The Biggest Issue Facing Liverpool FC – An Alternative Free Friday

The Biggest Issue Facing Liverpool FC – An Alternative Free Friday
February 26, 2021 Paul Tomkins


Due to several injuries to the centre-backs at TTT Towers (including our reserve centre-backs, who were de facto central midfielders with the attributes to be top centre-backs), there is no normal Free Friday this week.

(This article will also be available via our Substack-based email newsletter.)

We were also planning to use this week to focus on the officiating issues in a big one-off piece, having looked at the other Black Swan issues last week. But as hinted at, this week hasn’t gone to plan. Most of that piece is written, and the video collated, but there are so many issues to focus on, so we’d rather take our time and get it right.

(We’ll be slowing down on the free articles too, once we’ve released that. They don’t pay the bills.)

While Liverpool are having the opposite kind of results in 2020/21, and especially in this calendar year, I think the reasons behind the success that I outlined in both “Mentality Monsters” (2019) and “Perched” (2020) are actually enlightening examples of what the club has lacked this season, via the unprecedented injury crisis and the absence of an ultra-fitness regime due to no proper preseason because of the pandemic (and which has been compounded by terrible officiating; the Reds have been cost more points than any other clubs by tight calls – including wrong calls – and while you can say that’s just bad luck, it is bad luck that’s also heavily affected many results, as so many of the decisions were super-tight calls in super-tight games, that if given the other way would likely reverse the result, too. But that’ll be looked at in the aforementioned big officiating study).

The decisions any manager makes will backfire at times: no one makes the correct judgement call every time unless they are working only with hindsight; and whatever decisions a manager makes will succeed and fail on things like whether or not the strikers take their chances. But when the squad is so stretched, it’s difficult to produce the very things that made Liverpool such an outstanding team from 2018 to 2020. If you take almost all of the outstanding qualities out of a team, you have a team that is no longer outstanding. It should be logical. No one can have outstanding qualities in reserve, and even if you have four outstanding centre-back options, as Liverpool did, it’s not much help if they are all injured.

In “Mentality Monsters” I analysed in depth, and praised, the transfers that were undertaken up to 2018 to solve specific weaknesses from when Jürgen Klopp took charge: things I’d been talking about being in need of addressing way back in 2015, before he arrived: lack of pace, lack of goals, ineffectiveness at set-pieces (at both ends) due to a lack of height and power, lack of defensive authority, and goalkeeping weaknesses.

While signing players like Sadio Mané and Mo Salah addressed the issues of pace and goals – and did so with a value for money that remains staggering – the signings of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Fabinho and Alisson gave Liverpool a platform of 6’3″-6’5″ players in the defensive diamond (GK-CB-CB-DM), that could dip slightly to the range of 6’2″-6’5″ if Joe Gomez, maturing as a young defender, played instead (and a lot more pace was added in compensation for the small reduction in height). People focus on different members of this quartet of signings, but all were vital in their own way. Each added a new dimension, and some, like van Dijk, added several dimensions. Alisson, though off form in 2021 and now facing up to personal tragedy, had been a rock since he arrived.

At left-back, and not part of this defensive diamond, Andy Robertson – as well as his other qualities – was still a three-inch upgrade on Alberto Moreno (who had the worst aerial duel success rate for the defender in the league), but a 5’10” defender cannot do much if suddenly he’s one of the tallest players in the team.

A team that averages 5’10” is actually as small as any I have in my database of Premier League teams since 2015, and Liverpool averaged 5’10” in 2015.

After increasing that height with the four big (in every sense) signings, the Reds average 5’10” again right now.

This is not La Liga; the Premier League involves brutal aerial warfare, as Everton showed last week, with a succession of up-and-unders in gale-force winds. (The team Everton fielded was much taller the Reds’. The players they used had an aerial duel success rate in excess of 50% so far this season; the Reds had one that was way down around 35%. That’s a huge difference, and being weak in the air can unsettle a team, as we saw. It’s not rocket science.)

One major thing lacking in the analysis I read elsewhere that is driving me mad – and which was easy enough to find (courtesy of some help from Andrew Beasley) – is how Liverpool have gone from scoring a set-piece goal every three games with the pairing of van Dijk and Matip (and one every four games with just Matip and anyone bar van Dijk) to 1-in-19 in the 19 games the Reds have played without both since August 2018 (most of which have been this season, as van Dijk was a virtual ever-present up to then).

Everyone thinks of those players with their defending, and obviously they are vital; but if anything, their attacking contribution is even greater (compared to the players who have replaced them, and who were largely helping to keep clean sheets until, finally, pretty much everyone ended up injured). Some wise folk have also noted the huge loss of van Dijk’s sumptuous, game-changing passing, and last season he was involved in some way (i.e. at some point in the move) in a staggering half of the Reds’ goals.

Irrespective of the defensive instability with 27 different GK-CB-CB combinations so far this season, these injuries have effectively taken a prolific goalscorer out of the team (a 12th man that represents the sum of excess goals the Reds scored) and replaced “him” with no one. Liverpool’s set-pieces were the actual 12th man. (And of course, what I will now have to renumber as the “13th man” – the Kop – is absent too, where, after three years without a home league defeat, Liverpool, in an empty Anfield, suffered four in a row. This factor is also surely huge, and another reason to look forward to next season.)

If van Dijk and Matip play, and Fabinho also plays in midfield, that not only helps the Reds in their own box, but that’s three big players to mark at the other end, two of whom are very difficult to stop. Jordan Henderson, big and strong, becomes a fourth 6-footer.

If they all play, they score headed goals or make headed assists; or they act as decoys to make room for the smaller guys, who can at that point only be marked by smaller opposition players, to nip in. When none of the big guns play, the set-piece goals absolutely dry up. Roberto Firmino will find less space, at 5’11”, if he’s one of the Reds’ tallest players, than if he’s 5th or 6th tallest.

(Interestingly, the only set-piece goal Liverpool have scored when without both van Dijk and Matip was against Spurs, when Henderson blocked off the runner – which could have been labelled a foul, albeit it would have been in stark contrast to how teams could wrestle van Dijk and Matip each week with impunity when they did play – was from a perfect delivery met perfectly by Firmino, who was standing right next to 6’5″ Rhys Williams.)

Irrespective of tactics, pressing numbers, passing speed, strikers missing a freakish and uncharacteristic percentage of big chances (as shown in this excellent piece), or anything else you may try to weigh up (all of which play a part to varying degrees in this ultra-complex situation), Liverpool have lost the number of set-piece goals that could have earned perhaps 6-9 extra points since Christmas.

Not least as set-piece goals, whilst still relying on “finishing” skills to some degree, are often quick, instinctive, first-time situations close to goal – and not something anyone has any time to overthink (in the way that a striker in on goal from the halfway line, if low on confidence, probably wants a hole to open up and swallow him). Think of how many goals are scored with players’ shoulders, like Henderson’s “header” at Wolves last season, or headers that were never meant to end up quite where intended.

It’s often about a bloody big player who is good at the meeting a well-hit ball, from where it ends in the back of the net; there is often no complicated buildup (although that can win the corner to start with), but just a good delivery and someone meeting it, with the power already “on” the ball. It doesn’t even need to be that clever. This is how Liverpool beat Brighton and Manchester United at home last season, and Chelsea and Aston Villa away.

(The latter was a Mané header, but he found space at the near post as the big guys were being marked in the middle of the area, which allowed the near-post run to pay off.)

These types of situations also opened the scoring at home to Arsenal in a 3-1 win, and away at Leicester in a 4-0 win and Wolves in a 2-1 victory; and helped to beat Leeds at the start of this season.

If the keeper saves, or it hits the woodwork or a defender somehow blocks, someone else might stab it home. This – as part of the chaos and nervousness players like van Dijk and Matip can cause the opposition – is how Liverpool beat Crystal Palace away last season.

All huge goals, and that’s not counting the set-piece goals that put games to bed (to go ahead by three goals or more), or earned points in the Champions League in the previous two seasons (think of them all!); all lacking in 2021, when the Reds have yet to score a single set-piece goal, and it’s nearly March.

There are so many things other than set-piece threat that Liverpool are struggling with, but to me it’s the most quantifiable. It’s why I won’t let it lie.

And since I started analysing the links between height and set-pieces in 2015 (which should be obvious – I found that, on average, aerial success rates increase with every additional inch of height – but which people still ignore because occasionally a smaller player will score a header), Premier League teams seem to have got bigger.

Back then it was West Brom and Watford whose outfield players averaged 6’0″-6’1″. Liverpool were terrible in the air in 2015 as they averaged 5’10”.

Now, as well as Burnley being 6’0″-6’1″, Liverpool have recently faced lineups from Manchester United, Everton and “footballing” Brighton that are as tall as those long-ball teams from six years ago. Brighton had four players who were 6’4″ or over; and one who was 6’7″, whose height created the winning goal. Burnley and Everton caused chaos with launched up-and-unders, winning penalties on the back of that unsettling percentage play.

In the past, Man City had a small defensive diamond; this season it’s two 6’2″ centre-backs and keeper, and a 6’3″ defensive midfielder who has won a ton of headers.

Liverpool were not a “tall” team overall in the previous two seasons (who’d want to sacrifice Salah and Mané for a couple of giants?), but they had an extremely tall defensive diamond, and it also became its set-piece attacking threat.

This is vitally important, as Liverpool have no attacking players who are aerial threats in general (they may score a header from open play if they are in space and the ball is perfect: Mané is great in the air, but not really a set-piece threat if he’s being closely marked by someone who is 6’3″).

As I noted recently, around 25% of Liverpool’s league goals last season came from set-pieces. They scored twenty in total. Right now, pro rata (in games without the big guns), they are on par for two. They’re not even having big chances from corners and wide free-kicks. The delivery has often been good, but a bunch of 5’9″ players stand little chance in a crowded area if everyone on the opposition is over 6’0″ tall, and they have no one to act as decoys.

All of the “bodyguard”/set-piece players, who allowed the team to do its skilful thing (as well as dealing with opposition hoofs), are out injured. These are also the heavy cudgels who turned 20 promising attacking situations – corners and free-kicks, often won with fast moves – into the hammer blows of goals.

I also talked a lot about team stability in those aforementioned books – about the benefits of the shared understanding of a team that has been together for a number of years – and if Ben Davies makes his debut in the coming weeks, this season will have seen the Reds use TEN “new” players in the Premier League this season – players who had never started a league game for the club as recently as eight months ago; as well as the aforementioned 27 combinations of goalkeeper-centre-back-centre-back, that will become 28 combinations this weekend, and likely hit 30 soon (if Alisson is given compassionate leave this weekend for the horror of his father dying in an accident).

In contrast to the teams doing well in the league, Liverpool have given about 2,000 league minutes to players who were rookies going into this campaign; over TEN TIMES the average of teams – City, Leicester, Chelsea and Man United – likeliest to finish in the top four (some of whom, like Chelsea, had high rookie minutes last season: two seasons ago, Mason Mount and Reece James were on loan in the Championship; last season they each played thousands of Premier League and Champions League minutes; this season they are no longer rookies. Before this season, by stark contrast, Curtis Jones had almost no Premier League and Champions League minutes under his belt. Essentially, Jones is having the “senior adaptation” season that Mount and James were allowed last season).

I didn’t check Arsenal’s rookie minutes for 2020/21, but I imagine it’s also very high. They’re mid-table for a reason. Part of that was a choice on their part, but also driven by the fact that the manager didn’t like many of the senior players he inherited last season, and Arsenal have been more strapped for cash in recent times. (I’d expect the various Arsenal youngsters to be better still next season.)

As brilliantly as Curtis Jones and others have often done for Liverpool, they were not supposed to be playing this many minutes. Long term it will do them good, and do the club good. But short term, the team is less experienced, individually and as a collective. (And at times they’ve cost the team points, as happens.)

That’s in addition to the lack of pace (Gomez, van Dijk, Jota), height (van Dijk, Matip, Fabinho and now Henderson), goals (Jota, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain from midfield, and van Dijk and Matip from set-pieces) that the injuries have denied this team.

In other words, a ton of extra dimensions, all of which were lacking back in 2015, and all of which were added as the team improved (and which remain at the club, just currently unavailable).

And that’s before the unquantifiable damage done when Thiago missed three months, and the fact that two months out harmed Kostas Tsimikas’ chances of giving Robertson a rest.

So you can’t really blame the manager or the club for fixing all those problems so superbly well, only to then lose those players to injuries, many of which were freakish collision- or foul-based incidents.

That’s why I keep hammering home the point that this is a Black Swan season, and that – even though the club may look to improve the squad in the summer – the return to fitness of a ton of elite players (and the return from loan of others) will itself be like a £350m spending spree. It’s also why I find making any judgements about this season so unhelpful.

You can’t luckily or accidentally reach two Champions League finals in a row, winning one; and you can’t luckily or accidentally rack up 97 and 99 points in a row – the latter landing the league title quicker than any team in history. But you can have enough accidents and bad luck to take away all your best attributes. The worst luck would be for none of these players to be fit even for next season, but I dare not even contemplate such insane misfortune.