Just how bad was Liverpool’s league title defence?

Bad champions.

That was the damning verdict on Liverpool by Roy Keane, the outspoken pundit and winner of multiple titles as captain of Manchester United.

Keane’s assessment came after Liverpool were beaten 4-1 at Anfield by Man City, who would comfortably finish the season as this season’s champions.

However, while the claim had some merit at the time, given a lengthy dip in form that was showing no sign of ending, the Reds eventually recovered well enough to finish the season in third place – a position which had appeared out of reach in early March when Liverpool were down in 8th place, and having played more games than the teams both above and below them in the table.

In need of an almost perfect end to the season, Liverpool delivered when it mattered, and 26 points from the final ten games saw a return to the kind of form shown over much of the previous two seasons. And although the chance of a successful title defence was long gone, Liverpool were hardly playing without pressure, with a top four finish still to play for, and with virtually no margin for error over the final quarter of the season if there was even a chance of achieving such a goal.

Under the circumstances, Liverpool’s performances throughout April and May demonstrated exactly the kind of performance and mentality that was necessary to challenge for – and win – the title in the first place, and highlighted how the “bad champions” tag was handed out prematurely.

In terms of statistics, comparisons with other champions is typically based on the points difference between the title winning season and the following campaign, with league placing also taken into account, but analysis of an individual season is also useful in showing how each title winner performed when compared to the team succeeding them as champions.

The following shows how Liverpool’s season compares to other recent league champions, and covers the 26 seasons since the top flight was reduced from 22 to 20 clubs.

1. League Position

Since 1996, only Man United (1999/2000, 2000/01, 2007/08, 2008/09), Chelsea (2005/06) and Man City (2018/19) have successfully defended a league title win.

The most common league finish following a title win is 2nd, but there have been 8 occurrences of defending champions ending the season in 3rd place or lower. The latter includes Blackburn’s 7th place finish in 1995/96, with Man United also finishing in 7th, a year after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Chelsea followed up their title wins of 2015 and 2017 by finishing 10th and 5th respectively.

2. Total Points

As disappointing as Liverpool’s return of 69 points was, it is far from being the lowest tally from a defending league champion.

Leicester’s 44 points is the lowest since the system of 3 points for a win was introduced in the early 1980’s, but when taking into account the quality of squad available, Chelsea’s 50 points (2015/16) is comfortably the biggest underachievement for any recent team defending the title, with Man United’s 2013/14 total of 64 points also a dramatic reduction on had been achieved under Ferguson.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea followed up a double-winning success of 2010 with just 71 points a year later, and Antonio Conte saw a similar drop during his second season at the club, with a 70 point tally failing to earn a top four place in 2017/18 – just a year after lifting the title with the second highest points total of any previous league champions.

3. Points (compared to title winning season)

On this measure, Liverpool were 30 points down on their title-winning tally, but when considering that their league win saw the Reds only a point away from matching Man City’s record, it was always going to be a near-impossible task to repeat – especially having performed at such a high level for two years, following the 97 point season that wasn’t quite enough to earn top spot in 2018/19.

Chelsea and Leicester both saw their totals reduced by 37 points in 2015/16 and 2016/7 respectively, with Man United dropping 25 points in 2013/14 and Chelsea’s 2017/18 season resulting in 23 fewer points won.

4. Points (gap to eventual winners)

Any points comparison across different seasons is largely irrelevant, with huge differences in terms of what is needed to become champions. Other factors also contribute, with the past season involving a full campaign played out without regular fans in attendance – an impact that has been felt throughout the league.

So, if using a measure which doesn’t involve comparing across more than one season, perhaps the best method is to review the record for each team defending the title and look at how far from the eventual winners they were.

In Liverpool’s case, the gap between them and Man City was 17 points. Yet last season, Man City’s attempt at securing a third straight title saw them finish 18 points adrift of Liverpool. The previous three instances saw Chelsea finish 31 points and 30 points behind the eventual winners (in 2015 and 2017 respectively), while Leicester were 49 points short of Chelsea’s title-winning tally in 2016/17.

So, while Liverpool would certainly have wanted to be in the mix for the title again, and undoubtedly felt disappointment at the manner in which they faded out of contention so quickly during a dreadful run of form over the winter, there’s plenty to suggest that a handful of other sides have fared worse as title holders.

And with arguably the worst performing champions in recent years being the Chelsea side that only just made it into the top half, there might be a lesson to be learnt in not being too quick to judge; Chelsea returned to the top the following season, with the second best league record in the club’s history.

Few will be surprised if Liverpool can put any disappointment behind them just as quickly.

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