As Liverpool slumped to their third league defeat in five games, I couldn’t help but notice that three things I had identified as possible concerns regarding the Reds in recent months all seem to be coming to pass at once.
This isn’t a ‘Ha, told you so!’ exercise, but I thought it would be worth re-iterating the points as they seem to lie at the heart of Liverpool’s troubles at the moment, and I’ve tried to look a little deeper to the cause of the issues too.
In no particular order, here are the three concerns, with links to the original articles.
The Reds set a new Premier League record (for the period from August 2009) for set piece goals last season, with twenty-six. The problem is that when the league average for set piece goals is twelve per season (and indeed Liverpool scored eleven in the season before last), to see such a large upswing in fortunes is unusual.
Indeed, I noted in the above piece that Manchester United had seen their set piece goals tally halve under David Moyes from their final title winning campaign under Ferguson, and in 2012/13 they had set the previous Premier League record with twenty-two. It’s early days for this campaign, but the Reds appear to be regressing towards their set-piece mean, much as United did last season.
Liverpool are one of only four Premier League teams yet to score a set-piece goal this season, and you don’t have to look far to see their potential value; Aston Villa won at Anfield with their only set play goal so far, and West Brom got their campaign up and running in similar style at White Hart Lane on Sunday. West Ham took a very early lead against the Reds in this way too.
Although Liverpool have had eleven shots via set plays across their first five league games in 2014/15, the average of 2.2 per game is down from 4.0 last season, with dead ball situations now only accounting for 16% of the Reds’ shots when it was 23% last season.
It’s also worth remembering that set-piece shots aren’t just borne out of crosses from free-kicks and corners, but also direct shots from free-kicks. These were another handy source of goals last season, as Suárez (with three), Gerrard (two) and Henderson (one) contributed six strikes between them.
Liverpool had forty-three shots from direct free-kicks last season, so a shade over one per game, but they haven’t had any in their first five games in this campaign. The Reds are being fouled more frequently this season on average (at 12.4 times per game compared to 10.8) too but we can see from the triangles in the below charts that few of the fouls have occurred in threatening areas, and certainly very few in locations where shooting would be a realistic option.
I think this is in part due to the greatly reduced amount of dribbling that Brendan’s boys are doing. After completing 12.4 take-ons per game last season, the Reds have only clocked up 7.6 on average so far in this. Whilst five Redmen averaged over one completed dribble per game last season, only two are doing so in 2014/15, and one of those (Daniel Sturridge) is injured at present. If you don’t try to go past an opponent, you’re far less likely to draw a foul from him, and this appears to be hampering Liverpool’s set play potency at the moment.
The opening goal is so vitally important in football, with the team that gets it going on to win around seventy percent of the time, and thinking back to last season there were famous wins over Manchester United, Everton and Arsenal that were founded on or even settled by an opening goal via a set play. The Reds need to rediscover this ability as soon as they can, as they’ll undoubtedly find it easier to play if they can get ahead, and set plays can provide a handy way to do that.
Clear-cut (which are also known as ‘big’) chances are essentially your ‘sitters’; penalties, one-on-ones and shots from very close range, for instance. In the above piece, I noted that Liverpool had averaged 1.4 per game when Suárez hadn’t played last season, but 3.4 per game when he was in the team.
Sure enough, the Reds have only chalked up six big chances across their five league games so far (which is the same number of matches that Suárez missed last season too, and at a very similar rate of 1.2 per game), and Liverpool have struggled to score goals accordingly.
I may have focused on Suárez’ absence, but from limited evidence this season it would seem that Sturridge is just as important on this front.
The Reds haven’t had a single big chance in either of the games that the former Chelsea man has missed, meaning that they’ve averaged two per game when he has played. Whilst this is still below the creativity level that Liverpool managed when Suárez played, two a game would provide a decent creativity foundation, and as they are converted at a rate of around 40-50%, potentially a goal per game.
We can’t overlook the fact that five games is a very small sample, but to date the Reds have had five big chances when they’ve had two strikers on the pitch together, and only the one with a sole forward up top (and that was Henderson’s wonderful assist for Sterling in the opening game of the season; a fabulous pass, but not the kind of chance that will be created too often). The high levels of creativity when Suárez played last season would’ve been in part down to having two quality strikers playing together, and not solely down to the mercurial Uruguayan.
It’s unfortunate that Coutinho hasn’t been in great form in 2014/15, as he created the second most clear-cut chances in the Premier League last season. The Brazilian was tied second with Rickie Lambert so perhaps the former Southampton man can offer something here too, though it seems unlikely that he will start many matches.
That said, the Reds have had a big chance every thirty minutes with Lambert on the pitch compared to every ninety-eight when he hasn’t been, so his presence may have helped, and again suggests that two strikers is the way to go in order to solve this problem.
It’s very early days in Balotelli’s Liverpool career of course, but the fact that he has one goal from seventeen shots so far ties in perfectly with his 5.2% shot conversion rate from the last two seasons (when free kicks and penalties are excluded) that I identified in the above piece.
Similarly the Italian international has only converted one of his eleven shots in the centre of the box so far (with nine of the other ten blocked or off target, which is worrying) and that ties in with his 9.4% conversion rate for such chances in Serie A last season.
When you consider that Sturridge converted 21.2% of all shots last season, and 35% of those in the centre of the box, it becomes clear that Balotelli does not appear to be a suitable stand in when the England striker is unavailable (and sadly that happens a lot).
To be fair though, Balotelli has created a chance for his strike partner whenever he’s started with one (which has been Sturridge at White Hart Lane and Borini at Upton Park) so he has still been contributing even if converting shots doesn’t appear to be a strength at the moment.
Whilst the issues that I pinpointed as potentially coming to pass all have so far this season, it also seems clear to me that a minor change of fortune in one area could lead to improvement in the others.
For instance, if Liverpool could score an early set piece goal, their opponents would have to open up and this would leave more space and more opportunity to create big chances. We saw this happen on numerous occasions last season, after all.
Balotelli’s conversion rate is in part poor due to him only having had two big chances so far, and so more of those would increase the likelihood of him scoring. He is also capable of scoring free-kick goals (with six such strikes in his career to date) so if Liverpool could earn some of these opportunities than that might help him get goals on the board too.
I referred to ‘predictable problems’ in the title as it seems it was possible to foresee these issues potentially happening due to the data. But perhaps the actual problem is that Liverpool are too predictable in their attacking right now.