After seven games, the Premier League has started to take shape. There are one or two anomalies which are likely to be evened out before the end of the season, but for the most part, the early season form will define who struggles and who doesn’t. After all, we’re about a fifth of the way through the season by now.
It’s early days, but not too early to make tentative judgements, in other words. And when you look at the Premier League’s top six, you’ll see a familiar sight. All of last season’s top six are already there. Apart from one name: Liverpool.
In some ways, it’s harsh to mention Jurgen Klopp’s team like that. They do, indeed, sit seventh, but only on goal difference behind Burnley. And if Liverpool hadn’t collapsed quite so heavily at the Etihad Stadium after the controversial sending off of Sadio Mane, they’d be in the top six. Small margins make the difference when there are six top teams fighting for one title and four Champions League spots, though. And it’s the marginal battles that Liverpool seem to keep losing.
This season, the expected goals (xG) metric has started to come into mainstream fashion. It’s not a perfect metric by which to understand the game, and it should be taken as a stat, not a system, much in the same way you might talk about possession or passing stats. It gives you a clue as to how the game went, but not a whole lot more than that. It also has some obvious drawbacks at present – which may be ironed out in the future – such as taking into account the players the chances fall to. For example, you’d imagine Daniel Sturridge would be more likely to score a given chance than Joel Matip would, and therefore his xG score would be higher.
We also need to account for the fact that football is too complex to be reduced to a stats game – luck, form, and plenty of other things are thrown into the mix, too. The best fitting cliche certainly isn’t a new-one. Games aren’t played on paper, and that’s a cliche for a reason.
xG map for Newcastle – Liverpool. As usual there were chances for Liverpool to win, but this wasn't wild dominance either. pic.twitter.com/vDact5jtaP
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) October 1, 2017
But against Newcastle, as for much of the season, Liverpool’s expected goals tally shows quite clearly where the problems are. At the weekend, on the xG metric, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Liverpool should have been expected to win the game 2-0. And indeed, it’s clear that Klopp’s team have difficulties both taking the chances they create and stopping the opposition from scoring, even when they don’t create much in the game.
You don’t need to delve deeply into stats to see that, nor do you have to be a genius, to understand why it’s bad. Liverpool have by far and away the worst goals against record in the top seven. Yes, they conceded five against Manchester City, but Arsenal conceded four at Anfield and have still managed to concede four fewer than Liverpool’s tally of 12 so far this season. Klopp’s defence have conceded six time as many goals as the two Manchester clubs currently topping the table, and have also let in more goals than Swansea and Bournemouth, who are in the relegation places. Only West Ham and Crystal Palace have conceded more goals than the Reds. Despite all of Merseyside rivals Everton’s problems, Liverpool have conceded exactly the same tally so far.
It’s true that conceding fewer goals makes it easier to win games – keep a clean sheet and you only need to fluke one – but it’s not impossible to concede plenty and still rack up the points. Liverpool fans don’t need to look a long way into their history to remember a time when they witnessed that first hand. Under Brendan Rodgers in 2014/15, when they came second, they conceded 50 league goals. Chelsea, two points below them, conceded just 27.
But that season, Rodgers’ side scored 101 goals, bettered only by Manchester City’s 102 in a season of incredible goalscoring prowess.
That’s not something Klopp’s Liverpool look capable of achieving this season. Although they’re conceding at a rate which, if continued, would see them concede over 60 goals, you’d expect that won’t quite be the tally they end up with. But the main problem is the fact, they’re not on course to score many more than that.
And yet, they’re creating the chances. From open play this season, Liverpool have had 112 shots and scored 11 goals. Now, that might not tell you very much about the actual quality of the shots themselves; whether they were from long range or whether they were tap-ins, but we do know that 60% of Liverpool’s shots this season have been from inside the box. Whatever the truth about the quality of the chances they’ve created, they’ve scored only about one goal from every ten shots they’ve taken.
Contrast that with their performance at the other end: from open play, Liverpool have allowed the opposition to take just 40 shots this season – only Manchester City have allowed fewer on their goal – and yet they’ve conceded nine goals already. That means one in every four shots the opposition has, they’ve scored.
That’s just from open play of course. But one of the most debated features of Liverpool’s play has been how they defend set pieces. Indeed, the three other goals they’ve conceded this season have come from corners.
There are plenty of theories floating around as to why these problems have arisen for Klopp this season, and there’s no point in advancing any more. Anything from poor organisation to basic mistakes, from the manager’s inability to turn around a defence which has been porous for years to a lack of signings to address the problem in the transfer market. All of these things are probably true to a degree.
And yet, although there has been criticism for a lack of finishing, it does seem like Liverpool’s defence has been taking more of the flak than the attackers. And as we know from Brendan Rodgers’ nearly-season, all of the defensive problems Jurgen Klopp faces could be swept under the carpet quite nicely for a little while if his attackers could only finish chances.
Clearly, conceding nine times from 40 shots in open play is a stat which points to a problem that must be solved in the long term. But it’s the other stat, the fact that Liverpool have only managed to score 11 goals from 112 shots, that seems the most worrying right now.