Rather than go into a stats-heavy analysis of what happened last season, I figured I’d just point out some things to pay attention to. One reason for that is that, as it stands, the squad hasn’t changed that much from last season. We lost Gini Wijnaldum and gained Ibrahima Konaté. That’s it. Of course, the other reason to not go too heavy into last season analysis is that a good chunk of the defense was gone for most of the season and several other starters were also significantly absent (We far and away led the “games lost to injury” table in the PL.) Jürgen just announced that both Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez are available for the opening match at Norwich City this weekend (“Like two new signings!”), so we’ll basically have new evidence of how both the defense and offense were supposed to work (and will be missing our one major signing of the window…) The exception made there is that Andy Robertson won’t be available. So, yeah, whatever. It’s a whole new world and I figured it’d be better to look at some of the major questions that many might have about how this new/old Liverpool is going to look and how it might change.
Obviously the biggest change is Ibrahima. We thought we could get away with only three senior CBs last season and that ended up biting us in the ass, but only through a catastrophic series of injuries that should be pretty unusual to duplicate (Should be…) But we also had to be aware that Virg is 30 and Joel Matip is 29. CBs generally have a longer shelf life than most other outfield players, but the point in having a sustainable model is not only that the club should be buying and spending on its own, without help from ownership, but also that it shouldn’t often be in a situation where selling clubs know that we’re desperate to help a particular position and can, thus, stroke us for even more money. We were in an extraordinary situation last January, having lost Virg, Joe, Joel, and their most likely replacement, Fabinho, to injury and actually had to spend in the winter window. Thankfully, we came across an equally desperate club in Schalke, who loaned us Ozan Kabak for a ridiculously low fee (e.g. They needed any cash more than they needed to try to work us for a higher price.) We also added Ben Davies, whose first appearance in a Liverpool shirt was this past weekend in the friendly against Bilbao… so I dunno. The ideal situation would, of course, be to bring someone through the academy like Sepp van den Berg or Billy Koumetio, but one of the huge upsides to Ibrahima is that he’s only 22, so we have a lot of years ahead of us.
And he’s going to need some of those years. For all his physical attributes, his ratings on places like Smarterscout or Fbref aren’t stunning
but they are good and indicative of someone on the right track toward becoming a name in the CB world. (Apologies for the clumsy link. fbref isn’t whitelisted by WordPress so I can’t embed their cool tables. Anyway, clicking over there is a positive for them.) His medium passing completion and through balls are elite level and he’s used to playing in an offense-forward approach at RB Leipzig, so I think he’ll be able to slot right in and be able to feed Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita, or Thiago Alcãntara in fine fashion. His long passing needs some work, so he’s not going to become first in line to rotate with Virg right away. (Again, I think what we were missing most from Virg’s absence last year was his long-range passing accuracy to jump start the offense and counter-attacks, not just his defensive skill.) Ibrahima’s tackling ability is also excellent, but what really stands out is his ability to take the ball and keep the ball, even through opposing challenges. It’s not often you see a CB who can dribble like that. We’re all fond of Joel’s forays into the offensive end that many of our opponents look like they don’t know what to do with. Having another CB who can move like that with the ball can only be an advantage. He’s also excellent in the air, which means we shouldn’t have to be missing Nat Phillips as much as we otherwise might. When the names on the list of comparable players include Raphael Varane, Jannik Westergard, and Marcelo, you know you probably have a solid player.
Let’s start out with a great point of debate:
The naysayers’ immediate response will be “But he doesn’t score enough!”, even though he ends up in the box more than any other forward in the PL. That assertion is answered by the following point, which is that no one is getting him the ball when he does make those runs. This should also accompany the corollary that he’s making all these runs into the box while he’s playing as a false 9, which frequently sees him running back to our box in order to retrieve the ball and/or mixing it up in the middle third. He’s not just poaching. He’s setting up plays from one end of the pitch to the other. The downside is that he’s in the bottom quarter percentile in terms of actually scoring goals and his xG is only 0.41, which is only in the 70th percentile. But the fact remains that no one else can make the offense hum the way Bob does (98th percentile in progressive passes) and no one covers more ground and disrupts the opposition (98th percentile in blocks) like he does, either. It’s a strange combination, but it’s been working for us for five years now and until we can find someone to fill that gap (the latest candidates are Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a revived Takumi Minamino), we’re going to have to rely on Bob and hope that he’s further enabled by more regular appearances from Naby and a more settled Thiago. Bob’s performance against Osasuna demonstrated everything that Klopp loves about him, including a rather brilliant control and shot for the third goal. That is what he’s capable of. Here’s hoping.
No more Mr. Reliable
Speaking of Naby and Thiago, a big question is how do the two of them function without the redoubtable Gini to hold down one side of the field while they try to work their magic? As I’ve often mentioned, the classic 4-3-3 tries to break the midfield down into a DM, an attacker, and a recycler. Gini filled the latter role perfectly, as one of his best skills is the ability to retrieve the ball and hold it while finding somewhere to move it. That’s the ideal recycler. Can either of them fulfill that role and still manage the progressive passing that they’re so lauded for? If they’re both forward-focused, that potentially puts more pressure on Fabinho to cover the back four. Of course, with Virg and Joe having returned, that’s not as critical a role as it was last season. And, for that matter, where does that leave Captain Jordan Henderson? He can easily play the Gini role because he often switched on and off with him while Hendo covered Trent Alexander-Arnold’s ventures forward. But, again, Hendo is a forward-focused guy, just like Thiago and Naby. For that matter, where does all of this leave Ox? Like Bob, his performance against Osasuna was superlative. He was everywhere on the pitch and constantly driving things forward. That’s not a recycler, in the classic sense. Of course, Naby and Thiago both have experience playing the 6, so it won’t be difficult for either of them to step in to Gini’s steady shoes in that respect, but the high mark of Gini’s five years at Anfield was his consistency, both in being available for every match and in being able to fill the role that Jürgen asked of him, without complaint and regardless of how in contrast it was with his role at Newcastle or with the Dutch national team. The advantage of Klopp’s system is that all three midfielders, just as with all three forwards, are expected to rotate both position and responsibilities, although Fab does tend to stay more central than the others. The question of reliability also applies to availability, most pointedly in the case of Naby, but also Thiago and Hendo, so we’ll have to see how that shakes out.
One of the standout problems of last season in many supporters’ eyes was our inability to get the ball across the line. A lot of that criticism landed at the feet of Bob and Sadio Mané, with the latter admitting that he felt last season was the worst he’d had as a professional. The statistics are kind of a mixed bag. We ended up at 35% for shooting accuracy, which is solid. That also meant we came second only to Man City in the PL in terms of shots on target (218 for them, 214 for us.) It also meant we were fourth in goals with 68. None of those numbers bespeak a crisis in form. However, we also underperformed our xG by 10.45(!) which is, uh, not good. Just for comparison, City overperformed theirs by 5.22, ManU by 4.88, and Chelsea… right alongside us at -10.45 (Hellooooo, Timo Werner!) So there are a lot of things to parse there. As noted, Bob (-3.86) and Sadio (-3.83) definitely contributed to the overall picture, while Mo Salah carried a bit (+1.75) alongside Diogo Jota (+1.34.) In terms of the overall record, we once again led the league in goals reversed by VAR, alongside Leeds with -8. Who knows if this year’s “thicker lines” (tell me if you can hear my eyes rolling as I type that) will help in that respect? One thing that, based on statistical expectations, should help is, again, having Naby on the pitch more often, for as long as that lasts. Also again, more opportunities should definitely be available with Virg returning. But football is a random game and sometimes dumb luck just goes against you. It’s fair to say that there were a number of times watching Sadio last season that he missed chances that he definitely would have put away in seasons past. It’s not uncommon for players to have seasons where they just can’t seem to get their feet under them. After all, Mo, our one-season-wonder has never managed to score 44 goals again, so there’s that…
Alrighty, then. That should be it until game day against the Canaries. I certainly might dream up something to post about tomorrow, so no guarantees (Just like life! And football!) Otherwise, I’ll see many of you at Magee’s and we’ll stop speculating and start actually living the trip to #s 20/7/8/9, in order of importance.