Liverpool’s third successive Premier League away match without a win is their worst run since……well, since last season when manager Brendan Rodgers was perceived as a miracle worker in almost taking the club to the first league title since 1990. A year or so on from that four match run without an away win – yes, it was worse than this season’s – and Rodgers is now seen as a “dead man walking” in both the mainstream media and on Twitter. What will an examination of the evidence tell us though?
Exhibit One – how good are Liverpool?
At the end of last season, Liverpool were ranked the 13th best club in Europe by the Euro Club Index which went on to predict them to finish fifth in this season’s Premier League and take a total of 72 points. Given that this forecast knew nothing about the sale of Luis Suarez, the decline of Steven Gerrard or the injury to Daniel Sturridge, isn’t a current rank of fifth position perhaps a much more remarkable achievement than it is being credit for? Liverpool have declined to a Euro Club Index ranking of 19th now but this is still good enough for them to be rated the fifth best team in England, precisely where the league table ranks them.
Skeptics will point to the fact that Liverpool finished second last season so how could they be ranked just fifth at season end? Quite simply, some teams perform better (and worse) than their underlying quality suggests that they should within a season. Thirty-eight matches is not enough to rank the teams in their actual order of quality, Suarez had the best season of his career and Liverpool scored an unsustainable number of goals from set-pieces. In addition, a number of other Premier League teams were undergoing transitionary periods in 2013/2014. Given these facts, a decline in Liverpool’s position this season was almost inevitable.
Exhibit Two – Is the current Liverpool run actually that bad?
If we accept that Liverpool are being ranked approximately correctly by the Euro Club Index, we can look at a reasonable number of matches to see if the club is performing above or below the level that should be expected in terms of current form. Liverpool’s last 10 matches for example have produced 19 points as follows:
The poorer results of course have been concentrated in recent weeks but two of those were against teams above them and they have also beaten four of the current top eight in their last 10 matches. Is it really fair to draw an adverse conclusion on the basis of a smaller number of matches, purely because they have been played more recently?
Using the Euro Club Index again, it is also possible to compare this run of 19 points with what should have been expected given Liverpool’s level of underlying quality and the strength of their opponents in these 10 matches. Converting the Euro Club Index odds to expected points (as illustrated in this previous post) gives an expected total of 17.24 points for Liverpool in the last 10 fixtures so the team exceeded this with 19.
There will again be skepticism amongst some who will point to the more recent run of one win in five as being evidence of a decline but a shorter number of matches is prone to sampling bias and I could just as easily point to the five straight wins directly before that as evidence that Rodgers is a brilliant manager. I would be wrong to do so just as those arguing that the most recent matches are more relevant are also wrong.
Exhibit Three – the youth of the team
One aspect of the Liverpool team which is rarely mentioned is the age of the players who have taken the field this season. Liverpool have started more players under the age of 24 than any Premier League club except Tottenham Hotspur. To be fair, Liverpool started a lot of young talent last season too but the squad structure overall was more balanced than now with a higher percentage of players at their peak than have been selected to start this season. This difference is due to Sturridge’s enforced absence and Suarez’s departure in the main but giving younger players starts now will only be good for the future of the club and perhaps an improved performance next term.
Exhibit Four – the whole season
As stated earlier, Liverpool were predicted a fifth place finish with 72 points at the beginning of the season. The club will finish slightly below that points total but could well end in fifth position as suggested by the Euro Club Index. Taking account of the change in Liverpool’s quality leads to the conclusion that Brendan Rodgers’ team has underperformed by just over three points in their first 34 matches. This does put Rodgers into the red zone where managers tend to get fired but the last four fixtures, against QPR, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Stoke City, could easily change that picture. Liverpool have performed almost exactly as expected given their underlying quality and it is only the result against an in-form Hull City (see above graph) which has pushed Rodgers into that red zone. Ideally, a team would want a manager who over performs but given that Rodgers did precisely this last season, is it really a good idea to part company with him a year after he got more out of the team than anyone expected?
Opinions in both the media and amongst fans are often formed on the basis of unfair expectations. In this case, Liverpool’s season is being seen through the prism of last season’s second spot whereas the evidence points towards 2013/2014 being the outlier and not the norm. Relating this season’s performance to last term’s, also ties in with the accepted narrative of “progression” under a manager. However, is this fair if that manager has lost two of his stars of that season and must also rebuild to replace his departing captain? The media and fans have delivered the case for the prosecution whilst this was the case for the defence. The verdict is up to you. Tweet me what you think at @simongleave