Premier League Transfer Review #12: Liverpool

2017/18 Season

Despite the incredible individual season from Mohamed Salah, Liverpool actually finished on 1 less point in 2017/18 than they had in 2016/17. However, this is a small price to pay for reaching the Champions League final.

Looking at Jurgen Klopp’s time in charge of Liverpool, it feels as though they’ve ticked off every checkpoint you’d imagine they were aiming for. In his first season, having taken over part way through the season, it seemed as though the objective would have just been to implement his style of play, which he did while reaching two cup finals. In his first full season the objective was likely to get back into the Champions League, then his second full season to ensure they don’t drop out of the top four – which they achieved plus the bonus of a Champions League final.

A big part of this progress is thanks to the Liverpool recruitment team. In two summers they transformed a pretty average squad into a squad perfectly suited for Klopp’s football and with their best years still ahead of them – all while making a profit.

In their underlying numbers Liverpool seemed to be second to only Manchester City. They had the 2nd best xGD, with the 2nd best xG for and against, 2nd best chances fot and chances against, 2nd least chances conceded in the danger zone, but then they had the most chances from within the danger zone. Their xG per chance against was even dragged down to around average, which is something that had been mentioned as a problem in the past.

A big part of their good form comes down to their front three. It’s not as though Salah’s record breaking season needs any more mentioning, but an xG + xA of 1.030 is really incredible. His goal scoring was so good that his creativity seemed scarcely mentioned. While his xA p90 was 14th highest in the league most players above him played less minutes. Looking at his xA total, only Christian Eriksen and Kevin de Bruyne created more than his 11.10 xA.

Then, as good as he was, it wasn’t all about Salah. Sadio Mane tended to drop slightly deeper last season, tending to start counter attacks rather than making the runs in behind like Salah, but he was still incredibly productive with an xG + xA of 0.738 p90. Then Roberto Firmino excelled through the middle with an xG + xA of 0.719 p90 and incredible work when out of possession, showing Liverpool don’t need a traditional striker as had been mentioned in recent seasons.

Having three players so well balanced, who work well together and are all 26-yeas-old and under is huge for Liverpool. The only concern would be after losing Philippe Coutinho they don’t have many people either producing from deep or to rely upon if one of these is injured. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner both put forward good numbers from deep, but with Chamberlain out long-term and Milner 32-years-old it still felt as though another #8 was required – luckily for Liverpool they had Naby Keita coming in (I’ll get to that in the next section).

Finally, Liverpool’s defenders also enjoyed a good season. Virgil van Dijk made me look like an idiot as I said he wouldn’t have that big of an impact in my Window Shopping piece on Liverpool, while full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold had huge years.

Robertson had the 7th highest xG + xA p90 of defenders in the Premier League and Alexander-Arnold had the 4th highest. Then Alexander-Arnold attempted the 3rd most passes into the box of all defenders and Robertson the 5th most. (These should really be bumped up due to Milner being 1st and listed as a defender in my data) To make things even better Alexander-Arnold is still just 19-years-old and Robertson is only really entering his peak at 24-years-old, yet they’re two of the best and most productive full-backs in the league.

While things changed slightly from the time these articles were written, I’d say the main problems last season for Liverpool were in goal and midfield. @thefutebolist wrote a piece about Liverpool’s need for a new goalkeeper, while Jordan Henderson’s progressive passing was incredibly suspect when I looked at clustering vertical passes.

I wrote a pretty long piece about Liverpool and where they should be looking to recruit back in January and some of it still relevant, which is why I haven’t delved into where they need to improve here. The main areas and the positions which I felt they needed to sign back then were a goalkeeper, a defensive midfielder, a rotation option for the front three and possibly an additional central midfielder.

Incoming

After two years of profit in the transfer window, plus back-to-back seasons of Champions League football and the run to the final, it seems the money was there to spend for Liverpool this summer – and they didn’t mess around in spending it.

Starting at the back, they broke the world record for most expensive goalkeeper in the world – only to see it smashed not long after – and added Alisson from Roma. I don’t have too much to say about Alisson, @thefutebolist picked him as the best choice for Liverpool’s ‘keeper in his piece, I agreed with that in my piece from January and I talked about him in relation to Arsenal needing a new ‘keeper come the end of the season (where his numbers had still remained great).

His shot stopping numbers were some of the best in Europe, he’s good going short and playing from the back and he’s still only 25-years-old. Alisson seemed to be the best option for Liverpool and they got him. He should offer them a huge improvement and could really help take Liverpool to the next level.

Adding some more defensive solidity will be Fabinho in midfield. Fabinho has been a big part of Monaco’s side since 2014/15, playing 90.4% of available minutes in the past four seasons. @MoeSquare wrote a great piece on Fabinho and raised some question when the signing was first announced, but in the conclusion noted that while Fabinho’s passing and build-up play could be better, “merely finding an athletic version of what Emre Can and Jordan Henderson brought to the table is enough for what Liverpool need at that position”.

Fabinho definitely seems like an upgrade on Henderson. Looking at vertical passes, which is something you think Liverpool would want from their deepest midfielder, Henderson attempted a lot more but had poor completion rates so both Fabinho and Henderson end up completing around the same amount. Henderson attempted 4.82 vertical passes p90 with 2.06 going into the final third, but completed just 2.48 p90 of all vertical passes and 0.83 p90 into the final third. Fabinho, meanwhile, completed 2.10 of his 2.87 attempted vertical passes p90 and 0.87 of his 1.33 attempted vertical passes into the final third p90.

Moving on to passes into the box and Fabinho completed 0.73 of his attempted 1.07 p90, while Henderson completed 1.01 of his 3.49 attempted p90. Granted this doesn’t take difficulty into account, but it’s certainly not encouraging from Henderson.

There’s also a good chance that Fabinho will have more of an opportunity to make vertical passes at Liverpool, given Liverpool played the 4th most vertical passes in Europe’s top five leagues last season, while Monaco played the 6th least in the French league. If Fabinho’s good completion rates can be scaled up with more vertical passes, rather than just being a product of a small sample, then he seems to offer a big upgrade on Henderson.

Fabinho was also more active off the ball than Henderson last season, attempting 8.03 tackles + interceptions p90 compared to Henderson’s 5.55 p90, while Monaco also had a lower PPDA than Liverpool.

The fee was pretty big at £40m, given there’s still some question marks over his passing, but he seems as though he can seamlessly slide into the Henderson role and offer a big improvement.

The only thing that’s in the back of my mind is that Lucas Torreira, who was my favourite choice back in January, was available for half the price and offers the same activity off the ball while having more evidence of being better and more progressive on it. Given Torreira’s stature you don’t get the same physicality in midfield, but better passing from deep may have been a fair trade off. With that being said, the Fabinho deal still improves Liverpool and he’s still young enough to add some new aspects to his game, particularly in a new system.

Along side Fabinho will be new signing Naby Keita. Keita was signed last season but didn’t join Liverpool until this summer and as mentioned in my piece back in January, he can do a great job of replacing Coutinho’s dribbling from deep while offering much more defensive activity. From pieces I’ve done on this site, whenever I’ve looked at midfielders Naby Keita has been an outlier in basically every metric for those 24-years-old and under.

For under 24-year-old midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues for midfielders and under here’s some of his rankings.

Metric Rank
Attempted Vertical Passes p90 1st
Attempted Vertical Passes to final third p90 (unsurprisingly given the above) 1st
Attempted take-ons p90 5th (but those above are wingers)
Attempted Take-ons in deeper central areas p90 1st
Attempted Take-ons in advanced central areas p90 2nd (to winger Sofiane Boufal)
Attempted Passes into the box p90 4th
Attempted tackles + interceptions p90 12th (but RB Leipzig had the 3rd highest possession in the Bundesliga last season, I imagine these would be better if they were possession adjusted)

Imagining Keita to be the #8 to push on and support the front three, the only areas he lacks behind Philippe Coutinho is passes into the box and his goal contribution. However, you could argue given more chance to get forward and playing for a stronger team he could certainly add this to his game. Not to mention only three midfielders under 24-years-old attempted more passes into the box p90 (one being Alex Oxlade-Chamerlain) so it’s not as though there was someone else they could have got to do that job.

Keita’s defensive activity should also be hugely beneficial to Liverpool and their pressing. Coming from RB Leipzig and previously playing for RB Salzburg the transition to Klopp’s football should be seamless and he should offer a huge improvement for Liverpool this season. It’s a shame Oxlade-Chamberlain is injured for so long as a midfield three with Fabinho deep and Keita and Chamberlain either side doesn’t sound like it’d be enjoyable to play against.

Moving forward and Liverpool’s choice for a rotational forward was Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke for £13.2m. Shaqiri is somehow still only 26-years-old and is filled with talent, playing for a poor Stoke side he still managed an xA of 10.83, the 4th highest in the Premier League. His xA of 0.320 p90 doesn’t fly off the charts, but it’s impressive given he played 3049 minutes and was on a relegated side.

The main concern of Shaqiri’s game would probably come from his shot selection. His xG per chance of 0.097 is pretty poor, but the poor attack he was on may influence it. Now, Shaqiri does seem to like a long shot, but with better players and movement around him he may cut down on them, while Klopp has managed to get respectable xG figures from Philippe Coutinho who also had a low xG per chance. Shaqiri offers a good rotation option at a good price, with youngster Dominic Solanke putting up some high xG + xA numbers from his small number of minutes (with many being substitute appearances) and Daniel Sturridge seemingly being given a second chance in pre-season it feels as though Liverpool have some good rotation options for their front three.

Klopp managed his front three well last season, with each of them averaging 2636 Premier League minutes, around 77% of what’s available, and this season he should continue to do this with help from new signing Shaqiri.

Outgoing

Danny Ward to Leicester for £12.6m seems like a great fee to get for a 3rd (4th with Alisson) choice goalkeeper.

Emre Can is probably one of the only disappointments of Liverpool’s recent windows. Moving on Can isn’t terrible but letting him run his deal down and move on a free isn’t good at all, when at just 24-years-old he could have been sold for a decent fee.

Conclusion

Should they have done any more business?

I don’t think Liverpool needed any more signings. They’ve addressed their weak spots excellently and have put together a really nice squad.

It is somewhat surprising to not see more outgoings. Divock Origi and Lazar Markovic are two players who seemed like they would be moved on, although they could still be sold to a European club before the end of the month.

Having signed Alisson it also feels as though having both of Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet isn’t required and one of them could have been moved on, while the other could play in the cup and a younger ‘keeper called upon in case of disaster. Again though, one of these could go to a club in Europe.

Verdict

Liverpool have had a great window. They’ve spent big but they’ve got exactly what they need. I’ve seen some concerns about the lack of creative passers in the team, as mentioned by @GraceOnFootball in her Liverpool preview for StatsBomb, but I don’t think it’s a huge worry for them. It feels as though with Salah, Mane, Firmino and Keita on the pitch they should be able to find a way to break down most defences.

Given the teams underlying numbers and level of performance of the front three last season, plus the new additions this summer and having Virgil van Dijk for a full season, I think it’d be a disappointing season for Liverpool if they didn’t put forward a challenge for the title – or at least be very comfortable in achieving top four status.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.

All transfer fees from TransferMarkt.

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