Jürgen Klopp recently had little alternative but to change course with Liverpool. While the adjustment is not necessarily a bad thing, it has taken a toll on his best playmaker
The decline in Liverpool’s play between last season and this season has been agonizing to watch. The causes for the collapse are numerous, but the end consequence is that the team is now mid-table in the Premier League, with minimal chances of qualifying for the Champions League.
If the concerns had to be summed up in a single word, ‘control’ would be a good place to start. Even in 2019/20, the Reds nearly never won every single match at their height, but they almost always dominated games in terms of ball possession as well as shots for and against. Because this season has been significantly simpler to play through, they have lost control of their fate, first in matches and subsequently in the league table.
Their possession average is only 2.3 percent lower than it was in 2021/22, and it is only 0.5 point lower than it was in their title-winning season. However, as with all football data, it’s not only a matter of how many times a player or team accomplishes something, but also where on the pitch it happens. In this aspect, Liverpool faces a significant dilemma in the future.
Opta features a zone of control graphic that divides the pitch into 30 pieces and considers a side to be in control of a zone if it has more than 55% of the total touches within it. Last season, the only areas in which the Reds were dominated were the three that comprise the opponent penalty area, but that was true of every side in the Premier League (per Opta Analyst). Liverpool had the highest percentage of touches in the attacking box, accounting for 23% of all touches in the division.
It’s amazing to observe how, despite a rough season, the Reds have improved in this area. While there is no clear data to examine for an explanation, the addition of Darwin Nez — a shot monster who barely touches the ball beyond the penalty area and frequently pulls to the left — is undoubtedly hypothesis number one.
Despite their advances, Liverpool still only takes 31% of the touches in the box on average. That area of the pitch will never be within your control. Last season, however, it had a pretty good hold on the regions just in front of the box, known as the half-space and zone 14 on Twitter. Most clubs (with the exception of Manchester City and Chelsea) were completely dominated in those areas, while the Reds had enough of the ball to make them disputed zones.
Liverpool averaged 49% of touches throughout the three zones in 2021/22, but that ratio has been reduced by 12% this season. To make matters worse, it had improved from previous season (to 51%) after six games, but then had a nightmare in the 3-3 draw with Brighton, and the stats have been on a downward slope ever since.
With Jürgen Klopp having launched a mid-block in recent weeks, the figures may not entirely recover (albeit Liverpool’s remaining matchups are, on paper, easier than those they have played). This isn’t inherently a problem, but it is when the team no longer wins the ball high up the pitch.
According to @ JKDS_, the Reds are eighth in the Premier League in terms of average ball win height this season. As shown in the figure above, there is virtually little recovery heat in front of the opposing box. They don’t dominate certain zones as much as they used to, but they also don’t win the ball there. It has devolved into a nothingness.
Klopp’s preferred playmaker, the counterpress, has failed where it has always excelled. Whether they want control or pressure to dominate, the Reds must do far more when they are close to the penalty area.