Right around this time three years ago, Liverpool had slumped down to ninth place in the Premier League standings. Through the first seven games of the season, they’d allowed two more goals than they’d scored. They’d won just one of their previous five matches, and after a staid 1-1 draw with intracity rivals Everton in their eighth game, Brendan Rodgers, the man who managed the club to within one slip of winning the Premier League title two seasons prior, was fired. Luis Suárez and his 31 goals and 12 assists had already left for Barcelona for £73.6 million in the summer of 2014, and then Raheem Sterling followed him out the door a season later, leaving for Manchester City for a £57.3 million fee. Their replacements were insouciant, inadequate, ineffective, injured, or all of the above. And so, this is what reality looked like: Despite that one breathtaking run toward the title in 2013-14, mid-table mediocrity had become the new normal for one of the most successful clubs in European history.
Of course, then came Jürgen Klopp, and the club that once walked together started running. They haven’t stopped since: In his first partial season with the club, Klopp’s Liverpool finished eighth in the league but made the Europa League final. The next year, they finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. They sold their most-sought-after player, Philippe Coutinho, to Barcelona this past January, but rather than spiraling down the table, they secured another fourth-place finish and made the freaking Champions League final.
Forget whatever it was that happened in Naples on Wednesday; Liverpool fans have nothing to complain about. It took three years; now they’re rooting for one of the best teams in the world. But are they even the best team in northwest England? On Sunday, we’ll find out.
At the beginning of the decade, Liverpool’s front office was led by Damien Comolli, a good friend of Oakland A’s executive vice president Billy Beane. Comolli had been hired by the club’s new owner, Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Boston Red Sox and famously once tried to hire Beane, and they brought him in to “do a Moneyball of soccer.” Unlike most of his competitors, Comolli used data to help guide his player recruitment—the problem was he used numbers to create a team built around crossing the ball into the box. It was like he was using advanced statistics to scout out the best bunters in MLB or taking NBA tracking data to find the most prolific midrange shooters. Comolli identified the right players for the team’s system; it’s just that the system itself was wildly inefficient. In the years after Comolli was dismissed, the club nailed a handful of signings, like Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, but mainly jerked back and forth between taking huge risks on unproven talent and overpaying for unspectacular players with lots of Premier League experience.
Now, well, there’s not much they’re doing wrong. Klopp wants versatile players who are comfortable anywhere on the pitch and aggressively push the ball upfield and then try to regain possession once it’s lost. If there’s a data-friendly way to play the game, that is it. The ferocious front trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané, and Mohamed Salah were bought in three consecutive summers—all three arrived right as they were entering their primes, and all three transfers were lauded by the analytics community. So, when the club announced the signing of Naby Keïta from RB Leipzig last summer (he didn’t officially join the club until this past offseason), it really felt like Michael Edwards, the new sporting director, was just signing players he knew would appease stats bloggers:
Naby Keita, RB Leipzig 16-17.— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) February 11, 2017
Q: What can't Naby do?
A: Uh... move slowly? pic.twitter.com/WQ6po8vRqT
It’s not all exploiting inefficiencies, though. Liverpool are one of the 10 richest clubs in the world, and when Klopp and Co. recognize a player they really want, they’re willing to wait him out and keep throwing money at the problem until the other side gives in. Center back Virgil van Dijk arrived in January from Southampton for £70.9 million, a world-record fee for a defender. And then this summer, the club broke the world record for a keeper when they bought Alisson for £56.3 million from Roma. (That record was then broken weeks later when Chelsea bought Kepa from Athletic Bilbao for £72 million.)
With van Dijk and Alisson as its anchors, the defense—which was once a constant source of anxiety for anyone who watched, let alone rooted for, Liverpool—is now perhaps the team’s biggest strength. The club has allowed just three league goals so far this season—tied for the fewest of any team in Europe’s top five leagues. Pair that with 15 goals at the other end, and Liverpool haven’t lost a game in the Premier League, only dropping points in last weekend’s 1-1 road draw with Chelsea. Liverpool are smart, they’re rich, and perhaps most importantly, they’re willing to spend their money. Klopp is under contract through 2022, and James Milner, who has the lungs of a 14-year-old, is the team’s only major contributor over 28.
If Liverpool throw money at their problems, Manchester City dump their cash out of an aircraft carrier just because they can. After winning the Premier League with a record 100 points last season, City broke their own transfer record to sign Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez, the only player in England with two 10-goal, 10-assist seasons over the past four years, and they turned him into an end-of-the-bench option. Through his first seven games with City, 14 players have played more minutes than Mahrez. Pep Guardiola’s team is tied with Liverpool atop the table, and they head to Anfield on Sunday.
Coming into the season, the “Liverpool can challenge City for the title” narrative was way more appealing than “City won the league by 19 points last year; stop trying to make a title race happen.” Sure, Klopp’s team finished fourth in the league last year, but they were a different team after van Dijk’s arrival in January, and again, they made the freaking Champions League final. Plus, they beat City three consecutive times in 2018 by a combined 9-4 scoreline, and the arrival of Alisson and Keïta seemed to add two automatic world-class starters to a team that was already awesome. Keita has been in and out of the lineup, but Liverpool may have even exceeded those preseason expectations. Per FiveThirtyEight, they were projected to finish with 79 points before the season began, and that number has since climbed to 86. The betting markets are even more bullish, bumping them from 81 to 88 since game one. Toss in an early-season injury to Kevin De Bruyne, perhaps City’s best and most important player, and everything has come up Liverpool over the first few months.
City, however, have basically been as good as they were last year, when they were ... the best team in Premier League history. Liverpool dominate games with the staccato pressure of a thunderstorm—lightning bolt after lightning bolt. But City don’t just affect the weather, they almost control it at a molecular level. Last season, they led the league in every relevant statistical category in every phase of the game. This year, they’re doing it again: They attempt the most shots, they allow the fewest; they take the best shots, they concede the worst ones; they win the ball back the fastest, they keep the ball the longest. Since they saturate the game with their style, City really do seem immune to the kind of sterile performance (four total shots, none on target) Liverpool put forth in the Champions League on Wednesday.
And yet, the margins are still so thin. As a source who works with various European clubs pointed out to me, in the second half of last season, City took 45 points with a plus-31 goal difference, while Liverpool were not far behind: 40 points and plus-28 despite resting starters during the extended Champions League run. Plus, City’s toughest game this season came against a waffling Arsenal team, while Liverpool have already played road games against Chelsea and Tottenham, the presumptive third- and fourth-best teams in the league.
Now, anyone who reads Premier League coverage on a given weekend knows that overreaction is standard operating procedure. Who’s suddenly in crisis? Who’s suddenly in form? Which top striker has lost his confidence? One game is one game, and the scorelines often offer few lessons beyond who won and who lost. But Sunday’s matchup between these two teams should be the rare game that refocuses the lens through which we see this season: If City win, their dominance doesn’t look like the result of a favorable schedule; it’s the Centurions all over again. And if Liverpool take three points, the projections, the bettors, and the commentators will agree: They’ll finally be the favorites to win the league.