Slow Old Men: How To Speed Up Liverpool's Season
Most of the solutions are already at the club
At times this season, Liverpool have been:
Too emotionally drained
And thus, too easy to create big chances against
As I keep saying, most of the solutions are already at the club. One or two more may need to arrive in January, and certainly next summer.
By then, one or two more at the fringes – the ones aged 19 and 20 – will have played themselves into contention, or into the XI. (Look at the improvement in Phil Foden from 19 to 22.)
I'd still have started the preseason with Ibrahima Konaté in the first XI, as I feel that his additional pace and strength, and youthful vigour, add something that the brilliant Joël Matip cannot match; certainly with such an aged spine to the side. Konaté seems vital to the high-line, especially with Virgil van Dijk now 31. I love watching Matip play, but it feels like Konaté may suit the team better now.
I've felt that Jürgen Klopp has to start getting Darwin Núñez into the XI, just to up the energy and pace levels. But as Klopp said, players coming back from international duty or in the red zone are ones he'll be advised by the medical department to limit their minutes. Núñez was in that category at the weekend.
While the month with no league football helped get several Liverpool players fit again, many went off to play for their countries, and others were either not yet fully match-fit, or clearly rusty.
Liverpool are almost never any good after a long break. It happened after the winter break was introduced in 2019; after Covid; after other periods of cancelled games. The first game is almost always bit ropey.
It's a team that relies on rhythm, but also fast-passing, hard-pressing football, and that's not possible, I fear, with eight older guys in the team. And yet, to press in a coordinated manner takes time to perfect, so new signings can be weak links for a while.
It often takes everyone 2-3 games to get into peak sharpness; individually and as a team. But there's usually an improvement of sorts in the second.
The World Cup is just seven league games away. The January window is just nine; leaving a staggering 22 league games after January 1st. And Liverpool play almost all of their toughest away games of the season before the World Cup (Chelsea would have been another).
It may be that Liverpool start slowly again after the World Cup, for a game or two, but it will be a crapshoot as to which players for which teams are sharp or rusty. You just feel that it’s like to help Liverpool, rather than hinder.
Anyone who goes to Qatar will likely return quite sharp, especially if they go far in the competition. But anyone who doesn't gets a lovely midseason rest.
Anyone who doesn't go will therefore likely be rusty in January, for a game or two. Anyone who does go may crash spectacularly into a wall by March or April, as Mo Salah did after the AFCON last season.
So, so much can change, in a way it never has before, beyond those clubs who regularly have to deal with AFCON (i.e. Liverpool). And this is far more disruptive than AFCON, clearly.
Equally, if Arsenal are still flying by mid-November, it will be horrible to then have to break for five weeks, and wonder who will report back in one piece. Momentum is a flawed concept in many ways, but what’s clear is that you want to play games when you’re in the zone and with a good rhythm; just as teams in the zone don’t want to break for half-time, when the tempo gets lost.
I’ve been working with Andrew Beasley to track and collate various different metrics that interest me, and Robert Radburn is doing some Tableau vizzes. While these ones are to be used regularly in our match previews, it’s worth pointing out the trends so far, after 7/8 games.
Liverpool rank highly for team-changes per game; often enforced, you feel. The Reds also rank highest for time spent together as a team, but this is often a good thing, as I regularly note – but up to a point; Spurs, Brighton and Man City also rank highly here, but so do Leicester.
Teams can often peak at four years together, according to research. But it's not a hard-and-fast rule. Have Liverpool passed their peak, in terms of age and also time together?
Forest have spent the 2nd-least time together, and I'm surprised it's not lower; somehow they've managed to field a team with an average of 1.5 years together despite signing 23 players this summer. To me, it's total madness; especially as they retained nine players from last season.
(Southampton are in a zone of their own on age; you’d think it would cut their manager some slack, especially if he didn’t buy the players. They’re a short, young team, and that’s a tough ask in the Premier League; it feels like boys against men.)
Liverpool are a nice average height (comprised of a balance of a small number aerially-dominant giants, and some smaller skilful players), but on the same graph, the average age is skewing dangerously old, at 28.
Indeed, split that further by lineup per game, and a problem appears to be clear.
Liverpool were slow and sluggish at Fulham with an age of 29.4, and against Brighton aged 28.8; and 28.5 when losing at Man United. Napoli away was 28.2, some two years older than the eager Italians, who looked full of the kind of pace and power that Liverpool used to possess.
Some of this was dictated by injuries, clearly.
Klopp has had one hand tied behind his back, but I wonder if, on a couple of occasions, he opted for experience over energy. It just needs a couple of different players in the XI to get the age back to a healthier, and perhaps hungrier level; as seen clearly against Ajax, where the pressing was back to its best.
The team doesn't need a total overhaul; just a tweak towards the indefinable, unquantifiable extras you get when there are a few youngish players with more energy, and maybe more to prove.
The Reds' younger average ages in the following games were generally connected to better displays, and only one of them is what you'd class a very "young" XI:
27.5 Crystal Palace
The two drawn games were fairly unlucky; and the other three were wins.
Age isn’t everything. Last season, Liverpool had an identical record when fielding teams aged 28.3 and older (up to 29.1) to the teams aged 28.2 down to 27.0; albeit the two defeats came in the higher age bracket.
But maybe the older players are feeling it this year a bit more after the slog of last season; or maybe the older players fielded this season in part due to desperate measures (such as James Milner) are not as good as the older players fielded last season.
But going forward, you probably don't want to be averaging over 28, if you also want to be full of energy. If last season was exhausting (and it was), it will have been felt harder by the older players.
An exception would be Roberto Firmino amongst the older players, but he had his “easiest” season last year, playing just 35 games and starting only 17. Contrast that to Virgil van Dijk, who at the same age started 51, and played many times for Holland. Centre-backs do less running, but van Dijk carries a lot of the pressure. Or Mo Salah, who looks leggy (as I’ll get onto).
Of the players who have impressed in 2022/23, Díaz has stood out, and Elliott has done well. They’re young, and haven’t yet won everything with the Reds, unlike many of the others. Fábio Carvalho has impressed, albeit mostly as a sub.
Now that Klopp has a fuller squad to choose from, he can hopefully balance things up a bit better, in all aspects of his team's game.
I'll look at how the Reds can change what are not ideal metrics in the second half of this piece, and where I think the potential for improvement exists within the squad (and what could be added by one particular player that the Reds have been heavily linked with).
Then there's the issue of Mo Salah's apparent lack of an extra yard – or just half-yard – of pace, but I'll get onto what's changed there, too.
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