“The table doesn’t lie.”
It is one of the great footballing truths, often used to shut down debate by those lamenting the shoulda, woulda, and coulda over the course of a season. Though, like many great truths, footballing or otherwise, it is oversimplified beyond its usefulness.
Generally speaking, yes, the table does not lie. And with more than half a season under our belts, we should expect the table to largely reflect the relative strengths of the squads. Manchester City are far and away the best side, and will win the league in a walk. Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool sit second to fourth, respectively, bunched together within three points. And Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal chase the final Champions League spot, 4 and 5 points back, respectively, with 1 in hand for the former. That all feels about right.
If the Great Truth should be believed, we would expect the rest of the season to be a nervous scrap for fourth, with our Reds clinging to a narrow advantage. However, based on our season so far, we really should be looking hopefully up the table, not fearfully below.
The reason? Expected goals.
Now, I’m not a stats nerd, but I dabble. I like numbers. I like odds. And by the numbers, Liverpool are the second best team in England. Yes, no one is touching the likes of City, but to be able to beat out the likes of other big-spenders such as United and Chelsea, and secure Champions League qualification without last-day heroics, would be a small victory in itself.
A lot of this is based off of Five Thirty Eight’s Club Soccer Predictions, but I’ve seen similar numbers floating around elsewhere to feel fairly comfortable in their overall assessment. The site uses four metrics: goals scored, adjusted goals, shot-based expected goals, and non-shot-based expected goals, as well as other factors such as league strength to produce their SPI (Soccer Power Index), as well as expected goals scored and conceded for each team.
Throughout the year, as Liverpool gradually improved, so too has their SPI, and therefore odds of making the Champions League. Liverpool started the season ranked as the 6th best team, with an SPI of 77.2 (out of 100). Now? Liverpool are up to an SPI of 86.3, far behind City’s score of 90.6, but slightly ahead of Chelsea in 3rd, with a score of 85.6. United, have dropped to a score of 79.8, 6th best, but still remain a 61% chance of finishing Top 4 based on points already gained. Liverpool and Chelsea are 76% and 81%, respectively, of finishing Top 4.
Liverpool overtook United after the Boxing Day fixtures, a day in which Liverpool trounced a hapless Swansea City while Manchester United had to scrap to score a late equalizer against Burnley at home.
But it wasn’t just the results that improved Liverpool’s odds (and reduced United’s), but rather because of an underlying trend for both clubs. And more than anything, it’s goals, goals, goals that are pushing Liverpool onward and upward. The ability to consistently find the back of the net is the difference between Liverpool and United, at least according to this model. According to Five Thirty Eight, Liverpool and United can both expect to concede, on average 0.7 goals* per match. However, Liverpool can expect to score 2.9 goals per match (second only to City’s 3.0), whereas United expect to score half a goal less, 2.4 goals, the worst of the “Big Six.”
This is not to say that Liverpool are a shoe-in for the Top 4. It remains tight at the top, and for the end-of-season predictions. According to this model, the 5 chasers behind City are all expected to finish with more than 72 points at the end of the season (with Chelsea finishing on 80 points, and Arsenal finishing a not-to-distant 6th).
That said, Liverpool should remain confident going into the second half of the season. A big reason why they are now approximately 3-1 to make next year’s Champions League is the improvement shown throughout the season.
However, as big of a signing as Virgil van Dijk was for Liverpool, the potential departure of Philippe Coutinho threatens to throw a wrench into this whole project. As alluded to above, the difference in expected goals conceded between the top sides are negligible. We might joke about a “Liverpool clean sheet,” wherein the opposition scores a meaningless goal in a 4-1 or 5-1 defeat, but this model takes this into account with its adjusted goals. By this metric, only City, Chelsea, and Tottenham are ahead of Liverpool in this column.
Yes, conceding fewer goals will help marginally. But losing a key attacker could hurt us substantially. Earlier in the season, I argued that Coutinho’s inclusion was not necessarily helping Liverpool get the desired results. Since that post, I’ve had to eat my words, as Liverpool went on an as-of-yet-unbroken unbeaten run, with Coutinho being a big, big part of that equation. Regardless, the positive take-away from that post is that Liverpool can pick up results without Coutinho. On the other hand, losing Coutinho plus one significant injury (please Fowler, spare Salah), could quickly derail the season by taking away our biggest advantage: the ability to score goals for fun.
Moving past the unknown unknowns of the transfer window, there is a lot to be positive about in the second half of the season. Klopp has built a great squad, one that might even push for that “Best of the rest” title this season, and have a platform from which to build upon for next.
Additionally, Five Thirty Eight lists Liverpool as the 7th most likely team to win the Champions League (albeit, only listing a 5% chance of lifting ol’ Big Ears). Ahead of Tottenham. Ahead of Chelsea. And damned sure ahead of United.
Hopefully Liverpool can translate this statistical advantage into one reflected on the final table, and finish the season on a strong note.
*A note on Five Thirty Eight’s expected goals: they use “adjusted” goals in their model, which effectively diminishes the importance of late, unimportant goals (i.e. when a team is already leading), and goals scored when a team is down a player.