LAST week Jürgen Klopp claimed the gap to Chelsea was not as large as the table suggests, it’s a comment that is always going to be met with howls of derision.
I typed words along these lines in to Twitter to gauge the reaction and was met by an Evertonian accusing him of ‘talking shite’ and someone from South Wales who wanted him drugs tested.
League tables, it appears in the eyes of some, are a really good gauge of what’s going to happen next. Obviously, anyone who can analyse football in the slightest can work past a league table and have a deeper look at things and understand that what happens in the past won’t necessarily repeat in the future.
As I said in a previous piece, I don’t think there is a great deal between five teams in this league, and if Arsenal had played as they currently are for the whole season then that number would be six. It’s easy to mock Arsenal and presume that they have declined this season, but they’re going to drop a minimum of two places in the league this season while obtaining more points than they did last season. We can watch their fans get angry on YouTube and laugh at them, but they’re still a reasonably good side.
Next season two of these six sides are going to miss out on Champions League football, unless one of the two sides who finish fifth or sixth manages to win the Europa League. Five teams are going to spend their summer attempting to hunt Chelsea down.
The good news for these five teams is that it’s unlikely Chelsea are going to improve. With a fixture against Sunderland at home remaining they’re probably going to get 93 points, and fair play to them for that. It means that they are the second best side in terms of points gained in a Premier League season – they’re going to get more points than ‘Kenny’s boys of ‘88’ having played less games. Impressive.
Amazingly when the Premier League started and had 22 teams with a 42-game season, Manchester United won the title with 84 points, and had 10 points more than the side in second. Chelsea this season will drop 21 points and get nine points more than a side that played four games more. That tells you just how good they have been.
It is hard to say the following without sounding like you are doing them down, but they have had a huge amount of luck on their side. Diego Costa, their top scorer and only real striker worthy of the opposition being truly concerned about, started 34 of the 36 games that Chelsea required to win the title. For me, the best striker in the league plays for the side in second in Harry Kane. He’s started 27 games this season – what if their appearance records were swapped? It isn’t ridiculous to think that such pivotal players playing and not playing changes things.
You can then compare Eden Hazard with Sadio Mané, Hazard has started 35 games this season, Sadio Mane has started 26. You don’t need to know much about football to see that Chelsea would be negatively impacted if they were to lose Hazard for 10 games, nor do you need to know much to see the Reds would be better off if Mane was available for an extra 10 games.
You can’t even put the injuries Kane and Mané suffered down to better training methods from Antonio Conte, both of these players got injured with impact injuries during games of football. Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino can do nothing about that, in the same way Conte didn’t do anything that kept Costa and Hazard fit.
Chelsea, like ourselves, have without doubt benefited from the lack of European football this season. How much work would N’Golo Kante have been able to get through away at Bournemouth if he’d had to chase down Toni Kroos and Luka Modric three days earlier, for example? I’d wager it’s less; the gap that Chelsea have is, as Klopp says, not as big as it appears, and the vagaries of football have undoubtedly gone in their favour.
This isn’t Chelsea’s fault nor does it diminish their fantastic season, but when looking at what might happen in the future, which given Chelsea have won the title is what everyone has to do, it means you’ll struggle to form an argument that they improve next season. I’m not expecting them to repeat last season and be in the bottom half in January or anything, but I think they’ll naturally regress to a point. They could definitely still win the title because they’re very good, but I’d be staggered if they got to 93 points again.
And so, every other team will have to have to direct their thoughts at how to close this gap that I feel is exaggerated by circumstance. I would be very surprised if Liverpool were 17 points behind Chelsea after 37 games next season. So, how do Klopp and staff go about closing that gap?
Well firstly, the Reds have an automatic boost – Mane isn’t going to get off to Africa for six weeks in January. Secondly, there is the really obvious; buying some good footballers. A centre-back, a midfielder, another winger, a goalkeeper, a goal-scorer, whatever the manager wants, get the chequebook out, spend the money, build a deep, high quality squad capable of competing on multiple fronts.
I think Klopp has probably learned a lot this season, and that’s an area that helps going forward. It’s notable that for large parts of this season Liverpool were unable to keep it tight away from home; Burnley scored twice at Turf Moor, Palace scored twice, Bournemouth three times, Sunderland twice, Hull twice, and Leicester three times. That’s 14 goals conceded in six away games against mid table to bottom half side.
The Reds have conceded 42 goals across all league games this season. So that’s 33 per cent of all goals conceded in 15 per cent of games, and they aren’t even games to be particularly worried about in the grand scheme of things, and while this is an area to be improved on there are signs that it already is.
Given that large parts of this season have seen misery and frustration away from home, goals leaked all over the show, it’s hugely promising that the final four away games yielded 12 points with just the one goal against. Areas for concern in the winter haven’t been in the spring. Let’s carry that through to autumn and beyond.
Yes, Chelsea are the better side. Yes, they deserve the title, but I just can’t accept that the gap is as drastic as 17 points will make you think it is. The Reds are 17 behind Chelsea while Bournemouth are 16 behind Everton – I certainly know which gap will close more next season, and it doesn’t involve our Blue Brethren from the Sewage Works.
Liverpool can only control their own improvement, they’re powerless to stop other sides from getting better, but there’s a real chance to kick on this summer. I want the world next season, but the reality is that repeating a top four finish is a perfectly acceptable achievement. Finishing top four is going to be an achievement that six teams will be happy with next season – for someone, a league title will be a bonus.
You don’t have to aim for top four to be happy with it, and that’s where Liverpool should be in 12 months’ time.