Before the season began, I picked out an interesting stat to follow for each of the 20 Premier League teams. You’d think that after only three games, a check on these stats would be useless, but I did it anyway, and it turns out there’s a surprising amount of telling material in the early numbers. So here’s a look at the most interesting of the bunch.
For Arsenal, the stat was shots allowed, a crucial figure in determining defensive efficacy. Last year the Gunners finished a poor sixth in the league at 11.4/game. Well, after three matches this season they’re in almost the exact same place: seventh in the league at 11.7/game. It isn’t just the Liverpool match, either: against Stoke City, a match Arsenal seemed to dominate, they still allowed 11 shots.
Under Eddie Howe, Bournemouth have been a side that commit few fouls, and in the past two seasons the Cherries were 18th and 20th in that category. Nothing’s changed: they’re already last in fouls again. Their defence is the same as well: expected goals allowed are right on last season’s average, which was fourth worst in the league. I still have to wonder if a more physical approach might lead to improvement.
The earlier article noted that Burnley’s shot-blocking is essential to their strategy: last year they recorded a second-highest ever 5.8/game. Looks like they’re at it again, because the current number is a ridiculously high 8.7/game. That’ll come down, but it shows they’re already in the groove in one respect.
Frank de Boer has the Sword of Big Samocles hanging over his head at the moment, partly as a result of trying to get Crystal Palace into a new system quickly. Possession percentage stats are the index. Last year Palace were at 46.8% – incidentally the exact same as the pre-Allardyce year before. De Boer has bumped it up only to 47.9%, which doesn’t seem like much, but that includes the Anfield match where they were held to an absurd 27.6%. Against Huddersfield they had 56.7% and against Swansea 53.1%, a fixture in which last year Palace had only 47.1% possession. But you still need the results.
Speaking of Huddersfield Town, the question was whether the Terriers would be able to keep to their short-passing ways while stepping up in class. The answer is yes, sort of. Last year in the Championship, only 15.4% of their passes went long, second-lowest in the division; this year so far it’s 17.4%, which would put them in the middle of the pack over a full Premier League season. This compares favorably to Brighton and Newcastle, currently at 18.9% and 20.9% respectively.
Manchester City haven’t looked at their best over the first three weeks, and the relevant stat here is shots inside the six-yard box. We noted that City led the league with 50 last year, and would be looking for improvement. But right now they’ve managed only three, an average of one per game. Pep has to hope this is just early-season rust.
Then there’s Manchester United. Free-flowing, exciting football, and top of the table. But a big reason they’re there is set-pieces. They’ve scored three set-piece goals, two of which opened the scoring and one of which made the score 2-0. These have opened up the match and helped lead to the impressive late flurries. Last season United scored from only seven set-pieces all year, 15 fewer than Chelsea. It makes a big, big difference.
Last year Southampton tried a league-leading 24.9 crosses per game, but finished only 14th in assists from crosses. I guessed that Mauricio Pellegrino might seek a different mode of attack. Wrong, at least at first. The Saints tried 35 against Swansea and got no goals at all, then 26 against West Ham without a crossing assist. But against Huddersfield there were only nine, which may mean the approach is changing.
Spurs are up to their new tricks again, or at least one of them. Under Mauricio Pochettino they shoot from outside the area a lot: last year they took 56 more than anyone else in the league. At this early stage they’re already out in front with 29, to 25 for Chelsea and Manchester United. Incidentally, Chelsea have taken over half their shots from outside the area, the only team to have done so. That can’t last. But if the number stays higher than last year’s percentage, 37.2, that’s trouble: under Conte the Blues take fewer shots than the other title contenders, and so absolutely have to take them from good positions.
Watford’s game against Brighton was marred by Miguel Britos’ high studs on Anthony Knockaert, and we can recall the Hornets were top in yellows and reds last season. Let’s give Marco Silva credit: he spoke out against Britos’ tackle, and so far the side have a mere three yellows. Only Brighton have fewer. (Chelsea and Crystal Palace are top with eight.)
Finally, West Ham United. Last season the Hammers notched an unprecedented and unhappy double: last in tackles, first in interceptions. That means the defence gambled a lot, and failed a lot. The previous year’s stats had been fairly normal, and Slaven Bilic may have realised the gambling approach didn’t work, because this year they’re back to normal again: tied for ninth in both categories. But bad defence is bad defence no matter what style you play.