Premier League: Who Will Take Home the Final Europa League Spot?
As a quick refresher, the two continental competitions in European soccer are the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. Even the smallest nations in Europe are able to send teams to these prestigious competitions. As one of the strongest nations right now, England sends four teams to the Champions League, and three to the Europa League.
The way these teams are decided is a little tricky. First, the top four finishers in the Premier League get into the Champions League. A fifth team could potentially get in if they were the winner of the prior year's Champions League or Europa League. The fifth-place finisher in the Premier League automatically gets into the Europa League. The winners of the FA Cup and the EFL Cup also get spots in the Europa League, rounding out the full seven (or eight) European teams.
What generally happens is that one of the winners of the FA Cup or EFL Cup also qualifies for a European competition via their league position (since the best teams generally win the cups). When that happens, those Europa spots are given to the teams who finished in sixth or seventh place.
Taking a quick look at the current table, there is a clear drop-off after sixth place as Everton is nine points behind Manchester United. Those top six teams -- Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United -- generally are ranked in the top six of almost every important metric, so it's a relatively safe gamble to say those six teams will finish top six.
Now, we can't quite predict who is going to win the FA Cup, as it's still relatively early in that competition. The EFL Cup, though, is down to it's final four teams: Manchester United, Hull, Southampton, and Liverpool. With a 2-0 lead after the first leg, it looks likely that United will beat Hull while Southampton hold a 1-0 lead to Liverpool. Unless Southampton pull off an upset, it's looking quite likely that the EFL winner will have already qualified for Europe via their league position, so that opens up another spot for the Europa league.
Here are the man combatants as it stands now.
|8||West Bromwich Albion||20||8||5||7||28||24||+4||29|
Let's take a look at those teams which will be fighting for that coveted spot.
By virtue of already being in seventh place, Everton control their own destiny. Everton started out red-hot this season, winning four of their first five matches. They then proceeded to win one match of their next 10. With three wins in their past five, they may be getting back on track in their first season under manager Ronald Koeman.
Historically, Everton has been a strong team, finishing in the top half eight times in the past 10 seasons. They've got the seventh-best goal differential and have the seventh-most shots on target per game (4.8). Everton has managed three wins against teams in the top half this season (West Brom, Arsenal and Southampton), which has helped them to their current standing.
West Bromwich Albion
West Brom is a tricky team to pin down. They've won six of their past 10 games, and they have the eighth-best goal differential, so you'd be inclined to say they deserve to be eighth. With their current pace, they'd finish the season with 55 points, which would've earned them ninth last season.
The problem with West Brom is their underlying metrics. They are 17th in shots per game (10.2) and spend the fourth most time in their own third (31%). They also are dead last in possession at 40.7%. West Brom has been trying to emulate the model Leicester used last season, where they sit back, absorb pressure and then do their damage on the counter. While Leicester did have bad possession and spent a lot of time in their own zone, they also averaged 13.7 shots per game last season.
It's probably not safe to bank on West Brom continuing to overperform, and they are probably the team most likely to tumble down the table during the second half. Still, the season has been a pleasant surprise so far for a West Brom side which is traditionally a bottom-half team, and it'll go down as a success even if they do slide the rest of the way.
Bournemouth is an easy team to root for. Having been in League One until 2012, they are now experiencing their second-ever season of Premier League football, and the Cherries performing quite well to boot. They've beaten three teams in the top half (West Brom, Everton and Liverpool), and their goal differential of minus-5 is ninth-best in the league. None of their metrics imply that they are lucky to be where they are this season; they've played like a mid-table side.
The Cherries did just receive a blow as Chelsea recalled Nathan Aké back from his loan at Bournemouth. Ake had played eight of the past nine matches, and WhoScored.com has him as the top-rated player on the team with a rating of 7.20.
The key to Bournemouth gaining ground on Everton is going to be winning at home. The Cherries have won five of their 10 home matches this season, and they have already played four of the top six at home (Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool). If they can win five or six of their remaining nine home fixtures, that would go a long way in their challenge for European football.
Southampton (24 points)
Southampton have had a disappointing first half to say the least. They had been trending well since being promoted to the Premier League in 2012, finishing 14th, 8th, 7th and 6th, respectively, over the past four seasons.
A big reason for their tumble this year is that they've only won three of their last seven matches, and the Saints are currently on a three-game losing streak in league play. During the losing streak, they've been outscored 9-2.
It's very easy to see why Southampton is failing to win games this year as they've only scored 19 goals in 21 contests this season, tied for third-worst in the league. Prior to this losing streak, their defense had been performing quite well, allowing 16 goals through 17 games.
There is still hope for the Saints, though, as most of their underlying metrics are good. They are seventh in shots per game (14.6), and they allow the seventh-least shots per game (10.4). Southampton spend the sixth-most time in the opposition's third (29%), and they have the seventh-best possession rate (53.2). With all that said, Southampton's best chance at making the Europa League, barring a blistering a second half, is to win the EFL Cup.