Soccer / statistics

Liverpool's Misplaced Mojo
Although the recent Premier League clash between Liverpool and Manchester Utd was most noteworthy for resembling something of a glass ankled homage to Darren Anderton, the fact that Solskjaer's hobbled XI managed to hold off a Liverpool side challenging for the title with such relative ease also served to underscore just how embarrassingly flaccid Klopp's attack has become of late. Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have played 7 games in the Premier League during which they have scored 11 goals. Even a relatively cursory analysis suggests that this return represents a marked downturn in attacking efficacy. Over the course of the opening 20 games, Liverpool notched 48 goals, which translates into an average of 2.4 goals per game. Since then the average has regressed somewhat to 2.19 due to the aforementioned run of form, during which their goals per game average has plummeted to 1.6. It's not simply that Liverpool are missing chances either. According to the expected goals statistic, Liverpool's goalscoring rate in 2019 is tracking at precisely the anticipated level. To put that in context, prior to their trip to the Etihad, Liverpool's number of expected goals fell short of their actual total by 3.65 goals. So whereas up until that point Liverpool scoring rate had outstripped the predicted performance curve it has since fallen back towards the norm. Ultimately, therefore, when both goals per game and expected goals are considered, it becomes apparent that Liverpool have, of late, been creating fewer chances and converting less of those chances than had previously been the case. Additionally, it should be noted that 7 of their 11 Premier League goals this calendar year have come in just 2 fixtures. 4 goals arrived in a topsy-turvy encounter against Crystal Palace, which incidentally bore all the hallmarks of a statistical outlier and therefore offers little predictive value, and 3 more came against a characteristically homesick Bournemouth made drowsy by all the travel-sickness medication they presumably take before away-games. Unfortunately for Liverpool their goal-shy run has coincided with Man City's forward line really hitting their bootstraps. Seven games into 2019 and City have already scored 20 goals, which translates into 2.85 goals per game, a marginal increase from their to-calendar-year-end average of 2.7. Equally striking is the fact that the archetypal "sports-washers", are currently scoring at a rate significantly ahead of the expected goals curve. Expressed in more concrete terms, their 2019 goalscoring rate exceeds that of the statistical model by 2.79 goals. When one considers that some 20 games into the season that Man City's goalscoring rate outpaced expected goals by 3.43, an amount only fractionally ahead of what they've achieved 7 games into 2019, it seems as if Pep's side are collectively beginning to hit their stride at just the right stage of the season. And make no mistakes about it, it is very much a collective effort. Although, as one would expect, Sergio Aguero leads the way with 8 strikes across the time-frame, he has been ably supported by his teammates, 6 of whom have also chipped in with valuable strikes. What Klopp wouldn't give for such a diverse goal threat. Over the same time period, only four Liverpool players, Wijnaldum, Mane, Firminho, and Salah, have found the back of the net. Given that Wijnaldum's contribution has been limited to a solitary effort, that means 10 of Liverpool's 11 goals this calendar year have been scored by just three players. Broken down further that translates to 91% of Liverpool's Premier League goals in 2019 and to the type of concentrated threat that spells over-reliance. To further put that figure into perspective it is worth reflecting that over the entire season to date, the trident's contribution stands at a rather more sustainable 65%. Somewhat coincidentally the proportion of goals divvied up among City's most prolific trio, Aguero, Sterling, and Sane, in 2019, also stands at 65%, up from 50% if the season as a whole is considered. Incidentally, to offer a wider comparison, the equivalent season-long percentages for Spurs, Arsenal, Man Utd, and Chelsea stand at 58%, 56%, 56%, and 53% respectively. A similar pattern emerges in terms of assists. In 2019, 4 Liverpool players, Robinson, Keita, Milner, and Firminho, have provided assists in comparison to 7 from City's ranks. Given Liverpool's comparative lack of goals this statistic, even from a purely intuitive standpoint, again feels predictable. And, that's just the problem, Liverpool are predictable. If as an opposing coach, for example, you learn that 91% of Liverpool's recent goals have been scored by just three individuals, the job of devising a defensive gameplan becomes much easier than for example if you are planning to thwart Man City. Succeed in subduing Salah, Mane, and Firminho and the job is most likely done, succeed in subduing Aguero, Sterling, and Sane, and you've still got a lot to worry about. Moreover, that task becomes much simpler still if you can identify a team's principal attacking channels. Once more this is a problem for Liverpool since the overwhelming majority (71% (5/7)) of their 2019 assists have been provided by just two sources, namely Andy Robinson and James Milner. Any opposing coach worth his badges can deduce, therefore, that by limiting Liverpool's lateral threat you go most of the way to limiting their attacking threat outright. Indeed, long stretches of the recent matches against West Ham, Bayern Munich, and Manchester Utd could in future serve as case studies on how to frustrate Klopp's 2018/19 Liverpool vintage. The creative void left by Coutinho's absence still inhibits Liverpool's attacking options. Indeed, each sideways pass or unimaginative lump forward dourly underlines just why Klopp pursued Nabil Fekir so covetously during the summer transfer window - expressly to embroider Liverpool's play with some lacy frills. The loss of Coutinho's intricate stylings has been exacerbated to a degree by Klopp's conscious abandonment of his trademark gegenpressing. One of the virtues of a heavy metal press is that it reduces the premium on creativity by first forcing opposing teams to make errors and by then exploiting them ruthlessly. Essentially, Klopp's erstwhile tactic could be thought of as a means of strong-arming opposition into submission, which, moreover, obviates the need for any namby-pamby, tippy tappy artistry. However, with gegenpressing now no longer the order of the day, Coutinho's absence is more keenly felt, and without him Liverpool can, at times, look bereft of imagination. Fatigue also needs to be considered. To date this season Salah, Mane, and Firminho have played for 2289, 2214, and 2071 minutes respectively. Meanwhile, as of yet, none of City's most prolific trio of Aguero, Sterling, and Sane, have broken the 2000 minute barrier. Admittedly, those statistics don't account for Carabao Cup appearances, and with City still involved in 3 competitions to Liverpool's 2, any gap may well narrow as the season draws to a close, but those caveats excepted, the deeper significance of the minutes-played statistic is what it implies about squad depth. Beyond their first choice frontline, other than maybe Xhedran Shaqiri, Liverpool offer precious little in the way of a goalscoring threat. Man City, on the other hand, are spoiled for choice; 8 of their players have scored 5 goals or more this season. At the moment it seems that even the carefully considered combination of Klopp's more circumspect strategic approach coupled with an indifferent attitude to cup competitions is not quite enough to offset City's superior squad depth. Mo Salah's relative travails of late are perhaps symptomatic of this issue. One wonders whether he, in a post World Cup year, has yet had the opportunity to fully recuperate from Sergio Ramos' "accidental" yet somehow expertly executed judo throw during the Champions League final. With Salah's subpar early season form in mind, in an ideal world, I am willing to wager that Klopp would have opted to ease Salah into the season slowly. However, in an ideal world, you wouldn't have Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge waiting in reserve - but you might have Gabriel Jesus. Few forward lines are going to compare favourably to Man City's, even when Liverpool's advantage at the top of the table was at its widest at the turn of the year, Pep's side enjoyed a comfortable advantage on top of the goalscoring charts. In some ways, the straight-up head-to-head comparison is little more than a diversion which distracts from the real problem confronting Liverpool, which is that in their current incarnation, they are but a pale imitation of what they were earlier in the season, particularly in attack. To get an idea of just how significantly their goalscoring rate has slowed since the New Year consider the fact that between now and when they face Spurs at the end of March, Liverpool will need to score 15 goals over 4 games to restore their goals per game ratio to what it was earlier in the season. (Of course, they do play Fulham, so anything's possible). Clearly, Liverpool will need to down some footballing viagra between now and the end of the season if they are to stand any chance of claiming a first Premier League crown. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. The most straightforward solution to their creative block, a return to the manic scramble of gegenpresssing, may be precluded by the squad's exertions to date. Moreover, offloading the creative onus onto one of Shaqiri or perhaps Keita would at best bring inconsistent returns, and consequently, is not a tactic Klopp could adopt with much confidence - certainly not with a title on the line. With Liverpool's margin for error all but erased, Klopp's thinking time has likewise effectively expired. With no obvious solutions to the creativity problem, at hand, I just wonder whether he could countenance winning ugly. The Watford Inspired Postscript Javi Gracia you blithering idiot, what part of limiting Liverpool's lateral threat don't you understand?! In the wake of the 5-0 drubbing 'Pool handed out last night, their 2019 goals per game rate has rebounded from 1.6 to 2.0, which, though an improvement, is still shy of where it stood at the end of 2018. On the back of one result, any temptation to proclaim that Liverpool have rediscovered their mojo should still be considered premature and, moreover, should be further tempered by the fact that over the course of the next three games they would still need to score 10 goals to fully restore their goalscoring rate to previous levels. Similarly, while Liverpool's statistical goalscoring dependency on Firminho, Mane, and Salah has been curbed to now stand at 75%, it's worth remembering that this figure nevertheless remains higher than what would appear to be sustainable. In a desperate attempt to claw back some relevance I have compared Liverpool's goalscoring in 2019 directly with the reverse fixtures staged at the start of the season. Admittedly, there are some issues with this form of analysis, not least the manifest inability to control for the environmental context (Home/Away), but as a purely descriptive tool it is at least moderately diverting. The headline statistic emerging from the quasi-analysis is that Liverpool have scored three less goals across the matches in 2019 than in the reverse ties in 2018, which marks a reduction of 0.375 goals per game. Whereas the trident of Salah, Firmino, and Mane have been responsible for, as mentioned beforehand, 75% of Liverpool's goals in 2019, in 2018 the equivalent mark stood at 68%. Intuitively, it, therefore, follows that Liverpool's goals were distributed more evenly throughout the squad. Interestingly, across both comparative sets, Liverpool goalscoring threat relied on assists from 5 individuals. However, whereas in 2019, the vast majority (83%) of those assists originated from players predominately stationed in lateral zones, Robinson, Milner, and Alexander Arnold, in 2018, Liverpool's appear to have presented a more varied threat. The lateral option though still prevalent was mirrored by contributions from Firminho and Fabinho. While the Watford result can only be considered as a timely fillip for Liverpool's title aspirations, a hyper critical analysis may question whether their play was any less predictable than heretofore in 2019. Throughout last night's match, Trent Alexnader Arnold's crosses verged on being impossible to defend, but that said it shouldn't be overlooked that by doubling his assist tally in a single match, the outline of his starring role is blurred with questionmarks over his consistency. One great performance shouldn't disguise the fact that Liverpool's form overall in 2019 still lags behind the standards they set in 2018, questions still need to be answered, though last night, while untimely for yours truly, was admittedly a pretty good way to start.