The key to football is for a team to dominate space. Make the pitch as big as you can when you have possession of the ball, and as small as possible when you do not.
This idea is perhaps summed up best by Rafa Benitez’s blanket analogy. The former Liverpool and Everton manager once explained that a football team was a bit like a blanket on a bed, in that it couldn’t possibly cover the whole pitch. Should you leave your head or your feet exposed to the cold of the night?
For teams at the top of the game, the aim is to take control of exactly the areas of the pitch that they choose, and the Reds do this better than most. Jürgen Klopp’s side are inevitably measured against Manchester City in this regard (and in most others) and there are positives and negatives from their perspective with this comparison.
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The Analyst split the pitch into 30 sections. By looking at the proportion of the total touches a team and their opponents take in a zone, they can determine which side has control of it (with 55 per cent the benchmark; between 54 and 46 per cent, the section is deemed to be contested).
In 2021/22, Liverpool controlled 20 of the zones on their pitch, with seven contested and three dominated by their opponents. For City, those figures were 24, five and one respectively, and it’s little surprise they had the edge over the Reds with their ultra-controlling football. Pep Guardiola’s team averaged at least 3.4 per cent more possession than every one of the other 97 teams in Europe’s big five leagues this season, and significantly more than that when compared to the majority.
However, it’s the location of the one area of the pitch that City’s opponents dominated which is of greatest interest. It was the central section of the opposition penalty area, the part of the pitch often referred to as the danger zone. It covers the width of the six-yard box and stretches to the edge of the penalty area, providing the most valuable real estate from an attacking perspective — the turf upon which pure box predators like Diogo Jota thrive.
The Cityzens had 21 per cent of the total touches in the danger zone. It may not sound like many but it’s not realistic to expect a side to dominate that area either. Attackers will be looking to convert one-touch opportunities whilst defenders will likely make multiple clearances and their goalkeepers will have saves and claims and passes to make there too. It’s relevant here as it is the only one of the 15 zones in the opposition half that Liverpool control to a greater extent than their main rivals in the title race, and no other side in the Premier League can match the Reds there either.
Liverpool may have scored fewer goals than City this season, but they did net more times from within the penalty box and these findings help to explain why. The Reds certainly have room for improvement in terms of zone control though, and new signing Darwin Núñez can help.
In the pitch control image, grey areas are the contested zones, with the red sections dominated by the opposition. The attacking zones in which Manchester City hold a visible advantage over the Reds are the half spaces directly in front of the box and to a lesser extent the area to the left of the opposing penalty area.
Núñez’s heatmap for Benfica shows a player who has been very active in the left-sided zones in which Liverpool have not been as dominant as the Cityzens. It’s also realistic to hope that Trent Alexander-Arnold could have even more of an impact in the right half space next season, having spent 2021/22 getting experience of playing in that zone more regularly.
Ultimately, it’s what a team does at the business end of the pitch which matters most, not the proportion of touches that they have there. It’s not hard to imagine Liverpool having a mild advantage over Manchester City in the danger zone eating away at Guardiola just a little though.
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