A Game Of Two Halves, Or Key Sixths?

This article first appeared on The Tomkins Times on 30th November 2011. The stats are correct up to and including the draw with Manchester City at Anfield.

Following my recent piece on the form of opposition keepers, a comment from jameske piqued my interest. To summarise, he pondered whether the bulk of Liverpool’s chances have been in the first half, and so opposition keepers may be doing well through expecting this to be the case. Not only that, but if the Reds tire themselves out in the first half, then it may give the opposition the impetus to attack more in the second half.

Watching last week’s match with Chelsea, there certainly seemed to be something in this idea. Not for the first time this season, Liverpool played noticeably better in the first half than in the second; off the top of my head you could easily add Sunderland, Wolves and Norwich to the list too.

Using the Guardian chalkboards, I have broken down each match into fifteen minute sections, to try to see what trends (if any) can be found in the attacking efforts of both Liverpool and their opponents in the thirteen league games played so far. This article may raise more questions than answers, so obviously comments are hugely welcome.

The first stat to notice is the times of the goals scored and conceded. Liverpool currently have an almost even split of nine first half and eight second half goals; by contrast, their opponents’ twelve goals have a nine-three split in favour of the second half. As goals scored towards the end of games inevitably have a greater bearing on the result, this is not good to see.

At Anfield, this issue is even more pronounced – Manchester City became the first visiting team to score a first half goal on Sunday, but a total of five, which have ended up costing the Reds six points, have been conceded after the half time oranges have been consumed. Here’s a breakdown of the goal times:

Aside from the fact you may as well go for your pie between 16 and 30 minutes gone as you won’t miss much, what can we see from these figures?

The most costly period defensively has been immediately following half time, and three of the four goals conceded in this spell have been at Anfield. Are Liverpool slow out of the blocks second half, or are the opposition making tactical changes that have paid dividends?

In three of the games (Wolves, Manchester United and Norwich) a substitute has been brought on in the second half and scored within five minutes of entering the fray, though only Steven Fletcher of Wolves managed to do so after coming on at half-time. Sturridge scored for Chelsea after being brought on at the break too, and he managed it within just ten minutes.

In a season of statistical anomalies for the Reds, the above facts may well represent another. From 36 substitute appearances, Liverpool’s opponents have scored four goals by the men brought on; this equates to one every nine sub appearances.

I haven’t looked into how many goals subs normally score for those teams, as it would take forever and a day, but I do have some research I can draw on. My first piece for The Tomkins Times was an attempt to assess of how successful Rafa’s substitutions were. The research revealed that a substitute scored a goal every 13.9 games under Benitez.

Granted it’s a much smaller sample for this season alone, but again Liverpool have been punished by a seemingly above average goal scoring record by subs. Interestingly, we have a goal by a sub every 14.5 appearances so far this season, so Kenny is close to Rafa’s average on that front.

Let’s break down further from goals and look at total shots. Whilst Liverpool have had 56 more shots than their opponents, in terms of breaking the figures down into sections of the match, the percentages are pretty matched between the Reds and the opposition throughout:

Nothing much of interest to draw from the total shot figures, so let’s focus on shots on target:

This is where it gets interesting; whilst we can see that the opposition have their most successful spell immediately after half-time, look at the opponents’ figure for the 31-45 minute period. Thirteen opposing teams, playing a total of 195 minutes, have managed just two shots on target between them.

Suddenly, it seems to me that Liverpool are not just being overly punished early in the second halves, but rather that they are also getting away with it defensively shortly before half time on a massive scale.

Obviously you don’t want to concede at all, but surely from a tactical point of view, if you conceded just before half time, then at least you have the break to make adjustments if you feel they are required. If the opposition get in the ascendancy early in the second half, it must be much harder to respond effectively, and we have certainly seen that in a few Liverpool games this season.

Take a look at the shot conversion statistics, that were compiled prior to the match with Manchester City:

As much as Liverpool’s conversion rate this season has been poor, their opponents have been even worse in front of the Reds’ goal.

When compared to the figures that Manchester City accrued prior to Sunday’s match, it’s clear what a challenge the Reds were likely to be up against; whilst Liverpool had faced 160 shots this season, Manchester City had 239 in their first twelve games, and they had converted eighteen percent of them. In other words, 50% more shots taken, and they scored nearly three times as many of them as the teams who had played Liverpool previously.

In that context, the Reds deserve enormous credit for their defensive display against the blue half of Manchester. The headline statistic will be that City failed to score at least two goals in a league game for the first time this season. Perhaps more importantly, despite averaging a whopping 19.9 shots per game previously, City were limited to just seven at Anfield.

It wasn’t all positive; Liverpool’s shot conversion dipped further to 7.6%, as only a single goal was plundered from eighteen shots, though clearly Joe Hart played a huge part in that on Sunday, and I may have to revisit the ‘Jeepers Keepers‘ piece as a result! (Note: I have since written a piece on Hart’s performance vs Liverpool, which can be found here).

So to refer back to the original questions that prompted this article:

Have the bulk of Liverpool’s chances been in the first half? No. The figures are currently 100 shots first half (with 29 being on target), and 123 in the second half (with 39 testing the keeper for a 32% accuracy percentage). That said, as the team has scored one more goal in their first forty-five minute periods, then they have at least been more efficient in front of goal in the first halves.

Have the opposition had more impetus to attack in the second half? I guess they have as the Reds have often been ahead at the break (in six of the thirteen games to be exact). The key difference is that whereas Liverpool’s accuracy rate went up by 3% in the second halves, for their opponents it has nearly doubled; 13 out of their 75 first half shots have been on target (17%), compared with 30 out of 92 (33%) after the break, and Liverpool have often been punished as a result.

One thing is clear – Liverpool’s opponents have been making the most of their apparent dominance in the second halves, and whatever the reasons (players tiring, not responding to tactical changes etc), they need to improve in order to make the top four.

Please take a look at my other articles, a list of which can be found here.

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