By Bill Farnham
Just as the 2011/12 season was one of disappointment, ultimately, for Liverpool, so to was it for the defense in particular, which despite sparkling during the first half of the campaign, seemed to lose its way in the second half of the season. Daniel Agger’s absence due to fractured ribs interrupted his finest season in a Liverpool shirt thus far, and Jose Enrique suffered an alarming drop in form as the season progressed. Not everything was negative for the defense, however, as in both Martin Kelly and Sebastian Coates, Liverpool appears to have two promising young players who will be challenging for first team spots for many years to come.
What follows is an examination of the Liverpool defensive performance in the two halves of the season and an attempt to determine what might have been behind the massive change that occurred in the second half of the season. Stats are for Premier League games only, and come from EPLIndex.com, soccerstats.com and footstats.co.uk.
1. The First 19 Games:
After the first 19 games of the 2011/12 season, Liverpool was a respectable 9-7-3 (W-D-L) and had 34 points on the board. The defense was proving to be a real strength for the team, with Liverpool conceding only 15 goals in its first 19 games for an average of one goal every 114 minutes (excluding extra time). If the 4–0 defeat at Tottenham is removed as an obvious outlier (Charlie Adam red card at 28 minutes, Martin Skrtel red card at 63 minutes), then the record is even more impressive – Liverpool conceded 11 goals in the remaining 18 games, or one goal every 147 minutes (not including extra time).
Additionally, Liverpool recorded seven shutouts and never surrendered more than one goal in any of the other games. If these statistics (again, excluding the Tottenham game) are extrapolated over the course of an entire season, then Liverpool would have recorded its best defensive season of the last decade, surpassing even the 2005/06 squad, which conceded a paltry 25 goals during the Premier League campaign.
2. The Second 19 Games:
After the turn of the year, Liverpool went off the rails and posted a dismal 5-3-11 record, due in no small part to the fact that the defense was considerably poorer in the second half of the season. Statistically, the change was enormous, as Liverpool allowed an embarrassing 25 goals over the final 19 games, for an average of one goal conceded for every 68.4 minutes played. To put this performance into perspective, in the four seasons from 2005/06 through 2008/09, Liverpool never conceded more than 28 goals in a season, allowing 25, 27, 28 and 27 goals, respectively.
Unlike the first half of the season, in the second half of 2011/12 Liverpool tended to concede in bunches, permitting the opposition to score two or more goals a remarkable eight times in 19 matches. If these statistics are extrapolated over the course of an entire season, then Liverpool would have easily turned in its most miserable defensive performance of the last decade, allowing 50 goals, a number only approached by the 2010/11 squad, which conceded 44 times.
3. What was behind the performance drop?
What, then, was the cause for the difference in performance between the first half of the season and the second? Obviously the injury to Agger played a big part in the defensive decline, with Liverpool dropping games to Arsenal, Sunderland, QPR, Wigan and Newcastle in the period immediately following his rib injury in the League Cup final. The argument can also be made that as Liverpool watched their league standing decline they started to chase games and were therefore more exposed at the back. Perhaps an even larger factor in the defensive decline was the lack of availability for the first choice back four.
In the second half of the season, the consensus first choice back four (Jose Enrique, Agger, Skrtel and Glen Johnson) only played together 5 times in 19 games, and only once for two games in a row. Contrast this with the first half of the season, when the first choice back four played together for 10 games in a row (11 counting the Jan. 3 game against Manchester City), a stretch of games that coincided with Liverpool’s best vein of form during the season.
Enrique, Agger, Skrtel and Johnson first started a Premier League match together on Oct. 29 against West Bromwich Albion, a 2-0 Liverpool win. The quartet started their next 10 EPL games together, and a run that ultimately included 12 of 13 possible league matches, with the team posting a record of 6-4-3 over that stretch, losing only to Fulham, Manchester City and Bolton. After the Jan. 31 win over Wolves, however, the first choice back four only started two more games together during the remainder of the season, as Liverpool staggered to the finish line, posting a record of 4-2-9 over the last 15 games. Surely Liverpool’s inability to keep their best back four on the field together was one of the major causes behind the late season collapse.
4. Losing Lucas affected the team as well:
Another factor contributing to the poor defensive performances in the second half of the season was the injury to Lucas Leiva, a player who has become widely regarded as one of the premier defensive midfielders in the EPL, if not all of Europe during the last two seasons. In the nine games before Oct. 29, the first choice back four did not appear together as a group in any of Liverpool’s matches, however the team still posted a very respectable record of 5-3-2 (one of the losses was the aforementioned Tottenham game). Compare this with the games where the first choice back four did not appear together following the injury to Leiva, and the contrast is quite dramatic. After Leiva’s injury, the team had a record of 4-2-8 in games in which the first choice back four did not start together.
Presumably Leiva’s accomplished presence in the defensive midfielder position removed some of the pressure from the back four, and allowed Liverpool to function more effectively as a defensive unit. With the Brazilian on track to return healthy and fit for the start of the new season, Liverpool should expect to regain the defensive dominance that they displayed at times during the 2011/12 season.
5. How will things change under Brendan Rogers?
Now for the good news. With the exception of Enrique and the occasional foray forward from Johnson, the Liverpool defense under Kenny Dalglish tended to sit deeper and not press as aggressively or as far up the pitch as Swansea. The Swansea squad recorded 607 interceptions in the Premier League during the 2011/12 season, 76 more than Liverpool’s 531, or an extra two per game.
Additionally, even though Swansea was pressing more aggressively than Liverpool, the Swans only made seven defensive errors (three led to goals) over the course of the season, or one every 514 minutes, compared to the 16 defensive errors (nine led to goals, 22.5 percent of the total number of goals conceded by the Reds) that Liverpool committed, for a total of one every 225 minutes. The Swansea squad was more disciplined and focused in their pressing than Liverpool was last season.
Another huge difference that can be expected under Brendan Rogers is the participation of the defense in the buildup and execution of attacking moves. Since Agger, Johnson, Enrique and (to a lesser extent) Martin Skrtel are all technically competent with the ball at their feet, this should emerge as a real area of strength for Liverpool in the 2012/13 season, especially in light of the extent that Swansea’s defense contributed in 2011/12.
Three out of the top five Swans, in terms of number of passes in the attacking half, were defenders (Angel Rangel, Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor), and the trend holds as well for passes in the final third (Rangel, Taylor, Williams). Rangel and Williams played 2,873 minutes and 3,330 minutes during the season, respectively, so it is perhaps not as surprising that they should lead in the club in touches as well.
With greater tactical discipline and a playing style suited to their strengths, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, and Enrique look primed to have a massive impact on Liverpool’s Premier League achievements in 2012.
Postscript: in the time since I originally wrote this, the Agger to Manchester City rumors have not disappeared. Despite Agger’s frequent injuries, I believe that he is a critical piece for Brendan Rodgers’ new look Liverpool squad, as he is adept at getting forward and is an accomplished passer of the ball, all of which were in evidence during the home leg of the recent match against FC Gomel. With a team “spine” consisting of Reina, Agger, Skrtel, Lucas, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, Liverpool clearly has a talented group of players forming the core of their team – if Brendan Rogers can bring in the appropriate supporting cast, this season could be the start of a real Liverpool resurgence.