The Premier League is back again after the international break but with seven games played, now seems a prime moment to look back at my predictions for the start of the season and compare them to the early trends that we're seeing played out across the competition. Let's see how accurate I was.
How the xG table compares to predictions
Eight games into the season is around the time where we can look at an expected goals (xG) table and consider some of the underlying trends in the Premier League. Around this stage of the season, xG serves as a valuable tool to give us an indication of performances that points accrued may not. It is important to assess both and we remain just about in the stage where the uncharacteristic game could warp the standings significantly.
This is not entirely predictive of how the table proper will look come May (certainly that should be the hope in north London) but trends are being established. Now is the time to compare it to what we thought might happen at the start of the season: A top four of Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, surprisingly impressive seasons for newly promoted Norwich and the specter of relegation looming over Wolverhampton. Some of those predictions have aged rather better than others.
|Pos.||Predicted pos.||Team||xG||xG against||xG difference|
Certainly, anyone that suggested Wolves might be one of the most invigorating attacking sides in the Premier League would have been considered a mad man. A staid side under Nuno Espirito Santo, with Bruno Lage at the helm they are unleashed. Adama Traore is putting together a case for being the best player outside the big six. Daniel Podence and Francisco Trincao are thrilling options on the other flank while Raul Jimenez looks to be getting into scoring positions like he used to, something that was not a given after the skull injury he suffered last season.
My prediction that Norwich might be the surprise package of the season, meanwhile, looks to have aged poorly. Their defense is as porous in their second recent stab at the Premier League as it was first time around, while their only real attacking threat early on in the campaign looks to be 19-year-old winger Christos Tzolis, who is unlikely to be able to create chances as consistently as Emiliano Buendia did last time out.
The two north London sides can probably mount a reasonable case for mitigation. Arsenal's squad was incomplete at the start of the season and looked it as they were ravaged by COVID-19 in the run-up to thumping losses against Manchester City and Chelsea. Tottenham were without Harry Kane early in the season. Equally, while their standing in the xG table might be a little extreme it is a reminder of how far each team are from what they aspire to be. The Gunners look like a possession team that don't know how to pass the ball to goal. Spurs seem to be setting up defensively but have allowed opponents the fourth highest xG in the league.
The early-season xG returns would appear to suggest something of a gulf between Manchester City, Liverpool and the rest. That runs against the assumptions of a four-team title race with Chelsea the team most expected to rival Pep Guardiola's reigning champions. There has been -- and will continue to be -- much talk about the ability Thomas Tuchel's side have to win ugly and that is undeniably valuable. Add a fully fit N'Golo Kante into this team and you can imagine this team could approximate the sort of grit-and-grind defense they managed last season. Equally, they will be rivalling teams who are averaging two or more xG per game on attack and in City's case allowing shots on their goal worth around 0.5xG. That is a formula for real success that Chelsea will be battling against.
What's up with Sancho?
When it came to picking a player of the season, Jadon Sancho was not the overwhelming favorite of the bookmakers, but I was convinced that a cocktail of promising factors meant this could be a banner year for Manchester United's new signing. Yes, he was new to the Premier League, though not the English game. Sancho was coming off the back of an outstanding season with Borussia Dortmund, plugged a clear gap in a team that seemed destined to improve with his presence and the other signings he had made, and as such would have a compelling narrative case in awards that are often as much about players' stories as they are their performances.
Instead, Sancho has rather staggered out of the blocks, a slow start to his return to England that culminated in Gareth Southgate's remarkable admission that on the basis of form the 21-year-old did not merit the international call up he received. Nine appearances across all competitions have brought no goals and no assists, not the sort of run he suffered with any great frequency in Germany. Of course, that number is rather inflated by a string of brief cameos off the bench, initially as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried to ease him in and then as others were given starting spots ahead of him. The final hours of the transfer window brought another forward to crowbar into the side and Cristiano Ronaldo will inevitably be first among equals.
When he does play, Sancho at least has a settled position, the left wing berth he ended his time at Dortmund in, and he cannot complain about not seeing the ball consistently. Of those who have played 100 or more minutes in the Premier League this season, the winger receives and plays the most passes in the attacking third per 90 minutes. Only Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish average more touches. However, he is 50th in open play chances created.
None of that is to say that Sancho is a bad player. A few months ago, he was one of the most consistent providers of goals and opportunities for others in Europe's top five leagues. It may well be that the English game is a step up from the German one, but considering his numbers were no less impressive in the Champions League, it is fair to assume that he is capable of more than he has offered against the likes of Southampton and Newcastle. Ultimately, his issue may be the same one that many a United player faces: That without a clearly defined attacking approach and a strong emphasis on individualistic play, it is hard to build a rhythm and understanding with teammates.
Take, for instance, Sancho's relationship with Ronaldo. Play the former on the left and he will naturally want to cut in onto his right foot. All well and good, but the issue is United's returning talisman will look to drop into those same spots from which he has scored hundreds of goals since leaving Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Bruno Fernandes is not far away either at the No. 10 position. If Sancho wants to fit, he has to be a touchline-hugging winger on his weaker foot and then he runs the risk of getting in Luke Shaw's way and vice versa.
It is all the more befuddling that Sancho is having these difficulties on the wide left when the whole reason his new club had been pursuing the former Manchester City winger over multiple summer windows was to solve the hole they had on the right wing. There are short-term reasons to switch wings: Marcus Rashford is out injured while Mason Greenwood has earned his chance to start regularly off the right. But there is perhaps no better indicator of the befuddling start to the season that Manchester United have made than their most expensive signing of the summer being thrust into a position that he simply does not suit right now.
Why did I ever doubt Liverpool?
Of course we all knew at the start of the season that Liverpool were getting the band back together. That should have been cause for delight, but as so often happens when hitmakers return from their hiatus, you cannot help but worry. Will they recapture the vigor of their youth? It may scarcely have been a year since Jurgen Klopp's side were hoisting the Premier League table but it felt like the moment might have passed.
After that injury, it felt safe to assume Virgil van Dijk would need time. I predicted a bounce-back season for Sadio Mane but there was something needling away in the background. The midfield was going to lose Georginio Wijnaldum, perhaps the most consistent player in the engine room last season. He was going to go unreplaced; in a summer when Manchester United and Chelsea were making additions Liverpool settled for Ibrahima Konate, who even at the time looked unlikely to be a major upgrade on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip.
But then, despite on several occasions last season noting how the defensive injury issues Liverpool were facing were stopping them from thriving at the other end of the pitch, I seemed to forget how much of an impact the absences were having on this team and how formidable they could be at full strength. This is a skyscraping attack. Now that it has stable foundations it can cut loose. Trent Alexander-Arnold looks like the player he was in the title win, the leading chance creator in the Premier League now that Virgil van Dijk is alongside him. Andrew Robertson looks as at ease at the other end of the pitch while Thiago is ninth in the league for open play chances per 90 minutes among those to have played more than 100 minutes.
Then there is Mohamed Salah. That he was still scoring goals at a good clip last season perhaps made it easy to assume there was not another gear he could reach in a full strength Liverpool team. How wrong that view was. This season, he has his highest open play xG per 90 minutes since the 2017-18 season. He is hitting the target more frequently, taking a higher proportion of his shots in the box and is finding the net every 105 minutes. He is creating more chances for Liverpool teammates than ever before. He is probably the best player in the league at this moment, the jewel in the crown.
Europe being the most realistic avenue for silverware? Not in the slightest. This team looks ready to go toe to toe with Manchester City.
Aubameyang better but not back to his best
It seemed inevitable that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would improve in 2021-22. Everything that had gone wrong for him -- malaria, family illness, traffic jams before big games -- the previous season could not strike again. It was going to get better, but maybe not as good as it once was. After all, the decline in the underlying metrics metrics really set in not when he signed his new contract in 2020 but the year before. It was in that season that his non-penalty xG, his shots per game and his open play touches in the box began to dip. If last season was a crater that he would clamber out of, the trend line was still pointing downwards.
That much would seem to be the case early in the new campaign. Set aside the hat-trick against a West Bromwich Albion youth team in the EFL Cup and Aubameyang has two goals from his first six Premier League games. A player who had been hovering at around 0.75 goals per 90 minutes at Borussia Dortmund and early in his Arsenal career is now some way short of 0.5 again. A few years ago, he took three shots a game and had around six touches in the box. Both have declined. He still has an explosive burst but perhaps the afterburners are missing.
He is at least in the right spots, though. In those central areas is where Aubameyang should be at his most effective, for much of 2020-21 he was marooned wide on the left, tasked with beating at least one opponent before getting a shot away because of one hot streak around the time of the Gunners FA Cup win. From that position, he is at least tracking back toward three shots per 90 (averaging 2.93 so far this season) even if his xG has not swung up yet. It still feels hard to be sure how good Arsenal's captain can be. Like the rest of his team, you feel that he has not yet clicked into gear but that the next level is not too far away.
Even if he does find it, the days when he was competing for golden boots seem to be in the past.
The signs of Leicester's slide
There was much optimism about Leicester City being the best of the rest again this season and rightly so. For the second consecutive season, they had occupied a top-four berth for most of the campaign only to be pushed out in the closing stages. Their FA Cup win would surely offer a collective boost to Brendan Rodgers' squad while the underlying metrics over the broad sweep of the past two years looked favorable. As we noted before the season began, from the start of 2019-20 onwards, the Foxes had the league's third best goal difference, the third-highest xG and a defense that performed well in a great many metrics.
Over a broad sweep of two seasons, Leicester looked great. The issue was rather the patterns that had been setting in this season. From a 3-1 defeat to Leeds United on Jan. 31 onwards, their defensive performance collapsed, conceding 1.6 goals per game. They were allowing 1.4 xG per game for opponents while creating 1.4 xG per game themselves, the mark of a mid-table side. That trend has continued into this season where they have had to better xG in a match only twice, against Burnley and Brighton.
Much has been made of. Evans' infrequent availability for Leicester this season -- he has been suffering in the plantar fascia ligament of his foot since April -- and it is certainly true that with the 33-year-old in the team they are far more effective in defense. In 28 games with Evans since the start of last season, they average 1.79 points per game, have a goal difference of plus-15 and allow opponents 1.12xG per game. In 15 games without him, they average 1.41 points, an opposition xG of 1.58 and have a neutral goal difference.
He is not the only center back missing. Without Wesley Fofana as well, this Leicester side looks to be built on shaky foundations. The deep chase for the top four I predicted before the season began looks unlikely to materialize.