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By the Numbers: Four Questions

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Let’s look up from our fantasy EPL rosters to contemplate four interesting questions

Aleksandar Mitrovic - Fulham FC - Premier League
Could the most important transfer of the summer be Aleksandar Mitrovic?
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

We’re clear of the festive-period fixture flurry, and the full week between rounds of fantasy competition now seems like an eternity. Need something to do with all this free time? Let’s take the opportunity to debate a few interesting EPL questions.

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1. Is Unai Emery An Improvement Over Arséne Wenger?

Arsene Wenger shakes hands with Unai Emery - Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

By the time owner Stan Kroenke finally acceded to the demands of the “Wenger Out” movement last season, the Gunners had slid to their worst finish of the Frenchman’s 22-year tenure.

There was much excitement over Unai Emery’s appointment as Arséne’s replacement, and through the first half of the season Arsenal fans have generally seemed satisfied. But has Emery really been any better than Wenger?

Wenger vs Emery

. Wenger 17/18 Emery 18/19
. Wenger 17/18 Emery 18/19
Place 6 5
Win % 50 54.5
Points/game 1.66 1.86
Goals/game 1.95 2.06
Goals conceded/game 1.34 1.45

On the whole then, the stats suggest that Emery has been only marginally more successful in his first campaign than his predecessor was in his worst, with Emery’s team on track to win about two more games this year than last. Trailing 4th-place Chelsea by 6 points, they once again face a difficult struggle to secure Champions League qualification.

But maybe Emery is at least playing a better brand of football than Wenger did? Nope. Emery’s side currently ranks 6th for shots on target, 4th for touches, and 4th for passes. Last year’s Arsenal squad ranked 2nd in each of those statistics. And if we consider what has happened with Mesut Özil this year, it’s also difficult to argue that Emery is a better man-manager than Wenger.

Emery is only halfway through his inaugural season and deserves more time (and some quality transfers!) before we can pass final judgment on his competency, but so far it’s difficult to conclude that he has been able to improve on the relative mediocrity that plagued the final years of the legendary manager he replaced.

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2. Can Huddersfield Beat the Drop?

David Wagner waves goodbye - Huddersfield Town - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The Terriers are anchored firmly to the bottom of the table on a puny 11 points, almost three full games adrift of safety. Do they have any chance of surviving to play in the EPL again next season?

Last year they stayed up by finishing in 16th place, just 4 points clear of relegation. Let’s see how this year’s team compares to that one.

17/18 Terriers vs 18/19 Terriers

. Terriers 17/18 Terriers 18/19
. Terriers 17/18 Terriers 18/19
Win % 23.6 18.2
Loss % 50 68.2
Points/game 0.97 0.5
Goals/game 0.73 0.59
Goals conceded/game 1.53 1.68

These data confirm what all of us already knew: Even compared to last year’s endangered squad, this season’s Huddersfield side is absolutely dire. Heck, even last year’s Crystal Palace — who set a record for the worst start in the history of English football — had twice as many points after 22 games as Huddersfield do today. But Crystal Palace survived their awful start and stayed up. Can Huddersfield do the same?

It seems doubtful. Over the last five years, the fewest points required to avoid relegation has been 36. Huddersfield would need 25 points in their final 16 games to finish on 36, a rate of 1.56 ppg. That’s triple their current rate of points accumulation, and is a pace that is just short of Arsenal’s last year, and Manchester United’s this year.

So if you ask me if they are cooked, my answer is yes, stick a fork in them because they’re done. Even a “new manager bump” following yesterday’s announcement of Wagner’s departure will be too little too late.

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3. Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Legit?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

When Manchester United decided to replace José Mourinho with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it was as if storm clouds had finally parted and sunshine poured down upon Old Trafford. The cheerful Norwegian instantly binned the dull and cautious style of play that had characterized United under Mourinho, restoring the positive, ambitious football that had become Man U’s signature style under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Rio Ferdinand tells a good story about one of his first training sessions at Old Trafford. Under pressure with the ball at his feet, he chose a safe square pass rather than risk a costly mistake. Instantly captain Roy Keane was in his face screaming “This is United man! Play it f***ing forward!”

That mentality had long been the culture at Old Trafford, but José Mourinho never seemed to grasp that. OGS, however, was an integral part of the front-foot ethos and understands it instinctively. After the victory over Tottenham on Sunday he said, “We played well going forward. No stupid square or back passes. That’s not what Man United is about.”

The numbers from this season testify to this stark difference between Jose and OGS:

Mourinho vs Solskjaer

. Mourinho Solskjaer
. Mourinho Solskjaer
Goals/game 1.71 3
Goals conceded/game 1.63 0.8

But OGS has done much more than just change Man U’s style. Allowing his side to play with freedom has paid remarkable dividends. In fact, on Sunday OGS became the first manager in the history of the storied club to win his first six games in charge — even Sir Alex never did that. It is true that so far Tottenham is the only team in the top half of the table that OGS has faced. But he did beat Spurs, while Mourinho lost the reverse fixture 0-3 back on August 27th.

So does Solskjaer’s appointment mark the beginning of a bright new chapter in the Red Devils’ story, or is the current streak just a blip? It’s hard to say for sure; after just five league games our sample size is still too small. But the early returns certainly look promising, and at least for now, happy days are here again at Old Trafford.

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4. Which of the Big Summer Transfers Have Had the Most Impact?

Riyad Mahrez - Manchester City - Premier League
Has Riyad Mahrez been worth his huge summer transfer fee?
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

We’re now deep enough into the season to assess the value of the summer’s big transfers. Let’s have a look, starting with goalkeepers.

Without doubt, the biggest summer goalkeeper transfers were Alisson Becker and Kepa Arrizabalaga. On July 19th, Liverpool paid a world-record £65M fee for Alisson, only for Chelsea to shatter that record three weeks later with the signing of Kepa for £72M. Have the two most expensive goalkeepers of all time been worth it? Let’s compare them to the netminders they replaced.

Courtois vs Kepa

. Clean Sheets/Game Clean Sheet Rank Saves/Game Saves Rank Goals Conceded/Game Win % Team Rank in Table
. Clean Sheets/Game Clean Sheet Rank Saves/Game Saves Rank Goals Conceded/Game Win % Team Rank in Table
Courtois 0.43 3 2.17 14 0.97 57% 5
Kepa 0.45 2 2 18 0.77 64% 4

So although the Blues are a slightly tighter unit with Kepa between the sticks, that has not had a substantial impact on Chelsea’s rank in the table. Put differently, the loss of Courtois has not hurt Chelsea, but neither has the addition of the world’s most expensive goalkeeper helped them swim past their peers.

(It must be pointed out, however, that the difference between 4th place and 5th place is the difference between Champions League qualification and Europa League qualification, so if Chelsea do finish this season in 4th, that one-place improvement in their rank vs. last year would be important.)

Let’s now examine Alisson’s performance this year against Liverpool’s 2017-18 GKs.

Karius/Mignolet vs Alisson

. Clean Sheets/Game Clean Sheet Rank Saves/Game Saves Rank Goals Conceded/Game Win % Team Rank in Table
. Clean Sheets/Game Clean Sheet Rank Saves/Game Saves Rank Goals Conceded/Game Win % Team Rank in Table
Karius/Mignolet 0.45 2 1.76 19 1 55% 4
Alisson 0.59 1 2.2 15 0.45 82% 1

Alisson’s table tells a very different tale from Kepa’s. Alisson’s Liverpool are much tighter than last year’s side, and that has translated into improved results and a significantly higher position in the table. Take the difference in the rate of clean sheets, for example. Alisson’s rate extrapolates to almost six more clean sheets over the course of a 38-game season. If every one of those six ended in nothing better than a 0-0 tie, that’s still six extra points for Liverpool this year vs. last.

One could argue that much of Liverpool’s defensive enhancement is down to the improvement among the defenders positioned in front of Alisson. Given the growth of Virgil van Dijk into his role as field marshall of that group, I would not disagree.

But despite that improved organization, Alisson is still being forced into more saves this year than his counterparts last year, while conceding half as many goals. Bottom line: Without Alisson, it’s doubtful that Liverpool would be sitting atop the table right now. Indeed, James Milner believes the Brazilian is Liverpool’s Player of the Season. Alisson’s transfer fee? Worth it.

What about field players? In the table below, I’ve summarized the statistics for the outfielders I believe were the most significant transfers of the summer.

Summer 2018 Transfers

. Transfer Fee (£M) Goals Assists G + A per £M % Involvement in Team's Total Goals
. Transfer Fee (£M) Goals Assists G + A per £M % Involvement in Team's Total Goals
Richarlison 40 9 1 0.25 0.3
Mitrovic 22 8 2 0.45 0.5
Madisson 24 5 3 0.33 0.31
Shaqiri 13 6 2 0.62 0.16
Mahrez 60 5 2 0.12 0.12
Ings 20 7 1 0.4 0.35
Anderson 33.5 8 2 0.3 0.33
Jiménez 3 (loan) 6 4 3.33 0.43

We can draw several conclusions from this table.

First, compared to the other transfers, the additions of Riyad Mahrez to Manchester City and Xherdan Shaqiri to Liverpool were luxury acquisitions, with each involved in only a relatively small percentage of their teams’ total goals. But Shaqiri was a screaming bargain on a production-for-price analysis, while Mahrez’s massive transfer fee seems grossly unjustified.

Second, on paper, Raúl Jiménez and Aleksandar Mitrovic can stake legitimate claims for the best transfer of the summer. Mitrovic has played a part in fully 50% of his team’s goals and has the highest productivity per £M among players who were purchased rather than loaned. And Jiménez has had a role in 43% of his teams goals, all for a trifling £3M loan fee.

But these numbers don’t capture the entire story, of course. For instance, if Mitrovic’s impressive value and productivity fail to keep Fulham up, then his importance to the team will ultimately be limited. Similarly, one achieves a more complete picture of Richarlison’s importance when one considers that Everton’s #1 goalscorer last year was Wayne Rooney, who netted just 10 times (Richarlison already has 9). Finally, the table does not convey that Anderson is his team’s leading goalscorer and is tied for #2 for assists. How valuable does that make him to West Ham?

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It’s said that if you torture the numbers hard enough, you can get them to say anything you want. What do you conclude from these data? Do you even accept these data? Take the polls, and then share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Poll

1. Is Emery an Improvement over Wenger?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Yes
    (32 votes)
  • 46%
    No
    (28 votes)
60 votes total Vote Now

Poll

2. Can Huddersfield Beat the Drop?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Yes
    (2 votes)
  • 96%
    No
    (57 votes)
59 votes total Vote Now

Poll

3. Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Legit?

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    Yes
    (47 votes)
  • 21%
    No
    (13 votes)
60 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who Has Been The Best Summer Transfer?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Kepa Arrizabalaga
    (0 votes)
  • 69%
    Alisson
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    Richarlison
    (2 votes)
  • 2%
    Aleksandar Mitrovic
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    James Madisson
    (1 vote)
  • 11%
    Xherdan Shaqiri
    (9 votes)
  • 2%
    Riyad Mahrez
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Danny Ings
    (0 votes)
  • 4%
    Felipe Alexander
    (4 votes)
  • 6%
    Raúl Jiménez
    (5 votes)
81 votes total Vote Now

Note: the statistics in this article were derived by the author using information sourced from premierleague.com and transfermarkt.com.