cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Readers! It’s been ages since we last came to you with our half-baked ideas about who the greatest soccer player in the world is, well-meaning jokes about Tony’s outrageous collection of soccer kits, and deeply-researched analysis about what is happening in the English Premier League and Champions Leagues.
It’s such a treat to be back and joined once again by Ryan O’Hanlon, Tony Chow, and Grace Robertson for the rest of this soccer season. They’re the sharpest minds around about the analytical, psychological and sociological realities of global soccer, and at least one of them is convinced Arsenal’s best days are ahead of it.
Crew! How’d you spend your time away from these chats?
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grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I’ve been staying home, staying safe, and having absolutely no sense of time since the Premier League is on 24/7 now.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): That period between our last chat and now was a time of self-reflection for me. There was a lot of anger. There was a lot of crying. And you know what? Not much has changed since actually.
cwick: In case that somehow didn’t make it clear, we should note for new readers that Tony is the Arsenal fan among us.
ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I’ve missed you guys! I hesitate to admit this publicly, but I held my own “chats” where I played all four roles myself, every other week.
tchow: Ryan, you cheated on us???
ryan: No, quite the opposite. “I think the Rob Holding signing was a great value!” See, my Tony impersonation is pitch-perfect.
tchow: Ryan I know some clubs who would LOVE to have a center back like Rob Holding right now.
grace: Maybe we can be the Mauricio Pochettino of chats this year. Having won nothing, perhaps we’ll win a trophy from our first chat this season.
cwick: We’ve reconvened about halfway through the EPL season, and so much has already happened. (Especially to Virgil Van Dijk’s ACL.) Yet the top of the table is just as muddled as it was before the season began (if not moreso). Manchester United head into the weekend in first, but six teams are within six points and Chelsea isn’t even one of them. So we thought we could go through the six teams most actively challenging for the trophy, and talk through how likely they are to end the season on top.
So let’s work our way up and start with the team in sixth: Tottenham. They were atop the table at times this season but have just a 2 percent chance to win according to our EPL forecast. Is the forecast wrong?
grace: I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that Spurs win the league, but everything has to break right for them and Jose Mourinho needs to adapt his approach. There’s a lot of multiplying probabilities and such there.
cwick: Grace, what does Mourinho need to change? How has it been limiting Spurs?
ryan: Seems right to me. They’re probably somewhere between the third- and sixth-best team in the league. Given the way they play, they don’t really seem like a team that’ll come from behind.
grace: The world where Spurs win the league is if they keep finishing shots extremely well at 0-0, then Mourinho stops putting the handbrake on so much while they’re ahead. It’s a battle between Jose’s best and worst impulses. They’re arguably the best team in England at turning 1-0 into 2-0, but Mourinho often just doesn’t seem interested in doing that.
ryan: If I could sum it up in one number, it’d be this: Spurs have allowed 58 more passes into the penalty area than they’ve completed. Only Wolves, Burnley, Newcastle, and West Brom have worse margins. Not the company you wanna be keeping if you wanna win a title!
tchow: They have pulled off some impressive wins so far this season though (particularly against Man City back in November and Man United way back at the beginning of the season). Unfortunately, they have a tough schedule coming up.
grace: If they could just get Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso in the same midfield, that’s a lot of creative passing to help solve some of the issues Ryan is mentioning, but Mourinho doesn’t seem interested.
cwick: Is there something about Mourinho’s style that has made Kane and Son even more dominant on the stat sheets than they were before? 12 goals for Son; 11 for Kane. (Along with 11 assists for the latter!)
ryan: Their entire approach is built around getting the ball to Kane and then to Son in transition. I do think Mourinho’s done a great job of getting the best out of his best two players; he just hasn’t gotten the best out of anyone else on the attacking end. After those two, Sergio Reguillon has attempted the most shots. He, of course, is a fullback.
grace: If only they had some kind of goalscoring midfielder at the club who could be useful to get shots.
tchow: Yea their next highest goal scorer after Kane and Son is Ndombele, who has 2 goals this season in the league.
grace: Though part of the shot-taking issue here is that Gareth Bale has just bombed. I have to imagine they were expecting more from him.
cwick: OK let’s move on to Everton, who is in fifth place in the table and … eighth in our forecast. (Less than 1 percent chance of winning the league.) James Rodriguez was a big boon to them early on but injuries kept him on the sideline as Everton scrapped through some fixtures. Has the team already reached its ceiling?
tchow: I think Everton and Everton fans would be really happy with a Champions League place (the FiveThirtyEight model gives them a 13 percent chance of doing that). That seemed a lot more likely before Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s injury.
ryan: It’s funny. They added James, while DCL made a leap, and yet their expected goal differential per 90 minutes is the exact same as it was last year, per FBref.
tchow: They need to sign another forward in this transfer window if they really want a chance at making this happen, and even then it’s a big ask.
grace: Everton have been on a bit of a hot run finishing-wise, and I think this might be around the ceiling for their talent right now. Ancelotti has done a good job getting them here.
tchow: So I guess to answer Chad’s question. I think their ceiling is a Champions League spot which is still possible, but not likely in my opinion.
grace: Sounds about right to me.
ryan: They have no fullbacks, which has also been a bit of an issue. I think if they can get DCL, Richarlison, James, Lucas Digne, and Allan on the field together for most of the rest of the season, they’ll be a slightly better team than the numbers suggest.
cwick: Are they likely to get better as the next few seasons unfold? Is this the beginning of their window?
grace: I think it depends on which matters more: guys like James and Allan hitting the post-30 years of the age curve or Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and others coming into their peak years.
ryan: Yeah, the only internal bounce might come from Richarlison and DCL, and then there’s also the chance someone else comes in and buys one of ‘em.
grace: I think they’re in the Wilfried Zaha zone where no one can really pay the ungodly amount of money it’d cost to get them out.
ryan: Probably only three or four teams who could do it, and I’m not sure any of them will ever want to.
grace: And one of them is Liverpool who Everton would never sell to.
tchow: Now we’re getting into pure speculation territory but with the season DCL has had, he seems like that classic English striker who gets scooped up by the bigger EPL clubs, the ones that can pay the ungodly amount of money. Or the kind that goes to Spain.
ryan: Fifteen years ago, and he’s on Manchester United next season.
grace: Exactly, Ferguson calls Moyes and that deal happens tomorrow for below market value.
cwick: Next: Leicester City in fourth (29 percent chance of qualifying for Champions League, less than 1 percent to win), again stalking the upper echelon thanks to Jamie Vardy. Vardy has 11 goals and five assists and continues to be a pain to opposing sides. Is anything different with Vardy this season than in years past?
grace: He has six from penalties, which helps. But he has been good at stripping away more and more from his game as he ages and focusing on playing in the box.
tchow: I’m going to be honest. I don’t know what to make of this Leicester team. They just kinda always seem to be hanging around. Like that random person you keep bumping into at house parties. (Remember those?)
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ryan: If you strip out the penalties, they actually have a negative expected-goal differential. I’m not sure if that’s fair since Vardy is the Messi of drawing penalties, but it’s certainly not a good sign! Like, last year they got unlucky with injuries and actually played reasonably well down the stretch despite the collapse out of the Top Four. This year … they haven’t been all that good, but they’ve been getting the results.
cwick: Do they have an xPK stat yet?
ryan: Vardy has single-handedly made it impossible to unskew the dataset.
cwick: Alright now to where the real action is: the top three. These teams are the only ones with more than a 2 percent chance of winning the EPL, according to our model, and it’s the team in third that has the best shot. Our model loved Manchester City even when they were in the middle of the table, and it now thinks Pep’s crew has a 70 percent chance of winning the league, despite City having been unable to get the ball in the net at times this season.
So, is the model right? Is City the favorite? And if so, what was with the early season struggles?
ryan: Betting markets agree. Sporting Index has them finishing five points clear of second.
tchow: I think our model can feel pretty good about sticking with Man City even through those October/November months. I got a number of messages and saw a lot of chatter online wondering why the model still had them as favorites even though they were 8 or 9 points behind Liverpool at one point. That said, 70 percent seems considerably too high given how close the race is at this point.
grace: I think City are favorites, yes. They’ve really started turning it on recently and now have the best xG difference in the league once again. If the early stumbles are just that then they have every chance of really blowing everyone away.
tchow: It helps that when you seem unable to get the ball in the net, you’re pretty good at preventing the other team from doing so as well.
grace: They’ve been really good at turning down the high press this year, and with everyone exhausted in the Covid condensed schedule era, it’s helping.
cwick: Grace, you wrote about the exhaustion in your newsletter recently. Can you say more about how that’s affecting play?
grace: Every team is down in terms of the number of pressure events they’re exerting per game. The intensity seems to have dropped off in the numbers and to my eyes. City have done a clearer job than most in focusing that and reorganizing their game around this lack of energy.
ryan: Pep Guardiola put it pretty plainly the other day: “The only difference is that we run less. We were running too much. When you play football you have to walk — or run much much less.” Ladies and gentlemen, A Football Genius.
cwick: If there were ever a season I could hack it in the EPL, this is it.
cwick: Grace, what does it mean to reorganize around a lack of energy? Different formations?
grace: I would say the biggest thing is not pressing so high and aggressively, and thus staying a bit more compact and deeper without the ball. It’s hard to press without 100 percent commitment from everyone.
ryan: Seems like they’re being a little more careful with the ball, too, right? Not as many shots and not as many passes into the penalty area.
grace: Yeah, very much so. It’s much more controlled and patient, more reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona than the Man City of recent years.
tchow: Do you all want to take a guess as to which team has declined the most in pressuring the ball according to Grace’s analysis?
ryan: As a devoted “Grace on Football” subscriber, I already know the answer.
cwick: As someone who has no memory for statistics (I have found my natural job, I know), I will guess Liverpool.
grace: I was kind of shocked by just how much it was Arsenal. 32 percent decline!
tchow: Liverpool (who I guess we’ll talk about next) has actually been pretty in line with most of the other teams (18 percent decline).
grace: We’ve been writing this as Arsenal have played out a 0-0 draw with Palace and it seems… apt.
ryan: I know a lot of people are having a tough time sleeping right now. We may have just discovered a cure.
tchow: * cries in corner * I appreciate you all scheduling this chat during that game so I wouldn’t have to watch it. How kind of you.
cwick: Interceding so we can continue to help Tony divert his attention. Liverpool seem … not great. They’re injury-ravaged with a case of the midfield blahs, and they drew against Newcastle and West Brom along with a loss to Southampton. They have only a 14 percent chance of winning the league. What’s not working for the champions?
tchow: This is the part of the chat everyone’s been waiting for.
grace: This team is actually not that different in terms of xG from last year’s, somehow.
ryan: You’d think that the issue would be the defense, but over the last three games, the problem has been they can’t score! Just one league goal since the 7-0 win against Palace.
grace: To the eye, it’s seemed like the biggest factor is fatigue and having to cover for the issues at center back (Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams probably shouldn’t be playing at this level). It’s rebalancing the whole team, pulling others back.
tchow: That’s the strange thing! So much has been said about their center back injury problems but actually they conceded 16 goals in the first eight games of the season. In these last nine games, they’ve only conceded five goals. So maybe Fabinho + someone is good enough and the problem lies elsewhere on the field?
grace: I think the story is that in order to plug that hole, you leave yourself short elsewhere.
tchow: That’s a good point. I mean, I don’t think a Fabinho + Jordan Henderson center back pairing can make Liverpool title champions again if they don’t have a capable midfield after those shifts.
ryan: Yeah, if we want to create a grand theory of their struggles, maybe it’s that the midfield can’t be as secure without Fabinho, so the fullbacks can’t get forward as much, which makes the attack worse but … the defense better?
tchow: I am kind of surprised they haven’t brought in anyone during this transfer window to help.
ryan: It’s some bad luck recently, too. They had the edge in all three lackluster games judging by xG and non-shot xG, per the FiveThirtyEight model, and by a good deal in each one.
cwick: Are the front three blameless?
ryan: They have the best attack in the league by a good margin, so I have a hard time pinning it on any of those guys.
tchow: Out of the top six teams, they’ve scored the most goals this season. Tough to say the attackers are to blame.
grace: I still think Liverpool are going to be fine, but probably not enough for the title.
cwick: So what’s the fix? Hope that Thiago shores things up in the middle and a CB comes back from injury? Just a matter of being patient?
tchow: I said it before but the transfer window is wide open here folks. 15 more days?
cwick: Who’s your target then, Tony?
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tchow: I’ve heard Dayot Upamecano’s name come up a bunch. He’s a RB Leipzig defender that seems to draw interest every transfer window. I don’t know if Liverpool has the funds for it, but I do think a CB signing would go a long way here for the team.
grace: The noises are that Liverpool won’t be making a move in January. I think the hope has to be that Thiago helps Liverpool control games better and adds more of a patient buildup to go into a different, less energetic, gear, not unlike City this season.
ryan: I wonder if they don’t push things even more toward the attack. Before Diogo Jota got hurt, it seemed like Klopp was potentially gonna start the Front Three, plus him. Thiago did really well last year in a system with what was essentially a front four, too. Seems counter-intuitive, but more goals would be a good thing.
grace: My concern is whether the full backs have to change in such a system. You, er, don’t want Trent Alexander-Arnold defending in his own box all the time.
cwick: Sounds like old-school Klopp, where he just goes for broke every game.
cwick: Manchester United is on top of the table, and Solskjaer’s very hot-and-cold run in charge of the team continues. What’s working for Man United, and is this title contention for real (11 percent to win according to our model)?
tchow: Bruno Fernandes is working for Man United.
ryan: It’s definitely real — they’ve banked enough points for it to happen. But they have the sixth-best goal differential in the league. It isn’t a great team by any means.
grace: United are structurally a mess in attack and just have to rely on individuals. But those individuals are good!
tchow: I think this title contention is real?? Leading, albeit a slim lead, into Week 18 is not worth nothing. Last time United led at this point, they ended up winning the league, so maybe history does repeat itself (but please let it not). But yeah, I agree with Grace. Man United will go as far as the individuals take them. For me, that’s namely Fernandes but also individuals like Pogba who seems to be in form at the moment.
grace: Especially with sides maybe not at their best this season, individuals doing good stuff can reap more rewards than it otherwise might.
ryan: Yeah, and I think the lack of pressing leaguewide probably gives those individuals a bit more room to make things happen. Kind of like the mid-aughts Premier League. At the same time, the FiveThirtyEight model gives these guys a better chance of falling out of the top four than winning the league.
cwick: Tony, I feel like every time we’ve talked about Bruno it’s been a question of whether United had to bend too much to his style to succeed. So how do you know it’s working this year? (Aside from goals and wins, of course.)
tchow: I mean, he leads the team, or is at least top 3, in basically every stat if you account for minutes played. Goals, assists, xG the list goes on and on.
ryan: Russell Westbrook never won a ring …
tchow: LOL point taken.
cwick: Yeah, I guess what I am trying to scratch at is that Fernandes is the kind of player who will always be the center of his team’s universe. So are we to judge the success of that just by whether the team is successful? There’s a direct correlation?
ryan: Yeah, he’s probably one of the easier players to connect to winning. We’re still scratching the surface of what leads to winning in terms of individual actions, but he has the highest usage rate in the league, so what he does has a bigger impact on United’s results than any other player in England.
grace: He leads United in progressive passes, shot creating actions, the works. He’s found the perfect spot at Utd, in that they’ll just let him do whatever and he’s good enough to make it work.
cwick: As goes Bruno, so go we all.
tchow: I guess to test Chad’s question, you would have to put him on a team of scrubs (which United are not) and see if they still win?
grace: It feels outdated in this post-Guardiola structured positional play world, but when it works, it works.
cwick: OK, the last question I have for you all: What are your thoughts on “Ted Lasso?” I just finished last night and was won over as the episodes went by, especially by the goofy CGI crowds inserted into the “game” footage.
tchow: Ted Lasso makes Apple TV worth it.
ryan: I … still haven’t seen it. Just watched a great Jacques Tati doc about Bastia, though!
grace: My thoughts on “Ted Lasso” are that they should hire me as a consultant.
cwick: A New Years Resolution we can all get behind.
grace: It’s a fun show that has maybe read three books on the sport without watching any games.
cwick: The idea that Roy Kent had never been subbed out of a game all season long (and thus never had to give up his captain’s armband) was … ambitious.
grace: Jamie was happy he had 10 touches in a game! Ten! In a whole game! I am aware this has nothing to do with the quality of the television show, but they should hire me as a consultant.
cwick: Ted would say it’s what you do with the touches that matters, Grace.
ryan: SPOILER ALERT WHAT THE HELL! (I may never actually watch the show.)
tchow: Back to real soccer (football), Liverpool play Man United this weekend. Are you three Liverpool fans ready? How do you think that game will go?
grace: Liverpool just look zapped, so no. It just seems like one of those games where Solskjaer will improvise a weird system and it’ll be a tough watch.
cwick: Liverpool matches have been very relaxed for me this season. I am having a hard time getting upset about anything that happens, between COVID-19 and last season’s championship.
ryan: United are scary. They have some Villa vibes in terms of how fast they attack. But the game is at Anfield. It’s the kind of match Liverpool would’ve won 3-0 in each of the past two seasons. They’re still a significantly better team, in my opinion.
grace: It would all be very stressful if Liverpool hadn’t won the title last season.
tchow: Smh, winning has changed all of you.
cwick: It’s made us more peaceful and generous. Someday you too can reach this higher plane, Tony.
Alright readers, we’re going to leave it there. We didn’t even get a chance to talk about Chelsea! So maybe that’ll be the next topic when we next convene in a couple weeks. Until then, keep sending your biscuits to the “Ted Lasso” showrunners along with your petitions to get Grace a gig.
tchow: They’re called cookies.
grace: No they’re not!
cwick: See? Grace is perfect for this role.
grace: I could talk about the subtle UK differences between biscuits and cookies but then we’d be here all day.
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