Liverpool: Season Preview 2020-21
Champions League, World Club Cup and Premier League.
What comes next?
The 2019-20 season wasn't just odd due to the three month winter break in the middle of it. It was odd in the way that Liverpool cocked a snook at any idea that their 97 point 2018-19 total was going to be hard to replicate and promptly went charging off looking for 100.
As such, the title finally returned asterisk free to Merseyside after a 30 year wait. The ever likeable Jürgen Klopp cemented his place in Anfield folklore.
Usually when teams log 90+ point seasons, they follow them up by coming back down to earth a little. The two exceptions (Chelsea 2004-05 and 2005-06, 95 and 91 and Manchester City 2017-18 and 2018-19, 100 and 98) did come back down in the next season but still stayed at over 80 points which is historically great and has won many a title. There's no denying Liverpool have been exceptional for (at least) two seasons. In 2018-19, they lost one league game and were unbeaten until January. In 2019-20 they were unbeaten until February 29th, and that's not even a proper day most years, so who's to say it counts? They're consistent, they have superb talent in all positions, they have found many different ways to win and they tend to do so.
One of the tricky aspects to evaluate with regard to Liverpool 2019-20 is that quite a lot of the season ended up being a parade. They were six points clear at the end of October, ten clear by mid-December and the Club World Cup jaunt, nineteen clear by the end of January and twenty-five clear on lockdown. The revolutionary strategy of winning every* game was bearing fruit. From an analysis perspective, at what point do we shrug and ignore actual on pitch activity, because it kinda didn't matter? Liverpool's four season expected goal trendlines clearly show that the back half of 2019-20 saw some of their worst metrics in years, but again: did it really matter?
A valid point here is that Liverpool were better in 2018-19 than they were in 2019-20, but then again, they had to be. A lot has been made about the fact that Liverpool's expected metrics lagged behind those of Manchester City last season, which to my mind misses the point somewhat. That chart above shows that Liverpool have had excellent metrics for most of the last four seasons; excellent metrics put you in the mix to win titles, and Liverpool were a hair's breadth away from winning the last two. There's also the difference between necessity and game management to which a combination of quality and circumstance enabled Liverpool to navigate their way through the first half of 2019-20.
During late 2019, Liverpool were really good at getting to 2-0, and once they were at 2-0, they were really good at managing their way to the end of games. In the first half of 2019-20, they put together a 1-0, 2-0 combination within sixteen minutes eight times, seven of which were within the first half. Sure, good teams do this and all the recent points-hoarders have a fine record in building quick decisive leads, but to concentrate this into the first half of the season was notable and a worthwhile driver towards their exemplary results.
Also worthwhile was their amazing 16 game run of scoring first, which started in November and only finished in the still curious Watford defeat. Scoring first is again a hallmark of a good team, but to go 16 games without a weird ricochet or moment switching off is quite remarkable. These are the little quirks that help power dominant seasons, and while you can't rely on them to specifically recur, they sure as heck help out. Let's look at Liverpool's expected goals particularly the defensive end another way, game by game:
One of the main plotlines that underlies this chart is that between September 2017 and The Watford Game in February 2020, nearly two and a half years and 98 games, Liverpool did not give up more than two non-penalty expected goals in a league game. So that's the process right there; don't give up much in defence. It kicked on into reality too, as they went nearly as long without being two goals behind in a league game. This team has been so consistent for so long that the Watford game--in which they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 (2.2 vs 0.4 xG)--stands out alone in as an outlier across over 100 games.
Ironically, post-Watford and post Covid break Liverpool did show vulnerability at the back and as a result "time spent behind" and "deviation from expectation while ahead" measures fell back towards more "normal" levels having been wildly out of kilter in a positive direction beforehand. Things like giving up more than two non-penalty expected goals occurred in three more games, although they won two of them (5-3 v Chelsea, 3-1 v Brighton) and only lost to Manchester City. There's not much more to be said here apart from don't make a habit of it.
A quick word for Virgil Van Dijk here as he tops by a huge margin a metric I toyed with to ascertain how effective centre backs were at clearing or passing the ball out from dangerous central in-box zones:
There's an interesting question around Liverpool's centre back partnerships that springs up from this. Van Dijk is evidently a dominant force within the league, but Joe Gomez is far more passive. Across two seasons his rate for this metric is around 20% (compared to Van Dijk's 35% 2018-19 and 39% in 2019-20). The now departed Dejan Lovren rated a shade higher at around 22-23% while Joel Matip was higher still at 25% and 29%. The point is that since Van Dijk arrived, he's been ever present and the three others have partnered him. When Gomez is on the pitch, you just get less defensive activity in key areas, much of which is aerial based. It's not that Van Dijk or someone else is covering, it's just a clear dropoff versus when Lovren or Matip have played.
Now: does this matter? That's hard to say, but the only evidence we have recently of Liverpool's defence declining is in the recent period with Gomez alongside Van Dijk, the back half of 2019-20. The split between Gomez, Lovren and Matip to partner Van Dijk has been fairly even across the long dominant defensive period. Yes, Gomez remains the future of Liverpool's defence, but also, Matip must have a good shout at getting his place back. It will be something to monitor going forward.
Elsewhere there are few surprises. The three man forward line remains as good and democratic as any in world football and there are no secrets around the full-back contributions now either. The right sided of the three midfielders tends to be the extra moving part to the attack, be it Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Jordan Henderson. There was a lot of chatter about Firmino's finishing last season, but in undershooting his expected goals, he wasn't obviously revealing a flaw; he'd been +3 vs expectation across the last three seasons before a blip of -4.5 in 2019-20. Closer examination shows he has finished well with his head long term and is weakest with his left foot, but he contributes so much else with regard to creation and pressing, it's erroneous to be over-critical. And Liverpool do still press, nothing's changed there:
Once more off-season transfers don't seem to be the primary focus with the core first team all still within peak ages ranges and performing so well, but the team has moved finally to lock up a back-up left-back in Kostas Tsimikas. We reviewed him for our Pro Scouting project and liked him, for all that we didn't foresee a jump up to one of the best teams in the world. Our executive summary was as follows:
Kostas Tsimikas is an all-round full back with a very impressive defensive output. A very aggressive presser, he somewhat foul prone. In attack he combines above average passing with decent crossing to offer a solid but unspectacular package. He can make the jump to a bigger league this summer.
He also has throw-in ability, can execute combination play in build-up and is an effective ball carrier. We felt he could fit into a squad for a Europa League level team, but if we consider his age, and the stylistic package as a relatively well priced gamble to back up one of the world's best left backs, it's hard not to like.
The other will he/won't he saga is the tempting switch to bring Thiago Alcântara in for Georginio Wijnaldum. The role of Wijnaldum has long been tricky to pin down, as it scarcely reveals itself via obvious numerical means, but his positioning, ball retention and discipline have clearly contributed plenty to the success of this team. He's also reliably fit, which is something that can't be said of Thiago. With a year on his contract and on the cusp of 30, Wijnaldum's time may have passed, and Barcelona are rumoured to be interested. Thiago is one of the world's best midfielders and appears to be looking for a
pay day new challenge, and sure, he's about the same age, but we're not going to get Lionel Messi in the Premier League this summer, can we have him instead? However this little dance plays out, it would be preferable if one of these players was on Merseyside next season:
Once he'd raised then to the standard of title winners, Klopp got three more decent seasons out of Borussia Dortmund, before the team suffered in 2014-15. Even with key members of this team aging together, it still seems likely that the absolute core of this team has another couple of years before remedial work is required. As we've seen with Barcelona, the problem is when much of your core talent is 32 to 33 not 28 to 30.
As it's now 6 months since Liverpool have played a legitimate competitive and meaningful fixture, it has to be said: they will need to regroup, focus and start this season at the top of their game. This is Klopp's real challenge this season. As they have achieved their immediate goals, he needs to maintain the focus that got them there to compete at the same level again. It would not be surprising if this team dropped back ten points, and were still excellent in the main. That felt like the most likely outcome last season too and they rose to the challenge with some aplomb. Sporting Index's early lines peg them around here too, close enough to Manchester City (for whom excellent overall metrics will inevitably drive betting lines). But this Liverpool side the same team that got to two Champions League finals. The same team that landed back to back high-90 point totals. Predicting them outside the mix is not realistic.
Every year that Klopp has been in charge it has appeared that they have learned a new technique to ensure that they can go longer and deeper into seasons (remember the bad Januarys?). Last season it felt like they had learned to manage their way out of games from advantageous positions, conserving energy for the inevitable hard grind of a tight schedule. This year the schedule will be tighter than ever, and this is a team that understands that consistency will take them furthest. If you turn up every gameweek and put up two expected goals to your opponent's one, you will win a lot of matches. Liverpool have been more consistent than their rivals for most of two seasons. They just have to be so again.
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