Secret behind City-Liverpool title race

May 12, 2019

There are plenty of big numbers in and around this season’s Premier League title race, a glance at the last column in the league table will demonstrate that, but a season isn’t just wins and goals and points.

A galaxy has a million stars and a 38-match campaign has a million tiny moments that make up the final standings. Here are a few that might go some way to explaining why we are where we are as 2018-19 comes to an end, and where we might be headed.

Premier League title race
Liverpool need to beat Wolves and hope Manchester City drop points against Brighton on the final day

Get the ball and do something with it

“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.”

So said Pep Guardiola in 2014 and his team’s Premier League numbers this season show that he is true to his word. Do City have a lot of the ball? Yes they do, and they are certain to break the 900-mark for possession sequences containing 10 or more passes when they play Brighton on Sunday.

Only Chelsea and Liverpool are even vaguely near City for that sort of ball domination but look at the number of times City have turned that into a shot or possession in the box: 256 times, meaning that almost 30% of the time City have built a long chain of passes, they have progressed it into a significant scenario. Compared to their big six rivals, Guardiola’s team are in a stylistic league of their own.

Premier League 2018-19
10+ pass sequences Build-up attacks % sequences ending in a shot
Manchester City 896 256 28.6%
Arsenal 523 121 23.1%
Liverpool 700 150 21.4%
Chelsea 716 148 20.7%
Manchester United 429 88 20.5%
Tottenham Hotspur 548 111 20.3%

No slips

Before 2018-19 there were two obvious English top-flight seasons where the top two had broken off and fought out a distant mini-league of their own.

In 1970-71 it was Arsenal and Leeds, with the latter finishing 20 points ahead of third-placed Tottenham (based on three points for a win) and the other is 2011-12 when Manchester City and Manchester United ended level on points, 19 clear of Arsenal in third.

As it stands currently, Liverpool are 23 clear of Chelsea and could make that vast margin even bigger on the final day.

To keep pace with an extraordinary City team Liverpool have had to show a ruthlessness in front of goal and their conversion of clear-cut chances (defined as opportunities where the attacker has at least a 50-50 chance of scoring) is running, pleasingly, at almost 50%, the best in the division.

Compare that to the bleak days of 2011-12 when Liverpool came eighth in the league with a big chance conversion rate of 29%, the third lowest rate in the division.

Until a team wins all 38 games there will always be room for improvement, though, and the three clear-cut chances Liverpool wasted away at Everton in March ultimately cost them two points and remains the last time they failed to win a Premier League game. Two points dropped in a title race where you trail by one. That’s a big chance.

Premier League 2018-19
Big chance total Big chance conversion %
Liverpool 105 49.5
Brighton 45 48.9
West Ham 58 46.6
Arsenal 85 43.5
Manchester City 121 42.2


Ricardo Carvalho
Ricardo Carvalho would struggle to get in a Pep Guardiola team…

Guardiola triggered an entire generation of football observers in 2016 when he dismissed tackling in the wake of a 4-2 defeat at Leicester in the first few months of his Manchester City career.

“I am not a coach for the tackles so I don’t train the tackles. What I want is to try to play good and score goals and arrive more in the box.”

The Catalan echoed Xabi Alonso, who said in 2011: “Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball.”

Dismissed as a technocratic affectation by some, Guardiola has consistently backed up his stance in the subsequent years and this season has been no different.

City proudly lie 20th for tackles made in the Premier League in 2018-19 and are one of only two sides not to have made a last-man tackle (stylistic definition: think of any defensive moment involving Ricardo Carvalho you can recall), along with Fulham (who may have different reasons for their figure).

City’s approach is based on control and like it or not, the tackle is a stark admission that you have lost it.

Improving circulation

Alisson will have more options to go short with his goal-kicks next season

From the start of next season outfield players will be able to receive goal-kicks from inside their own penalty area.

Until now, touching the ball before it had gone outside the box would result in a re-take, and in an era when clubs stretch the play more than ever before this should be an important tweak.

Watch a match from previous decades and when a team has a goal-kick you invariably see all 20 outfield players in a narrow central band of about 40 yards waiting for the goalkeeper to hit it directly into the melee.

The new law should favour teams like City and Liverpool who, in Ederson and Alisson, have keepers who are hugely comfortable with the ball at their feet, and it will mean that defenders can drop into the box at goal-kicks and escape the opposition press more easily.

Even with the current rules, the top teams are doing this much more than their rivals, so you’d expect the situation to become more exacerbated next season.

Manchester City lead the Premier League in 2018-19 with 1,537 touches in their penalty area, and if you combined their total with Liverpool’s (1,217) they account for 16% of the total.

Add in Chelsea and Arsenal who, in Kepa Arrizabalaga and Bernd Leno, have goalkeepers calm on the ball and managers committed to this approach, then that share goes up to just shy of 30%.

Modern football clubs are intensely prepared and coached, and their inexorable search for the next tiny edge is certain to involve these adjustments to the laws.



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