Liverpool maintained their encouraging start to the 2021/22 season with a 2-0 win over Burnley in their first home match in front of a full house for almost 18 months.
Sean Dyche’s side were perhaps not as passive in an attacking sense as they have been in many of their recent clashes with the Reds, but their tactics in trying to stop Jürgen Klopp’s team were entirely par for the course. Comparing this match with other meetings down the years certainly paints this performance in a positive light.
The home side had 27 shots across the course of the match, and were particularly active in the second half by firing off 17 attempts at Nick Pope’s goal.
As the Reds have averaged 16.2 shots per game in their 222 league matches under their current manager, this was clearly a high final total. Except that it wasn’t especially prolific when it comes to facing Burnley; of the 13 league games in which Klopp’s Liverpool have had at least 26 shots, four of them have been against the Clarets.
This match was comfortably the best of the bunch, though, and here’s why.
In the second game of 2016/17, which occurred as Klopp was approaching the first anniversary of his appointment, Liverpool lost 2-0 at Turf Moor. You will struggle to find a more frustrating match in the Klopp era, which was typified by the shooting choices of Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana.
Outside the box and off target, or in the box and blocked; pick your poison. If I was ever forced to watch this again, the fastest working poison you have would be my choice. The Reds’ average of 0.036 expected goals per shot is their joint-fourth worst in the league on Klopp’s watch, ahead only of a pair of dreadful 3-0 defeats at Vicarage Road and a 0-0 with Manchester United in which Jose went full Mourinho.
The following season, Liverpool had 35 shots against Burnley in a 1-1 draw at Anfield, which to date is their third most goal attempts in any league game since October 2015. While not quite as horrendous as what had occurred in our previous example – they only went and had a clear-cut chance! – it holds the Reds’ lowest average xG per shot (0.063) from any of their last seven league fixtures in which they had at least 28 shots.
If we lower our entry point to 27 shots a new contender for a terrible shot quality rate emerges, and – oh look – it was against Burnley, this time in the 1-0 loss which took place behind closed Anfield doors earlier this year.
Once again all that effort only resulted in a single Opta-defined big chance, which Divock Origi memorably spurned by hitting the woodwork when clean through on goal. The usual struggles to break Burnley down naturally ensued, and resulted in a 0.061 xG per shot rate.
Three high shot volume matches against Dyche’s men, and a single point (and only two clear-cut chances) to show for it. Yet on Saturday, Liverpool’s 27 shots included three big chances and, far more importantly, two goals. So how exactly did they succeed where in the past they have often failed, with their average shot value being (a high for facing Burnley but still below average) 0.098?
The first goal came from a cross, which anyone who sat through the aforementioned 1-0 defeat in January will struggle to believe. On that cold evening, Liverpool attempted 36 crosses in open play, which were almost exclusively fruitless. Just two of them reached a man in Red and they only resulted in two shots, neither of which was on target or had an xG value of greater than 0.06.
Kostas Tsimikas can’t be a better crosser of the ball than Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson, can he? Probably not, but with limited in-depth data publicly available for the bulk of the Greek left-back’s career, it is interesting to see that six of his seven assists contained within WhoScored’s database did come from crosses. They are clearly integral to the creative side of his game.
And where Liverpool’s starting front three consisted of Sadio Mané, Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in their previous home match with Burnley, here they could call upon a forward who is scoring at a rate rarely seen in the history of the club.
The cross was great, as it evaded the first centre-back (James Tarkowski), but without Diogo Jota buying himself a yard of space in which to meet it, the ball would have almost certainly been cleared by Ben Mee.
In the corresponding fixture last season, Liverpool launched 17 unsuccessful crosses into the zone between the six yard box and the penalty spot, where Jota was found by Tsimkas on Saturday. Of those 17, 14 of them were cleared, two were claimed by the goalkeeper and the other went over everyone, through the box and out of play on the opposite flank. The combination of delivery and movement on Saturday was perfection.
This was evidenced by the chance quality, as much as expected goal values for single shots should never be taken too seriously. Only nine percent of the Reds’ 181 shots against Burnley in their last eight meetings were valued by Understat as worth at least 0.3 xG, yet Jota’s opener on Saturday was and the second goal was a shade higher.
The move which lead to Mané opening his account for 2021/22 was classic Liverpool. When a centre-back has the ball at his feet for most teams, it isn’t very likely that a fabulous goal will have been scored eight seconds later, yet the return to fitness of Virgil van Dijk has reignited that possibility for the Reds.
His gorgeous long pass into the final third found Harvey Elliott out near the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand touchline. And this is where it got interesting, as the 18-year-old (who was making the first Premier League start of what looks certain to be a fabulous career) was stationed where Kopites might have expected Alexander-Arnold to be.
But the right-back was infield of Elliott and perfectly placed to receive a neat pass, then able to play the ball first time past Tarkowski who had been drawn towards him. That left Mané with ample space in which to receive the ball and hit a half volley past Pope. Game over.
What is most fascinating about this move was that it was Trent’s second (Opta-defined) through ball to Liverpool’s number 11 in the match, and they both led to clear-cut chances.
That might not seem worth mentioning, but consider this (and imagine it in a Steve Coogan swimming pool attendant voice): in 2020/21 Alexander-Arnold created one league chance with a through ball. In 2019/20 he created one league chance with a through ball. In 2018/19 he created two league chances with a through ball. In 2017/18 he created one league chance with a through ball.
In the space of about 40 minutes against Burnley, Trent equalled his previous season best for through ball key passes. When the target is two that perhaps isn’t a newsworthy achievement, but bear in mind that no player created more than six goal scoring opportunities in this fashion in total in the 2020/21 Premier League.
Plus Alexander-Arnold completed a total of six passes into the opposition penalty box in this match (per Statsbomb FBRef), a total a Liverpool player only matched-or-bettered eight times across the Reds’ 48 games in league and Europe last season.
Was what occurred on Saturday random, or does it indicate a tactical shift which will see Alexander-Arnold drift centrally more frequently? Whichever it turns out to be, it helped Liverpool to create chances the likes of which they have usually struggled to produce against Burnley in the past. We can all be grateful for his efforts last weekend.