Soccer

Why 2019-20 Liverpool are, aren't best team in Premier League history

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AP

Why 2019-20 Liverpool are, aren't best team in Premier League history

Programming note: Watch Liverpool's Premier League pursuit continue Saturday at 9:30 a.m. PT against Tottenham Hotspur, live on NBC and streaming on the NBC Sports app.

Liverpool are on pace to end their 30-year title drought in historic fashion.

The Reds last claimed England's top-flight championship during the 1989-90 season, just more than two years before the Premier League first kicked off. They enter Saturday's match against Tottenham Hotspur unbeaten, with 58 points (19-1-0) through 20 games.

Thirteen points clear of second-place Leicester City with a match in hand, it's not a matter of if Liverpool win the title, but when and by how much. Averaging 2.9 points per match this season, the Reds would shatter the Premier League points record (100) set by Manchester City in 2017-18 if they maintained their 110-point pace. Liverpool's plus-58 goal-differential already is better than six of the nine highest point-producers in Premier League history ... with 18 matches remaining.

With the trophy all but in the bag, it's time to ask whether Liverpool are the Premier League's best team ever. Here's the case for and against this iteration of the Reds.

Why Liverpool are Premier League's best team ever

Liverpool are halfway toward becoming just the second team in Premier League history to finish a season undefeated. The combination of that and the previously outlined statistical case is pretty clear, but let's try to add to it anyway. 

For one, their XI is historically good. Manager Jurgen Klopp unquestionably is one of the best in the world, but the talent at his disposal is undeniable. 

Liverpool's front line of Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino have combined to score 27 goals this season. Fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have assisted on an astounding 14 goals this season, when -- as SB Nation's Kim McCauley observed -- no other defender has more than four.

The Ballon d'Or might be the Golden Globe of international soccer, but 2019 runner-up Virgil van Djik is the best defender in the world, and he just had the highest finish by a backliner since Paolo Madini came in third for the 2003 award. Had goalkeeper Alisson Becker not missed more than two months with an injury, he'd probably lead the Premier League in clean sheets this season.

Of those previously mentioned teams who had the nine highest points totals in Premier League history (this author's assuming Liverpool will crack the top 10), three had six players in the Professional Footballers' Association's Premier League team of the season. Mané, Robertson, Alexander-Arnold and van Djik figure to be locks, and Alisson and Salah should have strong cases by the time the season is over. 

Having at least four players make the end-of-year XI puts Liverpool firmly in the conversation with the greatest teams in Premier League history, but the strength of the league arguably puts them over.

Buoyed by the influx of television money from the last decade, the league's midtable arguably never has been stronger. Thirteen of the 30 highest-grossing clubs in Deloitte's Football Money League rankings last year were English, and there very well could be more if Wolverhampton Wanderers -- who were just promoted last season -- crack the list in 2020. 

Wolves (seventh place), Sheffield United (eighth) and Leicester City (second) have been knocking on the Big Six's door all season, leaving Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal in legitimate danger of missing out on European football. At least so far this season, the gaps between the "Big Six" and traditionally smaller clubs aren't as pronounced.

Liverpool haven't lost to any club -- big or small -- this season, and that's especially impressive in light of the Premier League's increased parity. 

Does the presence of fellow giant Manchester City and the super-club era diminish Liverpool's accomplishments? (photo via Associated Press/Jon Super)

Why they aren't

It's an extremely easy answer, but ... the season isn't over yet! Liverpool still must play Manchester City, Chelsea and Merseyside rivals Everton away from Anfield. The case for the Reds' historic greatness heavily relies on an undefeated season, considering how common seasons like theirs have been this decade. Four of the five highest point totals in Premier League history have come within the last four years, and the financial stratification of English soccer's haves and have-nots has become starker.

Although Liverpool was one of 13 English teams in Deloitte's rankings, their revenue in 2017-18 (which the rankings are based on) exceeded that of Everton and Leicester City combined. They're one of the wealthiest teams in Europe's wealthiest league. The Premier League's financial clout compared to the rest of Europe comes at a cost in a discussion of all-time greatness, as it arguably never has been an easier time to be a super club.

As The Independent's Miguel Delaney argued last week, Liverpool's historic status made them a sleeping giant earlier this century, and the deep pockets of owners Fenway Sports Group -- and their shrewd decision-making -- ultimately give the club "this globalist power that make it impossible for almost anyone else to compete without a super-wealthy owner." 

This notion colors all of the context surrounding Liverpool's season, as even the presence of four English teams in the UEFA Champions League's knockout stages -- nominally an argument in favor of the Reds' greatness, considering the strength of their domestic competitors -- feels more like a reflection of the sport's financial realities than of those clubs' accomplishments. The Premier League brought in over €2 billion more revenue than the Bundesliga in 2017-18, so they should be well-represented in the knockout stages. 

From an analytics perspective, Liverpool are not even the best team in the Premier League this season. Manchester City -- who are by no means a minnow -- continue to pace the league in terms of expected goals (49.8, per Stats Bomb), expected goal-difference (plus-28.7) and expected-goal difference per 90 minutes (plus-1.37). Liverpool have really taken it to their opponents in terms of shot quality lately, but they're arguably fortunate some lackluster early season performances didn't turn into draws or losses. Manchester City, who outshot Tottenham 30-3 in a 2-2 draw in September, can't say the same thing.

[RELATED: Check out more Premier League coverage from Sky Sports]

Verdict 

Liverpool's case as the best Premier League team ever isn't quite bulletproof. When examining historical greatness, the context of the modern game is just as worthy as on-field accomplishments, and Liverpool's status as a financial titan in a sport -- and a league -- increasingly dominated by them has played a massive role in the Reds' success.

But said dominance can't be ignored, either. Liverpool can set a Premier League record for the longest unbeaten streak if they don't lose any of their next 13 matches, and they can shatter it if they don't lose again this season. Although record-setting campaigns lately have been the norm for the biggest and best clubs, such a season still would manage to stand alone in Premier League history.

Joining the likes of Arsenal's "Invincibles" and setting a league points record along the way? That's an unimpeachable claim to the Premier League's all-time throne, and Liverpool are well on their way to seizing it. 

Champions League predictions: EPL teams with best Round of 16 chances

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AP

Champions League predictions: EPL teams with best Round of 16 chances

The European Cup rebranded as the UEFA Champions League in the same season as the Premier League's inception, but English teams haven't exactly dominated Europe's top club competition during that time. 

Liverpool (twice), Manchester United (twice) and Chelsea are the only English clubs who have won the Champions League since 1992-93, and the Premier League's five European titles during that time match that of Serie A and trail La Liga -- though two clubs (Real Madrid and Barcelona) did all of the winning in Spain's case. 

Yet it's possible the Premier League, for just the second time in the competition's history, will produce a finalist for the third consecutive year. The prohibitive Champions League favorites (Liverpool) and reigning finalists (Tottenham Hotspur) hail from the Premier League, as does a club looking to add to its unprecedentedly stuffed trophy case (Manchester City) and another who wants to lift the trophy again (Chelsea). 

Which of these teams has the best chance of advancing from the Round of 16? Let's rank them from the most to least likely. 

Liverpool

The Reds are in impeccable form. Their first team hasn't lost since Napoli beat them 2-0 in the first match of the Champions League group stage, and Liverpool have only allowed three goals in 10 matches across all competitions in 2020. They didn't mow through the group stage the same way they've crushed all opposition in the Premier League, but they have a favorable matchup in the Round of 16. 

Atlético Madrid are fourth in La Liga, but this is not Diego Simeone's strongest squad. They're still stingy in their own half -- the Rojiblancos have allowed the second-fewest goals in Spain's top flight (17) and the fewest expected goals (18.1, per StatsBomb) -- but Atléti have only scored 25 goals in 24 league matches and they managed just eight in six group-stage matches. Antoine Griezmann's departure still looms. 

Liverpool might settle for a draw in Tuesday's first leg, but it's hard to envision Atléti winning at Anfield on March 11. They only have won five times away from the Estadio Metropolitano, while Liverpool haven't lost in a very long time. You can't ever count out Simeone, but Liverpool should advance with ease. 

Prediction (aggregate): Liverpool 4, Atlético Madrid 1

Manchester City

Don't let the gap atop the Premier League or their pending Champions League ban fool you: Manchester City mostly remain a juggernaut, even if they don't have the results to show for it. City steamrolled their last four opponents before the winter break, posting at least 2.0 expected goals in each match.

Yet City were leaky at the back and only won two of those matches, and they are vulnerable heading into the Round of 16. There might not be a goalkeeper with the ball at his feet than Ederson, but the Brazillian has had trouble keeping balls out of his own net this season. The Sky Blues already have allowed more goals in the Premier League this season than they did in each of their last two title-winning campaigns.

Real Madrid, the Sky Blues' Round of 16 opponents, haven't had bad luck turn into losses this season as they lead La Liga. These aren't your Grandparents' Galacaticos, with manager Zinedine Zidane relying on a good mix of young talent and established veteran stars. City have them beat on star power and Real Madrid should never be confused for plucky underdogs, but this is a tough matchup for Pep Guardiola and Co.

Expect City to be well-prepared to finally get over the quarter-final hump after narrowly edging the Spanish giants over two legs. 

Prediction (aggregate): Manchester City 3, Real Madrid 3 (City advance on away goals)

Chelsea

Chelsea and Round of 16 opponent Bayern Munich are trending in opposite directions. The Blues have beaten two second-division sides in the FA Cup and only Burnley in the Premier League since the start of 2020, while Die Roten have scored at least four goals in five of their last six matches in all competitions. Chelsea also have an injury crisis on their hands and a London Derby on Saturday before hosting the Bundesliga leaders, making this an extremely tough tie.

The two clubs have a rich Champions League history with one another, including Chelsea's shocking win in the 2012 Champions League final in Munich. The Blues need to get healthy before entertaining the idea of a similar upset, but getting Tammy Abraham and N'Golo Kante back against the Bavarians would provide a huge boost.

Health up front can only go so far, however, considering Chelsea's goalkeeping struggles. Both Kepa and backup Willy Callbaero have allowed more goals than expected based on the chances they've faced this season. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence against the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry, who have combined to score more goals in all competitions (50) than Chelsea's seven leading goal-scorers.

Bayern should get through with ease.

Prediction: Bayern Munich 5, Chelsea 2

[RELATED: Check out more Premier League coverage from Sky Sports]

Tottenham Hotspur

Who'd have thought Tottenham would be this fun under José Mourinho? Not me. Spurs have scored at least two goals in nine of 14 Premier League matches with Mourinho at the helm, keeping only three clean sheets in all competitions and needing two replays just to stay alive in the FA Cup.

Mourinho might have no choice to return to his notoriously stodgy ways against RB Leipzig, however, given that South Korean star Son Heung-min broke his arm over the weekend and Mourinho said he doesn't expect the attacker to return this season. Spurs already are missing Harry Kane, and Mourinho was on the record as saying none of his attacking options could fll Kane's boots as No. 9 before Son's injury.

RB Leipzig would've been a difficult matchup if Tottenham were fully healthy, but Spurs simply don't have enough firepower up top to keep up with the Bundesliga title-chasers' prolific attack. Mourinho's only hope is to revise and renew the deal with the devil Tottenham made last season to miraculously advance to the Champions League final.

Prediction: RB Leipzig 6, Tottenham Hotspur 1

Watch Harry Maguire wrongly avoid red card, seal Manchester United win

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Premier League

Watch Harry Maguire wrongly avoid red card, seal Manchester United win

Harry Maguire shouldn't have been on the pitch to score Monday, but the Manchester United defender made the race for UEFA Champions League qualification much more interesting regardless. 

Maguire's 66th-minute header, his first Premier League goal for Manchester United, controversially doubled the Red Devils' lead in a 2-0 win over fourth-place Chelsea. 

But the 26-year-old should have been sent off 45 minutes prior. 

Maguire kicked out at Michy Batshuayi in the 21st minute after a clearance. It looked remarkably similar to a kick that got Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min sent off against Chelsea last month, but a VAR check ruled Maguire's kick wasn't violent conduct constituting a red card. 

VAR made Chelsea supporters even angrier about 10 minutes prior to Maguire's header. Kurt Zouma equalized for Chelsea on a set piece, but the video assistant overturned the goal after determining César Azpilicueta fouled United's Brandon Williams. Azpilicueta appeared to be pushed into Williams, but Zouma's equalizer was wiped away regardless. 

Olivier Giroud seemingly pulled one back for Chelsea in the 77th minute, but VAR once again disallowed a Chelsea goal. This time, the decision was correct. 

United's win adds plenty of intrigue to a suddenly competitive race for Champions League places. Second-place Manchester City's two-year ban from European competition, if upheld, would allow the Premier League's fifth-place team to qualify for the Champions League and reap the ensuing financial rewards. 

[RELATED: Check out more Premier League coverage from Sky Sports]

Only seven points separate Chelsea and 11th-place Burnley, and seventh-place Manchester United only are three back of Chelsea. The Red Devils are just two points back of Spurs in fifth place, too.

They can thank Maguire for that, even if he shouldn't been in a position to help them.