Well, that was quite a game, wasn’t it?
Sunday’s victory over Fulham was one of chaos, a rollercoaster of emotions that ended the way it has for every game at Anfield so far this season – in a win for Jürgen Klopp’s side. The 4-3 has provided countless topics of discussion, from Liverpool’s quite extraordinary catalogue of goals to the lack of control and flatness in possession that was on show for large stretches of the 90 minutes.
Ultimately, Liverpool came away with a crucial three points.
Wataru Endo’s composed finish was followed very quickly by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s incredible touch-and-hit winner. The goals will be watched back countless times (and that’s just by me) and the lack of control will be measured on a game-to-game basis, particularly with two favourable away games in Sheffield United and Crystal Palace coming up – the type of games the Reds have struggled with in recent times.
Perhaps even more under the microscope, though, will be the man trying to prevent the ball from going into Liverpool’s goal – Caoimhin Kelleher.
If Alexander-Arnold felt the full love of Anfield and the rest of Liverpool’s fanbase after his heroics this weekend, Kelleher was on the other end of the spectrum. The Irishman conceded three times – to former teammate Harry Wilson, Kenny Tete and Bobby Decordova-Reid.
While there was little to nothing he could have done about what Fulham thought would be the winner, the first two goals have seen him come under criticism. Let’s take a look at the first, from Harry Wilson…
Liverpool aren’t particularly set defensively.
Virgil van Dijk had wandered forward prior to Fulham getting the turnover, which is why he’s the furthest left of the back four, and Jöel Matip and Alexander-Arnold have switched roles. As Antonee Robinson plays the ball across goal, Wilson is able to get across Liverpool’s no. 66.
While the ball does come at him very quickly after Wilson’s touch, the Fulham attacker is at a disadvantage due to the wide angle he’s shooting from. The ball is straight at Kelleher, who lets the ball go right through him.
The shot has an xG of 0.24, but an expected goals on target of 0.21 – meaning that Opta’s model gave it just a 21% chance of going in the way the ball was shot.
The issue here appears to be Kelleher’s body position and his inability to adjust. The ball goes through the Cork native’s legs. Perhaps it’s slightly harsh to criticise here too much – the ball is going at an incredible pace. But a goalkeepers near post is their bread and butter. He needs to be anticipating the touch and his starting position (i.e. how wide-legged he is) needs to be adjusted.
The most disappointing goal from Kelleher’s perspective will be the second, from Tete…
The defending all round from this goal is quite frankly, dreadful.
Raul Jiménez is able to generate a completely free header from Andreas Pereira’s corner. Kenny Tete is then in just as much space on the edge of the six-yard box to poke the ball home. Again, it’s harsh to completely put the entire blame on Kelleher here, but this one does feel very saveable.
The xG of this shot is 0.45, with an xGOT of 0.55. The likelihood is that if Tete has that chance ten times over, he gets a better connection on it nine of those times and Kelleher’s goalkeeping isn’t called into question. Instead, Tete scuffs the shot, and Liverpool’s backup keeper makes a strange attempt to save the ball. Instead of standing tall and making his body big, he misjudges the Tete attempt and has to go with his feet.
It's the sort of tentative, lacking in confidence goalkeeping you see from someone out of form, or not starting every week.
For Caoimhin Kelleher, it’s the latter.
The Republic of Ireland international is not a bad goalkeeper – he’s far from it.
Despite him being on course to make this his best season to date in terms of game time – already playing 630 minutes, his best season total is 750 minutes in 2021/22 – he’s at the stage in his career where he needs to be a starter somewhere, shouldering the responsibilities that come with being a club’s number one.
The fact of the matter is that statistically the Irish goalkeeper is beginning to stagnate in his development at Anfield. His save percentage has declined year on year: 88.9% from 3.2 shots on target in 2020/21, 75.9% from 3.49 shots on target in 2021/22 and 69.6% from 5.35 shots on target last season (all per 90). This year, with the caveat of increased playing time with the ‘second unit’ in the Europa League, he’s down at 58.6% from 3.43 shots per 90.
He's conceded ten goals so far this season in seven games and has looked mixed in his performances.
As Kelleher has stood still in his role at Anfield, compatriot Gavin Bazunu has claimed the number one spot for his country. By contrast, Bazunu left behind the medals he could've earned from being Ederson’s backup at Manchester City to join Southampton.
However, all is not lost for the former Ringmahon Rangers’ man.
While Kelleher's performances in terms of shot stopping has been very up and down (his post shot expected goals is at minus 2.8 for the season, meaning he’s conceded nearly three full goals more than expected), he’s been as good as ever with the ball at his feet.
He’s completing 38.2 passes per 90 (only bettered during his 2021/22 campaign), he’s progressing the ball more than ever before in build-up (580.6 yards per 90 – his previous best was 465.5 in 2020/21) and he’s completing 0.8 passes into the final third per 90 – showing he’s able to go direct when needed, which is a variance in his passing we haven’t seen much in the past.
He's increasingly confident in receiving the ball and carrying it out of his penalty area. His increased game time with players like Ibrahima Konaté and Joe Gomez in the Europa League. More minutes with players means more understanding on the ball, and that’s been evident to see.
While being good on the ball has always been something Kelleher has displayed – it’s not enough to simply be beneficial to the side in build-up, he also needs to be keeping the ball out of the goal, which he hasn’t been doing.
Three big stops from Caoimhín to keep a clean sheet ⛔ pic.twitter.com/0cd9T2mMTE
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 2, 2023
fYet, there is historical evidence (okay, his sample size isn’t particularly extensive) that Kelleher is a decent enough shot stopper.
He prevented 2.4 goals more than expected in 2020/21 and roughly stopped the amount expected of him in 2021/22 (+0.2). Despite the somewhat interesting performance on Sunday, there have never been massive flaws in his technique. The up and down nature of being a stand-in goalkeeper can take its toll on someone, consistency comes with doing things repeatedly and if you are being asked to watch someone else do your job every week it can be difficult.
Alisson will be back before we know it, and I’d entrust Kelleher to get through this mini slump and get Liverpool to the other side of the Brazilian’s injury in good shape.
Keeping the ball out of the goal isn’t just the job of the person between the posts, it’s a team effort. It’s expected that Kelleher will be in goals for the trip to Sheffield and Croydon in the next week, and then in the Carabao Cup at home to West Ham.
He’s good enough, on and off the ball, for Liverpool to get six points and see themselves in another semi-final.