English Premier League season preview: Battle for Champions League berths should be tight

August 15

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

Will there be a new Liverpool in the English Premier League?

The narrative of last season was driven by Liverpool’s shocking title run, in which it came up just short in the end to Manchester City. The Reds’ jump to second place, notably, was presaged by excellent expected-goals numbers in previous season. Although Liverpool finished entirely out of contention in seventh place in 2012-2013, it had the best expected goals ratio in the Premier League that season, slightly ahead of Manchester City.

[RELATED: The most intriguing EPL story lines as the season kicks off.]

Expected goals, a measure of the quality of the chances a team creates and concedes, is generally a better predictor of a team’s record than the actual goals the team scored in the past. Last year’s expected goals table does not offer any underdog picks as strong as Liverpool, but it suggests a wide-open race for fourth place — and the Champions League berth that comes with it — that could go down to the wire.

This red lines on this graph show the expected goals ratio (a ratio of a team’s expected goals scored to their total of expected goals scored and conceded) for all English Premier League sides in 2013-2014. The blue lines offer a comparison, showing each team’s goals ratio with penalties and own goals removed. First, these are the top teams from last year. Analyst Simon Gleave likes to refer to the EPL’s “superior seven” sides, but by xG last year there were eight.


The table shows that Liverpool’s finishing ran very hot last year, after a cold season in 2012-2013. The Reds probably would have been due for some regression even if Luis Suarez had remained with the team instead of transferring to Barcelona. The league favorites are the unsurprising big two of Manchester City and Chelsea.

Southampton poses a sad “what-might-have-been” question. A strong mid-table run could have been continued into real contention, these numbers suggest, if ownership had committed to the team for one more year. Instead, most of the Saints’ best players are gone and the other five teams likely will be fighting it out for the two remaining Champions League positions.

This data suggests we should expect a tight battle. Despite an easy glide to fourth place last year, Arsenal’s chances created numbers that were not hugely superior to those of the teams chasing the same third- and fourth-place positions. Tottenham, Everton and Manchester United should have reasonable chances to make a run for the top. Arsenal has probably had the most successful transfer window of the teams in this second group, but that should not make it prohibitive favorite for Champions League qualification based on these numbers. Instead, it looks like we should expected a tight race, down to the wire, for those final berths.


Last year’s expected-goals table tells a similar story at the bottom of the table. Just about anyone could get relegated. By expected goals, both Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion massively underperformed last year, and they seem like good picks to settle into the mid-table with a recovering Southampton.

That leaves seven returning teams at very high risk of relegation. Expected goals suggests that although both West Ham and Crystal Palace finished solidly in the mid-table, they did so on the back of strong finishing numbers that may not be sustainable.  While we can reasonably predict a top two in the Premier League and then a next five, picking a group of even five or six relegation contenders is nearly impossible. There are at least 10 teams that could easily be relegated, and the margins between them appear so tight that making any particular pick would be foolish. No one among the bottom teams is safe.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A

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