A genuine cause for concern at Liverpool?
One of the more interesting aspects of Liverpool’s recent back-to-back league clashes away from home against both Arsenal and Manchester City was that it provided the perfect opportunity for the side to finally put to bed the statistic that the club hadn’t won a league game against a team in the top ten this season, but after surrendering leads in both games, is it merely some sort of anomaly or a serious problem likely to hold them back? Let’s investigate.
There is a suspicion that the side that manager Brendan Rodgers has assembled are little more than clinical flat-track bullies, because in 14 games this season, the club have only managed to register just one win across all competitions, the 2-1 victory away from home against West Brom in the Capital One Cup, followed up by seven draws and six defeats, having scored 16 goals, conceded 25 and kept just two clean sheets. That just simply isn’t good enough, particularly when all the talk of late has been geared around a late push for a top four place.
Of course, the club’s problem in recent times has been the reverse in that they’ve tripped up against lesser opposition while always putting in excellent performances and securing important results against bigger clubs, certainly under Kenny Dalglish anyway, so some will argue that Liverpool have merely traded off and that in the long run, across an entire campaign, it will make little difference. Obviously, though, the object is to finish as high as possible in the league and while there may be an element of truth to that view, it still doesn’t quite explain why they are yet to secure even a single victory in 13 league outings. That’s enough data to assemble a pattern.
Certain results can be explained away, such as the perfectly legitimate last-minute winner in the Merseyside derby that was disallowed with the scores level at 2-2, or the very difficult fixture list at the start of the campaign, which saw a side still getting to grips with Rodgers methods and style have to play against Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United in their first five games, all at home. That’s last season’s top three, hardly the sort of start to ease your into the job and they were the better side against both Manchester sides for the most part, with the 2-0 home defeat to Arsene Wenger’s outfit one of the only times this term that they’ve been genuinely outclassed over ninety minutes.
During the Arsenal game, Rodgers made up for his mistake against United at Old Trafford and plumped for Jordan Henderson over Joe Allen which resulted in a promising 60-minute showing from the collective and a two-goal lead. However, that shouldn’t detract from the fact that while the hosts were comically bad at the back, they were lively and posed a constant threat going forward and in the end, Liverpool were somewhat fortunate to come away from the Emirates with a point as the tide continued to turn against them.
The performance against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium was an altogether different kettle of fish, though and once again sloppy defensive errors let the side down. The trio of Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel simply haven’t been up to scratch this season, not by their standards, the fans or the club’s and far too many simple, easy goals have been given away by one of them. This time around, as it was Skrtel at Anfield earlier on in the campaign, it was Reina’s turn to have a complete rush of blood to the head and provide Sergio Aguero the opening just moments after Steven Gerrard had put the team ahead.
It was an absolutely brilliant finish, but once again a terrible individual error had directly led to a goal, an avoidable one at that against quality opposition. Unusually, the younger players that Rodgers has trusted this season have rarely let the club down in important games, with the more experienced members of the starting eleven culpable and that’s not something you can really legislate for from a coaching standpoint as you’re left with little alternative but to continue picking them, hoping that they’ll play themselves back into some sort of form.
One reason given for the aforementioned poor form is that Rodgers, while he has shown a knack for changing up systems and personnel during a game, much to his credit, often gets the nature of his starting line-up wrong before kick-off, leaving his side less time to claw back the initiative, but he seemed to get it right from the off against both Arsenal and City this time around.
Liverpool are not the only team to go without a win against top ten opposition this season, lest we forget that Southampton, currently sat in 16th place just three points above the drop zone and having recently changed managers are suffering from the same woe. It’s worth noting that of the four goals scored in the team’s last two games, that only one of them, Daniel Sturridge’s howitzer against City, had more than one pass preceding it. While the lovely passing play may be having an impact on the ebb and flow of a game, it seems that it’s not directly leading to the team scoring goals or posing a consistent attacking threat in the final third, where moves are breaking down a little too often.
The side currently has the third-highest average possession (58%) in the league this season and are also third when it comes to teams winning the ball from the opposition inside their own half (84), while boasting the fourth-best pass completion rate (85%).
Interestingly according to WhoScored, against the nine teams other than themselves in the top ten, the longest series of passes they have registered directly in the lead up to a goal is four, which came during the own goal against Everton from Leighton Baines, one that will hardly go down as a classic, more of a goalmouth scramble from a decent cross. The side have also scored the joint- highest in the league of goals from outside the box, matching Chelsea’s tally of nine, beating their total of seven last term already. The flowing football just isn’t working against the better teams.
Aside from my slavish devotion to statistics, the major point to extrapolate from the problem that the club is having against better opposition is that this is still a side in transition, still adapting to the new man at the helm and his style of play. Certain games should have rendered better results by now given the performances on show, but with the club still sat nine points off the top four and on target for the top eight finish they desired at the beginning of the campaign, it appears they are achieving in spite of this drawback.
Of the club’s remaining 13 league games this season, five of them are against teams currently in the top ten – West Brom, Swansea, Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton, with 11th placed West Ham also on the list – but what is truly revealing is that all six of those games are at Anfield. That tells us two things, firstly that Rodgers has already been to the majority of the club’s tough away trips this term and that secondly, he had a pretty tough fixture list to begin with so early into his tenure.
It’s something to improve on, sure, and it must be slightly concerning to Rodgers from a mental perspective if it carries on for much longer, but with West Brom next up at Anfield and in a slump of their own, with Swansea to follow shortly after, it might not be too long before we can put this particular stat to bed.