A Reminder of Simpler, Joyous Times for Liverpool FC
Chapter 7 from 'This Red Planet: How Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC Enthralled and Conquered The World'
The following is probably the last chapter from my most recent book that I’ll share, in the hope that some people buy it for Christmas; and if only to remember how good things were back in the dim, distant past of, er, June 2022.
The book mixes analysis of last season (and the chaos and revival of the Covid-riven campaign of 2020/21) with perspectives from Liverpool fans around the world, on what the club means to them and how it provides a sense of community. (That said, due to email length limits, this part is excluded from the email version of this article, but is on the Substack website/app.)
To buy the book in paperback or on Kindle, see the links below. Or skip past the links to read the chapter.
Or see the Amazon store local to your country, if there is one (albeit not all will sell the paperback version).
Chapter Seven: Goals Galore – A New Club Record
A record-breaking season of goals – 147, to mirror the maximum break in snooker (which also involves a lot of reds) – started at Norwich, first game, after just 25 minutes: a back-to-front move that saw Virgil van Dijk, after winning possession, lay the ball to James Milner, who pinged the ball out to the far side, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. His low pass-cum-cross into the box was miscontrolled by Mo Salah, but, in the first of his many assists (this one inadvertent), it fell straight to an alert Diogo Jota, who swept the ball under the keeper. Salah then assisted Roberto Firmino for the second, and the game was won when, lurking on the edge of a packed box at a corner – at which Liverpool’s giants were being blocked and man-handled – the Egyptian opened his own account as the ball fell to him, and he curled it towards the top corner.
It was fitting that Jota scored the opening goal. Although his season petered out, Jota was by far the top scorer of the Reds’ vital opening goals in games: ten, to six from Sadio Mané and five from Mo Salah. Next came Ibrahima Konaté of all people, with three; tied with Taki Minamino, albeit the Japanese’s goals were in lesser competitions, bar the vital strike in league game 37 which took the title race to the final day. In terms of scoring the ‘winner’ (the last goal in a one-goal victory), Mané did so four times, with Salah and Divock Origi on two apiece. (Origi got a two-for at Wolves, when his injury time opener was also the winner.)
In a fast start to the season, Jota and Mané added two more in the next game, at home to Burnley, whilst a Salah penalty rescued a point at home to Chelsea in the third match, as the Reds sat third on goal difference, with Manchester United top, also with seven points.
In all competitions, the first sixteen games saw 12 wins, four draws and, perhaps not required for the mathematically minded amongst you, no defeats. By the time the Reds travelled to West Ham in early November, they had scored 42 goals. They added two more that day, but the team balance in that initial third of the season was not quite right, with opponents allowed numerous good chances; conceding three goals to David Moyes’ team, to suffer a defeat, and shipping two or more goals against AC Milan (eventual Italian champions), Brentford, Manchester City (understandable), Atlético Madrid (also understandable), and Brighton – a draw from a 2-0 advantage, where, back for a game in my old season ticket seat, I saw Mané make it 3-0 and the huge sigh of ‘this is done’ to fill the stadium, only for VAR to chalk it off (rightly so, on replays), and for the whole stadium to deflate. West Ham, Brighton and Brentford scored a total of eight against the Reds in those three games.
To me, the midfield balance seemed a bit wonky, with what looked like one holding midfielder (Fabinho) and two more advanced midfielders, one in a kind of inside-left position and the other (Harvey Elliott or Jordan Henderson) the inside-right. In the absence of Gini Wijnaldum, there was no one in the midfield to keep possession in a simple but reliable manner, and the new formation allowed for attacking overloads on both flanks, where Andy Robertson and Mané on the left, and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Salah on the right, would be joined by a wide central midfielder, to make various passing triangles possible. As an attacking strategy, it worked wonderfully, but obviously it left the defence – itself a bit rusty – a bit more exposed.
Right from the start of preseason, Liverpool were pressing hard and attacking with pace and fury, but it left the team a bit more vulnerable to counterattacks; especially with all of the Reds’ centre-backs either coming back from serious injury (Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Joe Gomez), or in the case of Ibrahima Konaté, new to the league. Matip had a full preseason, but van Dijk did not. Yet the Dutchman started the season in the team, alongside Matip, and had to find his match-legs game by game. It often takes months of playing after almost a year out before fitness and sharpness return to elite levels, and in van Dijk’s case, he was now 30, which meant some natural slowing down could be masked (or made worse) by the ACL damage. It looked like he might never be the player he was before the injury.
Fears of permanent decline, however, were arrested by the time 2022 was well underway, as his individual statistics improved massively (as did the team’s overall defensive metrics), to reflect his return to peak condition, with the pace of old still there when called for. Alongside him, Matip was consistently good, and Konaté impressed on virtually every outing; yet the defence only really solidified after a 2-2 draw at Chelsea in the opening game of 2022, with a succession of clean sheets and a maximum of one goal conceded in games right up until April. (When Man City twice scored two goals against the Reds, in a league draw at the Etihad, and a Liverpool win in the FA Cup semi-final; and in between those two matches, Benfica scored three at Anfield, albeit against a heavily-rotated Liverpool side 3-1 up from the first leg and coasting into the semi-finals.)
The Reds then kept clean sheets against Manchester United, Everton, Villarreal and Newcastle United, before the Spanish team, in the semi-final second-leg, grabbed two before half-time to set up a thrilling final quarter of the tie.
Between Chelsea in August and Wolves in December, Liverpool scored a minimum of two goals per game. Fourteen wins, three draws and the defeat at West Ham were part of a sequence where, after having lost in London, the Reds won four on the bounce. This run included some astonishing results, and some of the best goals you will ever see; guaranteed Goal of the Season contenders, whatever the year; and the best deservedly did win the award. In total, 57 goals were scored in those 18 games, at a rate of 3.2 per match. Incredibly, four or five goals were scored in each of the games against Porto, Watford, Manchester United, Arsenal, Southampton and Everton in this sequence. At this stage the defending, as a team, was still mixed, but the club’s all-time goalscoring record was already a possibility.
Over the festive period, Jürgen Klopp’s men, after a run of eight wins on the bounce, hit a sticky patch, due to Covid and injuries, with just one win in six, albeit two of the ‘draws’ were League Cup ties – one a draw with Arsenal that set up a second-leg win at The Emirates, and another the late 3-3 comeback against Leicester in the quarter-finals, that the Reds won on penalties (in a game in which a particularly obnoxious James Maddison knee-slid in celebration to the Kop, which is about as acceptable as Michael Fagan breaking into Buckingham Palace to sit with the Queen on her bed). Yet just a few days later, the Reds put in perhaps their limpest display of the season at Leicester in the league, to lose 1-0, as part of a three-game ‘slump’ that included draws at Spurs (with some atrocious officiating decisions going against an under-strength Liverpool) and Chelsea. With Salah, Mané and Naby Keïta heading off to AFCON, and Liverpool soon falling 14 points behind Man City in the table (albeit with two games in hand), it felt – to me, at least – that the title race was over.
But if you include the penalty shootout victory over Chelsea as a win rather than a 0-0 draw, then the Reds won their next 12 games in all competitions, usually by one- or- two-goal margins, except when putting six past Leeds at Anfield. A month after departing, Mané returned victorious, Salah crestfallen, after the two met in the final of Africa’s major tournament, which spurred the former to a prolific run of goals – often when playing centre-forward – and sent Salah, miles ahead of everyone in the Premier League scoring charts prior to the tournament, on a bit of a drought. Still, before they went away the team was scoring a lot of goals, which it continued to do whilst they were absent, and continued to do when they returned.
The only change was the arrival of Luis Díaz, who didn’t start with many goals, but did see shots denied by blocks on the line, the woodwork and great goalkeeping. It felt like he would create and score even more, once settled into the team patterns. Signed at the end of January, he didn’t exactly provide cover for the absent African duo (Keïta, as an attacking midfielder, had returned early after Guinea were eliminated), who were back a week-or-so later.
It perhaps helped that Liverpool’s games during AFCON were Shrewsbury Town (cup), Arsenal (cup), Brentford, Arsenal (cup), Crystal Palace and Cardiff City (cup), meaning only two league games. The Reds scored 16 times, sans Salah and Mané, with eight different scorers. These included teenagers Harvey Elliott, upon his return after serious injury, and Kaide Gordon; both getting their first goals for the club at the Kop end. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain bagged two, both assisted by Andy Robertson, and Jota scored three, all assisted by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Cup specialist Takumi Minamino grabbed two, while Virgil van Dijk and Roberto Firmino notched one each. The remaining four goals were scored by Fabinho, who scored more that month than he had since arriving in the summer of 2018 – although two of the four were penalties.
Fabinho later popped up with a vital goal in Villarreal, to turn around the Reds’ rapidly souring Champions League semi-final situation in May, which was his 8th of the season.
I’d written back in August (and also in the previous season) how I’d found it strange that the Brazilian regularly stayed back at corners, as the covering ‘defender’ – albeit that job has to go to someone quick enough, and able to thwart attacks, with the centre-backs naturally pushed up into the opposition box. Two more candidates for the role in most teams would usually be the full-backs, but they either took the corners or, if on the other side of the pitch, were positioned to re-deliver anything cleared in that direction, almost like a second corner. While height is vital for defending in general, height isn’t usually necessary when facing a counterattack from your own corner – it’s almost always just about sprinting. As such, others were finally found to fill the role, and Fabinho – while not an aggressive header of the ball or an outstanding leaper – had joy when finally allowed to stay forward at corners, causing danger, and notching a few goals as one more 6’2” (at least) player to deal with.
TTT writer Mizgan Masani noted the lateness of Liverpool’s goals: “One of Klopp’s main strengths is to instil a never-say-die attitude in the team. Irrespective of the situation, this team goes till the final whistle to try and change the result in their favour or further secure it. The timing of goals is a good measure of that.
“The 2016/17 season saw only six goals scored in this period, which kind of made them predictable. Teams were able to know that Liverpool got tired after the 70-minute mark and did not create or score much. However, things changed from 2017/18 season onwards, they are now averaging 16 goals per season in the period between 76 and 90 minutes. They have won and drawn a lot of games by scoring in this block of time. Goals in this period also help in closing the opposition down and not allowing them to have much time to strike back. It also shows the growing mental strength of this side to keep going until the final whistle is blown.”
By early May, the average distance of a Liverpool goal – from scorer to crossing the goal-line – was just 10.5 yards, or closer than a penalty. (Albeit this average discounts penalties, all 12 yards, as well as own goals.) This was from the 114 scored in the two main competitions: Premier League and Champions League. Fewer than 10% were scored from further out than 18 yards: a sure sign that expected goals and shot locations had meant working better chances closer to goal than taking potshots from outside the area, albeit players still succumbed to the temptation, and occasionally it paid off. (It’s worth it at times, just to vary things.)
The goals from more than 18 yards out were: Porto away, Roberto Firmino, 36 yards; Porto at home, Thiago Alcântara, 31 yards; Newcastle at home, Trent Alexander-Arnold, 29 yards; Brentford away, Curtis Jones, 26 yards; West Ham away, Alexander-Arnold, 22 yards; AC Milan at home, Jordan Henderson, 20 yards; Atlético Madrid away, Salah, 20 yards; Atlético Madrid away, Keïta, 20 yards; Crystal Palace at home, Keïta, 19 yards; and Watford away, Mané, 19 yards.
The distances may suggest spectacular strikes, and some were beauties (both of Alexander-Arnold’s, Keïta’s volley against Palace, Jones’ thunderbolt at Brentford) – but there were all types of goal. Even then, the pick of the bunch, in terms of technique, was Thiago’s, where, from 31 yards, he cut across the ball from a cleared set-piece and sent a shot zipping, about 12 inches off the grass, across some invisible surface, into the far corner. (After this sequence of games, Luis Díaz scored from distance against Spurs, via a big deflection.)
The furthest, Firmino’s, was perhaps the most enjoyable in certain ways, needing only the old Benny Hill theme tune to highlight its comedic value. The entire move was a delight, in different ways. Curtis Jones picked the ball up deep in his own half and, closed down by players including ex-Red Marko Grujić, managed to dribble brilliantly, albeit in the wrong direction – jinking back towards his own goal, and seemingly into trouble. Somehow he turned, turned again and turned once more, and out of nowhere hit a long pass that bounced 20 yards over the halfway line. The Porto defender seemed set to clear it, but Firmino anticipated it better, and leapt to take the ball on his thigh, wrong-footing the defender, who swiped at thin air. At this stage, the Brazilian was about 45 yards from goal, which would normally mean a lot of work to do; but inexplicably, the Porto keeper was himself now almost 40 yards from goal, and stranded. By the time Firmino got to the loose ball he’d sent himself a bit wide – but also wide of the keeper – and swivelled to hit a shot that was more like a golf putt from some distance beyond the green.
It’s been noted that a powerful shot can travel at well over 100mph, albeit the speeds are a bit debatable. In terms of how fast someone can run, Usain Bolt was once recorded at 27.8mph. The Porto keeper, Diogo Costa, could perhaps run at 15mph, at full-pelt. Roberto Firmino’s shot, from 36 yards at an angle, was therefore possibly hit at 15.01mph. Cue the comedy chase by a man trying to catch a football that was fractionally faster, over 36 frantic yards. He eventually scooped the ball away as he slid onto the goal-line, but it just had crossed by the time he got a hand to it. At this stage, Luis Díaz’s Porto had got the score back to 3-1, but this killed the game; albeit there was time for Firmino to have another goal initially chalked off for offside, then allowed via a VAR check (something we’d later see happen against the Reds via Darwin Núñez). Diogo Costa was perhaps the most calamitous keeper the Reds faced in Europe, until the semi-final, and the uniquely strange Geronimo Rulli of Villarreal, who punched every easily catchable ball and dived out the way of most shots.
Rulli even allowed Liverpool to seal a 3-2 win in the second leg when, channeling his inner crazy Costa, he too charged out of his goal, almost to the centre-circle. Sadio Mané, just inside his own half and therefore onside, ran through, chasing a Keïta pass, and beat the stranded keeper to the ball. Mané skipped past the covering defender and ran down the inside-left flank, towards the goal, as the keeper and defender raced back towards the line; again, the Benny Hill theme music would only have improved it. Casually, Mané, upon entering the box, rolled it in, with a bit more pace than Firmino’s effort, to rack up another win. The two opposition players could never quite get there.
Fifteen of the 114 goals involved ten or more passes; four of them with 20-25, and a further one – Díaz’s first Liverpool goal, against Norwich – after an incredible 34 passes. Interestingly, these 15 goals included one away at Arsenal, another away at Everton, and two away at Manchester United. (Also, at home against Arsenal, AC Milan and Porto.) As such, almost half came in big games, against quality opposition (and, er, Everton). Just over half (eight) were in away games.
If the most startling two results were the 5-0 and 4-0 wins against Manchester United, the two best individual goals came against Manchester City and Watford. Indeed, while individual goals can sometimes be fetishised ahead of more complex team moves, these were so outstanding as to warrant special admiration. A fantastic volley can often just be one single moment of contact with a ball, perhaps after one good pass (albeit it could be meeting a clearing header, for example). The more complex moments, the greater the skill and difficulty.
After a below-par first half, Liverpool began testing Man City at Anfield, and Salah already had an assist in the game – setting up Mané – before his majestic solo triumph. By then City had equalised, and Curtis Jones got himself the simplest of assists by giving Salah the ball and watching him go. João Cancelo jumped in front of Salah, trying to nick the ball, but Salah, with his back to goal, a few yards infield on the right side and about 25 yards from the byline, turned him expertly. Phil Foden then appeared to push Salah in the back as Bernardo Silva slid in. Beautifully, Salah used the sole of his boot to just inch it away from the permanently scowling Portuguese, and accelerated past the prone player. Faced now with Aymeric Laporte, Salah predictably – too predictably at times – tried to cut inside, as he does 99 times out of 100. But then, when he bluffed and checked onto his right foot, Laporte was helpless. With both Laporte and Rúben Dias desperately sliding in, the Egyptian hammered the ball home from the tightest of angles, with the right foot he should trust more often. The jink from left foot to right foot essentially fooled elite defenders and created space in a packed box against a team that rarely conceded chances, let alone goals.
At this stage, Salah had taken himself onto a whole new level, to be regularly heralded as the best player in the world at the time. While the AFCON would effectively curtail his individual form (perhaps allied to the tiresome media-hashing of contract talks), his brilliance in racking up 23 goals (in addition to multiple assists) by the time he departed for that competition on 3rd January put Liverpool in a strong position in the league and the Champions League.
In this imperious form, he managed to score a similarly jaw-dropping goal against Watford, in a 5-0 win that preceded a 5-0 win at Old Trafford, as part of a sequence of ecstatic, orgiastic football. Indeed, just before the Watford win came a 5-1 win at Porto, too. Given that it was Watford and not Man City, the goal has to be downgraded a little, but Salah picked up the ball in a similar area – from a successful Reds press by Firmino and Keïta – and three Hornets converged on the Liverpool no.11. Again he did the soft shoe shuffle, to roll the ball forward and then backwards, before going to shoot with his right foot from an almost identical angle to the goal against Pep Guardiola’s man. But this time was a double-bluff, cutting back onto his favoured left foot to curl the ball into the far corner (as such, that part of the finish – the position within the goal frame where the ball entered the net – was identical).
Later in the season, a goal by Rafa Silva of Benfica (from just before his team was due to meet Liverpool) went viral, when he collected the ball on the edge of his own box and ran the length of the pitch to score. But aside from the admirable pace and determination, he mostly ran in a straight line, straight past players who were never close enough to put in a challenge, until one finally made one in the box. It felt more like a player in rugby or the NFL sprinting clear. Salah’s two goals, by contrast, were in packed boxes, and involved deft skills in tight spaces and incredible changes of direction. (This is always why I rate John Barnes’ 1987 goal against QPR as one of the best I’ve ever seen: the way he gets the ball on the halfway line, sprints forward, but then, when confronted by the opposition block on the edge of the box, shifts his balance and body-weight – with a physics-defying grace – one way and then another to go past two England centre-backs and slot past the England keeper.)
A beautifully hit shot – even one like Thiago’s against Porto – can be a thing of wonder, but it’s just one moment of contact with the football. Against Watford, Salah manipulated the ball eight times; against City, ten times. Had any of these touches been fractionally less perfect, the ball would have been lost. There was not a lot of pitch to play in, and almost no space. At that point in time he was operating in a sphere of his own.
And then, after scoring two in the cauldron of Atlético’s Metropolitano (the venue of the Reds 2019 Champions League glory), he went to Old Trafford and bagged a hat-trick.
In 2010, Finnish subscriber Aki Pekuri wrote an article for The Tomkins Times about his model called ‘deserved goals’ – a kind of precursor to expected goals. Two years later he wrote another article, this time about the role of luck.
“I realised it is the tenth anniversary of my TTT article about getting luck on our side,” he told me in March 2022, “and oh boy have we got it!”
“I don’t even remember how and where I originally started reading your articles, but at least the reason is still crystal clear – literally in-depth analysis based on research and data. You definitely were a trailblazer in the field of football analytics, or should I say football transfer and manager performance analytics. You used to write for the official Liverpool FC website, right?”
As Aki notes, indeed I did, from 2005 to 2010. I also co-wrote a purely statistical Liverpool FC book with Oliver Anderson in 2006, The Red Review, which included a lot of things that became mainstream a few years later (hockey assists, adjusting everything to per-90, distance of shots that led to goals, with/without comparisons, and so on). Of course, since the big data revolution, much of it (and anything I could do now) is miles behind expected goals and, further ahead, the AI algorithms analysing football. It all became very professional and gigantic data in the interim.
“Your texts provided clarity to what was happening and I was hooked. At the time I was also finishing my Masters thesis in 2009 after spending six months in University of Sheffield year earlier. And oh, the first child was born. Career-wise I somehow ended up becoming a researcher and stayed at University of Oulu further six years until 2015 when I completed my dissertation.
“A sort of book also, that. But honestly, I have presented my chapter in These Turbulent Times more proudly and way more broadly than my academic output.”
[These Turbulent Times is a 2013 anthology of some of TTT’s articles since the site’s inception in 2009, by, other than myself: Lee Mooney, Andrew Beasley, Dan Kennett, Daniel Rhodes, Graeme Riley, Bob Peace, Krishen Bhautoo, Daniel Geey, Mihail Vladimirov, Paul Grech, Neil Jones, Ted Knutson, Simon Steers and others, many of whom now work within the game, if no longer writing for TTT.]
“By the way, it was a Commodore 64 game called FA Cup that made me a Red. The idea of the game was to choose a club and a tactic for each match to simulate through the match. Options were A, B or C meaning attacking, balanced, defensive and once I figured out that A works for Liverpool FC I won the cup nine out 10 and was so happy about it. It was 1990 or 1991 so I was eight or nine years old. I still own the cassette.
“Nowadays I still watch every LFC match but reading and analysis are almost limited to browsing through Twitter before going into bed. Yet I still dream of finding enough energy and courage to make a career shift towards data and analytics. It is also nice to think ifs and buts regarding my early work and to notice how relatively advanced the models and thinking were back then.
“I see my ‘deserved goals’ in 2010 as the same concept as xG nowadays but of course with less advanced model and assumptions. If I recall it correctly, in that luck article I only separated normal shots from clear-cut chances and valued them with a single number. For betting I based my model to shot maps which was enough to beat bookies in most leagues bar the Premier League.
“Without coding skills it was just too time consuming to maintain as I manually entered each shot from each match over multiple leagues to 8x5 matrix table. That was the accuracy, the field was divided to 40 parts that each had a unique value i.e. probability of scoring, aka deserved goals aka xGs. These days as daughters are grown up I have more time that I am allocating to local football.
“After Covid restrictions in early 2020 we registered our team to northern group of the Finnish 5th division. Everyone was just eager to get out and do sport again, and I ended up making a comeback after a 20-year break. Not that I ever played in the senior team or any division even when younger. I just quit when I was 18.
“Last year we were promoted from the 4th to the 3rd division and I have given up a playing role as training has intensified. My role in the first team is now to look after money that we don’t have, and as team leader handling all the general or administrative stuff. No one is paid a penny and my deal is that I am allowed to participate training anytime!
“To secure playing minutes at more appropriate level I gathered another group of players and registered the reserve team to the 5th division again. There I am also a treasurer and team leader but it seems also a manager. I am still undecided whether I should play as a 10, 9, 8 or 6. Maybe I will choose that Juan Riquelme role as we are both slow.
“Anyway, I live in a city of Kemi, just at the southern border of Lapland region, with 20,000 habitants. The club Kemin Palloseura has quite a nice history and in the summer we celebrated our 90 year anniversary. In 1985 the club won bronze in the ‘Finnish Premier League’ and 1986 was runner-up in the cup. I guess the glory part ends here, but I am fine with that and learned to be patient with LFC. The most successful player from KePS as the club name is abbreviated, is Hannu Tihinen who played eight games for West Ham in 2001. I watch basically all games comfortably from my own sofa. Locally there is just one bar that shows football, but there is no real following behind any club so one must bring his own friends to raise atmosphere.
“In bigger cities and especially in Helsinki there is a good following and multiple sport pubs to watch matches with other Reds. I used to go to those when my work required weekly travelling couple of years ago. The official LFC supporter club Finland is also more active in south where cities are bigger.”
Steven Wilson, 54, is a Pacific Islander who has lived in Texas for the past 25 years. For him, football is becoming more fun.
“I enjoy football more now than in my early life. I used to play all sports and watched all sports and knew baseball, American football, basketball far more than football. But now my life (outside of family) is centred around football. Not only am I the President of the OLSC, I am President of a local youth club. I am on the board of the Austin Soccer Foundation (promoting grassroots football). I referee, all the way to the collegiate level.” [At this point I felt tempted to ask if he wanted a job at the PGMOL.]
“I am a licensed coach and have coached for 10 years. I have played semi-pro and traveled around Europe playing and I still play twice a week. I really can’t explain the reasoning for losing interest in the other sports, but it probably coincided when my love for the Reds started.”
Norwegian Jan Ove Knudseth reminded me of the reason so many Scandinavians love Liverpool.
“English football actually means a lot to Norwegians. It started back in 1969 when the national broadcasting company started broadcasting English football matches every Saturday. There are many Norwegians, myself included, who are more passionate about English football than Norwegian football. More than 50,000 Norwegians (or 1% of the population!) are members of the Norwegian Liverpool fan club.”
The cup finals of 2022 famously saw Liverpool draw blanks, but the football in recent years will have kept even the Svalbard crew warm.
Then there’s British-born Nabs Al Busaidi from Oman, Supporters Representative for Africa and the Middle East, as part of the Official Liverpool Supporters Club (OLSC) system; who, despite that, knows a thing or two about the bitter cold. Nabs is considered to be the first Arab to walk to the magnetic North Pole, to climb Mount Vinson in Antarctica, and to row the Atlantic Ocean. On a trip back to the UK to see a couple of Liverpool games (amongst other things) towards the end of 2021/22 he met the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street (poor Nabs), and on another day, met James Milner (lucky Nabs), before seeing the Reds play Spurs. (I know which leader I’d rather meet.)
“There were pockets of international OLSC fans all around the stadium, but Oman were right at the bottom of the Kop near the corner flag, with Idaho, Glasgow, Ireland, Norway, Wisconsin and a few others.”
The following day he was also a guest at the Manchester City game at home to Newcastle, whose fans sang “We’re richer than you / We’re richer than you / We've got Saudi money / We’re richer than you”.
Headers and Volleys
The Reds’ first header of the season came via Diogo Jota, able to flick on, at the near post, a Kostas Tsimikas cross to open the scoring against bulky, bruising Burnley. The cross was inch-perfect, for Jota to dart in front of Ben Mee, and for the ball to dip just at the point where James Tarkowski, nearer to the Greek, could not backpedal fast enough. For Liverpool’s 5’9 (Mo Salah, Sadio Mané) and 5’10 strikers (Jota and Luis Díaz), and even Firmino at 5’11”, there are several key aspects to the crosses, that helped the Reds, aside from when sending bigger players up for set-pieces, to lead the league in headed goals.
Now, this is such a difficult art. There has to be pace on the cross, but a slower cross enables defenders more time to jump, and a keeper more time to gather. It cannot be too looping, as taller defenders, and the keeper, will be able to take it at its highest point. And like a free-kick over a wall, it has to go over the defenders and dip down in time. If it’s going over the head of a 6’4” defender, and there’s another 6’4” two yards behind (in a line, as the ball travels from flank to centre), it has to drop rapidly.
When Spurs came to Anfield to snatch a draw in May, they defended with three tall centre-backs, albeit none was an out-and-out giant. Also dropping into the space were Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, 6’1”, and Rodrigo Bentancur, 6’2”. The wing-back, Emerson Royal (6’0”), cramped the box too. All three of Spurs’ strikers were 6’0-6’2”, and so made all the corners Liverpool won harder to deliver; Virgil van Dijk getting up well just twice, to head wide, then head against the bar. Otherwise, the 11 corners and 50 crosses were mostly suited to the way Spurs were playing. They had no one over 6’2” in their lineup, but they had almost no one under 6’0”. Spurs were defending so deep at times that the Reds’ backline was 20 yards inside their half.
(Incidentally, this summer, at the time of going to press, Spurs have signed a 6’1” winger, a 6’1” forward, a 6’0” midfielder and a 6’7” goalkeeper. Antonio Conte’s winter signings were a 6’1” winger and a 6’2” midfielder.)
There were no headers from any of the Liverpool strikers to trouble Hugo Lloris (a certain Darwin Núñez would have been ideal for Liverpool), and despite 22 shots, a staggering twelve were blocked. While Spurs may still have opted to defend deep, that Liverpool now have a 6’2” striker will mean that teams who do so are going to face a striker who can get above their tallest defenders in a crowded area.
In the Sunday Times, Jonathan Northcroft talked about Liverpool and headers, albeit it’s worth starting with a general point about Núñez’s underlying numbers:
“Back in 2020, the leading scouting consultancy Driblab congratulated Benfica for spotting the potential that lay in Núñez’s seemingly innate knack of selecting shots with a high xG (expected goals) and finding a high volume of touches in the box. In other words, the data showed that here was a young forward with the priceless old ability to be in the right place at the time, and know when to try and score.”
Next, the issue of headers, and how Núñez had doubled his tally of three the previous season: “... It suggests he is really beginning to learn how to use his height and gift for arriving on to balls played into the box. And which team scored the most headers in the Premier League in each of the past four seasons? Yep, Liverpool. Mané was responsible for several of those and heading prowess has been an overlooked element in his game. He is 22nd on the all-time Premier League list for headed goals, level with Kevin Davies and Marouane Fellaini.
“With Mané set to quit Anfield … there will be a need to replace not only the considerable off-ball and on-ball skills Mané offers, but also his effectiveness in the air. Only six of Salah’s 156 Liverpool goals have been headers, after all – though Luis Díaz has a surprisingly good aerial-goals record, and Diogo Jota was level with Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane as the top scorer of headers in last season’s Premier League.”
Núñez has a clever way of pulling away from defenders to the far post, which would suit the way Liverpool already score from headers. If playing against two centre-backs, he can lose both and go up against a smaller full-back.
While Núñez is not yet an aerial dominator (that can come with time), he did score several headers for Benfica that were not like any Liverpool tended to score, where he got up high against a tall defender close to goal and headed home via what was essentially an aerial duel. That’s the bonus of being 6’2”, and being in the Premier League will teach Núñez, just as it taught a young Kevin Davies and Peter Crouch, to become so much more dangerous with added age, power and experience. Height is just the starting point: a great leap, anticipation, strength and heading technique all matter – and as with anything else, more experience helps with aerial duels – but they will always be best on someone 6’2” rather than 5’9”. What more can Liverpool get from a springy 6’2” striker with heading power than they got from the clever Sadio Mané? As well as open play, Núñez has to add a threat at set-piece situations.
As TTT alum and Anfield Index podcaster Dan Kennett noted, Liverpool “finished the season with 206 shots from set pieces. The data goes back to 2011, and the previous highest in the Premier League was 180!” The Reds “ended with 19 goals, which is one every other match. It’s a crazy volume.” Liverpool now have an extra 6’2” player to help convert that volume into a goals tally that matches the more prolific (but according to xG, fortunate) Man City from their set-pieces.
As Liverpool’s title hopes faltered, Spurs were packing the box, and there was no space to shoot, and with three narrow centre-backs and two narrow full-backs, no space to drop an ideal cross. The Reds’ final passes were hurried, and many of the shots were taken too slowly, as if trying to be too sure. It perhaps made sense that the equaliser came from a deflected Díaz shot, as deflections are one of the bonuses of keepers wrong-footed when they can’t see past their own defence.
Liverpool don’t often shoot from well outside the box (and it’s dumb when defenders do it from 40 yards), but this was a game where it had to be an option, providing – as was the case here – that there was enough space to get a meaningful shot away. The scooped passes, dinked crosses and other ways the team had been using to break past a resolute back-line just weren’t working (although again, Núñez will help in the future), as Spurs were extremely well organised, tall and committed, after a week to prepare, while the Reds had a midweek Champions League semi-final in Spain (and almost no club ever wins all its league games after its Champions League knockout ties. It’s where points are most likely to be dropped).
Against two centre-backs, the crossing will find more gaps, unless the full-backs are very narrow and, as some teams do, a back six is formed by the wide midfielders. It helps that in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, Liverpool have two of the best crossing full-backs in world football. But with three smaller strikers, there have to be a high number of crosses played in, for just a few to land perfectly. With Origi 6’1” but not especially aggressive in the air (most of the time), Liverpool haven’t had a target-man under Klopp since the sale of Christian Benteke. Yet the target would not be from deep balls (albeit it’s an option from goalkicks and hurried clearances), but from crosses. Benteke, rightly sold, didn’t have Alexander-Arnold and Robertson feeding him. Núñez’s aerial figures could go through the roof with that kind of delivery; as well as freeing up Jota, Díaz, Firmino and others if Núñez is marked in open play by the taller defender. Aim a cross for Núñez, and even if just over his head, Jota or Díaz could be making the run in behind, to head home.
Liverpool’s first 39 goals of the 2021/22 season – Premier League and Champions League only – contained just two headers. The second came at Brentford, in the 3-3 draw (another Jota bullet-header), albeit headers had created goals, such as a repeat against Crystal Palace from the previous season, when Mané mopped up the loose ball after a header from a corner. Indeed, Liverpool scored three from corners against Patrick Vieira’s team at Anfield, each with a shot from a second ball. After Mané’s goal, van Dijk headed it on and Mo Salah volleyed home from close range. Then Naby Keïta, after the keeper punched Salah’s corner to send it outside the area, hit a sublime first-time volley that absolutely flew into the far corner. Indeed, this was a tactic Liverpool were making good use of: the long-range shooters placed just outside the area, to smash home the loose ball; Jordan Henderson had just done the same to seal a 3-2 win over AC Milan in the Champions League group stages (catching his shot just after it bounced, so arguably on the half-volley).
Goals 40-45 contained three headers, after just two in 39, then came another 15 goals from non-headed sources. Mané and Jota shared these three headers: the Senegalese at home to Brighton and Arsenal, and the Portuguese at home to Atlético Madrid. As such, there were just five headers in the first 60 main-competition goals. Then followed 15 of the next 55, to more than treble the rate scored aerially.
By goal 59 (excluding the domestic cups), only Jota and Mané had scored with headers. Goal 60 saw Divock Origi head home away at AC Milan, to become the third. Then the variety really began to show: in order, the scorers were Jota, Robertson, Fabinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, van Dijk, Firmino, van Dijk, Díaz, Jota, Konaté, Konaté, Robertson, Origi, Díaz; and to show the variety of how they came about, they were, in order, scored from: open play, open play, open play, corner, open play, corner, corner, corner, open play, open play, corner, corner, open play, corner and open play. Nine different scorers, and none of them Mané.
Some of the headers were admittedly almost on the ground: Oxlade-Chamberlain’s at home to Brentford, and Robertson’s stooping far-post steal against Everton, to send the ball past a despairing Pickford. Then there was the rising, majestic, powerful leap by Origi in the same game, to generate power on Díaz’s brilliant but wayward overhead kick, in putting the ball just out of reach of a similarly despairing Pickford (late-on, at the Kop end, not for the first time).
By early May, some 20 of the 115 goals scored by Klopp’s men in the Premier League and Champions League were headers. Several more were volleys. It was a team that scored all types of goals. None would be better than Mo Salah’s two solo goals in the autumn of 2021, but plenty would be more important. The future will mean new ways to attack, different ways to score goals. Losing Mané, Origi and Minamino will mean some lost shared understandings, but if anything, the Reds’ front line will be even quicker.
A different type of attacker has been added in Fábio Carvalho, an elusive, skilful attacking midfielder who physically resembles Philippe Coutinho, but also in the way he moves and finishes; yet has more pace, and presses harder (and who seems a better finisher than Coutinho was aged 19). Teenage right-back Calvin Ramsay delivers a ball almost as well as Trent Alexander-Arnold, but while not the same kind of expansive playmaker, can go past opponents with a variety of twists, turns and tricks. And while it’s surely too soon to expect first-team minutes, 16-year-old Ben Doak, who played for Celtic against Rangers in 2021/22, is an express train of a winger with a great first touch, who finishes with aplomb. The more graceful Kaide Gordon should be back and stronger after injuries following his winter breakthrough, and the same applies to Harvey Elliott, who, aged 18, began 2021/22 in the team on merit.
Losing Mané will be a blow of sorts, but Darwin Núñez, in particular, offers a different kind of striker, with the physical attributes of Divock Origi, but as a key distinction, the aggression of Luis Suárez.
You can never predict the future, but at the very least, with Salah choosing to sign a new deal, it should prove interesting.
At the Other End
At times, Alisson Becker proved a one-man goal-prevention machine; albeit in 2021/22 his goals scored fell (from one to zero), and as such, maybe it’s time Jürgen Klopp sent him up for set-pieces again.
While he has so many strengths as a goalkeeper, including his passing (even if he occasionally takes a fraction too long to release the ball), the Brazil international made a massive difference to the Reds’ shot-stopping. His quickness and alertness when sweeping also allowed the team to play higher up the pitch, which has myriad benefits.
Having hovered around the 65% mark across various keepers between 2016 and 2018, the save-percentage for Liverpool keepers did not drop below 70% once Alisson donned the gloves. In fact, it was above 75% in 2018/19 and the same was true in 2021/22.
Of course, save difficulty is not taken into account here. For that, there is the ‘post-shot expected goal’ metric; i.e. also taking into account where the ball is heading within the goal frame (i.e. top corner, low centre, and so on).
Unfortunately, the figures for this metric are not available prior to 2017/18, but that first season of data saw underperformance in shot-saving (-1.4) by the Reds’ keepers: Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius sharing glove-duty in the league that year. Since then though, there has been massive over-performance: an average of +4.25 in that time, which is without doubt one of the best returns in Europe. The title was won in 2019/20 when Alisson missed 12 games earlier in the campaign: his figures were just about the right side of neutral (+0.6), whereas Adrián, who did make some important saves, had a minor negative score (-1.0). When Adrián deputised, the defence was not as solid – there were hardly any clean sheets – but the results were mostly wins due to impressive attacking play, and digging out late wins when the games were tight. (And a bit of luck, too.)
Another factor behind Alisson’s greatness is his sweeping abilities. He is assured of coming out of his area to make interceptions and snuffing the danger out, enabling the defensive line to play as high as possible in order to squeeze the life out of the opposition, as pointed out to me by Mizgan Masani via some research on the Brazilian. Prior to his arrival, Liverpool’s keepers were making an ‘action’ outside their area at a rate of about 0.5 per game. That rose to 1.0 per game once Alisson arrived and stayed steady for the first three seasons, and then jumped to 1.5 per game in 2021/22.
The other factor about Liverpool’s high line and sweeper-keeper is that Alisson is by far and away the best one-on-one specialist in the Premier League. Statistically, it’s not even close. In data shared by analyst John Harrison after the 34th league game, Alisson had faced 47 one-on-ones, at a rate of one-and-a-half per game; and he had denied eight goals (7.79) more than ‘expected’. Two keepers (Robert Sánchez of Brighton, who almost put Luis Díaz in hospital, and Wolves’ José Sá) stopped close to five goals, and then the other 17 regular goalkeepers listed weren’t even denying three (albeit that’s still better than zero, obviously, with nine keepers, in total, denying more than one goal better than expected).
Manchester City’s Ederson, by contrast, was virtually neutral: as many saves as expected. That said, despite his team actually playing with a higher line than Liverpool (based on data over the course of the season), he had only faced 27, or less than one per 90 minutes. (Interestingly, when City could only draw at West Ham a few games after this data was published, he was twice beaten by Jarrod Bowen in one-on-one situations.) It just needed teams to try and get in behind City more often, but the way they kept the ball meant it was easier said than done. Of course, Ederson is a thoroughly modern keeper, whose incredible passing suits City – but if teams can get through to face him, he’s not that special. At the other end of the scale, Everton’s Jordan Pickford ranked worst out of the 20 keepers to play the most minutes for their club, at 2.42 more goals conceded than expected on one-on-ones.
Now, one-on-ones are just part of the keeper’s repertoire – but clearly, given most clubs face between one and two per game, an important part. These are, by definition, big chances.
If you average all the post-shot data over the seasons since Alisson arrived – so, for all situations – and reduce the pool to a minimum of two seasons (to remove outlier José Sá), then the Reds’ custodian leads the way, at an average of +4.3 – or in other words, based on shot difficulty, he saves more than four goals per season above the average expectations. Hugo Lloris, Alphonse Areola, Łukasz Fabiański, Bernd Leno, David de Gea, Nick Pope and Martin Dúbravka follow, all between +3.0 and +4.1.
For years regarded as the best overall keeper, it’s interesting that de Gea in 2021/22 was merely average at stopping one-on-ones, while in five seasons he dealt with the ball outside his area 51 times, compared to Alisson’s 178 in just four seasons. (Ederson had 172 in five seasons.) And despite his height, de Gea, when faced with 250 crosses across the latest season, made just eight claims, at 3.2%; compared to Alisson’s 17, at 9% (from 188 crosses). As with Cristiano Ronaldo, it seems that Manchester United could have an elite specialist at both ends of the pitch, but where their styles do not mesh with modern football: Ronaldo does not press and obviously cannot make as many runs off the ball aged 37, while de Gea is a reactive goal-line keeper, who does not cut off things like through-balls and crosses at the source, which are vital to playing a higher modern line. (And spending almost £100m on a slow centre-back not suited to a high line was another weird move, but that’s United’s problem.)
One other observation about Alisson that I want to highlight is his stillness. This may seem like an odd quality for a footballer, but he produces the finest saves with the least flamboyance, and is calm and focused until forced into action. I spent the season amazed at the praise heaped on Pickford and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale, both at least two inches shorter than Alisson, who I labelled ‘chaos keepers’. Both have their qualities, and make some stunning reaction saves – but neither is tall enough to get to shots into the corners (and as such, they make ‘spectacular’ tip-over saves from efforts taller keepers would just catch), and both run around their area, shouting, high-fiving, or chasing the referee halfway up the pitch. They look particularly good at double-saves, given that they are agile and quick to their feet, but they charge about, commit themselves early, and seem to rely on adrenaline and all-action – when the best keepers like a quiet game. To me, it’s no coincidence that both came to prominence in relegated sides, with lots to do.
With one game to go, Ramsdale ranked 38th out of the 41 keepers to play in the Premier League in 2021/22, having conceded 4.6 goals more than expected. Yet people thought he was the best in the league. Every time I saw him I noted how erratic he was. (He’s still fairly young, mind.)
With my suspicions that you ideally want a keeper over 6’3” (just as you want centre-backs who are over 6’2” – I’d always go at least 6’4” if you can find the talent to match), it’s interesting that all of the keepers who saved more goals than expected in 2021/22 averaged out at 192.4cm in height, or over 6’3”, while those who performed worse than expected averaged at 190.1, or 6’2” – even if there were outliers in each category, and things like age and just general ability are also going to matter, too. The peak ages for all goalkeeping save percentages are between 28-30, so right where Alisson sits in 2022, in the sweet spot between experience and agility, before reactions start to dim. Once in the mid-30s it will also be more difficult to race to the ball as a sweeper-keeper.
In basketball, the chances of making it in the NBA famously double with each extra inch of height. So someone who is 6’3” has twice the chance of someone who is 6’2”, but half the chance of someone who is 6’4”. This rule of thumb stretches up to around 7’5”, after which any additional height is often down to diseases including Marfan syndrome (with issues falling within chromosome disorders, genetic disorders and endocrine disorders). Football is not basketball, of course, with the goal being on the ground and not in the air; but height can be vital – a lot of the game takes place in the air, and a goalkeeper or defender has to try and leap as high as possible to deal with certain situations, with a keeper’s height also helping increase his reach. (Also, the goal itself begins on the ground, but rises to 8ft.)
Several years ago I looked at the aerial win percentages of players in the Premier League, and those who won the most were the group that averaged a height of 6’5” or more. Then, with each inch of height taken away, the success rate dropped, down to about 5’9”, where the results became noisy.
Again, there were outliers within each height band, but as I noted in 2015, tall centre-backs and tall keepers (as well as a tall defensive midfielder) can really help protect the area, especially against crosses and the long-ball styles still favoured by some English teams. Where Liverpool were clever was in finding tall players for these positions who were also elite talents – not just giants, but technically excellent, and crucially, also quick. That said, it’s where they paid a premium: Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, the club’s two most expensive purchases of the Jürgen Klopp era even when adjusted for inflation, and with Fabinho not exactly cheap.
That said, Joël Matip was a bargain on a free transfer, and so far, Ibrahima Konaté looks like a steal at around £36m.
Plus, in Darwin Núñez, whose fee with add-ons could top those paid for van Dijk and Alisson, Liverpool have paid a premium for another tall player, who should not only help to score goals, but at 6’2”, do some solid defensive duties at those all-important set-pieces.
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