Best bets for the English Premier LeagueESPN PLUS ($ MATERIAL)
A mere 82 days after the conclusion of the 2020-21 Premier League season, England's top flight kicks off a new campaign this weekend, with newly-promoted Brentford hosting Arsenal on Friday.
One year ago, Manchester City was the preseason title favorite and cruised to the championship, finishing a dozen points clear of second-place Manchester United. Now, City is a similar favorite at -150, with Chelsea and Liverpool joint-second at +500 to lift the trophy, and Manchester United is next at +800.
Those are the clear-cut top four, followed by Leicester City (+4000), Arsenal and Tottenham (each at +5000).
Here are my future plays for the 123rd season of England's top flight.
Odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.
Title race: Liverpool, Chelsea (each at +500)The most value in the title race can be found with Chelsea or Liverpool, depending on your preference. I'll make the Chelsea case in the next section, and the rationale for Liverpool is pretty simple -- health, particularly on the back line. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez will be back, and Ibrahima Konate joins from RB Leipzig to reinvigorate a defense that surrendered 42 goals last season after allowing 33 the previous campaign and 22 the season before that. Liverpool struggled to prevent good scoring chances, particularly on the counterattack, surrendering a league-high 0.13 expected goals per shot.
Despite a cold stretch midseason, Liverpool's attack was generally fine, scoring 68 goals on 69.4 expected goals, including a league-best 64.7 non-penalty expected goals. With a strong quartet of forwards and a healthier midfield behind them, Liverpool is poised to return to its top-two standing.
With each club at +500, I like playing both Liverpool and Chelsea, figuring one of them will win the title the 40 percent of the time that Man City doesn't.
Chelsea: winner without Man City and Liverpool (even)Even without Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea is clearly (at least) the third-best team in the league on paper, and Manchester United is the only other contender for the spot.
After Thomas Tuchel became manager in January, Chelsea had the best expected goal difference (+21), ahead of even Man City (+19). The Blues allowed the fewest goals in the league (13 in 19 games), and that wasn't a fluke, as they conceded only 12.1 expected goals in that span. Chelsea did it by largely preventing opponents from taking good shots, allowing 0.08 expected goals per shot, the second-worst shots in the league over that time.
With better finishing, Chelsea could easily have finished second, as only Fulham underachieved its expected goal total by more than Chelsea did following Tuchel's hiring (-8.2). Enter Lukaku, who scored 47 goals over the last two Serie A seasons, including 35 non-penalties against 33.0 non-penalty expected goals, and he also tallied 13 assists in league play with Inter.
Plus, Tuchel has had a full offseason to work with this Chelsea side. In his second season at Mainz, Tuchel climbed to fifth in the Bundesliga. In his second season at Dortmund, Tuchel admittedly wasn't quite as good, finishing third after the departures of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan. In year two with PSG, he repeated as league champion and reached the Champions League final.
With a better attack and similar defense and more time to prepare, Tuchel and Chelsea are a good bet to top all clubs, except (perhaps) Man City and Liverpool. If you have the liquidity for a season-long investment, I like Chelsea to finish in the top four too (-500).
Manchester United under 73.5 points (+100 at PointsBet)Manchester United finished with 74 points last season, when everything seemed to go United's way.
The Red Devils had the Premier League's best record in games decided by exactly one goal, winning 11 of 14 games. United won 10 games and tallied 31 points after conceding first last season, both the most by any team in any Premier League season. And a stunning nine of those wins were away from home! On one hand, good on United for having the fortitude and ability to come from behind. On the other hand, why was United starting so slowly so often?
The defense should improve with the (presumed) addition of Raphael Varane, and Jadon Sancho should elevate the attack, assuming Gareth Southgate can't leave him on United's bench too. But United could be better than last season and still win fewer points, simply by not repeating last year's feat of exceeding their expected goal total by 11 goals.
They were also awarded the second-most penalties in the league with 11 (Leicester City won 12), though maybe that's a skill or at least a consistently favorable whistle, as United led the league with 14 penalties drawn the previous season, and 12 in the 2018-19 season.
Regardless, I'm not convinced that United will be much improved from last season, at least not enough to make up for the inevitable regression to the mean.
Brighton & Hove Albion over 46.5 points (-125 at PointsBet)Brighton was an analytics darling last season, ranking fifth(!) in expected goal difference at +16.2, despite finishing 16th in the table with 41 points. Brighton had the fourth-best shot difference in the league (+129) and was somehow outscored 46 to 40 over the course of the season. The Seagulls underachieved both offensively (scoring 12 goals below expected) and defensively (conceding 10 goals more than expected).
While some of these extremes were induced by game state, with Brighton often pressing desperately for an equalizer or go-ahead goal, this looks like a perfect storm of variance. I don't think even the most analytics-minded people consider Brighton a top-four contender this season (although if you do, that +4000 price is nice!), but surely some progression is inevitable, even with defender Ben White leaving for Arsenal. Give me the over, almost out of principle as a numbers guy.
Southampton under 43.5 points (-130 at PointsBet)Southampton, on the other hand, was living well last season, finishing two points ahead of Brighton despite a goal difference of -21 that was 15 goals worse than Brighton. The Saints looked especially poor after the calendar turned to 2021, posting 17 points after the new year, tied with Fulham for fewest in the league.
Striker Danny Ings was sold to Aston Villa this summer, after Ings had over a quarter of Southampton's goals last season (12 of 47), and James Ward-Prowse may not be healthy when the season starts at Goodison Park on Saturday. This isn't a deep team, and that's bad news for Ralph Hasenhuttl's pressing style.
With Everton and Manchester United to open the season, and Man City and Chelsea looming in the five games after that, the Saints may find themselves in a big hole when it's barely October. I'll take under 43.5 points, and Southampton to be relegated (+400) isn't a bad shout either.
Golden BootIf I were merely predicting the Golden Boot winner, I'd go with Mohamed Salah, who scored 22 goals and took all six of Liverpool's penalties last season. He has also posted at least 19 expected goals in four straight league seasons, so he's the most likely player to score 20-plus goals, though there isn't any value in taking him at +400.
Beyond Salah and Harry Kane (+300) and perhaps Romelu Lukaku once he officially joins Chelsea, the Golden Boot race is wide open.
Sergio Aguero is gone, so this could be the year Man City's Gabriel Jesus (+2000 at DraftKings) finally emerges. Perhaps Diogo Jota (+2500 at DraftKings) continues his rise and takes Liverpool's scoring mantle. Maybe Dominic Calvert-Lewin (+3500 at DraftKings) builds on his 18 goals and 16.3 expected goals. But none of those guys look like the primary penalty takers for their teams, and that extra handful of goals is critical. Of the last five Golden Boot winners, four scored at least three penalties that season.
As a penalty-taker, Jamie Vardy is tempting at +2800, but he's 34 years old and faded drastically in the second half of last season. City and Chelsea and Manchester United all seem to have a balanced attack that won't spawn a 20-goal scorer. I do think Son Heung-Min is worth a flier (+4000 at DraftKings) on the assumption that Kane leaves for City, opening up opportunities and penalties. Son has taken two penalties over the past two Premier League seasons and would likely be the focal point of Tottenham's attack without Kane.
My other play is Leeds' Patrick Bamford at +2500. He tied for fourth with 17 goals last season and was also fourth with 18.3 expected goals. Bamford took two of four Leeds penalties in all competitions, sharing with Mateusz Klich, and Leeds will continue to attack directly under Marcelo Bielsa. Excluding penalty kicks, Leeds was fifth in expected goals last season, and only Liverpool, City and Chelsea took more shots. Leeds will keep pressing; Bamford will keep scoring; and I like him as a longshot Golden Boot winner.