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?”

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