(The problems that Liverpool have faced this season has been coveredÂ hereÂ previously, but this article is intended to go into the differences, problems and possible solutions that are readily apparent for Liverpool more thoroughly. Accepting thatÂ someÂ statistics can regularly be misleading, it is important to note that some do provide an accurate picture of Liverpool and how they have attacked this season. With this in mind, this article will try and break down the way Liverpool have attacked into its component pieces as well as highlighting the differences from the successful formula used last year.)
Going into this weekend, two of the once assumed ‘Big Four’ face off in a match where both will be desperate not to suffer furtherÂ ignominy afterÂ stuttering starts to the season. Although, arguably, their respective targets are different (Liverpool realistically targeting fourth, whereas Chelsea are aiming to challenge for the title) there are a number of similarities to the predicaments both face: a transition in method; managers in their first full season; a transitional phase in their squad and trouble finding the right balance tactically. One of the major differences, however, has been the way that – although only three points apart – both teams have garnered their points, with Chelsea having been defeated by Arsenal and Manchester United but winning the “expected” games, whereas Liverpool got four points in their games against Arsenal and United, but have dropped them elsewhere. The other difference between the two sides has been that Chelsea have scored 10 more goals than Liverpool, whereas Liverpool not only conceded only one goal against Arsenal and United (where Chelsea conceded 8), but have conceded 5 less overall in their 11 games. The main difference, however, is best exemplified by the fact that Chelsea have lost more, but also won more and drawn less. This indicates that although Liverpool have done well in the bigger games – Spurs aside, they have won the derby, drawn against United and beaten Arsenal – they’ve stagnated in games where they have had to provide the impetus and attack. But how much of this is down to luck, to finishing or to some other reason?
One of the prominent deficiencies in Liverpool’s play, in comparison to the tail end of last season, certainly, has been the lack of players getting into the box when the ball is in a wide area, with, inÂ particular, a lack of late runs. Part of this problem could be considered to be that the most used central midfield pairing, Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam, aren’t particularly dynamic nor inclined to get on the end of crosses (of which Liverpool have had more, per game, than any other team in the league apart from Wolves – more of which, will be discussed later), so this only leaves a certain number of players who will be able to get into the box in the more rigid 4-4-2 utilised for most of this season.Â Inspite of this, however, 58% of Liverpool’s goals have come from inside the 18 yard box, the highest in the league so far this season in terms of percentage of goals scored by each individual team, suggesting that this is the best avenue of attack for Liverpool, so the question has to be: why have Liverpool only managed to score 14 times, the 10th lowest amount of goals in the league?
Breaking down those 14 goals, 8 of them have come from Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam. Suarez, in particular, has been singled out for his lack of clinical finishing, which, when you factor in the fact that he has had 51 shots so far this season, does seem to have some merit to it. The problem posed by this, however, is this shouldn’t be new information to Kenny Dalglish or Steve Clarke. In the 12 starts (and 1 subÂ appearance) he made from January last year, Suarez scored 4 times out of 55 attempts. In fact, his record is unnervingly similar from this season to last. All his main offensive statistics are relatively similar, apart from one (he has attempted far less dribbles so far this season) Â so why is this being highlighted so much now? The obvious answer is that the goals aren’t coming from him, but they’re also not coming from anyone else. And herein lies the primary problem, too much onus is being placed on a player who – on current evidence – isn’t going to be a clinical finisher. This could, theoretically, be trained into him, after all, he’s had a fantastic goalscoring record everywhere else – both domestically and internationally – and there’s more than enough evidence to show that he can finish from almost anywhere in the final third when the ball is sitting right. But while he is struggling to get a higher conversion rate, is it right to keep playing a system that seems to have the primary function of supporting one or two forwards rather than the more dynamic methods used previously?
Aside from this, the offensive ineffectiveness that has plagued Liverpool this season can be demonstrated in several other different areas. For instance, inspite of a transition to having the most attacking touches in the league (on a percentage basis of touches by the team), as well as the second highest shots per game ratio, Liverpool only have the 8th highest number of shots on target per game.Â This is suggestive of several things. For starters, it validates the earlier insinuation that Dalglish has encouraged Liverpool to be more attacking this season and also, to a certain extent, is indicative of Dalglish’s assertion that they have been unlucky. Liverpool seem to be more progressive and are getting themselves into positions where they can effect the game, but a clinical edge is missing in the finishing. This combined with the fact that only Aston Villa have drawn more games than Liverpool this season plays into the dual narrative issue aforementioned, and that Liverpool are a bit of luck away from looking a lot stronger on paper. The problem is, however, that doesn’t seem to be such sign of that luck changing and with two massive games on the horizon, as well as a cup quarter final, how long can this excuse be used?
The change in ethos from Dalglish, from control and movement, to a more direct attacking style is best exemplified in the change in wing play. Last season (although these statistics are slightly eschewed as it encapsulates Roy Hodgson’s reign also), Liverpool attempted on average 6 crosses less per game and primarily used Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt or Maxi Rodriguez in the wide positions, all of whom aren’t traditional wingers. This is also evident in the ‘accurate crosses’ per game statistics from the two seasons: in 2010/2011 Liverpool only had two players in the top 40, and they were Steven Gerrard (18th) and Raul Meireles (22nd), whereas in 2011/2012 so far, Liverpool have three: Stewart Downing (10th), Charlie Adam (11th) and Jose Enrique (30th). Not only are there more players in the list, they are also higher in the ratings so far this season. This also marks out the way that Liverpool have looked to play the ball markedly more from the left, although Glen Johnson’s injury could have been a factor in this.
Just how much Liverpool have looked to use crosses, especially from the left, can be extrapolated from the fact that should Downing, Adam and Enrique go onto to feature in 33 games – like Meireles, who attempted the most crosses last season with 160, closely followed by Steven Gerrard with 148, albeit in lesser games – at this rate, they’d attempt 219, 204 and 144 crosses respectively. This marked difference, especially when you factor in that last season the next highest attempted crosses came from Glen Johnson (92 in 28), Kuyt (82 in 33) and Suarez (39 in 13), shows just how much this difference is. With more players looking to support play and fashion out chances, there seems to have stemmed a lack of players able to get into positions to get goals. Whereas last seasons dynamism and fluidity meant that players rotated positions and chances fell to various different players, this season more onus seems to have been placed on the centre forwards.
This leads back to the problem posed by Luis Suarez. Although,Â undoubtedly, one of the most talented players Liverpool have had for years, his poor conversion rate – be it down to whatever reason seems to fit the best – means that Liverpool’s main supply route to goals isn’t working and without anyone else stepping up to the mantle, there is a massiveÂ discrepancy. To illustrate this, we can consider last season’s finishing/goal statistics: Dirk Kuyt was our top scorer with 13 goals from 64 attempts, Maxi Rodriguez was our second highest goal scorer with 10 from 57, after that you have Fernando Torres – who we won’t count as he mostly only featured under Hodgson – then the players with the kind of conversion rate that Suarez has: Raul Meireles (5 from 62), Steven Gerrard (4 from 50) and Suarez himself (4 from 55). So what’s readily apparent is that Suarez hasn’t declined at all, but is infact giving the same output that was so highly valued last year, but opportunities aren’t falling to other players, be it because of the tactical system or because they’re not being used, or have been sold in Meireles’ case. When you consider that, in essence, the three players who got the most goals, not including Torres, last season (as well as the two players who contributed the most assists in Dirk Kuyt, 7, and Raul Meireles, 5) have been replaced by Stewart Downing (0 goals out of 27 attempts and no assists), Jordan Henderson (1 from 12 and no assists) and Andy Carroll (2 from 28 and no assists) there does seem to be a correlation to that suggests legitimate reasoning as to why goals have been difficult to come by.
Of course, as the earlier disclaimer suggests, this exists mostly in an abstract world where luck isn’t a factor, and it is hasty to suggest that it hasn’t been. After all, as said in the earlier article, a couple of chances taken better and then the statistics, league table and goals scored column looks a lot healthier. Regardless, of this, however, it seems naive to solely excuse the performances this season with the solitary reason of luck. And with Liverpool having the joint second best defensive record in the league, the accusations levied against the defensive work of the side, although some of them are pertinent, seem to have not as much importance in comparison to the issues raised here, although with the slight caveat that there is a noticeable drop off between the two seasons in terms of interceptions from midfield and the forwards, which has lead to Liverpool not being so strong on the counter attack and the fact that the majority of the shots Liverpool have conceded seem to be in the space in front of the defence and behind the midfield.
There are still a lot of question marks over the decision of the coaching staff to shift emphasis, but if they aim to remain consistent to the formula they have used this season so far, then it may very well be the case that the club need to look for a clinical finisher who can capitalise and utilise the movement and work rate of Luis Suarez as well as take some of the burden off him to score goals if the midfield aren’t going to be able to contribute more.