A lot has been written about Liverpool in the aftermath of their meek cup exit to a Sherwood-charged Aston Villa, and a nil-nil draw, thwarted by the full Pulis has done little to ameliorate the prevailing fan mood. The reasons given for this season’s “failure” have been extensive and variable with transfers, a lack of Suarez and Sturridge, too much tinkering with formations and even the fact that the 5th biggest club in the league is likely to finish 5th all being cited. The Liverpool fan base is huge and vocal and many thinkers and writers from the same generation have been brought up on a diet of success and quality throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Measures of success are at the high end here, multiple angles have been examined and much gnashing of teeth has taken place. As such it appears that Brendan Rodgers is under extreme external pressure in some quarters and with limited understanding as to how the analytically minded owners are perceiving his efforts, it is difficult to ascertain just how secure his tenure remains.
In my world, it’s as you were: replace Gerrard, sign up Sterling and if you are buying it’s young, as close to the top end as possible or don’t bother.
Because this season has not been as bad as it has seemed. A blend of numbers can show this:
The general story from these numbers is that Liverpool have been broadly consistent over three seasons with regard repeatable shooting metrics. This is a good thing. A slight drop off this season can easily be attributed to the lack of Sturridge and Suarez, two extremely shot (and more recently, goal) heavy talents. The defensive numbers are consistent, if not better this year and by and large, Liverpool project season on season as a side that should be contending for the top four. That they have only achieved that once in the three seasons can be at least partially attributed to the non-repeatable metrics in the lower table. These are factors that are extremely difficult to influence.
Where the defensive end has been broadly similar across these seasons the attacking numbers have varied from dizzily high in 2013-14 to around league average in the other two years. Of course Suarez was significantly more profligate in 2012-13 and had one of the great seasons last year. Talking of profligacy, does Balotelli deserve the benefit of the doubt? His goal total way undershoots any measured expectation this year and he hasn’t suddenly become devoid of talent. I’d be inclined to persist with him provided he, or indeed any new potential goalscorer, can be fitted into any future system. Rodgers’ eventual and current system hasn’t empowered any of his forwards. Yet still they project like a superior side.
There are a couple of specific areas where there has been an obvious deficit: in matches against rivals, they have conceded goals at a very high rate (17%) and in matches against the lesser teams, they have struggled to score at a high volume (9%, around 3-4% lower than direct rivals). Each of these aspects has been powered by factors that are likely to regress over a long term. In fact, it could easily be argued that this season is one long numeric counterbalance to the over achievement of last.
The mad and goal laden enterprise of last year was a rare and unlikely star alignment and 2014-15 will not be remembered fondly but the time for genuine concern is when the basic production figures of shooting disappear. Whilst that isn’t happening, tweaks and fluctuations will guide a team within likely parameters, and for Liverpool that means somewhere between 2nd and 6th. Given the many issues cited by fans looking in on the club and seeing that general performance levels have been almost sustained, I suggest relatively minimal tinkering could achieve more positive results next year. But there are never guarantees.
There is a solid core of players at Liverpool and in Coutinho, Sterling, Ibe and Markovic they have four young attacking talents with extensive scope to improve. I remain skeptical of Rodgers’ gifts as a man-manager but his general record is sufficient to deserve a crack at a post-Gerrard world. The lack of trophies is more a reflection of a changed landscape than of any fundamental structural deficiency. Now if only he could find away to get his forwards onto the pitch…
With most of the juice in the league still centering on the trap-door, it’s worth revisiting the bottom end for a quick update. Burnley, who haven’t been good enough and haven’t been getting the breaks managed to be not good enough and failed to get the breaks against Leicester. The slip on impact for their penalty was exactly the kind of cruel twist that you’d expect from the writer of a hacky soap opera. It is daft occurrences like this and Leicester’s subsequent goal that lead even normally sane pundits to cite fate, a feeling also felt over at Loftus Road after their own penalty misery.
Suffice to say, given these were critical home matches against par opposition, to see each team fail to win is to probably see them doomed.
I hammered Sunderland last week for giving up tons of shots every time they played any strong team and they widened their generosity to present Stoke with plenty (23 to be precise). A solid point on the road? Not in the face of Hull winning the one game they absolutely had to against Palace and Villa again showing solid form despite defeat.
Despite different nuance amongst the underlying numbers the bottom three now looks like the “right” three. The three with the worst defense, least goals or wins, the worst shots team, the worst two +/- shots teams and worst two shots on target ratio teams are all in there. In fact Sunderland and Burnley look ever more similar on the numbers, well: bad at both ends and QPR have just been far too carefree and porous.
Obligatory Tottenham Split Personality
Carefree and porous could be the title of a chapter detailing the second half of Tottenham’s season. PFA Young Player of the Year Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli have now all hit double figures for league goals this year suggesting a marvellous attacking force that evokes memories of Ossie Ardiles’ fanciful flying five but measured against wanton generosity at the back, so ably demonstrated by Ryan Mason and Ben Davies this week, it seems the Bielsa doctrine is being a little too readily heeded.
Since the halfway point, there have been an average of 3.8 goals per game in Spurs matches (Tottenham edge the share 2.1 to 1.7) which is a ridiculously high number. There has also been a league high average of over ten shots on target per game (5.3 to 4.8) and conversion rates at both ends… and bear in mind I used this as a stick to beat him with and an example of his tactical inadequacy… higher than Tim Sherwood during either his Tottenham or Villa spells. (14% and 13% compared to 13% and 12%).
That the team is now broadly level with it’s position last year is no great surprise and whereas last year was one of coaching turmoil, it has become vividly apparent that this year is wholly and typically transitional.
One thing struck me this week in the wake of an “insider” (see: tea lady) article on the club and that was the apparent permanence of groups of high earning “out-of-favour” players. This group, rotationally inhabited by Emmanuel Adebayor in particular, appears ever larger this season and it has been posited that these players will be “moved on” in the summer. That Villas Boas, Sherwood and now Pochettino have all suffered with failing to build a happy family is an all too familiar and unpleasant recent hallmark of player operations down at the Lane.
Any clear-out is going to need to be necessarily quick and ruthless, as is recruitment, if only to maximise the return from the start of Pochettino’s year two. This five-year plan has so far had a decidedly mixed impact; a purge awaits.
Thanks for reading!
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