With just a week to go until the much-anticipated return of live football to these shores, I thought i'd write a piece trying to analyse how the enforced break due to lockdown might impact Premier League clubs. Much of it is of course speculation because we don't know how different clubs and indeed players might respond. However, I thought it might be interesting to study how the break impacted Bundesliga football and then use that data to hypothesise the possible affects on Premier League clubs.
The first stat I went for was form and the below table shows the Bundesliga form of all 18 clubs in the 5 games prior to the league's suspension v their form in 5 games since its resumption. The final column of the table shows each clubs league position at the point the league was suspended.
As you can see there is a general trend towards clubs lower down in the league benefiting from an upturn in form since the league restarted. In fact, of all the teams who have managed to win more points in their 5 games back than they did in the 5 games preceding the lockdown, only Hoffenheim (just) were in the top half of the league.
By comparison, outside of the top 3 clubs, the challengers for both Champions League and Europa League spots have struggled to keep up with the kind of form they showed earlier in the season to get themselves in that position in the first place.
What does that mean for the Premier League?
The above suggests that teams like Manchester United and Arsenal both of whom had hit a good patch of form prior to the lockdown might struggle to immediately recover their winning ways. However, as I'll explain later on there is also reason to believe that these bigger clubs might be at an advantage elsewhere. Perhaps the teams that should be most concerned about this stat are those EPL teams who could be said to have overachieved in the first part of the season namely Leicester, Sheffield United and Wolves. Will the enforced break have halted their momentum and removed the general feel-good factor surrounding their squads?
By contrast, might we see the likes of Bournemouth, Watford and West Ham all of whom can be said to be established EPL clubs who have had a dire season to date turn things around thanks to the break? All 3 clubs took just 4 points from their 5 games prior to the break. On the evidence of what we've seen in the Bundesliga, all 3 will be relishing the chance to start over again and pull clear of relegation.
One of the most remarkable observations in the Bundesliga since its return has been the struggles of home teams in front of empty stadiums. The below chart shows the percentage of home wins, away wins and draws prior to the break v afterwards and demonstrates the substantial shift towards away advantage.
Perhaps rather than home advantage, we are now seeing home disadvantage as sides try and adapt to what was once a reassuring atmosphere become one of eerie unfamiliarity. However, while the stats certainly show a marked trend towards away teams success it should be noted that we haven't yet seen a true upset where a lesser rival has won away at a top team. Instead, it means matches between teams closer "on paper" are less likely to favour the home team than they did prior to social distancing when the fabled "12th man" of the crowd seems to have made a significant difference.
What does this mean for the Premier League?
The league's 2 bottom clubs Norwich and Aston Villa are the most dependent on home form but given both their lack of points and quality it'd be a fairly obvious statement to suggest they will continue to struggle. Perhaps the side that looks most vulnerable to home disadvantage is Everton who have won 67.6% of their points in front of the Goodison Park faithful this year. With tough home matches against Liverpool, Leicester and even Southampton (this seasons away day specialists) to come it will be interesting to see whether Carlo Ancelloti's team can maintain fortress Goodison and/or improve their fortunes on the road.
The bookies I'm sure will also be looking at this kind of trend with the Bundesliga having offered plenty of wins against the odds to date. As mentioned, above it's more likely to be on a fixture by fixture basis that we see home disadvantage really come in to play and as such the following games over the first couple of weeks stand out as good bets on away sides at odds you would assume will be longer than evens.
Spurs v Man Utd
Bournemouth v Crystal Palace
Goals and attacking play
To date, the Bundesliga as a whole has seen slightly fewer goals per game on average since its return.
While that stat alone doesn't show any significant difference in scoring either side of the break, it is worth noting that Opta Stats is reporting that since the league's restart the amount of time that the ball has been in play during matches has risen by nearly 2 minutes per game (1min 54 seconds) or to put it another way, we are seeing nearly 3% (2.94%) more football in each match since the end of lockdown. I speculated in a recent blog that more football would equate to more goals but that certainly doesn't seem to be the case so far.
However, when we look in more detail about how each individual Bundesliga side has faired in the last 5 games, we see a pattern emerging that suggests the additional time might be of benefit to those sides better equipped to attack and score goals.
As we can see, of the more attack-minded sides who were scoring at better than a goal and a half per game before the break, only BMG have seen a significant decrease in goals being scored which fits in with our previous analysis of them being one of the sides whose form has struggled most since the re-start. Elsewhere, Dortmund could point to the fact that the only blank they drew was against champions-elect Bayern which in general suggests they are scoring more freely against other opposition. On the flip side, teams that were struggling to find the back of the net earlier in the season have found it even harder since the re-start.
Some of the factors that we've already considered will undoubtedly be playing their part here, for example, sides struggling at home where they would traditionally do most of their goal scoring but as we will see in the next section changes in the style of play may also be having an impact on which teams score the most goals.
What does this mean for the Premier League?
It won't come as any surprise to learn that the top 4 teams in the EPL are also the top 4 scoring teams but lower down the league things get a bit more interesting. Sheffield United have generally based their season on solid defence and narrow wins scoring at just over an average of a goal a game. Similarly, Crystal Palace have had a decent year to date sitting in 11th position but they've hardly been setting the world alight with just shy of a goal every game. If the pattern follows that these sides might see a decrease in an already rare commodity then it's fair to say that their chances of winning matches will also begin to slide as might their league positions.
Style of play
These observations can be backed up with stats as well as subjective opinions of what we've seen so far. However, perhaps the most telling statistic to date in the Bundesliga is that teams on average have been pressing high up the pitch far less since the re-start than they did before.
There are several possible explanations for this including a lack of match fitness, fatigue caused by the warm weather or perhaps just a shift in tactics by the coaches to account for this. Whatever the reason, we have seen significantly less high octane play and turnovers in the opposition half with sides instead dropping deeper in defence and relying on a more patient build-up in attack.
This phenomenon can also be used to partially explain why some sides have struggled to hit the back of the net since the restart while others have prospered. In general, it seems that those teams who naturally play a possession-based game, have creative players who are able to unlock organised defences and high calibre forwards capable of taking those chances are continuing to prosper whereas teams who otherwise rely on a more direct style of football have found the transition in style much harder and are subsequently scoring fewer goals.
What does this mean for the Premier League?
Opta Stats show that Everton and Leicester have been the sides who most favour a high-press with their style of play. Everton have successfully won more ball in the oppositions half than any other team just ahead of Leicester but perhaps the more telling stat for what might happen after the break is that Leicester have used the ball more effectively than the Toffees once they've got it. In fact, a lot of the top teams in the EPL including Liverpool and Man City play a high press but of course for those 2 because they regularly dominate possession they aren't required to rely solely on disrupting the ball in the opposition half and transitioning quickly into attack to get their goals.
Other top sides including Manchester United & Arsenal both enjoy breaking at speed but tend do so from deeper in their own half, inviting sides onto them before instigating a counter-attack, a tactic that might be more suited to post lockdown play. Tottenham meanwhile have attempted to fashion the kind of possession-based game this season that should on paper prove successful. However, the departure of Christian Eriksen has robbed them of the kind of player who can make such a system work and until that problem is solved Spurs fans should probably not get too excited about a late-season turnaround.
Lower down the league Watford like to play the high-press but have generally failed to win enough ball to make it effective (hence why they are 17th in the league) while Bournemouth enjoy winning possession in the opposition half but have to date struggled to transform that into attacking opportunities (hence why they are 18th in the league). Both sides may need to reconsider their style of play after the restart if they are to pull away from danger.