by Dan Kennett
It's difficult to gauge the expectations of Liverpool fans going into this season and even harder to make a reasonable definition of "success" for this Liverpool team. During four lamentable years of finishing 7th, 6th, 8th and 7th, the high-point remains victory in the High Court over the ruinous Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The nadir was probably reached in the calendar year 2012, when a full league season yielded a borderline relegation total of 43 points and the team went 367 days between consecutive league wins.
Through most of last season, the impression was an entire club learning on the job, novice owners, manager with one season in the top flight, extremely young squad and a novice CEO. The turning point was the January transfer window and the arrival of two players who made a genuine, significant impact on the team’s performance and results. For the 2nd half of the season, the team returned 36 points (the median for a Liverpool half season in a 20-team Premier League is 33.5), the club’s best performance since the 2nd half of 2008/09
Sturridge & Coutinho
Sturridge provided all the attributes you want from a centre forward with extreme pace, quality finishing, and physical presence. Sturridge was an unsustainably good 9/34 in-box shot conversion (0.264) and managed an astonishing 62% on target (including blocked shots)
Coutinho instantly became the most sublime creative player at Liverpool since the lesser-spotted Jari Litmanen in 2001, a bona-fide Brazilian maestro. He created a superb 2.8 open play chances per match, making him a peer of David Silva, Juan Mata and Suarez. However, Coutinho's value-add was that over 30% were Opta's “clear chances." Chance quality is a critical advantage, because we know that 38% of “clear” chances are converted compared to 8% of “normal” chances. Whilst Suarez, Silva, and Mata created a clear chance between every 190 and 200 minutes, with Coutinho it’s 100. Those numbers make little Phil look a genuine phenom.
(Aside: whilst not popular with some analysts, I'm a big fan of the Opta "Clear chance" data. Clear Chances include things like penalties, one-on-ones, unchallenged headers and shots with clear line of sight to the GK)
Here comes the rub - the problem with Sturridge & Coutinho is that they both only played one third of the season (about 1,100 minutes each). And neither have played more than 2,000 season minutes in their career. The good news is that, between them, they can replace-the-irreplaceable Luis Suarez whilst he is suspended for the first 6 games. Virtually no player in the world can match Suarez's output in terms of Goals, Shots, Chances Created and Clear Chances Created. For what Liverpool can afford (and attract), there’s no single player who can match Suarez’s output, but between them, Coutinho and Sturridge have bettered it so far. I’ve likened this to the “Giambi’s Hole” chapter in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball where the Oakland A’s were faced with replacing the Jason Giambi, a player whose OBP was 50 points higher than any other player in the league in his last season with the A’s. They couldn’t do it directly, but replaced him with a number of players and the team improved overall.
Even if there are no more arrivals or departures, the Liverpool first XI and squad are significantly stronger than a year ago, thanks to some excellent work last January and some early summer work. In defence, Reina, Carragher and Danny Wilson have been replaced in the squad by Mignolet, Toure and Andre Wisdom. In midfield, Joe Cole, Shelvey, Spearing and Carroll have been replaced by Coutinho, Alberto, Aspas and Sturridge. The one nagging concern remains the lack of an aggressive, dominant centre back (what this team would give for Sami Hyppia!). If such a player can be recruited before the end of the window, then things might really be looking up.
Critical Success Factors for 2013/14
1) Making it harder for opponents to score
Liverpool’s number 1 problem was that they were too easy to score against last season but this isn’t a recent phenomenon, it’s been a problem through the last 4 years as you can see:
|Liverpool Opponent Box Conversion
The 5 year league mean for box conversion is 0.146 (with n=100 and standard deviation=0.024)
What is more curious is that Liverpool were extremely good at keeping Opponent’s penalty box chances and clear chances to a very low level.
Opponents Box Shots per match
Opponents Box Conversion
Opponents Clear Chances per match
Opponents Clear Chance conversion
My own conclusion is that Liverpool didn’t have a systemic problem last season in terms of conceding box chances and clear chances to the opposition. Rather there has been a weakness at Goalkeeper for a number of years in terms of not enough opponents shots were being saved compared to other clubs. In fact, Opta confirmed that in the last two seasons for GK playing more than 1000 minutes, only Paddy Kenny had a worse “% of shots in the box saved” number than Pepe Reina. Thankfully this looks to have been addressed with the purchase of Simon Mignolet, a goalkeeper who performs extremely well in just about every GK metric that you care to choose. In a sport of very few goals like football, the theory is that more saves equals fewer goals conceded equals more points.
2) Become more efficient in front of goal
It’s scarcely believable, but 2012/13 saw a 47% improvement in Liverpool’s penalty box finishing compared to 2011/12. However this improvement was still not enough to pull them above the Premier League mean. To seriously challenge for the top 4, Liverpool are going to have to return a well above average conversion rate, this means improving from an all-box conversion of 0.135 to 0.15 or even 0.16. Even the shots from prime central locations in the box need to be improved from 0.188 last season to 0.21 or 0.22. This leads us nicely onto point (3)
3) Patience in the Final Third
Liverpool’s Achilles heel in attack was too many shots from “bad” areas. The team created far more chances than any other team in the league (14.5 per game, next best 13.6), and also had the 3rd most “clear” chance opportunities with 101 (City 121, United 118, Chelsea only 76). However the quantity of shots from wide and narrow areas in the box was ridiculous and converted at an appallingly bad rate.
The other final third metric that Liverpool need to improve on last season is Final Third Pass Completion. Whilst Liverpool’s figure of 0.728 was pretty good, it needs to get up to 0.75 to be really effective. That little bit more patience and opting to pass instead of the crazy shot could further improve the number of good chances created and result in those extra few goals that in turn mean more points.
If Liverpool can retain Suarez and integrate him to a system with Coutinho and Sturridge, then they could be onto a very good thing if all 3 produce similar levels to 2012/13. Assuming he can cope with the pressure of being Liverpool GK, Mignolet should make a big improvement on the team’s defensive performance. The signings of Aspas and Alberto look like clear squad upgrades for rotating in the front three, whilst the young tyro’s of Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe have astonishing pace and could be big factors away from Anfield.
In terms of results, if the second half of last season can be repeated over the season, then the team will be right in the mix for Champions League qualification, but even then may still fall short. My personal prediction is 6th and 68-70 points.