Coutinho the real key to Liverpool's resurgence in their new formation
It might seem remarkable to suggest but Liverpool might be contenders again. After falling just short of a miracle run at the league title last year, the Reds were forced to overhaul their squad when Luis Suarez left for Barcelona in the summer. In mid-December, Liverpool were in ninth place and six points off the top four, with as many goals conceded as they had scored. But with a 5-2-1 record since the middle of December and not a single loss since the holidays, the Merseysiders are playing Champions League-quality football again.
The turning point was a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United on Dec. 14. It was not a turning point in the sense that Brendan Rodgers learned an important lesson from a defeat and implemented changes. Rodgers was adamant in his post-game news conference that his club had been the better side and deserved to have won despite the scoreline. Yet the weeks that have followed are proof that this wasn't merely bluster. Liverpool have continued to play the 3-4-2-1 formation that Rodgers first tried in that defeat, and the results have followed.
The Liverpool manager's opinion of that loss to United was indeed borne out in the statistics. In that match, Liverpool created nine shots from the "danger zone," the region in the center of the 18-yard-box from which most goals are scored. United had seven. Each club created three clear-cut chances, but United scored two of theirs and Liverpool could not convert. David de Gea saved nine shots on target and had a monstrous game in goal, and both Raheem Sterling and Mario Balotelli helped him by misfiring in big situations.
These are the sort of performances that often come just before a winning streak, and indeed, Liverpool's turnaround has followed just as Rodgers predicted. The underlying stats show a team that is performing at an elite level.
The following graphics display every non-penalty shot attempted in Liverpool's last eight matches. The size of the shot marker represents the "expected goals" (xG) value of the chance, a statistical measure of the quality of a chance based on its location, the type of pass that assists the chance, the speed of the attack leading to the shot, and several other factors. Liverpool have created nearly double the expected goals of their opponents while running the 3-4-2-1 formation.
So how much better have Liverpool been? I built a projection engine to estimate the likelihood that a team will finish in the Premier League's top four. If I run the projections using the Reds' full season statistics so far, they have a roughly 1-in-6 (15 percent) chance at finishing in the top four. But if I project their year based on their play over the past eight matches, their chances of a Champions League place increase to over 1 in 3 (35 percent). It is not a guarantee -- Liverpool still have four points to make up on Southampton, Arsenal or Man United with 15 games to play -- but they are arguably back in the race.
The engine of this return to form has been Philippe Coutinho. When Rodgers first instituted the 3-4-2-1, the headline change was the use of Raheem Sterling in a lone striker position. Yet it has become clear that Coutinho's role is the indispensable one. The Brazilian playmaker has typically been joined by a goal scorer (usually Adam Lallana) in the duo behind the striker, meaning that Rodgers' trust is on Coutinho to carry the creative load.
We can see the extent of the Brazilian's contributions by looking at the passes he has attempted and completed into dangerous areas. When a pass is completed into a region that includes the center of the penalty area and extends a little past the top, there is a chance of at least 1 in 3 that this pass will lead to a shot attempt. The map shows the likelihood of a shot resulting from an attacking move following a completed pass to any location on the pitch. The red zone in the center of the box is clearly distinguishable.
It is precisely this region in which Coutinho has been successfully completing passes while Liverpool has been running the 3-4-2-1. The midfielder started nine matches before the switch and eight since. In those eight matches, Coutinho has completed about twice as many passes into this key region as he did in the nine matches previous. The green lines represent completed passes, the red lines incomplete passes.
Note how most of the incomplete passes in the right-hand figure start from deeper positions; in the left-hand figure, Coutinho is playing the ball from more advanced areas. By getting his playmaker into better positions, Rodgers has enabled him to distribute the ball into the danger zone with an assortment of flicks, through-balls and simple entry passes that traditionally unlock defenses. Coutinho's passes have assisted four goals and 16 shot attempts; they've also been integral to the buildup of dozens more.
Liverpool's tactics and formation have freed Coutinho to make plays and in turn unleashed an attack that is looking nearly as dangerous as last season's. If Rodgers can find a way to reintegrate Daniel Sturridge into the squad without blunting Coutinho's contributions, the Reds should be able to make a genuine run at a third- or fourth-place finish.
Michael Caley is a writer bringing a statistical approach to football analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @MC_of_A.