Title Race Is Now Close Enough To Be Officially “Back On”

Title Race Is Now Close Enough To Be Officially “Back On”
February 21, 2022 Paul Tomkins


On Tuesday 28th December, Liverpool – playing really poorly – lost 1-0 at Leicester, and to me, the title felt “gone”.

(Note: this is the version for TTT subscribers to comment on below. This link takes you to the Substack newsletter version, that goes to people’s email address.)

Now, nothing in football is ever over until it’s over, but I felt – with some justification – that Man City were not normal league leaders from an era when you could claw back leads, as several recent titles (including Liverpool’s) have often been won with totals 97 or more points. Were it the days of 79-point champions and nip-and-tuck races, it would have felt different.

For a while, my assertion appeared even more true than when I made it; notably, when Man City beat Arsenal and Liverpool drew with Chelsea in the next round of fixtures, to further widen the gap; and yet now, a reversal of fortunes has made things interesting again.

Liverpool had games in hand, and they had to be won to be meaningful. The Reds finally catch up this week, against Leeds on Wednesday, only to instantly fall behind on games played due to the League Cup final at the weekend.

This is an article about how Liverpool got back into the title race. But also, it’s about how making public pronouncements can corrupt your thinking; and why I believe so many people go off the deep-end if they spend too much time on Twitter (or other places) doubling-down on a stated view, as the ego overpowers the rational mind in the torrent of replies.

Plus, evidence changes. You have to reassess, and constantly reassess. And, if making hot-takes (or any takes, to be fair), you have to be prepared to see them age badly.

If you want nothing to age badly, then say nothing. (Or say something that’s so crazy it’s hard to disprove.)

You have to be humble, and be open to being wrong, and to admit to being wrong; while at the same time, acknowledging how predictions are, well … unpredictable (which is why I rarely make them, certainly about results and scorelines, given all the randomness).

It’s also an article about faith versus blind faith, and facts versus emotions.

Then vs Now

This season at least, we were talking about a Liverpool team that had failed to win in five of the first 11 league games; so, despite attacking brilliantly (better than ever), the results were not in line with the crushing machine of 2018-2020, that was more balanced.

By game 21, the Reds had failed to win in eight games, which is still an excellent record of 13 wins, but a long way off City, who were on a run of 12 straight league victories.

Going into this past weekend, Man City had taken 43 points from the previous 45. At stages they’ve been 12 points clear. After this coming weekend, the season will be almost into its final quarter. This is already the run-in.

Southampton were the first team to dent City’s progress in the league since October; in late January they took a point from Pep Guardiola’s men. They were the only two points dropped from 15 matches. In many previous seasons, those kinds of mid-campaign tearaways sewed up the title. No matter how good Liverpool were, that could be too much to claw back.

But a bigger shock, given that it was at home and that they lost, was City’s 3-2 defeat to a confidence-shorn Spurs on Sunday; made all the more notable as it followed one of the Reds’ comeback wins, which were a feature of the 2018-2020 vintage (albeit that side also didn’t go behind a hell of a lot to start with – the “make the most comebacks” tag needs you to behind a lot in games; try not to go behind, but if you do, fight back).

What was weirder about it was that Spurs only had about five attacks, and scored four goals, one later ruled out for a tight (but correct) offside much earlier in the move. Spurs tried to defend their lead; lost their lead; attacked and got back their lead; tried to defend their lead; lost their lead; and then attacked and got back their lead. It was very weird. City looked totally vulnerable, and Spurs are not a great side.

It gives Liverpool some hope, clearly. More importantly – and quite incredibly – it puts the title back in the Reds’ hands, in that if Jürgen Klopp’s men win all their remaining games they win the league, goal difference pending (if City will all theirs bar losing the match against the Reds, then both clubs will end on the same points. Presently, just two goals separate the GD, so a 1-0 win for the Reds at the Etihad would make that difference zero too, albeit goals will obviously be scored and conceded by both sides before then).

As I noted at the time just before the turn of the year, the Reds’ run of visits to Spurs, Leicester and Chelsea in three consecutive league games (because an ailing Leeds at home was called off) presented an unusually tough challenge, at a time when the Reds had so many key Covid absentees, yet soldiered on (until the less-meaningful League Cup semi-final).

The two draws and one defeat were not especially shocking, especially given the absentees, but with AFCON looming, it felt like the team was in danger of falling apart, as it did last season when up to a dozen players were injured and the reserves just could not cope. A side can usually cope with 4-5 absentees, but beyond that you’re relying not on bench players but fringe players.

Of course, Spurs away should have seen Harry Kane sent off and Liverpool get a penalty in the first half, in a game where the spine was torn out by Covid. But that 3-game spell aside, it’s now a run of 11 league victories in the last 14. That’s a 79% league win-rate since November 7th, even with a Covid-shaped hole in the squad in that time; and now, even with AFCON fully navigated.

A lot has changed in just two months, and for Liverpool, it’s been for the better. The Reds have won their last five in the league, whereas City have only won three of their last five. But there’s also been changes I really didn’t see coming, that go well beyond form.

Squad changes

Since I made that pronouncement, Liverpool’s squad has got better and Man City’s has got worse. I never saw that coming.

Ferran Torres’ scoring rate for Man City was about 75% as good as Diogo Jota’s for Liverpool, and Jota’s scoring rate is exceptional (and both have truly excellent international records recently). That’s one less player that City have got, even if they can still rotate about a dozen players in the front five positions. Selling him to Barcelona mid-season seemed a bit weird, albeit if he wanted away, it’s often wise to get rid.

They did procure Julián Álvarez, but he doesn’t arrive until the summer. Kayky also arrived from Brazil, and the talented youngster is making the bench, but it would be something if he made much impact in his first six months in England, aged 18. You would argue that Kayky < Ferran, for the time being at least.

For Porto and Colombia, Luiz Diaz’s scoring record, as he matures as a player (like Jota), has gone from promising to excellent.

At Liverpool he’s already assisted and scored, and but for great keeping and clearances off the line, could have had three goals by now. The way he attacks the inside-left and right channels within the box is almost Ian Rush-like, albeit when starting from out wide.

No one expected this deal in the winter (there seemed zero likelihood of the Reds spending), but Spurs actually triggered it; and no one has a right to expect a new player to slot in seamlessly, especially mid-season. (It helps that he arrived fit and in form.)

Yes, a quick integration happened with Sadio Mané, Mo Salah, Jota and Virgil van Dijk (although he was rusty early on, having been injured for months), but the opposite was true of Andy Robertson, Fabinho, and for different reasons, Roberto Firmino, as well as others.

Most of those players had preseasons to at least get some wavelengths going. Diaz looks like he spent time at Dundee United and Hull before he went off to Porto, working with Robertson for years, such is the way they are linking up. You can’t buy that kind of understanding – it usually takes a season. It’s just between two players, for the time being.

You just can’t bank on a shared wavelength; but a promising start means things should only get better with further shared training and playing time, to link with all the other players. Diaz doesn’t seem the type to make a bright start and then get lazy after a couple of good games. He’s fast, skilful, and has that South American street-player zeal. He can finish.

Obviously the grim, sloppy Leicester defeat (made worse by the fact the home side should have been tired after playing Man City 48 hours earlier) also meant that AFCON was pending, immediately after the imminent game away at Chelsea. Remember, the AFCON boys played at Leicester.

In the end, AFCON did no harm in terms of league points (or even League Cup progress to the final), although obviously it may take something out of the legs of Salah and Mané as the season wears on (not that Salah seems to get tired).

Salah has also been fighting the disappointment of losing the final, and Mané has had his head in the clouds; whether you win or you lose, huge finals mid-season can destabilise. They mess with the mind. That both scored great goals against Norwich bodes well. The Reds need Salah to be ultra-motivated and Mané to continue to work as hard as ever.

If anything, AFCON could have benefited Naby Keita, but he hasn’t done too much since returning (and as big a fan as I am, I’m starting to wonder if he’ll be at the club beyond the summer, but we can worry about that later).

I also didn’t expect Harvey Elliott to be back so soon, albeit he was on the road to recovery. I possibly expected he’d be featuring in the league by March, but he sped back far quicker.

Right now, Roberto Firmino aside, there seem to be no major injury concerns, and Firmino would not be automatic first pick at this juncture anyway. Still, the quicker he’s back, the better the options.

Don’t Dream It’s Over

In stating that I believed the title was over (initially via Twitter), something weird happened. Other Liverpool fans began insulting me, questioning my loyalty, stating that it’s a good job people at the club don’t listen to idiots like me. That’s the usual part of life on Twitter (and why I rarely use it these days).

The weird part is how, despite still wanting Man City to drop points, for a week or two I took at least some solace in them grabbing underserved winners. At least I wasn’t wrong, as they opened up the 12 point gap (with two extra games played) that I feared would happen.

Indeed, I felt relieved that the next time I logged on to Twitter I wouldn’t be mocked again, this time for something happening that I still wanted to happen (but just didn’t believe would happen) – Liverpool being back in the title race.

Now, I said with no clear certainty that the title race was over, as it never can be when you say such things, which are both ludicrous and still likely to prove true. But if felt gone. This wasn’t me losing faith with a Liverpool side or manager, or even questioning much about it, in contrast to 2010 (Roy Hodgson) or 2015 (Brendan Rodgers), or several times before that.

I still struggle to make too many criticisms – beyond bad games here or there – of the first XI, the squad players (who are all good squad players, with squad players unlikely to ever be sensational by definition), and so on, given that we’re talking elite players, elite management, elite off-field organisation. I still point out flaws, but it’s often more like nit-picking these days.

Unlike most seasons, there’s no one in the squad who is totally doing my head in; a couple of months ago it was the bloke pretending to Andy Robertson, but then he returned to being the true Andy Robertson, and that was the end of that.

Yet the power of being publicly wrong (despite having spent the last 20+ years being publicly wrong) was clear.

I wasn’t even publicly tipping Man City for the title (certainly not with any unctuous admiration), more just resigned to the over-oiled machine at the Etihad, who could also have spent money in January to further strengthen their hand.

I recognised my desire to be right, to avoid a backlash, and again, it reminded me how so much public discourse goes wrong.

I could have doubled-down and started cheering when Man City won games, so as to not be mocked by my own tribe, and possibly others. But I was not wedded to my feeling that the title was City’s to lose; at least, not now that they’re losing some of their grip on it.

I’d love to be proved wrong any time I think Liverpool will fall short. But the way people try to humiliate you online, you can feel overwhelmed – certainly if messages are flooding in – and a desire to be right can override a desire for what you actually want to be true. Humiliation (and the shame it brings) is one of the strongest behaviour-changers, and you have to be big enough to withstand it. Indeed, public shaming, as Jon Ronson pointed out in his seminal 2015 book, was banned in previous centuries for being too cruel.

This is why people should disengage from Twitter as much as possible, and question their incentives. Get out of the limbic-hijack system and start to think again. Let the amygdala settle down, and remember that a Twitter mob is largely unthinking; or, often angry beyond reason. If you try to appease an unthinking mob you get … well, modern politics, left and right. (And why big companies cave in at any kind of online outrage.)

What happens is this: someone states something, and in the face of what feels like a deluge of replies, hardens their position. The opposition then harden theirs in reply, en masse. Before long, people are at polar opposites. Disagreement ramps up, and we end up with people justifying increasingly bonkers ideas.

If only just a couple of people replied, saying “I respectfully disagree”, it would remain civil, and you wouldn’t want to double-down. But when people are deluged with replies being called a twat, prick, Nazi, snowflake, racist, cuck, fascist, etc., people then want to prove that they are right as a form of ego protection, and for revenge. Righteous anger leads to dehumanisation and bad ideas, justified by feelings.

If you’d seen my face, you’d know there’s only so much ego it could merit; I have no perfection to maintain. I am flawed, and deal with that fact. One of my only certainties in life is to distrust people who are too certain. Anyone who seems perfect is deceiving you.

I’d never fully write-off a Klopp team; just that there seemed no leeway. And Liverpool were far from perfect in the first 21 games. City were looking closer to perfection, but of course, they’re human, too. Liverpool won the 2020 title by blitzing from the start; but this time it would involve overtaking the pace-setters.

I believe in the quality, but the situation looked bleak. In fairness, it did last season too, but the fight then was for the top four, and not the pressure (and lesser leeway) of a title-race. That it was achieved with two rookie centre-backs who’d never played in the Premier League before the start of the season was just another hint at how good the manager and his assistants are.

Let’s go back to 2005. Inside the Ataturk stadium, at half-time, I thought it was “game over” too. I was fearing 6-0, as I wrote in my first book, whose final chapter was turning into a footballing bloodbath.

But I stayed (obviously!) and sang You’ll Never Walk Alone with everyone else. What a beautiful moment that was. I was not any less of a fan or a “believer”, just aware that you don’t come from 3-0 down at half-time in a European Cup final against a far superior/more experienced team. I sang to show my pride at the achievement of making it to the final, against all odds. Avoiding a 6-0 defeat at that stage seemed my priority. Again, I’ve never been happier to be wrong (and thankfully Twitter didn’t exist, so I didn’t say anything stupid at half-time, such as “there’s no way Liverpool can win this”).

Fans stick with the team, but it doesn’t mean that being a true fan is to think you’ll always win. As a writer, I’m in the job of analysing, not tub-thumping (but when the Reds win, a tub I shall usually thump). I can have a deep-lying belief, but I also have to look at the facts, and the recent history, and to try and make a judgement call that could easily be wrong.

Indeed, all season on the TTT match preview threads (courtesy of Daniel Rhodes using FBRef data) we’ve been showing a weekly-updated graphic that shows Liverpool and City are neck-and-neck in attacking and defensive xG, miles ahead of the rest.

We pointed this out when Chelsea were keeping pace on points, but the underlying numbers said they should be cut adrift in 3rd, well ahead of the pack. The underlying numbers started to be reflected in the league table. However, it’s only now that the same is happening with Liverpool and City, as the gap narrows in the actual league table.

Every week, the gap from the top two to the rest widens. (This was before this weekend’s games, where the xG GD went more in Liverpool’s favour.) It’s not just a two-horse race, but it feels like the 18 other horses are lame by comparison.

So, right now, things look rosy.

But remember, Liverpool still need to beat Leeds. They’ll then need to win the game in hand that will appear again after the weekend. They still likely need to win at the Etihad.

But right now, these all feel a lot more likely than on New Year’s Eve.