My deep-delves into data these past couple of years – which have bordered on obsessions – have shown that, actually, you need taller players to win a greater percentage of defensive headers (the little ‘uns can jump but it’s not the same); that referees are terrified of giving penalties to Liverpool at Anfield (even more so at the Kop end; just watch the video footage of this whole bizarro season and the insane lengths referees are going to in order to not be seen as being swayed by the Kop), in addition to the fact that foreign attackers win a statistically significantly lower percentage of penalties, pro rata, than British-raised ones; and that Dominic Solanke will create and score goals.
In the autumn, when Liverpool were drawing games but regularly “winning” the xG 2-0, I confidently stated that the goals and wins would come, if they didn’t lose confidence, and kept playing the same way. Remember, Liverpool had a shit period earlier in the season, but the underlying numbers said the team was potentially special.
Data also tells us that the top two finished in the expected order, and that the Big Six should have finished in the top six (and did); and that Liverpool are the youngest team in the Premier League this season, averaging out over all 38 games at just 24.2. I can only find four teams over the course of a season (out of +500 “teams”; 20 teams x 26 seasons) that have averaged younger, so this team is younger than 99% of Premier League teams seen across full seasons since 1992. (As an aside here, Newcastle were 2nd-youngest this season, at 24.4.)
You can also add to this list my confidence of an expected zip (eZ) about Liverpool today, due to the rest days between games and the role it plays in results, particularly when you don’t have the costliest squad and especially when you play a lot of massive cup games. (People still try to tell me that athletes should have no variation in energy levels if they are professionals, which is utter crud – brain-turds, shat from brain-anuses.)
The point about Solanke was admittedly not through my own research, but via Daniel Rhodes on this site and Ted Knutsen on Twitter. I finally gave up my recent return to Twitter after all the negativity towards Solanke (and more bizarrely, Jürgen Klopp) from the unbearably extremist and noisy online Liverpool fans last week, and towards me for talking about “underlying numbers” (as if doing positive attacking things in games – which can be quantified – counts for nothing if it doesn’t lead to actual goals. Well, if you do those same good things every game you will eventually get goals. That’s the whole point of underlying numbers).
So, let’s look at data vs emotion, and how, actually, data – if mined properly and used sensibly – can show you all the things that, on their own, add up to nothing. Such as, for example, referees not blowing their whistle based on what they see – which can be shown clearly in video evidence – but on what they are under pressure to do (i.e. not be biased towards the Kop, so a bias to counter perceived bias), and we can see from the aerial-duel data that height really does matter.
You can improve jumping technique and your timing, but Virgil van Dijk hasn’t strengthened Liverpool’s defence by being 5’8″. He’s a wonderful player, but he’s also a fucking giant, and the two are connected. When I looked at aerial win-rates in relation to height – when assessing the squad of shorter players Klopp inherited, and comparing against every single Premier League player – the taller the player, the better, on average, his aerial duel success rate. I got a lot of stick for it, because apparently Tim Cahill was quite good at jumping, etc., etc., but it’s in the data. (Tim Cahill wasn’t a centre-back, after all.)
Joel Matip showed that simply being a giant doesn’t automatically mean you win you a ton of headers, but to win a lot of headers you pretty much have to be tall. Peter Crouch is not that great at heading – he has no real neck muscles – but he wins tons and tons of headers because … he’s 6’7″.
And in 2015, Liverpool lacked height as a team. Of course, you can play better football that means you concede fewer chances, but you can’t rely on it when teams throw five giants forward and punt the ball up to them. (Thankfully, the two tallest teams from my 2015/16 study – Stoke and West Brom – have got relegated. And yes, Stoke having a midget or two doesn’t disguise the fact they are, on average, fucking huge.) Liverpool didn’t just lack height in 2015, but also pace. It’s no wonder Klopp has had to rebuild so much of the squad.
Liverpool’s second-best header of the ball this season is Dejan Lovren, winning 3.7 per game in the Premier League and 3.3pg in Europe. Then comes Joel Matip, with 2.3 in the Premier League (and with 2pg in Europe). Emre Can, Bobby Firmino (who has improved in this respect, but is almost 6’0″) and Ragnar Klavan complete the top 10 Liverpool players in aerial duels when each player is looked at on Premier League data and Champions League data separately (so they have two entries apiece), below which everyone is 1.5pg or lower. (The lowest-ranked Liverpool players in terms of total aerial duels won are pretty much all 5’9″ or shorter. Of course, Liverpool didn’t buy Mo Salah to win aerial duels; but van Dijk was clearly bought to do that, amongst other things.)
At the top, ranked #1 and #2, is of course van Dijk, at 5.3 duels won per game in the league and 4.2 in Europe. The Dutchman, at 6’4″, is winning 43% more aerial duels per game than the Reds’ next-best header of a ball, with Lovren – who can clearly technically head it well (see his goal today) standing 6’2″.
Also, notice how the Premier League involves significantly more aerial duels per game. This, along with European referees being less obsessed with giving Liverpool zero penalties at Anfield (again, watch back the whole season), can in part explain why the Reds have absolutely excelled in Europe under Klopp (two finals in two seasons) and merely been very good domestically this time around; although again, there’s the data that shows that doing both simultaneously is really, really hard.
City were deservedly record-breaking in the Premier League, but unremarkable in Europe, at least when meeting Liverpool. You can’t have it all, but Klopp has now posted 75 points or more in both his full seasons in the league (which Liverpool have done only once before since the halcyon days of the 1980s), and two cup finals in both his seasons in Europe.
On TTT we will of course be doing plenty of roundups of the season, but there’s still the biggest European game since 2005 (with 2007 less important, given the recency of 2005). Like 2005, this one comes at after years of serious-trophy famine, but with a world-class manager starting to make his mark at the club.
However, I’ll share a few more thoughts on the achievements of 2017/18 so far in the remainder of this article, before we all start preparing for our coverage of the Champions League final and the road to Kyiv (plenty of subscribers are going over there, and planning to report back).
The rest of this article is for subscribers only. Fuck yeah!