Liverpool Looking Up? EPL 2015/16 Preview

Originally published on StatsBomb.

After the sordid love affair that culminated in a strong title challenge in 2013/14, Liverpool barely cast a furtive glance at the Champions League places in 2014/15. Their underlying numbers over the whole season provided scant consolation either, with performance levels in line with a decent team lacking the quality usually associated with a top-four contender. Improvements in results and underlying performance will therefore be required to meet the club’s stated aim of Champions League football.

Progress before a fall

Before looking forward to the coming season, let’s start with a look back at Liverpool’s performance over recent seasons. Below is a graphic showing Liverpool’s underlying numbers over the past five seasons, courtesy of Paul Riley’s Expected Goal numbers.

Expected goal rank over the past 5 seasons of the English Premier League. Liverpool seasons highlighted in red.

Expected goal rank over the past 5 seasons of the English Premier League. Liverpool seasons highlighted in red.

From 2010/11 to 2012/13, there was steady progress with an impressive jump in 2013/14 to the third highest rating over the past five years. Paul’s model only evaluates shots on target, so Liverpool’s 2013/14 rating is potentially biased a little high given their unusual/unsustainable proportion of shots on target that year. However, the quality was clear, particularly in attack. Not to be outdone, 2014/15 saw another impressive jump but unfortunately the trajectory was in the opposite direction. Other metrics such as total shots ratio and shots on target ratio tell a similar story, although 2013/14 isn’t quite as impressive.

The less charitable among you may ascribe Liverpool’s trajectory with the presence and performance of one Luis Suárez; when joining in January 2010, Suárez was an erratic yet gifted performer who went on to become a genuine superstar before departing in the summer of 2014. Suárez’s attacking wizardry in 13/14 was remarkable and he served as a vital multiplier in the sides’ pinball style of play. Clearly he was a major loss but there were already reasons to suspect that some regression was due with or without him: Andrew Beasley wrote about the major and likely unsustainable role of set piece goals, while James Grayson and Colin Trainor highlighted the unusually favourable proportions of shots on target and blocked shots respectively during their title challenge. I wrote about how Liverpool’s penchant for early goals had led to an incredible amount of time spent winning over the season (a handy circumstance for a team so adept at counter-attacking), which may well have helped to explain some of their unusual numbers and that it was unlikely to be repeated.

These mitigating and potentially unsustainable factors notwithstanding, the dramatic fall in underlying performance, points (22 in all) and goals scored (an incredible 49 goal decline) is where Liverpool find themselves ahead of the coming season. Such a decline sees Brendan Rodgers go into this season under pressure to justify FSG’s backing of him over the summer, particularly with a fairly nightmarish run of away fixtures to start the season and the spectre of Jürgen Klopp on the horizon.

So, where do Liverpool need to improve this season?

Case for the defence

With the concession of six goals away at Stoke fresh in the memory, the narrative surrounding Liverpool’s defence is strong i.e. the defence is pretty horrible. Numbers paint a somewhat different story with Liverpool’s shots conceded (10.9 per game) standing as the joint-fifth lowest in the league last year according to statistics compiled by the Objective-Football website (rising to fourth lowest in open play). Shots on target were less good (3.8 per game and a rank of joint-seventh) although the margins are fairly small here. By Michael Caley’s and Paul Riley’s expected goal numbers, Liverpool ranked fourth and sixth respectively in expected goals against. Looking at how effective teams were at preventing their opponents from getting the ball into dangerous areas in open-play, my own numbers ranked Liverpool fifth best in the league.

It should be noted that analytics often has something of a blind spot when it comes to analysing defensive performances; metrics which typically work very well on the offensive side often work less well on the defensive side. Liverpool also tend to be a fairly dominant team and their opponents typically favour a deep defence and counter strategy against them, which will limit the number of chances they create.

One area where their numbers (courtesy of Objective-Football again) were noticeably poor was at set-pieces where they conceded on 11.6% of the shots by their opponents, which was 3rd worst in the league, compared to a league average conversion of 8.7%. Set-piece conversion rates are notoriously unsustainable year-on-year though, so some regression towards more normal conversion rates could potentially bring down Liverpool’s goal per game average compared to last season.

While Liverpool’s headline numbers were reasonable, their tendency to shoot themselves in the foot and concede some daft goals was impressive in its ineptitude at times. Culprits typically included combinations of Rodgers’ tactics, Dejan Lovren’s ‘whack a mole’ approach to defending and the embers of Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career. The defensive structure of the team should be improved now that Gerrard no longer needs to be accommodated at the heart of midfield, while Glen Johnson’s prolonged audition for an extra role in the Walking Dead will continue at Stoke. Nathaniel Clyne should be a significant upgrade at full back, with youngsters Ilori and Gomez presently with the squad and aiming to compete for a first team role.

Broadly speaking though, Liverpool’s defensive numbers were reasonable but with room for improvement. Their numbers looked ok for a Champions League hopeful rather than a title challenger. A more mobile midfield should enhance the protection afforded to the central defence, however it should line up. Whether the individual errors were a bug and not a feature of this Liverpool team will likely determine how the narrative around the defence continues this year.

Under-powered attack

Liverpool’s decline in underlying performance in 2014/15 was driven by a significant drop-off in their attacking numbers. The loss of Suárez was compounded by Daniel Sturridge playing just 750 minutes in the league all season; Sturridge isn’t at the same level as Suárez (few are) but he does represent a truly elite forward and the alternatives at the club weren’t able to replace him.

The loss of Suárez and Sturridge meant that Coutinho and Sterling were now the principal conduits for Liverpool’s attack. Both performed admirably and were among the most dangerous attackers in the division. The figure below details Liverpool’s players according to the number of dangerous passes per 90 minutes played, which is related to my pass-danger rating score. In terms of volume, Coutinho and Sterling were way ahead of their teammates and both ranked in the top 15 in the league (minimum of 900 minutes played). James Milner actually ranked seventh by this metric, so he could well provide an additional source of creativity and link well with Liverpool’s forward players.

Dangerous passes per 90 minutes played metric for Liverpool players in 2014/15. Right hand side shows total number of completed passes per 90 minutes.

Dangerous passes per 90 minutes played metric for Liverpool players in 2014/15. Right hand side shows total number of completed passes per 90 minutes.

As good as Coutinho and Sterling were from a creative perspective, they did lag behind the truly elite players in the league by these metrics. As with many of Liverpool’s better players, you’re often left with the caveat of stating how good they are for their age. That’s not a criticism of the players themselves, merely a recognition of their overall standing relative to their peers.

What didn’t help was the lack of attacking contribution from Liverpool’s peak-age attacking players; Lallana’s contribution was decidedly average, Sturridge is obviously capable of making a stellar contribution but injuries curtailed him, while Balotelli certainly provided a high shot volume powered by a predilection for shooting from range but a potential dose of bad luck meant his goal-scoring record was well below expectation.

While there were clearly good elements to Liverpool’s attack, they were often left shooting from long range. According to numbers published by Michael Caley, Liverpool took more shots from outside the box than any other team last year and had the fourth highest proportion of shots from outside the box (48%). Unsurprisingly, they had the third lowest proportion of shots from the central region inside the penalty area (34%), which is the so-called ‘danger zone’ where shots are converted at much greater rates than wide in the box and outside the area. With their shot volumes being pretty good last season (third highest total shots and fourth highest shots on target), shifting the needle towards better quality chances would certainly improve Liverpool’s prospects. The question is where will that quality come from?

Bobby & Ben

With Sturridge not due back until the autumn coupled with his prior injury record, Liverpool moved to sign Christian Benteke as a frontline striker with youngsters Ings and Origi brought in to fill out the forward ranks. Roberto Firmino was added before Sterling’s departure but the expectation is that he will line-up in a similar role as the dynamic attacking midfielder/forward.

Firmino brings some impressive statistical pedigree with him: elite dribbler, dangerous passer, a tidy shot profile for a non-striker and stand-out tackling numbers for his position. If he can replicate his Bundesliga form then he should be a more than adequate replacement for Sterling, while also having the scope to develop over coming seasons.

Benteke brings a good but not great goal-scoring record, with his record in open-play being particularly average. Although there have been question marks regarding his stylistic fit within the team, Liverpool have seemingly been pursuing a physical forward to presumably act as a ‘reference point’ in their tactical system over the past few years; Diego Costa was a target in 2013, while Wilfred Bony was linked in 2014. Benteke brings that to the table alongside a more diverse range of skills than he is given credit for having been seemingly cast as an immobile lump of a centre forward by some.

Whether he has the necessary quality to improve this Liverpool team is the more pertinent question. From open-play, Benteke averages 2.2 shots per 90 minutes and 0.34 goals per 90 minutes over the past three seasons, which is essentially the average rate for a forward in the top European leagues. For comparison, Daniel Sturridge averages 4.0 shots per 90 minutes and 0.65 goals per 90 minutes over the same period. Granted, Sturridge has played for far greater attacking units than Aston Villa over that period but based on some analysis of strikers moving clubs that I’ve done, there is little evidence that shot and goal rates rise when moving to a higher quality team. Benteke does provide a major threat from set-pieces, which has been a productive source of goals for him but I would prefer to view these as an added extra on top of genuine quality in open-play, rather than a fig leaf.

Benteke will need to increase his contribution significantly if he is to cover for Sturridge over the coming season, otherwise Liverpool may find themselves in the good but not great attacking category again.

Conclusion

So where does all of the above leave Liverpool going into the season? Most of the underlying numbers for last season suggested that Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal were well ahead of the pack and I don’t see much prospect of one of them dropping out of the top four. Manchester United, Liverpool and Southampton made up the trailing group, with these three plus perhaps Tottenham in a battle to be the ‘best of the rest’ or ‘least crap’ and claim the coveted fourth place trophy.

When framed this way, Liverpool’s prospects look more viable, although fourth place looks like the ceiling at present unless the club procure some adamantium to alleviate Sturridge’s injury woes. While Liverpool currently operate outside the financial Goldilocks zone usually associated with a title challenge, they should have the quality to mount a concerted challenge for that Champions League spot in what could be a tight race. They did put together some impressive numbers during the 3-4-3 phase of last season that was in-line with those expected of a Champions League contender; replicating and sustaining that level of quality should be the aim for the team this coming season.

Prediction: 4-6th, most likely 5th.

P.S. Can Liverpool to be more fun this year? If you can’t be great, at least be fun.

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Territorial advantage?

One of the recurring themes regarding the playing style of football teams is the idea that teams attempt to strike a balance between controlling space and controlling possession. The following quote is from this Jonathan Wilson article during the European Championships in 2012, where he discusses the spectrum between proactive and reactive approaches:

Great teams all have the same characteristic of wanting to control the pitch and the ball – Arrigo Sacchi.

No doubt there are multiple ways of defining both sides of this idea.

Controlling the ball is usually represented by possession, that is the proportion of the passes that a team plays in a single match or series of matches. If a team has the ball, then by definition, they are controlling it.

One way of defining the control of space is to think about ball possession in relation to the location of the ball on the pitch. A team that routinely possesses the ball closer to their opponents goal potentially benefits from the increased attacking opportunities that this provides, while also benefiting from the ball being far away from their own goal should they lose it.

There are certainly issues with defining control of space in this way though e.g. a well-drilled defence may be happy to see a team playing the ball high up the pitch in front of them, especially if they are adept at counter-attacking when they win the ball back.

Below is a heat map of the location of received passes in the 2013/14 English Premier League. The play is from left-to-right i.e. the team in possession is attacking towards the right-hand goal. We can see that passes are most frequently received in midfield areas, with the number of passes received decreasing quickly as we head towards each penalty area.

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Heat map of the location of received passes in the 2013/14 English Premier League. Data via Opta.

Below is another heat map showing pass completion percentage based on the end point of the pass. The completion percentage is calculated by adding up all of the passes to a particular area on the pitch and comparing that to the number of passes that are successfully received. One thing to note here is that the end point of uncompleted passes relates to where possession was lost, as the data doesn’t know the exact target of each pass (mind-reading isn’t part of the data collection process as far as I know). That does mean that the pass completion percentage is an approximation but this is based on over 300,000 passes, so the effect is likely small.

What is very clear from the below graphic is that when within a teams own half, passes are completed routinely. The only areas where this drops are near the corner flags; I assume this is due to players either clearing the ball or playing it against an opponent when boxed into the corner.

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Heat map of pass completion percentage based on the target of all passes in the 2013/14 English Premier League. Data via Opta.

As teams move further into the attacking half, pass completion drops. In the central zone within the penalty area, less than half of all passes are completed and this drops to less than 20% within the six yard box. These passes within the “danger zone” are infrequent and completed far less frequently than other passes. This danger zone is frequently cited by analysts looking at shot location data as the prime zone for scoring opportunities; you would imagine that receiving passes in this zone would be beneficial.

None of the above is new. In fact, Gabe Desjardins wrote about these features using data from a previous Premier League season here and showed broadly similar results (thanks to James Grayson for highlighting his work at various points). The main thing that looks different is the number of passes played into the danger zone, I’m not sure why this is but 2012/13 and 2014/15 so far look very similar to the above in my data.

Gabe used these results to calculate a territory statistic by weighting each pass by its likelihood of being completed. He found that this measure was strongly related to success and the performance of a team.

Below is my version of territory plotted against possession for the 2013/14 Premier League season. Broadly there are four regimes in the below plot:

  1. Teams like Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal who dominate territory and have plenty of possession. These teams tend to pin teams in close to their goal.
  2. Teams like Everton, Liverpool and Southampton who have plenty of possession but don’t dominate territory (all there are just under a 50% share). Swansea are an extreme case in as they have lots of possession but it is concentrated in their own half where passes are easier to complete.
  3. Teams like West Brom and Aston Villa who have limited possession but move the ball into attacking areas when they do have it. These are quite direct teams, who don’t waste much time in their build-up play. Crystal Palace are an extreme in terms of this approach.
  4. Teams that have limited possession and when they do have it, they don’t have much of it in dangerous areas at the attacking end of the pitch. These teams are going nowhere, slowly.
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Territory percentage plotted against possession for English Premier League. Data via Opta.

Liverpool are an interesting example, as while their overall territory percentage ranks at fourteenth in the league, this didn’t prevent them moving the ball into the danger zone. For just passes received within the danger zone, they ranked third on 3.4 passes per game behind Chelsea (3.8) and Manchester City (4) and ahead of Arsenal on 2.9.

This ties in with Liverpool’s approach last season, where they would often either attack quickly when winning the ball or hold possession within their own half to try and draw teams out and open up space. Luis Suárez was crucial in this aspect, as he averaged 1.22 completed passes into the danger zone per 90 minutes. This was well ahead of Sergio Agüero in second place on 0.94 per 90 minutes.

The above is just a taster of what can be learnt from this type of data. I’ll be expanding on the above in more detail and for more leagues in the future.

Luis Suárez: Stuck in the middle?

Luis Suárez, the latest member of Liverpool’s one-man team, has been playing rather well this season. At the time of writing, he is 2nd in the top scorers list with 15 goals, while also boasting the most chances created from open play in the league. Even more impressively he manages to accomplish this while nefariously drowning kittens in his spare time*.

This increased rate of scoring compared with last season has been much needed due to Liverpool’s lack of attacking options. The question is, what has changed?

Just can’t score enough?

Firstly, Suárez is averaging a goal every 8.4 shots this season compared to 11.6 last season. Secondly, he is shooting more often this season as he shoots every 15 minutes on average compared with a shot every 20 minutes last season. The combination of these two features would naturally lead to an enhanced scoring rate. So far, so good but can we delve a little deeper into Suárez’s shooting data?

Below is a summary of Suárez’s shooting across the last two seasons in the league based on data collected from Opta’s chalkboard services. The data is aggregated positionally to examine how regularly Suárez shoots from a particular location and also how efficient his goalscoring is from these areas. This provides us with indicators of the quality of a shot i.e. the distance from the goal-line coupled with the angle from which the shot is taken. Other factors will impact the quality of the shooting opportunity such as the position of the goalkeeper, whether the shot is attempted with the foot or the head and the number of players between the shooter and the goal. This last point is probably especially important for someone like Suárez who tends to see a lot of his shots blocked.

Comparison between Luis Suárez’s shooting and goalscoring from the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons. The circles designate areas from which Suárez took a shot from and are sized by the number of shots taken from that area. The areas correspond to horizontal bands from 0-10, 10-20 and more than 20 yards from the goal-line. The grey dotted lines show where the 10 and 20 yard lines are situated. The vertical bands are ordered along the lines of the touchline, edge of the 18 yard box and the 6 yard box. The numbers within each marker correspond to the average number of shots attempted per goal scored in that area. Markers without a number mean that no goals were scored from that area.

The first thing to note about the goals Suárez scores is that across both seasons, the vast majority of his goals come from relatively central areas within the penalty area or just on the edge of it. Furthermore, we can see that Suárez appears to shoot a lot from locations where he doesn’t generally score from. His overall number of shots is similar across the two seasons, although there are still 16 matches still to play this season. There has been some change in the areas from which he has been shooting this season, with close to twice as many shots being taken from the central zone that is more than 20 yards from the goal-line. This has been compensated with fewer attempts from the less than 10 yard zone.

The main difference between the two seasons is that he is now scoring goals more within the 10-20 yards central area and at a reasonable rate. Suárez is now far more efficient in this zone in terms of goalscoring, with 1 goal from 34 shots last season compared with 5 goals from 29 shots this season. It is the goals scored from within this zone that have led to his increased goalscoring rate.

Slipping and sliding

So we can see that compared with himself, Suárez has improved this season. The question is how does he compare with his peers? I don’t have a large enough dataset to do a like-for-like comparison but we can contrast his numbers with data collected by the Different Game blog. The zones are slightly different here but for the central zone within the penalty area, Suárez averaged 7.5 shots per goal last season and 4.5 this season. So compared to the 6 shots per goal average over last season and this, he is better than his peers this season but underperformed last season. There are caveats here in that my figures include penalties, although after his penalty “attempts” last season, Suárez hasn’t been taking penalties this season (not that Liverpool have had many to take and he only took one penalty in the league last season). Furthermore, this is for all players taking shots and potentially you might prefer to compare to other strikers.

In general, we can see that Suárez has been more efficient this season in terms of his goalscoring and that his conversion compares favourably with his peers. The reasons for this are less clear and could be due to a multitude of factors including luck, his role within the team this season, Liverpool’s overall tactics and even less tangible factors such as “off-field distractions”. One thing that is clear from this analysis is that if you want Luis Suárez to score goals, he needs to be taking his shots from central areas. Brendan Rodgers has hinted at playing him as a wide-forward now that Daniel Sturridge has arrived; preserving Suárez’s current goalscoring record would be a challenge if he ends up taking more shots from more difficult angles, which may occur due to his natural position being out-wide. Over the last season and a half, Suárez has taken 103 shots from the wide positions for a return of 5 goals.

Based on this analysis and watching him play a lot, I would say that in certain circumstances, Suárez is a good finisher but that he is wasteful in terms of his decision making. Since the beginning of 2011/12, just over 40% of his shots were taken from areas out-wide where he rarely scores from, coupled with 36% of all of his shots being blocked (although this has improved this season). While the “scorer of great goals, rather than a great goal scorer” line has been an attractive label for Suárez during his Liverpool career, the analysis presented here indicates that he is more nuanced than that. Mind you, “a reasonably efficient goalscorer provided that he is in a central shooting position within approximately 20 yards of goal who is capable of scoring the odd goal that takes your breath away” is a bit more of a mouthful.

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Data sources: EPL-Index, Squawka and StatsZone.

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*This is not true.