21 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC

For all the talk of a new Crystal Palace, of Frank de Boer wanting his side to play football, that was about as deep a defense as Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool have seen. Very much a five-man backline, with both Ward and van Aanholt rarely out of their own half. Only five sides have had less possession in a league match against Klopp's Liverpool than Palace did – 0-2 Burnley (a), 5-1 Hull (h), 2-0 Sunderland (h), 2-3 Swansea (h), 3-0 Boro (h); all in 2016-17. Only two sides have made more interceptions against Klopp's Liverpool in a league match – Aston Villa, in Liverpool's 6-0 home romp, and Leicester, when Liverpool lost 0-2, both in February 2016, both wanting little more than to keep Liverpool out, one successful, one very much not so – and all but one of Palace's interceptions in their own half. Only four sides have taken fewer than four shots against Klopp's Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h) in 2015-16, and 0-2 Burnley (a), 5-1 Hull (h), and 0-0 Southampton (a) in 2016-17.

So, yes, yet again, Liverpool had to deal with a deep defense. And Liverpool struggled against a deep defense. Liverpool had to grind out a win against that deep defense without ever looking fluent. Liverpool are thankful that Tomkins and Benteke missed excellent chances, from a set play and from a long ball, in the 9th and 55th minutes.

But it was a much-changed Liverpool XI, with five alterations from the line-up in the first two fixtures. But Liverpool took 23 shots, nine more than they had in each of the first two fixtures. But Liverpool put 13 of them on-target. But Liverpool created multiple decent opportunities – few, but two clear-cut in the first half, both via crosses from the excellent Andrew Robertson, then increasingly more and more in the second half, especially after the substitutions and Mané's game-winner.

Incidentally, Sadio Mané has now scored the opening goal in his last three Premier League appearances. 3-1 Everton, 3-3 Watford, and 1-0 Palace.

Nonetheless, 10 of those 23 Liverpool shots came from outside the box. 15 came in the final 35 minutes, with seven after Liverpool finally scored (including six of the 13 on-target). As Andrew Beasley noted, Liverpool scored at least three goals in the three previous matches since 2008-09 where they put 13 shots on-target. Liverpool's xG per shot at Watford was around 0.13 when not including the penalty. It was 0.11 at Hoffenheim. It was 0.09 against Palace.

Liverpool had shots and Liverpool had some good chances – which is good! – but still needed a Palace error, a fortunate break of the ball, and Mané's individual brilliance to win the match. Liverpool kept its first clean sheet of the campaign and Liverpool held the opponents to a dismal shot total, with three new starters in the back line – which is good – but needed those two aforementioned bad misses to win the match.

It remains very, very early, but I'm inclined to continue to complain most about Liverpool's midfield.

10 of Liverpool's outfield players created at least one chance. It was fairly evenly split – most players just one, except Robertson with three (all in the first half), and both Firmino and Gomez with two. The three who didn't create anything? Wijnaldum, Milner, and Lovren – the latter only playing the four minutes of second half injury time.

That is a dire lack of creativity from Liverpool's two advanced central midfielders. Milner's inability, despite completing 100 passes, is one thing, and obviously concerning. But Wijnaldum's inability, despite playing a bit further forward, combined with only 28 attempted passes in 71 minutes despite Liverpool's 73% possession, is even more concerning.

Might as well break out the passing wheel again.

Four completed forward passes: two from his own half, and two short to Robertson on the flank. Six completed passes in the final third, all short and all sideways.

But even more infuriating than the passes played was his utter lack of involvement. Sturridge and Mignolet were the only Liverpool players to make fewer touches, and had Sturridge played 10 more minutes, as Wijnaldum did, he'd probably have surpassed the midfielder.

In three matches, a little more than 250 minutes played, Wijnaldum's had 127 touches. Andrew Robertson had 134 on Saturday. Wijnaldum's made one key pass in these three matches – spread wide for Salah's off-target shot early in the second half at Watford. He's taken four shots – two in each league match. At Watford, both came late, off-target and blocked. Against Palace – he probably could and should have scored, whether with the well-hit shot on-target from distance or when lingering on the ball before getting an effort blocked with his last touch of the match.

This midfield – without Coutinho for the rest of the month at best, without Lallana for the next three or four months, with Woodburn yet to be integrated as one of the creative hubs – cannot abide by passengers. Wijnaldum hasn't been the only disappointment in this area, but Wijnaldum has been little more than a passenger through all three fixtures so far. Irrelevancy is more infuriating than inferiority.

But as said in the match review, right now, just enough is good enough. Improvement's been necessary in all three phases – midfield, attack, and defense – through all three fixtures so far, but we at least got some improvement in the latter two on Saturday. Mané continues to Mané, Salah and Solanke made massive differences off the bench, Robertson impressed on his debut, Gomez did well in his first league start in almost two years, and Klavan and Matip looked more secure than Lovren and Matip in the first two games, against a player who often causes Liverpool fits.

And Liverpool won, against opposition they hadn't beaten at home in each of the previous three seasons. More, much more, will be needed, but that'll do for now.

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