Liverpool have never been so dependent on United avoiding defeat

The Manchester derby on Wednesday will go a long way towards determining the outcome of the English Premier League title race this season. Liverpool are two points ahead of Manchester City, having played a game more. After Wednesday, both teams have three matches remaining: Liverpool play relegated Huddersfield at home, then Newcastle away (who are now safe from relegation), ending the season by hosting Wolves at Anfield; City play Burnley away, Leicester at home and then Brighton away.

City are expected to win their last three matches, so Liverpool fans will be desperate for United to avoid defeat in the derby, which would leave Liverpool with at least a one-point lead going into the final three matches. FiveThirtyEight's model indicates that Liverpool currently have a 43% chance of winning their first English title in 29 years. If United win the derby, this increases to around 74%, or 69% if the game ends in a draw. However, if City win, Liverpool's title chances drop to 30%. The difference between a United draw and defeat is immense for Liverpool's title hopes.

It is exceedingly rare that Liverpool fans are compelled to support United. Has Liverpool's prospects ever before been so dependent on United avoiding defeat? By simulating the league run-in for each of the last 60 seasons, I've identified the previous occasions in which Liverpool fans have had good reason to cheer United on. How do they compare in significance to Wednesday's match?

The history of Liverpool supporting United 

The first step was to find all the league matches since 1960 in which a United draw or win would demonstrably benefit Liverpool. To achieve this, I simulated the last quarter of every season in the English top flight since the 1960/61 season, using the methodology described here. I then estimated the probability of Liverpool winning the league (or, more recently, qualifying for the champions league) conditioned on United either winning, drawing or losing each of their last 10 matches in every season. Based on the results, I identified the United matches in which a win or a draw (for United) produced the greatest boost to Liverpool's chances of league success.

Here are the five most prominent occasions in which Liverpool fans have had a very strong incentive to support United. In terms of Liverpool's title chances, no match has ever come to close in significance to the Manchester derby on Wednesday. 

Man United vs Arsenal, April 1989

On the 2nd April 1989, Arsenal went to Old Trafford two points ahead of Liverpool at the top of the table with 8 matches remaining. My simulations indicate that an Arsenal victory would have reduced Liverpool’s title chances to 35%, while if United could avoid defeat they would rise to 56%, a 21% swing between the two outcomes. In the event, a Tony Adams own goal in the 85th minute gave United a draw. What then followed was one of the most dramatic climaxes to a title race in English football history, with Arsenal winning the league on goals scored after a 2-0 victory over Liverpool at Anfield on the last day of the season.

Probability of Liverpool winning the title:
United draw/victory – 56%
Arsenal win – 35%
21% swing

Man United vs Everton, March 1986

At the end of March 1986, Liverpool were trailing their cross-city rivals, Everton, by 2 points (having played a game more) when Everton made the trip to Old Trafford (United were themselves 5 points off top spot). An Everton victory would reduce Liverpool’s title hopes to 18%, while a United win would increase them to 30%, a swing of 12%. The match ended 0-0, and Liverpool would go on to win the league by two points.

Probability of Liverpool winning the title:
United draw/victory – 30%
Everton win – 18%
12% swing

Everton vs Man United, April 2005

Chelsea ran away with the title in the 2004/05 season, but United could still do Liverpool a favour when they visited David Moyes’ 4th-placed Everton on the 20th April, 2005. Liverpool were in sixth place, three points behind Everton, who occupied the last Champions League qualifying spot. A United draw or victory would increase Liverpool’s chances of finishing in the top four to 37%, while a United defeat would reduce them to 17%. Everton won the match 1-0 and finished the season in fourth place, earning a Champions League qualifying spot for the following season. Liverpool finished 5th, but still qualified for the Champions League after their famous victory on penalties over AC Milan in Istanbul.

Probability of Liverpool qualifying for Champions League:
United draw/victory – 37%
Everton win – 17%
20% swing

Man United vs Newcastle, May 1997

Given that the 1996/97 season is one of the few seasons in the Premier League era in which United and Liverpool have truly competed for the title, Liverpool fans may have had little appetite to support United when they hosted Newcastle in their second-to-last match of the season. By that stage, United had already won the league; however, the match would have a significant impact in determining who would finish second and quality for a Champion’s League spot (only the top two qualified that season). A Newcastle victory would reduce Liverpool’s chances of finishing second to just 15%, while if United could avoid defeat it would rise to 58%. The game finished 0-0, but Newcastle still clinched second place as Liverpool failed to beat Sheffield Wednesday on the last day of the season.

Probability of Liverpool qualifying for Champions League:
United draw/victory – 58%
Newcastle win – 15%
43% swing

It's never over until..

Of course, Wednesday's match is not the last of the season, and while both teams have straightforward-looking run-ins, either could still slip up. Liverpool's match away to Benitez's Newcastle - sandwiched between the Barcelona games - looks the trickiest, while Brighton may still be fighting for their Premier League survival when they host Manchester City on the last day of the season. If the title race goes down to the wire, Aguero and co will be the first to remember how they almost threw it away at home to QPR on the final day of the 2011/12 season. This is clearly reflected in the predictions: if City were to win the derby, Liverpool would still have roughly a 1-in-3 chance of winning the title.

One thing that is for sure, though: whatever the outcome on Wednesday, United fans will find the ultimate destination of the EPL trophy difficult to stomach. And the nightmare scenario? United's two biggest rivals could, between them, win all the major tournaments that they participated in this season.


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