Since June, the team has won the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. No English club has ever done that before. Only one English club (Manchester City, twice) has ever won more points than Liverpool claimed last season, and no club has ever had a better start-of-the-season record than Liverpool’s current 17-game mark. They’ve drawn once and have taken three points from all the other matches. Despite a game in hand, they’ve got a 10-point lead on second-place Leicester City and an 11-point lead over two-time defending champs Manchester City.
Oh yeah: They won their Champions League group, too.
“We are European champions and to be world club champions as well: there’s not many people who can say that,” said Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana after the club’s victory over Monterrey in the Club World Cup semifinals. “We are going to give it our all. It’s like an addiction: you win one medal and you want to win another. You want to win more.”
With Saturday’s win over Flamengo, they can now call themselves “greatest in the world” if they want, while it sure seems like the club is going to finally win the trophy that everyone in Liverpool has been waiting for.
Ten points — 13, if they win the game in hand — is a lot of points. The only team with more than 40 through 17 games to not win the Premier League, of course, was Liverpool (45) last year, but they had Manchester City right on their tails, one point behind at 44. The implied probability from the current betting market odds give Jurgen Klopp and Co. nearly a 90 percent chance of lifting the Premier League trophy come next May.
Only four years ago, Liverpool were playing in the Europa League and just barely peeking their heads above the Premier League’s mid-table muck. Now, they’re champions of Europe and planet Earth, and they’re outpacing the pack in the chase for the ultimate form of territorial dominance, aka champions of the univer– er, England. So, while 2019 was a great year, could 2020 be even better?
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For a start, I have some bad news: Liverpool probably aren’t this good. They’re probably not going to keep racking up 2.88 points per game. If they do, they’ll go undefeated and they’ll shatter the Premier League record for points in a season with 109. Hell, that would shatter the record for most points in a season among any of Europe’s Big Five leagues. Not even Paris Saint-Germain, with their absurd, sovereign-wealth-fund-funded financial advantage over the rest of France, have ever come anywhere near that mark.
If you watch enough soccer games, you’ll eventually hear an announcer or a commentator say something like “the ability to grind out wins is the mark of a champion.” That is true, but not quite in the way they mean it. Teams that win championships tend to be the recipients of some good fortune, and lots of one-goal wins is typically a sign of that, rather than any kind of grit-based, repeatable skill.
“Lots of narrow wins in the NFL isn’t a good sign,” said Mark Taylor, an analyst who has worked with Premier League teams. “It’s a fairly predictive single metric that does a decent job of projecting future win/loss records. And typically the same has been true in football.”
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell has done lots of work showing how NFL teams with good records in one-score games are likely to decline the following season, while teams with poor performance in close outcomes are likely to improve. Taylor himself has done similar research for the Premier League. Before this season, there were 90 teams during the 20-team era of the Premier League that won at least 10 games by a single goal. The following season, 80 percent of those teams won fewer one-goal games and 74 percent accrued fewer points. On average, teams that won 10 or more games by one goal saw their points haul decline by 10 percent the following season.
Great teams, then, tend to win a lot of games by multiple goals.
Through 17 Premier League games, Liverpool have won eight matches by one goal. Less than halfway through the season, Liverpool are exactly halfway to tying Manchester United’s record of 16 one-goal wins. The last time the Red Devils did that? Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season — or, framed another way, the last time they won the Premier League.
With so many close-cut wins — not to mention two others in the Champions League and both of their Club World Cup matches — Liverpool’s goal differential doesn’t quite seem to sync up with their historic start. The plus-28 mark is just — “just” — the 12th-best 17-game mark in the Premier League era.
“Liverpool are without a doubt a world-class team at the moment, however the gap between them and Manchester City should be smaller than it currently stands,” said AJ Swoboda, managing director for the Americas at the consultancy 21st Club. “Research shows that a PL team with a plus-28 goal difference after 17 games would normally have around 41 points.” Taylor put it a little more bluntly. Based on the quality of the chances Liverpool have created and conceded this season, he said, the likelihood of “just winning as many games as they have is around 1 in 500.”
Now, this isn’t to say that Liverpool are a Newcastle waiting to happen. (Alan Pardew’s 2011-12 side somehow finished fifth with just a plus-five goal differential. The following year they dropped down to 16th, only five points clear of relegation.) With one of the most built-out analytical front offices in world football, Liverpool are no doubt aware of the thin margins they’re currently running on. Plus, the current record masks just how dominant the team has been in tie games. At that game state, Liverpool have the best goal differential in the league (plus-14), the most goals (18) and the fewest conceded (four). They may not have poured it on with a lead, but they’ve almost always been in control.
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TruMedia has a win-probability model that projects a team’s likelihood of winning across an entire match; the probability changes based on time on the clock, the score, red cards, and a couple things (number of passes, a running expected-goals tally) that serve as a proxy for how well a team is playing at the moment. Liverpool’s average win probability across every minute of every match is currently 65 percent — better than last year and better than every other team in Europe’s Big Five leagues this season.
On top of that, there are even some reasons to expect internal improvement. Naby Keita has been a whirlwind since being reintegrated to the team. He’s scored twice and assisted once in his two December starts, providing some extra attacking oomph from the team’s normally workmanlike midfield. Mohamed Salah endured a tough start to the season, but he’s averaging a frankly hard-to-comprehend seven shots per 90 minutes in December and has scored four goals and assisted another one across three CL and PL matches.
After missing most of August, September and October, Alisson looks back to his old self: he’s saved 19 of the last 20 shots on target he’s faced. And the signing of the versatile and dynamic Takumi Minamino from Red Bull Salzburg will provide more attacking depth as Klopp continues to fine-tune the team on the margins.
Liverpool might not have the underlying numbers of an all-time great team: per the site FBRef, Manchester City have had a significantly better expected-goal differential in each of the past three seasons, and last year’s LFC vintage was better, too (plus-1.11 per game, compared to plus-0.89). So, they’re likely not going to shatter the Premier League points record. But thanks to a combination of good fortune, well-timed scoring, world-class coaching and individual excellence… well, they probably won’t have to.