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This Could Finally Be Liverpool’s Year … For Real This Time

If Liverpool wins its game against Crystal Palace at London’s Selhurst Park on Saturday, it will remain at least 8 points clear of its nearest title challenger at the top of the Premier League table. Only three teams in league history have built equal or larger gaps at the top of the table through match week 13, and each went on to lift the trophy at the end of the season.1 History suggests Liverpool is on its way to winning its first-ever Premier League title, but history hasn’t always been kind to the Reds — especially not very recent history.

Take last season, for example: Liverpool lost just one of its 38 Premier League games en route to amassing 97 points, and yet it still finished in second place, a measly point behind northwest rivals Manchester City. In doing so, Liverpool became the first team in the history of the English top flight — which dates back to 1888 — to claim at least 97 points and not win the title. To put an even finer point on it: Liverpool’s 97 points were the most by any runners-up in the history of Europe’s top five leagues. The Reds were also a fraction of an inch — 11.7 millimeters, to be exact — shy of an unbeaten season, a feat that’s been achieved just twice in the history of the English top flight.2

Of course, 2018-19 wasn’t a complete bust for Liverpool. It beat league rival Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final in Madrid last June, giving the club its sixth European championship — the most for any English club, and the third-most for any club, period. The triumph in Europe was a kind of bewildering salve — Liverpool may not have finished the season as the best team in England, but it did finish the season as the best team in Europe? — but it didn’t change the fundamental narrative that Liverpool is incapable of winning the Premier League.

And yet here we are in late November, and there Liverpool is sitting pretty at the top of the table again. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, the Reds have a 67 percent chance of winning the Premier League. It’s still early, and Liverpool has blown substantial leads before — it was 7 points clear at the top of the table after match week 20 last season, at which time the FiveThirtyEight model gave it a 78 percent chance of winning the title — but it appears as though this finally might be the season the club flips that narrative.

So what do the Reds need to do to assure themselves of a return to their perch at the top of English soccer? Sorting out its back line would go a long way. The club from Merseyside conceded just 0.58 goals per game in 2018-19 — tied for the third-best rate in Premier League history — but that number has jumped to 0.83 this season. Injuries at the back haven’t helped Liverpool’s cause: it was without star goalkeeper Alisson Becker for seven matches after he tore a calf muscle in the 39th minute of the season-opener against Norwich City, and center back Joël Matip is out indefinitely with a knee injury. But the fact that the club is simultaneously giving up more goals than it did a season ago and outperforming its expected goals against (xGA) is concerning. Liverpool’s xGA mark of 0.97 per game indicates a vulnerability in its backline that wasn’t present last season.

The upside is that Liverpool is conceding the fewest shots on target per 90 minutes in the Premier League (2.58), and it has the reigning Best FIFA Men’s Goalkeeper between the sticks.

The downside is that some of those shots conceded are self-inflicted — along with Spurs, Bournemouth and Aston Villa, Liverpool is committing the most errors per 90 minutes leading to shots. Liverpool was always likely to regress defensively after such a strong 2018-19 campaign, but a return to that dominant form would help fend off other challengers for the league title this year.

Slight defensive frailties aside, Liverpool’s attack continues to hum right along, closely resembling the attack that scored 89 goals a season ago. Their expected assists (xA), percentage of shots on target and possession rate per 90 minutes have all dipped slightly, but expected goals (xG), key passes, chances created and big chances created are all on the upswing. And though Liverpool’s overall possession rate has dropped, the club has become the league’s most adept in terms of winning the ball back in dangerous areas: Per 90 minutes, it wins possession 29.25 times in the middle third of the pitch and 6.67 times in the attacking third of the pitch, pacing the league in both areas.

Liverpool’s offense might be even better this year

Performance in key offensive metrics per 90 minutes for Liverpool during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Premier League seasons

2018-19 2019-20 Diff.
Ball recoveries 55.6 58.5 +2.9
Possessions won in attacking third 4.9 6.7 +1.8
Chances created 11.2 12.9 +1.7
Possessions won in middle third 27.7 29.3 +1.6
Key passes 9.8 11.3 +1.5
Shots 15.1 16.6 +1.5
Big chances created 2.3 2.8 +0.5
Expected goals 2.1 2.2 +0.1
Expected assists 1.4 1.2 -0.2
On target rate 39.3% 38.7% -0.6
Possession rate 61.9% 60.7% -1.2

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

One player has been more instrumental to Liverpool’s ball-hungry approach than any other: Fabinho. It took the Brazilian a bit to settle into the Premier League — he didn’t get a start until match week 10 in 2018-19 — but he’s become one of the league’s most imposing defensive midfielders. His mark of 5.11 possessions won per 90 minutes in the middle third of the pitch is up significantly from last year — and significantly better than any Liverpool midfielder from a season ago — and helps facilitate Liverpool’s devastating counterattack.

Fabinho has really come alive this season

Performance in key offensive metrics per 90 minutes for Liverpool’s Fabinho during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Premier League seasons

2018-19 2019-20 Diff.
Possessions won in middle third 3.4 5.1 +1.7
Chances created 0.7 1.3 +0.6
Key passes 0.6 1.2 +0.6
Possessions won in attacking third 0.3 0.6 +0.3
Big chances created 0.1 0.1 +0.0

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

With Fabinho winning balls in the midfield and providing defensive cover, Liverpool’s fullback duo of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are allowed to push up the pitch and do what they do best: create scoring opportunities from wide positions for the attacking trio of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. So far, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are tied for second and seventh in total assists, respectively. A season ago, Alexander-Arnold broke the record for assists by a defender. Passing and crossing from fullbacks is a crucial part of Liverpool’s creative engine, and Fabinho’s contributions allow it to run smoothly.

Liverpool lost its grip on last season’s title when it lost to Manchester City in the first week of the new year, but it tightened its grip on this season’s title when it beat that same rival two weeks ago. Mané was the man of the match, and Salah scored a crucial goal to give the Reds a two-goal cushion, but it was Fabinho who threw down the gauntlet with a 25-yard banger to open the scoring and set the tone of the match.

Liverpool boasts seven Ballon d’Or nominees. But it’s Fabinho who is setting the tone for the Reds at the moment. Indeed, Liverpool’s title hopes might rest squarely on his shoulders.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Manchester United in 1993-94, Chelsea in 2005-06 and Manchester City in 2017-18.

  2. By Preston North End in 1888-89 and Arsenal in 2003-04.

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

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