A Distribution Revolution
Inconvenient as international breaks are, it offers ample opportunity to take stock of Liverpool’s rugged performances of late. Rarely operating past second gear, Liverpool have relied largely on the efforts of their back four – a historically uncomfortable experience, as fans will attest – in grinding out a series of hard fought wins. It was a task made easier with the addition of £66.9 million goalkeeper Alisson – formerly of Roma – who provides another dimension to the team’s build up play.
Alisson’s impressive ability on the ball – showcased with an audacious chip over Anthony Knockaert in the home fixture against Brighton – and his expertise in distribution, were highly coveted attributes for Jürgen Klopp. Indeed, with Liverpool having shored up the defence with Dutch international, Virgil Van Dijk, many fans have hailed the current No.1 as the missing piece of the puzzle. Combining impressive shot stopping with laser-guided punts across the pitch, the Brazilian has presented himself as one of the most complete stoppers around.
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Indeed, it would arguably not be farfetched to suggest that Alisson has had a transformative impact on this Liverpool side, much akin to the ‘Van Dijk effect’. One need only look up the M62 to observe how such a signing can revolutionise a side. Whilst Claudio Bravo had ability on the ball, a recurring feature for ‘keepers in Guardiola sides, his shot-stopping was found to be severely lacking. Ederson not only provided a solution to the latter, but was sought out by Pep Guardiola, mainly for his contributions to build up play.
Most notably, however, according to a host of statistics gathered by WhoScored, is the sheer drop in quality when it comes to Liverpool’s former No.1, Loris Karius, and, now deputy, Simon Mignolet. Whilst being excellent shot stoppers, both have been found to be wanting when it comes to build up play. Take the 17/18 season for instance, where Mignolet and Karius had an even share of Premier League games. Mignolet managed a meagre average of 4.3 successful long passes per game. While this compares favourably to Karius’s average of 4.1, both ‘keepers are utterly blown out of the water when held against Alisson’s average of 7.4 for Roma, albeit extracted from a larger sample (37 Serie A appearances).
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Regardless, only four appearances in for Liverpool, Alisson’s average of 5.8 successful long balls is still a noteworthy improvement on what came before. With this in mind, it looks to make a great deal of sense why the Brazilian was favoured over Jan Oblak by Klopp in the Summer. Although the Atletico Madrid No.1 is undoubtedly within the world-class bracket of shot stoppers, Alisson fits Liverpool’s style of play better, much in the same way Ederson fits City’s.
Of course, it would be unfair to heap all the praise on Liverpool’s goalkeeper, without also acknowledging the crucial part the backline has played in securing maximum points. Andrew Robertson’s dogged persistence down the left flank has seen him earn the adoration of the Anfield faithful. Likewise, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s sumptuous early swung crosses, and Van Dijk’s pin point diagonals have given opposing sides much to think about.
Even Joe Gomez, invariably average in a right-back role last season, has impressed both fans and neutrals alike. Amidst injuries to Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip, a partnership with Van Dijk at the centre of the defence has handed the former Charlton defender a new lease of life. The recent outing against Leicester illustrated his ability on the ball. Even more impressively, putting his body on the line early in the second half to deny what would likely have been a certain goal.
Using City as a barometer, Liverpool’s fullbacks have held up well against the current champions, thus far. Although Benjamin Mendy is currently sitting pretty on four assists in his opening four games – double Robertson’s total – the Scot has registered a superior 2.5 key passes per game compared to Mendy’s 1.8. This discrepancy in assists arguably further suggests that Liverpool’s front three have yet to reach the dizzying heights of the previous season.
WhoScored comparative passing stats: Mendy (top) v Robertson (bottom)
Whilst likely to drastically improve as the season progresses, Kyle Walker has been found to be lagging in chance creation, having not yet registered a key pass, compared to Alexander-Arnold’s average of 0.5 this season. That being said, it should be noted that Walker has been less wasteful in distribution.
WhoScored comparative passing stats: Walker (top) v Alexander-Arnold (bottom)
As encouraging as Liverpool’s defensive resilience has been over the opening four league games, the club’s domestic success will also rely in large part on the backline’s involvement in build up play. Make no mistake however, Klopp is patiently building a team that is capable of threatening opponents on multiple fronts and challenging for long-awaited trophies.