It hasn’t been the easiest road for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool this season. With Luis Suárez gone and Daniel Sturridge injured, two of their main offensive threats from last year’s title challenge have been out of the picture. Yet Liverpool would have faced a difficult 2014-15 even if both of those players had been available.
Let’s put expected goal models and positional tracking aside for a moment. For Liverpool, a glance at some basic statistics can be quite revealing. Here’s how their shots looked for the past four seasons:
For starters, the edge in penalty shots in 2013-14 was so high that it looked very unlikely to repeat itself anytime soon. And the other categories offered more reason for pause. Liverpool was most dominant in shooting from open play in 2012-13; in shots from set pieces, crosses, and direct free kicks, their biggest edge came in 2011-12.
Of course, these statistics say nothing about the quality of Liverpool’s shots. As I’ve written before, quality may be preferable to quantity, all other things equal. But the extreme dominance of those two seasons was not matched in 2013-14. Liverpool’s success must have come from somewhere – or someone – else.
Suárez, who scored 31 league goals, none from penalties, is the obvious candidate. Here are his shots and shooting percentages:
Put simply, his shooting from open play was unprecedented in his Premier League career. In fact, in the past four seasons, only four players with at least 50 shots bested Suárez’s shooting percentage: Dimitar Berbatov in 2010-11 (21% of 85 shots), Sergio Agüero in 2013-14 (21% of 73 shots), Robin Van Persie in 2010-11 (21% of 73 shots), and Daniel Sturridge in 2013-14:
Sturridge had never before shot so well from open play, either, and his shooting from set pieces, corners, and direct free kicks was also unusually good (albeit in a small sample). The rest of Liverpool’s players were hardly outstanding when shooting from open play, but their shots from set pieces, corners, and direct free kicks were shockingly accurate, too:
What about the opposition? Well, their shooting against Liverpool was neither especially good nor bad in 2013-14:
And it wasn’t as though Simon Mignolet, Liverpool’s goalkeeper, performed particularly well or badly – at least for him – when the opposition put its shots on target:
(Note that these are all saves, including blocked shots; I’m only using quick-and-dirty statistics here, after all.)
Just on the basis of these figures, Liverpool and Fenway Sports Group had reason to worry about 2014-15. The goalkeeper they had bought for £9m plus bonuses from Sunderland was probably nothing special. All those shots from dead balls probably wouldn’t be so kind again. And even if Liverpool had been able to call on both Suárez and Sturridge, it was unlikely, given historical data, that both would have continued to score at such outstanding rates. Regardless, Suárez’s performance in 2013-14 could only have been replaced by one of the top forwards in the world, and Liverpool did not buy one.
On top of all this, Liverpool’s defensive starters were passing the peak ages at their positions. Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, and Martin Skrtel started the 2013-14 season at age 28, and José Enrique was 27. All of them needed top-flight replacements, and Liverpool was forced into a transitional phase; the club broke up the old partnerships and brought in younger players with ability but little experience (Dejan Lovren excepted).
Finally, there was Steven Gerrard. He was 33 then. Now, despite continuing to score fantastic goals, he’ll never again play 3,000 minutes in a Premier League season. He’s leaving, in any case, and the question is who will lead Liverpool into a new era. For the time being, it’s an era of uncertainty.