It’s far too early to accurately answer this question of course, but I did a quick piece of research which was prompted by a Redmen TV video I watched:
This in turn had been inspired by a John Aldridge column in the Liverpool Echo, where the former striker spoke about recent Reds signing Joel Matip:
“I feel a lot more confident defending set plays because of him in the back four. Matip’s size and height means he’s winning those high balls in the box, he’s a real man mountain. He reminds me of Sami Hyypia in that respect, in how he likes to get his head on everything. We’ve looked susceptible from set pieces in recent times, now we look solid.”
Is this actually the case though? I’ve crunched the defensive set piece numbers for Liverpool in the Premier League since the start of last season, and I’m not convinced that it is.
The following table shows how many set piece shots Liverpool’s opponents have had per game over the last two seasons, both in total and also more specifically in the centre of the penalty box (as this is where the vast majority of set piece goals are scored from).
We can see that the goals per game rate has dropped, and clearly that’s the most important thing if it can be sustained, but at the same time I think it’s too soon to claim that the club’s set piece issues have been resolved when they’re actually allowing more shots from the centre of the box per game than they did in a campaign where they conceded fourteen goals from dead ball situations.
As for Joel Matip specifically, the Reds have actually allowed 2.33 set piece shots from the centre of the box per game that he has played. This is not to say that Liverpool will be worse at defending set plays with him in the team of course, not least because he has only played three league games and only faced top teams so far, but equally I think the lack of goals is a red herring when it comes to proclaiming him as the messiah for preventing set piece goals. Loris Karius will clearly also have an impact on this once he starts playing in the league, and I don’t think that can be far away.
We should also consider how many set pieces Liverpool have faced too. The increased shot rate in the centre of the box might purely be down to having more set pieces sent in there.
This is a hard one to measure accurately (when manually collating data as I do) as a set piece shot might not come directly from a free-kick or corner. Either of those dead ball situations could be played short to another player who then crosses into the box, and so a subsequent shot will be classed as a set piece situation but there will be no corresponding pass visible on the Stats Zone maps as a corner or free-kick.
For an indication though, I’ve tallied up how many free-kicks and corners have been played directly into Liverpool’s box since the start of last season, and this is what I have found.
Last season, opposing teams sent a combined total of 6.76 corners and free-kicks per game into the Reds’ box, but in the opening five league games of 2016/17 this has dropped slightly to 6.40.
This means the percentage of dead-balls into the penalty area resulting in shots has risen from 25% last year to 28% this season. Not a huge change, but also not an improvement.
My conclusion therefore (for what little it’s worth on a tiny sample) is that so far this season Liverpool have not improved their defending of set pieces overall, it just feels that way as fewer goals pro-rata have been conceded. That is obviously the aim of the game as I’ve already said, but it appears to perhaps be more down to luck than judgment so far.
This is definitely one to watch for the rest of the season, and my gut instinct is that the set piece defending will improve in future, but for now let’s not let the lack of goals suggest that the issues have been permanently resolved just yet.