Premier League Deep Dive: Liverpool’s Defense Running Hot; Could Leeds Be in Trouble?

Premier League Deep Dive: Liverpool’s Defense Running Hot; Could Leeds Be in Trouble? article feature image
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Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images. Pictured: Manager Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool.

Another weekend across Europe’s top five leagues is in the books and this past matchweek saw England’s top four actually face some resistance.

Manchester United found a late winner on the road at West Ham United, needing a final-minute penalty save to avoid dropping points. Chelsea faced a difficult first 60 minutes at Tottenham Hotspur before taking over in the second half.

Finally, Manchester City’s attack was stymied by Southampton for a goalless draw that left manager Pep Guardiola whining about the lack of preparation time his team had for the match.

This week’s upcoming games feature two matchups of “big six” teams, including a Champions League final rematch. However, before we get into the schedule, here’s some takeaways and observations from across Europe.

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Shaun Botterill/Getty Images. Pictured: Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk.

Liverpool Overdue to Concede

Liverpool have conceded one goal in this entire Premier League season, on a set piece corner header by Chelsea’s Kai Havertz. The Blues may be the only team to score on Liverpool’s improved defense, but they are far from the only team to create big scoring chances.

Norwich, Burnley, Leeds and Crystal Palace all created chances and quality shots against the Reds’ goal, but they couldn’t find the back of the net. In total, Liverpool has conceded 5.1 xG in five matches, fourth best in the league. They’ve allowed at least 0.7 xGA in every game but haven’t allowed any goals except a set piece header. It’s pretty rare and unsustainable to allow about an expected goal per match and only concede one actual goal in five matches.

There are always multiple confounding factors that contribute to xG overperformance and underperformance. Goalkeeper quality, quality of the average chance allowed and luck are the three main culprits.

Liverpool can’t really control how well teams shoot against them, and the Reds have been fortunate that teams have turned 5.1 xG into just 3.6 post-shot expected goals. Alisson is one of the best shot stoppers in the world, which must be considered when tracking the Reds overperformance.

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Per FBref.com, Alisson has saved 2.6 goals for the Reds through five games, more than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. The third facet is shot quality, where Liverpool has looked more like 2020-21’s defense than the elite year prior. The Reds allow the fourth-highest shot quality in the PL, which if it continues, will lead to more goals being conceded.

The Reds attack is so dominant and overwhelming thus far that Liverpool will still win a lot of games anyway, but they’re due for some defensive regression and have a tricky away trip to Brentford this weekend.

I grabbed Both Teams to Score Yes at -105 for that match and my projections put it at -120 and I think the Reds will finally concede again this weekend against the pesky Bees.

Brentford is running below its expected goals, has two attackers in Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo that can trouble the Reds on the counter and the Reds’ defense hasn’t been good enough to warrant this line.

Photo credit: Molly Darlington/Pool/AFP via Getty Images. Pictured: Marcelo Bielsa.

Leeds’ Season of Regression Has Arrived

Leeds aren’t the first team to surprise and overperform expectations in their first year after being promoted to the Premier League. The Peacocks were legitimately a midtable team last season based on performances, despite the league’s second worst defense by expected goals.

They’re also not the first team to then regress back to those original PL expectations in year two. The Peacocks have three points and no wins through five matches.

They were a bit lucky last year not to concede more and thus far in 2021, the goals have dried up going forward and the defense is just as bad but conceding more.

The Peacocks were one of my favorite point total under in my Premier League season preview piece — so far so good on them and Southampton, not so much on Liverpool — and Leeds are 14th in xG difference and 17th in actual difference. Only Norwich and Newcastle have conceded more chances and the attack has slipped from fifth to ninth in expected goals for.

A team with Leeds’ performances would be expected to have 3.95 points, so perhaps the Peacocks are running a bit cold in front of goal. But Leeds doesn’t look like a safe midtable team this season. If results don’t go their way in the upcoming games against weaker opponents (after West Ham), relegation might actually be in the picture.

And while the Peacocks probably have enough to remain in the division, it wouldn’t take much bad luck or an injury up front for that to change given how easily they allow goals.

Next up for Leeds is a home game against West Ham without Michail Antonio, the kind of game that has the potential for tons of open, attacking play. I don’t have a play at the current number, but this fixture averaged 3.8 combined expected goals per match last season.

Photo credi: Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. Pictured: Luis Muriel.

Elsewhere in Europe: The Atalanta Machine Currently Broken

If there were any concerns about if something was wrong with Atalanta following their sluggish start to the 2021-22 campaign, this week’s performances and results suggest those concerns may be warranted.

The results were fine: a road draw at Villarreal in the Champions League and a road win at lowly Salernitana in Serie A will play for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men. The performances weren’t good enough.

La Dea managed to outshoot the worst team in Serie A, 11-10. Not good. 1.4-0.9 xG isn’t particularly good either, given that they also struggled with Torino, Bologna and lost to Fiorentina early in the season. Villarreal outcreated and outshot Atalanta in the Champions League matchup too, winning the shots 14-13 and xG 2.1-1.2.

For a team that has completely dominated Serie A’s weaker teams and consistently finished top three in xG difference and goal difference, the attacking play has slowed down considerably. Atalanta sit seventh in xGD and sixth in xGF despite a pretty weak schedule of opponents.

La Dea led Serie A in attacking third pressures in 2019-20 and 2020-21. This year, they’re just fifth. Their midfield pressures are down from second to fifth. Atalanta dropped from 27 shot-creating actions per 90 (second best) to 22 per 90 (10th best).

All of those metrics are pretty troubling for a team who has a pretty old age profile and features multiple players that had busy summers on international duty. If Remo Freuler and Martin de Roon are slowing down, they’ll need Teun Koopmeiners to replace that production in the midfield engine room.

If Duvan Zapata, Luis Muriel and Josip Ilicic slow down, I’m not sure Atalanta have a solution to that issue this season. It could very well be a blip, but La Dea’s numbers are down across the board and it’s concerning for a team I’ve loved to back for the past few years. Sassuolo at home in the league on Wednesday is followed by a road trip to Inter Milan.

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images. Pictured: Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes.

Game of the Weekend: Manchester United 2, West Ham 1

Manchester United has played this exact same game script quite frequently in the last calendar year. On the road, a sluggish start for the Red Devils leads to them conceding an early goal. They wake up after conceding, play well and find a deserved equalizer.

The game then enters another period of stalemate before United finds a late winning goal. They’ve recovered more points from losing positions than anyone in the PL the last season and a half. United has been excellent away from home in the league as well.

Jesse Lingard’s game winning goal appeared to be for naught when Luke Shaw conceded a handball penalty deep in stoppage time. But David Moyes’ bizarre decision to sub on Mark Noble just to take the penalty led to a David de Gea game-winning save on a poor kick from Noble. It was de Gea’s first PK save in his last 41 tries.

The Red Devils were marginally better than West Ham and arguably deserved all three points from the performance, but they’ve also been the league’s best team at marginally outplaying the opponent and turning those said performances into wins. Most teams will have more draws given United’s underlying numbers, but they always manage to avoid most of them.

The underlying numbers have them a step below the top three of Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool thus far, but the Red Devils are clearly multiple steps above the rest in the table. United’s 13 goals from 7.6 xG is an unsustainable rate of finishing chances, but that’s actually more down to bad goalkeeper play. No team has benefitted more statistically from poor opposition goalie play than Manchester United.

Their first big test comes Oct. 24 against Liverpool, with some potential stumbling blocks in Leicester City and Everton in the interim.


Looking Ahead

Last weekend was pretty underwhelming across all of Europe in terms of big matchups. Spurs vs. Chelsea and AC Milan vs. Juventus didn’t really match the hype surrounding them and there was little else in terms of big-name games.

The same cannot be said this week. Chelsea hosts Manchester City on Saturday. Real Madrid hosts Villarreal on the same day, right after Borussia Mönchengladbach hosts Borussia Dortmund in a Marco Rose homecoming, In Serie A action, Inter Milan takes on visiting Atalanta.

On Sunday, Arsenal welcomes Spurs to Emirates Stadium in the North London Derby, plus Lazio faces Roma in the Rome Derby. It’s the best weekend of big soccer matchups since the season returned.

My early play is Manchester City on the Draw No Bet wager (-120 or better), who is facing some disrespect in the market after a sluggish 0-0 draw with Southampton. A pure numbers play here as the Cityzens are still the best team in the world and England in my projections.

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