Mike Goodman, formerly of Grantland and ESPN and now a co-host on the Double Pivot, has jokingly talked about the rotating “crisis conch” that gets passed around between top four contenders in the Premier League. Early in the season it belonged to Chelsea and Liverpool and maybe Arsenal. Now it is firmly in the hands of Tottenham Hotspur.
Any Spurs fan is aware of the club’s recent league struggles: After a brutal stretch that included challenging European and domestic ties, the team’s league results have fallen off precipitously. Spurs have taken five points out of their last 18 in the league, a run that has seen them sink behind all their fellow European dreamers in the quest for top four.
That said, the underlying stats suggest that Tottenham’s form is basically fine. While the team is 1-2-3 in its last six league fixtures, the xG numbers are far more favorable. On xG, Spurs would be 3-1-2. That’s still eight dropped points, of course, but it’s far better than the actual total, which is 13. If you want to see the specific results on xG, here they are (using Michael Caley’s method):
- Man United 1.1-1.1 Tottenham
- Tottenham 1.2-1.4 Crystal Palace
- Arsenal 2.7-1.1 Tottenham
- Tottenham 1.7-.6 WBA
- Leicester .8-2.5 Tottenham
- Watford .3-.8 Tottenham
Given that this run of fixtures followed immediately after two European matches with Real Madrid and a home date with Liverpool and that Spurs have been without Toby Alderweireld for most of this stretch (and were without Harry Kane against Manchester United), these numbers are basically fine.
Indeed, the only genuinely awful result is the North London Derby and that is also the only fixture where the absence of Toby Alderweireld has been particularly noticeable as the remaining Tottenham defenders struggled to deal with the higher press that Arsenal used that day. But there the problem was quite obviously related to that single match: We were without our best passing defender and we were playing a side that has very talented players who were best positioned to exploit the absence of our defender. So we shouldn’t deduce anything about the other outcomes from that one result.
That being said, here is the tricky thing for Tottenham. If we try to take a guess at expected points, which I do by taking (52/38*15), which gives us a base average point value through 15 league fixtures, and then add (2/3*xGD), here is what we find for expected points at the top of the table:
- City: 38.33
- Arsenal: 31.19
- Tottenham: 28.86
- Liverpool: 28.79
- Chelsea: 26.53
- Manchester United: 25.26
Point being, things are very tight at the top. Of course, the actual numbers suggest that Spurs are probably OK: Right now they are under-performing and all three of Liverpool, Chelsea, and United are over-performing, especially Chelsea and United. But, then, when you’re dealing with such fine margins, the difference between under- and over-performing on xG can be the difference between the Europa League and Champions League.
In this sense, the race for top four in England this season may end up looking a lot like the title race in Spain most seasons: The gap between the teams at the top of the table and the rest of the league is huge, which has the effect of making it very hard to make up ground once you fall behind, even if the ground you’re trying to make up is only five or six points.
The good news for Spurs fans is that Liverpool’s defense is still kinda derpy and United’s attack has cooled off as Romelu Lukaku’s purple streak in front of goal has come to a dramatic end. And if Lukaku doesn’t get hot again, the only backup United has up top is a 36-year-old Zlatan coming off a catastrophic knee injury. Granted, Zlatan might be a robot and they may be fine. But at some point you’d think the big Swede has to begin to slip in quality. And given the injury he’s coming back from, you wouldn’t be surprised if that time is “right now.”
The other wildcard here is Arsenal. Their squad quality is probably the weakest of the big six, but the 3-4-2-1 system works extremely well with their best XI so these results may be sustainable for them as long as everyone stays healthy. Should anything happen to Granit Xhaka, or, especially, Alexis Sanchez or Aaron Ramsey, we would likely see a significant dip in form. But as long as their regular XI is fit, Arsenal’s results are probably sustainable.
All of the above would, therefore, tend toward the same conclusion: Tottenham’s underlying form right now is basically fine, the results are pretty bad, and because of how tight things are at the top of the table, good-form-bad-results may be enough to doom a club to the Europa League places. That said, the unpredictability with Liverpool, United, Arsenal, Spurs, and probably Chelsea mean that it is still very difficult to be too confident about anyone’s place in the top four save City’s.