Ever since Everton bungled its summer recruitment and threw away its shot to lock down its status as “best of the rest,” the race for seventh place in the Premier League has been wide open. Including the Toffees, as many as eight clubs have looked capable of propping up the Big Six in the table.
Eleven weeks into the season, there isn’t much separation between six of the eight. And a ninth team, Brighton, wedged itself right in the middle of those six with a 1-0 win over Swansea on Saturday.
If there has been any separation, it’s come from two of the teams you’d expect it from: Burnley and Everton. It’s just that the separation has come at unexpected ends of the table.
Prior to the campaign, bookies pegged the Clarets as the second-most likely of the 20 Premier League clubs to be relegated. Everton, meanwhile, was viewed as the only of the Other 14 that could break into the top six. But while the Toffees wallow away in the relegation zone, Burnley moved into seventh place, momentarily level with Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, and four ahead of the pack.
It did so in typical Burnley fashion. It withstood pressure at Southampton, holding for what would have been a very acceptable road point. Then it got the ball wide, got numbers in the box, and improbably stole all three. Sam Vokes, leaping away from goal, gave Burnley its third away win of the Premier League season – already three times as many as it managed a year ago.
Newcastle, meanwhile, threw away what would have been an underwhelming point at home against Bournemouth. Steve Cook rose above the Magpies’ defense to head home a stoppage-time winner:
Wins for Brighton and Huddersfield left the middle of the Premier League table looking like this, with Watford still to play Everton on Sunday:
7. Burnley | 19
8. Brighton | 15
9. Watford* | 15
10. Huddersfield | 15
11. Newcastle | 14
12. Leicester | 13
13. Southampton | 13
14. Stoke City | 12
*Watford has played 10 games, while the rest have played 11.
Burnley is not the seventh-most talented team in the Premier League. Heck, it’s not the 10th- or 13th-most talented team either. But manager Sean Dyche is a wizard. And he has a team of minions carrying out his sorcery.
Dating back several years, Dyche’s teams have consistently overperformed their underlying numbers, such as Expected Goals. They’re doing just that once again, and this time to a greater extent than ever before. They won with 0.1 xG at Southampton, which is stupid and comical and impressive all at the same time.
xG map for Southampton – Burnley. Jeez. pic.twitter.com/274dlImScn
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) November 4, 2017
But history suggests Burnley’s surprisingly strong start might be more sustainable than the numbers would suggest. That, in part, depends on Dyche staying – he has been rumored to be a candidate for the vacant Everton job. But Burnley has found a formula that works. Until it stops working, the Clarets can’t be discounted as a contender to finish seventh, even if both the eye test and the analytics disagree.
And even if regression does hit sometime soon? Nobody else looks too intent on claiming that seventh spot. Watford is the other top challenger, and could move within one point of Burnley tomorrow. But Newcastle is too erratic, and Southampton is painfully uninspiring.
Brighton and Huddersfield are the other two surprise packages, but despite victories on Saturday, neither is winning in a sustainable manner. Huddersfield needed a wondergoal and some defensive-third heroics to beat West Brom at home:
Brighton snuck by a terrible Swansea side, but hasn’t touched the level of Watford or even Newcastle over the season’s first three months.
Leicester City is the dark horse here – a role the Foxes are obviously comfortably in. The sacking of Craig Shakespeare two-and-a-half weeks ago gave off a sense that not all was well at the King Power Stadium.
But in reality, Leicester has lost just one of its last nine in all competitions, and is unbeaten in six after a 2-2 draw at Stoke. It has taken seven points from three Premier League games since Shakespeare was relieved of his duties. And seven really could have been nine, if it wasn’t for a trademark Peter Crouch supersub appearance at the Bet365 Stadium:
It’s reasonable to suggest Leicester is the seventh best team in the league. Its four losses are as respectable as losses come: 4-3 at Arsenal, 2-0 at Manchester United, 2-1 to Chelsea and 3-2 to Liverpool. It will need to start turning draws against the likes of Bournemouth, West Brom and Stoke into wins, but there’s a lot to like about a team that has pace, has a few technicians, and has the ability to score on the counter, from sustained possession or from set pieces.
But the thing to like most about Leicester, or Burnley, or any of these teams, is that the case for others isn’t convincing. The case for Watford remains the most convincing. But even if the Hornets join Burnley in separating themselves from the pack on Sunday, seventh place remains there for the taking.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.