Isaiah Thomas just had his introductory press conference with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but basketball season starts this Saturday on a field in northwestern England.
As concepts like transition offense, spacing, “not taking bad shots”, and the values of the positional spectrum have totally revolutionized the NBA, some of the same ideas have taken hold at the top levels of the world’s most popular sport. Managers Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool and Pep Guardiola of Manchester City are two of the lodestars of progressive football, and on Saturday, their two teams face off.
Matchups between top sides can often tip into conservatism, since visiting managers are typically happy to leave with a draw and a point on the road. Among the 20 games contested between the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham last season, seven ended even, and the matches averaged just 2.25 goals per game.
The two games between Liverpool and Manchester City last season were no exception — a 1–0 home win for Liverpool in December and a 1–1 March draw in Manchester. But after a summer of roster improvements for both sides, and with Klopp and Guardiola now both more than a year into their respective tenures, Saturday’s fixture promises to be one of the most interesting clashes of the year. Even if the goals don’t flow, the game itself will be a glimpse into the sport’s hardwood-indebted future.
Here’s how to consistently score: create as many good shots as possible. It’s true in basketball, and it’s true in soccer. Last year, Liverpool shot the ball a ton — finishing second only to Tottenham in both shots and shots on target — but the quality of those shots didn’t quite match the volume. They created 63 “big chances” (shots that get converted more often than not), which was fifth-best in the league, and 28 behind league-best Manchester City. Their expected goals per shot (the average percent chance of the shots they took)‚ was 0.10 (or 10 percent), which was tied for the lowest mark among the top six.
Through three games this year, Liverpool has found the magic balance: They’re third in shots per game, but they’re first in shots on target, tied for first in big chances created, and first in expected goals per shot (0.15). Last year, when Liverpool’s attacking machine of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané was humming, it devastated opponents with a barrage of vertical combinations from all across the field. But when opponents clogged up the final third, the trio often resembled a motorcycle trapped in a parking garage — plenty of energy and movement that never actually went anywhere. Three games, including one in which Arsenal rolled out a red carpet in their defensive third, isn’t enough to draw any kind of long-term conclusion, but this version of Liverpool’s attack is Klopp’s ideal.
City, meanwhile, have been the early aughts Memphis Grizzlies of this Premier League season: sucking the life out of games, taking bad shots, and still managing to find a way to win. Although they led the league in big chances last season, they’re currently four behind Liverpool and Manchester United — despite a relatively comfortable schedule to start the year. City are the dominant possession team in the league. They’re at 66 percent despite playing a man down for 44 minutes against Everton, but they really haven’t turned that overwhelming control into dominant production. They’ve scored five goals so far (right around their expected number), and their expected goals per shot has dipped by 0.02 from last season. Again, the numbers won’t necessarily stay like this forever — Kyle Walker’s red card particularly skews things — but otherworldly possession without a consistent near-elite attack is basically a worst-case scenario for a Guardiola team. It’s still pretty good, but you don’t spend £219.87 million in a summer to just be “pretty good.”
The strangest part of Guardiola’s season so far has been the use of Kevin De Bruyne as a holding midfielder. Much like how sliding a competent small forward to power forward will increase his offensive value, soccer teams are doing the same with attackers and midfielders. Klopp has turned decent attackers like Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum into midfielders, and in doing so, he’s been able to put more offensive firepower onto the field. Wijnaldum scored the winner in the first game against City last year and ended the season with six goals and nine assists. He’ll often seem as though he’s drifting through games without providing much influence on either end, but Goalimpact, a stat akin to ESPN’s real plus-minus, rates the 26-year-old Dutch international as one of the better players in the league.
But Guardiola isn’t finding a more productive role for De Bruyne. Instead, he’s playing one of the league’s best attackers out of position. Producing in that attacking role for a top team is one of the hardest things to do in the sport — it requires players who can score and create at high rates, while also helping retain consistent possession, progressing the ball upfield, working through tight spaces, and providing immediate defensive pressure when the ball is lost. De Bruyne does all of that: The scope of his play makes him equally frightening against stretched or packed-in defenses, and he’s scored 13 goals and notched 27 assists through the past two seasons.
Now that he’s playing deeper — and at times, as the only center mid for City — he’s getting on the ball way more often (averaging more than 20 more passes per game than last year), and he’s better than the average midfielder at both flipping the switch from defense to attack and keeping opponents pinned into their own half. He’s taking roughly the same number of shots as last year, but all of his shots have come from outside the box. Were this the NBA, his usage rate would rise, and his true shooting percentage would plummet. Dropping De Bruyne into the midfield has allowed Guardiola to fit more of his talented attackers onto the field, but it also appears to have muted the influence of his best one.
Whether De Bruyne continues to orchestrate from deep or pushes up into more dangerous positions on Saturday, he’ll face a Liverpool defense which still hasn’t solved their biggest issue from last year: They don’t give up many chances, but when they do concede shots, they’re basically all corner 3s. They’re allowing 0.12 expected goals per shot, which is worse than all but a handful of teams in the league. That could be the kind of opposition that kicks City’s offense up another gear, but if there’s a way for Klopp’s team to overcome that lingering deficiency, it’s through supercharging his system by adding another shooter. Mané is the team’s key attacker — able to marry bounding gymnastic agility, speed, and ball control unlike anyone else in the world — and the majority of the team’s forward play comes from his side of the field. But while defenses get sucked out to deal with Mané, the weakside has opened up for summer arrival Mohamed Salah. Through three games, Salah has two goals and one assist, and he’s been even better than those numbers indicate: He’s leading the league in expected goals and assists per 90 minutes.
Even if City’s attack gets back on track against Liverpool’s leaky D, it might not matter if they leave Salah open.