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Burnley or Watford: Which Premier League Climber’s Impressive Start is More Sustainable?


How STATS Playing Styles Foretells Viable Continuity for One and the Potential of a Defensive Letdown for the Other

By: Kevin Chroust

More than a third of the way through the Premier League season, the table’s top six come as a surprise to few. The same cannot be said for the clubs situated in seventh and eighth entering the midweek 14th round of fixtures.

Six months after finishing just above the drop and separated only on goal difference with 40 points each, Burnley and Watford find themselves in the top half of the table and at the heels of a few clubs that will be playing Champions League football into the knockout phase.

The Hornets have done it with a new manager, an identifiable change in style, and an influx of fresh talent into key roles. The Clarets have been patient. Sean Dyche was retained, and they trusted the players and style that made for a touch-and-go 2016-17 campaign would come around. Both have thus far worked out with eighth-place Watford five points clear of ninth-place Brighton & Hove Albion, so let’s make sense of their respective climbs and the contrasting methods with which they’ve earned results to determine which club has staying power in the top half.

Marco Silva arrived at Watford this summer with a bit of a mess on his hands after Walter Mazzarri lost 20 matches and posted a minus-28 goal difference that in most seasons would signal relegation. STATS Playing Styles reaffirms a lack of identity:

Watford’s 2016-17 playing styles measured against Premier League averages (0%). (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

Just over three months into this season, Silva has been heavily tied to the Everton position, and it’s not difficult to see why given the makeover that’s taken place at Vicarage Road. Consider Watford’s 2017-18 styles through 13 matches. Note that they’ve become more of a possession-based attacking team with noteworthy gains in build up, sustained threat and fast tempo, but pay specific attention to the club’s counter attack:

Watford’s 2017-18 playing styles through 13 matches measured against Premier League averages (0%).

A season after being 20 percent below the league average, Watford’s counter-attacking style ranks second behind only Manchester City (plus-36 percent) and ahead of Arsenal (+21), Liverpool (+16), Tottenham (+11) and Manchester United (+9). But that’s only part of the story. Now consider the efficiency of their transition game. Watford have had 70 possessions on which counter attack accounts for at least 50 percent of the possession’s value, and they’ve led to seven goals. That’s after managing four all of last season on 135 such possessions.

That’s what a new manager and the right players to carry out a plan can do. Those right players have been the 20-year-old Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucouré. The duo has accounted for nine of the club’s 22 goals, but their value goes deeper than that in Watford’s style. For example, STATS Playing Styles Player Focus shows Richarlison’s individual influence on the counter attack has been massive, accounting for 41 percent of the club’s counter-attack distance dribbled when he’s on the pitch. That adds up to 469.1 metres, which trails only Mohamed Salah (532.2) and Kevin De Bruyne (506.4) in the Premier League. In 2016-17, Watford didn’t have anyone in the top 30.

Here’s where sustainability comes in. The Hornets’ 22 goals for come in just above their 21.7 expected goals for (xF), which means they’re not getting lucky or scoring in unlikely situations. Their scoring has been reasonable when weighed against historical league averages, meaning they’re creating opportunities that should allow them to sustain that level of scoring, which is considerably higher than last season’s rate of 39 goals for in 38 matches with an xF of 45.6.

It’s been chaotic at times – Watford were a defensive rollercoaster for nearly two months with 18 goals conceded in seven matches – but that’s also part of what makes their season sustainable. Their 21 goals against are by no means pretty and are more than anyone presently higher than 15th on the table, but again, it’s not an unrealistic or unsustainable departure from what’s expected. Their 23.7 expected goals against (xA) signals they’ve allowed fewer goals than the chances they’ve allowed would foretell, but it’s not the kind of disparity that throws up warning signs beyond the kind of defensive problems they’re already well aware of with those 21 actual goals conceded.

And that’s where bad news might come in for their fellow Premier League climbers.

First, the good. Consider Burnley’s 2016-17 styles, and it’s clear this was a compact team that attacked directly:

Burnley’s 2016-17 playing styles measured against Premier League averages (0%).

Now consider this season through 13 matches, and little has changed – very, very little to the point that at first glance, it might look like the same web:

Burnley’s 2017-18 playing styles through 13 matches measured against Premier League averages (0%).

While Watford made changes, Burnley are showing there might be something to be said for sticking with a system that may be on the verge of working. Patience doesn’t often win out in football when results aren’t coming, but the Clarets stuck with Dyche, and Dyche stuck with many of his guys. Burnley lost Michael Keane to Everton, but they’ve settled on a deep-lying back four of Steven Ward, Ben Mee, James Tarkowski and Matthew Lowton, who have started all 13 matches together and been lauded as a disciplined and organised unit. Nick Pope has been strong in goal after Tom Heaton went down, posting five clean sheets in nine starts.

Burnley are seeing results, but it’d be irresponsible not to look deeper into where those results are coming from given their style is nearly identical to last season. The truth is they’re living more dangerously than the traditional table shows. The Clarets have managed to turn 12 goals for into 22 points in 13 matches, putting them a point back of sixth-place Liverpool. Those 12 goals are in line with their expected 12.9, so it’s not as if they’ve been unlucky and are creating chances they can count on developing into a higher rate of scoring as the sample size grows. In short, offensively, this is who they’re supposed to be, which doesn’t leave much room for error at the back.

What’s worse is they’re actually still giving up chances considered of higher quality than their 10 goals against imply. Their 23.0 xA signifies their defensive successes have more to do with keeping legitimate chances out of the back of the net than they do with keeping the opposition from generating chances in the first place. That should act as a major warning sign going forward in terms of sustaining that surface-level defensive success.

Recall that things started to fall off for Burnley around this time last season with five losses in six matches and 13 goals conceded. It may very well play out again this campaign.

That doesn’t mean Burnley aren’t the well-managed club making the most of comparatively meager resources that they’ve often portrayed as. They absolutely are, and they nearly turned that into another point at the weekend until a stoppage-time penalty allowed Arsenal to escape Turf Moor with three points.

It just means sustaining their top-half presence is going to take something particularly special, whereas Watford could be better suited for nipping at the big clubs’ heels.