06 April 2010

Away Chances, Away Goals

17 away league games, 14 goals. That's abysmal. And it's led to a record of four wins, five draws, and eight losses away from Anfield. I've prattled on about the multiple causes of Liverpool's season-long misfortune, and there are multiple, but at the end of the season, the away form might be the most glaring.

I still believe that many of this season's problems can't be pinned solely on Benitez, but you can't help but start with the manager on this one. Liverpool only lost two games on the road last season, picking up 43 points in the process, and three the season before. The team scored 36 in the league away from Anfield in the previous campaign. And it's usually the tactics that result in such a vast discrepancy.

Yet from memories alone, I'm not inclined to single out a lack of ambition in attack. Sure, Liverpool were conservative in trips to Wolves and City and patently awful against the likes Pompey and Wigan. But I also remember early season losses to Spurs and Fulham, as well as the narrow wins over Bolton and West Ham (where Liverpool had to score three to win). Liverpool tried the more attacking mindset at the start of the season, trying to build on the form they ended the previous season with. And as we saw, it didn't work because of an unsettled and sloppy defense (especially on set plays) and the absence of Alonso, among other variables.

Reverting to stereotype, Liverpool have lost and drawn some dreadful away games, most glaringly the aforementioned Pompey, Wigan, City, and Wolves matches. But they've also picked up victories at Villa and Everton using similarly cagey tactics. The cliché 'sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't' holds true for every team and manager. After six years with Benitez, we should at least be used to the ride, the good and the bad. It's brought victories over the likes of United, Barca and Real Madrid, and losses to the likes of Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Wigan.

I guess this is a good place for some relevant statistics from previous seasons. Beware, this gets numbers-heavy even for me from here.

Away goals per game
'09-10: 0.824 (14 through 17)
'08-09: 1.895 (36)
'07-08: 1.263 (24)
'06-07: 0.947 (18)
'05-06: 1.316 (25)
'04-05: 1.105 (21)

Away record/League Position
'09-10: 4 wins, 5 draws, 8 losses (?)
'08-09: 13 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses (2nd)
'07-08: 9 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses (4th)
'06-07: 6 wins, 4 draws, 9 losses (3rd)
'05-06: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses (3rd)
'04-05: 5 wins, 3 draws, 11 losses (5th)

So far, it's been the worst of Rafa's six seasons. And if Liverpool don't beat both Burnley and Hull – the 18th and 19th-placed teams – while scoring at least four, it'll end as the worst.

The away form, in both goals and overall record, looks most like '06-07. Liverpool finished with 68 points that season, which is what they'll get this year if they manage four wins and a draw over the next five games. The difference, obviously, is in the strength of the league. Arsenal, City, Tottenham, and Villa have all improved that much in the last three years.

Delving deeper into it, over the course of this season, Liverpool's averaged 13 shots per away match compared to 20 per home game. Which is pretty much the same as '06-07: 13 per away match and 19 at Anfield. The discrepancy's only egregious when counting shots on target: just less than three per game away compared to seven at home. In '06-07, Liverpool averaged 6.5 shots on target per away match, more than twice as many as this season, and 8.5 at home.

To add more numbers to the pile, let's look at it in how many shots and shots on target it takes to score.

• 15.99 shots per away goal
• 3.5 shots on target per away goal
• 6.0 shots per home goal (3.375 goals/game)
• 2.15 shots on target per home goal

• 13.84 shots per away goal
• 6.94 shots on target per away goal
• 5.9 shots per home goal (3.167 goals/game)
• 2.67 shots on target per home goal

Liverpool found it far easier to score, and about at the same rate, at home in both seasons. No surprise. Every team's better at home. Even this season, Fortress Anfield has made a difference.

Only one of those four stats stands out: the number of shots on target it took to score away from Anfield. In '06-07, Liverpool scored once for every seven shots on target. It's exactly half that this year. With that sort of efficiency, Liverpool should have no trouble tallying goals. If only they could get shots on target.

Otherwise, the number of shots and goals per game, whether home or away, as well as Liverpool's away record, is similar in both seasons. Fewer shots on target but a similar number of shots in total usually means more shots from distance.

Remember, Liverpool didn't adopt the 4-3-2-1 consistently until last season. Liverpool almost always lined up 4-4-2 in '06-07, even away from Anfield, with some combination of Crouch, Kuyt, Bellamy, and Fowler up top. Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso, and later Mascherano played in central midfield, with Gerrard sometimes shifting out right (usually in the "big" away games).

Tactics and formation only go so far. Liverpool weren't good enough this season or in '06-07, and Benitez probably should have been bolder in both. But similar numbers of shots and goals despite the difference in formation suggests it has more to do with to the players. They're getting shots. They're just not going in. And the ones that actually hit the target are beating the keepers, suggesting that the close range shots are working; that Torres is doing his job.

That's vindicated by his goals per game and per minute ratios. No surprise that he has six of Liverpool's 14 away goals, double Gerrard in second place. Pity he's been injured so much. The only other players to have scored away from Anfield in the league are Kuyt (2), Johnson, and Kyrgiakos, with one own goal. It goes without saying that Liverpool cannot rely on Torres or Gerrard to bail them out of tough away matches.

This isn't to re-ignite Sunday's substitution debate. Torres looked jaded and Liverpool were better after Ngog came on. But the overall point remains: the other attackers aren't carrying their weight, especially away from Anfield, where Liverpool's desperately needed someone to make the leap. Every week I look up the opposition's goal-scorers for my previews, and every week I'm surprised by the difference between Liverpool's 2nd, 3rd, and/or 4th placed scorers and the oppositions. The gap's rarely as large as Liverpool's.

Whether or not Torres needs a strike partner or more support from the line of three is open for debate, and we'll probably debate it a lot this summer. Liverpool did score a record number of goals last season, both home and away, using primarily the 4-2-3-1. That may not be possible without Alonso. But Torres needs help, especially away from Anfield. And even though these stats somewhat support Benitez's tactics – or at least demonstrate that the formation doesn't really matter – Torres still needs more help from the manager's game plan. Of course, for Torres to get help, Liverpool will need to get money.

But long story short, if you can't hit the target, you're not going to win. And Liverpool's players just aren't hitting the target enough.

More raw numbers:
• '09-10 shots away: 224(49 on target) = 13.18(2.88) per game
• '09-10 shots home: 324(116) = 20.25(7.25) per game
• '06-07 shots away: 249(125) = 13.11(6.58) per game
• '06-07 shots home: 355(161) = 18.68(8.47) per game


Abhiram said...

Good work nate... The one glaring difference i saw in the 06/07 and 09/10 season is the inability to take away goals from set-pieces. If i can spend some time, i might probably count the number of goals taken from set pieces (Especially corners) with fingers on one hand. If you exclude the goals scored by Torres there, then it is even more abysmal. Consider only the aways goals, then... thats one of the reasons we are in this position.

We always crib about the number of chances we have not made use of. Agger, Krgyakos, Torres, Babel, Lucas and Kuyt have lost so many chances theat they all might have been in double digits in goals by now(maybe not Krgyakos). :(

nate said...

Definitely something to consider. I'll look it up if I have the time. Liverpool's never been great at set plays under Benitez, but Hyypia always scored a handful.

Guarantee I'm missing a couple, but off the top of my head, I think only Kyrgiakos and Kuyt have scored from set plays away in the league (not counting pens). There have been a few more at home: couple of corners against Bolton, Skrtel from a FK v City, Johnson's first goal, and probably a couple of others. Obviously less away than at home, but as usual, not a source of a lot of goals.

nate said...

Embarrassing display by me in the above comment. Leaving it here to remind me to research. In my defense, I'm half-watching Inter wander around CSKA Moscow.

Primarily, I'm confusing my Everton and Bolton goals. One of the goals against Bolton - Gerrard 3-2 - came away, from a short corner. Kuyt's headed goal against Everton came at home; his away goal was from open play (I'm appalled at that mistake). And Kuyt also scored from a set play away to West Ham.

So 3 of 14 away goals came from set plays. Oddly none of them were set up by Gerrard; Benayoun took both corners (one short), while Aurelio provided the FK for Kyrgiakos. When I get time I'll try and look up the proportions from other seasons.

keith.cygan said...

Quick question not related to the post:

What is the "textbook" rule on an offsides play like the one called in the Benfica game against Kuyt on Torres' called-off goal? The reason I ask is because it seems like there's very little consistency on plays where you have a guy in an offsides position who doesn't make contact with the ball.

Scott B said...

There is little consistency. Especially in European games with refs from other leagues. Technically the rules states that you don't blow the whistle unless a player in an offside position when the pass with made unless the player is:

• interfering with play or
• interfering with an opponent or
• gaining an advantage by being in that position

IMO, by the rulebook Dirk was offside. He was interfering with play by going for a header and forcing a defender to cover him. He was also leaning on a defender interfering with him. That said, English refs almost never call offside unless the player touches the ball or obviously blocks a keeper. Especially when it's a very close offside.

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nate said...

Can't explain it much better than Scott B.

Unless the linesman misses it – which, given Drogba's recent winner against United, isn't out of the question – Kuyt gets flagged in that situation in the Prem as well. As Scott writes, he's active and occupying a defender.

But yeah, deciding whether a player is active or interfering with play leaves it open to some interpretation.