Friday 28 April 2017

Liverpool lead the 'big six' mini-league but Man Utd game is not as important as it might seem

Liverpool's Adam Lallana shoots against Manchester United last October
Liverpool's Adam Lallana shoots against Manchester United last October

Alistair Tweedale

It's Manchester United versus Liverpool this weekend - a match that means more than any other in the Premier League, right?

Not only do the two teams have a long-running-and-still-ongoing battle for the crown of Britain's Most Successful Football Club, but they're both from the north west of England, only 30-odd miles of road separates them! Incredible!

Indeed, fans of the two giants would love to get one over the opponent they probably still consider their greatest rival on Sunday, but how much does this match, and each of a season's other games between the big sides, truly matter?

Will the winner truly take a giant step towards the Champions League places at the other's expense? Will they put a huge dent in the title hopes of their rivals with victory? Does United versus Liverpool actually mean more than other games?

First of all, we're obviously not talking literally. It's a match worth three points to the winner, just like any other. But the question we'll be looking at here is what impact beating a 'big six' rival has on the title race.

So far this season, Liverpool have had the best of the big games, winning three and drawing two of five. They are the only of the sides challenging for the title that is unbeaten this season in 'big six' derbies. In one game fewer than Chelsea and Tottenham, they have at least two more points.

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Yet they still trail Chelsea in the table and have a great deal of work to do in the second half of the season if they are to win their first title in over 25 years.

Chelsea have lost half of their games against other sides in the top six this season, including a convincing defeat at Arsenal and the recent loss to Spurs at White Hart Lane, yet they have a healthy five point lead at the top of the table.

Looking back to last season, too, there is little correlation between the mini-league involving the big clubs and the final Premier League table.

United finished the season fifth - low enough to ensure Louis van Gaal lost his job - while still keeping up the best record against the other top sides. They won five of their 10 biggest games and lost only two, but it was against the so-called lesser teams that their season fell apart. Van Gaal's team lost eight more matches over the course of the season, including defeats to Norwich, Sunderland, Swansea, West Brom and Bournemouth.

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Leicester, meanwhile, won only four of their 12 games against the 'big six', while all three of their losses and five of their 12 draws over the entire campaign came against the biggest teams.

They, of course, went on to win the league by ten clear points, with a ruthless record of 19 wins, seven draws and no losses against the Premier League's other 13 teams.

Looking further back another season, too, the trend continues. In 2014/15, United again had the best record against the Premier League's top six sides, yet they could only finish fourth overall.

Indeed, over the past three seasons, United have the best record in 'big six' derbies, but at no point in that time have they even threatened to challenge for the title.

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They remain a team for the big occasion, raising their performances for the most important opponents, but inconsistency in other matches has been their downfall. Clearly, it is those other matches that define a team's season.

The biggest matches turn heads, grab the headlines and give the Premier League its global appeal: those in charge declared in September the league has a "household reach" of a whopping 901 million, and that doesn't even take into account multiple viewers in homes or pubs.

But it is consistency over the larger part of the season that has the biggest impact on the title race, and the ding-dong derbies pale in comparison. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea scuppered Liverpool's title bid in April 2014, and his team conceded only four goals in 10 games against the other big sides that season, but they did not win the league because they slipped up in what should have been easier matches. The Premier League is so tough week-in, week-out, that the biggest teams are punished for letting up in supposedly easier games.

Sunday brings together two of world football's biggest rivals in Manchester United and Liverpool and with it a whole lot of prestige. To many fans victory in this match will mean more than just three points, but fixtures the following week against Stoke and Swansea are, in reality, the more important.

Telegraph.co.uk

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