Which Premier League Clubs Are Feeling the Physical Challenges of the Pandemic World?
We have data on this.
Football isn’t at its best right now. We can all see it when we watch the games, with more basic errors and a lack of intensity compared to previous seasons. It’s there in the data, too. Football Reference posted this tweet that picked up a lot of attention, using the pressure data provided by StatsBomb. The trend is pretty obvious: pressure events per game dropped off a ton after lockdown.
What we need to understand is that pressures are not “pressing” as such. They are, broadly, any time someone closes down, harries an opponent, and really attempts to make life difficult for them. This isn’t about “high pressing” as we think of it, or anything to do with coordinated pressing systems. And, obviously, teams that have less possession have more opportunities to pressure the opponents, since you can only do it when you don’t have the ball. It’s not a measure for being “good” by any stretch.
But you don’t want to have a sudden dropoff of them. That means you’re just not exerting yourselves without the ball as you once did. And when you break into the data (again, from Football Reference provided by StatsBomb) this season against last, there are some obvious things that stand out.
First, every Premier League side is down year on year. No one is putting in more pressures per game this season compared to last. Not one team. Everyone has dropped off.
The second part is that some sides have dropped off more than others. Unfortunately we don’t have the data for the three promoted sides, but the other 17 in the league show some pretty interesting differences. Let’s look at them all, from the smallest to biggest dropoffs.
17. Tottenham Hotspur (3% decline)
Issuing correction on a previous post of mine, regarding the football manager Jose Mourinho. You do not, under any circumstances, "gotta hand it to him".
Seriously, though, Spurs have seen it through a stylistic shift from the Mauricio Pochettino era apparently unscathed in terms of physical output. Last season, they put up 163 pressures per game and this year it is 158. That was an unremarkable figure in 19/20 but now it’s the most in the league. Their decline is less than half that of the next best team.
I won’t claim to know anything here, but it is notable that Mourinho is a big advocate of tactical periodisation. He was among the first managers to really universalise match preparation, bringing physical work and tactical drills together and view things as a whole. Whether he’s deliberately adapted to the current issues is anyone’s guess, but from a purely physical standpoint, it seems to be working.
16. Sheffield United (9% decline)
Look, they’re not very good. They’re very likely to go down. But they’re trying.
The story with Sheffield United this season has been about how little their underlying numbers have really changed. Their xG difference has declined a bit, but not so much that they’re suddenly a dramatically different side. Things broke for them last year that emphatically have not this time around. It seems as though all this hard work isn’t going to count for much come May.
15. Newcastle United (11% decline)
Whatever Steve Bruce does, it seems, the results are basically the same. Newcastle were not exactly renowned for their physical exertion beforehand and, it seems, they’ve just been able to broadly keep doing what they were doing. Mike Ashley can continue with his grand plan of just existing in the Premier League until he can get a lot of money for the club, and nothing really positive will ever come to fruition.
14. Everton (12% decline)
Carlo Ancelotti’s side have done a good job concentrating most of the dropoff higher up the pitch. The middle and attacking thirds have seen huge dropoffs while there has been a very slight increase in pressure events in Everton’s defensive third. It appears to be a conscious choice, and it’s mostly paying off with the results so far.
13. Manchester City (14% decline)
Another side who have concentrated the decrease in areas higher up the pitch. As I wrote recently,
“Last year, 33.1% of City’s pressures came in the final third, and now that figure is 29.7%. Small, but important, margins. In the league as a whole, this metric has stayed steady year to year, so it’s not a pandemic effect. Most sides are pressing less across the pitch, but City have specifically dialed it back in the final third. This is what a conscious choice looks like when others might just be exhausted. The effect is clear: those in front of Rodri and Gundogan aren’t going way up the pitch and pressing to leave their midfielders exposed all the time.”
City might be really good again, and this pressing shift is a crucial part of the story.
12. Manchester United (16% decline)
With United, there’s less of a clear pattern than a general dropoff. This feels right for a side built so much around moments of individual quality. They’re always kind of scattergun. And that’s... fine? I think United’s recent good spurt has overblown things a little. Their xG difference per 90 is down this year (+0.36) compared to last (+0.58), though the league is tighter this season. It’s all pretty unremarkable right now, and Solskjaer continues to be up and down but weirdly the same.
11. Crystal Palace (17% decline)
Palace were already a deep block side, so it’s not a shock to see their numbers here have dropped off as a whole rather than in one area. It shouldn’t matter this year since they have enough points already, but Palace aren’t a great side at this point and could find themselves on the wrong side of a relegation fight one of these years.
10. Liverpool (18% decline)
To be honest, I’m surprised it’s not more, because Liverpool look exhausted to the eye. Part of it is personnel changes. The centre backs playing this year are, to put it kindly, not as good as before, and that means they need more protection. Unfortunately, the midfield is less suited to this than ever, with more nice passers in place of the hard runners and tacklers. This has all added to the obvious fatigue issues everyone is facing to make Jurgen Klopp’s side look really sluggish recently. The only shot at winning the title is to snap out of it.
9. Chelsea (19% decline)
Another team that one might consider “fatigued”. I thought Chelsea looked like they were coming together a few weeks ago and that emphatically did not pan out. Lethargy has looked like an issue in recent weeks, struggling to press well and as a unit without the ball, and it’s a tough problem to solve. Just like Liverpool, there’s no pushing on unless this is somehow resolved.
8. Aston Villa (19% decline)
You know, this might be one where we can cut the team a bit of slack. Villa are seeing more possession this season, and more of the ball means fewer chances to pressure the opponent. And, you know, Villa are suddenly good out of nowhere. Just keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing, Villa.
7. Leicester City (20% decline)
Perhaps we can also view the Foxes in a positive light here? Leicester have played more of a deep block at times this season, but it still doesn’t explain the significant dropoff in pressures in their own defensive third. They are down in terms of xG difference per game, but again we’re talking about a tighter league, so it’s not a huge difference. Leicester aren’t really in any sort of trouble, but the fatigue does seem to be kicking in a bit. Added Europa League football makes it a double blow compared to last season.
6. Brighton and Hove Albion (22% decline)
Man, I just cannot figure out what’s happening at Brighton right now. Their xG difference is so good! Seventh best in the league! And here they are in a relegation scrap.
Maybe this is a part of the story? Like most clubs, the pressure decline is across the pitch rather than isolated in the defensive third. It’s suboptimal. I’d like to think Brighton are just fine and running cold, but this is a genuine story.
5. Burnley (22% decline)
Ah, who could’ve predicted Burnley’s style might take a hit in a pandemic!?
Sean Dyche likes his players to be compact, run a lot, and press in exactly the right moments. They’re often seen as a side that don’t press, but that’s not quite right. As with everything, they do it their way. In the restart period, Dyche was extremely reluctant to use his then five available subs much at all, really. I wonder if he regrets that now. It might be that the squad was in such dire need of reinvestment that he felt he just didn’t have options. The new owners at Burnley have a big refresh of the side to fund.
4. Southampton (23% decline)
Maybe this was inevitable. Southampton led the league in pressures last season, showing how much Ralph Hasenhuttl’s counter-pressing style requires players to work their socks off. Liverpool moved to a more relaxed possession-based style but Southampton, with fewer high quality players and fewer opponents who sit back, will probably stick with what they’re doing.
Saints are running pretty hot in attack right now and that finishing run will probably drop off. In the xG, they’re actually down a bit from last season. If they keep trying to play their high energy style without toning it down, fatigue as the calendar wears on could really hit them. Of course they’re in a strong position in the table so there’s nothing to really worry about, but it’s something to look out for.
3. West Ham (27% decline)
Moyesie, what’s happening?
By xG difference, the once promising Premier League manager really has improved things at the club that once played at Upton Park. Last season they were at -0.39 per game and this time they’re dead even. It’s a bit depressing that this is even something to celebrate, but “exactly average” is surely something Hammers fans would’ve been delighted with before the season started. He’s doing good work.
About those pressures, though. This is a real output decline, and I’m honestly impressed that Davie Moyes’ tactical organisation is covering up for it. I’m not worrying too much about this one... yet.
2. Wolverhampton Wanderers (27% decline)
Ok, ok. I might have to reevaluate what I said at the beginning.
That bit, about Spurs, and Mourinho’s advocacy of tactical periodisation paying off? Yeah. Because Nuno Espirito Santo loves some of that stuff like the good Portuguese coach he is and... it doesn’t seem to be going so well.
Wolves have always been strong in the xG since getting promoted, but not this season. Their -0.23 xG difference per game is 14th worst in the league. The lack of pressures seems to be part of a bigger story of the team just not playing well. Last season lasted forever for them, from the Europa League qualifiers all the way to the later rounds over a year on. They might just be spent.
Which takes us to...
1. Arsenal (32% decline)
Ok, no one thought Arsenal were very good this season. Their xG difference has actually, weirdly, improved year on year, but that’s mainly because they’ve been poor for a while now. It’s the lack of pressures that feels a story here.
Does it represent a stylistic change from Mikel Arteta? Maybe his weird low block, slow possession style is really bedding in now? Or are they just not exerting themselves as much? My god, they better hope it’s the former. It’s actually the attacking third where they’ve seen the least change, suggesting it’s not about Arteta getting the side to dig in.
We might have a problem here. I don’t know the cause. It’s one to check in on later. And on that note, I’ll leave you with whatever worrying or uplifting thought I’ve given you about your team.