Lionhearts: How Livingston Defied Expectations in the SPFL Premiership

This time last year, it probably would not have been controversial to say, despite winning two consecutive promotions, Livingston were the favorites to be relegated from the SPFL Premiership. Of course, Livi defied these expectations and finished comfortably away from the relegation zone in ninth place, 23 points above the bottom of the table. This is the second year running that Livingston defied the expectations placed on them in the pre-season, with few expecting the West Lothian side to earn promotion from the Championship in the play-off as they did.

With the lowest average salary in the league last season, Livingston clearly were able to find ways to succeed despite their limited budget. How were the Lions able to do this? Well first of all, they seem to be able to spot backroom staff talent when they see it. On the pitch though, what did Livi do to assure themselves of safety rather comfortably?

Heatmap of defensive actions for Livingston in 2018-19 in the SPFL Premiership. The lighter the color, the more defensive actions in that area. Notice the light color concentrated centrally in the box Livi was defending and the third of the pitch they are defending.

Heatmap of defensive actions for Livingston in 2018-19 in the SPFL Premiership. The lighter the color, the more defensive actions in that area. Notice the light color concentrated centrally in the box Livi was defending and the third of the pitch they are defending.

It is probably not an earth shattering revelation that clubs in the bottom half of the Premiership typically employ a low block, especially against clubs such as Celtic and Rangers. This season, Livingston was no different as they had the third deepest average position of successful defensive actions in the league. Livingston were successful in deploying this low block, as they were joint fifth in goals allowed last season with Aberdeen at 44 goals allowed.

Livingston’s underlying defensive metrics are nothing to write home about, ranking eighth in both shots conceded at 442 and xG conceded at 54.72. However, Livi used their low block effectively to get in between their opponents shooting and the goal, blocking 29.38% of the shots they conceded. This was the second highest percentage in the league last season. Livi were able to stay organized and frequently frustrate opponents with their defensive shape last season. With this defensive discipline, Livingston were able to keep from conceding goals at a rate that would have seen them fall into the relegation fight.

While Livingston were able to block a high number of their opponents shots last season, the ones that did get past them had an even more formidable opponent blocking their path to the goal in Liam Kelly. The Livi keeper had a great season that eventually earned the 23 year old Scottish keeper a move to Queens Park Rangers. We will have an article discussing some metrics for SPFL Premiership keepers up soon, but looking at the goals allowed subtracted from the xG from the shots on target Kelly faced, he had a -9.1 overall and -0.24 per 90, which was the fifth best metric in the league. Simply put, Kelly saved over 9 goals for Livi last season. He certainly deserved a move to the English Championship.

While a hot keeper and a dogged back line would be enough to give any club with a smaller budget a fighting chance at survival, it was the Livingston attack that helped push the club into the secure comfort of mid-table life last season. While we didn’t see Brazil 1970 reincarnated at the Tony Macaroni last season, Livi’s pragmatic approach was successful enough to get the job done.

Last season, Livingston scored 40 non-penalty goals, which was sixth. They were also sixth in xG for at 44.64 and seventh in shots taken at 393. Like me, you probably said to yourself “wow, these numbers are higher than I thought they would be” when thinking about Livingston’s attack last season. These numbers definitely indicate an attack that George Costanza would be proud of, right in the meaty part of the curve. Not showing off, but not falling behind either.

The average length of a pass by each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

The average length of a pass by each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

So how what did Livingston do on attack to make themselves eligible for the Susan Ross Memorial Scholarship? When we looked at the risks of keepers passing short in the SPFL last season, we observed that Liam Kelly was not trying to impress Pep Guardiola with his passing skills and got the ball as far away as quickly as he could. It seems the rest of the the Livingston squad had the same mandate as Kelly. Above we see the graph for the average length of pass each SPFL Premiership club last season, where Livingston had by far the longest average pass in the league.

The average number of passes attempted by each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

The average number of passes attempted by each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

Here, we see a graph showing the average number of passes per possession for each club, where Livingston has the second lowest (by only one hundredth) passes attempted per possession. These two graphs show Livingston went direct and long in their attack.

Now, by no means is going long and direct with your passing a unique strategy in football. Hell, it certainly isn’t unique in the SPFL Premiership. We see Hamilton and St. Mirren have similar numbers in average length of pass and average passes per possession as Livingston did. Yet, Livingston had superior attacking stats than these clubs. Even Motherwell who had made it to two cup finals the previous season and St. Johnstone who have multiple top 6 and even Europa League finishes in the league have similar pass length and pass per possession metrics as Livi, yet Livingston had better underlying attacking metrics last season. Simply put, Livingston was better at playing this way last season.

The fourth and fifth goals in Livingston’s memorable 5-0 victory over Hearts in December of 2018 are great examples of what the Livi attack did so well last season. Win the ball in their own half with a rigid defensive shape, get the ball out of there as far and as quick as possible and let an attacker run onto it with nothing but green grass and a keeper and some back-peddling defenders in front of him.

The percentage of xG originating from counters(defined as starting in the defensive half and occurring within 20 seconds) for each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

The percentage of xG originating from counters(defined as starting in the defensive half and occurring within 20 seconds) for each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

The percentage of shots originating from counters(defined as starting in the defensive half and occurring within 20 seconds) for each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

The percentage of shots originating from counters(defined as starting in the defensive half and occurring within 20 seconds) for each SPFL Premiership club in 2018-19.

The video of the two Livi goals above also show how quick they were able to transition from defending in their own half to on the attack. Livingston were more successful than the other clubs of similar stature in the league in using quick transitions in their attack. We see in the graphs above that only Hearts and Hamilton had a higher percentage of their shots and xG come from the counter (defined as possession originating in their defensive half and a shot occurring within 20 seconds of winning the ball). Of those two clubs, only Hearts had a higher xG and the Tynecastle club only had a 2.11 xG advantage over their Lothian neighbors.

Throughout their two successful promotions through the lower leagues and last season surviving the Premiership, Livingston seemed to be more than the sum of their parts. Given some of the departures from the Tony Macaroni stadium, this may be the case again. Whenever you put together an impressive run such as Livi have, people are bound to notice. This means that your best players will attract the attention of bigger clubs.

Heatmap of defensive actions for Craig Halkett in 2018-19 in the SPFL Premiership. The lighter the color, the more defensive actions in that area.

Heatmap of defensive actions for Craig Halkett in 2018-19 in the SPFL Premiership. The lighter the color, the more defensive actions in that area.

We already discussed Liam Kelly’s fine season earning him a move to London, but there are other key members of the Livingston squad that have moved on as well. Craig Halkett appeared in 3,140 minutes for Livi last season and was vital in locking down the middle of that defensive shape for Livingston. Halkett won 77.7% of his defensive aerial duels last season, the 13th highest among center backs. He won 73.6% of all defensive duels, which was 12th among center backs. Halkett was a major contributor to the Livingston defense and he will be missed.

Heatmap of defensive actions for Declan Gallagher in 2018-19 in the SPFL Premiership. The lighter the color, the more defensive actions in that area.

Heatmap of defensive actions for Declan Gallagher in 2018-19 in the SPFL Premiership. The lighter the color, the more defensive actions in that area.

Declan Gallagher also moved to a SPFL Premiership rival, signing with Motherwell this off season. Gallagher patrolled the right side of the pitch for Livi last season, appearing in 3,603 minutes for the club last season. He too was important to the Livingston defense, winning 68% of the defensive duels he attempted which was 14th best among fullbacks. He also was important to the Livi attack, registering a total xA of 3.60, highest at the club last season.

Alan Lithgow does remain at the Tony Mac and the veteran defender was a mainstay for the club last season, appearing in 3,329 minutes. However, given that the center back is now 31, will he continue to be as effective as he gets older? Will Gallagher and Halkett’s replacements be able to team up with the veteran to be as strong of a defensive side as Livi were last year? Will Liam Kelly’s replacements be able to come even close to repeating the performance between the sticks we saw from Kelly? These are fair questions that many would fairly expect a club of Livingston’s size to struggle with. However, with how effective Livi have been the past few seasons, we certainly cannot count them out.