Ranking the Run-Ins for Liverpool and City

How difficult are their nine remaining matches?

If the Premier League title race wasn’t already a coin-flip, it is now. After -- actually, let’s take a minute and soak this in. The rhythms of a race this tight force you beyond the moment. It isn’t the win or the goal or the miss that matters; no, it’s how that relates to the results of another team you’ll never play again until next season, and how close it all gets you to a culmination that’s a month a way. So, Liverpool were playing what was by far their toughest remaining game. They were up 1-0, and Mohamed Salah, the reigning Premier League Player of the Year who’d only scored once since February, did this. Against his former club:

Oh, and that other goal? It happened a little over a week ago, with a game tied at 1-1, just 10 minutes to go:

While Liverpool continue to rely on lightning strikes and a grounded defense, City continue to control the weather; they’ve won nine in a row in the league, and 13 of their last 14. By record — Liverpool have 85 points and a plus-57 goal differential through 34 games, City have 83 points and a plus-64 GD through 33 — these are the two best Premier League teams other than last year’s version of City. Betting markets project them to both finish with an average of 96 points, while FiveThirtyEight has them both landing on 95. They’re both favored in every game they have left, which would lead to this cruel outcome:

It certainly feels like they’ll each run the table, but really, it’s unlikely that they both win ‘em all; in fact, it might even be unlikely that either one wins ‘em all. To land on 95 points, Liverpool will have to end with three wins and a draw, while City, who have a game in hand, would finish up with four wins and a loss. So, let’s take a look at the nine remaining games and rank them from toughest to easiest to win.

1. Manchester City at Manchester United, April 24

Three reasons:

1) It’s a derby. Weird shit can happen in any soccer game, but especially so in a match between two deep rivals. Remember when Manchester City were supposed to clinch the league at home against United last spring? Secure in a top-four finish already, the visitors theoretically didn’t have much to play for. City dominated the first half, almost to a laughable degree: They scored twice, took nine shots, and created four big chances, while United failed to attempt a single shot. You’ll never guess what happens next! In the 15 minutes immediately after halftime, United created three big chances, scored all three, and won the game 3-2.

2) It’s on the road. Granted, last season saw each team win the away match, but away games are simply tougher than home games. At the Etihad, City are averaging 2.8 points per game; on the road, that number falls to 2.2. Sixty percent of a single point doesn’t seem a like a lot—until you look at the table.

3) It’s the end of Hell Week. On Wednesday, City host Tottenham in a Champions League game they have to win by multiple goals or via shootout and an extra 30 minutes of gametime. Then, on Saturday, City host Tottenham in a Premier League game they probably have to win, by however many goals they want. And then, next Wednesday, City finally head to Old Trafford. Maybe if there were a game against Fulham or some other bottom-of-the-table team with nothing to play for in between, Guardiola could get away with rotating his squad for one of these games, but I really don’t think he can here. City just aren’t going to have a fully fit first-team for this one.

2. Tottenham at Manchester City, April 20

This is the toughest remaining opponent on either team’s list. They’re one of six teams -- that seems like a lot, no? -- who’ve beaten City this year, and they did it just a week ago. They also recently went to Anfield and played Liverpool to a stalemate. In other words, they’re the best Premier League team that’s not in a title race. Harry Kane seems like he’s gonna be out for the year, but that’s not quite as big of a loss as it seems. I mean, t’s not a good thing! But both Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min have scored more non-penalty goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League, while Son and Christian Eriksen have both contributed (non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes) significantly more to the attack.

There’s a narrative trope in American sports that “it’s tough to beat a team three times”. And it’s certainly strange that this’ll be the third match between the sides since last Tuesday, and the fourth total. However, it’s actually not that hard to beat a team three times -- it happens a lot! -- and the idea itself seems like just a misunderstanding of probabilities. After all, if a coin lands heads two flips in a row, there’s still a 50-50 chance it lands heads the third time. If City beat Tottenham on Wednesday, they won’t be any less likely to beat them again on Saturday.

3. Leicester City at Manchester City, May 4

According to FiveThirtyEight, this is actually the second-easiest remaining game for either squad. Here’s how they rank the likelihood of wins for City and Liverpool, in descending order:

-Huddersfield at Liverpool: 92 percent
-Leicester at City: 84 percent
-Wolverhampton at Liverpool: 82 percent
-City at Brighton: 80 percent
-Liverpool at Cardiff: 79 percent
-City at Burnley: 73 percent
-Tottenham at City: 71 percent
-Liverpool at Newcastle: 65 percent
-City at United: 60 percent

You can see how important home and road games are, in terms of the projections. But the numbers don’t take into account injuries, sudden player improvements, or well, how hard a team is likely to try on a given day. We’re at the point in the season where a good chunk of the league has nothing left to play for. Two teams have been relegated already, and Cardiff is close to becoming the third. Two teams are competing for the title, four are fighting for the final two Champions League places, and if Watford doesn’t win the FA Cup, a couple teams may or may not want to finish in seventh in order to qualify for the Europa League. In reality, though, a lot of mid-table teams have small squads that can’t handle the extra games, so Europa League qualification can be more of a burden than a reward. Just ask West Ham Fan TV:

Leicester seem like a team that actually wants to qualify for Europe; manager Brendan Rodgers has said as much. Plus, for City, this game may come between two Champions League semi-final legs. Leicester have already beaten City once this year, and they’ve also been secretly impressive over the last nine games. In fact, only City and Liverpool have better underlying numbers during that stretch. From the Total Football app:

I think this team is gonna be really good next year, but if they keep playing like they have been, they’re also gonna be really good for the rest of this year, too.

4. Wolverhampton at Liverpool, May 12

This one’s always been sitting in the back of my mind -- a tricky team with lots of talent and a great record against the Top Six on the last day of the season? If I were constructing the most most excruciating way for Liverpool’s season to end, it would involve them taking a lead into the final weekend of the year ... and then not winning a game at home thanks to one of Ruben Neves’s long-range shots finally hitting the back of the net. He hasn’t scored from open-play this season because this is what his shot map, provided by Football Whispers, looks like:

Against the Top Six, Wolves have only lost an away game to City; they beat Tottenham and drew with Chelsea, United, and Arsenal. At the same time, they’ve looked less like a potential Top Six challenger and more like a team that could not be more average over the past nine games, when they’ve won three, lost three, and drawn three to the tune of not a plus, not a minus, but a ZERO goal differential. They have the squad and the manager to make this match hairy, but I know at least one kind, empathetic, exceptionally handsome Liverpool fan who writes about soccer for a living and isn’t having multi-weekly night terrors about this game anymore.

5. Liverpool at Newcastle, May 5

In his book The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli (with the help of journalist Gab Marcotti) writes about how differently Italian and English clubs approach the last few weeks of the season. In Italy:

If both clubs need points, or if neither needs points, they’ll go at it and face off fair and square. But if one has no incentive and the other is desperate, all too often the outcome will be scripted. This is so common that late in the season many bookmakers won’t accept bets on such matches. It is taken as read that this will occur. In fact, it is seen as rude and churlish not to give your opponent the points if you don’t need them.

Vialli grew up and spent most of his career in Italy before moving to England and joining Chelsea, where he eventually became the player-manager and then the manager-manager. On the last day of the 97-98 season, Vialli’s Chelsea were playing Bolton at home. Chelsea had nothing to play for; Bolton were trying to avoid relegation. And yet, Vialli scored the winner in what was ultimately a 2-0 Chelsea victory.

“In an Italian setting, what I did was far from rational,” he writes. “It was foolish, selfish mean-spirited. In an English setting it was a display of sportsmanship.”

The book was published in 2006. Things have changed since then; the Premier League, at least, has certainly become less stereotypically English. Now, I’m not saying that some similar kind of not-quite-competitive thinking will be in play when Liverpool travel to Newcastle -- a team with nothing to play for, coached by a beloved former Liverpool manager who won the Champions League with the club. But I am saying that my brain is incapable of envisioning a world where Rafa Benitez is the one who prevents Liverpool from winning the Premier League.

8. Liverpool at Cardiff, April 21

Manchester City’s average possession starts farther from their own goal (50.4 meters, per Football Whispers) than any team in the Premier League. Liverpool are third, and ... Cardiff are second. Now, Liverpool and City are winning the ball high up the field because they’re pressing unsettled defenses. Cardiff, meanwhile, have a lower pressing rate (passes allowed per defensive action) than any team other than Bournemouth. They’re the only team that averages less than 40 percent possession, and they’re frankly just not a very talented group, but by resorting to a constant barrage of long balls -- they average the fewest total passes per game, but are sixth in long passes attempted -- they’ve done an OK job of controlling space.

I expected Cardiff to be the worst team in the league this year, and they’re not! They’re just one of the worst -- 16th in xG differential -- and they actually have a positive xG differential at home. They’re five points back of Brighton, and the two sides play today. If Cardiff wins, this game, weirdly, probably gets a little tougher for Liverpool since Neil Warnock’s side will suddenly be within touching distance of escaping relegation. Regardless of how that match ends up, though, can someone please explain the Tiger Woods story to him?

6. Manchester City at Burnley, April 15

The Burnley magic is gone. Even since they stopped playing Joe Hart in goal -- the personnel-management penicillin that cures all defensive ills -- Burnley have allowed slightly more goals than expected goals. In total, they’ve allowed five more than expected, seemingly ending a four-year run of rain-drop-dodging defenses that might’ve been doing something that the various shot-capturing models were unable to pick up. They’ve survived their return to Earth and have settled into below-mid-table mediocrity because they’ve upped their goal-scoring from an-almost-impossible-to-believe 36 in 38 games last season -- reminder: THEY FINISHED IN SEVENTH PLACE -- to 42 through 34 this year.

Burnley played with an extra man for 87 minutes against Leicester last month ... and they lost, 2-1. After the game, Dyche said that they lost 1) because they had an extra man, and 2) because refereeing decisions didn’t go their way. It’s Sean Dyche’s world; we’re all just making him mad by doing literally anything in it. For a guy whose teams are built on the idea of tough, hard-nosed, British-style soccer, he sure complains a lot about officiating!

Anyway -- this doesn’t feel like the stylistic banana peel it might’ve been last year.

9. Manchester City at Brighton, May 12

Listen, anything can happen. Atalanta took 48 shots yesterday, conceded three, and, well ...

Brighton have the numbers of a relegated team -- third-worst xG differential in the league -- and they’ll likely be favorites to go down next year (if they manage to survive this term). In their first meeting, City took 28 shots to Brighton’s four. Predicting anything other than a comfy City win would require advanced schooling in multiple traditions of witchcraft.

10. Huddersfield at Liverpool, April 26

Huddersfield were relegated last month. They have four points from their last 21 games. Poor guys.