A successful football team is a balancing act, in many ways. At this moment in time, Brendan Rodgers has made Liverpool better at scoring, but also ‘better’ at conceding. As goal scoring is far harder than conceding, an off night up top can easily lead to results like the loss to West Bromwich Albion if you’re not watertight at the back.
But what’s the right ‘balance’ to have?
Gerrard Houllier demonstrated that you can be a reasonably successful team by being primarily hard to beat and good on the counter attack, which followed the Roy Evans years when the Reds mounted a title challenge by being good going forward despite being shaky in defence. (As an aside, this would be the Liverpool team from the past that most resembles the current incarnation in my opinion; good to watch, and likely to score, but also liable to come unstuck against lesser, but well organised teams).
Rafa Benitez combined the solidity of the Houllier years with greater fluidity and verve up top, and very nearly won the league. Yet even then, the team were booed off the pitch after going top of the league with 0-0 draws at home; the imbalance in realistic fan expectations was on display there much like it often is online now, albeit on a vastly different scale!
But Reds fans have been making a case that their inconsistent team could win 75% of their remaining games an nick an unlikely fourth place this season. These were probably the same people who forecast that Liverpool would finish 6th or lower before the season began! Expectation is another key part of the balancing act.
But back to Rodgers. Earlier in the season, Liverpool went on an eight game unbeaten run in the Premier League. “Too many draws” chimed the naysayers; perhaps they were right, but as only 14 of the 97 other teams in Europe’s top five leagues have had longer loss-less streaks this season, it’s still a decent achievement.
Then the balance shifted to mostly sweeping aside the cannon fodder but failing to beat the top half teams. More points were being accrued (to the point where the Reds had the 4th best form for the preceding twenty game period), yet that was not acceptable to some fans due to the lost points against the best sides.
At this point, let me be clear: I’m not yet convinced that Rodgers can take Liverpool where they want to go, but I also dislike it when fans discount the many long term positives as soon as the team plays poorly in a match, and I saw a lot of that online following the West Brom defeat.
So what’s the main problem for the Reds right now? Having looked into it, I believe it is the ‘balance’ of their scoring and conceding.
The fact Liverpool are scoring more goals is obviously no bad thing, but dig a little deeper, and the balance of the scoring is currently far from ideal.
For starters, fourteen of the Reds’ forty-four goals (or virtually a third, in other words) came in just three matches. The main problem here is that Liverpool don’t score two-or-more often enough. In the Premier League over the past five seasons (including this one), teams have won 73% of the time when scoring two-or-more, and lost only 9% of their matches.
Look at some of the teams that have scored two-or-more on more occasions than Liverpool this season; aside from the usual suspects at the top end of the table (though not Arsenal, surprisingly), teams such as Everton, West Brom, Swansea and Reading are ahead of the Reds in this regard.
Obviously you can’t choose when or how many to score, but Liverpool’s goal-getting imbalance will continue to hold them back, irrespective of the fact that they were on their fourth best scoring run (in terms of netting in successive league games) in the last twenty years, until last night.
It’s the same story at the back of team, though obviously the stats are flipped; when conceding two-or-more, teams lose 73% of their games and only win 9%.
Brendan Rodgers has to be reasonably pleased that Liverpool have the second most clean sheets in the division this season, but as I wrote here, the Reds have let in two-or-more in fourteen of the seventeen games when they have conceded in the league in 2012/13. It’s now three months since they conceded once in a league game (away at Chelsea), and to be honest, right now I wouldn’t mind it happening more often!
Only Newcastle and Wigan have conceded two-or-more times in more matches than Liverpool have this season, and they’re hardly teams to aspire to right now. So clearly, the balance of the team is not quite right here either.
I don’t profess to have the answer, and making a team tighter in defence will almost inevitably make them less potent up front; less likely to lose perhaps, but less likely to win at the same time. Rodgers also has to find the right approach here whilst balancing the demands of three cup competitions upon a small squad (I’ve covered that I think he’s done this as well as could be realistically expected here).
But the balance definitely needs to swing towards the back of the team if the Reds are to improve, and kick on towards fourth in the league next season.