Being (lucky and good): Liverpool
Barring something truly unprecedented, Liverpool will win the Premier League this season.
FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Liverpool a greater than 99% chance of lifting the Premier League trophy. Jurgen Klopp’s side is 22 points clear at the top, having won 24 out of 25 games. They've not just done it, they've done it in an astonishing manner. There can be no doubt that what Liverpool does, in purely results terms, is extraordinary.
But there’s been a certain dirty word to emerge recently: luck.
Now, regardless of how good they are, any team setting record-breaking points totals is likely to be at least somewhat “lucky”. It’s a fairly abstract concept, but inevitably some bounces need to go your way to do something amazing. But in a statistical sense, what’s really sparked this debate is expected goals. Take a look at the xG difference table for why.
Yeah. Manchester City are comfortably dominating this metric. But let’s head over to the actual goal difference and there’s an obvious shift.
City are scoring and conceding largely as expected, with a goal difference of +36 against an xG difference of +36.80. But Liverpool? Liverpool have gained hugely here, managing a goal difference of +45 against an xG difference of +25.09. The overperformance is split fairly evenly between both sides of the ball. Let’s start with the defensive end.
Liverpool have conceded nearly ten goals fewer than expected. With two different goalkeepers. But looking at one area in particular reveals an extremely good run.
The Reds have conceded just once from more than 21 yards. The goal in question was a quickly taken free kick straight after a rusty, unprepared Adrián was rushed on and thrust between the sticks. Despite plenty of opportunities, no opposing player has had a moment where he's been able to strike a ball perfectly from range.
Liverpool have been extremely “effective” at ensuring shots do not reach the goalkeeper. As StatsBomb’s Head of Analysis James Yorke pointed out recently, Klopp’s team just do not concede shots on target from the right side of the box.
While Virgil van Dijk is a consistent presence at left centre back, on this side the role has rotated between Joe Gomez, Joël Matip and Dejan Lovren. At right back, Trent Alexander-Arnold hasn’t exactly been focused on defending. Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta have spent time as the right-sided central midfielder. It’s hard to point to a reason for this other than it's just one of those things that happens.
On the attacking side? The topline figures aren’t too different, with the Reds beating xG by nearly eight goals. Another small thing to note is that they’ve scored all five of their penalties, which isn’t hugely unlikely but still isn’t the expectation.
Ah, you say. Liverpool have a world-class front three, and thus of course they’d score more than expected!
Well, not so fast. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino between them have accumulated 31.64 xG. And from that, they've scored 30 goals. Intuitively, we’d expect these three to be Liverpool’s best finishers, but that’s not happening right now.
So where are Liverpool finishing well? More than half the overperformance in attack can be found in set pieces.
Liverpool certainly seem to pay attention to this phase of the game, and we know it’s something where the masters of it can “trick” the xG models. Having said this, when you watch Liverpool take set pieces, you do not see elaborate, ambitious routines. You generally see a good cross put in for someone to get a good header. It’s a fairly straightforward approach that seems to be paying dividends. There might be repeatability in this, but we really don’t know.
So we’ve looked at various shots, but what about game state?
Liverpool have spent very little time behind this season, so there’s not too much we can draw from here (they’ve performed very close to xG in this period, though). When they are drawing, though, things are a little more interesting. On the attacking side, we can account for all of Liverpool’s xG overperformance when things are level.
Defensively, there’s also a bit of overperformance when drawing, but not a huge amount. Liverpool just finish their chances extremely well when things are level in order to get ahead. Once they get there, they don’t need to finish as well, and they’ve merely been in line with the model.
But what you actually need to do once you’re ahead is not concede. So it would be awfully useful to concede fewer goals than expected when you’re winning, right? Right.
Liverpool score more to get ahead, then concede less once they get there. They're not just beating xG. They’re beating xG at the right moments, in the right ways, to maximise points. Manchester City, by comparison, beat xG in attack, but it’s all come when the side is already ahead. When losing or drawing, they’re a touch below expectation. Liverpool have broken exactly how they’d want to.
Is this “luck”? It’s hard to say with a great deal of confidence that pure chance is what’s driving Liverpool to beat the metrics. But that’s not the most important question going forward. What matters more is whether this is repeatable, and whether Liverpool can put up huge points totals for the remainder of this season, and in the next. This is where it’s harder to make the Reds’ case. Especially when a team overperforms in both attack and defence, it’s difficult to craft a story about how they’re doing it. Liverpool are experiencing a remarkable whirlwind of a season, but a confluence of factors outside their control have come to play a part.
If we were to deflate all these aspects, would we still have a Premier League title-winning side? That’s a more complicated question. It’s fair to say Man City have not had the rub of the green this year, which is also a factor outside Liverpool’s control. But at the same time, City just aren’t as good as they were last season. They’ve seen a 49% increase in xG conceded per game, and the attack has subsequently ticked up by only 8%. Even though City’s xG difference is better than Liverpool’s, it does seem as though the side has managed this by putting up big numbers when already ahead. Perhaps there are other realities where this is a nail-biting title race. Regardless, Liverpool are a really good side while also having had certain things fall their way this year.
Stats of Interest
Everton look like the Amy Klobuchar of the Premier League right now, charging up the table in recent weeks. Their schedule has been very kind, but they've put up some genuine numbers since Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival, especially in attack. With fixtures coming up against five of last season’s top six plus Leicester in the next seven games, this side’s newfound credentials are about to be seriously tested.
Crystal Palace, on the other hand, more closely resemble Joe Biden, with what seemed like a really promising season petering out rapidly as one of the most experienced figures around watches on. It’s worth mentioning they never looked great numbers-wise, benefitting from some hugely positive finishing skews. It happens to the best of us.
Some high profile mistakes from Jordan Pickford have led many to question whether he should start for England in the European Championships this summer. On a pure stats level, it does look like Gareth Southgate should be considering the case for Dean Henderson.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association