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So, the title race is back on
Let's look at the two contenders.
Hi, everyone. I know things are pretty bad in the world right now. I don’t have anything valuable to say about that except to lend my solidarity to the people of Ukraine. If nothing else, I hope this article can be an enjoyable distraction from everything awful.
It was supposed to be done. It was said to be another procession to the league title for Manchester City. They were ten points clear after Liverpool and Chelsea drew on the 2nd January, signalling a very dominant position. But then football had its way of tightening things up, and Liverpool have cut the lead to three points. Let’s see how those two sides are looking.
Are we seeing signs of a wobble? I don’t think so, but it’s worth pondering anyway. A team as good as Man City can’t exactly be broken, but a very small issue could be enough to derail a title charge.
After winning the previous twelve games on the bounce, City have dropped four points in the past month against Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur. In both cases, the sides executed the tried-and-tested way of hurting Pep Guardiola teams: hitting them with quick passing movements up the pitch. Antonio Conte might object to it being called “counter-attacking”, but it’s certainly about quick sequences. Spurs’ first goal took five passes to get from Hugo Lloris’ goal kick to Dejan Kulusevski putting it in the back of the net. It was slick and deliberate but, most importantly, it was fast. Southampton did the same thing with Kyle Walker-Peters’ goal.
Over the last five league games, their expected goals per shot conceded1 have jumped from a pretty normal 0.10 to a much more alarming 0.15. But we’re talking 31 shots here, which is really too few to draw anything conclusive. A couple of those Spurs chances don’t quite connect for one reason or another and the whole picture looks different. But when City do struggle, it tends to look like this. The press continues to exert dominance in terms of territory and shot volume, but you just get a few of those high-quality chances creeping through.
That territorial dominance is absolutely intact. They’ve actually been allowing fewer opposition touches in their own box, as well as letting the opponent complete fewer progressive passes. This is what makes it so hard to evaluate City’s defence with statistics: they allow so little through that the chances they do concede become a tiny sample size, with one or two bad moments heavily skewing the data. I think it’s probably fine. But if City are to drop a few more points, watch out for the way they defend fast passing sequences straight through the gut. If they’re starting to get caught out a bit more easily there, that would be the sign that something is amiss.
It seems unlikely just because I can’t figure out why they would suddenly have a problem. They played pretty much their strongest eleven against Tottenham, and all of those players have been excellent at defending fast transitions for the last 18 months. On the attacking side, nothing seems to have changed. Yes, the story after the Tottenham game was that they didn’t get Harry Kane, but that was right after a Champions League tie where they put five past Sporting. Scoring goals hasn’t been a problem for this team, and something would have to go wrong for it to become one now. There are no signs of something going wrong there.
City could easily drop a few more points here because shit happens and that’s football. But I don’t see them dropping an awful lot of points. If Liverpool are to win the league, they’ll need to really put an impressive run together.
Liverpool’s 6-0 win over Leeds United was quietly impressive for one ultimately meaningless reason: it meant that the Reds overtook Man City in xG difference for the first time in a long while.2 The story of the season up until December was that Liverpool were playing just as well as City, then a few rough results hit and it looked like the title was over.
Liverpool needed something to lift the mood, and winning six on the bounce tends to do that. For all the fears about losing players to AFCON, the Reds came out of that tournament totally unscathed. What’s more, they now have better strength in depth than at any previous point under Jürgen Klopp. Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino are both doubts for Sunday’s Carabao Cup final, but both should be fit for the next league game a week on Saturday. Add in Luis Díaz’ arrival and Harvey Elliott’s return and Liverpool are picking from a very strong hand.
They’ve created more xG this season than any other side in Europe, and they’ve added to that attack. But is the balance there? They’ve conceded about six more expected goals than City. Klopp has tilted his side even further towards attack this season. Trent Alexander-Arnold is taking up more advanced positions than ever, while one of the central midfielders pushes forward to join the attack. In the 19/20 title-winning season, there was a greater emphasis on keeping things compact in midfield and attacking through the full backs in wide areas. That’s subtly shifted to more of an all guns blazing approach.
If Liverpool are going to put together the kind of run that would land the league title, they’re probably relying a lot on the individual quality of the centre backs. That’s mostly been the case this season, and Ibrahima Konaté’s performance against Inter suggests he could step up and add some extra steel to the side in the run-in. Liverpool have a greater range of performance levels than Man City. There’s a world in which they tighten up a bit at the back without losing any of the attacking threat, and that’s what they probably need to win the title. There are also worlds where things don’t go quite so well.
Here’s the thing: I expect both teams will drop very few points between now and the end of the season. That weirdly distorts the table in that one or two strange results could dramatically shape the direction of the race. City have a three-point cushion plus a slightly easier schedule, but that leaves us well within the range of shit happens. With two excellent and pretty evenly matched teams, the league title is more likely than ever to be decided by randomness.
At the start of 2022, City had a large margin of error. They’ve eaten into that quite a bit. Their cushion is still there, but it’s small enough that the title could easily be decided by some weird fluke occurrences. We’re in the zone of anything could happen, and I can just as easily imagine a wide gap opening up as I can something that goes down to the wire.
Either way, it’s awfully exciting.
As the name would suggest, the xG they’ve conceded divided by the number of shots they’ve faced. In other words, it’s a measure of how dangerous the average chance they’ve conceded is.
Expected goal difference is just goal difference but for xG, so a team’s xG for minus its xG against.