Why Liverpool are not challenging for the title

Analysis of specific stats to understand the trends of Liverpool’s problems this season

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“Only midfield? It’s a general problem not a midfield problem. Defending starts up front. If you don’t defend from there, then the midfield have no chance. Balance might be a problem now”.

– Jurgen Klopp

It’s hard to disagree with the Liverpool manager. The goals conceded are the result of the poor team-work (in each area), not just the midfield. But it looks like the midfield issue has become the key problem for Liverpool this season.

Liverpool have been spending money regularly on attacking players in recent years. Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez, and Cody Gakpo could improve the team’s attacking quality. At the same time, the club did not solve the issues in the midfield, preferring to rely on quantity, rather than team chemistry and quality in key midfield positions.

In the summer of 2020, Thiago Alcantara joined the team, one year later Gini Wijnaldum left. It would seem that Liverpool would benefit from this exchange, but we are seeing the negative influence of this now. Thiago is fantastic midfield, one of the best in Europe in passing and ball control but it’s not enough when the system is struggling.

Conceded goals don’t come from nowhere. They are the results of team and errors from individual players (individual and positional) that allow the opponent to create scoring chances. This season Liverpool has given opponents much more options in the final third compared to previous seasons and that is Liverpool’s main problem.

An analysis of some specific statistics could help to understand the trends of Liverpool’s defensive problems this season. This also applies to the difficulties of the midfield line.

1. Penalty area entries (runs/crosses)

(for/against average per game)

2022/2023 – 35.4 / 22
2021/2022 – 37.9 / 17.9
2020/2021 – 37.5 / 17.7
2019/2020 – 38.9 / 18.4

In Liverpool’s title winning season (2019/2020), the ratio (average per match) of “Penalty area entries” was 20+ for Liverpool. This means that Liverpool players were delivering the ball more than 20 times into the opponent’s penalty area per game. A serious advantage, which allowed Liverpool to create much more chances and control the situation in defense.

This season, the ratio is, on average, 13 times per game for Liverpool, with negative trends in both defense and attack.

This season Liverpool opponents entered Reds penalty area 23% more than last season, it’s become a real problem for the team.

2. Touches in penalty box

(for/against average per game)

2022/2023 – 29 / 17
2021/2022 – 30.8/12.2
2020/2021 – 28 /12.8
2019/2020 – 27 / 12

This is a derivative of the previous indicator. Compared to title winning season of Klopp’s team, the opponent has increased the number of touches of the ball in the penalty area by 40%.

40% is an enormous increase. Why are teams getting so much more joy now in Liverpool’s box?

Liverpool’s attacking indicator improved, but the defence has serious additional problems – more entries, more touches, more shots and goals for the opponents.

3. Deep completed passes

(for/against average per game)

2022/2023 – 13.6 / 7.75
2021/2022 – 14 / 4.8
2020/2021 – 13.2 / 4.3
2019/2020 – 13 / 4.3

This point I would call the most revealing. This is one of those statistics that clearly demonstrates one of the major problems Liverpool face. Accurate passes into Liverpool’s penalty area have increased by a whopping 80%.  This shows that Klopp’s gegenpressing has unfortunately disappeared. Opponents are having the luxury of picking out passes into Liverpool’s penalty box with little pressure applied to them.

Any of the deep completed passes may result in a shot, a cross, pass from close range with a following shot, a corner or other kind of danger near Liverpool’s goal.

Liverpool opponents made 80% more deep completed passes compared to previous seasons average index.

4. Deep completed crosses

(for/against average per game)

2022/2023 – 5.95 / 4.2
2021/2022 – 6.37 / 2.7
2020/2021 – 5.3 / 3.1
2019/2020 – 6.7 / 2.9

This statistic is about dangerous passes that come into Liverpool’s penalty area from the flanks. This situation is also negative, the defensive pressure applied by Liverpool on the wings has deteriorated, not to the same extent as in the central midfield line, but the problems are obvious.

All these trends lead to much more pressure on central defenders. If you add to this:

– positional mistakes of centre backs in defence after crosses;

– poor defending in set pieces situations (conceded goals after crosses from corners and free kicks against Manchester City, Southampton, Brentford, etc.);

– critical individual mistakes (Konate against Mbeumo, Alisson against Guedes, Alexander-Arnold’s pass to Rodrigo, etc.);

And as a result, we get deadly trends for Liverpool:

Opponents shots/on target

(average per game)

2022/2023 – 9.2 (4.3)
2021/2022 – 7.42 (2.8)
2020/2021 – 8,34 (3.7)
2019/2020 – 8.26 (2.8)

Liverpool’s opponents have had 54% more shots on target this season compare to previous campaign. Not only more shots but there is even a wider issue here. The average distance of a shot was reduced by almost 2 meters (from 17.7 meters to 16 meters).

The whole situation dangerous: Liverpool allow opponents to enter the penalty area with the ball much more often compare to last season, opponents had more chances to take shots from closer range than in precious seasons. At the same time, the team regularly makes positional mistakes on set-piece situations, and players are making unforced individual errors that lead to opposition goals.

The final result of all these trends is the number of goals conceded (average per match) and Liverpool’s place in the table.

Goals conceded

(average per game)

2022/2023 – 1.3
2021/2022 – 0.68
2020/2021 – 1.1
2019/2020 – 0.87

In 2022/2023 season Liverpool conceded 50% more goals per match than in the title winning season (2019/2020) and 90% more goals than last season.

Does improving Liverpool’s defensive midfield performances guarantee the team will progress? Not 100%, but it could be the starting point for a major step forward. For now Liverpool have not found a quality replacement for a Wijnaldum type player. Thiago Alcantara has allowed Liverpool to improve their attacking capabilities (control and advancement of the ball, quality of passes), but in order to keep the defence at a serious level, quality changes are needed.

To make it more clear how this works, let’s look at similar trends of the current season leaders Arsenal. We will take the same indicators.

Penalty area entries (runs/crosses)

(for/against,  average per game)

2022/2023 – 31 / 17.3
2021/2022 – 26 / 22
2020/2021 – 26 / 22.9
2019/2020 – 24.6 / 25

When Liverpool won the title, Arsenal had a negative ratio of penalty area entries to that of their opponents. Now the Gunners have a completely different situation – they have seriously improved their attacking quality and defensive side of the game. The progress in their defence is particularly impressive, with Arsenal’s rivals now appearing in their box 32% less than in the 2019/2020 season.

Yes, it’s true, the London team reduced the opponent’s chances in their penalty area by a third.

Touches in penalty box

(for/against, average per game)

2022/2023 – 27 / 11.8
2021/2022 – 22.2 / 15.3
2020/2021 – 20 / 15.5
2019/2020 – 18 / 21

A direct consequence of this was the fall (by almost 50%) of opponent’s touches in the penalty area. These are very impressive figures in terms of their defensive improvements.

Deep completed passes

(for/against per game)

2022/2023 – 12 / 4.7
2021/2022 – 10 / 6.1
2020/2021 – 8.9 / 6
2019/2020 – 7.8 / 7.7

It’s in complete contrast to Liverpool, who dropped from 4.3 to 7.75, while Arsenal have almost reached the Reds’ title winning season. (from 7.7 in 2019/20 to 4.7 now).

Once again, a deep completed pass is “a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal”. Basically, it’s an opportunity to shoot from a comfortable distance after a pass from the midfield line.

Deep completed crosses

(for/against per game)

2022/2023 – 4.8 / 2.33
2021/2022 – 4.2 / 4.8
2020/2021 – 5.1 / 4.3
2019/2020 – 4.45 / 5

Here we see the quality of the Gunners’ full-backs. The number of completed crosses to their penalty area decreased by more than x2. Don’t forget about the central defenders, but the total number of passes from the flanks has sharply decreased (it became 11.1 per game, it was 16.7 in 2019/2020 season).

There are two indicators in particular that show Arsenal’s improvement.

Opponents shots/on target

(average per game)

2022/2023 – 7.5 (2.7)
2021/2022 – 10.4 (3.7)
2020/2021 – 10.45 (3.5)
2019/2020 – 13.66 (5.08)

The number of opponents’ shots on target (average per match) fell by almost 2 times. It’s better than Liverpool in their championship winning season.

Goals conceded

(average per game)

2022/2023 – 0.87
2021/2022 – 1.26
2020/2021 – 1.02
2019/2020 – 1.26

All this led to a logical result. Fewer entries into the box from the opponents, fewer touches, fewer shots, fewer shots on target – fewer goals conceded. Arsenal’s average conceded goal rate compared to last season has decreased by 31%. Take a look at the standings and it will become clear that Arsenal’s first place is not just a coincidence. Arsenal have worked hard, made it more difficult for their opponents and also a result they sit top of the table.

As a conclusion, it’s simple.

Liverpool need to improve drastically to challenge at the top of the table again.

The centre-backs are going to need a lot more pressure applied by Liverpool’s midfield to make their life easier.

Liverpool simply have to invest in young, energetic midfielders.

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