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Don’t expect Everton to challenge for top 6

The Toffees have probably hit their ceiling in terms of league position

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With about 65% of the season gone and Everton riding an almost two-month-long unbeaten streak in the league, it’s natural to look at the table and wonder if they can improve their 7th place position.

Last month, RBM’s Adam Braun took an informative look at what it would take for Everton to qualify for the Europa League next season. The important bit is that if Everton don’t finish 5th, then they have to either (a) finish 6th and hope that one of the five teams above them qualifies for Europe via another route, or (b) finish 7th and hope that two of the six teams above them qualify for Europe via another route. Those other routes include winning the EFL Cup, winning the FA Cup, or winning the Europa League.

Everton are currently 7 points behind 6th and 8 points behind 5th. At first glance, this might actually seem surmountable. Crazier things have happened than a team making up 7 or 8 points over 13 games. The realist inside of you may be tugging at your brain and saying “nah, that’s not going to happen.” Unfortunately it seems the latter view is closest to the truth.

It’s easy to look at the table and the schedule and come up with scenarios that end up with Everton sneaking into the top 6. Looking deeper at the numbers though, we can look at how good Everton really are, how good the top 6 really is, and ask how likely it is that Everton can make up the difference.

Below is a chart that plots each team’s actual goal difference and their expected goals difference so far this season.*

Expected goals courtesy of Michael Caley and Sander Ijtsma

The teams at the upper right are doing a good job not only of scoring more goals than their opponents but of creating more chances than their opponents. The teams in the bottom left, not so much.

What jumps out immediately is that the top 6 are a class unto themselves. The numbers suggest that Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United aren’t just the top 6 teams in the table, they are pretty unambiguously the best 6 teams in the league.

On the other side we have the terrible trio of Sunderland, Swansea City, and Hull City, all of whom arguably deserve to be relegated, at least one of whom likely won’t be. They are mixed in with a cluster of 8 mediocre-to-bad teams, some whom have been more fortunate this season than others.

In the middle you have West Bromwich Albion, who, god bless ‘em, seem determined to never get relegated nor challenge for anything ever, Southampton, and Everton. Southampton have been extremely snakebitten and just kind of weird this season (they actually have a better shots on target ratio than Arsenal, despite being in 11th place). Everton, meanwhile, are pretty okay. In fact, they’re probably just about the 7th best team in the league.

The upshot of all of this is that you should probably expect Everton to still be right where they are now when the season ends in May. The folks of the analytics world have suggested the same:

If you had to place a bet right now of the form “x team will finish in y place,” “Chelsea will finish 1st” and “Everton will finish 7th” would be at the top of your list. Not exactly the most exciting stuff if you’re a Toffees fan, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the last two years.

Looking ahead, here is Everton’s fixture list between now and the next break:

  • vs Sunderland (20th in xG difference)
  • at Tottenham (6th in xG difference)
  • vs West Brom (9th in xG difference)
  • vs Hull (19th in xG difference)

It’s entirely reasonable to expect Everton to beat Sunderland, West Brom, and Hull at home, and this would help close the gap between them and the top 6. It’s the following two games that will really matter though, as they are against the very two teams that currently occupy the 5th and 6th places in the table: Liverpool (2nd in xG difference) and Manchester United (3rd in xG difference). If you think that the Toffees can go to both Anfield and Old Trafford and beat two very good teams in the span of four days, then yeah, maybe Everton will finish in the top 6. I imagine most of us won’t be holding our breath.

There can always be twists and turns, but the most likely outcome here is a 7th place finish. Everton supporters should turn their attention more to the performances themselves and the continued development of Ronald Koeman’s vision for the side. Meanwhile, we can hope that things bounce our way in the domestic cups, and maybe the Blues will sneak into the Europa League after all.

*For those not familiar with expected goals (xG), here is a good primer, where Michael Caley summarizes xG as “a method for estimating the quality of chances that a football team creates or concedes in a match”. It’s usefulness is demonstrated by the fact that it is generally more sustainable over time than shots or goals. At the risk of drastically oversimplifying matters, xG tends to track pretty well with whether or not a team is good or crap.