With the new Premier League season almost here, we look back at which clubs benefitted from luck more than most and who was the most fortunate to finish so high up the table last season.
They say the table never lies. That after 38 games you’re as good as your position dictates. But that simply doesn’t wash. Some teams do in fact overperform or, even more maddeningly for fans, underperform. How else can we explain Leicester City’s title win in 2016? And by the same token, Chelsea’s huge fall off in the same season just a year after winning the league?
A myriad of factors come into play. Of course, having the best squad of players possible will give you the best chance of succeeding. But luck also plays a huge factor, and luck can be a fickle beast. Sometimes all of the stars align to give you the perfect season, and other times the whole thing comes crashing down on you unexpectedly.
It’s not easy to quantify the effect luck has on football matches, but the best metric we have for it is Expected Goals (xG). Based on values taken from millions of data points, it can give us an indication of how many goals a player or team should have scored on average, given the shots they have taken. In terms of advanced analytics, it is the best indicator of a team’s true quality that is currently in the public domain (we know that clubs use their own proprietary methods in-house).
If we were to recreate last season’s Premier League table by using xG only, then there would be a few differences; Man City and Liverpool would still occupy the top two places, while Manchester United, and not Spurs, would have qualified for the Champions League; Arsenal would have finished seventh, one place behind Wolves; and Cardiff City would have survived at the expense of Brighton.
So which teams overperformed more than most? Using the xG model, we’ve compiled the five teams who won more actual points than their Expected Points (xPTS) might have predicted.
The luckiest Premier League teams in the 2018/19 season:
5. Manchester City
Can anyone really say Man City overperformed? At this point can we just all agree that they simply are this good?
Pep Guardiola’s charges have put together ground-breaking and history-making campaigns in successive years. The manager has a track record of getting his teams to perform at their absolute peak, blowing away opposition teams at will season after season.
When you have such ridiculous talent and firepower at your disposal, the team is going to outperform their xG more often than not. We expect that from exceptional players who can seemingly do the impossible on a regular basis.
That’s why City finished 7.3 points better than expected. Not because of luck, but because they possess a side that can consistently perform beyond themselves, as well as the fact they had Liverpool pushing them all the way.
The scary thing is that City’s xPTS total of 90.6 still would have been good enough to win our hypothetical xG league and finish with the joint-10th highest points total in Premier League history.
4. West Ham
Tenth position seemed just about right for West Ham last season, yet judging by their xPTS they should have finished with 8.2 fewer points. That would have seen them finish in 15th, which would have put a very different complexion on their season.
The Hammers don’t have an exceptionally strong defence, and they got lucky last year in that they didn’t concede more. They also scored four more than expected, but with some of the acquisitions they have made this summer, they should be better as a whole in 2019/20.
Tottenham’s form fluctuated wildly throughout the last campaign, from at one point pulling out tight win after tight win to put themselves in the title conversation, to barely being able to buy a victory as they clung on to their place in the top four.
On a good few occasions, their plan seemed to rely on getting the ball to Christian Eriksen so the Dane could have a crack from long range. In some instances it worked, such as his late winner against Brighton at home, but as a low percentage attempt it’s generally not ideal to rely on that so often.
Their xPTS difference of 9.5 points would have had them finishing level with Man United, with the Red Devils finishing ahead of them in fourth on expected goal difference.
The Gunners had a disappointing season, missing out on Champions League qualification as well as losing the Europa League final to Chelsea. In the end, it was generally accepted that they were just not good enough to finish in the top four.
As it turns out, they were barely good enough to qualify for Europe at all, as they finished 11 points better off than their xPTS. Arsenal outperformed both their xG and xGA by a wide margin, which masked the major deficiencies in the squad. There was no hiding that tragic excuse for a defence come season’s end though.
Perhaps not a shocker given how ridiculously high their points total was last season, which will always need some element of luck and sheer momentum to be achieved. As such, the Reds were a massive 13.5 points better off than their xPTS come last May.
Three moments in particular stand out: Jordan Pickford’s howler to let Divock Origi score a last minute winner against Everton; Hugo Lloris feebly palming the ball at Toby Alderweireld’s feet for an own goal, and another late winner, against Spurs; and Origi’s shouldered goal from a free-kick against Newcastle United late on in the season.
Liverpool could have easily dropped points in any of those games, and a few others, and they wouldn’t have come within an arse’s roar of City. That’s not to diminish their performance throughout the year by the way, which was obviously magnificent.