Why Last Season Wasn’t So Bad… Really
Disclaimer: This article is solely about the 20/21 Premier League Campaign. While the Reds played in other competitions (and actually quite well in the Champions League), this article focuses on and used stats from the league only.
The old saying is, “don’t bury the lede”, so here goes: Liverpool were the best team in the Premier League last year if they had a center-back over 6’3” in the lineup and Fabinho playing at the #6. The secondary note is Nat Phillips had a huge impact on Liverpool’s results and should be considered player of the season alongside Fabinho. The numbers back this up in a profound way. This article delves into those details but first discusses why even though it was filled with some horrible games and a lot of heartache on and off the field, last season really wasn’t so bad. So let’s get into it!
Liverpool went into Boxing Day 2020 top of the Premier League table despite losing two world-class center backs for the season, and countless other players to injuries that knocked them out anywhere from a few days to months. On Christmas day they were averaging a healthy, if not spectacular 2.21 points per game through 14 games – for a projected 84 points over the 38 game season (Manchester City won the league with 86 points). During that time, they outscored opponents 36-19. A very solid start to a strange campaign.
Liverpool ended the season on a 10-game unbeaten run. They outscored opponents 21-6 during that stretch including five shutouts. They accumulated 26 points in those ten games for a blistering 2.6 points per game, which projects to 99 points over the season. If you combined the first 14 games with the last 10 games, LFC went 17-4-1 for 55 points, which projects to 87 points. That would have been a great year considering their historic amount of injuries.
The problem that every Liverpool fan is all too aware of is a 14-game stretch in the middle of the season where the Reds accumulated only 11 points which is on pace for serious relegation battle. So, what happened in that stretch? Why were the Reds so terrible for 14 games from December 27 – March 7? The answers are both simple and complex, both concrete and abstract. Most importantly, they were such an outrageous and strange confluence of factors that they should never happen again! So let’s get into those factors:
Factor 1 – The Global Pandemic!
While everyone probably has “pandemic fatigue” at this point, we cannot overlook this huge disrupter of the 2020/21 season. LFC had a very short turnaround from ending Project Restart and beginning the new season. They did not get to take a break or get a full training camp. They had multiple players contract COVID-19, including Thiago Alcantara, Sadio Mane, and Mohammed Salah.
The lost revenue from the pandemic made the transfer market extremely tight. Liverpool was not able to replace Dejan Lovren sufficiently and was only able to sign Thiago for midfield cover very late in the window. Finally, perhaps the biggest factor of the pandemic for LFC was evident at the start of Project Restart – their reliance on fans to provide a bit of cutting edge. Pep Lijnders stated “Our identity is intensity” and it was quite true heading into the pandemic as Liverpool amassed a historic points haul in the 19/20 season before the shutdown. After the restart, it was obvious LFC had lost a bit of intensity. Many thought this drop in intensity was due to the Reds having the league all but wrapped up. However, as the new season wore on, it became apparent Liverpool needed supporters for that extra bit of motivation.
Factor 2 – Personal Tragedies and Life
Liverpool faced plenty of obstacles on the field, but between Christmas and March of last season, the universe threw them some extra strife. After months of the pandemic wearing on everyone’s mental health, they had to also deal with two personal tragedies. In January, Jürgen Klopp’s mother passed away from Covid-19 and due to travel restrictions of the pandemic and the demands of the shortened season, he could not see her before she passed or even travel to her funeral. Tragedy struck again at the end of February when Alisson Becker’s father died in a drowning accident in Brazil. We need to remember that the players and the coaches are people first and significant life events like these would understandably affect anyone’s performance on and off the field.
Factor 3 – Injuries, Injuries, and Injuries
Sometimes the best answer is the simplest answer – Liverpool suffered a historic amount of injuries before and during this timeframe. They lost so many people on such a regular basis most fans gave up trying to keep track and just waited to see the team sheet. While losing world-class players is bad enough, the injuries had ramifications that spread across the pitch to affect others as well.
Factor 3A – Players Forced to Play Out of Position
During the 14-game rough patch, LFC had only two games where they started two bona fide center backs – a win with Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips partnering and a loss in Phillips and Rhys Williams’ first start together to end the poor stretch on March 7. LFC went from November 8 until February 28 without two recognized center backs starting together. The same issue occurred in midfield. The Reds started the season with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson set to play as the number #6, but Georginio Wijnaldum and Thiago Alcantara had to shuffle in at that spot while Xherdan Shaqiri had to spend time further back in the midfield rather than his preferred #10 position.
Factor 3B – Liverpool Was SHORT
Van Dijk is 6’4”, Joe Gomez is 6’2” and thick, Joel Matip is 6’5” and when Liverpool start two of them, they are very strong in the air. Fabinho is 6’2” but thin and Henderson is 6’0” so when they are in the midfield with two real CBs, Liverpool are a tall and physically solid team up the middle. During the 14-game stretch, Henderson and Fabinho were often partnering at center back or being paired with Phillips at 6’3” or Kabak ot 6’1”, which is much less physically imposing. That left a combination of 5’8” Winjaldum, 5’8” James Milner, 5’8” Naby Keita, 5’8” Thiago, 5’7” Xherdan Shaqiri and/or Curtis Jones who is 6’0” but having just turned 20 last January had not filled out yet to patrol the midfield.
All of the shuffling of positions left Liverpool short across the field and they dropped points to teams who bombarded them with high long balls (WBA, Newcastle, Southampton, Burnley, Brighton and even Everton and Chelsea played Route 1). At one point, Klopp all but admitted he had to keep starting 5’11” Roberto Firmino to help defend set pieces – and they still struggled defending them! To understand just how important height is (and what a key role Nat Phillips played – see below), Liverpool started a center back pairing of Henderson, Fabinho, and/or Kabak eight times this season. They went 0-3-5 in those games. Five of Liverpool’s nine losses on the year came when they fielded a team of all 6’2” or shorter players (other than the keeper).
Factor 3C – They Could Not Score
During the 14 game run, LFC scored 11 goals, but eight goals came in their three wins. In the three draws and eight losses, they scored three goals. Part of this was a historic slump from Sadio Mane – who admitted as much, and some bad luck for the whole squad. But, two huge contributors were the injury to Diogo Jota who at times was LFC’s best striker last year, and the mini injury crisis within the injury crisis that left LFC with only 14 senior players for a few games. This completely limited any rotation options to try to change up the attack. Finally, the lack of height contributed massively to Liverpool going over three months without a goal from a corner until Alisson’s heroic header against West Bromwich Albion.
The culmination of these factors led to a terrible fourteen game stretch that nearly cost Liverpool a spot in Europe. Each of them played their part in the terrible season, but after analyzing and crunching the numbers from last season, you can distill Liverpool’s results this season down to who started at the two center backs and the #6 (and their height!). The tactical responsibilities, personal attributes, and performance of those three positions and playing the right people in those three positions determined Liverpool’s success or lack thereof all season. The numbers make it abundantly clear.
Before we get to the numbers, let’s do a quick tactical breakdown of Liverpool. While tactics are much more complex than this, it has become clear what Klopp and his preferred 4-3-3 set out to do – cause chaos in the midfield and score quickly through transitions. LFC do that by squeezing the life out the opposition with a high line and intense pressing. A false #9 (or at times a #10) works with two #8s in midfield to set up traps in the press and then quickly link play with the fullbacks and wingers. The fullbacks and wingers use the transition, their pace, and quick passing to attack and the #9 and two #8s swarm forward to overwhelm and outnumber the opposition. While most people focus on the attack or the press, the true key to Liverpool’s tactics is the center backs and the #6 covering for everyone.
Opposing teams know Liverpool want to hit them in transition, so many of them cede possession, sit in a low block, and try to attack one of two ways. Either, they try to hoof long, high balls hoping to go over the top of the high line or knocking down a second ball; or they will try to catch Liverpool in a mistake and launch their own counter-attack with pace looking for a through ball or dribbling at the defenders.
Obviously, having tall, strong center backs negates the high long balls of option one. Stopping the long balls both keeps pressure off Liverpool’s own goal, and even more importantly, helps keep the pressure on the opposition in their own half. Having speedy center backs, helps stop the counter attacks at pace. Van Dijk, Matip and Gomez are all blessed with a good combination of size and pace to deal with those attacks.
Having strong, athletic center backs is incredibly important, but just as important is the player in the #6 role. The #6 has to compete in aerial duels, be in position to scoop up the second balls, and cover for the fullbacks who are often bombing forward. Most importantly, they have to snuff out counter attacks before they start. If the #6 is on the spot immediately after a mistake or loss of possession to get an interception or pressure a player into making a less accurate long ball, they can stop the counter attack before it even starts.
Fabinho and is great at tackling and intercepting. Henderson’s strength is his impeccable positioning. At 6’2” and 6’0” respectively, they are both solid physically for the demands of the #6. Having strong players in those three positions facilitates the press working higher up the pitch in more dangerous areas, which leads to more transitions and more goals. The cover those three spots provide at the back allows Liverpool to attack with seven players. When those three players are physically able to dominate the air and keep teams from having time on the ball to launch counters, Liverpool can break teams down with wave after wave of attack. When those three cannot stave off the high balls or stop counters early, the opposition can take the game to Liverpool and the Reds struggle to create the transition opportunities their goal scorers and creative players need.
Reviewing the data from this season really illuminates this fact. Here are the numbers for the whole season:
IF LFC Started: Wins Draws Losses Projected Pace for 38 Game Season
Two actual CBs 10 2 2* 87 points
Henderson at #6 7 4** 0 86 points
Fabinho at #6 9 1 1*** 97 points
Wijnaldum at #6 5 2 6 49 points
Thiago at #6 0 1 2**** So Bad – it is not worth computing
* – The two losses were Adrian’s horror show at Aston Villa and Phillips and Williams’ first game together
** – Two of the draws were games that Matip left injured and Henderson pushed back to CB for the remainder
*** – Fabinho was #6 in the Aston Villa game mentioned above for his sole loss and the draw was the bogus Everton 2-2 where Pickford maimed Van Dijk and LFC’s winner got chalked off due to an offside armpit
**** – Thiago at #6 was a brief trial Klopp tried with Henderson and Fabinho at CB; he quickly learned this was not a good option
All of those numbers were independent of everything else and they really illustrate the value of a true #6 especially Fabinho. However, a final thing to show the value of a #6 is if you look at Fabinho as a “center back” (as Klopp did when he let Lovren leave). Here is when Fabinho played CB:
IF Fabinho Started at CB: Wins Draws Losses Projected Pace
And Henderson started at #6 5 3 0 85 points
And Wijnaldum or Thiago started at #6 2 3 4 38 points
Nat Phillips’ isolated numbers illustrate just how important height is to Liverpool’s tactics and success. His stout 6’3” frame really solidified the defense against the high balls that caused them such problems during the poor stretch and the results really changed when he started playing full time.
IF Phillips Started at CB: Wins Draws Losses Projected Pace
Partnered with anyone 11 2 2 89 points
Partnered with a MF 1 2 1 47 points
Partnered with another CB 10 0 1 104 points!
To show the value of a tall CB partnership with a real #6, Phillips went 9-0-0 when he partnered with another true CB and Henderson or Fabinho was at the #6. His only loss when partnering with another CB came with Wijnaldum at the #6. What that illustrates, and the last three years have proven, is even with all of the other injuries LFC suffered, if Liverpool have a CB taller than 6’3” and Henderson or Fabinho is at #6, Liverpool Football Club is the toughest team in England… Europe… The World!
When looking at how drastic those numbers are, it is easy to wonder why it took Klopp until the last 10 games of the season to just start Phillips at CB and Fabinho at the #6? It could have been because Phillips had barely even practiced with the first team before last December and his lack of pace impacted Klopp’s preferred tactics. It could have been that he was struggling with the death of his mother and all the other strife of life at that time and was not at the top of his game. Maybe it had nothing to do with Klopp and that combination of players just needed time to gel and to get through all the headaches and heartaches life threw at them before they pushed on. Or… Liverpool could have just had horrible luck for three months. Whatever it was, 69 points and third place last year really was not so bad considering everything the Reds went through.