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Hammers Clash A Golden Opportunity For The Reds

West Ham have surprised people this year. Big Sam’s Neanderthals sit 7th in the league, they’ve produced a couple of eyebrow-raising results and some of their stats looks impressive:

  • They have the 5th best defence in the league
  • Based purely on away games, they have the 4th best attack in the league

But don’t believe the hype.

The Reds should go into the West Ham game confident they can sieze this opportunity to overhaul one of the 4 teams between them and 4th place.

West Ham’s inflated position in the table (and also in the wider public perception) is predominantly based on 2 wins they got earlier in the season: they beat Liverpool in Sept and Man City in October. Both games were at Upton Park.

Of course they deserve credit for winning those 2 ostensibly-difficult games, but their achievement is surely diminished -at least a little- by the mire Liverpool were in at that time and Man City’s sub-par performance after a long midweek CL trip to Russia.

If we take these two games and the accompanying six points out of the equation, West Ham would be 10th. (Which is arguably where you’d expect them to be, right?)

If we look at West Ham’s other results we can see they’re broadly in line with what we’d expect:

Untitled-1

West Ham were beaten by Spurs, Southampton, Man Utd, Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Liverpool should beat them too; the Reds have rediscovered last season’s intensity and their renaissance sees them 2nd in the overall form table: W4-D2-L0

By contrast West Ham’s form is patchy. Overall Form: W2-D2-L2

West Ham have only won 1 out of their last 6 away games. Away Form: W1-D3-L2

The Hammers have a season-defining run of games looming and I expect them to fall away during this period. Their next 7 opponents are Liverpool, Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal. Ouch. Have some of that Signor Allardichi.

Studge FTW. Come on you Reds.

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How Significant Is The ‘Brendan Bounce’?

I’ve lost count of how many times this season I’ve heard Brendan Rodgers say something like this:

“We know we will be much better in the second part of the season than the first. In my two years here, that is what has happened – we’ve got better and better as the season has gone on.”
[Brendan Rodgers, 28th Dec 2014]

As a fan, this has definitely been my overall impression, but I’ve learned over the years that sometimes surface impressions are misleading. With this in mind I decided to look at the data and see if there was a positive bounce in points performance and, if so, to measure the size of the improvement.

Last week I looked at how realistic it is to hope Liverpool can finish in the top four this season. According to historic performance data it’s extremely unlikely, but if anyone can do it’s surely this eccentric Liverpool team? And if the Brendan Bounce is real, and big enough, then we must have a chance of defying history and securing that 4th Champions League berth.

Let’s look at the facts.

In the first half of Rodgers’ debut season Liverpool averaged 1.32 points per game. In the second half of that season they averaged 1.89 points per game. A huge improvement of 43%.

During the first half of Rodgers’ second season Liverpool -weirdly- maintained the exact same points per game average, of 1.89. They then went on a memorable run in the season’s second half and averaged a stunning 2.53 points per game. This was a 34% improvement on the first half of the season.

Season 1 = 43% improvement in the second half of the season.
Season 2 = 34% improvement in the second half of the season.

So the Brendan Bounce certainly seems to exist and is significant, averaging a 38.5% improvement across his first two seasons. We’ve no way of knowing if it will continue and two seasons is obviously a very small sample to draw conclusions from but the improvement is clear.

So far we’ve dealt with facts. Now let’s speculate for a moment. Let’s say the Brendan Bounce happens again this season – where might that take us? In the first half of this season Liverpool delivered a paltry 1.47 points per game. A 38.5% improvement on that is 2.04 points per game. If Liverpool delivered that PPG average over the full second half of the season they would finish on 67 points and -almost definitely- narrowly miss out on a CL spot. The overall average points threshold for 4th-placed Champions League qualification is 69 points (and it’s rising).

4thplacedfinsihers

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, of course, but it’s fun to speculate and also to hope for a positive end to a season that’s been underwhelming thus far.

This weekend’s league results were kind to Liverpool, Sturridge & Sterling are primed to return, Markovic is finding his feet (spectacularly), the cups remain up for grabs and with the mystical zen of the Brendan Bounce the Reds’ adventures this year may just be beginning.

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Objectively, how likely is it that Liverpool will finish in the Top 4 this season?

Having high expectations is important for a big club, but unrealistic expectations can be destructive for everyone. They create unhappy fans, unconfident players and managers get sacked for not meeting them.

I don’t want that to happen to Brendan Rodgers (I think he’s doing a decent job), so with that in mind I’d like to highlight to you today how slim the chances are of Liverpool finishing in the top four this season.

It would be unprecedented in Premier League history for a team in Liverpool’s current situation to finish inside the top 4. At this stage, 6th place would be ‘success’. Finishing in 4th place is out of reach.

I hope that by highlighting this, you will have a more accurate view of what Liverpool can realistically achieve. Your assessment of Rodgers’ performance will be more objective and you won’t be as disappointed when Liverpool finish outside the top four.

Like you, I want to believe that Liverpool can still make the top 4 this season. Sturridge will return. We’ll sign a brilliant player in January. We’ll go on a run. We can make it. After all, we’re only 7 points away from 4th.

Seven points is a wider margin to overturn than many people realise, but like all football fans, my blind faith and optimism often distort reality. Before today I was convinced Liverpool could overhaul Southampton in 4th place; it seemed a reasonable aim.

But I realise now that I was dead wrong.

I originally started writing MicroLFC eight years ago because I wanted to see beyond my footy-fan blinkers and perceive things in an unbiased and natural way; I wanted to see ‘reality’ instead of mirages that were fuelled more by hope than intelligence.

But it’s bloody hard to be an objective football fan, isn’t it? (In fact, “objective football fan” might be the most oxymoronic phrase ever typed by human hand.)

So let’s focus on cold, hard facts. Facts are objective. Facts are reality.

An opportune time to reassess

Each year, after the New Year’s Day fixtures are complete I reassess where we’re at. This is a great point in the seasonal football calendar to pause and take stock because we’ve just passed the halfway point, the influential glut of festive fixtures are complete and the season’s run-in beckons like a siren, luring you and your false hopes onto the rocks.

I’ll allow myself to fantasise about an FA Cup win at this time of year, but as far as the league is concerned, I try to be as grounded and ‘real-world’ as possible. (As the great man said, the league is our bread and butter.)

So realistically what can we hope to see Liverpool achieve in this season’s Premier League?

A good way to predict future performance is to look at past results. It’s what bookmakers, insurance companies, economists & sophisticated investors do. (It’s what my wife does when she’s evaluating dubious promises to be home promptly from work/the pub.)

It’s not an infallible way to predict the future of course -you’re attempting to predict the future after all- but it’s a strong indicator and it’s more reliable than any other method I know of. It’s right more times than it’s wrong. And that’s as good as it gets, I think.

So that’s what I’ve done for this article. I’ve calibrated my Reality Goggles based on what happened before, rather than on what might happen in the future.

This morning I sat down and looked at Liverpool’s past performance following the New Year’s Day fixtures. This is what I found.

Liverpool’s past performance

Liverpool are currently 8th and Brendan Rodgers’ goal is to bridge a 7-point gap and reach 4th place. So Liverpool need to climb 4 places for their league campaign to be deemed a success.

Only once in the Premier League’s 22-year history has Liverpool’s position improved by 4 places following New Year’s Day.

That was in 1993 when they went from 10th to 6th. On that occasion they were only 6 points behind and, crucially, they had a game in hand. (At that time 6th place, just like 4th place, was meaningless as English clubs didn’t unlock 4 Champions League slots until almost a decade later.)

Interestingly, 18 times out of the past 22 years Liverpool’s position varied no more than 2 places in either direction. So any post New Year’s Day swing is usually quite small.

Liverpool League Positions2

Based on Liverpool’s positional performance over the last 2 decades there is an 80% chance that they’ll finish between 6th and 10th. Looking at these stats alone, finishing in 4th place this season is a 20/1 shot.

But of course, we’ve only looked at Liverpool’s positional performance here, and though that’s very relevant, it’s quite a narrow pool to draw solid conclusions from.

What about other teams?

Other 8th-placed teams’ performance

Q: How many Premier League teams who were in 8th place on January 2nd finished the season higher than 8th?

A: Only 4.

Q: How many of those 4 finished higher than 6th?

A: None.

No Premier League team in 8th place at this point of the season has finished in the top 4.

This fact clearly implies that Liverpool should forget about 4th place. In fact, 6th place is the most they can hope for. Even worse, there’s a 82% chance than Liverpool won’t finish any higher than where they are right now, in 8th place.

It doesn’t look great does it? Those 4 teams above Liverpool suddenly appear a bigger obstacle than I’d originally imagined…

But so far we’ve only looked at Liverpool’s past performance and other 8th-placed teams’ performance. Let’s cast the net much wider and look at all the teams in Premier League history.

League-Wide Post-New Year’s Day Performance

The Premier League has existed for 22 years. In 21 of those years, the teams who finished in the top 4 positions were already inside the top 6 on January 2nd.

This fact tell us there is 95% probability that Liverpool won’t finish in the top 4 this season.

Or put another way, let’s be clear, the chances of ANY team finishing in the top 4 if they’re outside of the top 6 after New Year’s Day are 20/1. (Which exactly mirrors our Liverpool-only positional analysis above.)

We’ve looked at positions, now let’s look at points

I was surprised by this: Only five Premier League teams have ever finished in the top 4 who weren’t already in the top four by January 2nd.

I thought the Premier League was more changeable than that, but no. There’s lots of swapping of places within each ‘mini-league’, but the 4 teams who are in the top 4 at the turn of the year tend to be the 4 teams who finish in the top four.

Overwhelmingly so, in fact.

It makes sense when you consider it fully. With half a season gone you’d expect the quality of the top teams to show, leaving the strongest teams safely ensconced at the top of the table.

Here’s some info on the 5 teams who were outside the top 4 at the turn of the year who did manage to finish inside the top 4.

  • Arsenal did it in 1997-1998. They were only 3 points from 4th place.
  • Leeds did it in 2000-2001. They were a whopping 11 points from 4th place, but they had 2 games in hand. So the ‘mathematical gap’ from 4th place = 5 points.
  • Liverpool did it in 2003-2004. They were 4 points off 4th place and had a game in hand. The mathematical gap from 4th place = 1 point.
  • Arsenal did it in 2005-2006. They were 4 points behind 4th placed Spurs, with a game in hand. The mathematical gap from 4th place = 1 point.
  • Arsenal did it in 2012-2013. They were 4 points from 4th place. The mathematical gap from 4th place = 4 points.

Nobody has overcome a 7-point mathematical gap from this stage in a Premier League season.

What about points-per-game?

Points-per-game stats are very dry and send  a lot of people to sleep, but they are the fairest and most accurate measure of a team’s game-by-game performance, so let’s -quickly- check them out.

Liverpool have played 20 games and have 29 points, so their current points per game total is 1.45. Following the new year’s day fixtures, has any team with a lower points per game ever finished inside the top 4?

Yes, two teams, but both teams faced a smaller mathematical points gap because they had games in hand.

Leeds in 2000-2001 (PPG = 1.30). As we saw above, they had a staggering 11 point gap to overhaul, but had 2 games in hand. (So the mathematical gap was just 5 points.)

Liverpool ’03-’04 (PPG = 1.44). Again, we saw this above, they had a 4 point gap to overhaul and had a game in hand. (So the mathematical gap was just 1 point.)

The Leeds Comparison

This is the one that catches the eye. Let’s look at the Leeds scenario in more detail.

There’s an argument to be made here that a better comparison would be to extrapolate Leeds’ games in hand performance based on their 1.30 PPG, rather than ‘giving’ them 3.0 PPG (6 points) to reduce the gap. If we did this it would appear Leeds faced an even bigger gap than Liverpool currently do.

But Leeds’ two games in hand weren’t played immediately and back-to-back. They were subsumed into Leeds’ 18 remaining fixtures and, crucially, things turned for Leeds in the second half of the season.

There’s no way perfect way to compare Liverpool’s situation to Leeds’. Metrics like League Position, Points Total and PPG are one thing, but games-played-vs-calendar-date is always nebulous and how on earth do you allow for more subtle variables like difficulty of opponent and fixture frequency?

(Incidentally, Leeds got 4 points from those 2 games in hand when they were finally played, beating Aston Villa and drawing with Everton. Of course by the time those games were played the landscape had changed, so it’s still not a perfect comparison.)

The point for me is this: After New Year’s Day Leeds didn’t continue with their 1.30 PPG. They pipped Ipswich to 4th place on the final day because in the second half of the season they went on an incredible run. And compared to the current Liverpool team, that Leeds side had more games to go on an incredible run with. Mathematically they had more leeway and margin to play around with than Liverpool currently do.

Conclusion

It would be unprecedented in Premier League history for a team in Liverpool’s current situation to finish inside the top 4. At this stage, 6th place would be ‘success’. Finishing in 4th place is out of reach.

During the last 22 years there have been 378 Premier League teams that have found themselves outside the top 4 following the New Year’s Day fixtures. None of them have overcome a 7-point mathematical gap to finish inside the top 4.

There have been teams with comparable point gaps to overcome, but they had 1 or 2 games in hand, a luxury that the current Liverpool team do not enjoy.

So, another year without CL football?

Don’t shoot the messenger. :-)

When I looked at the data this morning, I was disappointed because it looks so definitive. There’s no way Liverpool are finishing inside the top four, just look at the facts.

But it’s so easy to delude yourself. After all, it’s only a 7-point gap. I’m still doing it now. “We’re only 7 points behind, of course we can do this!”

But of course, what about the other teams who are above Liverpool? They’re above Liverpool because they’ve been better over a long period (20 games). To claim 4th place Liverpool need to outperform four of those superior sides, by 7 clear points for an entire half-season. That’s insanely hard. The facts tell us so and so do the maths.

In case, for some unfathomable reason, you’re still on the fence…

Southampton currently lie 4th and have a points per game average of 1.80.

The 22-year average points per game (PPG) total for 4th placed teams is 1.79 but that has crept up steadily over the last 4 years. Arsenal finished 4th last year with a 2.08 PPG and 79 points – a massive total for a 4th-placed team.

This year it won’t be that high, but it’s safe to say Liverpool will need a minimum of 69 points to finish 4th this season (that’s based on 1.80 PPG), but they’ll probably need around 75 points to ensure they get the 4th slot (that’s based on 1.90 PPG).

Let’s focus on a 69-point total as a target, because that’s the minimum they will require to challenge for 4th.

What Liverpool need to do to finish in 4th place

For Liverpool to get 69 points -the minimum they will need to challenge for 4th- they would need to deliver a points per game average between now and the end of the season of 2.22. That’s league-winning form, exactly. (The average PPG of all 22 Premier League winning teams, is exactly 2.22.)

So to finish 4th this season Liverpool need to deliver championship-winning form over the remaining 18 league games. 

For a team in 8th place at the turn of the year that is unprecedented. (And I don’t know what you think, but Liverpool aren’t playing like a league-winning side in my eyes at the moment.)

I’ve accepted that the Champions League dream is over for another season. Sure, I’ll shout myself horse and fully support at the match, and I’ll put a brave face on to opposition fans, but deep down the truth is I’m already mentally planning for the next league campaign.

As a fanbase, we need to understand that 4th is no longer a reasonable aim. We can dream, of course, but it’s important we don’t harbour unrealistic & destructive expectations for what can be achieved this season. Sure, we can go for it (what else can we do?), but it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll achieve it. The damage to this season has already been done.

I’d love to see Rodgers strongly prioritise the cups, especially the Europa League, as that now represents an excellent chance to qualify for next year’s Champions League and would create a huge morale and confidence boost ahead of the Gerrard-less following season.

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Liverpool 2.0 Unveiled: Pragmatist Rodgers Delivers His Vision Of ‘Style & Steel’

The feeling of euphoria that swept Anfield’s streets after Liverpool beat United was heightened by the sense that this was a watershed moment.

Here was a team that for large parts of the 2012-2013 season played a naive brand of cavalier football that was entertaining and easy on the eye but had a soft underbelly.

Vulnerable in transition and imbued with an inherent self-doubt that was consistently reinforced by a failure to beat top clubs, Liverpool were in danger of becoming little more than a football hipster’s wet dream. England’s Malaga. A collective embodiment of New Football’s ideal and a big red paragon of the passing game: ‘We may not win stuff, but my word, we’re pretty. Just look at Coutinho for God’s sake. Just look at him.’

That concept was squashed in the United game as our courtship with Rodgers’ new anti-Liverpool moved to the next level.

The team has developed 3 new qualities: resolve, aggression and cynicism. In Liverpool we’re happy to splice these three strands together and refer to it as nark. (More nark is very welcome and an entirely necessary characteristic of a successful side.)

As an articulate and, at times, alarmingly modern football manager, Brendan Rodgers loves a sound-byte. Merging “style with steel” was one of his aspirations for Liverpool this year.

It appears he’s starting to succeed.

Three 1-0 victories without, apparently, hitting high levels of performance is just what Liverpool fans needed to see to believe the team can progress to the next rung of the footballing ladder. Benitezesque pragmatism allied with Rodgers’ free flowing purist fundamentalism. It’s a potent recipe.

Not for the first time in recent years, United’s midfield struggled to cope with the energy and intensity of their Liverpool counterparts. Lucas and Henderson put in all-action performances and Gerrard moved beyond ‘imperious’ to become positively despotic. (He controlled not only the thrust of Liverpool’s attacks but also the tempo of the entire game.)

There was a resilience about Liverpool, a determination and a hunger that felt more than skin deep. Profound. Something has changed.

The streetwise way that Liverpool saw out the game showed that lessons are being learned and Rodgers isn’t content to settle for dominating possession. He’s more focussed on taking all 3 points and he now IS willing to compromise on his footballing vision to get them.

We have lift off.

Andre Wisdom’s breakneck charge to the corner flag in the dying moments of the game was wonderful to behold. (I wanted to reach for my Sky+ remote and rewind the real-world so I could watch it again.) As was the litany of small time-wasting contributions and constant barracking of the referee. We all want to see pretty football, but these villainous elements really do matter and in aggregation can make a big difference to a match’s outcome.

Pretty football + Nark = Win

Despite being understandably thrilled with the result, Liverpool fans will have spotted several areas that need improving if the team’s auspicious start is to lead to a successful full campaign.

Aspas made a lot of people angry. He was a weak link and looked out of his depth. He caught a lot of flak and for a short period I was as angry with the Spaniard as most of the fans sat around me. (Who were very angry.) I actually wrote the following angry tweet, but didn’t send it because I was angry and I thought it unfair upon reflection:

“Iago Aspas looks like an inspired signing. (For Liverpool U16’s.)”

I deleted the tweet because A) it was Aspas’s first real big game for Liverpool and B) I don’t want to contribute to increasing pressure on him. Though he did look like a boy amongst men for long periods, he has a fantastic work ethic and willingness to improve. Given time he’ll be a useful member of the squad.

In fact Rodgers’ primary concerns will be spread all across his forward line. The ball simply didn’t stick well enough when Liverpool played it forward and it consistently came back too quickly. That cranked up the pressure on a midfield and defence that were increasingly under siege as the game progressed.

Coutinho’s drop in form is mildly worrying (patchy form is to be expected from a 21 year old of course), Aspas looked lightweight and much more is needed from Daniel Sturridge in terms of his overall leading of the line.

Injuries and fitness levels mitigate this criticism, I know, but it’s clear that Sturridge doesn’t have the appetite to contest high balls or 50-50’s. He may think that goals will insulate him from criticism and excuse his occasionally laconic demeanour but he couldn’t be more wrong. If there’s one thing that will undermine his goalscoring efforts for Liverpool fans it’s a perceived lack of effort. We want to see goals AND graft.

Ian Rush is a legend at Anfield not only because he scored 229 goals in 469 games, but because he contested every ball and defended from the front. (Imagine the impact Sturridge would make if he showed Sterling’s recent level of determination and tenacity?)

So there’s certainly room for improvement in Liverpool’s forward line – thankfully Suarez’s return and Moses’ signing will provide welcome support and competition.

These concerns aside, Brendan Rodgers’ team is clearly gathering momentum and the signs of improvement are stark.

Rodgers had a shaky start and his first few months were tough. Understandable really, as the new managerial team bedded in and Liverpool faced an onerous early fixture schedule. Since January Liverpool’s performances have been, mostly, excellent. But strictly in terms of points Rodgers and his team have produced a remarkable turnaround in Liverpool’s fortunes since November 2012.

The average points total required to gain Champions League qualification over the last 10 years is 68.4 points. (Exactly 1.8 points per game.)

Liverpool have played 32 league games since 1st November 2012 and have secured 60 points, giving them a points per game average over the last 10 months of 1.88. (Contrast that with the previous 10 months, during which the Reds played 28 games and just amassed 28 points. The mathematicians amongst you will spot that’s a 1.00 point per game average. Relegation form.)

In other words, Liverpool have been delivering top 4 form over a period of 10 months. That’s not a flash in the pan, that’s a consistent pattern of behaviour and success over a prolonged period.

All the signs point to Liverpool mounting a serious challenge for a top four position this year. Now with added nark, surely nothing can stand in their way.

-Mike Kennedy (Find me on twitter)

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RedmenTV: Taking Big Strides Towards A Bright Future

RedmenTV is a website and YouTube channel created by Liverpool fans Paul Machin and Chris Pajak. The site was born 4 years ago and in its short lifetime RedmenTV has enjoyed steady success as the site has grown organically, from grass roots Liverpool fans’ recommendations. (Over 30,000 people currently subscribe to their regular YouTube videos – no mean feat in the crowded LFC online space.)

It’s easy to see why Paul and Chris have gained such a following; their honesty, boundless enthusiasm and sense of mischief clearly sets them apart from the mainstream and, in turn, their output is more entertaining than the vast majority of what we see in mainstream football coverage.

As a friend of the show I was invited to attend the launch of ‘RedmenTV 4.0′ on Friday night. The new season heralds a fresh start in many ways – the new RedmenTV studio is a significant upgrade and the investment in state-of-the-art equipment (and recruitment of extra team members) is testament to both the site’s growing success and the team’s dedication to continue improving the show.

Paul shared a showreel and highlighted new features for the forthcoming season and in terms of ambition, creative scope and production value this season will represent another big step forward.

It’s clear to me that this is just the beginning for a talented team that will progress to enjoy an even broader audience. If you’re not aboard the RedmenTV train yet, then jump on. You can find them here:

I’ll be reappearing on the show at some point over the coming weeks (follow me on twitter for updates).

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