No Mané. No Sterling. No Problem.
Even after losing star forwards in the offseason, Liverpool and Man City are the Premier League favorites.
The 2022-23 Premier League season kicks off this weekend, and there’s one question on the minds of many soccer fans: Does any team other than Liverpool or Manchester City have a real shot at winning this thing? The northwestern rivals1 have been head and shoulders above the rest of England — and most of the rest of the world, for that matter2 — for the better part of the past half-decade. But this season, two names will be conspicuously missing from the teams’ rosters: Sadio Mané and Raheem Sterling.
In late June, Mané went from Liverpool to German powerhouse Bayern Munich for a transfer fee of more than £27 million. Not to be outdone, Sterling was on the move from City less than a month later, heading to Chelsea for £47.5 million. Twin losses of that magnitude might offer hope for a wide-open EPL table this year. Let’s not get too carried away, though: Entering Matchweek 1, the FiveThirtyEight SPI model still ranks City as the favorite to win the league at 46 percent, followed by Liverpool at 30 percent. By contrast, the model gives Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United a combined 19 percent chance at domestic glory.3 The more things change, the more they appear to stay the same.
FiveThirtyEight’s 2022-23 Premier League forecast
Team ratings and season forecast for clubs with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the 2022-23 EPL championship, according to the FiveThirtyEight model
|Team||Off.||Def.||SPI||Goal Diff.||Pts||Make UCL||Win EPL|
And make no mistake, the status quo would mean another thrilling installment of the Man City-Liverpool rivalry, the best in world soccer right now. In each of the past five seasons, one of the two has won the title,4 and on two occasions the teams were separated by just one tiny little point. Since the beginning of 2018-19 — which could realistically be categorized as the season that truly sparked the arms race between the two clubs — they are separated by a total of one point (358 for City, 357 for Liverpool), which borders on the absurd. To put those numbers into sharper focus: Chelsea was the next best over that span with 279 points. No other team has gotten remotely close to the levels of City and Liverpool in the era of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.
For most of the past five years, both teams have been borderline impenetrable in their own defensive third — each conceded less than one expected goal per game — and outrageous in the attacking third, with each scoring more than 80 goals in at least four of those five seasons.5 Among both teams’ embarrassment of riches in attack, Mané and Sterling played leading roles.
For the majority of their respective teams’ runs of dominance, Mané and Sterling clearly belonged among the Premier League’s elite forwards. In the past five seasons, neither finished lower than 15th in non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes or expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes. Each player is capable of playing on the left, through the center and on the right of a forward line, and each has contributed at least 149 Premier League goals plus assists in his career to date.
It’s impossible to know whether Liverpool or City would have been as dominant without Mané and Sterling — or if they can be going forward — but it’s hard to imagine they will be demonstrably better. In many ways, Mané, who was just named Africa’s best male soccer player,6 and Sterling — who has won the Golden Boy, the PFA Young Player of the Year, the FWA Footballer of the Year and a slew of other honors — have both defined these historically excellent Liverpool and City teams. And now, just like that, they’re gone.
For most teams, losing a Mané or a Sterling would be catastrophic. Superstar-size holes in an offense are hard to fix. But for City and Liverpool, not so much.
City was quick to gobble up Julián Álvarez from River Plate — adding the consensus best player in South America from a season ago — and Erling Haaland, perhaps the most exciting young talent in world soccer behind Kylian Mbappé, from Borussia Dortmund. Both players lit up their domestic leagues last season, and both stand to benefit from playing with exquisite passers such as Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo. City’s tactical approach might change a bit — Álvarez and Haaland play more as traditional strikers and aren’t likely to occupy the same spaces Sterling did on the wings — but the team shouldn’t struggle to put the ball in the net.
And for Liverpool, the preparation for life after Mané began earlier this year. When the Reds signed Luis Díaz from Porto in January, the Colombian made an immediate impact, tallying an impressive (and very Mané-like) 0.59 expected goals plus assists per 90 in his first 13 league games with the club. Díaz started out on his preferred left wing, while Klopp moved Mané to a central role in the forward line. The shake-up proved effective — Mané scored eight goals in 14 appearances after his return from Africa’s Cup of Nations, perhaps the biggest reason Liverpool clawed its way back into a title race that looked over after the holiday fixtures. But Díaz’s excellent play on the left wing suggested Liverpool had found its Mané replacement, even if they didn’t need it for another half-year.
Liverpool wasn’t done signing forwards, either. In June, they splashed a club-record £85 million fee for Darwin Núñez. The Uruguayan is still a bit raw, but he slashed through defenses — including Liverpool’s — during his second full season with Benfica en route to 32 goals in all competitions. Klopp and company loved what they saw when the two clubs met in the quarterfinals of the 2021-22 Champions League. Not long after, they put their money where their mouth was.
Clubs hit the refresh button all the time. It’s part of the game. Still, it will take some time to get used to the fact that Sterling plays for Chelsea and Mané no longer plays in the Premier League at all. How much will Liverpool and City miss their legends? A little bit, probably. But much to the chagrin of the chasing pack, probably not enough for the gap to close. In other words, the Premier League is still a two-horse race, despite an offseason of volatility.
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