No matter how often Premier League clubs switch positions throughout the season, and no matter how many times we invest in a team’s good start only to be proved wrong down the line, there remains a strong tendency to believe that the league table never lies.
It does – and often – which is why Expected Goals (xG), which measures shot quality, can be a useful tool for getting a more accurate sense of where a team are at.
The difference between a team’s xG and their actual total of goals scored, or the difference between their Expected Goals Against (xGA) and actual number of goals conceded, can reveal where luck (or just poor finishing) has got in the way of a "fairer" result.
Opta collect this data for every match, and they also convert it into a league table of "Expected Points", which is calculated by using the xG score from each match to determine the outcome (win/draw/loss) and simulating each match 10,000 times.
The "Expected Points" table after eight rounds of matches is very different from the real table.
The Premier League table according to Expected Goals 👀 pic.twitter.com/T1AyNhrhR8— Premier League (@premierleague) October 17, 2023
Alex Keble looks at where the biggest differences lie – and why that might be.
Everton could be chasing Europe
Everton’s poor return on their high level of chance creation has reached such a ludicrous degree that even Sean Dyche – an old-school manager and previous xG sceptic – has used the metric to defend his team in public: “The xG is right up there,” he said after a 2-1 defeat to Luton Town.
It really is. Everton have scored just nine goals from an xG of 14.92. Not only is this the biggest under-performance of goals in the Premier League, it also makes Everton the biggest under-performers for xPoints and overall league position.
If the xG model was real life, Everton would be 7.64 points better off and 11 places higher – all the way up in fifth and chasing a UEFA Champions League dream.
Everton have had arguably the easiest eight matches of any team in the division, and that partly explains how they could be producing so many high-quality chances, while difficulty finding a goalscorer as Dominic Calvert-Lewin slowly regains full fitness explains their profligacy.
Calvert-Lewin's goal v Brentford
Whatever the reasoning, Everton fans have a right to feel optimistic. Three wins from four in all competitions, and nine goals scored, suggests they might soon start aligning with their xG numbers and shoot up the table.
After all, there really is no more complex explanation for Everton than simply learning to stick away good chances. Calvert-Lewin’s recovery – he’s scored three in his last four – is game-changing in this regard.
Difference in position and points
Pochettino project is working well
The xPoints table has Chelsea in fourth, with 5.1 points more than in actuality, as a result of under-performing against their xG by 4.17 goals.
In fact, their total xPoints of 16.1 is a mere 0.56 xPoints short of table-topping Manchester City.
The eye test doesn’t exactly conform to such a dramatic conclusion as that, but watching Chelsea this season, it has been clear that Mauricio Pochettino is on track tactically.
Chelsea look coherent and cohesive in the hybrid 3-4-3/4-2-3-1 formation we remember from Pochettino's time in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, largely playing intelligent football that is seeing them dominate matches, as we have highlighted previously.
However, that Chelsea are scoring below their xG is not necessarily an indicator of bad luck. Nicolas Jackson is new to the division while Chelsea's squad has an average age of 23.7, the youngest in the competition, which may contribute to hesitancy in high-pressure moments in both boxes.
Jackson's goal v Burnley
Nico rounds off a dominant second-half display! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/sEUBPQ8N0r— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) October 8, 2023
Now that Pochettino’s forward line is taking shape, perhaps next time they have big xG "wins" against the likes of Nottingham Forest (2.30 to 0.76) and West Ham United (2.49 to 1.80), they won’t be beaten.
Positive vibe key to Spurs’ over-performance
One of the biggest swings is Spurs' drop to seventh, with an xPoints of 13.82 that is scarcely higher than Brentford’s.
Does that mean Ange Postecoglou’s fast start is a misnomer? Not necessarily.
Tactical dominance or control are not the only factors that define a football match, and even if Spurs cannot expect to continue winning encounters they are losing after 90 minutes (in the 2-1 win over Sheff Utd) or to benefit from stoppage-time own goals (in the 2-1 victory against Liverpool), they can keep riding this high.
Postecoglou has brought a self-belief and feel-good vibe to Spurs that appears to be driving the team forward, leading to late wins or sudden flurries of goals in matches.
They have over-performed their xG and xG Against by around three goals, but this might simply capture the "luck" that comes from being psychologically on top.
It means Spurs' superb start under Postecoglou will eventually hit a roadblock, as the head coach has suggested several times. It is unlikely, although by no means impossible, that Spurs will outrun their underlying numbers over a full season.
However, it is to be expected that a new manager will need time for his ideas to bed in, and therefore Spurs, already top of the league, are in an excellent position to capitalise when the tactics fully take hold.
Hope for Luton & Brentford
Although there is no dramatic rise in Luton’s league position based on xG, their score of 8.32 xPoints does put Rob Edwards’ side firmly mid-table, suggesting they have been more competitive this season than results would indicate.
Their issue is scoring goals: six off an xG of 9.64. More specifically the problem is at Kenilworth Road, where they have had the better xG against West Ham (1.47 to 1.03), Burnley (1.34 to 11.1), and Wolves (2.17 to 0.59), but took just one point from these matches.
It’s a problem that four of Luton’s six goals have been from set-pieces, including two penalties, and clearly they will need to start putting away their chances if they are to avoid relegation.
Nevertheless they are clearly more competitive than results show, which is also true of struggling Brentford, who could be six places higher and six points better off.
This is easy to explain: Brentford are simply missing Ivan Toney and David Raya. Without Toney’s goals they are struggling to make chances count, and at the other end Brentford are bottom of the Premier League charts for post-shot Expected Goals (how likely the goalkeeper is to save the shot - PSxG) minus goals allowed, with -3.8, indicating poor-quality goalkeeping.
West Ham might have got lucky so far
According to the xG table, West Ham are only 2.93 points off the bottom three, despite nobody seemingly fearing for David Moyes’ side at this stage.
West Ham have the largest xGA Delta (the gap between actual goals conceded and xG Against), at +4.56. They have won 5.41 more points than "expected", so in the Expected Points table they would have the biggest position drop of anyone, at seven places.
They also have the highest number for PSxG minus goals allowed (+3.5) in the division, suggesting that Alphonse Areola is the main reason West Ham haven’t lost more matches – notably against Chelsea and Luton, who both recorded a higher xG than the Hammers, but lost.
The table below shows each club's actual number of goals conceded compared with their post-shot Expected Goals.
On the other hand, arguably their playing style under Moyes produces lopsided xG scores that don’t reflect the rhythm of the match.
Sitting deep and counter-attacking against Chelsea, for example, might have allowed Chelsea to rack up lots of low-xG shots, but with a mass of bodies blocking the goal, West Ham still deserved to win.
Newcastle edging rivals Brighton & Villa
The three non-"Big Six" teams hoping to qualify for the Champions League this season have all performed relatively close to their xG numbers, and yet just a small difference is enough to shoot Newcastle United well ahead of Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion.
Newcastle are second based on xPoints, rising by six positions in the table, while Villa drop five places and Brighton fall three places. But despite this significant shift, all three clubs are only around three points off their xPoints tallies.
For all three sides it’s about goalscoring, rather than defending. Villa and Brighton are performing well against xG, taking lots of their chances as they ride the high of a good start, while Newcastle lost 2-1 to Liverpool despite "winning" the xG 1.99 to 0.88.
Most likely, all this tells us is that after a mere eight matches, the sample size is too small: three "expected" points counts for a lot at this stage of the season in terms of position in the table.
That in itself is a useful lesson. The league table often lies. Just one or two unlucky results would be enough to dramatically alter positions in the top half – and no doubt spark analysis that retrofits a narrative of success or failure.