Who's going to finish in the top four?
Let's make some midseason predictions
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Brace yourself, it’s coming. The most annoying social media trend of the year is very nearly upon us.
We’ve now hit mid-February. As European competition picks back up, matches begin to pile up, the hectic festive and January periods can start to take their toll. All the games played over the first six months add up and if they don’t cause some players to pick up injuries they certainly lead to more tired legs. Injuries and tired legs mean teams are going to drop points in matches that we don’t think they should.
We’ve already had two ‘drop points weekends’ where many of the “top six” clubs all drop points in the same weekend and luckily we’ve been able to avoid it so far, but more of these weekends are coming and then it’s going to happen.
One weekend we’ll see several teams all gunning for Champions League qualification drop points and everyone, thinking they’re being super original, will rush to their smartphones to tweet “does anyone even want to finish in the top four this year?” They’ll act like we didn’t just do this last year, or that it’s especially bad this year.
This year isn’t particularly looking any worse. The teams fighting for the top four, basically by definition, always drop points. If they weren’t dropping points, they’d be fighting for the title.
Over the last 20 Premier League season the 4th place team finished with an average of 69.6 points. Over the last 10 years that number has risen a little bit to 71.4 points but over the last five seasons it’s dropped back down to 70 points. In half of those seasons the team who finished fourth finished with less than 70 points, and while seven of those 10 seasons came between 2003 and 2012, two of the remaining three have come in the last five years.
It’s safe to say the target is 70 points. 70 points over a 38 game season is a 1.84 points per match pace. That means over four matches you’re looking at just over seven points (two wins, a draw, and a loss), and about three wins and two losses or two wins and three draws over every five matches. Inconsistency everywhere.
That’s what we’re in for over the next few months. Everyone is going to be dropping points. The question is, who is going to drop the least points or find just enough consistency to beat out all the others and finish in the top four spots?
As I’m writing this, we’re just past the halfway point of the season with every team having played 22 or 23 matches. Here’s how the table looks.
Manchester United sit third, five points clear of Newcastle (who have a game in hand) and seven clear of Tottenham. They seem pretty safe.
Newcastle only lead Spurs by two points but have a game in hand. They’re six points up on Brighton (who have two games in hand) but unless we think Brighton, Fulham, or Brentford are going to make a miraculous run and jump from midtable (or the championship) all the way to the Champions League places without the backing of an oil state I think we can rule them out. Newcastle have a nine point lead over Liverpool and depending on what happens when they face each other this weekend, they might have enough of a lead to hold them off.
That’s what the table tells us. It looks pretty cut and dry.
However, if we look at the table based on expected goal difference, it paints a bit of a different picture.
There's a clear top two in Manchester City and Arsenal followed by a clear third choice in Newcastle. Then there's the group of Liverpool, Brighton, and Manchester United, with Spurs a bit behind.
Typically xGD is a pretty good indicator of who's going to qualify fo the Champions League. Since 2017-18 only two teams that have finished outside the top four in xGD have finished outside the actual top four.
That leaves us in an interesting place. Which table is more indicative of who’s truly in the top four race? Which one is (currently) a better predictor of who will finish in the top four?
Let’s do a deeper dive beyond the numbers to try and figure out which teams are most likely to be playing Tuesdays and Wednesdays next season.
538 currently has Manchester United with a 74 percent chance of finishing in the top four and that numbers feels about right. It really comes down to one simple question. Do they get past Barcelona in the Europa League or not?
If United bow out of the Thursday Night Champions League their very cluttered fixture list suddenly becomes a lot clearer and the extra rest should make them easy favorites not just to finish in the top four, but at least third. However, if they do get past Barcelona things become a bit more worrisome.
United have only won consecutive matches in the Premier League twice this season. The first was in August when they won four in a row and then when they won their first four matches following the World Cup, making it five in a row when you add in the win over Fulham in their last game before the break.
Erik Ten Hag does not like to rotate his squad much and in in both those runs, United had about as favorable a schedule you can have in terms of how much time there was between matches when there are so many midweek matches to play. In October when United went back onto the Thursday-Sunday grind of the Europa League their form struggled. Similarly in January when the midweek matches stopped being lower level cup matches, their form took a similar dip. If United are doing the Thursday-Sunday grind over the final few months of the season, there’s certainly a worry about how that could affect their form down the stretch.
United’s biggest advantage is they’ve already got a bunch of points in the bank. They’re also done playing the top two teams in the league. Their xGD is a bit skewed from the two losses to Manchester City and Arsenalbut that's also kind of a Casemiro thing. This season United have a +1.11 xGD when Casemiro is on the pitch, but that drops by 1.50 down to -0.39 when he's not there. If Casemiro picks up an injury over the final months that could be a problem. As long as he's in the team though they should be ok.
Had you asked me this right after the World Cup or in early January I would have went off telling you Newcastle were absolutely the real deal and were worthwhile favorites to finish in the top four.
Eddie Howe’s team has conceded the fewest goals in the league and have the second best expected goals against. You just can’t score against Newcastle and thus Newcastle don’t lose.
There’s just one problem. Newcastle can’t score themselves. The Magpies have scored just three goals in their last six Premier League matches which is a large reason why they’ve only won one of their last six. You just can’t keep drawing matches without winning any if you want to finish in the top four.
That defense should hold up over the course of the season, but this team needs to start putting the ball in the net. The lack of European competition this season can help them out, but this is a team that can be caught.
I have no idea how Spurs have managed to hang around fifth place for as long as they have. They are simply not a good team. They spent a lot of money last summer and frankly wasted a lot of money last summer.
Spurs were always only going to go as far as Harry Kane could drag them but one man can only do so much. They’re just so painfully average in almost every other area on the pitch. The injuries to Hugo Lloris and Rodrigo Bentancur are going to be far too much to overcome.
If this team is playing in Europe next year it’ll be in the Conference League.
For each of the last three years we’ve seen Brighton hovering around 4th or 5th in the xGD table but finishing well lower. This year though their performances are falling in line with those numbers and they’re right in the mix.
It’s not too much of a surprise Roberto De Zerbi is flying with Brighton. Graham Potter built a good team during his time there - though let’s be honest, that’s been the work of Brighton’s back office staff - and De Zerbi has taken over the same collection of good players who are continuing to play well. How much of an impact has he actually made is a great case study for how much of an impact do managers actually make?
If we look at Brighton’s underlying numbers they are remarkably consistent over the last three years.
There isn’t a terrible difference in the shots or the xG between Potter and De Zerbi. The jump in xG started this season in the first six matches under Potter. The difference is they’re now actually putting the ball in the net. That jump in scoring has seen them go from winning 23.68 and 31.58 percent of their matches in 2020-21 and 2021-22 to 40 percent under De Zerbi. They’re also very much benefitting from winning four of their first six games of the season while Potter was still here. That’s almost 40 percent of their total points in under 30 percent of their matches.
So do Brighton actually have a shot here?
They’re six points back on Newcastle with a game in hand and play Newcastle in two weeks. They managed to hold on to Moises Caicedo this winter but did lose their leading scorer Leandro Trossard.
It just feels like a little bit too much for the Seagulls. They can be the West Ham that qualifies for the Europa League but the Champions League seems a step too far.
Look we’ve seen this plenty of times before. Every year there’s a team from the bottom of the table or a newly promoted side that lights it up in the first half of the year and is sitting awfully pretty at the halfway point. Their underlying numbers are good, but they’re also running hot.
Brentford are eighth in the xGD table, Fulham are 13th. That seems right and they’ll both probably finish in the 9-14 range.
Liverpool are a tricky one. On the one hand they are fourth in the xGD table. On the other hand that number is definitely inflated by their 9-0 (and +3.0 xG) win over Bournemouth.
Throughout January I kept saying Liverpool are the only team I’m worried about if they get their shit together and throughout January they kept looking like they weren’t going to get their shit together. It did seem like they had a “get right” game this week but was that a sign of things to come or just beating a really bad Everton team.
The models still love them. 538 gives them a 20 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League, which is really high for a ninth place team that’s nine points back of fourth.
As Liverpool were dropping points in the first half of the season a common narrative from fans was “Klopp’s seventh season.” That narrative that eventually Jurgen Klopp teams fizzle out (after seven years) is mainly based around Borussia Dortmund’s collapse in Klopp’s final season where they went into the winter break 17th in the table. Just one place above last.
What that narrative doesn’t account for is that Borussia Dortmund ran into an incredible amount of bad luck over the first half of the season. Their underlying numbers were still Champions League quality. They didn’t make any changes during the break and in the second half of the season they stormed back up the table to finish seventh.
Is something similar on the cards for Liverpool? It really all starts with beating Newcastle this weekend. A loss can all but eliminate them and a draw would still make things tough, but given they have a game in hand if they grab a win against Newcastle suddenly things don’t seem so far fetched.
Who finishes in the top four?
Manchester City and Arsenal are obviously shoe ins. If Manchester United lose to Barcelona you can write their name in pen, and if they win… I think they still have enough to get them over the line.
As for the last spot, I’m marking that as a toss up between Newcastle and Liverpool. The Magpies have the points advantage but I don’t know. I just keep getting 2020-21 vibes - where nothing was going right for Liverpool but they put it together in the spring and slowly climbed back to fourth - around them this year.
It won’t be a case of they suddenly get good and charge up the table. Rather they might just be the most consistent team over the final months of the season, and that might be enough to get the job done.
This season is currently projecting to be just under 70 points, which would be the third time in the last four years
Stats via Fbref powered by Opta
That would be 2017-18 Chelsea thanks to David de Gea carrying a Manchester United team that were sixth in xGD to a second place finish. A year later Manchester were 4th in xGD but finished outside the top four, with Chelsea taking the final spot.
Their xGD from the first two matches of the year is just -0.8, so not really skewing their numbers as much as people think/assume
Calculated down to the minute per understat
Which is very common among any team that spends a lot of money
And they advanced out of the group stage in the Champions League
Pending Casemiro’s health