As we have seen this year, Liverpool’s lack of goals has been evident in comparison with the last two seasons in which the team was in great form and was able to score consistently. By midway of the premier league (19 games) this year Liverpool find themselves in 5th place with 34 points accumulated and only 37 goals scored thus far in the premier league. A significant drop from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons where after 19 games they were leading the premier league in both seasons with 51 points, 43 goals in 2018-19 and 55 points 47 goals in 2019/20.
Considering the poor form this season I looked at what might be the cause of their drop in performances and especially their inability to score as much as they were in the previous 2 seasons where they were able to win the champions league and the premier league, respectively. While defensively it is obvious that the absence of Van Dijk and the many injuries, they have gone through this season has affected them defensively, in the attack they have not suffered as many injuries and it is unclear why star players such as Salah, Mane, and Firmino are not creating as many clear chances in games and in Mane’s and Firmino’s case are failing to get on the scoresheet as often as before.
The tactical approach of the opponents affecting Liverpool’s Game Model
In football, it is known that the way the opponent decides to play can have a significant impact in the way that your own team will play. If you want to have a more transitional and direct game, however the opponent decides to always retreat to their own half and utilize counter attacks as their main way to attack you, that will result in your team having more possession of the ball than originally expected and that will affect the style of play.
It looks like this is exactly what is happening with Liverpool so far this season. Many teams have started to drop their lines even more and face Liverpool with a much lower block than in the past, allowing them a lot of possession but extremely limited space in the attacking third. Klopp in a way, has been unable to see his team play his favorite transition “Heavy Metal” style that has been known for since his early days at Mainz, and later at Borussia Dortmund.
The quality of Liverpool’s team has constantly improved during Klopp’s time, that has resulted in their average possession per game to increase each year. If we compare Wyscout stats since 2017-18 season, when Liverpool had brought in all the core players that led them to success, we notice that the average possession has increased from 58.94% in 2017-2018 season to 62.94% so far this season, with the last 5 games having more than 65% in each and even going past 70% against Newcastle. While overall possession might not tell the whole story if we look at the PPDA (passes per defensive action) we see a similar trend where the number has gone from 17.6 in the 2017-18 season to 21.3 this season.
Movements of the front 3 in the attack
With the change in style of play from opponent’s affecting Liverpool’s style as well, that means that certain movements that worked well for their front 3 in the past might not be as effective anymore. This has become evident from Firmino’s contributions this season. His “false 9” role in the past 3 seasons at Liverpool has been effective and a great way to create space as well as help attacking partners Salah and Mane get on the scoresheet in the past. While quite often he has sacrificed his own goal scoring record by dropping between lines and serve more as a link player to help Salah and Mane score more, he has been praised and complemented for the role he played in Liverpool’s amazing attacking game. However, recently it seems as if “the false 9” role is not working anymore. The opponent is so deep and there is very little space between the lines, that when Firmino drops he gets picked up by a midfield player. When that happens, it seems that this only helps the opposing defenders now focus more on Salah’s and Mane’s movement which is not hard to predict since they mostly attack their respective half-spaces without a lot of positional rotation between them. This has made Liverpool be a lot more predictable in the attack and not creating as many clear chances to justify their possession.
Not enough variability of player profiles for the attacking positions
The changing game model requires players that fit into the new style that is becoming increasingly more dominant in possession for Liverpool. When looking at Liverpool’s attacking personnel you cannot help but notice the similarity between players: Salah, Mane, Minamino and new signing Jota, are somewhat players with similar characteristics. The same goes with Firmino and Origi. While all of them are incredibly talented and have been the key players to the team’s success in the past 2-3 years, it looks like Liverpool are lacking a #9 with more presence in the box, who is explosive and a specialist in the air, that you can rely on to keep the center backs occupied and create space for the wingers and attacking midfielders to get into shooting positions. But a player like this can also serve as a focal point in the box for crosses. Liverpool are relying more and more on crosses recently with the teams waiting for them in a low block, they are sending on average 21.89 crosses per game including 41 against both Burnley and Southampton and 39 against West Bromwich in the last few games. Having an explosive player who is dominant in the air inside the box could increase the threat of their crosses especially when the game requires it in the last few minutes, which is something that as of now they are missing.
Another profile of a player that can bring something fresh to this Liverpool team is an attacking midfielder that can make a late run in the box to be unmarked and get at the end of a cross. All of Liverpool’s attacking midfielders they lack height and do not provide much in the aerial game, so having a player of these characteristics can add an extra layer of threat from crosses. Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlein, Shaqiri and Minamino have all played in the most attacking center midfield position and while they offer a lot with their dribbling and creativity, the one thing that they cannot offer is making that late run in the box to get at the end of a cross. A good example of this is Frenkie de Jong for Barcelona who has scored 4 important goals in all competitions by making late runs into the box.
Liverpool still possesses enough quality to turn things around and finish top of the premier league table for a second consecutive time. This article aims to show how the tactical approach that most teams have adopted when playing Liverpool have affected their style of play and the problems it has created for Liverpool’s forwards. It would be interesting to see how Jurgen Klopp and his staff would try to solve this problem and the tactical adaptations they will make especially since bringing a new forward does not seem a very likely scenario.