English Premier League Big Six: How have they performed going into the international break?
Entering the much-loved first international break of the season, the Premier League table still has that too-early-to-tell higgledy-piggledy nature that only really tells you: this isn’t what it’ll look like by the end of the season.
Six or seven games in is a small sample, but there are some emerging themes, and the breakwater of the international fixtures is as good a time as any to have a wee peek under the hood of the Big Six.
NB: all data from FBREF.com. All Premier League only data
Arsenal (P7 W6 D0 L1; 18 points; 1st)
There’s no doubting it, Arsenal have had a very good start to the season. Based on the underlying metrics, this is founded on strong underlying metrics; this is no fluke.
Opponents-wise, they have had four matches against the solid citizens of midtable, played two promoted sides and (lost) to Manchester United; their only Big Six fixture to date.
Arsenal have outscored opponents 17 goals to seven, their goals coming from 117 shots — conversion rate of 14.5%. Their opponents have converted as 13.5%, a handy differential.
Arsenal have outscored Expected Goals (xG), with an xG to date of 13.1 (1.87 per match), though perhaps surprisingly given the pre-World Cup talk of Aaron Ramsdale’s claims on the England number one slot, Arsenal have underperformed xG against. Their seven conceded coming from xG against of 5.5. Looking further, at post shot xG conceded — a reasonable proxy for goalkeepers’ shot stopping performance — which at 4.9 suggests Ramsdale has cost them just north of two goals so far this season. If that trend continues it is bound to cost them points eventually.
But that fly in the ointment aside, this has been an all-round good start for Arsenal. Even if Ramsdale continues to be a little sub-par, the underlying defensive performance of conceding 0.79 xG per game to date has only been bettered by Manchester City.
As an attacking force, Gabriel Jesus has been brought in to lead the attack and both he and Mikel Arteta can be well pleased with this his opening salvo this season. With four non-penalty goals (NPG) and three assists, Jesus has been very much a plus for Arsenal so far. He’s a good microcosm for the Arsenal side as his underlying performance is also very strong.
Jesus is taking 3.5 shots per 90, the same rate as Harry Kane, and he’s putting them away pretty much on xG; after seven matches (610 total minutes) his non-penalty xG is 3.7 — so a slight over performance.
Arteta will also be pleased by how well he fits Arsenal’s system. Jesus gets involved, averaging 50 touches per 90, with over 40% of those touches in the attacking third. His involvement in possession also shows in his passing volumes: attempting 30 passes per 90 and being the intended recipient of 55 passes per 90.
Jesus has quickly become a vital cog in Arsenal’s attacking patterns. Indeed, he’s all-round active: more than three progressive carries per 90, more than four attempted dribbles per 90 and more than four shot creating actions per 90 — plus a handy 14 pressures per 90. Arteta probably can’t believe his luck.
If it wasn’t for you-know-who, Jesus would rightly be considered the most impressive forward in the Premier League in the season so far.
Overall, then, Arsenal have had a good start. The side looks better balanced than it has before under Arteta — and he will have been pleased to see them dispatch Brentford in game week seven despite the absence of Martin Odegaard, who appears to be finally living up to his teenage promise.
Arsenal’s underlying performances have been good and, despite the potential weakness in Ramsdale (that may yet simply be a small sample issue) he’s behind an effective defence. All in all, Arsenal look set fair for a successful season and have every reason to be confident they will be comfortably top four come the business end of the season.
Manchester City (P7 W5 D2 L0; 17 points; 2nd)
To absolutely no-one’s surprise, Manchester City look like an excellent team. Their early season performances have been built on very strong fundamentals and it looks like the addition of Erling Braut Haaland is more than simply a cherry on top.
City’s schedule so far has meant they have yet to play on of the other Big Six. So, whilst they have arguably yet to be tested against another elite side, nor have they had the opportunity to take points from them either — and it is often the difference in the games between the Big Six that has a substantial bearing on the final league positions.
On the pitch, City have been ruthless in attack. Scoring 23 goals from an xG of 15.9 might — in another side — edge towards the unsustainable territory. But when you take the Haaland factor into account — his own non-penalty xG for the season to date is 7.3 and he’s outperformed it by 2.7 goals already — he doesn’t really look like the recipient of lucky bounces and small-sample variance, does he?
It looks much more likely he is an outlier in terms of xG and will probably break the models. He is a black swan. A Blonde Swan, perhaps?
The bad news for the rest of the division is Pep hasn’t sacrificed solidity for attacking prowess; City have been as mean at the back as they have been efficiency going forward.
So far City have conceded six goals from xG conceded of 3.5 and post-shot xG of 4.5. As with Ramsdale, the much-vaunted Ederson has, so far, cost City 1.5 goals this season. Again, this has the tang of small sample variance, but City’s defence has been so good — allowing just 0.5 xG against per match — that even if it turns out Ederson does chuck one in every five games, they’ll manage just fine.
City are taking just under 17 shots per match so far this season whilst conceding under 6 per match. A very healthy shot dominance, as you would expect. Haaland has taken 27 of the 118 total shots so far this season — so City’s goal threat has in no way become an overly-centred on their new striker. Nonetheless, Haaland’s role in the team does appear to be all about finishing moves.
He’s not particularly involved in City’s overall play, with just 24 touches per 90 and about 15 pass attempts per 90 — both around half that of Gabriel Jesus for Arsenal.
The Norwegian doesn’t do a lot of carrying the ball (2.2 progressive carries per 90) and he absolutely doesn’t dribble (just three attempted across 571 minutes). What he does is he plays in the attacking third and he shoots: around 60% of his total touches are in the attacking third of the pitch and a whopping 18% of total touches are shots. Of these shots, almost 60% are on target too.
He’s not messing about.
City, then, can tick the box marked ‘integrating a pure striker into our passing-possession side’. They can also tick the box marked ‘give up very little’. It will be interesting to see them in matches against the rest of the Big Six and see the defence come under sustained pressure. I mean: Ake and Stones don’t sound like lynchpins of an historically good defence, and they did concede three times to Newcastle while giving up 1.8xG. So maybe, perhaps….
The likelihood is City will continue to bulldoze their way through the season and on to the title. Nothing, so far, suggests a likelier scenario will emerge.
Spurs (P7 W5 D2 L0; Points 17; 3rd)
An Antonio Conte side, fashioned in his image of football and with a full pre-season in the bank was always going to be dangerous. Results-wise they have carried some fortune and have benefited from three of their seven matches being against promoted sides and not-great Southampton. Their solitary game against another Big Six side — the 2–2 draw at Chelsea, thanks to an Anthony Taylor/VAR masterclass - saw them outmanoeuvred for large parts of the match and they were outperformed shots- and xG-wise.
So far, Spurs have generated a decent total of 12 xG and are outperforming it by a huge 0.86 per match. Unlike City, the jury is out on whether this is unsustainable: 2 of the xG to goals differential is thanks to Harry Kane outscoring his xG. He’s got a track record of doing that, so you never know.
The thing to really watch with Spurs is on the defensive end of things. Remarkably, for a team with 17 points from a possible 21 and with plus-11 goal difference, they have only taken four more shots across seven games than their opponents, conceding an eye-watering 105 shots in the process. Even their mauling of Leicester City (6–2) saw them lose out on shot count.
Giving up 15 shots per game isn’t a recommended way to have a stellar season, so Spurs would ideally tighten up — but maybe Conte doesn’t care as the quality of shots against, despite the volume, isn’t too bad.
Despite the 100+ shots conceded, Spurs have given up just 7.3 xG against; just over 1 per match. That’s not in the City and Arsenal range but is pretty much on par with Liverpool and Chelsea so far this season.
Spurs’ opponents have only converted 6.7% of shots so far this season. This is low: are Spurs are asking for trouble?
Hugo Lloris has performed pretty much on par so far this season, letting seven past him on post-shot xG faced on 6.3 — so the low conversion rate isn’t because he’s been unsustainably standing on his head either.
Conte can perhaps point to an xG per shot faced of 0.7 — lower than the rest of the Big Six — and say his defence is doing a good job of giving up low quality chances? He may be right, he’s an excellent coach — but this is the thing to watch out for with Spurs over the coming weeks: if they can keep opponents shot quality down whist Harry Kane keeps his nose in front of his xG then Spurs may well ride this all the way to a top four finish.
Manchester United (P6 W4 D0 L2; 12 points; 5th)
Manchester United got off to a slow and somewhat confused start under Eric ten Hag, though for me the signs were there, even against Brentford, that there a competent and well put together side waiting to come together, as the following weeks have proved — especially with wins against Liverpool and Arsenal.
Under the bonnet, United are having to shake out the poor early performances and, with just six matches played, there’s still a lot of shaking out to do. On the goals front a net zero goal difference (8 apiece) is matched by a net zero xG difference (8.4 apiece), meaning United have slightly underperformed going forward and overperformed in defence. A somewhat narrative busting outturn if ever there was one.
In goal, David De Gea is pretty much on the money in terms of post shot xG faced (8 conceded from 8.1 xG faced). What will concern ten Hag is his keeper has faced more shots that his own side have let fly. De Gea faces a shade under 15 shots per match whilst United have taken 12.5 per match. Not a huge differential but something they will have to put right if they want to seriously push for the top four.
Weirdly, they won the shot count in the first two games they lost but have given up excess shots in their four consecutive wins. Let’s give them that as a bit of small sample oddness — but for their sake it must be something they get to grips with. Maybe an integrated Casemiro can help here; maybe too it’s a function of deploying Christian Eriksen in a deeper midfield two , where you gain deep playmaking but lose on the defensive side — something to keep an eye on, no doubt.
Manchester United went into the season with a rumbling Cristiano Ronaldo narrative adding to the sense of circus. Erik ten Hag appears to have won the battle of wills and a still-here Ronaldo is having to put up with cameo appearances from the bench.
Across United six matches, he’s clocked up 212 minutes so far, a meagre 35 minutes per game. Across that time, he’s yet to score or assist. He’s still shooting like there’s no tomorrow: 12 shots in total, at a rate of 5.1 per 90 minutes. But he’s ineffective. Just two shots have been on target and this tendency to shoot has generated just 0.6 non-penalty xG in total so far.
The common perception of late-career Ronaldo is that he doesn’t do much other than shoot. Well, let’s see: his pressures per 90 (which might be a bit generous seeing as though he’s only getting asked to do half and hour’s work) is a shade over nine. That’s fewer than Haaland but more than Kane. He’s providing 3.8 progressive carried per 90 but, interestingly, only three attempted dribbles — none successfully — in total so far. Potentially the numbers of an attacker slowing down, or at least focusing on his shot production.
For Manchester United to push on and have a successful season, it looks like they will need to watch the shots conceded and, frankly, see anything major out of Ronaldo as a bonus rather than a cornerstone. Erik ten Hag so far seems vindicated in his decision to relegate Ronaldo to the bench.
Chelsea (P6 W3 D1 L2; 10 points; 7th)
The international break provides a Premier League punctuation mark between the Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter eras at Stamford Bridge. The Boehly-Clearlake hierarchy have made clear that their decision to dispense with the German’s services was not so much performance-related as not sharing a common vision.
Up to a point: if Chelsea had put up Arsenal or Manchester City numbers so far there’s no chance Tuchel would find himself with unexpected time on his hands. In truth, Chelsea have made a poor start to the season and find themselves as comfortably the least impressive of the Big Six sides so far.
Chelsea had a favourable opening set of fixtures, with three games against the sides who finished 15th to 17th last season. Throw in current crisis club Leicester City and that’s four games where they should have been clear favourites. The others — London derbies against Spurs and West Ham — mirrored each other in the cosmic justice scales: a point from a match against Spurs when they played genuinely well and were hard done by by the officials, followed by two points that they didn’t deserve against a West Ham side who…. were hard done by by the officials. Four points from these two games was probably right — just not in the way they came.
In these games Chelsea have managed to clock up a negative goal difference (eight for, nine against) whilst the underlying xG is just in their favour: 7.8 plays 7.1. But, really, 7.8 xG after six games is a poor show.
Chelsea added Raheem Sterling to their attack this summer and, to be fair, he’s held up his end of the bargain well. Three goals and an assist in 513 minutes from his non-penalty xG of 2.5 is fine, especially as he is not an out-and-out central attacker. Indeed, his shot creating actions (SCA) of 2.8 per 90 is nearly one and a half times his shooting volume; he’s there to help create as well as score.
Getting the most central attacking minutes so far is Kai Havertz and he’s had an underwhelming start to the season. With one goal and zero assists across 427 minutes he’s barely troubled the scorers. Indeed, a worrying total of eight shots — fewer than two per 90 — shows he’s not an active enough central striker. Just 4% of his touches are shots; very low for someone taking up the central attacking berth. It’s not that he’s playing the game out of the attacking third either: he takes the same proportion of touches in the attacking third of the pitch as Haaland.
So: what gives?
What Havertz does do well is press. His almost 20 pressures per 90 is high and clearly an integral part of Chelsea’s out of possession game. He also attempts 27 passes per 90 and is the intended recipient of 48 passes per 90. He’s involved in the game, then, and his pressing says he’s not afraid of a shift — but one way or another Havertz in the central attacking role did not lead to goals or goal attempts for late-Tuchel Chelsea.
Shots-wise, Chelsea have just about out-shot their opponents, 69 to 62. A total of 11.5 shots per match is nowhere near enough, however — and that can’t all be laid at Havertz door. Late-Tuchel Chelsea was not built to generate shots and that feels more structural than performance-related. Chelsea did not (do not) have the behind-the-ball players to be comfortable risking being attacked on transition. The knock-on tactical affect is keeping the ball at all costs, which reduces risk taking in the final third. It’s not meant to be sterile, but it is.
Worryingly for Graham Potter is that’s now both Frank Lampard and Tuchel who fell into a trap of keeping possession but not knowing what to do with it because they felt too vulnerable to give up the ball.
Defensively, Chelsea have conceded nine goals against a post-shot xG faced of exactly seven, meaning Edouard Mendy has given up two more than he should have done. A cardinal sin for a low shooting, low scoring team. Chelsea concedes over 10 shots per game too — a figure Potter will want to bring down.
The caveat for all these numbers is that in two of the six games Chelsea were down to ten men — in a small sample this will be evident in the numbers and, consequently, they make Chelsea look a bit worse than they really have been. They were, after all, impressive against Spurs and they have ground out four wins from six.
Potter has, of course plenty to build on. Chelsea’s squad — unbalanced as it might be and missing N’golo Kante more than is perhaps should — remains talented with genuine depth.
Expect Potter to demand more risk taking in the final third — with Pierre Emerick Aubameyang or possibly Armando Broja (73 minutes so far this season and only one fewer shot on target than Havertz) in the side with the challenge to get more shots away.
There’s still time this season for pretty much anything to happen but, so far, Chelsea have not impressed and have put up the worst all round performance by a Big Six side. Of these six sides they rank sixth for goal difference, non-penalty xG created per 90, shots per 90 and even on the difference between goals conceded and post-shot xG per 90. It’s not good enough and it may have a little more to do with Tuchel’s departure than the official narrative would have us all believe.
Liverpool (P6 W2 D3 L1; 9 points; 8th)
Jurgen Klopp’s men can survey the season so far and, to quote Colemanballs, can barely believe what’s not happening to them.
So far, Liverpool have generated a shade under 20 shots per game, conceded under nine shots per game and have an xG differential of 5.5 goals. This is dominant stuff and, sooner or later, this is going to bring them what they deserve in terms of wins and points.
A total xG figure of 12.4 — more than 2 goals per match — is probably all any coach can ask for from his attackers. Mohammed Salah and Luis Diaz have scored five goals between them — with these two generating almost six shots per 90. Salah is 0.5 under xG whilst Diaz is 0.9 ahead of his.
By now we’d have hoped to have seen Darwin Nunez settled in this forward line, but his silly red card against Crystal Palace denied Klopp his services for three matches. As a result, he’s only played 175 minutes so far. In that time, he’s scored once from 15 shots (a rate of 7.7 shots per 90 — yikes). Darwin has had a total of 57 touches, meaning over a quarter of his touches so far have been shots.
It is very early to draw too many conclusions from Darwin’s performances. He deserves time to settle and integrate. However, his reputation as a shot monster looks well-deserved and he appears to be approaching his game in this single-minded manner such that might make Haaland blush.
He may settle down, of course, and have a more rounded role — but don’t bank on it. It will be interesting to see how far this is a disruption of Liverpool’s football; City have shown a striker of this ilk doesn’t have to mean a throwing away of a game plan. The difference, perhaps, is Haaland’s efficiency. He shoots like a maniac, but he hits the target: 59% of the Norwegian’s shots have been on target. For Darwin, he’s on 29% — closer to Ronaldo than Haaland.
The Uruguayan is also 0.9 goals behind his expected goals tally for the season so far too — meaning he been a busy but below-par finisher so far for Liverpool.
Defensively, Liverpool have conceded 6.9 xG so far — pretty much the same as slightly-rickety Chelsea across six matches. This has translated into post-shot xG of six, meaning Alisson is bang on par so far this season. That’s all in the ‘OK’ territory. Klopp would not be looking to concede one expected goal per game.
Overall, Liverpool is getting shots at a rate to keep any fanbase happy. They might be giving up slightly too many, but they’ll cope so long as Alisson keeps up with the pace required to reasonably keep them out and they keep the shots coming. If any side is going to get into a bona fide shoot out this season it looks like Liverpool. If Darwin proves to be more efficient than he has hitherto then they should be fine; better than fine.
A Liverpool performing like this should keep City honest this season, even if they give up a little more than Pep’s side are likely to in the average match. Whilst City’s performances make them clear favourites for the title, Klopp may yet get enough out of these Liverpool metrics to see it be a closer run thing than early season suggests.
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