Leicester And Liverpool: When Things Work Out And When They Don't
When it goes your way...
In losing to Leicester this weekend, Manchester City not only gave away crucial points to a title rival, they once again failed to record consecutive victories, a run that goes all the way back to
October. This only weeks after handsomely leading the league by recording a string of victories without conceding. Since their impressive start they have gone 9-5-6,a good deal less than title form and have failed to win more often than they have won. Given their fantastic wealth and extremely talented squad, this is a disappointing return; not quite Chelsea, but nonetheless below expectation. In advance of Guardiola they appear to have gone lame: injuries have bitten hard, with Navas, Nasri, De Bruyne, Mangala, Kompany and Bony all missing this game and a slew of kids on the bench. Options were limited and the sight of Martin Demichelis facing the energy of Shinji Okazaki and raw pace of Jamie Vardy looked potentially troublesome, and so it was.
Robert Huth continued his goalscoring form, Riyad Mahrez put another bat-signal up to Spain and it felt that we learned a lot more about City's lack of youth integration and declining legs than anything else.
For Leicester, when you're a team having a season for the ages and your journeyman centre back scores three goals in two matches to secure away victories against top four rivals, it's certain that things are going your way.
Leicester spent the first half of this remarkable season winning matches featuring a ton of goals. Their defence wasn't particularly effective at repelling shots or goals but high rates of shot conversion and the wonderful form of Vardy and Mahrez were enough to propel them towards the top of the league. Going into the tricky section of their fixture list, starting with Man Utd at the King Power back at the end of November, they were converting all their shots at a high rate of 15% which had effectively powered their 8-4-1 standing.
During the tougher looking 12 games since–including two matches against Liverpool and Manchester City, plus games against Chelsea and Tottenham– they have converted shots at 14%; only a marginal decline. This has helped them go 7-4-1 but the biggest factor powering their run has been their save rate for in these games is that they only have conceded seven times from 40 shots on target, a crazily high rate of 82.5%. Spin that out to all shots and Leicester's opposition since December have been converting under one in twenty against a usual league average of around one in ten. All these rates tend to fluctuate through a season and rarely sustain for too long at either extremely high or low levels. For Leicester, so far, large parts of them have.
When you base a season for the ages on year long super high conversion rates then ride a tough schedule with an extremely high save rate, it's clear that things are going your way.
For now Leicester's 14.2% all shot conversion rate places them 4th in a list of teams during the era for which data is public (2009-10 onwards). The teams above need little introduction, each well known for attacking prowess that propelled title challenges: 2013-14 Manchester City and Liverpool and 2012-13 Manchester United. Two titles and a second place finish for these three, yet the following season found a second for City, a 6th for Liverpool and a 7th for Moyes' Manchester United. Leicester are in good, but unsustainable, company here. Each team brilliant in its own way, yet also at the absolute top end of conversion.
And Vardy and Mahrez? One imagines legions of scouts bulking out non-league attendances looking for wayward teenagers with an eye for goal, or caravan tours around Ligue 2 grounds looking for players with a magic left foot. That is a legacy will run long into the future and will likely have no yield. Little to add to the last time I mentioned them, they have been brilliant, Mahrez especially; but to be an unheralded smaller team and find one break out player of the year candidate? That is a pleasant benefit to enjoy, but to have two? Yep, things are going your way.
Regarding squad depth, there is still a huge gap between Mahrez and Vardy or indeed, Kante or Drinkwater and any replacements, one that long term will not be bridged by either of their sale or injury. The continued fitness of the key men in a comparatively small squad is of paramount importance, as it is for any team, but whoever replaces them is sub-par for Leicester's current level. Having maintained a steady team, and been free from injury, this is yet another aspect in which things have gone Leicester's way.
But what of the money clubs in this league? These teams are usually on the sharp end of title runs. Surely, they couldn't all show vulnerabilities together, in the same season? Vast wealth has been spent by not only Manchester City but Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle. With such investment surely one or more of these teams could manage a sustained run at the title? Well...
- Chelsea imploded like no other Champion before
- Arsenal have suffered traditional injuries and undershot expected goal numbers by heroic volumes, see this from Will Gurpinar-Morgan for detail
- Manchester United continue to be stuck in transition, pootling along in minor European positions
- Weird chaos for Liverpool
When did this last happen?
It's been a while: the last time a team would have been five points clear of one of the traditional big clubs with a mere 53 points after 25 games was 2001-02. Newcastle had 49 points then and Manchester United and Arsenal 48.
For Leicester to lead with 53 points is unusual too; go back to 2002-03 to find Arsenal on 53, three points clear of Manchester United. Over the last ten seasons the average points taken after 25 games is 59.4, the average for second place is 54.1. For the league to be so compressed points-wise has become an unusual event, yet here we are; beyond rational prediction. Yet when things are going your way...
Nothing here is intended to denigrate Leicester's achievements, but their success will generate a ton of analysis attempting to look at the makings of a success story and a keenness from other aspirational clubs to mould a similar run. If Leicester were backing up this run with top notch shooting or expected goal numbers, there would be every reason to mimic them, but they aren't. Is it likely that we shall reflect on this in years to come as the birth of "anti-taka" with half the league adapting their style by gluing a couple of Olympic sprinters onto an eight man defence? One suspects not.
There has been much pleasure gained from Leicester's ascent to the top of the table. It has provided a fascinating new twist to a league that had in recent years become largely predictable. The true praise for them can be reserved for Ranieri's skill in improving them; not to their current status at the top, but from being a genuine lower half team last season to legitimate European contenders this. For that is likely their true level; with this team, with fitness and a slight element of surprise, this team is above par in the league. Their shots and expected goal numbers peg them as lower tier European contenders, but if they fall to 3rd or 4th, to chastise them for failing to maintain a lead will be misguided; they will still have hit a very high mark. If they start next season and find themselves in the top half but a mile behind the top four, they will still have found a significantly improved level. Liverpool in 2013-14 learned that special players can power long runs deep into the season, but they also learned that without them and given reversion over time, it can be very different. But when everything goes your way, it's best to enjoy the ride before it stops.
When everything doesn't go your way...
For Liverpool, it's not even funny any more.
Fans with other allegiances may disagree but the slump that Liverpool have found themselves mired in has been deep, repetitive and familiar. This weekend found a new low, with the law of sod taking full effect as they blew a two goal lead against one of the league's worst teams, Sunderland, within minutes of a fan walkout.
Sometimes, stupid stuff doesn't go your way, like for example this:
All the while their head coach is suffering with a suspected bout of appendicitis?
Soap operas would reject this serious of events for implausibility yet this and further defensive woes have been enough to undermine a reasonably encouraging numerical base. A lot has been written about the low quality of shots during Jurgen Klopp's reign, but regardless, they have taken a good volume of them: nearly 17 per game. The on target rate is comparatively poor at around 4.4 per game (26%), which reflects the lack of success from range but where the silliness occurs, where things haven't gone Liverpool's way, is at the other end. The positive side is that they have conceded very few shots. In twelve out of seventeen Klopp games, they have allowed nine or fewer shots. Only defeats against West Ham and Leicester have seen the opposition create a good volume of shots and shots on target and otherwise, for volume, they have been superb at suppressing the opposition.
The trouble starts when you refer once again to how many of these shots have been kept out of goal. Season long, Liverpool have saved 57.6% of the on target shots they have faced compared to a league average of 69.4%. This is a lower rate than Bournemouth, who have had a horrific season preventing chances and goals and is lower than any full team season recorded over the last six years. We can make it look worse by looking at Klopp's era (56.0%) or taking it just to Anfield (48.5%). No wonder home fans are frustrated; they are witnessing it right now and in front of their very eyes.
While these figures are truly dismal, to endure it is also to this degree is unfortunate and extremely incongruous with the excellent repression of shots. Despite the poor goalkeeping and individual defensive errors that have effected this misery, a rate this low just will not sustain in the long term. Repression of opposition shots is an important trait to aspire towards as it is reflective of team quality, an inability to keep the ball out of the net is far more beholden to fate.
The positive takeaway from all this is that some aspects of Klopp's methods are working and project positively for the future. Some personnel tweaks in the summer, with obvious weaknesses up front and in goal, could well create some solidity where for now we see just mush. Comparisons have been made with the aspects of Andre Villas Boas' project at Tottenham: high shot volumes, suppression of opposition shooting and wonky conversion rates at both ends tick all those boxes. However, where Villas Boas' sticky personality and stubbornness eventually saw his tenure fall apart, Klopp should be able to maintain enough charm to design a team capable of contending for top four next year.
The last Liverpool season to get royally screwed by variance was 2012-13. They were an excellent shots team at both ends that year yet found a way to win only 16 games and finished 7th. Of course that was the precursor to the Suarez-led rampage towards the title the following year, and while such ambition may seem out of range, this season the unexpected and unforeseen qualities of both Tottenham and Leicester were built from far lower bases. If they can do it then why not Liverpool? If only things could go their way...
I warned against this kind of nonsense: using Leicester as a blueprint for another team's future? An example of how each team should dare to dream and that anything is possible?
That lazy comparison is something we may have to get used to.
Thanks for reading!
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