I’VE had a tweet saved up for ages to basically troll people. Given our supposed inability to defend, both from open play and set-pieces, I was going to suggest that Jürgen Klopp do what people suggested Brendan Rodgers should have and get himself a defensive coach. But we’ve been defending reasonably well for a few weeks now, even to the point Loris Karius gives mad corners away ‘cause he’s a bit bored.
Rodgers, by the way, does he suffer from not being foreign a little? I was talking with Neil at the weekend and he made a very valid point that if he had some fancy sounding name and a career at second rate clubs on the continent, people would look at his all-out attacking football and think he was some mad attacking genius.
Marcelo Bielsa, for example. Everyone thinks he’s great. Everyone thinks Rodgers is a joke. Their mad approach to football is pretty similar.
Anyway, back to the Reds and a quite remarkable transformation in defensive terms. Well, I say it’s quite the transformation, but more on that later. Last season Liverpool conceded 50 league goals from 133 shots on target, which is a frankly embarrassing statistic. A goal conceded every 2.66 shots on target.
Yes, Liverpool conceded a shot less than every third shot on target. It’s easy to blame a variety of things for this, and the obvious one is to target Simon Mignolet. While I think this is a little unfair, he was left exposed time and time again and while you weren’t watching goals thinking he should have saved them, there were goals where a top level goalkeeper should be doing better.
Last season the Reds had the fourth most miserly defence in terms of shots on target. Yet we had the eighth best defensive record. Spurs conceded every 3.45 shots on target, Manchester United every 3.5, Manchester City 3.04, and champions Leicester around one every 3.97. By my maths, on this metric only Bournemouth and Aston Villa were worse than us last season.
It’s a problem that obviously needs to change. Last season I don’t remember Mignolet pulling off dozens of saves and handling anything that’s thrown at him, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that Loris Karius is doing the same this season. Yes, there were two instances on Saturday where he was around the feet of attackers stifling things, and on the ball he’s better, but making strings of saves to win games? I’m not sure.
This feels like a way of crabbing Karius, and it isn’t. I like the look of him and feel pretty positive in that we could be sorted for a goalkeeper for a long time. And by a long time I just had a look how long Manuel Neuer has left at Bayern. Thankfully he’s only thirty. Postpone that concern until 2023 or so.
I’ve had a look at this season’s numbers. Our defence is now recognized as being pretty decent. Well, here’s a shock for you – the number at present is 2.78, which isn’t much higher than 2.66, is it? Liverpool, shock horror.
It is a small sample, however, with only 13 games and you’d be right to want to rip this statistic apart when you discover that Burnley actually weigh at the top of the table with a staggering rate of 4.19. Nobody else in the league is above 3.55 yet Burnley sit there with 4.19. Tom Heaton, judging by that, should be in the running for player of the year if Burnley a) maintain that and b) stay up. I suspect it is unsustainable and they’ll end up coming 19th, but for now? Well in, Tom Heaton.
What do we determine from this? Well, at present you can argue that the defence isn’t actually giving up that many chances. As BassTunedToRed pointed out on Twitter the other day, Liverpool top the shots conceded per game table in all of the top European leagues.
In terms of opposition shots allowed, Liverpool currently have the best defence in Europe's big five leagues. pic.twitter.com/OG3JQRM61M
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) November 27, 2016
If you watch us, I think it’s easy to see why we have seen a change this summer in terms of the number of goals conceded. Back to back clean sheets have got us to roughly a goal a game (38 a season which is a clear improvement on 50). Our formation has changed ever so slightly, the full-backs get higher, Jordan Henderson has got deeper to dictate tempo and, while it’s an attitude thing rather than a formation thing, the defenders play on the front foot.
Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren are both more than happy to get on the front foot and intercept balls high up the pitch and as a result you see teams getting deeper and deeper. Mamadou Sakho, who I’ll be honest I like, was a back foot defender who was happy to stand off and let players get closer to goal. The longer they have the ball, the longer they are able to get men over, the easier it is for them to get close to the goal of a team who doesn’t really have full-backs but has wing-backs. We leave lots of space at the back, but we’re better equipped this season at preventing teams from filling it simply by having the ball in their half more.
Jermain Defoe claimed on Goals on Sunday that he was doing a job on Henderson, who is generally Liverpool’s third deepest lying player. Go and have a look at his heat map and see where he has ‘heat’. It’s far deeper than you’d ever think that a striker who’s spent his career on the boundary between offside and onside would be.
I would suggest if someone wanted to look further into this, but I’m not going to because I don’t have the wherewithal, that the average position that shots are taken is further away from our goal than it was last season. I think teams get near our goal and they’re so happy that they’ve got the ball near our goal that they have a shot and hope for the best. The high pressing that pushes them to physical despair also pushes them to panic. If someone wants to disprove this then crack on, I’d genuinely like to know.
The other thing that I found interesting was a graphic from the Times. Apparently, we aren’t actually that bad at defending set-pieces, lads, four goals conceded this season.
— Times Sport (@TimesSport) November 29, 2016
Manchester City are on there. So are Chelsea.
Shot stopping is an important thing for a goalkeeper to be good at, but stopping shots as a side is much more important. And that appears to be a genuine strength of this Liverpool side. I don’t want to sit here and declare us brilliant as a defensive side as the season is simply too young, any statistic can go both ways. We could give up more shots and see our goalkeeper make more saves – the alternative is also possible.
Debate the whys and wherefores of this defence all you want, but we’re only behind Real Madrid at the other end of the pitch. Maybe, for all the crowing about the defence it just isn’t that important if you’re really good going forward.