In a parallel universe, Manchester City have a flaw or two, and the Premier League has a title race.
Given how Liverpool ended last season – with an 11-game unbeaten run that included seven wins on the bounce – and how they have started this one – with five successive wins after the opening-day draw at Stamford Bridge – they should at least be contenders.
But City’s six straight wins so far gives them the joint-third best start to a Premier League season ever, and it really is difficult to see them slipping up. They play Wolves this Saturday, who they have beaten in their last six games by an aggregate score of 19-3. They have Arsenal the weekend after that, but they have won their last eight trips to the Emirates and beat them convincingly twice last season when Arsenal were better than they have been in years.
Jürgen Klopp’s side haven’t looked anything like as convincing as City so far, often needing to come from behind to win. They have won more points from losing positions this season (9) than any other team in the Premier League, coming back to secure victories over Bournemouth, Newcastle and Wolves.
The 3-0 win over Aston Villa was about as comfortable as Liverpool have been this season. Their second string even had to come from a goal down to win at Austrian side LASK in the Europa League and again this week against Championship side Leicester City in the EFL Cup. Even Sunday’s 3-1 home win over West Ham wasn’t without its hairy moments. At 0-0, Tomáš Souček had a good header very well saved by Alisson before Michail Antonio missed a glorious chance, and it could have been a very different game if either of those were scored (though Liverpool might well have come back to win again).
But Liverpool did win, and their defensive frailties are so far yet to cost them. Sixteen points from a possible 18 is an excellent return; it is title-winning form in any other season – or, more accurately, any other era before Guardiola turned up.
So, this season, could it at least mean a title challenge? Could we at least have something resembling a title race?
That will probably depend more on City’s fallibility than anything Liverpool can do, but their attacking displays this season certainly give rise to the idea that they could be in contention. It is their attack rather than the defence that is the reason for the lofty position and impressive points total.
Liverpool rank second to City (13.9) for expected goals this season (13.3), and they have had more big chances (23) – chances that the attacker would be expected to score – than any other team in the division. Part of the reason for that is game state – as mentioned, Liverpool have gone behind on a few occasions this season and will therefore have had to chase the game with greater urgency than other teams – but the numbers are still very positive. They have pace to beat teams on transition, but this team – even with a rebuilt midfield – has also proved very capable of breaking down low blocks that are protecting a lead or, in West Ham’s case for much of Sunday’s game at Anfield, a point.
“Liverpool 2.0”, as Klopp has labelled his team, have immense variety to how they can attack and break opponents down. Looking at our team style comparison graphic shows just how unique they are. They can be fast and direct but they can also be slow and intricate. They can play both ways.
Only West Ham (2.25 metres/second) and Nottingham Forest (2.1 m/s) move the ball up the pitch quicker than Liverpool (1.95 m/s), and they start their attacks on average the closest (35.6 metres) and third-closest (37.1m) to their own goal. Liverpool naturally play with a much higher line, and their attacks start on average 42m from their own goal. Even that number will be skewed after six games by the fact that they played much of the Bournemouth and Newcastle games with 10 men and had to be much more conservative.
They have, in general, not pressed as much as in previous seasons (again, that may be skewed by playing those two games with 10 men), ranking eighth from bottom for attacking turnovers within 40m of the opposition’s goal, with 47, which is fewer than Luton who have played one game fewer. Liverpool are fourth-bottom for high turnovers leading to a shot (5), and joint bottom for those that lead to a goal, having failed to score a single goal after winning possession high up the pitch this season.
They are, as the aforementioned speed of their attacks shows, however, still lethal on transition, just over longer distances than they might have been in the gegenpressing days of Liverpool 1.0. Only Manchester United (104) have had more transitions reach the final third in the Premier League this season than Liverpool (99), and as we saw at St. James’ Park, even when they had 10 men, Liverpool were still incredibly dangerous when Newcastle left space for them to transition into. Space suits the players Klopp has to choose from in attack down to the ground.
But Liverpool have also shown impressive nous to break more stubborn opponents down, too. Only four teams average more passes per sequence in the Premier League this season than Liverpool (4.4), while only City (144), Arsenal (119) and Chelsea (110) have constructed more sequences of 10+ passes than them (102). They are happy to build more slowly when there is no space to transition into – hence their position towards the slow-and-intricate end of the scale on the team styles graphic above – and they are good at it, too. Having a midfielder with the passing ability of Alexis Mac Allister, it’s possible to get past a deep defence with a single pass, as the Argentinian showed with a clever scooped ball to set up Darwin Núñez’s goal against West Ham on Sunday.
They also aren’t reliant on anyone in particular, with 15 Premier League goals spread out among seven players – Mo Salah and Núñez have three each, Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz have two each, and Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Andy Robertson have one each. Only Newcastle (10), who had eight different scorers in the 8-0 win at Sheffield United last week, and Brighton (8) have seen more players score for them this season than Liverpool.
Liverpool have also excelled at set-pieces, having scored more goals from dead balls than any other team in the Premier League this season (4). It’s a side of the game that the best teams have prioritised more and more in recent years, and Liverpool are doing it better than anyone else so far this season. Only Brentford (33) have had more shots from set-pieces than Liverpool (29), while only Brentford (3.67) and Chelsea (2.89) have generated more expected goals from set-pieces than them (2.85). Their form has led to their chances of winning the title growing to 8.6% according to our supercomputer.
The problems have been at the other end, though, and the main question in their pursuit of glory this season will be whether the attack can keep on bailing out the defence. Liverpool have kept only one clean sheet in eight games in all competitions this season.
It hasn’t mattered so far, in part because they have conceded at most one goal in any of those matches, so it’s been possible to swing games back in their favour on almost every occasion.
They have been helped by some poor finishing from opponents (hello Michail Antonio), but they also have one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He hasn’t been quite so busy this season, after preventing 10.5 goals last season according to our expected goals on target model – the second most in the Premier League behind Bernd Leno (11.5) – but he is still overperforming and was particularly crucial in the victory over West Ham on Sunday. Liverpool will need to keep him better protected in the upcoming game at in-form Tottenham and in the weeks and months beyond.
Or, they could just keep relying on their brilliant multifaceted attack. It’s worked so far, hasn’t it? They might just have what it takes to stay hot on City’s heels for a little while longer.