Friday 21 September 2018

Why Liverpool are conceding too many big chances this season and why it matters

Liverpool's defence has been poor this season
Liverpool's defence has been poor this season

Jack Pitt-Brooke

The last time Liverpool played at home, before they host Manchester United this Saturday, was when Burnley came to Anfield on 16 September.

It felt like Burnley might be on a hiding to nothing: they only took seven away points in the 2016-17 season, the second worst record in the division. And Liverpool, in their last home league game, had beaten Arsenal 4-0.

But Burnley went to Anfield with confidence and a plan. The players knew that whatever happened in the game, at one point the Liverpool defence would switch off, especially if some pressure was applied against them. When that happened, Burnley would be presented with a golden chance, not a marginal one. They just had to take it.

Sure enough Liverpool dominated the match, but the first time Burnley went forward they scored. They hit a diagonal which Robbie Brady beat Trent Alexander-Arnold to. Chris Wood won the second ball, as Ragnar Klavan charged towards him and Joel Matip. That left a huge space in the box and a simple finish for Scott Arfield. Liverpool soon equalised and continued to batter Burnley, eventually racking up 35 shots. But Burnley had their goal and they nearly even got a second, as Ben Mee’s late header was cleared off the line.

It was a hugely frustrating afternoon but not an atypical one. There was a similar story on 1 October at St James’ Park when Liverpool again dominated the game but drew 1-1. Again, the one chance they gave up, this time to Joselu, was a golden one, with the Liverpool defenders desperately far apart. He took it and Liverpool drew again.

Those two games teach a lesson, a lesson that bodes ill for Liverpool’s game with United. For a team that plays on the front foot and likes to take the initiative, Liverpool concede far too many big chances. Teams know about Liverpool’s initial press, but as Burnley and Newcastle showed, once the initial press is beaten, Liverpool’s defending in their own half is so bad that there will always be big gaps and big chances.

This is borne out by the numbers. At first glance Liverpool are defending well, having conceded just 59 shots this season, the second least in that league. Only City – 45 shots – have allowed fewer, according to Opta.

But that is only a fraction of the story. What matters more is how many shots on target a team faces, which points towards the quality of chances that Liverpool are giving away. Liverpool have conceded 31 shots on target this season, the joint-sixth most in the league. Only Everton, Bournemouth, Swansea, Leicester City and Crystal Palace have allowed more.

So a ratio of shots on target to shots conceded puts Liverpool bottom by miles. 0.53 of the shots against them are on target, more than double the 0.21 figure of the miserly and expert Tottenham and Burnley defences. Or to put it in expected goals terms, Liverpool’s expected goals against (9.42) is more than twice as bad as their nominal title rivals Manchester City (3.71) and Spurs (4.41). And having conceded 12 so far – only West Ham and Leicester have conceded more – they cannot claim bad luck.

Liverpool have proven that they can be electric on their day, as they were against Arsenal. But their defence is so bad that teams can be confident of scoring against them with almost any attacks. There are some teams, like last season’s Chelsea, who are solid defensively that opponents are forced to shoot from distance out of desperation.

Liverpool are the opposite, with opponents just trying to get into the final third when they know things will open up. And then when the big chances do come, Liverpool do not have an elite goalkeeper like David De Gea or Hugo Lloris to make those low-percentage reaction saves.

When Burnley drew at Anfield their players recognised how nervous the home crowd got whenever Liverpool had to defend, and the collective holding of breath, in contrast to the more relaxed atmosphere at the homes of the other big sides. But the Liverpool fans are right to get anxious with their defence, knowing that when United come to Anfield on Saturday they will take advantage of any big opening.

Independent News Service

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