It’s probably a waste of time given the way these things work, but let’s get something straight: Looking for “the next Leicester City” is mostly a futile exercise. Leicester’s success this season is down to a half dozen factors, only some of which are easily replicated:
- They built a ruthlessly efficient counter-attacking side around three star players whose skill sets complemented each other perfectly.
- Their defensive organization was amongst the best in England and especially in 2016 they were either the best or second best defensive side in England.
- They only played 43 fixtures this season, meaning they didn’t need a ton of depth.
- They had a lot of good luck on the injury front.
- Their defensive spine of Kaspar Schmeichel, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater, and N’Golo Kante were consistently spectacular.
- They got very lucky in a couple pivotal games, not least of which their two matches against primary title challenger Tottenham. They lost both those games on xG but still took four points from six against Spurs. (Yes, I’m a salty Spurs fan.)
When you look at these factors, there are two obvious Premier League teams that can reproduce some of these conditions:
- West Ham’s core of Dimitri Payet, Emmanuel Emenike, and Manuel Lanzini might be able to make a leap next season. Additionally, the Hammers now possess a level of financial power that no one outside the Sky Six can match. They also could have a light fixture list depending on what happens with Europa League qualification.
- Southampton only has one bona fide star on the level of a Payet, Mahrez, or Kante, and he may be leaving this summer (Sadio Mane), but they are an exceedingly well-run, well-managed club that is defensively solid and may also have a light fixture list next season.
That said, there isn’t an English team that checks all of Leicester’s boxes or that has ended this season in the remarkable run of form that the Foxes showed during the season’s final stretch last year. Additionally, there are major questions with both West Ham and Southampton, which are the two teams best positioned to pull off a Leicester-like season. While there is room for both to improve, it’s hard to see them being able to improve as dramatically as they would need to in order to mount a serious challenge for top four next season.
West Ham’s Problems
To begin assessing West Ham, let’s look at xG stats in Michael Caley’s model for two Premier League teams. Here they are:
- Team A: xGS 44.7, xGA 44.3, xGD .4
- Team B: xGS 45.2, xGA 46, xGD -.8
Team A is this season’s Everton. Team B is West Ham. These numbers suggest that the difference between a “horrible season resulting in the almost certain dismissal of the manager” and “a fantastic season resulting in tons of ‘they’re the next Leicester!'” posts may be the set piece wizardry of Dimitri Payet. During the eight game stretch Payet missed due to injury, the Hammers went 1-5-2. In other words, they averaged one point per match, which is basically relegation form. Their xG numbers aren’t that much better. On xG they went 3-1-4 during the same stretch for a total of 1.25 points per match, which is not much better than relegation form. (You can see a full breakdown of West Ham’s match-by-match xG results here.) By my count, Payet goals and assists won West Ham 24 points this season. Simply put, if you take Payet out of this team they actually aren’t much better than Roberto Martinez’s Everton.
The problem here isn’t hard to spot: West Ham has no midfield. Mark Noble is aging, Cheik Kouyate is energetic but lacks discipline, and Alex Song isn’t good. Pedro Obiang was signed to try and fix this problem, but has disappointed for the most part.
If West Ham is going to make the leap next year, then they need a similar season to this one from Payet (who is 29), an entire season of strong performances from Emenike, and they need to sign 2-3 midfielders this summer. The club’s new-found financial muscle may make that possible, but signing 2-3 midfielders to produce the sort of transformation required isn’t easy.
Spurs managed it with an unknown English youngster, the return of Mousa Dembele in midfield, and the conversion of Eric Dier into a midfielder. But it’s hard to see the potential for West Ham to do the same. They’ll need to simply sign a few good midfielders. And barring the surprise discovery of an N’Golo Kante-like diamond, it’s hard to see them doing that in a single summer.
Southampton is a bit more complicated. Defensively, the Saints are actually quite good. On xG, they 40.4 goals this season, which is in the same ballpark as Leicester (39.2) and Chelsea (37.6) and not that far behind Manchester City (35.6). It’s the attacking phase that has troubled Southampton this season. And here, too, the numbers can tell us something.
If you look at Paul Riley’s xG model, he has Southampton at 52.16 xGS. That’s roughly at the same level as West Ham (53.92) and not far behind Leicester (58.62). However, in Caley’s model the numbers are quite different: Caley has Southampton at 47.8 xGS, which is well behind Leicester’s figure of 54.6. Once again, the Saints are closest to Chelsea, who Caley has at 48.7 xGS. Five goals may not seem like a huge difference, but when you consider the number of one goal victories Leicester had this season (13, to be exact), those goals can add up in a hurry—especially if you’re a team that defends well, which the Saints are.
The chief problem in Southampton’s attack, and what explains the difference in Riley and Caley’s models, is not what you’d expect given manager Ronald Koeman’s Dutch roots: Southampton love to cross the ball. In one sense, this makes sense. The team’s two best strikers are Graziano Pelle and January signing Charlie Austin. (Shane Long can also play up top, but is at his best working on the wings or as a second striker.) Both Pelle and Austin are natural target men who aren’t particularly adept at running the channels or dropping deep and providing service to wide forwards in the way that Rickie Lambert did so regularly in Southampton’s first two seasons back in the top flight. So, naturally, Southampton looks to cross the ball a lot. Unfortunately, crossing is generally a really bad way to score goals. (Riley’s model, basically, treats headed chances from crosses the same as other shots in the box. Caley’s, in contrast, downgrades the likelihood of a goal on headed chances from a cross.)
So how should Southampton improve themselves over the summer? For starters, holding onto Sadio Mane will be huge. But past that, the Saints need to look for a more complete striker who is comfortable running the channels, linking up with Mane and Dusan Tadic, and helping the team play more intricate passing moves that lead to higher quality chances. (Assuming Newcastle go down, Ayoze Perez would be an interesting signing to pursue.) The Saints defense is solid and, assuming they keep their midfield stable, they should be able to maintain their current level defensively. They just need to improve their attack significantly.
Certainly, there is a chance that West Ham or Southampton could make a serious run at the top four next season. West Ham has one of the top eight players in the Premier League in Payet and a lot of nice role players around him. Southampton is excellent defensively and has a game-changer themselves in Mane. That said, the obstacles to both making the leap next season are significant: West Ham needs a major midfield overhaul. Southampton needs to keep Mane and upgrade at striker while also retaining Victor Wanyama and Virgil van Dijk.
Realistically, both of these teams will likely stay roughly where they are this year—hovering on the edge of the Europa League spots and firmly established near the top of the rest of non-Sky Six Premier League clubs. They could do more, but it isn’t likely.