IT’S annoying, isn’t it? One game away from going a whole season undefeated against Manchester City, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United, yet in early March the most exciting thing we can think about is getting a Champions League place for next season.
If we were to rewind to James Milner sealing three points against Sunderland with a penalty in late November, I really didn’t think I’d be sat here three and a half months later having to readjust my sights so drastically.
But we are where we are, and what has happened has happened. Personally, I think Liverpool will finish in the top four. Maybe not comfortably, but I think that’s where they’ll finish. Three points against Burnley on Sunday would be vital. Not only would it assuage a few doubts about the Reds being able to do it against the league’s lesser lights, it would put a bit of daylight between Liverpool and Arsenal and United.
People would be absolutely correct to point out that they have games in hand, and that five and six points is easily overturned if United and Arsenal perform well in their games in hand. What I feel isn’t being considered is the remaining fixtures of these sides. For a start, United and Arsenal have to play each other – they can’t both take three points.
Then we examine these games in hand, after this weekend both teams will have two. United have one against City at the Etihad, Arsenal have what now looks a menacing game at home to Leicester, while both sides will also have to fit in a visit to Southampton at some point before the end of the season. A victory this weekend gives breathing space and I’d rather have the points on the board than games in hand at this stage, particularly the games in hand that they have. Make no mistake; a victory this weekend is big.
There are plenty of big games left in this Premier League season, it’s entirely possible that United are going to have to fit a Europa League semi-final around away games against Arsenal and Spurs – if you’re United then the most logical thing to do in that situation could even be to put all your eggs in the Europa League basket.
Yes, they have a strong squad and at present fourth is their best chance of a Champions League place, but if they continue in sixth and struggle to break down sides at home like they have been, there will become a point where the Europa League is their best chance of Champions League football next season. The best thing would be if they continue in the Europa League and lose the final in agonising circumstances.
If Liverpool get 33 points from their remaining 33 available they will finish in the Champions League places. The reality is that they would probably need about 25 or 26 to get somewhere near 80 points, but the fixture list looks alarming.
The Reds have six bottom half teams left to play. That’s been the Achilles heel this season, which, as a concept, is ridiculous. Defeats to Swansea, Hull, Leicester, Bournemouth and Burnley have left people worried about playing the division’s lesser lights. Andre Gray and Oumar Niasse can inflict a defeat, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa can’t – confusing, isn’t it? Annoying. Alarming. Infuriating. There are plenty of adjectives that will do the job.
Here’s one that you won’t think – encouraging. Not encouraging because what has happened is a good thing in any way; it’s a good thing because it can be fixed. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s far harder to suddenly come up with a way of beating the likes of City, Arsenal and Spurs.
To put Liverpool’s woes into perspective against the Premier League’s lesser lights; if the team had performed against the bottom 10 in the division at the same points per game level as West Ham, the Reds would be sat on 59 points with a clear gap down to fifth, a not insurmountable gap to Chelsea, and you’d be excited about the next two months ahead.
Take a look at the table below in terms of results against the bottom 10:
Chelsea are going at 2.73 points per game, City 2.67 and Spurs 2.5. They’re very impressive at dispatching sides that they should beat – something that the Reds quite clearly are not. Two clean sheets in 14 games against the bottom 10 sides is pretty embarrassing, all things considered.
Everything the club does this summer should involve focusing on trying to figure out how to stop this from happening.
The first thing should be to stop them from scoring. Liverpool have got two clean sheets against the bottom 10, Chelsea have nine, Spurs have seven. The Reds might be really good at scoring goals but if you need to score seven goals to get two points against Swansea and Bournemouth, and four goals to come away from visits to Hull and Burnley with two points then you’re going to struggle.
We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater or anything, but there’s an argument for doing something differently against teams who will park themselves behind the ball, look to frustrate and nick a goal.
It’s quite clear that Jürgen Klopp has a system that works against the top sides, the team’s record against the other members of the top six would suggest that is the case. You can watch those performances and argue that not only have the Reds deserved what they’ve got, they could have got more. They certainly haven’t deserved to lose any and would have felt disappointed to leave Spurs with only a point, while two points across both games against United didn’t feel like a fair reflection.
We clearly have an issue when it comes to keeping goals out against the lesser sides. I’m just a dickhead who watches but it could be that the best solution here is to tighten the midfield up and buy a really good striker. Stop teams getting through you, sacrifice a little bit going forward, but win these games tightly in certain situations.
Our results against the bottom 10 are as follows:
- Burnley 0-2
- Crystal Palace 4-2
- Watford 6-1
- Bournemouth 3-4
- West Ham 2-2
- Middlesbrough 3-0
- Sunderland 2-0 and 2-2
- Swansea 2-1 and 2-3
- Hull 5-1 and 0-2
- Leicester 4-1 and 1-3
There’s a trend here. To pick up points, Liverpool do need to score lots of goals. The problem is that they’ve conceded two or more goals in six away games against the bottom 10 sides. The Reds struggle to go away from home and beat these sides because they concede too many goals. It’s all well and good beating Crystal Palace 4-2 in glorious circumstances, but if you need to score six to win away games eventually it will catch up with you.
It did at Hull, it did at Sunderland, it did at Burnley, and that’s before you even start on needing to score four against Leicester and five against Bournemouth. You shouldn’t need to score 18 goals to get 15 points against those five teams. The average league position of these clubs is 16th for God sake.
Chelsea have played Burnley, Sunderland, Hull and Leicester away from home and to get maximum points they’d have needed to score five goals. Five. That’s why they’re where they are. Grinding out points away from home against the lesser sides in this league is something the Reds have done once this season, at Swansea. It’s staggering that a side can be sat in fourth in March and that have happened.
Conceding fewer goals and being able to nick a game means you can consistently win games when you don’t play well and that’s how league titles are won. Liverpool need to achieve not far off attacking perfection to pick up enough points to win a league title, and even the team of 2013-14 couldn’t score enough goals over the course of a season to win a title that way. And they scored 102.
When it comes to moving this club forward, a solution like ‘concede fewer goals away from home against the 10 worst sides in the league’ is a pretty nice thing to be able to have, isn’t it? Not conceding goals to Burnley, Hull, Sunderland and Leicester doesn’t feel like a massively difficult thing for a club of Liverpool’s resources to achieve.
Crystal Palace away was probably my favourite game of the season, but that can’t be the norm. Klopp and his staff have to be able to figure out how to win games 1-0 when the team are off colour. That should be this summer’s primary focus.