Grading Liverpool Season: On Track or Train Wreck?

There is somewhat of a trinity I use when grading a football team; they are the eye test, the stats, and the results. In other words, does a football team look good, do the stats look good, and do the results look good? The caveat here is that not all three of the trinity are worth the same and there is a hierarchy. Results, of course, trump all and are then followed by the eye test and then the stats. It goes without saying but, nobody cares if the stats look good if the football is crap and if the results are even worse. Similarly, who cares if the stats are crap if the football entertains and the results inspire hope. Regardless, I need to look at all three before making any type of judgment on a team.

This brings us to this Liverpool team and their schizophrenic start to the season. I say schizophrenic to really harp on the trauma these Reds have put me through and to highlight the strain it has put on my mental health. It makes no sense that this team could come out and run City off the park in the least friendly “glorified-friendly” you’re likely to ever see and then struggle to deal with the likes of Fulham and Crystal Palace. My head has gone several times only to then be thusly glued back on by the same men that had lopped it off. I feel like Michael Scott, dealing with his vasectomies.

“Snip, snap, snip, snap.”

Now What for the Results?

However, I digress. The 17-day gap we exist in between Ajax and Brighton has allowed me the time to properly evaluate this iteration of Klopp’s Liverpool away from the emotion of living it at the moment. A massive thank you is extended to Joel Matip for his header against the Dutch Champions, without which I wouldn’t have had the strength to muster the desire to write a piece that was anything more than a long, Karen-Esque complaint letter to the team. Again, tangent aside, I have taken the time to properly digest this first part of the season.

Firstly, and the most important of the grading trinity of litmus tests, are the results which I will split between the league and Europe. In the league, without a doubt, the team is far below expectation and par. Whether or not we are transitioning tactically or dealing with an injury, there exists enough quality in the team to have mustered more than 9 points from their first 6 league matches. It is especially heinous that we only collected 2 points from the first two matches against Fulham and Palace. Dropping these points then made the games away to United and Everton, matches in which we normally wouldn’t mind drawing, into must-wins. We of course did not win these matches which have only compounded the generally disappointing nature of the early season results in the league.

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Silver Linings or Things to Come?

With all that being said, the fact we are 9 off the top and 8 behind City, with a game in hand, despite massively underachieving should properly contextualize that disappointing start. Cheekily, missing out on 2 league matches while we are clearly struggling to get our feet underneath us is a bit of a blessing in disguise. So, even with the results being underwhelming within the scope of our own expectations, they haven’t necessarily doomed our overall ambitions. Not a failure in grading for me.

Matip Celebrates an Important LFC Goal

In Europe, I feel we’ve actually managed to be on par. Although the nature of the defeat at Napoli, and where it sat in regards to the above-described mess of our league season, was a hard one to stomach, losing away to Napoli is something of a tradition for Liverpool and Klopp. That we followed that up with a win at home against the top-seeded team in our group, Ajax, nullifies that loss, no matter how embarrassing it was. Really, all you can demand from a team in Europe is to win all its home games and steal a point or two away from home.

With back-to-back matches with Rangers on the horizon, whilst Ajax and Napoli take points off one another, the Reds are still set up nicely in the group to qualify and even take the top spot. Even with the league being poor and the Napoli defeat being the way it was, we cannot deny the fact we are right on track in Europe.

Which Brings Us to the Eye Test

The Reds haven’t exactly nailed that one either. For the most part, the Reds have looked disjointed and have lacked intensity. Whether this comes down to Klopp transitioning the tactics or a mix of both mental and physical fatigue, Liverpool just has not looked at their magnificent best at any point of the season except for the Bournemouth match. For me, they look like a team thinking a bit too much about what it is they are doing as opposed to operating instinctually. I am more inclined to believe that the team is dealing with a tweak in the tactics than that they are dealing with immense levels of fatigue, physical or otherwise, so early into the season.

Though football is a thinking man’s game, it greatly benefits those who can think quickly and instinctively and make the correct decision. Unfortunately, it feels as if this Liverpool is processing the information and making the decisions just fractionally too slow. However, even if they have been clearly coming to grips with some type of change, they haven’t completely lost the plot or looked like a side completely devoid of any ideas. So while they haven’t passed the eye test, they aren’t necessarily failing it, not wholly at least.

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Lastly, is Grading the Stats

These of course are the least valued of the trinity despite the fact they provide far more insight than the other two. You can gather results and still play awful (see Sean Dyche). Similarly, you can be exciting and still have massive failings (see Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool). However, as the saying goes, numbers don’t lie. Stats don’t have biases, they are just a collection of data.

Now of course the people who interpret the data and the data points they choose to ignore/include have biases. So I will first admit that my bias here is to find hope that quite possibly, though Liverpool hasn’t entirely looked at their best, Liverpool is still operating in the upper echelons of the league.

Grading Goal Creation:

It has felt at times that we have been unable to create opportunities and that we have no idea how to score a goal. However, Liverpool is the top dog in the league for Shots-per 90 and Shots on Target per 90. Now, raw shot totals don’t account for the quality of chance, so I next looked at expected goals and expected assists per 90 to quantify the quality of these opportunities. In both categories, we sit just behind City in 2nd in the Premier League. In fact, we and City are the only two teams in the league to sit above 2 expected goals a game and 1.4 expected assists per game. Even deeper than that, we are 3rd in the league behind City and Tottenham for Goal Creating Actions and, more importantly, we lead the league in Shot Creating Actions per 90.

So, statistically speaking at least, we still find ourselves performing at the top end of the league from a broad attacking standpoint. We just haven’t been able to capitalize on it, which might not be surprising given we have been without our most efficient finisher in Jota for much of the first part.

Grading Defensive Metrics

Though all this attacking data is encouraging, ultimately the easiest way to win a football game is to not concede any goals and so we need to now have a look at how we are performing defensively in comparison to our competitors in the league. Here we find a real mixed bag. We are in the top 3 for Shot Creating Actions but down at 7th in regards to Goal Creating Actions conceded. Liverpool leads the league in press success percentage, but find themselves in 10th for total pressures in the attacking third (where’d we most want to win the ball back). Furthermore, though the Reds are 3rd for shots on targets against per 90, they are in 6th for expected goals against per 90.

Whilst there is some encouragement from the stats from a defensive standpoint there are some areas where we are clearly below our standard. I cannot really say for certain why this would be, but if I had to speculate I would again lean towards the squad figuring out a new system or style they’ll be playing in. Regardless, the stats on both sides paint a much more hopeful picture than the results would lead you to believe or the eyes would have you see

Grading the Season So Far

So, when it comes to grading this Liverpool team thus far into the season, I think it would be fair to say that they’re a great team bubbling under the surface. Yes, the results have been below expectation and the Reds haven’t really put in many noteworthy performances as of yet, but they haven’t totally imploded their ambitions and the stats show us a team that is still performing at the top of the league in many key aspects of their game.

Of course, as I started off by saying, the results and eye test will always trump what the stats have to say, grading-wise. However, given where this team was last year and even a few weeks ago in the Community Shield, I think in this instance we can take a bit of solace in the stats and what they show us. So, I would tend to think the results will move towards the stats as the season progresses rather than the opposite.

Being a possible 6 and 5 back of Arsenal and City respectively if we handle our game in hand ultimately means that our league ambitions are still in our own hands (if only barely). Having won our only home Champions League match thus far also still keeps our European ambitions in our hands. Though it may seem ridiculous to say given the nature of the results, and the way they made us feel, it’s hard to argue against this Liverpool team is on track.