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Premier League sides have worked out how to neutralise Liverpool’s greatest strength

Back in February, Liverpool turned up at Vicarage Road on top of the world. The Reds had accumulated 26 wins and one draw from their opening 27 league matches in 2019/20 to build a 22 point lead over their nearest title challengers. They were unquestionably the champions elect, and four games – albeit four months – later Jurgen Klopp’s men had secured the league title.

Watford were second bottom at the time, with only five wins to their name. Yet they battered Liverpool that day, winning 3-0. The Reds were unbeaten in their previous 21 away league matches, winning 17 of them, so it was undoubtedly a shock result.

And it seems to have had a greater impact than merely ending Liverpool’s hopes of ending 2019/20 undefeated in the Premier League. Their away form has nosedived since, with only a few high points to illuminate the gloom.

From the Watford match onwards, Klopp’s side have won four, drawn six and lost five of their away matches in the league, with Monday’s defeat at Southampton the latest underwhelming performance. While 15 games is a purely arbitrary time-frame, Liverpool’s total of 18 points makes it their least productive run of that length on the road under their current manager.

Before we go overboard with any criticism, it has been a very strange period of matches. Four of the games were dead rubbers where Liverpool had absolutely nothing to play for.

There have also been two matches with both Manchester City and Everton, as well as trips to face Arsenal and Chelsea, while the games at Brighton and Fulham will have been made harder by having to play Champions League fixtures immediately before.

The Reds have had two wins snatched away by stoppage time VAR overturns, and their injury crisis in defence has meant that Klopp has been forced to deploy seven different centre-back pairings in Liverpool’s nine away games this term.

Whether you view these points as explanations or excuses for the club’s poor form on the road is personal choice, but nobody can deny that it has been an unusual stretch of matches in many ways.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think that opposition teams may have figured out how to nullify Liverpool when blessed with home advantage. Whenever the Reds go behind on the road, the phrase “it’s like Watford all over again” or similar will no doubt dominate your social media feed.

A big part of the issue would appear to be that their crossing has become far less effective when away for home rather than when they’re at Anfield. As The Athletic’s Tom Worville noted at the end of the Reds’ defeat at Southampton, “35 crosses in open play for Liverpool tonight, the most ever under Klopp in the Premier League. Two chances created from those.”

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As a tactic, crossing has a very bad reputation, yet the Reds have proved how to make very effective use of deliveries from wide areas. Liverpool had 20 crossed assists in the Premier League last season – the most in the division – and have seven in 2020/21 as the campaign approaches its half way point.

However, in their title winning campaign they had an even split of 10 crossed assists both home and away. This season, it’s seven at Anfield and none on the road.

What makes this stranger is that they have averaged 24 crosses per match regardless of the venue, and opposing defenders have blocked 7.9 per cent of them whether they are at Liverpool’s home ground or their own. Yet 14 per cent of the Reds’ crosses at Anfield have resulted in shots at goal, where only eight per cent have away from home.

And perhaps the solution lays with packing the box rather than stopping the crosses at source more often. Statistics from FBRef show teams are often having more touches in their box against Liverpool than other sides. Southampton had 107 on Monday, at least 25 more than in any other game, and way above their average of 62 for the season.

Everton also had their most in 2020/21 when the Reds crossed Stanley Park, while Fulham had their most for a home match against Liverpool and Newcastle only had three fewer than their peak in their recent 0-0 draw with Klopp’s side.

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The difficulty of getting into the box and the desperation at often chasing a result obviously doesn’t help. There have been five league matches this season in which Liverpool have miscontrolled the ball at least 17 times, with four of the instances away from home and none of those games won (per FBRef).

Having seen the success which teams have had in recent times, the Reds can expect to see plenty more crowded penalty boxes in future. It’s a problem which Klopp and his trusty lieutenants need to solve sooner rather than later.



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