On Nov. 1, Manchester United sat in 15th place in the Premier League, having lost three of their first six matches. At the same time, they were sitting as pretty as possible in Champions League play, having already beaten PSG and RB Leipzig. According to FiveThirtyEight, their odds of winning the Premier League were just 2%, and their odds of advancing to the Champions League knockout rounds were 93%.
A little more than two months later, United are tied with Liverpool atop the Premier League table ... and are preparing for Europa League play after getting bounced from the Champions League.
A soccer season is extraordinarily long, and the plot twists can be legion. This is apparently doubly true for a pandemic season with a compressed schedule. Let's take a look at some of the recent negative plot twists -- one in particular -- and determine whether such turns are cause for concern or a mere blip in the process.
This is the Panic Index and we're rating them on a 1-5 scale, with 1 = cool as ice and 5 = oh no.
Let's get going.
Three matches, one goal, one point. Is there cause for panic at Liverpool?
Hope I'm wrong because a big, messy title race would be lots of fun, buuuuut ... kinda feels like Liverpool's gonna win the Premier League by like 12 points now, doesn't it...— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) December 19, 2020
Sometimes, said plot twists occur rapidly. Just six days before Christmas, it appeared the Premier League had a clear front-runner. Liverpool had waded through injuries and constantly shuffled lineups all season, and after walloping Crystal Palace 7-0 they were in first place, five points up on second-place Everton, six up on Tottenham Hotspur (whom they'd beaten three days prior), eight up on both Manchester clubs and nine on Chelsea. Better yet, they had easy wins over West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United coming up. They could be nearly 10 points up by the new year...
... only not so much. Against tailspinning West Brom and new manager Sam Allardyce, Liverpool enjoyed 78% possession, attempted 17 shots to West Brom's five, generated 1.7 xG to West Brom's 0.7 ... and drew, 1-1.
Against Newcastle: 73% possession, 11 shots to eight, 1.4 xG to 0.9 ... 0-0.
Against Southampton: 67% possession, 17 shots to seven, 1.8 xG to 0.4 ... 0-1.
Three matches, total ball domination, a +25 shot differential and one point to show for it. As a result, the festive period flipped the Premier League race on its head for about the 17th time this season.
Does Man City's back line need reinforcement to win the Prem?
Shaka Hislop says Man United and Liverpool's defences are much more concerning than Man City's right now.
Liverpool's biggest problem at the moment? They're getting Man City'd. Opponents are throwing every defender possible into the box, forcing long runs of fruitless possession, and attempting to strike on the counterattack.
Liverpool shooting stats, last three seasons:
2018-19: 15.1 shots per match, 0.14 xG/shot, 17% of shots coming with 3+ defenders between the shooter and the goal, 28% with 0-1 defenders
2019-20: 15.6 shots per match, 0.13 xG/shot, 18% of shots coming with 3+ defenders between the shooter and the goal, 24% with 0-1 defenders
2020-21: 15.4 shots per match, 0.14 xG/shot, 19% of shots coming with 3+ defenders between the shooter and the goal, 17% with 0-1 defenders
Last 3 matches: 15.0 shots per match, 0.11 xG/shot, 33% of shots coming with 3+ defenders between the shooter and the goal, 13% with 0-1 defenders
This isn't necessarily a new approach -- especially from teams lower in the standings (or, in Southampton's case, from underdogs who take early leads) -- but injuries have depleted Liverpool's creative energy in a couple of different ways. On one side of the pitch, attacker Diogo Jota has been a key to creativity this season, but he's missed the last seven matches with a bruised knee. He has played centre-forward and both wings, and has combined nine goals with 11 chances in 17 matches since moving from Wolverhampton.
When Jota plays, Liverpool average more goals and higher xG/shot, with fewer shots and less possession. And while midfielder Thiago, one of the best passers in the world, finally rejoined the lineup for the defeat to Southampton after a lengthy knee injury of his own, he's still only logged 242 minutes in league play.
At the other end of the pitch, different injuries have had their own effects, both direct and indirect. Losing all-world central defender Virgil van Dijk to an ACL tear has led to opponents creating better shots for themselves, which you might expect: opponents averaged 0.120 xG per shot in 2018-19 and 2019-20 and have averaged 0.141 since his injury. Jurgen Klopp moved midfielder Fabinho back to defense, which worked reasonably well, but when Joe Gomez was also lost to a ruptured patella tendon, Klopp was forced to dip further into the well. Young defenders like Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams have been introduced into the rotation, and against Southampton, Klopp moved another midfielder, Jordan Henderson, to the back line.
The move worked pretty well: Southampton scored on an early set piece, and that was it. But if that becomes a more permanent move for the rest of the season, it means that Klopp has not only lost his two best central defenders to injury, but he's also lost two of his best midfielders to position changes.
This is a tricky time for Liverpool, who almost certainly weren't planning on spending big money on another central defender in 2020-21. While it makes sense that they would attempt to jump into the race for Bayern Munich's star defender, David Alaba, the Austrian international won't be moving until the summer. They've been linked to defenders like Juve's Merih Demiral, and if the right move comes about in January, it would make sense to pounce. But if the prices are too high and money is tighter than usual during this coronavirus year, riding out the storm makes at least a little bit of sense, too.
For one thing, it's only been three matches since they looked poised to run away with the league. They've been without van Dijk and Gomez for a while, and Klopp's solutions have been pretty effective. For another, again, these three dismal matches produced an xG differential of +2.9. While they seemed short of ideas at times, there was also some bad luck involved. For the season, they still have the best goal differential and second-best xG differential, and they still stand atop the table.
PANIC RATING (1-5): 3 -- 2 from a personnel standpoint, as they can shuffle their lineups more or less, but 4 from a "serious challenger on the horizon" perspective.
Should the Premier League be panicking about Man City taking over?
At the same time as the Reds' slump, torrid Manchester United isn't even the scariest Manchester team at the moment. Sure, the Red Devils have generated 29 points from their last 11 league matches, scoring the most goals in the league in that span. But they've benefited from the sort of close-games fortune that so smiled on Liverpool last season -- seven of these 11 matches have been decided by 0-1 goals, and they generated an unsustainable 17 points from those seven.
City, on the other hand, appear close to reaching full flight. Granted, they're still fighting off the effects of a coronavirus breakout that could leave them shorthanded for a good amount of time, and they've still been vulnerable to random/unacceptable draws (1-1 vs. West Brom on Dec. 15, 1-1 vs. West Ham on Oct. 24). But their 2-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur on Nov. 21 was their only defeat in any competition since September.
Despite a ragged start, City's xG differential (+1.05) is now the best in the league; over the past two months, they've averaged the second-most shots per possession and the most xG per shot while allowing the second-fewest shots per possession and the lowest xG per shot. They are swallowing up transition attempts and dominating the ball as always. And even with a limited roster, they just put together maybe their most comprehensive performance of the season over the weekend, dominating Chelsea 3-1. Oh, and they followed that up with a solid 2-0 win over Manchester United in the League Cup semifinals.
The Sky Blues are still four points back of Liverpool and United, but FiveThirtyEight's club ratings, which always love City, now really love City: they have a 69% chance of winning the league, up 27 percentage points from just two weeks ago.
That -- not injuries, not roster shuffling, not packed-in defenses -- might be Liverpool's biggest problem in the coming months, and I'm not sure there's a transfer window addition that could stem that tide.
PANIC RATING: 5 -- We'll see whether the COVID-19 issues take a toll. But if they don't, City might keep rolling, especially with an ultra-light league schedule ahead. (They play Brighton, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom and Sheffield United between now and the end of January.)
Let's take a rapid-fire look at some other big clubs dealing with big issues at the moment.
Should Chelsea, PSG panic about losing close games?
As you would probably expect, close-game results are not completely random: the better you perform overall, the better you probably perform in close games. There's still some randomness involved, though, and the further you fall off of the trend line, the bigger a candidate you are for regression -- or progression -- toward the mean.
- Laurens: Pochettino's first days as PSG manager
Want to see the two biggest candidates for progression in this category?
PSG have played eight matches decided by 0-1 goals in Ligue 1 play this year, and 10 decided by more. They have one win, four losses and three draws -- six total points -- in the eight close matches, and are a perfect 30 points from the other 10. Winners of seven of the last eight French titles, they're an unfamiliar second in Ligue 1 behind a smoking-hot Lyon. Chelsea, fresh off of the aforementioned blowout loss to City, is ninth in the Premier League, as close to 15th-place Newcastle United as to the leaders.
That PSG fired Thomas Tuchel in December, and that Chelsea is evidently weighing doing the same to Frank Lampard, makes some amount of sense -- both are (or were) underachieving compared to both expectations and the money spent on building the squads in question. But with or without managerial changes, both teams are likely to see improvement in form moving forward, if only because they're likely to turn a few draws into wins and tight losses into draws.
PANIC RATING: 2 -- this will right itself for both clubs over time. We'll just have to see if Chelsea improves with or without Lampard.
Should Real Madrid panic about not getting quality shots?
Technically, nothing's really going wrong for Real Madrid at the moment. Los Blancos are second in La Liga, and while first-place Atletico Madrid are ridiculously hot at the moment -- Diego Simeone's squad is on pace for 96 points and no longer has the Copa del Rey to worry about on the schedule -- they're also only third in xG differential and could theoretically cool off at some point. If that happens, Real's there to reel them in.
It would sure help if they could create more good shots (and prevent opponents from doing the same), though. I mean, it's been an issue of late.
Editor's Note: Data above is from the past two months
In American football, you can break a lot of offense into two primary categories: efficiency and explosiveness. With efficiency, you control the ball, avoid falling into second- or third-and-long, etc. With explosiveness, you make big plays and create easy points.
In this parlance, Real Madrid allows a lot more big plays than it makes. Over the past two months, they rank 14th in xG per shot and 18th in xG per shot allowed. They are vulnerable to counterattacks (a common ailment for possession teams), but aren't benefiting from any major pressure or creating any easy scoring chances of their own. For the season, they're creating just 49.6 ball recoveries per 90 (14th in the league), 7.2 in the attacking third (ninth), and they're allowing 10.7 passes per defensive action (eighth).
This is a pretty common ailment for an aging team, of course; nine players have logged at least 1,000 league minutes so far, and four are 31 or older, including striker Karim Benzema (33) and midfielders Luka Modric (35) and Toni Kroos (31). They could desperately use an infusion of energy if they plan on staying close enough to the lead horse to make a charge at some point.
PANIC RATING: 3 -- To the extent that age is one of their problems, it's an issue that isn't going to improve until the offseason.
Should Spurs panic about getting enough shots?
It's an absolute joy watching the connection that Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min have furthered this season. The duo has combined for 22 goals and 16 assists in league play, and 13 of the assists have gone to one another -- nine of Kane's to Son, four of Son's to Kane. The rest of the team: seven goals and eight assists in 16 matches. Jose Mourinho's counter-attacking preferences have rubbed off well on Son and Kane, but if Spurs don't score on quick thrusts through these two, there isn't really much of a Plan B.
That's begun to show in the shooting stats.
Editor's note: Data above is from the past two months
Spurs have found an apparent xG advantage in Son and Kane: they've scored 22 goals on shots worth only 15.0 xG. But shot quantity is becoming a problem. Over the past two months, Spurs rank 16th in shots per possession and 18th in shots allowed per possession.
Mourinho's Spurs are organized well enough defensively to allow the lowest-quality shots, and combined with the fact that they've got Hugo Lloris at keeper, they've allowed the second-fewest goals on the season behind Manchester City despite the quantity. But while the reliance on Son and Kane started out as a potential "What happens if one of them gets hurt (like last year)?" issue, it's slowly becoming a "They just don't generate enough chances" issue. Having a great Plan A is wonderful, but you've got to have more plans!
While the offseason acquisitions of defensive midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and fullbacks Sergio Reguilon and Matt Doherty have helped with defensive depth and execution, the offensive pick-ups -- Real Madrid loanee Gareth Bale, Benfica loanee Carlos Vinicius -- have battled injuries and the gauntlet for Mourinho's trust, combining for just 176 league minutes, one goal and five chances created. Attacking midfielder Dele Alli has apparently lost Mourinho's trust as well, playing just 74 league minutes.
PANIC RATING: 4 -- Most transfer rumors have Spurs chasing another centre-back, but as good as Kane-to-Son and Son-to-Kane can be, they need more plans if they want to keep up in the Champions League race.