Tuesday December 30th, 2014

Believe it or not, we've already reached the halfway point of the Premier League season. The league is much more competitive than last season's version, which should lead to some excitement at both ends of the table. As we enter 2015, here are four general discussion points to help clarify where everything stands.

1. Do we have a title race?

The table suggests we do – at least one that was closer than when we last addressed it while Chelsea was unbeaten – but a closer look still makes the odds look pretty long for Manchester City, even with the Citizens just three points back at the turn.

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A large factor in all the "Can Chelsea go undefeated?" talk was the fact that the Blues had played a large number of their hardest away matches early in their schedule. After this weekend's 1-1 draw at Southampton, that's even more the case. In fact, after a New Year's Day match at Tottenham, the Blues only have one more road match the entire season against a "major" opponent – and that's against an Arsenal team that Chelsea has handled well. 

As the Statto.com chart shows, Chelsea already has earned draws at the other three sides in current UCL position, and gets all three of them at home still:

There will be much focus on City's Jan. 31 visit to Stamford Bridge, because a Chelsea win there very well could be too much to overcome. But City also still has away matches at Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. The Citizens certainly are capable of taking points anywhere, but the composite effect may be too much when chasing a side that won't drop that many points the rest of the way. 

Throw in that the Blues should, allowing for remaining schedules, keep a goal differential advantage over City for any potential tiebreaker, and you can see why City wasting two points this weekend by blowing a 2-0 home lead against Burnley may prove so costly. The defending champs are still only three points behind, but it feels like a lot more.

2. Can either of the "outsiders" hold on for UCL berths?

Despite some wobbles, both Southampton (currently fourth) and West Ham (in sixth, two points and 10 goals back) continue to look like viable threats to challenge for a Champions League berth. Of the two, I may prefer West Ham's style, but the remaining schedule and underlying stats look more favorable for the Saints.

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I really like the higher-pressure way West Ham has been playing this season.

Sam Allardyce's club has three very viable striking options backed by a capable midfield that masks some deficiencies in the back, but as mentioned in a feature on the Hammers earlier in the season, they have had a very frontloaded schedule in terms of home games against the top 10 in the table.

Now they're going to have to find a way to take points away from Upton Park against their UCL competitors if they have designs on making a real run at this (as well as taking care of business at home against much of the bottom half of the league).

Conversely, while Southampton still has to go to the three teams ahead of it, the Saints also have remaining home matches against the next five teams behind them in the table, which provides a great opportunity to separate and stay ahead of the pack.

Per the current data at Cartilage Free Captain, Southampton has the highest percentage of shots in the league that come from the "danger zones" in front of goal. Combine that with allowing the fewest shots in the league defensively so far, and this is not a false position the club occupies. The Saints are controlling play at a rate consummate with a top-four side.

They should still have some money available after the summer sell-off (as well as getting Jay Rodriguez back and/or offloading him for more cash), so if they feel like they need reinforcing in January, they should be able to make an impact move or two.

3. Who is in a false position?

Advanced stats like Total Shot Ratio and Danger Zone Shot percentages can help determine how many goals a team should have scored and conceded. 

Take Chelsea, for example. The Blues have the second-highest TSR in the league (we'll get to No. 1 in a minute) and a dominant percentage of the DZ shots in their matches. Per this data, the Blues should have scored 37 goals so far and conceded 16. Their actual totals of 41 for and 14 against therefore are pretty reasonable, with the differences likely stemming from factors like "Diego Costa's lethal finishing" and "world-class goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois." They're totally legit.

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Then there's Manchester United, sitting at a +14 goal differential and in third place, despite very middling underlying stats that project just a +3 goal difference (Thanks, RVP and David de Gea). That said, United has been so hurt by injuries that between returning players and the guys they certainly will buy in January, they should perform closer to their actual performance in the second half. That very well may be enough to hold on to one of the top four spots and get back into the Champions League.

Oh, so, you know who No. 1 is in TSR right now? Arsenal, which has really strong advanced numbers across the board. The Gunners easily have the second-highest schedule-adjusted expected goal ratio in the league, with an expectation of nearly a 2:1 goals for to goals against ratio. They've actually allowed five goals more than expected at this point, which is a lot, and underscores their galling deficiencies in the back and that the goalkeeping hasn't been good enough to hold that standard. If Arsenal can get healthy and/or import some more help in the back, I really like their chances of finishing in the top four.

Briefly addressing Merseyside, Liverpool's 4-1 win over Swansea may hint of an awakening. The eighth-placed Reds are performing a bit under stats expectation, even after that three-goal win. Conversely, Everton's about where they're supposed to be. It's just been one of those seasons on the blue side of town. They're 10 points out of seventh place, and unless they start to improve their underlying numbers, any kind of push for Europe seems unlikely.

4. Whither the relegation battle?

On the other end of the table, things are looking a bit dicier than you'd think for Aston Villa (discussed earlier in the season, when the Villans stole 10 points from their first four matches despite just six total shots on target), but the real interesting club to watch is Hull City, which is sitting on 16 points (just outside the drop zone on goal differential).

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Despite the obvious struggles, Hull is actually outperforming against its underlying stats. The club currently has the worst expected goal ratio in the league, with a projected goal difference of almost twice its current -8. When you remove chances generated from crosses, Hull's Danger Zone ratio drops to just 31 percent. Hull is not creating many high-value chances at all. With only one home win so far, and five top-10 home matches left (plus Everton), the Tigers may be in some trouble.

Conversely, QPR's numbers look better than what the actual performance has been. 'Arry's Rs also have racked up five home wins already, and their point-less road performance through nine matches has been heavily influenced by schedule. QPR has yet to play any of the other seven relegation candidates away yet.

The future of the club literally may depend on it staying up this season (thanks to financial shenanigans that have QPR in some serious FFP trouble, especially if it is relegated), but as things look right now, it should be favored to survive – at least for one more season in the top flight. 

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