11 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 Stoke

Previous Match Infographics: Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Manchester United (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester City (h), Manchester City [League Cup] (n), Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), 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.

As much fun as that was, an awful lot of things had to go Liverpool's way for that result to happen.

There are goals in this Liverpool side – no Premiership side has scored more than Liverpool's 28 since the beginning of 2016, and most sides have played at least one more match – but all four of yesterday's seemed uncharacteristic or even fluky.

The first needed three Stoke players to argue the free kick, not paying attention to Milner trying to take it quickly or Moreno cheating into space; Milner to be clever enough to see Moreno and play it quickly; Moreno to hit a rocket which ends up either blocked by a defender or in the stands nine times out of ten; and the possibly unsighted Stoke goalkeeper to react late to a savable, if fierce, shot.

The second needed Ojo's brilliant run past Shaqiri and unbelievable cross, Sturridge's clever movement to lose Wollscheid, and Haugaard to stay planted on his goal line.

The third needed Stoke's defending to completely fall apart after a short corner, Milner's unbelievable cross, and Haugaard to stay planted on his goal line.

The fourth needed Origi's cross to Sturridge – no matter what Klopp or Origi says, it was a cross to Sturridge – to somehow end up in the back of the net, and Haugaard to stay planted on his goal line.

We're not seeing goals like Moreno's or Origi's second very often. And we're not seeing many better crosses than Ojo and Milner's assists. Usually, goalkeepers seem to perform heroically against Liverpool. That most certainly did not happen yesterday.

Liverpool created three clear-cut chances yesterday (and scored two!): Sturridge's goal, Origi's first, and Origi's 61st-minute miss. All three came from crosses, all three were headers, and all three went into the six-yard box. Almost every other goalkeeper in the league tries to punch each of them clear. Prior to yesterday, only seven of Liverpool's 73 goals in all competitions came from headers (Ings 2; Benteke, Firmino, Origi, Sturridge, Toure 1).

That's not to take away from Liverpool's performance. Individual players did well: Stewart and Ojo in their Premier League debuts, Milner as a central midfielder, Allen as a quasi-left winger and then quasi-central midfielder, Origi as a substitute and strike partner for Sturridge (who almost always looks better with a strike partner). And Liverpool were trained well: an unfamiliar XI in multiple unfamiliar formations: first, either a 4-2-3-1 or a very unbalanced 4-3-2-1 (you pick; I can't decide), then in a 4-4-2, both diamond and orthodox, after Origi came on.

Liverpool coped with Stoke's long ball tactics; Crouch won all five of his aerial duels (Toure won one of three, Skrtel one of two in total), but Stoke were rarely first to the second ball. Stoke put just one open play shot on-target in the entire match: Imbula from long-range in the 42nd minute.

Stoke took just 11 shots, and put just three shots on-target. Liverpool limited Stoke to just five shots from inside the box, but three of those five – by far the three most dangerous – came from set plays: Bojan's goal, Shawcross's header narrowly off-target, and Cameron's header excellently saved by Mignolet. The others were Afellay's wayward early wide-box effort and Crouch's swiftly blocked just inside the area. Once again, Liverpool were lucky that they weren't further punished from dead ball situations.

You can clearly see Milner pointing and screaming to hold the line. But only Clyne and Ojo (to a lesser extent) do so, with Toure especially guilty of dropping deep, leaving Bojan free and clear in the middle of the box. It's Ojo's first league match, while Toure hadn't started since the 3-0 win over City five weeks ago and had started just three matches since the beginning of February. And while it didn't affect the play, I also appreciate Skrtel somehow being prone on the pitch as Bojan scores.

That such a different XI struggled to defend set plays isn't necessarily surprising, but set plays seem to remain an issue no matter who plays.

Liverpool have conceded 18 set plays goals in 16 different games, and it cost Liverpool points in 10 of them. Liverpool could, and probably should, have won against Norwich (h), Southampton, West Brom, Exeter, Arsenal, Sunderland, and Dortmund; drawn against Palace (h) and United (h); and gone to penalties against West Ham. 17 of the 18 conceded either leveled the score or gave the opposition the lead, and the other was Adam Johnson's direct free kick for Sunderland, a match that Sunderland somehow went on to draw. Liverpool only went on to win four of those games, with two of those four in the last month.

To be fair, Liverpool's set play defense has gotten better in the last couple of months: 15 of those 18 goals came prior to February 10, with only three in the last two months (and Crystal Palace's goal at Palace barely counts as a set play, with Liverpool failing during the second phase of defending). But conceding two in two games brings all those worries back, especially when Dortmund are coming to Anfield in three days.

All told, this is still a very pleasing result, made even more so by the changed XI and the fact we saw a bunch of good if unlikely goals. Liverpool demonstrated some actual squad depth, Allen and Milner played well in midfield, Origi's full of confidence, Sturridge continues to get back to being Sturridge. Aside from the set plays, Liverpool again defended well – Moreno most impressively, given how isolated he was on the left for long stretches – even when playing both Toure and Skrtel, and again completely shut down the game in the final 30 minutes. But on another day, Liverpool are lucky to score two, and it's a lot closer and nervier game in the final 30 minutes. But that's football, and it's nice for Liverpool to be on the other end of that sort of luck in front of goal.

At the very least, even if it's not repeatable, this puts the side in a better place for Thursday's match. Winning, no matter how, is always a good thing. But Thursday's match will be nothing like this.


Ómar Ó'Magi frá Torfgarði said...

Excellent as ever, nate.
One minor quibble: Isn't the black arrow for an assist missing from Shaqiri?

And Hauggard's performance must a lot be down to his young age and inexperience, he's only ever played one full season in Denmark. Makes me think what Liverpool should do with Danny Ward. He was doing really well at Aberdeen, playing in top side in the Scottish Premier League. Will he be loaned out next season (hope so), play a bit-part role (more likely) or promoted to the no. 1 shirt? Let's see.

I always look forward to your musings, many thanks!

nate said...

Yeah, I boned that up. Will fix later. Thanks.