Before the 2020-21 Premier League season started, we wrote that the title was Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s to lose. The new-ish rivals from the northwest dominated the league through the earlier three seasons like no different groups within the historical past of the English high flight, they usually every returned giant chunks of their rosters, that are stocked with a few of soccer’s greatest superstars. As such, FiveThirtyEight’s membership soccer prediction mannequin gave City and Liverpool the very best and second-best chances, respectively, to win the Premier League.
Since the season started, City added former Benfica middle again Rúben Dias to shore up its flaky defensive position. Meanwhile, Liverpool acquired Diogo Jota from Wolverhampton Wanderers to supply cowl (and competitors) for its devastating however typically overworked entrance three in addition to Thiago Alcântara — one of many world’s biggest midfielders — from Bayern Munich to additional solidify its already imperious midfield corps. Which is all to say that the 2 groups that entered the season with the very best squads and the very best odds acquired even higher, a terrifying prospect for his or her opponents, particularly these hoping to mount a title problem.
But after Matchweek 8, neither juggernaut occupies the highest spot within the league desk. Our mannequin nonetheless thinks City and Liverpool are the respective finest and second-best workforce within the league — and by some margin — however the Premier League desk begs to vary. As issues stand, Liverpool sits in third, stage with Tottenham Hotspur on factors however behind the north Londoners on purpose differential, whereas City occupies the 10th place, behind the likes of Southampton, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Wolves. So, why are the 2 finest groups in England underperforming expectations?
In Liverpool’s case, the struggles have all been on the again. Once hermetic defensively, the Reds have given up the third-most objectives (16) by means of Matchweek 8, one fewer than lately promoted Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, and yet another than lately promoted Fulham. To put that quantity in perspective, Liverpool conceded simply 22 objectives throughout your entire 2018-19 season. To be honest, the Reds conceded seven of these 16 objectives in a single terribly flukey match towards Aston Villa. Still, nobody would have anticipated the very best defensive workforce in England to occupy area on the goals-against desk subsequent to a few groups that performed within the second-tier league earlier this yr.
To make issues worse, the Reds misplaced do-it-all middle again Virgil van Dijk after Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford — who apparently thought he was concerned in a UFC struggle, not a soccer match — scissor-kicked the Dutchman’s proper knee. Never thoughts that Liverpool conceded 11 of these 16 objectives with van Dijk nonetheless within the lineup — there’s no workforce on the planet that would account for the lack of a participant of van Dijk’s caliber. If the Reds had been shaky defensively with van Dijk within the lineup, it’s onerous to think about they gained’t be shaky defensively whereas he rehabilitates his busted knee.
Unfortunately for Jürgen Klopp, van Dijk’s isn’t the one damage giving the Liverpool supervisor choice suits in the intervening time. Thiago missed time after a optimistic COVID-19 prognosis earlier than later injuring his knee — additionally towards Everton — and stays sidelined; defensive midfielder Fabinho, who was deployed at middle again in van Dijk’s absence, injured his hamstring in a Champions League match and stays sidelined as effectively; proper again Trent Alexander-Arnold, the inventive power who makes Liverpool’s assault purr, is out for no less than a month with a calf damage; and middle again Joe Gomez, who is usually first selection as van Dijk’s companion, lately injured his knee whereas coaching with the English nationwide workforce.
If Liverpool’s early defensive woes are sudden, its early offensive prowess is something however. The Reds have been some of the prolific attacking groups within the Premier League since Klopp took the helm in 2015, and that is still unchanged. Through Matchweek 8, Liverpool leads the league in each anticipated objectives (2.32) and non-penalty anticipated objectives (1.95) per 90 minutes. Mohamed Salah continues to ship the products — he’s the league’s joint high scorer — whereas Jota and Sadio Mané look harmful each time they contact the ball. In truth, the Reds have been so impenetrable defensively for the previous two seasons, it’s straightforward to overlook that they’ve additionally been nearly as good as any workforce on the earth going ahead.
Losing van Dijk (and Gomez, and Trent Alexander-Arnold) is a tough tablet to swallow, and Liverpool might very effectively should depend on its entrance three — and new addition Jota — if it hopes to stay Premier League champion. But if it retains scoring on the fee it’s scoring and may work out methods to leak fewer objectives right here and there, that may not be such a nasty technique.
For City, the problem isn’t a lot its incapability to maintain different groups from placing the ball in its internet however reasonably its incapability to place the ball into the nets of its opponents — or its incapability to take action on the similar outrageous fee it has grown accustomed to over the previous three seasons. Through seven matches, City’s non-penalty anticipated objectives (xG) per 90 mark is 1.21. Not horrible — it’s tied with Chelsea for seventh-best within the league — however not Pep Guardiola’s Man City nice, both.
In every of the earlier three seasons, City has completed with a non-penalty xG per 90 mark of 1.95 or larger, and it has completed its first seven matches with a non-penalty xG per 90 mark of two.08 or larger. The Cityzens’ underperformance to this point this season is stark, however it has a easy clarification: Forwards Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus — who led City in non-penalty xG a yr in the past — have each missed nearly all of the younger season with muscle accidents.
City’s damage disaster is probably not as dire or as complete as Liverpool’s — although it did simply lose middle again Nathan Aké to a hamstring damage, which can restrict Guardiola’s capability to rotate on the again — however you’ll be able to’t win video games with out scoring objectives. And you’ll be able to’t rating objectives when your two most prolific gamers are sitting on the sidelines. Fortunately for City, Jesus is again in motion — he scored the equalizer within the 1-1 draw towards Liverpool final weekend — and Agüero has returned to coaching. If City stays stable on the again, and if Agüero and Jesus can discover their world-class kind from a season in the past, it is probably not lengthy earlier than City is again on the high of the desk.
No groups dominated the English high division like City and Liverpool did between 2017-18 and 2019-20 — City completed with 100 factors within the former season, Liverpool with 99 within the latter — and but neither workforce is on tempo to complete the present season with greater than 81 factors. Since the flip of the millennium, solely two groups have lifted the Premier League trophy after accumulating 81 factors or fewer. Could Liverpool’s and City’s gradual begins preserve them from profitable the highest home silverware?
It’s too early to start out ordaining champions and writing others off, particularly throughout a season as deeply bizarre and unsettling as this one, beset by a pandemic. Congested fixture lists imply extra accidents, particularly to muscle tissues; worldwide fixtures imply worldwide journey and a larger threat of COVID-19 publicity. The mannequin nonetheless likes City and Liverpool, however the mannequin can’t account for accidents and outbreaks, two issues City and Liverpool have been unfortunate with to differing levels.
But, in a yr of uncertainty, no less than one factor appears sure: Neither City nor Liverpool seems to be destined to run away with the title, and we’d have one hell of a title race on our palms.
Check out our newest soccer predictions.