25 August 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

I'm still not sure how a match with 34 shots – 19 for Arsenal, 15 for Liverpool – finished scoreless. It was the first time Liverpool against Arsenal has finished scoreless since the 1998-1999 season. It was only the third clean sheet Liverpool's kept against Arsenal – at either ground, in any competition – since 2001. Three clean sheets in 38 matches. So, yeah, it was a bit unbelievable.

Sure, Liverpool were two amazing Cech saves, the crossbar, and/or Michael Oliver swallowing his whistle on two potential penalties away from a third consecutive 1-0 win, equalling the start to the memorable 2013-14 campaign. Or, Liverpool were another linesman's incorrect decision, the goal post, and five Mignolet saves away from a 0-1 loss, at best. Liverpool could have won it in the first half, could have lost it in the second.

Contentious decisions and wonderful saves aside, each team "won" a half. A draw certainly feels like the fair result, although I'm certain that Liverpool fans are much happier with a point apiece than Arsenal's are.

That is a dramatic disparity in shots. And it wasn't unexpected from Arsenal in the second half; we've seen that settled, dangerous attack put multiple sides to the sword, including the same front six in this fixture last season. But we've not seen that first half from Liverpool yet this season.

It wasn't as if Liverpool were firing from all angles and from distance. 11 of Liverpool's 15 shots – 10 of 11 in the first half – came from inside the box. 73.3%. That percentage was 50% at Stoke (including, admittedly, the match winner) and 44.4% against Bournemouth. Liverpool took a higher percentage of shots inside the box just twice last season: the 2-0 wins at Villa and against Newcastle, two sides who are very different than Arsenal.

Despite failing to score, it was arguably a better shooting performance than any of Liverpool's three previous matches at the Emirates under Rodgers: more shots, more shots inside the box, a higher shot accuracy. And if not for Petr Cech, it could easily have led to a Liverpool win at the Emirates for the first time in four seasons.

Little by little, Liverpool's revamped attack is finding its form.

That Liverpool were able to create that many shots – and surprisingly decent shots – with so little possession is also encouraging, a sign that the counter-attack which blitzed the league in 2013-14 but wholly disappeared in 2014-15 might be close to returning. It'll almost certainly never be as potent as it was with Luis Suarez, but it's a crucial option to have, and frequently Liverpool's best option for breaking down the opposition. Liverpool have never had less possession in a league match under Rodgers than they did yesterday. The previous low? 38.2% in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal in 2012-13. The more things change...

That Liverpool did it with such a young side is even more encouraging. The average age of the starting XI was 25.3; Skrtel was the only player older than 30; Skrtel, Milner, and Lucas the only players 28 or older; Coutinho, Firmino, Can, and Gomez all 23 or younger. Seven of Liverpool's 11 starters joined the club this summer or last summer. Liverpool's three subs were 19, 18, and 23 respectively.

Special mention need be made for the youngest of Liverpool's youngsters. While Arsenal primarily attacked down Liverpool's right, Joe "Event Horizon" Gomez still managed to lead Liverpool in both tackles and interceptions.

In Liverpool's first match, Gomez shied away from possession, attempting and completing vastly fewer passes than the other three defenders. He's led Liverpool's defense in passes attempted and completed in the last two matches, increasingly confident in possession as he acclimatizes with his new teammates. And, yes, it's still worth noting that he's playing out of position, a position he hadn't played until coming to Liverpool.

Joe Gomez has also been very, very good for Dejan Lovren. A much more defensive fullback than Moreno, Glen Johnson, or anyone else used on the left last season, he offers Lovren more protection, especially since he's much more inclined to tuck inside as he's right-footed. It's a lot like what Jon Flanagan did on that flank during the 2013-14 season. And yes, it's put more pressure on Liverpool's attackers, without the added width from fullback in the opposition half, but the positives in defense have very much outweighed the negatives in attack so far.

After last season's individual errors and general ineptitude, Liverpool needed its fullbacks to defend. Liverpool's very much gotten that through the first three matches, from both Gomez and Clyne, and that's been the main reason why Skrtel and Lovren look a completely different pairing.

From Liverpool's youngest player to one of Liverpool's few veterans. Lucas Leiva, playing for the first time this season, has rightfully come in for a fair amount of praise this morning, one of Liverpool's man of the match candidates along with Gomez, Mignolet, and Coutinho. This, from Zonal Marking, is an unsurprisingly thorough review of his performance.

Curmudgeon that I am and as much as I enjoy Lucas, his performance wasn't anywhere near the end all, be all. That Lucas only attempted 27 passes, completed just 18, helps demonstrate why he's not an option every match. Yesterday was probably the least he's been involved in possession as a starter since joining Liverpool, and I suspect it's as much a sign of Lucas' decline in certain regards as Liverpool's tactics.

I reckon this graphic sums up Lucas' performance well:

Yeah, that's a lot of passes from Mesut Özil. Not many of them go to a dangerous position, with just one key pass that wasn't a corner or a cross, a layoff to Cazorla for a very long-range and very off-target shot. Lucas also pressed surprisingly well, with three of his six successful tackles and two of his four interceptions in Arsenal's half.

Liverpool's midfield can be better. And Liverpool often bypassed midfield, a function of yesterday's arguably necessary match strategy. But Liverpool's midfield, with Can and Milner running and pressing and getting forward and Lucas sitting and splitting the center-backs, was better balanced than in the two previous matches.

Once again, it was a narrow Liverpool match that could have gone very differently. A different decision from different linesmen in consecutive weeks means that Liverpool potentially have a single point rather than four from the last two games. That's how tenuous this revolution has been.

But Liverpool on a nearly level footing with Arsenal, at the Emirates Stadium, is definitive progress. A third consecutive clean sheet, by hook or by crook – something which didn't happen in the league until March last season – is definitive progress. That the two away clean sheets came against sides that Liverpool conceded 10 (!!!) goals against last season – Liverpool's worst two losses of the season – is clearly definitive progress.

Liverpool are clearly improving, little by little. Liverpool have bettered the result from last season for the third consecutive match. Liverpool did it against an opponent who has historically given them fits, matching one of the preseason favorites for the title on their own ground.

Liverpool just need to keep this progression going.


Anonymous said...

Excellent as ever Nate.

Anonymous said...

Seconded. Excellent, Nate.

Syaa IQ said...

Thanks Nate. Never missed your posts. Love from Malaysia!