What has happened to Liverpool’s attack?

One reason to explain Liverpool’s significant drop-off in points this season is the lack of goals scored by Jurgen Klopp’s side. During the first 27 matches of the 2019-20 Premier League season, the Reds found the net 64 times. This year, they have managed it on just 47 occasions – a decrease of 26.6%. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to work out that, as a team, you need to score goals to win a game. Therefore, delving deeper into Liverpool’s attack both this season and last season is crucial for understanding how to rectify their recent goalscoring problem.

OVERRELIANCE ON THE FRONTMEN FOR GOALS

Though Liverpool boast one of the most potent attacking trios in world football in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, it is inaccurate to argue that the team overwhelmingly relied on their goals last season. In the first 27 matches, the forwards scored 60.9% of the team’s goals, with the midfield (23.5%) and defence (12.5%) making up 36% of the rest. In terms of percentages, this was quite a healthy mix. The forwards were still producing the goods, yet they had support from their teammates. This kept the attack unpredictable. In defence, though the majority of goals came from Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold, both Joel Matip and Andy Robertson also found the back of the net. Meanwhile, in midfield, every single player scored at least a goal, highlighting how the goalscoring burden was shared collectively.

Fast forward to this season and we have a completely different picture. Out of the 47 goals scored by Liverpool so far, 76.6% of them have come from the forwards, compared to 8.5% from midfield and 8.5% from defence. That means while 36% of the goals were from either the midfield or the defence last season, just 17% have come from those positions this year. This demonstrates how the goalscoring burden has firmly been shifted onto the frontmen of Salah, Mane, Firmino, Divock Origi and Diogo Jota.

We can see this trend illustrated in the graphs below. Firstly, in the goals scored by Liverpool from each position across the first 27 matches of both the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 Premier League seasons.

Secondly, in the percentage make-up of Liverpool’s goals across the first 27 matches of both seasons.

While the defence and midfield’s goalscoring output has decreased compared to last season, the forwards have not increased theirs, which explains why Liverpool has scored less goals this year. So, although the Reds are becoming increasing reliant on their frontline to find the back of the net, it is not due to those attackers scoring more goals.

DROP-OFF IN FORM FROM THE FORWARD LINE

Yet an overreliance on the forwards for goals was not necessarily a problem in the first half of the year. The frontmen scored at least one goal or more in Liverpool’s first 15 matches, helping the team achieve nine wins, five draws and just one loss, picking up 33 points along the way to sit atop the Premier League table. In fact, Salah and co. were even performing better than they were the previous season, evidenced in the graph below showing that the forwards’ collective goals per game score during the 2020-21 season remained higher than in 2019-20 for most of this year.

However, in the 12 games since Christmas, Liverpool’s forwards have hit a rough patch. They have only scored at least one goal or more on just four occasions. Compounding matters, in the eight matches in which they have blanked, the team has only managed to score one goal from elsewhere – Curtis Jones’ opener against Sheffield United on 28th February. Its effect on results has been clear. During this period, Liverpool have won just three times, drawing twice and losing seven matches. The Reds have picked up just 11 points, equating to an average of 0.92 points per game, a far cry from the 2.20 points per game the team was managing before Christmas. Instead of leading the league, Liverpool now find themselves in seventh, four points off a Champions League position with eleven games to go. We can see this drop-off in goalscoring output by the forwards in the graph below.

This drop-off in form highlights the problem of over-relying on your forwards to score goals; it becomes an unsustainable situation. When the frontmen hit a rough patch (which they inevitably will) and start blanking, teammates in other positions will find it difficult to step in and fill the gap.

Last season, Liverpool did a better job of covering for their forwards when they misfired. In the six matches the forwards failed to score in (across the whole 38-game season), the rest of the team found the net in 50% of them. This season, it stands at 12.5%. So not only does Klopp find himself dealing with a situation in which the forwards are now blanking more often (29.6% of games vs. 15.8% last season), but the midfield and defence are struggling to plug the gap (scoring in 12.5% of those blanks vs. 50% last season).

IS THE DROP-OFF DUE TO INJURIES?

Perhaps this drop-off in form is understandable given Liverpool’s injury record this season. Klopp has had six players sidelined for 40+% of the year: Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and Diogo Jota. Some of these players scored important goals last season. For example, van Dijk had five, Oxlade-Chamberlain had four and Naby Keita two. Meanwhile, Jota had made an instant impact after his summer move from Wolves, scoring five times in nine league matches before picking up a knee injury in a Champions League group match. His absence, in particular, appeared to dent Liverpool’s momentum heading into the crucial winter period.

But while it is easy to examine the direct impact of injuries on the champion’s goalscoring problems, it is possibly the indirect impact that has had a bigger part to play. I wrote an earlier piece trying to quantify this very impact on Liverpool’s season by investigating the domino effect it has had on the squad. The lengthy lay offs for van Dijk, Gomez and Matip have caused the most disturbance due to the implications this has had for the defence and midfield.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has struggled to match his goals and assist tally from last season, while Andy Robertson has tailed off after a strong start. Without a stable defence and the team’s three main centre-backs, the responsibility has fallen on Trent and Robertson as the remaining stalwarts of last season’s champion-winning backline. It is unclear, however, how *exactly* this has affected Liverpool’s two full-backs this season.

In midfield, though, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have been utilised heavily as centre-back cover in the absence of van Dijk, Gomez and Matip, decreasing their midfield output. This has had to be filled by newcomer Thiago and academy product Curtis Jones, who have scored and provided just one goal and one assist between them. In fact, while Liverpool had nine midfielders find the back of the net last season, this year only three have. Of the three positions, the drop-off in goalscoring output from midfield has been the most pronounced. 

What effect this has had on the forwards is harder to ascertain. The drop in creative productivity from both Trent and Robertson would be the obvious argument, given how often the fullbacks would assist the forwards, yet it is difficult to gauge whether their drop is due to fewer chances being created or fewer chances being scored. The same loss of goal production from midfield would also be a contributing factor. Recently, Liverpool has not looked like a team capable of scoring, suggesting the problem is due to what chances (or lack of) are created by the team as a whole.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF SADIO MANE

While injuries may be the root cause for the majority of failings this season, the players available still have agency to positively affect games. Zooming in on the forwards, some have done this better than others. Mohamed Salah, for example, has increased his goals per game score (GPGS) from 0.50 last season to 0.63 by scoring 17 league goals. In comparison, he is miles ahead of second-place teammate, Sadio Mane, who has found the net just seven times. This signifies a huge drop-off in goalscoring output from the Senegalese forward, who managed to score 18 goals last season. It has meant Mane’s GPGS has dropped from 0.47 in 2019-20 to just 0.26. Given Liverpool need goals, rectifying Mane’s fall in GPGS should be a high priority.

Below is a graph detailing this difference in GPGS for Liverpool’s frontmen, as well as for the team’s midfielders and defenders.

Their output post-Christmas has been particularly stark. While all of the forwards have struggled, Salah has still spearheaded 66.7% of them. Out of the six goals the forwards have scored during this period, four have been through Salah, with Mane and Roberto Firmino finding the net just once each. When discussing the forwards, however, it is important to note that Salah has the added benefits of being on penalties, which makes up 35.3% of his total this season. Though the Egyptian would still be ahead of Mane without them (11 goals vs. 7), it is often overlooked how helpful being on penalties can be to end a goalscoring drought and start gaining momentum again. Without that luxury, Mane is particularly struggling this season and his confidence looks knocked.

WHAT SHOULD JURGEN KLOPP DO?

Once you start delving into Liverpool’s attack this season, you realise that the problems are pretty extensive. A lack of goals from defence and midfield has caused an overreliance on the forwards to deliver, who were overachieving on this front until their post-Christmas slump. In particular, Salah has largely carried the team through his goals this season, while Mane has struggled to hit his goalscoring heights of last year.

However, for the forwards to get over their recent dip in form, they need help from their teammates. Liverpool must start becoming more unpredictable in their attack. Set pieces, in particular, have almost been forgotten. No centre-back replacement, whether it be Rhys Williams, Nathanial Phillips, Ozan Kabak, Fabinho or Jordan Henderson, has scored from this position this season. Meanwhile, the midfield has produced just four goals and five assists between them. Though injuries are undoubtedly the root cause of the majority of Liverpool’s problems, the team must realise their potential to positively influence matches from attack. Injecting some hunger and fight back into their play is a must. It does not have to be all doom and gloom. This season is tough, but there is still plenty to play for with eleven games remaining.

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