Has there ever been a more confusing season for fans of Liverpool FC than this one? The match statistics have generally been positive, performances mixed, and results all over the place, so every fan you ask has differing views on whether Dalglish deserved to have his contract terminated.
I will be presenting the numbers for different aspects of play, to try to establish who has performed well in which areas, and how the team as a whole performed in 2011/12. I’m sure you will have read quite a few of these stats before, but this is an attempt to flesh out the story of the season through all of the numbers available. To start, some interesting stats about the season as a whole:
- Liverpool earned twenty-five points away from home, better than in three of the six Rafa Benitez seasons, and only three points below Benitez’ average. Clearly the home form (with just six wins all season) was the main issue.
- Only Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal won more away games than Liverpool this season, but only four teams won fewer home games.
- Despite the above, the only team in the division to lose every away game in which they fell behind was Liverpool.
- Stewart Downing had seventy-two shots without scoring, the highest figure in the Premier League this season.
- Conversely, Sebastian Coates only had one shot in the entire league campaign, and it was one of the goals of the season!
- The Reds did not win three games in a row at any point, and didn’t win two games back to back in 2012.
Enrique, Henderson, Downing and Adam were only excluded from twelve out of a possible 152 matchday squads between them, and nine of those were accounted for by Adam’s injury towards the end of the season. I think this gives further backing to the logic behind the transfer policy last summer; I believe the club wanted players who could play the majority of the games, as there probably wasn’t going to be a massive influx in terms of numbers.
Dirk Kuyt also proved what a reliable pro he is, by featuring in every single match day squad. The fact he came off the bench twelve times, together with being substituted off in twelve of his twenty-two starts, explains how he only played 58% of the available minutes.
As I have noted throughout the season, the minimal use of Maxi has baffled me; the fact he played 275 minutes (or essentially three full games) less than Lucas, who was only fit or eligible for twelve matches this season, is astounding. That Rodriguez played 16.7% of the minutes up-to-and-including the Arsenal match at Anfield, but 35.5% afterwards (once the challenge for fourth was realistically over) illustrates how important Dalglish thought Maxi was when it really mattered in the league. Considering that Rodriguez scored a goal more often than any other Liverpool player this season (netting once every 203 minutes), his repeated absence from the team seems even stranger.
Interestingly, Carroll’s involvement also went up after the above mentioned Arsenal game, though not by as much as Maxi: 58.4% of the minutes before, compared to 67.6% after. Did Dalglish feel the Geordie warranted more time once there was nothing particularly to play for? The likes of Shelvey (51.9% more playing time), Coates (24.6%) and Carragher (23.1%) also saw more action after the defeat to the Gunners, illustrating how Dalglish was making wider use of his squad once fourth place had slipped away.
Liverpool started the season reasonably well on this front, with seven clean sheets in their first seventeen games. However, their post-Christmas slump saw them only register a further five shut-outs to finish with twelve (which was still joint seventh best in the Premier League, in fairness). A clean sheet tally of 31.2% is only better than Liverpool managed in four of the previous nineteen Premier League seasons, and three of those were in the 1990′s when the Reds tended not to defend too well!
Liverpool gave away the third lowest amount of shots in the league (11.2 per game) and, perhaps more importantly, only gave away 132 shots on target, the least of any team in the division this season. They were clearly doing something right defensively, but how was this reflected in specific defensive statistics?
The Secret Footballer noted how Damien Comolli apparently believed that winning headers was key to winning matches, and the Reds certainly performed well at aerial duels; 12.9 won per game, which was the third best in the Premier League (and I doubt any team will ever out-perform Stoke!). Liverpool won less than 50% of the aerial duels in just six of their league matches this season, so were consistently dominant in the air.
Unsurprisingly, Andy Carroll was the star here; he won an aerial duel every 13.6 minutes (Martin Skrtel was next in line for the Reds, and he won one nearly three times less regularly at one every 38.4 mins). The Geordie striker won more aerial duels (185) than any other player in the Premier League, and he only played 61% of the available minutes.
Combining all three aspects of ‘challenges’ (tackles, ground duels and aerial duels) reveals that Carroll was the most involved (with a challenge every 3.14 mins) and most regularly successful (a win every 5.11 mins). Lucas is in second place, illustrating what he would’ve bought to the team defensively for the twenty-six games he was not available for (not that we need numbers to tell us that).
His absences were also felt in the tackling department: when Lucas played, Liverpool attempted 21.5 tackles per game; without him that figure dropped to 18.0. The Brazilian also won a tackle every 20.1 minutes, the most regularly of any Red; the next best in the squad was Martin Kelly (who won a tackle every 32.1 minutes), and he’s not a regular starter.
To give a division-wide context, Moussa Dembele of Fulham won eighty-six tackles this season, the most by any player in the Premier League. However, based on his own tackle win rate for this campaign, if Lucas had played as many minutes as Dembele, then he’d have won an incredible 146 tackles. In other words, 170% of the Premier League’s top tackler’s tally.
Another interesting statistic we can probably put down to the absence of Lucas Leiva is that 69% of shots against Liverpool came from the middle of the pitch, and this figure was the third highest in the league. To my mind, that illustrates perfectly that whilst Liverpool have remained defensively strong on the flanks, they have been found to be weak through the middle.
This can also be seen with the Reds’ poor record for interceptions; only 13.8 per game, which is the third worst record in the Premier League this season.
As Sean Rogers pointed out on The Anfield Wrap podcast recently, this lack of interceptions is an issue; whilst tackles will always be essential, the opposing team often regains possession afterwards (as one of their players may get the loose ball, or it could go out of play). With a successful interception, you have the ball at your feet and you’re ready to go forward and attack.
It will probably surprise no-one to learn that our top two performers at this skill were Lucas Leiva (2.6 per game) and Daniel Agger (2.2 per game). The defensive figures with or without these two players (and especially together) prove their importance to Liverpool:
1) The Reds conceded a goal every 98.9 minutes when Lucas was on the pitch, but every 86.6 minutes when he wasn’t;
2) Liverpool only conceded every 107 minutes that Agger was on the pitch, but every 71 minutes without him;
3) With both Lucas Leiva and Daniel Agger playing, the Reds only conceded a goal every 130 minutes, but that dropped to every 83 minutes when one or both of them was absent. What has hurt Liverpool therefore, is the fact that they have only played together for 21.7% of the available minutes this season.
Of course, Agger’s injury woes are hardly a new development, and Kenny Dalglish took a huge risk which backfired in playing Lucas in a Carling Cup game within two days of a league game, but had those two remained fit all season, it’s probably not too great a stretch to suggest that results would have been better, and Dalglish might still be manager of Liverpool.
Possession, Passing and Creativity
Liverpool ended 2011/12 with an average possession figure of 55%, the seventh highest in the Premier League. The Reds dominated the possession in thirty-two of their thirty-eight games (84% of the time, in other words), though their results showed that retaining the ball is not the be-all-and-end-all in football; they earned 1.5 points per game (ppg) when they didn’t have the majority of the ball (albeit from a small sample of six games), as opposed to 1.34 ppg when they did.
With a pass success rate of 80.9%, Liverpool were the eighth best team in the division with the ball, but this time their points per game figures seemed to reflect their dominance in this area: 1.1 ppg were earned on the ten occasions when the Reds had a lower passing success rate than their opponents, and 1.46 ppg when they bettered it.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Maxi was the club’s top passer, with an amazing 91% success rate. Considering where he will have spent his time on the pitch, that’s very impressive. The Argentine was also joint top in the final third passing accuracy ratings, with 82%, alongside Craig Bellamy and Stewart Downing.
In terms of creativity, Liverpool averaged 4.6 chances more per game than their opposition. If you exclude the 0-4 debacle at White Hart Lane, it rises to an impressive 5.0 more per game. In eight league matches this season, the Reds created eleven-or-more chances than their opponents, yet only won two of them. These disappointing figures are obviously down to their poor record in front of goal, but more on that later.
On an individual basis, Luis Suárez was the most creative Red this season. The Uruguayan made 2.1 key passes per game for his colleagues, a figure which put him joint eleventh overall for the Premier League. The much maligned Charlie Adam was next for Liverpool with 1.9 key passes per game, and interestingly, he played 0.4 accurate through balls per game. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually joint fifth highest in the league! Perhaps the Scot deserves more credit for his performances (in an attacking sense) than he has been given.
After all, Adam got six assists this season in the league, and no-one else got more than three for the Reds (in fact, Adam got 24% of Liverpool’s assists this season on his own). Four were from set plays; the whole Liverpool squad only got four set play assists in 2010/11, and just three the season before that. Whilst his set-piece delivery has been erratic, Adam has certainly improved on the Reds’ recent record in this area.
Despite Liverpool’s poor record when Steven Gerrard has played this season (a 27% win percentage compared to 45% when he was absent), it obviously wasn’t all down to the skipper, as he was the Reds’ third most creative player. Although Stewart Downing didn’t make the top three, he was top of the tree for creating clear-cut chances, with 19% of Liverpool’s total coming from the Teesider.
Anyone who has seen a number of Liverpool games this season will know that this is where a lot of the ‘ugly’ stats will be lying in wait:
- Liverpool failed to score in thirteen matches this season, the joint most times this has occurred for the Reds in a thirty-eight game Premier League season.
- In twenty-four league games this season the Reds failed to score more than one goal. This equates to 63.2% of their matches, which is their worst figure in Premier League history. Their average for the previous nineteen season was 51.6%.
- This was one of only five Premier League seasons where Liverpool failed to score five goals in a game at least once.
- The Reds benefitted from five own goals, which was the joint most in the division. Only Luis Suárez (11) and Craig Bellamy (6) scored more goals than that for Liverpool this season.
- Only four players scored more goals for Liverpool than centre-back Martin Skrtel.
The most impressive statistic from an attacking perspective this season is that Barcelona are the only team in the top five leagues in Europe to have a greater proportion of their play in the attacking third of the pitch than Liverpool.
However, it should also be noted that the Reds were caught offside more often than any other side in the league (3.4 times per game on average). That suggests to me that perhaps they were in too much of a hurry to get the ball forward, when a more considered approach might have paid greater dividends.
In very broad terms, Liverpool had enough shots to have finished higher in the league than they did; they were fourth in the league for number of shots, and sixth for shots on target. Similarly, on an individual match basis, the Reds only had fewer shots than their opponents in five games, and fewer shots on target six times. Perhaps the best way to sum up where they went wrong this season is with this fact:
In every game Liverpool won, they at least matched their opponents’ shooting accuracy. The nineteen games where Liverpool’s shooting accuracy was below their opponents’ yielded just eight points.
It may seem obvious, but the match facts lay it bare: if you put a lower proportion of your shots on target than your opponents do, you’re unlikely to win, and that’s exactly what Liverpool did for half of the season.
As I looked up the impact of playing both Agger and Lucas from a defensive point-of-view, I thought I’d do the same here for Andy Carroll and Luis Suárez, as they are the only two regularly starting strikers on the club’s books. The picture is far less clear than it is for the defence though.
When both started, Liverpool scored 1.15 goals per game (gpg), and earned 1.38 points per game (ppg). The two players scored five goals between them in these thirteen games (0.38 gpg), and the only match where both scored (a 2-0 win at Goodison Park) was amongst these fixtures.
When one or both of them did not start, the Reds earned 1.36 ppg (0.02 ppg less) and scored 1.28 gpg (0.13 gpg more). Carroll and Suárez scored ten goals between them in these twenty-five games; 0.4 goals per game, so a mere 0.02 more than when they start together.
In total, Liverpool scored every 74.4 minutes when both players were on the pitch, and every 77.9 minutes when either or both of them were absent. It seems to make negligible difference to Liverpool’s performance which ever combination of Carroll and Suárez takes to the field.
Black Swan Statistics
No round-up of this season would be complete without a look at some of the freak occurrences and statistical outliers that have beset Liverpool in 2011/12.
Woodwork: Liverpool set a new Premier League record by hitting the frame of the goal on thirty-three occasions, more than any side has managed since records began in August 2000. The Reds struck the woodwork in exactly half of their league games, and found it more than once in ten matches. According to Opta, if all woodwork strikes in the Premier League were goals, then Liverpool would have finished fourth.
If ever a single match summed up Liverpool’s fascination with the woodwork it was the 1-1 draw at Anfield with Aston Villa; the Reds hit the frame four times whilst Villa only had four shots in total!
On a personal level, Luis Suárez found the woodwork eight times; bear in mind, this means that the Uruguayan hit the frame more than two entire teams (Stoke and Norwich) did on his own. His figure of eight was more than any player had previously managed, though Robin van Persie later finished on ten woodwork hits to take the unwanted record. Having scored nineteen more goals though, the Dutchman is probably less concerned about this than Suárez is.
Refereeing: According to the independent website Debatable Decisions, Liverpool had twenty-one debatable calls by referees go against them (more than any other side, though Arsenal suffered more overall as they had fewer go in their favour than the Reds). These decisions cost Liverpool eleven points; not enough to make up the shortfall on fourth place in the league, but another indication that many narrow margins went against them this season.
Injuries: The website PhysioRoom stated that Liverpool suffered fewer injuries than any other Premier League team this season. Unfortunately for the Reds though, one of the injuries was a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury to last season’s Player Of The Year, Lucas Leiva. I’m sure all Liverpool fans would trade that one injury for a few more minor knocks to less important squad players if they could.
Penalties: Liverpool only scored a scarcely credible one of the six penalties that they were awarded in the league this season. To give that some context, the Reds only missed eight penalties in total in the previous nine seasons of Premier League football. On a division wide basis, 79.2% of penalties have been scored in the previous ten seasons, yet Liverpool missed 83.3% of theirs this season. Remarkably, this season’s Reds’ squad account for 2.78% of all missed penalties in the previous ten years, a frightening and frustrating waste of free shots at goal.
Three of the five misses came in matches Liverpool failed to win, so a further five points might easily have been picked up with better penalty taking. Two games (a 1-1 draw with Sunderland, and a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal, both at Anfield) featured a missed penalty and a woodwork strike, so the gods of football were certainly not with the Reds on those occasions.
Shooting Accuracy: 28.9% of shots on target in the Premier League this season resulted in goals. Whilst Liverpool’s conversion was below the average as you would assume (at 23.0%) due to their poor shooting combined with excellent goalkeeping performances by the opposition, the Reds’ opponents converted a slightly above average amount of their shots on target (31.0%).
Whilst there is nothing particularly unusual in that, Liverpool fell victim to a particularly harsh streak of form in front of their goal by their opponents; what makes matters worse for Kenny Dalglish, is that it occurred towards the end of the season when a few more favourable results might well have saved his job.
From the 75th minute of the match against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road, to the 11th minute of the 1-1 draw with Aston Villa at Anfield, Liverpool’s opponents scored eight goals from nine shots on target; a remarkable conversion rate of 89%. The Reds only scored one goal themselves during this period (though they were 2-0 up at Loftus Road when it began), and took just one point from that four game spell. It was part of a trend across the whole of the second half of the season; the graph below shows the ‘shot on target conversion’ trends for Liverpool and their opponents this season, and illustrates why the Reds have struggled in 2012:
The steep incline in the blue line between games twenty-nine and thirty-two is the ‘black swan’ period mentioned above. The lowest point in the blue line (once the season settled down, that is) was a 0-0 draw at Wigan, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that this was the eighth game in a row where the first choice back four of Johnson, Skrtel, Agger and Enrique started together. Once the settled back four was broken up four games later, the opposition conversion rate followed an upward trend for the rest of the season.
I believe that the statistics presented here illustrate that Liverpool generally played well in 2011/12. Whilst they had their problems in front of goal, the fact they tended to dominate possession and create more chances than the opposition shows that there is the basis of a decent side at Anfield. An injection of football intelligence (to make the most of the possession) and finishing ability (to score the multiple chances that are being created) would be hugely welcome.
Unfortunately for Kenny Dalglish, he will not have the opportunity to build on this foundation and fine tune the side next season. If I wanted to try to pinpoint a single reason for the downfall of Dalglish, the stats certainly show that the decision to play Lucas Leiva in a match only fifty hours after his previous start concluded, during which he picked up his season ending injury, appears with hindsight to have been a gamble that was not worth taking.
It’s time to see if a new manager can push Liverpool towards the holy grail of the 2013/14 Champions League. The statistics suggest he might well have a chance.