I think Liverpool are back
Klopp might have just fixed it
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
For the last 25 years, Liverpool have often followed an all too familiar script.
When Gérard Houllier took over a club in desperate need of modernisation in 1998, everyone understood it would take time. Houllier finished seventh in his first season in charge, followed by fourth the next year, then third, then second. Add in the haul of cup competitions he won and it really felt like Liverpool were on the cusp of winning the big one by the summer of 2002. Instead, what happened was that the team completely imploded and finished fifth. Sacking the manager was considered ungentlemanly in those days, so he got another season in which Liverpool just about scraped fourth before finally getting his marching orders.
Rafa Benítez also needed time. Despite that upset Champions League win, Liverpool were not good in his first season at Anfield, finishing fifth in the league. Subsequent years saw the Reds come third, third and fourth before getting to second and missing the title by four points. Had Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres not missed stretches of the season through injury, Liverpool might’ve got over the line. But the feeling was by 2009 that they were getting ever closer and had a real shot at the title. Then, of course, the team fell apart and finished seventh. Benítez was sacked that summer.
After two disappointing seasons under Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool hired Brendan Rodgers to start a long-term reboot. After a stormy first season, things suddenly clicked and Liverpool… well, you know how that season ended. Taking the team from seventh to second, though, was certainly huge progress. People say that team was just about Luis Suárez, but they’re wrong. It was about Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, whose injury problems really became an issue the next year. Without that front two, Liverpool fell apart and finished sixth. Rodgers lasted a few more months before getting hooked for Jürgen Klopp.
The state of the squad meant Klopp needed to come in and deliver yet another long-term rebuild. He did exactly that, getting the team to eighth, then fourth, fourth, second and, yes, finally, first. Liverpool went through a horrible spell in the middle of the season after winning the title where it looked like the collapse was happening, but they rallied in the spring to get a respectable third-place finish. They really turned the heat up the next season, and I would argue they played better football in 2021/22 than they managed in the title-winning campaign, even if they came second to Manchester City in the league and Real Madrid in the Champions League. And then it all fell apart. Fifth place with a pretty shambolic defence. Was it over? Were Liverpool going through the same cycle again? Would a new manager have to put a long-term rebuild in place?
Maybe things could still go wrong. Maybe I’m calling it too soon. But right now, I think there’s a clear answer: no. Klopp has got this team firing again.
If we look straight at the league table, it looks pretty good, if not exceptionally so. Liverpool are in fourth place, one point behind both Man City and Arsenal, and three behind leaders Tottenham. If we look at expected goal difference, it shakes out pretty similarly with fourth-best (behind Man City, Newcastle United and Arsenal) figures. That’s good, and an improvement over last season. But I’m confident this team is actually better than those figures suggest.
Liverpool have played some weird matches so far. In the second game of the season against Bournemouth, they were 2-1 up and comfortably dominating until Alexis Mac Allister picked up a red card (with the ban retroactively overturned) in the 58th minute. Up until that point, the Reds had outshot Bournemouth 21-4 and dominated the xG by 3.11-0.20. Once they went down to ten, despite Diogo Jota easing nerves to make it 3-1, Liverpool totally lost control of the game. With a man advantage, Bournemouth outshot Liverpool 9-5 and ‘won’ the xG 1.2-0.6.
The next weekend away at Newcastle is a similar story. Virgil van Dijk got a stupid red card that no one can really defend. The narrative of the game becomes that Liverpool might be better with ten, thanks to Darwin Núñez’ late heroics. But the data doesn’t say that. Newcastle were better against eleven men (ahead 0.6-0.2 on xG) as well as against ten (1.4-0.7). It was impressive that Liverpool fought back, but the Magpies really should’ve seen them off.
After a few normal weeks, Liverpool saw two red cards in the same game against Tottenham. I’m not getting into the offside decision again, so let’s just look at the match itself. 26 minutes eleven-against-eleven doesn’t tell us anything remotely meaningful, but Liverpool were the better team in that period, dominating the xG 0.4-0.03. After that, Spurs were inevitably the better side, at 2.2-1.0 in Tottenham’s favour. Liverpool have picked up four red cards in their first ten matches. They’ve only picked up more in a whole Premier League season four times. Either these players are a uniquely cynical bunch of violent thugs, or it’s a weird quirk that will slow down (please leave your conspiracy theories at the door).
And yes, we do need to mention that Liverpool had a red card go their way against Everton, and it did seem to help swing the match their way (0.3-0.1 against eleven compared to 1.9-0.06 against ten). We’ll remove all the minutes played either up or down a man (or down two men, as was briefly the case).
If we look at only minutes where both sides had eleven players on the field this season, Liverpool have an expected goal difference of +7.66. That’s still fourth and actually worse than the entire minutes they’ve played, but they’ve had less time to accrue chances when we shrink the sample. If we look at xG difference per 90, Liverpool eleven-against-eleven are at +1.38, which is better than any other team in the league.
The problem is the sample size. Liverpool have only played 7.66 90s eleven against eleven1. The ‘lost’ minutes include tricky ties against Newcastle and Tottenham. So let’s expand the sample a bit beyond this season. I’ve written about this before, but Liverpool did meaningfully improve in the final ten games of last season. We’ll get into why below, but Liverpool picked up 24 points in those last ten matches (a 91.2 point ‘pace’), with an xG difference per 90 of +1.33 (a massive improvement on the +0.30 from the rest of that season). I’m aware that I’m deliberately cherry-picking the cut-off point here for exactly when Liverpool started playing well, but nonetheless, a sample size of 20 matches and 17.7 90s is not a small amount. So let’s asterisk this a little, but here’s how the best teams in the league look in xG difference per 90 over that stretch, last 20 matches, only eleven against eleven:
Man City: +1.15
Aston Villa: +0.41
I haven’t worked out Spurs here because I don’t think last season’s data holds any relevance to what they’re doing right now. We can break Tottenham down in another newsletter. Arsenal’s defensive crisis at the end of last season also drags their average down (though I’m not sure you can guarantee it won’t happen again). I haven’t done Brighton because, well, it’s a pain to work these out manually when you can’t code. But I think the point is clear: Liverpool have been really good for about half a season now with eleven on the pitch.
Keep reading after the break to find out how Liverpool are playing and why it’s working so well.
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