The title race may be all but over – and, to be frank, has been for some time now – but the top four race is shaping up to be the closest it may ever have been.
After 24 matches, this is how places 2nd to 6th look.While the gap between these teams may be eleven points (the gap between City and United in the supposedly over title race is only twelve), this is a game of narratives and momentum. United, treading water in second after having suffered a festive mini-slump; the pack finding their beat.
Well, all except Arsenal, picking up just fourteen points in the last ten games and having just traded Alexis Sanchez (and Atom and Humber) for a stuttering Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
And, yes, Arsenal are generally fifth of the Top 6 in the basic shot metrics.
Take shots inside the box, a useful metric because shots with feet inside the box and headers are converted at roughly comparable rates (around 17-18% and 11-12%, compared to 2-3% for shots outside the box).
Arsenal’s +3.5 difference between the amount of shots in the box they and their opponents take per game is within touching distance of Chelsea’s +3.75 SiB difference. Spurs aren’t that far ahead, on +4.00.
And who’s sixth?
Why it’s Manchester United.
United’s slump in results coincided with a general downturn in underlying shot metrics, which now has their shots in the box differential at just +0.96.
It’s an extraordinary break from the rest of the league – the team below United in this measure are actually Crystal Palace, with +0.83 per game (Palace’s good shot metrics are part of why stattos are not surprised to see the Eagles in 13th after their terrible start).
There’s something that might be worth noting, and that’s Mourinho’s particularly peculiar style. It’s possible that when United go ahead, they shut down their attack completely in a way that the other Top 6 sides don’t, and that might be skewing the numbers. However, if this is the case, the impact is probably going to be more towards the marginal end of the spectrum than the dramatic.
If United’s results do drop off, then that opens things up – suddenly the narrative isn’t ‘who will take second’; it becomes a genuine fight to the death for each of those spots in and around the Champions League places.
And, interestingly, United – along with Tottenham – are the team with the fewest home games against Bottom 14 sides left, with four. Arsenal has six.
Here’s why this matters. Arsenal has won every home game against the Bottom 14 so far this season – the Emirates seems, despite perceptions, to have turned into a fortress against the lesser sides.
Their downfall this season, why they’re so far behind, is in my ‘Category 2′ of Premier League fixtures – away games against the Bottom 14, and home ties against the Top 6, where they’ve had an extraordinarily poor record, picking up just 1.31 points per game.
That’s comparable to Leicester and Crystal Palace (them again).
But if – for the rest of the season – they match the points per game hauls of their Top 6 rivals in both categories of game, then the fixture schedule alone could give Arsenal a crucial extra few points.
Even if you think that Arsenal – who might be looking at the Europa League as their most likely entry into the Champions League next year – aren’t credible Top 4 contenders, then this combination of fixture schedule differences and United’s shot numbers is still relevant.
United have looked, for a long time, the most likely ‘not Man City’ side to shore up their place in the Top 4, but a scrap could well emerge and, in a scrap, every point matters.
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