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Liverpool Won It All This Year. Can The Reds Do It Again?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Grace! Tony! Ryan! We’re back! After months away from professional soccer and these chats, we’ve blown the klaxon and assembled again. Very excited to talk about soccer with all of you, especially on the occasion of a new champion! After decades in the wilderness and what seemed like centuries of hype, Liverpool has finally won a championship again. It came thanks to a Manchester City loss to Chelsea on Thursday, a fitting anticlimax in a season that, because of the pandemic, has been defined by interruption.

Ryan, Grace — you’re Liverpool fans. How are you celebrating??

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): This chat already smells like expensive popped Champagne, and I’m so jealous. Just kidding. Liverpool won a very, very well-deserved title. What are you all doing here chatting? GO CELEBRATE!

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I’m starting it off by chatting in Slack with two of my favorite data-adjacent Liverpool fans and a fan of, well, whatever team Tony is officially rooting for right now. Then, I’m going to write a newsletter. And after that, I don’t know. I think it’ll be a similar feeling to when they won the Champions League last year. I would forget that they had won, then I’d remember, and I would get these little bits of happiness out of nowhere. That lasted for a month or so. This? I don’t think it’ll fade away that fast.

tchow: I actually haven’t heard from Grace in a while, and you know what? Good for her!

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I had a bit of an ugly cry and now I’m ready to process it.

tchow: What does a happy ugly cry feel like? I can’t relate.

grace: We’ve never won it in my lifetime, so I don’t know the words for these emotions.

cwick: I have to admit that the COVID-19 break sapped some of the power of this for me. Sports is all about the ongoing narrative of a season, and the soccer over the last week has felt distinct from the soccer of the fall and winter. It feels a little like a team being declared champions a couple games into preseason.

ryan: I’ve never had a soccer team I care about win a seasonlong title before. (The Gold Cup does not count.) I think I’ve celebrated in tiny bursts with each successive win this year. It’s not like winning a championship match or game — no final exhalation — but the past two years have just been so, so impressive. I don’t think it can get much better than what Jürgen Klopp and Co. have done.

tchow: I have a genuine question, though, now that you all have processed this. Would you have preferred clinching the title on your own, like next week? Or is this just as good?

grace: I think in a pre-COVID world, I would’ve strongly felt it was best to win it at Anfield, but since then I’ve just wanted it done ASAP.

ryan: I feel the same way. It’s a shame it couldn’t be in front of a packed Anfield, but there will be a party at some point. Klopp will get drunk on Zoom. James Milner will drink some grape juice. It’ll be great.

cwick: I would have preferred to clinch it while playing. I want to see Mo Salah’s beatific smile. I want to watch Klopp vibrate the air with his fist pumps. And I want to see Trent Alexander-Arnold celebrate like the child he is.

tchow: Is TAA old enough to drink?

tchow: I keep thinking back to those videos of the Leicester team hanging out and watching the Chelsea-Spurs game together back in 2016 and thinking that was actually pretty nice. But with this pandemic, since that’s not even possible, this all feels more removed, so winning in any form is just as good. A title is a title.

ryan: Yeah, I do think the weirdness of it all has way less to do with the nature of how soccer awards its champs and much more to do with, you know, [gestures vaguely toward the sky].

grace: To be honest, it was more a negative emotion than anything. It was more about lifting the weight of not winning it for 30 years than winning it for winning’s sake.

cwick: When the historians talk about this Liverpool era, what do you think they will say? What defined it? And do numbers help us understand, or was there something ineffable?

ryan: I don’t think there’s one thing — and that’s why the team was so good. They nailed almost every signing and built a team of players who all peaked at the same time. They hired a coach to make everyone better. And then they broke a couple of records to nab Alisson and Virgil van Dijk to turn the early-Klopp weakness into a massive area of strength.

tchow: Chad, I think when people look back at this era of Liverpool football, it’ll all come back to Klopp. And not even specifically about his tactics or game management. But more about the influence of his cult of personality and gravitational pull on transforming this club to win first the Champions League and now EPL title. But maybe that’s an oversimplification.

grace: This era will surely be remembered as Liverpool vs. Man City, and stylistically they’re great comparison points. Liverpool has been framed as having more “traditional” values of hard work, passion, etc., but I think in terms of tactical cohesion, there hasn’t been a better side perhaps ever in England.

cwick: I think a lot about this piece from The New York Times Magazine when it comes to how to understand Liverpool’s success. It outlines how data drove their decision-making process in acquisitions, and that’s a big part of how Liverpool pulled this off. Any champion gets lucky on their way to a title — Liverpool just seemed to have a well-thought-out process about how to get lucky as often as possible.

grace: Stats nerds like me will say the team significantly overperformed expected goals, and that’s true. But this team has inarguably been very effective at game management and performing in particular situations.

ryan: They’ve also underperformed their underlying numbers in plenty of past seasons; it’s about time they shot the moon.

grace: If you can’t handle Liverpool at their Andy Carroll/Stewart Downing worst, you don’t deserve them at their Salah/Sadio Mané overperforming best.

Liverpool did the perfect trick of having a heavily data-driven process but making it look like it’s all Klopp hugs and “good lads” so other teams don’t catch on about how to actually win.

ryan: For me, there’s just such a clear trend line. Klopp came in and got everyone to run a lot. Then he turned them into a pressing machine that buried you in shots but gave up great chances on the other end. Over the past few years, they started taking fewer shots and conceding more, but the chances they created and conceded were much higher-quality. They finally got comfortable with allowing the other team into their defensive third from time to time. And now, they’ve won everything.

cwick: We’ve had two seasons of transcendent Liverpool play. Do we have a way of handicapping their progress going forward? Their transfer market has dried up recently, and a team like Chelsea is younger and seemingly ready to take the leap soon. And then of course there’s always Man City.

grace: To be honest, I think Liverpool deliberately decided to accept a degree of long-term pain for this short-term gain. And it was worth it — a league title and a Champions League win tell you that. But I do think we should expect this to not continue forever.

ryan: City was the favorite this year, and it will be the favorite next year. Liverpool overshot its underlying numbers this year, so it might regress a bit there, but I think this core of players probably has one or two years left at a really high level — if it decides to run it back or if the contracting global economy forces it to!

tchow: On the other hand, though, players like Salah, Mané and Firmino are all in their prime, maybe just a tad on the other side of their prime. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Although yes, point taken, they haven’t made splashier transfer moves like Chelsea has.

grace: Back late last year when Klopp renewed his deal, the talk was that the plan was to keep this same core together in 2020-21 then really rebuild and accept a couple of down years in the process.

ryan: I think it’s less about Chelsea and more about the fact that most of Liverpool’s players might just get slightly worse at the same time.

tchow: I think winning the Champions League and the Premier League buys you a couple of down years. Perhaps for a Liverpool fan, it will buy you a LOT of down years.

grace: Yeah. Liverpool put every penny it had into this current window of the men’s first team. Academy cuts and the terrible state of the women’s team will tell you that. It’s been all about this window of success.

ryan: Exactly. Just look at the Red Sox over the past decade or so for your model. Win it all, let it wilt, then win it all again.

And no, don’t ask me who Mookie Betts is in this scenario.

cwick: Now I can’t get the idea of a Dustin Pedroia-Jordan Henderson summit out of my head.

grace: I think the perhaps underrated thing in the side is how Klopp changed his approach for England. His Dortmund side won in transition moments, but the Premier League doesn’t allow for nearly as many, with your Burnleys and West Hams sitting deep and compact. He was able to adapt to a possession game using the full backs much more — and no title if that doesn’t happen.

tchow: No TAA, no title. Put that on a T-shirt.

ryan: I do wanna say, before we move on, that the way this team plays and the way it won — the out-of-control control — was just so, so much fun and rewarding to watch. It doesn’t really get any better in terms of melding style with success.

cwick: If I were 12, I would totally have a Fathead of Mané on my wall.

ryan: I have the same haircut as Mo Salah, and I’m 32.

tchow: Wait, are you not allowed to have Fatheads when you’re over 30? Asking for a friend.

cwick: There are, I’m told, other teams in the league. With the championship race settled, what does the rest of the season have in store? Tony, we can either talk about Arsenal or not, whatever you’re able to handle right now.

tchow: Let’s talk about the teams that have a chance to make the Champions League first.

grace: To think about the actual game that was played tonight, Chelsea looks to be in a really strong spot for the Champions League now. FiveThirtyEight has them at 93 percent to qualify.

ryan: In terms of actual effects on the standings, the win was WAY more important to Chelsea than Liverpool.

tchow: I’ll insert the usual caveat here that all of this is dependent on City’s Champions League ban being upheld.

grace: I was kind of surprised how effective Chelsea was at counter-pressing City in the opposing half. It felt like Frank Lampard wanted that kind of play for a while, but I didn’t think they could pull it off this well. I think Chelsea really could have something.

tchow: Timo Werner will finally be in the Premier League. Along with its Hakim Ziyech signing, Chelsea will be scary next season.

ryan: (I’m sorry but Jordan Henderson is on my TV, breaking down in tears while he talks to Jamie Carragher. It’s getting hard to concentrate.)

grace: SOME of us are PROFESSIONAL here, Ryan!

ryan: OK, OK, I’m back. The FiveThirtyEight model has Chelsea at 4.1 xG to City’s 1.0 in Thursday’s match. I don’t think I can recall City under Pep Guardiola ever getting beaten that badly.

grace: If only they had a goalkeeper.

tchow: Who needs a goalkeeper when you’re banging in goals. But no, really, they do need to replace Kepa Arrizabalaga.

ryan: Kepa has strong Simon Mignolet vibes: makes every shot look way harder to save than it actually is.

grace: It feels like a lifetime ago, but this seemed similar to City’s loss to Man United just before the break. Played really good stuff between the boxes but just got caught out so easily on the counter.

If I were running Chelsea, I would have definitely spent that cash on a keeper before Werner and Ziyech.

tchow: Going back to something Ryan said earlier, are we sure City will still be favorites next year?

grace: I mean, I’m assuming Pep fixes this either in the market or through coaching.

cwick: Tough to attract top-level talent to a team with a Champions League ban, no?

grace: Juanma Lillo, Pep’s new assistant, is a big get in that regard. One of the big unheralded tactical influences of the past 30 years.

ryan: Even with the injuries and the weak defense, they still have the best xG differential in the league by far.

I think this was probably a … 20th-percentile City season? And they’re gonna moonwalk to second place.

grace: With a 24 percent chance of winning the Champions League according to the FiveThirtyEight model!

ryan: The best team in the world, according to the model, too!

grace: Don’t worry, Pep. You might have blown the league, but the model still loves you.

tchow: That second place to me says more about the other teams in the league than it does City this season, and I’m not sure the same issues will be there next year. We’ve talked about Chelsea, but Man United finally seem to be getting its act together.

ryan: I don’t think you can discount the fact that City won 198 points in the previous two seasons. Most of those players are still there. Chelsea and United just don’t have anything close to those priors. I do, however, think that we might be seeing an end to the Big Six.

grace: I think Man United has found a quick fix, which is just letting Bruno Fernandes do his thing, but I don’t see them as a cohesive enough side to really threaten much.

cwick: Ryan, what do you mean the end of the Big Six? Or is that really just a veiled shot at Arsenal?

grace: I mean, it’s not just Arsenal. The model simulates Wolves finishing 4 points ahead of Tottenham as well. Lean times in North London.

tchow: Or London in general. Sorry, West Ham fans.

ryan: Per expected goal differential, City, Liverpool, Chelsea and United are the clear top four right now. Plus, Chelsea and United are trending in the right direction and are probably mostly immune to pandemic penny-pinching. Tottenham and Arsenal don’t have that financial backing, and neither is, uh, heading in the right direction.

You could convince me that Wolves, Leicester and Everton all have brighter futures than Spurs and Arsenal, too.

cwick: one last question before I let all of you go celebrate for real: Do we know how the pandemic will affect team building for the next year or two? Will there be less money sloshing around, and thus fewer transfers? Or because all of European soccer is in the same boat, nothing much will change in terms of acquisition, even if the amounts are lower?

grace: The noises from people involved in the game are that transfer activity will slow significantly for at least a little while. I would imagine everyone is hoping and praying they can get fans into the stadiums sooner rather than later and revenues start to return to normal.

ryan: It seems like most teams will have less to spend or will at least be less willing to spend, while teams with owners with some more liquidity — like, say, a Russian oligarch — will be able to take advantage of that.

grace: Financial Fair Play is being “relaxed,” which is entirely sensible when lots of teams will be making big losses, but interesting to see if anyone can exploit that.

tchow: I was curious how the pandemic would affect individual transfer fees in general. I would have assumed you probably won’t see as many astronomical fees and record-breaking prices for star players, but, to take it outside of the EPL for a minute, that Barcelona-Juventus swap would prove otherwise. Maybe nothing will change. It’s just money anyway, right?

cwick: Pfff, nobody would try to exploit Financial Fair Play rules.

grace: However one feels about FFP, the rules were designed for normal times, which these obviously are not.

cwick: If only the revenues were lower before Chelsea went after Kepa…

grace: There’s a whole sci-fi novel to be written about the alternate universe where Chelsea gets Alisson and Liverpool signs Kepa.

ryan: Funnily enough, Kepa’s replacement at Athletic Bilbao, Unai Simón, has saved almost nine goals more than average this year, per FBRef. Wonder if they’d fancy a tradeback.

grace: Thing is if Athletic ever had to sell Simón, they’d surely be interested in saving Kepa from Chelsea due to their Basque-players-only policy limiting their options.

cwick: I really think Kepa is the patronus of these chats.

tchow: That makes sense. These are lightly edited so most of what we say stays in. Nothing gets blocked out. Checks out.


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A FiveThirtyEight Chat
 

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin is a deputy editor at 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.

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