Instead of running into the final stretch of games with a 7-point cushion over Chelsea and riding high in second, we’re now only 4 points clear of the Blues and a disheartening 5 points back of United in fourth.
Second place is now a hard ask, but equally, we should not be panicking about losing our Champions League qualification hopes. This was a frustrating loss, for all the United-y and Mourinho-y reasons, but it should not detract too much from the season Liverpool are having. It was just the fourth loss of the season for the Reds, second lowest to only Manchester City’s. For a sake of comparison, Chelsea and Arsenal have suffered defeats 8 and 10 times this season, respectively. United and Spurs have lost 5 times a piece.
Simply, we have proven ourselves to be sufficiently difficult to beat this season, putting us far more in the United/Spurs bracket than the Chelsea/Arsenal one. And three of our four losses have come on the road to Top 4 teams. Conversely, Chelsea have recorded losses against the murder’s row of Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Bournemouth, and Watford (as well as twice to Manchester City and once to United). Without a drastic improvement in form, Chelsea will not be among the Top 4 when we travel to Stamford Bridge in the penultimate match of the season.
Liverpool’s ability to pick up a point or three, paired with Chelsea’s ability to lose seemingly out of the blue, as well as the underlying metrics (especially expected goals), means we shouldn’t be too preoccupied with what Chelsea are doing.
Immediately after the United match, the ETW Brigade was in full-force, saying things like “I knew Top 4 wasn’t a sure thing,” and “98% chance of qualifying was too high!” For what it’s worth, that loss (in conjunction with the other ETW elements of of Spurs and Chelsea winning) have lowered Five Thirty Eight’s Liverpool projection from a second place finish to a third place finish, and a 95% chance of qualifying.
Before once again flying into an anti-stat rage, I think it’s fair to look at exactly why we are still so strongly favored. First of all, point totals. At this stage in the season, especially at the top end of the table where teams are less likely to drop points, having points on the board matters.
Second of all, metrics. Liverpool continue to produce strong expected goal numbers, both going forward and defensively; on a statistical basis, Liverpool have been solidly and consistently the second-best Premier League team since December. Of course United, with the help of David de Gea and the salt-the-Earth tactics from Jose Mourinho have been bucking the expected goals metrics all season, but otherwise the table is largely shaking out as you’d expect.
Third of all, goals scored and goal differential. I’m going to keep banging this drum until someone listens. It’s not enough for Chelsea to catch us, they must pass us. We have a +9 goal differential advantage over Chelsea, and have scored 16 more goals so far than they have. This means that if we finish on 76 points (Five Thirty Eight still projects us to finish on 79), Chelsea will need to reach 77. That means they need 20 points out of their last 24 to reach 76, and 21 to reach 77.
Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that 95% is not a sure thing. Five Thirty Eight is continually derided by people who either misremember what they said at the time (or don’t understand risk) for their 2016 Presidential Election coverage, in which they gave Trump a 30-35% chance going into the finally few days. Any poker player will tell you that a 2 to 1 advantage (roughly what Clinton had) is a risky one. It seems many people either conflated their odds with other, more certain, sites, or took 65% as a essentially a sure thing.
A 19 to 1 advantage (roughly what Liverpool have, by their numbers) is much better than what Clinton faced, but also no guarantee. Again, spend enough time at the poker table, and you see massive favorites like this cracked by a couple of bad cards every now and again (you know, roughly 1 time out of 20)! Liverpool’s job is now to make sure one bad card (the United defeat) does not become two bad cards (picking up less than three points at home against Watford).
A win for Liverpool will reduce the number of points needed to get to the 76 point threshold to 13. That means four more wins and a draw in their final 7, completely manageable, especially considering the remaining competition.