All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.
So here we are again.
Liverpool's fifth loss in 2017 in all competitions, from ten matches. Still winless in the league over the last month with two losses and three draws. Still with just one win in all competitions, the second string eking out a 1-0 at Plymouth Argyle.
The opposition bars the door and waits for Liverpool to get frustrated and then for Liverpool to crumble, whether on set play or counter-attack. It's happened in four of the last five matches. Swansea. Southampton at home in the League Cup, albeit not until the 90th minute. Wolves, although they got their set play in the first minute of the match. And now Hull.
If (and I'm so tempted to write "when" instead) Liverpool fail to make the Top 4, this is why.
"Beat the dross, win the league."
It's become too easy. There were signs of these problems earlier in the season – at Burnley, Southampton in the league, United at Anfield, Sunderland at Anfield until very late – but not to this extent. Eight of Liverpool's last ten matches in all competitions in 2017 have all but gone this way – Sunderland, Plymouth x2, Swansea, Southampton at Anfield, Wolves, Hull, and even Chelsea. And Liverpool aren't getting any better at it. Liverpool haven't had an answer for it.
Well, the answer just hasn't worked. Because against Swansea and Hull, the answer somehow became "cross more."
Granted, those two groups of five matches are very, very different, except arguably the home win over Leicester, another side which tried to sit deep but wholly failed because defense. And we know that Liverpool are far more comfortable, and often far better, against better opposition, more often allowed to play as they prefer to play.
But it's been in more than just matches against the "good" sides. When Liverpool attempt 20 or more non-corner crosses, Liverpool's record is 3W-1D-4L. When Liverpool attempt fewer than 20, it's 10W-6D. The "20 or more" list: 0-2 Burnley (a), 2-1 Swansea (a), 2-1 West Brom (h), 2-0 Sunderland (h), 3-4 Bournemouth (a), 2-2 West Ham (h), 2-3 Swansea (h), 0-2 Hull (a). West Brom's the only side in the top half of the table – Liverpool attempted exactly 20, and Pulis is gonna Pulis wherever his team are in the table – with the other seven matches against sides currently 14th and lower.
But there are mediocre-to-bad deep-lying teams in the "fewer than 20" list: Leicester, Boro, Stoke, Palace, even the first match against Hull. But Liverpool found space against those bad teams, whether through incisive passing, quick transitions, or help from the opposition.
Liverpool haven't found any space over the last month, through both the opposition's tactics as well as Liverpool's attacking failings.
A quick note on methodology here, because I'm cheating a little bit. Short corners or free kicks which eventually get crossed and dead ball free kicks immediately crossed in (although none of the latter directly to a goal) are counted here, simply because it's a lot harder to strip those from publicly available data. But neither would change the data all that much, or the conclusions at all.
And the conclusion is that Liverpool have increasingly resorted to crosses when up against deep opposition, often those bottom-half sides that Liverpool drop points against, especially away from home and especially over the last two months. And that Liverpool aren't especially good at it.
Crossing isn't necessarily the worst strategy. It led to the winner against Manchester City. It led to three of six goals against Watford (two high crosses, one low) and two of three goals at Middlesbrough (one high, one low). It led to both goals against Swansea – both lofted – which should have been enough to get a point, if not eventually lead to all three.
But there has to be a happy medium. There has to be more than just crossing, or we get this match and this result. And Liverpool's crossing – for example, the aforementioned matches and goals against Watford and Boro – is most effective in transition. It is a hell of a lot harder, especially considering Liverpool's personnel, against a set and static defense.
Also, Liverpool's full-backs aren't helping matters.
For the most part, I truly do like Clyne and Milner. Both are valuable players – insanely reliable, almost always available, and capable of getting up and down the flanks all match long. Clyne's one of the best defensive right-backs in the league, his only failing on aerial duels because of his height, while Milner looked one of the best left-backs in the league full-stop when Liverpool were flying earlier this season.
But both have severe limitations in the attacking third.
That's a horrific final third map from Clyne, failing to create a chance or even take an improbably shot from distance, especially considering his incredibly advanced average position. Milner gets a little bit more leeway because of how high Grosicki played on the right, keeping Milner at least aware that he might have some defensive responsibilities, but it's still not good. His crosses and corners weren't good, his shots weren't clever.
I may be reactionary – I wouldn't be surprised – but Liverpool probably need different options in matches like these. Which Klopp at least seemed cognizant of, if too late, when bringing on Moreno in the final 10 minutes. Incidentally, a minute before Hull scored their second.
And then there's the other end of the pitch. Again.
Would you be surprised if I said the first goal was Mignolet's first Opta-defined defensive error leading to a goal this season? I was surprised.
But defensive errors remain a problem. Liverpool now have seven leading to a goal in the league, the second-worst total behind West Ham. Five of the seven came in matches where Liverpool dropped points: at Burnley, at Bournemouth, against West Ham, against Swansea, and at Hull – all those bad sides and bad results we keep harping upon. Liverpool have 13 defensive errors in total, behind West Ham and Swansea's 14 each.
Goalkeeping remains a problem. Both Mignolet and Karius have done some good things and some very bad things, and both are just about equal in save percentages. Both have been below average. Both have faced 14 clear-cut chances in the league, and both have saved four; the difference is the opposition missed four against Karius and just one against Mignolet.
Top BPL shotstoppers: pic.twitter.com/4sXFMeWbD2— Paul Riley (@footballfactman) February 4, 2017
And opposition chance quality remains a problem. A problem that's getting worse.
Nearly all the goals scored against Liverpool this season are from directly in front of goal mouth (heat is chance quality, ring is goal) pic.twitter.com/ZWkaPeB3IF— David Sumpter (@Soccermatics) February 4, 2017
Liverpool have allowed three or more clear-cut chances in four league matches this season. 2-1 at Swansea (a match Liverpool should have lost but didn't because of Swansea's finishing), 3-4 at Bournemouth, 2-3 v Swansea, and 0-2 at Hull. Three of four away from home. All three sides in the bottom-half of the table, with Swansea and Hull either propping up the table or damned close to it when facing Liverpool.
And two of those four matches are Liverpool's last two losses. Frustrated in attack, then more open at the back, conceding high-quality chances and paying for it more and more.
The rot's taken hold in multiple areas. And there is no one answer. Be better in attack, and defense will be less of a concern. Look to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, transition faster and better when given the opportunity, and the attack will be better. Get better movement from the front five or six and be more dynamic in midfield so the attack can move quicker against set deep defenses. Be more secure in defense, as Liverpool are against better sides, and the attack will be less of a concern.
There will be no easy way to stop the rot. It's set in, it's seemingly evident in how every Liverpool player reacts when on the ball or facing a set-back over the last month. But Liverpool have to find a way to stop the rot. It'll help that Liverpool have almost everyone back, that Liverpool will have just one match a week for the next couple of months, but Liverpool have to take that first step forward, get a win by hook, crook, or luck.
Liverpool have to find a way to get back to their first-half-of-the-season form, no matter how hard the opposition tries to keep them from doing so.