In both appearance and playing style, Jonathan Walters is anything but a beautiful footballer. And yet, there is something so prettily poetic in a wide forward rarely revered for his technical quality being Stoke City’s Premier League top scorer against a club as famed for their attacking verve as Liverpool.
Indeed, from the Reds and the Potters’ 18 top flight meetings during the last 25 years, no one has bettered the Irishman’s seven goals, a return accumulated in just 13 appearances.
In fact, the now-Burnley man’s tally for Stoke was almost twice that of the next-top scorer in the fixture, Daniel Sturridge.
And while that owes much to Walters’ longevity at the Bet365 Stadium, spending more seasons at Stoke than many of his attacking counterparts, including Sturridge, have at Liverpool, that would be to ignore the calibre of forwards the Reds have boasted during that time, their potency against other teams and the polarising resources and objectives of the two clubs – one amongst the greatest in the history of English football, the other only first featuring in the Premier League in 2008/09.
To put the significance of Walters’ return against Liverpool into perspective, 16% of all of his top-flight goals have come versus the Anfield outfit.
And yet, in many ways, perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Walters may not be a glamorous attacking player but he’s certainly an effective one, averaging six goals per Premier League season during his time with the Potters, and that simplistic orthodoxy, that impeccable industriousness to compensate for limited natural flair and that robust physicality combines to encompass Liverpool’s longest-serving weakness; the failure to overcome well-organised, direct and gritty teams who, like Walters, do the simple things well.
Of course, such declarations are nothing new and the trend has existed practically since Rafa Benitez parted company with the Reds in 2010. But even this season, we’ve seen evidence of it continuing; Liverpool have conceded the most goals from set pieces of any big-six team, while the average possession of non-top-six opposition during matches in which Liverpool have conceded this season is just 40%.
Likewise, the calibre of forward to score against them falls into a similar bracket as Walters, not necessarily the most talented but for one reason or another still effective; Newcastle’s Joselu, Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and Watford’s Stefano Okaka. They’re all aggressive and physically imposing players who flourish from a shared brand of simplistic service.
The good news for Liverpool heading into their midweek meeting with Stoke is that the tradition of the Potters being their bogey side has steadily seeped out of existence. The exception being the infamous 6-1 at the end of the 2014/15 season, Liverpool boast seven wins out of eight against Stoke, including three wins away from home – that’s a far cry from the two wins, three defeats and five draws during their first 10 Premier League encounters with the Potters.
Similarly, Walters now plies his trade elsewhere, joining Sean Dyche’s ranks during the summer, and under Mark Hughes, Stoke are no longer the fearsome physical outfit of yesteryear. But if there’s one player who can reignite that trend for the Potters this Wednesday, it’s a former Red – Peter Crouch. Enjoying another Indian summer at the age of 36, only Alvaro Morata has scored more headed goals than Stoke’s veteran front-man this season.
Tellingly of how important that aerial threat could be, no big-six side has conceded more headers than Liverpool this season, and headers were responsible for three of Walters’ seven against the Merseysiders.