Every metric-follower of any sport has an imaginary dragon lurking to torment, if not slay, their favorite player and/or team. In baseball it’s the BABIP Dragon, causing your pitcher to give up hits on soft contact simply because he hasn’t in a while. Or your favorite hitter to hit screamers right at the third-baseman for a week. In hockey it’s the PDO Dragon, where your team’s most gifted sniper keeps hitting iron or watching goalies briefly turn into a hydra to stop his normally net-finding shots. Or your goalie watching every puck turn into a butterfly that he can’t corral for a four-game stretch.
It is not fire these dragons breathe to destroy dreams and success, it’s market correction, which is far more boring but no less damaging in our corporate-controlled world.
Liverpool’s task in the Premier League campaign, that’s going to smack us all on the back of the head this weekend, reminding us it is in fact starting so soon after the conclusion of the last one, is to duck or even slay that dragon.
On the surface, it seems ridiculous to question the Anfield side. They racked up 99 points, the third-most in league history. It was the most by 12 points of any of the major five European leagues. They won the Premier League by 18 points. By what we used to know, they should be runaway favorites again.
But there’s a reason the bookies have Manchester City as the favorites. While it’s obvious that any team that racked up 99 points and won 26 of its first 27 games would need some element of luck, Liverpool arguably had a full boot of it instead of just a reasonable pint.
According to expected-goals, both for and against, Liverpool’s results outpaced their process. They scored 15 more goals than they “should” have, given the chances they created and shots they took. They conceded seven goals less than they “should” have. That said, when you have perhaps the best front-three in the world, they’re going to bury more chances than they “should,” because that’s what makes them great. And when you have one of the best goalkeepers and defenders in the world, they’re going to prevent more goals than just about anyone, because that’s what they do. But having an actual goal-difference of +52 when your expected goal-difference is just +30 is a massive difference, and one that even the world-class talent Liverpool have might find unsustainable.
In fact, Liverpool were better the previous season, at least metrically, with an expected-goal-difference of +43, though an actual of +67. Maybe just outpacing their expected mark by 20 is what they do? Meanwhile, Manchester City’s expected mark hasn’t really changed the past two years (+59 and +56). That’s their norm.
Working against Liverpool is that this will be a season where it will be even harder to maintain a galactic-level, given that it’s the same amount of games as a normal season but crammed into a window that’s a month shorter than normal. Liverpool’s squad wasn’t the deepest, and they’ve only added backup to left-back Andy Robertson so far in the form of Konstantinos Tsimikas. Once you get past Liverpool’s first 13 or 14 players there’s a steep drop, and it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep everyone healthy when they’ll essentially be playing two games a week the whole season. Injury problems would cripple them.
Which leaves Manchester City as the biggest threat – they underperformed their process last year, and were essentially undone by sequencing, which baseball fans are quite familiar with. They’ve attempted to solve their biggest problem, giving up goals at the worst times, with the signing of Nathan Ake and the pursuit of Kalidou Koulibaly so that they don’t have to play a muppet who walked through the wrong door in defense either next to Aymeric Laporte or in place of him when he gets hurt. They’ll still score a ton of goals, they won’t give up many, and if they parse those out better than they did last year, normal service will resume.
Chelsea will hope to crash the duopoly of the past two years, with emphasis on “crash.” This outfit is going to be akin to a Metallica show in ‘84, bountiful of joyous, chaotic noise but not very secure in backing (this is a convoluted “Lars sucks” joke). They have a tantalizing front-line now with new signings Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Hakim Ziyech joining Christian Pulisic, but the hole in their defense still exists and is unlikely to be fully plugged by 36-year-old Thiago Silva who spent the past few seasons in a lawn chair playing behind PSG’s lineup in the weaker French league where he had to make one tackle a week. This could be a rude awakening. There’s going to be a lot of 4-3s and 3-2s in their future.
Manchester United are still dallying on bringing in Jadon Sancho, after successfully bringing in Danny van de Beek, neither of whom help the imbalance of their midfield or questions about their defense. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba (when he recovers from COVID-19) is about as spicy of a midfield as you can get, but they need someone behind them to provide a platform and security. And they’re not going to get 124 penalties again this season. Maybe.
The North London axis will have big expectations. Jose Mourinho has gotten to bring in his own players, which has led to nifty signings of Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. But this is still the same Spurs side that was mostly a mess last year, is still dependent on the cardboard ligaments of Harry Kane, and will get bus-tossed by Mourinho at the first sign of trouble.
Arsenal will hope they can move beyond being the beneficiaries of simply wonderful goalkeeping and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang channeling Thanos for a few months, which is what last season’s improvement essentially was. Their only additions so far are Gabriel Magalhaes to iron out the defense and Willian from Chelsea to bolster the attack. With some growth from the kids they could contend for a Champions League place again, but they have farther to go than their FA Cup triumph suggests.
Elsewhere, Southampton might be the surprise package of the season, with what could be the signing of the season of Mohammed Salisu from Valladolid for just £12M as he anchored one of the better defensive sides in Spain last season. They get goals through Danny Ings, and if Salisu makes them solid at the back…
Everton have completely retooled their midfield, highlighted by the capture of former World Cup hero James Rodridguez from Real Madrid. The real key might be the signing of Allan, as they’ve been screaming for someone to keep teams from slicing through their midfield like a viking horde for years.
Newcastle has suddenly been spiky in the transfer market – solely to keep the sale price of the club high but whatever – rescuing a couple of Bournemouth players from the torment of the Championship in Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser, along with Norwich’s Jamal Lewis. Two years ago, Wilson and Fraser were rumored for big moves to big clubs, and saw it all go poof last season on the south coast. If they can recapture any of their form from two seasons ago, Newcastle might not be an eyesore to neutrals any longer.
At the bottom of the table, Aston Villa are attempting to avoid going to the last day of the season by signing last year’s Championship Player of the Season Ollie Watkins to pair with begrudging-returnee Jack Grealish so they might score more than two goals a month. Crystal Palace look utterly doomed after last season’s miserable finish, and West Ham’s players are already lamenting how their club is run before a ball has even been kicked. Along with promotees West Brom and Fulham, that appears to be your relegation picture. Leeds United could join that, or chase a European spot, or be a beacon to alien invasion, as anything is possible under Marcelo Bielsa and the nature of the club.
Hope your family enjoyed your company for a smattering of weekend mornings. That’s all over now.