Liverpool choked.

Steven Gerrard let the title slip away.
Now that that they have sold the league’s best player, Liverpool will slide right back out of the Champions League spots.
Welcome to Narrativeville, where things are said and accepted into popular consciousness without really examining whether they are true or not.
Let’s start this preview by unpacking the first two statements with regard to last season: Did Liverpool choke away the title?

I watched the Chelsea game. We all watched the Chelsea game. We all saw Gerrard slip, Ba score, and that was that.

But what did it take for Liverpool to be in that position in the first place? 11 consecutive Premier League wins, a feat that has only been bettered once in 440 team seasons. And a feat they would have needed to eclipse to actually win the league.
From my perspective, it was amazing that Liverpool were even in position to challenge in the first place. Mistakes in football are inevitable. There were certainly mistakes made during the 11 wins, but as a team, Liverpool managed to overcome them. Then the one mistake they can’t overcome happens at the most public moment possible, Liverpool lose and are labelled chokers.
It’s ludicrous, yet that happens all the time.
Liverpool didn’t choke. They simply couldn’t put together a win streak that’s never happened before in league history, and one that would have been required for them to win the league.
Shots per game: 17.1 (3rd)
Shots against: 12.8 (8th)
Shots on target: 6.8 (1st)
Goal Difference: +51 (2nd)
That shots on target number is the second highest in the Premier League in the last 5 years. The only team to beat it was the 09-10 Chelsea team that shot 21.9 times a game that season.
In Brendan Rodgers’ second season, Liverpool were thrilling to watch. They scored 101 goals on the year, and had two of the best forwards the league has ever seen in Suarez and Sturridge. Add to that the continued improvement of Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, and Liverpool were as dangerous as any team in the league.
Sterling Improvement
Sterling YoY
However, all of this scoring came at a cost – defensive instability. All tactical systems have strengths and weaknesses. With Gerrard at the base of a midfield diamond, Liverpool were absolutely explosive once they regained possession of the ball, and broke down field. However, with an ageing Gerrard sitting in front of Liverpool’s defence, all too often teams were able to break through the midfield and attack directly at Liverpool’s back line. This was a conscious choice, but it’s one that lead to giving up 50 goals on the year.
This season will be different.
Incomings

Markovic (FWD)
Lallana (AM)
Rickie Lambert (FWD)
Dean Lovren (CB)
Can (MC/LB)
Moreno (LB)
Manquillo (FB)

Outgoings

Luis Suarez (FWD)
Iago Aspas (FWD)

Obviously the name that matters here is Luis Suarez. Last year he put together one of the best scoring seasons the Premier League has ever seen. This year, he will be plying his trade for Barcelona.

How do you replace the irreplaceable?

You don’t, at least not directly. Earlier this summer, I did a statistical search looking for players like Luis Suarez. The search returned two names: a younger Arjen Robben, and Leo Messi. Not helpful!
However, Liverpool are already in a decent position to function without Suarez. As I noted in the piece, Coutinho and Sturridge both share similar outputs in their ability to create chances for themselves and others. Raheem Sterling will also be another year better, and he’s already the single best young talent in England. Liverpool are allegedly still hunting for one more name before the window closes. My piece suggests Shaqiri and Memphis Depay are the two best targets for them, but Markovic looks stellar, and Rickie Lambert offers an option LFC simply didn’t have last year.
This attack will still be very good, and that also assumes that it’s a year too early for Jordon Ibe to contribute. He will eventually be a stellar Premier League player.
Aside from Markovic and Lambert, the bulk of LFC’s transfer spending has been on upgrading their defence. I thought Lovren was one of the best centre backs in the league last year. I am also a huge fan of the Can deal, especially for the price. Fullback upgrades were an absolute must, and they’ve successfully addressed that area as well. Unless LFC switch to three at the back, the fullbacks will be required to do a massive amount of work, which is hard for Johnson and Enrique to pull off at this point in their careers. Even Adam Lallana represents as much a defensive signing as an addition to the attack. One of the things the system from last season demands is strong pressing and tackling from the midfielders in front of Gerrard, and Lallana is one of the best in the league at doing just that.
And here are Colin’s thoughts on Liverpool:

It is my opinion that Liverpool had more than a fair wind behind them last season in their attempt at lifting the Premier League title. Their lack of European football was a huge positive for them as it allowed The Reds to concentrate on their quest for domestic trophies. In the final half of the season, they were generally able to choose from a full deck; this changed with Jordan Henderson’s late sending off against Man City resulting in his suspension for the final games of the season*. Contrast that with Man City’s failure to keep Aguero, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and even David Silva fit during the final couple of months.

*I have seen it mentioned recently that Brendan Rodgers has attributed their title failing, at least in part, to the unavailability of Henderson in those final few games.

However, the main driver for my assertion that Liverpool over achieved last season was their shooting performance. I’ll be very surprised if they are able to replicate last season’s form in front of goal.

Their shot quality was very good as they chalked up the second best average Expected Goal value per shot (just ahead of Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea but behind Man City), however there are a couple of numbers that ring alarm bells for me when I assess their chances for this coming season.

Just 20.5% of their shots were blocked last season. Not only was this the lowest percentage of blocked shots in the Premier League last season, but it was also the lowest figure for any Premier League team over the last four seasons.

As can be seen in this plot below (which I originally published in my end of season Liverpool review), there is no correlation between a team’s percentage of blocked shots from one season to the next. It is therefore my opinion that Liverpool will not be able to rely on having as few blocked shots next term as they enjoyed last year.

Blocked

The second note of caution comes when we look at the returns from their goalscorers last season. Liverpool’s four highest league scorers, namely Suarez, Sturridge, Gerrard and Sterling all over-performed in terms of goals scored versus the Expected Goals total that their shots suggested. All the analytical work done so far in looking at the repeatability of a player’s under or over conversion compared to ExpG in a season has shown that there is almost no correlation with how they’ll perform the next season. That too, is another pointer to suggest that Liverpool probably achieved as much as they could have done last season from the chances they had.

And lest we forget, Martin Skrtel also chipped in with 7 goals last season. I think that’s another one for the “unlikely to happen next season” drawer.

 

Defensively

On the defensive side of the ball, Liverpool will surely be disappointed with the fact that they conceded too many shots for a top class team; there were seven teams that gave up fewer shots than them in the League. It would be remiss not to mention the huge positive from a defensive point of view; the average quality of opposition shots allowed was low, with just 35% of their shots against coming from the Prime Zone. Still, I’m sure that the volume of shots they conceded last season is one part of the game that Rodgers will have been working on during the summer break.

Liverpool Shots

Although Liverpool had the title within their grasp last season, I had them as the third best team; behind City and Chelsea. Throw in the loss of Suarez, the distraction of European football and a likely stronger challenge from Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham this season and I think that Liverpool could struggle to capture one of the four Champions League slots.

And back to Ted……
What Can We Expect This Season? Can Liverpool Stay in the Champions League?
I think they can. Even without Suarez, they will have one of the most talented attacks in the Premier League, and players like Sturridge and Sterling who would make fine additions to just about every top team in the world.
They also have an excellent manager who has proven capable of adapting his style to the players available and the tactics of his opponents. Rodgers doesn’t always get things right, but he rarely makes the same mistake twice and is certainly capable of thinking outside of the box in ways that bring success.
Unlike Colin, I find myself again being fairly optimistic about Liverpool’s chances this year. People think the Champions League schedule will bite them, but they have added a ton of players to the squad. Talent-wise, they are on par with any team in the league bar a fully healthy Manchester City. They’ll need to switch tactics considerably versus last year because teams won’t let them counter relentlessly like they did before, but they have the talent and a manager capable of working through those issues while continuing to get results.
Prediction: 3rd.

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