Reasons to be cheerful if you’re not a Liverpool fan: How the champions overachieved and may not be as good as we think
30 years of hurt are over. Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City have been knocked off their effing perches. Liverpool have their first Premier League title. In case you were in any doubt: This Matters More and You’ll Never Walk Alone. (Unless you’re the staff they attempted to furlough or Liverpool Women neglected to their fate).
There have been and will continue to be plenty of puff pieces on this subject. The world according to Steve McManaman or Jim Beglin. Where Anfield is home to special fans who know football better than others who support a club with history; because no other club has passionate fans or history. A world where Michael Owen is suddenly a Liverpool fan again and thinks that the highest point of Atletico Madrid’s existence was winning on Merseyside. A world where a recent BBC programme chronicled Liverpool’s title charge as an almost biblical mission.
And so with a snort of derision, I find myself wondering: are Liverpool actually THAT good? Yes, I’m a Manchester United fan and yes, this is (slightly) tongue in cheek but are they?
There was once a role within the Catholic Church to provide evidence against the canonisation of a candidate. The advocatus diaboli or ‘Devil’s Advocate’ would seek out holes in the argument to award sainthood. Consider this playing (red) devil’s advocate against the imperious reputation of Liverpool this season. Before you accuse me: yes, of course, I’m bitter. Liverpool won the Premier League at a canter and, rightly, won plaudits. However, I’m going to put their season under some scrutiny and use data to answer the question: Are there reasons to be cheerful if you’re not a Liverpool fan looking ahead to next season? Is there a chance they won’t retain the title?
A glance at the 2019–20 Premier League table is impressive. There’s Liverpool on 99 points; 18 clear of Manchester City. Only once before had a club won the league with more points. Surely there is no questioning their dominance? Enter statistics.
Whilst VAR hogs most discussions regarding recent updates to the world of football, for me Expected Goals (EG) has been a far more interesting and illuminating way of looking at the game. It’s a simple piece of data with far-reaching potential. Each chance at goal is given a numerical value, or xG, between 0–1. This value basically reflects how hard or easy that chance is. A shot with an xG of 0.5 means it would be scored 50% of the time. A shot with an xG of 0.9 would be scored 90% of the time. And so on. This BBC Sport article goes into depth about how each chance is awarded a value but, essentially, the closer you are to the goal and the ‘easier’ the shot the higher the xG.
If you think about it this has the chance to revolutionise how we look at football. Rather than simply measuring a striker’s quality by goals scored we can look at their xG: do they match their xG (score as many as they should be based on the difficulty of the chance) or do they exceed or even fall under it? The same principle works on defence. Say a team concedes a lot of shots on goal, we might be tempted to think their defence was poor. However, they may be employing a low block and, as a result, concede a lot of long shots which count as a shot on goal but have a low xG. This would give that team a low EG against and more accurately reflect how well they were defending.
If we can calculate the EG scored (xGs) and EG against (xGa) for both teams during a match we can calculate the result that statistically ‘should’ have happened.
For example, Liverpool started the 2019–20 season with a 4–1 thrashing of newly promoted Norwich City. The EGs for both teams was 2.23 for Liverpool and 0.43 for Norwich City. So, actually both teams scored more than their EG suggests but the result would still have been a Liverpool win.
Their next match was a 2–1 win away at Southampton. A statement of intent. Looking again at the EG and we are given a score of 2.14–1.52 in Southampton’s favour. According to statistics, Liverpool should not have won this match. Not surprising when you might remember this match contained Danny Ings’s horror miss from a few yards out.
On September 22nd they racked up their sixth straight win away at Stamford Bridge. However, EG shows that rather than a 2–1 away win the chances created would indicate a score of 1.23 to 1.03 in Chelsea’s favour.
By November 10th Liverpool looked like champions-elect already with a 3–1 win against defending champions Manchester City at Anfield 3–1. The EG score? 1.33–1.48. Another win that shouldn’t have been.
Through the EGs for each match, we can then calculate the Expected Points (EP) that team ‘should’ have acquired based on the chances they were making and conceding during the season. As you may have guessed, looking at Liverpool’s EP tells an interesting story.
Here’s the final 2019–2020 table as it was:
Here it is based on EP:
Liverpool outperformed their EP by 24.72. They scored 9.81 goals more and conceded 6.57 fewer than their xGs and xGa would suggest. Based on EP they should have been second, 12 points behind Manchester City and only 4 above Manchester United in 4th.
As I said before the game isn’t played on the pitch so there’s obviously going to be some discrepancy and teams will over-perform to some extent. To see the biggest ‘overachievers’ in the 2019–20 Premier League season I subtracted EP from actual points. This is the top five:
Liverpool overachieved more than any other club, double the degree of Newcastle United, who came second in this table. I think we’d all agree that Steve Bruce did good work at Newcastle United but based on EP his team would have been relegated at the rock bottom. What does that say about Liverpool? OK, maybe this was a fluke and Liverpool were simply on a roll this season. Let’s look at 2018–19; the season where Liverpool lost only once, won 97 points and finished second. Here’s the top four as it finished:
And based on EP:
Incredibly, Liverpool outperformed their EP by 13.55. Once again they were the highest overachievers. In 2017–2018 the highest overachievers were Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United who finished second but should have finished sixth. And we know how that played out.
So, over the course of 2 seasons, Liverpool have outperformed their EP by a staggering 38.72 points. This is obviously commendable but is it sustainable? The received wisdom was that Leicester City’s fairy story in 2016 was a one-off and so it came to pass. However, they only exceeded their EP by 12.06. By comparison, in winning the Bundesliga Bayern Munich exceeded their EP by only 4.67 in 2020 and actually should have had 4 more points in 2019. Manchester City in their disaster of a season should have won the league this year.
Why the discrepancy? How did Liverpool finish 18 points ahead of Manchester City when they should have been 12 behind? Of their 32 wins, 14 (44.75%) were by one goal. In comparison in 2018/19, only 9 (28.125%) of Manchester City’s wins were by one goal. Manchester City outperformed Liverpool by 17 goals scored and only conceded 2 goals more. But they lost 9 games to Liverpool’s 3. 5 of those defeats were by only one goal. These are the margins behind the story of the 2019–20 season. A compelling story but not one which should make the chasing pack terrified for the new season.
So how have Liverpool been able to exceed EP and beat the model? There’s been a bit of talk about this and in my opinion, this is the real question which needs answering and isn’t amongst all the plaudits. Of course, Liverpool played very well but they only have the player of the season if you’ve never heard of Kevin de Bruyne. The number of one-goal wins and their xGa suggests they own a lot more to Alisson than any other player. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to have a good goalkeeper: in fact, it’s essential. We don’t know whether if Liverpool did concede more they wouldn’t have just gone up the other end and scored more rather than seeing a match out. But we can only look at the data we have.
There is lots of discussion about Liverpool’s style of play and their manager’s tactical acumen. To my mind as long as Pep Guardiola resides on these shores I’d argue that Klopp could only be second in the list of most interesting tacticians in the Premier League. Now Marcelo Bielsa will be plying his trade in the top flight Jurgen is third at best. Maybe the over-performance of Liverpool over the past two seasons shows us that this is not where his strengths lie: rather it is about eking out consistency from his players as well as managing situations within a game. An emotive coach, it was inevitable that he would work at Liverpool: an emotive club. Perhaps only Diego Simeone embodies the very persona of his team in a greater way than Klopp does.
Klopp has shown how he is the master of managing situations and matches. His Champions League triumph in 2019 owed much to managing moments: a knockout round place earned thanks to a 1–0 win against a sleepy Napoli with Arkadiusz Milik hitting an injury-time chance straight at Alisson; a buoyant semi-final against a Barcelona so emotionally fragile they were capable of throwing away a 3–0 lead; a final facing a broken Spurs team which lasted all of two minutes until a dubious penalty was awarded. They managed the match at 1–0 and scored a late second.
In 2019–20 Klopp then brought this to their league form: securing single goal margins and seeing a game out. This would put him at the pinnacle of the psychological aspect of the game. Gareth Southgate has done much with England to help them manage high-pressure situations as well as using emotions for advantage. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, Frank Lampard at Chelsea, Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid and now Andrea Pirlo at Juventus are all appointments based on emotions. Perhaps their records as players speak more to modern players than tacticians like Jose Mourinho, Rafael Benitez or Maurizio Sarri, coaches with no playing career to speak of. In a game of high-profile moments with season-defining jeopardy, maybe Jurgen Klopp has turned to own the match into an art. Maybe that is where his plaudits should actually lie.
Jurgen Klopp is a fascinating character. The general image is of him laughing and joking yet had a certain Portuguese manager screamed at a linesman, run onto a pitch, criticised the tactics of Manchester United in the league and Atlético Madrid, played a youth team in the League Cup and refused to attend a FA Cup match it is tempting to wonder if the press would remain as positive. He’s winning now and it is easy to be nice when you’re winning. Yet his final season at Borussia Dortmund should serve as a warning. At Christmas, the club he had won two titles with and taken to the Champions League final were in the relegation zone. He took them back up to the Europa League places before resigning. Perhaps when the power to control moments slips so too do the results. Maybe this is the downside of an emotive coach at an emotive club. The first match of the 2020–21 season against Leeds United may be instructive.
Of course, in order for Liverpool to lose the title, someone else has to win it. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are all in decent places. Mikel Arteta is showing promise, Chelsea are assembling an intriguing squad and Manchester United have their most entertaining group of attacking players since the days of Sir Alex. Yet it is hard to see any of them taking the title just yet. Although based on EP Chelsea and Manchester United were much closer to Liverpool than the table would tell us and should be encouraged. The favourite to stop Liverpool remains Pep Guardiola, though.
Guardiola is entering his first fifth season at a club. This is uncharted territory. Yet the manager who turns diligence to obsession will want to win back the league. And it is closer than you think Turn those 5 single goal defeats to draws and that 18 point gap becomes 8. If 4 of Liverpool’s 14 single goal wins become draws and that 18 point gap is gone.
Finally, this is not an era of eras. Since 2009 only one club has retained the Premier League. For several of those campaigns such as Manchester United in 2013–14, Manchester City in 2014–15 and 2019–20; Chelsea in 2015–16 and 2017–18 and Leicester in 2016–17 title defences were non-existent. Jurgen Klopp did retain the Bundesliga once with Borussia Dortmund but then failed to match Bayern Munich. He would do well to not slip into hubris. To look at the data and perhaps reflect on how this league title was won. And how it might be taken off him far easier than we might think.