Before the 2020-21 Premier League season began, we wrote that the title was Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s to lose. The new-ish rivals from the northwest dominated the league during the previous three seasons like no other teams in the history of the English top flight, and they each returned large chunks of their rosters, which are stocked with some of soccer’s biggest superstars. As such, FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model gave City and Liverpool the best and second-best probabilities, respectively, to win the Premier League.
Since the season began, City added former Benfica center back Rúben Dias to shore up its flaky defensive line. Meanwhile, Liverpool acquired Diogo Jota from Wolverhampton Wanderers to provide cover (and competition) for its devastating but often overworked front three as well as Thiago Alcântara — one of the world’s greatest midfielders — from Bayern Munich to further solidify its already imperious midfield corps. Which is all to say that the two teams that entered the season with the best squads and the best odds got even better, a terrifying prospect for their opponents, especially those hoping to mount a title challenge.
But after Matchweek 8, neither juggernaut occupies the top spot in the league table. Our model still thinks City and Liverpool are the respective best and second-best team in the league — and by some margin — but the Premier League table begs to differ. As things stand, Liverpool sits in third, level with Tottenham Hotspur on points but behind the north Londoners on goal differential, while City occupies the 10th position, behind the likes of Southampton, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Wolves.1 So, why are the two best teams in England underperforming expectations?
In Liverpool’s case, the struggles have all been at the back. Once airtight defensively, the Reds have given up the third-most goals (16) through Matchweek 8, one fewer than recently promoted Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, and one more than recently promoted Fulham. To put that number in perspective, Liverpool conceded just 22 goals during the entire 2018-19 season. To be fair, the Reds conceded seven of those 16 goals in one extraordinarily flukey match against Aston Villa. Still, no one would have expected the best defensive team in England to occupy space on the goals-against table next to three teams that played in the second-tier league earlier this year.
To make matters worse, the Reds lost do-it-all center back Virgil van Dijk after Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford — who apparently thought he was involved in a UFC fight, not a soccer match — scissor-kicked the Dutchman’s right knee.2 Never mind that Liverpool conceded 11 of those 16 goals with van Dijk still in the lineup — there’s no team on the planet that could account for the loss of a player of van Dijk’s caliber. If the Reds were shaky defensively with van Dijk in the lineup, it’s hard to imagine they won’t be shaky defensively while he rehabilitates his busted knee.
Unfortunately for Jürgen Klopp, van Dijk’s isn’t the only injury giving the Liverpool manager selection fits at the moment. Thiago missed time after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis before later injuring his knee — also against Everton — and remains sidelined; defensive midfielder Fabinho, who was deployed at center back in van Dijk’s absence, injured his hamstring in a Champions League match and remains sidelined as well; right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, the creative force who makes Liverpool’s attack purr, is out for at least a month with a calf injury; and center back Joe Gomez, who is typically first choice as van Dijk’s partner, recently injured his knee while training with the English national team.3
If Liverpool’s early defensive woes are unexpected, its early offensive prowess is anything but. The Reds have been one of the most prolific attacking teams in the Premier League since Klopp took the helm in 2015, and that remains unchanged. Through Matchweek 8, Liverpool leads the league in both expected goals (2.32) and non-penalty expected goals (1.95) per 90 minutes. Mohamed Salah continues to deliver the goods — he’s the league’s joint top scorer4 — while Jota and Sadio Mané look dangerous every time they touch the ball. In fact, the Reds have been so impenetrable defensively for the past two seasons, it’s easy to forget that they have also been as good as any team in the world going forward.
Losing van Dijk (and Gomez, and Trent Alexander-Arnold) is a hard pill to swallow, and Liverpool may very well have to rely on its front three — and new addition Jota — if it hopes to remain Premier League champion. But if it keeps scoring at the rate it’s scoring and can figure out how to leak fewer goals here and there, that might not be such a bad strategy.
For City, the issue isn’t so much its inability to keep other teams from putting the ball in its net but rather its inability to put the ball into the nets of its opponents — or its inability to do so at the same outrageous rate it has grown accustomed to over the past three seasons. Through seven matches, City’s non-penalty expected goals (xG) per 90 mark is 1.21. Not terrible — it’s tied with Chelsea for seventh-best in the league — but not Pep Guardiola’s Man City great, either.
In each of the previous three seasons, City has finished with a non-penalty xG per 90 mark of 1.95 or greater, and it has finished its first seven matches with a non-penalty xG per 90 mark of 2.08 or greater. The Cityzens’ underperformance so far this season is stark, but it has a simple explanation: Forwards Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus — who led City in non-penalty xG a year ago — have both missed the majority of the young season with muscle injuries.
City’s injury crisis may not be as dire or as comprehensive as Liverpool’s — though it did just lose center back Nathan Aké to a hamstring injury, which will limit Guardiola’s ability to rotate at the back — but you can’t win games without scoring goals. And you can’t score goals when your two most prolific players are sitting on the sidelines.5 Fortunately for City, Jesus is back in action — he scored the equalizer in the 1-1 draw against Liverpool last weekend — and Agüero has returned to training. If City remains solid at the back, and if Agüero and Jesus can find their world-class form from a season ago, it may not be long before City is back at the top of the table.
No teams dominated the English top division like City and Liverpool did between 2017-18 and 2019-20 — City finished with 100 points in the former season, Liverpool with 99 in the latter — and yet neither team is on pace to finish the current season with more than 81 points. Since the turn of the millennium, only two teams6 have lifted the Premier League trophy after accumulating 81 points or fewer. Could Liverpool’s and City’s slow starts keep them from winning the top domestic silverware?
It’s too early to start ordaining champions and writing others off, especially during a season as deeply weird and unsettling as this one, beset by a pandemic. Congested fixture lists mean more injuries, especially to muscles;7 international fixtures mean international travel and a greater risk of COVID-19 exposure. The model still likes City and Liverpool, but the model can’t account for injuries and outbreaks, two things City and Liverpool have been unlucky with to differing degrees.
But, in a year of uncertainty, at least one thing seems certain: Neither City nor Liverpool looks destined to run away with the title, and we might have one hell of a title race on our hands.
Check out our latest soccer predictions.