A challenge of solving soccer is understanding its chain reaction, of how advantages or inadequacies in certain parts of the field affect the entire structure in unforeseen ways. Currently, we crudely divide up the field into four sections - some form of a goalie, defense, midfield, and forward line - as a gateway into basic analysis. Giving up goals signals a poor defense, scoring goals means a dangerous attack. So what then, to make of Liverpool failing to score a goal in four consecutive matches for the first time since the 1999-00 season? The side’s last goal, from Sadio Mane, came over 438 minutes and 87 shots ago. Most importantly, they’ve taken three points from their last five league matches, going from a title race to up just one point for a Champions League position.
It can’t be the front line, with Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mo Salah the same trio from last season that combined for 46 out of the side’s 85 league goals. Salah still leads the league in goals with 13, though their 37 team goals through 18 matches is down from their 46 goal pace at the same time last season. So it is the midfield? Or could the lack of goals be due to an imbalance further down the field, with injuries to center backs Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez’s affecting the entire balance all the way to a side’s goalscoring. We have a dropoff in traditional defensive metrics, with van Dijk and Gomez first and third in ball recoveries last season. But in the pair, they also lost two of their top five players in total touches and distance in carries. Not only did the center backs defend, they also repressured opponents with the ball.
We can go one step further in codifying the abstract idea of team pressure. Van Dijk and Gomez’s comfort in pressing at the halfway line pushed the rest of the side forward. The three center midfielders had less space to defend, simplifying their decisions. The same went for Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who instead of having to use energy defending an entire wing, could focus on reception and service in the final third. And ultimately, Salah, Firmino, and Mane would pick up the ball closer to goal.
Without the van Dijk and Gomez (and Joel Matip), that pressure chain is showing slow leaks. It begins with replacement center backs Fabinho, Nat Phillips, and Rhys Williams dropping deeper to give themselves more protection. The midfield and fullbacks then drop deeper to compensate, giving opposition more room to launch counter attacks. Salah, Firmino, and Mane also receive the ball further down the field, turning what was potentially a direct line to go instead more dribbles, tricks, and opportunities for a sequence to breakdown. Without the suffocating press, opponents can find space to launch their counters.
Interestingly, Liverpool gave up 11 goals in four matches with van Dijk, and only 11 goals in the 14 matches since. The total speaks to the individual quality of the replacements within their own vacuum. But there are nuances past the numbers. Winning the ball on the halfway line counts the same as winning the ball inside the penalty area on the stat sheet, but the former upholds Liverpool’s high-pressing structure. It’s not just about a player’s individual actions, but how those actions make a system function.
The struggle without van Dijk and Gomez also makes us re-examine Liverpool’s front three. At their most dominant, the trio seemed able to create goals by themselves, out of nothing, irregardless of Liverpool defenders. We thought the divisions were clear: the center backs and midfielders defended, the fullbacks crossed the ball, and Mane, Firmino, and Salah took care of the rest. What we missed was an extra element, some indefinable constant pressure that allowed Liverpool to shorten the field and wear opponents down over 90 minutes due to a lack of an outlet.
Klopp famously said that winning the ball high up the field was a team’s best playmaker. But we can add further wrinkles in examining the idea of overarching pressure, which includes pressing and passing tempo, all inside an opponent’s half.
Liverpool’s inability to score then makes sense with the attacking trio receiving the ball deeper at inconsistent moments, required to do more. Even the most world-class strikers are not magicians. This current lack of goalscoring makes you appreciate how balanced and calibrated last season’s roster was, with each piece filling a defined duty that may or may not show up in the state sheet. It could also ask us to reconsider other famous attacking sides throughout recent history. We know the attackers, but who were the centerbacks?
But this also shows the difficulty of defining individual statistics within the sport. A striker’s goalscoring tally is not necessarily the truest display of their overall ability depending on their service. An otherwise talented center back could be overlooked because of a lack of protection from their fullbacks or defensive midfielder. But these mysteries should be celebrated, of how the moving parts make it impossible to dwindle players down into a single number. Not all goals, passes, clearances, or tackles are the same. There is still space for the eye test.
And there is definitely still room for balancing personalities and egos. Salah spoke last month of his disappointment to not be captained in a Champions League match against Midtjylland, hinting again at the possibility of joining Real Madrid or Barcelona this summer.
There have been hints of tension in the past between the trio despite their on-field success. Whereas Firmino has his defined role as the playmaker, Mane and Salah battle for goals and international prestige. Robertson admitted there were times when “Bobby could have passed, Sadio could have passed, or Mo could have passed,” but there was an understanding that selfish goalscoring signaled overall team success. Those were first-world tensions during the positive times when goals flowed, when it was a matter of who and not when. Now, there is no room for compromises. You get all the goals you can take.
“You cannot force it, ‘shoot now’ or stuff like this...you have to create and create and create, then we will score,” said Klopp following Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Manchester United.
The matchup represented the first time during the modern, social media age where a clash between the two rivals meant something on the table. This current Liverpool era coincided with a downturn from United, who hadn’t been on top since the 2012-13 season. You could feel it in the buildup, there was a familiar tension and angst.
Klopp warned before the match that this season’s title race would go down to the very end, spinning it in favor of excited supporters. After the draw, Klopp re-centered his expectations. No longer were Liverpool in an exciting title race, but instead were “just” battling for a place in the Champions League. He also added that he wasn’t surprised Manchester United haven’t won a title in eight years due to the rise of City, Chelsea, and Leicester City. Titles are not promised. Windows open only for so long, and shut just as quickly. Liverpool slipped in the title race over the last four matches without scoring. Though considering the structure of the team, this current drought is only catching up to the injuries from much earlier in the season.