Jürgen Klopp’s second full season in charge, some good summer signings and the return to the UEFA Champions League, created high expectations among the club’s fans for the ’17-’18 season.
7 English Premier League, one League Cup and four Champions League matches later, things are definitely not good. The Reds are 7th in the League, waived on the League cup – courtesy of a 2-0 loss at Leicester – and are 2nd in a Champions League group with Sevilla, Spartak Moscow and Maribor.
So what has gone wrong during the first stages of the season and Liverpool can’t establish themselves as title contenders and are also struggling in Europe? The obvious answer is: their defence. But is it really just that?
We will examine the situation further by trying to answer the following 2 questions:
- Is Liverpool’s defence really that bad?
- Should we only blame the defenders for the team’s defensive struggles?
Let’s see some team defensive statistics for starters and try to compare those of Liverpool with the other title contenders (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal).
Liverpool’s players have 16.3 tackles per game (10th in the league). While it is not a good average, it isn’t that bad either, especially when you see that Tottenham (14.4), United (13.6) and City (13.3) are worse in this statistical category.
To continue, the Reds have 10.6 (13th) interceptions p.g. while Chelsea (10.1) and Tottenham (6.9) have fewer.
Moreover, if we see the shots conceded per game, we find Liverpool at the 2nd place in the league with 8.4, behind only Manchester City (6.4) and above Tottenham (8.6), United (8.6), Arsenal (10.1), and Chelsea (12).
This last stat leads us to examine Liverpool’s expected goals in order to reach a conclusion. ‘’Expected goals’’ is a relatively new method of statistical analysis, which measures the quality – not the quantity – of a team’s chances and comes up with the number of goals that a team should have scored during a match, based on its chances.
Liverpool’s defensive xG for the season so far is 10.23 but they have conceded 13 goals. This means that they have conceded approximately 3 more goals than they should, based on their defensive performance.
Same situation in the Champions League.
Liverpool should have conceded only 0.97 goals against Sevilla – not even one – but they conceded two instead. Against Spartak, their defensive xG is an almost perfect 0.17, but once again they failed to keep a clean sheet due to a free-kick by Fernando that found the back of Karius’ net.
As a conclusion, we could say that Liverpool’s defensive stats are not perfect, but they definitely don’t justify them being 7th in the League and having only 2 points in 2 matches in the Champions League.
So what is really the problem with Liverpool’s defending and they can’t stop conceding goals?
It’s often difficult to illustrate the damage made by set pieces to a team’s defense from a statistical point of view, but I think that you will understand a lot of things if I’ll tell you that 3 out of 13 goals in the English Premier League and 1 out of 3 goals in the Champions League have conceded following a set piece, either a corner or a free-kick. This is not a huge percentage but it has cost 4 points in general and it’s clear that if you can’t defend set pieces you can’t expect much during a season.
Only the names of Liverpool’s goalkeepers are enough to show the difference between the reds and their rivals. Mignolet and Karius against De Gea, Courtois, Cech, Lloris. Mignolet isn’t a world class keeper, while Karius may become one day, but he is definitely not one right now. In fact, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet just in 2 out of 7 matches in the Premier League and none in the Champions League. (United have 6, City 5, Arsenal and Tottenham 5 and Chelsea 4). Liverpool need more established goalkeepers in order to contend for titles.
In the 7 League matches to date, Jürgen Klopp fielded the same back – four defenders only 3 times (Matip – Lovren – Gomez – Moreno). Joel Matip has started in all 7 matches, Lovren and Moreno seem to be the German’s first choices in their respective positions, but when you don’t use a specific defensive line-up in consecutive matches then the players can’t build chemistry with them and goals like the following, where the lack of communication between the center-backs is more than obvious, will come as a natural result.
Not signing a world class defender
While Pep Guardiola spent close to €125m on full-backs, Conte spent €70m on Rudiger and Zappacosta, Pochettino bought Sanchez and Aurier for €65m and Mourinho brought Lindelof from Benfica for €35m, Liverpool found it hard to sign one of the best Premier League centre-backs, Virgil van Dijk and signed a reserve left-back, Andrew Robertson from Hull City for €9m. Signings don’t always solve problems automatically, but bringing in a seemingly world class defender like van Dijk would be nothing sort of a good start.
Little help from midfielders and forwards
A team defends and attacks as a whole. We often say that the striker is a team’s first defender and that’s absolutely true. Liverpool’s forwards don’t seem to fulfil this role, with Mane and Salah rarely providing cover for their full-backs, which is a huge problem in modern football, especially when you have attack-first minded full-backs like Moreno, that leave a lot of space behind them as they run down the flanks. Also, Liverpool’s midfielders are not the holding defensive midfielders that a team needs to have in front of their defence. Such players like Kante, Dier, Xhaka, Fernando and Matic provide cover for midfielders or full-backs that move higher up the pitch and are very important in the modern game. Unfortunately, none of
A team defends and attacks as a whole. We often say that the striker is a team’s first defender and that’s absolutely true. Liverpool’s forwards don’t seem to fulfil this role, with Mane and Salah rarely providing cover for their full-backs, which is a huge problem in modern football, especially when you have attack-first minded full-backs like Moreno, that leave a lot of space behind them as they run down the flanks. Also, Liverpool’s midfielders are not the holding defensive midfielders that a team needs to have in front of their defence. Such players like Kante, Dier, Xhaka, Fernando and Matic provide cover for midfielders or full-backs that move higher up the pitch and are very important in the modern game. Unfortunately, none of Wijnaldum, Can or Henderson is such a player, which leads in poor defensive performances in this crucial part of the pitch. For instance, the Liverpool midfielder with the most tackles in the English Premier League this season is Jordan Henderson with 17, good only for 18th league-wide, while players like Ndidi, Kante, Gueye, Fer, Mooy, Merino, all have more than 20.
Of course, the season is yet in a primary stage and there is still much room for improvement. Jürgen Κlopp is a great coach and surely is looking for ways to strengthen his team’s defensive performance among others.
This improvement might come with some January signings – van Dijk will still be available presumably – or via the hard work in training sessions, the kind of work that takes time to pay off.
Liverpool’s players have great potential as individuals, but there is a lot more to do in order to fulfil it as a whole. The first part of this process should be no other than defence.
All stats taken from www.whoscored.com
Gifs created via makeagif.com
xG stats created by @11tegen11