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To Be the Best, Liverpool Has to Beat the Worst

Jurgen Klopp has yet to improve on the Brendan Rodgers era — thanks entirely to his team’s failure to take care of inferior competition

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Let’s say you’re a casual Premier League fan. You know who Paul Pogba is. You’ve heard of Antonio Conte. And entering this season, you knew that there were six legitimate contenders for the title and the three other Champions League places: Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool. More often than not, a given matchday this season has provided at least one showdown between that select sextet. And if you’ve just watched games between the top six this season, you’ve likely come away satisfied — and with the wrong impression of how this campaign is unfolding.

If we got rid of the other 14 teams, Liverpool would be the best team in the Premier League. They’ve dropped only eight points against the top six, while everyone else in that group has dropped at least 11. More impressively, they’ve yet to lose a match to any of their closest competitors, posting a win and a tie against Chelsea, two ties against Manchester United, a win against Arsenal, a win against Manchester City, and a tie against Tottenham, whom they play this weekend. When Liverpool faces the top teams in England, the mood in Merseyside tends toward this:

When they face everyone else? It’s a little more like this:

Despite beating the best, Liverpool are, uh, not the best. They’re currently in fifth, 13 points back of Chelsea. One difference? Chelsea have dropped two points against the bottom 14 teams this year, while Liverpool have coughed away those results at an 800 percent higher rate. Since the turn of the new year, they’ve yet to win a game against anyone, and they’ve tied Sunderland and lost to Swansea and Hull City — all of whom are fighting to avoid relegation.

We’re now 54 Premier League games into the Jurgen Klopp era, and while the underlying numbers look better under him than with his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, the results have been exactly the same:

This part is good:

This part is bad:

Calling this an existential crisis for Liverpool fans, including me, would be like calling the moon landing a round-trip flight from Florida to Florida featuring a long layover. Take this Hull loss match review from The Anfield Wrap, the top Liverpool fansite, in which the first line reads “WHAT wouldn’t you burn down now?” and the second comment states: “These lot haven’t got an argument or a fight between them, a team full of coward and shithouses no doubt.”

Imagine an NFL team beating the Patriots, Falcons, and Seahawks, but losing out on a playoff spot because it couldn’t hang with the Browns or the 49ers. As a fan, you can wrap your head around being able to beat bad teams and losing to the guys ahead of you in the standings, but slowly drifting away from all the teams you’ve consistently outplayed? Sports are supposed to be a meritocracy!

Of course, that’s the point of the Premier League’s structure: Each team plays everyone twice — home and away — and whoever has the best set of results from the same set of games gets to lift the trophy. But soccer is weird: There’s no shot clock and there aren’t many rules, so each side, however bad, still gets a say in shaping the game to its liking. A less-talented team can sit back, clog up the goalmouth, and attack only when absolutely necessary. And when teams are able to attack against Liverpool, they tend to score: Liverpool’s save percentage is 7 points below average, and they give up the highest-quality chances of any team in the Premier League not named Swansea. Plus, much of Liverpool’s attack is predicated on winning the ball back from their opponent and then attacking an unorganized defense, but unlike the top teams, lesser foes like Sunderland, Hull, and Co. are happy to concede possession and force Liverpool to break down an organized defense.

Since the 2012–13 season, the team that’s won the most points against the packed-in defenses of the bottom 14 teams has won the Premier League. Over the same span, the team that’s won the most off the top six has never lifted the trophy. There are more good teams in the Premier League than ever before, but the majority still hovers around mediocrity: Liverpool gets 10 games against the rest of the top six, and 28 against everyone else.

On Saturday, Liverpool plays second-place Tottenham. The first time these sides met, Liverpool went to North London, created the better chances, and came away with a draw. If they win at home, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The three points will temporarily vault them back into the top four, but the tougher game might come next: Liverpool plays Leicester, and they’re in 16th.