(And the metrics based approach that brought us here)
Liverpool squeaked through to the Champions League Quarter-Finals on Tuesday despite losing 1-0 to Inter Milan. It was enough to see them through over two legs in a match where they did enough to obtain a better result and keep up the dream of winning everything the club was entered in back in August. Liverpool of course has already secured the League Cup this season, but the chase is on for the remaining three trophies – the FA Cup, Premier League, and Champions League.
Liverpool were first in contention for these three remaining competitions at this stage of the season in 1977, having fallen short in their first attempt in 1965 with a 7th place league finish, and two years later when Ajax bounced them out of the European Cup in December.
1977 though was exhilarating and as a 14-year old, I wrote a school paper called The Incredible Treble. Barring goal difference the League title was secured with two games to spare but Liverpool would be undone in the FA Cup Final four days before going on to win their first European Cup.
Liverpool used a very simple approach back then! Not as sophisticated as the one used now, with computer metrics still a thing of the future, but Liverpool (and Bob Paisley in particular), understood the types of hardworking two-way players that they were looking for. The science today is far more detailed but the theories are remarkably similar to those that Jurgen Klopp is now overseeing.
Changing of the Guard
When Bill Shankly retired in 1974 the red side of Merseyside felt the sky had fallen. Shankly was to Liverpool then what Klopp has become now, a good Manager yes but more than that, the heartbeat of the club. Losing Shankly produced a moaning on the streets of Liverpool that rivaled the mourning for Eva Peron following her death in Argentina 22 years earlier. Some Liverpool supporters anticipate a similar loss when Klopp eventually hangs it up, but the FSG owners that some of these same supporters love to hate are well prepared for the future.
In 2011 a Silicon Valley analyst and soccer fan named Sarah Rudd, tired of the meaningless statistics online, created a metric called possession value. Essentially it broke the pitch into 37 zones and calculated a scoring probability to each zone. It then examined passing between lower probability and higher probability zones, subsequently assigning a value to each pass made based on how it improved a team’s chance to score.
Rudd’s work was so impressive that Arsenal bought her company and one could call her the godmother of pass-based metrics that are now a key ingredient of Liverpool signings. Where Bob Paisley was the real genius behind the acquisitions that became European champions in the seventies, the intellectual offspring of Rudd that includes the Liverpool sports science team is the genius that will keep the Reds rolling. IF Liverpool ultimately replaces Klopp with Lijnders when he does hang it up, they’ll be taking a page from the old “Boot Room” in the most successful period of Liverpool’s history.
And that Leaves us where?
With a side that has just lost its first home game of the season?!?!
Liverpool lost a game they should have won! Why? Football always contains an element of luck. Better teams will usually beat lesser teams but it’s not an absolute. On any given day lesser sides can win, (although Everton challenge that with regularity).
Liverpool created several high percentage opportunities but unusually converted none of them. Inter created less and fantastically converted one. Play that game 2 more times though and the Reds probably prevail about 5-1 over 180 minutes.
The Reds have the tools to go all the way this season because they have now recruited and developed a big enough squad to challenge in a 60-65 game season. There are no guarantees; every Premier League team has lost a home game this season in at least one competition, but Liverpool has the squad to get there.
A big part of this is based on possession value and it’s the biggest reason why new arrival Luis Diaz has slotted in so quickly. Liverpool and other top sides pass the ball with the idea of improving their scoring probability on the field. It’s a simple concept when you think about it! Who has a better chance of scoring than I do? Get them the ball.
This is an oversimplification of what needs to happen, but the key elements a player needs are outlined. Talking to a Barcelona supporter last week he told me that Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United were linked to their defender Carlos Araujo. Regardless of the validity of the links, I told him if Liverpool were in for him that he could do one thing with certainty – pass the ball well. Every Liverpool signing can, including the goalkeepers.
As I said Earlier…
You can’t win every game, but you can build an increasing win probability. Each player is assessed from a standpoint of how they make players around them better. So whereas Salah’s statistics for example, while impressive, are not light years ahead of others he plays with; coaches and scouts consider how his presence improves (or detracts) from other teammates. Indeed, Liverpool is a better side when the scoring is more evenly distributed.
This explains why center-forwards have an increasingly hard time in the best Premier League teams. Despite his obvious shooting ability, Ronaldo detracts from Manchester United, on the whole, Lukaku is struggling at Chelsea, while Giroud left the country despite being an obvious scoring threat.
The current setup at Kirkby meanwhile is positioned and conditioned to produce the right players for years to come. A pipeline of well-scouted players in their late teens to early twenties trickles in (usually about age 17-24); replacing the aging stars in much the same way that Paisley moved out Case for Lee, Thompson for Lawrenson, Kennedy for Whelan, etc.
Just 2 months ago a corner of our fan base was in a tornado-sized tizzy over the contracts of the front three expiring. I was told that Liverpool couldn’t make the Champions League without Salah in the team. Now it’s hard to see Diaz and Jota not starting regularly, and the idea at least of Firmino or Mane departing appears doable, even if not preferable.
The Incredible Treble! It’s still a big mountain to climb, Manchester City is as good a team as we are, and headers that should go in still come off the underside of the bar. The probability is that the Reds can grab one more piece of silverware. But regardless of the outcome this season, the future is bright!