Is Tony Pulis Really Liverpool’s Nemesis?

I haven’t done a quick blog post in ages, but this article from the Liverpool Echo has inspired me.

In it, the facts of Liverpool’s poor record against teams managed by the current West Bromwich Albion gaffer are rightly laid bare:

Liverpool go looking for their first ever away win in the Premier League against a Pulis managed-team on Sunday when they travel to the Hawthorns, a venue where they have not won since 2011.

Jurgen Klopp’s men won the reverse fixture 2-1 at Anfield in October for a first league victory over Pulis in nine attempts across five years.

But have the Reds deserved to win more of those games than they actually have? Let’s take a look.

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SLiCk: How Liverpool’s New Front Three Interact

On the 6th December, Liverpool hosted Sunderland at Anfield, and laboured their way to a 0-0 draw in which they only had two shots on target. Rickie Lambert lead the line that day, with a threesome of Sterling, Lallana and Coutinho (can you see where SLiCk comes from now?!) behind him.

The match was Liverpool’s twenty-second of the season, yet it was only the sixth time that this trio had appeared on the pitch at the same time. Now that they’ve played together in the Reds’ last five games, with impressive results, I thought I’d take a quick look at the impact they have had and how well they have linked up.

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2012 and 2013: Chalk and Cheese

I wrote a piece in September, looking at how much Liverpool had improved from 2012 to 2013. To recap, at the time of writing, the 2013 Liverpool were just four points behind the previous year’s total, with eighteen games in hand.

As the Reds have just finished the year in fifth place in the table, despite signing off with two defeats, I thought I’d revisit the figures to see just how much they have improved by.

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Cardiff Craig; Liverpool’s Loss?

This article first appeared on The Tomkins Times on 11th August 2012.

For the second time in five years, Craig Bellamy has left Liverpool after a single season for pastures new. Well, pastures old in this case actually, as he is returning to Cardiff, which is both his home town and a side he has played for previously.

Considering his high wages and injury record, it’s probably no surprise that Liverpool did not stand in his way when he asked to leave. A record of nine goals in thirty-seven appearances (though from only eighteen starts, in fairness) doesn’t appear to be too difficult to replace either.

But Bellamy offered far more to the Reds than merely goals last season, and making up the shortfall in other areas may not be so straightforward.

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Kenny Dalglish and the Points Per Game Ratio

Points per game (ppg) is a simple but effective way of measuring the progress of a team. By looking at the points per game that teams have registered in previous seasons, we can estimate where a team might finish.

The table below shows the ppg a team has required to secure the top four positions in the Premier League, since it became a 20 team division in 1995.

To be clear, the figures quoted will not correlate to the ppg the team in that position actually got at the end of the season; rather it is calculated on the team winning one point more than the team below them, as if they’d got that amount then they’d still finish in that position. Of course, you can have the same points as the team below you and beat them on goal difference, but I have ignored that rare occurrence to keep things simple.

It’s clear from the figures above that the standard has risen overall during this period, although last season did see a significant dip at the top of the league. I would expect this to be an exception rather than the norm though, in view of how much money the top teams have invested this summer.

Based on previous seasons, 2.29 ppg will guarantee the title. In 2008/09, Liverpool’s best league season during this period, the Reds averaged 2.26 ppg; the only time in these 16 seasons that this has not been enough to win the league. Quite an achievement by Señor  Benitez.

Of course that is an unrealistic goal for Liverpool this season. Dalglish’s primary objective for this campaign will be a fourth place finish and a return to the Champions League (or it’s qualifiers at least). The highest ppg required to secure a top four placing in a 20 team Premier League season was 1.79 in 2009/10.

Obviously it’s too early this season to realistically judge Liverpool’s form in pursuit of this objective, though 2.00 points per game when your first two matches have included Arsenal away is still a decent start.

At this point in time, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish have both managed Liverpool for 20 league games in the Premier League era, so it seems as good a time as any for a comparison.

The current West Bromwich Albion manager’s tenure at Anfield was not a happy or successful one as we know, but the ppg method shows just how far from the top four his team was.

Hodgson’s 20 league games only yielded 25 points, or 1.25 ppg. Had this form continued for the whole of last season then the Reds would have earned 47.5 points. I’ll be charitable and round it up to 48; Liverpool would have finished ninth last season.

Dalglish has been much more productive, earning 37 point from his twenty matches, or 1.85 points per game. This would have guaranteed fourth place in all of the last 16 seasons.

In fact, as the table below shows, this would have been enough for even higher league finishes on 12 occasions. Remarkably, it was enough for the title itself in 1997.

So whilst we can not be sure that Liverpool’s league form under Dalglish will guarantee a top four finish this season, it’s safe to say that the Reds are on the right track at least.

Three points today against Bolton Wanderers will move Dalglish to 1.90 ppg for his 21 league games so far. In other words, enough to have finished first in the league last season. Look out Sir Alex, the King is coming for you.

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

All I Am Saying is Give Carroll A Chance

A lot of Liverpool fans have been voicing concerns about how Liverpool play when Andy Carroll is in the side. With the £35m man up front, the Reds resort to hoofball tactics which would shame the likes of Bolton these days.

Or do they? In the seven league matches that Carroll played last season, Liverpool, on average, attempted 45.14 long passes (defined as a pass straight from defence to attack), and 45.86 in the seven matches he missed after he signed for the club.

Similarly, accurate long balls increased in number during the games Carroll missed, for an average of 30.14, as opposed to 27.71 when he did play.  Small margins granted, but those numbers would suggest that the Reds weren’t playing route one football just because Carroll was in the line-up.

Looking at last weekend’s match with Sunderland, Carroll won all of the nine aerial duels he contested, so is the issue him, or is it Jamie Carragher (as an example, but probably the club’s king of the long ball hoof)?

Does Carragher hit it long because Carroll is there? Because Kenny tells him to? Because there are lack of options close to him? Because he’s not a very good ‘footballer’? Probably a bit of all of these things, but to lay the blame at the Geordie striker’s door seems unfair to me.

I’m not going to sit here and say we played better in the league games Carroll played in compared to those that he missed last season, as it’s just not true. His case has not been aided by the dazzling five goal romps against Birmingham at Anfield and Fulham away, when he was entirely absent from the line up.

He has also only scored two goals for Liverpool so far. However, in the interests of fair play, I think some context is required.

Carroll featured in seven matches last season. These included matches against Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Spurs. Or four of the five teams who finished above Liverpool, if you prefer. That clearly is a disproportionately difficult selection of matches.

Twice Carroll was brought on as a sub when the Reds were already 3-0 up (Manchester United and Newcastle at home). Not impossible that the team or Andy himself would have scored more of course, but they were hardly busting a gut to do so.

Another of his matches was Arsenal away – not a happy hunting ground for Liverpool since the early days of the Premiership, when they won five times in their first eight visits. Since Titi Camara secured a 1-0 win in February 2000, the Reds have only scored nine goals in 11 league visits, and only scored twice once. Even then they were soundly taken apart by a Thierry Henry hat-trick in a 4-2 defeat.

So to blame Carroll in any way seems a little off when much better Liverpool teams than the vintage of 2010/11 have hardly done well at Highbury or The Emirates in recent times.

Carroll also had the misfortune of playing against West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns with Martin Atkinson as the ref. Big Andy complained about after being kicked from pillar to post, to which the referee laughed and told him to get on with it as he was a striker. Who is the ref for the Arsenal match today by the way? I wouldn’t expect miracles from Carroll today if I were you.

In short, I think the two key questions and answers on the Carroll debate are:

Has Carroll been a resounding success yet? No.
Has he had a fair chance to prove himself yet? No.

I’m going to keep the faith for the time being. The final key question is: will Kenny and the majority of the fanbase do the same?

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

Promise and Potential

There has been much debate over the quality of Liverpool’s performance in their opening league match of the 2011/12 season against Sunderland.

The classic ‘game of two halves’ cliché was wheeled out after the Reds contrived to follow a half of dazzling and quick paced attacking football with one of leaden footed hoofing towards their giant Geordie up front.

However, something people have perhaps been overlooking is the youth of the starting XI Liverpool fielded last Saturday. It turns out that it was the joint second youngest of all of the 20 Premier League teams that started during Matchday One (as they have to call it seeing as it in fact covers three days).

The Reds’ eleven clocked in at just 25 years and 4 months old on average. The only team younger than them last weekend was Manchester United at 24 years and 5 months, and the scale runs through to Fulham at a positively AC Milan-esque 31 years and 3 months old. Wonder which of their former managers bought in so many old players?

Rhetorical questions aside, this demonstrates that Liverpool fielded a very young team on Saturday. Of course, it would be fair to point out that Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt (who are both 31) will likely start most weeks when fit for the rest of the season.

By the same token though, players such as Jay Spearing (22), Martin Kelly (21), and Jack Robinson (17) played their parts towards the tail end of last season as Kenny Dalglish took the team to heights that had seemed impossible under Roy Hodgson. You know, like the top half of the table for starters.

But back to the Sunderland match. It’s not just a question of age, but also of familiarity. Liverpool fielded four debutants, and one of them (José Enrique) had only been at the club for one day.

Of the other starting players, the likes of Flanagan (with just seven previous league appearances for Liverpool),  Carroll (seven injury plagued or unfit appearances for the Reds) and Suárez (a seemingly unlucky 13 previous appearances, if his penalty is anything to go by) are hardly established in the first team yet either.

So only four of the starting eleven players had more than half a season at Anfield under their belts. You can’t throw a new team together and expect a sparkling performance.

And yet, in their first half at least, that’s exactly what we got. With only minimal extra luck, Liverpool could have been three or four goals to the good at home, against a side playing with ten men. Three points in the bag no question.

In that context, it was a spectacularly good opening 45 minutes to the season, and I believe a foretaste of what is to come from this bunch of hip young gunslingers over the next nine months. Only time will tell, but then time is very much on this team’s side.

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

Liverpool FC’s Squad Availability 2010/11

As I have often mentioned, and as anyone with half an eye on football would have noticed, Liverpool were far more effective in the league last season under Kenny Dalglish than they were under Roy Hodgson.

I will be taking a look at what players were available to both managers for league matches to see if this had an impact. Did the managers get to put out onto the field the players they’d have liked to?

I have discounted matches that occurred during the transfer window for the start of both manager’s reigns, as a multitude of players either left (e.g. Mascherano and Torres) or joined (Konchesky, Carroll and Suárez for example) during these periods.

In all of the below tables the players are sorted in order of the percentage of the available of minutes that they played. A match is counted as 90 minutes, no injury time is included.

To register in the ‘matches selected for’ column, a player made the bench as a minimum, but may not have actually played. This would indicate that a player was at least ‘fit’ (though perhaps not 100% match fit) to play. Of course players will miss matches through being rested, or dropped outright too.

The ‘difference’ figures shows where players have been selected for matches but not played the full 90 minutes; the higher the figure in this column, the greater percentage of their time they spent on the bench, or were subbed off early.

Let’s start with Roy’s team:

What can we learn from these figures? Here are my key observations:

  • Not even Hodgson rated Christian Poulsen once he’d actually played for the club. In the squad for all but one of the games, the Dane only played just over a quarter of the available minutes.
  • The difference was even more pronounced for recent Anfield departee Milan Jovanovic. People may say he was a flop on Merseyside, but did he really get a fair crack of the whip? It appears not.
  • Roy clearly had no faith in the youngsters. Players like Kelly, Spearing and Shelvey, who would all play more frequently (and more importantly on the whole play well) under Dalglish barely got a sniff during Hodgson’s reign.
  • Fernando Torres was misused by Hodgson. He only scored five goals in this period, despite featuring in 16 out of a possible 17 games. What Benitez wouldn’t have given for that level of turn-out from the Spaniard, especially in 2008/09.
  • Player of the season Lucas Leiva wasn’t as highly rated by Roy; the young Brazilian stayed on the bench for three games and was subbed off early twice, an unthinkable scenario under Dalglish.

Now let’s have a look at the figures for Kenny’s team, which covers a total of 14 matches, with observations below:

  • Kenny was more consistent with his squad – seven ever presents to Roy’s four, though of course that will always be easier with three fewer games. This was also likely to the Scot having to deal with more injuries to key players than his predecessor; certain players couldn’t be rested.
  • Where Roy had Torres as 3rd most utilised and Gerrard in 7th, Kenny could only field Carroll (who was Torres’ replacement, as if you need reminding) enough for 12th place and Gerrard for 14th, a distinct disadvantage. Dalglish did of course know that Carroll was injured when he signed though.
  • As I’ve mentioned here previously, Dalglish did not rate Joe Cole, but also was he not keen on David N’gog – the two players spent a combined 2249 minutes on the Liverpool bench in this period. Splinters (as OptaJoe might say).
  • The likes of Gerrard, Kelly and Agger had little difference between the number of matches available and the minutes they played. In other words, they played the whole time that they were not injured. An indicator for next season (injuries permitting) that they will be first team certainties?

Here is the overall list, so features all 38 league games:

  • Congratulations go to Pepe Reina and (more impressively) Martin Skrtel, for playing the whole season.
  • Credit goes to Maxi Rodriguez – aside from the final match of the season, he was in the squad for every single other game, yet played under 2/3 of the available time. Did anyone hear him grumble? Not that I’m aware of, clearly he’s a top pro.
  • For a reported £210k per week, Liverpool only got 1257 mins of league play out of Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic. Only 18.38% of what they could have played between them, a very poor return on the money.
  • Raul Meireles, on the other hand, did appear to be good value – he made 33 out of a possible 35 squads after he signed. An impressive figure considering it was his first season in England, and also as he could easily be accused of not having the ‘fight’ for English football if his tackling is anything to go by.
  • Although I have argued previously that Daniel Agger should be kept by Liverpool, these figures show that his injury record has to be a major concern. Three players who were only at the club for half of the season played more minutes than him for starters.

Although the figure isn’t listed above, probably the key statistic from last season in this respect is that Andy Carroll, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suárez were only on the pitch together for 15 minutes, and that was when the Reds were 3-0 up at home against Manchester United. A lovely position to be in of course, but not one that required the variety of attacking gifts that those three players possess.

If Liverpool can keep those three fit, plus with the addition of consistently fit players like Stewart Downing (who has averaged 34.4 appearances over the last five seasons, according to OptaJoe), Charlie Adam (only missed three league games in the last two years), and Jordan Henderson (only missed six in the same period), then the Reds might be able to settle on a fairly consistent line-up, which can only be a plus for the new season.

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