Who Can Threaten The Premier League’s Top Six?
We watch football in close-up these days. The exposure to live matches has exploded, up to the point where now every minute of practically every match can be consumed. As with any observation, looking from up close may lead to missing the big picture at times. One such big picture may be signs of a gradual shift of power in the Premier League.
Written by Sander IJtsma.
The Premier League is very much a league that consists of a top tier of six elite teams, and the rest. Last season’s top six teams – Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester United – have made up the top six over all of the past three seasons. Before then, they haven’t always formed the exact top six, but in the past ten seasons only Liverpool have missed the top six more than once, and none of these teams has finished in the lower half of the table.
So, while the trend is for the top six to be the top six and while rich teams get ever richer, could 2019/20 be the season where the top six is finally breached again? Going against the trend there are some interesting clues that point to a yes, or at the very least a well… perhaps yes. A change to the Premier League’s established order may be just around the corner.
A paradox of purchasing power
A very reductionist approach would be that for change to the current top six to happen, we need one or more teams on the way up, and one or more teams on the way down, at least in terms of the final ranking in the league table.
Then, we also need to take the current footballing landscape into account. In other words, a reality where clubs are ever-expanding big businesses, with the biggest of them all separating themselves further and further from the pack in terms of finances.
One would easily assume that richer clubs can buy better players, pay higher wages and simply distance themselves from the rest of the pack. As such, developments in football should lead to a widening of the gap between the top six and the rest. However, there is an interesting case to be made against this assumption and this has everything to do with the extreme scarcity of elite football talent at the very top end of the food chain of professional football.
Recent years have seen an extreme inflation of transfer prices, up to the point where Antoine Griezmann – recently transferred from Atlético Madrid to Barcelona for 120 million euros – now has an 800 million euros release clause, just to make sure he doesn’t get poached away in the near future. This inflation means that at the very top, an extra few millions make very little difference in terms of purchasing power. However, for Premier League clubs operating on lower budgets, an extra five or ten million may make a very relevant difference in terms of the quality of the players they can attract. And with the teams just outside the top six also getting richer every year, their purchasing power may be catching up with the teams above them. So, here is our interesting paradox where teams with relatively less money to spend may actually be catching up with teams in higher financial echelons.
On the up
There is no shortage of teams that look to be on the up in the Premier League and some of them may already be on par with the level of play of some of the top six teams.
Our first European tie win since 1973/74.— Wolves (@Wolves) August 1, 2019
Last season’s number seven Wolverhampton Wanderers have made one of the most impressive returns to the highest level of English football ever. Leaning heavily on the Jorge Mendes-fueled Portuguese continent and guided by the astute Nuno Espirito Santo – Mendes’ first ever client during his playing days as goalkeeper – Wolves have impressed big time against the top teams. Underlying numbers already rank their offense in seventh and their defense in fourth for an overall fifth spot in terms of net expected goals. The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. Even a repeat of last season’s underlying performance should therefore give them a reasonable chance to make the top six, but should they manage to add more tools to unlock set defenses to their toolbox, Wolves are undoubtedly the prime candidate for a top six finish next season.
The prima donna of the Premier League’s most beautiful fairy tale should also be in contention for a top six spot next season. The 2015/16 champions Leicester City have made excellent use of the advantages they earned in the perfect storm that was their dream season. The extra revenues have been spent well, and apart from England international Harry Maguire, who left for Manchester United for a club record fee of 87 million euros, the core of the team that finished ninth last season has remained in place. What’s more, players like Ben Chillwell, Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans – contracted after a very successful loan spell – Harvey Barnes, Demarai Gray and James Maddison are all several years from entering their true primes. As such, Leicester City have definitely got the foundation in place for some very exciting seasons in the King Power stadium. First team to visit? Yes, Wolves.
The final team to round our list of potential top six finishers are last season’s eight placed Everton. In the first season under Portuguese manager Marco Silva Everton experienced a particular upturn in form over the second half of the season resulting in just a single loss in their final ten matches, a streak that included seven clean sheets from eight matches. Everton have made some very interesting additions to their squad.
🇮🇹 | The Italian: Job done! ✅ pic.twitter.com/cTag5mL9yC— Everton (@Everton) August 4, 2019
In Moise Kean Everton attracted one of Italy’s most talented attacking players, who left Juventus where his prospected playing time seemed slim with players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandžukić and Gonzalo Higuaín all lingering around. A bit more under the radar is the signing of Jean-Philippe Gbamin from Mainz, who looks a decent bet to fill the Idrissa Gueye-shaped hole in midfield. At the moment of writing, the situation with Wilfried Zaha is still very much up in the air, but it’s already safe to say that Everton don’t look weaker than last season when they were already reasonably close.
Looking in at the top six a bit more from the outside are West Ham United and Watford, but both put up significantly worse numbers last season compared to the teams mentioned above. Sébastien Haller and Pablo Fornals seem like excellent additions for West Ham, but doubts about their defensive setup remain, making a leap to contest the top six unlikely. Watford have been surprisingly quiet so far, and last season’s eleventh place was already based on a significant expected goals overperformance.
It’s all well and good with teams aspiring to wiggle their way into the top six, by mathematical definition this would also mean that one or more teams would drop out. With Manchester City and Liverpool a class above the rest and mostly concerned with breaking points records, they would be considered safe bets for the top six at the very, very least. Behind them, there was not a lot of separation, with just six points between Chelsea in third and United in sixth. So, it makes sense to look at which, if any, of these teams might drop out of the top six next season.
Most hands for a potential team to drop to seventh or below would probably go up for Arsenal. Manager Unai Emery was tasked – or privileged depending on which way you look at it – with transitioning the team away from the Wenger era. Implementing Emery’s high press would always implicated some bounces along the way, but ironically a hotter than hot start was followed by the harsh reality of the cold second half of the season. Reaching the Europa League final was a dim light in the relatively gloom end of season period where Arsenal slipped from the top four amongst a three game losing streak in April.
Arsenal’s underlying numbers are nothing short of alarming. They’ve conceded more than twice as many goals as title contenders Liverpool and City. Their strike force powered by Lacazette and Aubameyang saw them outperform expected goals Arsenal scored 73 goals from chances worth a total of 61.6 expected goals. This degree of overperformance is usually hard to repeat. big time to outscore any team apart from the aforementioned Liverpool and City. Still, their offensive power came up way short to make up for a team unable to screen a poorly manned defense, be it in their 4-2-3-1 or later in the season in a 3-4-1-2 formation.
Arsenal added an interesting defensive prospect in William Saliba, but he will spend the next season being loaned back to Saint-Etienne. Meanwhile, captain and defensive stalward Laurent Koscielny finally ended debates on his future by joining Bordeaux. The defensive worries at Arsenal continue, since it looks unlikely that the current group of defensive players has a big leap in them.
💬 "I am really happy with our work, with our performance... we are going to start the Premier League against Newcastle and the result is going to be important... we want to create a winning mentality."— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 5, 2019
👔 @UnaiEmery_ pic.twitter.com/q5sTsyZJmU
Beyond Arsenal, the safest bet would probably be to see Spurs, United and Chelsea just about sail around the clips on their horizons into the top six. Spurs will need to take lessons from the high-intensity play under Pochettino, which usually takes its toll on a relatively slim squad come the decisive spring matches. Of the final twelve matches of the recent EPL season, only three were won, all three home matches against bottom-half opposition. After last season’s rare lack of transfer activity, Spurs have now bolstered their squad with Tanguy Ndombélé, who will be expected to fill in a dire need of midfield ball progression.
The challenges awaiting Chelsea and United as somewhat similar in nature. Both clubs are in a transition of sorts, Chelsea attempting to move away from the reactive nature of play and United still looking for a first sustainable management stint since the Ferguson era. Both have club legends at the wheel, in Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Lampard came in at Chelsea after finishing sixth and missing out on promotion in the play-offs with Derby County. He’ll be looking to fill the boots of Maurizio Sarri, whose marriage with the West-London club didn’t prove a happy one, in spite of more than reasonable results. The call for attractive football is clear, but so is the onus on making the top four and the associated Champions League football, in order to remain an attractive proposition for potential new players to be attracted once the transfer ban is over.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær made a blitz start as United manager. His nineteen matches as caretaker manager between December and March brought a record 2.32 points per game, in spite of alarming underlying numbers that inspired a fiercely contested debate between stats nerds and proper football men. Solskjær then went on to collect an also record breaking 0.80 points per game in the ten games after being appointed full manager. However, just like any sane analyst would point out that underlying numbers should be taken into account when evaluating a managerial appointment decision, it is clear that managers need to be given time to show what they can and can’t do.
The pockets are deep at United, but the tasks are huge right now. Implementing a recognizable football style and completing a squad overhaul of the current ageing crop. All that within the shortest time possible and without missing out on Champions League football.
Pressure versus possibilities
The season that awaits us in the top half of the Premier League is very much one of pressure versus possibility. On one hand, we’ve got the established names all vying for that precious top four, with no less than four teams that walk tightropes of sorts. On the other hand, teams looking into the top six from the outside can only see possibilities. From the looks of it, we’ve now got multiple teams lined up for an interesting battle to overturn the established order, and all of them seem to be in it for the long-term, operating from a healthy base.
However this all plays out, we are in for an intriguing season and the dynamics on the border of the top six will be an integral part of our coverage of the Premier League season on Between the Posts.