I hate being right.
And yesterday, in the first match of the league campaign, Suarez misfired and Gerrard had little influence on proceedings, and Liverpool failed to take advantage when in control then succumbed to a wonder goal followed by multiple defensive errors and a sending-off. We're all well aware it's the not first time that's happened, and it most likely won't be the last. Agger and Skrtel's mistakes, Downing and Borini's ineffectiveness, and Phil Dowd being Phil Dowd also played a large role in Liverpool's inadequacy, but it sure felt like the rot started at the top.
That's abhorrent accuracy, and yet Suarez was the only Liverpool player to put a shot on target. All three of Gerrard's were off target, while Borini, Cole, Downing, Johnson and Kelly took one and missed one. Two of Suarez's shots, the two off-target from inside the six-yard box, were clear-cut chances, errant headers from Johnson and Borini's excellent crosses. The first, mistiming his jump for Johnson's cross after good work from the stand-in left back on the half-hour mark, sure felt like a turning point when West Brom opened the scoring 13 minutes later.
But this is nothing new. Suarez had one of the worst clear-cut chance conversion rates in the league last season.
Opta's definition of a clear-cut chance:
A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range.Suarez converted seven of his 25 clear-cut chances last season – 28%. Rooney? 17 of 29 (59%). Agüero? 13 of 27 (48%). Van Persie? 18 of 40 (45%). But those were three of the league's best finishers. However, this EPL Index chart (from this article) lists 33 attackers; just six had a worse conversion rate: Bendtner, Bale, Carroll, Defoe, Gervinho, and Kuyt. The league average was 39%; had Suarez converted at that rate, he would have scored three more goals last season.
His shooting accuracy against West Brom was even worse than last season's abysmal return. 48 of his 128 total shots in 2011-12 were on target – 38% – compared to yesterday's 25%. He took eight or more shots in just one match, with 11 in the 1-1 draw against Norwich (the most any player took in a Premier League match last season), and at least tested Ruddy with six of those 11 even if he didn't score, including one near-miraculous save in the fifth minute of added time to preserve the draw.
Dan Kennett wrote extensively on this topic for The Tomkins Times back in March, and his findings remain relevant.
There will be matches where Suarez's is unerring, where Suarez scores in style early and often. Unfortunately, after 54 matches for Liverpool, those like his hat-trick against Norwich have become the exception rather than the rule. Admittedly, it's slightly easier to forgive missed chances when the player creates so many of the chances by himself. But his two best opportunities yesterday came from crosses put on a plate by Johnson and Borini, and he failed to hit the target on either.
I'm not necessarily saying that Suarez needs to be used differently, especially this early into Rodgers' reign. There's the temptation to demand he plays wide, not used as the main goal-scorer, which will only increase if this trend continues. And his talents might serve Liverpool just as well, if not better, on the flank. But his ability to run off the shoulder of the last man, to drag defenders out of position with his movement or with the ball at his feet, and his ability to involve others in the attack seem suited for his current role. He played on the flanks more often at Ajax, but it's no coincidence he's also become the central #9 for Uruguay since joining Liverpool.
However, if Suarez is going to play as a #9 in Rodgers' system, even if a roaming #9, a #9 as focused on creating as much as scoring, he needs to better that scoring return. And quickly.
56 passes attempted, 46 completed. Just 17 passes into the attacking third, completing 12, with only one incomplete pass inside the penalty area.
Allen, Lucas, Suarez, Johnson, and Borini all completed more passes in that crucial area of the pitch. Gerrard's completion percentage in the final third was 71% – only Downing (7/10), Skrtel (1/5), and Reina (0/2) were less accurate, and both Skrtel and Reina were limited to long hoofed passes from their own half. Agger's red card started from one of those five unsuccessful attacking third passes, the mistake compounded by losing possession with so many Liverpool players in West Brom's half, as both Allen and Lucas went forward when Gerrard dropped deeper to receive possession.
Gerrard's overall pass completion percentage from open play was 82%, the worst of any outfield Liverpool player. And it's not as if the sending-off made him any less accurate, pushing too hard to try to haul Liverpool back; he was 27/33 when Agger went off, again, 82% completed, with nine of 11 successful in the attacking third but none of those 11 into the penalty box.
Gerrard also created two chances against West Brom – only Glen Johnson created more, with three – but both were fairly poor excuses for chances. The first, in the 50th minute, was when he spread play wide to Downing, with the winger running into traffic then taking an easily-blocked shot. The second came after Liverpool were down to 10 and down by two goals, in the 72nd minute, when he spread play wide to Cole, with the winger running into traffic then taking an easily-blocked shot.
There was little of the one-touch quick passing with Suarez, Borini, and Downing that caused so many problems against Gomel and Leverkusen. Gerrard passed to Suarez just five times; Allen and Kelly was Gerrard's most frequent targets, receiving eight and seven passes respectively from the captain. On the other hand, Suarez set Gerrard up 11 times – only Kelly to Skrtel, Johnson to Agger, and Agger to Johnson were more frequent combinations – but just one of those passes came inside the penalty area and just two were forward passes, one in the center circle and one where Gerrard burst forward from midfield ahead of the ball, as has been so crucial in the past.
And his crosses? Six attempted, zero successful. Borini also attempted six, but at least completed one – that one clear-cut chance for Suarez – while no other player attempted more than four. Incidentally, Liverpool delivered 22 crosses in total – they averaged 22.1 per match last season, the most in the league – but completed just three, a success rate of 14% where they averaged 19% in 2011-12. Needless to remind, but it was not a very successful tactic last season.
Moving Gerrard into a more attacking position was supposed to make him more influential, but he couldn't have been much less so on Saturday. Still, days like that will happen; time makes fools of us all and whatnot. But even when that happens, Gerrard's leadership and mentality remain vital qualities. They are more intangible qualities, but as captain, it's Gerrard's job to ensure heads don't drop and Liverpool keep playing after setbacks like Agger's red card or the second penalty. But Liverpool looked beaten as soon as West Brom's second went in; the last 25 minutes weren't even damage control, but playing out the clock, and it was little surprise that West Brom added a third. It wasn't the first time a team crumbled to dust after a sending off and it won't be the last, and, of course, a comeback was massively unlikely. But you never want to see the players look as if they believe that. All too often, Liverpool rolled over and died at the first sign of trouble last season. That trait cannot carry over into this one. Taking responsibility in an interview today, for the first penalty concession if little else, is a reassuring step, but words are far easier than deeds.
During this transitional phase with a new manager and a new system, Liverpool will rely on its established stars to carry them through difficult spells. It may not necessarily be fair to hold them to a higher standard, but it's warranted. Despite all else that occurred against West Brom – Dowd's decisions, Agger and Skrtel's penalties, inefficient flank play – when both Suarez and Gerrard disappoint, it's no surprise that Liverpool loses.