The Rebuilding of Liverpool

The long wait to win a Premier League championship might finally soon be over for Liverpool. After standing as English soccer’s marquee club for generations — including winning a record 18 titles in the old First Division — Liverpool have failed to win a league championship since 1990. With an eight-game Premier League winning streak that has included comfortable wins over Arsenal (5-1), Manchester United (3-0), and most recently Tottenham Hotspur (4-0), the club now controls its own destiny. If it wins each of its six remaining fixtures, the league championship will again return to Merseyside.

This is heady stuff for a club that received virtually no attention before the season. Strike that — no positive attention. I’m sure somebody out there suggested otherwise, but as a reasonable indicator of context, zero of the 11 experts polled by the Guardian and exactly nil of the 13 surveyed by the Daily Mirror predicted Liverpool would be the champion. In fact, the 13 writers from the Mirror each picked a top four, and Liverpool were named just once (as the fourth-place team) amid those 13. Liverpool had to ignore their star striker’s public pleas to leave over the summer. But instead of packing his bags, Luis Suarez became the focal point of a devastating scoring attack, producing one of the most impressive seasons ever and signing a four-year, $75 million contract extension at the end of 2013. With Suarez around for the long haul, the only thing more exciting than this year’s squad is the possibility this might be the beginning of a lengthy new run at the top for Liverpool. How on earth has the team pulled this off?

Suarez

It seems like a distant memory now, but it was only last April that Suarez found the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic irresistible and went in for a bite, an incident that earned the controversial striker a 10-game suspension. He missed the first five games of this year’s Premiership calendar, a stretch that saw Liverpool score just five goals.

Suarez scored upon his return to the Premier League on September 29 in a 3-1 win over Sunderland, and he has barely stopped since. Liverpool’s talisman has found the net 29 times in 27 matches. That’s otherworldly. The second-best scorer in the Premier League has a mere 20 goals, and Daniel Sturridge also happens to play for the Reds. Suarez had something to do with that, of course; he also leads the Premier League with 11 assists.

Suarez is scoring at an unprecedented rate for a Premier League footballer. There have been just five instances in league history of a player scoring 30 goals. Suarez has six more matches to score a single time to become the sixth. Crazier still, all his predecessors required more than 30 matches to reach that milestone — Suarez can become the first player in league history to average more than one goal per appearance, with the possibility he could end up the Premiership’s first (sigh) 30-for-30 striker. The league record for goals in a single season is 34, jointly held by Andy Cole and Alan Shearer, who both pulled that off in the early ’90s, when the Premier League played a 42-game schedule. At his current pace, Suarez will score 37 goals in 35 matches.

It’s the most impressive season a Premiership striker has ever produced. And with Suarez signed until 2018 and all but assured of a Champions League berth next year, Liverpool can expect him to stick around for the foreseeable future.

Scoring

After finishing fourth in the league in goals scored a year ago, Liverpool have been downright unstoppable. After that faltering start to the season, the club has notched a staggering 83 goals in its subsequent 27 matches, or more than three goals per game. (That’s better than the Cleveland Browns most weeks!) Led by the pairing of Suarez and Sturridge, Liverpool have scored a league-high 88 goals in 32 matches; that’s more than anybody managed to score in the full 38 matches a year ago, and there are still six games to go.

Is Liverpool’s the best offense in Premiership history? We’ll know soon enough, but the team is certainly on its way. It’s averaging 2.75 goals per game, which nobody has managed to do … ever. The 2009 Chelsea side that won the title was also the only team to hit triple digits, scoring 103 goals; Liverpool are on pace to surpass that.

The only thing holding them back? They might not end up being the best offense in the division this season. Manchester City is Liverpool’s primary rival for the title, and their match on April 13 lurks as the likely decider of the championship. City’s offense has nearly been as good as Liverpool’s: City have scored 80 goals across their 30 matches, an average of 2.67 goals per game, which would be the third-highest scoring ratio in league history. Only Liverpool and that 2009 Chelsea team beat City out, and City have eight matches to top them both.

Those are the most productive offenses in league history on a goals-per-match basis. In terms of sheer dominance, my estimate is that the 1999 Manchester United side led by Cole and Dwight Yorke was the best attack the Premiership’s ever seen. That team scored 97 goals in 38 matches, an average of 2.55 goals per game, in a league in which nobody else really came close to matching that figure. (Second-place Arsenal scored 73, and nobody else made it above 63.) That’s not entirely dissimilar to this season; Liverpool are on pace for 104.5, with City set to score 101.3, and the third-place team (Chelsea) is on pace to finish with just less than 74 goals. Which is pretty good for a team with no strikers.

It would be close to impossible for Liverpool to score at this rate next year, if only because nobody else has done it before. That Chelsea team, for example, scored just 69 goals the following year. The Reds should, however, remain among the league leaders in goals. And if you were asking yourself whether it’s smarter to build your team around a great offense or a great defense, well, the former seems to be slightly stickier. The year-to-year correlation for goals scored per game during the Premiership era for teams that remained in the top flight is 0.67, meaning that roughly 45 percent of a team’s goal-scoring acumen can be explained by its scoring rate from the previous season; the same correlation for goals against is 0.59, or 35 percent of the previous total.

Spryness

Since John Henry purchased Liverpool away from the disastrous Tom Hicks/George Gillett ownership group in October 2010, Liverpool have spent heavily to acquire young British talent. That — rather infamously — hasn’t always worked out well. The club’s £35 million signing of striker Andy Carroll lasted 18 middling months, before he was sent away on loan to West Ham and eventually sold for £15 million. Stewart Downing, signed for £20 million, also ended up on West Ham after two seasons, for £5 million. (See a pattern here?) Those moves came as part of the roster overhaul that followed the sacking of manager Kenny Dalglish and the arrival of Brendan Rodgers. But even Rodgers’s first signing, then-22-year-old Welsh midfielder Joe Allen, has failed to impress after his £15 million transfer. The common excuse that “they just used the money they got for Fernando Torres” is a bad one for reasons of opportunity cost; the £20 million Liverpool lost on that transfer might well have purchased a player.

Despite all that, Liverpool have found success in integrating young players into what had previously been an aging side. Sturridge, signed for £12 million from Chelsea at the age of 24, now looks like an absolute bargain. Nineteen-year-old winger Raheem Sterling has become a key piece in his second full season with the senior team. Central midfielder Jordan Henderson, another one of the expensive Damien Comolli signings from the stormy early days of the Henry era, and whom Rodgers nearly sent to Fulham as part of a deal for Clint Dempsey, has delivered this year on the promise that led Liverpool to pay £16 million for him as a 21-year-old in 2011. And 21-year-old playmaker Philippe Coutinho, a disappointment in Serie A, has exhibited flashes of brilliance after his £8.5 million move from Inter last January. The academy even appears to have unearthed a competent full-back in Jon Flanagan, who put Roberto Soldado to sleep with a tackle last week.

In all, Liverpool put together a team that can win both now and in the future. Every competitive team wants to pull that off, but Liverpool are actually doing it. After accounting for every Premiership minute played by members of the Liverpool side this year, the average age of Liverpool members on the field at any given time has been 25.8 years old. (To determine this, I defined their age as the number of days between their birth and August 1, 2013, which I used as a relative marker of the beginning of the Premier League season.) Among the “big six” English clubs, only Tottenham have been younger, and they’re a side in almost total disarray these days.

Tottenham Hotspur
Minutes-Adjusted Age: 25.3

Liverpool
Minutes-Adjusted Age: 25.8

Arsenal
Minutes-Adjusted Age: 26.7

Manchester United
Minutes-Adjusted Age: 26.7

Chelsea
Minutes-Adjusted Age: 27.7

Manchester City
Minutes-Adjusted Age: 27.7

Naturally, we can expect the younger players on Liverpool’s side — Sturridge, Sterling, Henderson, even the 27-year-old Suarez — to continue to get better in the years to come.

Staying Healthy

Furthermore, Liverpool have been a side relatively devoid of serious injuries. Every team has to deal with minor knocks here and there, but Liverpool have enjoyed access to most of their first-team squad for virtually the entire season. Henderson’s played every match. Ageless Steven Gerrard, the club legend, has made it into 28 matches while moving into the most defensive role he’s played since he broke through before the turn of the century. And Suarez, obviously, has been the fulcrum of the side, and he hasn’t missed a Premier League match since serving his suspension. The Reds have had to fight through injuries on defense, but nothing compared to the likes of United’s defense or Arsenal’s midfield, and they’ve had the scoring power to make up for defensive lapses. The difference between Liverpool winning the title and coming up narrowly short might very well amount to a full season from Suarez.

Secretly Avoiding Success?

What’s that? You want a totally anecdotal guess as to why Liverpool might have been able to remain so healthy? Sure! While every club dreams of making it to Europe for the annual continental competitions for both competitive and financial reasons, those matches force more squad rotations and make it more likely your players will end up injured during the run-in to the Premiership finale. By finishing seventh last year, Liverpool had no such concerns this year. The team didn’t make it into Europe, saving it from the seemingly annual trips to the middle of nowhere for Europa League ties on terrible pitches. Even better, it was knocked out of the FA Cup after just two matches, and made it only two matches into the League Cup before United removed it from the competition. It’s weird to think of losing in (or avoiding) a given tournament as a positive, but in terms of optimizing its chances of winning the Premier League, it’s almost surely been a plus for Liverpool to have spent the entire season really focusing on just one competition.

So Will They Win?

For the sake of long-suffering Liverpool fans, I certainly hope so. If the team does pull it off, though, it will have to earn it. It still has matches against City and Chelsea to come, although it will get to play both those in the home comforts of Anfield, where it’s dropped just five points all season. One U.K. site leaves the Reds with implied odds of just 35.5 percent with six games to go, with City at 51.8 percent. Liverpool might not be the favorite, but given how far they’ve come against the world’s expectations over the past seven months, they might very well be happy to be the underdog these days. Their unexpected rise to title contention after a dramatic offseason, in fact, recalls another Henry-owned property, and things seemed to work out well for the 2013 Red Sox. Could Liverpool be Fenway Sports Group’s latest surprise champion? If there’s such a thing as poetic justice, the duck boats could be making a trip across the pond come May.

Filed Under: Premier League, English Premier League, Liverpool, Bill Barnwell, Soccer, Luis Suarez

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell