After the final whistle blew against Brighton, there was frustration and fume about VAR yet again from Liverpool fans. Three more VAR decisions went against Liverpool, chalking off two goals for the Reds, and awarding a late penalty decision in favor of Brighton. While those VAR decisions will be rehashed and reanalyzed time and again, what needs to be addressed is just how poor Liverpool were in the attacking end for the second game in a row.
Against Brighton, Liverpool managed a paltry six shots, with only two of those ending on target. With a front three of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, and the red-hot Diogo Jota, those statistics are criminal against a Brighton side that had allowed 15 goals entering the game.
To highlight the issues in Liverpool’s attack against Brighton, let’s compare the game against the Gulls with Liverpool’s game against Leicester City just six days prior. The overall set up for both games was similar enough, so it provides a good comparison in what changed.
First, let’s take a look at where the game was played. Against Leicester City, Liverpool spent a good amount of time in the attacking third, recording almost 24% of all touches (173 of 721) in the attacking zone, and 37 of those touches coming in Leicester City’s box (stats via fbref.com). The team heatmap below, from whoscored.com, shows significant amount of time spent in and around the penalty area by Liverpool players.
Liverpool's heatmap against Leicester City pic.twitter.com/OU7FcKeddc— GeoGabe (@Geo_Gabe) November 29, 2020
Against Brighton, Liverpool had a similar percentage of touches in the attacking third (165 of 663), but only had 12 touches in the Brighton box (stats via fbref.com). Indeed, in the heatmap from whoscored.com, there were barely any Liverpool players in the central area of the box, or even just outside the box in central areas, against Brighton.
Liverpool's heat map against Brighton pic.twitter.com/g1gjmgeLSI— GeoGabe (@Geo_Gabe) November 29, 2020
So, what changed between these two games? While the attacking players had a similar number of touches, where they had touches changed significantly. Against Leicester City, attacking players were much more involved in the central area around the top of the box, as seen below.
Liverpool attacking players vs Leicester City pic.twitter.com/j3wqJIFk9r— GeoGabe (@Geo_Gabe) November 29, 2020
Brighton, however, was able to shunt Liverpool’s attacking players wide. Brighton won almost all of the long balls that came to central areas, and blocked Liverpool into wide areas anytime Liverpool threatened centrally. By not being able to get the ball into dangerous areas, Liverpool were severely limited in the shots they were able to get off.
Liverpool attacking players vs. Brighton pic.twitter.com/z3rfVwdW1n— GeoGabe (@Geo_Gabe) November 29, 2020
So why weren’t Liverpool able to get the ball into dangerous areas? For one, Liverpool’s long passing was significantly worse against Brighton, completing just over 60% after completing over 77% of long passes against Leicester City. Those long passes are usually essential to Liverpool’s ability move up the field and then hold the ball in the attacking third. We all have visions of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s long switches and Virgil van Dijk’s driven diagonal balls to Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane. While most other Liverpool players don’t have quite the same ability, players such as Joel Matip, Fabinho, and James Milner were able to connect a significant amount versus Leicester City.
The other part of the equation is Liverpool’s midfield being able to aggressively move up the field to help provide outlets for attackers receiving those long passes, or to help regain possession in the opponents half to keep the ball in attacking positions and keep the pressure on. Against Leicester City, Liverpool fielded a relatively fresh Gini Wijnaldum as the holding midfielder with the all action Curtis Jones and Naby Keita. Those three players were able to set up shop and control the middle third of the field, retaining possession and probe the Leicester City defense to free up room for the attacking players.
Against Brighton, Liverpool fielded an visibly exhausted Wijnaldum and James Milner, both playing their third game in six days, along with an out of position Takumi Minamino. There was a larger gap between the midfield and attack in transition, leading to less support for the attacking players, and fewer opportunities to win the ball back when Liverpool players lost the ball in the attacking third.
At the end of the day, Liverpool were just not able to hold the ball in the attacking third like they usually do, and because of that, not able to recycle possession to allow for attackers to get into dangerous positions. The VAR decisions were absolutely frustrating, but on par with what we have come to expect this season, unfortunately. Ultimately, Liverpool have managed to stay at the top of the table despite the paltry offensive output and dropped points to Brighton.
With only three fit midfielders on the senior team right now, we may see more of the same until some fresh legs can get introduced into the midfield. Of course, adding Trent Alexander-Arnold in when he is fit again should provide a boon in the long passing department. Let’s hope that Liverpool can navigate this dense set of fixtures and get some bodies back.