Premier League Deep Dive: Still Time to Bet Manchester City To Win Title
Michael Regan/Getty Images. Pictured: Jack Grealish
The European soccer calendar has reached the second international break of the 2021-22 season following a full week of European and domestic games across the continent.
Manchester City completed one of the toughest possible weeks in European football with road trips to Chelsea, PSG and Liverpool in the same week. They won at Chelsea, lost at PSG and tied Liverpool 2-2 in the game of the season thus far.
Chelsea recovered from back-to-back losses in the Premier League to Man City and the Champions League to Juventus on Wednesday to win 3-1 at the weekend against Southampton and claim the top spot in the PL after seven matchweeks.
We’re not even 20% through the season in Europe’s big five leagues (except the Bundesliga), but now that we have about seven matchweeks worth of data, we have a pretty good idea of how good teams really are.
Here are some observations from the Premier League after seven matchweeks and what we learned from the last weekend:
We don’t know how good Manchester United is quite yet, but we’re about to find out after the break.
Here’s a list of the Red Devils upcoming fixtures after this international break and before the next international break on Nov. 7:
- Leicester City (A)
- Atalanta (H)
- Liverpool (H)
- Tottenham Hotspur (A)
- Atalanta (A)
- Manchester City (H)
Two difficult Champions League ties with Atalanta, games against rivals Man City and Liverpool, who are better than them and tricky away trips to both Spurs and Leicester.
The last two haven’t started the season well at all, but they’ll all be somewhat difficult for the Red Devils. Despite adding Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, Manchester United appears no better than last season.
The possession structure is disjointed and relies on moments of individual brilliance instead of complex attacking patterns and ball progression. The defense is vulnerable in transition and with Harry Maguire out, looked absolutely lost against Everton and Villarreal last week. Even with Maguire in the lineup, they didn’t play much better against Aston Villa either.
Here’s a list of teams that have outplayed United in the last two weeks: Villarreal, Everton, Aston Villa, West Ham (in stretches) and Young Boys (with an extra man). The Red Devils snuck results out of the matches against West Ham and Villarreal with winners in stoppage time but at some point, they’ll regress at both ends of the pitch with finishing.
Running hot in front of goal has saved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job for now, but United is one cool run of finishing and results from the United manager ending up like Frank Lampard at Chelsea last season.
United very clearly has one of the six or seven best squads in the world and one of the top four in the PL.
Even though some of their upcoming matchups might be better stylistically for the Red Devils, Manchester United is sixth in xG differential and hasn’t played a single team expected to finish inside the PL top six this season.
On paper, they should be able to compete with almost anyone. But as long as the performances remain this mediocre, I’ll be looking to play against them.
It was always going to be hard for Chelsea’s defense to replicate the incredible end of 2021, and they’re not coming close.
Chelsea’s defense allowed 10.68 expected goals in the final 17 matchweeks of the 2020-21 Premier League season after Thomas Tuchel was hired as the manager. The Blues defense was not just great, but historic. They actually ran cold defensively and allowed 13 goals in 17 games because the numbers say it should have been even lower.
Tuchel’s possession-based system against lower sides, and mid-block and counter approach against the bigger teams completely shut down opposing attacks. They allowed 0.5 xGA or less in 12 of those 17 games. With almost the same personnel back with the club, many expected the Blues to again be the league’s best defense and completely smother teams yet again.
That hasn’t exactly happened. Chelsea played well above its level defensively for a stretch but replicating that historic play has proven difficult. The first two games of the season against Arsenal and Crystal Palace saw zero big scoring chances and 0.6 xGA total conceded.
It looked like a continuation of the dominance but the Blues allowed 1.4 xGA to Southampton, 0.8 to Spurs, 1.7 to Manchester City and 1.5 to Aston Villa. Chelsea also looked vulnerable in the first 45 minutes at Anfield that were played at even strength.
While Chelsea unders were one of my most profitable betting angles because the betting market hadn’t caught up to Tuchel’s adjustments, the market is now slow to react to Chelsea’s decline back to more normally good defensive numbers again.
Tuchel has made a tactical choice to be more open to try to create more chances. Chelsea dropped points last year down the stretch run settling for ties because the offense didn’t create enough output. With Romelu Lukaku in the side and more aggressive choices in possession, Chelsea is both creating more and allowing more chances in the new season.
I played both teams to score in the Blues game against Southampton last weekend and I’ll be looking to bet against the Chelsea defense more in future matches until the market realizes Tuchel’s adjustments and the regression that has followed it.
Game of the weekend: Liverpool 2, Manchester City 2
The difference between Chelsea vs. Manchester City last Saturday and Liverpool vs. Manchester City this Sunday was stark. Chelsea and City’s play styles often negate one another and have made for relatively unexciting games between them.
In their four games played since Thomas Tuchel became the manager at Chelsea, there have been three 1-0 games and one 2-1 game. Goals don’t always equal excitement but the exact same game state has now played out repeatedly.
City have the ball, and Chelsea tries to clog the middle of the pitch, force City wide and attack quickly in transition out of its mid-block and counter style. City’s defensive transition and counterpress was excellent last week and Chelsea had almost no looks at goal in last Saturday’s meeting. They lost 1-0 and the game lacked excitement or many clear scoring chances.
Eight days later, Liverpool and City played one of the more fascinating matches of the last few seasons. Liverpool was much more competitive than Chelsea was against the reigning PL champions.
The first half was cagey. City controlled the flow of the game and slowed it to a crawl, suffocating the Reds with possession and its extra midfield passing. That’s how City manager Pep Guardiola would have wanted the game to go. Liverpool took one shot and managed 0.02 xG.
City created the best chances and nearly went ahead through Phil Foden, but the finishing touch never came to beat Alisson.
Liverpool flipped the switch at halftime and turned up the tempo. Advantage Liverpool. The heavy metal pressing and fast-paced second half was played on the Reds’ terms as Liverpool found success in transition and broke through moments of individual brilliance from Mo Salah and Sadio Mané.
Two separate times the Reds led in the second half and twice they were pegged back by Manchester City. The contrasting styles between the slow and methodical City against the fast and flying Liverpool made this the game of the year. Both could have won it, James Milner probably should have been sent off at 1-1 and the end result – a draw – is ultimately fair given the balance of the chances.
I’d much rather be Manchester City over the course of 38 matches because they have the sturdier defense and Liverpool has looked more open at the back at the expense of supporting their front three more this season.
City has taken one fewer point from the opening seven matches, but played a moderately tougher schedule by now. The Cityzens have played Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, Leicester and Chelsea, while Liverpool has only played two of the projected six other best teams to begin the year.
City has the performance edge, the schedule edge and got the result both at Chelsea and Liverpool, while the Reds dropped points at home against both squads.
The Cityzens are -120 to lift the Premier League trophy in May and have the squad depth that Liverpool doesn’t to withstand the potential injuries that come with fixture pileup.