Analyzing the Premier League Big Six Teams’ Transfer Activity and Start to the 2021-22 Season
By: Nikhil Isukapalli
There is arguably no bigger or more popular soccer league in the world than the English Premier League. With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on stadium attendance and league procedures making the 2020-21 Premier League extremely unpredictable and taxing on players and teams as a whole, fans will be expecting the 2021-22 season to mark a return to the normality of pre-COVID times. This season is especially crucial for the traditional Big Six clubs (Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur), as they restore their public perception among their own supporters and other soccer fans worldwide following their failed attempt to create a breakaway European Super League in April 2021. In this article, I will be looking back on each Big Six team’s individual 2020-21 season and their areas of concern going into the summer transfer window. I will then assess their player recruitment and team performance as of November 19, 2021, after 11 gameweeks, and offer a prediction of how well they will do for the rest of the season.
Expected Goals (xG) measures the quality of a chance by considering the probability that a player will score from a certain location on the field.
Non-Penalty Expected Goals (npxG) is expected goals without considering penalty kicks.
Expected Goals Against (xGA) measures the likelihood that the opposition will score from a certain location on the field.
Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG) is expected goals based on the probability that the goalkeeper will save a shot.
Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed (PSxG-GA) indicates the shot-stopping ability or, at times, the luck of a goalkeeper.
Any statistic per 90 is a representation of that figure per 90 minutes.
Percentiles are calculated by comparing a player’s statistics with other players in his position in the “Big 5” leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Ligue 1) and European competitions.
Man City regained the Premier League title from Liverpool in 2020-21. City had injury issues at striker, with neither Sergio Agüero nor Gabriel Jesus being able to consistently make the starting lineup. To compensate, Pep Guardiola began interchanging Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden, and Bernardo Silva in a false-nine role in December, leading to a 15-game unbeaten run until March. City led the league with 25.95 shot-creating actions and 3.63 goal-creating actions per 90. Guardiola also coached the best defence in the league, with 19 clean sheets and 32 goals conceded. He played João Cancelo as an inverted right back, where he cuts inside and acts as an extra midfielder in possession. In 2020-21, Cancelo made 1.72 key passes (92nd percentile) and 1.96 completed dribbles per 90 (94th percentile). His defensive game is also elite, making 5.09 tackles and interceptions per 90 (95th percentile). Rúben Dias was perhaps the best center back in the league last season, completing 93.5% of his passes (98th percentile) and making 7.28 progressive carries per 90 (94th percentile).
City’s areas of need were at striker and left back, but they didn’t address either position. They instead spent nearly $130 million on Jack Grealish, a creative left winger, who was their only notable signing of the summer. He has 2.9 xA (ranked 5th in the league) and makes 3.41 key passes per 90 (96th percentile), 5.73 shot-creating actions per 90 (99th percentile), and 5.24 carries into the penalty area per 90 (99th percentile), but he only has 1 goal from 2.0 xG so far this season. However, the absence of a real striker and left back have not been that significant so far, due to Guardiola’s highly functional system.
This season, Jesus has done well when moved to the right wing and Cancelo has maintained his stats in a new left back role. In the false-nine position, Foden takes 1.46 shots per 90 (96th percentile) and makes 2.27 carries into the penalty area per 90 (99th percentile). Bernardo Silva has been exceptional as a right-sided central midfielder, completing 2.34 dribbles per 90 (99th percentile) and making 3.72 shot-creating actions per 90 (93rd percentile). The positional fluidity in Guardiola’s tactics along with a number of top-class creators in the side make City favorites to win the title in 2021-22 and a very difficult attacking force to contain.
Chelsea finished 4th in a mixed 2020-21 season. They began the season well, but a run of five losses in eight games resulted in Frank Lampard getting replaced by Thomas Tuchel as manager in January. Tuchel implemented a 3-at-the-back system that added defensive stability, prompting Chelsea to go on a 14-game unbeaten run in all competitions. They conceded 13 goals from the start of Tuchel’s tenure to the end of the season, the fewest in the league, but the attack underperformed xG by 11.14, by far the worst in the league during that period. In the summer of 2020, Chelsea spent almost a combined $200 million on striker Timo Werner and attacking midfielders Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech, all of whom have not lived up to expectations. Werner only scored six goals in almost 2600 minutes in 2020-21 and underperformed xG by 5.9, the worst in the league. Havertz has been used in a false-nine role due to his good finishing and well-timed runs into the box, but fitness issues after contracting COVID-19 have stopped his progress. Chelsea eventually secured 4th place in the final gameweek of 2020-21 and beat Man City to win the Champions League.
Like City, the obvious position Chelsea needed to address was at striker. Chelsea bought Romelu Lukaku in the summer, an all-round striker who has great hold-up play and physicality, and world class finishing and attacking movement. He has disappointed this season, though, having scored just 3 league goals in 616 minutes. But his 3.1 xG suggests that the problem is the lack of service to him, not his finishing. His two goals in the 3-0 win against Aston Villa came from two shots, indicating that Chelsea have struggled to create chances. They also brought in Saúl Ñíguez on loan for midfield depth, but he has not adapted to the Premier League and only played 47 minutes so far.
Chelsea are currently at the top of the league after 11 games. They scored 27 goals, the second highest, and conceded the least goals with 4. However, they are overperforming their xG by 5.28 and xGA by 6.86, and they should regress back to the mean over the course of a season. Tuchel hasn’t yet found a supporting striker partnership to play behind Lukaku, having experimented with Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Havertz, Ziyech, and Werner in different attacking roles. Chelsea’s 3-man-defence has made them difficult to break down, and Édouard Mendy’s 93.1% save percentage and +2.6 PSxG-GA rank 1st among Premier League goalkeepers. Wing backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell are also crucial to the team’s attack. James has the most touches in the opposition box among defenders with 5.11 per 90, followed by Chilwell with 4.6, and they both have a combined 7 goals and 3 assists this season. Tuchel has made 38 changes to the starting lineup this season, the most in the league, highlighting Chelsea’s squad depth. They will be competing with City for the title but might just fall short in the end due to City’s quality in all aspects of their game.
Liverpool had an up-and-down 2020-21 season. In spite of a shock 7-2 loss to Aston Villa in Gameweek 4, they were top of the league by Christmas before six consecutive home defeats left them in 7th in March. A ten-game unbeaten run at the end of the season brought them up to their final position of 3rd. The main narrative surrounding Liverpool’s season was their injury crisis. They lost center backs Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to season-ending injuries early on; Diogo Jota, Thiago, and Naby Keïta for several months mid-season; and Joël Matip and captain Jordan Henderson from February until the end of the season. Jürgen Klopp was forced to move his key midfielders Fabinho and Henderson into defense while forwards Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino were off form, leaving all three main areas of the side severely weakened.
Liverpool needed a new center back, midfielder, and a backup forward for the 2021-22 season. Their only signing was Ibrahima Konaté to add depth at center back and challenge for a starting place next to van Dijk. In a small sample size of games, Konaté has shown great defensive positioning and recovery play, especially in the 0-5 away win against United, and his and van Dijk’s physicality make Liverpool look very threatening from set pieces. Liverpool haven’t replaced the outgoing Georginio Wijnaldum whose driving runs, technical skill in tight spaces, 93.3% pass accuracy (98th percentile) in 2020-21, and understanding of Klopp’s high-energy pressing system leave a crucial gap in the midfield. The situation becomes more critical considering the recent injuries to Henderson, Keïta, Curtis Jones, and James Milner, all of whom are midfielders. Liverpool are also missing a backup forward, with Divock Origi being on the verge of an exit. Takumi Minamino is an effective presser, with 6.27 successful pressures per 90 (90th percentile) and his technical ability makes him a versatile option across the forward line, but his lack of physicality means he gets shaken off the ball too easily, making it difficult to play a possession-based system. In January, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané will be playing in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), and their only quality replacement in the squad is Diogo Jota.
This season, Liverpool have had by far the best attack in the league, with 31 goals scored in just 11 games. They take 19.45 shots per 90, the most in the league, and have scored at least three goals in six separate matches. Salah has arguably been the best player in the world so far, leading the league in both goals, with ten, and assists, with seven, and producing 3.91 shots and 1.82 shots on target per 90 (both 99th percentile). The defense is still decent but has been exposed several times this season. Trent Alexander-Arnold is one of the top creators in the league from right back, but he’s had no cover from the midfield at times and has been targeted by opposition forwards as a result, while Andrew Robertson at left back has been off form. Liverpool will be looking to challenge for the title, but the lack of quality on the bench compared to City and Chelsea and the imminent loss of Salah, Mané, and Keïta for AFCON could potentially set them back behind their title rivals.
United finished 2nd in 2020-21 after a brief early period of inconsistency which included a bad 1-6 home defeat to Spurs. Last season coincided with much of their 29-game away unbeaten run, the longest such period in Premier League history. United have been poor from set pieces, conceding 15 goals out of 44 from those situations, the 2nd highest in the league. But Harry Maguire’s 77.8% aerial duel win rate (99th percentile) indicates that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s set piece organization just doesn’t work. Solskjaer also doesn’t appear to have a set tactical identity in games. United scored 73 goals, the second most in the league, with Bruno Fernandes making 12 assists (ranked joint-second), 2.73 key passes per 90 (96th percentile), and 4.88 shot-creating actions per 90 (95th percentile). But against Big Six opposition, they mostly set up defensively and showed little attacking intent. In 10 such games, they had five 0-0 draws and won just 11 points, the second lowest among the Big Six teams.
United were in need of a center back, defensive midfielder, and right winger during the summer transfer window. They bought Raphaël Varane, Jadon Sancho, and Cristiano Ronaldo, but didn’t get a midfielder. Varane averages 1.50 passes blocked per 90 (91st percentile) and a 92.0% pass completion rate (89th percentile). United have lost one game out of the six in which Varane has played, but are winless in the four games he hasn’t featured in, albeit against tougher opposition. In his absence, captain Harry Maguire has had several bad performances at center back. United conceded a combined 11 goals in three games against Leicester, Liverpool, and Man City, for which Varane has been unavailable due to injury. Sancho has disappointed so far, only starting three games and recording no goals or assists in 341 minutes of action. His shots per 90 has declined from 2.23 at Dortmund in 2020-21 to 0.78 this season, and he currently doesn’t fit into United’s 3-5-2 system. The acquisition of Ronaldo seemed more like a signing of opportunity rather than a necessity. But he adds undeniably world-class quality to United’s attack and has proved that on numerous occasions this season. In the Champions League, he has scored five goals and changed the results of four games, rescuing United points in their group and potentially saving Solskjaer his job.
The main issues for United are still a lack of a quality defensive midfielder and a top-class manager. Scott McTominay and Fred have played together in defensive midfield, despite both being better suited to a box-to-box midfield role. They often leave the center backs isolated, relying on David de Gea to save them on numerous occasions with a +2.5 PSxG-GA, the second most in the league. McTominay drives the ball forward well, completing 1.73 dribbles per 90 (93rd percentile), but he isn’t a great passer or tackler and lacks the ability to receive the ball under pressure. Fred is very energetic and makes 26.64 pressures per 90 (91st percentile), but he tends to misplace medium-length passes and also struggles when pressed. Solskjaer’s reluctance to use over $130 million worth of talent in Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek suggests that he doesn’t have a clear tactical vision for the team.
If Solskjaer isn’t sacked by the end of the season, United are in danger of dropping out of the top four, which would be catastrophic given they have the highest net transfer expenditure in the league over the last 5 years. He has been relying more on the individual quality of his players than on a clear style of play, and his in-game management in modifying tactics and making substitutions is subpar. But the talent throughout the squad, especially in Ronaldo and Fernandes, should be able to get the team over the line and secure 4th place.
Arsenal came into this season on the back of consecutive eighth place finishes. The most obvious issue last season was their underperforming attack, where they failed to create high quality chances while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang experienced a massive downturn in form from his two previous 22-goal seasons. After Gameweek 14, Arsenal were in 15th, having only scored 12 goals from 15.49 xG (ranked 17th and 15th, respectively), despite conceding the fifth fewest goals from the sixth lowest xGA. The turning point of their season was the next game against Chelsea, where Emile Smith Rowe guided them to a 3-1 home win on his return from injury. While results have still been inconsistent until the end of the season, from that point on Arsenal recorded the third highest goals scored and points achieved, and the second fewest goals conceded in the league.
The priority signing for Arsenal in the summer was a creative midfielder to ease the burden on Smith Rowe and cover for him during his injury struggles. Martin Ødegaard had a productive six-month loan spell during the second half of the 2020-21 season, with an 86.4% pass completion rate (97th percentile) and 4.36 shot-creating actions per 90 (90th percentile). Although he’s been off form so far this season, he has maintained his promising statistics and is a player of high potential. Arteta also invested heavily in defense, spending over $120 million on Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Nuno Tavares. Ramsdale and White initially seemed like overpriced and bad signings. In 2020-21, White displayed good ball progressing skills from center back, but was poor aerially and made 1.27 interceptions per 90 (49th percentile). Ramsdale had just been relegated with Sheffield United and had a 70.7% save rate (10th of the 20 starting goalkeepers). However, they have significantly improved this season. White makes 3.00 interceptions per 90 (93rd percentile), but his aerial deficiencies have been apparent in the opening loss to Brentford when not partnered with Gabriel. Ramsdale’s 86.2% save rate ranks 2nd in the league, and his excellent distribution suits Arsenal’s passing out from the back. Tomiyasu wins an exceptional 3.52 aerial duels per 90 (99th percentile) and is a major defensive upgrade at right back from Héctor Bellerín, although he isn’t as productive in attack. Tavares has been a good backup to Kieran Tierney at left back, showing impressive physical attributes but still being very raw.
The one area which Arsenal have not completely addressed is in midfield. Thomas Partey has been a game-changer when starting, but recurring injuries have led to a stop-start 2020-21 season. Arsenal still look light in midfield quality, especially in Partey’s absence. Granit Xhaka is a good passer but a potential liability because of his limited mobility and poor discipline. New signing Albert Sambi Lokonga has looked good defensively and on the ball, but he is still young and not yet ready to start regularly. Arsenal need a replacement for Xhaka who has his passing qualities but is more reliable, quicker in transition, and stronger in defense. They also need a new striker to replace Alexandre Lacazette, who’s in the last year of his contract, and Aubameyang.
This season, Mikel Arteta faces immense pressure to guide his team back into the European competition spots. Arsenal have the youngest team in the Premier League, with an average age of 24.1 years, but this could lead to hit and miss results as their promising young players continue to develop. Despite losing their first three games in which many of their starters were unavailable, Arsenal’s recent unbeaten run has shown their potential for the future. They are the in-form team and should expect to finish comfortably in the Europa League places. But at the moment, they appear to be the team most likely to capitalize on United’s disastrous start to the season in the fight for the top four.
Spurs finished in 7th in 2020-21, having secured a place in the 2021-22 Europa Conference League on the final gameweek. José Mourinho’s defensive approach worked well at the start of the season, taking Spurs to the top of the league by December with 12.17 xGA, the fourth lowest in the league at that stage. However, a period of 7 losses in 12 games due to Mourinho’s passive tactics ultimately led to him getting sacked in April. Spurs’ overreliance on Harry Kane and Heung-min Son became obvious, as they overperformed xG by 11.5 goals. After the 2-0 win over Arsenal in Gameweek 11, they won only the 11th most points and conceded the 8th most goals in the league.
Spurs desperately needed a new center back, right back, and creative midfielder during the transfer window. Cristian Romero has been solid at center back with 6.59 tackles and interceptions per 90 (99th percentile) and a 77.8% aerial duel win rate (93rd percentile), but his partner Eric Dier only makes 2.27 per 90 (30th percentile) and wins 60.0% of his aerial duels (28th percentile). Emerson’s defensive stats at right back look great on paper, with 4.67 tackles and 6.00 successful pressures per 90 (both 99th percentile), but he has regularly struggled against opposition wingers this season and his substandard crossing and technical ability has limited Spurs’ attacking play on the right wing. Oliver Skipp returned from his loan at Norwich City and has formed a good partnership with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in defensive midfield, but they do not offer much creativity when played together. Bryan Gil is a talented left winger who completes 2.99 dribbles per 90 (93rd percentile) and is a good crosser, but his passing is inconsistent, with a 68.8% completion rate (15th percentile).
Spurs have had a bad season so far, sacking Nuno Espírito Santo despite winning the Manager of the Month award for August. They still have defensive issues and the decision to not buy a creative midfielder has cost them in numerous games. Tanguy Ndombele does not offer enough defensively to partner Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in midfield; he is a good progressive ball carrier, but like Dele Alli, he is a luxury player who is very streaky. Giovani Lo Celso could be the answer given his 5.52 progressive passes (94th percentile), 3.90 tackles and interceptions (96th percentile), and 27.62 pressures per 90 (97th percentile) in 2020-21, but he has largely been a bench player so far in 2021-22. This season, Spurs are 17th for both touches in the opposition penalty area, with 19.1 per 90, and shot-creating actions, with 16.18 per 90.
Santo’s defensive possession-based tactics made Spurs’ build-up play extremely slow. Kane has declined massively from last season, in part due to dropping deeper into midfield to receive the ball, nullifying his threat in the opposition penalty box and decreasing the team’s attacking intent. His xG per 90 is down from 0.60 to 0.23, his key passes per 90 has almost halved from 1.40 to 0.76, and his shot-creating actions per 90 has dropped from 3.30 to 1.85. Spurs led the league in 2020-21 with 0.14 goals scored per shot, but this season they are 18th with 0.06, indicating that Kane and Son’s ultra-clinical finishing is unsustainable in the absence of a top creative midfielder. Santo’s replacement Antonio Conte is a world class manager who should be able to coach a competent defense, but the team’s attacking play is a cause for concern. Spurs should finish around 6th or 7th, battling a good West Ham side for a Europa League place.
The 2021-22 Premier League season is currently set up for a thrilling contest for first place and the final Champions League place. Manchester City and Liverpool’s world class management and squad talent, along with an organized and efficient Chelsea side, offers one of the closest and most evenly matched title races in recent memory. It seems somewhat easier to place the underperforming Manchester United as favorites for fourth place over a rebuilding Arsenal team and the equally disappointing Tottenham Hotspur, but as the saying goes, anything can happen in the Premier League. With the decline of Leicester City, the usual challenger to the Big Six, West Ham United will be looking to take advantage and reclaim a European competition place. Regardless of the final league table after Gameweek 38, this season promises constant excitement and drama throughout.
All team statistics for xG, xGA, goals for, and goals conceded were taken from Understat.
All other individual and team data was taken from FBref.com.
Transfer fees are according to Transfermarkt.