Stoke are aware of the value of teams not getting into their final third. In general there is a correlation between final third passing and goals and when a team attacks the Stoke danger zone the Potters make sure that they get behind the ball and allow the other team ball retention. If a team like Liverpool is too slow to recycle possession then this makes it easy for Stoke to prevent shots from becoming shots on target.
Taken from the Stoke v Liverpool game on Boxing Day, below is a map of the strength of the shots on target. We can see that Liverpool lacked penetration and were exposed by Stoke as a result of the flaw in their formation which, when not in retention of the ball, does not protect the defence.
What I want to look at is accuracy prevention which is the ability or inability of a team to stop the opposition from turning shots into shots on target and also to define where Stoke allow shots to be taken, because it is known that shots from outside the box are less likely to result in a goal. In the Liverpool game we can see that Stoke allowed 17 shots but only 4 were on target,
This means that Stoke accuracy prevention for this game was 13/17, or 76.47%.
So precisely how do Stoke stop teams? It seems that the Staffordshire club are aware that stopping a player getting into the final third, even if it means a foul which could result in a yellow or even a red card, increases their survival rate in terms of not conceding. In the event that they concede a free kick, there is a much lower likelihood that it will result in a goal than, for example, a shot from 12 yards.
Goal attempts from direct free kicks are relatively rare beasts. The permanent members of the EPL since 2008-09 have averaged just under 20 such events per season, and those teams average just over a goal and a half a season from direct free kicks.
Below is the break down of accuracy prevention for Stoke this season.
In total Stoke have allowed 267 shots and 68 shots on target, giving them an accuracy prevention of 74.53%.
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If we look at the raw data for the game below we see that Liverpool scored with their first penalty of the season.
What is far more interesting, though, is that Shawcross attempted to stop Suarez getting into the danger zone and gave away a penalty and received a yellow card. Stoke have played like this all season and, as it turned out, the penalty did not ultimately cost them points.
We see very clearly that the first two events in the game were an early away goal, which is a good predictor of further goals and the next event was Stoke’s equaliser. Goals in football are not common but here we have two in five minutes. Again, Stoke had most of the early possession but there was still no indication of an equaliser.
Of great interest is the passage of play 33-HT, where we see that Liverpool were in control of possession with Stoke playing very deep. I have frozen a frame on 42 minutes which shows Enrique on the ball on the left side half-way inside the Stoke half and a Stoke defender closing down quickly. Not including the Stoke goalkeeper, there are 8 players Stoke players behind the ball and one just in front, sitting in space should Stoke win the ball. In this picture, Liverpool have just 4 players in advanced positions and Enrique has few options.
It gets more interesting as Enrique ends up playing the ball backwards to Suso, who plays the ball forward into touch as Stoke have pressed him into an error.
It is possible that many people had a bet on Liverpool to win the game before it started and at HT people would have entered the market and backed the visitors, as the Reds dominated the latter stages of the first half. However, keying the deliveries and the shot strength in a game clearly shows that Liverpool lacked penetration in the final third, particularly during the period from 33 mins to HT, the exact time when Stoke allowed Liverpool ball retention.
A great historical stat that the bookmakers would not be quoting at HT is that since 2009-2010, over 33 matches, there have been just 4 away wins. Having written in detail about what is called +1 -1 Leverage (ie being a goal up at HT or a goal down) it is no surprise that Liverpool did not “fight back” and win the game.
Stoke’s possession data average for the season is only 41.89% but they have kept 9 clean sheets and, as I have written previously, possession is not nine tenths of the law. Rodgers was quoted as saying that possession is more important than winning after the Spurs game in which Liverpool had 65% and lost 2-1
As you can see from the raw data in the second half, the only notable event in the final third was the Stoke goal. Liverpool had all the possession while Stoke defended from the front, with Jones chasing the ball down, stopping Liverpool building quickly from the back. When Jones went off after 78 minutes he received a deserved standing ovation.
In conclusion, it’s tempting to think that the performance coaches at Stoke are aware of the heat map that OPTA provide with regard to where goals are most likely to be scored from, or something very similar to it, and came up with a simple plan:
- Defend your danger zone and allow the opposition ball retention as, contrary to popular belief, this also results in fatigue for the team in retention.
- If Stoke’s danger zone is attacked then defend and, if necessary, bring a player down, understanding (while trying to avoid being sent off) that a free kick is of relatively little value to the opposition.
- Defend as one unit, from the defence to the strikers, when not in retention of the ball.
- When in retention, counter quickly with the occasional long ball to try and expose the other team at the back
It is no surprise that Stoke do not concede very many goals. It is a mystery to me that Liverpool were favourites to win the game. Stoke are known for playing consistent football and I admire their ethics and work rate very much. They simply believe that the system is good enough and if they play to the system then they will be unlucky to concede often. I would love to see Stoke play Barcelona to see what strategy Barcelona would use to try to “flush” Stoke from their own half.
Are Stoke the best defensive team in Europe? Well they do have an accuracy prevention (as described above) of around 75%, which explains why they do not concede many goals. In the two games against Liverpool this season, Stoke have conceded 35 shots and conceded just one goal, so the beauty of the strategy is that Stoke do not care how many shots a team have but they do care where the shots are taken from, as the nearer the goal the more likely the shot will end in a goal.
The first live commentary on the radio featured Arsenal v Sheffield United on January 22 1927 and the grid on the football pitch was divided into eight numbered squares so, for example, square one meant rear left quadrant on the defending team’s side of the field. If radio went back to this system you would assume that Liverpool were dominating a game, but in terms of Liverpool’s strategy I strongly believe that they themselves should go ‘back to square one’.