This article first appeared on The Tomkins Times on 25th June 2013.
As I sit writing this and you sit reading it, even though those two events are happening at different times, it’s a guarantee that wherever he is right now Luis Suárez will be telling anyone who cares to listen that he loves Liverpool, hates the media, and greatly admires the work of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
In fairness to him, so do I, but then the future of Liverpool FC is not dependent upon whether or not I stick with them; with Suárez, it matters a great deal.
Or does it? I’m sure by now you’ve seen the statistics for when Liverpool have had Suárez in the team in the Premier League compared to when they haven’t, but for the record:
In reality though, thirteen games is far too small a sample to make a conclusive judgment on whether or not Liverpool will be a better team if Suárez leaves, so I have decided to dig a little deeper, and look at the key match stats that Luis affects.
It also has to be acknowledged that the ‘without’ sample features easier games on average; using a simple system I devised to rate fixture difficulty, the matches that Suárez has missed in the last two seasons have been 17% easier than the total average, with his games 3% tougher than the complete fixture list as a result.
This article won’t prove anything decisively either in fairness, but hopefully my findings will add to the debate, and the numbers do reveal one particularly key difference that has occurred when Suárez has been absent; but more on that later.
As the only match he missed in his first half-season at Anfield occurred before his first start, it seems pointless to include it in the ‘without Suárez batch’ here (as the Reds hadn’t properly been ‘with’ Suárez at that point), so the data in this article covers the two full seasons that the Uruguayan has had a Liverbird upon his chest.
The obvious place to start is shooting; Luis Suárez took more shots than any other player in the Premier League in 2012/13, and the second most in Europe’s big five leagues. Yet he is not particularly accurate with his shooting; of the 32 players who had fifty-shots-or-more in the English top flight this season, only eight of them had a worse shooting accuracy than the Reds’ number seven.
He is also happy to shoot from all manner of ludicrous pitch locations and angles, so do Liverpool attempt to score from better areas and with a greater accuracy when they are deprived of Suárez?
Not particularly, no.
There are only minor differences between the figures, with the Reds (perhaps surprisingly) taking more shots outside the box without Luis in the team. In terms of shots on target the difference is even smaller; just 0.06 extra shots on target per game when Suárez is missing.
In short, if Luis Suárez is as wasteful with his shooting as is suggested, then there’s little here to suggest that his replacements to date have been any better in his absence.
It’s worth looking at possession figures too, as Suárez posts significant numbers at both ends of the spectrum.
In 2012/13, the Uruguayan was joint second in the Premier League for both number of times dispossessed and turnovers (a loss of possession due to a mistake/poor control) per game. However, he was also ranked second for the number of times a player won possession in the attacking third, illustrating that he can press the opposition high up the pitch.
In other words, he is Brendan Rodgers’ possession dream and nightmare rolled into one crazy little package. Does his absence significantly affect the team’s possession stats?
Whilst there is negligible difference in the possession loss figures, there is a massive 30% drop in final third regains, and excluding the scarcely credible eight possession wins that occurred in Stoke City’s defensive third in a Suárez-less home match in January 2012, the drop would be an even more drastic 55%.
It’s interesting to note that Suárez has won possession in the final third every 92 minutes in the last two seasons, so the drop of approximately one per game in his absence is almost exactly in line with the rate he provides.
Coincidence maybe, but these figures certainly suggest that the Reds do not press the opposition defence as effectively without their number seven, and as final third regains correlate with success (in the mind of Damien Comolli, at least), this could turn out to be a significant loss.
The other aspect of football where Suárez posts significant numbers is chance creation. Luis created more open play chances (80) than any other player in the Premier League this season, and only three players created more clear-cut opportunities for their teammates. Here are the Reds’ figures, and this is where I have significant concerns:
As Suárez has only created seven opportunities from set plays in two seasons, I have focused on open play chances, and you can see that the difference there is negligible whether Luis features or not.
The difference in clear-cut chances is alarming though; a drop of 27% when Suárez does not play. Remove the five clear-cut chances that Liverpool fashioned in the recent 6-0 win at Newcastle, and that would mean a drop of 40% for the remaining eleven matches. Remember also that the matches Luis missed were 17% easier than average overall, so surely the CCC numbers should have risen?
In the last two years, the Reds have failed to create a clear-cut opportunity in just six games, yet one third of these occurred in the twelve matches that didn’t feature Suárez, and bear in mind that these were home fixtures with Fulham and QPR, so hardly the most taxing of encounters.
In the 64 league games he has played in the last two years, Luis Suárez has either created (23) or been the recipient of (58) a whopping 81 clear-cut chances, which is 48% of Liverpool’s tally in these matches.
As much as we might look to Coutinho (who created a clear-cut chance more frequently than any other Premier League player in 2012/13) to set up the top-notch opportunities for instance, it is hugely important to remember that it’s a two-way street.
Look at the Brazilian’s through-ball assist for Suárez in the 4-0 win at Wigan, for an example; if Suárez doesn’t make the run and time it perfectly, then the clear-cut chance isn’t created and the stats would show an unsuccessful pass by Coutinho.
This will therefore be my major concern if Suárez leaves, especially as the majority of the numbers listed here show little difference: will Liverpool be able to replace his influence on clear-cut chance creation?
A further question is raised by these findings; if most of the attacking numbers are largely the same, and the Reds created fewer top quality chances without Suárez, then why are the results so much better? The goals against figures differ by just 0.01 per game whether Luis plays or not, so it’s mainly down to Liverpool’s above average shot conversion:
In the Premier League as a whole, 10% of shots are converted, and 30% of shots on target, but with Suárez in the team Liverpool have been on the wrong side of this line, but above it when he has failed to feature.
The Reds’ shot placement is marginally better without Suárez, with 4% of their shots moving from the low centre of the goal to the low corners, which may explain part of the difference, but as they have had fewer shots in the box and created fewer clear-cut chances, I can only assume that Liverpool’s improved form without Suárez is mainly down to one simple factor: luck.
The ‘Pool have been fortunate to have had a relatively easy schedule when Suárez has been banned or rested, and probably lucky to convert as many shots as they did in these matches. Perhaps the opposition goalkeepers saved their best performances for Luis?
How else do you explain Liverpool scoring 100% of their on target shots at West Ham this season, when facing the keeper (Jaaskelainen) with the third highest save percentage in the Premier League? Or netting 75% of them against a Newcastle side destined for a fifth place finish at Anfield in 2011/12?
A massive 67% shots on target conversion rate at St James Park in April lead to the Reds scoring six on the road in the league for the first time in a decade; Suárez didn’t play, but it would be wrong to assume that Liverpool can replicate this feat too often.
I can’t reiterate enough that the figures in this article are based on small samples, and so cannot be taken as gospel. Similarly, if Suárez is to leave, I have faith that Brendan Rodgers and the transfer committee can re-invest the money wisely, so it needn’t be the end of the world.
But perhaps it’s time to stop thinking Liverpool are a better side without Luis Suárez. It’s far from being that clear-cut.
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