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Man City v Liverpool: Tiny margins involved in Premier League's title-defining rivalry

In 2018 Manchester City set new standards in the Premier League by scoring 106 goals and amassing 100 points. Liverpool finished 25 points back in fourth place.

But since then there has been very little between the teams. They have shared three more Premier League titles – two for City and one for Liverpool – and one of them is pretty much certain to take another this May.

During these four campaigns they are separated by just a single point – the same margin that keeps them apart in the table after 30 games this season.

City narrowly lead with 338 points from 144 games, while Liverpool have 337. If the Reds edge ahead in this regard when they meet at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it could be decisive in the title race.

This spring they each have eight league games to go, including this weekend’s head-to-head.

So with the teams seemingly so equally matched, who is most likely to win the title, what has been the difference between them and what exactly is it that might give one side the edge this year?

The Premier League tweets a computerised image of how close the ball was to crossing the line
In 2018-19, Manchester City won the title by a single point from Liverpool. While plenty of factors contributed, this moment in the meeting between the teams at Etihad Stadium epitomised just how close the contest was. John Stones cleared Sadio Mane’s effort off the line, with the ball 11.7mm from being completely over it. The game was drawn, but had Mane’s effort gone in, the points swing might have been enough to make Liverpool champions

Home advantage crucial for Man City?

Data experts Nielsen Gracenote rate Manchester City as the best team in Europe right now, closely followed by Liverpool.

That ranking, coupled with the fact they are at home on Sunday, means City are Gracenote’s favourites to win the Premier League. Their Euro Club Index estimates a 61% chance of City lifting the trophy, compared to 39% for Jurgen Klopp’s team.

As you might expect, though, the result of Sunday’s meeting can make a huge difference to the prospects of both teams.

Victory for Pep Guardiola’s side will increase their chance of lifting the trophy to 86% and reduce Liverpool’s to 14%.

But an away win will make Liverpool favourites with a 68% chance of finishing first, compared to City’s 32%.

A draw between the two will produce little change in the current situation, with City’s chance of becoming champions increasing slightly to 63%, with Liverpool on 37%.

Could Liverpool’s attack make the difference?

Liverpool’s improvement this season – they finished third and 17 points adrift of City in 2020-21 – is partly down to avoiding the injuries that scuppered that campaign, but it is also in large part due to their attacking prowess.

Gracenote data shows they are now taking more shots than in any of the six previous seasons in which Klopp has managed the club. Liverpool have had 557 goal attempts in 2021-22, an increase of nearly 30% compared to this stage of last season – and their highest since the German took charge in 2015.

Liverpool’s attack is therefore more potent than City’s for the first time since Guardiola’s first season in the Premier League, creating more opportunities and needing fewer shots to score than City.

How both sides stand out from the rest

A look at the numbers since the start of the 2018-19 season – when this really became the Premier League’s title-defining rivalry – tells us lots about how the two teams have accelerated away from their rivals.

It is no surprise to learn the pair are the highest scorers in that period, City with 350 goals and Liverpool 319 – Manchester United’s total of 253 is way behind in third. They also have the stingiest defences – City have conceded 108 goals and Liverpool 117, while third-placed Tottenham have shipped 167.

So how have these attacking and defensive records become so much better than before – and so much better than the rest of the league?

The simple answer is they allow the fewest shots and take the most – usually from the most dangerous positions. Both have average shot distances of less than 14.6 metres – the closest to goal in the division.

Data from FBrefexternal-link shows the overall number of shots taken in the Premier League has steadily declined during the past decade by around five shots per game. This is due to the emergence of metrics, like expected goals, that highlight the futility of constantly taking long-range, low-percentage shots.

Defensively they are the top two teams in terms of allowing fewest shots again this season. City have only allowed 67 on target in 30 games, including only one at Burnley at the weekend. Liverpool are second with only 83 allowed and just two by Watford on Saturday.

Passing and pressing their way to the title?

Because both teams enjoy so much possession, their opponents can be suffocated and there is little to separate the two in this respect. But while City complete more passes (91,644 over the past four seasons compared with 79,683 for Liverpool), the Reds are actually ahead in the progressive passing stakes.

This means Liverpool have moved the ball closer to their opponent’s goal by more than 98km so far this season, compared to just over 91km moved forwards by City’s passes. Liverpool are also ahead by more than 19km in this area over the past four seasons.

So the Reds get the ball forward more quickly and the data below shows they are more likely to make long passes.

How they play their passes in 2021-22
Short (%) Medium (%) Long (%)
Man City 41 44 15
Liverpool 37 44 19

Many of these long balls come from goalkeepers and goal-kicks. Liverpool have launched 40-50% of goalkeeper possessions and have an average goal kick length of 36.6 metres, while City have steadily shortened their goal-kicks from 43 metres in 2018-19 to just over 23 metres this season. It seems Guardiola values ball possession more than ever before.

Aside from goal-kicks, another type of pass that City have adjusted this season is the number of crosses into the box. Liverpool have been the team to produce the second-highest number of crosses, while City have increased from 12th most last season to first in this one so far. Quite a shift.

Both teams are known for their relentless work ethic but it is City who are more passive in pressing to win possession back. They have the lowest number of pressing actions in the league for three years in a row.

This is, of course, in large part because their opponents have the ball less and so City have fewer chances to regain possession. But Liverpool rank highest for pressing in the attacking third and City are fourth in this category.

With the margins being so tight again this season, the second league meeting between the two will be pivotal.

Over the past four seasons it’s Manchester City who have held the upper hand, winning three and drawing three of the seven matches, while leading the scoring 14-8.

City are unbeaten too at the Etihad against Liverpool during these seasons – and it was back in 2015 that Liverpool last won a league game there, before Guardiola took charge.

But this is football, where chaos will always play a part. While the numbers can edge the neutral to see City carrying an advantage into the final games, there are wildcards yet to be played. But the quality of opponents yet to be faced does slightly favour City.

Both have European ties to contend with, where winning or losing will have an impact on confidence, and there is the psychological impact of facing each other in the FA Cup semi-finals on 16 April.

Because of the cup runs, each team still has a rearranged league game to fit in. Wolves will host City on a date to be fixed, while Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa will welcome Liverpool on 10 May.

While all the focus is on Sunday’s meeting, could it actually be the Reds’ former captain who denies them the title?

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