Ever since the coronavirus pandemic led to the ongoing suspension of the football season, every fan of the Premier League has been left with one lingering question. What if?
What if this crisis had never occurred? What if the public sporting consciousness was dominated, not by the discussion of whether Jacob Rees Mogg or Marvelous Nakamba is more deserving of a wage cut, but by the dominant Liverpool’s run to the title. Would Leicester City hold onto their surprise place in the top four? Would the appointment of Nigel Pearson be enough to keep Watford up? With no clear route to completing the Premier League season, bar outlandish claims of a super camp and mini-world cup in the Midlands, there are countless questions set to be left unanswered for the foreseeable future.
Today, however, the answer to all these questions and more will finally be answered as Ronnie Dog Media takes a look at how the remainder of the Premier League season would play out in an alternate reality without COVID-19. This will not be done by a Football Manager simulation or using the result of the reverse fixture and applying to the remaining fixtures.
Instead, we used both statistical and tactical analysis to try and correctly predict every remaining fixture – and see where the table lies at the end of it. By looking at reverse fixtures, form, injuries, and doing our best to compare the tactical suitabilities of teams, we predicted every last fixture, and this is how we believe the Premier League would have finished up.
The Final Table
The final table sees only a few significant changes from where we currently sit, but three or four key movements create a very different picture.
The Title Race
Liverpool, to the shock of absolutely everyone, win the title in record fashion. Though they don’t quite achieve the invincible status they looked to be on course for throughout much of the season, they do set multiple records. Their 101 points put them one point ahead of Manchester City’s 100 point Centurions season of 2017/18, making it the most ever achieved by a Premier League team. As well as this, their 21-point gap ahead of City in 2nd dethrones the Centurions once again as the biggest title-winning margin in Premier League history – currently set in that same season with their 19-point gap to Manchester United.
In the remainder of the season, however, Manchester City manage to exceed Liverpool’s points total for the remaining fixtures. Though City do have one more game remaining than Liverpool they still manage to achieve more points per game in this period. This may seem like a curious decision, but it is one based in both statistical and tactical analysis.
xPoints is a measure over time of which teams are over or under-achieving based on their Expected Goals over the season, and when examining the Premier League xPoints table their is one instantly noticeable fact about the two teams.
What you’d think this means, in essence, is that when comparing their points total Liverpool are massively overachieving and Manchester City are underachieving. When balancing out their xPoints differential, the argument is actually made that Manchester City should be ahead of Liverpool before you even take into account my prediction of the remainder of the season. It is not, however, that simple and is not my sole reasoning.
A large part of this can be explained by the fact that Liverpool have been utterly clinical, whilst City has been totally profligate in front of goal at times. City have had multiple games, such as Norwich early on in the season, where they have completely dominated games and created little, finishing off even less. These games, however, would show City dominating in terms of xG, whereas Liverpool have nicked a win out of the jaws of defeat numerous times this season – which xG would not look kindly upon.
Eventually, however, xG returns towards the mean, whether it be over the course of years or a season. This, I believe, was demonstrated in the lead up to the suspension of football with the respective form of the two teams.
Liverpool came into the coronavirus outbreak hot off the heels of being knocked out of the F.A. Cup comprehensively by Chelsea, losing their unbeaten streak in the league to Watford of all teams, and being embarrassed by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Whether through fatigue or being found out, Liverpool’s form took a sudden and noticeable dip. Tactically, teams had found joy in pressing hard on Liverpool’s full-backs and sitting in a low block through the centre. Whilst their midfield is functional enough, it lacks a natural playmaker, and so, much of this responsibility falls on Trent Alexander-Arnold. Without the time on the ball out wide, both TAA and Andy Robertson, on the other side, began pumping in balls ineffectively. This has led to my prediction that Liverpool, whilst able to pull themselves out of the slump slightly would go on to see a slight dip in their final nine games compared to their imperious early season form.
Manchester City, however, seemed to be going in the opposite direction. After a poor middle of the season dominated by the media furore surrounding FIFA’s FFP ruling and ban for the next 2 Champions League seasons, City had begun a resurgence. Most vital to this was their win over Real Madrid in the Champions League. Tactically and man-for-man, Man City were the better side, with Kevin De Bruyne putting in a world-class display. They also showed a ruthlessness and game management which had been severely lacking throughout the season.
Even though both are true and I see City finishing stronger, I believe you’d be lying if you said City would finish anywhere near Liverpool. Their early season performances put them in an unassailable position that would see City needing to make up 25 points on Liverpool, with only 30 up for grabs. Whilst vital to discuss, the real meat of this prediction lies further down the table, where the top four places and relegation survival are the key areas to discuss.
Arguably the biggest shock of this prediction comes in the race for top 4, where Leicester City fall behind Chelsea into 4th, and almost fall out of the top four altogether. With City’s Champions League place still up for debate pending a CAS hearing, Manchester United would find themselves waiting keenly to find out whether their 5th place finish will be enough for them to play in Europe’s premier club competition next season.
Leicester’s turn in fortune and my prediction for a limp end of season run of form comes due to the injury of their star man Ricardo Pereira. Due to the suspension of the Premier League, Pereira may be the only man to ever tear their ACL and still not miss a game, but in this fictional universe, Leicester would be without their best performer for the rest of the season. Leicester lacks real quality in replacements, with James Justin, Daniel Amartey, or an out-of-position Marc Albrighton the only real alternatives.
Pereira has been imperious this season, providing quality in both ends and competing with Trent and Aaron Wan Bissaka for the title of being the best Right-Back in the league. Whilst both of those are wonderful players in attack or defence respectively, Ricardo is by far the most all-round player of the 3. Ricardo averages 3.19 progressive runs a game, and 1.79 touches in the box, which compliments an average 6.8 passes to the final third. On top of this, he is one of the league leaders for duels won and manages an outstanding 4.21 dribbles per game. If the stats don’t quite illustrate this I’ll put it in simple terms. Ricardo is very, very, very good, and their only options to replace him are a Championship full-back or one of two out-of-position midfielders.
This injury coincides with a poor run of form, where the injury of Wilfred Ndidi, their midfield lynchpin, reduced the creativity of the side. In his absence, players such as Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet and James Maddison had to drop deeper to stay compact, and the team lacked any real bite as a result. Vardy scored in a recent fixture at Aston Villa, but previously to this hadn’t managed a goal for three months and has looked massively affected by this long drought.
Though they make up a fair amount of ground on the top four, Manchester United fall just short of Leicester, a 4-1 final day drubbing of the Foxes not enough to guarantee a Champions League place for next season. Manchester United were in very good form leading up to the break, with Bruno Fernandes’ introduction to the side bringing increased intensity, balancing the midfield, and bringing the best out of others like Fred, Harry Maguire, and Juan Mata of all people.
It is in the blood, however, of this Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-led Manchester United side to throw away games you’d otherwise expect them to win. Throughout the season, games against West Ham, Bournemouth, Watford, and more, were all lost as United were played off the park. Whilst brilliant at getting United playing against the big teams, with three wins over Chelsea, three over City, and becoming the the only team to take points off Liverpool previous to their recent implosion, he really struggles to set up against smaller sides. Losses to Sheffield United and Southampton make the difference and leaves Ole out in the cold awaiting word on his side’s Champions League hopes.
Arsenal and Wolves both share the same problem. The two are equal as the teams with the most draws in the league, both sharing the feat on 13. This continues into the final nine games of the season, however, whilst Wolves are defensively solid and feature arguably one of the form players in the league in Adama Traore, Arsenal ship goals and languish in mid-table. Whilst displaying signs of life under Arteta, Arsenal remain a team that lacks consistency of any kind and simply don’t see out matches. Wolves, however, manage to push on and finish only one win off 5th, largely due to their early-season slump.
The big surprise of my predictions came when trying to predict the relegation battle. With the 19/20 season done and all 38 games accounted for, I predicted that West Ham would join Villa and Norwich in the drop zone – with Watford, Brighton, and Bournemouth just about making an escape.
Norwich and Aston Villa I believe are not really up for debate. Both are so much better than what we’ve come to expect of the two worst teams in the league. Both have displayed really good football at various points this year, containing players such as Max Aarons and Jack Grealish who most top-half sides would be happy to sign. The undeniable truth, however, is Aston Villa ship far too many goals (the most in the entire league) to accommodate for how average their attack is and Norwich don’t score enough (the joint least in the league) to accommodate for how below-par their defence is. An argument could perhaps be made for Aston Villa staying up if their team had been fully fit. But an early long-term injury to the influential John McGinn hampered their chances up to this point, and recent season-ending injuries to both Tom Heaton and Wesley left them forced to bring in poor replacements in January. As well as this, when considering the xPoints differential of teams in the relegation battle, Villa and West Ham are the only teams considered to be overachieving with the points they have managed so far. It would be totally surprising if Villa stayed up, and more surprising still if bottom-of-the-table Norwich overcame three teams and somehow stayed up.
At the suspension of the Premier League season, Watford, West Ham, and Bournemouth were sat on 27 points each – with Bournemouth in the relegation zone on goal difference. When comparing the three teams’ chances of survival, it is important to compare their run-ins, and the realistic chances they each face of gaining points on one another.
When comparing the three, you instantly have to look at either Bournemouth or West Ham as the most likely to go down of the 3 sides. Watford spent a long period on the bottom of the table before Nigel Pearson came in, but since then, they have been totally resurgent. He has instilled defensive solidity and brought the most out of key men such as IsmaÏla Sarr and Troy Deeney. Piggybacking off of the win over Liverpool, you would expect Watford to go into their final nine games in high spirits, and their matches simply present more winnable games than the other two. Towards the end of the season, having something to play for becomes vital, and in Burnley, Southampton, Norwich, Newcastle, and Arsenal, you would have a minimum of five games where that would be true, on top of a tough relegation six-pointer against West Ham. Therefore, Watford steer well clear of the relegation battle and even manage to leapfrog above Brighton who slump to a poor 16th place finish and are lucky to stay up.
Then we come on however to Bournemouth or West Ham. If you were to predict either going down at the beginning of this season you’d be called crazy, with some even tipping West Ham to make a push for Europe. Both, however, have been poor all season. Based on performances this year you’d argue each deserves to go down more than either of Norwich or Villa.
Bournemouth have a particularly odd set of problems. In Nathan Ake, they have arguably the best centre-half in the bottom half of the Premier League, in Eddie Howe they have a highly rated sought after manager, and in Callum Wilson and Josh King they have what should be a very effective strike force, more than capable of keeping them up. In recent years, however, good one-off runs have been papering over the cracks of a team that aren’t fit on the whole for this level. Their recruitment for the last couple of years has been atrocious. Looking at the last three seasons, they have signed a multitude of players, including big-money moves for Dominic Solanke, Jefferson Lerma, and Diego Rico. In that time, however, you would really argue that David Brooks has been the only successful recruitment made. That has left Bournemouth largely relying on youth players and players that peaked for the club in bringing them out of the Championship.
Their defence outside of Ake simply isn’t up to standard, with players like Simon Francis, Adam Smith, Charlie Daniels, and Steve Cook still featuring for the side despite being the same back four they came up from the Championship with five years ago. Howe may be a great manager, and Bournemouth may be successfully punching above their weight, but that doesn’t negate the fact that shortcomings such as these eventually come back to bite you. We’ve seen it in recent years with sides like Sunderland and Aston Villa, who finally went down after several years of just staying up despite deep-rooted systematic issues at each club. If Bournemouth aren’t careful, that could become them.
West Ham, however, are the team that I have tipped to go down. I believe they have a slightly tougher run-in than Bournemouth and are one injury away from total collapse as a team. Injuries to Lukas Fabianski has left a revolving door of clowns competing for the number one spot, and a midfield double pivot of Mark Noble and Declan Rice has all the mobility of a hungover Sunday League team. Sebastian Haller has been ineffective, with a complete lack of support for a striker who has never before indicated an ability to play as a lone target man, which is how Moyes is playing him, and the form of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Manuel Lanzini – the side’s chief creators – has fallen off a cliff. This is compounded by a total lack of depth in certain positions, such as right-back where they continue to persist with a 35-year old Pablo Zabaleta who plays as if he’s verging on 45.
As a team, they are tactically baffling. There is no invention outside of the occasionally wonderful Felipe Anderson, and their wins this season seem to come more from the individual brilliance of one player exceeding their form than any tactical astute decisions by David Moyes. They have no definitive style, they don’t defend well, they have no hard runners, they aren’t creative, and they have no clear goalscorers.
Whilst I could see either team going down, for me West Ham are the clear candidates of the two.
I wouldn’t expect you to! Linked below is a download for an excel document which will allow you to make all the predictions, and see where YOUR Premier League table comes out. Make sure to let us know @RonnieDogMedia and @MichaelSlavin98 what YOUR final table is, and who you see going down or making the top four.