25 June 2013

On Simon Mignolet

The official site just posted confirmation of Simon Mignolet's move to Liverpool, the club's fourth summer signing after Kolo Toure, Luis Alberto, and Iago Aspas. And it's only June 25. Sometimes, I don't recognize this Liverpool anymore.

So what kind of goalkeeper is Liverpool getting?

Wow, what an upgrade! Liverpool are going from a keeper who saved just 42 shots on target last season, 55% of the shots on target he faced, to a keeper who saved 124 shots, slightly less than 70% of the opposition shots on target. Mignolet averaged 3.26 saves per match, Reina averaged 1.35.

And here are the locations, via Squawka, of both saves made and goals conceded.

Mignolet allowed more in the center of the goal and the top right corner but saved loads more low shots to the bottom corners, while Reina allowed notably more low to his right.

Okay. Of course, it's not as clear cut as shots saved and goals conceded totals.

Reina, in seven fewer league appearances, faced fewer than half the amount of shots on target as Mignolet, which makes fairly clear the difference in playing for Liverpool versus playing for Sunderland. The most shots on target Mignolet faced in a single match was 11, against Tottenham on the last day, but he also saw 10 from Liverpool and Villa, eight from Arsenal, and seven from City and Wigan. The most Reina saw in a single match was five: from Spurs (a), Stoke (a), and Wigan (a). Five shots on target would have been a fairly easy day for Mignolet last season. If your defense is allowing that many more shots, especially shots from distance, you're bound to come up with a few more saves.

And almost as important as save percentage is the goalkeeper's distribution. Reina's passing from the back has been one of his biggest assets during his Liverpool tenure, and it's especially crucial in Brendan Rodgers' system, where every defensive player needs to be comfortable with the ball at his feet.

Mignolet completed just 41.4% of his passes last season; 746 attempted, 306 successful. Reina completed 70.8%; 692 attempted, 490 successful. The average length of a Mignolet pass was 51 meters; Reina's average was 36 meters. Sure, much of that may have to do with both Martin O'Neill and Paolo di Canio's managerial preferences – especially's O'Neill love of hoofing and hoping – but in naming him player of the season, the incomparable Sunderland blog Roker Report notably mentioned Mignolet's need to improve his distribution. That's no small matter at Liverpool.

In addition to his outstanding save percentage, Mignolet also had a higher success rate claiming crosses and punching clear than Reina, although both were well above the league average.

The Belgian was the best keeper in the league last season according to WhoScored's player rating, but the fourth highest-rated by Squawka, behind Cech, Begovic, and Pepe Reina, mainly due to his horrific possession score.

Despite Liverpool's claims to the contrary, you'd have to assume this signals the end for Pepe Reina, whether he leaves this summer or next summer. We've seen quotes to the contrary from both Reina and Rodgers, but you rarely buy a £9m keeper just for "competition" (*ignores references to Chris Kirkland*).

And Pepe Reina is both one of Liverpool's longest serving players and biggest personalities in the dressing room. His exit in the same summer as Jamie Carragher's retirement would leave a massive, gaping hole in the squad. Only Gerrard and Brad Jones will be 30 years or older, only Gerrard has been at the club longer than Reina. Only Gerrard, Agger, Lucas, and Skrtel would have made their debuts prior to the 2009-10 season, when Liverpool began this Hicks & Gillet-induced decline they've yet to recover from. That's a starling lack of institutional memory.

Still, I guess change has to happen sometime.

Both Mignolet and Reina are excellent keepers, despite Reina's drop in form last season (and then subsequent improvement as the season went on). But Pepe Reina is 30 years old, soon to be 31, and rumored to be on wages of approximately £100k a week. Simon Mignolet is six years younger, and will probably earn about half of Reina's wages, at most. Which is around £2.5m-per-year difference.

That, coupled with Reina's longing glances toward Barcelona, whether this summer or next summer, is pretty much the alpha and omega of this deal. For a change, Liverpool are proactive in dealing with a key player's possible exit. A welcome change. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a better young keeper in the Premier League who's available for less money.

If it's not clear from the multiple links, this would have been vastly more difficult without Squawka, who are, hands down, one of the best resources for football analysis.

19 June 2013

LFC 2013-14 Fixture List

Like last year, a quick knock-up of Liverpool's schedule, looking at the fixture list by last season's league place rather than the team name.

• I'm sure you remember that Liverpool played three teams in the previous season's top four in the first five matches to begin Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool tenure. It went, um, poorly. This season, the only match against a side that finished ahead of Liverpool until November 2nd is a home match against Manchester United, who'll ideally still be struggling to come to terms with its new manager. In Liverpool's first 10 matches, they'll play just four sides who finished in the top 10 last season. Given the rumored changes to Liverpool's preferred XI, both in defense and attack (as well as Suarez's suspension if he stays), Rodgers will have the time to make adjustments before playing the league's toughest opponents, something the vagaries of last season's schedule wholly denied him.

• December looks beastly, having to travel to both Manchester City and Chelsea during the festive season, as well as to Tottenham on December 14th. But December's always beastly, no matter the opposition. Those are the quirks of the jam-packed fixture list over those few weeks. Anyone can beat anyone. Last season, Liverpool managed to lose to both Stoke and Aston Villa during this span (teams which finished 13th and 15th, in case you forgot). The season before, Liverpool drew with both nearly-relegated Wigan and utterly-relegated Blackburn. But it's not just Liverpool; last season, City lost to Sunderland on Boxing Day, while Chelsea lost to QPR less than a week later. Strange things happen when sides are forced to play match after match after match, and neither Chelsea nor City will fancy these fixtures either.

• The Merseyside derbies take place on November 23 and January 28. The matches before those two derbies? A home match against Fulham and a home match against Aston Villa.

• Like last season, Liverpool have a fairly tepid run-in. Sure, there are matches against both City and Chelsea in April, but both are at Anfield. Otherwise, the other four matches in the final two months see Liverpool face last season's 10th-placed side, 11th-placed side, and the Championship playoff winners before finishing at home against Newcastle. Not only do Liverpool began the campaign at Anfield, but they'll finish it at Anfield as well.

Sure, knowing Liverpool and knowing precedent, we'll probably feel differently after the season's underway. But It's almost as if the fixture computers favored Liverpool this season. I'm sure it's just coincidence that happened as soon as Alex Ferguson retired.

13 June 2013

On Iago Aspas

Finally announced after "bureaucratic issues" (read: let's pay some more agents!) were settled, Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas is now a Liverpool player. Well, almost. There's still some "documentation to be completed." Modern football!


Iago Aspas took 102 shots in total in 34 league appearances last season (all starts), an average of three per match. The majority of his shots are from the right side of the pitch, cutting inside and shooting with his left foot – supposedly the position he'll play at Liverpool even though he was very much a central striker with Celta last season (via WhoScored). 11 of his 12 league goals were left-footed strikes, the 12th a header.

The shots breakdown:

Goal: 12 (11.8%)
On Target: 49 (48.0%)
Off Target: 37 (36.3%)
Blocked: 16 (15.7%)

6-yard box: 2 (2.0%)
18-yard box: 53 (52.0%)
Outside the box: 47 (46.0%)

Aspas failed to take a shot in just three of his 34 league matches. But that's no surprise given how important he was to Celta Vigo's attack; Luis Suarez took at least two shots in all of his 33 league appearances last season.

Admittedly, that 46% of Aspas' shots came from outside the box terrifies me. Yes, slightly more than a third of those shots were on target, which isn't a terrible percentage, but only one resulted in a goal. 43% of Liverpool's league shots were taken outside the box last season, and 23% of those shots from outside the box were on-target. Just 12 resulted in goals – 17% of Liverpool's total goals. Liverpool already take too many shots from distance given how often they profit from it, but at least Aspas should improve Liverpool's accuracy from distance.

That just two of Aspas' 102 shots came from inside the six-yard box also stands out. His first didn't come until his 19th match of the campaign, his 67th shot of the season. Yes, he's not a goal poacher; the majority of his chances were self-created and/or came from bursts into the penalty area, but that's still a surprisingly low number. And, of course, both were off-target.

As Aspas is rumored to be taking Downing's position in the starting XI, here's a quick comparison of a handful of statistics in league play last season. The stats for Downing start with the 4-0 win against Fulham on December 22, as that's when he stopped playing at left back and began starting regularly.

Positionally, we're somewhat comparing apples to oranges since Aspas played centrally in all 34 appearances last season. And Aspas was Celta Vigo's creative hub, scoring just under a third of its goals, creating just over a fifth of all chances. No player was involved in more of his side's goal in La Liga last season (via RAWK). Downing was vastly improved compared to 2010-11, and was a key part in Liverpool's improvement over the second half of the season, but nowhere near as crucial to Liverpool as Aspas was to Celta Vigo.

Aspas' minutes per goal rate is actually quite similar to Dirk Kuyt at his best when the Dutchman played on the right for Liverpool, and that, even more than Downing, might be the better comparison. Especially since Kuyt was very much a striker at Feyenoord before joining Liverpool and was just a month older than Aspas is now when he signed for Liverpool in 2006. Kuyt scored buckets more for Feyenoord, but Feyenoord was also a much better team than Celta Vigo and the Eredivise is a quite different animal than La Liga. And Kuyt also cost a couple million pounds more and was almost certainly on much higher wages.

Still, there's some value in comparing Aspas to Downing. Downing was more creative, Aspas far more prolific in front of goal. But only nine Premiership players created more chances per match last season than Downing. And only 12 La Liga players created more chances per match than Aspas. Aspas also attempted almost the exact number of crosses as Downing last season, completing them at a slightly inferior rate: 35 successful of 142 total for Aspas (24.6%), 39 successful of 140 total for Downing (27.9%).

Like his shots, Aspas' created chances come from all over the attacking half.

It's slightly less cluttered when looking at just the regions his created chances originated from.

Compare that to where Downing's chances took place last season (via the outstanding Dan Kennett). Dan divided the field slightly differently, but it's still easy to compare sections of the pitch.

As with his shots, Aspas is most creative just outside the box, especially on the right side. But where he'll have to improve is on the flanks, where far more of Downing's chances came from. Liverpool will remain a team that won't live or die by its crosses – unlike, say, the 2011-12 version – but Aspas will need to create more than he did for Celta Vigo last season, where 10 of his 16 chances from crosses came from corners.

It's also worth noting that despite the multitude of chances coming from outside the box, six of his seven assists came from chances created inside the box.

To continue the stat bombardment, six Liverpool players (not counting Ibe, who only made one appearance) completed more successful dribbles per match than Aspas's 0.9 last season: Suarez, Sterling, Johnson, Sturridge, Coutinho, and Enrique. Five players were dispossessed more often – Suarez, Sterling, Sturridge, Coutinho, and Enrique – and four players (again not counting Ibe) turned the ball over more often – Suarez, Sterling, Kelly, and Sturridge.

In theory, Aspas should improve in keeping possession and setting up other players when he's not the focal point, and when he's playing with better players. If used primarily on the right, he should take fewer shots, especially (hopefully) from outside the box. He should get better chances, not relied upon to singlehandedly create and score, leading to a better strike rate, although probably not more goals in total.

As with pretty much every transfer ever, there's risk involved. Will he settle, will he fit into the team system, can he adapt to a different position in a different league? And that's not even considering that he, like a certain Messrs. Suarez and Bellamy, might be as mad as a hatter. If he succeeds, it's a bargain at the rumored £7.7m; if he fails, it's more wasted Liverpool money, although less wasted Liverpool money than in previous transfer windows. However, after last January's business, I'm very much inclined to give Rodgers and the scouting staff the benefit of the doubt. Which is a reassuring change of pace considering how the previous few windows went.

03 June 2013

15 Years of Carragher and Gerrard [Infographic]

This image is massive. It's a timeline of all the matches played by Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard since their respective debuts in 1997 and 1998. Click on the cropped version below to open up the full image in a new window. You'll need to zoom in. And scroll. A lot. They've played a lot of matches.

Since his debut, Carragher played in 737 of 904 Liverpool matches, featuring in 81.5% of those games over 16 and a half seasons. Gerrard played in 630 of the 813 matches since his debut 14 and half seasons ago, which is 77.5%. And Carragher and Gerrard played together in 552 of those matches since Gerrard's debut, 67.9% of all possible matches.

Together, Carragher and Gerrard played in 383 Premier League matches, 77 Champions League matches, 35 Europa League matches, 33 FA Cup matches, 20 League Cup matches, two World Cup Championship matches, one European Super Cup, and one Charity Shield.

Their overall record together was 302 wins, 127 draws, and 123 losses. 200W-98D-85L in the Premiership, 42W-18D-17L in the Champions League, 20W-7D-8L in the Europa League, 22W-4D-7L in the FA Cup, 15W-0D-5L in the League Cup, one win and one loss in the World Club Championship, and one win in both the European Super Cup and Charity Shield.

The duo won 11 trophies; Gerrard missed two of those matches – the 2001 Charity Shield and 2005 UEFA Super Cup – while Carragher played in all 11.

702 of Carragher's appearances were as a starter, 35 as a substitute. Gerrard has started 573 matches and come on as a sub in 57.

Here's a link to my spreadsheet for this, if you're inclined to read through the individual matches. This graphic and the subsequent stats would have been impossible without LFCHistory.net, an invaluable, irreplaceable, simply wonderful resource.