NORMALLY the start of September sees the transfer window slam shut albeit the Premier League experimented with an earlier closure for a couple of seasons before realising that, like Captain Oates, going first isn’t always the best option.
Question. Why does the transfer window always have to 'slam shut'? Why can't it just 'close'?
— Richard Keys (@richardajkeys) January 31, 2015
2020, as with everything, is different and not only is the new season starting in mid-September, but the transfer window will run until October 5. That means the exciting return of the autumn signing, once a wildly useful manoeuvre available to a manager whose team had started the season sub-optimally and wanted to change course. In November 1992 Manchester United signed Eric Cantona, in October 1993 Chelsea signed Mark Stein, in November 1993 Swindon signed Keith Scott. I could go on.
That’s the timings sorted but what about the personnel? No team is unimprovable, but some need more improvement than others. And football is a relatively simple game. Concede fewer goals than your opponents (extremely important) and score more than your opponents (also important, but not quite as important as the other one).
In matches that basically manifests itself as goalkeeping, defending, creating opportunities and taking those opportunities. Here’s where the 17 teams who were in the Premier League in 2019-20 need to improve if they are to enjoy 2020-21 to the same extent (or maybe even more so).
It’s no secret that Chelsea are in dire need of a new goalkeeper or at least an uptick in form from whoever Frank Lampard chooses to go between the posts. Based on Expected Goals, Kepa Arrizabalaga let in 10.6 more goals than the average ‘keeper would have done, one of the worst levels of underperformance yet seen in the Premier League. Kepa faced 101 shots on target last season and 47 of them ended up in the back of his net.
Sheffield United had the opposite experience in 2019-20, they had a goalkeeper, Dean Henderson, at the top of his game, and who prevented an additional 7.4 goals above the expected rate. But he has now returned to Manchester United, eager to displace David de Gea. In response, the Blades have re-signed Aaron Ramsdale who certainly got a lot of practice playing for Bournemouth last season but didn’t rate particularly highly on goals prevented.
An early heads-up that there could be some good old-fashioned regression in store at Bramall Lane. Aston Villa went through more ‘keepers last season than there are legs on a tripod, with Pepe Reina sometimes outside his own penalty area when conceding. Reina has now joined Lazio so Tom Heaton should return when fully recovered from injury, but worryingly Heaton was second only to Kepa in underperformance (-5.0 goals).
– Based on Opta's expected goals on target data, Kepa conceded 10.6 goals more than the 'average' goalkeeper would expect to concede; the worst figure of any PL keeper.@Orbinho highlights the areas Chelsea will be keen to fix ahead of the season.
— Stats Perform Fan Engagement (@OptaSuit) August 27, 2020
Villa were the team who conceded the highest open play xG last season but it may well have been a claret and blue virus because West Ham were only just behind them, with both teams performing more poorly than the three sides who eventually went down. As it stands David Moyes has been unable to bring in any defenders of note and without strengthening at the back it feels like another season of struggle is on the cards.
Newcastle were the weakest team from set-pieces, giving up 19.0 xG from dead balls. The one signature that the Magpies fans were hoping for this summer was for the ownership of the club; in the meantime, taking greater ownership of your opponents at free-kicks will have to suffice. Steve Bruce’s team were also the team least likely to press you, with a PPDA rate of 19.5. Given they survived you can say it worked but it’s grimly reactive football in a proactive world.
You defend from the front these days and Everton and Crystal Palace were the two teams who didn’t score from a high turnover (ie winning the ball back within 40 metres of their opponent’s goal and doing something significant with it) in 2019-20. You can assume that both clubs got the message with Palace signing Eberechi Eze, who led the Championship for dribbles last season, and Everton essentially bringing in an entirely new midfield.
Can James Rodriguez emulate James McFadden and bring the good times back to Goodison? Finally, Arsenal’s defence got away with things under Mikel Arteta, conceding significantly below their xG rate, a reversal of the situation earlier in the campaign under Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg. Arteta is nothing if not well informed though, and with Pablo Mari making his switch permanent and Gabriel taking the Eurostar from Lille, things should improve.
Meanwhile Arteta’s commitment to his defence drawing their opponent’s press is total, with tangible results too, as demonstrated by the team’s superbly worked goal against Liverpool in the Community Shield.
Burnley continue to enjoy a comfortable existence in the Premier League despite regularly creating fewer opportunities than some of their struggling opponents. Last season they were joined in this stylistic existence by Sheffield United.
The two clubs had 256 and 254 shots from open play respectively and both scored fewer than 30 goals from open play. But like an ecologically curious person in a fishmonger, the big question is “is this sustainable?” Chris Wood had an incredibly productive season and averaged 0.24 xG per shot and saw a high percentage (42%) of his efforts from high clarity situations (ie with a good line of sight to the goal).
These are variables that could easily decline in a new season, especially if supply line Dwight McNeil departs. One of the clubs linked with McNeil are Leicester, and you can see why Brendan Rodgers wants to increase his creativity given the way his side tailed off dramatically post-lockdown. The Foxes have progressed their style under Rodgers but still rely heavily on direct attacks that are finished off by Jamie Vardy.
How long the 2019-20 Golden Boot winner can maintain his rate of contribution remains to be seen, but someone like McNeil coming in to take some pressure off James Maddison would be useful. Maddison contributed to eight PL goals (5G 3A) before the New Year but scored just once and failed to assist from January onwards.
By now everyone knows that Southampton ended up doing better after losing 9-0 to Leicester than their opponents did, but in some ways the clubs are very similar; well drilled, tactically-aware teams who over-rely on a main goalscorer, Danny Ings in Southampton’s case. James Ward-Prowse is the supply line, but only 21 of his club-leading 62 chances came from open play.
After that it’s Nathan Redmond, Ings himself (and you can’t assist yourself) and then Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who has departed for Tottenham. At Wolves, Adama Traore has a positive Covid-19 test to cope with in the short term but longer term it remains to be seen whether he’ll remain at Molineux. His relationship with Raul Jimenez was the open play creative hub at the club in 2019-20, and removing one or both of those links could see the club regress significantly. Traore created 5.46 chances per 100 passes in the Premier League last season, the best rate of any player in the division.
Just getting ready for the week ahead pic.twitter.com/afdOEMZidY
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) January 6, 2020
Manchester City obviously have defensive issues to attend to, and saying they need to fix their goalscoring after they scored 102 goals last season is a stretch but a nagging problem is a nagging problem and as it stands Sergio Aguero is brilliant but aging and susceptible to injury, while Gabriel Jesus is the perfect age but anything but perfect when it comes to shooting.
Aguero led the league in xG per 90 last season (0.90) and still managed to outscore that rate (0.99 goals per 90) but Jesus’s rate of 0.62 goals per 90 vs his xG per 90 of 0.82 points to someone who still can’t be fully relied on in the most crucial moments. There’s Raheem Sterling too but as we saw in the Champions League quarter-final, he is not infallible either.
One solution would be to bring in a man who hasn’t failed to score 25+ league goals in a season since 2008, but Lionel Messi doesn’t come cheap. Liverpool fans may be dreaming of Thiago Alcântara in their midfield but it feels like “we should have signed Timo Werner” may be the lament of the autumn. Roberto Firmino used to score no look goals but now it’s more a case of oh look, no goals.
Nine in the Premier League last season from an xG of 14 was the second most unproductive campaign behind David McGoldrick. Tottenham had fewer shots from set-pieces than any other side last season and were the only team to create <6 xG from dead balls. The reports linking the club with players like Troy Deeney and Josh King make sense when you realise this this is an area where television star Jose Mourinho can get quick wins.
Finally, Brighton just need more goals. In the three seasons they’ve played in the Premier League they’ve scored 108 goals in 114 games, 11 fewer than any other ever-present side in that period. Defences keep you up but you need to let them have a rest sometimes. Albion can’t even go to the classic Plan D of bringing Glenn Murray on, as he’s now left to join Watford on a season-long loan.