By MARCO LOPES

IT’S a fascinating time to be a Liverpool fan.

There are varying degrees of mini-tribalism that have seeped into the fanbase and their perspectives are sometimes divisive. Often emphatically so.

There are those who distrust FSG. Some belittle Brendan Rodgers. Others underestimate Jordan Henderson. Yet more would prefer an open-top bus parade for winning the League Cup over “pointless” celebrations for finishing a place outside the gold, silver and bronze medals of the league marathon.

European Football - UEFA Europa League - Group A - FC Anji Makhachkala v Liverpool FC

That last one poses constant debate. Since 2002, the veritable strength of the English Premier League, and its more consistently performing clubs on the European stage, managed to earn a fourth qualifying spot in what was fast becoming the most significant footballing competition on the planet.

Now, having seen Liverpool spend four years in the European wilderness, away from the coveted glamour of a well-known anthem and its associated tournament, we’ve seen close up the club’s difficulties in trying to recapture its former glories without the monetary injection and the status that comes from being a part of arguably the most important tournament in the world.

Transfers and the Race for Top 4

It’s transfers that often get singled out as a measure of how Liverpool are progressing, or needing to progress. Thankfully, the club is past the point of signing relegation fodder like Konchesky or Poulsen, or window dressing “marquee” players like Joe Cole. Yet still, recent transfer windows have left many fans feeling ambivalent and not without good reason.

Transfers have become an increasingly sensitive area of the club’s competitiveness, especially given that player recruitment at all levels is a massive driver of the team’s success. The league is also far more competitive than in recent years. That competition drives further challenges in transfers. Liverpool’s targets are often also courted by Champions League qualifiers and aspirers alike – both an encouraging sentiment and a frustrating situation.

The last window didn’t exactly shut with a fanfare.  No news is certainly not good news, especially with a squad running thin on cover, and in dire need of significant improvements at full-back and defensive midfield in particular.

But that doesn’t make Liverpool’s aim for a top-four finish a lost cause. The main top four rivals don’t look particularly stronger post-window.  Despite Everton’s attempt to field the first Premier League XI composed exclusively of loaned players, they’re still largely as strong as they were before the window. Spurs, like Liverpool, didn’t sign anyone – so, as you were, then. Manchester United, while they have signed a fantastic player in Juan Mata, his mercurial talents are wasted on a manager who’ll likely tuck him in at left wing, and it’s hardly a signing that improves their defensive problems.

Top 4 by numbers

The question of course, is whether you believe the lack of transfer activity has a defining effect on Liverpool’s ability to finish at the top of these four teams (notwithstanding any other more lofty objectives for the season, which will be discussed later).

Simplistically, the objective of top four is easily strategised;  get more points than the 16 teams beneath you. But to make an attempt of science on the matter, let’s consider two key strategies that Liverpool should consider in winning the race:

  • Win the “six pointers” – beating the teams likely to challenge alongside you for fourth ultimately wins the race because you’re both gaining points and taking points off them.
  • Beat the weak sides – currently from 8th to bottom, there are 13 weaker teams that represent 78 very obtainable points. The average points tally of a fourth-placed team is typically 70 points in the last eight seasons, so the weaker sides go a long way to helping to reach that target.

With that in mind, let’s consider just how Liverpool, Everton, Spurs and Man United have managed so far on these particular numbers.

TAW_G4A_1

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Immediately, Liverpool’s season comes into focus – they’re performing significantly better than they have in recent years against not only their direct rivals for fourth, but more importantly, they’re collecting a far greater return of the “easy” points. Spurs are doing well against the weakest sides, but abject performances against teams around them is doing them few favours.

That’s not to say Liverpool don’t have areas of improvement – this is especially noticeable when you consider differences between home and away form:

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The weakness is obvious and it’s further emphasised by the dropped points against West Brom. But it’s also important to note that Spurs and Man United have travelled to several sides closer to the relegation zone (Palace, Sunderland, Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich) whereas Liverpool have only played one game away against those sides (Sunderland).  In a sense, dropped points at home to Villa are far more costly than a draw away to the Albion, because the home games are typically more likely to bring three points.

Finishing the race

The numbers above pose some interesting debates. Yes, Liverpool didn’t strengthen the team during the window but is the current side capable of:

  • Avoiding defeat at home to Spurs and away Idag ar det mojligt att bade spela hos casino sverige Room genom mobiltelefonen da dem har utvecklat ett mycket bra mobilcasino. to Man United
  • Winning as many of the fixtures against the weaker sides at least to the pace set by immediate rivals

Consider that Liverpool’s record so far was accumulated with a thinner squad than the other three to begin with, and with injuries to Coutinho, Sturridge, Allen, Gerrard, Sakho, Agger, Enrique, Johnson and Lucas. A certain Uruguayan superstar was missing for the first few games too.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Aston Villa FC

Consider that Liverpool have a clean sweep of points at home against most of the weaker sides, yet Spurs lost to West Ham (0-3), United lost at the Britannia (even with Mata) and Everton to Sunderland. Of Liverpool’s remaining away trips, the one to Southampton arguably looks the trickiest – and Man United and Everton face the same trip. Liverpool also host Swansea and Newcastle, who’ll hopefully dwindle into mid-table obscurity, whereas rivals host relegation-threatened clubs far more motivated for points.

Could Liverpool finish higher?

While the numbers speak for Liverpool’s ambition to finish in the top four, there’s a curious observation to make as well. Liverpool aren’t far from third. And they have the benefit of hosting all three sides above them in matches to come.  Is there really a possibility of a title charge, or a higher finish?

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Liverpool’s numbers against the weaker sides and the top 4 rivals are somehwat comparable to the pace set by their top three peers. The question you have to ask is simply this – are Liverpool going to be able to win those three home games against the top three, while maintaining the matched pace in other “groups” in the table?

There’s an argument for it being quite possible; the other three still have Champions League football to distract them – BUT – there could well be potentially early exits for both Arsenal and Man City to negate that argument.

If Liverpool don’t manage to do that, then they need to amplify their points return against the bottom sides. Doing that can mean throwing unnecessary caution to the wind in those games, whereas teams like Man City or Chelsea can afford to do that more than Liverpool simple because their squads allow them more quality to call on.

By comparison – Liverpool played outstandingly against Man City and still lost.  They were out-thought by Arsenal and Chelsea, who still ultimately have better managers and better players.

If there is a possibility of overtaking someone though, it is probably Arsenal, whose numbers don’t imply a team capable of winning the matches against stronger opponents. They’ve had to compensate with a superior return against the weaker sides to balance against disappointments away at both Manchester clubs, and draws at home to Chelsea and Everton.  And third place could prove important – Liverpool would no doubt prefer not to compete a play-off round match against (possibly) any top sides finishing fourth in Germany, Italy, Spain or third in Portugal. Third place is an automatic route to the lucrative Champions League group stage where a guaranteed six matches awaits.

Fourth is Liverpool’s to lose

The numbers may make for encouraging reading and vain, title challenging hyperbole, but ultimately they pose a clear picture.  Liverpool have played their way into a very enticing position, primed to replace the tears of the past with the dreams and hope of restoring the club to those coveted European nights of old.

Every passing movement of a Uruguayan genius with some capable teammates whose footballing brains equally extend to their footwear continue to make us dream of seeing the club back where it belongs. The season has had its mishaps, but the goal is in sight.

Because as much as there are those who write off the team’s chances of finishing 4th on the basis of a Konoplyanka or M’Vila shaped voids in the team’s starting lineups, the fact remains that Liverpool still have a fantastic team, performing well above itself, and still better than most of its peers in the league.

The race is a marathon. Liverpool are fundamentally winning their goal. They’ve won critical six pointers, and have left two magnificent performances stitched into the minds of Spurs and Everton fans. They’re still on pace against weaker sides, and the possibilities presented by the visits of the top three are both nerve-wracking and captivating.

Third or higher is very unlikely. Improbable. But not impossible. Mathematical possibilities can lie to our footballing hearts as the presence of eyes does to blind people.

But fourth? That’s different. That race is there. On track. A visible point on the horizon.

And Liverpool are winning this race. It’s theirs to lose.

@Footy_MarcoL

(Images: David Rawcliffe / Propaganda)

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