14 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Manchester Utd

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Another game, another disappointment.

United weren't impressive in almost any sense of the word, but United were better: comfortably in control in midfield, pressing Liverpool into mistakes at Liverpool's end of the pitch in the first half, defending resolutely on the flanks to keep Liverpool from entering the final third (those clusters of tackles and interceptions!), and actually converting a couple of their few-and-far-between chances: one set play, one deserved penalty, one on the counter. One of the drearier United sides I've seen, one without a recognized striker until a 19-year-old making his debut came on as a substitute, were definitively better than Liverpool were.

We can complain about Liverpool's temerity, an inability to even attempt to take the game to underwhelming opposition until falling behind – yet again! – in what's supposed to be the country's most contentious derby.

We can complain about Liverpool's tactical choices: Firmino and Ings basically as wing-backs in the first half, a reliance on long balls to an isolated Benteke, nonexistent pressing despite two central midfielders and two "wide forwards" more than capable of doing so, etc. We can complain about the general playing style, we can complain about the substitutions. And we can certainly complain about the result: Liverpool's seventh league loss in the last 14 league matches.

Let's just complain about another insipid attacking performance instead.

Liverpool's attack has been dire since the start of last season, but the rot's really set in over the last 14 matches, since the 1-2 home loss against Manchester United on March 22, which ended Liverpool's 13-match unbeaten streak in the league and was the beginning of the end for Liverpool's experiment with the 3-4-2-1.

Since then: 12 goals scored, 24 goals conceded, 4W-3D-7L, an average of 1.07 points per game. Admittedly, it hasn't been the easiest run – away at Arsenal twice, home and away against United, away at Stoke twice, away at Chelsea – but that's still relegation-level form.

The sad thing is, Liverpool have still out-shot their opponents over that spell, and created more chances than their opponents over that spell. 201 shots for, 157 shots against. 143 key passes for, 110 against.

Here's the problem:

8.16% goal conversion! Eight. Point. One. Six. One goal for every 12.26 on- or off-target shots.

Just the 10% better shot accuracy from Liverpool's opponents, and the better-than-double goal conversion percentage, then.

Shot location's been a problem, but it's certainly not the root cause. And blocked shots have been a problem – Liverpool had 54 shots blocked during this span, while Liverpool have blocked 35 opposition shots – but, again, it's a lesser concern.

Liverpool just don't have anyone capable of converting on anywhere remotely near a regular basis. Not Sterling, Coutinho, Lambert, Balotelli, etc last season, not Benteke et al (yet) this season.

During this stretch, Liverpool have played five different formations, not counting the changes necessarily made when reduced to ten men in two of those matches. It's mostly been 4-3-3, but we've also seen 3-4-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, and 4-3-1-2 with no strikers. And for the most part, Liverpool have struggled to conjure any competent attack no matter the set-up.

During this stretch, we've seen a match and a half where Liverpool actually played well: the 1-1 draw at an already-clinched-the-league-and-coasting Chelsea last May, and the first half at Arsenal last month – both matches where Liverpool remained goal shy but were strong enough in other areas to compensate. Otherwise, we've seen "I guess that'll do" (2-0 Newcastle, 1-0 at Stoke), "not good but hey they won" (2-1 QPR, 1-0 Bournemouth), and "good lord, won't someone please think of the children!" (1-4 Arsenal, 1-3 Palace, 1-6 Stoke, 0-3 West Ham, 1-3 United).

Of course, there are the other problems than the attack – Skrtel and Lovren in defense (see these two tweets from Dan Kennett, for starters), an often unbalanced and goal-shy midfield, the need to bed in multiple new players after needing to do the same last season, etc – but a consistently embarrassing attack since the sale of Luis Suarez and the constant injuries of Daniel Sturridge is the ne plus ultra of Liverpool woes.

And that's after spending somewhere in the realm of £140m on eight attackers in the last 16 months. Lambert, Lallana, Markovic, Origi, Balotelli, Ings, Firmino, and Benteke. Sure, four of those players have only been available for five matches, but last summer's signings contributed a grand total of 10 league goals (five from Lallana). And three of those four attackers signed last summer (not counting Origi), all but Lallana, aren't even with the club this season: two loaned (and probably unlikely to return), one sold.

We've seemingly reached the point where we're throwing shit at the wall and hoping something sticks. In tactics, in formation, in transfers, in overall strategy. There has to be a grand plan behind the thought processes, but it's hard to see it. And you can blame FSG, Ayre, Rodgers, and the players. No one escapes criticism for the last 16 months we've endured.

Right now, Liverpool don't have the personnel to recreate their best form under Rodgers – direct fast-break counter-attacking – at least not with Sturridge out, but Liverpool also don't have the personnel to support their newest, shiniest, costliest attacker: no one making runs to support and/or get beyond Benteke, few if any natural wingers or above-average crossers.

And "just wait until Sturridge returns" certainly isn't sufficient. Liverpool shouldn't be, can't be reliant on a single injury-prone player, especially given the amount of money spent on other players and in other areas. Liverpool were missing more than a few first-team players on Saturday, but one of the richest teams in football – even if those richer are much, much richer – should be strong enough to survive some absentees.

We've haven't (yet) reached the depths of Hodgeball – a comparison I never thought I'd have to employ again – and five games (including two away at Arsenal and United) remains a pitifully small sample size, but Liverpool are certainly in a very, bad place right now, from top to bottom, from back to front. And Liverpool's manager is both the easiest scapegoat and seemingly the easiest to change.

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