Roberto Firmino

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. 

Watch Roberto Firmino score clutch goal in Liverpool FC win vs. Crystal Palace

Watch Roberto Firmino score clutch goal in Liverpool FC win vs. Crystal Palace

Minutes after Liverpool FC looked set to drop points, Roberto Firmino stepped up.

The Brazilian forward pounced on a loose ball in the Crystal Palace box to score in the 85th minute, sealing a nervous 2-1 win for the English Premier League-leading Reds. 

Sadio Mané gave Liverpool a 1-0 lead early in the second half after VAR overturned Palace's apparent first-half lead. But Wilfried Zaha equalized for Palace in the 82nd minute, setting up a nervous finish for the reigning UEFA Champions League winners. 

But as Liverpool have done time and again this season, they found a way to grab all three points despite a late deadlock. 

In five of their 12 Premier League wins this season, the Reds have taken the lead in the 70th minute or later. All five of those victories have come from Sept. 28 onward, and Liverpool's 3-1 win over Manchester City just before the international break was the club's first league win by more than a goal since Sept. 14 (3-1 over Newcastle United). 

But with an eight-point lead atop the Premier League and a title drought approaching three decades, Liverpool surely won't complain.