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The Premier League Is Going To Have An Exciting Finish To A So-So Season

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Grace, Ryan, Tony — what a wild English Premier League season! The eventual champions looked mediocre for the first couple months. Top-tier clubs dumped their managers. And more than a quarter of the teams tried to form an entirely different league. And now, on the eve of the last match of the season, one thing is still up in the air: Who is going to make the Champions League? Three teams are in contention for the final two spots, with Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester all scrambling to get their goal differentials in order.

Let’s start there, and then we can talk about the season as a whole. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Liverpool a 91 percent chance of making it, Chelsea an 82 percent chance and Leicester a 27 percent chance. How do those probabilities sit with you?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): That checks out to me. Liverpool and Chelsea are in control of determining their European chances next season, while Leicester has to do well against Tottenham AND also hope the other results go their way.

cwick: That +4 in goal differential between Liverpool and Leicester is just a killer for Leicester’s chances.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): The model is clearly weighting that Liverpool has the easiest game to play (vs. Crystal Palace at home). Otherwise it feels like a crapshoot to me.

tchow: Liverpool also beat Crystal Palace 7-0 away when the two teams met earlier in the season.

grace: We could be in for one of the most incredible season endings ever if Leicester somehow overturns that goal difference.

tchow: It would be pretty incredible if Leicester overturns that goal differential. I just can’t see it happening. When was the last time Spurs allowed more than three goals?

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): What’s fun about these games — in comparison to the probabilities — is that we really don’t know how hard the teams that aren’t in contention are going to try. There’s been research into how teams with nothing to play for perform … and they perform worse than expected.

grace: There’s also the effect of playing in front of fans for the first time in months. Even if teams technically have nothing to play for, it might feel like more of a showpiece event to the players.

ryan: Spurs just feel like a complete mystery to me. On the one hand, it’s a more talented team than Leicester, in my opinion. On the other, its best player, Harry Kane, just told the team he wants to leave. Early returns on how he’ll play post-asking-to-leave were not great! He completed 11 passes in 90 minutes against Aston Villa this week.

tchow: A lot of last-semester-of-senior-year energy from Kane.

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grace: See, in England we just have brutal exams at that time and everyone’s stressed. So Kane has never had the chance for that feeling.

ryan: The key is to secure the job BEFORE finals. C’mon, Harry.

cwick: Let’s dwell a bit on Leicester, and how it coughed up its standings lead. When we spoke about the team in past chats, we were relatively unimpressed and couldn’t quite figure out what its winning formula was, despite its wins. And sure enough, FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index has Leicester rated worse than Arsenal and equivalent to Brighton, a team with 25 fewer points in the standings. So what’s the real Leicester? Are we seeing it now?

ryan: I think you could make an argument that Leicester is the fifth-best team in the league, but you can’t really get any higher than that with a straight face.

grace: Leicester has still scored over 10 goals more than expected, by FBRef. I think it was always a stretch for top four at least in terms of ability. As I mentioned the other day, the four richest teams in England are now in the top four places. Imagine that!

ryan: Leicester won a bunch of penalties early in the season, and then rode some hot finishing from James Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho at points over the past few months, but it was awful against Chelsea the other day and barely created anything against Manchester United’s C-team last week.

tchow: For some reason, I think that early five-goal performance against Man. City this season colored a lot of people’s perceptions about Leicester early on. It did have some impressive wins this season though (including home wins against Chelsea and Liverpool)!

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ryan: But even those wins have question marks: Chelsea was Frank Lampard’s last game, and Liverpool totally dominated them for the first 70 minutes until … Ozan Kabak collided with Alisson and everything fell apart.

grace: Chelsea and Leicester played each other twice in a few days and each won one of those games. Because them’s the breaks, Leicester won the FA Cup and now Chelsea look very likely for top four. But it could’ve easily gone the other way.

cwick: Which would a team rather have, the FA Cup or a season of Champions League play?

grace: At the risk of upsetting traditionalists, within the club it surely has to be Champions League.

tchow: If it’s about the money, there’s no question.

cwick: And I’m sure Champions League helps with recruitment, too.

grace: If the fans would rather see their team win a trophy, that’s totally reasonable, but internally it has to be the money.

ryan: Thomas Tuchel even said Chelsea’s priority was top four, not the FA Cup.

cwick: As I am on record saying, trophies are overrated. More games = more narrative = more fun for fans.

tchow: I still think the FA Cup means something pretty special for fans (says the Arsenal fan).

ryan: I think Arsenal is a pretty good example of how a cup can make a club think it’s better than it actually is, but I don’t see that happening to Leicester.

grace: It’s not as though Leicester’s business model relies on top four every year. It can just keep running the same plan again and again.

cwick: Let’s move on to Liverpool, if only so you guys can take your victory lap. Earlier this season, we dedicated an entire chat to Liverpool’s sputtering campaign, and whether the team was as bad as I assured you it was. You all said no. I said your head was too buried in your xG spreadsheets.

I was wrong.

grace: Since that chat on Liverpool was published, Klopp’s side has played at a 97-point pace.

ryan: Nat Phillips is a legit Ballon d’Or candidate.

tchow: You were an Alison header goal away from being pretty right though, Chad.

cwick: Tony, if you want me to embed that miracle so we can all watch again, you just have to ask.

Is it as simple as saying that the breaks started going Liverpool’s way again, so it all evens out in the end?

grace: If we’re being charitable, I think we’ve seen a greater degree of consistency in Liverpool’s selections, while Thiago seems to be understanding the system more, which has moved the team closer to last year’s’ performance. But mostly, I just think this has felt so dramatic due to variance and distribution of results over the season. This was always a top-four quality team.

ryan: Yeah, Liverpool’s underlying performance had a tiny lull at one point, but it’s been pretty consistent throughout the season:

cwick: You have all been very restrained in your dunks on me. Unnecessary, but thank you.

ryan: I believe you called yourself “a meathead” in that chat. Chad, the meathead, deserves to enjoy Big Nat.

cwick: Let’s leave the race for the top four behind, then, and discuss the season as a whole. We’ve talked in the past about how play has changed because of the specter of COVID-19, in particular with slower, more possession-driven play. Anything else stand out now that we’ve reached the end?

grace: It’s been a nightmare to organize a coordinated, high-pressing system this year. Unless you’re Leeds United and you can wave a magic wand somehow.

ryan: From a player perspective, it feels like we’ve seen a number of “high-usage playmaker”-types stand out this season. Teams have mostly moved away from that kind of player, but I wonder if the pace of play allowed the likes of Kane, Jack Grealish and Bruno Fernandes to get on the ball a ton and influence things more than they’d normally be able to.

tchow: On a completely different note, from just a “product” perspective, I was pretty struck by how much I missed the fans after watching the recent games this past week. I was kind of getting accustomed to the empty stadiums and hearing the players pretty well. But when I heard the fans again, it got to me more than I thought it would.

cwick: Same, Tony. In part I think it was because the white noise of fake fans was finally silenced. (When I went to a Mets game last week, they piped the white noise INTO THE STADIUM. I couldn’t believe it.)

grace: I do wonder if the general fatigue this season has opened up “zone 14″ (the space where a classic number 10 operates) more than in the past, letting someone like Bruno just do his thing in a way he couldn’t two years ago.

ryan: It’ll be interesting to see if that space remains after most of these players don’t get much time off this summer, or if having the fans back and a tiny bit more rest pushes things past the higher tempo of the previous couple seasons.

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grace: Mostly, stale possession is a killer in this era. It seems so much harder to exert intensity in the press to really shut it down.

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grace: We have no idea right now if the tempo is down because of fitness or just players not feeling the heat of the fans screaming at them to play it forward quickly. I think about Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United squad from several years ago. He wanted to play a slow-possession style, but the fans were constantly getting irritated by it. Maybe that team would’ve been good in the COVID-19 era?

tchow: Would you three say you were bored by the football this season then?

ryan: It’s been one of the least enjoyable seasons I can remember.

tchow: Now that I think about it, I really can’t think of any “exciting” games.

ryan: I think Alisson’s header will be the defining moment from this season, and that might not even end up mattering!

cwick: Interesting. I latched on to this season and watched more non-Liverpool matches than ever. Loved watching Leeds’ IDGAF approach to defense. Loved City’s slow, determined march. And loved trying to understand why Chelsea couldn’t put it all together. 

But there I go talking about narrative again. I think I care more about the macro than the micro. And this season had some decent macro.

ryan: It did … and yet, as Grace said, the four richest teams are probably going to finish in the top four.

cwick: Any good stathead knows it’s about the process, not the outcome, Ryan.

grace: This is hard to quantify, but I think there have been a lot more games of teams just kind of seeing it out once the result is clear. With fans, there’s at least more of a nudge to keep going and trying to score.

ryan: So you’re predicting six-goal wins for both Liverpool and Leicester on Sunday, then?

grace: The fans are back — it’s time to put on a show.

tchow: The fans will demand it!

cwick: These days, the fans get what they demand!

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The play may not have been great, but were there great performers? Who’s your player of the year?

tchow: This was the season of Phil Foden, no?

ryan: It’s Harry Kane, easily.

grace: Yes, Kane is the clear answer to me. After a couple of down years, he’s come back to his best as a dominant striker, despite the team giving him so little.

ryan: He’s leading the league in goals AND assists. We don’t need to overthink this, people.

cwick: Wait, what happened to Bruno?

ryan: He scored nine non-penalty goals. Nice season. Not even close to Harry Kane.

cwick: You’re all so obsessed with goals.

tchow: This gets at the debate behind the “MVP” award. Should a player win POTY if his team does not do well?

grace: I know Kane hasn’t been playing for a good team, which he seems not thrilled about, but this has otherwise been some of the best football he’s ever played. Even in 2017-18, he wasn’t creating like this.

ryan: Harry Kane is also doing a ton of work in buildup play — ton of progressive passes and passes into the penalty area — and he’s also leading the league in expected goals plus expected assists. He’s pretty much pushing his production to the absolute limit.

I don’t know why I keep saying “Harry Kane.”

tchow: But Tottenham is going to finish sixth at best!

ryan: There are 11 players on each team. He can only do so much!

grace: That’s what’s so impressive about it! They’ve needed him to be everything and he’s done it.

ryan: Swap Harry Kane with Phil Foden or Bruno and … Spurs are barely a midtable team. 

I did it again! I’m incapable of not saying “Harry” and “Kane.”

tchow: Ryan coming in with the Grantland MVP argument. If you swap Kane with an average striker, Spurs are a bottom-half-of-the-table team. With him, they’ll most likely be sixth or at least get into Europa Conference League. It’s a good argument.

grace: Can we call this an official award? The FiveThirtyEight Premier League Player of the Season 2020-21: Harry Kane?

tchow: We should definitely have that as an official award, and if it’s based purely on stats, it is tough to argue against Kane. But I have a hard time giving it to a player on a bad team!

cwick: Liberate yourself from the standings, Tony! (Steph Curry would like you to, as well.)

grace: Tony, I would have thought you’d support the achievements of a fellow Arsenal fan.

tchow: Harry Kane, come to Arsenal. Come home!

ryan: He can win his first trophy there, too: The UEFA Conference League.

tchow: Arsenal will not qualify for the Europa Conference League.

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Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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

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.