No Wins Against Top Ten Opposition: Tactical Naivety Or Mental Weakness?

Kylie Mitchell compares Liverpool’s form, goalscoring and defensive record in games against teams from the bottom half of the table and teams in the top half of the table – the difference is huge.


We head into tomorrow’s game – weather permitting – against Norwich with 31 points from a possible 66; that’s 9 points off fourth place, and a massive 24 points off the top spot. Yet, this time 4 years ago we were 2nd in the table with 47 points; just 3 points off the top.

Of course, everybody knows our performances have declined since the 2008/09 season where we came close to that prized 19th league title. In this relatively short space of time, key players have left the club and we have had to contend with the Gillett and Hicks era, as well as managerial turbulence.

Brendan Rodgers was brought in last summer in what was described as a “rebuilding process.” FSG stated that they expected this process to take several years; i.e. they did not expect Rodgers to fire us back into the top 4 immediately, nor did they expect us to challenge for titles immediately.

From looking at some of the statistics below, it’s a good job that they didn’t have these expectations or Rodgers too, might have been shown the door by now;


As expected, we are currently a long way off our standards of 08/09.

The statistics don’t lie though and the truth is Rodgers hasn’t done much worse than Dalglish last season. Neither manager has led us back to the heights of 4 years ago but this was never going to happen overnight.

We are 4 points short of our tally at this stage last season but perhaps surprisingly, we have scored 10 more goals and even more surprisingly, we are just 1 goal short of our tally from 08/09. However, we have conceded double the amount of goals this season compared to 08/09. This could suggest that our main problem under Rodgers lies in defence and not in attack, as some people assume.

We have adopted a different style under Rodgers and as everyone will have noticed, he likes to play a 4-3-3 system. This is great offensively when it works but it can leave us susceptible to counter attacks; particularly when the full backs are pushed high up to provide width. Also, when our defenders are passing the ball around at the back and opposition players press forward, our defence comes under enormous pressure in trying to search for a forward pass and this ultimately leads to individual errors which of course, results in us conceding goals. This, unfortunately, has happened to us on numerous occasions so far this season.

Back in 08/09, our first choice defence usually consisted of Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio. Both Arbeloa and Aurelio were good offensively and we had two world class holding midfielders in Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano to help them out with counter attacks. This, in turn, meant that Steven Gerrard could go forward and help out Fernando Torres.

The situation is different this season. Lucas Leiva was injured for the majority of the first half of the season. Joe Allen has tried to take over that holding role but has not been too convincing. Nuri Sahin and Jordan Henderson have attempted it too but neither managed to make that position their own.

We had a similar situation last season too; Lucas Leiva was injured and Jay Spearing and Charlie Adam were left to control that defensive midfield area but neither did so convincingly. With this in mind it is not difficult to see why we are struggling defensively. When the holding midfielders are struggling, as Joe Allen has recently, this inevitably leads to problems in defence, particularly when we are attempted to play possession around the back four. Although he has lost his pace, Carragher’s ‘no nonsense’ approach can be missed at such times.

A worrying statistic from the table above is the fact that we have conceded the first goal in 8 games so far and we have failed to win a single one of them. In fact, we have only managed 3 points out of a possible 24 when we conceded the first goal of the game. We weren’t much better last season either where we managed to gain just 5 points out of a possible 24. Neither of these figures are anywhere near good enough and this has contributed massively to our decline over the last couple of years.

Liverpool vs Top 10 Opposition


When we look at our record against the other 9 clubs in the top half of the table this season, it makes for painful reading. We have faced top 10 opposition on 11 occasions this season and have failed to win a single one, managing just 5 points from a possible 33. This is unacceptable and very worrying. We managed 14 points from 30 last season remained unbeaten in 08/09 so we have fallen drastically short this season.

We’ve scored the first goal on 4 occasions but we only managed to gain 2 points from a possible 12. If we look at the length of time we have managed to hold onto our lead, this too, makes for painful reading. Our longest lead against top 10 opposition all season is 29 minutes but in every other case, we have conceded an equaliser within 15 minutes. This must surely worry Brendan Rodgers.

Could this signal a lack of confidence and belief amongst our squad? Do we face top 10 opposition low in confidence and panic and fall to pieces the minute we take the lead? Does the occasion overwhelm our players? The evidence could suggest so. Then again, the evidence could also point to complacency; a premature sense of “job done,” perhaps?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of our goals scored against top 10 opposition have come between the 46th and 75th minute, especially when we consider that we have conceded most frequently in the 16th-30th minute. Liverpool trailing at half time, being left to chase the game in the second half and failing to find the equaliser has been commonplace this season.

If we look at the timing of our goals against top 10 opposition in 08/09, we can see that we scored most frequently between the 30th and 45th and between the 76th and 90th minute. Title contenders do not give up until that final whistle and we were no different 4 years ago.


The table above shows the timing of all goals scored and conceded and it applies to all 22 games. As we can see, we are least likely to score in those late periods of each half this season.

Could this indicate poor fitness and stamina compared to 08/09 or lower levels of determination? Or do our players simply lose concentration? The latter would appear to be the case when we consider that we have conceded goals most frequently in that final third of the first half.

Liverpool vs Lower opposition


When we look at the table above which shows our record against clubs in the bottom half of the table, we see a totally different Liverpool to the one we have just discussed.

Our record against bottom half opposition has improved from last year. Again, our record against such clubs is similar to that in 08/09. We have won on all 8 occasions where we scored the first goal. This is interesting considering our very poor record when we have scored the first goal against top 10 opposition. A significant reduction in the number of cards we have picked up against lower opposition this year could suggest that our players are very relaxed and confident in these games. This is also where Rodgers’ possession dominated philosophy bears fruit.

Still, on the 3 occasions where we have conceded the first goal against lower clubs, we still haven’t managed to win.

The fact that we are yet to win after conceding the first goal this season could, on surface, indicate a lack of spirit? However, our strong finish to games would suggest that spirit isn’t the problem. We lost a 1-0 lead away to West Ham in December but managed to come back from 2-1 down to win 3-2 and the character we showed in that game was similar to that in the final half hour against Man Utd last week. It was similar to that in the second half against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. And it was similar to the second half against Chelsea back at Stamford Bridge too. But in all of the latter cases, we have failed to get the equaliser.

My personal observation of our games against clubs in the top 10 is that they have studied our game beforehand. They realise that they can apply pressure on our defence by pressing us and force us into making mistakes. More often than not, this intense pressure has led to us conceding goals.

We have had similar problems further up the pitch too with Raheem Sterling and Suso. Quite often in more physical and intense games, these two have been outmuscled by the opposition. When this happens, Luis Suarez then becomes isolated.

Part of the reason we were so successful in the 08/09 season is the fact that our central midfield trio of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano was brimming with strength and confidence.

In games where certain players’ physique is a problem, Rodgers could perhaps consider changing his system before we concede that opening goal, whether this be by altering the formation or making an early substitution – which he has done on more than one occasion. Ideally, Rodgers could identify before the game that certain players aren’t as suitable as others. For example, in highly physical games against Stoke, where there isn’t too much pace amongst the Stoke attack, perhaps somebody strong and more experienced like Carragher could be a better option. Likewise, Sterling could perhaps be utilised more effectively as an impact substitution later on when defenders are tiring in highly physical games.

I’m not saying that Rodgers doesn’t make changes because he does. But he usually does so when it’s too late and we’re already trailing.

So, are we struggling this year due to Rodgers’ tactical perseverance or a lack of confidence on the players’ part? Or both? Everybody will, no doubt, have a different opinion but the statistics don’t lie and would suggest a bit of both. Nevertheless, both can be improved with experience.

If we had 47 points this season as we did in 08/09, we would now be 3rd and 8 points off United. Also noticeable is the fact that Man City and Tottenham were in the bottom half of the table 4 years ago but both have improved drastically in recent years, meaning the competition at the top end of the table is now fiercer.

Still, we have 31 points and that isn’t good enough, granted. We need to start beating teams in the top half of the table if we are to make any real progress. Our saving grace is the fact we’re picking up wins against the lower teams, which we weren’t doing enough last season.

All things considered, Rodgers’ progress in his opening 22 league games isn’t too different to Dalglish’s last season and when we consider that Rodgers has had to cope with a much thinner squad than Dalglish, it doesn’t seem too bad.

If people thought Kenny deserved more time then so too does Brendan Rodgers, surely?

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