Are Liverpool Gonna Blow It Again?

Two draws in a row, and down the spiral of despair we go!

The Premier League schedule will rot your brain, kids, so it’s time for a Liverpool therapy session. These three things are all true: Liverpool have tied their past two Premier League matches. Liverpool haven’t been at their best for the past three or four weeks. And Liverpool are one of the best Premier League teams of all time.

Last Tuesday, Manchester City lost — as in: they accrued zero points — against a Newcastle United team that, at the time, was in 17th place and had scored fewer goals than all but two teams in the Premier League. Liverpool followed that up the next day with a draw against a Leicester City team that beat Manchester City back in December (and would go on to outplay Manchester United last weekend). After 23 games, Liverpool were four points ahead of City. After 24 games, Liverpool were five points ahead of City. No matter how full your glass, the lead had grown.

Then, on Sunday, Sergio Aguero outscored Arsenal, the Patriots, and the Rams all on his own:

And on Monday, Liverpool drew another match:

City are now just three points back, with a five-better goal differential with 13 games to go. According to most predictive models, Liverpool’s title odds have dropped from somewhere in the low 70-percent range to the mid-to-low 60s. Meanwhile, the betting markets, which have never been super-bullish on Liverpool, now have City as slight favorites. This is in Norweigan, but I believe in either your 1) inference skills or 2) your Scarlett-Johansson-in-Her-like ability to learn another language in the same time it takes to fry an egg:

For manager Jurgen Klopp’s side, that’s certainly not ideal! I’ve heard from a bunch of Liverpool fans who are worried that these two draws are the first couple stutters for a car that’s about to break down. Meanwhile, some members of the media across the pond are starting to test out the take that the current league-leaders might not be able to handle the pressure of sitting atop the table.

If you’ve read any of the previous newsletters — or anything I’ve written about soccer … ever? — then you might know what I’m about to say here: It’s gonna be OK, people.

Now, perhaps I was recently wearing a dangerously flammable mountain lion costume and now I‘m smashing a chair into locker, and screaming out into the Internet void that WE NEED TO KEEP OUR COMPOSURE because I’m unable to realize that I’m also fearing the worst, as any Liverpool fan born after 1985 has been conditioned to do. The last 30 years of Liverpool Football Club have been defined by actual, loss-of-lots-of-life tragedy in the stands and and a handful of spectacularly cruel near-victories on the field. (I wrote about all of it before the Champions League final last spring.) For example: In the third-to-last game of 2013-14 season, with the team up on Manchester City by three points, Liverpool captain and club legend Steven Gerrard proved that no metaphor can be too literal. He slipped, Liverpool lost, and the title was never again within reach:

But enough about fan neuroses. I like to think that part of the reason you’re reading this is because either you’re worried I’m gonna ask you “did you read my last newsletter?” next time I see you, or you want to try to avoid getting caught up in the game-to-game crisis-marshaling that often engulfs the weekly discussion around the Premier League.

So, if you yourself are a Liverpool fan prone to delusions of self-destruction, take a look at this table, from Transfermarkt. And if you have a friend suffering from a similar non-somatic symptoms, do her or him a favor and force this in front of her or his face:

Those are the top 10 teams through 25 games in the history of the Premier League. One thing you’ll notice is that nine of these 10 teams went on to win the English title. The other thing you’ll notice is that Liverpool, the only team here to not win the title since their season is still ongoing, are off to THE FOURTH-BEST START IN THE MODERN ERA OF BRITISH SOCCER. In 2003-04, Arsenal went undefeated. The team is literally called “The Invincibles”, and if you polled a representative sample of people who work in the sport, that side would probably get the most votes for the “Best Premier League Team of All Time”. Compared to The Invincibles, this year’s Liverpool have won more points, scored more goals, and allowed fewer goals at the same stage of the season.

Liverpool not winning either of the past two matches — both of which they were favored to win — is a disappointment, sure. But Liverpool came into this season projected to finish in a distant second place. They finished in fourth place last season, 25 points behind Manchester City’s record-setting 100-point season. (To my mind, “The Centurions”, as they’re called, are the best PL team ever.) Had Liverpool won both the matches against Leicester and West Ham, they’d be on the exact same pace as the only team that’s ever hit triple digits in a Premier League season. Regardless of the distribution of results, I just can’t seriously get too worked up about them not hitting that ridiculous benchmark. They’ve still only lost one game! The only reason Liverpool haven’t locked up the title already is that the team chasing them … is the team that won 100 points last year. In fact, through 25 games, this year’s City have a better goal differential than every team in Premier League history other than last year’s City.

Now, Liverpool were not smited by the Gods of Chance in either of these past two games. They didn’t dominate the balance of attempts; they got out-shot by West Ham, and Leicester doubled up the Reds on the expected-goal count. Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have only a plus-one goal differential, and their eight points from five games ranks just eighth in the league, sandwiched below Wolverhampton and above Bournemouth. Except, that stretch also included the toughest game of the season — away at Manchester City. I know this might sound silly, but getting too hung up on a two- or three-game stretch can quickly send you down one of the dual dead-ends of despair and hope. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Real Madrid are the only teams that really ever reached the stage when they would never have an off day; and even now, that’s changing, too. Injuries, off-days, on-days, refereeing decisions, fatigue, family issues, schedule strength, weather — it can all have an outsize effect over a game or two or three.

The only real top-level change that’s occurred with Liverpool is the number of goals they’re conceding: They allowed seven in the 20 games in 2018, and eight in the five matches this year. But even that doesn’t match up with how the team has played: They were allowing a league-best 0.83 expected goals per game before New Years, and they’re allowing a league-best 0.69 since. Ten games typically serves as a better indicator for a team’s current health anyway, and well …

Are Liverpool less likely to win the Premier League now than they were a week ago? Absolutely. Will Liverpool ultimately blow the lead come May? It’s happened before, but it’s never happened to a team this good. Try to enjoy the ride.

As I said last time, and now say every time: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along.