Can Everton, Brighton, or West Ham Crack the Top Four?
© Matthew ChildsFILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Premier League - Southampton v Aston Villa - St Mary's Stadium, Southampton, Britain - February 22, 2020
© Matthew Childs
While it looks unlikely that this is the season the Liverpool-Manchester City hegemony at the top is broken, there are a few new contenders that look poised to challenge for the top four. Everton and Brighton sit on 13 points in a five-way tie for second, and West Ham occupies the next spot with 11 points.
Brighton were last season's analytics darlings. The club finished 16th in the table but had the fifth best expected goals differential. While some might use this as evidence that expected goals are rubbish, it needs to be noted that the teams that finished one through four all qualified for the Champions League. Brighton, based upon the analytics, looked poised for a charge up the table this season, and they haven't disappointed, except, they have.
Brighton sit in sixth with a +3 goal differential, but have a negative expected goal differential of -1.3. For as unlucky as Brighton were last season, they've been equally lucky this season. The most notable change between the two campaigns is the loss of Ben White to Arsenal.
The young English defender departed for a fee of £50 million, but it's unlikely that his absence alone is the cause of their decline in performance. Brighton are a hard side to predict going forward. They were legitimately excellent last season, but have been decidedly less so this campaign. With this many questions and their lack of top-tier talent they likely won't be hanging around the top four by season's end.
Everton, nipping at Liverpool's heels, has to have their fans excited. While Brighton have outperformed their metrics, Everton have posted the underlying numbers of a legitimately strong side. Their expected goal differential of +3.7 is third in the league and they're in the top four for both expected goals and expected goals allowed. The only question that remains is, can Everton beat a good team?
Everton's opening six matches have seen them play no teams with a positive expected goal differential. Picking up points against bottom feeders is necessary for any team to crack the top four, but there's a chance that Everton just won't be able to pick up enough points against the middle of the pack to keep pace with the big boys.
Everton have weathered injuries to their two best attackers, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, which provides optimism that they are for real. At the end of the day, their depth is not quite as good as the top teams, but they look to be real contenders for a Europa League spot.
West Ham were three points away from qualifying for the Champions League last season, and have picked up right where they left off. Their expected goal differential of +3.4 is fourth in the league and they were a Mark Noble penalty away from being on 12 points. David Moyes' side has an identity and more talent than they're given credit for.
Michail Antonio's five-goal and three-assist tally from five matches this season has caught the media and opposition defences by surprise. While he may not be viewed as a superstar, he has quietly been one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League.
Over the last three Premier League seasons, Antonio has played 4,187 minutes, which equates to 46.5 full 90s. Over that same span, he has averaged 0.57 expected goals and 0.15 expected assists per 90 minutes. Over a full Premier League season, that equates to 21.6 goals and 5.7 assists, or, essentially, Mohamad Salah's 2020-21 campaign, where he bagged 22 goals and 5 assists.
The only reason Antonio isn't viewed as one of the best attackers in England is because of injury. If he can stay fit, West Ham have a legitimate superstar leading their attack.
West Ham is more than a one-man band. Their double pivot of Declan Rice and Thomas Soucek is one of the best in the business and Said Benrahma, Jarrod Bowen, and Pablo Fornals form a talented support group to Michail Antonio in attack.
The centre of their defence is sturdy, if unspectacular, and their wide backs are dangerous enough crossers to create width. However, the most crucial key to West Ham's success is that they have an identity. They're going to drop back on defence and blitz their opponents on the counter, and they're going to be good at it.
West Ham, if Antonio can stay healthy, have a great chance to claim a spot in the Champions League. They're not better than any of the presumptive top four, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United, but if one of them slips up, they should be right there to capitalise.