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Pump the brakes: A sober early assessment of Premier League's top-6 threats

Pump the brakes: A sober early assessment of Premier League's top-6 threats

One of the fashionable storylines heading into the 2019-20 season was a changing of the guard toward the pinnacle of the Premier League table.

Manchester City and Liverpool were universally – and correctly – labeled England’s two best sides. But below those clubs, questions remained. Tottenham largely escaped the ire of cynics, though Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United all entered the season with as many questions as answers.

Naturally, a trio of squads became in vogue media darlings with eyes on usurping England’s obstinately top-heavy structure. And there are plenty of reasons to pump the breaks on the Premier League’s presumed party crashers five matches into the term.

Leicester City

Four years removed from an unexpected triumph, Leicester City have entered the 2019-20 term with a sense of hope. Through five matches, the Foxes also appear better equipped to vie for a top-six spot than Wolves and Everton.

Brendan Rodgers’ charges sit fifth on eight points after losing only once, and the club’s four goals conceded is joint second-best in England’s top flight.

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Youri Tielemans penned permanent terms to form a stellar two-man midfield with the underrated Wilfried Ndidi, and Dennis Praet and Ayoze Perez have been lured to the King Power Stadium, adding depth to a young squad boasting match winners.

James Maddison is a star in the making, Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell offer strong two-way services at the full-back positions, and Jamie Vardy is showing no signs of slowing. So why the hesitation to crown the Foxes a top-six side?

Well, for starters, Harry Maguire is gone. The generously-domed England man made his £80-million move to United, and the 26-year-old wasn’t replaced.

Caglar Soyuncu has assumed Maguire’s starting role alongside Jonny Evans in central defense, and if the 23-year-old Turkish international’s performance during the 1-0 defeat at United this past Saturday is any indication, he still needs to develop. Soyuncu struggled against the Red Devils’ mobile frontline, and he was at fault for the decisive penalty, one of several mistakes on a forgettable day.

With competition on three fronts, and squad rotation a necessity amid the perpetual threats of injuries, Leicester are forced to rely on Soyuncu and loan returnee Filip Benkovic in Maguire’s absence for fear of adding to Wes Morgan’s service time. It’s not an ideal situation for a side with top-six ambitions.

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There are also concerns that Leicester may lack the firepower to snatch a top-six spot. Through five matches, the Foxes are averaging three shots on target, which ranks second-worst. That’s concerning even from a small sample size, especially for a side that favors possession-based football under Rodgers.

The Foxes will likely add to their lone loss, with two of their next three league outings home to Tottenham and at Anfield. If that mini-stretch appears daunting, three of their last five matches come against Arsenal, Spurs, and Manchester United.

It’s very possible that Leicester’s top-six hopes rest on a challenging run-in. On the surface, Leicester City appear to have the best shot compared to the two teams listed below.

Everton

Through a combination of sage summer signings and a strong finish to last season, Everton are eyeing a top-six finish for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign.

The Toffees upgraded several positions while adding depth at others, recruiting Moise Kean, Fabian Delph, and Alex Iwobi. They’ve also bid adieu to midfield lynchpin Idrissa Gueye, placing the pressure on currently injured summer addition Jean-Philippe Gbamin to fill his massive boots.

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Everton currently sit 11th amid a four-club logjam on seven points, and narrowly behind a sextet locked on eight points that includes the three top-six sides they’re looking to surpass.

Painfully mercurial under Marco Silva, the Toffees have continued that trend this season. Slim home wins over poor Watford and Wolves teams have boosted the club’s profile after it suffered defeats away from home at Aston Villa and Bournemouth.

Under Silva, Everton have been shockingly poor in two departments: away form and defending set pieces. The latter should hardly come as a surprise following the Portuguese tactician’s top-flight spells at Hull City and Watford.

Last season, despite finishing eighth with fewer goals conceded than Arsenal and United, Everton surrendered 16 set-piece goals: two from direct free-kicks, five from the indirect variety, and an astounding nine from corner-kicks. Silva’s teams have now allowed the most set-piece goals in three different seasons, with last year’s result at Everton yielding similar returns to those of his stints at Hull and Watford.

Silva ditched zonal marking midway through the 2018-19 campaign, and a man-to-man approach improved Everton’s ability to keep the ball out of its net, with the team allowing just two goals during dead-ball situations in its last 11 league outings.

In the 3-1 loss this season at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth bagged two unspectacular set-piece goals and one from a ball over the top. Old habits die hard for an Everton side that’s been worryingly frail.

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Away from the confines of Goodison Park, the Toffees own the league’s third-worst form, pairing two defeats with a draw. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal at Bournemouth is Everton’s only on the road this season.

Last year, Everton won just five of 19 away matches while collecting 20 points. This season, they’ve snatched only one point through three. Everton have produced the league’s worst shooting accuracy away from home (28.57 percent), with just four of 14 efforts hitting the target despite boasting the second-best possession stats (64.73 percent) on the road behind City.

Without the distractions of European football, and with the next three away fixtures against Burnley, Brighton, and Southampton – three sides that have combined for one home victory – Everton have been gifted a reasonably facile chance to jettison some troubling trends.

Wolves

Even with super agent Jorge Mendes’ semi-dubious involvement in turning Molineux into a Portuguese footballing outpost, there was plenty to admire about Wolves’ stunning 2018-19 season.

High-profile victories against the “big six” inspired a shock seventh-placed finish. That set the table for a Europa League group stage run, evading the disasters that Burnley and West Ham recently experienced.

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That success hasn’t carried over domestically for Nuno Espirito Santo and Co., as the team sits second from the bottom with three draws and two defeats, the last of which was a humbling 5-2 drubbing against Chelsea at Molineux. It was an uncharacteristic performance for a side that thrived against marquee opposition last season. Wolves beat Manchester United twice, took four points from both Arsenal and Chelsea, and won at Spurs while registering their best finish in the English league system since 1979-80.

This time around, Nuno can pick from more options following the summer additions of Patrick Cutrone, Jesus Vallejo, and Pedro Neto, among others. Still, something is strangely amiss. Against Chelsea, Wolves were oddly apathetic, especially during a first-half spell when the Blues scored thrice in a 10-minute window.

It was a similar story on the other side of the international break during a 3-2 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. The Toffees’ pacy attack, and specifically Richarlison, overran Wolves, with the Brazilian scoring late to complete his brace despite Willy Boly’s best efforts to kick the crap out of him. Wolves lacked the energy and discipline that became staples last season, and defensive lapses yielded three goals, doubling Everton’s home haul on the season.

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Last year, Nuno used just 17 first-team players. This campaign, he’s already opted for 18 in the league amid a new rotation policy that’s not working so far. Wolves appear lethargic, tired, and passive. The team is averaging the joint-second fewest shots per match, and Wolves are fifth-worst in both possession and passing accuracy.

Set-piece savant Ruben Neves is one of many to attempt to allay fears that a continental foray, including six qualifiers dating back to July, has contributed to fatigue. That’s nothing more than lip service, though there’s reason for hope due to an upcoming stretch of seven league affairs featuring only two top-half sides.