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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Jürgen Klopp has pulled off Liverpool miracle, and Man City offer him daily reminder

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You can kind of feel it, can’t you? The strange bubbling of disappointment or dissatisfaction or whatever with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

It is not only the plodding, mundane return-to-play we saw on Sunday, but the bundling of the month prior to the pause-in-play, when the team was knocked out of the Champions League and F.A. Cup within a week, which book-ended an uninspired league performance, the one that cost Klopp’s side a tilt at an unbeaten league campaign.

There is an air of deflation, coming from outside the club and the online commentariat more so than those within its walls — a focus on transfers and squad depth and whatever else. It’s the feeling that the title alone isn’t quite enough or that perhaps this team isn’t quite as good or as dominant as it was earlier in the season; that it is perhaps not an all-timer, but a champion among the ranks of the very good.

What nonsense. It is a misreading and misremembering of all that’s gone before, classic prisoner-of-the-moment thinking.

If anybody needed any reminder of just how special this particular team is, Man City’s 5-0 demolition of Burnley on Monday night was a timely reminder.

Here is who was on City’s bench for last night’s game:

  • Raheem Sterling

  • Kevin de Bruyne

  • Aymeric Laporte

  • Ilkay Gündogan

  • Gabriel Jesus

  • Leroy Sané

  • Kyle Walker

  • Benjamin Mendy

  • Scott Carson

Holy moly. Look at it! Pep Guardiola could have probably rolled out that nine-man group against Sean Dyche’s team and come away with a handy 2-0 win, everyone interchanging positions, De Bruyne, Gündogan, Sané and Laporte playing keep-away all night. They probably wouldn’t even need Carson in net.

It is a reminder of how deep, how loaded, Liverpool’s nearest challengers are. When you compare that with the ongoing chatter that Liverpool aren’t quite deep enough, that if Klopp deciding to rotate Mo Salah or Sadio Mané can sink the team’s entire playing model, it’s kind of jarring.

A reminder: Liverpool remain 20 points clear of the table. They are twenty points clear of a side that could rest those players and comfortably beat a competent Burnley team. Twenty. Two-Zero.

Wild. The team that actually played against Burnley on Monday night included: Ederson, a Brazilian international and more than likely the second-best ‘keeper on Earth; Joao Cancelo, a former wonderkid turned Portuguese international star; Nicolas Otamendi, a player on the backside of his prime but who still has 70 caps for Argentina and 132 Premier League appearances; Fernandinho, the fulcrum of Guardiola’s playing style; Oleksander Zinchenko, one of those are-we-sure-he’s-good squad players that Guardiola seems to latch onto at every club (Hello, Pedro and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg); Bernado Silva, a superstar; Rodri, the team’s appointed successor to Fernandinho; David Silva, a walking legend; Riyad Mahrez, the former PFA Player of the Year; Sergio Aguero, the preeminent Premier League goalscorer of his generation; and Phil Foden, the Stockport Iniesta.

They rolled Burnley in one of the most lopsided games in Premier League history. Sean Dyche’s team posted a 0.0 shot-based xG and a 0.1 non-shot xG; a combined 0.1 on those two metrics is almost impossibly bad.

Simply: What City have put together is the greatest collection of talent a Premier League club has ever assembled. Foden, the crown jewel of City’s multi-billion dollar investment into their youth structure, the man Guardiola dubbed the most talented player he’d ever worked with (Hello, Lionel Messi), and, at 20-years-old, is entering his early prime, should be having an entire team built around his skill-set. He would if he played anywhere else in Europe (See: Jadon Sancho). At City, he needed a global pandemic in order to get some playing time.

(A sidebar on Foden: When you see him in person, you instantly see that he gets it. Whatever it is. He has that something special. During City’s ho-hum win over Dinamo Zagreb at the Etihad in October, he changed the entire tenor of a slog of a game. As soon as he came on, City found life. The ball moved a little quicker, the players with it. Everything is done on the run, and like all great players, he always seems to have time. That low slung, low entre of gravity, always-on-the-move vibe is reminiscent of a young Jack Wilshere or Wayne Rooney or, yes, I guess, a young Iniesta. What a talent)

Still: Liverpool are twenty points clear of that challenger. Twenty! Say it again for those in the back: Twenty! Think about that

And this isn’t just about this season. Klopp’s team have outlasted what is more than likely the greatest collection of talent the Premier League has seen over a two-year run. Liverpool’s two-year points per game average (2.65) is the highest in Premier League history. The pair of City side that ripped off a 100-point season and then outlasted Liverpool last season is the only team that lives in the same two-year stratosphere.

And to think: during his time at City, Guardiola has spent 50 percent more than Klopp in the transfer market. , without factoring in the club’s respective wage budget. Finding numbers on players base salaries are always murky. There are so many bonuses involved that what looks like £175,000 on paper is really £350,000 when you include the weekly appearance and minutes bonus. But if we use Spotrac as an independent arbiter: Liverpool have three players making upwards £150,000 (base salary) per week; City have seven players on £150,000 a week or more.

How are Liverpool 20 points ahead of the City juggernaut? It’s simple: they’ve been better defensively. The gulf isn’t just about Aymeric Laporte missing time, though that has certainly had a massive impact on the team. It’s about City as a whole. All season, the team’s intensity and discipline as a defensive unit has been lacking — whether due to talent or fatigue or ageing legs.

Going forward, Liverpool and City have have been fairly even this season. Expected goals favours City quite comfortably, Liverpool edge the on-target percentage. 21.5 percent of Liverpool’s shots have been on target this season compared to 20.4 percent of City’s. Defensively, Liverpool have been streaks ahead. Opponents register just 13.4 percent of their shots on target against Liverpool. by contrast, City’s opponents have registered a whopping 20.2 percent on target.

When you play a high-press, possession-oriented system, the value of any opponent’s shots are going to be higher. They don’t take a bunch, and when they do, they often come in transition — which is why simple metrics like a goalkeepers save percentage offer little value when discussing keepers at the very top: a fast break that leads to a cut-back and an easy finish is not on Edison or Allison, it’s a function of the team’s overall style.

But checking how often and from where a team sustained shots on target is a useful tool when looking at a team’s defensive structure. They help highlight all of the key defensive qualities, for better or worse: Discipline; structure; communication; positioning. When opponents are able to manufacture shots against City, they are typically good, high percentage chances. Against Liverpool, they’re less frequent and less efficient.

If you look a the two teams on-target shot charts the differences are obvious. City have conceded easier shots, typically inside the box and spread right across the mouth of the goal:

On-target shots against Liverpool have had less variance: There are more conceded from outside the box (low-risk) and they come in clusters (more predictable):

“I watched City last night and thought ‘how is it possible that someone is twenty points clear of this team?’”, Klopp said on Tuesday. “We must be doing something right.”

It was a three-pronged message: A reminder that whatever frustrations are lurking from the final month of action before the delay and during the laborious derby day draw should be shunned; outsiders seeking to diminish the title in any way are wrong; to the club’s ownership that trying to go again next season with this squad against that squad is a big ask.

What Klopp has performed this season is miraculous. Liverpool have simply refused to lose. They’ve hit that special point where a batch of competitors feel a genuine need to win more than a want — it’s that distinction that turns contenders into champions; that allowed the club to pick itself up off the floor after last year’s near-miss and turn that disappointment into fuel. They have turned quiet draws into sneak-by wins, and even possible-defeats into turn-around-momentum boosters. Where City have faltered, despite all of their firepower, Klopp’s Liverpool have chugged along with a relentlessness that is similar to those mid-era Ferguson-United teams.

“It’s not that Man City are twenty points inferior to Liverpool,” NBC co-commentator Lee Dixon said on Monday night. “It’s that Liverpool are twenty points superior.”

Dixon’s comments are a semantic mess but they feel right. The essence is there: City are just as gifted; what Liverpool have pulled off is a sporting miracle. In a time where the rich get richer, when the Haves can pilfer the almost-Haves to consolidate their power (PSG, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Celtic etc.), Liverpool have taken on the ultimate Have and sprinted right past them. It is an extraordinary achievement, one that shouldn’t be belittled because of a few so-so performances.

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