A specific eye-test driven narrative has emerged around Liverpool’s early season performances: they are, in some form, easing off the pressing.
Jürgen Klopp’s teams are associated with pressing more than just about any other manager. Any perceived difference would be latched on to and debated with interest. It would would represent a serious change of tack. Is there any truth to it though?
On the surface there appears to be basically no difference from 2017/18 to 2018/19. They’re actually registering defensive actions (a tackle/pressure/interception/foul/block/dribbled past) at a higher volume (211.6 per game last season, 247.6 this season. Although these numbers are quite volatile at this stage; last week they were at 224.5 per game) and at near identical rates on a zone-by-zone basis. There are slight differences but it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
If we plot that as defensive distance – average location on the x axis of pressures/tackles/interceptions/blocks/fouls/failed challenges – then, well, it’s so close it’s barely even worth plotting.
Case closed then? Everybody who thinks they’re pressing differently is imagining it? Well, not quite. Let’s dig deeper because there are some hidden quirks here.
A key point is that Liverpool have spent a whopping 611 minutes in the lead during matches this season, a couple minutes off being joint at the top with Manchester City (natch) and a full 100 minutes more than the next closest team. The average time of their first goal has stayed roughly the same this season (around half an hour in), but the average time of their opposition’s first goal has gone from about the 43rd minute to the 67th minute. They’re getting their nose in front a lot.
Leading on from this, folks have seemingly become attached to the idea that the average pass completion of their opponents is up compared to last season. Overall it’s gone from 73% to 79% by our count. This is the biggest such change (upwards) in the league. But we should look at that in the context of everyone else.
That’s a hell of a lot of teams who have seen an uptick in opposition pass completion. With three of the top four (Liverpool/Man City/Tottenham) being a) pressing teams and b) the top three in terms of time spent with the lead. Sure, the fact that Liverpool are atop this measure would indicate some degree of actual change. However when viewed in relation to other teams this looks less like it is specific to Liverpool and more just the vagaries of early season stats running roughshod over everyone.
Right now it only takes a couple dozen passes to swing these numbers a percentage point in either direction. There’s not much to be gained from looking at specific zones either. Compare Liverpool to Man City or Tottenham and all are seeing higher opposition completion percentages in pressing zones. Drill down to when they’re in the lead and there’s barely any difference in how often Liverpool’s opponents complete passes.
There’s signs that all of this is heavy with random noise. We can sort this out by looking at games where Liverpool spent at least 50 minutes in the lead, of which there’s been 8 this season (out of 11) and 18 last season. This helps by zooming in on chunks of time where the team has likely settled in to its ‘we’ve got the lead lads’ defensive strategy. Liverpool are pressing less in these games (from 222.7 DA per90 to 187.5) when in the lead but their opposition pass completion has stayed near the same. Meanwhile, they’re pressing more when the game state is drawn, but opposition pass completion is up a full 18% in that case!
Can we gain some insight into how aggressive they’re being in these situations? Here’s a plot that shows zone by zone how often Liverpool, when leading, are defending (meaning a defensive action, in this context) an opposition ball receipt within five seconds of it being completed. There’s a definite easing off in the opposition half and a tad softer of a belly. Again, worth stressing that at this early point in the season that percentage points can be shifted somewhat easily. Yet this does seem to tell a fairly clear tale of a more passive block.
Over here at StatsBomb we also track ‘Gegenpresses’. Essentially what these look at is pressures that occur within the first 5 seconds after an open-play turnover. Overall these are mildly up for Liverpool this season from about 20 per game to 23 per game, at a functionally identical percentage of total pressures. Zonally they’re occurring in the same spots too: most in the opposition’s half, spread wide across the width of the pitch.
As for the apparent efficacy of that press? Well Liverpool led the league last season in ‘high press shots’. These are classified as shots generated from possessions that were won within 5 seconds of a defensive action in the opposition’s half. This season they’re second with barely changed volume per game – 5.1 this season vs 4.8 in the last campaign.
Liverpool’s forwards – key to any high pressing system like this – have not shown much difference in their defensive profiles. Most of the time it’ll be that same killer front three and there’s no real season to season change in how/where they’re operating. Certainly not anything that can be confidently stated.
Midfield is a slightly different story. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Emre Can are both absent, the former lost to injury and the other to Turin. Philippe Coutinho, a sort of hybrid central mid/attacking mid, has also popped off. All three were active defenders in their own rights. A chunk of that defensive slack has been picked up by James Milner and the effervescent Naby Keita. However Keita too has been in and out with injuries, leaving Milner along with the somewhat less active Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. It’s just a less swarming midfield in general now.
This whole dynamic with Liverpool’s pressing seems to revolve around two aspects: game state and schedule. In all of their games thus far they’ve either a) ran away with it early or b) played a good team. It seems evident that they have eased off their intensity somewhat when in the lead but they’ve also spent close to 60% of their playtime in that game state. This just isn’t normal and is going to exaggerate any changes that are there. Throw on top of that some hefty early season noise and, well, the picture is muddled to say the least.
Are things different? Seems so, in some form. Can we truly say we know to what extent they are different? Unfortunately, not yet. Questions about fatigue, strategic changes… It’s all quite hard to parse. The discussion here will rumble on, with good reason. The game is made for this sort of communal theorising. Just a word of caution on being too firm in your conclusions. The Liverpool we’ve seen thus far this season is not the full breadth of what they are. The situations they’ve been in are too narrow. Our minds play funny tricks on us in these cases, make us lose sight of the bigger picture and convince ourselves that something is there. Maybe it is, we’ll just have to wait and see. Bloody brains, eh? Who needs ‘em.
This is a muddy subject with so much to cover. Endless possibilities for avenues to explore. You could fill canyons with the amount of charts that were built for this article and scrapped in a quest for some form of brevity. Hopefully this selection of tidbits gave you some food for thought.