Premier League odds: Manchester United sit atop table, so why are they still long shots to win title?

Manchester United are leading the Premier League. They sit three points clear of Liverpool atop the table, with Manchester City, Leicester City and Everton tied another point behind that. A three-point lead with 17 games played, almost halfway through the season, is nothing to sneeze at, usually it would be enough to make whatever team had it favorites, though perhaps not overwhelming favorites to win the league. 

Manchester United are not favorites. According to bookmakers, Manchester City, at -138 (all odds courtesy of William Hill) are the league’s most likely title winners. United aren’t even second favorites. Liverpool, who host United this weekend have the second-best odds at +300. Then come United, a distant third in odds at +500. What gives?

Here’s why bookies think the current Premier League table is lying. Let’s walk through them from least complex to most.

Manchester City have played fewer matches

This one is really simple. Sure Manchester City might be four points back after beating Brighton on Wednesday, but they also have a game in hand on the league leaders. Scheduling this season has been extremely abnormal thanks to the pandemic of course, and City recently had a match with Everton postponed thanks to a rash of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. On top of those complications City are still in every single competition they’ve entered, making it to the League Cup finals, the Champions League knockout stage and round four of the FA Cup. So, it is, and will continue to be very hard for there to be room on the schedule to make up that missing match. All of which is to say that City are closer to the top of the table than they appear.

City’s game in hand isn’t enough to put them ahead of United, but the table feels a lot different with City one point back than it does with them four points behind like they are right now.

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Liverpool, City have better basic numbers than United

You don’t have to do anything fancy to find reasons that Liverpool and City might be expected to catch the current leaders. United have scored a lot of goals, 34 is the second most in the Premier League. Liverpool, however have scored 37. Manchester City, perhaps surprisingly have a more modest attacking record this season with only 25 goals scored. But, Manchester City’s defensive record blows the other two top competitors away. Pep Guardiola’s side has only conceded 13 goals this season, the least in the Premier League while Liverpool have conceded 21 and Manchester United have quite a poor defensive record with 24 goals conceded. Only seven teams have conceded more goals than the current league leader.

Put this all together and it makes Liverpool a great attacking side with a pretty good defense, City a great defensive side with an OK attack and United a very good attacking side with a poor defense. It’s no wonder then that both Liverpool with +16 and City with +12 have a better goal difference than United’s +10.

It looks even worse without penalties

Another factor obscuring just how good Manchester City have been is that they’ve actually conceded two more goals from penalties than they’ve scored. Penalties are, of course, part of the game but they’re fairly random. Conceding or winning penalties hasn’t been shown to be particularly predictive of whether a team will continue to concede or win them (and for that matter teams score their penalties at similar rates over time as well). All of which is to say that when you strip out penalties it makes Manchester City look just a bit better and both Manchester United (who have scored one more than they’ve conceded), and Liverpool (who have scored three more than they’ve conceded) look just a little bit worse.

Expected Goals is not impressed by United

The whole idea of expected goals is that they are better able to predict what will happen next than actual goals are. And, well, expected goals projects United to perform worse going forward than they have so far. Remember how Manchester United’s defining characteristic was that the side was a lot better in attack than Manchester City. Well, City are actually averaging more non-penalty expected goals per match, 1.54, than United at 1.37. In fact when you look at non-penalty expected goals, United are the worst of the three contenders on both sides of the ball. In attack they trail not only City but Liverpool’s league best 1.69 xG per match. And defensively it’s City at 0.64, Liverpool at 0.86 and United all the way back with 1.09. Given those numbers it’s no surprise that not only are City and Liverpool ahead of United in xG difference, so are Aston Villa, Chelsea, Tottenham and, surprisingly Brighton.

Top to bottom the numbers are pretty clear. Despite their relative points totals so far this season, it’s more likely that Manchester City and Liverpool will outperform Manchester United over the back half of the season. United’s lead isn’t that large, especially when taking into account Manchester City’s game in hand, and its pretty likely that one, if not both, of these two teams will catch United. And, if you disagree with those numbers, well you can get a pretty good price to put your money where your mouth is.

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