More of the same?
In football, as in life, there are the things you can influence and the things you can’t. In the first column, Liverpool put up their best Premier League year ever, amassing a 97 point haul that would have been enough to lift the title in all but one of the previous 38 game seasons. In the second column, Manchester City went and got 98 points. In a season when everything went right for Liverpool, there was still another team in the land just ever so slightly better.
Then again, it’s fair to say that winning the Champions League can soften the blow a bit.
As these things go, the numbers contain both good news and bad news for Liverpool. The good news is that they were clearly the second best team, a cut above all other challengers bar City. The bad news is that City were a solid chunk stronger in terms of expected goals both for and against.
And this isn’t exactly a new story. Except for an early mess at the start of the 2017/18 season, Liverpool have been basically this good for ages now.
In terms of how Jürgen Klopp’s side do it, well there’s not a lot of new news there, either. After flirting with a 4-2-3-1 for a while, Liverpool have gone back to the tried and trusted 4-3-3. With each passing year, the team have become less and less reliant on possession to create chances while growing more adept at creating counter-pressing opportunities. We’re getting close to the platonic ideal of a Klopp side.
There were various questions in the first half of the season about Liverpool turning down the high press somewhat, but that was not entirely visible in our numbers. The side’s defensive distance, the average location up the pitch at which a defensive act was made, actually increased a touch from 2017/18. When it came to where Liverpool looked to stifle the opposition, Klopp’s men were the second highest up the pitch in the league after Pep Guardiola’s Man City.
The team’s passes per defensive action, the number of passes an opponent is allowed before an attempt to win the ball back is made, increased a touch, with Liverpool now allowing teams on average half a pass more before making a defensive action. But this is all well within the range of normal fluctuation, and still puts Liverpool as one of the more aggressive ball winners in the league.
Whenever anyone talks about this team, it’s the front three that they want to bring up. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino between them accounted for 65% of Liverpool’s xG last season and 68% of the goals. The extent to which Liverpool’s attacking play is about moving the ball quickly to the forward line and exploiting their speed and movement in moments of transition is fairly obvious to anyone who has watched them. Though Mané began to earn some headlines for his goals in important moments, Salah remains the star here, leading the side in xG and xG assisted, as well as offering more in terms of progressing the ball in various ways, even as things were down somewhat from the previous season. It did feel as though this was of a result of opposing sides paying closer attention to him after his breakout year, in turn freeing up space for Mané and Firmino as he attracted more defenders to him. It will be an interesting subplot to see how much this evens out in 2019/20 after a more subdued year.
Really, the more you look at it, the more it appears that Liverpool have stayed the same. The team added 22 points from 2017/18 to 2018/19, but there’s very little evidence of change in terms of performances. They are what they are.
One thing that did change indisputably, and was arguably the biggest factor in the stronger results, was in the goalkeeper position. Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius both rested somewhere on a spectrum between adequate and awful, depending on who you asked. But such question marks were not apparent with Alisson. The model estimates that the Brazilian saved 5.06 goals more than the average keeper would’ve managed from those shots in the Premier League last season, ranking as the fourth best shot stopper in the division.
Predicting how many goals a goalkeeper will save between seasons is fraught with difficulty. For all we know, a number of strikers will just happen to kick the ball so perfectly against Alisson that there’s not a damn thing he’ll be able to do about it. But it does seem pretty likely that he’s an above average shot stopper, so the expectation should probably be that he saves more than average again. The vast majority of Liverpool’s defensive overperformance was down to more saves being made than expected rather than opposing players failing to hit the target (of the 29.46 xG conceded, 27.06 of it made it across to the post-shot model, so teams were not having a dramatically unusually difficult time hitting the target against Liverpool), so this might be repeatable. But the error bars are large on this.
On the attacking side, there was a fair amount of overperformance (82 non-penalty goals scored against 66.98 expected) for the second year in a row. At least some of that can be accounted for by set pieces:
The importance of set pieces to Liverpool has been widely remarked upon. No team managed more last season than the team’s 17. Looking from the outside in, it also seems very likely that Liverpool are finding certain edges in this area of the game, and doing things differently than other clubs. It’s the kind of thing that could easily trick an xG model, though it’s tough to say for sure and we’ll have a better sense after another season. Liverpool did not significantly overperform on set pieces in 17/18 (12 goals scored against 10.13 expected) but may well have found new edges since then. It’s something to watch out for.
Open play also saw an overperformance of around ten goals. Now, Liverpool do attack with some very pacey forwards, and one could imagine there might be times when they create chances a little better than the model says. But the expectation should be for Liverpool’s open play finishing to return to a more normal rate. Of the various elements to the team’s xG overperformance, this is the hardest to justify.
Now, this is the point where one would generally talk about the new signings. Only problem is there’s not exactly a lot of movement. Seventeen year old Sepp van den Berg has now been joined by 16 year old Harvey Elliott and, well, that’s it. There is talk that the club still want to sign a “versatile left-sided player”, whatever that means, but he would likely be the only new recruit old enough to legally enjoy a bottle of beer on the team bus after a game. As for the pair, Van den Berg is predominantly a centre back who has filled in at right back at times, and with Nathaniel Clyne’s injury (and no incomings) he may actually get some minutes on that side of the pitch. Elliott is a left footed attacking player who probably won’t make more than a few cameo appearances in the senior side. So if we’re going to see any evolution in this team whatsoever, it’ll be from the players already there.
Leading nominee at the Like A New Signing Awards is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While he took a fair period of adjustment after signing from Arsenal, the midfielder had really hit a good vein of form in the 2017/18 season before injury. Playing as the most advanced midfielder in the 4-3-3, especially after Philippe Coutinho was sold, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a really important cog in how Liverpool got the ball to the front three. Klopp tweaked things somewhat in his absence, putting more emphasis on the fullbacks and compensating by using the midfield three more conservatively. The return of Oxlade-Chamberlain gives Klopp the opportunity to switch this up at times. With the volume of assists Alexander-Arnold and Robertson amassed last season, opposing sides may well place more emphasis on shutting down Liverpool’s fullbacks, and as such, the ability to put in Oxlade-Chamberlain and progress the ball through the centre more would be a good option.
Another player who could easily benefit from a more midfield-focused ball progression approach is Naby Keïta. A long time favourite around these parts, so far Liverpool fans may be understandably underwhelmed by the Guinean’s performances. There was discussion about whether he was playing with an injury last season, lacking confidence or just having a hard time adapting to the Premier League. As frustrating as his fitness disrupted first season at Anfield often felt, on a purely stats basis, he looked fine. More then fine, actually, offering a lot in terms of progressing the ball forward while getting through a large volume of defensive work. When you split his season in terms of up until the end of January against February onwards, you get more of a sense of what’s happening, with Keïta finally hitting his stride in 2019 before another injury cut his season short.
What’s frustrating is that Keïta was brought straight back into action in order to play for Guinea at the Africa Cup of Nations. The good news is that he started the most recent friendly against Lyon and thus should be able to feature early in the season. But this is a repeated instance of him being brought back very quickly, and injuries could recur more and more. If this can be avoided, Liverpool have an outstanding player yet to be fully unlocked.
Elsewhere in terms of adding value from within, Rhian Brewster is fit again and remains a great hope. Considering the progress of other 2017 Under-17 World Cup winning stars Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Morgan Gibbs-White, that tournament’s Golden Boot and Bronze Ball winner can not unrealistically aim to make similar progress, provided he has fully recovered from his long spell out. Though, much like Foden has found at City, it can be difficult for these players to get real minutes at a side challenging for major trophies.
Minutes could well be available for him if Salah, Mané and Firmino do not stay as fit as they generally did last season. Liverpool’s relative luck with fitness has been mentioned by many, and while I would argue this overlooks serious injuries to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keïta, Brewster and Joe Gomez, this team has been about the front three for the past 18 months. To show signs of evolution, a greater emphasis on midfield play will need to develop, though it seems unlikely that Klopp will try to tweak things too much.
There’s no getting around the fact that, though just one point separated Liverpool and Man City in the league table, the underlying numbers paint a much larger gap. Though there may be edges here and there, Klopp’s side likely will run closer to expected goals at both ends of the pitch this season. The 25 point gap down to the rest still feels too big a gap for any side to likely close, but Liverpool might have to settle for being closer to the chasing pack than the top tier this time out.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association