Before we go into the expected line up, signings and outgoings let’s deal with the giant buck-toothed elephant in the room. The big questions that have the experts, I feel, under-valuing Liverpool for the forth-coming season, are:
1. Can they cope with the loss of Luis Suarez, and the goals, assists and key passes that go with him.
2. The added fixtures that come with being back in the elite of the Champions League. (We won’t really know the answers to this question until the competition gets underway)
First off, it’s been done to death. There is no replacing Luis Suarez, at least not directly. But there are other ways you can crawl those missed 31 goals back.
For example, in defence. Simply, you can start of by conceding less shots. 7 teams conceded more shots than Liverpool last season, but 4 of those teams you could consider direct rivals this season, they were United, Chelsea, City and Spurs. However, when you consider shot location, type of shot etc the expected (non pen, non own goal) goals Liverpool should have conceded was 38, they conceded 42. So a slight under-performance. Incidentally, Chelsea fared best with 31 XG, with City next at 32.
If you look a little deeper and look at shots conceded in the danger zone then Liverpool conceded only 26 more shots than Chelsea in that zone. A difference of about 4.6 expected goals. About 20 shots more conceded in both left and right wide in the box also, which has a conversion rate of c.4%, and lastly around 40 shots more than Chelsea and City conceded from outside the box, shots which also have a very low probability of scoring. So all in all, Liverpool conceded a lot more shots than their rivals, but those shots tended to be very low value shots. In fact, only Chelsea conceded more shots from OPTA’s big chances metric last season than Liverpool. If you take a quick glance at the graphic below, it’s clear there are a lack of red (very high value) shots conceded.
I’m not saying this was a good defensive performance by any means, in fact, it’s a worry, volume-wise, to concede so many shots as it says to me, that tactically, Liverpool aren’t set up correctly when they lose the ball. Liverpool players blocked 132 shots last season, conceded 4 own goals, 4 penalties and conceded a lot of shots from the zone outside the box. They were too lose in midfield, and when opposition attackers did get beyond the midfield zone, defenders were forced into mistakes.
You only have to look at the ball error numbers to see that. Only Spurs had more errors that led to a goal last season, and no team conceded more shots from errors last season than Liverpool. But what about opportunity? Liverpool had lot’s of possession so you’d expect them to have more errors. Well Chelsea, City and Arsenal had a lot of possession too, but didn’t incur near this amount of errors. And if you look at it in ‘touches per goal error’, Liverpool made a goal error every 2,611 touches. Only Spurs and Norwich made an error more often in terms of touches. The thing is I’m not too sure whether those errors were as a direct result of players just being sloppy, or whether it was a more systemic issue that permeated throughout the team. I’d be inclined to think it was a little bit of both.
Of course we can’t talk about the defence without considering the Achilles Heel, set pieces. Liverpool conceded 11 goals from headers last season (Chelsea & City conceded only 5), only WBA, Fulham and Cardiff conceded more. 2 of those teams were relegated. Liverpool’s opponents converted 13.4% of their headed shots, only Stoke’s opponents converted a higher proportion. So that says it all really. Again, I think these are both systemic and personnel issues. But both can be improved and used as a way of pulling back some of those 31 goals lost by the departure of Suarez.
So how do Liverpool fix these issues? System changes, tweaks, tightening up the midfield, and work on the training ground go a long way to ironing out defensive issues. Change of personnel is another way. Hence, the defensive additions of Lovren, Moreno, Manquillo and to a lesser extent Emre Can, who can fill in at left back and defensive mid. Full back issues were also a big problem last season. Glen Johnson’s defensive positioning is as shaky as a drunk baby stumbling around a playpen, and for a supposed attacking full back his offensive output is poor compared to other full backs.
The centre backs never looked happy, Skrtel, who actually was quite poor initially gradually played himself into some kind of form, but neither Agger, or Toure looked comfortable. Sakho at times, perhaps looked the most comfortable, and at a 16 million outlay, you’d have to think that eventually he will be first choice with Lovren.
But will the new defensive additions bring more solidity? Along with Cahill and Terry, Lovren was perhaps the best centre back in the league last year. In fact, his style of defending reminds me a lot of Sami Hyppia. Positionally sound, a good reader of the game, and a commanding presence in the centre of the box (Remember those set pieces Liverpool concede from). You can get a quick idea of what he might bring to the Liverpool compared to current centre backs from the below chart.
*Adjusted defensive metrics – I’ll write a longer piece on this soon. I’ve adjusted each defensive metric (where you see adj pre-fixed) based on the number of passes conceded by the team each player plays for while that player was on the pitch. I’ve only looked at games where a player has played >75 mins.
Manquillo will likely be eased in, but I expect Moreno will get much more game time. Him and Flanagan will most likely alternate quite a bit based on the opponents Liverpool will be facing home/away.
Having said all of this, I somehow feel the catalyst to Liverpool improving defensively is tightening up in midfield. Gerard offers so much, but he needs runners in alongside him to help out with the defensive side. Henderson provides that, and more, but with moving to a 4-4-2 diamond last season to accommodate two centre forwards, it gave Henderson that little bit too much to do. I’d expect Rodgers to return to more of a 4-3-3 this season. Gerrard at the base of a midfield triangle with 2 runners either side in Henderson and possibly Emre Can. If that sacrifices attacking play too much, Coutinho is a possibility as the left sided midfield player in the three. He showed his battling qualities last season playing to the left of the diamond.
Taking all of this into account, can Liverpool claw back the Suarez goals in defence? Well certainly not the full amount, but I think they have addressed their needs in the transfer market of full backs, and a commanding centre back. Fix those systemic issues and I can’t see why they can’t improve their goals conceded by at least 10.
The huge conversion rates maintained last season will inevitably drop this season. I think the big question here is by how much? Both Suarez and Sturridge hugely over-performed in expected goals. Such over-performance has practically no year on year correlation. It’s also worth noting that Liverpool may not HAVE to score that many goals to do well. Average goals scored by the Premier League winners in the last 10 years is 84 goals. Which is 17 less than they scored last season, but given the attacking talent on display at City and Chelsea I can’t see the winners scoring less than 90 goals. Furthermore, Man City also hugely over-performed in XGoals, so I expect their number of goals will also decrease in the coming season.
It can’t be over-emphasised enough, what a record breaking season that was from Suarez last season. But not just his goals will be missed, his all round play, dragging defenders out of position, assists and link up. His goal involvement P90 (goals+assists Per 90) was at 1.31 last year. In the last 4 seasons in the Premiership only 1 player can better that tally, which was Aguero last season at 1.36, and only 7 players in the last 4 seasons have broken the 1 per 90 barrier. A huge contribution.
But there are some really positive signs in an attacking sense from Liverpool. Sturridge has grown into his role at the club. In his last 4 seasons in the EPL he’s only under-performed in XGoals once, which was a slight under-performance of 0.001 per 90 in 12/13. Coupled with his XGoals per 90 in the last 4 seasons at 0.58, 0.385, 0.718 and last seasons 0.571 gives him an average of 0.56 per season. If he can stay fit, play the majority of games and score at the rate an average player would given the chances he gets then he’s likely to get c.20 goals this season. And herein lies the problem. If Sturridge gets injured who’s going to replace him? Lambert’s XGoals per 90 in the last 2 seasons was 0.287 and 0.364, so any long term absence from Sturridge may be critical to Liverpool’s goal scoring. They can solve this by dipping into the transfer market. Names such as Cavani, Benzema and Falcao have been thrown around. If Sturridge gets injured then I believe getting a quality striker in before the season starts may be the difference between struggling to get into the Champion’s League places and being relatively comfortable in the Champion’s League places.
Markovic and Lallana have also signed, but I can’t help feeling Markovic may be a little slow getting off the ground and Lallana was signed to add depth to the squad rather than displace one of Suarez, Coutinho or Sterling in the starting eleven. My biggest worry in terms of goal scoring however can be summarised in this chart. Over/Under performance figures are marked on the labels.
In particular the midfield area. Over the last 3 seasons Liverpool have under-performed in expected goals. While not a huge problem per se, in a year when you lose your top goalscorer (and vitally haven’t bought another striker) and have a huge over-performance in expected goals it’s a imperative you get as much from your midfield as possible. Can (no pun intended) Markovic, Lallana, Sterling and Coutinho step up their goal scoring performance. Particularly Coutinho who only scored 5 goals last season and who’s shooting was erratic to say the least. We know both Sterling and Coutinho can create, both were in the top 20 expected assists per 90 last season in the EPL. So creating chances won’t be a problem for Liverpool, converting them might be though. Incidentally, both have looked unstoppable in pre-season games.
In summary: the defensive personnel have been improved, systemic issues should have been addressed in pre-season, and a move back to an extra man in midfield should shore up that zone. Squad depth has been improved, creativity shouldn’t be an issue, but a striker hasn’t been purchased yet, that leaves a lot of goal-scoring responsibility on Sturridge and Lambert.
Lastly, there has been some suggestion last year’s title challenge was some sort of fluke. While no one expected it, the rise into the top 4 certainly wasn’t a fluke. Liverpool’s expected goal ratio, expected goal ratio which I found to have strong correlation (R2=0.78) with points earned, has risen since the 10/11 season where they posted a XGR of just 53.8, they’ve had an XGR of 0.636, 0.637 and last seasons 0.655 since that poor 10/11 season. In fact, they are the only team to have an XGR >0.60 to finish outside the top 4 (twice) in the last 4 seasons. It’s almost like there was a plan in place.
Star Man: Raheem Sterling