Liverpool’s defensive frailties against the Premier League’s bottom 10 threatens to be the wrecking ball to their top-four ambitions
“It’s not about playing the best football in the world, it’s about getting results.”
Jurgen Klopp has been stressing Liverpool’s need to be able to “win ugly”, to put defence at the forefront of their thinking and prioritise protection over their attacking instincts.
The German’s decision to replace an ill Philippe Coutinho with centre-back Joel Matip in the 2-2 draw at home to Bournemouth in midweek has been picked apart.
Only 65 minutes had been played, the Reds were in the ascendancy at 2-1 up, and Eddie Howe’s side were not offering up any kind to threat to force such a cautious change.
The flow of the encounter at Anfield altered following that substitution as the visiting manager admitted it encouraged Bournemouth to push for a leveller, with Liverpool sitting deeper in preservation of what they had.
Klopp, perhaps, rewound to the previous encounter with the Cherries where his men surrendered a 3-1 advantage with 15 minutes remaining to be rolled 4-3.
Or the safety-first approach could have been based on the fact Liverpool have to offer very little at the back for the Premier League’s bottom 10 to get a lot out of them.
This is demonstrated by Opta’s Expected Goals (xG) model, which measures how likely a particular shot is to be scored based on distance to the goal, angle to the goal, assist type, whether or not it was headed and a variety of other factors.
This assigns an xG value between 0 and 1 that reflects how likely the shot is to be scored. So, for example, 0.3 xG means a shot will typically be scored 30 per cent of the time.
In this instance, the Merseysiders largely concede as expected against sides in the top half of the table, restricting the high-quality chances they give away.
Against the rest, though, they have let in nearly 10 more than anticipated. Indeed, Liverpool conceded 13.4 xG against the top 10, which rises to 17.8 xG against the bottom 10.
The latter are allowed to work the Reds’ rearguard more often, and on five occasions this season, these teams have managed to convert each shot on target against Klopp’s charges.
The most recent example was on Wednesday night, when Bournemouth scored twice from as many shots on target to depart Anfield with a point.
Given four of Liverpool’s remaining seven fixtures are against Stoke (12th), Crystal Palace (16th), West Ham (15th) and Middlesbrough (19th), it’s no wonder the Reds boss has been keen to amplify results over performance, while highlighting how critical it is for his players to be resolute at the back.
Currently in third having a played a game more than fellow top-four teams Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City, they can ill afford more stumbles against the ‘lesser’ sides with Arsenal and Manchester United within striking distance.
The Gunners are six points adrift of Liverpool with two games in hand, while Jose Mourinho’s men have the same number of fixtures spare and equal ground to make up.
It would be disastrous for the Reds not to finish in the Champions League places given their stellar start to the season and considering their run-in, which every team just above and below them would happily trade for.
But in order for them to mix it with Europe’s elite, Liverpool have to first mitigate their deficiencies against the division’s dross.