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Will Liverpool Run Away With The Premier League Again, Or Can Manchester City Take The Title Back?

No one has ever dominated the Premier League like Liverpool and Manchester City have in the past three years. Each team finished with at least 97 points on two occasions — City with 100 in 2017-18 and 98 in 2018-19, Liverpool with 97 in 2018-19 and 99 in 2019-20, the four best seasons in league history — and each won the league in record-breaking fashion.1 It’s safe to say that City and Liverpool are in a class above the rest of the Premier League — and have been for several seasons now.

The title race in 2018-19 was decided by a single point — and just 11.7 millimeters. But like City in 2017-18, Liverpool last season jumped out to a double-digit lead before the halfway mark. A 4-0 thrashing of Leicester City at King Power stadium on Boxing Day all but wrapped it up for the Reds, who dropped only 2 points in their first 27 games in 2019-20. Although at the start of the season City was favored to complete the three-peat, according to FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model, 2 the Reds were undaunted. They left their devastating near miss from the previous season in the past and bulldozed the league en route to their first league title in 30 years. There was no real title race last season, just a seven-month coronation.3

There’s a case to be made that Liverpool got lucky last season, or at least that scoring patterns went Liverpool’s way at key times, as judged by expected goals scored (xG) and expected goals against (xGA). According to an analysis by Grace Robertson for StatsBomb, through early February, the Reds scored more and conceded fewer goals than expected when games were tied and then played at roughly expected levels offensively while continuing to outperform defensively after they took a lead. “Liverpool score more to get ahead, then concede less once they get there,” Robertson wrote. “They’re not just beating xG. They’re beating xG at the right moments, in the right ways, to maximise points.”

Liverpool’s ability to get leads and hold onto them, especially late in proceedings, was among its greatest virtues a season ago. The Reds faltered a bit toward the end of the season, but only after the title was sewn up and the season had been paused for several months in the midst of a pandemic. Who can blame them for taking their foot off the gas a bit?

City won eight games by four goals or more in 2017-18 and 10 games by four goals or more last season — including an 8-0 win over lowly, since-relegated Watford. But the Reds rarely annihilated their opponents. Instead, Liverpool’s ability to outperform xG and xGA at the right times allowed it to win a lot of one-goal games last season: 14 to be exact. A handful of tough results in close games killed Liverpool in 2018-19; good results in close games made Liverpool champions of England in 2019-20.

City, on the other hand, slightly underperformed its expected goals against in 2019-20. And while it smashed the xG models yet again — City has paced the league in xG, xGA, xG differential per 90 minutes, non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes and non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes in each of the past three seasons — City turned in its worst performance of the Pep Guardiola era by losses and its second-worst by points. The team often battered opponents when it took the lead and failed to get the job done when things were tight: Five of its nine losses — nine! — were by one goal.

Much was written about the absence of center back Aymeric Laporte from City’s defense last season, as well as City’s inability to replace former captain Vincent Kompany. A knee injury to Laporte early in the season left the Cityzens thin at the back, and they looked vulnerable as a result. A revolving central defending unit of Nicolás Otamendi, John Stones, a teenage Eric García and an aging Fernandinho — who famously isn’t a center back — wasn’t ideal. As such, a team that scored 102 goals while conceding just 35 lost nine games and finished 18 points behind the champions.4

City’s need to strengthen at the back inspired the acquisition of former Bournemouth center back Nathan Aké. At first glance, Aké doesn’t appear to be any better than Otamendi, Stones, García or Fernandinho. But comparing a center back from Bournemouth, which possessed the ball just 43.8 percent of the time last season, to center backs from City, which possessed the ball 66.9 percent of the time last season and spent the majority of that time in the middle or attacking third of the pitch, isn’t exactly fair.

Aké should provide solid cover when needed, but the center back City really wants is Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. Koulibaly is considered alongside Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk to be one of the best center backs on the planet, and a partnership with a healthy Laporte could be the best duo in the Premier League, if not all of world soccer. So far the Koulibaly transfer is merely a rumor, and Napoli is allegedly after a monster fee (especially for a 29-year-old, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic). But if the deal does get over the line, it could transform City more significantly than any other transfer in the Guardiola era.

Liverpool has been relatively quiet in the transfer market by comparison. The Reds signed left back Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiacos for about $15 million, which is relatively short money, and the Greek is expected to back up Andy Robertson. Bayern Munich and Spain midfielder Thiago Alcántara has been linked with a move to Merseyside, while Georginio Wijnaldum has been linked with a move away from Liverpool to Barcelona, but neither transfer has come to pass yet. Alcántara doesn’t fit with Liverpool’s recent transfer strategy — he’s 29 and injury prone — but he would certainly give the Reds a different look going forward. Among Liverpool’s current set of midfielders, only Naby Keïta approaches Thiago in terms of shot-creating actions, progressive passing, passes made into the attacking third and pass completion percentage. If they end up hanging onto Wijnaldum, the Reds don’t really need another midfielder. But if they deal the Dutchman, they’ll have to replace his minutes somehow — since joining Liverpool in 2016, Wijnaldum has played in 141 of a possible 152 Premier League games — and they could do far worse than Alcántara.

So, will this season be like 2017-18 and 2019-20 — inevitable and over as quickly as it started — or will Premier League fans be treated to the kind of historic title race we saw in 2018-19? The FiveThirtyEight model likes City from the jump, giving the Mancunians a 57 percent chance of winning their third title in four seasons and Liverpool a 24 percent chance of repeating. Whether the title race is tight or not, one thing is clear: It’s still Liverpool and City’s league to lose.

Footnotes

  1. City set the record for largest winning margin (19 points), while Liverpool set the record for earliest title win (with seven games remaining) and largest gap at the top during any point in a season (25 points).

  2. Only Manchester United has pulled off a three-peat in the Premier League era. In fact, they did it twice.

  3. The COVID-19 shutdown meant Liverpool had to wait much longer than expected to snatch its most coveted prize.

  4. Several five-goal drubbings of teams in the lower half of the table help to explain City’s gargantuan goal difference.

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

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