How Liverpool's Luck Ran Out

The defending champs are officially in danger of not qualifying for the Champions league next season

The other night, I watched Stray Dog, directed by the king, Akira Kurosawa. It’s not one of his most famous films -- Rashomon, Seven Samurai -- but like everything Kurosawa ever did, it’s its own kind of brilliant. 

There’s a heatwave; there are fans everywhere; a rookie detective loses his gun on a bus; a new person turns up dead every day, thanks to another bullet from the detective’s stolen gun. It tears the detective to pieces; he’s all huffs and grunts, raging against how helpless he is to stop the killer, hating himself for it. 

While he’s pacing around the office one day, lashing out in all kinds of hopeless directions, making demands that won’t make a difference, his boss finally gets fed up. He’s been around. He’s seen it all before.

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him,” he says. “Are you gonna let it destroy you? Depending how you take it, bad luck can be a big break."

Liverpool lost again, and their chances of finishing in the top four have officially entered red-alert territory. Per FiveThirtyEight, they’re at 55-percent to finish in the Champions League places, or just slightly better than a coin flip. It’s pretty much the same story with the betting markets. Based on the point totals from Sporting Index, Liverpool are projected to finish one HALF of a point ahead of fifth-place Chelsea, five points ahead of sixth-place West Ham, 2.5 points behind third-place Leicester, and four points behind second-place Manchester United. 

The good news: second place? Still very much in play.

The bad news: sixth place? Also still very much in play.

That betting market projection puts Liverpool right between 67 and 68 points. That, of course, is right between 32 and 31 points fewer than they won last season. From injuries to a change in style, we went over everything that has gone wrong a couple weeks ago -- just $7 a month, or $70 a year for access! -- and things have kept going wrong since then, with back-to-back-to-back losses to Manchester City, Leicester City, and Everton sandwiched around a 2-0 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League. The defending champs, the second-best team in Premier League history, are currently in sixth place -- seventh, by points per game -- with 13 games to play.

Now, it’s tempting -- boy, is it tempting -- to tell some grand story of the double-sided coin of winning and losing, motivation and desire. You can reach for whatever you want, really: Is it a failure of leadership? Perhaps the failure of the human body? The impossibility of maintaining a certain level of success, and the long-term price we pay to get what we want? Or maybe you prefer the idea that it’s a failure of confidence -- that, like an infectious disease, a tiny spore of self-doubt germinated within the heart of a single Liverpool player, and then quickly ravaged its way through the rest of the team, hopping from player to player, until they became a collection of elite, extremely successful and wealthy professional athletes who were unable to recognize themselves in the mirror? There’s the one about how signing one of the world’s best midfielders made the team worse. And then there’s the other one about how this is just a bug in Jurgen Klopp’s system; it happened with Dortmund, and here it goes again out in Liverpool.

All fun, and all probably wrong. As I.D. Hill wrote all the way back in 1974, in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: "I find it difficult to imagine that anyone, who had ever watched a football match, could reach the conclusion that the game was either all skill or all chance. That both skill and chance are involved seems too obvious."

While chance is partially a comfy stand in for all the things we still don’t know, every journey into soccer’s heart of randomness has led to a similar conclusion: a lotta this shit is luck, no matter how you slice it. In fact, as Chris Anderson and David Sally wrote in their book The Numbers Game, “half of all goals can be attributed to luck, and the better team only wins half of the time”.

The biggest reason for Liverpool’s season-to-season divergence? You betcha: it’s bad luck. Take a look at this table, with Statsbomb data via the site FBref:

Once you strip out penalties, which don’t have any great predictive value, Liverpool are creating chances worth about one-tenth of a goal fewer than last season, and their defense is conceding chances worth just about the same amount. The difference in a title-winning season and a battle for fourth mainly comes down to how well you and your opponents kicked a slippery, 8.66-inch ball. There might be marginal reasons for the beneficial skews in 19-20 and the negative skews this time around, but Statsbomb’s data takes into account most of the things that would theoretically create those skews: goalkeeper positioning, the height of the ball when kicked, pressure on the shooter, and the positioning of defenders in relation to the ball. That’s all in the model already. Last year, Liverpool kicked good, and their opponents kicked bad. This year, it’s the opposite -- and so this silly, gigantic sport goes.

Now, perhaps “luck” is the wrong word. Typically, to score a goal in the Premier League, you have to place a ball with your foot or head at enough pace with the right trajectory and the necessary spin to get it through the defenders, within the goal frame, and beyond one of the 50 or so best human beings at preventing soccer balls from getting beyond himself and inside the goal frame. Oh yeah, that guy gets to use his hands, too. Executing a finish clearly requires an immense level of skill, but among the best players in the world, it’s a marginal skill that doesn’t really show itself until you have multiple seasons of evidence. The pros can almost all kick it; otherwise they wouldn’t be there to begin with. And even for someone like Lionel Messi, the greatest kicker of a soccer ball of the 21st century, only about 30 percent of his goal-scoring can be explained by how good he is at placing the ball on the goal frame; the other 70 percent comes from everything that’s already in the xG model -- the number of shots, the location of the defenders, the kind of pass he received, and where he’s shooting from. Liverpool have continued to control all of that controllable stuff this year -- right up until someone kicks the ball toward the goal.

Luck doesn’t hit you in a vacuum. For a soccer club, every result -- no matter how it came about -- changes the calculus for the rest of the season. Last year, Liverpool won so many games by one-goal score lines over the first five months of the season that it rendered everything from March to August meaningless. The title was, for all intents and purposes, already theirs by February; everything after that was a battle against history.

This year, it’s quite the opposite. It’s likely that every game is going to matter from here on out -- and even if Liverpool do start to match their results to their performances and the kicking starts to go their way, it still might not be enough. To end up in the top four, they’re gonna have to do at least a couple of these things over the rest of the season: win four more points than Chelsea, win six more points than West Ham, win 10 more points than Leicester, win 10 more points than Manchester United. The problem here: Liverpool can only control Liverpool’s point totals.

Now, playing the way they’re playing might be enough to make enough of that happen. But with each successive poor result, it must get harder and harder for Jurgen Klopp and his players to stick to the plan. And every unsuccessful result makes the plan less likely to pay off. 

There’s been plenty of bad luck at Liverpool over the past five years, but each time, it’s made them, not destroyed them. In Klopp’s first year, they lost in the Europa League final, but bounced back next year to finish in the top four. Then they lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League final, but bounced back next year to win it all. Then they missed out on the Premier League title despite winning the third-most points of any team ever, but bounced back the next year to win with the second-most points of any team ever. Now, everyone is injured and none of the bounces have gone their way. Since Klopp was hired in 2015, it’s the first time the team has been heading in a direction other than “straight up” -- even if it’s mainly been bad luck. Are they gonna let it destroy them?