Most of you have seen the passing maps that appear on places like Opta. They track both the movement of players around the pitch and the tracks that their passes have made. They’re often presented to display where the concentration of effort took place in both build-up play and attacking. In City’s typical style, for example, you’d see a cluster of lines just outside their 18-yard box as they played from the back, whereas in the case of Liverpool, you’d often see a cluster on our side of the midfield line where the recycling of the ball, usually via Gini and Milner, would have taken place.
But I’ve rarely seen a map quite like the above, wherein each player had their personal distribution highlighted in a fashion not dependent on where they were on the pitch, but in general terms highlighting their use of the ball. Neither Trent nor Robbo had that many passes back to Alisson, but they did distribute the ball quite a bit back toward the midfield center to try to initiate an attack or to allow one of the recyclers to rotate the ball to the other side. But what does this map imply about the starting XI? (Keeping in mind the extremely small sample size and abstract nature of the above.)
- Sadio Mané: Is the attacking guy among the front three and most useful with the ball at his feet in that role. His passes were almost exclusively to Robbo overlapping him or back into the middle to recycle. I would guess (I haven’t seen the numbers) that his chances created are lower than Bob or Salah, which comports with my general perception of his play.
- Roberto Firmino: Almost the perfect asterisk. Bob is the distributor par excellence with the added bonus of being an excellent striker when the moment calls for it. In this game, he was shading to his left a lot more often, perhaps in response to the nominally slower half of Chelsea’s back 4 (Rudiger, Azpilicueta)?
- Mohammed Salah: Demonstrates exactly why he’s among the league leaders in chances created. The number of passes into the center is the most obvious feature of his results. It remains an open question as to whether he attracts so much defensive attention that compels that kind of distribution, rather than using him as more of the focus of the attack. Persisting in attacking down the right side, as we have in many games, still leaves both options open. The only problem right now is the finishing.
- James Milner, robot warrior: The diversity in angles and frequency of attempts in many directions are the defining feature of someone who plays both the recycler and attacker roles in the 4-3-3. His graph implies a greater tendency than Gini to drift inside and mix it up which, again, comports perfectly with my image of his play.
- Georginio Wijnaldum: Similarly, Gini’s role is about moving the ball, both in pushing it forward and in retaining possession and his results reflect that. His graph indicates a more forward role than Milner’s, with the dearth of short passes and the frequency of longer ones played back toward the left, but they’re still often interchangeable in how they perform, which suits Klopp’s flexible approach.
- Jordan Henderson: As noted, the Chelsea game displayed far fewer of Henderson’s long forward passes than we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the last few years. In order to mute Chelsea’s attack and the counter, he became far more of a sweeper and let the attack become initiated farther forward. That also indicates why Klopp brought on Keita later in the game because the latter is far superior in generating offense with his quick feet and better short passing game.
- Andrew Robertson: Had a more active day on the left side in terms of playing the ball forward to Mané and others, as well as making significant crosses into the box. I wonder at the distinct difference in pattern between his and Trent’s output when it comes to the attacking approach on Saturday. Clearly, Mané’s eagerness to get forward and initiate his own attack plays into having more freedom for Robbo to diversify his passes. However…
- Trent Alexander-Arnold: …I think Trent was probably more restrained in his own positioning because his side is the one that Eden Hazard favors. When he did get forward, the overwhelming majority of his passes ended up going back to recycle, broken up by only a few attempts to feed Salah on one of his breakaways, which he didn’t get many of with Alonso sticking to him.
- Virgil Van Dijk: As one might expect, the majority of Virg’s output is trading possession with his CB partner or feeding Robbo/Milner/Keita on the left. This is irrespective of his position on the field.
- Joe Gomez: Likewise, Joe almost exclusively hands distribution responsibility to the senior CB, no matter where he is.
- Alisson Becker: It’s gratifying to see the almost perfectly even split that the keeper’s results display, as he moves the ball around the field, trying to find the right angle to initiate the attack. It’s safe to say that his long passing was a bit off in this game, but it’s nice to see that he doesn’t present any pronounced tendencies that other teams can focus on.
So, yeah. Visual evidence of a lot of things that most of us should already have been familiar with. I wasn’t expecting anything shocking, especially with an image from just one game, but it’s interesting to see a static display of what we normally have only as a constant box of motion.