YOU would think that Sunday’s result sealed a full season undefeated against the other members of the Premier League’s top six for the 2016-17 season. I write that slightly tentatively as Everton appear to be finishing reasonably strongly while Arsenal are imploding so it might be another 10 days before we can say that for certain, but for now, we’ll run with it.
It’s a pretty solid achievement, five wins and five draws from our 10 games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. That’s 20 points from our 10 most difficult games in a season, which is very creditable and tells you what this team is capable of. They’re all good teams and we’re a problem for good teams. Moving forward knowing we can be competitive against these sides is a great base for us to build upon.
The Rafa Benitez years were the years where myself and anyone of my generation saw Liverpool at their best; a European Cup, the closest run at a title we’d see until Luis Suarez turned up, and a side that was filled with excellent footballers, playing at a high level who would give us some of the best nights of our lives.
However, there was one drawback. We had an absolutely terrible league record against what were then our fellow members of the ‘Big Four’. Games against Arsenal yielded three league wins, games against Chelsea yielded three league wins, while we also bagged three league wins against Manchester United. We were comfortable members of the top four in general for that period yet in the 36 games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United we could only amass nine league wins.
It was a very poor record – these teams weren’t miles ahead of us, but two away wins in six seasons against United, Arsenal and Chelsea tells a story. It was a big failing and you have to think that were we able to mix it over 90 minutes with these sides more often, we would have won a league title.
You then take a look at Jürgen Klopp’s record.
Granted, there is now the concept of a big six and there are more games, but in the last two seasons Klopp has recorded eight wins from his 18 games against teams we’re in direct competition with, and of a similar level to. In these 18 games, we’ve taken something from an astonishing 17 of them. A defeat against Manchester United is our only defeat against these other five sides since he took the reins.
This is a really solid measure of where we are as a club. Very good football teams are finding it very difficult to score more goals against us than we score against them – it’s an incredibly simplistic way of looking at things but from looking at both the results and the way the games have unfolded it is hard to argue with.
From all of these 18 games the only one I can truly look back on and think losing was a genuine possibility on the balance of play was Sunday – I thought City were excellent going forward, but both sides were equally wasteful. My first feeling when Michael Oliver blew for full-time was frustration that we hadn’t come away with more having seen Adam Lallana fail to do something he’d do 99 per cent of the time, while also feeling relieved that Sergio Aguero failed to do something he’d do far more often than not.
We are clearly knocking on the door of being a very high class side, but our record against the league’s lesser lights will tell you that we are not quite there yet. It’s a nice problem to have as I’ve said before. We need to come up with a way of consistently beating sides that we’re better than.
I thought it was quite interesting to look at Klopp’s two title winning seasons at Dortmund. In the second one, they were the best performing side against the Bundesliga’s bottom nine teams — an astonishing 50 goals in an 18-game run that yielded 44 points at 2.44 points per game. This followed a season where they won a title without being particularly spectacular against the bottom half. They were the fourth best performing side against the bottom half with 36 points from the 18 games. The difference of 0.44 points per game in this Liverpool side would lift us into a comfortable second place.
The reason this first title winning season at Dortmund is interesting is because their performance against the top half was pretty much as close as you are going to get to perfection — 2.44 points per game, 37 goals scored in 16 games, and impressively just nine goals conceded. They finished 10 points ahead of Bayern Munich that season, and Bayern Munich picked up more points against the bottom half of the table.
To put into perspective just how impressive that level of performance is, only once since the inception of the Premier League (sorry, it’s a good arbitrary cut-off point) has a team got more points per game against the top half sides. That was the Chelsea side of 2005-6 and the caveat here is that due to the difference in the number of teams, it’s easier for the Premier League sides as the difference in the data sees Dortmund lose the 10th placed side. If we include this 10th place side, Dortmund’s points per game total jumps up to the same figure as Chelsea (2.5).
The reason I find this pretty interesting is that that figure could realistically only get worse in the following season, and I suspect that that is the only way that our number can go against the top sides next season. It’s highly unlikely that we won’t lose any of those 10 games next season, so the importance of improving our record against the league’s poorer sides increases.
As it was Dortmund’s level against the top half dropped, not by a great deal but it did drop. However, Dortmund actually kicked their level up and passed 80 points in retaining their title. This is because they went from getting two points per game against the bottom half of the league to getting 2.44 points per game against the bottom half of the league.
This Liverpool side currently has 1.73 points per game against the bottom half of this league. An absolutely dreadful figure and one that simply isn’t good enough. But what an opportunity that level of underperformance creates.
We’re a better side than every single one of these 10 sides, we will start pretty much every one of these games as odds-on favourites next season and anything less than 50 points will more than likely see this Liverpool side decline. If we improve against the dross this league has — and Christ there is a lot — we can actually afford to decline slightly against the top sides and still mount a serious title challenge.
Manchester City and Tottenham are on course for in excess of 50 points against the league’s bottom 10. We’re probably going to get less than 40. Next season, that should really be in excess of 10 points that Liverpool can get that they haven’t got this season without too much effort. City and Spurs will have to find their improvement against the top 10. Whose position do you think is more sustainable for improvement?
Everything we do this summer, as I appear to be saying every week, should be to do with improving from this season to next. The starting point is easy for everyone to see, and the exciting thing is that Klopp has done it before. He didn’t need to perform major surgery for his Dortmund side to become better against poorer sides – they basically signed Ilkay Gundogan and Ivan Perisic that summer and they got better.
That’s how simple it was for Klopp to find a big improvement. He didn’t need to be backed by megabucks, but this summer Fenway Sports Group and the new Chief Executive should see the opportunity and give him whatever he wants. If we are to finish in a Champions League place this season it shouldn’t be seen as Liverpool having achieved what they set out to, it should be seen as the bare minimum from this point going forward.
And once we are in it we shouldn’t be in it to make up the numbers. There isn’t a huge difference between Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich and the sides that we’ve gone toe-to-toe with this season.
Qualify for the Champions League and be better at beating rubbish teams. We’ve got just under five months until the start of the 2017/2018 season and that’s our to do list. Easy enough, isn’t it?