The identity of the teams who will occupy the Premier League’s top six positions has been known since before the season even began; it is only their order which remains to be seen.
Below them, though, the race for seventh, and thus a place in next season’s Europa League, is arguably more interesting.
Not least because the sides aiming to top the “best of the rest” mini-league outside the top six represent the ambitious upstarts with designs on eventually breaking up the Big Six, for whom a spot in the Europa League would mark an important milestone on their ascent.
With Wolves and Watford level on points and only two goals separating them, an examination of each side’s underlying statistics can be revealing when attempting to ascertain who have been the stronger so far this season and who are in the best shape going forward.
Although Watford have found the net more regularly that Wolves this season, with 41 goals to 37, the expected goals (xG) numbers suggest Nuno Espírito Santo’s newly promoted side have perhaps been unfortunate not to have outscored the Hornets.
Watford have an xG for the campaign so far of 40.69 compared to Wolves’ 45.16. And it’s not as though Wolves’ under-performance against their xG is a simple matter of poor finishing.
Post-shot xG is an expected goals model that takes into account not only the location of a shot but also which part of the goal it subsequently hits. Using this in conjunction with regular xG figures allows us to extrapolate the finishing quality of a team.
Looking at their open-play numbers, Wolves have a higher post-shot xG (42.2) than open-play xG (41.54), which suggests that, on average, the accuracy of their shooting is adding to their likelihood of scoring. This is not the case for Watford, whose open-play xG (38.84) is marginally higher than their open-play post-shot xG (36.76).
So, while Watford may have more goals to their name so far this season, the fact Wolves are able to create more and/or better chances, while also shooting more precisely, suggests that, with time, their scoring will increase and can be sustained at a high level than Watford’s.
It’s a similar story defensively, too. Wolves have conceded six fewer goals than Watford’s 41, and the xG conceded numbers for both sides bear out their defensive disparity.
The shots Watford have faced this term amount to an xG of 41.43, tracking neatly alongside the 41 goals they have conceded; likewise, Wolves have faced 36.41 xG and conceded 35 goals.
One of the main factors that will determine who is able to finish in seventh at the end of the season is the comparative difficulty of their remaining fixtures.
Among their nine remaining Premier League games, Wolves must take on four top-six sides, made up of home fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United and trips to Chelsea and, on the final day of the campaign, title-chasing Liverpool.
It makes for daunting reading for Wolves fans but Nuno’s men have performed well against the Big Six, having picked up draws against Manchester City, United and Arsenal and beaten Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Given their struggles with breaking down inferior opposition, it may be that their fixtures against Burnley, Southampton and Fulham which pose as many difficulties.
Watford’s calendar makes for slightly less fearful viewing, with just three games against top-six opposition remaining. They face champions Manchester City at the Etihad next, and will also take on Arsenal and Chelsea.
Crucially, Wolves and Watford are yet to meet for a second time this season. They will face off at Vicarage Road on April 27 in the 35th round of 38 games, in what could amount to a Europa League play-off.
The stats suggest Wolves are favourites to hold on to seventh but the fixture list and home advantage are in Watford’s favour. The race is very much on.