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Winning ugly and able deputies - How Liverpool were able to clinch the Premier League title so easily
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Liverpool cantered to the Premier League title under Jurgen Klopp this season
To claim their first top-flight title in 30 years, Liverpool needed to dethrone mighty Manchester City. They did it in style and Paul Macdonald of FootballCritic looks at the keys to glory for the Reds.
They've been clear at the top of the Premier League for so long, coupled with the pandemic delay, it’s easy to forget this title victory was anything other than inevitable.
The Reds lost just a single league game in 2018/19 yet failed to hunt down a City side amassing 98 points, who proved to be the best side in the country once again. Pep Guardiola's men scored 106 goals and became the first team ever to break the 100 point barrier the year before.
They were a totally relentless, well-drilled machine, one that, in the £62m acquisition of Rodri, looked to have plugged one of their few gaps, while Liverpool spent just £2m on a young defender - Sepp van den Berg - and a reserve goalkeeper - Adrian.
Liverpool, who had suffered so many near misses in the 30 years previous, just failing to get over the line once again, had to be lifted to take on one of the greatest teams and managers the league has ever seen.
So how, then, did we reach a situation where Liverpool are on course to smash the record Premier League points haul? Let’s look at a few reasons.
Despite this procession towards the title, winning 30 of their 34 games, there can be no denying Liverpool have been far from fluent for much of the second half of the season.
Fourteen (50%) of their league wins were by a single goal, and in matches against Wolves, Norwich, West Ham and Bournemouth, the result was very much in the balance until individual brilliance decided proceedings.
Put simply, Liverpool have been able to do what has eluded them previously, in doing enough to win in matches where they might have dropped points in the past.
City's Road to Ruin
Their rivals were capable of doing the same last season, but that ability has seemingly disintegrated in 19/20.
Wolves, Man United and Chelsea exposed real flaws in City’s total domination of the football but their inability to convert into clear chances. And in those matches not only did City lose, they would lose on the Expected Goals total as well, which is to say that the losses were largely deserved.
There were other places City dropped points, in losses at Norwich, Tottenham and Southampton and in a draw versus Newcastle, games where they utterly dominated and the Expected Goals total emphatically suggested this, but where the results just didn’t go their way - something that happens.
What will be far more of a concern are the games that weren’t won and never really looked like it either.
Coping with injury
Liverpool have a clear starting XI, but they have had to contend with injuries to key players from virtually the start of the season.
Alisson, Fabinho, Lovren, Matip, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Milner all spent a month or more out injured
Alisson missed six weeks throughout September and October - a particularly devastating blow given his key role in reducing Liverpool’s goals conceded total from 38 in 2017/18 to just 26 in 18/19, but Adrian (at least at that point) proved to be an able deputy.
Later in the season, lynchpin Fabinho faced a spell out but a combination of Naby Keita and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain stepped up to allow the momentum to continue.
Furthermore Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Keita, Chamberlain and James Milner also missed a month or more but the team didn’t skip a beat at any point. It was in this ability to adapt that Liverpool were simply better at across the season.
Laporte blow a double-whammy
Whilst Liverpool were able to shrug off shorter-term losses, the injury to Aymeric Laporte for half a season was devastating to City’s defensive capability. Guardiola had begun to have doubts about John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi but both were stronger alongside the Frenchman.
Removing him from the equation meant slotting Fernandinho into the gap. The Brazilian veteran is a consummate professional and his versatility made him the best option to deputise, despite the presence of two other expensive alternatives and young Eric Garcia.
He was possibly the only player in the line-up, other than Kevin De Bruyne, that was completely essential to what City and Guardiola had planned for the season.
And though Leroy Sane’s relationship with his manager had reportedly soured in recent times, not being able to call upon such an exciting and vibrant winger for virtually the entire campaign is a loss even to a great squad like City’s.
Sealing the deal
The Expected Goals metric help to give an indication of expected points – i.e. how many points a team would reasonably be expected to accrue based on the Expected Goals scored and conceded across the season.
The bigger the sample size with Expected Goals the more useful it can be, and though the limitation is that different models produce different results, one finding rings true - Expected Goals suggests that the gap between the teams is much closer than the current points chasm.
That is not to discredit Liverpool’s lead or in any way invalidate it, but merely to solidify the sheer scale of the achievement. They’ve been able to win matches where the outcome was far from definitive - and that is the mark of a champion.