Why Liverpool’s set piece problems are to blame for their struggles

Many will point to the defensive struggles that Liverpool have faced given their injuries, but what might be the most worrying for Liverpool fans is the impact these injuries have had on their set-piece abilities.

When Liverpool lost Virgil van Dijk, they lost not only the world’s most commanding defender, but also one of the world’s most deadly aerial threats. The Dutchman scored 5 headered Premier League goals, the most of any Liverpool player not among the front three.

Furthermore, this was the most by any player in England’s top division last season.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 30: Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool celebrates after scoring his teams first goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion at Anfield on November 30, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES.

Joel Matip, the oft-injured centre-back, has also scored twice on set-pieces over the past two seasons. Dejan Lovren also proved a formidable force in the air when given the opportunity.

Besides Matip, whose availability is patchy at best, none of these options remain in the picture. Even Joe Gomez, who rarely gets involved in set pieces, has been lost for the foreseeable future.

While many will point to the recent struggles of Mane, Firmino, and Salah, the lack of an aerial presence in the side shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s easy to forget the importance of these goals, but how much of an impact has this actually had on Liverpool this season?

The drop-off from last season

Last year, Liverpool paced the league with 17 goals from set-pieces (not including penalties). Without these goals, Liverpool would have finished with 15 fewer points than their astounding 98 point tally.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – JULY 22: Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool scores his team’s second goal from a free kick during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield on July 22, 2020 in Liverpool, England. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES.

At the halfway point of this season, the Reds have only scored 5 goals in this manner. These goals have only contributed to 3 extra points this season.

The drop-off has been accentuated in Liverpool’s recent barren run. Jurgen Klopp’s side has not scored in the past 348 minutes in the Premier League, their worst run in over 15 years.

According to the Athletic, Liverpool have mustered just 1 shot on goal in the 36 corners they’ve had during this four-game stretch. Data over the past decade shows that teams score on about 3% of their corners on average. Liverpool haven’t even directed a shot towards goal 3% of the time during this period.

If the statistics don’t convince you, use the eye test. Last season, Liverpool struggled mightily to generate chances in a narrow 2-1 victory over Brighton but were salvaged by 2 van Dijk headers. Those are three points that Liverpool likely would have missed out on this season.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 30: Virgil Van Dijk of Liverpool celebrates scoring his teams second goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion at Anfield on November 30, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY CHLOE KNOTT – DANEHOUSE/GETTY IMAGES.

If Liverpool continue on their current season trajectories, they will finish with 7 fewer goals off set pieces and net 9 fewer points. Given the competitiveness of the league this year, 9 points could not only cost Liverpool a title but perhaps a Champions League place.

What we don’t realize

Goals may be the most direct contribution from set-pieces, but there are additional advantages to possessing a strong aerial threat.

First, defences consciously, or subconsciously, account for this threat in the back of their heads and defend accordingly. Knowing that an opportunity for Virgil van Dijk awaits, a defender may be less inclined to give away a corner when defending and may resort to more risky tactics such as passing out from the back. This can lead to mistakes in open play that can lead to further goals.

Furthermore, it creates opportunities for non-traditional aerial threats to emerge on set pieces.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 26: Trent Alexander-Arnold takes a corner during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool FC at The King Power Stadium on December 26, 2019 in Leicester, United Kingdom. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY MICHAEL REGAN/GETTY IMAGES.

In no circumstances should Jordan Henderson, Mohamed Salah, Andy Robertson, or Sadio Mane score off set pieces given their size. However, each of them scored off corners last season as attention was focused on other targets.

Finally, the morale boost provided to defenders who know they have the opportunity to score inherently helps their defending. Defending is an uncelebrated, gruelling art that grows difficult over the course of the game.

While no statistics support this theory, the passion that defenders have when coming up for corners is blatant.

All of these points show that the trickle-down effect of the injuries to van Dijk, Matip, and more may be more impactful than what we may realize.

Conclusion

While the drop off in set-piece effectiveness is glaring, this shouldn’t distract us from Liverpool’s other problems. The front three have all hit rough patches simultaneously, leading to a brutal goal drought.

KIRKBY, ENGLAND – JANUARY 15: (THE SUN OUT, THE SUN ON SUNDAY OUT) Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool during a training session at AXA Training Centre on January 15, 2021 in Kirkby, England. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY ANDREW POWELL/LIVERPOOL FC VIA GETTY IMAGES.

Unfortunately, Jurgen Klopp can’t do much to fix his injury crisis (except buy a defender). No form of coaching will suddenly turn the likes of Gini Wijnaldum or Fabinho into aerial monsters.

However, this does present an opportunity for Liverpool to become more creative on set pieces. Whether that be short corners, training ground routines, or other tricks, there’s not a much better time to experiment.

More importantly, Liverpool should focus their efforts on sharpening up their attack in open play. Liverpool are struggling to find gaps in the defence and move the ball too slowly. Correcting these issues will provide more goals to the side than anything else.

The return of Joel Matip against Burnley should help Liverpool’s fortunes. Otherwise, we will see what the ultimate effects of Liverpool’s lack of aerial prowess will be.

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Ahmed Mohamedhttp://www.premierleaguecentral.co.uk
Staff writer for Anfield Central and Premier League Central.
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