Before the 2020-21 Premier League season began, we wrote that the title was Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s to lose. The new-ish rivals from the northwest dominated the league during the previous three seasons like no other teams in the history of the English top flight, and they each returned large chunks of their rosters, which are stocked with some of soccer’s biggest superstars. As such, FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model gave City and Liverpool the best and second-best probabilities, respectively, to win the Premier League.
Since the season began, City added former Benfica center back Rúben Dias to shore up its flaky defensive line. Meanwhile, Liverpool acquired Diogo Jota from Wolverhampton Wanderers to provide cover (and competition) for its devastating but often overworked front three as well as Thiago Alcântara — one of the world’s greatest midfielders — from Bayern Munich to further solidify its already imperious midfield corps. Which is all to say that the two teams that entered the season with the best squads and the best odds got even better, a terrifying prospect for their opponents, especially those hoping to mount a title challenge.
But after Matchweek 8, neither juggernaut occupies the top spot in the league table. Our model still thinks City and Liverpool are the respective best and second-best team in the league — and by some margin — but the Premier League table begs to differ. As things stand, Liverpool sits in third, level with Tottenham Hotspur on points but behind the north Londoners on goal differential, while City occupies the 10th position, behind the likes of Southampton, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Wolves. So, why are the two best teams in England underperforming expectations?
In Liverpool’s case, the struggles have all been at the back. Once airtight defensively, the Reds have given up the third-most goals (16) through Matchweek 8, one fewer than recently promoted Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, and one more than recently promoted Fulham. To put that number in perspective, Liverpool conceded just 22 goals during the entire 2018-19 season. To be fair, the Reds conceded seven of those 16 goals in one extraordinarily flukey match against Aston Villa. Still, no one would have expected the best defensive team in England to occupy space on the goals-against table next to three teams that played in the second-tier league earlier this year.
To make matters worse, the Reds lost do-it-all center back Virgil van Dijk after Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford — who apparently thought he was involved in a UFC fight, not a soccer match — scissor-kicked the Dutchman’s right knee. Never mind that Liverpool conceded 11 of those 16 goals with van Dijk still in the lineup — there’s no team on the planet that could account for the loss of a player of van Dijk’s caliber. If the Reds were shaky defensively with van Dijk in the lineup, it’s hard to imagine they won’t…
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