I’m going to try and post one of these each week. This is the first, because I’ve finally had the time to watch at least two matches from each of the teams.
Tier One – Title Frontrunners
- Manchester City – They are the reigning champions with possibly the best returning team in European football. The unlucky draw against Wolverhampton is a blemish on their early season record, but it was no more ragged than similar performances by other top teams. And those teams do not have City’s long term track record or underlying performance metrics. If I was to predict the next three years, I would be comfortable asserting that City would garner the most overall acclaim in all competitions by a Premier League team. The questions are: Will they survive the disease of more? Will commitments to the World Cup and in Europe sap their strength as the season stretches out? The wiggle against Wolverhampton is a positive sign for the chances of the chasing pack.
- Liverpool – Since the 4-1 defeat at Wembley in October of last season against Spurs, Liverpool have the best defensive record in the Premier League. That record has only been better since Virgil van Dijk arrived and they have yet to concede this season with goalkeeper Alisson minding the sticks behind the big Dutchman. They have mutual buy-in by the team, the manager, and the fans and a successful counterpressing system that has given Guardiola and City trouble. That, and they have the most electric front three in Europe. The questions are: Will the occasional lack of midfield control and stability cost them? Will their squad, improved as it is, have enough in the tank to battle against City’s two deep list of quality players?
Tier Two – The Challengers
- Tottenham – Tottenham is intelligently managed, has excellent attacking players (Harry Kane is obviously the crown jewel, but very few teams would look down their noses of the Dele Alli-Eriksen-Son-Lucas Moura supporting quartet either) and is a title challenger when Kane is fit and firing and their thin squad is not in some way impacted by absences and injury. Lucas Moura completing his settling in process is a massive boon that would have gone some way to alleviate the attacking glitch they suffered when Kane when down the past two seasons with either short term injuries or fits of poor finishing form. However, Lucas’s addition to the list of attacking talents is countervailed by the loss of Son to the Asian Games. They struggle to break through counterpressing teams as evidenced by the rather tricky first half against Manchester United and their general poor form against other top teams under Pochettino. But they defend well, work hard as a team, and have enough firepower to be dangerous to anyone. Just ask Real Madrid last year.
- Chelsea – Chelsea look much more fluid and fun under Sarri, and Eden Hazard has been extremely dangerous while on the pitch. Alvaro Morata has been mildly reborn, which is an absolute necessity if they ever are going to score enough goals. This squad is still weirdly thin for a team wearing a Chelsea badge, probably due to Abramovich’s uncertain political and economic footing in Britain. And their defense has looked shambolic on the one occasion this season that they’ve been tested by an even mildly trying attack. Newcastle and Huddersfield will be among the bottom scorers in the league this year and even they mounted some xG (and actual G!) threat to the defense.
Tier Three – Outside Looking In
- Arsenal – Arsenal…Arsenal. I do not understand your squad. Granit Xhaka would prefer to play as a passer in a midfield three. Lucas Torreira could join him as the destroyer, with Aaron Ramsey the driver, getting into the box late to score goals and not given much defensive responsibility (a la Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard). And that would make for a nice, balanced midfield three, probably with Torreira at the base. But then you have Mesut Ozil, their best and most frustrating player. He is a purely creative presence who is going to play essentially as a second forward off of the ball. So you need a solid midfield two behind him, usually, or you are playing him out wide where he is much less productive. And that two should probably be a destroyer and a controlling midfielder. Ok! Xhaka and Torreira fit the bill. But then you are leaving out the best of the three aforementioned midfielders, Aaron Ramsey. Damn. Ramsey and one of Xhaka/Torreira is likely to be unbalanced as a midfield double pivot behind Ozil – Ramsey tends to roam and push up to the box, leaving the defensive line massively exposed if he doesn’t have dedicated midfield support in the form of two relatively less adventurous players. Also, Torreira isn’t quite fit yet, so he can’t be counted on to start. Just to muddle the mixture, Guendouzi is a young, exciting, do-a-bit-of-everything sort of midfielder who has stood out for actually looking like he gives a damn and for not looking entirely out of place in his role in the team. *Cough* Xhaka *cough*. His situation reminds me weirdly of the early situation of fellow North Londoner Nabil Bentaleb under Tim Sherwood. I hope that Guendouzi proves more successful in adapting from his role as unexpected young midfield savior that is probably currently overhyped. Up front, their two best strikers are quick players with a very similar kind (if not quality) of game that would prefer to play in each other’s space. They can work together, but it is awkward. Aaaaaand…their defense is bad. But at least they aren’t being actively Mourinhoed!
- Manchester United – They are being Mourinhoed. The effects are a lot of criticism and misdirection of one’s own failures onto a team followed by a failure to acknowledge that the criticism ever occurred in the hope of dirtying the narrative. See Chelsea 2015 or Real Madrid 2012 or pretty much anything Donald Trump does. The depths to which this will undermine their confidence, team spirit, and performance will define the extent they fall down this chart. David de Gea appears short of confidence in a continuation from his trouble at the World Cup. Man, that should be scary, because that dude has been saving ~ 10 xG a season more than he should, making them look a much better team than their underlying metrics suggest that they are. Honestly, I wouldn’t trust this team to finish above 8th or 9th if I didn’t think that Mourinho will be fired in a matter of weeks and another manager brought in who can at least level out some of the dressing room animosity.
Tier Four – The Best of the Rest
- Leicester City – Demarai Gray has been a pleasant surprise and they retain some of the same ethos of the 2015 champions and Jamie Vardy.
- Everton – Richarlison has been excellent, providing sorely needed attacking dynamism to a one-paced team and Theo Walcott’s return to life among the living this week was a rather pleasant surprise. Gueye is an excellent ball-winner and Sigurdsson provides midfield goalscoring. One wonders if Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka are getting a little leggy at the back, but apart from that, this looks like a competently managed side with enough talented players up front to grab points against just about anyone. They just need to avoid red cards, soft or no.
- Watford – Watford very strangely have three wins from three, including the wild cross that ended up in the back of the net to see off Palace. Roberto Pereyra looks a threat cutting in from the left and Doucoure is a strong presence in midfield. But this team appears to be performing right up against the limits of its rather constrained ability right now and it has yet to face a truly challenging opponent. There are teams further down this list with more potential, but right now Watford is outplaying them by hook and by crook. Honestly, they are probably going to drop into the next tier down, but I’m as susceptible to small sample size overcorrection as anyone.
Tier Five – Steady Eddies
- Bournemouth – You know what you are going to get with Bournemouth under Eddie Howe. They are going to play positive, passing football. Push up the field into a mid to high block with an energetic press. Have a bit of a struggle turning some of their skill on the ball into goals. Underperform at set pieces due to their relative lack of team height. And they’ll finish comfortably out of the relegation zone.
- Wolverhampton Wanderers – Wolves have wonderful ball playing quality in midfield. How rare is it for a freshly promoted squad to be able to call upon folks like Joao Moutinho or Rueben Neves? I enjoy watching the base of Wolves play, but it does seem as though they lack Premier League quality edge up front. Adama Traore induced some frustration in terms of misplaced passes, but also served as a major shot in the arm that scared the City backline. Perhaps he can provide some of the needed offensive pulse.
- Crystal Palace – They have Wilfried Zaha. He, Richarlison, and Jamie Vardy are probably the three best attacking players not possessed by the top six. They can be defensively organized and onerous against the top six. And they have a clear plan with the ball – inverted wingers cutting in allowing fullbacks forward for the overlap and a bunch of crosses. Unless Benteke (or someone else) provides a second goal threat, they are going to have a hard ceiling of right around here and could fall down the list. But if they can find that second offensive threat, they can climb up a tier.
- Brighton and Hove Albion – They have been wonderfully difficult to break down defensively and have weathered a really difficult first three matches of the season with three points to show from matches away to Liverpool and Watford and at home against Manchester United. They have the defensive solidity and the team ethos. Do they have the goals to push higher than this? Probably not.
Tier Six – Waltzing with Relegation
- Fulham – Alexandar Mitrovic gives them cutting edge up front that most of the teams in this section of the table are rightly jealous of. Ryan Sessegnon is still very young, very skilled, and capable of sublimity and utter quiet. Their defense looks dangerously porous.
- Burnley – Oh, Burnley. You reached so high, touched European football, and do not appear to have your usual Icelandish defensive demeanor or intensity (much like the actual Iceland national team did at the World Cup). There is not enough offensive firepower on this team to account for a defensive dip like this for the full season and one point from a rather generous Southampton – Watford – Fulham start isn’t going to cut it. Not when the sledding is going to get a lot rougher.
- Newcastle United – Newcastle’s opening fixtures are devilishly brutal. I mean, look at Tottenham (h), Cardiff (a), Chelsea (h), Man City (a), Arsenal (h), Crystal Palace (a), Leicester (h), United (a). All but Cardiff have better squads than Newcastle. The hardest games are at home, where even inspired effort may come up short (as it already has against Tottenham and Chelsea). They are defensively organized and have a competent midfield, but still don’t have enough punch up front. And there’s the whole Mike Ashley + end of Benitez’s contract fiasco. It is to Benitez’s credit that he has anti-Mourinhoed his squad and they have fought hard against this set of difficult circumstances. But it might not be enough.
- Southampton – Southampton are clawing against their fate so far. Creditable 2-1 losses against better equipped squads in Everton and Leicester mark the beginning of their season along with a reasonably creditable draw with Burnley. But the Saints have very little goalscoring punch. There is no room for error.
- West Ham United – It won’t always be as bad as going to Anfield and the Emirates inside the first three weeks and coming away with zero points. West Ham have much better offensive players than most of these relegation battling sides and a pretty clear team philosophy. I believe in Manuel Pellegrini. I think, ultimately, that West Ham will end up a tier (and very possibly even two) beyond this. But their defense has been very, very porous. And Wolverhampton, Everton, Chelsea, and United come next. They desperately need points from Wolverhampton or the season could feel like it is falling apart.
Tier Seven – The Forlorn Hope
- Huddersfield Town – Whew. Huddersfield are poor defensively and offensively. They look massively undermanned compared to their competition. They couldn’t punch through a ten man Cardiff to score a goal and were obliterated by Chelsea and Man City. It gets way, way harder than fighting ten man Cardiff.
- Cardiff City – Ditto Huddersfield. Only, they lost to Bournemouth, who are closer to this class than either Chelsea or City. And added an utterly toothless draw against ten man Newcastle to boot.