Liverpool 19/20: A historically great side?

Where do this current Liverpool team fit in among English football's history?

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Mark Thompson

Jun 23 2020

6 mins read

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What’s all this about the European top divisions being boring, we’re about to have a first-time Premier League winner, baby!

*ahem*

There are a variety of ways Liverpool can/will win the league within the next week or so. There’s not much point me breaking down how they’ve done it, because that’s what everyone will be doing. So instead, I want to put them in some historical context.

For a start, the fact that this could be the Reds’ first title in 30 years might be distracting a little bit from just how dominant they’ve been. They’ve won 27 out of 30 games, which is incredible, and they look set to top a four-year run of truly tremendous title-winners.

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Perhaps more impressively is that this is their second season performing this well. Not only are the Reds the best point-getters in Premier League history, they’re (narrowly) the best over a two-year period too.

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This gets all the more impressive when put into the Premier League’s recent context, which has got a lot more competitive at the top in recent years.

While it’s often said that it’s difficult to defend a Premier League title, one could extend that adage to simply managing consecutive title challenges. In the first two decades of the Premier League, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea all ensured that the top two stayed pretty familiar year-to-year. Other challengers popped up every now and then — and the latter two of those clubs obviously had quite definable eras — but it was all quite regular.

However, this all changed around 2013. Since then, finishing first or second has become far less of a predictor of where you’d finish the following season.

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It’s no wonder that fans of big clubs have started coming to terms with spending a season outside of European competition to allow them to mount a title charge.

It could be that, in this current ‘Big Six’ era, there’s either too much competition to solidify a top two spot or it takes too much energy to obtain one. That Liverpool and Manchester City look set to be the top two for two seasons in a row is actually a Premier League oddity.

None of this is really a comment on the current team at Anfield though.

Some have pointed to Liverpool and Manchester City’s respective expected goals figures (+0.88 and +1.47 per game respectively per FBref) to suggest that this has been a bit of a lucky victory parade. As a statsy person I note that, but think there’s more to it than that.

Firstly, somebody on stats twitter whose tweets/article I can’t currently find pointed out a while ago that City were racking up goals and expected goals against smaller teams [case in point: I write this as City score their 5th against Burnley]. Liverpool, meanwhile, have taken things easy after going ahead, and have spent minuscule amounts of time trailing. That all makes a difference to the top-line xG stats.

Secondly, Ryan O’Hanlon’s recent No Grass in the Clouds newsletter pointed out that Liverpool’s ‘post-shot expected goals’ difference is actually better than City’s. Post-shot xG adds ‘where in the goal the shot was headed’ to the calculation, as well as things like shot location and build-up that the regular expected goals models have. Post-shot models, because they feature fewer shots (anything off-target or blocked gets a 0) can be more volatile but over a large-ish sample they can be interesting.

To nick the figures from Ryan’s newsletter, as of last Friday the company Stats Perform had City on +1.46 expected goals per game and Liverpool on +1.0 (xG models vary from place to place a little).

However, post-shot expected goals changed this dramatically, putting Liverpool on +1.45 per game and City on +1.28. A narrow gap, but still a gap that has Jürgen Klopp’s team ahead.

I’m also, just generally, of the opinion that ‘well actually’-ing any title winner with mentions of luck is a bit pointless anyway.

Have Liverpool got lucky getting a 2.77 points per game pace this season? Very probably. But getting lucky bounces here and there (and/or your rivals not getting them) is also very probably part of every league triumph.

So, the league is all but done. The next challenge is sustaining the success even further. Below is a chart of all the teams who’ve finished the season with 2.0 or more points per game in Premier League history. Liverpool are set for their second-straight season, but they’ve a long way to go to match the major dynasties:

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The nine consecutive seasons that Manchester United managed between 2004/05 and 2012/13 might be too big a goal to aim for right away. Maybe four-in-a-row should be the goal, which is the longest chain that Manchester City and Arsenal have managed. Even just a third-straight year would put Liverpool above Blackburn (1993/94 and 1994/95) and Spurs (2016/17 and 2017/18) on this particular arbitrary metric.

Liverpool’s squad is in a great place to be dominant now, and many of these players will be good for another couple of years too. But they don’t have much coming up behind them. The vast majority of the team’s regulars are in what’s known as the ‘peak age’ zone, and several of them are towards the latter end of it.

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(streaks indicate how long player has been at the club, and kudos to Robin Wilhelmus for putting together the web app for this)

Maybe we’ll (finally) see more from Keïta. Maybe Minamino will become a more regular rotation option next season. It’s two and three years down the line that Liverpool need to be planning for and how they approach the next couple of transfer windows will be really interesting.

But one thing’s for sure: they’ll always have this season. And, barring an extreme nosedive, they’ll go down in the record books as one of the best teams that English men’s football has ever seen.

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