Episode 15: How 'The Two Popes' Explains the World


In the latest episode of Infinite Football, Ryan O’Hanlon is joined by Kevin Lincoln to discuss the soccer themes from the new film The Two Popes. From there, they go on to talk about the concept of a national team in a globalized world, Sergino Dest’s decision to leave Ajax’s training camp in Qatar, and the conflict between club and country. Shoutout Terry Eagleton and Noam Chomsky. This episode was produced by Jack Dawson.

How Liverpool Surpassed the Golden State Warriors

Jurgen Klopp's team is off to the best start in the history of professional sports


Through 21 games, Liverpool Football Club are the best English football club of all time. Before Saturday, the 21-match record was 59 points -- set by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in 2017-18. One back was Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, while no other side sat north of 54. So, it’s somewhat fitting that Jurgen Klopp’s team, who came into Saturday’s game on 58 points, beat Tottenham, Jose Mourinho’s new team, to leapfrog both City and Chelsea and break through that 60-point ceiling.

It’s 20 wins, one draw, and zero losses. In fact, Saturday’s match made it 38 matches -- the length of a full season -- since Liverpool’s last league loss, the decisive defeat to Manchester City in early January of last year. They’ve got 33 wins and five draws in their last 38; add it up and that’s worth 104 points, two more than the previous any-38-game-stretch record, previously held by those two aforementioned City and Chelsea sides. As things stand, the betting-market projection for Liverpool’s final points tally is 100 points. In other words, the people with actual money on the line think the average outcome from the rest of this season is Liverpool equaling the Premier League record for points in a season:

It’s not just domestic dominance either. In an era where, from top to bottom, the Premier League is richer and should therefore be more competitive than ever before, Liverpool have broken the record for the best 21-game start in any of Europe’s top five leagues. Despite wild financial and competitive advantages at home, not even Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, or Paris Saint-Germain have ever done this before:

So, they’ve broken out, beyond their British and their European counterparts. At this point in the season, no other team in the history of the sport has been better when it comes to the point of this whole thing: winning soccer games. But what if we removed that second word after the colon? Well, compared to the major American sports, Liverpool’s 21-game start only really has one other peer.

In the 2014-15 season, the Golden State Warriors ushered in a breathtaking new era for the NBA. They won games with a fast-paced style premised on ball movement and stretching the spacing of the court to its maximum believable limit. They won the title, but they had to overcome the most dominant individual player in the history of the sport in order to do it. Then, the season after winning the championship, Steve Kerr and Co. won 21 games in a row.

“The closest comparison in my view is Golden State,” Michael Lopez, the director of data and analytics at the NFL, told me. “Both teams were returning champs, so a hot start wasn't a total shocker.”

Klopp’s Liverpool, of course, ushered in a breathtaking new era of high-paced, attacking-oriented, pressure-focused play for the Premier League. Last season, they won a title, but they had to do it by overcoming ... the most dominant individual player in the history of the sport. And then they started the following season by winning 20 of their first 21 games.

Kerr himself wouldn’t mind the comparison. From Ben Cohen and Josh Robinson’s Wall Street Journal piece from back in September:

Kerr, whose sister lives in England and whose nephews are Arsenal supporters, had always enjoyed English soccer even if he didn’t know much about it. But he knew enough to know that he needed to adopt a team for himself. He’d been captivated by Egyptian star Mo Salah in the World Cup. Salah played for Liverpool. Kerr was suddenly a Liverpool fan.

“I randomly (or not-so-randomly) picked them because of one player,” Kerr said. “But it was, like, oh my god, there’s all this other stuff that’s so awesome to follow.”

He quickly learned about the show tune fans sing before kickoff whose refrain has become Liverpool’s mantra. ”YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE!!!!!!!!!!!” Kerr tweeted after the victory over Barcelona. And he immediately gravitated toward the one aspect of the sport that he did know something about.

“I started to notice Jürgen Klopp,” Kerr said. “You could just see what a bright guy he was, his emotional intelligence and his love for his players without sacrificing that competitive fire—in fact actually fueling it.”

However, basketball and soccer (and football and baseball and hockey) wins aren’t created equal. In 2017, Lopez co-authored a paper that used betting odds to compare randomness and results across the major American sports. This is what he found:

[T]he NHL and MLB games cluster closer to coin flips; that is, if we were to randomly take a game between two randomly drawn teams, it’s less likely that the best team will win. As referenced above, part of this is luck – one can surmise that given the low amounts of scoring involved in baseball and hockey, more breaks are needed to win – but a related part of it is also because the best teams in the MLB and the NHL can still lose to the worse teams and fans wouldn’t be that surprised. The gaps in talent in those leagues are, at least relatively, not as wide.

Alternatively, the NFL and NBA roughly live in a world halfway between coin-flips and predetermined outcomes.

In the NHL, the best 21-game start goes to the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, who won 18 games and lost three. Except, they won 12 games in regulation, won six more in overtime, and lost the three in OT. So, in terms of what’s achievable in soccer, a sport that doesn't have overtime, that’s closer to a 12-0-6 mark -- impressive, especially given the randomness inherent in the sport, but still far off from LFC’s 20-0-1 start.

In MLB, only one team has won its first 21 games: the 1875 Boston Red Sox. Ulysses S. Grant was president, and these were their five best players, according to Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement metric:

The NFL comparison is a little trickier, given that a Super Bowl-winning team can only play a max of 20 games. The only team to go from start to finish undefeated, however, are the 1972 Miami Dolphins. They went 14-0 in the regular season (two games shorter than the current structure) and then won all three playoff games. My favorite factoid re: these dudes is that they went 3-3 in the preseason.

However, sports were structurally different 40 -- and 140 -- years ago. “The 1972 NFL and 1875 MLB are obviously past the timepoints in which I'd extend my study to, and likely in eras where sustained success was easier,” Lopez said.

Now, I’ve told you before that favorites in soccer, on average, win way less frequently than the favorites in other sports. However, that’s not necessarily true when it comes to the best teams. So, where does European soccer fall on the randomness scale? 

“Halfway in between NFL/NBA and MLB/NHL (where you never see teams more than 80% or so to win),” Lopez said. “For example, Man City is -900 (90%) to win on Saturday against Crystal Palace, but most of the matches have favorites in the 50 to 65% range. Liverpool is -217 (68%) to win in regulation versus Man U on Sunday.”

If Liverpool were huge favorites in every match -- 75 percent to win, 18 percent to tie, and seven percent to lose -- then you’d still only expect them to win 20 of 21 games two percent of the time! “Factoring in that they've had several games with lower odds, and yea, it's quite impressive,” Lopez said.

And so, I’m giving Liverpool get the slight edge over the Warriors for two reasons: 1) It’s harder to win soccer games than basketball games, and 2) one of Golden State’s wins came in OT. So, for our purposes, their record was 20-0-1, or the same as Liverpool’s. But really, to make a true comparison, we’re gonna have to wait for a couple more weeks. The Warriors, after all, won three more games before they lost.

The 2020 Premier League All-Star Team

This might be fun!


Last year, a reader named Ido threatened to inflict bodily harm on a number of key Liverpool players if I didn’t create an imaginary Premier League all-star team. I gave into his demands, those players mainly stayed healthy, Liverpool won the Champions League, and Liverpool are now very likely going to win the Premier League. The lesson: threats work!

Anyway, we’re running it back this year, but I’m tweaking the rules. Last season, I self-restricted to only choose two Manchester City and Liverpool players and then only one player from all the other teams. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s teams were so far ahead of everyone else at that any honest list would’ve likely included mainly players from those two teams with one or two other players from other Top Six teams sprinkled in. Well, this season, Liverpool have a 13-point lead with a game in hand on the second-place team, which is Leicester -- not Manchester -- City. Arsenal are in 10th; seventh-place Wolverhampton have just as many points as sixth-place Tottenham.

So, there’ll only be one restriction this time ‘round: If you have teammates in the starting XI, you are ineligible for any of the seven reserve slots. I wanna spread the wealth at least a lil’ bit. Like last time, I’ll be focusing on what players have produced, not what they’re projected to produce. In other words: goals are greater than expected goals, and raw totals matter more than per-90 performance.

Keeper: Vicente Guaita, Crystal Palace

Trying to assess keepers reminds me a lot of baseball’s small-sample-size problems. A pioneering sabermetrician named Voros McCracken came up with this theory called “Voros’s Law”: any player can look good over 60 at-bats. (Quick note: I came across this idea in my former colleague Ben Lindbergh’s recent book The MVP Machine. If you enjoy this newsletter, then go read his book. I can’t recommend it enough.) Watch a handful of baseball games and you could be convinced that a Hall of Famer is a scrub who’s in way over his head, or that a Quad-A guy was on pace to be league MVP. Same goes with goalkeepers -- anyone can look like a world-class shot-stopper for a couple matches. The only way to truly know how well a keeper has performed is to look at every single shot he’s faced.

Thankfully, there are stats for that. FBRef calculates the number of expected goals each keeper faces by stripping out all of the shots that weren’t on target. You can then compare that number to the number of goals the keeper has allowed, and you’ll get a rough sense of how many goals each keeper in the league has saved. Three players in the league have saved at least 0.25 goals per 90 minutes: Liverpool’s Alisson (0.43), Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel (0.30), Aston Villa’s Tom Heaton (0.30), and Guaita (0.27). Alisson has only started 11 matches, so he’s out, and some of the shot-stopping models that also take into account where the shots are placed on the goal frame are not as convinced by Schmeichel or Heaton.

So, the peroxide-blonde, 32-year-old Spaniard is our man. Crystal Palace’s underlying numbers aren’t too different from Norwich’s. The Canaries are in last place, while Palace area all the way up in ninth. Guaita is the biggest reason why.

Right Back: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool

If I think about this guy for too long, my brain starts to hurt. He’s second in the league in expected assists. (He’s second in actual assists, too, but the former does a better job of showing what the player has control over.) He’s in the top 15 of passese completed into the final-third. And he’s second in the league in passes completed into the penalty area. His closest comp is Kevin De Bruyne, who is a peak-age attacking midfielder. Alexander-Arnold, of course, is a 21-year-old fullback with the body of a 16 year old. What the hell do you do with that? He’s three years away from his prime! The best team in the league is built around his right foot. Will he get moved into midfield, get on the ball more, and become ... the best attacking midfielder of all time? Will he stay at fullback, get better at all of the things he’s already great at, and become ... the best attacking fullback of all time? Will this be a Steph Curry-type thing where all the most-talented kids suddenly wanna play right back and ping balls into the box? Nothing is off the table at this point.

Center Back: Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool

Only one other team in the history of the Premier League has won 58 points through the first 20 games. And only one player has played every minute for the team that is currently doing that. The best defender in the world sits in the center of the best defense in the world. Never not in control, VVD has turned what’s supposed to be a reactive position into a proactive one.

Center Back: Harry Maguire, Manchester United

Leicester finished in ninth last season. They sold Harry Maguire over the summer, didn’t buy a replacement, and now they’re in second. Except, their defense is slightly worse than it was in 2018-19 -- at least in terms of shots conceded, which is the thing defenders are supposed to prevent. Last season, Leicester allowed 1.1 xG per game; this year, it’s up to 1.2. Leicester are certainly a better team than a season ago, but it’s not because of the Maguire-less backline.

United, meanwhile, conceded 1.3 xG per game last year, and this year that’s down to just a hair below 1.0. The defensive improvement is being hidden by a down year from David De Gea -- they’ve conceded the second-fewest xG and the sixth-fewest G -- but there’s not much Maguire and Co. can do about that. United signed Harry Mags and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for more than £125 million over the summer to fix the defense, and well, it worked. There’s no spot for AWB because of TAA, so Maguire gets the nod.

Left Back: Andy Robertson, Liverpool

I wanted to have more fun with this, but there’s no better choice. Leicester’s Ben Chilwell is a nice player, but he plays for a worse defense and does way less on the attacking end. Everton’s Lucas Digne is in the top 20 of expected assists, and he’s completed more crosses into the penalty area than all but one player. Of course, that one player is Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, who’s also top 10 in expected assists. Both Robertson and Maguire started for the Hull City team that was relegated from the Premier League in 2017. Now they’re both members of this made-up team that only rewards players for half-a-season’s worth of performance. Someone make a meme about that come-up.

Defensive Midfield: Wilfred Ndidi, Leicester City

Remember that entire newsletter I wrote about how hard it is to gauge the impact of a midfielder? How beyond “passes into the box”, no one really knows that much about how the actions of the guys in the middle actually help their teams win soccer games? And how it’s at least possible that midfield might not actually matter all that much?

Yeahhhhhhh, forget all that. 

This one’s pretty simple: Ndidi leads the Premier League in tackles won, and he leads the Premier League in interceptions. If you need someone to go take the ball from the other team, there might not be anyone better in the world to go and do it.

Central Midfield: Oliver Norwood, Sheffield United

Coming into the year, Sheffield were the bookmakers’ favorites to finish in last place. More than halfway into the season, they’re in eighth place with underlying numbers to match (eight-best GD and eight-best xGD). Manager Chris Wilder has done a wonderful job turning what is mostly a group of unfancied no-names into a competent, incredibly cohesive, professional Premier League side that defends well and attacks just enough to get by. Per the website Transfermarkt, the total market value of their players is a league-low $134.18 million. Tottenham’s squad valuation is north of a billion, and they’re just one point ahead of the Blades in the table.

Were the headline of this post something like “Standout Players” rather than “All-Stars”, David McGoldrick would be somewhere in here. The guy has generated shots worth 5.5 expected goals, and he’s turned them into ZERO actual goals. Light a candle for him next time you’re at your preferred place of worship, please. But since we’re awarding production rather than perfidy, Norwood is the pick. The 28-year-old Northern Irishman had never played a minute of top-flight professional soccer before this season, and yet he’s been one of the best midfielders in the league right from the jump. He’s the only player in the PL with at least 100 passes into the final-third and 20 passes into the penalty area. As a team, Manchester City have completed over a thousand passes into the final-third this year -- no one else has more than 850 -- but Norwood has played more of those passes than any City player. He doesn’t have any assists yet, but he’s also leading Sheffield with 2.5 expected assists. Maybe it’s time to stop passing to McGoldrick?

Central Midfield: Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City

De Bruyne is currently averaging 0.65 assists per 90 minutes. In the history of the Premier League, no one who’s played at least half of the available minutes has broken 0.60. The record, as of now, is David Beckham’s 0.59 for Manchester United in 1999-2000, while Arsenal’s Robert Pires (01-02) and Tottenham’s Darren Anderton (94-95) both hit 0.58. When Thierry Henry set the record for most assists (20) in a 38-game season for Arsenal in 02-03, his per-90 rate was 0.55. 

Could De Bruyne both break the rate and total records? 

Barring injury, I think he might. He’s currently on 16 assists for the season; five more as the fulcrum for the fiercest attack in the league seems like it’ll almost definitely happen. As for the per-minute production, the underlying numbers suggest it’s close-to-sustainable, too. He’s on (an absurd)  0.56 expected assists per 90 minutes, so if his teammates just finished an average percentage of the chances he created, he’d still be on one of the hottest paces the league has ever seen. Given the baked in buffer, plus the fact that we’d generally expect City’s roster talent to push ahead of their xG totals, the 0.60 mark is absolutely in play. 

City might be experiencing a down year, but KDB, who’s also got seven non-penalty goals, is having one of the best individual seasons we’ve ever seen.

Wingers: Sadio Mane, Liverpool; Raheem Sterling, Manchester City

Mane learned how to pass, and now he’s on par with Sterling. Technically, they play on the same wing, but we’re bending the rules: 1) because they’ve both played on the right in the past, and 2) because they’re the two obvious choices for our wide attackers. I’m looping ‘em together because they’re having freakishly similar seasons. They’re the only two players in both the top 10 of non-penalty goals and expected assists. They’ve both found the net 11 times from open play, and their xA totals are almost exactly the same, too: 4.9 for Sterling, 4.7 for Mane. The main difference is that Mane’s teammates have been clinical with his passes (six assists), while Sterling’s have fallen on their faces every time he’s passed them the ball. With just one assist so far, the 25-year-old Englishman has the biggest gap between creative expectation and reality. Someone tell him he’s been honored with a selection to this hallowed, imaginary team that I was lightly cyber-bullied into creating. Maybe that’ll make him feel a little better.

Striker: Jamie Vardy, Leicester City

If only Sterling played with this guy. Vardy has 14 non-penalty goals on just 8.8 non-penalty expected goals -- the widest gap between those two numbers of anyone in the league. For reference, Mane outperformed his xG by the widest margin in the league last season: six goals. Vardy’s almost already there with 18 games to go!

So, the smart money is on Vardy to start missing the target, defenders starting to get a toe in, keepers starting to save a couple more shots -- some confluence of factors that’ll bring his finishing back down to Earth. But, well, all of the goals he’s already scored don’t just go away, and they’re a big reason why Leicester are 14 points clear of fifth place, rather than in a fight for the fourth and final Champions League spot. Plus, even if he cools down closer to average-ish conversion rates, Vardy’s still fourth in the league in total npxG -- and he’s also top 10 in npxG per 90 minutes and npxG+A per 90 minutes.

He turns 33 next week, and he’s playing the best soccer of his life. City, Chelsea, and United have all bought big-money stars from Leicester since they won the title in 2016. Vardy never left, and now “City, Chelsea, and United” are the three names you’ll read when you scroll below Leicester in the Premier League table.


Goalkeeper: Lukas Fabianski, West Ham
Center Back: James Tarkowski, Burnley
Fullback: Lucas Digne, Everton
Center Midfield: John McGinn, Aston Villa
God: Adama Traore, Wolverhampton
Striker: Danny Ings, Southampton
Striker: Tammy Abraham, Chelsea

Fabianski has only started nine games, but only the four guys I mentioned in the keeper section above have saved more shots-vs-expected than him. He’s a hidden world-class player who soccer’s sabermetricians are going to be worshipping a half-century from now. The bottom’s fallen out from Burnley’s defensive wizardry, but Tarkowski has been a rock, and he’s as good as anyone in the league when the ball is up for grabs. Like I said earlier, let’s consider Digne our Robertson Lite. Robertson Dry? Who’s Robertson Heavy? Roberto Carlos? Robertson Platinum? Gianlucca Zambrotta? Anyway, McGinn has been a fun, modern midfielder -- lots of dribbling and passing into the box -- for a pretty poor team. Adama Traore is a religion. And Abraham and Ings are fourth and fifth, respectively, in non-penalty goals+assists. It’s -- mostly -- a great time to be an English striker.

Manager: Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool

I said this last year: “Let’s not overthink this. The coach of the best team gets to coach the All-Star team.” I’m saying it again this year: Let’s not overthink this. The coach of the best team gets to coach the All-Star team.

Agree? Disagree? Let me hear your thoughts! Sorry I didn’t pick your favorite player! Have a great day!

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