Has analytics made Liverpool boring?

Before we start, a quick note that the paper for mine and my Twenty3 colleagues’ StatsBomb conference project on ‘How to break down a set defence’ is available here.

There are a few things that we know for certain about Liverpool Football Club and their men’s first team.

  1. They employ a whole analytics department, headed up by PhD-from-Cambridge-holding Ian Graham and including worked-at-CERN-yes-that-CERN-the-Big-Hadron-Collider-CERN Will Spearman.
  2. The last 18 months or so has seen Liverpool men’s team focus their play through the full-backs to an extraordinary extent. Granted, it’s helped by having two players of the quality of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, but to have your two full-backs combine for 23 league assists is quite something.
  3. The analytics folk at Liverpool appear to be actually listened to (not a given in football). There’s the story that opens the afore-linked NY magazine article about Ian Graham wowing Jurgen Klopp, and later in the piece it quotes Klopp as saying, in reference to the analytics crew: “The department there in the back of the building? They’re the reason I’m here.”

And now for a couple of things that we sort of know to be true, and can do a little bit of speculation with:

  1. The centre of the pitch is more dangerous than the flanks, as a general rule (for some sort of detail on this, have a play with the interactive Expected Threat map around halfway through this blog from Karun Singh). It seems likely that conceding turnovers in central midfield is more dangerous than conceding turnovers from advanced full-backs at a similar height up the pitch.
  2. The thing that Ian Graham is “really obsessed about,” he says in a recent Freakonomics podcast, “is the risk-reward payoff of passes.” He was, primarily, talking about attacking passes and the fact that dangerous players can have low pass completion rates...

…However, we know that Liverpool have smart people working for them (people who, in a pre-LFC life, have developed advanced ‘pitch control’ models that calculate the values of areas of the pitch at any given time).

We know that these smart people are listened to (or, at the very least, notably appreciated). We know that the men’s team has two very capable attacking full-backs. We know that the team has started using those full-backs, rather than the central midfield, to progress the ball.

We also know that Jurgen Klopp’s teams were, once upon a time, famed for their exciting and fast-paced style of football; a style that now seems to have disappeared or been diluted.

‘Risk-reward payoff of passes’? Would it be too much to suggest that the analytics department have worked out that progressing the ball through the full-backs is a better risk-reward payoff than doing it through the centre, and that’s what’s behind Liverpool’s change of style of late?

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Maybe it is.

Despite the — quite frankly, surprising — amount of media coverage the Anfield brain trust have had, we don’t know much about what they do for the club or what actually gets listened to. To take a pure cynic’s view, one could say that Liverpool have been very good at media and public relations of late. Putting their analytics department in the spotlight presents them as modern and forward-looking to fans (and sponsors?, and particularly American ones of both who are more au fait with figures in their sporting fun?).

There’s also the matter of personnel. Early in Klopp’s reign, when the central midfield was more attacking in nature, Adam Lallana, and then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, were part of the regular starting XI. Both have had injury trouble, and perhaps Liverpool don’t have players similar enough to play those roles (although most people assumed Naby Keita would be let loose in a similar manner, which it doesn’t seem he has been).

And then there’s the Premier League.

Liverpool — as you may have heard this before — haven’t ever won a Premier League title. Their last top-flight men’s trophy was in 1989/90 and that, coupled with the feud with Manchester United who used that drought to overtake them in number of league titles won, is a great source of pain for the fans.

Perhaps playing more conservatively in the centre is a way of taking some of the self-inflicted danger that an intense press can bring. Perhaps this style, this shift to using the full-backs as ball progression options and leaving the central midfield with more defensive and stabilising responsibilities, is simply a way to give the team as a whole more control in matches. And so perhaps the change has a singular focus, to try and maximise the chances of winning that elusive first. ever. Premier League.