pieces work together. It’s a lot of ifs.
Chadwick: An aside: Is it rare to find a one-name goalkeeper, as Ederson essentially is? if you’re going to go one-name, I always thought you needed to score goals.
Neil: Yes, flair is usually essential for a single-namer.
Chadwick: Neil, get to work on your all-time ranking of one-name soccer players.
Chadwick: So if Man City wins the league, they’d supplant Chelsea, which steamrolled their way to the championship last season. Our model says they have the next best chance of winning the league (20 percent), which to me reflects their so-so transfer market pick-ups. Am I — or our model — missing something?
Neil: In some ways, Chelsea probably overachieved in getting to 93 points last season, so the model is probably anticipating some regression. If you believe in the possession and shot-quality metrics as good predictors of success, Chelsea was not overly impressive in that department last season. The team also had a mixed transfer window, so the predictions don’t think their talent is much improved. That said, they still have one of the EPL’s best rosters.
Tony: The 20 percent chance for Chelsea surprised me actually. I’m reminded of a piece we wrote last season about Arsenal with the headline “Arsenal Stood Still While Its Rivals Got Better.” It seems like the same could be true for Chelsea this season. Yes, they brought in a promising striker in Alvaro Morata, but they lost Nemanja Matic, a key player in their title-winning season, to a rival (Man U). Also, their star, Eden Hazard, is hurt for the beginning of the season. A legitimate title defense will most likely have to wait until he returns.
Neil: Hazard plays a huge role in that Chelsea offense. He was second in the EPL last season in successful “take-ons,” with 143, and his 75 percent success rate in 1-vs-1 situations was much, much higher than the overall EPL average of 55 percent.
Chadwick: OK, now on to Man U, which made the splashiest signing in the Premier League this transfer window, sniping Romelu Lukaku from Everton for about 75 million pounds. Lukaku replaces Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Man U seems primed to once again make a run at glory after several years out of the top three. Our model gives them an 18 percent of winning the league — is Man U ready to be obnoxiously good again?
Neil: It really has been a drought for United. They haven’t won the league since 2012-13, and in fact, over that span, they haven’t finished higher than fourth. You have to go back to the late 1980s to find another stretch quite so barren. But there’s been a lot of buzz this offseason about how Man U might be poised for a comeback.
Tony: Never bet against Jose Mourinho in his second season with a team.
Chadwick: Why do you say that, Tony?
Tony: The guy has won a league title in the second season of every one of the teams he’s managed (Porto, Inter, Chelsea, Real Madrid and then Chelsea again). I wouldn’t be surprised if this pattern continues.
Lukaku might be getting all the buzz, but Man United’s path back to glory will have to come through the former most expensive player in the world, Paul Pogba. He had a good but not great debut in the Premier League last season (5 goals, 4 assists), but the addition of Matic to Man United’s midfield should allow Pogba to have a breakout season.
Neil: Matic’s passing could open up a new dimension for United. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, he added 4.3 goals above average with his passing — thanks to not only a really high completion percentage on his own passes, but also a stellar success rate for teammates on plays following his passes.
Tony: Yeah, that’s a scary, scary duo in midfield for the Red Devils.
Chadwick: Anything’s possible without Wayne Rooney.
OK, next up: the second tier of the top tier — Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool.
I feel like Tottenham was all the rage in the U.S. a few years ago for people just starting to stumble their way into EPL fandom, but the Spurs never quite seem to be able to break through. They haven’t signed any starter of note, and their rivals have gotten better. The model is giving Tottenham a 13 percent chance of winning the league, but that seems somehow too high for me. You guys?
Tony: Why are all new American soccer fans seemingly Tottenham fans?
Neil: Blame Bill Simmons.
Tony: 13 percent seems about right to me. They still have two-time Golden Boot winner Harry Kane. To me, the biggest questions facing Tottenham are how they deal with the loss of Kyle Walker to Man City and how they adjust to not being able to play at White Hart Lane while it undergoes renovations. They were undefeated at home last season (17 wins, 0 losses, 2 draws), and now they no longer have that home-field advantage.
Neil: The Spurs did probably overachieve more than any other EPL team last year. They were no Leicester in 2015, of course, but they finished with 28 more points than our model projected last season, and a lot of that was on the strength of some favorable shooting and save percentages (what’s known as ‘PDO’), which are more variable stats than something like possession rate. Plus, like you mentioned, they did next to nothing of note on the transfer market. A regression could be coming.
Tony: The save percentages — is that all because of Hugo Lloris, or do solid defensive players factor into that as well?
Neil: It’s probably a combination of both. Lloris is pretty well-regarded, but there’s also a big luck component that will likely fall away — particularly on offense, where they took a league-high 47 percent of their shots from outside the box last season. Those generally aren’t good scoring chances.
Chadwick: OK — on to Arsenal. They have a 10 percent chance of winning the league and a 46 percent chance of making the Champions League. Tony, do you need to excuse yourself because of a conflict of interest?
Tony: I’m going to try my best to hide my biases, but based on my calculations, I think Arsenal is going to win the league.
Chadwick: Of all the teams in the top six, Arsenal seems like the one most likely to crater. (Doesn’t mean there’s a high chance of that, though.) Alexis Sanchez may not be there in a few weeks, Arsene Wenger barely held on to his job last season and Tony’s spirit animal, Mesut Ozil, isn’t getting younger. Tony, shine your optimistic light upon me!
Tony: One word: Lacazette. Wenger should be pleased with what he’s seen from Lacazette in preseason, and his performances should help mitigate any off-field turmoil and contract negotiations that are sure to dominate Arsenal talks this season.
Neil: Like we mentioned with Tottenham, though, Arsenal relied on a pretty fortunate combination of percentages last season — they led the Premier League in PDO, which will probably come back down to earth, while they only ranked sixth in the ratio of shots taken to shots allowed. Having said that, they have a better talent base than the Spurs do (for now), so they might weather the regression better.
Chadwick: Tony, I saw you pacing around the office on game days last season bemoaning a team you felt was going nowhere. Is it just the hopeful air of summer that has you high on them, or do you really see it all coming together?
Tony: There’s a famous saying among Gunner fandom — “form is temporary, fourth is permanent” — and although they failed to live up to even that self-deprecating motto last season, I do believe they have better than a 46 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League.
Chadwick: OK on to our final significant contender: Liverpool, which seems like they still have some work to do in the transfer market if they want to make a real run at the Champions League. Depth seems to be the real issue after a quiet transfer season, and extra games are looming because of their tournament play.
Tony: Depth is definitely their biggest issue. They were hampered by injuries last year to key players like Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and, of course, Daniel Sturridge. AND Sturridge and Lallana are already injured starting this year. Plus, they haven’t really done anything this summer. Their biggest transfer is Mohamed Salah, and while he makes them probably the fastest attacking team in the league, he doesn’t add any depth to their starting 11.
Neil: Liverpool were another team that slightly outplayed expectations last season, but their underlying numbers also ended up being top-notch — they were second in both possession rate and share of shots taken in their games. So who knows what exactly to make of them this season?
Tony: All this is not even taking into account that their main creative player, Philippe Coutinho, could be gone by the end of this transfer season. As much as Jurgen Klopp is denying it, if this happens, that 8 percent chance of winning the league will drop drastically.
Out of these six teams, any combination of four teams wouldn’t surprise me to qualify for Champions League next season.
Chadwick: All right, enough with the good teams. On to the ones that might fail spectacularly. And, yes, that includes you, Everton.
Tony: To be fair to Everton fans, our projections give them only a 5 percent chance of being relegated. No way that really happens, right?
Neil: It would be pretty shocking — but the fact it’s that high for a team we’re projecting to finish seventh underscores how much of a gap there is between the top six and the rest of the league.
Chadwick: Besides the six teams we’ve already discussed, the FiveThirtyEight soccer model thinks every other team has at least a 1 in 20 chance of being relegated. More teams have a legitimate chance of being kicked out of the league than winning it!
Neil: Is that normal? Certainly the EPL isn’t usually held up as a bastion of competitive balance.
Tony: Yeah, it’s not looking like there will be a Leicester City-circa-2015 this year.
Neil: Although to be fair, it wasn’t looking like there would be a Leicester 2015 in 2015, either.
Chadwick: Last season, our model somehow projected even more teams as having a 5 percent chance of being relegated.
Neil: True. But the teams with the highest probabilities of relegation last year were still somewhat likely to stay in the EPL. Crystal Palace was the highest, at 32 percent. This season, the two most likely relegation candidates — Huddersfield and Brighton — are both more than 45 percent likely to be bumped back down to the Championship.
Chadwick: And here I thought I had finally found a Premier League team to root for in Huddersfield.
Tony: I thought you were an Arsenal fan, Chad?
Chadwick: I’m already a Mets fan, Tony.
All right, any final thoughts before we log off and Tony tries to convince me that it’s somehow coincidental that Arsenal has a coach named Arsene?
Neil: It seems like all signs are pointing to another top-heavy year. I’m interested in the battle at the top: Chelsea’s title defense against Man City’s sheer talent.
Tony: Both Pep and Jose begin their sophomore efforts with good teams, and it’ll be interesting to see how their successes and failures are covered and compared. It’s looking like those Manchester derbies will be incredibly important games this year.
Also, COYG!! I’m allowed to say that right? Too late. COYG!!
Chadwick: Tony, is that English? Maybe all too English, come to think of it.