Football Features

How West Ham and Leicester have moved to the front of the ‘top-six queue’

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:29, 23 September 2019

For the past few years there have been a group of clubs trying to break into the top six spots in the Premier League.

After Leicester City’s miracle of miracles in 2015/16, the big boys have regrouped to shut out the other clubs. England’s six major clubs sit apart, or at least, they used to. That ‘Big Six’ has been splintered further, with Manchester City and Liverpool streaking away to form their own top two whilst Tottenham Hotspur have been dragged down into the muck to fight alongside Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.

But all that muck-fighting is a sign that these clubs have weaknesses, and there are teams waiting to expose those weaknesses and break into those top six spots. At the start of the season there were four clubs who had serious intentions of doing that: Everton, Leicester, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United. Well, with six games gone, let’s have a look at how they’re getting on.

Wolves

19th with 4 points

Wait… what? No seriously, Wolves are 19th. Last season’s “best promoted side ever” and arguably the most obvious choice to break into the ‘big six’ have endured a torrid start to things in 2019/20. That could have something to do with finishing last season in seventh. Sure they were just nine points behind Manchester United, but they also qualified for the Europa League.

That means, thanks to qualifying rounds, Wolves have been playing competitive football since mid-July. This has distracted their focus, but when they drew their first three games of the season (including a season opener against fellow contenders Leicester as well as Manchester United) things didn’t seem so bad. But a match against fellow contenders Everton saw them lose for the first time this season.

Then somehow they got Tammy’d at Molineux, with Chelsea’s star striker Abraham bagging a 19-minute hat-trick to absolutely bury Nuno Espirito Santo’s men. That made it eight goals conceded in two games, and it became nine in three when Braga beat them in the Europa League, then 10 in four after Crystal Palace took the lead (and only a stoppage time equaliser prevented a fourth straight defeat).

Wolves had seven goals in six games, that’s not especially huge but isn’t too far off last season where they scored 47 in 38, but the problem is the defensive balance has swung all the way around. Where they conceded just 46 in 2018/19 they have already been smashed for 11 so far this season. Six games in and they’ve conceded nearly a quarter of last season’s total. That’s very troubling when you consider they’re over two months into their season, so the fatigue wall is going to hit them much earlier than with everyone else and given they’re already stretching a small squad across the Europa League and Premier League, things don’t seem like getting better any time soon.

Everton

14th with 7 points

The Toffees had a great summer transfer window in 2018, and whilst 2019 was quieter it was also quality. With Marco Silva at the helm Everton were primed to kick on from their eighth-placed finish in 2018/19. Things started alright enough, a 0-0 away to Crystal Palace and a 1-0 home win over Watford seemed to be okay.

Then they lost a Friday night showdown with promoted Aston Villa despite having more shots and efforts on target, and suddenly there was cause for doubting their mental strength. They won a back-and-forth match with Wolves, but as previously mentioned Wolves had serious problems of their own so in retrospect that’s not as impressive. In fact, Watford have also been uniformly terrible this season too (they’re bottom) so Everton’s two wins of the season have come against the bottom two clubs in the division.

Everton’s ability to beat halfway-decent sides does actually need examining. Not only did Palace hold them and Villa beat them, but even after the morale-boosting win over Wolves they were beaten by Bournemouth and then turned over at home by Sheffield United. They’ve played none of the ‘big six’ so far, yet have lost three games and conceded nine goals. It seems like a lot of the energy and drive they had last season with their new signings gelling so well has yet to be mirrored this campaign, and next up they play the champions, so things could be about to get much, much worse.

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West Ham

5th with 11 points

West Ham finished last season in 10th with 52 points, and even though they signed so well in the summer (Sebastian Haller is a steal) and managed to retain pretty much all of their star talent, it was still a risk to bet on them to succeed. After all… it’s West Ham! They could mess up a cup of coffee; and indeed it seemed like this season would be a disaster when Manchester City smashed them opening day.

They drew 1-1 with Brighton after that, then Sebastian Haller showed his class by scoring twice as they beat Watford on the road. They beat Norwich at home, keeping a clean sheet in the process (both impressive because West Ham rarely do that, and because Norwich were scoring against everyone at that point) but when Aston Villa held them 0-0, it seemed like the old West Ham was back.

Up next, Manchester United. Both sides were on eight points and so everyone “knew” what was coming. The early promise of the season was about to be shattered by another ‘big six’ opponent. United would push on into the top six and West Ham would fall down the table.

Except, that’s not what happened. Now, West Ham weren’t especially good against United, but they weren’t bad either and produced two moments of sublime quality to put them over the top. This lifted West Ham into fifth, they were the ones who kicked on and, with the second goal, even managed to get themselves onto a positive goal difference which, considering they got smashed 5-0 opening day, is impressive. In fact they’ve only conceded twice since then and have kept three clean sheets in a row. Are West Ham in the driving seat?

Leicester

3rd with 11 points

West Ham are not in the driving seat to break into the ‘big six.’ Now, given the sorry state of Chelsea and Spurs in addition to Man Utd, they might just do it – but if only one side make the cut this season, that looks like being Leicester City. The Foxes finished ninth last season for the second year in a row. But the sheer talent in their team and the way they rounded off that campaign had people hoping for them.

A lot was going to rest on how they replaced Harry Maguire, and on opening day Caglar Soyuncu put in one hell of a display that made Foxes fans wonder if they were going to miss Maguire at all. It was only a draw against Wolves, but their defence didn’t look lost without their talismanic leader and what’s more they absolutely bossed the game. The same could be said for their second game at Stamford Bridge. They went behind early because of a shocking error from Wilfred Ndidi, but they never let Chelsea overrun them and then, second half, they were much better and picked up an equaliser.

Two games and two draws seems bleak but they were clearly playing well and things were about to get better. They beat Sheffield United, then after a dramatic Carabao Cup win over Newcastle United, beat Bournemouth as well. They had momentum on their side as they travelled to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United, but there they forgot their shooting boots. Although again their defence stayed strong after an early error put them behind and, as with Chelsea away, they shut them out.

Spurs came to the King Power next and many expected the same thing to happen there, Leicester would play well but not get the result they wanted. And it sure seemed that way when Serge Aurier looked to have given Spurs a 2-0 lead, but VAR shone on Brendan Rodgers’ men and allowed them to scrap their way back into the game. Ricardo Pereira equalised and then with just minutes left, James Maddison smashed home a winner.

Just as with West Ham, both sides had begun the day level on eight points and Leicester’s win takes them onto 11. The difference here is that Leicester have only conceded five times this season so are ahead on goal difference.

So why are they in the driving seat? Simple: they’ve played three of the ‘big six’ already, two away from home, and haven’t been outplayed once. They have one of the best midfields in the Premier League and in Jamie Vardy, a proven goalscorer in the division. They also appear to have a perfect defensive replacement for Maguire, meaning that their defence won’t fall to pieces and ruin the good work of their midfield and attack. There’s a long way to go this season, but Leicester look best place to break into the ‘big six.’

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