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How Bad Is Liverpool?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Tony, Ryan and Grace, we’re reuniting to discuss Liverpool, a team that three of us are fans of — and I am sure none of us are particularly pleased with at the moment. The reigning champions of England are mired in eighth place, with six straight losses at home, and they have only a 20 percent chance of finishing in the top four right now.

In weeks past I’ve asked you what’s wrong with Liverpool, and you’ve very calmly said something or other about variance, expected goals and the whims of the soccer gods. But surely now we can admit: Liverpool is not good this year!

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): RB Leipzig might disagree with you.

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I was gonna say: Tell that to Julian Nagelsmann.

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): Liverpool had an 82 percent chance of finishing top four by FiveThirtyEight’s model as recently as Feb. 3. This has been a Democratic-primaries-in-February-2020 level of model volatility.

tchow: Honestly, my plan today is just to sit back, relax and watch the three of you hash it out and solve all of Liverpool’s problems. (And also to update you all on any developments in the Arsenal-Olympiacos Europa League game, of course.)

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cwick: I have yet to hear someone refute my central argument!!!

tchow: OK, to answer Chad’s question seriously, I still think Liverpool is good! According to SPI, it’s the sixth-best team in the world. That’s pretty good!

grace: For probably the first time in a few years, the performances really haven’t been good enough recently. Jürgen Klopp’s side was chugging along with strong numbers until it suddenly crashed in terms of expected goals conceded.

ryan: I will admit that the Chelsea and Fulham losses were both “not good.” Liverpool got straight-up outplayed in both of those games. But it totally dominated Leipzig, which has the best xG differential in Germany, per FBref. The team has still, mostly, been good this year.

grace: It’s similar to the early years of Klopp: The side can often play very well before shooting itself in the foot with terrible defensive and goalkeeping errors.

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cwick: I will happily play the role of Meathead Sports Fan in this discussion. At what point do you look at an underperforming squad — that has been underperforming for weeks — and say, “You know what? Maybe the fancy stats aren’t picking up everything.” Because, guys, this team has been figured out in the Premier League. It has lost to bad teams, including Fulham, Burnley and Brighton. And its tactics have looked staid amid relentless roster turnover.

grace: Brighton is good! But that would require an entire chat to pick apart.

ryan: Yeah, Chad the Meathead won’t take to the Brighton-is-good argument too well.

tchow: The simple, lazy analysis for what’s going on with Liverpool is just that it’s been extremely unlucky with injuries this season, and honestly, it’s sometimes difficult to argue it’s anything more than that. Especially after a game like the one against Leipzig. Liverpool has been unlucky! #Analysis

grace: I don’t think any of the points about Liverpool’s attack just going on a dry finishing run are incorrect. The team has just subsequently been met by some much more concerning issues in terms of defensive errors and structure.

ryan: For starters, the injury crisis has really been a crisis:

But seasons like this happen every year — they just typically don’t happen to a team with as high a profile as Liverpool’s. I think every soccer fan knows that the best team often doesn’t win games, and sometimes that can happen over and over and over again.

grace: With Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, Liverpool had maybe the fastest pair of center backs around, and that allowed Klopp to organize the entire pressing system around this recovery speed. The guys playing this year are mostly on the slow side, so the dynamic has had to change completely.

cwick: But has it, Grace? Has Klopp done enough to adjust?

grace: He’s been in a bit of a pickle adjusting to the CB drought and then to having a Fabinho-less midfield — it has cost a lot in terms of not letting the fullbacks push up and join the attack. And when you change that, you’ve kind of changed the whole thing.

tchow: In terms of center backs specifically, I think Klopp has really tried his best to adjust. He’s basically tried every center back pairing imaginable this season. In the past 16 games (that is, all the games Liverpool has played in 2021), Klopp has started nine different CB pairings!

grace: I have wondered whether there’s a danger of overthinking the tactical consequences of Liverpool’s injuries. But at the same time, Liverpool just doesn’t have a trustworthy pair of CBs who will survive a system that exposes them.

ryan: But even with all of that, Liverpool still has the second-best non-penalty xG differential in the league. Its numbers compared with last year’s are worse, but even with all the injuries, it’s still creating and suppressing chances at one of the best rates in the league. Klopp can’t really control what happens when the ball leaves someone’s foot for a shot!

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grace: It’s tradeoffs. The changes to the system have hurt as much as they’ve helped. Ultimately, you can’t paper over not having as many good players.

cwick: I know Klopp has been a great coach. But what’s the proof that he has changed tactics and not just personnel? Like, maybe Liverpool needs to play more like — gasp — Tottenham or something.

tchow: LOL is Chad … #KloppOut?

cwick: #WakeUpKlopp

ryan: I don’t really think, given all the injuries, Liverpool can realistically expect to be challenging for a league title. They’ve played like a top-four team for most of the season; the bounces have just gone in the wrong direction. If anything, I credit Klopp for not getting spooked and, you know, playing like Tottenham.

grace: You can’t galaxy-brain away the problem of missing all your first team center backs.

cwick: The problem with meathead arguments is that when the evidence is against them, all a meathead can do is point at the field and say, “But they’re losing!”

ryan: My favorite analytic is the league table.

grace: This was me with Liverpool in 2011-12, before I knew what expected goals were.

tchow: On the flip side, though, Liverpool did make some signings during the last transfer window to address center back problems. Ozan Kabak has seen some playing time but still no signs of Ben Davies. I think there is fair criticism to wonder what those moves were really for.

cwick: Kabak has regularly been beaten but seems no worse than, say, an Arsenal CB.

tchow: Look, Chad, I know y’all are in a bad place right now, but there is no need to lash out here. Rude! 

grace: Kabak feels like he’s having a six-month job interview for Klopp to decide if he wants the club to sign him permanently. He’s obviously talented, but he’s as erratic as you’d expect a 20-year-old starting center back to be.

ryan: Davies was a super-low-risk signing, and as Grace wrote about recently, it seems pretty clear that Klopp doesn’t think he’s good enough. Center back is probably the hardest position in the sport to scout, so I can’t really blame Liverpool for not bringing in VVD v.2 midseason, especially during a pandemic.

grace: It might be the case that starting Fabinho back in midfield is worth it for the solidity it brings the team, even if you have to start Nat Phillips in return.

ryan: Kabak and Phillips just shut out Leipzig in a match that Leipzig needed to score at least two goals. That game actually happened!

tchow: Agree with Grace 100 percent there. The CB pairing in that Leipzig game worked there in large part because Fabinho was back in his natural position. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time he started a game at defensive mid for your team.

ryan: It was the first Everton game, Tony. The one we don’t speak of anymore.

tchow: There are a couple of Everton games you don’t speak of anymore.

ryan: I’m open to the argument that Fabinho in the midfield lends some solidity to the team that Georginio Wijnaldum or Thiago Alcántara might not. The team at least feels a little more physically robust with him sitting in front of two center backs.

cwick: How would you test that argument? Just based on opponents’ xG? Or possession stats? Or…

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ryan: Liverpool has allowed more through balls than any team in Europe. I think you might see that slow down a bit if the argument is a sound one.

grace: The Fabinho effect is exaggerated by Thiago and Curtis Jones playing midfield minutes this year, as well. That’s a very different midfield balance, much more focused on passing and technique than when Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were there together.

tchow: Not a coincidence that Fabinho recorded the most pressures and interceptions he’s had all season in that recent game against Leipzig, who as Ryan said earlier, really needed to score.

cwick: So, for you, the success in European matches in the Champions League only bolsters your case that Liverpool’s England woes are overblown? Couldn’t it be that English teams know how to beat Liverpool but European teams aren’t part of the same whisper network? (I am in full conspiracy theory mode with this year’s team, clearly.)

grace: They get the Premier League games on TV in Germany — think they would’ve found the secrets by now.

ryan: Maybe Bayern Munich should be eyeing Fulham’s Scott Parker instead of Nagelsmann.

grace: I tend to go with the boring analytics answer that the breaks just went for Liverpool in Europe and not domestically. 

cwick: I’d like to get a little meta here, because I am still a little gobsmacked that everyone is so level-headed. Surely being a sports fan for you is more than just telling yourself, “Be patient, things will right themselves,” right? So what’s a fan to do in a situation like Liverpool’s fans find themselves in? Because it feels so urgent that something has to change. But all I am hearing is that the real change that’s needed is within ourselves. And we just have to be … patient? Surely that doesn’t come easy for you??

tchow: Recent trophies really help with being patient. Or so I’ve heard.

grace: The last few seasons have been deliriously good. By far the best Liverpool team I’ve ever seen. This feels more normal to me.

ryan: If you’re a fan who can’t accept bad luck, then just tell yourself that this is a fake season because of COVID-19, stop watching, and tune back in this August.

grace: Just concentrate on the Champions League and do something else with your weekends.

tchow: As a neutral, I think Liverpool fans don’t have a choice but to be patient. It’s been a strange season, and there are so many reasons or excuses you could point to as to why this season is an anomaly. I think that makes it a bit easier. There are some half-joking (but maybe serious) calls for Klopp to get fired, but surely, surely, surely the recent Champions League win and the Premier League trophy buy Klopp more of a leash than basically any other manager in the world? If Klopp can’t hold onto his job through this dip in form, I shudder to think what chances other managers have of holding onto theirs.

cwick: OK, I will try one more tack: What would need to happen for you to actually be concerned about Liverpool?

ryan: Everyone comes back for next season and their xG numbers tank.

tchow: I would be concerned if Liverpool were to lose at home to a team like … Fulham. Wait a minute …

cwick: See, Tony, I knew you’d understand.

tchow: Just kidding. Yeah, I would be concerned if VVD, Gomez and the rest of the gang come back and it’s the same thing all over again. Then I think it’s time to panic a little.

grace: Yes, I think this is a next-season problem. If things are the same with all these problems resolved, then we have a conversation.

ryan: I guess if Klopp started showing up to matches dressed like Pep Guardiola, that would also concern me.

tchow: I’m not sure Klopp can pull off a bald head. Also, I would be so angry if he tried it given those locks.

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Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.