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Which Premier League Team Has The Toughest Road Ahead?

The Premier League is set to restart on June 17 when Aston Villa and Sheffield United square off behind closed doors at Villa Park. As far as pivotal opening matches go, the league could certainly do worse: Villa currently occupies the 19th position in the table and desperately needs every point it can pick up from now until the end of the season to avoid being relegated, while plucky Sheffield is in a dogfight with five other clubs — including Big Six heavyweights Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal — to determine who qualifies for European cup competition in 2020-21.

[Related: Our Club Soccer Predictions]

Sheffield at Villa is emblematic of so many of the Premier League’s 92 remaining matches. Most of the division’s 20 clubs have just nine matches left to contest,1 and most have something — whether a relegation scrap or a European dream — left to play for. At the moment, 8 points separate fourth-place Chelsea from ninth-place Arsenal; 8 points also separate 15th-place Brighton and Hove Albion from 20th-place Norwich City. For six clubs, the slightest slip-up could mean missing out on a tour of the continent. For six others, it could mean falling out of the Premier League entirely.

We can compare the teams duking it out for UEFA spots and those just trying to avoid relegation using FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), by looking at the ratings of each team and the teams it will face down the home stretch. Let’s start with the basement dwellers.

The bottom three have a tough road ahead

English Premier League teams in danger of relegation* by difference in their Soccer Power Index rating vs. the average of their remaining opponents

SPI
Team Pos. in Table Pts. Per Game Own Avg. opp. Diff.
Watford 17 0.93 72.8 74.4 -1.6
West Ham 16 0.93 67.3 73.0 -5.7
Brighton 15 1.00 70.6 77.2 -6.6
Bournemouth 18 0.93 64.1 77.6 -13.5
Norwich City 20 0.72 61.6 76.1 -14.5
Aston Villa 19 0.89 59.6 77.2 -17.6

*Chance of relegation of at least 5 percent in the FiveThirtyEight model.

Norwich City has been described as the best worst team in the history of the Premier League, and anyone who’s watched them play might agree. Manager Daniel Farke sets his team up to play aesthetically pleasing soccer. The Canaries press situationally, and they have no fear of going forward, something uncharacteristic of recently promoted clubs.

Yet however fun Norwich is to watch, it has little hope of escaping relegation’s grasp. Of the relegation scrappers, it has the third-easiest remaining slate in terms of average opponent SPI — but that still includes games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and fellow bubble teams like Brighton, Watford and West Ham. Those are 18 very difficult points, and without collecting most of them, Norwich won’t have much of a chance of remaining in the Premier League.


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Villa has an advantage that other relegation scrappers do not: an extra game to play. In a league that’s determined by points won, the chance to win 30 points, as opposed to 27, could mean the difference between remaining in the Premier League or being relegated back to the EFL Championship. But the Villans also have one of the most difficult home stretches among the bottom six: After Sheffield, it has games against Chelsea, Wolves, Arsenal, Manchester United and league-leader Liverpool. That’s not encouraging news for a team that’s given up the most goals in the league.

No relegation candidate has a more perilous final nine matches than Bournemouth. For the past half-decade, the Cherries have been the Premier League’s little engine that could, enjoying their fifth consecutive top-flight season despite playing in the smallest stadium in the division. It is currently tied with both Watford and West Ham in terms of points per game, but its final slate is far more challenging: A stretch of four games toward the end of the season that includes Manchester United, Spurs, Leicester City and Manchester City indicates that Bournemouth probably won’t be enjoying a sixth consecutive season in England’s top division.

Two of the Big Six could be shut out

English Premier League teams competing for UEFA spots* by difference in their Soccer Power Index rating vs. the average of remaining opponents

SPI
Team Pos. in Table Pts. Per Game Own Avg. opp. Diff.
Man United 5 1.55 86.2 70.2 16.0
Chelsea 4 1.66 85.5 74.7 10.8
Wolves 6 1.48 80.5 71.8 8.7
Leicester City 3 1.83 81.6 74.3 7.3
Tottenham 8 1.41 76.6 73.3 3.3
Arsenal 9 1.43 76.8 75.8 1.0
Sheffield United 7 1.54 73.3 75.0 -1.7

*Chance of qualifying for UEFA Champions League of at least 5 percent in the FiveThirtyEight model. Excludes Liverpool, which has already qualified, and Manchester City, which has been banned from UEFA play.

Things get even trickier at the top. Seven teams are battling for five European spots — given that Liverpool has already qualified and assuming that Manchester City’s UEFA ban is upheld. Leicester City doesn’t seem likely to relinquish its firmish grip on third place in the table,2 as it’s 5 points clear of fourth-place Chelsea. Among the other six squads, Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers have the easiest remaining schedules. Each will contest at least three matches against the league’s bottom six teams, and as such each has better European odds than Sheffield, Spurs and Arsenal. If Arsenal and Spurs both fail to qualify for any kind of European competition, it will be the first time since 2015-16 that two of the Big Six failed to do so.

When it still looked like soccer in England wouldn’t be able to restart, there was speculation that the Premier League would determine its final table using UEFA’s impossibly vague “sporting merit” guidance. The general consensus was that the table would be sorted out based on unweighted points per game — that is, without taking into account strength of schedule, among other things.

Under that scenario, ninth-place Arsenal would have leapfrogged eighth-place Spurs, while seventh-place Sheffield United would have leapfrogged the sixth-place Wolves. In the case of Arsenal and Spurs, it would mean slightly differing degrees of embarrassment for the North London rivals. But for Wolves and Sheffield, it would mean the difference between qualifying or not qualifying for European cup competition. In terms of the average SPI rating of each club’s remaining opponents, Wolves has by far the easier schedule — 71.8 for Wolves, 75 for Sheffield — and the FiveThirtyEight model likes Wolves for Champions League qualification more than it likes Sheffield.

[Related: Bundesliga Teams Could Be Using More Substitutions. But They Aren’t.]

But as it stands, the “sporting merit” debate is on pause, at least for now. (Lucky for Wolves.) But if England experiences another spike in COVID-19 infections or if the Premier League itself experiences its own internal spike, it’s possible that play will be suspended again or canceled outright. And though each of its 20 teams met last week to discuss a number of contingencies and temporary law changes — for the remainder of the season, each club will be allowed to make five substitutions rather than the normal three, for example — the Premier League still hasn’t decided what it will do if it has to pull the plug.

In this precise moment, strength of schedule matters — regardless of UEFA’s “sporting merit.” But the Premier League should continue to consider that if it’s forced to shut things down for good.

Footnotes

  1. Four clubs have 10 matches remaining.

  2. The FiveThirtyEight model gives Leicester a 95 percent chance of making the Champions League.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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