AS the October rains fall, the sunny days of July feel very far away. For Liverpool supporters, they have seemed particularly distant.
On 30 July, Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-1 in the Community Shield. Darwin Nunez scored on his debut. Mohamed Salah tucked away a penalty. Erling Haaland missed a hatful of chances.
It was a game to fill all Reds fans with optimism. Yet, with Liverpool and City to meet on Sunday for the first time since that game, the optimism has taken a hammering.
Some positivity has returned following the 7-1 thrashing of Rangers at Ibrox which has put Liverpool in clear sight of the Champions League round of 16. Beating City on Sunday would almost fully restore it.
Yet while Manchester City – and Haaland in particular – have picked up momentum as the season has progressed, Liverpool have largely gone backwards.
Liverpool were two wins from a historic quadruple in 2021-22. They were an Ilkay Gundogan double and a sliding Vinicius Junior from being the first English men’s team to lift all four major trophies available.
To come so close to immortality and fall just short would create a hangover for any team. But the dip Liverpool have suffered in the Premier League has been quite striking.
According to Opta, Liverpool’s shots per game in the league is down from 19.2 last season to 17.5 this term, while their xG (expected goals) per game has also dropped, from 2.6 to 1.8.
Yet it is not that their attack has been completely neutered – their average number of touches in the opposition box has gone up from 38.9 to 42.1 and the number of open-play crosses per game is also up from 15.6 to 16.4.
This comes from an attack that was once so settled, but now showing signs of breaking apart piece by piece.
Sadio Mane departed for Bayern Munich. Salah, six-minute hat-trick in Glasgow aside, has not found the form of recent campaigns. Nunez is only now starting to settle since his debut goal, a red card against Crystal Palace not helping matters.
‘Chopping and changing is a massive issue’
That flux in midfield and attack is the main cause of concern for Chris Sutton, who feels the loss of key players, the arrival of new faces and a drop in form for the stars who remain has all combined to create a perfect storm of problems for Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Speaking on the Monday Night Club on BBC Radio 5 Live, Sutton said: “A lot of things are the problem at this moment in time. A lot of players have been simply out of form. Look at team selections as well, they have chopped and changed.
“The chopping and changing is a massive issue. Harvey Elliott is a nice footballer but in the team at the wrong time. That is an issue, they haven’t found continuity.
“They are looking for leadership and it just hasn’t been there which is pretty remarkable. What is an acceptable finish for Liverpool? Because they aren’t going to win the league.”
An unsettled front line has crushed Liverpool’s ability to create big chances this season – the team has 1.5 per match on average, according to Nielsen Gracenote.
Gracenote finds that in 2021-2022, Liverpool created an average of 3.75 big chances per match and in their title-winning season, 3.5 per match.
|Big chances created per match – Manchester City & Liverpool since 2016/17
|Source: Nielsen Gracenote
Things are not well at the other end of the field either. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s form – or lack of it – has been a big subject of debate, while Virgil van Dijk hasn’t been the same imposing figure at times this campaign. The average number of goals conceded per game has more than doubled, from 0.7 to 1.5.
Liverpool conceded 26 goals in the league in all of 2021-22 and have let in 12 already in 2022-23. They faced 111 shots on target in the Premier League all last season, and are up to 31 already this – 2.9 per game, up to 3.9 every match.
They have conceded the first goal in six of their eight Premier League matches this season. According to Gracenote, only Southampton, with seven, have conceded the opener more frequently – having played a game more than Liverpool.
This was an issue creeping in last season. Liverpool conceded goals in six of the their last 14 Premier League games – including each of the last four – each time the opposition scored first. However, the Reds came back to claim 14 points in those six games.
This campaign, in the six games they have trailed, they have gone on to collect six points.
Are Liverpool at the end of a cycle?
The stats certainly tell a bleak tale for Liverpool but they cannot explain the whole story. Rather, they are the outcome of less quantifiable issues for Klopp’s team.
There is a feeling that this Liverpool team has reached the end of a cycle. At over 28 years old, Liverpool’s starters this season have been their oldest on average since Klopp became manager, with the third oldest average in the Premier League.
The core of the team has remained relatively unchanged over the past few seasons with the likes of Allison, Van Dijk, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Salah still being relied on week after week.
Gracenote finds that Manchester City’s only Premier League finish outside the top two under Pep Guardiola was also when the team’s starters became this old on average, and that every Premier League champion from the past six seasons has had a weighted average age between 26.61 and 27.67 for their starting players.
In 2017-18, Liverpool had the youngest average age of a squad in the top flight. When they won the league in 2019-20, they were still only the ninth oldest.
Of course, age is just a number and as a stat must be taken with a pinch of salt, as should the idea of Klopp suffering “seventh season syndrome” – he departed Mainz and Borussia Dortmund in his seventh campaign, and is currently on year seven at Anfield.
However, an extended time at any football club brings tactical familiarity for your opponents and there is a fear that the rest of the Premier League have Liverpool all figured out.
As Aston Villa manager, Dean Smith beat Klopp’s Liverpool 7-2 on 4 October 2020, having managed to work out where the Reds’ defensive issues lay.
Smith told the Monday Night Club: “Our build-up to that game was to play in behind Liverpool; they do play a really high line. They counter press unbelievably, we felt the space was behind them and we needed to switch play and get runners behind them.”
Haaland vs Nunez
The contrast between Liverpool and Manchester City this season has been exemplified by the polar opposite campaigns of their flagship striker signings in the summer.
In the 97th minute of the Community Shield, shortly after Nunez had bagged Liverpool’s third to make the trophy safe, Haaland struck the crossbar with the goal gaping after Adrian spilled a shot.
The City fans clutched their heads, the Liverpool supporters jeered, pundits pondered whether Pep had bought a pup.
Haaland has scored 20 goals in all competitions since then. Nunez four.
If there was a time for the Uruguayan to bring back a bit of that July sunshine and optimism for Liverpool, this Sunday would surely be it.
Culled from BBC SPORT