Football - FA Premier League - Burnley FC v Liverpool FC

HAVING high expectations is important for a big club — but unrealistic expectations can be destructive for everyone, writes MIKE KENNEDY.

They create unhappy fans, affect players’ confidence and managers get sacked for not meeting them.

I don’t want that to happen to Brendan Rodgers (I think he’s doing a decent job), so with that in mind I’d like to highlight  how slim the chances of Liverpool finishing in the top four this season appear to be:

It would be unprecedented in Premier League history for a team in Liverpool’s current situation to finish inside the top 4. At this stage, sixth place would be ‘success’. Finishing in fourth place is out of reach.

I hope that by highlighting this, you will have a more accurate view of what Liverpool can realistically achieve and your assessment of Rodgers’ performance will be more objective and you won’t be as disappointed when Liverpool finish outside the top four.

Like you, I want to believe that Liverpool can still make the top four this season. Sturridge will return. We’ll sign a brilliant player in January. We’ll go on a run. We can make it. After all, we’re only seven points away from fourth.

Seven points is a wider margin to overturn than many people realise, but like all football fans, my blind faith and optimism often distort reality. I was convinced Liverpool could overhaul Southampton in fourth place; it seemed a reasonable aim. I realise now that I was dead wrong.

I want to see beyond my footy-fan blinkers and perceive things in an unbiased and natural way; I wanted to see ‘reality’ instead of mirages fuelled more by hope than intelligence. But it’s bloody hard to be an objective football fan, isn’t it? (In fact, “objective football fan” might be the most oxymoronic phrase ever typed by human hand.)

So let’s focus on cold, hard facts. Facts are objective. Facts are reality.

AN OPPORTUNE TIME TO REASSESS

Each year, after the New Year’s Day fixtures are complete I reassess where we’re at. This is a great point in the season to pause and take stock because we’ve just passed the halfway point, the influential glut of festive fixtures are complete and the season’s run-in beckons like a siren, luring you and your false hopes onto the rocks.

I’ll allow myself to fantasise about an FA Cup win at this time of year, but as far as the league is concerned, I try to be as grounded and ‘real-world’ as possible. (As the great man said, the league is our bread and butter.)

So realistically what can we hope to see Liverpool achieve in this season’s Premier League?

A good way to predict future performance is to look at past results. It’s what bookmakers, insurance companies, economists and sophisticated investors do. (It’s what my wife does when she’s evaluating dubious promises to be home promptly from work/the pub.)

It’s not an infallible way to predict the future — you’re attempting to predict the future after all — but it’s a strong indicator and it’s more reliable than any other method I know of. It’s right more times than it’s wrong. And that’s as good as it gets, I think.

So I’ve calibrated my Reality Goggles based on what happened before, rather than on what might happen in the future. I sat down and looked at Liverpool’s past performance following the New Year’s Day fixtures. This is what I found.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v West Bromwich Albion FC

LIVERPOOL’S PAST PERFORMANCE

Liverpool are currently eighth and Brendan Rodgers’ goal is to bridge a seven-point gap and reach fourth place. So Liverpool need to climb four places for their league campaign to be deemed a success. Only once in the Premier League’s 22-year history has Liverpool’s position improved by four places following New Year’s Day.

That was in 1993 when they went from 10th to sixth. On that occasion they were only six points behind and, crucially, they had a game in hand. (At that time sixth place, just like fourth place, was meaningless as English clubs didn’t unlock four Champions League slots until almost a decade later.)

Interestingly, 18 times out of the past 22 years Liverpool’s position varied no more than two places in either direction. So any post New Year’s Day swing is usually quite small.

Liverpool League Positions2

Based on Liverpool’s positional performance over the last two decades there is an 80 per cent chance that they’ll finish between sixth and 10th. Looking at these stats alone, finishing in fourth place this season is a 20-1 shot.

But of course, we’ve only looked at Liverpool’s positional performance here, and though that’s very relevant, it’s quite a narrow pool to draw solid conclusions from. What about other teams?

OTHER EIGHTH-PLACED TEAMS’ PERFORMANCE

Q: How many Premier League teams who were in eighth place on January 2 finished the season higher than eighth?

A: Only four.

Q: How many of those four finished higher than sixth?

A: None.

No Premier League team in eightth place at this point of the season has finished in the top four.

This fact clearly implies that Liverpool should forget about fourth place. In fact, sixth place is the most they can hope for. Even worse, there’s an 82 per cent chance that Liverpool won’t finish any higher than where they are right now — in eighth place.

It doesn’t look great does it? Those four teams above Liverpool suddenly appear a bigger obstacle than I’d originally imagined…

But so far we’ve only looked at Liverpool’s past performance and other eighth-placed teams’ performance. Let’s cast the net much wider and look at all the teams in Premier League history.

Football - FA Premier League - Queens Park Rangers FC v Liverpool FC

LEAGUE-WIDE POST-NEW YEAR’S DAY PERFORMANCE

The Premier League has existed for 22 years. In 21 of those years, the teams who finished in the top four positions were already inside the top six on January 2.

This fact tell us there is 95 per cent probability that Liverpool won’t finish in the top four this season.

Or put another way, let’s be clear, the chances of ANY team finishing in the top four if they’re outside of the top six after New Year’s Day are 20-1. (Which exactly mirrors our Liverpool-only positional analysis above.)

WE’VE LOOKED AT POSITIONS, NOW LET’S LOOK AT POINTS

I was surprised by this: Only five Premier League teams have ever finished in the top four who weren’t already in the top four by January 2.

I thought the Premier League was more changeable than that, but no. There’s lots of swapping of places within each ‘mini-league’, but the four teams who are in the top four at the turn of the year tend to be the four teams who finish in the top four. Overwhelmingly so, in fact.

It makes sense when you consider it fully. With half a season gone you’d expect the quality of the top teams to show, leaving the strongest teams safely ensconced at the top of the table.

Here’s some info on the five teams who were outside the top four at the turn of the year who did manage to finish inside the top four.

  • Arsenal did it in 1997-1998. They were only three points from fourth place.
  • Leeds did it in 2000-2001. They were a whopping 11 points from fourth place, but they had two games in hand. So the ‘mathematical gap’ from fourth place = five points.
  • Liverpool did it in 2003-2004. They were four points off fourth place and had a game in hand. The mathematical gap from fourth place = one point.
  • Arsenal did it in 2005-2006. They were four points behind fourth-placed Spurs, with a game in hand. The mathematical gap from fourth place = one point.
  • Arsenal did it in 2012-2013. They were four points from fourth place. The mathematical gap from fourth place = four points.

Nobody has overcome a seven-point mathematical gap from this stage in a Premier League season.

WHAT ABOUT POINTS-PER-GAME?

Points-per-game stats are very dry and send  a lot of people to sleep, but they are the fairest and most accurate measure of a team’s game-by-game performance, so let’s — quickly — check them out.

Liverpool have played 20 games and have 29 points, so their current points per game total is 1.45. Following the New Year’s Day fixtures, has any team with a lower points per game ever finished inside the top four?

Yes, two teams, but both teams faced a smaller mathematical points gap because they had games in hand.

Leeds in 2000-2001 (PPG = 1.30). As we saw above, they had a staggering 11-point gap to overhaul, but had two games in hand. (So the mathematical gap was just five points.)

Liverpool 03-04 (PPG = 1.44). Again, we saw this above, they had a four-point gap to overhaul and had a game in hand. (So the mathematical gap was just one point.)

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v West Bromwich Albion FC

THE LEEDS COMPARISON

This is the one that catches the eye. There’s an argument to be made here that a better comparison would be to extrapolate Leeds’ games in hand performance based on their 1.30 PPG, rather than ‘giving’ them 3.0 PPG (six points) to reduce the gap. If we did this it would appear Leeds faced an even bigger gap than Liverpool currently do.

But Leeds’ two games in hand weren’t played immediately and back-to-back. They were subsumed into Leeds’ 18 remaining fixtures and, crucially, things turned for Leeds in the second half of the season.

There’s no way perfect way to compare Liverpool’s situation to Leeds’. Metrics like League Position, Points Total and PPG are one thing, but games-played-vs-calendar-date is always nebulous and how on earth do you allow for more subtle variables like difficulty of opponent and fixture frequency?

(Incidentally, Leeds got four points from those two games in hand when they were finally played, beating Aston Villa and drawing with Everton. Of course by the time those games were played the landscape had changed, so it’s still not a perfect comparison.)

The point for me is this: After New Year’s Day Leeds didn’t continue with their 1.30 PPG. They pipped Ipswich to fourth place on the final day because in the second half of the season they went on an incredible run. And compared to the current Liverpool team, that Leeds side had more games to go on an incredible run with. Mathematically they had more leeway and margin to play around with than Liverpool currently do.

CONCLUSION

It would be unprecedented in Premier League history for a team in Liverpool’s current situation to finish inside the top four. At this stage, sixth place would be ‘success’. Finishing in fourth place is out of reach.

During the last 22 years there have been 378 Premier League teams that have found themselves outside the top four following the New Year’s Day fixtures. None of them have overcome a seven-point mathematical gap to finish inside the top four.

There have been teams with comparable point gaps to overcome, but they had one or two games in hand — a luxury that the current Liverpool team do not enjoy.

SO, ANOTHER YEAR WITHOUT CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FOOTBALL?

Don’t shoot the messenger. When I looked at the data, I was disappointed because it looks so definitive. There’s no way Liverpool are finishing inside the top four, just look at the facts. But it’s so easy to delude yourself. After all, it’s only a seven-point gap. I’m still doing it now. “We’re only seven points behind, of course we can do this!”

But of course, what about the other teams who are above Liverpool? They’re above Liverpool because they’ve been better over a long period (20 games). To claim fourth place Liverpool need to outperform four of those superior sides, by seven clear points for an entire half-season. That’s insanely hard. The facts tell us so and so do the maths.

IN CASE, FOR SOME UNFATHOMABLE REASON, YOU’RE STILL ON THE FENCE…

Southampton currently lie fourth and have a points per game average of 1.80.

The 22-year average points per game (PPG) total for fourth-placed teams is 1.79 but that has crept up steadily over the last four years. Arsenal finished fourth last year with a 2.08 PPG and 79 points — a massive total for a fourth-placed team.

This year it won’t be that high, but it’s safe to say Liverpool will need a minimum of 69 points to finish fourth this season (that’s based on 1.80 PPG), but they’ll probably need around 75 points to ensure they get the fourth slot (that’s based on 1.90 PPG).

Let’s focus on a 69-point total as a target, because that’s the minimum they will require to challenge for fourth.

WHAT LIVERPOOL NEED TO DO TO FINISH IN FOURTH PLACE

For Liverpool to get 69 points — the minimum they will need to challenge for fourth — they would need to deliver a points per game average between now and the end of the season of 2.22. That’s league-winning form, exactly. (The average PPG of all 22 Premier League winning teams, is exactly 2.22.)

So to finish fourth this season Liverpool need to deliver championship-winning form over the remaining 18 league games. 

For a team in eighth place at the turn of the year that is unprecedented. (And I don’t know what you think, but Liverpool aren’t playing like a league-winning side in my eyes at the moment.)

I’ve accepted that the Champions League dream is over for another season. Sure, I’ll shout myself hoarse and fully support at the match, and I’ll put a brave face on to opposition fans, but deep down the truth is I’m already mentally planning for the next league campaign.

As a fanbase, we need to understand that fourth is no longer a reasonable aim. We can dream, of course, but it’s important we don’t harbour unrealistic and destructive expectations for what can be achieved this season. Sure, we can go for it (what else can we do?), but it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll achieve it. The damage to this season has already been done.

I’d love to see Rodgers strongly prioritise the cups, especially the Europa League, as that now represents an excellent chance to qualify for next year’s Champions League and would create a huge morale and confidence boost ahead of the Gerrard-less following season.

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