Eleven weeks into the season and the Premier League table looks rather odd. Manchester United have struggled to seventh place, while Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are even on points in the 10th through 12th positions. Each of these teams came into the season hoping to achieve, at minimum, Champions League qualification, but it's safe to say these hopes have yet to be realized. Further, at all four clubs there are fixable problems that their highly-touted managers have yet to successfully address.
But United managed a win against Crystal Palace last weekend, so some might say it's unfair to lump Louis van Gaal in with the other underachievers, particularly as his side are a few positions ahead of the rest. However, most of United's two-point advantage can be attributed to an easy schedule. They may have faced Manchester City and Chelsea already, but they've also had the good fortune to take on Burnley, QPR, Leicester City, Sunderland and Palace. Arsenal, Southampton, Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle remain. Only Southampton has had an easier time of it, and the Saints have taken 25 points compared to United's 16.
In case you're skeptical about the affect of schedule on standings, I built a simulator to test how many points a perfectly average team would be expected to take if they played the exact same schedule, the same opponents, playing home or away. All four clubs planned to be several points above average at this point in the season, but they are all far short of that goal. A hypothetical, average team facing the same opponents projects to take more points than any of Everton, Spurs, United or Liverpool did from their first 11 matches. Everton have been the worst, taking about 1.3 fewer points than an average team, but no one is impressing by this metric:
These struggles are more surprising given the excellent managerial talent at all four clubs. All of Mauricio Pochettino, Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers led impressive Premier League teams last year, with Rodgers, of course, nearly winning the title. Louis van Gaal is a Champions League winner coming off a fantastic World Cup run with the Netherlands. But so far, not one of these managers has been able to construct a competitive side out of the talent he's been given. The problems are clear for observers to see, but no solutions are yet on offer.
Lack of Incisive Passing: Liverpool and Manchester United
Liverpool's attacking stagnation is obvious, with just 12 league goals scored. The numbers show the Reds have created chances worth less than a single expected goal in each of their last three matches. Manchester United, with 17, have been more effective at scoring goals, but when you compare their underlying stats to those of Moyes' United last year, there is shockingly little difference.
Both teams are held back by a severe lack of effective, creative passing into dangerous areas. These are the regions where, after a pass is successfully received, the chance of a shot increases significantly. The first is an area in the shape of a house, extending from the goal line out to about 40 yards from goal in the center of the pitch and about 20-25 yards on the sidelines. The second has a similar shape, but encloses the center of the 18-yard box and a small area just outside the box in the center of the pitch.
Once the ball has been received in Zone 1, the odds of a shot being attempted increase to about 20 percent, and once a pass has been completed into Zone 2, those odds go up to 30-40 percent or more.
Last year, Liverpool were camping out in Zone 1 and peppering passes into Zone 2. They attempted about 80 passes per match from Zone 1, and they completed 12 per match into Zone 2. By contrast, this season Liverpool are attempting only about 70 passes per match from Zone 1 and completing less than 9 per match into Zone 2. These high-quality passes are simply lacking, and Liverpool are left slowing the game down, without the key ball that creates a chance.
While Manchester United have not declined, they certainly have not improved. Van Gaal was supposed to get the attack moving again after David Moyes' struggles, but the evidence of improvement is not easy to find. The side is still playing the same number of passes within Zone 1 and completing the same number into Zone 2.
The lack of penetration into dangerous areas will continue to hold both clubs back until their managers work out improved attacking systems, enabling them to create decent chances.
Defensive Disorder: Everton and Tottenham
For Roberto Martinez's Everton and Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs, it's defensive woes keeping the sides in the middle of the pack. Pochettino was supposed to be the mastermind of the pressing defense, the Bielsista who quickly built Southampton into a well-drilled machine. But at Tottenham, this press has been either absent or ineffective.
This set of heat maps showing the locations of defensive actions (either tackles or interceptions) in the last two seasons illustrates the defensive problems at both clubs. Spurs had played a high press under Andre Villas-Boas, and its vestiges still remained under Tim Sherwood. You can see the darker, redder areas in the forward zone marking where the team pressed and looked for turnovers. Under Pochettino, the defensive block appears to remain in the same place, but there is almost no forward pressing in evidence.
It is not, of course, necessary that a team press in more advanced areas. But it was highly effective at Southampton, and all preseason reports suggested Pochettino was drilling his new side the same way. Yet Tottenham have looked like a side lacking a plan rather than a side implementing a new one, conceding far too much attacking space to sides like Stoke City and Aston Villa in recent weeks. If the Argentine has let go of his pressing vision, he needs to quickly find an alternative tactic, as Daniel Levy certainly is not a patient man.
Everton aren't so much without a plan as without players. Injuries and aging have stripped the Toffees of key talent, including Sylvain Distin, Seamus Coleman, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar. Without these players, drilled in Martinez's tactics, Everton is a muddle -- literally. No pattern can be found on the map. Everton's left, where Leighton Baines has often been pushed up to support an attack now lacking most of its wide talent, is a particularly troublesome area. Everton's 18 goals conceded look like a direct result of a club lacking a working defensive structure. Martinez must have known he was carrying a thin squad into a fixture-packed schedule, but the results suggest his plans, whatever they were, were insufficient to the task.
Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton and Spurs all have well-regarded managers who cannot seem to fix the problems in their respective squads. Fans can be forgiven for wondering just how deserved that regard might have been in the first place, as the first quarter of the season does not reflect well on either of them.
Yet, it is still possible for any of Rodgers, Martinez, Pochettino or van Gaal to rebuild his tactics and carry his club back into contention, especially with all four clubs facing serious issues at the same time. Strangely enough, the situation offers a kind of perverse hope for fans of these clubs. With so many clubs struggling, the door is still open for a comeback run. But there is only so much time these teams can continue playing below-average football before they slide out of contention.
The pressure is on.