Liverpool are the masters of chaos – and the polar opposite of Manchester City

Despite the progress made in terms of data analysis in recent years, football remains an extremely difficult sport to analyze comprehensively.

There are various reasons why it is more complicated than any other major team sport, but perhaps the simplest is the lack of goals. It’s the lowest-scoring sport in the world, which means teams aren’t always rewarded for doing the right things, and dominance doesn’t always translate into success.

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One consequence is that teams’ form can swing dramatically between good and bad without doing much differently. And while it’s easy to work backwards from the score and turn heroes into villains, it’s often difficult to fully understand exactly what has changed.

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Perhaps the most difficult club to analyze in recent times has been Liverpool. Considering that they are, of Europe’s elite, seemingly the club that has put the most emphasis on data analysis, this seems a little ironic. Or maybe it’s not ironic at all and Liverpool are doing things that others haven’t learned to measure. But it’s worth looking at the numbers to illustrate just how difficult it has been to gauge Liverpool’s performance compared to what we expected.

Jurgen Klopp


Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have been inconsistent (Picture: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

“Expected” now takes on two different meanings. It has the literal meaning of expectations: how we expected Liverpool to perform at the start of each season. And then there’s the expected new analytical insight: Liverpool’s expected goals (xG) numbers. Any way you look at it, Liverpool have been a very strange team.

Below are the figures from Jurgen Klopp’s full six seasons in charge of Liverpool. “Points” is their current number of points. Their “WHY” is the preseason expectation of their eventual points, taken from SportingIndex’s spread betting markets, which serves as a good summary of overall expectations. The xG column shows their expected number of points based on their expected goal numbers from all 38 games, as calculated by Understat.

points WHY xG

2018-19

97

81

83

2019-20

99

86

74

2020-21

69

86

69

2021-22

92

77

87

Clearly there is a huge amount of variation here and the interesting thing is the relationship between the different categories. So here’s another chart – first showing how Liverpool have over-performed or under-performed in relation to their pre-season expectations, and then in relation to their xG figures. The last column shows how they performed in terms of xG relative to pre-season expectations.

WHY the change xG change WHY – xG difference

2018-19

16

14

-2

2019-20

13

25

12

2020-21

-17

17

2021-22

15

5

-10

Some of these figures are remarkable.

Firstly, in the last four seasons Liverpool have never come within 13 points of their pre-season expectations – three times beating SportingIndex’s analysis, once falling short.

Second, Liverpool have never underperformed in terms of their xG differential, and over these four seasons is 44 points better than xG would suggest.

Third, there is quite a bit of variation in terms of the relationship between pre-season expectations and their eventual xG numbers.

At this point, it is worth pointing out the equivalent numbers from Manchester City. The point here is not to compare the two sides in terms of performance, but in terms of their performance relative to expectations.

Here are City’s raw numbers…

PTS WHY xG

2018-19

98

88

91

2019-20

81

93

87

2020-21

86

89

83

2021-22

93

87

92

And here, more important, is the relationship between city numbers.

WHY the change xG change WHY – xG difference

2018-19

10

7

-3

2019-20

-12

-6

6

2020-21

-3

3

6

2021-22

6

1

-5

So while Manchester City have not been entirely predictable, their performances have been easier to predict than Liverpool’s.

The biggest gap between their pre-season expectations and their current tally is 12 points, less than in each of Liverpool’s four campaigns.

The difference between their xG-based point total and their actual point total has been seven or less, while Liverpool’s gap has been as high as 25.

And perhaps most interestingly, preseason expectations always closely match their xG difference.

At their core, City are a predictable side, but Liverpool are much more chaotic – which, as a rule, matches their styles on the pitch.

What’s happening this season? The pre-season betting markets suggested Liverpool would win by 86 points, now they are implying it will be around 71 points. xG’s figures suggest they may have earned a single point more than they actually did.

In other words, this is similar to two seasons ago, when they didn’t underperform relative to preseason expectations, but not relative to their xG. This time, of course, they have no excuse for back injury problems.

Let’s take that 71-point finish to the season as gospel. It would be a drop of 21 points from last season. But it would actually be just six points below last season’s preseason expectation. It would be a higher figure than two years ago, in terms of actual points and xG. And perhaps most strangely, it would be just three points short of what xG would suggest they should have achieved from their title-winning season.

The Liverpool Trophy


Liverpool’s 2020 Premier League triumph was a statistical over-performance (Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

And so, while not ignoring Liverpool’s current decline, it’s worth remembering that their numbers in recent seasons have been a remarkable over-performance that was always likely to be completely unsustainable. Indeed, if you compare their numbers more directly to those of their regular title rivals, never once have the pre-season expectations shown Liverpool ahead of Manchester City, nor once has their xG figure been higher than that of City, even in their title-winning season. .

Apparently, this leaves us with more questions than answers. But perhaps a fair conclusion to draw is that while Manchester City are a very logically constructed team who mostly perform roughly as expected, Liverpool are very different. Liverpool have always been about excitement, about chaos, about things not quite coming together, be it under Klopp or in the 15 years before him – think Alaves in 2001, AC Milan in 2005 or West Ham in 2006. There is something about Liverpool that defies normality.

At times this season, Klopp has appeared unable to provide a comprehensive answer to why Liverpool are struggling so badly. It’s unsatisfying for supporters, but in a way, it’s fair enough. By the same token, it has often been difficult to explain why Liverpool have been so good.

(Main photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)



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