After the latest round of Premier League fixtures, we use a very small sample size to jump to some hastily-made conclusions that data lovers should probably avoid…
Liverpool Can Make This Title Race Interesting
After Liverpool lost such a significant chunk of their midfield when Jordan Henderson and Fabinho left in the summer, it seemed reasonable to assume that the rebuild might take a bit of time. With Thiago Alcântara, Curtis Jones and Stefan Bajcetic all out injured, it would have been understandable if Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Wataru Endo needed a bit of time to get used to playing together.
But they seem to be managing alright.
Virgil van Dijk’s red card at Newcastle on Sunday left Liverpool a man down having already gone a goal down, and facing up to the very real possibility of a first defeat of the new season. Before that game, Newcastle had not lost a single home Premier League game under Eddie Howe after they’d scored the first goal. And here they were playing against 10 men.
But Jürgen Klopp’s team are a unique breed. They came from behind to stun St. James’ Park and pick up three points that leave them right in the mix at the top of the table. Incredibly, it means they have avoided defeat in the last seven Premier League games in which they have had a man sent off.
Had they gone on to lose this game, they would have had one win, one draw and one loss from their first three games of the season, and we’d all be talking about how this new-look team needs time to gel. Instead, we could have a genuine title contender on our hands.
Iraola Will Soon Be a Forgotten Man
Pepe Mel, Steve Wrigley, Francesco Guidolin, Roy McFarland, Ricky Sbragia. If you ever somehow find yourself on the TV show Pointless and need the name of an obscure Premier League manager, there are a few potential answers for you (you can thank us later).
After Bournemouth’s start to 2023-24, there will be increasing numbers of people who think Andoni Iraola’s name could soon be added to that list.
Largely unheard of in England before he replaced Gary O’Neil in June, Iraola had built up a reputation as an exciting young coach who learned as a player under managers including Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde. The impressive work he did at Rayo Vallecano was enough to convince Bournemouth to take the plunge on him, and they’ve backed him in the transfer market with a huge outlay in his first summer at the club.
But the 2-0 defeat to Spurs left them with one point from three games, with their xG per 90 of 1.1 one of the worst such rates in the league. Asked how life has been under their new manager following Saturday’s game, forward Antoine Semenyo almost gave a sigh with his answer.
“Lots of pressing,” he said, which gave an indication as to what Iraola is asking of his players. Bournemouth rank seventh in the Premier League so far in 2023-24 for high turnovers (27), showing just how much Iraola is asking his players to press. However, they are yet to score from a single one of those regains near the opposition’s goal. Their pressing game isn’t working so far.
It is of course early days, and the Bournemouth board surely won’t be doubting themselves just yet, but in sacking O’Neil they showed they aren’t afraid to make big decisions if they feel something needs to be done. Could Iraola become the Premier League’s latest forgotten man?
Brighton Are Still Brighton
Whoever their manager has been, Brighton have been incredibly consistent in their profligacy in front of goal in the Premier League. In each of their six seasons in the top flight since promotion in 2017, they have underperformed their expected goals – sometimes fairly significantly.
Their 2020-21 underperformance of 10.6 (just 34 non-penalty goals scored from 44.6 non-penalty xG) was particularly bad, and even last season when they beat many of the league’s best teams and were hugely impressive in finishing sixth, they underperformed with their finishing, scoring 66 times from 70 non-penalty xG (an underperformance compared to their xG of 4.0).
Brighton fans will have started to hope that their team had changed their ways after the first two games of 2023-24, in which they scored eight goals from 6.23 xG. They were creating lots of chances and scoring them, too. But Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to West Ham looked an awful lot like the Brighton of old: 25 shots, 78% possession, 1.48 xG and zero points. They had 68 touches in the West Ham box – the second most on record (since 2008-09) for a losing side in a Premier League game.
This was also another game in which De Zerbi’s Brighton struggled against a lower block. As with the shock 5-1 loss to Everton at the end of 2022-23, Brighton failed to break stubborn opponents down and were hit on the counter-attack time and again.
It was a day of familiar problems that Brighton will need to leave in the past if they are to extend their stay up near the top of the table.
Villa Can Make the Top Four
You don’t win any prizes for topping the Premier League table for the calendar year, and you certainly don’t get anything for being second, but it is impressive nonetheless that only Manchester City have a better record in 2023 than Aston Villa.
Unai Emery’s side have bounced back from their 5-1 defeat to Newcastle on the opening day of the season in style, and Sunday’s 3-1 win at Burnley – which was ultimately quite a comfortable victory – gave a further indication as to the quality of the team Emery is building.
After they stormed up the table to finish in the European places at the end of last season, Villa made it into the top four of a few well-known pundits’ pre-season predictions – not without a fair bit of ridicule.
But they are showing this season that they could sustain their form into the second half of 2023. They have been less solid at the back than they were last season, but they are scoring much more freely, with only Brighton (nine) scoring more goals in 2023-24 than Villa (eight). There is surely more to come on that front, too, with Ollie Watkins yet to get off the mark and new signing Nicolò Zaniolo still finding his feet. If Villa carry on playing like this, they could feasibly mount a top-four challenge.
West Ham Can Have a Say in the Title Race
West Ham aren’t going to be second in the table for much longer. The win at Brighton left them top overnight on Saturday, and even if they go back there by beating Luton on Friday, nobody really expects them to be challenging for a Champions League place come May.
But David Moyes continues to do a fantastic job and it looks as though his team are not feeling any after-effects of Declan Rice’s departure. Their counter-attacking brand of football is proving highly effective against the Premier League’s better teams.
With wins over Chelsea and now Brighton, West Ham have upset the apple cart twice already this season. They are a team that the best sides in the division will hope – or possibly even expect – to beat, but they are proving tricky opponents for any side.
Only five goals have been scored from what we call a ‘fast break’ (essentially a counter-attack) in the Premier League so far this season, and West Ham are responsible for two of them (40%). Meanwhile, their xG from set-pieces of 1.4 is the fourth highest in the top flight. It is fairly predictable of Moyes’ West Ham but it is still proving remarkably effective. They have averaged just 27.3% possession (the lowest in the Premier League) but are the third-highest scorers, with seven goals.
They might not be in the race for a top-four finish themselves, but they can get results against the best teams in the Premier League and will therefore play their part in the title race.
There is Little Hope for the Promoted Teams
Burnley, Luton and Sheffield United have played eight games between them so far this season, but have not picked up a single point. In fact, despite scoring four goals, not one of them has even led a game for a single second.
Yes, both Burnley and Sheffield United have played Manchester City, and Paul Heckingbottom’s side actually nearly found a way back into their meeting with the champions on Sunday, but they still crumbled and have nothing to show for their efforts.
Luton, meanwhile, lost on Friday to a Chelsea side full of expensive talent but one that looked disjointed and, at 1-0 down, it appeared as though there might be a route back into the game for Rob Edwards’ side. They failed to create much of note, though, and Chelsea scored two more goals without ever properly hitting their stride.
The three promoted sides have the lowest expected goals totals of all teams in the Premier League so far, with just 3.86 between them, and will all need to improve very quickly if they are to survive this season.
It might be a bit much to say there’s no hope for any of them, but the early signs aren’t good at all.