22 February 2010

Three or Four or More

Liverpool hasn't scored three or more goals in a game since beating Hull 6-1 on September 29th. If the team maintains that streak against Blackburn next Sunday (which seems fairly likely), it'll be five full months – 21 games – without scoring more than twice in a league contest.

If that's happened before, it's been a while. The closest stretch came in '91-92 when Liverpool went 20 straight, which equals where the team's at now. Liverpool also had stretches of 19 in '91-92, and 17 in '93-94 and '02-03. Of course, it's worth noting that Liverpool frequently needed to score three goals to win under Roy Evans and finishing sixth was a good year with Souness in charge. Anyone can see how awful the attack is of late, but that stat's still surprising. And that Liverpool's record isn't worse at least demonstrates some defensive steel, in contrast to the early season losses.

Liverpool's only scored three or more in five league games this season (through 27), which actually seems a lot considering they all came in August and September. But it happened 15 times last season. In fact, the number of league games where Liverpool scored more than twice had increased in each of Benitez's seasons: 6 in '04/05, 7 in '05/06, 8 in '06/07, 9 in '07/08, and 10 in '08/09 before the "explosion" last year, most coming during the tremendous run-in. The only way that trend could continue is if Liverpool scores at least three in all the remaining Premiership matches.

Just to show how far "the mighty" have fallen, 5 out of 27 is 18.5%. 6 out of 38 is 18.4%. "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" has never rang truer, but that suggests Liverpool's only a tenth of a percent better in attack since Rafa's first season. Yikes. Just yikes. Incidentally, Liverpool's never lost a league match under Benitez when they've scored three or more; the only defeat came against Arsenal in the League Cup in January 2007, the infamous 3-6 drubbing at Anfield.

One can only hope that the return of Torres and Benayoun will ease the pain, but the complete dearth of goals suggests something more sinister. I've been arguing that this season's a perfect storm of calamities, and I still think that's the case, but an increasingly insipid attack deservedly inspires more questions. Yes, key players have been injured in every phase of the season – Torres, Gerrard, Yossi, Riera, Johnson, Aquilani, etc. – but there has to be more to it than that. An attack doesn't completely fall apart out of the blue. Hell, in the 23 games prior to this stretch, from Sunderland on March 3rd through Hull in September, Liverpool averaged almost 3 goals a game. 2.913 to be precise.

This recent stretch without Torres, where Liverpool's continued to misfire even with Gerrard back in the line-up, makes me think it's ultimately a combination of squad depth and Gerrard's ineffectiveness as a second striker without Torres. Yes, Stevie had some big games in a free role without Fernando, most notably 5-1 against Newcastle with Kuyt up top, but the longer Gerrard's been in the position, the longer teams have had to figure him, and the system, out.

I don't know what changes to suggest – Ed and I have been trying to hammer that out, to little effect, during these recent Benitez back-and-forths – but maybe something has to give, whether it's playing two up top or moving Gerrard out wide or deeper. But maybe key players (read: Torres and Benayoun) returning to fitness will spark the end of season run Liverpool often delivers. It just goes to show how confused this season has me. I'm still tempted to argue for the 4-2-3-1, and will probably do so in future, for all the reasons I've constantly sounded. I didn't create a "This Season Sucks" tag out of the blue.

However – in an attempt to end this on an optimistic note – Liverpool went a fairly long stretch without scoring three or more last season: more than two and a half months if you don't count that odd 3-2 contest against Pompey. Once the dam burst against Madrid and then Manchester in March, the goals couldn't stop coming for the rest of the campaign.

Let's hope springtime brings similar this season.

The full list of games follows:

'09-10: 4-0 Stoke (08.19), 3-2 Bolton (08.29), 4-0 Burnley (09.12), 3-2 WH (09.19), 6-1 Hull (09.29)
'08-09: 3-2 City (10.05), 3-2 Wigan (10.18), 3-0 WBA (11.08), 3-1 Blackburn (12.06), 3-0 Bolton (12.26), 5-1 Newcastle (12.28), 3-2 Portsmouth (02.07), 4-1 Man Utd (03.14), 5-0 Villa (03.22), 4-0 Blackburn (04.11), 4-4 Arsenal (04.21), 3-1 Hull (04.25), 3-0 Newcastle (05.03), 3-0 WH (05.09), 3-1 Spurs (05.24)
'07-08: 6-0 Derby (09.01), 3-0 Newcastle (11.24), 4-0 Bolton (12.02), 4-1 Portsmouth (12.22), 3-0 Sunderland (02.02), 3-2 Boro (02.23), 3-1 Bolton (03.02), 4-0 WH (03.05), 3-0 Newcastle (03.08), 3-1 Blackburn (04.13)
'06-07: 3-0 Spurs (09.23), 3-1 Villa (10.28), 4-0 Wigan (12.02), 4-0 Fulham (12.09), 3-0 Charlton (12.16), 3-0 Bolton (01.01), 3-0 Watford (01.13), 4-0 Sheffield Utd (02.24), 4-1 Arsenal (03.31)
'05-06: 3-0 Portsmouth (11.19), 3-0 Wigan (12.03), 3-1 Everton (12.28), 5-1 Fulham (03.15), 3-1 Newcastle (03.19), 3-1 Everton (03.25), 3-1 Villa (04.24), 3-1 Portsmouth (05.07)
'04-05: 3-0 WBA (09.11), 3-0 Norwich (09.25), 4-2 Fulham (10.16), 3-2 Crystal Palace (11.13), 3-1 Newcastle (12.19), 5-0 WBA (12.26), 3-1 Fulham (02.25)


Varmenni said...

And why should this be important? Last time I checked you still only need to score one more goal than the opponent to win, and if he doesn't score more than once you won't have to score more than two. And besides, do you know how many teams have managed to "score more than two" more often than us?

drew said...

It's important because of the margin for error, obviously. Look at how many points we've lost this year by not taking a second or third goal when we were on top of a game, only to let the other team nip an equalizer or winner late.

I think a huge part of the dissatisfaction in the fanbase that finds outlets in complaints about Lucas, Ngog, zonal marking, whatever, has this as its root cause: we don't kill off games this season, and that leads to that horrible sinking feeling with every chance that doesn't go in, every pass that doesn't come off.

That Hull game is such an outlier because it's the only one this season that felt like no matter what, we were going to batter them. Even giving up the equalizer at 1-1 didn't matter. If that happened now, I'd give Hull an even shout at holding on for a point.

Goals are the currency of football. The best teams score lots of them. This year, we are not among the best because we haven't scored like the best.

Completely unrelated, but I'm furious that we have to pay a £25,000 fine for picking up six yellows in that City game when there was very little aggression to speak of on either side.

nate said...

I actually do know how many have scored three or more against Liverpool. Only two so far this season: Villa and Fulham, in August and October (when defense was much more of a problem). And you may remember that Liverpool lost both games. Liverpool's had fewer 3+ goals against games than 3+ goals for games in each of Benitez's season. Defense has often been Rafa's forte and Liverpool's definitively been one of the best four teams in all of Benitez's seasons bar the first.

But you know how many teams scored three or more against Liverpool in the league last season? One, Arsenal. And that game ended level. There was also a 2-4 Carling Cup loss at Spurs and the 1-3 embarrassment against Chelsea in the CL, but now I'm getting off topic. You may also remember Liverpool winning a CL Final and FA Cup Final, albeit on penalties, despite the opposition scoring thrice.

As Drew says, this seemed important because of the margin for error. It's cliché, it's simplistic, but 'goals win games.' As I wrote, that Liverpool's defense has fortified since the early season troubles is why Liverpool's still fighting for fourth. You know, despite rarely scoring twice in a game in the last five months.

Liverpool under Benitez has always been built on defensive strength, and that's why Liverpool's gone 'back to basics' over this difficult stretch. But you can't pretend that a stronger, more cohesive attack wouldn't help the club.

Anonymous said...

One problem is that guys like Skrtel, Agger and Lucas waste too many scoring opportunities. Let's compare with Arsenal: Diaby, Gallas, and Vermaelen have 15 goals between them. (Arsenal have 17 different goal scorers in the league this year.) Skrtel and Agger can win headers from corners but can't put them away and if Lucas could find his nerve, he'd finally be the finished product; he shoots when he shouldn't and he tries to pass the ball when he should take his chance. If they'd have scored 5 or 6 goals between them by now, we'd probably have a few more points as a result. Not to lay this miserable season at their feet, but it's an example of how we can improve. With all the injury problems this year, we've been stuck with hoping to not concede while nicking a goal.

nate said...

^^^ very good point. Also holds true for Masch, Riera, and a few others.