Champions League Chasers: England’s Race for Fourth Place Is Wide Open

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With more than a quarter of the Premier League season gone, only six points separate third from 10th place. And that doesn’t include the mysterious rec-league team that, presumably, stole Chelsea’s kits and has been wearing them as a long-running Halloween costume since mid-August. In other words, the Champions League race is totally up for grabs, friends. With the season in full swing, let’s look at all the contenders and their current places in the table.

Third Place: West Ham, the Great Pretenders

andy-carroll-west-ham-unitedArfa Griffiths/West Ham United/Getty Images

The Hammers continue to pile up unlikely results. And the way they’re getting those results doesn’t get any likelier. At this point, it’s probably safe to say Slaven Bilic’s side is at least a pretty good attacking team and that attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet is an absolute gem. They’re only eighth in shots on goal but a very respectable fifth in expected goals.1 However, being a pretty good attacking team is different from being the second-highest goal-scoring team in the league. West Ham’s 22 goals outstrip their expected total (15.99) by six. Over 10 games, that’s an absurdly high difference; only two other teams, Chelsea and Bournemouth, have overperformed by even more than two goals. Eventually that worm will turn.

And when it does, they have very little defensive solidity to fall back on. West Ham concede an alarming number of good shots. Despite conceding only an average number of shots on target — 4.40, compared to a league average of 4.36 — they are giving up 1.60 expected goals per game, the sixth-worst total in the league. And their actual performance is again outstripping what the metrics might predict; they’ve given up only 13 goals vs. the predicted 16. Running hot on both sides of the ball will certainly bank you a nice number of points, but it usually portends a tumble down the table when things even out.

Of course, when a team seems to be getting especially lucky, it’s tempting to look for a reason beyond just good fortune. Maybe it’s not just the bounces of the ball; maybe it’s some cool tactic that West Ham are getting over on the rest of the league! The good news for West Ham fans is that there actually might be. The bad news: It’s yet another thing that’s unlikely to continue. West Ham are the joint league leaders in “opponents picking up red cards.” They’ve seen an opponent get sent off in four out of 10 games, and two of those were in the first half. (Hi, Nemanja Matic.) So yeah, maybe if West Ham’s opponents get shown 11 red cards in the next 28 games, they might keep up this scorching-hot start. Otherwise, the midtable and the battle for Europa League awaits.

Fourth Place: Manchester United, Sleepwalking to the Champions League

United, comfortably, remain the third-best team in the Premier League — even if after most games they have to wake you up from a possession-induced nap to tell you so. The bland-looking approach of strangling games to death by keeping the ball and pressing the midfield isn’t a bug of the Louis van Gaal system, it’s the primary feature. They’ve given up the second-fewest shots in the league, along with the third-fewest shots on goal and the third-fewest expected goals. While attacking juggernauts like Arsenal and Manchester City put up defensive numbers almost by default — they’re so busy launching an avalanche of attacks that opponents can’t find their footing — United prioritize killing off the game. Amid all the boredom, they trust that a bit of magic from Juan Mata or Anthony Martial will get them on the scoreboard and earn the full three points.

Fifth Place: Leicester City, the Feel-Good Story

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Leicester City’s free-flowing attack is fascinating. On the one hand, Jamie Vardy continues to finish chances like he’s peak Lionel Messi, now with eight non-penalty goals from 39 shots for a 20.5 percent finishing rate. That’s third in the league2 to Swansea’s Andre Ayew and West Ham’s Payet, but those two have taken only 20 and 21 shots, respectively. Being this hot for this long is certainly not unheard of, but Vardy is likely to come back to the mortal realm eventually. You’d also expect the same thing from Leicester’s 13.3 shooting percentage, which is third in the league, and from their 40 percent conversion rate on shots on target, which is second to West Ham’s comically high 50 percent.

And yet their 20 goals scored is only mildly ahead of the 19.25 where expected goals projects them to be. It’s a little trippy: One set of numbers suggests something that can’t continue, and the other suggests something that’s not at all unsustainable. Unpack the numbers a bit more, and something dramatically weird is going on with Leicester City’s shooting. They take a lot of shots (150, fourth in the league) from very good locations (18.2 yards away on average), but they put only a league-average amount (33 percent) on target. So what’s the deal, Claudio Ranieri? Are your guys getting into great positions and aiming for the corners? Or can they actually not shoot straight, and are the goals about to come to a crashing halt?

The answer will determine whether these first 10 games will pave the way to a surprisingly competitive season or just be a ladder before a soft fall down to a comfortable midtable finish.

Sixth Place: Tottenham Hotspur, the Un-Spurs

It’s been a while, but it’s time to finally say it: Tottenham Hotspur are a good soccer team. It shows through in the attacking numbers (third in shots, third in shots on target, fourth in expected goals) and the defending numbers (eighth-fewest shots, fifth-fewest shots on target, fourth-fewest expected goals). Last year, Spurs made a habit of doggedly wrestling points away from games despite subpar performances. This year, although they sit sixth after 10 games and hold a Premier League unbeaten streak that goes all the way back to Week 1, the quality of their performances suggest they could be even higher.

Fittingly, the club’s current state is embodied by their no. 10, striker Harry Kane. The 22-year-old spent the first nine games doing lots of pretty good, Harry Kane–type things. He was ninth in the league in shots per 90 minutes at 3.503 and 16th in expected goals per 90 with 0.40, a rate that would net him 15.2 goals over the course of the season. On top of that, he created 1.42 chances per 90 minutes, the third-most of any forward, and he stayed plenty involved, getting 22.77 touches in the attacking third per 90 minutes, again the third-most of any forward. Yet, for all of his trouble, he got one goal and zero assists in return.

Then Sunday happened.

Spurs have done a lot of things right this season. As heralded by Kane’s hat trick, we should expect it all to start paying off in the coming weeks.

Seventh Place: Crystal Palace, Alan Pardew’s Fun House

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Crystal Palace are fun, and they also aren’t bad! That doesn’t mean they are good enough to seriously challenge for the top four, though.

Alan Pardew has built a team designed to create goals by getting balls to players in one-on-one situations on the wings and then letting them try to embarrass defenders. When you’ve got Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon, and Bakary Sako — all of whom can terrorize full-backs — that makes sense. Except that approach makes for incredibly open games, as the attack-minded wingers frequently leave the midfield pairing of Yohan Cabaye and James McArthur quite exposed. What Palace are most desperately missing, though, is a qualified striker to get on the end of all that mischief the wingers create and make up for the leaky defense. It’s not exactly a shock that the likes of Dwight Gayle, Fraizer Campbell, Connor Wickham, and Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford haven’t gotten it done.4

When critics of the Premier League talk about its style of play, which prioritizes athleticism, individuality, and running instead of a more cohesive and sound tactical approach, they’re basically subtweeting Pardew’s side. But this is a tactical choice by Pardew — a way of playing that is supposed to take best advantage of the tools at his disposal. Palace are dangerous on the counterattack, and they’re even decent when forced to defend as a unit against the top teams in the league, but they have a problem breaking down tactically disciplined opponents without overextending themselves.

In short, this Crystal Palace team is a lot like every other team Pardew has coached, but perhaps slightly more talented. That’s not exactly the recipe for a fourth-place contender, but it should keep them in the mix for the Europa League.

Eighth Place: Southampton, This Year’s Southampton

The club just keeps rolling right along. Sure, they once again lost a big and important part of their roster in Morgan Schneiderlin over the summer, but even though his nominative replacement, Jordy Clasie, didn’t take the field until this past weekend’s draw against Liverpool, that’s barely slowed them down. The attacking trio of Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane, and Dusan Tadic is size, speed, and skill compartmentalized, and when you put them all together you get an attack that doesn’t look like anything else in the Premier League. They’ve attempted 37 headed shots this year — 11 more than anybody else — and beyond goal attempts, they rely heavily on Pelle’s size to initiate attacks. His physical presence draws defenders into his orbit and gives Mane the freedom to dart into space that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Last year’s version of Southampton was defensively dominant, and they haven’t quite gotten back to that level this season. Part of that is the loss of Schneiderlin to United, along with center back Toby Alderweireld going to Spurs. But it also comes down to early-season injuries to Ryan Bertrand (and Clasie) and the relatively late arrival of summer signing Virgil van Dijk, who took a while to settle in next to Jose Fonte in central defense. Now that the team and manager Ronald Koeman both have a track record, the Saints seem more likely outside contenders for that fourth spot than West Ham, Crystal Palace, or Leicester City.

Ninth Place: Liverpool, the Kloppening

jurgen-klopp-liverpoolJan Kruger/Getty Images

In the newly sung words of Alexander Hamilton, Liverpool are not throwing away their shot. The unexpected early-season Chelsea coma opened up the possibility that somebody might slip into the Champions League, and Liverpool reacted by going big and bringing in manager Jürgen Klopp. Unsurprisingly, though, he hasn’t exactly revamped things overnight. Three games into Klopp’s tenure,5 new Liverpool look a lot like old Liverpool. There’s a dull, defensive solidity, and an attack that relies entirely too much on an inconsistent Coutinho pinging shots at the net from all over the place.

It was unrealistic to expect Klopp to come in and flip a switch, and especially so given the injuries that Liverpool are dealing with right now. They’re reduced to starting a fourth-string striker in 20-year-old Divock Origi, and they’re missing an integral part of their midfield in club captain Jordan Henderson. Thanks to those injuries, along with a second straight summer of transfer upheaval, Klopp inherited a collection of yet-to-be-matched parts.

However, even if Klopp’s Liverpool are decidedly better next year, it might be harder to qualify for the Champions League at that point, assuming Chelsea have run over whatever problems they have with several trucks of money. So, time is kinda of the essence here. If this team comes together soon, then they, along with Spurs, are the likeliest of teams outside the big four to nab that Champions League spot. If not, well, it’ll be a whole lot harder a year from now.

10th Place: West Bromwich Albion, Technically in the Top Half

Hi there, Tony Pulis. Bye there, Tony Pulis.

15th Place: Chelsea, the World’s Greatest Mystery

As it turns out, Chelsea’s problems haven’t been solved. They didn’t play terribly in the first half on Saturday, and they actually outplayed West Ham for stretches while down a man in the second half, but they still walked away with zero points. That performance-plus-result highlights two major problems for Chelsea. The first: Not playing terribly still meant they were roughly on par with West Ham, which isn’t exactly the heights the defending champs should be aspiring to. And the second: Teams sometimes lose, even when they don’t play badly. For Chelsea, who are nine points and more than half the league away from the Champions League spots, that second point will loom extremely large over the rest of the season. Even if they get their shit together and start to play well, there’s a ton of ground to make up and the team can barely afford any unlucky dropped points. But not even Jose Mourinho can control luck.

At this point in the season, almost any team in Chelsea’s position would already be an afterthought. But given the talent on that team and what they did together last year, it’s just impossible to write off the possibility that they might suddenly snap together, win six or seven in a row, and put themselves right back in the mix. On current evidence, though, there’s nothing to suggest they’re capable of doing that.

Filed Under: Soccer, Premier League, English Premier League, Champions League, West Ham, Dimitri Payet, Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal, Leicester City, Jamie Vardy, Tottenham Hotspur, Harry Kane, Crystal Palace, Alan Pardew, Southampton, Graziano Pelle, Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp, West Bromwich Albion, Tony Pulis, Chelsea, Jose Mourinho

Mike L. Goodman is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ TheM_L_G