Liverpool enter 2017-18 with aspirations of challenging for the title after an at times hugely promising and exciting first full season under Jürgen Klopp. The prospect of European adventures returning on Tuesday or Wednesday nights is tantalizingly close providing they negotiate their Champions League qualifying round.
The story so far
Liverpool's tally of 76 points last season was their joint-third best tally over the last decade and only their second top-four finish since the Benitez years. In fact, after a run of four top-four finishes, Liverpool haven't registered back-to-back Champions League qualifications since Rafa left and have on average finished just sixth during that time with 65 points on the board.
With the above in mind, it's tempting to view a season of consolidation as the priority for the coming season, alongside beginning to re-establish the team as a European force. Liverpool's underlying performance last season is encouraging, with their goal return reasonably in-line with expectation and their expected goal difference placing them well in contention for a title push.
Drilling further into their expected goal numbers, sees a team that experienced fluctuating under-lying performance over the course of the season with a significant decline once 2017 was rung in. The graphic below illustrates this alongside a longer-term outlook encompassing the past five seasons.
The heights of 2016/17 are close to those of the Suárez-powered team under Rodgers, while the low-point is more in-line with Klopp's early tenure at the club. The past season thus illustrated that the team was capable of title-contending performances at times but also switched to a team competing for the fourth-place trophy at best.
Upping the pace
Closer examination of the downturn in performance using my 'team strategy analysis' shows a drying up of a specific type of shot generation. High-quality chances born of fast-paced attacks from deep and after midfield-transitions declined.
Sadio Mané was evidently missed due to AFCON duties and injury over the latter half of the season and this is borne out by the numbers. According to my model, he was second best in the EPL (0.11 per 90) in terms of xG-contribution (the sum of expected goals and assists) from fast-paced attacks following a midfield-transition. For fast-attacks from deep, he ranked sixth for xG-contribution (0.12 per 90).
Thankfully, Mohamed Salah, the club's major acquisition so far, brings complementary qualities to the table and adds much-needed depth to the wide-forward ranks. James Yorke of this parish has already praised the signing earlier this summer and my only addition is that Salah showed up quite highly for xG-contribution (0.07 per 90, ranking eleventh in Serie A) for fast-paced attacks following a midfield-transition. The addition of Salah improves what was already a healthy front-line attack.
According to the Objective Football website run by Benjamin Pugsley, Liverpool conceded just 8.1 non-penalty shots per game, ranking second over the past eight seasons behind a Pep-infused Manchester City last year. Shots-on-target conceded (3.0 per game) told a similar story, ranking joint-sixth over the same period. However, they combined these extraordinary shot-suppression numbers with the highest expected goals per shot in the league (0.11), which is the worst value I have over the past five seasons. When Liverpool conceded shots, they were of high quality, which ultimately saw them sit fifth in terms of expected goals against last season.
Klopp's tactical system does deserve credit for melding a highly exciting attack with strong defensive aspects in terms of shot-suppression. The optimistic take here is that tweaks and a greater familiarity with his counter-pressing tactics could bring about improvements in shot quality conceded, thereby seeing better defensive numbers. It's worth noting the period during November and December 2016m their expected goals against was the lowest it has been consistently over a 19-game span in the past five seasons, so the current squad is capable of sustained excellence in this realm.
The pursuit of Virgil van Dijk does suggest that the club are aiming to recruit a new starting centre-back. That saga remains running at the time of writing as the world waits to find out just how costly a single ice cream can be. Centre-back depth is an issue that does need to be rectified; that Lucas Leiva made six appearances as a centre-back last term is all the evidence needed here.
The other aspect of Liverpool's defense that could improve is in the goalkeeping stakes. From a pure shot-stopping perspective, Karius has the best pedigree; in my goalkeeper shot-stopping analysis, Karius came 31st across the data-set with a rating of 91%, which is a pretty decent indication that he is an above-average shot-stopper. Mignolet fared much worse with a ranking of just 25%, which places him at best as an average shot-stopper during his Liverpool career to date. I haven't looked at numbers for the Championship but Mark Taylor's numbers for Ward at Huddersfield were not encouraging. Playing Karius would be a bold move by Klopp given his limited exposure to English football thus far but Mignolet doesn't provide much confidence either -personally, I would go with Karius.
If I've learnt anything while sifting through the data for this preview, it's that Manchester City should be strong favourites for the title this coming season.
Can Liverpool challenge them, while also competing in Europe? At present, I'd side with no given that the depth issues of last season have yet to be addressed and the remaining questions marks in terms of the defense.
Liverpool's other transfer saga involving Naby Keita could be a game-changer given that he could have a transformative impact on the team's midfield but the likelihood of him signing appears to be receding by the day. Midfield depth is also potentially an issue unless Klopp is happy to rely on youth to cover midfield absentees over the season.
With potentially five teams in the Champions League group stages, progress to the latter rounds could have a strong bearing on league form post-Christmas. Six into four is likely the maths heading into the new season and Liverpool should again be well in the mix.
Third We're gonna win the league