With only about 20 per cent of the 2021/22 season in the can, it’s still a little too early to take anything of major significance from a team’s statistics.
The fixture list hasn’t yet settled down to a point where clubs have had a vaguely even shake in terms of match difficulty. As an example, Brentford’s collective opponents have a points-per-game average of 1.61 this season where Manchester United’s have only mustered 0.76 (per SoccerStats), and the Red Devils are the only team in the division yet to have faced another of the Premier League’s established big six clubs too.
Still, things are looking encouraging for Liverpool. Per FBRef, they have amassed the most expected goals, either with or without penalties, and they have had the most shots on target too.
Only Manchester City and Brighton have allowed their opponents fewer shots on target at the back end of the pitch, and while Liverpool’s expected goals against figure is a little high — at 1.15 per 90 minutes they rank joint-eighth in the Premier League — their xG difference is the second-best in the division. Jürgen Klopp’s side are also the only top-flight team to have had more shots on target than their opponents in every league match this season.
However, there’s a fly in the ointment which, while buzzing around in a small sample, threatens to undermine any hopes the Reds have challenging for the title. If we combine expected goals and shots on target, then a definite issue comes to light for Liverpool.
The pairing of the two statistics can be seen in post-shot expected goal data. This assigns a value to a goal attempt based on how likely the opposing goalkeeper is to save the shot. If it’s blocked or off target then it’s post-shot value is obviously zero — no hope of a goal there, chief — so it’s providing a numerical measure of quality to any attempts which are put on target.
This enables us to assess two things. In attack, we can get an idea regarding the finishing quality of a team beyond the obvious currency of goals. Are they testing goalkeepers as much as they should be, and are they adding value to their standard xG with their finishing?
At the back, is a team making it harder for their opponents to make the most of their opportunities? Are they blocking efforts or pressuring strikers which makes them shoot off target? If a team’s defensive post-shot xG is lower than the regular expected goals, then it suggests they are.
As with everything in football, there’s a degree of randomness, so the larger the sample we investigate the more insightful it will be. Doing so provides a very positive assessment of Liverpool since the beginning of the 2017/18 season (as that is how far Statsbomb’s data goes back).
Their expected goals in the league in that time total 306, while they have allowed 156.7, which gives them a difference of 149.3 xG.
Looking at the post-shot numbers for each end of the field, we see they are 324.7 and 148.6 respectively, meaning their difference on this front is 26.8 better than it is on the standard expected goals.
The Reds have added value with their shooting and diminished their opponents’ with their defending, which is what all Kopites want to see.
And they’ve done it to a level no other side can match. The two Manchester clubs have made the next best net gains, of 21.8 and 17.0 respectively, ahead of Arsenal (14.0), Burnley (13.2) and West Ham United (12.5).
It’s when we look at the figures on a season-by-season basis that we start to have concerns for Liverpool.
In 2017/18, they added a total of 3.3 expected goals with their post-shot efforts in attack and defence on their way to finishing the season fourth in the table.
This figure rocketed to 13.0 the following year, as they recorded 97 points, and rose again to 18.9 when they won the league in 2019/20. From the 80 team seasons in the last four years of Premier League action, these latter two campaigns from Liverpool rank as the first and second-best for this particular metric.
It couldn’t last though, and there has been a slump ever since.
The Reds’ finishing saw 72.6 expected goals become 69.2 in the post-shot model last season, and opposition sides collectively added 2.7 xG once finishing was considered at the other end. Liverpool deserve some credit for finishing in the top three when losing 6.1 of their expected goal difference into the ether — no other side has managed to with that sort of record in the last four seasons — but it was a trend that needed to end.
In one sense it has. The return of a Champions League-winning central defensive partnership has ensured that opponents have lost value on their xG in 2021/22, but in attack Liverpool have significantly underperformed.
They have done so to such an extent that the Reds’ post-shot xG difference is 2.3 worse than the regular expected goals after only seven games — extrapolate that across 38 matches and it would come in at minus 12.5, which would be the fourth-worst figure in the five seasons the data covers.
With the high standard of players Liverpool field in both penalty boxes, they can often overcome any deficiencies in underlying numbers through their individual brilliance. History suggests that it will be very difficult to compete for the league title unless the Reds’ post-shot form picks up.
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