Stats suggest teams have a new way of playing against Liverpool and the Reds are struggling with it. Where does Jurgen Klopp go from here?
Liverpool have one of the best presses in world football. Maybe the outright best. Their forwards and midfield are elite when it comes to squeezing other teams and forcing poor passes.
So how do you beat that? Well, you learn to play without passing from your defenders. And stats suggest teams are doing just that against Liverpool.
Change of plans
Liverpool lost 3-1 away at Leicester City on Saturday. That is in stark contrast to the 3-0 home win against them back in November.
So what changed? Well, plainly, Liverpool aren’t as good. They have now lost three back-to-back games, after all.
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Importantly, though, those three games came against teams Liverpool have already played. And their first meetings tell us a lot.
Take the win over Leicester. In that game, Leicester cleared the ball 19 times. Their centre-back trio attempted 48, 62 and 27 passes each.
Compare that to Saturday’s defeat. Leicester, despite playing at home, cleared the ball 38 times – a 100% increase. Their centre-back pairing attempted 37 and 39 passes each – a big drop.
And guess what? This is a pattern.
Back in November, Liverpool drew 1-1 away at Manchester City. City attempted 20 clearances in that game, with their centre-backs attempting 85 and 79 passes respectively.
Liverpool played well in a strange, tired game. It was a well-earned point.
Last week, though, Liverpool lost 4-1 at Anfield. City’s clearances didn’t see a major jump (up to 24) but their centre-backs passed far less – 60 and 62 respectively.
Before that, came Brighton.
November’s 1-1 draw was not a good Liverpool performance. Still, Brighton ‘took the game’ to the Reds. They hoofed it clear 14 times – one fewer than Liverpool’s 15.
Their centre-back trio attempted 43, 47 and 49 passes out.
Then there’s the 1-0 defeat to Brighton at Anfield. The Seagull’s cleared it 29 times – over 100% more – and lowered their passing to 39, 41, 39.
There are another couple of poor results we can look at in 2021 that show off this pattern – defeats to Southampton and Burnley.
Liverpool lost 1-0 at the Saints’ place. In that game, Southampton kicked it clear 43 times. For some perspective on that, we give you this – their average this season is 16. Their home average is 14.
How about the passing stats, then? Well their centre-back pairing that day was Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek. Their average number of passes this season are 60 and 63, respectively.
Against Liverpool that day? 43 and 30. They just kicked it over the press.
Tellingly, Liverpool lost to Burnley at home, too – a team who didn’t have to stray far from their usual gameplan.
Liverpool lost 1-0 in a game where Burnley cleared it 52 times. Their centre-backs attempted 40 passes – combined.
Two results really stand out in 2021 – 3-1 against West Ham and 3-1 against Tottenham. In other words, Liverpool’s only wins.
Here’s how the stats look for those.
West Ham treated the Liverpool game like one they could win. They only tried 12 clearances, for instance, and their defenders tried 46 and 36 passes each.
And Liverpool won fairly comfortably.
Spurs – a Jose Mourinho side – treated Liverpool the same. They tried just 18 clearances, two fewer than Pep Guardiola’s City back in November.
They had three centre-backs, too, and tried 53, 82 and 56 passes each.
And Liverpool won fairly comfortably.
What to do?
Firstly, this explains a lot. The stats explain how Liverpool can have the best record in the top 8 ‘mini-league’ and still struggle as they are.
When good teams try to play good football, Liverpool beat them. When you play percentages and kick it long, they struggle.
And there could be a few things at play here. For instance, Liverpool don’t have synergy in midfield and that might mean worse chances. If teams know the Reds struggle to build attacks, kicking it long and asking them to start again makes sense.
If we had to guess, though, it’s something else. The weakest part of the Liverpool side right now is the defence. No Virgil van Dijk or Joe Gomez makes a huge difference.
Thus kicking it long to immediately put pressure on the make-shift defence works. It’s a great strategy, quickly asking questions with little fuss.
Because it’s not like the press is just worse – we’d see a jump in passing numbers if that were the case as Liverpool struggled to stop building out from the back. Instead, there’s a drop. The stats show teams aren’t trying to pass out against Liverpool anymore.
We’re not sure how Klopp fixes this. Perhaps he needs to drop his defensive line and ease up on the press? Force teams to try and pass out.
But then the team loses its entire identity. There’s no easy answer here but, clearly, Liverpool need to try something.