The electric foundation: keeper and the back line, 2020-21

[This is the first of a three-part series on the LFC squad for the ’20-’21 season – back line, mid line, and front line. I’ll be showing the team in our typical 4-3-3 formation, although I know we often shift out of that (and have been doing so this pre-season) into a 4-2-3-1.]

Goalkeeper steadiness

You’d like to think that this would be the easiest place to start. After all, if we’re talking about the goalkeeper, it seems to be the most straightforward of positions on the pitch. (Adopt Scouse accent.) “‘Ey! Yew! Keep theh ball out da fookin’ gole!” Thankfully, the man we have working that job is one of the best in the world. Alisson Becker finished last season in the PL with a save percentage of .722, which is a step back from the previous season’s .771. He also kept 13 clean sheets compared to the previous season’s 21. Of course, because of injury and suspension, he also played 9 fewer games (29), but since we’re only comparing two seasons, take that FWIW. Post-shot xG+/- (the likelihood of a save being made after a quality shot has been taken) also took a step back at .04 compared to last year’s .28, but the numbers for 2020 are always going to be a bit odd, given the disruption before the last third of the season so, again, there’s nothing to point at and shriek about. He’s still safely one of the best keepers out there. His only notable weakness, as evidenced in recent games, is against penalty kicks. He’s never been the greatest at which most keepers can’t really be judged in the first place, given the ridiculously low success rate. As long as we can avoid playing ManU more than twice, that really shouldn’t be an issue. “Reliable” is a label that’s easily applied to our starting keeper, which is not something that’s been a consistent thought until two years ago.

One really positive aspect of Alisson’s game which doesn’t often get remarked upon by typical commentators is the remarkable accuracy of his passing, with an overall 85.8% completion rate and, most importantly, a 75% completion rate on long passes (over 30 yards.) Most Reds will forever remember this conclusive moment:

And, in all honesty, that was far from one of his best, given that Salah actually had to wait up a bit for the ball to come down. One of the key aspects for which Alisson was bought was that he be able to initiate the attack just as much as any of our other back line players. That aspect has regularly paid off.

In positive contrast to the starter’s one “weakness”, his replacement in what was unfortunately the first game of last season, Adrián, is actually pretty solid against penalties, as displayed in last year’s other more-important-than-a-friendly, the UEFA Supercup. However, he is, as you’d expect, a step back from the starter in most estimations, with only 2 clean sheets in his 9 PL games (less than half Alisson’s percentage), a PSxG+/- of -1.3, and a passing completion rate of 72% (58% on long passes.) But that’s why he’s the backup… whom we got for free and who still won all 9 of those PL starts. Don’t let the Atleti game poison your thinking. Football is weird. Like the departed Simon Mignolet, Adrián is also relentlessly positive, popular in the dressing room, and the model professional. Those are all extremely useful qualities to have on your bench; on top of being a still-solid performer between the sticks.

Further Backups: Loris Karius, Kamil Grabara, Caoimhin Kelleher

Had you asked me a couple months ago, I would’ve been the first to suggest that Karius was simply a memory at Melwood/Kirkby. However, he’s been with the squad in Austria and constantly in training, so if there are different plans for his career in the offing, no one is talking about them. I know that FSG is determined to extract value in every transaction, even for someone we bought for only €7m 4 years ago. Both Grabara and Kelleher are 21 (young for keepers) and while Grabara spent last year with Huddersfield Town and Kelleher was the main guy for our U23s, both are technically assigned to the latter squad at the moment, so we’ll have to see what develops as the logistics of running the younger programs is sorted out (along with everything else.)

Fullback mania

Left back: Similarly to Alisson, we have a nailed-on starter in this position: Andrew Robertson. The stats for both of our fullbacks are pristine examples of the evolution of the position in the modern game over the last couple decades. Robbo put in two goals and assisted 12 more last season and his xA number has gone from 3.1 in his first season with us, to 6.8 the next, to 7.3 last year. Following that trend, his shot creating actions (SCA) has gone from 2.22 to 2.35 to 3.12 per 90. What that means is that Robbo is a consistent offensive threat (obvsly.) Even better, when you look at his defensive actions per 90, you’ll see that they’re spread across the field, matching his pace up and down that left touchline. Where in his first two seasons, his pressures and tackles were predominantly in the defensive third, last season his tackles went 19-25-16 (def-mid-off thirds of the field) and pressures 136-144-110, which is the ideal modern fullback; working to stop offensive progression from their box to our box and still constantly creating opportunities for our attackers. He’s taken this:

and turned it into a playstyle. Not bad for £8 million.

The immediate backup is the newly-acquired Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiacos. Kostas’ offensive record is far more mundane, with only 2 assists last season in the Greek Super League. However, the Erythrolefki don’t play their fullbacks like Liverpool do (few other clubs have that advantage), so the measure of his ability on the offensive end will only be really explored as the current year moves along. At the very least, his movement in the pre-season showed considerable speed and an understanding (barring one unfortunate incident with James Milner, Robot Warrior against Stuttgart) of where to be.

Further backups: Neco Williams, Jamez Milner.

Right back: Like his opposite number, Trent Alexander-Arnold is The Man in this fullback slot. Much Twitter commentary has been expended this pre-season, complaining about how the offense doesn’t function the same without Trent, who’s been out with a minor injury. Given that he scored 4 goals and assisted 13 more (breaking his own record (set the year before) for assists by a defender), it’s not hard to understand why. That adds up to an average of .48 GIs per 90. For a fullback. Similar to Robbo, Trent’s SCA average has done nothing but rise over the last three seasons, topping out at 4.28 per 90 last year. Unlike Robbo, Trent’s defensive actions are still weighted toward our third of the field (37-15-6 in tackles), which perhaps speaks to the different role and relationship that Trent has with Jordan Henderson on the right side, as opposed to Robbo’s link with Gini Wijnaldum on the left. Gini doesn’t cover as much for Robbo, given the latter’s great pace, whereas Trent tends to venture farther forward on a regular basis, depending on Hendo and Gomez to cover for him with their speed and, thus, largely intercepting attackers once they’ve made some forward progress to our zone. Trent has also been, of course, one of our most frequent corner kickers, whereas Robbo has only recently assumed some of that duty.

Fellow academy product, Neco Williams, is Trent’s backup #1 at RB, making for one of the youngest duos in one position in the PL. While his play has shown a great deal of speed and attacking verve, the defensive end of it has been a little rockier. I think he took too much heat for the performance in the Community Shield, but there’s no surprise that a 19-year-old might need a bit more experience when it comes to positioning and how to suss out where his man is going. Backup #1A is Joe Gomez, who has plenty of experience in (and speed for) the position, but lacks the crossing ability that both Trent and Neco have in abundance.

Further backups: Jordan Henderson, Ki-Jana Hoever.

Towering centerbacks

Left centerback: What else can be said about Virgil Van Dijk that won’t just be repetition? He’s the best centerback in the world, without question. You can keep all your Koulibalys and Laportes and (snicker) Maguires and whoever elses. None of them consistently do what VVD does. And this is while playing every minute of every league game for the past two seasons (and almost every minute of every Champions League game.) Some fools will cry: “He only made thirty tackles last season!” Of course. The point being that if you have to make a tackle, you’ve already given up position to the attacker, which is exactly what Virg doesn’t do every other time. On the topic of the famous “dribbled past” (as in “no one does”) statistic, a couple different databases that I’ve looked at cited only 1 instance of such an event for the two seasons prior to last. Last season, the number I’ve seen is 9. If that is accurate, this could be the result of a number of factors, most prominent of which being the progressively higher line we’ve taken over the past three years, occasionally requiring calisthenics like this:

He used that same head to put in 5 goals last year, too. Given his size and ability to elevate (81% win rate in aerial duels), you’d kind of expect a few more to be rippling the back of the net but, likewise, given the fact that he’s frequently given WWE treatment in the box (Woo, English officiating!), it’s understandable if those don’t materialize. Even more important are his passing numbers, with a medium completion rate of 94.3% and a long pass completion rate of 85.1%(!) Few will forget this delightful moment at the Allianz Arena in 2019 and that’s fairly typical of both his delivery and his accuracy. Not bad for £75m and I say that without a shred of sarcasm. He’s been worth every penny.

The primary backup is… um… well… Yeah. So, no one really. Joel Matip has deputized there in the past and will probably continue to do so for cup games. Joel is a solid passer (81% long pass completion rate) with good burst going forward and is also excellent at winning aerial duels (90% win rate.) He is, of course, also injury prone. The emergence of 17-year-old Billy Koumetio in this pre-season has been a really nice surprise. He’s confident on the ball and calm in the box. But genuine centerback depth is a bit of an issue and the fact is that there’s basically no one who commands the back line like Virg, so it’s a tough ask.

Further backups: Sepp van den Berg, Fabinho.

Right centerback: Our man, Joe Gomez, has emerged as a member of the steady heartbeat club. Even when he nominally gets caught out of position, he doesn’t panic because he knows he has the speed to recover (and because he knows his support in the box is Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker. We should all be so lucky.) This is part of that combination cited above, in which Trent has the freedom to roam all over the offensive third because of the personnel on that side of the pitch who can easily fill the spaces that you’d often expect your right back to be in. Indeed, Joe has direct experience with that concept, since he still occasionally fills in at right back. But he’s a much better centerback, at this point, with passing numbers similar to Virg (92.7% medium, 83.7% long completion rate) and an eye for a progressive delivery (more than doubling the yardage covered in forward passes from the previous season to last; 4917 to 10458.) Being 3 inches shorter than VVD, he’s not nearly as good in the air (62.1% aerial duels won), but he often isn’t required to be, as his ability to take people off the ball and retain it (almost 70% dribble success rate) makes up for what he can’t achieve off the ground.

Right behind our man, Joe, is our other man, Joel. Matip has long been considered #1A here, if not the starter. I think Gomez has locked it down from here on out but it’s nice to have such a steady person to step in. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hold on to Matip for one more season (without injury!) before he gets restless about not getting first-team minutes.

Further backups: Nat Phillips (if he’s not sold), Fabinho.

All in all, despite falling behind Man City in some defensive categories in the last third of the season, this is still one of the best back lines in Europe and light years ahead of the situation when Klopp first arrived. With kids like Neco and Billy waiting in the wings, the future looks just as solid.

Next time: The middle third.

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