How the Bottom Half Lives: Five Tales From the Depths of the Premier League TableChris Brunskill/Getty Images
Let us spare a thought for the little guys. These denizens of the bottom half of the Premier League table don’t get much pub. And when they do, it’s always as a foil for one the big boys. Burnley’s back-to-back draws against Manchester City and Newcastle haven’t spawned thousands of words of tactical analysis about their effective, underdog tactics, nor have they resulted in any glowing interviews with Danny Ings or George Boyd and his beautiful hair. No, they’re just the temporarily immovable object against the ultimately unstoppable force. What’s wrong with Manchester City always ends up being more important than what’s right with Burnley. But, well, stuff actually happens at the bottom; it’s a place where some people even carve out a reasonably comfortable existence. So, now that we’re just more than halfway into the season, let’s take a look at how the other half has been living.
Bojan’s Third Act
In Act 1, Bojan played the latest, greatest precocious Barcelona talent. In Act 2, he played the latest, greatest failed Barcelona talent, falling his way down Europe’s pecking order. Now, in Act 3, he’s a key attacker … for Stoke City. If you ignore everything else — and just look at Bojan’s talent — this might not be that surprising.1 But for the three seasons before he came to Stoke, Bojan performed progressively worse, while playing in progressively worse leagues along the European circuit. He went from Barcelona to Roma to Milan to Ajax, with the Dutch club finally declining to extend his loan for a second season.
And yet, here he is, playing an integral role in Stoke’s attack. He’s scored a couple of non-penalty goals, notched an assist, and set up 25 chances — all while starting 12 games and appearing as a sub in two more. The numbers may not be astounding, but that he’s become a mainstay for Stoke kind of is. The move from the Eredivisie to the Premier League can be a tricky one even for some of the Dutch league’s best players. (Just ask Jozy Altidore.) While Bojan becoming a consistent, contributing part of a midtable Premier League team might not have been considered a success four years ago, right now it is. And who knows? He’s still only 24; this won’t be the last act.
Aston Villa Tests the Limits of “It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good”
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Aston Villa are by far the luckiest team in the Premier League. They sit in 12th place while sporting the league’s fifth-worst goal differential, which isn’t actually that crazy. But here’s what is: They’ve scored a grand total of 11 goals all season, and somehow they’ve won five times. The 11 goals are by far the lowest in the Premier League, six behind Burnley’s next-best 17. Villa are barely over two goals scored per win.2 The only other squad under three goals per win is Tottenham Hotspur, and they’ve scored 29 goals to go with their 10 wins, so they just barely miss the mark.
The team has scored more than one goal in a game just twice this entire season, although I guess if you’re only going to score 11 times, you really want to stretch those goals out as much as possible. But you can’t really ration luck — and come the end of the season, that might be the only thing that keeps Villa in the Premier League.
Your Random Goal-Scoring English Forward of the Year: Charlie Austin
Only Sergio Agüero (14) and Diego Costa (14) have scored more goals than Charlie Austin (12) this season. Six years ago, he was playing semipro soccer for something called Poole Town while also — seriously — working as a bricklayer. Now the Queens Park forward is doing stuff like this against Chelsea.
Success stories like Austin’s usually come with a Grant Holt–size caveat. Holt is the prototypical English striker who climbed his way up from the bottom rings of British soccer by scoring buckets of goals, culminating in a 17-goal season for Norwich in the Premier League in 2011-12. He’s scored a total of 14 goals in the three years since. Austin is only 25, though, unlike Holt or fellow iconic England lower-league struggler Rickie Lambert, who were both older than 30 when they broke through to the top level. Plus, Austin isn’t relying on a hot streak of unlikely finishing to rack up the goals, either. Even when we look at non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes, Austin’s still in third, just behind Agüero and Costa.
Welcome to the brave new world of Charlie Austin being a really good Premier League striker. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Where Art Thou, Saido Berahino?
Speaking of English strikers, what happened to Saido Berahino?3 The same expected-goals metric that has Austin in third has the 21-year-old West Bromwich striker in 18th, languishing right between Nikica Jelavic and Leonardo Ulloa. The season started off strong, but just before New Year’s Day it had begun to look like this:
Yikes. Berahino has since went out and scored against West Ham, and then put a whopping four past non-league side Gateshead in the FA Cup (and, in the process, provided a nice example of why “goals in all competitions” is a stat that should set off warning signs). Now Tony Pulis is coming, and the rumor mill is spinning with speculation that he’ll sell Berahino to fund his buying spree. Why exactly he needs to fund a buying spree when he reportedly has £30 million already at his disposal is a mystery better left to the transfer rumor gods. The question remains, though: Does Berahino need to be rescued, or is he a prospect who’s just not quite worth the hype?
Hull City: Should’ve Listened to Biggie
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Hull City are a really bad soccer team. They’ve scored nine more goals than Aston Villa, but they have actually created fewer expected goals than the worst-scoring team in the league. And they back up that attacking ineptitude with a below-average defense that concedes the seventh-most expected goals. Despite trouncing a reeling Everton squad, 2-0, last weekend, they’re only two points above the relegation zone.
It didn’t have to be this way, though. Last year, after being promoted, they rode a relatively stout defense to midtable mediocrity. And despite fading down the stretch to finish 16th, they were never really in any relegation danger. Hoping to build on that performance, they went out and spent £20 million, mostly on attackers and midfielders, adding Abel Hernández, Gastón Ramírez, Hatem Ben Arfa, Robert Snodgrass, and Mohamed Diamé, and also retaining the services of Jake Livermore.
Half a season later, Ben Arfa is already gone, and the rest of the crew has added basically nothing to the team’s attack while also compromising its effective defend-at-all-costs approach from last season. Hull City are the anti–West Ham. For Sam Allardyce, being able to spend money after all these years of penny-pinching was the key to his side’s improvement. For Steve Bruce, all of that money seems like it was too much money, distracting him from an approach that’d served the team quite well just a year ago. Even if Hull do manage to scrape by and stay in the Premier League, it will be despite a big step backward from last year — and an expensive one at that.