Liverpool FC’s Bevy of Black Swans, and the Luck of Murphy’s Law
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Liverpool FC’s Bevy of Black Swans, and the Luck of Murphy’s Law
This season, which has just past the quarter mark, Liverpool have experienced an entire bevy of black swans, landing on Merseyside as if they were instead Liver birds.
Now, some might argue that the statistical outliers that follow – which could also be the work of Murphy’s Law – are instead the more expected white variety of swan, in that they were all probable and possible – after all, there has yet to be a beach ball deflect a shot past the Reds’ keeper. (Give it time, 2020/21 is only two months old.)
But I’d argue that they could almost all apply to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s famous concept of the Black Swan:
“First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
Combined, the elements of bad luck for Liverpool in 2020/21 start to look, at best, like naturally dark greyswans, who have just paddled through an oil slick and then rolled around in charcoal.
It was always going to be a strange season anyway, but when the swans are disguising themselves as ravens and crows then the portents are not good. Still, Liverpool are joint-top after 10 games, and were the first English club to win their Champions League group, following a difficult fixture list – not to mention several points taken away by arguably unjust decisions; before even mentioning the injuries caused, in part, by the officials not doing their job, which made it harder to get full quota of points on offer.
Like buses, this season’s black swans have often arrived in threes.
Knees And Horrors
First of all, two smashed-up knees from violent conduct (one reckless, one malicious) in the same game, with neither Virgil van Dijk nor Thiago Alcântara seen since the Mersey derby way back at the start of the season; possibly the Reds’ most damaging game, in physical terms, in living memory – and happening to two players likely to be voted the world’s best defender and the world’s best midfielder (both are on the eleven-man FIFA shortlist for world player of the year). Weeks later, another Liverpool player – Joe Gomez – saw his knee buckle and his kneecap almost snap off while training with England.
These three injuries have been the most brutal and damaging, and Liverpool have sustained a season’s worth of injuries in two and a half months.
To have been forced to use 11 different centre-back pairings by what would normally be October (the season started six weeks late) is just insane, and an indication of the freakish circumstances; you would expect half that number to be used in an entire season, not the first quarter of the campaign.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – not a guaranteed starter but one of the first, with his versatility, to fill in across various positions (he could also play as an emergency right-back, incidentally, given his skillset and experience as a wing-back for Arsenal) – has also yet to play this season due to a knee injury.
Liverpool players could end up missing the best part of 1,000 days due to knee injuries alone.
Having had a number of injuries all season, this week Liverpool peaked with a total of eleven first team players injured, according to this source.
That is more than Manchester City (1), Manchester United (3), Chelsea (0), Leicester (2) and Spurs (5) combined.
The more injuries the Reds get the less scope there is to rotate without “throwing” the games; the more the remaining players have to play, and the greater the load on them (until someone like James Milner finally snapped). The weaker the bench, the less easy it is for Jürgen Klopp to make changes during games – although he has frequently made all five in the Champions League, until the Ajax game this week, where it was too finely poised, and where holding on to the win meant he could rest all eleven if he wanted in Denmark next week (not that there are eleven who can come in).
Missing for Liverpool – and these are only partly subjective opinions – have been the world’s best centre-back, the world’s best goalkeeper, the world’s best right-back and the world’s best deep-lying passing midfielder; as well as one of the world’s best young centre-backs (who was as good as anyone in 2019, but had a big dip in 2020 – but was getting back to his best when his patella popped).
Even without inflation, the missing players cost over £250m, and in open market terms are worth even more in 2020, given that Trent Alexander-Arnold (£100m?) and James Milner (okay, still £0 due to his age, but worth his weight in gold) cost nothing.
Three Insane Deflections In One Game
Last season, in 38 league games, Liverpool and their opponents scored almost 120 goals. Just one of them was a deflection: Curtis Jones’ against Aston Villa.
But away at Villa this season, the Reds conceded three in 31 minutes.
Not just that, but each was distinctively saveable, and then made utterly unsaveable by the deflection. Each flew into the top or bottom corner, away from what any keeper could hope to save – even Alisson, out injured, would not have got close.
(This – along with some of the beautiful goals Liverpool have scored this season – is covered in a chapter I wrote especially for the first issue of The Tomkins Times Quarterly. Since the book came out a couple of weeks ago, Liverpool’s luck has only turned for the worse.)
Deflections happen. But to have your goalkeeper taken out of the equation on three occasions in just one third of a match must be some kind of record.
You have to go back a couple of years to when Xherdan Shaqiri got two deflected goals against Manchester United, and that good fortune was only two-thirds of what the Reds faced at Villa. (Incidentally, of WeirdSwan variety, the Reds – in preseason, domestic cups, Premier League and the U23 Premier League – have already been involved in four 7-2 scorelines, winning two and losing two. Just one 7-2 result a season would be weird. To have four within the first quarter of the season shows that the scorelines are more strange in 2020/21.)
As has happened every season since Klopp arrived (and happened every season under Rafa Benítez, but to none of the Reds’ British managers), the Reds rank lower on penalties awarded whilst standing much higher than that in the actual league table.
The penalty table currently has Liverpool at 6th (similar to last season, albeit while Transfermarkt have the Reds 6th, it’s also the same as joint-third), but 2nd in the league table. Four penalties by this stage is pretty good, to be honest, albeit in a season of rampant penalty awards. But yet again, the Reds have no more than half as many as the team with the most penalties in the league – Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester this season so far, whilst Rodgers’ Liverpool, in 2013/14, won way more than any of the teams managed by Klopp and Benítez did in a single season.
As I’ve noted before, having British and preferably English attacking players genuinely helps, as my dive into seven years’ worth of all Premier League penalty data (2012-2019) showed. Being a British manager also seems to help, albeit perhaps mainly by them having a preference for British players. Even Rodgers’ Liverpool won all those penalties mostly through British players, and not, as you’d think, through Luiz Suarez and maybe even Philippe Coutinho.
And having conceded four league penalties already, including ones awarded by VAR (having never been awarded a penalty by VAR), the Reds are not even having much luck at that end of the pitch either.
Margins Of Errors
There have been four goals that Liverpool have “scored” this season that were then disallowed by an unsatisfactory margin of error, by limited technology.
Three were offsides that were actually too close to call, and another was a ball that was essentially over the line.
The goalline technology runs at 500 frames per second, so it’s ten times more detailed than the offside cameras. But even so, the “10mm” (as stated by the Premier League) in the image below is clearly not 10mm. In all the years since the goalline tech was introduced, I have yet to see a ball so close to being over the line and yet not deemed over the line. Unless the image is not an accurate representation of the ball, 10mm is bullshit.
Indeed, a look at the pixel count on this image by zooming in via Photoshop means the ball is 726px in diameter (width), with a blurry four pixels (at most) possibly not fully over the line, which given that a ball in real life is 220mm, means just 1mm was not over the line, as opposed to the 10mm claimed.
Below is the “11mm” at Man City a couple of seasons ago. Quite the difference!
For the recent one to be 10mm, the ball would have to be wider than Peter Crouch is tall. The ball would need to be seven feet wide. A football is not seven feet wide. And even at 500 frame per second, can it be accurate to within a millimetre? Is the line even drawn that accurately or straight? Are the goalposts that perfectly aligned?
But the offsides are even more annoying, as the margin for error that exists in the system is not accounted for.
Dale Johnson, editor at ESPN, is doing some good work on this.
(Note: I have found Dale Johnson to be an unhelpful person in the past – he mocked the work Graeme Riley and I did on the Transfer Price Index when we launched it in 2010, which was a perfectly scientific, logical and economically established method of calculating inflation, which we simply calculated for the faster-increasing costs of football, and has been subsequently used by academics, authors, and in a European commission on football transfers; he called it “nonsense”, which was a bit pathetic on his part. However, holding onto grudges is not healthy.)
Nevertheless, he seems to have found his calling with his VAR commentaries, which are often hard to argue with. (And one thing he is not is a Liverpool fan.)
In this Twitter thread he analyses all 16 VAR-disallowed offside goals in the Premier League this season, and concludes that five would have stood had there been the cricketing equivalent of “umpire’s call”, which takes into account the fact that the technology cannot be accurate to within millimetres, much like the offside technology in football – with which the VAR draws super-thin single pixel lines over blurry footage that is not accurate to within inches. In cricket they acknowledge the imperfections; in football it’s dressed up as being something it is not. It’s time consuming and pseudo science.
As such, according to Johnson when introducing an acceptable margin for error, five of the 16 goals would have been ruled as onside based on essentially being “level”, as the rules state.
Of these five, a staggering three (there’s those trio of black swans again) were Liverpool goals chalked out for imperceptible offsides. The only results of the games clearly affected by these 16 offsides – from the five that were too tight to give as offsides when using a logical margin of error – were Liverpool again, costing four points.
In particular, Johnson states that in the Everton game, where Mané was onside by the margin of error call, “Liverpool would probably have won a game they drew 2-2.” Of course, as it was the very last kick of the game, it was a definite victory. Goals early in games can change games, but you can also fight back; a goal with the last kick is the only indisputable type of “result”.
Liverpool also saw two “good” goals ruled out for offsides against Mo Salah, and one of these, against Brighton, clearly could have affected the result; the other, against Sheffield United, the Reds won anyway, but not without having to toil hard. (Liverpool also had a goal disallowed in the game against West Ham for a foul that some neutrals said was not a foul, but also scored again to make sure.)
Of course, Sadio Mané was also adjudged offside against Brighton when heading in a free-kick, and that would have sealed the win to make it 2-0 – but it was clearly offside, and there can be no complaints on that one.
Indeed, when I supported the implantation of VAR, I assumed the checks would be done “visually”, not with up to five minutes of lines being drawn and redrawn and redrawn and redrawn and redrawn and redrawn (you get my point) and redrawn and redrawn, to claim utter accuracy (and redrawn) when the technology is too limited to make such calls. I assumed the Mané goal would be the type to be disallowed, and the Salah type to be adjudged too close to call. (The Mané offside at Everton is still baffling, as not one part of his body looked offside, whereas you could argue that the tip of Salah’s big toe was offside.)
A thicker line, as used in Holland, seems far more sensible – if, with that slightly thicker line, there is still offside visible on either side of the line, then the margin of error is removed and you accept the decision. (What we don’t want is a thicker line that is used to cover up what actually lies beneath, and then used to fudge a decision.)
People think this is just merited bad luck following on from Liverpool’s “good luck” with VAR last season, but Roberto Firmino’s armpit being ruled offside was one of many calls that went against Klopp’s men on the way to the title; although overall they ended up with a “mid-table” +2 benefit from VAR overturns. Hardly a big deal.
If you only count the ones that went for Liverpool, then of course they were lucky, but that’s the same as only counting heads when you flip a coin that lands on tails almost as often. That’s not how logic works; just how confirmation bias works.
This season it’s -7 already. MINUS SEVEN! And as noted, several of those were unjust. These often aren’t clear calls, but where, in every close situation, the VAR has ruled against Liverpool. And it doesn’t include the VAR’s failure to intervene, which would make the matter even more dire.
The misleading narrative, that Liverpool won the league due to VAR, could be leading to increased desperation from the video referees; to give the costly last-minute penalty against Andy Robertson last week was a case in point, where it was not a clear and obvious error, as the process took ages (zoom in, slow-mo, multiple angles, as two players both tried to kick the ball), and far more obvious penalties are ignored every week in the Premier League. David Coote’s performance in the derby saw him make three costly decisions, with his performance deemed so bad he was temporarily suspended and demoted.
Whatever the reason, there seems like a desperation for VAR to punish Liverpool, as we haven’t even talked about Coote forgetting to assess the Jordan Pickford assault on van Dijk, which was lost in the anally-retentive desire to find an offside; only for the Premier League and PGMOL to claim various different and contradictory things by way of explanation (as is their wont) and then state that Coote had watched the footage, so the England goalkeeper did not have to serve the ban which he clearly had earned. Which, if true, suggests that Coote is legally blind, or legally insane (or perhaps was legally drunk).
A couple of seasons ago Liverpool’s strikers finally started getting some penalties in December; but there was an outcry, and it stopped. Last season, Liverpool started with a few positive VAR decisions up to December, and there was an outcry, and it stopped. According to Andrew Beasley the Reds’ last positive VAR overturn in 2019/20 before the title was sealed in June was late December, against this weekend’s opponents, Wolves. A whole year, and the only overturn in the Reds’ favour since was when Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen clearly hauled down Sadio Mané. (I published this, but I misunderstood – there was one other overrule, in between when the title was won and today, 4th December 2020 – a fifth Man City goal correctly ruled out at the end of that game.)
The VAR that day was Michael Oliver, and so, as one of the few refs to give Liverpool penalties (but also not afraid to give them against the Reds), he remains the only VAR to give Liverpool anything positive in nearly 12 full months. That is a staggering statistic.
As a ref he missed Pickford’s assault, but in fairness to him, I hadn’t realised how bad it was (I was screaming penalty, as it was a penalty) until the replays were shown and it was clear how high Pickford’s boots were, and how he scissored van Dijk’s knee to the point of snapping; and therefore, the VAR – Coote – was more at fault, not least because had Oliver been asked to view the replays (as expected) he would have sent Pickford off, as he’s not insane, or blind, or drunk.
Added together, it’s not just a few black swans, but clearly a bevy, and perhaps it is Klopp’s greatest achievement to date to have Liverpool joint top of the league and through the knockout stages of the Champions League – with terrible injuries and terrible decisions, in addition to terrible deflections and just about every other thing possible going wrong.
But even when working miracles, the existing fit players will not last the season when playing every three days, and the kids and rookies can’t keep starting without their inexperience proving costly – it’s a learning curve and we learn from our mistakes, and anyone starting off on any endeavour makes mistakes.
The only hope is that those who have missed chunks of the season and who will return (so not van Dijk and Gomez) will be fresher, and able to carry the team until May. And that yet more new injuries don’t arise, and that more inept officiating doesn’t cost points.
We shall see…
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