Soccer

Premier League top-four race: Can any team crash the party and overhaul Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Liverpool?

It feels like an inevitability that this Premier League season will end with the same top four as last. All that might change is the order. Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea were comfortably the four best teams in England last season and they all improved their squads in the summer.

But then they weren’t alone in doing so and the early-season signs are encouraging for a host of contenders who will be hoping a slip from the presumptive top four opens up a chance for them to break up the party.

1. Tottenham

The Premier League leaders three games in, though that position was rather inflated by 1-0 wins over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford that followed the same result against Manchester City. Yet we have seen early season false dawns around White Hart Lane and it is notable that three games into the campaign — small-sample size caveats ahoy — they have the league’s 12th best expected goals (xG) tally at 3.64 while opponents have registered shooting chances worth 4.33 xG. Both Wolves and City had the better of the shooting chances in Spurs’ wins. 

However, those two victories also came without Harry Kane in the starting XI, if last season is anything to go on he will serve not only as their primary scorer but their creator in chief as well, though Nuno Espirito Santo would do well to ease the addiction Tottenham had to Kane and Heung-min Son bailing them out of trouble that developed under Jose Mourinho. Perhaps the reemergence of Dele Alli will allow them to do so, though so far he has flourished more as a presser than a creator.

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That pressing might be the most intriguing pivot point of Nuno Espirito Santo’s early Tottenham tenure. Unlike his predecessor, this seems to be a Spurs team ready to chase for possession in the further reaches of the pitch — fbref places them sixth in the early-season rankings for defensive pressures in the middle-third — with Pierre Emile Hojbjerg and Dele instructed to harass defenders with a vigor they never showed for Mourinho. The many holdovers from Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure know what they’re doing in this regard (for a time you could argue they were the best pressing of Europe’s top teams), but the likes of Kane and Dele seemed to grow tired of that approach as the years went by and injuries wore them down. If Nuno can revive the intensity of Tottenham at their best, then this team can be a real force. 

2. West Ham

Second in the Premier League table, with the league’s top scorer and having conducted their transfer business in an impressive fashion even if more of it was done at the 11th hour than might have been ideal. This West Ham side look to be emerging as a formidable contender in the Premier League right now.

Though David Moyes’ side have something of a reputation for being built on defensive rigidity this season in particular, they have proven to be an invigorating force on the counter attack, coiling into their robust structure without the ball only to burst into life with one sloppy pass from an opponent. Not for nothing do they have the league’s third-highest xG so far this season. When Declan Rice wins it back (and it is often the outstanding England international), West Ham can go from this …

Declan Rice intercepts in midfield to kickstart a West Ham counter
Wyscout/Sky Sports

To this in the blink of an eye.

A rapid counter attack sees Benrahma unleashed in space on the left
Wyscout/Sky Sports

Said Benrahma, who moments earlier was protecting against an overlapping fullback run from Leicester, goes on to fizz a cross into the perfect spot for Pablo Fornals on the penalty spot, from which he fires low past Kasper Schmeichel. It is a heady blend at West Ham: talent and diligence. Those two who combined for the first goal in that 4-2 win over the Foxes struggled to acclimatise early in their careers in east London and certainly did not show the aptitude for defensive work that they have done early in this new season. 

If there is a caveat to their potential success, it surely lies with the fitness of Michail Antonio, the league’s top scorer. West Ham would certainly be in a better place if they had found a backup to him in the summer, but there are few players available to them who can do what the Jamaica international does with his aerial strength and shrewd running. Just notice in that image above how all three defenders seem to gravitate toward Antonio even though that effectively leaves Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen open. That the 31-year-old has a chequered past record with injury ought to be extremely concerning to Moyes, but if he can just stay fit, the Hammers can hope to achieve a great deal in the league this season.

3. Leicester City

That Leicester’s last two seasons have petered out with frustrating near-misses in the race for Champions League qualification tends to obscure the reality that for most of the past two years Brendan Rodgers’ side have ranked among the four best teams in England. Now that they have had a summer where they were not pressured into selling a key figure in that team, one should assume that they will be even better now. 

For the time being, however, that has not been the case. They may have six points from three games, but they were outplayed by Wolves and even Norwich in victory and were thoroughly second-best against West Ham. Go back to the start of January and their attack seems to have slowed down while their defense in particular has struggled with 35 goals against in 25 matches. They average 1.4 xG scored per game and 1.3 xG conceded, decent enough for mid-table, but hardly the sort of underlying metrics that inspire belief that they could put together the sort of consistent run required to break into the top four.

What does offer hope for Leicester fans is the sheer weight of talent in Rodgers’ squad. From defense to the frontline, there are a string of players who would not look out of place in Champions League teams, now backed up with emerging talent. Jamie Vardy goes down? Strike sensation Patson Daka can take his place. Should anything happen to Wilfred Ndidi or Youri Tielemans then there is Boubacary Soumare to fall back on. This is a very good team and one that knows it is. On Saturday, they host Manchester City and you suspect it may be Pep Guardiola’s side who go into the game with more fear such is the Foxes’ exceptional track record against the champions and many other top sides.

4. Everton

There may have been many a ruction over a former Liverpool manager taking over at Goodison Park, but Rafael Benitez might just have found a squad that suits his style. In recent years, the Spaniard has favored attacking play built around exploiting a target man with runners playing off him and fullbacks who can launch accurate crosses from wide areas. Dominic Calvert-Lewin ticks the first of those boxes and a combination of Richarlison, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Lucas Digne and many others make the rest work. That reclamation projects Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray have started the season so well only adds to the sense that this might be the right squad for the right man at Everton.

Certainly, it is already apparent that his style has been imprinted at Goodison Park. No team in the Premier League has created more shots from open play crosses than the Toffees’ eight, while according to Opta tracking data, only Burnley have fewer passes per attacking sequence than Everton. This is not the sedate, patient side of Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure, indeed their average time in possession of 5.6 seconds is shorter this season than it was under Sam Allardyce.

This is not all throwback football by Benitez, however. Jordan Pickford is kicking the ball long more infrequently so far. Against Brighton, a great many of their scoring opportunities came from the pressing of Calvert-Lewin and in particular Richarlison. In part, that explains why they spend so little time on the ball every time they attack, if you have the seventh most sequences that start in the attacking third then to an extent there is only so long you need to spend on the ball. So far this season, Everton look like a team who can turn defense into attack very quickly, something which augurs well for their new campaign.

5. Arsenal

Haha, no. 

But wait. Perhaps it’s not so ludicrous to suggest the Gunners could barge their way up the league table. They may have endured the worst start of any top-flight team since the 1950s, but they also had a hellacious fixture list that pitted them against two of Europe’s best teams after a uniquely challenging opener away to Brentford in their first game in front of supporters at their new stadium. If most of these assessments come with the caveat of a three-game sample size, that is only truer for Arsenal, ravaged by COVID and injuries to their best players.

Three games into the season and a quintet that perhaps makes up the spine of Mikel Arteta’s side — Thomas Partey, Ben White, Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — have played a combined 386 minutes. They could have hit 2,250. That rather typifies the early-season Arsenal story. There is so much that is unknown about this team at this moment. Technical director Edu Gaspar has led a squad overhaul that probably focuses on making them better two seasons down the line, but equally this team should be better at right back (Takehiro Tomiyasu), center back (White) and attacking midfield (Odegaard) than it was a season ago. Equally, it seems plausible that Aaron Ramsdale may either usurp Bernd Leno in goal or give the German the competition he needs to get back to his best.

That is the optimistic reading, On the flipside, Arteta does not seem to have much of an attacking plan beyond work the ball down the left and wait for Kieran Tierney to punt crosses in. The likes of Nicolas Pepe and Aubameyang are at risk of atrophying in an attack that rarely offers them the broken play in high areas they want. Arsenal’s attack still looks cripplingly slow, able to advance the ball into the final third but then chronically incapable of turning that into a shot. Their xG is the lowest in the league and it isn’t even close; they are the only team in the top flight yet to reach two expected goals.

How much of that is down to the vagaries of a fixture list that has pitted them against Chelsea and Manchester City? For now it feels impossible to know and to truly assess this Arsenal team.



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