Liverpool aren’t going to win the English Premier League this season. That statement won’t come as a shock to anybody who’s been watching the division this term, but it would have been a shock if it had been made back in August. When Liverpool ended their generations-long wait for a title at the end of the 2019/2020 season, they did so in imperious fashion. The same team that had conquered Europe the season before routed its domestic league, winning at a canter with an eighteen-point gap between the Anfield club and second-placed Manchester City. The media was convinced that Jurgen Klopp had led Liverpool into a new era and that more success would follow.
Things don’t always go to plan when it comes to football. You can have all the right things in the right place one day and then everything in the wrong place the next day, even if the core ingredients are basically the same. It reminds us of playing the “Striker Goes Wild” slot on the Rose Slots website. Having all the right symbols is no use to you when you’re playing online slots – they have to land in the right places. It might be true that football teams have players rather than the symbols that online slots games have, but the principle is the same. Liverpool still has the same players that propelled them to success last year and the year before, but they can’t seem to get the same results out of them. The online slots jackpot has already paid out. It isn’t going to pay out again, no matter how hard Klopp tries to land on it.
The sorry state of Liverpool’s season, with the club eighth at the time of writing, makes us wonder whether this is the worst title defense of all time. We’re confining our assessment to the Premier League era of 1992 onward because trawling back through more than a century of football history would be too much, but those thirty years give us plenty of context. Let’s look at previous bad defenses and see if we can reach any conclusions.
Blackburn Rovers – a team that’s no longer even in the Premier League – are usually pointed to as the benchmark when it comes to bad title defenses. The statistics tell us that’s a little harsh, but there’s no getting away from the fact that their defense was bad. They upset football’s apple cart when they won the league in the 1994/1995 season but never looked like getting anywhere near it again. The surprising resignation of title-winning manager Kenny Dalglish didn’t help, and nor did the prolonged absence through injury of star players like Chris Sutton, Graeme Le Saux, and Jason Wilcox, but the club’s performance was miserable even with those factors taken into account. Rovers finished seventh in the table, twenty-one points away from the summit and didn’t even qualify for Europe.
Manchester United memorably won the Premier League title in the 2012/2013 season as a fitting way of marking Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season before retirement. It was observed at the time that United’s title triumph was a little unlikely, with the wily coach getting a comparatively weak (by his standards) squad to excel themselves week in and week out on the way to the crown. The weaknesses of the aging, unbalanced squad were laid bare the following season in the most brutal fashion. David Moyes, appointed on a long-term contract as Ferguson’s chosen successor, didn’t even last the full season. United, like Blackburn before them, finished seventh and didn’t qualify for Europe. To add insult to injury, “noisy neighbors” Manchester City won the league that year. They finished 22 points ahead of United.
Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Leicester’s poor title defense too harshly. They should never have won the Premier League at all. What they achieved in the 2015/2016 season is as close to a miracle as we’ll ever see in top-flight football and is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime. The magic couldn’t last forever, but few pundits and football experts expected it to wear off so quickly. The loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea rendered the once-majestic Foxes midfield almost impotent, and at one point, the club appeared to be flirting with relegation. Title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri was fired as the board tried to turn the club around – a move that would have been unthinkable six months prior – and Leicester ultimately recovered well enough to finish 12th. Champions Chelsea finished 39 points ahead of them.
As great as Chelsea were in that 2016/2017 season, they were woeful in their attempt to defend their 2014/2015 crown. Jose Mourinho had restored his reputation as the greatest club manager in the world by winning that title, but it all came crashing down around his ears with shocking speed. This was the season that he had his high-profile spat with club physio Eva Caneiro on his way to falling out with just about everybody involved with Chelsea on any level. Mourinho was ultimately fired by the Stamford Bridge club for a second time, and the club limped into tenth place. They were a whole 31 points behind title-winning Leicester when the final whistle was blown on the last game of the season, and it was hard to remember any other title-winning team suffering such an indignity.
So, with all the above to look to as context, where does that leave Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool? The gap between them and runaway leaders Manchester City is twenty-seven points at the time of writing, although Liverpool has two games in hand. Nobody would bet on them winning those games in hand in their current form, and even if they did, being twenty-one points behind the leaders is still unacceptable for a team of their quality. They have a real fight on their hands to qualify for Europe next season, and their chances of qualifying for the Champions League look close to nonexistent. They could still theoretically win the competition this year, but they won’t be in it next year. That wouldn’t make them the worst champions of all time, though. If we charitably discount Leicester, Chelsea’s 2015/2016 title defense was comfortably worse than Liverpool’s. We doubt that will offer much comfort to Liverpool fans at the moment, but perhaps it’s a reminder that things could always be worse!