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Premier League: Top trends revealed for the 2019/20 season
Leaders, restart kings, attacking full-backs, runners, average ages, formations, transfer spending and much more...
Last Updated: 28/07/20 11:03am
After a scintillating Premier League campaign reached its finale on Sunday, we reveal the top trends that shaped the season.
The world changed when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. The resulting lockdown affected every corner of life and football was no exception.
But the Premier League returned after a three-month suspension and some teams came back stronger than before, led by pressing kings Southampton, who saw a 71-per-cent improvement in points-per-game form to finish in 11th.
Manchester United enjoyed an undefeated purple patch until losing 3-1 against Chelsea in the FA Cup, but that streak was enough to help them shore up third spot, signing off with a 2-0 win at Leicester to secure Champions League qualification.
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West Ham soared to safety with their impressive post-lockdown form, powered by eight goals from Michail Antonio and the creative Jarrod Bowen, while Spurs also improved to guarantee Europa League qualification.
In contrast, Norwich suffered nine successive defeats, while Leicester were on track for a third-place finish but sank to fifth after a run of poor results and Villa's slight improvement secured survival at the expense of Bournemouth and Watford.
In addition to water breaks, another interesting post-lockdown development was the introduction of five substitutes. A widespread argument against the sustained implementation of this rule is that it could benefit teams with deeper squads.
The data suggests a mix of teams from every spectrum of the standings utilised the additional allocation, topped by Brighton, Norwich, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Only West Ham and Burnley averaged three subs or fewer. In fact, Sean Dyche used fewer substitutes post-lockdown than he had before the enforced break.
One thing is for sure, the league is getting younger. Starting XIs in the Premier League averaged at a decade-low 27.05 this season - dropping for the third campaign running and nearly one year younger than in 2016/17.
Manchester United were the key players in driving that down this term with an average age of just 25.28 - the sixth youngest starting XI over the past decade.
Frank Lampard's youth revolution at Chelsea clocked 26.09, as did Everton, while, at the other end of the league table, Bournemouth (25.68) and Villa (26.13) were also among the youngest sides.
The reason behind the drive for youth appears to reside in the gradual development of nurtured success. If you search 'Liverpool' in the table above, you'll see the early teams in 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2017/18 rank among the youngest.
As those players matured, that development resulted in a Champions League title in 2018/19 and then ended their 30-year hiatus without a league title this season.
The graphic below reveals a clear correlation between success and the golden average age of 27 years - epitomised by Manchester City's record-breaking 100 points in 2017/18 with an average age of 26.89.
Player of the season
Kevin De Bruyne topped the stats-based Sky Sports Power Rankings this season with a staggering 85,949 points.
Power Rankings hall of fame
Kevin De Bruyne joins previous winners Riyad Mahrez (2015/16), Alexis Sanchez (2016/17), Mohamed Salah (2017/18) and Eden Hazard (2018/19).
The Belgium international was involved in a league-high 33 goals during the extended campaign and produced a string of breathtaking performances, creating 20 assists to equal Thierry Henry's 17-year league record.
A Liverpool quartet rallied in the Belgian's wake, with right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold top of the chasing pack in runner-up spot, having completed a league-high 81 crosses and notched 13 assists.
Sadio Mane (No 3) and Mohamed Salah (No 5) were among the elite with 37 goals combined, split by captain Virgil van Dijk (No 4) - who topped the Premier League with 2,903 completed passes.
Andy Robertson (No 9) also got in on the action with a top-10 finish after another stellar campaign at left-back, finishing with 12 assists - just one shy of fellow full-back Alexander-Arnold, who also takes set-pieces.
Performance of the season
Using the same Power Rankings algorithm, the top performance this season was Antonio's four-goal haul for West Ham against Norwich this month - a catalytic result in their battle to avoid the drop.
It may come as no surprise that the next four players come from the blue side of Manchester: Sergio Aguero (vs Aston Villa, January), Kevin De Bruyne (vs Norwich on the final day), Raheem Sterling (vs Brighton, July) and Bernardo Silva (vs Watford, September).
The table below ranks all 10,602 performances this season (excluding any 'pointless' run-outs) and - to save you scrolling through 1,061 pages - David Luiz's 'disasterclass' cameo for Arsenal against City in June ranks as the worst performance by an outfield player this term.
Who covered the most ground?
Brighton manager Graham Potter appears to be pushing his players hardest, with the Seagulls completing a league-topping 4,281 km over the season - the equivalent of a direct trip from the Amex to Quebec in Canada.
Sheffield United also registered an impressive collective distance, followed by Norwich and Bournemouth, before a notable dip to Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool.
At the other end of the scale, Wolves really do stand out by covering a league-low 3,967 km, some distance behind second-bottom Crystal Palace.
While Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has openly admitted he has reduced the distance covered by his teams over the years, he still demands unrivalled intensity with a chart-topping 3,980 sprints.
No team came close to the Reds, but south-coast rivals Bournemouth and Southampton were next on the list, with the latter exerting that energy to good effect higher up the field.
Palace narrowly avoided being bottom of the distance covered chart above but are by far the league's most sluggish side when it comes to high-speed bursts with a league-low 2,565 sprints during the campaign.
In terms of the players, Southampton workhorse James Ward-Prowse is top of the pack for distance covered with 442 km, followed by fellow compatriots Declan Rice, George Baldock and Ashley Westwood.
Unsurprisingly, Liverpool trio Robertson, Roberto Firmino and Mane pile into the top 10 for sprints, while Wolves speedster Adama Troare clocked the league's fastest speed at 37.78 km/h against Chelsea on the final day.
The year of...
In previous seasons we've seen the spotlight shift from strikers to less-glamorous, deeper positions - as was the case with the defensive midfielder, such as N'Golo Kante during Leicester's title-winning season.
That light shone on full-backs last term - albeit for their attacking intent - and they remain an integral part of tactical development. Assists by players primarily considered a full-back or wing-back dipped slightly this campaign but still smashed the 110 barrier.
Manager sackings would have hit a decade-low this season had it not been for Watford, who managed to install four different bosses over the year: Javi Gracia, Quique Sanchez Flores, Nigel Pearson and Hayden Mullins.
It's nothing new for the Hornets but the churn failed on this occasion as the club ended a five-year run in the top flight and were relegated on the final day.
Over the past 10 years, only three other clubs have appointed four managers in a season, either on a permanent, temporary or caretaker basis: Chelsea (2015/16), Swansea (2016/17) and West Brom (2017/18).
Top two domination
Manchester City dominated for two solid years until Liverpool hit peak form last season and ran City to the wire before blasting them aside this term. The league summit has now been controlled by the two clubs for two years running.
Manchester United had a far from perfect campaign but still finished 15 points shy of runners-up spot - almost half the divide between second and third from last season.
This term, the top two's total combined points was the lowest in three years. Have Liverpool peaked and can City's attacking qualities mitigate defensive flaws, if left unaddressed? But, let's be honest, 180 combined points is still a gargantuan feat...
'Big Six' breaking?
Terminology enters the vernacular but occasionally loses relevance. That's, potentially, the case with the so-called 'Big Six' - a term collectively referring to Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.
The clubs have hogged the higher rungs for years. Out of a possible 60 top-six places over the past decade, the six clubs have scooped 54 of them.
Five made it this term with Spurs edging into sixth spot on goal difference and Arsenal ejected this time out, but Leicester and Wolves look set to disrupt the pack again next term.
Liverpool's next wave?
Jurgen Klopp invited professional surfer Sebastian Steudtner to deliver a rousing speech to his squad following their Champions League triumph last year - intended as a stark analogy for his players to overcome the last outstanding achievement: a league title.
And so the analogy became a reality. But now the Reds must go again, perhaps in the hunt to retain their crown and reclaim Europe in the same season, or even begin a run of domination comparable to the 1970s and 1980s.
However, there isn't much room for improvement in league points, perhaps only consistency and a drip feed of young talent to keep the conveyor belt fresh.
The tables have turned again after the 4-3-3 formation was knocked of its perch this time out, replaced by the ever-present 4-2-3-1, which has now dominated in four out of the past five years.
Manchester United reverted back to that formation this term, while it also appears fewer clubs tried to emulate the 4-3-3 success enjoyed at Liverpool and Manchester City during this campaign.
The traditional 4-4-2 enjoyed its third successive year on the rise and remains the third most dominant system, while 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 also made comebacks.
The high press
One of the notable developments in modern tactics has been 'defending from the front', pressing, counter-pressing, or 'gegenpressing'.
While Liverpool are synonymous with it, using their three dogged central midfielders and hard-working frontman Roberto Firmino, more teams are catching on.
New, advanced metrics measure this activity in detail and 'high turnovers' - which are defined as passing sequences that start in open play and begin 40m or less from the opponent's goal - have been on the rise for three seasons running.
But a simple count of the number of possessions won in the final third - where players pick up loose balls or misplaced opposition passes - also reveals a clear trend - almost doubling over the past decade.
Of course, the Reds top the league for possessions won in the final third this season and Manchester City rank second.
But the surprise is that Southampton rank third. The Saints' relentless harassment of top teams higher up the pitch - particularly after the restart - transformed their fortunes, with Nathan Redmond, Danny Ings and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg leading the way at the club.
Tackling in decline
The age-old art of tackling is not dying but it's certainly declining, unless, perhaps, if Aaron Wan-Bissaka is on the field. There was a sudden, mysterious dip in the number of tackles four years ago.... and it has not recovered since.
The current ratio is almost 25 per cent down from 10 years ago, so teams are seemingly being more selective in when they engage and the arts of ushering, intercepting or preventing - coupled with stricter punishments for rash challenges - are casting shadows over the traditional lunge.
Shots from range in decline
Interestingly, another long-loved art is in decline. A sweet long-range drive bursting the net is the fondest moment for any football fan - but the number of shots from outside the box has plummeted 33 per cent over the past decade.
The reason? Probably the growing use of statistics and ratios: just four per cent of attempts from range are scored on average, while many teams now prefer to keep possession and carve clearer opportunities in the box.
The sums spent in transfer windows can be mind-boggling but there was a general calming across the market last season with less spent and less recouped from selling players. With a more drastic dip in the latter, net spend actually increased to £961.5m.
This season, activity in both directions returned to more standardised levels and the net spent dipped to £766.5m - the lowest in two years.
Does heavy spending guarantee success? Often it does, and, in Aston Villa's case this season, it just about did the job to secure survival. The Villans registered a league-topping £152.7m net spend - including add-ons.
Manchester United and Manchester City spent heavily but guaranteed Champions League football, while north London rivals Arsenal and Spurs both missed out on Europe's elite competition despite sizeable spends, with the former even missing out on the Europa League.
Interesting cases emerge at the bottom of the chart, with Chelsea securing a top-four finish despite replenishing the club's coffers heavily by selling Eden Hazard to Real Madrid and spending only modesty after their transfer embargo was lifted.
But that spending is set to soar with the imminent arrival of Timo Werner and reported interest in Bayern Leverkusen wonderkid Kai Havertz.
Meanwhile, Liverpool adopted the philosophy of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' after their Champions League success and runners-up finish last term, with barely any transfer activity whatsoever - and that approach paid dividends.
The advent of VAR sparked polarised debate but there was less controversy as the season progressed. In total, VAR chalked off 55 goals but also awarded 10 after the referee had initially ruled them out - so there was a net loss of 45 goals.
But the league gained more penalties: VAR awarded 22 spot kicks after the on-field referee had waved play on and only cancelled nine awards - leaving a net gain of 13 penalty attempts.
While VAR remains an evolving technology and contentious subject, it has certainly improved the number of correct decisions in England's top flight this season.