How will Liverpool win the league in 2014/15

In my previous piece titled “We Dreamed, We Scored, We didn’t Conquer”, I looked at historical Premier League seasons to understand what Liveprool need to do in order to win the league this coming season. In summary, I identified key targets Liverpool need to achieve for both goals scored and goals conceded. This story is about how Liverpool approach 2014/2015, how the loss of Suarez impacts our aim, and how our transfer activity is (or isn’t) addressing the needs of the team.

Before I get into the details, a quick reminder of the key targets I feel Liverpool need to achieve in order to win the league.

  • Aim to be the leagues top goal scorers, scoring at least 95 goals

  • Be within 10 goals of the best defence, conceding no more than 40

  • This gives a goal difference of at least +55, above the average since Abramovich came to Chelsea

  • If we can score >100 goals or concede <35, while achieving one of the above minimum requirements, we are in a great position to win the league

These are not just figures I picked out of thin air, they are based on a thorough understanding of the teams that win the league. Importantly, it also factors in some key changes in the last five years since Manchester City became the force they are today.

How do Liverpool go about achieving these targets then? Is it tactics, players, or a little bit of a both? Do Liverpool have to change their mindset? And, how do we replace the goals of Luis Suarez?

Goals win Games

Without scoring a goal it is impossible to win a game and take 3 points.

Liverpool scored 101 goals last season, the most of any side not to win the Premier League, we were only outscored by 1 goal. Liverpool missed out on the title by 2 points.

Wind your mind back to Rodgers first season though, how have Liverpool progressed on the goals scored side of things in the last two seasons?

  • In the first set of 19 league games in 2012/13, Liverpool averaged 1.47 goals scored per game (Gs/g)

  • In the second set of 19 league games in 2012/13, Liverpool averaged 2.26 goals scored per game

  • In the following season, 2013/14, Liverpool averaged 2.32 Gs/g (in the first 19) and 3 Gs/g (in the second 19)

Just look at those numbers for a second. Over the course of two seasons, Liverpool have doubled their goals scored per game (GS/g). Pretty impressive.

As with any metric like this, it doesn’t factor in the difficulty of the respective fixtures. Did Liverpool have tougher games in the first half of both seasons? Even if we did, this is still double the amount of goals, which is a huge step up.

Looking at these numbers then, 95 goals is easy, right? If we can somehow maintain our Gs/g from the second half of last season, we will score 114 goals, which would smash the record held by Chelsea (103 goals).

Being realistic though, scoring that many goals really is unprecedented. I am certainly not saying Liverpool can’t do it, it will just be incredibly difficult, especially given the fact we have lost our top goal scorer, Luis Suarez, who scored almost a third of our league goals last season.

Top Goalscorers win Leagues? Not always…

Looking back almost twenty years, in 1994/95, the Premier League had their first SAS, Shearer and Sutton.

Shearer and Sutton. The original SAS. A strike force that fired Blackburn to the title in 94/95.

Shearer and Sutton. The original SAS. A strike force that fired Blackburn to the title in 94/95.

Between them they scored 61% of all Blackburn’s Premier League goals, firing Blackburn to their first league championship since 1914. Shearer went on to finish top goalscorer the following two seasons, once with Blackburn, once with Newcastle. Shearer never won the league again.

Since Shearer topped the scoring charts with Newcastle in 1996/97 there have been sixteen Premier League seasons. In half of them, the league winners had the out and and out top goal scorer.

The point is, having the top goal scorer in the league does help, it doesn’t always guarantee success.

  • In both the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons, Robin Van Persie lead the Premier League goal scoring charts

  • In 2011/12, Van Persie scored 30 Premier League goals for third placed Arsenal, which was 41% of their total

  • One season later, he scored ‘just’ 26 Premier League goals, this time for League Winners Manchester United, which was 30% of their total

Van Persie and Arsenal is a classic case of relying on the goals of one individual. I know, we have had a fair share of these players in recent years, I picked Van Persie for a reason.

One year after a fine individual season for Arsenal, he scored fewer goals for Manchester United, and his new team won the league. In fact, in 2012/13, Manchester United scored fewer goals than the previous season (89 in 2011/12, 86 in 2012/13). Interestingly, Manchester United 2012/13 would have lost the league to both Manchester City and Manchester United 2011/12 on goal difference.

The point is, United had match winners in abundance that year. Van Persie was just one of them.

Match winners win leagues

Luis Suarez then, those 31 league goals in 33 league appearances, he was a match winner, right?

Well, those 31 goals were scored in just 18 games. Luis Suarez failed to score in almost half the league games he played in last season. It doesn’t feel like that does it?

If you actually look back over the last two seasons, since Rodgers arrived at Liverpool, what is Suarez’s ‘Goal Influence’?

How important was Suarez's goals to Liverpool? How can they be replaced?

How important was Suarez’s goals to Liverpool over the last two seasons? How can they be replaced?

The numbers speak for themselves. Suarez scoring goals helped us get points, no surprise there.

The real surprise is how few points we picked up in the games that Suarez did play and failed to score. Who was scoring the goals in those games? Where were the match winners? Even looking at last season, when Suarez played and failed to score, we picked up just 1.5 points per game with all 6 of our defeats in games that Suarez didn’t find the net.

Is there any hope for us next season without Suarez? Of course there is, and let me explain why.

  • In the second half of 2013/14, Liverpool played 19 league games and achieved 2.52 points per game (ppg)

  • Suarez scored in 9 of the 19 games and Liverpool had a 2.78 ppg

  • In the 10 games where Suarez failed to score, Liverpool still achieved 2.30 ppg

Liverpool found more match winners. Players were stepping up to win big key games.

Skrtel got Liverpool on their way against Arsenal, with two goals in the first ten minutes.

Skrtel got Liverpool on their way against Arsenal, with two goals in the first ten minutes.

The Skrtel double against Arsenal set us on our way, Gerrard’s last minute penalty against Fulham (won by Sturridge), Henderson finished off Swansea, Sturridge stretched the lead against Sunderland, Gerrard’s two penalties against West Ham (one won by Suarez, one by Flanagan), Countinho’s goal to put us top of the league against Manchester City, and Sturridge on the last day of the season.

Let me be clear, we are talking a really small sample size here, and I must caveat it by saying Suarez was on the pitch for all of these games. Still, Liverpool were finding a way to win without being reliant on Suarez getting the goals, and it very nearly worked. Liverpool had multiple match winners, something which we haven’t seen in a long time.

Suarez’s goals still need replacing though. In my model, we can afford to ‘lose’ 6 goals scored, which means we need to add 25 goals to this side. Will that be new signings? Or, will a certain Daniel Sturridge step up?

31 Goals lost, Getting 25 Goals back

Liverpool have been pretty active in the transfer market, especially when it comes to attacking signings. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, and Lazar Markovic, are three attacking players who can add goals. There is even talk of another one, after missing out on Alexis Sanchez and swerving Loci Remy.

Between them, these three new attacking signings scored 27 league goals last season.

There we go, we have our 25 back plus 2, nice and easy, right? Well, ‘replacing’ Suarez with three players is easy on paper, only one of them can play in his place though, unless we found a way to get thirteen players on the pitch. So how do we do it?

The first player I will look at is someone with a fantastic scoring record for Liverpool since joining us, of course, Daniel Sturridge.

Daniel Sturridge has scored 31 goals in 43 league games for Liverpool. Can he improve next season? Does he need too?

Daniel Sturridge has scored 31 goals in 43 league games for Liverpool. Can he improve next season? Does he need too?

The caveat I must add here, both Suarez and Sturridge’s ‘Goal Influence’ doesn’t factor in the other player on the pitch or not. To do that, you are talking really small sample sizes, so doesn’t really work. In effect, both players were influencing each others ‘Goal influence’.

Sturridge’s numbers are still impressive though.

The concern I have here is the number of games Sturridge has missed, largely through injury, and it was Suarez who was helping to pick up those 9 wins out of 13.

In 2013/14 Suarez and Sturridge scored 52 goals between them. Incredible.

Can Sturridge score more goals than last season to help bridge the loss of Suarez? I believe he can and will.

It is a similar story with Suarez’s numbers, with 7 wins out of 9 when Suarez was unavailable due to suspension, Sturridge was the one getting the goals and helping drive the team forward.

The fact is, both players are influential match winners on their day. How often do they score though?

  • Sturridge has scored in 60% of his Liverpool Premier League games, scoring on average 1.2 goals per game in which he scored at least 1 goal

  • Suarez scored in 52% of his Liverpool Premier League games (last 2 seasons only), scoring on average 1.5 goals per game

  • When either Suarez and/or Sturridge didn’t play, Liverpool average 2.27 ppg (points per game)

Sturridge scores in more games than he doesn’t, a simple fact over the last season and a half for Liverpool. He may not score quite as many as Suarez, his influence on games though is roughly the same.

So what does this all mean for Sturridge? Can he improve his goal scoring record without Suarez around? Can he maintain it?

The important question is, will he.

Sturridge leading the line, and leading the goals

Based on all of the above information, I have come up with a performance expectation for Sturridge next season. It is a fair assumption he will be the main man and will very likely be our top goal scorer.

How many goals will he score though?

I have very little doubt that Sturridge CAN score more. The only question is, will injuries stop him hitting 'Suarez' like numbers?

I have very little doubt that Sturridge can score more. The only question is, will injuries stop him hitting ‘Suarez’ like numbers?

Factoring in his brief spells out with injury, the additional Champions League Games,  and his Goal Influence for Liverpool, I believe Sturridge will achieve the following:

  • Sturridge needs to play at least 30 Premier League games for Liverpool next season

  • If he does this, and maintains his metrics for us over the last two seasons, he will score at least 22 league goals next season

  • If Sturridge can marginally improve, scoring in 65% of his league games and averaging 1.3 goals in games in which he finds the net, he will score at least 25 league goals next season

25 league goals is a very solid return, especially in 30 league games. If Sturridge can maintain his fitness and feature in 34 league games, it becomes 29 goals.

For the purposes of this though, I will err on the side of caution. The added Champions League games will have an impact on Sturridge’s ability to recover and will likely be rested for some Premier League games. If we can get 30 league games out of him, I will be more than happy with 25 league goals.

That is because Sturridge would have scored in 20 league games. By looking at his goal influence, that translates into 47 points (subject to others pulling their weight, more on that soon).

Assuming that Liverpool need 86 points to win the league next season, that means ‘just’ 39 points from 18 games. Who will get the goals to help us win the games that Sturridge doesn’t score, or doesn’t even play?

I said we need another 95 goals, so we need another 70. That is a lot to share around the rest of the team, who are our other match winners?

Liverpool are full of Goals

First off, let me say there is some theory to the table below.

I have already covered Sturridge, a high level summary of the others is:

  • Young players, Coutinho and Sterling, scored 13 goals between them last season. They are more than capable of adding more, and these two players will have to step up

  • Most of Lambert and Gerrard’s goals last season were penalties. They both can’t be credited with one teams penalties, more likely they will be shared out, depending on who is on the pitch at the time

  • A fair assumption that the new attacking signings, Lallana and Markovic, will score the same number of goals this season as they did last season

Scoring Table

* Players who scored League Goals in the Premier League not for Liverpool. ** Players who scored League Goals outside the Premier League.

I am saying the players on Liverpool’s books this season, will collectively score less than they did last season. The new signings will score ‘just’ 20 goals this coming season, compared with 30 combined with their previous clubs last season. I’ve also accounted for the fact that we will get less penalties with a reduction in Gerrard’s goals.

Still, in this model where I have been conservative, we will hit the magic 95 number. We know that some players, Sturridge and Sterling especially, are capable of adding even more again. Lallana could be a huge hit and smash into double figures. Henderson, who I said would maintain, can score more than just four.

There is the potential to add even more goals to this team, we could score as many as last season, maybe even break the record (103 – Chelsea).

Goals change games… and the game has changed

In my previous post, “We dreamed, We Scored, We didn’t Conquer”, I talked about how the game has changed in recent years.

It is so much more about scoring goals than it ever has been. Winning a league title based on a very strong defence is difficult, especially given the attacking talent that our competitors have.

Having the leagues best player and top goal scorer always helps. Would Blackburn have won the league without Shearer in 94/95? Probably not, no.

However, in only half of the seasons since then have the league winners had the top goal scorer. Van Persie couldn’t help Arsenal win the league title. A year later, he scored less for United, and won it with them.

Even without Suarez, Liverpool have plenty of match winners in their squad.

Even without Suarez, Liverpool have plenty of match winners. Sturridge, Coutinho, and Sterling are just three of them.

That’s because it is about having match winners, something which Liverpool now have in abundance. Despite the loss of Suarez, Sturridge can step up to be the main man. He may be the leagues top goal scorer, he may not. He will be supported by a number of players though, all capable of helping Liverpool get to the goal target of 95+ goals.

For these reasons, I see no issue with Liverpool getting the 95 goals that we need. We may even score more.

The challenge is stopping them at the other end.

Errors lead to Goals, Goals cost Games

If you want to know just how many errors Liverpool made last season, that lead to goals, take a look at this excellent article on Anfield Index. 

In brief, Liverpool had far too many individual errors. These are the ones that Opta officially record, how many off the ball errors cost goals too?

In order to solve this,  Liverpool do not need to re-invent the wheel. The way we play is perfect for ripping apart most teams. The nature of the way we play, so gung ho, will lead to conceding goals. Individual errors though? They need to stop, or at least be significantly reduced.

As referenced in my previous post, Tony Evans said that Liverpool would have won the league if Carragher was still around. An organiser and a leader.

To solve this problem, Liverpool have spent big on Dejan Lovren.

A quick google of ' Lovren leader' brings back all these news articles. Coincidence? Briefing the press? Or is he the leader Liverpool need?

A quick google of ‘ Lovren leader’ brings back all these news articles. Coincidence? Briefing the press? Or is he the leader Liverpool need?

The above screenshot is of an actual Google News search. This is just one snapshot of some of the results, there are a fair few of them.

Rodgers feels like Lovren is the one, saying “He’s exactly what we have been looking for since Jamie Carragher left”. Since leadership is a very hard quality to measure, and no real stats or figures can back up what leadership can bring to a side, I will put faith in Brendan’s decision on this one.

If you would like to know more about the technical side of Lovren’s game, have a read of BassTunedToRed’s excellent write up.

This signing did have some strong opinions for and against, largely around the fact he plays on the left side of a centre back pair, where we already spent big on Sahko last summer. Not forgetting Agger and Illori, both who play on the left hand side of a defence too.

If Lovren is the leader that Rodger’s thinks he is, and has the qualities that Rodger’s believes in, then being top heavy on the left hand side of defence doesn’t really matter.

Remember, Liverpool don’t necessarily need the best defence, they just need to be close to the best. In this model, I am saying we need a goal difference of at least +55 and concede no more than 40 goals.

  • In Rodger’s first season, 2012/13, Liverpool ‘only’ conceded 43, despite finishing 7th

  •  43 goals conceded was the same number as Manchester Untied, who won the league that year

  • Liverpool conceded 23 goals in the first half of the season, with 17 conceded in the second half

Wind back to earlier in this post, I said that Liverpool improved their ‘goals scored per game’ significantly after the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge. Even with these additions, and changing to a more attacking style, the defence improved too.

With this in mind, combined with the signging of Lovren and his leadership qualities, it gives me full confidence that Liverpool can improve the defensive record and still maintain the way we play.

To win the league, we have to.

Option 2.5 – Attack Attack Attack… defend

For those paying attention, you will remember the three options I referenced in my first post. These were the three main theories of how Liverpool can build on last season in order to win the league in 2014/15.

In brief, they are:

  • Option 1 – Go more defensive, shift mindset to concede (and score) fewer goals

  • Option 2 – Go more attacking, score even more goals, lots more goals

  • Option 3 – Continue as we are and buy a top class centre back with leadership, which is expensive and easier said than done

We were never going to go more defensive, that is not in our make-up, it is not part of what we do. Which leaves a bit of Option 2 and 3.

We don’t have to score as many goals as last season, we still have to be attacking though. Probably even more attacking, in a strange way.

Given the fact that we have lost the magician that is Suarez, who could single handily win games by scoring incredible goals, we will be relying on a number of players to replace the goals he scored. This means more players becoming match winners, which I am confident we have.

And while you could argue Lovren isn’t a ‘top class centre back’, he is certainly being talked up by many as the leader that Liverpool lacked last season. Too many times a soft error cost us at the back, and our attack could only get us out of trouble so many times. I am confident that Lovren can steady that end of the ship.

So, will Liverpool win the league next season? That is the big question, something which the bookies don’t believe, having us fifth favourites at the time of this post. Our competitors have all strengthened, some would argue losing Suarez we are weaker.

If you ask me? I am a lot more confident of winning the league this season than I was about winning it last year.

I am very confident we will score 95+ goals with most teams struggling to keep up. I am very confident our defence will improve, without being the very best in the league. Put all this together and guess what?

I am going to say it. Liverpool will win the league in 2014/15.

In my next post, I will look at Liverpool’s fixtures to gauge where we will take our points. What is a good start for Liverpool? What is a bad one?  What about our competitors? And, how will those extra champions league games impact our dream of winning the title in 2014/15? All will be answered in “A Marathon, not a Sprint”.