05 August 2015

Liverpool 2015-16 Season Preview

The less said about last season, the better. In fact, it can be summed up in just one word. Goals.

Liverpool scored 52 league goals, barely half of the previous season's total, after selling Suarez and losing Sturridge for the majority of the campaign. That goals total was the worst since 47 in Dalglish's 2011-12 horror season, and it was only the third time since 2000 that Liverpool scored 52 or fewer.

Liverpool's +4 goal difference was the joint-worst of the Premier League era, equalling the 1993-94 campaign which saw Liverpool finish 8th and fire Graeme Souness.

Liverpool's top scorer in the league had all of nine goals, four of which were penalties, one a direct free kick. That player's now plying his trade in MLS. You may have heard of him. The second highest total was scored by a 20-year-old who's now at Manchester City.

Liverpool scored 49 fewer goals than in 2013-14, but only took 61 fewer shots, created only 53 fewer chances.



Shooting accuracy was a problem. Shot location was a problem. Goal conversion was a problem. Slow build-up and slow attacks allowing defenders to get into position to block shots was a problem. And it seemed further proof that 2013-14 was a Suarez- and Sturridge-led aberration.

Fancy Stats (via Michael Caley):
TSR (Total Shots Ratio): 3rd
xG (Expected Goals): 5th
xGA (Expected Goals Against): 5th
xGR (Expected Goals For/Against): 5th

So, yes, Liverpool's shooting was pretty bad, but Liverpool were pretty much the fifth-best side according to the favored fancy stats. And Liverpool were in fifth prior to the last day's humiliation.

But that still wasn't good enough.

And it doesn't necessarily jibe with my memory of the season. A season that started badly and continued badly – a post-World Cup hangover combined with the need to bed in eight new players, compete in four competitions, and deal with the departure of Liverpool's top scorer and an injury to Liverpool's second-best scorer – but eventually got better thanks to the mid-season switch to 3-4-3. But just when you thought Liverpool had all the answers, someone changed the questions. And the side collapsed during the run-in, climaxing with a 1-6 loss at Stoke, Liverpool's worst defeat in 52 years.

Sure, it's a good thing that Liverpool were fairly terrible and still in the race for fourth until the final month, but the play was often a bad thing.

How are Liverpool going to fix these issues?

Summer business

Christian Benteke (£32.5m)
Roberto Firmino (£29m)
Nathaniel Clyne (£12.5m)
Joe Gomez (£3.5m)
Danny Ings (TBD by tribunal)
James Milner (free)
Adam Bogdan (free)

Raheem Sterling (£49m)
Iago Aspas (£4.4m)
Sebastian Coates (£4m)
Rickie Lambert (£3m)
Steven Gerrard (free)
Glen Johnson (free)

Total In: ~£82.5-87.5m (depending on Ings' fee)
Total Out: ~£60.4m (and hopefully soon to include paltry sums for Enrique, Borini, and Balotelli)

Despite the big names and fees, that's not a huge net spend thanks to Sterling, made even narrower when factoring in the wages both Gerrard and Johnson were on. But the plan seems fairly clear.

Buy goals. That's the plan. That always needed to be the plan, and it's an obvious plan. Also, an experienced midfielder to replace Gerrard in Milner, Clyne to replace Johnson, and the usual youth prospects in Gomez and Ings, but mostly goals. Benteke, Firmino, Ings, plus Origi after last season's loan at Lille. But all except Milner are 24 or younger; FSG wouldn't have it any other way, and it makes sense given the market and Liverpool's financial powers.

Whether or not Benteke as the centerpiece – an aerially dominant target-man focal point – is the correct move has been a summer-long debate. And it'll continue to be so; his performance, more than any other summer signing, will most likely set the tone for the season. But it's not as if the European market's overflowing with available proven strikers this summer and holy wow did you see his goal last Sunday? Let's have more of that.

Liverpool seemingly bought well, even if the headline fees were higher than expected. But for the second summer in a row, Liverpool blew everything up again.


There are a handful of players not included in the above graphic. Enrique (96 appearances), Borini (38), and Balotelli (28) because their sales are apparently imminent; Wisdom (22), Luis Alberto (12), and Williams (1) because they're on loan; and Sinclair (3), Yesil (2) and Ilori (0) because who knows what's going on with them and I wouldn't be surprised if none see first-team minutes this season. But aside from Enrique, those players barely make dents in an already sparse appearances total.

Most notably, there are just four players who predate Brendan Rodgers' tenure: Martin Skrtel, Lucas Leiva, Jon Flanagan and Jordan Henderson. Well, again, five if you count Jose Enrique, but come on, no one counts Jose Enrique. And that's it. Those five players are the only ones who've seen Liverpool lift a trophy: the League Cup in 2011-12, with only Skrtel, Henderson, and Enrique on the pitch for the final.

Just four players who've made more than 100 appearances for Liverpool. Just seven who've made more than 50. And that's all competitions, not just the league. 14 first-team players either signed or brought up from the academy in the last 14 months.

The total number of Liverpool appearances for the above list of 26 players is just 11 more appearances than Carragher and Gerrard made in their Liverpool careers.

For the second-straight season, there is a startling lack of continuity in the side, a startling lack of institutional memory in the side, made even more dramatic by the inevitable (and necessary) departures of Gerrard and Johnson.

Key Players

Henderson: Henderson has some very large boots to fill. Not necessarily on the pitch, where he's been one of Liverpool's better players for a couple of seasons now, but off it. He's Liverpool's first new captain in more than a decade. At all of 25 years old, he's Liverpool's third-most capped player. He is expected to be a leader, both in the dressing room and on the field. And, like Liverpool as a whole, where he needs to improve the most is in front of goal.

Coutinho: One of Liverpool's lone bright spots in attack last season, he'll continue to be the hub of most of what's good, charged with setting up Liverpool's two new stars and Sturridge when he returns. Like Henderson, he's necessarily experienced beyond his age, one of Liverpool's veterans at all of 23-years-old. And chances are, if Liverpool maintain the formation we've seen so far, he'll have to do it from a wide position, at least in name, rather than his preferred central berth.

Benteke: It's not fair to saddle him with constant references to his fee or Liverpool's most expensive transfer, but it's going to happen. He's the main man now, seemingly Liverpool's top priority all summer long. He's simply got to justify that. Because, as you may have heard, Liverpool desperately need goals from somewhere.

Sturridge: Can he get fit and stay fit? Because if he can, this is a very, very different team.

Henderson aside, those are all attackers. It's not as if Liverpool's defense was blame-free last season (*glares at Lovren* *glares at Skrtel* *glares at Moreno* *glares back at Lovren*). But it was arguably Liverpool's best defensive season under Rodgers, conceding just 1.10 goals in all competitions, albeit rising to 1.26 in the league. Which was at least still better than the 1.32 conceded per league match in 2013-14. Liverpool conceded 47 league goals last season, 50 in 2013-14, and 43 in 2012-13. We pretty much know what's going to happen at the back.

Liverpool's success will be determined by Liverpool's attack: whether or not that attack improves enough, whether or not that attack improves at all. And how quickly that attack settles into place.

The First Choice XI

We've seen a little bit of the diamond and a little bit of the 4-2-3-1 in preseason, but 4-3-3 has been Rodgers' preferred formation. Which isn't necessarily a surprise; it's seemingly always been his preferred formation, forced into changes in previous seasons by injuries or poor form. And it's not difficult to see how Liverpool's current personnel fit into that formation. Benteke or Sturridge or Ings or Origi up front; two from Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, and Ibe out wide; three from Henderson, Milner, Allen, Can, and Lucas in midfield; Clyne and Moreno or Gomez at fullback; Skrtel and Lovren or Sakho in defense.

With those additions, Liverpool have more firepower up front than last season. With Milner (and more time for Emre Can in his preferred position), Liverpool are more dynamic in midfield. Clyne's certainly an upgrade on Johnson/Manquillo/Can, but for the most part, the defense remains the defense, more reliant on eliminating the individual mistakes which cost Liverpool both goals and points last season.

From front to back, it's a stronger side than last season. And it's a deeper side, two or three reasonable options at every position, ideally capable of competing in both the league and Europe.

But that might not be the first choice XI when Sturridge is fit.

If both Benteke and Sturridge are available, that firepower seemingly demands a diamond, a formation that'd see some favored players left out, but one that also fits with the talents of Firmino, Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, and Henderson, among others.

Nor is it out of the question to see Sturridge ostensibly on the right of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 with Benteke central, a formation we sometimes saw with Suarez in the second half of 2012-13 and first half of 2013-14.

Once again, Liverpool have options. Brendan Rodgers loves options.

Start As You Mean To Finish

But options can be both a good and bad thing.

Having options didn't work out so well at the start of the 2012-13 and 2014-15 campaigns. A new manager not wholly familiar with his (not especially good) squad in the former, an attempt to replace Suarez (and, for the majority of the time, Sturridge) while getting eight new players settled in the latter. It took months for Rodgers to find some semblance of consistency, some semblance of form, and a preferred formation. It's arguable that Liverpool spent all of last season looking for a preferred formation without finding it.

Liverpool doesn't have that luxury this season. Liverpool has very little margin for error this season. Not with this start to this season, its first seven away matches against Stoke (*gulp*), Arsenal, United, Everton, Tottenham, and Chelsea, and Manchester City. I suspect it's why we've seen a surprisingly settled lineup during preseason. Brendan Rodgers has very little margin for error.

As This is Anfield pointed out yesterday, when Liverpool start well, the season usually goes well. When Liverpool start poorly, Liverpool usually find it difficult to make up the gap. It is far easier to maintain momentum than stumble upon midseason form.

And with the Europa League starting on September 17 – incidentally, after Liverpool's fifth league match – it'll become a lot harder to make up any lost ground.

This summer has to be different from last summer. Or else Brendan Rodgers won't be around to see if the third rebuild's the charm.

So, Where Will Liverpool Finish?

Four teams look much better than Liverpool. Chances are that Chelsea and City will finish first and second, again, although City certainly didn't finish all that impressively and they've only added Fabian Delph and some lad named Raheem Sterling. It's easy to see a settled Arsenal breaking into that duopoly, but it'd also be very Arsenal if they were plagued by injuries and fell back. Manchester United could continue to improve under van Gaal – Depay's an incredibly frightening signing – or could implode under van Gaal because van Gaal.

Which leaves Liverpool hoping that its rivals fail as much as Liverpool hope to succeed. Which is never a promising starting point, but the league is what the league is.

Could Liverpool finish fourth? Yeah, maybe, although I wouldn't bet any significant sum on it. Could Liverpool improve on last season's morass and still finish fifth or even sixth? Yeah, easily.

The league is what the league is. Sure, there's always a surprise or two, but it's not often that surprise comes at the top of the table. And Liverpool currently look like the fifth strongest team in the league.

It's all well and good to demand fourth. Liverpool look to be stronger and more settled than last season, Liverpool bought good players, things have to get better. And chances are, they will. But rebuilds take time. A squad coalescing usually takes time. Catching up to the more established, richer Top 4 usually takes time.

Brendan Rodgers may not have that time.


Ryan McKain said...

Thorough and well-written, with just enough cheekiness and sarcasm. I love it and can't wait for the season to begin - if only to read your commentary.

David Whitmore said...

Thanks Nate, always love your writing