Premier League title race: How many points can Liverpool drop and still beat Manchester City?

Down to 10 men and losing 1-0, a draw is a good outcome, right? Wrong.

As Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher said after Liverpool’s draw with Crystal Palace at Anfield on Monday, “Draws are defeats now.”

This is the three-point pressure of the modern Premier League title race. Every missed win could be the difference.

Liverpool have missed two chances for maximum points, starting the season with draws against Fulham and Palace. Manchester City have missed none: their season has kicked off with wins against West Ham and Bournemouth.

There are 36 games to go, but when you lose out on two Premier League titles by one point, as Liverpool have in recent seasons, that three-point pressure is there from the first match and will build exponentially.

The question is: how many points can a team drop and still have a chance of being champions?

The graphic below shows the total points for each title-winning side from 2000-01 onwards. It also shows how many matches each of those sides drew or lost while still going on to take the title.

The goalposts for dropped points have moved. Only four times between 2000-01 and 2015-16 did a team hit the 90-point mark. During that period, the average points needed to win the title was 86.9.

The four winners that reached 90 points in that period were Arsenal during their unbeaten season in 2003-04, Chelsea in 2004-05 and 2005-06 and Manchester United in 2008-09. Chelsea dropped points in nine games in those two campaigns, Manchester United dropped points in 10 matches, and Arsenal drew 12 games but did not lose any.

Compare that to the most recent six seasons, when the average points total of the title winners has been 94.8. In that period, the champions have only dropped points in more than nine games once: Manchester City in 2020-21, a season affected by COVID-19 and the only campaign in the sample when the league winners did not hit 90 points.

Gone are the days of the late 1990s when the Premier League title could be won with fewer than 80 points (Manchester United in 1996-97 and 1998-99, Arsenal in the season between). With the 2020-21 COVID season an anomaly, 90 points is the minimum, which means only dropping 24 points from a possible 114, and even that might not be enough.

Over the past five seasons, Manchester City have accumulated 90-plus points three times, winning the title each time: 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020-21. In those same five seasons, Liverpool have also accumulated 90-plus points three times, but it brought them the title only once, in 2019-20.

The graphic below breaks down the results from the Premier League winners and runners-up from the 2015-16 season onwards. The difference between Leicester City’s victory and the rest is stark.

To ratchet up the three-point pressure, in the three seasons between 2017 and 2020, the champions failed to win only six games. If that was repeated this season, Liverpool have already used up two of their lives.

The signs are not good for bad starts. Only 15 sides in the history of the top division have failed to win either of their two opening games and gone on to win the league. That figure drops to only five sides since English football introduced three points for a victory in 1981.

Coincidentally, one team managed it that year: Liverpool. In the 1981-82 season, they won only five of their first 15 league games. Their season started with a loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers followed by a draw with Middlesbrough. Yet they went on to win the league.

In the Premier League era, only Manchester United have failed to win their opening two matches and went on to win the title. The first time they did it was in the inaugural 1992-93 season when they failed to win their opening three games before purchasing Eric Cantona from Leeds United. They repeated the feat in 1998-99 and 2007-08.

Liverpool already know the challenge of playing catch-up, having dropped points in the early stage of last season and seeing the gap to Manchester City stretch to 13 points. They clawed their way back to within one point but had left themselves too much to do.

It is the first time during Jurgen Klopp’s era that Liverpool have failed to win either of their opening two games, but we know they are capable of putting together double-figure runs of wins, just like Manchester City are.

With Pep Guardiola’s side looking assured, that is the task for Liverpool. Further points dropped over the coming weeks would make the season feel a little ominous, although not for those in sky blue.

(Top photo: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

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