Liverpool’s late goals show us a long-standing problem

When you think of late goals in the Premier League era, the mind wanders effortlessly to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. ‘Fergie time’ has become a cultural counterpoint, a phrase used even by those who don’t care for football.

Manchester United’s never-say-die attitude always seemed to lead them to vital late goals, perhaps best epitomised in their 1999 Champions League final victory. But it’s not actually Manchester United who have scored the most stoppage time goals in the Premier League. Nor have they scored the most stoppage time winning goals either.

It feels like it should be that way. But perhaps the explanation for why it does feel like that is the shock it caused when Ferguson’s team did pop up with a late winner. Shocking not because United scored, but because they left it so late.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have scored the most goals after the 90th minute in Premier League history. But even they haven’t needed to win games in stoppage time. Their domination of possession has traditionally meant that Arsenal wear teams down, demoralise them, even. That’s perhaps the explanation of why Arsenal have scored the most goals past the 90th minute, but they’re usually adding to their margin of victory, rather than actually winning the game.

It’s Liverpool who have scored the most match-winning goals after the 90th minute in Premier League history. 28 of them, to be precise. If any team can traditionally rely on an emotion, a passion and a never-say-die attitude to match Manchester United’s, then it’s Liverpool.

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It sounds like a good thing to have scored so many late winners, but it probably points to Liverpool’s consistent, Premier League-era inconsistency. Needing a last-gasp goal to beat teams they should have put away in the first half is never a good look.

But given we’re talking about actual, match-winning goals, that means Liverpool have secured all three points in stoppage time 28 times in the Premier League era, equating to 84 points – albeit the leap from being level to scoring a winner brings in two points.

84 is exactly the same number of points that Liverpool accrued in 2013/14 when a Luis Suarez-powered Liverpool came so close to winning the title. The only time they have managed to gain more points than that in a Premier League season was in 2008/09, when they also finished second. That season they lost only two games, but too many draws and not enough wins between the end of November and the end of January allowed Manchester United to win the league.

Yet again, that’s evidence of Liverpool failing to put teams away when they needed to. They may have scored heaps of last-gasp goals, sometimes in huge games – Steven Gerrard has scored his fair share of them – but you can’t always rely on that. You can’t hope to do that every time.

There’s a wastefulness that prevents Liverpool from winning games they should have won comfortably. Take the Burnley and Arsenal games already this season: at Turf Moor, they lost a game they should have won, at the Emirates Stadium, they almost let Arsenal grab a point in a game they were winning 4-1. It’s not the main reason why Liverpool haven’t won a league title since 1990, but it’s definitely one of the reasons.

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And yet 84 points, the number they’ve accrued in a timeframe that only exists because of injuries and time-wasting during the game, would have won the Premier League in nine of its 24 seasons to date. Last season, champions Leicester totalled 81.

It’s probably a bit unfair to bring up Liverpool’s late goals and point to that as an issue. After all, the goals and points we’re talking about were accrued over 23 years of top flight football. But the fact that Liverpool haven’t won the league, even after winning so many games in extra time – that fabled ‘mark of champions’ – means that there must have been so many times when they’ve drawn a game instead of winning it, or lost it inexplicably.

There’s a ruthless streak that runs through winning teams. The ability not to overthink or overdo in front of goal or when creating chances, the ability to make the right decision, the ability to sniff out a goal from a promising situation. If they do, maybe they won’t have to leave it so late to win football matches.