Due to a fixture scheduling quirk that has been brought about by various teams’ cup involvement, Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford this weekend is Manchester United‘s first home game in over a month.
Their last run out at the self-styled Theatre Of Dreams was a 2-2 draw with Fulham, which was notable for the Red Devils setting a new Premier League record for the number of crosses by a team in one game: eighty-two. Eighty-two!
Liverpool are widely perceived to struggle with crosses defensively, so I thought I’d take a closer look at this issue ahead of the match on Sunday.
Before we go on, let’s take a look at United’s Jackson Pollock inspired cross chart from the Fulham match, to really hammer home what an uninspired tactic it was.
Clearly this is an extreme example, but at the same time Moyes’ boys are the league’s most frequent crossers on average, with twenty-eight per game, and from the big five leagues only Bilbao, with thirty, can top that.
As Liverpool’s collective opponents have averaged twenty-one per game against the Reds this season, and have only attempted more than twenty-eight crosses three times, it seems reasonable to assume that the Liverpool backline will face a sterner test from the flanks at Old Trafford than they have generally in 2013/14.
I noted in a similar article last season (here) that Liverpool had faced the fewest crosses in the top flight in 2012/13, with seventeen per game, so perhaps teams have noted the Reds’ weakness and are now targeting them more in this way accordingly?
Let’s take a look at how Liverpool have fared defensively with crosses this season. This info was compiled manually game-by-game from Stats Zone.
Just 1.7% (approximately one in fifty-seven) of the crosses against Liverpool this season have resulted in a goal. Whilst that may not sound too bad, when I break the figure down further you’ll see that it could be a lot better.
138 of the 601 crosses that have been sent into the Liverpool box have been accurate (as in, have reached a team-mate), giving the Reds’ collective opponents a crossing accuracy of 23%, which is slightly higher than the league average of around 20%.
Sixty-four of the opposition crosses have lead to chances being created. Whilst this is only 11% of the total crosses, it is 46% of the accurate crosses; in other words, if you can find a team-mate in the box from a wide position against Liverpool, then they’ll get a shot away roughly every other time.
The Reds have allowed the second fewest open play chances in the centre of their box in the Premier League this season. Exactly half of them have been crossed from wide areas though; on one hand this is good, as it suggests opponents are unable to play through Liverpool in the centre of the pitch too often. But it also illustrates that the Reds can definitely be got at from the flanks.
Those sixty-four chances from crosses have proven pretty costly too. Ten of them (15.6% of the total) have been converted, which is two more goals than Liverpool should’ve conceded from these opportunities based on the conversion averages from my chance quality work. It was therefore not surprising to see Optajoe tweet on 28th February that the Reds have conceded 26% of their goals against from headers, which is the highest proportion in the Premier League.
Whilst you can not simply subtract goals from a full time score and assume that the match would’ve played out the same way, in theory, Liverpool have lost six points through goals from crosses in 2013/14. As well as the Reds have done this season, those points could prove the difference between a top four place and a title win.
As it seems reasonable to assume that United will heavily rely upon crosses to create chances, which players should Liverpool use in their back four on Sunday in order to mitigate this threat?
Whilst my initial thought was to look towards players with good aerial records this season, such as Martin Skrtel (who averages more aerial duel wins per game, 3.4, than any other Liverpool player) or Daniel Agger (who has the club’s highest aerial duel win percentage: 73%), I realised that it is a stat of limited use, as defensive ones mostly are.
It’s all very well winning the duel if you’re there to contest it, but if you allow your opponent a free header then no duel takes place. To prove my point, although this piece is about Liverpool defensively, consider the case of Daniel Sturridge; the striker has only won four aerial duels in the league this season, yet has scored five headed goals!
The aerial duel stat alone makes him sound weak in the air, and perhaps when faced with a defender he is, but by being in the right place at the right time he has been able to profit. Think back to his headed goals from this campaign: United, Sunderland, Newcastle, Everton and Swansea. For each one he didn’t have to beat a defender to the ball.
As Liverpool allow a lot of chances from crosses, it makes sense to me to focus on trying to limit the supply of balls that come in to the box.
Liverpool have blocked seventy-two of the crosses they’ve faced (unfortunately I have no stats for other teams to know if this is a good figure or not) which means that a shade over one-quarter (26.1%) of the crosses that beat the first man found a team-mate in the Reds’ box.
I have looked at how many crosses each member of the Reds’ squad have blocked this season, and on a pro-rata basis there is a stand out winner. Any idea who it might be?
The much maligned Aly Cissokho is the clear winner here, and excluding Martin Kelly’s limited sample, the on-loan left back blocks opposition crosses over twice as regularly as every other player in the Liverpool squad.
Lucas Leiva also deserves a lot of credit for blocking a very respectable nine crosses; this shows how he isn’t content to simply hold his position in front of the centre backs, but is also of capable of going out wide to prevent crosses coming in. Henderson, though to a lesser extent than Lucas, deserves credit for chipping in on this front from midfield too.
Remember how I said that one in fifty-seven crosses against Liverpool has resulted in a goal? Well, they’ll be facing a team capable of slinging in over eighty on Sunday (albeit Liverpool will have more of the ball than Fulham did), so the Reds need to be suitably prepared. Which is why I would play Aly Cissokho in one of the Liverpool’s biggest games of the season. Stats eh?