Is This Real? Taking Stock of Early PL Season Trends

With eight games played so far, the picture for the 2014-2015 season is getting a little more clear. There are some narratives emerging as a result of these games that beg some closer inspection.

Diego Costa Can’t be Stopped

One trend that’s been impossible not to notice this season is Chelsea’s attack. Chelsea snatched summer transfer headlines with their business this summer, and didn’t skip a beat when the season started, stealing the show this time with their outrageous goalscoring pace. They have looked like the team other sides saw in their nightmares when they thought of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa teaming up with Eden Hazard. Costa has probably been the most impressive of all, with 9 goals now from 7 games for a rate of 1.4 goals per 90 minutes*. Despite this outrageous start, I think Costa might actually start to cool off a bit. In many ways, his form is unsustainable. His conversion rate right now is sitting at 40.9%*. I’ve written recently about how conversion rates tend to not persist over time based on ability alone. His shot quality is definitely a factor here. His shots are coming from extremely close range, with 87% from within 18 yards$. Part of this is a function of his role as a lone striker, and his excellent movement and timing. However, even if he remains Thomas Muller-esque with his ability to get into goalscoring positions, this kind of conversion just isn’t sustainable. To illustrate this, take a look at Costa compared to the frequency of different conversion rates from last year’s Premier League players*:

At some point, the Chelsea offense will be stalled a bit by injury, or some off performances, he’ll be forced to manufacture some chances that aren’t delivered on a golden platter and his remarkable finishing will return to a more believable rate. Diego Costa is an excellent striker, but he’s probably going to look a little more human over the course of a full season.

Balotelli Can’t Get Started

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Diego Costa is Mario Balotelli. Purchased for what seemed to be a bit of a bargain at 16 million pounds, Balotelli has been Liverpool’s only option at times, with Luis Suarez at Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge out for several matches now. He has not exactly lived up to this role, netting a grand total of zero times so far in the league. It’s certainly fair to say Balotelli hasn’t been playing well, but he’s (unfairly) become the focal point of criticism for a Liverpool side underperforming across the board, and his own team might even be contributing to his scapegoating. I think, however, that Balotelli will come good, or at least better. He has the highest shot per 90 min. rate in the league*, so to continue on with zero goals seems nearly impossible, especially for someone with Balotelli’s record of scoring goals at the highest levels across Europe. Just as Costa’s high conversion rate is unsustainable in the long term, so too is Balotelli’s goose egg. The suggestion that Liverpool might be inclined to sell him in January strikes me as ridiculous, or at least ridiculously stupid. Selling low on a 24 year old international with Balotelli’s track record because of an poor run of form is the kind of deal Liverpool might end up sorely regretting, and one a savvy team might look into.

Hot Starts

Note: I wrote this section before last weekend’s matches, so in light of Southampton’s demolition of Sunderland, they seem to be leaning more towards serious contention. Aston Villa lost to Everton quite handily, making my warning of trouble ahead seem a bit more clear.

Several teams have started the season with perhaps surprisingly good results. Southampton, after being declared a club in crisis following the sale of several key players from last season, have started the season on fire, putting themselves in third place and in the discussion for a European competition place. They are playing a 4-3-3, with a fairly aggressive defensive press. By Colin Trainor’s PPDA stat, which records opponent passes per defensive action as a measure of a team’s defensive pressure, they are the 6th most aggressive in applying pressure. They were league leaders in this metric a year ago under Mauricio Pochettino’s extreme system of pressure+, so it’s not too surprising the intensity fall off a bit under Koeman, but they’re still looking to win the ball back high up the pitch. So, what to make of their performances? First, some of the good. Their TSR and SoTR both place them in the top 4 teams*. Offensively, they are generating high quality opportunities, with a whopping 64% of their shots coming from inside the penalty box$. This may be a result of their defensive press winning the ball back in promising areas. However, their PDO is a bit above average, which would suggest that they’re benefitting from some luck. It makes sense that given the quality of their opportunities, their PDO would be boosted by a high shot percentage, but it seems that their high save percentage is actually responsible for the above-average PDO*. This makes for a bit of a muddled picture on offense. It might be a positive sign that their conversion isn’t at an unsustainable level, and given their high-quality chances and underlying shot domination, they may even start to score more with a bit of luck. On the other hand, if this conversion rate is inflated by the quality of their chances, what will it look like if Southampton begin to struggle to create these kinds of opportunities and their save percentage drops?

They’re also only 1 point ahead of their results from the same fixtures last season, meaning their strong start may be benefitting a bit from the schedule, as well as perhaps low expectations given their summer transfer business. It’s unclear where Southampton are headed this season. It seems safe to say that the pronouncements of their doom during the transfer window were very premature, but it’s also hard to declare them a true threat to the Top 4.

Aston Villa are another team who have defied expectations in taking 10 points from their first seven matches, though they’ve fallen back to Earth a bit, losing to Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City in successive games, plus their defeat last weekend to Everton. There’s reason to think, though, that things may be downhill from here for Villa. Despite claiming some early victories, including an away win at Liverpool, Villa have more or less been hanging on for dear life in their matches. They are being outshot worse than any team in the league, posting bottom of the table TSR and SoTR of 33.1 and 26.3 respectively. That’s bad. Their PPDA of 31.07 reflects how firmly the Aston Villa bus has been parked+, and is almost double that of the second most deep-defending team. Game state exaggerates the magnitude of these statistics a bit, since Villa have spent more minutes winning than they have losing after grabbing early goals, but a team getting outshot this badly looks destined for a relegation battle rather than a mid-table finish.


 

* – Source: Objective Football

$ – Source: WhoScored.com

+ – Source: Colin Trainor, StatsBomb

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