Premier League Deep Dive: Buy Low on Arsenal, Sell High on Tottenham Hotspur After International Break
Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images. Pictured: Nuno Espirito Santo
The first three weeks of the Premier League season are complete, with only one team winning all three games (Tottenham Hotspur) and three losing all three (Wolves, Norwich City and Arsenal) of their opening matches.
Because soccer is such a low-event sport with high variance, the table can often mislead who the best teams really are, especially early in the season. Some teams take time to get players fit and healthy — like Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne — or sort out transfer rumors like Tottenham’s Harry Kane.
Three of 38 matches have now been played, though, and while it typically takes at least five matches to get enough of a sample to draw true conclusions about a team, there are already underlying trends showing up in the data.
Here are some observations and trends from the opening three weeks of the EPL season:
Biggest xG Overperformer: Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs picked off Manchester City on the opening weekend of the Premier League season with an excellent defend-and-counter approach under new manager Nuno Espirito Santo.
Spurs weren’t expected to take the game to Manchester City and control the tempo, and they were legitimately dangerous on the counterattack seemingly every time they won the ball deep in their own half and carried the ball into the City final third in that game.
In the two matches since then, against Wolves and Watford, they struggled to create quality chances. Wolves outshot Spurs, 25-7, in their matchup, with Tottenham’s only two big scoring chances coming on a penalty and a late counterattacking chance through Harry Kane.
Wolves didn’t generate a ton of clear chances themselves, but Spurs were at times overrun in the midfield and pressed out of their comfort zone.
Tottenham then hosted Watford, who might be the worst team in the whole division on paper. Spurs created 0.9 xG, scored off a fluke free kick that the goalkeeper misplayed and won the shots battle, 15-9, and on xG, 0.9-0.6, in the metric. Hardly an inspiring performance. They have three 1-0 wins, but Espirito Santo isn’t playing their best centerback (Cristian Romero) or midfielders (Tanguy Ndombele and Gio Lo Celso).
Spurs have allowed the eighth-most xGA and created the seventh-lowest xGF. They are 10th in shots per 90, allowed the third most shots in the Premier League. Their underlying passing and field-tilt numbers aren’t that of a top four team either, despite their standing atop the table with nine points thus far.
Tottenham is ninth in passes into the final third, 18th in crosses into the area and even with Kane back in the squad, they’re short on ways to break down inferior teams and will likely be dropping points as favorites in the coming weeks following the international break.
They won’t keep winning every game by one goal, and they won’t keep winning games unless the underlying performances dramatically improve.
|Actual Goal difference||+3|
|Expected goal (xG) difference||0|
|Expected Points (xP)||3.84|
Biggest xG Underperformer: Wolves
Wolves’ 1-0 loss to Manchester United at home on Sunday encapsulated their start to the Premier League campaign. They’ve now outplayed three of the PL’s top seven sides — Leicester City, Spurs and Manchester United — and beat all three on expected goals, but have no points to show for it.
They outshot United, 15-10, created three big chances to United’s one and if not for some poor finishing and great United goalkeeping, Wolves would have won that game.
Under former manager Nuno Espirito Santo, Wolves were one of the league’s most passive teams. They defended deep and countered whenever possible, but faced a drop-off at both ends of the pitch in 2020-21 along with injuries. Enter new manager Bruno Lage and Wolves are as electric in space and without the ball as any side in England. They rank sixth in passes into the final third and sixth in carries into the final third.
Wolves were bottom half in progressive passing last year, bottom half in midfield and total pressures. Now they rank in the top six in both categories. Lage has turned Wolves into an excellent mid-block and counter team with excellent players in space like Adama Traoré.
Traoré has already created 1.2 xG and 0.7 xA in three games for Wolves. He leads the PL in shot-creating actions with 25 and Wolves’ finishing has let them down immensely. They’ve created 4.3 xG and allowed 2.9 xGA, which means they’re running even with xGA but well behind their xGF numbers.
No team has seen a bigger upgrade in my PL projections than Wolves thus far, and they’ve lost every game. The goals will come, and the points and wins will follow that if Lage’s team continues to play at this top eight level.
|Actual Goal difference||-3|
|Expected goal (xG) difference||+1.4|
|Expected Points (xP)||5.16|
What’s Wrong With Arsenal?
Arsenal are in turmoil following two embarrassing defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City by a combined seven goals. The Gunners have not scored, they lost on opening day at Brentford, and they’re in 20th in the PL table. The reality, though, is that Arsenal is probably fine.
They finished last season sixth in xG difference, eighth in points and that lined up with most of their underlying attacking and defending metrics. Two bad losses to teams that are much better than them shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
The Gunners will get defenders Ben White and Gabriel back. They’ll start new right back Takehiro Tomiyasu and should improve across the board defensively. Once Thomas Partey and Albert Sambi Lokonga settle into the midfield, the Gunners are still a top-half team. They won’t play one of Europe’s best teams every week and should do well against fellow midtable sides.
Arsenal need its youth to progress and improve to replace the declining production of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up top if they want to keep scoring goals. But it’s not all bad for the Gunners, who did bring in some quality talent and should be able to beat up on the bad teams in the PL with their passing ability and usually solid defensively.
Don’t overreact to three bad games of any team, ever, especially when two of them come against the Champions League finalists. Arsenal are simply an upper-midtable side now, one that hopes to make the Europa League if it runs well.
We’re nearing the buy low spot on Arsenal following a terrible start, and the easier upcoming fixtures offer some optimism that the Gunners can climb out of 20th place.
Is Leicester City Broken?
Tottenham is the clear choice of biggest luck overperformer, but no team has been downgraded in my power ratings through three weeks more than Leicester City. The Foxes played poorly in their opening match against Wolves, a performance that could be excused because it was opening weekend.
But they’ve followed it up with two more bad performances. West Ham pummeled the Foxes in Matchweek 2, a 4-1 beatdown that wasn’t competitive at 11-on-11 before a Leicester red card.
I projected them fifth at the start of the season, but no longer are they ahead of West Ham and yes, Spurs, in my power ratings. Leicester followed up two bad performances with a third consecutive poor showing at Norwich City.
Video Assistant Referee bailed them out of what should have been a 2-2 draw after Norwich won the xG battle, outshot them 13-9 and completed seven more penalty area passes.
The Foxes have six points from 2.31 expected points. Their xG difference from three games against non-elite opponents is 17th in the league, and now they have to play Manchester City following the international break.
Leicester is 20th in shot-creating actions, 19th in penalty area passes, 19th in shots per match, 18th in pressing success rate. The Foxes are in trouble if they don’t improve quickly, as they now have Europa League matches to worry about after the international break.
Without a run of penalties to sustain their poor play like they had last year, the Foxes will be in the midtable if they don’t improve.