Team Liquid’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive division had long been NA’s standout performer, even going as far as bringing the often mocked region to the top of the international scene in 2019. Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken’s departure at the tail end of 2020 ushered in a period of inconsistency and disappointment. Following different failed rosters, Liquid began opening its doors to South American and European imports. Nonetheless, few expected the organization to transition to a majority-European roster as they announced another overhaul of their roster in the Summer of 2023. After three events, however, the Markes “YEKINDAR” Gaļinskis-led quintet has largely failed to impress and has bombed out of yet another important test in ESL Pro League Season 18.
Liquid’s European Summer
Liquid entered the 2023 Summer break aiming to replace the departing Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, but the rise of Latvian star YEKINDAR as the lineup’s primary shot-caller in the lead-up to the BLAST Paris Major filled his shoes quite naturally, allowing the organization to focus on other targets. The first player selected was the most unexpected pick, rising Bulgarian prospect Aleks “Rainwaker” Petrov. Rainwaker had proven himself as one of the most impactful lower-tier riflers in the COVID-era, first in SKADE and then in 500, but never truly looked like a potential superstar on par with the likes of Guy “NertZ” Iluz and William “mezii” Merriman.
The Bulgarian was a gamble in terms of his perceived potential, but he also appeared to be a strong fit within the system YEKINDAR and Damian “daps” Steele aimed to create. While discussing the move in an interview with HLTV.org, the Canadian coach emphasized his proficiency as a CT-side anchor. Furthermore, the Bulgarian was thought of as a strong T-side Lurker who could roam independently from the other players and provide much-needed impact across most maps. Some raised doubts about his lack of experience, but few questioned whether he’d fit alongside Keith “NAF” Markovic on the team’s offensive halves, especially considering the Bulgarian would have to adapt to a plethora of new positions.
The last piece of the Liquid puzzle was Team Spirit’s Robert “Patsi” Isyanov, who had been benched after a poor run of form in early 2023. The Russian entry fragger would shockingly replace organization legend Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, filling the T-side hole left by nitr0’s departure. Furthermore, Patsi’s CT-side proactivity would slot in well alongside YEKINDAR’s, partnering with the new anchoring duo of NAF and Rainwaker. While either the Russian or the Latvian would need to give up some of their favorite positions to make room for the other, the change represented a strong step up in versatility and flexibility for the once-NA outfit.
Liquid’s Grand Tour: struggling from Copenhagen to Malta
The new roster debuted in Copenhagen for the BLAST Premier Fall Groups, aiming to secure a spot at the Finals over the likes of FaZe and G2. Before analyzing Liquid’s results, it’s worth noting that many teams took the Danish event as extra practice, as it took place mere days before IEM Cologne, one of the most coveted events on the calendar. One such case was G2’s, as even coach Jan “Swani” Müller admitted, “We kind of took it as a bootcamp, so we didn't care too much about the results” in an interview with BLIX.gg.
Nonetheless, YEKINDAR’s Liquid showed promise and took down both favorites with 2-1 scorelines, in no small part due to an excellent NAF. The fairytale start did not translate into a Fall Finals spot, however, as a resurgent FaZe 2-0'd the new European mixture in the Group C final before Liquid were convincingly swept by the new-look Astralis in the decider matches. Looking at the early stages of their map pool, Liquid picked Inferno and Ancient twice, losing the former both times and beating FaZe and G2 on the latter with dominant CT sides, before dropping it 11-16 against Finn “karrigan” Andersen’s team in the group final.
The team’s new permaban appeared to be Nuke, a map the North Americans had not played on for almost a year before YEKINDAR arrived in late 2022 but which soon became part of their pool after the Latvian joined the fray. Similarly to the team’s new permaban, Vertigo wasn’t a map Liquid were particularly comfortable on and rarely resorted to playing it unless their opponent picked it. Patsi and Rainwaker were more familiar with the Cedar Creek power plant, as Nuke is still one of Leonid “chopper” Vishnyakov’s main maps, and as the Bulgarians of 500 never shied away from the map despite mediocre results.
The European mixture then traveled to Germany for the IEM Cologne Play-In, where they recorded a BO1 loss to Astralis on Ancient, a map the Danes would dominate at the event before edging out BIG in a tough elimination match. The team would, however, fail to make the main event, as they were upset by the Poles of 9INE on Vertigo and Overpass after securing their pick of Ancient. NAF was once again the team’s standout performer, as only he and YEKINDAR finished the event with a positive HLTV rating.
Finally, the team attended the Saudi Gamers8 event in late August, suffering from a tough draw that pitted them against Cologne finalists ENCE. A strong performance from Josh “oSee” Ohm made the European mix surprisingly competitive, as they failed to convert their pick of Vertigo despite two map points before a 5-16 slapping in the team's debut on Anubis. Ultimately, Liquid came into ESL Pro League Season 18 in Malta with a 7-12 map record, only keeping a positive win rate on Ancient.
The new-look Liquid on the server
While the sample size isn’t the largest, we can start by taking a look at the statistics. From what concerns the CT side, even with the role shake-up, Patsi has more or less taken the place of EliGE as YEKINDAR’s proactive partner, leaving NAF and Rainwaker as the team’s anchors. On the other hand, as predicted by coach daps, the Bulgarian fit perfectly in nitr0’s shoes, and while the rise in his opening kill attempts would lead some to believe in a more aggressive type of anchor, this was most likely caused by Liquid’s struggles in taking map control and asserting themselves on the defensive end.
One thing that’s certain is that YEKINDAR’s tendency to go for opening fights has declined in line with what one would expect from a tier-one IGL, with the Latvian moving to a less trigger-happy style of rotating. The new-look Liquid remains a strong CT side team, recording the opening frag in 56.8% of rounds and closing the 5v4 situation over 66% of the time, with the old squad on 59.6% and 67.6%, respectively, across their IEM Katowice, EPL Season 17 and BLAST Paris Major outings. Despite the shaky start, it’s clear the new recruits fit YEKINDAR’s system perfectly and will only grow more comfortable over time.
Things are different on the T side, where YEKINDAR gave up his traditional space-creating plays to Patsi and Rainwaker. This resulted in the Latvian losing a solid chunk of his opening kill attempts, leaving the Russian entry as the team’s main opener (with over 30% attempts) and as nitr0’s replacement in the pack. Furthermore, to make room for the new signings, NAF has shifted to a more flexible style of lurking, which sees him join his teammates for the final executes and act as a late-round closer. Despite his excellent form, however, Liquid’s signings have struggled to make an impact on the offensive end.
While even NA Liquid wasn’t a particularly strong T-side entry team, hovering around the low forties in opening kill percentage, nitr0’s side made up for it with strong 5v4 conversion rates and proficiency in man disadvantage situations. This is not yet present in the YEKINDAR-led lineup, as Liquid dropped from 73.1% to 65.1% round wins from a man-advantage situation, standing as one of the worst tier-one teams in this regard. While not excelling, the NA roster was also often effective at trading, securing the round from a 4v5 situation over 37% of the time. In contrast, the European-majority Liquid stands at a measly 26.3% in their first outings, with concerns related to individuals over-extending in the early to mid-round.
The reason for this shift is quite evident: while YEKINDAR and NAF have retained their effectiveness in opening duels despite the role shift, the new play-making pieces in Patsi and Rainwaker stand at an appalling 32.5% and 36.5% success rates, respectively. The Russian’s stats are particularly worrying, as Patsi takes the opening duel on the T side in almost one-third of the rounds but fails to convert it into a kill close to 70% of the time, mirroring the struggles that began in the second half of 2022 and eventually led to his benching in Spirit. While similarly struggling, Rainwaker at least has the excuse of being asked to be more proactive than he was used to in his 500 days.
This is where Liquid’s greatest problems lie. The new signings have at least somewhat adapted to their new system but fail to show up when it matters from an individual standpoint. With the team relying in no small part on mechanical skill for opening and closing rounds, they cannot afford to have one or multiple members of the rifling core go missing. While it was to be expected, the lineup’s debut at BLAST Premier Fall Groups saw YEKINDAR end the event with a 0.91 rating, his lowest in a Liquid shirt, with Rainwaker close at 0.95.
While the Bulgarian struggled even more in the IEM Cologne Play-In, NAF disappeared on the deciding Overpass against 9INE as Liquid were narrowly beaten 12-16. Lastly, their loss against ENCE at Gamers8 had Rainwaker and Patsi as the team’s worst performers, with a 0.61 and 0.8 rating, respectively. Finding a way to have all members contribute, especially on their shakier T-sides, is the first step to understanding whether Liquid’s new European-majority quintet can turn into a contender.