On June 14, the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Russia. But before the international tournament kicked off in the evening, an important event in the annual football calendar took place earlier during the day. English Premier League fixtures were released on the same day. Had it not been a World Cup year, this event would have been analyzed in much more detail.
But nevertheless, it did not escape scrutiny completely. Liverpool fans are wondering if this is going to be their season after all. On the other hand, Jose Mourinho’s analysis of his rival’s fixtures has left him angry, as Liverpool get to play six home games after their Champions League group stage games, while his side has to play at least three away fixtures on those game days.
Well, there are several ways to analyze the schedule and I am sure everyone can find as many negatives with it as they can find positives from it. In this piece, I will take a look at the Premier League schedules for the top-six teams by game week and will try to understand if Mourinho’s criticisms or fellow Liverpool supporters’ optimism is justified or not.
The basis of my analysis is the Club Elo ratings calculated by Clubelo.com. As this detailed methodology explains, the rating is designed to take into account almost all conceivable factors, including a club’s history, the tournament they play in, home-field advantage, and goal differences.
After the end of the 2017-18 season, the topmost ranked club in the world is Barcelona with a rating of 2025, followed closely by their Spanish rivals Real Madrid in 2021. Manchester City are the third-highest rated club in the world with a rating of 1971.
Thus, in the Premier League City are the top-most rated, followed by Liverpool (7th overall) at 1914 and Spurs (8th overall) at 1910. United complete the top-four at 1881, while Chelsea (1833) and Arsenal (1818) complete the top-six. After that, there is a chasm in the ratings until Everton come in at (1695). Huddersfield are at the bottom of the Premier League in terms of Elo ratings with 1562 points. Thus, 14 clubs are packed in 133 rating points between 1695 and 1562, while the top-six are spread across 153 rating points.
For this analysis, I have calculated the difference between the Elo rating of each of the top-six and their opponents for each of the 38 game weeks in the 2018-19 schedule. So, for each of Liverpool’s fixtures, I subtracted the opponent’s Elo score from Liverpool’s score (1914). Likewise for the other five teams. Then, I termed any team that was within 100 Elo points (Difference < 100) as a top team and the others as Lower teams. This margin of 100 was decided by the difference between the top-six and the rest. Thus, at present for the clubs other than Manchester City, every top-six rival is a top club. For City, only Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester United are top clubs, as Chelsea and Arsenal (at present) are more than 100 Elo points away from the Champions. Of course, this would mean that a similar analysis done in the middle of the season might yield different clubs as top and lower clubs.
This method yielded the following distribution for each of the clubs. You can also find the interactive Tableau workbook here.
Overall, it does seem that the difficult (top team) fixtures are pretty randomly and to some extent, well-distributed. But let us take a look at them by each of the teams.
Arsenal – Arsenal clearly have the most difficult start, as of the ten top-team fixtures they are to play in the season, two of them are in the first two game weeks as they host Manchester City and they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea. But after that, they do not play a top-team for eight game weeks. They do play Liverpool around the mid-season mark, which is close to Christmas and amidst some fixture congestion. But their run-in towards the end of the season is pretty smooth without them having to play any of their top-six rivals in the last eight games. Apart from the start, perhaps the most challenging part for Arsenal is that they have three instances of playing two consecutive games against top-six rivals.
Chelsea– The Blues have no such problems as they have no consecutive games against top-teams throughout the season. They have a well-distributed top-team schedule with adequate games against Lower teams between two top-team games. The only challenging part could be that their run-in consists of two top-team away games against Liverpool and United, separated by a home game against Burnley.
Liverpool – Liverpool’s start to the season consists of four straight games against Lower Teams before meeting Spurs away. Post that, they meet top-team opposition at a regular cadence, going only five consecutive games against Lower teams (twice) in the entire season. They also have a kind run-in as they face only two top-teams – Spurs and Chelsea in their last eight games of the season. Their challenge could be navigating four top-team fixtures just before Champions League group stage games and also managing three top-team games in the fixture-packed December-January period.
Manchester City – The chart for Manchester City looks very kind but that is because of the fewer (three) top-teams for them, as defined above. However, they do begin their season at Emirates against Arsenal and also play the Gunners and Chelsea in consecutive games around game weeks 25 and 26. Their run-in is again kind as they only have to host Spurs and visit Old Trafford during their last eight game run-in.
Manchester United – Mourinho did find an obscure reason to moan about Liverpool’s fixtures but had he taken a look at his own side’s fixtures, he would have been pleased. United have one of the most well distributed top-team fixtures, only second to Chelsea in their relaxed distribution. Their run-in is also similar to City and Liverpool where they play three top-team games in their last nine games in the league.
Tottenham Hotspurs – For Spurs as well, the top-team fixtures are well distributed although they are slated to play Chelsea and Arsenal in consecutive game weeks twice in the season. Game weeks 13 and 14 are London derbies, just like game weeks 28 and 29 are as well. The top-team games in their run-in are trips to Anfield and Etihad.
While this analysis is based on the teams’ current Elo ratings and is bound to change as the season progresses, what we all think of the fixture list as of now, is based on these clubs’ performances till date, which is very well captured by the Elo rating. Looking at the fixtures from this point of view, we can say that the tough fixtures have been all well distributed for the top-six. If any team has reason to complain, it is Arsenal for their tough start and clumped nature of their top-team games. But that has given them the kindest run-in among the top-six. But for all other teams, the fixture list does seem to be equitable.