Sometimes the hardest part of these articles is writing a good pun for the headline. This is not one of those times. Here the hardest part is, as a Liverpool supporter, looking myself in the mirror and admitting that The Reds have a problem. They have a serious problem. They aren’t ambi-attackers. A lot of teams can attack down both the right and the left flanks but Liverpool simply can not, will not, is physically unable to, attack down the left.
Out of the 20 English Premier League clubs in 2010/11 Liverpool rated dead last in % of total attacking wing passes played to the left wing. They finished the season with 4311 attacking wing passes. Of those, just 1813 were played to the left flank. A paltry 42.06%, that’s 8% less than the EPL average. A quick note here, @alex_joynson asked a question about the number of attacks that went down each side in the EPL. It was my presumption that the numbers would be a bit skewed to the right, perhaps as much as 2%, being a 49% / 51%. In fact, the split is even closer than that. As you’ll see below, the EPL was L 50.46% and R 49.54%, less than 1% difference in total wing attacks.
Liverpool may have tried to address this in the transfer market this season. Of the three new midfielders in at Anfield Charlie Adam is the pick of the litter for engaging the left wing in the attack. Playing in the heart of the Blackpool midfield last season Adam made 592 attacking passes to the wings and his split of 339:253 saw 57% of his passes find the left. Adam presence in the center of the pitch with either Raul Meireles (40% left), Steven Gerrard (36%) or Lucas Leiva (34%) would help to offset their penchant for playing right. Meireles actually was the best of the bunch here, and sadly looks to be replaced by Adam. This will result in a lesser impact than if Adam replaced Lucas.
The other two additions to the Liverpool squad fit the old tactics perfectly. Jordan Henderson was the greatest offender in ignoring the left. Henderson was on the pitch 3,219′ for Sunderland last season, playing nearly every significant minute of their league season. However Henderson, in all that time, played just 169 passes to the left wing. By comparison, he played 419 of his 588 attacking wing passes to the right. That’s a staggering 71% of wing passes ending up on the right wing in a brand of football that the Kop has certainly be accustomed to seeing. If Henderson’s name sounds a little louder than the rest it may be that his brand of football just seems a bit more familiar than the rest. Downing, himself a wing player, played a more respectable 226 passes to left wing in his 3,387′ for the Villans. Downing’s left leaning was still well short of 50/50 with only 40% of his 553 wing passes eschewing the dominant right hand of Aston Villa’s attack. It says something that should Downing simply recreate his form of a year ago, he would still be among the most active of Liverpool’s midfield cadre in passing to the left wing.
This lack of balance is clearly impeding Liverpool’s overall attack. Examining the top 6 clubs, Liverpool engaged in some 700 fewer wing passes than the average top 5 side. Those 700 passes, if they were ALL taken to the left, would bring Liverpool back in line with 2513 passes to the left, raise their total passes to 5011 and bring the passing ratio up to 50.15% L and 49.85% R. This is, perhaps, too large a change in tactics for one player to burdened with. However, it clear from this chart that Liverpool is far behind the teams they are attempting to catch. If all the the recent transfer do is reassert the status quo at Liverpool this upcoming season it will be another season of disappointment. Adam’s arrival may be touted as being many things but if his presence in the midfield ensures a more balanced attack LFC will benefit regardless of his free kicks, goals or assists.
To illustrate exactly how one sided Liverpool’s passing was on the season we’ve selected two matches, each resulting in 3-0 scoreline. From the two Manchester City matches last season, we’ve used the Guardian.co.uk’s Chalkboard feature to pull out the successful passes made by the home side in each match.
To the left, Liverpool’s home 3-0 win and on the right, Manchester City’s home 3-0 win. It is obvious to the eye, even at a quick glance, that the Manchester City attack is balanced more evenly across the pitch, with a focus on attacking from width. Liverpool, on the other hand, have a concentrated effort to the right side of the pitch, with possession on the far left side frequently resulting in the ball coming back into the center of the field. Liverpool’s passing was strongly right-sided all season as the squad made 3512 passes right against just 987 passes left.
Certainly Liverpool hopes that the additions of Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson will become building blocks for years of sustained success. However, incumbent players like Gerrard, Meireles, Lucas and Kuyt would also need to alter their approach for this to have a tangible effect. Even if we do a straight swap for Meireles’ statistics with Adam’s the difference to Liverpool as a whole is almost negligible. Liverpool’s total wing passes would increase slightly but their passing to the left increases to just 44%. While that would get them off the bottom of the table above, it moves them to 18th, barely above fellow bottom dwellers Sunderland and Fulham.
If you’re reading this and saying to yourself, what’s the big deal? Different teams employ different tactics all of the time. In fact, by using these very tactics Liverpool won the match (above left) 3-0. What’s the problem? The problem is this. Liverpool play the game at a competitive disadvantage. By saying, through their actions, we prefer use use this 8% of our passes on the right, there is a 16% playing time gap between the left and the right. Out of the whole 100% of the match time that wing passes consume. This may manifest in many different ways. Perhaps a defensive midfielder cheats a couple of steps to their left, or the goalies positions himself to better reduce the angle from a long range shot from that wing. However it manifests itself, Liverpool could address this by simply altering their tactics.
It is also a competitive disadvantage because, presumably, Liverpool has a player on the left wing for 90′ and that player is being severely under-worked while their right wing player is being severely overused. Again, in any given match this may or may not prove to be a problem, but over the course of the season this aggregates in many forms. More tired legs, higher risk of injury, etc. for the player on the right and having a player on the left that is not part of the match. If Liverpool simply doesn’t have skilled enough players to warrant passing the ball to the left wing, that is an even larger problem as Liverpool being unable to field a competent XI would surly be the death knell for this great club. To put it another way, it Pepe Reina only saved 42% of balls to his left, while he saved 58% of balls to his right, teams would quickly realize that to score more they should shoot left. In this day of cutting edge statistical analysis it is foolish to believe that Liverpool’s unwillingness to use the left has gone unnoticed and unexploited by their opposition, particularly their fiercest (and most well funded) rivals.
What we do know, tangentially, is that this was not much, if any, of a competitive advantage for Liverpool as the teams above them in the table were all more balanced in their attacks. Of course, everyone in the EPL was more balance than Liverpool and they still managed 6th but I believe that any Reds supporter is only counting where LFC finishes when it’s first. In order to see that happen again, Liverpool need to reconsider their current plan of attack.