Liverpool’s attack has been phenomenal this season, outscoring the rest of the Premier League—but the defence has been somewhat less impressive at times. A clean sheet against Southampton of late was more than welcome, but question marks still linger over why, and how, the Reds are conceding so many chances.
The Liverpool Word are delighted to bring Hari Sethi (@Hari_Sethi) on board, as he takes an analytical view on where the Reds have been going wrong defensively.
Given the fact that 2014 has seen Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side take 20 from a possible 24, scoring 26 goals in the process (a rate of 3.25 gpg) it’s hard not to get excited by what is now officially the Reds’ strongest league campaign for two long decades.
Yet whilst the inexorable duo of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have continued to delight, their defensive counterparts have at times, terrified. With Simon Mignolet having made a dozen trips to retrieve the ball from the back of his net this year, Liverpool’s high scoring attack isn’t just a pleasant extravagance but a genuine necessity.
Though Rodgers has attempted to rectify his team’s issues—experimenting with an injury enforced 3-5-2 formation earlier in the campaign and trying an array of different centre back partnerships—the Northern Irishman has yet to find a solution to Liverpool’s persistent defensive headache.
Last Sunday’s maddening home victory against Swansea means that Liverpool have now conceded 35 goals this season, managing only eight clean sheets in the process (including the latest at Southampton) and yet, as if to emphasise the dizzying nature of the league, they somehow remain just four points off the top.
Following the Swansea match, debate raged online as to whether Liverpool’s defensive woes are a result of specific individuals making regular gaffes or if the very system that has enabled Rodgers’ side to be so prolific in front of goal, is what makes them so vulnerable to conceding.
With the night terrors following Kolo Touré’s recent comedy own goals still fresh in mind, I decided to embark upon a journey of footballing sadism, revisiting all of the goals Liverpool’s porous defence have conceded this year in an attempt to determine exactly who was responsible.
In order to conduct a thorough study into what led to a specific goal I decided to create three culpability categories:
Systematic issues – Where the formation and tactics employed led to the defence being exposed or more vulnerable to dangerous situations.
Individual errors – Divided into both positional (off the ball) and technical (on the ball) mistakes from defenders.
Midfield inadequacy – Identifying when mistakes from the midfield in the first phase of play led to the defence being exposed and a goal conceded. Looking at both the double and single pivots Rodgers’ has employed this season.
Using these categories I analysed all 35 goals Liverpool have conceded this year, albeit in an extremely critical manner and then attempted to allocate blame accordingly. Before conveying my results I must stress that such an analysis requires a great deal of subjectivity; what some people adjudge to be errors others may not, but with the help of a few others I’ve attempted to be as objective as possible.
Rather than reproducing a dossier of analysis on all 35 goals (one that currently exists in my notebook, resembling the frenzied hieroglyphics of a madman) I’ll instead provide an example of my analysis on two random goals in an attempt to convey how I apportioned blame.
MCFC 2- 1 LFC (December 26th 2013)
Vincent Kompany goal (30 mins)
As the corner is delivered we can see that Škrtel has allowed Kompany in front of him and seems more concerned with grappling than attempting to attack the ball.
From positioning himself behind Kompany, Škrtel has made it even harder for him to fulfil his defensive responsibilities in clearing the ball, meaning he would have had to climb on top of the City captain just to make an effective defensive header.
For this goal Škrtel is clearly guilty of an individual positional error in his approach to defending the corner; yes analysing mistakes from a set piece is much easier than from open play, but the choice was entirely random. Onto the next one.
Swansea 2 – 2 LFC ( 16th September 2013)
Michu Goal (64 mins)
As evidenced to great effect last Sunday afternoon, Wilfried Bony comes short to receive a pass from Shelvey, tempting Sakho to push up in an attempt to press the Ivorian striker.
(It’s worth noting that the space for Bony to receive the pass only exists because the double pivot, or Lucas and Gerrard, haven’t kept their positional discipline.)
As Shelvey arrives in the space left by Sakho, Škrtel attempts to cover yet this only leaves more space for the on rushing Michu to exploit once Shelvey finds him with a cushioned header. Michu scores.
Although not as simple as Kompany’s headed goal, blame is just as easy to apportion here if one takes a critical approach. In the first phase of play the midfield double pivot of Lucas and Gerrard are culpable for leaving the space Bony drops into when receiving Shelvey’s pass, Sakho is also culpable for the goal as his decision to push up has forced Škrtel to cover for him and created space for Shelvey to exploit.
As neither Gerrard nor Lucas attempt to track Shelvey’s run from midfield they’re also culpable for the eventual concession of a goal. Therefore, in this example I apportioned blame for the goal to Sakho for an individual positional error and the midfield double pivot for twice neglecting their responsibilities.
Taking the same critical approach I analysed all 35 goals Liverpool conceded and recorded the following results. Beware…it’s stats time.
35 Goals conceded: – 26 individual errors leading to goals. (74%)
– 14 positional errors
– 12 technical errors
Number of individual errors committed Away from home = 16
Number of individual errors committed at Home = 10
Most common culprits: Škrtel – 9 individual errors leading to goals
Touré – 5 individual errors leading to goals
Johnson – 4 individual errors leading to goals.
Cases of midfield inadequacies leading to goals = 15
Goals conceded when LFC employed a double pivot = 8
Goals conceded when LFC employed a single pivot/DLP = 7 (SG =5 LL =2)
Goals conceded when playing 3-5-2 = 8
Goals conceded when playing 4-3-3 /4-2-3-1/4-1-2-3 = 27
When interpreting the results it becomes clear that no matter the defensive combination Liverpool have continued to leak goals from a high number of basic individual errors. Škrtel appears to be the main culprit and although some will rush to state that he’s played the most games for Rodgers’ side this season, the positional nature of many of his mistakes convey a player still greatly uncomfortable with many of the duties he’s required to perform.
Though one could easily compose an article denouncing the different defenders the club currently has at its disposal, such a focus would be missing the point. From the analysis I’ve done I’d argue that the defenders Liverpool have simply aren’t appropriate for the demands of the system Rodgers’ side is currently utilising.
Whilst lapses in concentration and poor organisation from set pieces can be blamed on coaching to a degree, ultimately the poor decisions of a number of individuals is what’s currently costing Liverpool an even stronger title challenge.
Under Rodgers, Liverpool have rarely employed a high defensive line and though this could be explained by certain personnel being uncomfortable dealing with pace in behind, it’s also largely down to a lack of faith in the midfielders they have to protect them.
Earlier in the season the double pivot of Lucas and Gerrard was subject to much opprobrium amongst fans, with many arguing that their lack of mobility, energy and positional discipline meant playing them together left the team vulnerable to the counter.
Interestingly, when either player has been absent through injury Rodgers has experimented with more combative midfield combinations, with players such as Allen, Henderson and Coutinho contributing strong defensive and offensive performances for the team. Since Gerrard’s return Rodgers deviated from the system that proved so effective against Tottenham, City and (to a lesser extent) Chelsea for one that whilst more productive offensively, isn’t as compact defensively. (Since Rodgers has used a midfield three of Henderson, Coutinho and Gerrard Liverpool have conceded nine goals in six games.)
In the 5-1 demolition of Arsenal, Liverpool worked like dogs in their pressing of the opposition, yet such levels don’t appear to be sustainable on a weekly basis and merely mask the true defensive problems in the side.
Though Gerrard’s distribution of the ball has been impressive since his transition to a deep lying playmaker and his defensive contribution improved, he still lacks the positional sense of a true defensive midfielder. In games where Gerrard is left isolated (Swansea and Villa at Anfield) by the shape of Rodgers’ side and the attacking proclivity of those in front of him, Liverpool’s defence becomes more exposed than ever to 1-vs-1 situations.
This increase in such situations has led to a high number of individual errors from players who seem to lack the composure to cope in such a system.
Following the reds’ 4-3 victory over Swansea, Rodgers acknowledged the need to improve his defence implying that individual mistakes were the core of Liverpool’s current problem.
Some of the ways we concede goals, you can’t coach that. When you’re in the game there’s an instinctive feel of how to defend and you have to use that experience to defend well. We’re always aggressive in the way we press to win the ball back, but we concede really poor goals.
Though injuries haven’t been kind to Rodgers, with both his left sided centre backs victims of lengthy injuries; the return of the £17m summer signing could enable him to paper over the cracks for the remainder of the season.
During his spell in the side Mahmadou Sakho proved that his physical presence and composed passing could well be the way forward for Rodgers’ team, winning 69% of his tackles and making just two errors this campaign. His return from injury may well prove essential in plugging up the reds’ leaky defence.
Rodgers should also contemplate reintroducing the much-maligned Aly Cissokho. Though the Frenchman lacks the attacking ability of an in form Jose Enrique or Johnson (both of which have rarely been seen this season) his defensive contribution whilst in the side has been quietly impressive, with Cissokho’s physical presence and tight marking to prevent crosses both worthy qualities to have in his side for the defining 10 games of Liverpool’s season.
From analysing all 35 goals the Anfield outfit have conceded this season, it becomes clear that Liverpool’s issues at the back won’t truly be resolved till the coordination between the midfield and defence is improved and more appropriate personnel brought in.
A few more clean sheets like that at Southampton though could go a long way toward shaping the end of Liverpool’s season.