Liverpool FC Leading Race for Top 4 — but can they finish?

Marco Lopes updates his previous piece on the strategy for Champions League qualification… and concludes that Liverpool are in an excellent position to nail their objective.

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 19, 2013: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers before the Premiership match against Newcastle United at St. James' Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I’ll let the facts speak. Liverpool have 11 points more and 5 wins more than they did after 20 games last season.  They’re in 4th place.  On target.  Even more incredibly, they TOPPED the table at Christmas.  They’re a mere 6 points behind 1st.

Liverpool have done us proud, so far.  The question is – can they finish it off?


A Brief Reminder on Champions League Qualification Theory

Most of you will say qualification for the Champions League is pretty simple. Make sure you’re the team with the 4th points come season end, regardless of how you get them.

In my last piece on this subject, I mentioned 3 broad “routes” to earning a top 4 spot.  A quick reminder:

  • The “6 pointers” – keep up with the teams likely to challenge alongside you for 4th place. Make sure you beat them when you play them, so that ultimately, you are the team taking the points off them, forcing them beneath you in the table.
  • Win 21 games – in the EPL era, only once has a team won 21 games or more and NOT qualified for the Champions League.
  • Beat the “rest” – Consider that beneath the current top 7, there are 13 teams that are all mostly inferior, in squad quality and depth.  These teams represent 78 very obtainable points.  Given that the average points tally of a 4th place is typically 70 points in the last 8 seasons, these matches represent the largest pool of where the majority of those points can be most easily obtained.


The Top 4 Contenders – Liverpool, Everton, Spurs and Man United

First, a disclaimer – I’m making the assumption that Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea are all very realistic title contenders and thus are certain to finish in the top 4.  Let’s assume no major shifts in the table, especially those other 3 teams beneath Liverpool in 4th.

An intriguing stat – in the last 5 seasons, the team that finished 4th at season end was no further than 5 points below the team in 4th place after their first 20 games of the season. Considering Liverpool are in 4th place, it’s an encouraging thought already.

Liverpool have gathered 39 points thus far in their league campaign, 5 points ahead of Man United in 7th.  In understanding where they could end up, we need to look at 2 things – where they’ve gathered those points compared to their direct rivals, and ultimately, where the 2nd half of the season’s schedule implicates future points.


The “6-Pointer” table

This is by far the most encouraging set of results of any picked up by Liverpool thus far.  Given that this particular EPL season has been so competitive, it’s fantastic that Liverpool have already dealt some damage themselves to their direct rivals for 4th:

There are 3 critical observations here:

  • Man United have a lot to do to recover any direct advantage on head to head results, especially since they claimed 1 point from 6 against Spurs;
  • Liverpool are in a very good position to remain ahead of this pack, given that they host both Spurs and Everton in remaining fixtures;
  • Could Everton be (arguably) the most dangerous of the direct rivals? Read on…

The set of results will prove crucial by the end of this article.  If you don’t think it’s important, consider that points taken off the club finishing in 5th proved decisive for Spurs in 2011/12 and 2009/10 (in 2009/10, Spurs crucially took all 6 points off Man City in 5th and drew twice with Villa in 6th).  To a lesser extent, this also applied to Arsenal in 2008/09 and 2006/07, as well as Liverpool in 2007/08.


Winning the “Easy” Points is Key to the Top 4 Race

The “6-Pointer” table is predictably only the tip of the proverbial Champions League marathon iceberg.  There’s no direct prizes for beating teams around you unless you’re matching their points return against the weaker sides, sitting beneath 7th.  And Liverpool are enjoying a slight lead against their direct rivals in this respect:

On the surface, Liverpool look mostly in a good position.  However, the picture becomes slightly more complicated when looking at home and away form:

Understandably, not all the sides have played the same number of matches home and away, so to create some sort of equal measure of performance, pay attention to the “PPG (points per game)” metric.

Immediately a risk and an opportunity emerge for Liverpool. “Fortress Anfield” is not a myth. Their ability to maximize points and goals is proving critical in the Top 4 race.

Conversely, their away form is currently a source of concern against the weaker sides, since Liverpool currently have the worse PPG in amongst their rivals. The other 3 are unbeaten on their travels, with Spurs in possession of a perfect record.  That’s not to say that will continue, but that’s certainly a consideration with how the schedule shapes up for Liverpool and the difficulty of the away fixtures they may face.


Planning the Points – Liverpool’s Key Fixtures in the 2nd Half of the Season

To understand the above picture a bit more clearly, we need to take a very good look at the points that these 4 rivals have been earning at home and away.  Let’s start with the home matches:


Let’s start on the right hand side box.  Intriguingly, Liverpool’s points return against most of the sides you’d expect in the relegation battle has been perfect, with 18 points from 18 possible that have been played.  While their rivals haven’t enjoyed as much success, each of them still has 12 points to play for at home from bottom sides in the second half of the season.  This works for and against Liverpool, since most of the relegation battlers are likely to play a bit more expansively to grab points, but therefore making themselves more vulnerable to losing in their visits to Spurs, Everton and Man United.

In contrast, Everton have been excellent against the tougher, midtable sides. Liverpool haven’t hosted all of them, but the visits of Swansea and Newcastle in particular could be massively important to keep pace with Everton, who you’d expect to beat Swansea and Villa at home.

A big issue of course, is the possibility that Spurs and Man United  in particular correct their poor home form, given that their points return at home against the bottom sides is well below that of Liverpool and Everton.  If that happens, then the race to keep ahead of them intensifies.


Away from home, it’s the visits by most of the Top 4 rivals to Newcastle, Southampton and Stoke that could have massive bearings on the rest of the season.  Liverpool’s record at the Britannia isn’t the best (they’ve lost their last 3 league visits), so they’ll need to do something different.

Probably the most significant scheduling aspect for Liverpool is that 6 fixtures against the weaker sides, most fighting relegation, remain unplayed. In the same way that Liverpool have claimed 18 points at home, capturing as many of the remaining 18 points could prove massively important given that Everton, Spurs and Man United play more of these teams at home.


Big Match Temperament?

Often, we’re seen the stat and comment that Rodgers still hasn’t achieved many good results against teams in the top half of the table.  There’s an intriguing situation when one looks at the Top 4 rivals vs. the likely title challenging sides:

Liverpool’s placement with 3 defeats here needs to be seen in context – they are the only team that didn’t face Arsenal, Man City or Chelsea at home.

The team to potentially watch here is Everton, who were unlucky to draw to Arsenal and were deserved victors against Chelsea.  They host Arsenal and Man City, and Martinez seems to be far more astute at being able to get points where none should be logically expected.  It thus stands to reason that Liverpool’s hosting of the 3 title challengers will be of as much importance to the future of the title (including an outside chance for Liverpool to challenge), and Liverpool’s Top 4 ambitions.

The other interesting observation is the influence of Chelsea and Man City in the Top 4 race. Both will be significant, since Everton, Spurs and Man United are all yet to play at the Bridge, while Man City travel to all 4 Top 4 contenders.


Finishing the Top 4 Race

Looking at all these stats, the story of Champions League qualification has some clear lessons for Liverpool to consider in the Top 4 race.  Man United are finally showing what they truly are – an aging squad, with predominantly average players, missing the manager already who was probably worth an extra 10-20 points a season on his own.

I don’t expect Man United to produce this expected dramatic recovery of points – there are likely more defeats to come away to Everton, and at home to Liverpool.  They have difficult trips to Chelsea, Arsenal, Newcastle and Southampton. Unless they sign a myriad of world class talent, or coax Alex out of retirement – they’ll finish 6th or 7th.

The sacking of AVB at Spurs is to some extent bizarre, and only Sherwood’s solid start in league football currently seems to justify the decision.  They appear a team at this point that Liverpool can match, or exceed.  Their fixtures are favourable, so Liverpool need to keep pace with them and ensure a draw or win in the return fixture at Anfield.

Believe it or not, the main competitors for Top 4 thus end up being those right on Liverpool’s doorstep in both points and geography – Everton.

It makes the Merseyside derby later this month look like it could be a Merseyside derby of old – a proper 6 pointer that, assuming other results are relatively equal… could ultimately decide who finishes in the Top 4.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 1, 2014: Liverpool's Daniel Agger celebrates scoring the first goal against Hull City during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A Final Thought

Liverpool are 9 wins away from 21 wins, usually enough for Top 4 qualification.  They have 10 wins from 14 games against teams below the top 6.  A team finishing in the top 4 in the last 8 seasons averages 17 wins against teams below the top 6.  Liverpool have only managed an average of 13 wins against those sides in the last 4 seasons.

The current group is merely 7 wins away from that number and they’ve already matched the number of wins achieved against these “lower” teams in Dalglish’s spell in 2011/12.

With Sturridge and Enrique returning from injury, a team with emerging performers like Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, the world class form of Luis Suarez, the encouraging thought that Coutinho is still 2 gears away from his proper level of football, and the promise of more reinforcements in January… would you really bet against them reaching 21 wins?  Hopefully more?


Top 4 beckons, Liverpool.  You know it does.  Seize it.

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Marco began writing for This Is Anfield in 2012. "I'm one of those people who supports in spite of results, not because of them. And I adore this team - a lot. Follow me on Twitter for all my Liverpool FC ranting and anecdotes:

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  • Sash

    My oath they can finish top four. In fact im excepting nothing less than a top four finish. We are in a strong position to get back into Champs league, and quite frankly its where we belong. I’ll never forget being at Anfield on the night Liverpool tore Madrid a new one. Absolutely unbelievable !

    • Abyss

      One of the finest nights at Anfield.

  • CARR71

    stats mean nothing you might aw well have chucked in the last team to be top at xmas and not win the league was lfc ,if we can hold our nerve and be extremely lucky on the injury front were in with a decent shout ,if say suarez was injured then we would crumble in my opinion ,and yes i know we did well without him but that was at the end of a season when clubs have little to play for ,and the begining of this one when we rode our luck

    • allaboutanfield

      Oh no . Hope Suarez will still fit all the way. But don’t worry Sturridge is coming back. Sterling and Coutinho and Henderson are starting to score goals. Liverpool need to strengthen in this January window.

      • CARR71

        lets hope that they all stay fit or at very least we do not lose a few of the major players at the same time

    • Arvindh Mani

      “…but that was at the end of a season when clubs have little to play for…”
      Lets look at the fixtures of Liverpool at the end of the season
      31 March 2013Aston Villa1 – 2LiverpoolBirmingham[show] 327 April 2013Liverpool0 – 0West Ham UnitedLiverpool[show] 3313 April 2013Reading0 – 0LiverpoolReading[show] 3421 April 2013Liverpool2 – 2ChelseaLiverpool[show] 3527 April 2013Newcastle United0 – 6LiverpoolNewcastle[show] 365 May 2013Liverpool0 – 0EvertonLiverpool[show] 3712 May 2013Fulham1 – 3LiverpoolLondon[show] 3819 May 2013Liverpool1 – 0Queens Park RangersLiverpool[show]

      Aston Villa, Reading, QPR and Newcastle United, and arguably WHU and Fulham (slightly higher), all were fighting the relegation battle. Chelsea fighting for top 4, Everton fighting for Europe. So i have to disagree when you say clubs have little to play for at the end of the season.

      • CARR71

        little to play for or cannon fodder the same really

  • allaboutanfield

    Liverpool need to continue picking up wins. They need to tighten up their defense as well.Liverpool also need to strengthen the squad.

  • shachart

    “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics ” Mark Twain.

    I do believe a top 4 place, not just 4th, is ours for the taking. but i would go with KD system, the most important game is the next game, and at the end of the season tally the points and see what you’ve got.

    • Andres Carmona

      That quote proves smart people can say utterly stupid things sometimes.

  • Watch Over

    Just get salah and Regee to strengthen the squad and win remaining games period!

  • FdotM

    Excellent excellent article with loads of good points.

    The fact of the matter is, Liverpool needs consistency. These 6 pointers are useless if we don’t win the next games.

    Exciting times ahead for sure.

    Still United will be a threat though.

    • CARR71

      united will be no threat this season mate ,thats what makes the summer transfer window and the seemingly lack of urgency in this window all the more puzzling
      because they could well be a threat next season and spurs will be stronger two

      • http://enria.org/ JonnyS

        RVP and Rooney will ensure they stay in the battle. As with all the others.
        Hard to pick one from us 4. The first to slip up will find it hard to get past the others.

  • joe

    we can do it. believe.

  • Stanley Kubrick

    Man City and Chelsea have very strong squads and are not practically within the realms of fourth-spot circus. But lets just look at the fixtures list of Arsenal and decide for ourselves, whether they are our contenders or not:
    Feb 8 – Liverpool (A)
    Feb 12 – Manchester United (H)
    Feb 14-17 – FA Cup Fifth Round (Best Case a difficult away fixture)
    Feb 19 – Bayern Munich (H)
    Feb 22 – Sunderland (H)
    Mar 1 – Stoke City (A)
    Mar 7-10 – Quarter Final FA Cup (Best Case a very difficult away tie)
    Mar 11 – Bayern Munich (A)
    Mar 15 – Tottenham (A)
    Mar 22 – Chelsea (A)
    Mar 29 – Manchester City (H)
    Apr 1 – Qtr Final (1st Leg) (Bit of a stretch this)
    Apr 5 – Everton (A)

    So we have eight PL fixtures, and difficult ones too. If Liverpool can have a dream run of say 6W 1D 1L in that period, its hard to imagine us being behind them. I see Feb 8th as the most important fixture for us. YNWA.

    • Stanley Kubrick

      The only “easy” fixtures there in the list : Sunderland & Stoke. Borini & Assaidi have a lot to offer.

    • http://enria.org/ JonnyS

      that is a horrible run in for the Arsenal. Bayern, Spuds, Chelski, Citeh, Everton and possibly a CL game too. Is that really the end of the season?
      They will fancy beating Spuds but not anyone else. Wow, they could plummet.

  • Rob Cas

    b4 this season started i predicted 3rd place .. IF we kept suarez …. i see no reason yet why that will change …. if we strenthen now we may do better …but i think it may be more prudent to blood in a few more squad players so we can fight on all cups and league’s next season

    • http://enria.org/ JonnyS

      well, Spuds are scoring now they’ve got rid of that idiot AVB, Everton are right with us without Luis and Studge which is amazing if you think about it. There’s literally nothing in it.
      Any slip up will put 2 teams above you and makes it very hard to regain that position.
      Our squad is thin (aspas and borini weren’t the right purchases) and we have a lot of injuries, our midfield doesn’t score anywhere. That’s a problem.

    • Rob Cas

      I hear what you saying, but as long as they keep taking points off each other it will work out, and as to 3rd even Stevie G agrees with me so its either gonna happen or he has been reading my posts …..hahaha

  • Stromdiddily

    TBH, I feel like we should be farther up the table having played the majority of the bottom half at home in the first half.

    Our away record and historical inability to drop points to lower sides definitely worries me.

  • http://enria.org/ JonnyS

    yeah, no way is this a done deal. We haven’t done enough to get away from the others. Hull, Newcastle and Southampton are costing us, aswell as not taking our chances against Citeh.

    Everyone is still in the game, Spuds are scoring consistently with Adebayor, Everton are just so well set up (I reckon Martinez will get the Arsenal job in a few years) and Utd are only 5 pts behind with RVP and Rooney to come back.

    Any slip up and that team will struggle to re catch those teams above them.
    My worry is Sterling isn’t a goal scorer yet and noone else is, which means it’s all down to Luis and Studge when fit.
    Add that to our full back crisis and it makes me nervous, very nervous.

  • http://enria.org/ JonnyS

    well, having played all the top teams away from home except Utd helps explain our rubbish away record but it also boosts our home record.

    It could be that with that situation reversed, our home record could suffer this half of the season in comparison while our away record improves potentially.

    In short, we might find it tough to improve on the first half of the season – especially as you wouldn’t expect injuries to subside as the season goes on.

    Everton are frankly remarkable right now and Spuds have started scoring again, while Utd have RVP and Rooney to come back. Best we can hope for is they take points off each other.

    Arsenal may take an absolute tanking with their run in being so tough. 3rd spot could be up for grabs too which is encouraging.

  • Abyss

    I think we should be able to make it comfortably, but this is the Premier League we’re talking about and who can really predict the future. Tottenham and United aren’t that far behind. Everton could continue to give us a tough time for that 4th spot. Things could get very close indeed.

  • http://www.lucidlingo.com.au/ Gazman

    Forget stats. They give me a headache at the best of times. I’m more concerned about who we sign this January. The team needs strengthening but 10 days in all we read about are speculations and rumours.

  • Andres Carmona

    Who really knows. The author foolishly didn’t take into account that the home record is not what it is made out to be as we have only faced United home. In my opinion Liverpool is a DM short of being more or less the favorites here.

  • Daryl Cavanagh

    All ifs, buts and maybes. However on a positive note we have played most of the stronger teams away from home, Arsenal, City, Chelsea etc. I am a little concerned about our away form. However a good result against Stoke will give us confidence. Ideally we need to strengthen although we seem unwilling to break the bank for Salah and Chelsea look as if they are blocking Bertram.

    Really pivotal season now, if we get Champs League Luis stays and more quality will want to join us. That would make us into being title challengers. However the dreaded Europa League, Luis leaves and that affects the quality of players who will join us. Just look at Spurs inability to spend the Bale money wisely

  • http://farney-red-army.tumblr.com/ The Farney Red Army

    knowing our luck we’ll finish fourth and United will fluke winning the Champions League, so we won’t qualify.

    • Rob Cas

      funny guy !!! it would be surreal considering the history of that decision … BUT United fluking the champions league ….cmon !!! Stievie G has more chance of prem title than that has of happening

  • Stromdiddily

    Doesn’t it worry everyone? lol

    Pro tip: finish your sentence before you finish your pint

  • G.B

    Losing out on a top player like Salah and Utd getting Mata is a double blow for Liverpool’s chances. Utd will improve at some point when RVP and Rooney return. Not to mention Spurs and Everton doing well. We need to bring in quality. Losing out on top 4 this year because we havent brought in a few quality players will be huge. If Suarez goes, we will be going backwards fast. Surely Salah was worth paying more for and he would have brought a lot to the team and surely is a limited risk (unlike the likes of Aspas/Alberto). Liverpools midfield simply isnt scoring enough and cannot rely on Suarez to have a purple patch all year. I dont understand the logic of not paying a little extra to help ensure Champions League. They are not many players of Salah quality about for less than £15m. We cant get these players largely because we are not in CL. Im sure Salah must look at the league and think ‘Hmm – not certain they will be in CL at the end of the year’. So surely its logical to do what we can to get back into it so we can build from there. Otherwise we will continue to get gazumped by those in CL.