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Jack: A statistical look at how Liverpool can keep Suarez

Kristian Jack

12/22/2013 10:08:39 PM

By the time Steven Gerrard scored, many fans were already in their cars driving home.

The Liverpool captain had netted in the 87th minute at Anfield in a match his team would lose 3-1 to lowly Aston Villa.

It was their 17th match of the season and things were not going well for Brendan Rodgers with his team in 12th place on 22pts. Teams such as Stoke, West Ham and Norwich were all ahead of them.

It was not a night for the new manager to turn on the local radio stations as he drove home.

Liverpool were in a rut and Rodgers was seeing performances flirting between his own ideas and the bad habits the team had picked up under Kenny Dalglish.

The game against Villa was the sixth time in nine attempts that Liverpool had failed to win a Premier League match at Anfield.

Far too often games followed a similar pattern. The Reds would start well, fail to score, get beaten on the counter attack and only sometimes find their way back into the match.

Rodgers knew his team had to score more goals. They had played 18 halves of Premier League football and scored in eight of them (44%). Under Dalglish, the previous season, they had played 38 halves of Premier League football at Anfield and scored in just 18 of them (50%). Only four times, from their 19 home matches, had they scored in both halves in the same game.

After the Villa game, Rodgers highlighted the areas for improvement: “We need to be more crisp, and less careless around the box. We create opportunities but it's that final ball really and if we can become more clinical, get the goals, it's a different game. We'll recover well, we are back here next week and we have to make sure we don't make the same mistakes.”

Liverpool listened to their manager.

The next week they battered Fulham 4-0. In January at home they beat Sunderland 3-0 and Norwich 5-0. In February they welcomed Swansea with a 5-0 hammering and in March defeated Tottenham at home 3-2.

After scoring in just 44% of their halves at Anfield for the first nine games, Liverpool found the net in 12 of their 20 home halves for the last 10 matches, raising it to 60%.

On Saturday they were once again at home for their 17th league match of the season and this time they were on the right end of a 3-1 score, defeating Cardiff City thanks to three first half goals.

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

When they failed to score in the second half it was just their fifth half of home Premier League football this season in which they had failed to find the back of the net, scoring in 13 of 18 home halves, a huge difference to what they were doing this time last season (44% to 72%).

The win took them to 36pts (an improvement of 14 from last season at this stage) and to the top of the table, stark contrast to the midtable mediocrity that led to many angry phone calls that night in Merseyside a year ago.

The win against Cardiff came less than 24 hours after star striker Luis Suarez put pen to a new four-and-a-half year contract.

"I am delighted to have agreed to a new deal with Liverpool and have my future secured for the long term," said Suarez.

"I believe I can achieve the ambitions of winning trophies and playing at the very highest level with Liverpool. My aim is to help get us there as quickly as possible."

While Liverpool fans breathed a sigh of relief, the rest of the world shook their head. This, in their minds, was a deal securing the Reds much more money when Suarez is inevitably sold in the summer. It was one of the least cared about contract extensions in football history. To most, it meant absolutely nothing.

To Liverpool, however, it is a document that keeps one of the world's finest players at their club in his prime years. A document they should frame and put on the walls of the home dressing room to bring motivation to their team. If they can prove they can indeed play ‘at the highest level', as Suarez says, they feel the Uruguayan will stay.

So just how good are Liverpool?

It is a question Suarez may be asking every single week between now and the World Cup. Before the Arsenal-Chelsea game on Monday evening, the Reds are top of the table.

Suarez said he wants to play ‘at the very highest level'. This is the Champions League.

And who can blame him? When next season's Champions League starts, the striker will be close to 28-years-old and if he isn't in the tournament then people will have every right to suggest he does not belong amongst the greatest players in the game.

Liverpool will be fully aware of this. If we believe anything Suarez said last week, perhaps it can be how he spoke about his love for the club, the city and his team-mates. This, along with the huge pay rise, could be enough to keep him from going to another big club next summer, providing Liverpool make the Champions League.

Although they sit at the top of the league, whether or not they can make the top four remains a legitimate question.

To find the answer you need to look closer at this team and find out just how much better they are this season than last. This cannot be done by simply looking at their league positions on the same date because different opponents come at different times.

This season Liverpool have played nine home games. Their eight home wins against Stoke City, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Fulham, Norwich, West Ham and Cardiff, and their loss to Southampton, represent a +7 difference in points against the same opposition as last season (replacing the relegated teams with promoted teams).

This season Liverpool have played eight away games. Their away wins at Aston Villa, Sunderland and Tottenham give a +4 difference from last season, their away draws at Swansea, Newcastle and Everton are a -2 difference from last season against those teams and their away losses at Arsenal and Hull are a -2 difference from last season, giving them the exact same points away from home against similar opponents as last season, through eight away games.

Liverpool's 11 away games to come this season, including trips to Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea, come against opposing teams they got 17 points against on their travels last season. If they continue their trend as a (0+) team on the road those 17 points, added to their 36 points through 17 matches gives them 53.

Last season they finished seventh on 61 points.

That leaves their remaining 10 home games to make the difference. It is important to note that only half of these games come against teams they played after December of last season, when a noticeable change of form was shown. In those 10 games last season Liverpool got 16 points (five points in five games up to December and 11 points in five games from January on). Those 16 points added to the 53 points would leave them on 69 points, borderline for a spot in the top four.

In the last five seasons, when Liverpool have failed to reach the top four, the points total for the team finishing fourth has been between 68 and 73 - 73, 69, 68, 70, 72.

It is the early seventies (at least) that Liverpool need to reach if they want to keep Suarez. Last season Tottenham became the first team in Premier League history to get 72 points and not get into the top four. They lost Gareth Bale.

Liverpool have already shown they are a side considerably better at home (+7 through 8 games) than last season, because of their slow start at home that ended with that loss to Aston Villa.

With five opponents at home still to play, that came in that run, it is a real possibility that they could improve on the 16 points they achieved at home last season against the 10 opponents they are still to face.

It is clear Liverpool are now much more like the team that played games 18-38 last season than the ones who played in the first 17.

Having already gained 24 points from a possible 27 at home, including a +7 ratio on last season, they will look to achieve something similar at home for the second half of the season. If they can get a +7 ratio again this would take them to around 76 points, providing they play similar to the way they played away from home last season.

This is a much more realistic target than those asking if they can win the league. Liverpool have made significant strides since this time last year and if they can stay at that level between now and May the highest level and Suarez may both be in their immediate future.