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What’s behind Liverpool’s impressive start?

It feels like Jurgen Klopp would make an excellent politician. His appearance on Sky’s Monday Night Football was viewed as a fascinating insight into the Liverpool manager’s philosophy and thinking, whereas realistically Klopp gave away extremely little.

football on pitch in stadium

The only genuinely interesting comments he made were about his favoured gegenpressing’ system – and it’s that concept which has helped Liverpool make such a flying start to the campaign.

Liverpool are currently fourth in the Premier League table, level on points with Arsenal and Everton, and behind only Manchester City and Tottenham. But that performance becomes more impressive when you consider Liverpool have encountered some tough fixtures so far, and the redevelopment of Anfield means they’ve played only two home matches, fewer than everyone else in the Premier League. Adjust the table to take account of the difficulty of fixtures, and Liverpool are probably in a ‘virtual’ second place.

What’s particularly startling about Liverpool’s rise, however, is the fact they’re performing so well in such a wide range of statistical factors. Liverpool have – take a deep breath – conceded the fewest shots in the league (8.2), made the fewest interceptions in the league (9.2), had the most shots in the league (19.5), the most shots on target on the league (7.2) and made the most dribbles in the league (14.5).

That’s an all-round statistical performance that almost defies belief, and would probably be extremely difficult to sustain over the course of the season.

Examine the statistics further and you start to build a picture of precisely what Liverpool are doing. Their possession share is 58.2% so far this season, only behind Manchester City. Now, at this stage of the season it’s probably too early to be looking too much at these kind of figures, especially as Liverpool’s possession share was boosted considerably by that 2-0 loss to Burnley, when they had 80% of the ball. Nevertheless, 58.5% is a very high figure for a side not generally associated with relentless possession play.

Their pass completion rate, meanwhile, is 84.8%. This is high, but identical to Manchester United, and 0.1% ahead of Arsenal (84.7%). Those sides, meanwhile, are averaging considerably less than Liverpool’s 58.2% of possession, at 53.6% and 54.7% of possession respectively.

Why has that happened? Because possession share isn’t simply about how well you keep the ball, it’s about how well you recover it. And that’s what Liverpool are all about, recovering the ball quickly after they’ve lost it. Klopp’s main insights on Monday Night Football were about pressing, how it’s about the timing of the run to close down, rather than the run itself – you almost have to trick opponents into thinking they’re playing a safe pass, before pouncing as soon as the pass is played towards an opponent, putting him immediately under pressure.

This, in part, is why Liverpool have performed so well against teams who want to build play from the back, and while they thrashed Hull City – a team deploying a deep defence – last weekend, that victory alone doesn’t entirely answer questions. Hull are, despite their good start to the season, fundamentally a poor side and amongst the three favourites for the drop.

This weekend’s game against Swansea, who like building play from the back, should work well for Liverpool’s counter-pressing, and then they face Manchester United at home, a match where a high-tempo performance should work well.

But it’s their subsequent games, against Tony Pulis’ West Brom, Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace and Walter Mazzarri’s Watford that will provide Liverpool with a greater test. All three are essentially counter-attacking sides, who don’t generally like to build play from the back, and are capable of hitting a big centre-forward quickly, bypassing the press and exposing Liverpool’s shaky defence quickly. There’s every chance Liverpool will remain unbeaten in those games, but a potential title winner probably needs nine points from nine, especially with Manchester City boasting a 100% record.

Therefore, if Liverpool get through those matches with a similar level of performance and similarly impressive statistics and are still riding high after 11 games, we can probably consider them a serious proposition. At time of writing, they were well priced to win the title with Bet365. Until then, it’s worth being cautious.

September 29th, 2016 by Michael Cox

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