This article was originally written for issue five of the excellent We Are Liverpool fanzine (Twitter / Facebook). As such, the stats are a little out of date, but the main themes are still valid and I’ve written a little postscript to give the up-to-date picture…
Since the summer of 2013, Liverpool FC have spent somewhere in the region of £60m trying to improve their defence and goalkeeper. As back line stalwarts of the Benitez era left the club for various reasons (Carragher; retired, Agger; semi-retired, Reina; retired from regularly keeping the ball out of the net), the likes of Mignolet, Sakho, Lovren and Moreno have come in at considerable expense to try to solidify things.
Yet in 2013/14, the Reds conceded more goals per game (1.32) than in any previous Premier League campaign, and at the time of writing (on the eve of Liverpool’s match at Selhurst Park) it’s slightly worse this season (with an average of 1.36 goals conceded per game).
When you consider that the Reds averaged 0.98 goals a game against in the Premier League before last season, you can see that Liverpool are conceding an extra goal every three games these days, and now that the goals have dried up at the right end, Brendan Rodgers could really do with his back line tightening up sooner rather than later.
Sadly for the boss, Lovren and Moreno have already made more (Opta-defined) defensive errors in the league than they did in the whole of last season for their respective clubs, and Martin Skrtel is another Red in the top ten (or that should really be ‘worst ten’) for committing on the ball errors that lead to shots. This goes a long way to explaining why Liverpool have the joint fewest clean sheets in the top flight this season (again, as at November 22nd).
In spite of all of this, I’m going to show you that things aren’t that bad in defensive terms for Liverpool this season. I imagine quite a few people have now turned the page in disbelief, to read something a little more realistic. But if you’re still here, a) thanks, and b) here’s what I mean.
If Liverpool are as bad defensively as everyone says this season, then presumably they must be allowing their opponents to have loads of shots? Actually no, they’re not. At present, only two teams (Arsenal and Southampton) have conceded fewer shots than the Reds have.
Ah, but not all shots are equal. Perhaps Liverpool are allowing lots of good quality shots?
Yes and no. When shooting at goal, there’s a massive difference in conversion rate depending on whether or not you’re in the penalty box. Thanks to @DanKennett (when writing for the StatsBomb website), we know that around one in eight shots in the box (excluding penalty kicks) results in a goal, but this drops hugely to around one in thirty-seven (excluding direct free-kicks) once you are outside the penalty area.
Are Liverpool’s opponents shooting lots in their penalty area then? As the table below shows, they’re not.
Only three teams in the Premier League have allowed fewer shots per game in their penalty box than Liverpool this season. On the whole, the hapless Dejan Lovren and co. have restricted their opponents from shooting close to goal far better than most rival teams in the English top flight have. It’s also interesting to note that despite the widely perceived notion that the defence is worse this season than it was last year, Liverpool are actually allowing 0.4 fewer shots per game in their box (and 2.1 overall) this term.
Clearly all is not rosy though, as I alluded to earlier; despite not allowing that many shots in Simon Mignolet’s penalty area, Liverpool’s opponents are having lots of ‘big chances’. These are defined by Opta as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range”, so how are teams getting these opportunities without shooting in the box too often?
Remember the high number of defensive errors? That’s how teams are able to get so many top quality shots away against the Reds. So if (and this is the biggest ‘if’ in this whole fanzine; possibly in the western world) Liverpool can cut out the stupid mistakes at the back, then their defensive record should rapidly improve, as teams aren’t shooting in the Reds’ box too much otherwise.
Of course, the issue with stats based articles is that they are out of date quicker than a ‘reduced’ shelf at the supermarket; maybe when you read this the picture has shifted and become better anyway (or more likely worse).
But rest assured, the majority of Liverpool’s basic defensive numbers are actually pretty good anyway, and so their goals against record should improve. Watch this space…
Postscript: Six weeks on and the picture is broadly the same, though perhaps the main positive is that shots in the box against Liverpool has dropped to 6.0 per game, which is the fourth fewest in the Premier League. More teams are allowing fewer shots overall than the Reds now than when the piece was written, but as the total in the box has dropped then my defence of the defence still stands!