Tottenham v. Liverpool by the numbers (or, On Flat-Track Bullying)

Julian Finney

Like I did before the Arsenal game, I have some numbers on game projections and on the effects of different game outcomes on final season results. I'll get to that. First I want to talk briefly about the claim that Liverpool are "flat-track bullies", that all they do is beat the bad clubs and they don't have the quality to beat the good clubs.

I have a strong tendency to dislike absolute claims about sports. Any claim that something "can't" happen is sports is probably wrong, unless you're dealing with logical impossibilities. And even then, Chelsea won the Champions League. The claim shouldn't be, "can Liverpool beat the big clubs?" because of course they can. The question is, to what degree are Liverpool relatively less likely to perform at their seasonal averages against bigger clubs?

To put some numbers to this question, I took a look at team performance against just the top seven. By my numbers, there is a very large gap between the 7th best club in the EPL (Everton) and the 8th best (Swansea). So, if we want to know how well a club performs against top-quality competition, we can look at their performance just against the top 7. I have created an overall club performance metric, based on expected goals scored and expected goals allowed - I can explain it more next week, but it gives an (obviously oversimplified) single number, scaled to 100 as league average, for team quality of performance.

Then if we want to see if anyone is a "flat-track bully", we can compare their performance against the bottom 13 to their performance against the top 7. So I did! Here's a table:

Club Vs Top 7 Vs Bottom 13
Arsenal 121 120
Chelsea 135 126
Everton 141 107
Liverpool 127 138
Manchester City 155 156
Manchester United 156 146
Tottenham Hotspur 125 134

Since the model already controls for quality of opponent, we would expect the typical club to have roughly similar numbers against the top 7 and the bottom 13. Arsenal and City perfectly conform to that expectation. Chelsea and United have been a little bit better against top clubs, Spurs and Liverpool a little worse. The Spurs discrepancy has a lot to do with some random events - Dembele's injury right before the Chelsea and City games, the Adebayor red - but a Liverpool fan could point out that Liverpool have been playing much better football since Sturridge arrived, and managed solid road draws at Arsenal and City with him in the squad.

Most strikingly, Everton have been great in big games, and come up small again and again against the bottom of the league. This is a useful note, that a kind of flat-track bullying is entirely necessary to Premier League success. Everton have nice 2-3-2 record against top opponents, but a very mediocre 9-9-3 against the rest of the league. If you can't whomp on the mediocre and bad clubs, it doesn't matter how brilliantly you step up your game in Manchester.

By the numbers, Liverpool have underperformed a little bit against the best clubs, but not a lot. The most you could say, going off these numbers, is that Liverpool may have a slighly lower chance of winning on Sunday, maybe by a few percentage points.

But what's going on there? Haven't Liverpool failed to notch results in big games? They are 0-5-4 against the top 7. One thing that's going on here is that they've lost a lot of close games - by one goal to United twice, by one goal at Tottenham. They've only lost by two goals in one game. It may be that there's something wrong with Liverpool causing them to underperform when they need a goal the most. At the same time, their draws away to City, Arsenal, Everton, and Chelsea can hardly be counted as failures. They did get goals they needed in those games, just not the winning one.

I don't in any way dismiss the possibility that Liverpool struggle to get goals when they need them. Football is complicated, and pre-Sturridge Liverpool was fielding a staggeringly weird roster, a world-class striker up top, a good not great defense at the back, quality central midfielders trying to settle into the squad, and children and buffoons in attacking midfield destroying any chance of real link-ups to the striker. That's just the sort of club you'd expect to have weird stats. But put me on the spot, I'm going to be skeptical. I would think that if that were the case, if Liverpool did really struggle terribly when they needed a goal, then in all these tight games against top opposition, Liverpool would have actually poor underlying statistics reflecing their poor play when they were chasing a goal. Instead the numbers are pretty good, just not quite good enough.

I could certainly be wrong, though, and it's a very small sample so the inconclusive numbers might be masking a real effect. Definitive conclusions!

Numbers for Liverpool-Tottenham

I have here projected score and likely outcome numbers for the game. The projected score numbers continue to be the most boring things in the world. They project every game to end 2-1, except for the ones they expect will end 1-1. (I wonder how well the computer would do in the projection league - its numbers would be metronomically the same. By how much would smart fans and analysts beat it?)

Club G W% D% L%
Tottenham 1.2 27% 24% 48%
Liverpool 1.7 48% 24% 27%

The computer likes Liverpool only slightly better than Tottenham in the abstract, but home field advantage is enough to make them very solid favorites. More interestingly, I think, this game has some notable top 4 effects. Listed are chances of finishing top 4 based on game outcomes:

Club Tot W Draw Liv W
Tottenham 95% 86% 80%
Liverpool 2% 5% 12%

Tottenham move closer and closer to "don't jinx this, you stupid computer" with a win. If Liverpool want to make a Cinderella run at the top four, they just about have to win on Sunday.

That's all I have to say. I always like to end a post on a kind of, eh, note.

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