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, 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.