Despite several notable European Cup successes, the most recent being the Champions League trophy and UEFA Super Cup (both in 2005), domestic success continues to elude the Reds–they haven’t won the Premier League since 1990.
That huge drought has seen Liverpool ‘knocked off their perch’ by an inspired Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team. Last season’s league victory saw United go a step ahead of Liverpool, winning 19 titles compared to Liverpool’s 18. The minute King Kenny retook his throne, the fans began dreaming of reclaiming the iconic status and the ‘perch’ they firmly believed to be theirs.
However, a rudely awakening pinch and a quick wiping of the eyes alert Liverpool fans to a reality that cruelly awaits them. 110 million pounds of investment later, the Reds find themselves in 7th place, 21 points off leaders Manchester City and have taken a mediocre 10 points from the last 27 available. Sounds worrying for a club of Liverpool’s stature, doesn’t it?
On the bright side, they are one of only two teams who are undefeated at home–Manchester City are the other team–and they have the second best defence in the league, conceding 23 goals compared to the league’s best–Manchester City (19). They have also lost just 6 times in 25 games; only Manchester City, Manchester United (both 3), and Spurs (4) have lost less games. So, to the untrained eye, things seem to be going pretty well for Liverpool. What’s the problem, then? If they’re so strong defensively, what’s to blame for their current position in the table?
What did Liverpool’s frontline forget? Well, they’ve forgotten how to score. Liverpool have tucked away a head-scratching total of 29 goals; they’ve scored 14 at home and 15 away. How dismal a total is this? Well, in addition to being outscored by all 6 teams above them in the table, relegation-threatened Blackburn have scored 9 more than Liverpool. Wait, there’s more: Norwich, who are placed directly below them in the standings, have scored 8 more. There’s even more: Sunderland (9th) and Fulham (12th) have scored more than Liverpool–5 and 2, respectively. Additionally, West Brom (14th), Aston Villa (15th) and Bolton (19th) have all scored as many as Liverpool.
Do these alarming statistics indicate a lack of created chances? No, it doesn’t. Liverpool have actually created many chances. The problem has been their finishing, or, their lack of it. How bad is it? Liverpool are THE worst finishers in the league with a chance conversion rate of 6.4%. The league’s best finishers are Manchester City with 14.2%.
Breaking this down a bit more: Andy Carroll’s 3 league goals this season scored in 53 shots* works out to a chance conversion rate of 5.7%. Before his big money move from Newcastle, Carroll’s 11 league goals in 75 shots worked out to a rate of 14.7%. After he transferred, his 2 league goals for Liverpool at the tail end of last season in 16 shots worked out to a rate of 12.5%. So, there has been an obvious decrease in his productivity. Compare Carroll with Demba Ba who’s the league’s best finisher this season with a rate of 23.2% (16 goals in 69 shots) and you can begin to see why Liverpool have been sparing the score-sheet.
It’s not all Carroll’s fault, though. Liverpool have not adopted a style of play that accommodates him. His strength is his aerial prowess; he had 217 aerial duels (won 62.2% of them) at Newcastle last season. Compare that to the 139 (won 60.3% of them) he has had this season and immediately one can tell that Liverpool are not playing with him in mind. He is often isolated up top and when he drops deep for a touch of the ball, he neither has the dribbling technique (only .2 dribbles/game) to create something on his own nor the pace to glide past defenders en route to goal. He has a powerful long range shot, however. Bottom line is that he needs a partner.
Speaking of partner, Luis Suarez, as talented as he is, has also flattered to deceive. His 6 league goals–the club’s leading league tally shared with Craig Bellamy–in 86 shots this season works out to a chance conversion rate of 7%. His 4 league goals from 55 shots from January 2011 to the end of last season worked out to a rate of 7.3%. So, despite his eye-catching flair, he has struggled in front of goal since his arrival at Anfield.
His ignorance regarding the offside trap has done him no favors either. He has been offside 33 times in the league this season–nearly 3 times more than the club’s second highest total jointly held by Dirk Kuyt and Andy Carroll (12). He has made less appearances than both players.
Liverpool’s scoring problem has been particularly noticeable at home. They’ve drawn an amazing 8 times at home in the league–3 were 0-0, 5 were 1-1. They’ve won just 4 games at Anfield–2 were by 1-goal margins; the other 2 by 2-goal margins. These statistics make grim reading, but the likes of Carroll and Suarez are actually very good finishers. So, whether it’s confidence issues, behind-the-scenes issues or a lack of effort on the training ground, all is certainly not well in the final third for Liverpool. What else has put a spoke in Liverpool’s wheel?
After a trophy-less 1986/1987 season, Kenny Dalglish brought in a fresh crop of players for the following campaign–Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton.
With a freshened up squad, Liverpool remained at the summit for almost the entire campaign, enjoying an unbeaten run of 29 league games before losing just twice in the end. They won the league that season, unsurprisingly.
This time around, after spending 110 million pounds on Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez (both January 2011 purchases), Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique, Liverpool find themselves languishing in 7th place. We’ve touched on Suarez and Carroll, while Adam and Enrique have done reasonably well at their new club. Henderson and Downing, however, have failed to live up to their huge billing. Why?
Simply put, Jordan Henderson has been misused by Kenny Dalglish. Henderson is primarily a central attacking midfielder, but he has only featured in that position once in the league this season.
He has featured predominantly on the right hand side of midfield. Although he played there for Sunderland many times last season, he is definitely more at home in a central position. 2.2 key passes/game made by him last season shows his ability to pick a final ball, but because of featuring largely on the right for Liverpool, that statistic has dropped like a rock to a meager .8. His rating for crosses completed stands at 13.2%–also refuting any suggestions that his future lies at right midfield.
A dribbles completed statistic of .3 suggests he isn’t the type of player to grab a game by the scruff of the neck; he’s a straightforward player–not entertaining to watch, but fans won’t care as long as he starts doing the business.
He dazzled last season for Aston Villa, but there’s always the issue of stepping up when moving to a bigger club. Downing has been correctly deployed, unlike Henderson. He is great at making key passes–made 2.2/game last season, though that statistic dropped to 1.7 this season–and can cross well, in addition to having a decent set-piece delivery.
The problem he has always had–beating his man–continues to haunt him and if anything is more noticeable now than it was at Aston Villa, given the difference in status of both clubs and the level of expectancy considering his huge price tag. He made just .7 dribbles/game last season and that figure remains the same this season — not good enough for a winger.
So far, Dalglish has failed to find the right combination that would accentuate the varying playing styles and strengths of his players, especially those who are struggling to impress for their new club. If he is to get things right, what does he need to consider?
A few things: (1) He has to build the team around Carroll to get the best out of him by utilizing his aerial prowess–this entails giving him a partner; (2) He has to integrate Henderson into the team without jeopardising his development; (3) He has to maximize his use of Steven Gerrard. Gerrard’s incredible vision, passing range and drive are priceless and should be featured more in Liverpool’s engine room; (4) He has to maintain the team’s solid defensive core; (5) He has to make his team more deadly in the final third.
The solution? A midfield diamond (4-1-2-1-2). This formation ticks all the boxes–Carroll has a partner up top (Suarez/Bellamy/Kuyt) who will be happy to run off him into channels and in behind to chase his flick-ons; there is the presence of an attacking midfielder (Henderson/Rodriguez/Shelvey) who will feed the strikers in the final third in addition to testing the ‘keeper from range; there is a defensive midfielder (Spearing) who will help keep Liverpool’s defence sturdy; and the two central midfielders (Adam/Downing and Gerrard) will offer tremendous work rate and diversified passing. They can play through the middle as well as support the flanks.
Henderson in the hole and Suarez’s constant movement will do Carroll a huge favor; he wouldn’t have to drop deep as he would have ample support alongside, behind and on the flanks with Enrique and Johnson–in addition to Adam and Gerrard who will pull wide occasionally–bombing forward to provide width.
This will result in his aerial prowess being utilized by either long balls through the middle or crosses from the flanks. Suarez and Henderson, in particular, stand to benefit a huge deal from the flick-ons and knock-downs that he will provide. Inverting Suarez and Carroll up top also allows for both strikers to turn inside onto their stronger foot.
Henderson is properly positioned; and seeing that he lacks flair, the fact that his position calls for more passing than anything else suits him just fine. He is also capable of testing the ‘keeper from range.
So, Liverpool–although in a hole–are not beyond rescue. Dalglish tweaked his Liverpool side many years ago and it resulted in remarkable success. With the season’s time winding down and competition heating up for fourth place, he’s got to do something–anything — to get things back on track.
*- Stats courtesy of whoscored.com