The Premier League might not have much of a title race at the moment (a lot is going to have go right for Liverpool and a lot wrong for City to change that), but it’s relegation fight will be, to quote Jim Ross, “A Saturday night on payday weekend in Muskogee.”
Its race for 4th place, the last Champions League spot, is looking more like kindergarten recess football, where no one knows the rules or much cares, kids switch teams on impulse, and nothing gets where it’s supposed to be and yet everything is happening all at once.
For the last few weeks, no one has wanted to take 4th place by the collar and walk off with it. Everyone has had a chance. Right now, there are five teams with a decent case to finish in the spot, and maybe even six if you really want to wheel pose and make an argument for Brighton (eight points behind West Ham in fourth but with two games in hand).
West Ham currently have the spot. They’re one point ahead of Manchester United in fifth, but everyone chasing them has at least one game in hand, and Arsenal have three. They have won only one of their last four games, and that was a win against the overturned clown car that is Watford. They meekly surrendered to Manchester United, and yesterday they had to scramble a last-minute equalizer against Leceister to draw 2-2, and that’s after taking the lead and Leceister spending the first 30 minutes looking like they’d rather be anywhere else than on the field.
West Ham’s problem might be what was first feared, and that’s manager David Moyes’ tendency to only use as many players as he has to, instead of spreading the minutes to keep everyone fresher. Their attack has gone into the tank (1.7 xG in their last three games combined). Michail Antonio hasn’t scored for them in six weeks, and has had to jet to North America and back playing for Jamaica. If it wasn’t for Jarrod Bowen’s recent turn as a supernova, they’d be in real trouble. And they have the Europa League kicking back into gear in the next few weeks, further stressing out their thin squad and Moyes’ thin use of it.
Behind them are United, perhaps the most miserable club in all of Europe, if not the world, right now. Interim manager Ralf Rangnick is throwing Ole Gunnar Solskjær under the bus, and everyone knows when you start dumping things on the last guy you might already be out of ideas. But maybe that’s what you do when your players have been bitching about you since the moment you stepped off the plane.
United can’t finish matches. They’ve taken the lead in their last six, and drawn four of them. And their performances in the second half fall off a cliff. Here are their first-half and second-half xG in their last two matches:
Vs. Southampton: 1.89, 0.67 ┃ At Burnley: 1.40 , 0.77
The story was no different in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough, where they were dumped out of that competition on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Whether it’s lack of confidence to finish matches, lack of energy to keep performances up over 90 minutes, the fact that their two first-choice strikers are a combined Jethro Tull years old, or it’s all of the above. They’re listless, they’re divided (reportedly over the team’s treatment over Mason Greenwood, so fuck their entire lives), and everyone knows the manager isn’t there long-term.
Arsenal kind of suffer from not playing. They’ve only played 22 games, which gives them games in hand on everyone. They’ve played two league matches since the calendar turned, which means they’re rested but they’re also out of rhythm. They’re out of both cups, so the schedule won’t be too crunched.
Before we get to the upstarts behind them, there’s Spurs in 8th, and they’re very… Spurs. They’ve lost their last three matches in the league, after getting clobbered by Chelsea in the League Cup semifinals. Antonio Conte hates about 75 percent of the squad and hasn’t been quiet about it, and they can’t defend (nine goals against in their last four league games).
All this has left the door open for Wolves, who just happens to be the team that sauntered to a 2-0 win at Spurs yesterday. It was remarkably easy. Wolves are certainly the underdog, and all the charm that comes with that, but they can be a rough watch. They’ve only scored 21 goals in 23 games, but they’ve only given up 17, second best in the league. Offensively, that’s about where Wolves should be, as in expected goals they’re 17th in the league.
The air is in the defensive numbers. Jose Sa, perhaps the buy of the season at just $11 million, is to thank for that. Sá has the second-best goals-saved-over-expected, not just in England, but in all of the top five leagues in Europe, stealing over seven goals from Wolves’ opponents. Can he keep that up?
A good sign for Wolves was that Raúl Jimenéz scored yesterday, and he’s only two years removed from a 17-goal campaign. But Jimenéz isn’t getting nearly the same amount of shots and chances this season as he did then, and Bruno Lage’s system probably isn’t going to produce more chances for him. They’re near the bottom in both shots, and shots on target per game. Unless Jimenéz goes through a streak where he just can’t miss with limited looks, Sá is going to have to keep performing miracles.
As hard as it is to believe, Spurs still are, structurally speaking, the most likely. They’ve underperformed their metrics (kind of their thing), and of all the contenders they still have the best xG and xGA. After the small matter of a trip to Manchester City next weekend, they have three games in a row against Burnley, Leeds, and Everton, all with relegation fears. They’re basically one more Kane-Son hot streak away.
But Wolves have something they can count on more than their competitors. Yeah, they can’t score in a brothel with a roll of 100s, but they’re hard to create anything against (4th in shots against per game, 5th in shots on target per game, according to FBref.com). And when all else fails, they still have Sá as the last line. They’ll see Arsenal and West Ham in two of their next three matches.
Sure, they aren’t exciting. But they’re new and different. That’s enough for the neutral.