A Marathon, not a Sprint – How will next season play out?

Winning a league title is not easy. It is about consistency over a full season, ensuring that over 38 games, your team has the most points. Since you and your rivals play fixtures in a completely different order to each other, is there any way to show how each team is doing relative to the others, by factoring in the difficulty of the respective fixtures? Inspired by ‘The Alternative Premier League Table’ from RedandWhiteKop, I will be using MatchStory’s 2014/15 Fixture Molecules to determine what is a ‘good’ start for Liverpool, and how our season may look.

Manchester City won the league last season, having spent just 15 days at the top of the table. An incredible stat really, especially when you consider Arsenal were top for 128 days, which is practically half of the season.

Was this to do with the relative difficulty of the fixtures? Was it to do with individual teams peaking at different times? Or, was it the fact that City seemed to have a game in hand right up to the final week of the season.

Firstly ,  a quick retrospective look at last season, using the MatchStory.co.uk graphic, and see how the 2013/14  played out.

If you would like to play around with the interactive version, you can visit MatchStory.co.uk here.

OK – I have the respective difficulties of the fixtures as they were graded at the start of the 2013/14 season. I now need a bench mark, so that I can track each team against their relative ‘expected’ points if they were to win the league.

To do this, I’ve simply taken Manchester City’s total of 86 points, which is an average of 2.3 points per game, and used the table below to weigh each match difficulty with a required points average.

Average Points table

86 points won the league last season, which is an average of 2.3 points per game. By weighing a points average against each of the relative match difficulties, I’ve have come up with a model to project how the season progressed versus the expectations.

Three key Moments of Last Season

Now that I know the projected average points by match difficulty, I can feed this into the MatchStory graphic. This will then give me a ‘projected points total’ after each match has been played.

I can then take the ‘actual points total’ and calculate the difference between the two, which is shown below for three teams:

  • Arsenal – Who, as mentioned earlier, spent 128 days top of the league

  • Manchester City – The eventual league winners, despite only spending 12 days top of the league

  • Liverpool – Who put in a solid challenge, especially in the latter stages of the season, only to fall short in the final few games

Points Variance 1314

 The reason I have chosen these three teams is simply for the retrospective. I know that Chelsea were in the title race, and next season, it could be even tougher with Manchester United back in the mix. For now though, I am just focusing on these three teams, since there were three key moments during last season that heavily influenced the league title landing where it did.

1. 11 Games Played

After 11 games, Arsenal were sitting top of the league, 1 point ahead of Liverpool. This is despite Liverpool performing below expectation in this model. Also, Manchester City got off to a terrible start if you remember, and this is how the table looked after 11 games (just these three teams).

tableafter11games

Out of the three teams, only Arsenal were performing above expectations. From game 12 to 24 though, Manchester City clawed back the gap significantly. Liverpool’s resurgence came later.

Arsenal were off to a great start and maintained their performance ‘above expectation’ beyond the mid point of the season. Liverpool, on the other hand, were way ‘off track’, despite sitting in second place.

Manchester City who went on a resurgent run of form from matches 12 to 24, in which they closed their gap from ‘actual points’ to ‘expected points to just -0.4. At this point, Arsenal were -0.1 point. Liverpool were way off the pace, a massive -9.4 points off their target.

Then match 25 took place.

2. The 25th Match

Any guesses what the 25th match was?

First off, match 25 for Manchester City was a surprising 0-0 draw against Norwich City. This came on the back of another surprise – their defeat at the Ethiad against Chelsea.

What about Arsenal and Liverpool?

It doesn’t take a genius to guess it was that game. Yes, the game in that Neil Atkinson wrote about so exceptionally well for The Anfield Wrap. It was Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1.

Liverpool's demolition of Arsenal got Liverpool back on track. Arsenal were shell shocked, and never really recovered.

Liverpool’s demolition of Arsenal got Liverpool back on track. Arsenal were shell shocked, and never really recovered.

Arsenal went into freefall. That great start fell to pieces, and over the next 9 games, they found themselves  dropping 8.4 points against their ‘expected points’ accumulation. It wasn’t until Everton were breathing down their neck for the covereted 4th spot, that Arsenal started to gradually get back their form, but it was all too late.

Liverpool went on a fantastic run, winning game after game. 11 wins in a row to be exact, the best winning streak in the league last season. This played Liverpool back into the title race and, ultimately, put it in their hands after beating Manchester City.

Then Liverpool played Chelsea.

3. Liverpool lose to Chelsea

I am not going to dwell too much on this moment, I think all us Liverpool fans can accept that was the moment where we ‘lost’ the league title. It was down as one of the hardest 4 games of the season, meaning that the expectation was to get 1.5 points. In isolation, this is impossible of, a draw is worth 1 point, and even that could have been enough.

A picture speaks a thousand words. This was the moment the title slipped from our grasp.

A picture speaks a thousand words: This was the moment the title slipped from our grasp.

It didn’t happen though, and the subsequent draw to Crystal Palace put what felt like the final nail in the coffin.

Based on all this then, what can I learn from this retrospective analysis of last season? Does the order and respective difficulty of matches play a part over the season? And, just how will next season shape up?

Does fixture order matter?

Before I answer this question,  I want to explain some limitations in this model.

  • Difficulty is set at the start of the season and is not dynamic as teams become stronger or weaker over the course of the season

  • For example, Crystal Palace away may have been an ‘easy’ game at the start of last season, by the end though, a resurgent Palace were a different beast

  • It also doesn’t account for changes in fixtures or games in hand, which played a key role in Manchester City title challenge

  • Since it is an ‘average expected points’ it assumes that teams pick up points in every game, which is very rarely true

  • It predicts that each team will get 86 points, again, this is very unlikely over the course of the season

With that in mind then, here is the excellent Match Story graphic for next seasons fixtures. The five teams I will focus on are the teams which most bookies are tipping for the title this coming season:

Manchester City
Liverpool
Chelsea
Arsenal
Manchester United

MatchStorygraphic1415

Visually, you can instantly see who has the the toughest start.

Manchester City, in their first 8 games, have three ‘Hard’ games with one ‘Very Hard’ game. Their local rivals, Manchester United, have two ‘Very Easy’ games and not one ‘Hard’ or ‘Very Hard’.

How could the table look after 8 games then?

Project Table after 8 games

If all the top five teams are to be on track for the league title after eight games, Manchester United could have a 4 point gap over last seasons winners Manchester City. Wouldn’t that be some turn around for Van Gaal?

However, things start to change as we hit the mid point of the season.

tableafter19games

No surprise at the mid point, things are starting to look a little tighter at the top, with only 1.3 points separating 5th and 1st place. It is likely that each team has played every team once, so there are only very small variations in difficulty at halfway.

What about the final run in, who could be in the top position, if the season strictly followed these rules?

tableafter30games
It could be Manchester United back in top spot, with the chasing pack within touching distance.

At at the end of the season? Well, they could all have 86 points.

Of course, in reality, it is highly unlikely that the season will pan out like this. As I showed you earlier, teams will dip in and out of form throughout the season, meaning that the ‘actual points’ totals will vary. The important number will be the difference between the ‘projected points total’ and the ‘actual points total’.

Still, there are a few things we can learn from the ‘projected points’ of each team.

  • Manchester United have the easiest start, and if they do start well, can they sustain it?

  • If Manchester City are top of the league after 8 games, they will be ahead of their projected position, which will mean that others have to play catch up

  • Liverpool don’t have to be top of the league after 8 games, especially considering they have two tough away games in their first 3 games

This graph shows that over the course of a season, if teams pick up points as expected, there is little variation in points totals. Why?

This graph shows how a season would play out if the League rivals all played to ‘expected points total’s. In smaller chunks, the points swing can be significant. It will all even itself out in the end though.

Winning the League – A Marathon, not a Sprint

With all this in mind, hopefully I have shown you that fixture order can matter. The graph above illustrates this, despite being a little chaotic.

Over the course of next season, based on the ‘projected points totals’,  it will be rare to see significant gaps between the teams ‘expected points totals’.

Most interesting are the two Manchester clubs though.

Due to Manchester United’s easier start, their ‘projected points total’ would have them top of the league for most of the season. Where as Manchester City would be lagging behind, with a number of their ‘easy’ fixtures coming towards the end.

Could Manchester United, with their new manager, do what Arsenal did last season? Start well only to fade in the middle? Could Manchester City do what they themselves did last season, track behind the league leaders for most of it, only to win it in the final few games?

Time will tell.

In the end though, every team has to play every other twice, so the ‘projected points totals’ all even out in the end. As I mentioned earlier, there are some limitations with this model, and the real test is how teams perform against their actual points totals.

And that is exactly what I will be tracking this coming season (2014/15).

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you to MatchStory.co.uk for allowing me to use their graphics and insight. Over the course of the 2014/15 season, I will periodically be updating my blog with how each team is performing relativel to their ‘expected points total’. How will each team perform? Who can get ahead? Who will be lagging behind? And importantly, who will be sitting top of the league come May? Check back throughout the season, or follow me on @ThisIsAnalysis for my latest posts.
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How will Liverpool win the league in 2014/15

In my previous piece titled “We Dreamed, We Scored, We didn’t Conquer”, I looked at historical Premier League seasons to understand what Liveprool need to do in order to win the league this coming season. In summary, I identified key targets Liverpool need to achieve for both goals scored and goals conceded. This story is about how Liverpool approach 2014/2015, how the loss of Suarez impacts our aim, and how our transfer activity is (or isn’t) addressing the needs of the team.

Before I get into the details, a quick reminder of the key targets I feel Liverpool need to achieve in order to win the league.

  • Aim to be the leagues top goal scorers, scoring at least 95 goals

  • Be within 10 goals of the best defence, conceding no more than 40

  • This gives a goal difference of at least +55, above the average since Abramovich came to Chelsea

  • If we can score >100 goals or concede <35, while achieving one of the above minimum requirements, we are in a great position to win the league

These are not just figures I picked out of thin air, they are based on a thorough understanding of the teams that win the league. Importantly, it also factors in some key changes in the last five years since Manchester City became the force they are today.

How do Liverpool go about achieving these targets then? Is it tactics, players, or a little bit of a both? Do Liverpool have to change their mindset? And, how do we replace the goals of Luis Suarez?

Goals win Games

Without scoring a goal it is impossible to win a game and take 3 points.

Liverpool scored 101 goals last season, the most of any side not to win the Premier League, we were only outscored by 1 goal. Liverpool missed out on the title by 2 points.

Wind your mind back to Rodgers first season though, how have Liverpool progressed on the goals scored side of things in the last two seasons?

  • In the first set of 19 league games in 2012/13, Liverpool averaged 1.47 goals scored per game (Gs/g)

  • In the second set of 19 league games in 2012/13, Liverpool averaged 2.26 goals scored per game

  • In the following season, 2013/14, Liverpool averaged 2.32 Gs/g (in the first 19) and 3 Gs/g (in the second 19)

Just look at those numbers for a second. Over the course of two seasons, Liverpool have doubled their goals scored per game (GS/g). Pretty impressive.

As with any metric like this, it doesn’t factor in the difficulty of the respective fixtures. Did Liverpool have tougher games in the first half of both seasons? Even if we did, this is still double the amount of goals, which is a huge step up.

Looking at these numbers then, 95 goals is easy, right? If we can somehow maintain our Gs/g from the second half of last season, we will score 114 goals, which would smash the record held by Chelsea (103 goals).

Being realistic though, scoring that many goals really is unprecedented. I am certainly not saying Liverpool can’t do it, it will just be incredibly difficult, especially given the fact we have lost our top goal scorer, Luis Suarez, who scored almost a third of our league goals last season.

Top Goalscorers win Leagues? Not always…

Looking back almost twenty years, in 1994/95, the Premier League had their first SAS, Shearer and Sutton.

Shearer and Sutton. The original SAS. A strike force that fired Blackburn to the title in 94/95.

Shearer and Sutton. The original SAS. A strike force that fired Blackburn to the title in 94/95.

Between them they scored 61% of all Blackburn’s Premier League goals, firing Blackburn to their first league championship since 1914. Shearer went on to finish top goalscorer the following two seasons, once with Blackburn, once with Newcastle. Shearer never won the league again.

Since Shearer topped the scoring charts with Newcastle in 1996/97 there have been sixteen Premier League seasons. In half of them, the league winners had the out and and out top goal scorer.

The point is, having the top goal scorer in the league does help, it doesn’t always guarantee success.

  • In both the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons, Robin Van Persie lead the Premier League goal scoring charts

  • In 2011/12, Van Persie scored 30 Premier League goals for third placed Arsenal, which was 41% of their total

  • One season later, he scored ‘just’ 26 Premier League goals, this time for League Winners Manchester United, which was 30% of their total

Van Persie and Arsenal is a classic case of relying on the goals of one individual. I know, we have had a fair share of these players in recent years, I picked Van Persie for a reason.

One year after a fine individual season for Arsenal, he scored fewer goals for Manchester United, and his new team won the league. In fact, in 2012/13, Manchester United scored fewer goals than the previous season (89 in 2011/12, 86 in 2012/13). Interestingly, Manchester United 2012/13 would have lost the league to both Manchester City and Manchester United 2011/12 on goal difference.

The point is, United had match winners in abundance that year. Van Persie was just one of them.

Match winners win leagues

Luis Suarez then, those 31 league goals in 33 league appearances, he was a match winner, right?

Well, those 31 goals were scored in just 18 games. Luis Suarez failed to score in almost half the league games he played in last season. It doesn’t feel like that does it?

If you actually look back over the last two seasons, since Rodgers arrived at Liverpool, what is Suarez’s ‘Goal Influence’?

How important was Suarez's goals to Liverpool? How can they be replaced?

How important was Suarez’s goals to Liverpool over the last two seasons? How can they be replaced?

The numbers speak for themselves. Suarez scoring goals helped us get points, no surprise there.

The real surprise is how few points we picked up in the games that Suarez did play and failed to score. Who was scoring the goals in those games? Where were the match winners? Even looking at last season, when Suarez played and failed to score, we picked up just 1.5 points per game with all 6 of our defeats in games that Suarez didn’t find the net.

Is there any hope for us next season without Suarez? Of course there is, and let me explain why.

  • In the second half of 2013/14, Liverpool played 19 league games and achieved 2.52 points per game (ppg)

  • Suarez scored in 9 of the 19 games and Liverpool had a 2.78 ppg

  • In the 10 games where Suarez failed to score, Liverpool still achieved 2.30 ppg

Liverpool found more match winners. Players were stepping up to win big key games.

Skrtel got Liverpool on their way against Arsenal, with two goals in the first ten minutes.

Skrtel got Liverpool on their way against Arsenal, with two goals in the first ten minutes.

The Skrtel double against Arsenal set us on our way, Gerrard’s last minute penalty against Fulham (won by Sturridge), Henderson finished off Swansea, Sturridge stretched the lead against Sunderland, Gerrard’s two penalties against West Ham (one won by Suarez, one by Flanagan), Countinho’s goal to put us top of the league against Manchester City, and Sturridge on the last day of the season.

Let me be clear, we are talking a really small sample size here, and I must caveat it by saying Suarez was on the pitch for all of these games. Still, Liverpool were finding a way to win without being reliant on Suarez getting the goals, and it very nearly worked. Liverpool had multiple match winners, something which we haven’t seen in a long time.

Suarez’s goals still need replacing though. In my model, we can afford to ‘lose’ 6 goals scored, which means we need to add 25 goals to this side. Will that be new signings? Or, will a certain Daniel Sturridge step up?

31 Goals lost, Getting 25 Goals back

Liverpool have been pretty active in the transfer market, especially when it comes to attacking signings. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, and Lazar Markovic, are three attacking players who can add goals. There is even talk of another one, after missing out on Alexis Sanchez and swerving Loci Remy.

Between them, these three new attacking signings scored 27 league goals last season.

There we go, we have our 25 back plus 2, nice and easy, right? Well, ‘replacing’ Suarez with three players is easy on paper, only one of them can play in his place though, unless we found a way to get thirteen players on the pitch. So how do we do it?

The first player I will look at is someone with a fantastic scoring record for Liverpool since joining us, of course, Daniel Sturridge.

Daniel Sturridge has scored 31 goals in 43 league games for Liverpool. Can he improve next season? Does he need too?

Daniel Sturridge has scored 31 goals in 43 league games for Liverpool. Can he improve next season? Does he need too?

The caveat I must add here, both Suarez and Sturridge’s ‘Goal Influence’ doesn’t factor in the other player on the pitch or not. To do that, you are talking really small sample sizes, so doesn’t really work. In effect, both players were influencing each others ‘Goal influence’.

Sturridge’s numbers are still impressive though.

The concern I have here is the number of games Sturridge has missed, largely through injury, and it was Suarez who was helping to pick up those 9 wins out of 13.

In 2013/14 Suarez and Sturridge scored 52 goals between them. Incredible.

Can Sturridge score more goals than last season to help bridge the loss of Suarez? I believe he can and will.

It is a similar story with Suarez’s numbers, with 7 wins out of 9 when Suarez was unavailable due to suspension, Sturridge was the one getting the goals and helping drive the team forward.

The fact is, both players are influential match winners on their day. How often do they score though?

  • Sturridge has scored in 60% of his Liverpool Premier League games, scoring on average 1.2 goals per game in which he scored at least 1 goal

  • Suarez scored in 52% of his Liverpool Premier League games (last 2 seasons only), scoring on average 1.5 goals per game

  • When either Suarez and/or Sturridge didn’t play, Liverpool average 2.27 ppg (points per game)

Sturridge scores in more games than he doesn’t, a simple fact over the last season and a half for Liverpool. He may not score quite as many as Suarez, his influence on games though is roughly the same.

So what does this all mean for Sturridge? Can he improve his goal scoring record without Suarez around? Can he maintain it?

The important question is, will he.

Sturridge leading the line, and leading the goals

Based on all of the above information, I have come up with a performance expectation for Sturridge next season. It is a fair assumption he will be the main man and will very likely be our top goal scorer.

How many goals will he score though?

I have very little doubt that Sturridge CAN score more. The only question is, will injuries stop him hitting 'Suarez' like numbers?

I have very little doubt that Sturridge can score more. The only question is, will injuries stop him hitting ‘Suarez’ like numbers?

Factoring in his brief spells out with injury, the additional Champions League Games,  and his Goal Influence for Liverpool, I believe Sturridge will achieve the following:

  • Sturridge needs to play at least 30 Premier League games for Liverpool next season

  • If he does this, and maintains his metrics for us over the last two seasons, he will score at least 22 league goals next season

  • If Sturridge can marginally improve, scoring in 65% of his league games and averaging 1.3 goals in games in which he finds the net, he will score at least 25 league goals next season

25 league goals is a very solid return, especially in 30 league games. If Sturridge can maintain his fitness and feature in 34 league games, it becomes 29 goals.

For the purposes of this though, I will err on the side of caution. The added Champions League games will have an impact on Sturridge’s ability to recover and will likely be rested for some Premier League games. If we can get 30 league games out of him, I will be more than happy with 25 league goals.

That is because Sturridge would have scored in 20 league games. By looking at his goal influence, that translates into 47 points (subject to others pulling their weight, more on that soon).

Assuming that Liverpool need 86 points to win the league next season, that means ‘just’ 39 points from 18 games. Who will get the goals to help us win the games that Sturridge doesn’t score, or doesn’t even play?

I said we need another 95 goals, so we need another 70. That is a lot to share around the rest of the team, who are our other match winners?

Liverpool are full of Goals

First off, let me say there is some theory to the table below.

I have already covered Sturridge, a high level summary of the others is:

  • Young players, Coutinho and Sterling, scored 13 goals between them last season. They are more than capable of adding more, and these two players will have to step up

  • Most of Lambert and Gerrard’s goals last season were penalties. They both can’t be credited with one teams penalties, more likely they will be shared out, depending on who is on the pitch at the time

  • A fair assumption that the new attacking signings, Lallana and Markovic, will score the same number of goals this season as they did last season

Scoring Table

* Players who scored League Goals in the Premier League not for Liverpool. ** Players who scored League Goals outside the Premier League.

I am saying the players on Liverpool’s books this season, will collectively score less than they did last season. The new signings will score ‘just’ 20 goals this coming season, compared with 30 combined with their previous clubs last season. I’ve also accounted for the fact that we will get less penalties with a reduction in Gerrard’s goals.

Still, in this model where I have been conservative, we will hit the magic 95 number. We know that some players, Sturridge and Sterling especially, are capable of adding even more again. Lallana could be a huge hit and smash into double figures. Henderson, who I said would maintain, can score more than just four.

There is the potential to add even more goals to this team, we could score as many as last season, maybe even break the record (103 – Chelsea).

Goals change games… and the game has changed

In my previous post, “We dreamed, We Scored, We didn’t Conquer”, I talked about how the game has changed in recent years.

It is so much more about scoring goals than it ever has been. Winning a league title based on a very strong defence is difficult, especially given the attacking talent that our competitors have.

Having the leagues best player and top goal scorer always helps. Would Blackburn have won the league without Shearer in 94/95? Probably not, no.

However, in only half of the seasons since then have the league winners had the top goal scorer. Van Persie couldn’t help Arsenal win the league title. A year later, he scored less for United, and won it with them.

Even without Suarez, Liverpool have plenty of match winners in their squad.

Even without Suarez, Liverpool have plenty of match winners. Sturridge, Coutinho, and Sterling are just three of them.

That’s because it is about having match winners, something which Liverpool now have in abundance. Despite the loss of Suarez, Sturridge can step up to be the main man. He may be the leagues top goal scorer, he may not. He will be supported by a number of players though, all capable of helping Liverpool get to the goal target of 95+ goals.

For these reasons, I see no issue with Liverpool getting the 95 goals that we need. We may even score more.

The challenge is stopping them at the other end.

Errors lead to Goals, Goals cost Games

If you want to know just how many errors Liverpool made last season, that lead to goals, take a look at this excellent article on Anfield Index. 

In brief, Liverpool had far too many individual errors. These are the ones that Opta officially record, how many off the ball errors cost goals too?

In order to solve this,  Liverpool do not need to re-invent the wheel. The way we play is perfect for ripping apart most teams. The nature of the way we play, so gung ho, will lead to conceding goals. Individual errors though? They need to stop, or at least be significantly reduced.

As referenced in my previous post, Tony Evans said that Liverpool would have won the league if Carragher was still around. An organiser and a leader.

To solve this problem, Liverpool have spent big on Dejan Lovren.

A quick google of ' Lovren leader' brings back all these news articles. Coincidence? Briefing the press? Or is he the leader Liverpool need?

A quick google of ‘ Lovren leader’ brings back all these news articles. Coincidence? Briefing the press? Or is he the leader Liverpool need?

The above screenshot is of an actual Google News search. This is just one snapshot of some of the results, there are a fair few of them.

Rodgers feels like Lovren is the one, saying “He’s exactly what we have been looking for since Jamie Carragher left”. Since leadership is a very hard quality to measure, and no real stats or figures can back up what leadership can bring to a side, I will put faith in Brendan’s decision on this one.

If you would like to know more about the technical side of Lovren’s game, have a read of BassTunedToRed’s excellent write up.

This signing did have some strong opinions for and against, largely around the fact he plays on the left side of a centre back pair, where we already spent big on Sahko last summer. Not forgetting Agger and Illori, both who play on the left hand side of a defence too.

If Lovren is the leader that Rodger’s thinks he is, and has the qualities that Rodger’s believes in, then being top heavy on the left hand side of defence doesn’t really matter.

Remember, Liverpool don’t necessarily need the best defence, they just need to be close to the best. In this model, I am saying we need a goal difference of at least +55 and concede no more than 40 goals.

  • In Rodger’s first season, 2012/13, Liverpool ‘only’ conceded 43, despite finishing 7th

  •  43 goals conceded was the same number as Manchester Untied, who won the league that year

  • Liverpool conceded 23 goals in the first half of the season, with 17 conceded in the second half

Wind back to earlier in this post, I said that Liverpool improved their ‘goals scored per game’ significantly after the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge. Even with these additions, and changing to a more attacking style, the defence improved too.

With this in mind, combined with the signging of Lovren and his leadership qualities, it gives me full confidence that Liverpool can improve the defensive record and still maintain the way we play.

To win the league, we have to.

Option 2.5 – Attack Attack Attack… defend

For those paying attention, you will remember the three options I referenced in my first post. These were the three main theories of how Liverpool can build on last season in order to win the league in 2014/15.

In brief, they are:

  • Option 1 – Go more defensive, shift mindset to concede (and score) fewer goals

  • Option 2 – Go more attacking, score even more goals, lots more goals

  • Option 3 – Continue as we are and buy a top class centre back with leadership, which is expensive and easier said than done

We were never going to go more defensive, that is not in our make-up, it is not part of what we do. Which leaves a bit of Option 2 and 3.

We don’t have to score as many goals as last season, we still have to be attacking though. Probably even more attacking, in a strange way.

Given the fact that we have lost the magician that is Suarez, who could single handily win games by scoring incredible goals, we will be relying on a number of players to replace the goals he scored. This means more players becoming match winners, which I am confident we have.

And while you could argue Lovren isn’t a ‘top class centre back’, he is certainly being talked up by many as the leader that Liverpool lacked last season. Too many times a soft error cost us at the back, and our attack could only get us out of trouble so many times. I am confident that Lovren can steady that end of the ship.

So, will Liverpool win the league next season? That is the big question, something which the bookies don’t believe, having us fifth favourites at the time of this post. Our competitors have all strengthened, some would argue losing Suarez we are weaker.

If you ask me? I am a lot more confident of winning the league this season than I was about winning it last year.

I am very confident we will score 95+ goals with most teams struggling to keep up. I am very confident our defence will improve, without being the very best in the league. Put all this together and guess what?

I am going to say it. Liverpool will win the league in 2014/15.

In my next post, I will look at Liverpool’s fixtures to gauge where we will take our points. What is a good start for Liverpool? What is a bad one?  What about our competitors? And, how will those extra champions league games impact our dream of winning the title in 2014/15? All will be answered in “A Marathon, not a Sprint”.

We Scored, We Dreamed… We didn’t Conquer

I am sure you all know the Liverpool story of 2013/14, so it doesn’t need repeating by me. You’ve probably written one yourself, even if it’s only in your head. This is not a season review, more a review of seasons, looking at what it takes to win the Premier League since the introduction of a 38 game season. Also, if anything has changed in recent years since more money has flowed into the English game.  

It was the season that we played some of the most breath-taking attacking football seen in the Premier League, scoring 101 goals. Yet it still wasn’t enough to take home the grand prize that has eluded our trophy cabinet for 24 years.

Suarez and Sturridge scored 52 league goals between them. Incredible.

Suarez and Sturridge scored 52 league goals between them. Incredible.

Having the league’s top two goal scorers (Suarez 31 and Sturridge 21) is incredible and unprecedented. 10 penalties scored, the most since Crystal Palace converted the same in 2004/2005 . Skrtel scored as many league goals last season as he did in the 5 ½ seasons combined.

Liverpool were all about the goals. Loads of goals. Still it wasn’t enough.

How did Liverpool not win the league? It is a question many of us have pondered. Was it the Gerrard slip? The Palace capitulation? Was it before then? Too many individual errors to mention?

Or was it the fact that Liverpool had only the 8th best defence, conceding 50 goals?

If you look at the many individual errors and mistakes, any one of them could have cost us the league title. The fact is, a league season is played over 38 games and Liverpool conceded too many goals. Not just too many, at key moments in games too.

Kolo Toure’s error against West Brom, a lack of concentration, 2 points dropped.

Next Season – Can Liverpool win the league? Will we? How?

Going into the 2014/15 season, Liverpool have lost their top goal scorer. Not only their top goal scorer, the league’s top goal scorer. Not only the league’s top goal scorer, one of the most incredible footballers to play for Liverpool. Not only one of the most incredible players to play for Liverpool… you get the idea.

On a recent Anfield Wrap Podcast, host Neil Atkinson asked the question “Can Liverpool win the league next season?”

Despite losing Suarez, how can Liverpool go one better this coming season and be crowned champions in May?

Most contributors said “yes, Liverpool can“. The next question asked by Neil was “Will Liverpool win the league and if so how?”

Similar discussions have been had on the AnfieldIndex podcast, I am sure you have asked yourself the same question too.

Across podcasts, blogs, twitter, forums, and of course, down the pub with your mates, there are three main theories on how Liverpool can grow from last season and be crowned champions this time around.

One of many mad results last season. Can you win a league playing this way? Or do Liverpool need to change?

One of many mad results last season. Can you win a league playing this way? Or do Liverpool need to change?

  1. Your attack can win games, a defence wins league titles

This would require a change of tactics and additional defensive minded players. A leader at the back, a proper no nonsense defender, someone like Carra in his prime. Backed up by a proper defensive midfielder screening the back four, protecting it at all times. Throw in at least one (if not two) defence first fullbacks, and the transition is complete.

Our mentality would have to change to be more defensive, so would the personnel. Individual players leading the scoring charts often means nothing, being tight at the back and holding on to those 3 points is more important.

To achieve this, we would score fewer goals, maybe scoring 75 and conceding 25, something like that.

If it meant beating Arsenal 1-0 (instead of 5-1) and West Brom 1-0 (instead of 1-1) it would be worth it, right?

  1. Score more – loads and loads and loads more

Liverpool were mad last season. Who wins a game 5-3? Liverpool did. All about the goals and putting teams to the sword. When it came off it was fantastic. Who doesn’t want more of this?

Scoring 101 goals wasn’t enough to be the top goal scorers, we need more. 103 is the record, let’s smash that. Had Liverpool been two or three goals up against West Brom, the Toure mistake wouldn’t have mattered at all. If Liverpool had put away their chances against City, after we took the lead remember, we could have at least got a point and taken two from them. That would have won Liverpool the league in the end. These are fine margins.

How do we do this without Suarez? Replacing 31 goals in a team, even spread across three players, is not an easy task. Then adding even more? That is pretty tough. It would be glorious to watch though, right?

  1. Buy a top class Centre back

It is that simple. We lacked leadership on the pitch, that someone who can hold the team together when it needs to be.  We have the money, we are back in the Champions League, lets go and sign a real top class centre back. A young Cannavaro, Desailly, Maldini. Instead of splashing the cash on a Suarez replacement, do it at the other end.

This is great in theory, getting the right player is the trick. Especially given the very best defenders currently play at the likes of Real Madrid (Varane) and PSG (Silva). Can Liverpool attract that kind of defender from those sort of clubs?

If Liverpool can sign the right centre back, they may not have the best goals for, against, or goal difference. Liverpool could have the most points though, right?

How leagues have been won in recent years? 

Football has changed over the years. From the Football League to the Premier League, 42 games to 38, local business owners to oil-men.

The first change I will look at was in 1995/96, when the first 38 game league season was introduced.

Over the last 19 years, how did each team win the league?

Over the last 19 years, how did each team win the league?

In the last 19 seasons, since the Premier League changed to 38 games, is there a pattern to how teams win the title?

In 1996/97, United won the league with a goal difference of just +32. Their top goal scorer scored just 18 goals (Solskjaer) with no other player in the top 10.

Just three years later (1999/2000) United won it in completely different style, scoring a modern day record (at the time) of 97 goals, while conceding a relatively high 45.

Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/2004 conceded just 24 goals. They never lost a game, which is incredible for any side. They were full of talented attacking players like Henry and Pires, yet still had a rock solid defence.

Three different seasons, three different ways to win the league. Or are they?

At the end of the day, these teams got more points than the others at the end of 38 games.  That is something that hasn’t changed since 1995/96. It hasn’t changed since leagues began.

If you score more goals than your opponent in a single game, you get 3 points. Score the same? 1 point. Score fewer, 0 points. Put all this together winning a league is easy, just get the most points.

Is there a blue print to getting the most points though? Has it changed since money flooded into the Premier League?

 How to win a league – Goal Facts 

  • In 18 of the last 19 seasons, the league winners have been either 1st or 2nd top goalscorers

  • In 14 out of 19 seasons, the league winners have been THE top goal scorers

Scoring the most goals gives you a pretty good chance of winning the league. When the league winners were not top scorers they were just 12% behind on the ‘goals for’ column (around 8-12 goals depending on the season).

The first of these particular seasons, in this sample, was in 1998. Arsenal were the third  highest goalscorers and won the league with 78 points, a tally worthy of just 5th last season.

Petit and Vieira, two key players in Wenger's first title winning side. Would this defensive set up hold Arsenal back in the coming years?

Petit and Vieira, two key players in Wenger’s first title winning side. Would this defensive set up hold Arsenal back in the coming years?

It was only Wenger’s second season in charge and the squad was in transition. Arsenal had been called “boring boring Arsenal” for a number of years prior. Or, as their fans used to sing, “1-0, to the Arsenal”.

Wenger’s French revolution was in early transition. They had Petit and Vieira who were critical to the way they played. They also had Remi Garde, Giles Grimandi, and a very raw Anelka. There was no Pires or Henry yet. Arsenal’s solid defensive foundation was key to their success.

08/09, Liverpool beat United on their own turf and put themselves in with a chance. United were excellent after this result, finishing strong and ending Liverpool's hope that year.

2008/09, Liverpool beat United to close the points and goal difference gap. In the end, United were too strong in their run in, ending Liverpool’s hopes that year.

The most recent season was in 2008/2009, another Liverpool fans will remember. Finishing on 86 points, the same number of points as last season’s league winners Manchester City, Liverpool were outsiders for the title in March when they went to Old Trafford. Trailing by 7 points, played one game more, and United had a +11 advantage on goal difference.

Beating Manchester United 4-1 is the result that turned that dream into a hope. Subsequent results, notably the last minute goal by Benayoun against Fulham, turned that hope into a belief.

Liverpool did manage to over turn the goal difference, having +6 advantage over United after all 38 games had been played. Beating Villa 5-0, Blackburn 4-0, and 3-0 wins over Newcastle and West Ham, this was a strong finish to the season.

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Bent and Modric gave Spurs a 2-0 lead. Would United lose 3 in a row? No, they came back, won 5-2, and won the following 6 games to win the title.

United though, were about getting results. The key word here is results. In their 7 wins to clinch title (after losing to Fulham), in only one game did they win by a margin greater than 2 goals. In that match United were 2-0 down at half time to Spurs. They turned it around though winning 5-2.

United knew how to get results to get them over the line, whilst Liverpool were playing catch up and never could. In the end United won the league by 4 points.

These two seasons do not fit the general trend of top goalscoring teams more often than not winning the league.  How did they end that way? Was it about the respective teams defence? Was it about their mindset? Or something else?

  • In only 8 of the last 19 seasons have the league winners had the best defensive record

  • In just 5 did the league winners have the highest goals scored and lowest number conceded

The league champions do not have to have the best defence. It is relatively rare that a team comes out on top of both highest goals scored and lowest conceded.

In the season defending their 1997/98 league title, Arsenal conceded just 17 goals. SEVENTEEN. United conceded more than double that.

It was United’s goals scored column that was far superior, helping them to win back the title they had dominated for so many years.

Arsenal continued to rely on that solid defensive foundation, with very little in the transfer market coming in during the summer. There was still no sign of Henry or Pires.

United on the other hand strengthened at both ends. Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke, two players who played a critical role in their treble winning season. Dwight Yorke went on to be the leagues joint top goalscorer with 18. Cole, his strike partner, had just 17.

Yorke and Cole was hailed as one of the great Premiership strike partnerships at the time, scoring 35 goals between them to win the league in 99.

Yorke and Cole was hailed as one of the great Premiership strike partnerships at the time, scoring 35 goals between them to win the league in 99.

In a similar story, last season Liverpool conceded almost double that of the best defence Chelsea. While Chelsea didn’t win the league, Liverpool still conceded too many goals when compared with eventual winners Manchester City.

Just like in 1999 Liverpool had the best strike partnership in the league. 52 league goals between them was incredible, eclipsing that of Yorke and Cole 15 years earlier. Even adding in Solskjaer’s goals from 98/99, they only scored 47 between them. Our two still outscored their three and it still wasn’t enough for us.

How good does a defence have to be though? In the 11 seasons where the best defence didn’t win the league, the league winners conceded 23% more goals than the best defence.

Initially it seems like you have more leeway with your defence than your attack (just 12% difference for goals scored). Breaking into the numbers though, the average difference between the league winners and the best defence was just 8 goals. Very similar to that of goals scored.

An 8 goal swing doesn’t sound a lot at first. In the right circumstances though it can be critical, potentially turning 4 points from 8 games (4 draws and 4 defeats) into 4 wins and 4 draws (totalling 16 points).

The question is, how can Liverpool get that 8-12 goal swing? Scoring more? Conceding less? And, how important is goal difference in deciding the league title?

  • In 15 of the last 19 seasons, the league winners have had the best goal difference

  • Of the 4 where the best goal difference didn’t win the league, 2 of them were by no more than 3 goals

"Aguerooooooo!" the last minute goal to secure Manchester City the title on the last day. On goal difference.

“Aguerooooooo!” the last minute goal to secure Manchester City the title on the last day of 2011/2012. On goal difference.

Having the best goal difference gives you a pretty good chance of winning the league. With 17 of the last 19 seasons, the winner had the best goal difference, or were within 3 goals of the best.

Remember 1998 and 2009 mentioned earlier? They were odd seasons that bucked the trend, with both winners 8-12 goals behind the best goal difference.

In 1998, Arsenal won the league despite United have a superior goal difference (by 12 goals). In the very best case scenario this could have turned 12 draws into 12 wins. Or 12 points into 36. Despite this, it was Arsenal’s efficiency that won them the league – they got results.

In 2009, United won the league despite Liverpool having the best goal difference (by 8 goals).  After Liverpool’s 4-1 win at Old Trafford , we got 25 points from the final 9 games. United achieved the same number of points in 10 games. Liverpool had a +22 goal difference. United had just half that,+11. It was United’s efficiency to get results, particularly in the latter part of the season, that allowed them to hold onto top spot, no matter how many goals Liverpool scored.

These two seasons are against the norm, with trends and patterns seen over an extended period.

Focusing on just the result, often a marginal win, comes with a huge risk. Only Arsenal (1998) have achieved this in the last 19 seasons. This same Arsenal team failed one year later when Untied added more goals to their attack.

It took the addition of Henry, Pires, Wiltord, and Ljungberg, to add goals. In 2002 they won the league again. Two years later, in 2003/2004, they were the “Invincibles”.

Arsenal's "Invincibles" built on the solid defensive foundation and added world class attacking talent. Pires and Henry were top goalscorers. What happened to Arsenal after that?

Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ built on a solid foundation by adding world class attacking talent. Pires and Henry were their top goalscorers. What happened to Arsenal after that?

Ten years ago Arsenal had the most perfect team the Premier League had seen. They had goals, they played great football, world class players from front to back. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were their centre halves. Vieira dominated the middle with the help of Gilberto.  This solid defensive foundation allowed their creative players to run riot with Pires and Henry leading their goal scoring charts. They didn’t know how to lose. They didn’t lose all season.

Then came Mourinho, with a helping hand from Roman Abramovich.

Hey, big spenders!

1996 seems light years away doesn’t it? £8.5m was the British transfer record at the time, with Liverpool signing Stan Collymore. Liverpool spent a total of just £13m that season.

Abramovich arrived in 2003 and transformed the Chelsea from nearly men to back to back league champions.

Abramovich arrived in 2003 and transformed Chelsea from a good side into a great one. Eventually.

In the summer of 2003 Abramovich spent £121m assembling his Chelsea squad. Chelsea finished runners up that season, 11 points behind Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’. Ranieri’s signings were hit and miss and Abramovich had cash burning a hole in his pocket. Chelsea were good, they were not great… yet.

Then Mourinho arrived, spending another £102m in the summer of 2004. Drogba, Carvalho, and Robben, were hot property in European football. Chelsea had the cash to get them.

The charismatic Portugese Champions League winner took this team of nearly men, added another splash of world class talent here and there, and Chelsea won back to back league titles. They have been serious contenders in most seasons since.

Sheik Monsour took it a step further when taking over Manchester City in 2008. £128m in that summer, £125m a year later, £155m in 2010/11. £400m+ in just 3 seasons. City won the league in 2011/12 and 2013/14.

How did this change the league? And, more importantly, did this change how to win the league?

  • Pre Abramovich – The average goal difference of the league winners was +42 goals

  • Post Abramovich, Pre Monsour – This increased to +54 goals

  • Post Monsour – Maintained at +54 goals, with 3 of the highest goal differences to win the modern day Premier League happening in the last 6 years

Remember 2008/2009? That odd season mentioned earlier? That was only one summer of Monsour spending, most of that happening late in the transfer window.

Robinho was one of the first big signings under City's new owners. One year later, another £68m+ went on three strikers. Santa Cruz, Tevez, and Adebayour.

Robinho was one of the first big signings under City’s new owners. One year later, £68m+ went on Santa Cruz, Tevez, and Adebayour. Another year later? £51m on Balotelli and Dzeko. In another year? £40m on Ageuro.

The take over was late in the transfer window, with Robinho as their marquee signing. It didn’t work out for City, he was quickly replaced. Then his replacements were too. Over the next three summers City spent a staggering £159m on six strikers, not to mention David Silva, Kompany, Nasri, and Yaya Toure.

Manchester City, unlike Chelsea, were not a very good side prior to their take over. They finished 9th the season before, 32 points off the top. Of course it would take time to improve and a whole lot of cash too.

Ignoring City’s first season after their take over, since City were not the force they would become, what do the numbers look like then?

  • The league winners have scored the most goals every season averaging 92

  • In only one of the last five seasons have the league winners also had the best defensive record

  • In the last two seasons, the difference between the best defence and league winners defence was 9 and 10 goals respectively

That is some shift. Likely caused by the influx of attacking talent to City and other teams having to keep up.

Last season, Chelsea had a rock solid defence. This helped them to do the double over the two teams that finished above them, Manchester City and Liverpool. They conceded just 27 and scored 71, a pretty good return for a challenging sides.  All of this still wasn’t enough to win the league though. Chelsea really struggled for goals in other games and it cost them. No surprise they have added Fabregas and Diego Costa, can they do what Lampard and Drogba did in 2004/2005?

In each of the last five seasons the team with the best goal difference won the league. While their defence was not the best,  they more than made up for it by scoring goals.

This was driven by City’s multiple additions of attacking talent. It turned them into a machine. Not only could they win games, they won well and goal difference won them their first Premier League title. Had Liverpool got the same number of points as them last season, it could have gone that way to City again.

Goals and Goal difference win leagues

Looking at historical trends in seasons, specifically the last five years, I believe Liverpool need to aim for the following:

  • Aim to be the leagues top goal scorers, scoring at least 95 goals

  • Be within 10 goals of the best defence, conceding no more than 40

  • This gives a goal difference of at least +55, above the average since Abramovich came to Chelsea

  • If we can score >100 goals or concede <35, while achieving one of the above minimum requirements, we are in a great position to win the league

Last season was incredible. To go from 7th to almost winners will forever live in the memory of us Liverpool fans. The way we played, the way we beat teams, and Luis Suarez. Last season is gone though, so has Suarez. That doesn’t mean we have to rip up the blue-print for success, we just need to fine tune it.

In June 2013, Rodgers said he wanted to “add 20 goals” to the side. He added THIRTY.

In May 2014, when asked about his defence, Rodgers said “It’s an area that we know we need to be better at. We’ve improved a lot in many aspects of our game and that will be an area I’m sure we’ll look at – and nobody more so than myself.”

If Rodgers can do what he says again that dream can become a reality.

We have come, we have seen, we can conquer.

The next question is… How?

In my next article I will look into the way in which Liverpool achieve the above. Which option would be best? Go more defensive? Go more attacking? A little bit of both? Will Suarez leaving in some way help us? All of this will be answered in my next article “How will Liverpool win the league in 2014/15?”

About This Is Analysis

This Is Anfield. This Is Analysis.

I am using this iconic sign for a reason. Telling a story.

The “This Is Anfield” sign has so many stories to tell from ur players, managers, even our opponents. I am sure even you will have a story to tell about this symbol. Maybe you had one in your bedroom as a kid? Maybe you still do.

I want to tell my own stories, the story of Liverpool, through the eyes of an Analyst. That doesn’t always means stats and figures, although they do help, it is about an indepth understanding of how Liverpool play and where they can improve.

You don’t have to be an analyst to join in. You simply have to be a football fan.

Welcome to Analysis. This is Analysis.

Twitter: @ThisIsAnalysis

About Neal Cross – @barneystuta

May 25th 2005. Do I need to say anymore?

My name is Neal Cross and I am a Liverpool fan. What more can I say?

I am a regular match go-er and watched us play from our home Anfield, to the Bernabau and Bucharest. I have seen it all. The good and the bad (the oh so, very bad at times).

I have been writing on and off about Liverpool since 2010. It started on football forums, it then moved to statistical blogs, now I am here. Following somewhat of a hiatus, I am back.

As you can tell from my picture, I am a bit mad, especially when it comes to Liverpool. The reason I love that picture so much is largely because of the pure emotion. That picture was captured just after we scored our 3rd goal in Istanbul. You know the story, I don’t need to remind you.

In my day job I also have a keen eye for analysis and attention to detail, so you may find some business practice references in my articles. I also love a problem, I love a damn good problem, Liverpool often has their fair share of those.

I hope you enjoy reading my articles and I would love to engage with all football fans, not just Liverpool. In recent years the Football Blogging community has boomed and I hope I can add something to the discussion, while having a laugh along the way.

Twitter: @barneystuta