The Premier League’s Top Six vs Everyone Else

The Premier League’s top six teams are, as you’ll have no doubt noted, quite good. The upper end of the table is so thoroughly packed with quality now that, even though Arsenal improved on their points tally from last season by five points, they ended up finishing 5th as opposed 2nd in 2015-16. For the big boys it’s a question of how many points you can avoid dropping in silly circumstances on your way to a title challenge or a European football spot.

Yet there’s also something in it for the 14 other teams who push back against the elite, only to end up getting steamrolled more often than not. If you can game plan correctly and get an unexpected win or draw it could be huge in the battle against other relegation strugglers. Or for those treading water in midtable it could be key in an attempt to enter into the league’s upper echelon.

Now that the season is over we can take a look back at who got the most out of these matches. We’ll pick through the more interesting of these in a moment but first lets get you those juicy overall tables.

Premier League Top Six In Matches Against Non-Top Six Teams:

P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Chelsea 28 25 2 1 69 19 +50 77
Tottenham 28 22 5 1 73 16 +57 71
Manchester City 28 21 5 2 69 24 +45 68
Arsenal 28 21 3 4 62 26 +36 66
Manchester United 28 16 11 1 47 17 +30 59
Liverpool 28 17 5 6 62 33 +29 56

Rest of the Premier League In Matches against the Top Six:

P W D L GF GA GD Pts
Everton 12 2 4 6 14 23 -9 10
Crystal Palace 12 3 0 9 11 22 -11 9
Leicester 12 2 2 8 12 30 -18 8
West Brom 12 1 2 9 6 21 -15 5
Burnley 12 1 2 9 8 19 -11 5
Bournemouth 12 1 4 7 13 31 -18 7
Swansea 12 1 2 9 13 32 -19 5
West Ham 12 1 2 9 10 31 -21 5
Hull 12 1 1 10 6 32 -26 4
Southampton 12 0 4 8 6 22 -16 4
Watford 12 1 0 11 11 36 -25 3
Middlesbrough 12 0 3 9 7 23 -16 3
Stoke 12 0 3 9 10 33 -23 3
Sunderland 12 0 2 10 6 27 -21 2

Chelsea vs Tottenham

To win a title you need to be good enough to do so and you need a variety of things to go your way. Season after season the team who wins the PL has this combination of quality and luck, and Tottenham had that in 2016-17. The fantastic ability of their players and how well-drilled they are in Pochettino’s style is self-evident. On top of it all though Hugo Llloris posted the league’s highest save% (76.2%) and they had the second largest overperformance on their expected goals for (per ObjectiveFootball). They squeezed every last drop out of their season, as James Yorke put it.

There was, however, one respect in which they were spectacularly unlucky: They had this season at the same time Chelsea were having an even better one. To put this into perspective, here’s how many total points each PL winner dating back to 2010-11 gained from matches against non top-six teams: 67, 70, 67, 75, 65, 63. Tottenham’s tally of 71 is, by all rights, an obscene number. It just happened to fall behind a much more obscene one.

Big Sam’s Big Return:

Allardyce took over as manager of Crystal Palace on the 23rd of December 2016, with Palace sitting a point above the relegation zone. They only managed to scrape four points from their first eight matches under him, but so bad were the teams around them that at the end of those eight matches they were still a point above the drop. Yet many people considered them a major favourite for relegation. Why? At the time they had only played six of their unfortunately mandatory 12 matches against the PL’s top six. Surely strength of schedule would be too much to overcome.

Then, out of nowhere, they won three in a row against top six teams. A run that immediately jettisoned them to the second best record in such matches, and kept them there for the remainder of the season despite losing the rest. These weren’t lucky breaks either. The 2-1 win away at Chelsea was a bit so-so, but they matched Liverpool at Anfield and deservedly beat Arsenal at home. No team should expect to do well against the dominant teams, but if you can just do better than those around you it can make a huge difference come the end of the season.

Manchester United’s Home Woes:

Make no bones about it: there were times this season where Mourinho was a little too Mourinho. His ‘don’t lose as a priority’ tactics occasionally hurt United more than it helped, especially in matches against fellow top six teams. Yet for every match where they got what they deserved, they had one that looked like this:

This is the kind of errant luck that produced many of those 11 draws against non-top six teams, eight of which were at home. Mike Goodman wrote a great article going over this in detail that you should give a read. The overall point though is that if even just a handful of these matches swung their way the narrative on United would be wildly different, and Mourinho wouldn’t have to be sweating winning the Europa League to avoid not qualifying for the Champions League.

Stoke

This is something that has been said previously on this blog but it bears repeating in this roundup: You have to do better against the top six than Stoke did this season if you consider yourself a candidate to leapfrog other midtable sides into the group of clubs looking at a Europa League spot. Again, no one does overwhelmingly great in these matches. That doesn’t excuse Stoke getting humbled over and over in them, conceding more goals than the team who finished bottom of the table.

Their highest home attendance of the season was a 4-0 loss to Tottenham. The second of three 4-0 thumpings in a row that Spurs have handed them. For the love of god, give your supporters some respite.

Liverpool

On the other side of the ‘you have to do better’ divide lies a dishevelled Liverpool. They were undefeated against other top six teams this season, winning five and drawing the rest. There’s no real question that they’re as good as those around them, but it didn’t stop them frequently dropping points elsewhere in stupid circumstances.

Six Losses against the rest of the league were characterised by sterile play in possession and bewildering mistakes in defence. If you’re Jürgen Klopp there’s no question about what needs to be improved upon next season to avoid dropping out of the title race prematurely (if you are actually Jürgen Klopp, thanks for reading. The beard is looking good mate).

Stoke: Pottering About

As the curtain slowly comes down on the 2016-17 season, so too does it mark the end of Mark Hughes’ fourth season in charge of Stoke.  This one has in many ways been identical to the three that proceeded it. Despite that, however, it has presented some genuinely interesting questions about what the club does next. But before we get all existential lets set out the stall on how Stoke have looked under Hughes.

The greatest consternation about Stoke has been centred around their attack. Hughes inherited a club that had just spent seven years with Tony Pulis, the sultan of functional and effective, as its manager. Therefore the assumption, fair or not, was that Hughes would push them on beyond that and into something more stimulating. The reality is though that they’ve been about as ho-hum as it gets.

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Stoke under Mark Hughes (Penalties removed)

The idea most supporters have of Stoke being the same every season is borne out in the numbers. With the exception of an aberrational 2014-15 season their production has never been anything more than serviceable. That 14-15 shots tally was good for the 9th best in the league but otherwise they’ve always floated around 14th. There does seem to have been an increased focus on better quality shots this season as shown in their % of shots outside the box and xG per shot. Without an improvement in their overall output though it hasn’t been enough to be meaningful.

One of the stranger aspects of Stoke under Hughes has been their record against the top 6. You’ve no doubt at some point heard a pundit or commentator claim that Stoke ‘make it tough’ for the big teams. There is some truth in the cliche but as ever it’s more complicated than that. No one should be expected to have a good record against the big sides. They’re too dominating for that. But as a midtable team one way you can keep your supporters’ interest is by at least making those matches interesting. Stoke do that… sometimes.

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Stoke’s record against the top 6 under Mark Hughes

In Hughes’ first three seasons they had a habit of picking up good wins; who could forget that last match of the season 6-1 drubbing of Liverpool in Steven Gerrard’s final appearance? But when Stoke get beat they often get beat hard. 14 of their 28 losses against the top 6 have been by three or more goals. This season the bottom has completely dropped out to an embarrassing extent and Tottenham beating them 4-0 has now become routine. Even Arsenal, who hadn’t beaten Stoke away since the 2009-10 season, managed to put that particular ghost to rest.

And what of the much vaunted recruitment? Players have been brought in from far and wide seemingly with the intention of aiding the transition from Pulisball to something more attractive. Well that hasn’t really panned out either.

The striker role has been in particular disarray. Bojan was brought in from Barcelona but he has never been a shots monster, producing 2.4/1.9/1.9 shots p90 since joining in 14-15 and now has been shifted out on loan to Mainz. Wilfried Bony was brought in on loan from the wilderness of Manchester and has posted their best shot tally this season (2.7 p90) but has only played 690 minutes. Saido Berahino has been a non-factor, playing similarly few minutes and only putting up 1.6 shots p90. Mame Biram Diouf is even worse at 0.9 shots.

Xherdan Shaqiri hasn’t been as effective a creator as a he was pre-Stoke (3.5 key passes p90 at Inter) but he doesn’t have much around him to work with and has produced a respectable 2.1/2.2 KP p90 in the last two seasons (although he still takes too many shots from outside the box). Joe Allen chipped in with a few goals early but now has scored just two since October, has two assists all season (both in one game) and is producing an iffy 1.2 shots/0.9KP p90. Then you have all these players like Ibrahim Afellay, Ramadan Sobhi, Julien Ngoy and Giannelli Imbula who have played fewer minutes combined than 33-year-old Glen Whelan has on his own.

In fact, this season Mark Hughes has just turned back to all the old boys. Outside of the Allen/Arnautovic/Shaqiri triumvirate their most featured non-defenders have been Whelan, Charlie Adam, Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch. The whole ‘Stokealona’ idea died before it even got off the ground.

So now Stoke sit, heading into the summer with a squad full of players that either don’t contribute or the manager doesn’t seem to like, along with a bunch of older ones that he does seem to like but aren’t very good and, again, are old. They’ll likely break their three season streak of finishing 9th but without ever having actually flirted with relegation. Mark Hughes has created the quintessential midtable team.

Whether he is still manager at the start of next season all depends on one question: What do the club’s owners want? Are they content to float from season to season, soaking in the Premier League money? Or will they gamble on of the newer names currently without a job, with the chance of pushing them out of the malaise? Or perhaps they’ll just bring in John Terry and run it all back again.

Hertha Berlin’s Away Struggles

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As most of German football has trended towards a high energy style focused on pressing and quick transitions, Hertha Berlin have essentially ‘gone acoustic’. Watch just one half of football from them and you’ll get the gist. An extremely slow and safe game with lots of very purposeful sideways passing along their defensive line, progressing up the pitch at a snail’s pace. For as excruciating as it can be to watch at times, it has, in fairness, brought success. Last season they finished 7th in the Bundesliga, and at the time of writing they’re sitting 6th in this season’s table, just a point off 5th.

There is one catch though. They are terrible away from home. Their home record this season is 12 wins, 1 draw and 3 losses with a goal difference of +13. Good for the 5th best home record in the league. All lovely. Their away record is 2 wins, 3 draws and 11 losses with a goal difference of -15. Which makes for joint-2nd worst away record in the league. At home they’re a Europa League side, away from it they’re somehow relegation fodder.

At home Hertha create 11.8 shots per game. Not a great number, but when you consider their intentionally slow pace and the fact only 35% of those shots come from outside the box (5th fewest in the league), you can see why it works. They limit opponents to an average 12.1 shots with 42% of them coming from outside the box. They also block the 3rd highest amount of shots per game in the league. And that’s the game plan: play it safe, get pretty good shots and don’t give up any great ones. Simple.

The problem is that the plan just doesn’t work on the road. Away from home they create an abysmal 7.9 shots. Not only is that the worst in the Bundesliga, it’s the 4th worst across Europe’s top 5 leagues. It’s also not like this offensive impotence comes with any defensive benefit. They give up 13.3 shots away from home with only 34% of those coming from outside the box, all this alongside a drop off in terms of shots blocked.

Things get even uglier when you bring their expected goals* production into it. Hertha, like their Bundesliga peers Gladbach, have been a slightly tough side to appraise via xG due to the combination of their odd style of play plus a high amount of blocked shots. Even so, the signs aren’t good. In 16 away matches they’ve managed to have the better of the xG tally just three times. Two of those three opponents – Wolfsburg and Augsburg – are in the bottom three of Bundesliga home records and are currently fighting off relegation.

Hilariously (depending on your perspective) they complete an identical amount of passes both home and away: 77%, on a similarly close amount of passes. It’s abundantly clear that they need to switch it up when travelling because home teams just aren’t falling for their schtick.

All credit to manager Pál Dárdai for the work he has done creating a solid home team. It’s looking likely that the home record will bring them Europa League qualification and their highest league finish since 2009. The away record, however, is unacceptable.

*All expected goals numbers in this piece are sourced from FiveThirtyEight.