20 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), 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.

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

"I’m satisfied with the start and it was not the worst sign. … The problem was that when we had the ball, we were not cool enough and we didn’t use our skills. We were a little bit too hectic. … A nought on the right side [of the scoreline] is okay, for sure, but on the other side it doesn’t give you the same feeling."

"For the moment, it’s more important for development to become stable. We needed Mignolet and a very strong game from him [today], but we can make it better when we play better football. We are able to play better football but today, after three days [training], it is okay."

-- Jürgen Klopp

And that's pretty much the alpha and omega of Saturday's match, especially the first of the quoted paragraphs.

It's news to no one that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool struggled in attack from the beginning of last season. That wasn't going to change in a week, especially after an international break, and especially with Sturridge, Benteke, Ings, Henderson, and Firmino absent.

Liverpool's shot selection was limited and fairly wayward, the best and only true chance when Origi hit the crossbar from a corner. Only four shots came from inside the box, only two inside the Danger Zone, from just 12 in total.

Liverpool were stifled in the opposition half, with Tottenham completing 41 successful tackles, by far the most I've seen in the three-plus seasons of these infographics.

Origi's inexperience, a new and different formation with new and different tactics from Liverpool, and a surprisingly unassuming performance from Coutinho all contributed, but Dembele and Alli did a masterful job in Tottenham's midfield, while Rose also defended well against Milner and Lallana on Liverpool's right. Four of Dembele's nine tackles came against Origi (Coutinho 2; Ibe, Lallana, Milner 1). The experienced Belgian gave the inexperienced Belgian little time to find space or turn towards goal, with Origi limited to trying to hold up play to involve midfielders behind the ball, a tactic which saw Liverpool retain possession adequately but threaten little and less.

Liverpool pressed fairly well in Tottenham's half, and did very well to compress the space on the flanks, aided by Can and Milner's work-rate and the 4-3-2-1 system. Tottenham compressed the space in their own half, both centrally and out wide, to excellent effect, almost wholly nullifying Liverpool's play in the opposition half.

Everyone's gleefully noted the "just ******* run around a bit" stat – that Liverpool's players totaled 116 kilometers on Saturday, that Liverpool were the first side to run farther than Tottenham in a match this season – but statistics like that, in isolation, are why there's a vast section of the football-watching population who hate statistics. 'Sprints don't score you goals' etc etc.

Well, yeah. There are few, if any, statistics you can take in isolation. But the underlying point still stands. That Liverpool were immediately more diligent in pursuing the ball and running hard, longer, and faster is a good sign – as Carragher pointed out on Monday Night Football, that Klopp's ideas are taking hold – even if much more work's going to be needed to make those kilometers effective. What's more meaningful than the total kilometers run is that it's Liverpool who ran those kilometers. A Liverpool side that's looked jaded, weak, and ineffectual for months, if not a full year, immediately put in the hard work to match one of the hardest-working sides in the Premier League.

There were also some continued Liverpool mistakes in defense, but – unusually – they went unpunished. Lallana's 28th minute weak pass was the only Opta-defined error, requiring a brilliant save from Mignolet, but it's not as if Liverpool were immediately flawless at the back, both lucky in Tottenham finishing and thankful for Mignolet's efforts.

Nine of Tottenham's 13 shots came in a 20-minute spell before halftime, including all five of Tottenham's shots in the box. That was when Liverpool began to tire after the initial flurry, when you saw the need for higher fitness levels, when you saw the problems with instituting such a fevered style after only three days training.

Six of those nine shots came at least partly because of what Liverpool did, lesser degrees of error than Lallana's, but misplays all the same. N'Jie's 28th minute shot wonderfully saved; a wayward, failed clearance from Sakho leading to Eriksen's blocked effort from distance and the subsequent off-target header from the corner by Vertonghen; missed tackles from Lucas and Skrtel and a missed interception from Clyne leading to Kane's saved shot and Alli's effort artfully blocked by Skrtel in the 37th; a mix-up between Skrtel and Clyne allowing N'Jie's off-target blast in the 41st.

Sure, these things happen in every match, and aside from Lallana's, none was a near-fatal gaffe. But there are still blunders in that back line. But they seem remediable blunders.

And as Tottenham did for the first 20 minutes, Liverpool weathered that storm, took the counter-punches, with much of the credit going to Mignolet and Sakho. Liverpool only took five shots after the interval, but Tottenham only took four. Liverpool, despite fading, despite pressing less often, remained secure at the back and marginally more comfortable in possession, even if it was almost all non-threatening possession.

Even considering Tottenham's 20-minute flurry, even considering Liverpool's still-occurring gaffes, Liverpool were more cohesive defensively, especially on set plays (which is no small matter). By hook, by crook, by talent or by luck, Liverpool kept its first clean sheet in any competition since August 24, nine matches ago. Klopp was not kidding when he said that defense needed to be fixed first. Benitez, Dalglish, and Rodgers all began similarly, even if Rodgers veered well away from that strategy by his second season. It's almost always a manager's first task.

These were two fairly similar teams: part of the Premiership's upper-middle class, hard-working, full of running, not quite talented enough individually or collectively to break into the top four (at least yet). Both sides were held below their usual total shots, chances created, and passes attempted and completed; both sides completed around 75% of their passes, far below their usual average and the league average. Each side had dominant spells and chances in the first half, both sides sputtered and struggled in the second.

But Liverpool had a new manager, new system, and a 20-year-old making his full debut in a new league up front. Tottenham were at home, Tottenham have a more settled and more cohesive attack, and Tottenham haven't lost a league match since opening day: a narrow 0-1 defeat due to an own goal.

So, honors even, and probably rightly so. Liverpool are still 10th, but still only four points outside of fourth. As Liverpool's new manager explicitly said, it's a start that should satisfy, but there's still a lot of work to be done.


criynwa said...

Great description of the match, Nate. I don't think defensive mistakes can ever be completely eliminated but, against Spurs, the team were covering for each other. That's an improvement I've been waiting to see.

Balfy said...

Please stop being selfish, less enjoyment and more interesting, well thought out, enjoyable write ups please!
If only our new found optimism can be matched by the mancs failing to grind out results. Sakho in defense is a start.