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Sadio Mane transfer has triggered forgotten Liverpool problem for Jurgen Klopp to solve

New research has shown that Sadio Mane was Liverpool’s most effective player against teams playing a low block. Jurgen Klopp must find a way to compensate for the forward’s absence.

Liverpool’s 2022/23 season has rapidly become a barrel of contradictions. Despite the most tightly packed schedule since organised football began, thanks to a mid-season World Cup, external circumstances mean the Reds will have gone four weeks without a league match when they host Brighton on Saturday.


In defence, they don’t allow that many shots but when they do they tend to be high value chances. This has led them to them being punished at a high rate and repeatedly conceding similar goals to go behind in games.


While this has been occurring at the back, the Reds have been trying to integrate Darwin Nunez up front. The Uruguayan is the most traditional striker that Liverpool have signed for many years, and his relative lack of playing time has meant the process of adding him to the attack has not run smoothly.


It can be dangerous to look at a six-game sample in comparison to a full season and draw conclusions regarding changes but consider the following. When the Reds won the league in 2019/20, the average distance from goal of their non-penalty shots was 16.1 yards ( per FBRef ). It shifted slightly to 16.2 the following year, then again ti 15.9 last season. The adjustments were small, and the expected goals per shot rate of 0.12 remained constant throughout.


Yet in 2022/23, the average Liverpool shot has been taken from 14.3 yards, the second closest in Europe’s top five leagues. Small sample or not, that’s quite a shift, and the Reds have already recorded three matches in which their average shot distance was closer than their closest for the whole of last season.


In principle this is good, as the nearer a player is to goal, the likelier they are to score. Indeed, Nunez has had the joint-second most shots in the six-yard box in the Premier League this season despite barely playing. But here’s the rub: Liverpool’s xG per shot has gone down slightly.


How is this possible? The likely explanation is that when they are not creating massively high value chances, the Reds are left with very low-grade opportunities, with little in-between. For instance, in the 2-1 win over Newcastle, Jurgen Klopp’s side had 12 shots which were worth no more than 0.03 expected goals ( per Understat ). They only had more twice in the preceding five seasons.


If we set an arbitrary bar of nine-or-more shots of such low value, Liverpool have hit that mark five times in their last 10 league matches. Across the entire 2018/19 and 2019/20 campaigns, it only occurred three times. Opposition teams now know they can ‘park the bus’ by holding a low block against the Reds and it will likely prove successful.


A football data analyst has tried to establish who the best players are for dealing with this problem. Markstats ( Twitter ) has defined a low block as when a team has a possession sequence of 10+ passes in the opposition half. He has then looked at how often a side has a shot or deep completion (a successful pass into a radius of 20m from goal) within three touches of each player being involved in the move. On Liverpool’s chart, one name stands out from most of the rest.


By this measure, Sadio Mane has been the Reds’ best attacker against deep lying defences in the last couple of years, with Mohamed Salah not far behind. This information won’t surprise many Kopites and it’s natural to wonder if the Senegalese forward’s departure has left Liverpool short in this regard in 2022/23.


But it could also be a red herring. Luis Diaz has been near the 10 percent mark this season, if not quite matching Mane’s output in this sense. This likely was a consideration when signing Nunez too, as he will provide the bus parking teams with a new obstacle to overcome.


Such sides are also presenting Liverpool with a problem they are struggling to solve though, as their shot quality stats demonstrate. They need a low block breaker they can rely upon consistently and until they have one, Mane’s absence may continue to linger a little longer.



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