Jurgen Klopp looked exasperated.
His Liverpool side had just suffered a confounding 1–0 defeat at home to Burnley, the Reds’ first loss at Anfield in 68 Premier League matches. Bundled in his black Nike parka and red hat donning the LFC club crest, Klopp shrugged.
“How is it possible that you lose that game? But we lost it,” he said.
The sixth-year Liverpool manager is not alone in that feeling. In a season muddied by the whirlwinds of the COVID-19 pandemic and a mad sprint of an offseason, few teams have remained unscathed in a time of strange results and unprecedented parity. In turn, the league table is as tightly contested as ever. Five teams are within 11 points of first place Manchester City, four of them within nine.
So how do we make sense of the jumbled mess at the top of the Premier League table? Here’s a look at some of the advanced numbers behind the top title challengers, the squads who are still in the hunt and some unlikely contenders that could push for a Champions League berth.
Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United
Key stat: Manchester City: 2.05 Shots on target allowed per 90 minutes (No. 1 in Premier League)
It’s looking more and more like Manchester City’s time again. In a year of chaos and turmoil, Pep Guardiola’s banged-up squad has found a way to become the English model of consistency. Even without star forward Sergio Aguero, who has appeared in just five matches all season due to a mix of injuries and COVID-19, Guardiola’s side has thrived. Injuries are inevitable for any team, but City just has too many bodies—and too many good ones—to let that hamper its title hopes.
The rotation up front of Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez and sometimes even Ferran Torres has been solid. Even better has been the midfield, through which the effervescent Kevin De Bruyne and recent goal-scoring savant Ilkay Gundogan have shone. (And City hasn't missed a beat with De Bruyne out injured.) City plays through the center of the pitch 28% of the time, second-highest in the Premier League.
But City’s attack wasn't always clicking, and its stature this season has been built by its defense. Ruben Dias and John Stones have earned their spots as center back mainstays, and opponents’ shots are coming from the third-furthest distance of any squad. The club's 14.7 expected goals (xG, a metric that measures the probability a shot will result in a goal) against are lowest in the league by far.
Despite some recent dropped points, City’s chief rival is very much still in the thick of the race. Manchester United has been more than just solid in the quest for its first league title since 2013. On the back of midfield maestro Bruno Fernandes, United has created more xG than every club but Liverpool. On the back end, Harry Maguire has been, for the most part, an anchor, with only one error directly leading to a goal. What United had been missing recently is that finishing touch. In three matches in which United have dropped points in 2021, it's created 4.1 xG and scored just once.
Enter Southampton. United’s 9-0 victory Tuesday was the largest since Leicester did the same thing to the Saints in 2019. Maybe it was a product of a shorthanded Southampton club that played with less than 11 men for 88 minutes. Or maybe it was a sign of a much-needed goal-scoring turnaround.
Either way, the reigning champions are still hanging around, though Wednesday's defeat to Brighton effectively sets up do-or-die stakes vs. Man City this weekend. Liverpool has been dealt the worst hand of injuries of any team in England’s top flight, but the Reds are not giving up their title without a fight. Even without Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, Liverpool’s patchwork defense is in the top five in opponent xG and progressive passes allowed. On transfer deadline day, it signed Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak in an effort to reinforce the back line.
The road to a repeat is bumpy, especially with Matip out for the season and van Dijk unlikely to return as well. But Liverpool’s attack may have enough firepower to carry the makeshift defense to an exciting finish.
Team with the best title shot: Man City
Leicester, Tottenham, Everton
Key stat: Tottenham: 2,772 touches in attacking third (No. 17 in Premier League)
As Jamie Vardy goes, so do the Foxes. In matches this season in which Vardy records a goal or an assist, Leicester is 9–0–1. In matches in which he doesn’t, it's 4–3–5. The reason is pretty simple: no player has generated more xG per 90 minutes than the 34-year-old Vardy (0.76) and without him, Leicester is lacking creativity and his shot-creating prowess.
For the last three matches, Vardy has been sidelined after receiving surgery for a hernia (Leicester drew at Everton and lost 3–1 at home to Leeds in the first two). But a victory over Fulham on Wednesday marked the start of a very winnable stretch of games that includes Wolves and Brighton. If the Foxes can weather the storm for another match or two without Vardy, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be right in the thick of the title race (or at least the race for Champions League spots) for the rest of this season.
For a team that spent the first half of the season in the top five and now rests in sixth, Everton sure hasn't played like a squad challenging for Champions League spots. A string of four wins to start the year—and the game-changing play of new transfer James Rodriguez—seemed to have the Toffees poised for a run among England’s elite. Now nearly 16 matches later, they’re playing like the mid-table team they’ve regularly been. Nobody outside of James is a creator, as his number of progressive passes (96) nearly doubles that of any other Everton player.
Everton is average-to-below-average in every possession statistic. For some teams, that’s indicative of counterattacking tactics. For Everton, it’s a lack of creativity on the ball. With just a 0.69 xG average in its last six matches heading into Wednesday’s win over Leeds, it will be a tough climb back to European tournament spots, much less title contention–even with two games in hand on the teams it's chasing.
Tottenham has been, well, Tottenham. A surge of early-season counterattacking goals from the dynamic attacking duo of Son Heung-min and Harry Kane saw Spurs at the top of the table as late as matchweek 12. Since then, Spurs have by far the lowest average xG of any "Big Six" Premier League squads (including middling Arsenal and Chelsea). José Mourinho's approach has resulted in Tottenham recorded the third-highest number of pressures in the league, but the third-lowest success percentage on them. In other words, they’re not defending, and they’re not scoring. It's not exactly a recipe to end a trophy drought.
Team with the best title shot: Leicester
West Ham, Aston Villa, Chelsea
Key stat: Aston Villa, xG differential: +7.4 (No. 6 in Premier League)
There may not be a Premier League team more confounding than Aston Villa. On paper, Villa is having an astounding season after narrowly escaping relegation last season—it's top-six in xG, xG differential and shot-creating actions (two actions directly leading to a shot), all stats that are generally indicative of success. But it sits just ninth in the table, behind a famously struggling Chelsea and Everton. What has gone wrong? Well, it's been on the wrong end of some brilliant finishing (and poor finishing in its own right.) In four of seven losses, Villa created more xG than its opponents, sometimes significantly so.
Dean Smith's side only faces one top-four team in the next two months (and after Thursday will have two games in hand on Chelsea and teams situated in second to fifth places). If it can put the finishing touches on some of its dominant performances, there’s reason to believe Villa will be right in the mix for European spots come May.
On the flip side of that xG coin is West Ham. Its metrics are largely mid-table, with the exception of an opponents’ average shot distance of 17.7 (fourth in the league). What West Ham has done better than maybe any other team is simply win the games it's supposed to. It sounds simplistic, but in a season that has seen results like Liverpool’s 7-2 loss to Villa and Tottenham’s defeat to Brighton at home, just getting the job done can’t go unnoticed. The Hammers’ 0–2–5 record against "Big Six" teams isn’t exactly conducive to future European success, but a convincing win over Villa on Wednesday shows its firmly in position to contend for European spots.
Then there's Chelsea. The first half of the season produced so many painful results that the club had no choice but to let go of legend Frank Lampard. But fear not, Chelsea fans. The numbers are on your side.
Chelsea’s +11.4 xG differential is good for third in the league, but there are a few reasons why that hasn’t turned into results. For one, the Blues have experienced some odd finishing issues, most notably at the feet of $60 million striker Timo Werner (6.9 xG, four goals). Beyond that, calamitous goalkeeping from Kepa Arrizabalaga and below-average goalkeeping from his replacement, Edouard Mendy, haven't helped. Nevertheless, despite the alarms sounding at Stamford Bridge and Thomas Tuchel's methods likely requiring some time to take hold, the Blues entered Thursday just seven points back from a Champions League spot with a game in hand.
Team with the best top-four shot: Chelsea
Note: xG numbers vary slightly by source. All xG numbers are from fb-ref.com, whose method is explained here.