The derby is upon us. Everton head into Monday night’s clash on the back of a legitimately impressive win over Arsenal, while Liverpool rebounded from a crazy 3-4 loss to Bournemouth and a draw against West Ham United with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough earlier this week. This is the first Merseyside Derby at Goodison Park for both managers.
Liverpool are good
It hurts to say it, but Liverpool are legit this year. Their attack has produced more shots, more shots on target, more goals, and more expected goals than any other team in top flight this season. Pretty much however you slice it, they have the best attack in the Premier League. If you’re a more visual learner, Ben Mayhew has you covered:
The facts that their expected goals numbers back up their actual numbers and that their conversion rate is only sort of high and not off the charts suggest that this is not a fluke.
Defensively things look pretty good too on the surface. Liverpool have conceded the fewest shots, the fourth fewest shots on target, and only Chelsea are doing better in terms of xG, according to Paul Riley’s model.
Still, there are some causes for optimism from an Everton perspective. The first is that Liverpool are missing one of their chief offensive contributors. The second and more interesting is that while their defensive shot volume is stellar, opponents are finding that if they can get the ball on net, they are surprisingly likely to score. More on that in a bit; first, let’s talk about Phil.
The Coutinho effect
At the end of November, Philippe Coutinho picked up an ankle injury that ruled him out for at least a month. Liverpool’s goal output hasn’t slowed down much in their three matches without Phil but they are shooting less, and they have had to change their approach a bit in the Brazilian’s absence. Coutinho possesses that wonderful skill known as progressing the ball towards the goal:
Here's a new stat I've been playing with. Players who make the most progressive passes and runs in the Premier League. pic.twitter.com/PpmoYfFwdT— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) December 12, 2016
Specifically, he likes to hang out in the left-half spaces and look for through balls to runners ahead of him:
This is what Liverpool are missing. Heat map of where Coutinho passes from and average direction of the passes. pic.twitter.com/NqZiBl5HNX— David Sumpter (@Soccermatics) December 11, 2016
Players like this are rare and valuable and while Liverpool are well-managed and have good depth, they inevitably have missed Coutinho’s contribution. Tactically it means that ‘Pool are more keen to emphasize the Clyne/Mané partnership on the right instead of the Milner/Coutinho’s-replacement duo on the left.
With Coutinho missing, Klopp has usually opted to use Divock Origi up top and to play Roberto Firmino off of him. Firmino is kind of replacing Coutinho in this sense but he is a different sort of player—still a very productive creator, but more mobile and less inclined to hang out in a particular pocket and look to get on the ball. The upshot is that there’s a bit of a creative hole in Liverpool’s offense that Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum aren’t stylistically suited to fill. The team still has plenty of firepower but they are at least a hair more predictable now that they’ve lost one of their main routes to goal.
The soft underbelly
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the goalkeeper situation on the red side of Merseyside recently. Beneath the dumb back and forths between Klopp and former failed managers lies an apparently systematic problem with Liverpool:
It might help Karius play better if Liverpool weren't giving up the highest xG per shot in the league by a fairly wide margin.— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) December 12, 2016
Expected goals per shot is a metric that approximates chance quality. It tells us, independent of quantity/volume, how likely is that when a team shoots (or concedes a shot) that the ball will end up in the back of the net. In the case of Liverpool’s opponents, the answer is: very likely.
I used the word systematic above because there is somewhat of a consensus amongst analysts that Liverpool’s tactics, and perhaps pressing systems in general, are conducive to this characteristic. The basic idea is that if you screw up a press, you are vulnerable. It makes intuitive sense—pressing involves committing high numbers of players to specific spaces, thereby leaving other spaces on the pitch with lower numbers of players. Another way to think about is that in Klopp’s system, defensive mistakes are magnified. So yeah, Karius hasn’t looked great, but he’s had to deal with some seriously good chances that Liverpool’s defense are conceding.
Even without using a fancy stat like xG, it’s clear that opponents are having a hard time breaking through Liverpool’s press but finding that once they do, they have a clear route to goal. Again Mayhew’s visual work is helpful here:
Admittedly, the nuts and bolts of this analysis are vague and require a deep dive into some more advanced statistics and a healthy dose of film work. At the moment I simply want to introduce the idea that the way to score against Liverpool has not been to simply try to get shots off, but to look for holes in the press and to clinically exploit them.
Matching up with Everton
With all this in mind, what should Everton do? I’m slightly worried at Koeman’s suggestion that Everton “need to press”. After flirting with a pressing system early in the season, Everton have settled into a more hands-off approach which, while perhaps less sexy, probably suits their players better. Liverpool are stocked with top attacking talent and despite all the talk of pressing, they are plenty happy to keep possession themselves. To go after them aggressively strikes me as playing to their strengths. The last thing I want to see is Sadio Mané running at a 35-year old defensive midfielder or a 32-year old center back with no other blue shirts around.
A better option is probably a conservative approach without the ball and a direct approach with it. Instead of letting Idrissa Gueye run around like a chicken with his head cut off, try to keep some friggin’ shape in the midfield and make Liverpool play into traffic. Meanwhile, throw Deulofeu and Rom forward as long ball outlets. Klopp’s side are vulnerable to this sort of thing:
Analysis of [Liverpool’s last] twenty goals reveals a further weakness though. Six or arguably seven of them have arrived through a similar format, with a broad theme being this: an unchallenged pass from the centre to Liverpool’s left back area and a ball into the box that is eventually finished. Liverpool’s issue is less about conceding to the first touch inside the box, and more about struggling to clear or reach the second ball. This sample is obviously weighted to highlight failure, but Jordan Henderson is tasked with a large workload in the centre, James Milner and Alberto Moreno haven’t been sturdy defensive options and this route of play could be profitable for Everton to target. One of Deulofeu’s main assets is his ability to make probing crosses from the right flank, and if picked, it would seem a smart strategy to empower him to do this.
I have a feeling Koeman won’t go for this, but keeping last week’s 4-3-3, but with Valencia/Lukaku/Deulofeu as the front 3, appeals to me. In any case, it at least looks like Ronnie is attempting to cope with the fact that Ross Barkley is not a #10 and shouldn’t be treated as such. With no legitimate creative route through the center, a flank-oriented counter-attacking setup seems logical in this fixture.