What’s wrong with Liverpool? There’s good and bad news for Jurgen Klopp as he tries to straighten out the club’s title defense: It’s all in their heads.
This is not simply about unquantifiable concepts — we’ve got numbers — but the truth of the matter is this: While the Reds have been on a miserable run in terms of scoring and results, this year’s current fourth-place side simply isn’t much different than the team than the teams that won the Champions League and Premier League in consecutive seasons.
[ MORE: Klopp on loss, Dyche flap | Dyche reaction ]
Now this also means demanding a measure of humility from fans, players, pundits, and even Klopp when peering back toward the two previous magical seasons for the Anfield set.
The 53-year-old Klopp has a knack for being dismissive — like when he refused to admit the Reds were going to clinch the league until they, well, clinched the league — and perhaps his candid and quotable response when asked Thursday about winning the league may be a sign that he’s about to circle the wagons and try to remount the “No one believes in us” surge.
“Look, how silly would that be if I sit here now, losing against Burnley, didn’t score for the last three or four games – I don’t know exactly – and now I talk about the title race? How silly would that be? It’s just we have to win football games – it was always like this. For this we have to score goals, there is no doubt about it. That’s what we have to change and have to do better. If things don’t work, you have to work harder, do the right things more often, longer and more consistent, all these kind of things. But not talking like it is an easy situation, it’s not. It shows a lot of things. It’s incredible how consistent the boys were but that was never something that anybody should have taken for granted because now we see they are all human beings, that’s how it is. And now I have to make clear about what we have to do in the right moments and then we will score goals again.”
And they will. No one is expecting this team to bounce out of the title race completely or sit on the fringes of the top four discussion, but we’ve got three key points to argue that say the following:
If you believed Liverpool were title contenders last season, then you shouldn’t be bailing on them now.
Read on below the jump.
1. Past perception doesn’t guarantee future results
Forgive the legal disclaimer-like title, but this is a really good place to start or finish: Liverpool’s incredible 2019-20 season gave them a thoroughly-deserved Premier League title as the league’s best team.
But the gap between the Reds and the field is, was, and always will be bit of a mirage. Jurgen Klopp knew his Reds weren’t 18 points better than Man City and the analytics field nodded in agreement.
Now feel free to argue that expected goals are goofy and you hate them because your gut tells you that 2019-20 Liverpool is simply the best ever. Gutalytics over analytics.
2018-19 goal difference v. expected goal difference (Understat.com)
1. Man City — +72 GD, +68 xGD
2. Liverpool — +67 GD, +70 xGD
3. Tottenham — +28 GD, +13 xGD
4. Chelsea — +24 GD, +26 xGD
5. Arsenal — +22 GD, +8 xGD
6. Man United — +11 GD, +16 xGD
2019-20 goal difference v. expected goal difference (Understat.com)
1. Man City — +67 GD, +65 GD
2. Liverpool — +52 GD, +36 xGD
3. Man United — +30 GD, +28 xGD
4. Chelsea — +26 GD, +35 xGD
Here are the Premier League leaders in goal difference over the past two seasons, when Man City pipped Liverpool to the 2018-19 crown by one point before Liverpool ran away with the 2019-20 campaign.
Notice anything? In most of those cases, the actual GD isn’t too far off from the amount of high-probability chances the top teams produced on the field. When Liverpool fans argue that their team was actually better but lost in 2018-19, they have a case to make.
Last year, however…
Perhaps one of the reasons so much was made of the “Mentality Monster” line from Klopp was that as the Reds rescued wins from draws and draws from losses, they were often failing the eye test until the final, smallest letters were on the line.
When Liverpool beat Chelsea 5-3 late last season, the Reds produced 1.45 expected goals to the Blues’ 2.38. When they beat Man City 3-1 in November, they produced 1.33 xG to City’s 1.48. And they’re 2-1 win at Chelsea in September? xG has it as 1.23-1.03 to the Blues.
Now Chelsea and Man City happened to be two of the least fortunate chance finishers in the league, and that shouldn’t add credit to their actual point total nor should it detract from Liverpool’s total.
But maybe the Mentality Monster line is a convenient and fun way to label an unparalleled run of turning four-star leftovers into a five-star meal.
One other thing: Liverpool’s earned five penalties and conceded six this season, making all five of theirs while opponents have converted only three of six. Last season they won five and conceded one. The year before? 7-1.
Probably not the prime item to complain about, but the Reds numbers are being buoyed a bit by getting to the spot. And it takes work to get to the spot, but keep it in mind.
2018-19 points v. expected points (Understat.com)
1. Man City — 98 pts, 91 xPTS
2. Liverpool — 97 points, 84 xPTS
3. Chelsea — 72 points, 72 xPTS
4. Tottenham — 71 points, 61 xPTS
5. Arsenal — 70 points, 59 xPTS
6. Man United — 66 points, 62 xPTS
2019-20 points v. expected points (Understat.com)
1. Liverpool — 99 points, 74.28 xPTS
2. Man City — 81 points, 86.76 xPTS
3. Chelsea — 66 points, 73.49 xPTS
4. Manchester United — 66 points, 70.99 xPTS
Some more stats here, and yes they feed off of the first batch a little bit.
Maybe this is a case for mentality, that Liverpool has finished chances that most teams wouldn’t be expected to finish and that they just “find a way.”
But if that’s the case, then perhaps there is a real reason to worry about how they look this year, when they are still behind City’s league-leading xPTS but still ahead of Chelsea and Man United… but in fourth on the real table. They aren’t finding the magical overachieving recipe.
Instead, we’d rather argue that the overachieving but deserving champions are underachieving and being kept in the title race by others not taking advantage. And that’s not only fine, it’s reason to — at worst — expect them to finish second to City.
2. Oh my goals
If you want to understand the bewildered vibes coming out of Klopp and the Anfield set, have we got some stats for you.
OptaJoe is delivering the goods, statistically speaking, regarding this crazy goalless run for Liverpool.
For one thing, Liverpool hadn’t gone four league games without scoring since May 2000.
And for Klopp, wow. He hasn’t overseen four-straight zeroes on his scorecard since his Mainz side did so in the Bundesliga, between November and December 2006.
Open play xG v xGA (Understat.com)
2018-19: 1.59 – 0.54
2019-20: 1.63 – 0.87
2020-21: 1.32 – 0.72
Open play Shots v Shots conceded per game (Understat.com)
2018-19: 11.32 – 6.18
2019-20: 12 – 7.05
2020-21: 12.26 – 6.2
We chose open play because penalties are imperfect and set pieces not always the best barometer for separating good from bad teams.
So here’s the thing: Virgil van Dijk is injured. Thiago Alcantara is just finding his form after loads of injuries. And Mohamed Salah just isn’t on his A-game in terms of finishing or luck….
… And Liverpool is right in the ballpark when it comes to producing chances and denying goals. In fact, the Reds are defending better than last year.
Again… there’s more to this than no luck this year and immense luck last year, but we hope you’re getting the picture.
3. Something’s up with Klopp
As Jurgen Klopp fired down the tunnel after Sean Dyche, seemingly because the Burnley boss said something under his breath, there was reason to wonder how the Liverpool boss’ rage was so high. Did Dyche insult his ancestors? Did he compliment Chris Wilder?
There’s one area that will catch you side eye, evil eye, and force a new and angry eye to grow out of the back of a Liverpool supporter’s head: Tell them Jurgen Klopp has something to fix about his methods.
The managerial genius — and that’s not sarcastic — has earned relatively undying love from his fans for turning marginal players into contributors, contributors into stars, and stars into megawatt supernovas.
But his attitude seems off this year, and not in any sort of intentional way. Maybe it’s that we’re seeing him lose and draw more, reacting to fortune going the way of the opponent, but a list of Klopp post-game and midweek targets this year include:
- TV schedules, muscle injuries, and only having three subs when other leagues have five
- Roy Keane saying the Reds had “sloppy” moments in a win over Arsenal
- Chelsea spending a lot more on transfers than Liverpool because of oligarchy
- “Selfish” Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder not wanting five subs (after a game between Liverpool and Brighton)
- Referee and VAR decisions versus Fulham
- Teams like West Brom playing a low block, “6-4-0” formation
- VAR checks being done in a manner he thinks was impossibly fast
- Manchester United being awarded more penalties in the last two years than Liverpool has in five
And keep in mind they’ve been in first or second after 12 of 19 matchdays, and none of their losses are to a traditional big six side.
So while we don’t know what Klopp is saying behind the scenes, we know that plenty of people get their messaging from his public comments and players can’t completely dodge them either.
Again, Klopp is a genius. But it seems that perhaps doing a hard reset back to the “We’re fine and we’ll be fine and we’re only going to worry about ourselves” of yesteryear would be a welcome drop of the needle on Klopp’s Greatest Hits.