When Brendan Rodgers got the Liverpool job, he brought in a very Spanish/Dutch style of play. Possession is everything, all offensive and defensive work starts with the ball. When you are without the ball you need to win it back as quickly as possible. Rodgers has already spoken about his desire to see Liverpool play and win through domination of the playing zone, “death by football” was his direct quote.
The Spanish style popularized by Barcelona and La Roja also accepts the Total Football idea of only requiring one strategy. When Barcelona are losing they don’t throw balls into the box without thinking, they continue their strategy of passing around the opponent. If your Plan A is good enough, you won’t need a Plan B. Rodgers has supported this notion too, in shooting down the idea that he would seek to recall Andy Carroll from West Ham in January due to Liverpool’s lack of strikers. Liverpool’s manager said throwing on a large center forward in the dying moments of the game was a tactic that reeked of desperation, and wasn’t one he wanted to impart on his side. It’s the right message, 99 times out of 100 Barcelona’s plan works, occasionally Chelsea or Celtic will win but that always requires a huge amount of luck on their part. For example, Chelsea only progressed in the Champions League last season because of Messi’s uncharacteristic penalty miss.
So Liverpool’s strategy is quite simple, keep the ball, rest with the ball. Recycle possession and tire your opponent. There should be constant movement by offensive players so that when a defender makes a mistake it’s punished. The theory behind this is that constant possession in the opposition half should lead to better chances, chances closer to the opposition goal. Chances that are easier to finish. For example, lots of Barcelona goals are simply tap-ins resulting from getting behind the opposition defense and squaring the ball. When you’re dealing with a Liverpool side who struggle to finish their chances, creating high-quality scoring opportunities is paramount.
Yet for all the possession football, the results have stayed largely the same as last season. Liverpool still usually outplay their opponents, taking eight more shots a game, but they don’t score nearly enough. So far Rodgers’ possession football seems to have taken hold, with Liverpool averaging 58% possession, but their dominance is often sterile. Too often it seems that they play tidily in non-threatening areas but lose their composure in the final third.
Note: Columns in the table below are click-able.
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It’s easily seen that when compared to their rivals for the lucrative Champions League places Liverpool are an anomaly. The lowest shooting percentage by far, and tied for the most shots required to score a goal. They have the same amount of shots on target as Newcastle, not so coincidentally the only side on the chart below Liverpool in the table. Liverpool have been playing reasonably well, with a fairly healthy squad; they’ve just not been reaping their rewards.
It’s obvious that the secret to scoring the most goals isn’t to do it by volume. Manchester United have scored the most goals by far this season and only Newcastle and Chelsea have taken fewer shots (Newcastle having less than half of United’s goal tally). The key is to make good shots, shots that you can put on target, shots that Liverpool’s system is supposedly designed to find.
Note: Columns in the table below are click-able.
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Breaking down Liverpool’s shot selection throughout this season, it becomes apparent that the Reds are still struggling to find a cutting edge. Currently Liverpool are taking 44% of their shots from outside the box, with an average accuracy of 27%. This is far too high for a side who have only one long-range striker of the ball with any pedigree, in Steven Gerrard. Barcelona in comparison only take 40% of their shots from outside the box and they face sides who show far less ambition than those that play Liverpool. The Catalans also win quite a few more free kicks from shooting positions, leading to some of those shots from distance.
The point of this article isn’t to denigrate Liverpool for not being Barcelona; few can hope to match the Spanish giants. However, watching Liverpool one gets the idea that they get frustrated far too easily and resort to low-percentage efforts. Such shots usually are blocked or hand the goalkeeper a chance to clear his lines, forcing Liverpool to have to press hard and regain possession.
Steven Gerrard is representative of Liverpool’s struggles. Being played in a deeper role by Rodgers it seems he hardly ever gets in the opposition penalty area anymore. For example all five of his shots against Newcastle were from outside the box, all blocked or off target. When Gerrard is making surging midfield runs, as he did against Manchester United when he scored from inside the opposition penalty area, Liverpool look a different team. Runners from midfield also drag the defense out of position, enabling shots from distance to be uncontested, rendering them more likely to succeed. With driving runs against Manchester United from Gerrard and Suso, even after Shelvey was sent off, Liverpool had three out of their four long distance shots on target.
In fact, the game in which Liverpool arguably looked most superior was one of the flukiest results of their season. Four out of five goals against Norwich came from outside the box, and all five shots on targets were goals. That won’t happen every week, and it hasn’t. Similarly, 65% of Liverpool’s shots against Manchester City were from outside the penalty area, but one of them was Luis Suarez’s miraculous free kick.
Liverpool’s opponents have realized that the easy way to defend against the Reds is to let them have the first two-thirds of the pitch, rendering their possession sterile. When the final third is cramped for room Liverpool all too readily abandon their desire for passing football and snatch at the first shooting opportunity.
If Liverpool continue on this path then the entire season will be a continuation of their first 10 games. The Merseyside club will dominate possession but everything will collapse like a house of cards in the final third, bar one or two lucky games. This is not a path to the top four.
I am currently a University student majoring in Economics and a budding football writer who is keen to examine statistical evidence to arrive at informed conclusions.
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