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Liverpool Can’t Buy A Goal, And Its Title Defense Is On The Ropes

Liverpool Football Club leads the Premier League in goals this season,1 but it has not scored a league goal in about a month. To be more precise, Liverpool has not scored a league goal since Sadio Mané netted in the 12th minute against West Bromwich Albion on Dec. 27, 2020, a game that the Reds eventually drew 1-1.

The scoring drought spans 438 minutes2 and more than four full matches, and it is Liverpool’s least fruitful stretch in league play in more than two decades. As such, Liverpool is winless in its past five matches — it is quite literally impossible to win without scoring more goals than the opposition, or any goals at all, so this winlessness is axiomatic — drawing three and losing two while slipping from first to fifth on the league table. If it’s not a crisis yet, it’s not far from becoming one.

The futility is almost unbelievable given that 258 of those 438 minutes have been contested against Burnley, Newcastle United and West Brom, three teams that represent half of the bottom six, each of which could legitimately be relegated at the end of the season. But the futility verges on the absurd once you take a peek under the hood: Liverpool’s combined expected goals (xG) in its matches against Newcastle, Southampton, Manchester United and Burnley is 6.1,3 and one xG simulator suggests the chance that Liverpool would score zero goals in those four matches is 0.16 percent.

Liverpool’s form hasn’t been great in the past month, but it’s probably been good enough to take more than 2 points from a possible 12 — and it’s certainly been good enough to score more than zero goals. But as FiveThirtyEight contributor and noted Liverpool supporter Grace Robertson wrote on Twitter, soccer is a “terrible sport.” It hasn’t been kind to the Reds in recent weeks, that’s for sure.

A week before the wheels began spinning off during the dying moments of the West Brom match, Liverpool put seven goals past a relatively competent (if slightly leaky) Crystal Palace team. After the Reds walloped Palace, FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model gave Liverpool a 38 percent chance of winning the Premier League, second only to Manchester City at the time, and a 90 percent chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League. It was about as high as the model had been on the Reds all season. Despite injury and illness,4 Liverpool appeared to be cobbling together a title defense.

What a difference five weeks and a hectic holiday schedule can make. The model currently gives Liverpool just a 4 percent chance to win the league and a 66 percent chance to qualify for the Champions League. Liverpool is in an unexpected and unwanted dogfight with at least seven other teams to qualify for Europe’s top club soccer tournament — many of which are in excellent form at the moment, including City and Liverpool’s two most-hated rivals, Everton and Manchester United.

Liverpool last went winless in five consecutive league matches during the 2016-17 season. It was an extremely different group dressed in red those days. Virgil van Dijk was still playing center back for Southampton; Alisson Becker was backing up Wojciech Szczęsny in Rome; Mohamed Salah was in Rome, too; Andrew Robertson was getting battered week in, week out with a Hull City team that would get relegated at the end of the season; Fabinho was busy winning Ligue 1 with Monaco; Trent Alexander-Arnold was a teen who didn’t play big minutes; and Joe Gomez was a teen who didn’t play at all.

Sure, Mané and Roberto Firmino were already partnering at the head of Liverpool’s attack, and Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum were doing their thing in the midfield, but manager Jürgen Klopp was still far from putting his dream team together. Crucially, though, that group managed to secure Champions League qualification for the next year. Which is to say, they managed to secure the bag — and the prestige — that comes with Champions League qualification. Liverpool used that bag and that prestige to sign the likes of Alisson, Salah and van Dijk, and the rest (a Champions League trophy, a Club World Cup trophy and a Premier League trophy) is history.

Failing to repeat as champions is hardly a catastrophe — it’s notoriously difficult to do so — but the importance of Champions League qualification cannot be overstated. If Liverpool hopes to attract a marquee signing or two this summer and take another run at Premier League glory, it cannot miss out on club soccer’s biggest attraction. Liverpool Football Club isn’t in a crisis at the moment, just a bad run of form. That could all change if it finishes the season outside the top four.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through Matchweek 19.

  2. Excluding stoppage time.

  3. Single game xG isn’t a perfect indicator of which team should win and which team should lose, but it can serve as evidence that one team played well enough to win but didn’t.

  4. Liverpool has been without a number of key players for long stretches of the season, including Thiago Alcântara, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alisson Becker, Joe Gomez, club captain Jordan Henderson, Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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