The Lull of the International Break
There aren’t many committed fans of Premier League clubs who enjoy international breaks. If your team is involved in European competition, they play every three days or so at this time of year. To go without seeing them in action for two weeks feels downright odd.
Taking Stock of the Premier League Season So Far
Nonetheless, with eight games already in the can, the 2023/24 season is almost a quarter done. On the Grand National course that is a Premier League campaign, the runners and riders are probably approaching the Canal Turn. The world’s most famous horse race makes for a pretty decent analogy, actually; you can’t win the race by this point but you can certainly have lost it.
Point is, while the international fortnight is dull, a pause at this time of the season offers a good opportunity to take stock. Who looks capable of challenging for the title? Which clubs look doomed to relegation? How do Everton keep staying up? What the hell has the referee done this week?
Liverpool’s Position and Progress
Liverpool supporters will have a varying degree of interest in all four questions. After their side had a poor campaign in 2022/23 – which must be put into context; they did finish fifth – the biggest concern for Kopites has to be relating to the progress their team is making.
The current iteration of the Reds has the eighth best record the club has posted after eight matches in the Premier League era. That’s not bad for starters. Last season, Liverpool had 10 points at this juncture, leaving 2010/11 (six points, thanks, Roy), 1992/92 and 2012/13 (both nine) as the only campaigns in which the Reds had amassed fewer at the eight-game mark. Progress.
Importance of a Good Start
They were also 11 points off the leaders and well outside the top four in mid-October 2022. If Champions League qualification hadn’t already fallen away, dreams of a 20th title certainly had. Being in the leading quartet even this early is more important than you probably think, with only a few eventual Premier League champions being outside the top four after just six matches. Start well, hurdle the first few fences, and you have a chance.
Equally, the earlier in the season you are, the more the league table lies. Unjust results have a greater impact on the points total, while the favourability bestowed upon your schedule by the fixture computer can account for a hell of a lot too.
Take Tottenham Hotspur, sitting pretty atop the Premier League. Five of their eight games have been against the current bottom six, they profited from Manchester United squandering four Opta-defined big chances against them and nobody reading this needs reminding what happened when Liverpool dropped in for a visit two weeks ago. Give the Reds that set of circumstances and there’s a fair chance they’d be top of the league at this point too.
And while we can only ever theorise rather than prove this idea, the data tells a similar story. Soccerstats carries a relative performance index (RPI), which is calculated by multiplying a team’s points-per-game average by that of the clubs they have collectively faced.
To try to make it more accurate, they account for the PPG of the opposition at home or away as appropriate. For instance, Newcastle have averaged 2.25 points per home match this season compared to one per game on the road, meaning Liverpool’s victory at St James’ Park is worth more than Manchester City’s win over the Magpies at the Etihad.
By this measure, Tottenham have enjoyed comfortably the easiest start to the season, while Liverpool’s results combined with them having the joint-fourth highest opponent PPG means they lead the RPI standings.
Comparing Against Previous Seasons
Another way to assess progress is to compare results against the corresponding fixtures from the previous campaign. It’s easy to do, albeit flawed by the fact only about 40 per cent of match outcomes repeat anyway.
It also shows Liverpool’s change from last season in less impressive light. The Reds might have seven more points after eight games than they had in 2022/23 but they have only gained three when comparing like-for-like fixtures.
While it doesn’t sound that impressive, only Spurs (11 points!), West Ham (six) and Crystal Palace (four) have seen a bigger upturn by this method. Liverpool’s goal difference gain of two doesn’t seem significant either, though disregard the loss of a 9-0 win over Bournemouth and the corresponding 3-1 win from August and the improvement across the other seven matches stands at nine.
The gains and losses at different clubs suggest the top end of the league is set to compact. The following table is ordered by each team’s points tally from 2022/23 with their corresponding fixture points change added (see the third column). Where first and sixth were separated by 27 points at the end of last season, the current trajectories put the gap at 16 next May.
The most interesting figure from Liverpool’s perspective resides in the ‘xGD Change’ column. The Reds’ underlying performance has improved by 5.9 expected goals, the largest improvement in the Premier League. And, lest we forget, that has been achieved from a harder than average fixture list, with four red cards suffered along the way. Gains and losses from week to week will come and go but a positive upturn in xG difference is money in the bank.
Just don’t bet it all on the Premier League horse race just yet. There’s a very long way to go.