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Chelsea’s struggles in creating and conceding chances are unprecedented

Chelsea is mired in 14th place with only one with from four matches. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
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The English Premier table looks a little bit crazy right now.

Defending champion Chelsea is mired in 14th place with only one win from four matches. While last season’s runner-up Manchester City has taken the top position with a perfect record, the remaining three clubs in the top four places — Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Swansea City — are not exactly traditional powers. Given that the season is barely more than 10 percent complete, does this mean anything at all? Or is it just a fun curiosity?

To put apply some numbers to this question, I created an “Early Season Weirdness Rating.” I checked to see how well the previous season’s top four teams were doing and how high the current top four finished in the previous season. By combining the “mean absolute error” — a simple measure of how close two measurements are — for both groups, I made a weirdness rating for the last ten EPL campaigns. It shows that while this season does look strange compared to several that have come before, it’s not a total outlier.

In fact, at this point last season Aston Villa and Swansea City had snuck into the top four. But before 2014-2015, there was a long period where the EPL table after four weeks reflected expectations reasonably closely. So it is understandable that this year’s results look strange.

But for the big clubs that are currently underperforming, history’s lessons are kind. The last two times a defending champion was mired in the bottom half after four matches were in 2007 and 2008, when Manchester United started slowly. In both seasons Manager Alex Ferguson got his team turned around and won the EPL title. This of course does not mean that Chelsea will do the same, but historically a early cold streak has been far from a death sentence.

Indeed, there is not much evidence that “early season weirdness” leads to unexpected late season excitement. Runs by Manchester City, Wigan, Portsmouth and Everton upset the expected table in September of both 2006 and 2007. But by the time those seasons ended, the expected top four—Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool—had risen to the European places once again.

The good news for this season’s interlopers is that a hot start can usually stave off relegation. Of nine clubs that snuck into the top four unexpectedly only one was relegated. They averaged an eighth or ninth place finish. And the only one that was relegated, Blackpool in 2010-11, had significantly outplayed its underlying statistics through four matches. Blackpool had scored and conceded eight goals, but based on the quality of the chances that Blackpool had created and conceded, the side’s expected goals difference was negative-four. Standing fourth on even goal difference is a mark of good fortune already, and the underlying statistics were even worse. For Swansea, Crystal Palace and Leicester, all of whom have solid xG numbers, Blackpool’s fate is highly unlikely.

Turning to expected goals makes the story at the top somewhat more unusual, however. I do not have expected goals numbers for the United teams from 2006 and 2007 who went on to win the title. But over the last five seasons, while big clubs have occasionally started the season slowly, no one has been as bad as Chelsea at conceding opposition chances. Indeed, the only once in the last five years has any one of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Manchester City opened the season with more expected goals conceded than created.

That was Arsenal in 2011-12, who needed a huge stretch run just to finish third. The graph shows “expected goals ratio,” calculated as expected goals created divided by expected goals created plus expected goals conceded.

So for Chelsea, the historical signals are mixed. Big clubs that start slow have usually recovered. Champions that start very slow have even recovered to win the title on multiple occasions. But Chelsea’s struggles in creating and conceding chances are unprecedented in the expected goals era. That is probably the indicator to watch for Chelsea. If the Blues can tighten up their defense and stop the flow of good chances for the opposition, it is likely that they will achieve the typical recovery of a top club. But with every week that goes by and Chelsea are shipping chances to West Bromwich Albion, it becomes more likely that this early season weirdness will be remembered as more than just a little fluke.