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Hot Stat Takes: Liverpool and Manchester City underwhelm, Chelsea in control, Spurs' finishing fails them

Data-based reflections on the Premier League matches of the weekend.

Michael Regan

With a loss away to Norwich City this weekend, Tottenham Hotspur took a hatchet to their own hopes of finishing in the top four. It's not over, but the odds are now very much stacked against the North Londoners. I'll be writing up the projections in a later post. For now, I want to discuss the games of the weekend, and the thin line between winning and losing in football.

The stat tables here are based on my shot matrix statistics.

  • S DZ: Shots from the danger zone, the center of the 18-yard box.
  • S Wide: Shots from the wide area of the 18-yard box.
  • SoB: Shots from outside the 18-yard box.
  • S Cr: Shots assisted by crosses.
  • S TB: Shots assisted by through-balls.

Norwich City 1 - Tottenham Hotspur 0

The game was dreary, a low-tempo affair marked by physicality and uninspired passing, which opened up into something at least resembling an acceptable football match in the last half hour. While Norwich City won, they hardly dominated. Spurs' midfield kept their attacks limited mostly to the flanks, and other than one breakdown from Spurs and a moment of quality from Robert Snodgrass, there wasn't much you could point to as convincing attacks from the Canaries. At the same time, Norwich's defense limited opportunities through the middle, and Spurs' lack of a creative passer in midfield was evident for most of the match.

However, in the last half hour, Spurs created three of the four best chances of the match. In the 66th minute, Emmanuel Adebayor fed to substitute Roberto Soldado who was unmarked in the 18-yard box about in line with the right goal post. Given that big chance to even the match, Soldado shot just wide. A couple minutes on Soldado also misfired with a header from the center of the box. And later, in the 81st minute, Mousa Dembele threaded a pass to Nacer Chadli leaving him one-on-one with keeper John Ruddy from the left side of the box, but Ruddy stood tall and Chadli couldn't find the corner. Any of those chances could easily have been converted on another day. I'd say that 0-0 or 1-1 would have been a fairer outcome, and Spurs 1-0 or 2-1 entirely in the range of possibility.

Club S DZ S Wide SoB S Cr S TB
Norwich City 3 1 9 1 0
Tottenham Hotspur 4 2 3 2 0

It's very easy to imagine the same match happening, but Snodgrass shoots just wide and either Soldado or Chadli scores the winner. I don't think it would have made the match overall terribly different. That was not a good performance by Spurs, win or lose. It's the kind of match that even in victory wouldn't portend a top four run.

The line between winning and losing in the Premier League is very thin. Spurs have been treading that line almost every week under Tim Sherwood, pulling out victories by converting their chances far more efficiently than their opponents. Our stat tables have often looked like the one above, though usually with a few more good chances on both sides. This is a method with exceptionally little history of consistent success. It's far better, in the long run, to produce more chances than to dispatch a higher percentage of chances. On Sunday, the finishing form of Spurs ran dry, and Robert Snodgrass did just enough to snag three points for Norwich.

Liverpool 4 - Swansea City 3

Liverpool have been creating more chances than their opponents this year by a somewhat peculiar method. As in the early match Sunday against Swansea, the Reds have consistently outshot their opponents while allowing a few more good chances to the opposition than you usually see from a top side.

I think that the scoreline here slightly flatters Swansea, who scored on a screamer from outside the box, a deflected weak header and a penalty. Liverpool's goals were an open net shot assisted by a through-ball, a header from very close range, a screamer from outside and an easy rebound. Still, even while Liverpool generally had the better chances, four shots from the danger zone with only one assisted by a cross, plus a bunch of chances from elsewhere is a good attacking performance from Swansea on the road. Add to that the penalty, and Liverpool will need to be a touch better than this if they mean to make a run at the league.

Club S DZ S Wide SoB S Cr S TB
Liverpool 8 5 8 3 1
Swansea City 4 2 7 1 0

Manchester City 1 - Stoke City 0

Fresh off a loss to Barcelona in the Champions League midweek, and following on the heels of dropped points in their previous two EPL matches, Manchester City barely escaped with three points home to Stoke. This is a match where the raw shots totals are deceptive. While Stoke were outshot 19 to 7, the difference is almost entirely in shots from long range.

Club S DZ S Wide SoB S Cr S TB
Manchester City 3 3 13 2 0
Stoke City 2 1 4 2 0

Four of the match's five shots from the danger zone were assisted by crosses. The Potters limited their opponents to potshots from outside the box and very nearly came away with a point. It is worth noting that rates as a very good defensive performance by Manchester City, as they allowed only two danger zone shots off crosses and one shot from wide. This is a case where "defensive" is slightly misleading, as it's not like City's back line were tested much by a pragmatic Stoke side, but controlling midfield and dominating possession really is a form of defending. Defending is preventing good chances to your opponents, and Manuel Pellegrini's side did precisely that. Still, as with Liverpool against Swansea, this was a victory well short of title-winning quality.

Chelsea 1 - Everton 0

While Chelsea needed a late winner here, this one was not that close and much more of a title-winner's performance. Chelsea, facing a high-quality Everton team, were clearly the better side. They needed a last-second Tim Howard own goal, claimed with comical pride by John Terry, to secure the three points, but I think that was the fair result.

Club S DZ S Wide SoB S Cr S TB
Chelsea 5 7 13 1 1
Everton 4 1 3 3 0

While the total shots from the danger zone is close, note that Chelsea had four not assisted by crosses, including one assisted by a through-ball, while Everton managed only one shot from the danger zone not assisted by a cross. Chelsea also took seven shots from the wide areas of the box, and while these chances are not of the highest quality, out of seven you expect a goal every other match or so.

One of the real tactical oddities of this season is Chelsea's low rate of shots allowed from outside the box. No one closes down long shots like Mourinho's Blues, even though they will allow a few chances from better positions. As you can see in my Premier League advanced stats tables, Chelsea's 22 shots on target from outside the box is the fewest in the Premier League by a wide margin, with Southampton next at 31. Chelsea's distribution of shots allowed does not fit the Mourinho club narrative, as it's a little bit less than pragmatic to close down low-probability chances from distance while being relatively permeable through the center. I don't really have an explanation here, I just wanted to flag it and ask if anyone in the comments might have a theory that could explain it.

Projections to follow tomorrow, probably.