Liverpool were one of the hottest sides in the front half of the 2016-17 season, but since the turn of the year their form has drastically declined. Premier League draws with Sunderland, Man United and Chelsea, coupled with defeats to Swansea and Hull, have left the Reds outside the top four, and with just three goals in three games. So is now the time to jettison your Liverpool players? Or will things pick up? I want to isolate the main problems Liverpool are having right now and look at if these problems can be addressed over the next few games, in order to make FPL recommendations.
Liverpool’s defensive problems have been widely publicised this season with the Reds conceding 30 goals in 24 games in the Premier League. They are yet to keep a clean sheet in 2017, conceding seven goals in three games to Hull, Swansea and Sunderland. The goalkeeper situation isn’t great, with Simon Mignolet back under scrutiny after errors against Chelsea and Hull, but Loris Karius hasn’t fared a whole lot better when he’s been playing. And ahead of him, Liverpool have innumerable problems in their back line. So I want to examine every area of Liverpool’s defence to see if things are likely to improve.
Starting in goal then, where Simon Mignolet’s latest high profile errors have left Jurgen Klopp with little choice but to drop the Belgian keeper, who is now expected to be sold in the summer. As such, it looks like Karius will start in goal against Tottenham on Saturday and whilst Karius has struggled at times on his debut season in English football, he’s only really made one huge error, against Bournemouth, although he should have done better to deny Payet’s free kick in the 2-2 draw with West Ham. However, the stats indicate that Karius’ return won’t necessarily benefit Liverpool significantly, as the Reds have conceded 12 goals in 10 games this season when he’s played, compared to 18 in 14 when Mignolet has, a difference of less than 0.1 goals per game.
— Dave Mitchell (@DodgyTatDave) January 28, 2017
Liverpool’s issues have continued at full back, where Nathaniel Clyne has been struggling with a rib injury that has at times in January kept him out of the starting line-up, and when he has played, his performances have been hindered. The good news for Liverpool fans is that this issue looks to be resolved, so Clyne should be back to his best. On the other flank, James Milner has looked good going forward at times this season, but is increasingly struggling to produce good crosses and cover the left side of his defence.
But to me the key issue is the central defensive partnership, which is a major issue for Liverpool this season. In the summer, Liverpool let go of Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure, with Mamadou Sakho losing his place in the team and now loaned out, leaving Dejan Lovren as the only first team central defender fit. Klopp brought in Ragnar Klavan, who has had mixed success, and Joel Matip, who is widely recognised as Liverpool’s best centre-back, leaving the team a CB light, hoping that Lucas and young Joe Gomez could fill the gap.
When Liverpool have been able to start Matip and Lovren together, their clear first choice partnership, the pair concede less than a goal a game, keeping three clean sheets and only conceding more than one goal on two occasions, and on one of those occasions both players were carrying niggling injuries. The problem for Liverpool has been getting them on the pitch together, as they’ve only started ten games together, with Lovren off at half time in the 2-2 draw with West Ham. Liverpool conceded nine goals in those games, which included fixtures against Man United, Spurs and Chelsea (twice).
However, when Liverpool have been unable to start both together, it’s been a different story. Ragnar Klavan has been partnered with Lovren on nine occasions, with mixed results. Although the pair have kept three clean sheets together, they also conceded three to Swansea and Arsenal, and twice against Burnley and Sunderland, totally twelve goals off nine games. Introducing Lucas Leiva to the mix, as Liverpool have done on four occasions, has proved disastrous, as Liverpool have conceded eight goals in four games with Lucas at CB, including four against Bournemouth and twice against Hull.
So will this situation improve over the next few weeks? Honestly it’s hard to say. Dejan Lovren might not be back for a while depending on the results of his knee scan, in which case the partnership would be the untested Matip and Klavan for a while. The two have only played together twice: in Liverpool’s 5-1 win against Hull and in the second half of the 2-2 draw against West Ham, when Lovren came off. If Lovren is fit to play against Spurs and moving forwards, then Liverpool’s defensive issues should stabilise, but if he isn’t, then they may well not.
In terms of FPL predictions, I would say that for now stay away from Liverpool’s defenders and goalkeeper for now. With only two defenders guaranteed to start (Clyne and Matip), and no guarantee of clean sheets, Liverpool’s defensive troubles should prohibit any selection.
As well as suffering problems at one end of the pitch, Liverpool are also suffering at the other. They’ve scored just seven goals in their last six league games, compared to 45 in the previous 18 (as well as scoring just two goals in five games against Plymouth, Wolves and Southampton in the cups). This is a problem that has been blamed on many things. Is Klopp’s system being found out? Are Liverpool being too slow and ponderous in midfield, with Emre Can’s poor performances the key factor? Are the team tired, and playing too many games in a short space of time with an under-equipped squad?
City with the best offense, Liverpool a good second.
Spurs win the volume shooting, but generate very low quality shots all year. pic.twitter.com/EPiS9BbXMe
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) February 5, 2017
Well all of these factors will play a part. A midfield of Can, Henderson and Wijnaldum is certainly lacking in creativity, but given that both Can and Wijnaldum only produce 0.1 key passes per game less than Adam Lallana does, that hardly seems to explain the problem. The idea that certain players are playing out of position is true, but for me, not the critical factor, as the likes of Lallana and Firmino, who were playing out of position at times have been in mixed form for months anyway.
I also suggest that the notion that Klopp’s team are being found out by teams that sit behind the ball is categorically untrue. Whilst Burnley, Man United and Southampton did manage to achieve a clean sheet against Liverpool back when they were playing well, these are all teams that are exceptionally good in defence (Burnley are at Turf Moor at least). In fact, Liverpool’s game against Hull is the first time that the Reds have failed to score in a league game since the draw with Southampton in November. Well for me the key problem in a creative sense is an overreliance on two individuals, who have been holding Liverpool together all season: Phillipe Coutinho and Sadio Mane.
45 Liverpool crosses directly led to two Liverpool shots. 15 Liverpool corners directly led to one Liverpool shot (one of those crosses).
— öh yoü beaüty (@natefc) February 4, 2017
During Liverpool’s best period of the season: the six fixtures before the international break where Liverpool scored 19 goals and picked up 16 points, Coutinho performed 22 key passes (almost four a game), securing four assists and three goals, and was Liverpool’s best player in every game apart from the 2-1 win over Swansea. Of course, then the international break came, Coutinho picked up a knock and then was injured long term one game later, not returning to the starting line up until Liverpool’s defeat to Swansea. Since then, he has achieved just one key pass in his last three starts. His creation stat has only been that low on other occasion where he’s played at least 45 minutes, in the 1-1 draw with Spurs in August.
Moving onto Mane then. During the period where Coutinho was injured, it was Mane who stepped up on the creative front. Between Liverpool’s two victories over Sunderland, after which Mane went off to the ACON, Mane started seven games, creating sixteen chances. Over that same period of seven games, Lallana created eleven chances across six games, and Firmino eleven across seven.
But since Mane left for the ACON, Liverpool have imploded. Shorn of Coutinho and Mane, their two creative lynchpins, they simply haven’t had the same level of creativity. Across their four games against Man United, Swansea, Chelsea and Hull, Lallana, Coutinho and Firmino created just eleven chances between them.
Both Firmino and Lallana have been impressive at times this season, but both have been incredibly inconsistent, and neither have played particularly well for long periods. Since the turn of the year, with the exception of Firmino’s two goals against Swansea, neither has produced a meaningful contribution to the side, which with Mane away and Coutinho clearly not fully recovered from his injury, simply isn’t good enough.
In terms of creativity, there is simply too much of a burden on Coutinho and Mane, and with the former still recovering from injury and the latter off at the ACON, that has been a problem for Liverpool.
Now one counter response is that Lallana has seven goals and seven assists this season, and Firmino has the most key passes in this side (48 compared to Coutinho’s 37). So I calculated the expected assists per 90 from open play for each of the front four. And despite having secured seven assists this season, Lallana’s expected assist tally is only 2.85, significantly less than Mane (3.66) and Firmino (4.94) and his expected assists per 90 is only 0.156, compared to Coutinho’s which is 0.194, and since Coutinho is the only one of the front four to take set pieces, his is bolstered further. Moreover, Lallana has failed to create a single chance on 7 occasions this season in 19 games where he has played at least 45 minutes, easily the worst record of Liverpool’s front four, with Mane’s 5 in 20 the closest.
So despite having notched seven assists, Lallana is easily one of the least creative players in Liverpool’s side. And whilst Firmino is on paper the most creative, he is wholly inconsistent. In over half of his starts, Firmino plays at most one key pass. And although he has played at least four key passes in a game seven times, only on three occasions were those games where Coutinho did not also create at least three chances and, perhaps more worryingly, he has only done so twice without Coutinho on the pitch and only once since the international break in November.
One final thing to note is that Liverpool’s front four have created 148 chances between them this season across 24 games, working out at 6.17 per game. In terms of the Can vs Wijnaldum debate, in the five games that Can has started ahead of Wijnaldum this season, rather than alongside or with just Wijnaldum, Liverpool’s front four have created 41 chances, at 8.2 per game, higher than average with only one of those five games (the 0-0 draw with United) securing below that average.
So what does this mean for FPL? And what does it mean for Liverpool’s slump? Well in terms of the slump, the key factor for Jurgen Klopp is getting Phillipe Coutinho back to his best ASAP. With a week’s rest between the game between Hull and Saturday’s visit of Spurs, and then another 16 days before they play Leicester, I would say Coutinho could well get fit and firing soon, which would hopefully end Liverpool’s slump.
So for FPL predictions, I would say that at this stage whilst gambling on two or three Liverpool players is unwise, keeping in one Liverpool midfielder remains a good idea. I would say that with Lallana and Firmino in wretched form, and Coutinho potentially hit and miss, right now in form Sadio Mane is probably Liverpool’s best option, and remains a good option to keep in your teams, although at £9.1m he is expensive. Coutinho is only £8.3m but if he can regain the form he found in early season, then he will be a bargain at that price.
Brendan Rodgers has better record at Liverpool than Klopp. Better defence and more goals after 54 PL games. ???? pic.twitter.com/F1LP94yJyR
— BlueCityZen (@BlueCitizen007) February 7, 2017
Defensively, it’s hard to say whether Liverpool will improve without a more intimate knowledge of Dejan Lovren’s knee injury, but overall I’d say that there’s not much evidence to suggest that Liverpool’s issues are going to drastically resolve themselves. As such, I would stay away from Liverpool defenders.
Looking forwards, I would say that Phillipe Coutinho’s form is critical to Liverpool’s success and if he regains his form, which Liverpool fans are hoping that he will in the next few gameweeks, then he or Sadio Mane remain good choices moving forwards. But if Coutinho continues to play poorly, then Liverpool’s slump will continue, making both players selections a relative gamble at their current pricing.