Friday, 6 October 2017

EPL Take Two, or Does Arsenal Want Mesut Özil?

I've been really busy lately... I had a very demanding programme of procrastination... so I wasn't able to follow up on my predictions earlier. I had sort of decided to do an overview after 5 games because that's a nice round number but, to be honest, we don't really know anything real this early on. I'm not sure how many games would have to be played to get a handle on what was really going on. I mean, Tottenham's Wembley Wobbles may or may not be real, right now. Well, we can know some things.

Obviously we already know which teams can finish the season unbeaten. And because performances aren't independent, we do have some information. For instance at this point we know that it is unlikely, say, Arsenal are going to lose very few games because they've already lost two, which indicates they're not performing at a very high level. However, I think there are too many moving parts for this kind of "back of the envelope" process to be worth while. In fact, I'll talk about a more systematic procedure being run by 538 soon, but right now I want to talk about Arsenal.

Here's an interesting set of results for you. This is Arsenal's performance last season/this season against the teams it has played so far, assuming that we can use Middlesbrough to represent Brighton, which is dubious. (I've put the underlying figures in an appendix at the end of this post.)

13/13 Points 11/11 Goals For 8/8 Goals Against

If we exclude the Brighton/Middlesbrough results it looks like this

12/10 Points 11/9 Goals For 8/8 Goals Against

Which, I think, is still showing us pretty much the same thing: Arsenal are in much the same place they were last season.

However, there are some subtleties here. The first is that Arsenal still haven't scored a goal away... although I personally think they were robbed at Stoke and against Chelsea they were terribly unlucky.

The second subtlety, as the title suggests, is what is happening with Mesut Özil? Frankly, the dude's utility seems to have dropped off a cliff lately. Back when Arsenal were chasing Leicester, his problem was that he was providing assists as long as Giroud was scoring... but Giroud was practically the only one who was scoring and the team sort of fell apart when it wasn't able to help Giroud out of his funk. These days Özil's form doesn't seem to be the question. He's out of the side due to injuries (we're told) and when he was in it Arsenal were playing all sorts of players behind him in the wrong way. So, what would happen if/when Özil returns to the side?

One way of looking at Özil is that the problem wasn't him. The problem was that Oxlade-Chamberlain was being shoehorned into the side in a desperate attempt to get him to sign a new contract. It didn't work. Not in games where it meant the back five were not being played right and behind the scenes it failed too: the Ox now plies his trade at Liverpool. Why is this relevant to Özil? Well, the theory is that you can't let Özil play unless you stick him in a well oiled machine. A team with a relatively unfamiliar formation and a makeshift backline is not a well oiled machine. It isn't really any kind of machine. If you follow this theory Özil will come back and play properly now that things seem kind of stable. You might even see Özil become the assist king again.

The other way to look at Özil is that he was the problem. Maybe you hold that he doesn't work hard enough. Maybe you hold that with Arsenal's current players/midfield-engine you need the forwards to work defensively in a way that Özil isn't meant to. That seems more realistic. I kind of said it before and I'll say it now: Arsenal look a much much stronger team when they play Cazorla-ball. Ramsey/Xhaka looked for a few games like it might work with the new formation, but lately it doesn't seem to be doing the job right. Sure, Arsenal aren't losing but they should've done more against Brighton and should've imposed themselves on Chelsea in both halves. Similarly, when Giroud comes on, the set-up falls apart... Arsenal are currently playing Lacazette-ball and I personally don't think it works for Özil, or Giroud. When they come on, maybe it needs to involve a formation change at the back...

The third subtlety is as follows: Arsenal's summary versus its theoretical rivals (i.e. Liverpool and Chelsea):

0/1 2/0 6/4

Which is to say, Arsenal might not be scoring away but they have actually managed to do better against the teams pundits say they're meant to paying the most attention to. Admittedly this is because of the result against Chelsea who I think (a) are worse than they were last season and (b) seem be developing a problem playing against Arsenal... not just in terms of the red cards either (since Conte has taken over, Chelsea have beaten Arsenal once).

So, where does that leave what I wrote before:
Expect Arsenal to be about as good as they were this season: better than Manchester United and a "lucky" result or two (either for or against) away from Manchester City and Liverpool.
Now, the thing to notice about this is that Manchester United have really done a lot better than I think anyone had a right to expect them to be doing on 30 June. Consider that Lukaku was signed about 10 July for instance... and it looks like maybe their primary problem last year was that their strikeforce was either too slow or not physical enough. Manchester City? Woah, well, "Manchester City are more varied than the others because luck is hard to fix" isn't wrong. It could well be that City are going to be forced back to their normal level what with Mendy and Aguero's injuries. Liverpool I got spot on.

The less convincing parts of what I wrote previously concern Tottenham and Chelsea. In hindsight, I had a much more negative analysis of Chelsea ("difficulty staying where they are") than my prediction of 1-3 suggests (n.b. I did put City at 2-5) while Tottenham? It seems I neglected Spurs somewhat. "Spurs have probably topped out and will ultimately look better and/or worse dependent on how well the other teams play... they have to be favourites," sounds good but it's not really talking about them. But it has turned out to be right, simply because Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have not convinced and the Manchester clubs seem to have gone up a level whereas Spurs have "topped out" although why I thought that is not clear.

Hmm... new predictions!

Manchester United (1-3)
Manchester City (1-4)
Spurs (1-4)
Chelsea (3-5)
Arsenal (3-5)
Liverpool (3-6)

I think Liverpool will be the team that ends up in sixth because the truth is that, with the evidence available right now, they're not really scoring. Sure, everyone goes on about how they can rip teams apart but the fact of the matter is they're not. They did it to Arsenal and it has been downhill since then. City without Aguero look to be in a similar boat but they have a better team. Spurs continue to not be masters of their own fate whereas Chelsea look to be playing at Arsenal's level. It is somewhat concerning that I predict only Liverpool, of this lot, to be sixth... realistically Arsenal and Chelsea could end up there too but my gut is stopping me from altering the prediction.

So, let's compare to 538... (credibility of victory as a percent) (credibility of top four as a percent)

Manchester City (57) (97)
Manchester United (26) (89)
Chelsea (7) (72)
Spurs (6) (66)
Arsenal (2) (38)
Liverpool (1) (32)

Definite similarities, but look at what they thought was going on before the season began...

Manchester City
Manchester United

Not so similar. I leant Liverpool above Arsenal, had United down lower, Spurs as favourite and City lower too.

Appendix (not in a table because I am lazy)

Arsenal's goals always on the right, other numbers represent Points, Goals For and Goals Against in a last season/this season pattern

Bournmeouth Home 3/3 3/3 1/0

Brighton/Middlesbrough (promoted to EPL same way) Home 1/3 0/2 0/0


Leicester Home 3/3 1/4 0/3


WBA Home 3/3 1/2 0/0


Chelsea Away 0/1 1/0 3/0


Liverpool Away 0/0 1/0 3/4


Stoke Away 3/0 4/0 1/1


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