Liverpool and I

While I probably watched Liverpool play before then, the first match I remember watching was on the 4th January 1994, when a nine-year-old me saw them come back from three goals down, which would become something of a theme. As is the want of memory, the events that leave an indelible mark are the ones that stand-out; my first actual football memory is Paul Bodin missing that penalty and not really understanding the scale of the disappointment. Turned out Wales’ last World Cup match was in 1958 when some no-mark seventeen-year-old called Edson Arantes do Nascimento scored his first international goal and knocked them out in the quarter-final.

Other early memories include one of God’s defining miracles, with a hat-trick notched up in four minutes and thirty three seconds and learning about player aging curves when I realised that the slow yet classy guy in midfield used to be one of the most devastating and exciting wide-players the game had ever seen. My first match at Anfield was Ian Rush’s last there in a red shirt, while subsequent visits took in thrilling cup matches under the gaze of King Kenny and the best live sporting experience of my life as I bounced out of Anfield full of hope in April 2014.

While a league title has proved elusive during my supporting life, Europe has provided the greatest thrills, with tomorrow marking a third European Cup Final to go along with two finals in the junior competition. A European Cup Final once every eight years on average, with all three in the last fourteen years is pretty good going for a non-super club, albeit one with significant resources.

Real Madrid are clearly going to be a tough nut to crack, with Five Thirty Eight, Club Elo and Euro Club Index all ranking them as the second best team around. The same systems have Liverpool as the fifth, seventh and eleventh best, so under-dogs with a good chance at glory overall.

According to Club Elo, the 2018 edition of Liverpool will be the best to contest a European Cup Final this century but on the flip-side, Real Madrid are stronger than either of the AC Milan teams that they faced in 2005 and 2007. Despite this, Liverpool are given a slightly better shot at taking home Old Big Ears than they had in 2005, as the gap between them and their opponents is narrower. The strides that the team made under Rafa between the 2005 and 2007 finals meant that the latter was contested by two equal teams.

Liverpool should evidently be approaching the final with optimism and further evidence of this is illustrated in the figure below, which shows the top-fifty teams by non-penalty expected goal difference in the past eight Premier League seasons. The current incarnation of Liverpool sit fifth and would usually be well-positioned to seriously challenge for the title. As the figure also illustrates, the scale of Manchester City’s dominance in their incredible season is well-warranted.

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Top-fifty teams by non-penalty expected goal difference over the past eight Premier League seasons. Liverpool are highlighted in red, with the 17/18 season marked by the star marker. Data via Opta.

Liverpool’s stride forward under Klopp this past season has taken them beyond the 13/14 and 12/13 incarnations in terms of their underlying numbers. In retrospect, Rodgers’ first season was quietly impressive even if it wasn’t reflected in the table and it set the platform for the title challenge the following season.

Compared to those Luis Suárez-infused 12/13 and 13/14 seasons, the attacking output this past season is slightly ahead, with the team sitting sixth in the eight-season sample, which is their best over the period. Including penalties would take the 13/14 vintage beyond the latest incarnation, with the former scoring ten from the twelve (!) awarded, while 17/18 saw only three awarded (two scored).

The main difference between the current incarnation though is on the defensive end, with the team having the fifth best record in terms of non-penalty expected goals conceded this past season in the eight-year sample. The 13/14 season’s defence was the seventh worst by the club in this eight-year period and they lay thirty-fourth overall. These contrasting records equate to an eight non-penalty expected goal swing in their defensive performance.

While the exhilarating attacking intent of this Liverpool side is well-established, they are up against another attacking heavyweight; could it be that the defensive side of the game is the most decisive? The second half of this season is especially encouraging on this front, with improvements in both expected and actual performance. This period represents the sixth best half season over these eight-seasons (out of a total of 320) and a three-goal swing compared to the first half of the season. This was slightly offset by a reduction in attacking output of two non-penalty expected goals but the overall story is one of improvement.

The loss of Coutinho, addition of van Dijk and employing a keeper with hands (edit 2203 26/05/18: well at least he gets his hands to it usually) between the sticks is a clear demarcation in Liverpool’s season and it is this period that has seen the thrilling run to the European Cup Final. The improved balance between attack and defence bodes well and I can’t wait to see what this team can do on the biggest stage in club football.

Allez, Allez, Allez!

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Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid: passing network analysis

Borussia Dortmund defeated Real Madrid 4-1.

Below is the passing network for the match. The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. Only the starting eleven is shown as the substitutes had little impact in a passing sense.

Passing network for Bayern Munich and Barcelona from the Champions League match at the Allianz Arena on the 23rd April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing networks for Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid from the Champions League match at the Westfalenstadion on the 24th April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

The most striking difference between the sides respective passing networks was that Real had a greater emphasis down the flanks, with strong links between the wide players and their full backs. Dortmund were quite balanced in their passing approach with much of their play going through the trio of Hummels, Gundogan and Gotze.

Influential potential

Dortmund’s number ‘ten’ (Gotze) had a greater influence on proceedings than Modric did for Real, with Gotze coming second only to Gundogan in terms of passing influence for Dortmund. Ozil was far more influential than Modric, although he rarely combined with Higuain and Ronaldo. Modric was well down the pecking order for Madrid with the likes of Pepe, Varane and Coentrao ahead of him. On its own, this might not have been a problem but aside from Ramos and Lopez, the only other Real players with less influence were Higuain and Ronaldo. This contrasts directly with Dortmund, where Reus and Lewandowski played an important linking roles.

In summary, Dortmund’s attacking players were among their most influential passing performers; Real Madrid’s were not.

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Passing matrices from Uefa.com press kits.

Bayern Munich vs Barcelona: passing network analysis

Bayern Munich defeated Barcelona 4-0 with a dominant performance. The way both teams approached the game in terms of their passing was interesting and worth some additional analysis.

Much of the post-match discussion on TV focussed on Barcelona’s dominance of possession not being reflected in the final scoreline. According to UEFA, Barcelona had 63%, while WhoScored/Opta had it at 66%. However, Bayern were well ahead in terms of shots (15-4 in favour of Bayern, with a 7-1 advantage for on-target shots). It seems that whenever Barcelona lose, their possession statistics are trotted out as a stick to beat them with. Given that Barcelona have gone more than 300 games and close to half a decade since they last played a game with less than 50% possession, I very much doubt there is causality between their possession statistics and match results. Barcelona choose to play this way and it has certainly been successful. However, it is worth remembering that not all teams play the same way and the assumption that there is a single holy grail metric that can ‘explain’ winning football matches is probably a fool’s errand. Even if one does exist, it isn’t a match aggregated possession statistic.

Process, not outcome

In terms of passing, I’ve tried to look more at the process using network analysis to establish how teams pass the ball and which players are the most influential in passing terms in a given match, rather than focussing on a single statistic. Below is the passing network for the match. The positions of the players are loosely based on the formations played by the two teams, although some creative license is employed for clarity. It is important to note that these are fixed positions, which will not always be representative of where a player passed/received the ball. Only the starting eleven is shown as the substitutes had little impact in a passing sense.

Passing network for Bayern Munich and Barcelona from the Champions League match at the Allianz Arena on the 23rd April 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

As might be expected, the contrast between the two teams is quite clear. Bayern focussed their passing down the flanks, with Ribery and Robben combining well with their respective full-backs. Neuer, Dante and Boateng fed the full-backs well to begin these passing transitions. Barcelona on the other hand engaged in their familiar multitude of passing triangles, although with a bias towards their right flank. There are a number of strong links although the somewhat uninspiring Bartra-Pique link was the strongest (23 passes).

Sterile domination

The issue for Barcelona was that their possession was largely in deeper areas, away from Bayern’s penalty area. This was neatly summed up by this tweet (including a graphic) by Albert Larcada:

While Barcelona’s passing network showed plenty of combinations in deeper areas, their more attacking players combined much less, with the links between Alexis, Messi and Pedro being relatively weak. In particular, the passes to Messi were low in number as he received just 7 passes combined from Iniesta (3), Pedro (2) and Alexis (2). Messi had much stronger links with Xavi (received 20 passes) and Alves (received 19 passes) although I suspect many of these were in deeper areasWhile, Barcelona’s midfield three exerted their usual influence, the next most influential players were Pique and Bartra. This is a stark comparison with the home match against AC Milan, where Messi was the most influential player after the midfield trio.

Bayern did a great job of limiting Messi’s influence, although his injury likely contributed also.

Avoid the puddle

Schweinsteiger was the most influential player for Bayern, linking well with Dante, Alaba and Ribery. After the centre-backs, Bayern’s next most influential players were Robben and Ribery who counter-attacked superbly, with excellent support from their full-backs. As discussed by Zonal Marking, Bayern preyed on Barcelona’s weakness on the counter-attack with speedy breaks down the flanks.

Bayern were incredibly effective and deservedly won the match and very likely the tie.

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Passing matrices from Uefa.com press kits.

Barcelona vs AC Milan: passing network analysis

Barcelona. Good at the football.

Passing network for Liverpool and West Brom from the match at Anfield on the 11th February 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. The player markers are coloured by the number of times they lost possession during the match, with darker colours indicating more losses. Only the starting eleven is shown. Players with an * next to their name were substituted. Click on the image for a larger view.

Passing network for Barcelona and AC Milan from the Champions League match at the Camp Nou on the 12th March 2013. Only completed passes are shown. Darker and thicker arrows indicate more passes between each player. The player markers are sized according to their passing influence, the larger the marker, the greater their influence. The size and colour of the markers is relative to the players on their own team i.e. they are on different scales for each team. Only the starting eleven is shown. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Passing matrices from Uefa.com press kits.

More information on these passing networks is available here.

I don’t have time for a fuller write-up but this from Zonal Marking is excellent.