By Paul Tomkins.
In recent weeks I’ve been looking at what Liverpool have been lacking in physical terms. The more I delve into it (as you will see), the more convinced I am that it’s a serious issue. This is not to say that it’s the only issue: there are always many factors at work, and in Liverpool’s case, poor finishing and goalkeeping mistakes have also cost points.
And many problems can be unexpectedly solved. After all, in 2012 no one thought Luis Suarez could be prolific, and that his scoring record in Holland was down to the weakness of that league; since when he’s proven extremely prolific in both England and Spain. So as with my doubts over Simon Mignolet, things can improve. But as we analyse from the outside, with no real influence, we can just point out what we see as going wrong; and hope that, if we are right, the people at the club – with a more complete picture – are seeing it too.
Until I delved further into the issue, I didn’t realise just how small Liverpool’s team actually was. In particular, it struck me that there are seven first-team squad regulars (five or six of whom often make the starting XI) who are well below average height.
And so, for me, a big part of Liverpool’s problems are the seven dwarfs (I apologise, but as you can see, it had to be done.) I don’t want to keep banging on about this, but there were a few more points to raise, and others to reiterate.
Following on from my earlier piece, I went away and looked at the height of every member of Liverpool’s squad, plus the squads of the other ‘big six’ clubs, in addition to every opposition player Liverpool have faced this season (all of these were outfield players only). The average height of these 280 players worked out at 181.4cm, or just under 6 feet tall (5’11” 1/2). The average height of a UK male may be around 5’9”-5’10” (i.e. me), but footballers, while not like basketball players, are on average taller than the norm.
Every week, Liverpool’s average height is well below this overall average, therefore we can say that the Reds are, on average, a small team. And it’s mainly down to the seven players who are between 168 and 175 centimetres; or 5”6” to 5’9”.
These are, in ascending order of height, Joe Allen, Alberto Moreno, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner and Jordon Ibe.
No player should be overlooked purely because he is small. But if they are small they need to be a bit special; which is why the £24.4m bid for Alex Teixeira still makes sense, despite him being only 173cm (5’8”). As I will show later in this piece, a good number of the Premier League’s best players are small. But put too many small players in a Premier League team and it will struggle to deal with the aerial side of the game. Put too many small average players in the team and it will struggle in other ways, too.
People wonder why Liverpool concede so many set-piece goals. Well, in 20 of 25 top-level domestic games this season the Reds have been shorter than their opponents (I’ve excluded the Europa League, as it’s less of an aerial challenge, and I’ve only included the Premier League teams faced in the cups). Four of the five games when the Reds were actually taller came under Brendan Rodgers, including a visit to an understrength Arsenal, who had their biggest centre-backs missing. In 16 of Klopp’s 17 top-level games his team has been smaller than the opposition.
(In response to the title of my previous piece, TTT historical statistician Graeme Riley noted below the article that: “Since 1992, Liverpool have fielded 36 teams with an average height for the 10 outfield players of less than 1.79m. Of these, 33 came since December 2014… The smallest team during this period was 1.765m – on 4 April 2015” Even this season, Klopp has fielded an outfield ten with an average height of 1.76 – or just 5’9”. In other words, Liverpool have been fielding teams as tall, on average, as James Milner.)
No matter how you mark at set-pieces, if you are shorter you will, on average, lose more headers, as I explained in my previous piece. (Statistical evidence of this follows later in the piece.) You can maybe get by with some smaller players if they are particularly good in the air, but on average, smaller players aren’t good in the air in duels – which is of course different from being a good header of the ball (for example, I’m pretty sure that Robbie Fowler only won a small percentage of his aerial duels against the likes of Tony Adams and Gary Pallister, but he did have a good leap, and when he able to get a header in it was usually unstoppable. But he was only 5’9”.)
And it appears that rather than being good in the air – in terms of winning duels – Liverpool’s smaller players are actually below average for their size. We can talk about Stoke’s little magicians, but the biggest difference in height between Liverpool and an opponent was at the Britannia for the League Cup semi-final: their outfield players were an astonishing 6.7cm (well over two inches) taller than the Reds’, and that was before Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch came on. Stoke have two special small players, and eight big bastards. Interestingly, it was one of the rare occasions where being smaller didn’t hurt Liverpool, perhaps because, until late on, there was no big target-man to bully the centre-backs and pull onto the full-backs for crosses in open play, and the Reds only conceded a few corners.
In over half the 25 domestic games Liverpool have been significantly shorter – between 1.6cms and 6.7cms. Obviously it depends on how good each opponent is at set-pieces, and their use of big strikers, but Liverpool’s results have been worse, in general, the bigger the height differential between the two sides. The bigger the opposition the more likely they are to score against Liverpool from set-pieces and open-play crosses.
Set-pieces are a problem in general because Liverpool don’t have enough tall players to match-up; and the Reds’ full-backs, in particular, are being dwarfed in open play by strikers and midfielders they cannot hope to beat in the air. In both cases better work and defensive organisation can lessen the threat, but teams will always get crosses in and almost always win corners.
Liverpool’s win percentage against the 12 teams that were either only slightly taller (seven) or slightly smaller (five) is 58%. In the 13 games against significantly taller teams it drops to just 30%. The rate of goals conceded to set-pieces and headers almost trebles when the Reds face significantly bigger sides. It’s a small sample, of just over half a season, but the contrast is even more marked during the Klopp era, as he looks to the squad he inherited for hard-working, pressing players.
Perhaps Brendan Rodgers tried to address this earlier in the season by playing Joe Gomez (6’2”/188cm) at left-back and Christian Benteke (6’3”/191cm) up front, but he had also driven the purchases of many of the smaller, physically weak ‘technical’ players like Adam Lallana and Joe Allen, neither of whom compensate with any notable pace. (And of course, had he bought some better smaller players – more on those later – he might not have had to look to Benteke to compensate.) Rodgers also chose to add Nathaniel Clyne (5’9”/175cm) to the side, and as much as I like aspects of Clyne’s game, he has a dreadful record in aerial duels – both last season, at Southampton, and this season, at Liverpool. Also, Rodgers brought in James Milner, 5’9”, to play in central midfield.
Due to injury, Klopp doesn’t have the option of Gomez at full-back; the youngster having the makings of a superb right-back – pace, power, height and quality on the ball – and maybe later, a top-class centre-back. Rodgers’ preference for Clyne over Moreno meant that Gomez replaced the Spaniard at left-back – at least, in the first few games.
So that basically leaves Benteke as the one player to give Liverpool a clear aerial advantage, outside of the Reds’ centre-backs (out of whom, only Lovren is statistically above average at aerial duels); and yet it’s clear to anyone that, over Klopp’s games so far, the Reds have played much better without the big Belgian than with him. It’s just that, without him, they are also more susceptible to losing headers in their own box. He is also the Reds’ top scorer, albeit hardly with an impressive tally (so it’s not like he simply must play because he’s scoring a goal every game; although I felt he did well in creating two of Liverpool’s goals last night, even if he missed some sitters).
As I said earlier in the week, Klopp can’t make other players taller (or faster). He can possibly make Benteke better, over time, but the no.9’s movement is a million miles away from the clever positioning and running of Roberto Firmino. Klopp is making the team-work much better with these smaller players, but the side lacks a reliable finisher, and to make matters worse, in recent weeks, with a centre-back shortage, the manager has been playing with defenders who are 5’7”, 5’9” and 5’10” in a back four.
TTT’s deputy editor Daniel Rhodes made the logical point in the site’s comments section that perhaps smaller players press better; and that certainly seems true of the current squad (i.e. compare Lallana with Benteke). But when I looked at Klopp’s Dortmund team from 2012/13 – the point when they were reigning German champions and Champions League finalists – I discovered that they were almost, to a man, bloody big bastards.
(As an aside here, Andrew Beasley also pointed out in the comments section that Damien Comolli included “winning 40 headers in a match” as one of a small number of metrics – including specific numbers of final third regains and of crosses – that usually contributes to a win. Whilst Comolli noticeably bought a ‘big’ dud in Andy Carroll, it’s clear that Jordan Henderson and Luis Suarez were both fairly big and strong, as was Jose Enrique, who looked good for a season or two. Charlie Adam was over 6ft tall, and Seb Coates was even taller. The only short-arse signed for the first team during that period was Craig Bellamy, who lacked nothing in aggression. Comolli signed some duds, as does everyone; but Suarez and Henderson proved vital in the 2013/14 title assault. Rodgers then arrived with his Barcelona model, and while I liked the idea at the time, it turned out that it’s really difficult to play like them, especially with massively inferior players, and in a more physical league. Even Arsenal are now a tall side.)
Dortmund were a supreme pressing side, and yet the average height of Klopp’s outfield ten that night against Bayern was 183.7cm, which is two centimetres taller than the average Premier League player out of the 280 I looked at, and four centimetres taller than the average Liverpool side so far under the German. The average height of the six outfield players on the Dortmund bench was even taller. Only two of the 16 outfield players were below 180cm, or almost 5’11”. The back four averaged 186.5cm (6’1” 1/2); Liverpool’s back four versus Man United averaged 177.7cm, or under 5’10! (I rarely use exclamation marks, but that needs one). Liverpool’s defensive midfielder against United, as in other games, was also 5’10” (Lucas), whereas Dortmund’s against Bayern was Sven Bender, 6’2”.
The solution for Klopp, going into next season, is surely to keep some of the smaller, quicker, hard-pressing players, and, in addition to supplementing with athletic, taller players, look to work with Sturridge, Origi and Ings too, when they are fit. At best, Benteke looks a useful Plan B player.
Also, the Reds now have two emerging taller full-back options: the talented Brad Smith (5’10”), now aged 21, and whose pace can match Moreno’s; and the remerging Jon Flanagan (5’11”), who should be a serious contender for a regular starting spot next season, after 20 months out with injury. There’s no way anyone is going to bully him.
But there’s much more behind the height issues, and here I will look into various aspects, including the special qualities of each player, and why the bid for Alex Teixeira is good news …
The second half of this post is for subscribers only.