Are Chelsea and Liverpool true title contenders?

Having moved beyond the opening quarter of the season Liverpool sit atop the Premier League table, closely followed by Chelsea. With both playing an exciting brand of football that has seen them comfortably outscore opponents at times, I wanted to take a look to see if the two clubs are going to be involved in a straight shoot-out for the title, or if they are simply enjoying a good patch of form before their rivals eventually overhaul them.

At the start of the campaign, Liverpool were at 9/1 to win the Premier League, putting them behind Tottenham (8/1), Chelsea (13/2), Arsenal (6/1), Man Utd (5/1) and favourites Man City (9/4). However, given their strong start they are now seen as second favourites to Man City, who remain well backed at 2/1. Liverpool’s odds have shortened by almost half to 5/2, with the market reacting to their performances as might be expected. Comparatively, Chelsea have also seen their odds of lifting the trophy coming in to 3/1, marking quite a substantial shift when considering that both Man Utd and Tottenham have moved out to 20/1.

But is there any data to suggest that either Liverpool or Chelsea will be at the sharp end of the table come the end of the season? And are there any factors that could work in their favour?

One thing that immediately jumps off the page when looking at the league table is just how effective both teams are in front of goal. Liverpool are averaging just shy of three goals per game, having netted 30 in their opening 11 matches, while Chelsea are a little further back, but have still found the net more than any of the other competitors (26 times in all). However, is this high rate of scoring down to poor opposition? Or a ruthless attacking unit that is being unusually clinical when chances arrive?

In Liverpool’s case it would be fairly easy to point to a relatively soft schedule, with high scoring wins over Hull, Watford and Crystal Palace possibly not major reasons to get excited. Scoring four times against both Arsenal and Leicester, though the latter are admittedly less defensively sound than they were last season, does point to a very potent Liverpool attack. What is notable about their scoring is that the goals aren’t coming from one single source. Indeed, so far 10 players have found the net in the league, though perhaps unsurprisingly most of the net finding has been done by Saido Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, who have 16 goals between them in what has proven to be a very effective front trio.

In contrast, Chelsea may have scored a few goals less, but their opponents have been a little more reputable. Everton and Southampton both came into their games with Chelsea boasting impressive defensive records, but neither were able to shut them out and ultimately conceded seven goals between them, though Everton’s heavy 5-0 defeat does skew that statistic somewhat! Against top opposition, Chelsea have been rather mixed in their results to date, as an impressive 4-0 win over Man Utd was preceded by a 3-0 loss to Arsenal and a 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool. While Chelsea themselves have also seen nine players find the back of the net, their goals are far less evenly distributed, with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa responsible for 16 of the 26, suggesting that should either pick up an injury for any length of time, the team would find it a little harder to cope, whereas Liverpool might be more covered in such a circumstance.

What this does suggest is that both teams are doing a good job of creating and converting chances in the first place, something that is backed up by StrataData, which sees Chelsea and Liverpool in the top three in terms of chances created. However, what is interesting is that under half of the goals scored by either is viewed as a Great Chance, with both teams sitting toward the middle of the pile on that statistic, suggesting that they are in fact able to still find the net without opening up really promising opportunities. If compared to Man City, who are the most potent team from Great Chances, it leads to two possible explanations. Either Man City are doing a good job of converting when they should be, or Chelsea and Liverpool are under-performing with their great chances and their current rate of scoring from other means will be that much harder to sustain. Either way you choose to interpret it, the fact that they are creating so often in the first place is very encouraging and usually much more repeatable:

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Some further reasons for optimism if you are considering Liverpool and/or Chelsea as potential title winners are that both have found a settled and effective playing style and a formation that suits them. Liverpool have stuck with their high energy 4-3-3 shape since the start of the season, while Chelsea have changed to 3-4-3 from 4-1-4-1 in the last few weeks, and the difference has been astounding. Since the change of shape they have won five straight league games without conceding a single goal. The new system is one Antonio Conte is comfortable with from his days coaching both Juventus and the Italian national team, and having seen the potential to make the transition at Chelsea they are certainly reaping the benefits. They may not have the same relentless attacking outlook of Liverpool, but they have much better balance and the incredibly high work rate demanded (and often shown by the coach himself on the sidelines!) is working wonders for team spirit and morale.

Comparing this to Manchester City once again, Pep Guardiola has so far struggled to settle on a system that he is happy with and provides the best solution to get the most out of the plethora of attacking options at his disposal. So far he has trialled 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 3-4-2-1, each without ever truly being convinced. The uncertainty over the system the coach wants his players to operate in hasn’t had a major impact on results thus far, as their attacking capabilities often pull them through, but in recent games where changes in shape have become more frequent, they have fared a little worse, failing to win any of their last three home league encounters. City may arguably have the higher quality squad with greater depth (a topic for another day), but if Guardiola cannot find a way to get the best out of them, he risks leaving the door open for both Chelsea and Liverpool, who are prospering with a settled and effective style.

So Chelsea and Liverpool are both creating chances at a similar level and enjoying success brought about from a settled and effective style of play, but are there more factors that could prove beneficial to their respective title challenges in the long run?

One thing that most certainly shouldn’t be overlooked is that neither club have any European commitments this season. We need only look at Leicester last year as example that not having the additional burden of midweek games on the continent can in fact be a blessing, with rivals needing to manage and rotate their squad to compete effectively on multiple fronts. Chelsea and Liverpool are both able to name their strongest team week in and week out, having had a complete break between games and having spent plenty of time on the training ground to work on approach play and shape. If either Chelsea or Liverpool do go on to lift the trophy this season, the argument could be made that those clubs battling for the final European spots may actually be better suited to finishing outside of those positions, relieving the burden to give themselves a better chance of success in the next campaign. That period of rest and preparation time from one game to the next is proving to be invaluable as the schedule for rivals becomes increasingly congested, particularly during the Group Stages of both the Champions League and Europa League when there are also early rounds of domestic cup competitions to consider as well.

Everything seems to be going in favour of the two clubs at present, but is there anything that could stop them in their tracks? And who of the pairing is best placed to mount the more serious challenge?

For Liverpool, their Achilles heel this season has been their defensive output, with their attacking philosophy winning many admirers, but also seeing them left very exposed in transition. Even though they are scoring at a rate of nearly three a game, they are almost required to, as they are shipping over a goal a game at the other end. Now, the approach to simply outscore opponents by playing offensively is undoubtedly effective when it works, but what happens on the days where their attacking play is stifled and ineffective? Burnley highlighted this flaw superbly at the start of the season when they pulled off a shock 2-0 win over Klopp’s men. Liverpool dominated territory for almost that entire game, but up against a defensive team with something to hold onto they struggled badly and over-committed offensively to concede a second on the counter. Even Middlesbrough, down in 15th place, have conceded fewer than the 14 goals allowed by Liverpool this season, raising questions over whether their approach is truly sustainable.

Chelsea on the other hand have adopted an approach based around being defensively organised, boasting the second best defensive record in the league, while also maintaining a very impressive attacking output. In the five games since moving to a back three they are yet to concede, while their goals per game ratio has actually gone up, even against tougher opponents. In a more reserved 4-1-4-1 system they were averaging 1.8 a game, but the change to 3-4-3 has yielded 3.2! The fact that they have managed to increase output and decrease the number of goals conceded is a massive point in Chelsea’s favour, as though the high rate of scoring may well come down as the season progresses, maintaining a healthy defensive record will see them standing a far better chance of sustaining a title push. As alluded to before the big concern for Chelsea will be keeping their key players fit, particularly Costa and Hazard, who have been rejuvenated this season under the tutelage of Conte. Still, Costa’s availability may have less to do with fitness and more to do with discipline at times, with the Spaniard renowned for walking a tightrope with officials and only slightly calmer this season compared to last.

Even the imperious looking Man City attack cannot compete with the numbers being put up by Chelsea and Liverpool, as although they made a very brisk start to the season, they have arguably picked up results that would be expected of them when beating Stoke, Bournemouth and West Brom by scoring four goals, and West Ham and Swansea by scoring three. A glancing comparison shows that Chelsea defeated Southampton and Everton without conceding, while Man City laboured to a pair of 1-1 draws at home to the same opponents. The fact that Man City faced Southampton just days after playing Barcelona in the Champions League cannot even be used as a case in their defence, as Southampton themselves had even less preparation time after a difficult trip to Inter Milan in the Europa League. It’s key to note here that Liverpool are yet to face either opponent, so a direct comparison cannot be made.

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The table above tells us that even though they may be less potent than Liverpool, Chelsea are actually increasing their goal difference by a slightly greater margin every game, largely through having a more organised defensive set up. Man City on the other hand actually lag behind both, with their attacking threat having diminished a little of late.

In terms of the upcoming schedules for the three sides, Liverpool will certainly feel they can continue their recent purple patch of form over the next five games, facing Southampton, Sunderland, Bournemouth, West Ham and Middlesbrough before the Merseyside derby with Everton the week before Christmas. Chelsea and Man City actually meet each other in three weeks time, and have a slightly tougher run of games, with the outcome of that match likely to have some bearing on how both are viewed as title contenders moving forward. If Chelsea can come out on top at The Etihad, they will almost certainly consider themselves as one of the favourites for the title and the market should well agree. Even if they were to lose, it would be unlikely have a major impact on their prospects and could indeed make them a more attractive option in the long term.

One thing that is for sure is that both Chelsea and Liverpool are clubs with genuine title ambitions because they have each found real balance and effectiveness in their performances. Chelsea’s better defensive organisation could see them a little better placed to be the real contenders to a fairly neurotic Man City than the goalscoring juggernaut that is Liverpool, but in a league where unpredictability is king, nothing should be discounted. At this point in time buying in on Liverpool looks the best approach to take, once it has been confirmed that all of their internationals have returned from duty unscathed, of course!

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

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