17 April 2015

Liverpool v Aston Villa 04.19.15

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 01.17.15
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Blackburn (a); 1-4 Arsenal (a)
Aston Villa: 1-0 Spurs (a); 3-3 QPR (h); 1-3 United (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-0 Blackburn (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Aston Villa: 2-0 West Brom (h); 2-1 Leicester (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (h); 1-0 Blackpool (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 11; Gerrard 10; Henderson 7; Coutinho 6; Lallana, Sturridge 5; Balotelli 4; Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno 2; Allen, Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Aston Villa: Benteke 11; Agbonlahor 6; Weimann 4; Sinclair 3; Bacuna, Carles Gil, Clark, Cole, Delph, Hutton, Okore 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Lovren
Johnson Henderson Allen Moreno
Markovic Coutinho Sterling

Skrtel's back, Gerrard's back. Sturridge and Lallana are probably still injured. Jordon Ibe remains cup-tied. Now that Skrtel's back, now that Liverpool has more than one or two center-backs available (in this equation, I'm counting Toure and Lovren as half a center-back each, I guess), will the side revert to the 3-4-3 or stick with the 4-3-3 we've seen for the last two and a half matches?

It'd be a lot easier to guess the 3-4-3 were Ibe available. Rusty after returning from injury against Newcastle, he's still Liverpool's best option at the position. But he's unavailable. Sterling has to play in attack, and Markovic might as well. So Liverpool can push Johnson into the role, shunt Henderson out wide so Gerrard or Lucas could play in midfield, or hand an unlikely start to Manquillo or Flanagan.

Gerrard's return is the other elephant in the room. Is there any room for sentimentality? Start him in midfield, or in attack, or use him as a substitute? I honestly have no idea. I personally wouldn't do the first option, and would lean towards the substitute option, but none are an easy decision. It's the admittedly fading club captain in a Wembley semifinal. If there's a time and place for sentimentality, it might well be tomorrow. It doesn't hurt that he's scored more goals against Villa (13) than any other side.

Or it's all moot and we see the same formation we saw against Newcastle, with Skrtel at center-back, Can at right-back, Markovic or Gerrard for Ibe, and/or possibly Gerrard for Lucas.

Regardless of 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, regardless of the other personnel choices, I'd like to see Coutinho reprise his role as a false nine, with Sterling and either Markovic or Gerrard on the opposite side. It worked well in creating space, in pulling Newcastle's center-backs out of position, and there's a reasonable assumption it could do the same against Villa.

Aston Villa. Perpetually a bane to Liverpool: this season's 1-0 loss at Anfield, last season's 2-2 draw at Anfield and narrow 1-0 away win, the humiliating 3-1 loss at Villa in December 2012. Managed by Tim Sherwood – Tactics Tim! – a perpetual source of amusement, beaten 0-4 in his only meeting against Liverpool.

Carlos Sanchez is unavailable through suspension. Clark, Hutton, Herd, Senderos, and Cissokho will range from "probably out" to "out injured." Agbonlahor and Carles Gil will be late decisions, but both Westwood and Sinclair should be fit.

If Westwood and Sinclair are risked, the most likely Villa XI seems to be Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar, Baker, Richardson; Cleverley, Westwood, Delph; Sinclair; Weimann, Benteke. Villa have played a 4-4-2 diamond in their last two matches, but could switch to 4-5-1, with Sinclair on the left and Weimann, N'Zogbia or Joe Cole on the right if Agbonlahor's not available to start. But given how important he is to Villa, you'd expect Agbonlahor to be used if at all possible.

Guzan is the better keeper, but Shay Given has been the usual keeper during this FA Cup run. Baker came on after Clark's injury last week, but Okore could be preferred at center-back along with Vlaar. Richardson can play at left-back or in midfield. 19-year-old Jack Grealish could make his third consecutive start anywhere in an attacking midfield role, whether central or on the flank. Tim Sherwood remains Tim Sherwood; we can't predict what he's going to do because I doubt he knows what he's going to do. Since joining Villa, they've played 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-Diamond-2, and 4-3-2-1. Sherwood will "go for it." His team will try to attack, featuring a lot of long balls to Benteke, try to press a bit, probably be relatively organized in defense, and probably not organized in midfield. As to formation or personnel, your guess really is as good as mine. And as good as Tim's.

Regardless, Aston Villa still have Christian Benteke. With eight goals and two assists in the nine matches he's played since Sherwood became manager. Which is more goals than any Liverpool player except Sterling and Gerrard have scored this season. With three goals in his five matches against Liverpool, albeit none in his last three (although it's worth mentioning he had a game-high five shots in Liverpool's 2-0 win in January).

This will be Aston Villa's first FA Cup match away from home, beating Blackpool, Bournemouth, Leicester and West Brom on route to Wembley. Liverpool were unable to win and unable to score in their two FA Cup home matches, and are still somehow in this position anyway.

But for all of Liverpool's defensive improvement since the New Year, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet in just one of their four away FA Cup matches, last round at Blackburn. Aston Villa have scored in eight goals in Tim Sherwood's 10 matches.

It goes without saying that anything can happen in the cups, at Wembley. It's up to Liverpool to ensure the expected takes place.

14 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Blackburn (a) [FA]Arsenal (a), Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

This infographic does not adequately explain how bad Newcastle were. My memory clearly isn't perfect, but I'm struggling to think of less impressive opponents this season. Maybe Hull, who didn't even try to attack but still came away with a point at Anfield back in October. Maybe Leicester, who did little right, outshooting Liverpool but only scoring because a rebound led to an off-target shot which ricocheted off the post and then off Mignolet's back, before gift-wrapping Liverpool three goals in a 3-1 win on Leicester's ground in December.

This infographic does adequately explain a couple of things, though. 1) Liverpool's continuing issues, writing about which has become rote, primarily Liverpool's inability to consistently put shots on-target or to score goals. 2) Just as against Blackburn, Liverpool's inability to limit the opposition's chances, despite playing opposition as bad as Newcastle were.

It seems the height of hubris to write, but any good chances for that Newcastle side was too many chances. And yet Liverpool required a marvelous save from Mignolet when Perez found space for a header and for Lee Mason to unbelievably ignore the clearest of penalties from Dejan Lovren, not to mention a handful of half chances for the away side. Despite out-possessing Newcastle 62.1-37.9%, Liverpool only outshot Newcastle 14-10. The penalty was an individual mistake (and had it been given, it'd have been Lovren's seventh defensive error of the season, tying him for the most in the league with QPR's Rob Green). As was Perez's header to a lesser extent, getting behind Can and in front of Johnson far too easily. Late runs into the box allowed Abeid two dangerous first half chances, midfielders late to track, center-backs late to step up. And then there was the 10-minute spell of pressure to start the half, even if it resulted in only a couple of speculative shots.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. It was just the third time Liverpool have played four-at-the-back in 2015, after the second half at Arsenal and the FA Cup tie at Blackburn. It was the first time we've seen that back four, the first time Emre Can has played in a center-back pairing, Johnson making his first league start since December 14, and Dejan Lovren continuing to be Dejan Lovren. Liverpool have played two opponents far less talented than they are, and yes, Liverpool have kept clean sheets in both matches, but you can't help think that opponents better than Blackburn and Newcastle will ruthlessly dismantle a four-man Liverpool defense.

Liverpool had an awful Newcastle by the throat in the first 30 minutes, yet should have gone into halftime either level or behind. It took until the 70th minute to seal the match, which seems around 40-50 minutes longer than it should have.

And that's because Liverpool remain about as toothless as a homeless meth addict.

Sterling's goal was fantastic: an incredible cross-field assist from Henderson, Sterling doing what he does best in cutting inside from the left and side-footing past the keeper. Allen's goal was surprisingly well-taken, if resulting from a defensive error, an unfortunate ricochet off Williamson.

In between (and after), Liverpool wasted multiple opportunities. And it was more the final pass or poor touch or failed run than off-target shooting; Liverpool's 42.9% shooting accuracy is one of the better this season, even if the other on-target shots (Coutinho and Moreno from narrow angles, Coutinho and Sterling from distance) were fairly simple saves. But Sterling's missed sitter, Lovren and Sterling's missed set play chances, Borini's heavy touch when through on goal, Sterling not continuing his run for Coutinho's center across the six-yard box all stick out in the memory, and there are certainly other moments I'm missing.

But again, maybe this is too harsh. Here we are, a 2-0 win, the 13th clean sheet of the league campaign, four points off fourth, and I've done nothing but complain. Liverpool had an unfamiliar back four and no recognized striker. The average age of the starting XI was just 23.9, and that includes 30-year-old Glen Johnson and 28-year-old Lucas; otherwise the oldest outfield player was 25-year-old Dejan Lovren.

When Liverpool took shots, they took them from good positions. 11 of Liverpool's 14 shots came inside the box, the second-highest proportion of inside-the-box shots this season. Only the 2-0 win at Villa, another comprehensive if less-than-impressive victory against fairly dismal opposition, featured higher (10 of 12 shots inside the box).

Coutinho was surprisingly influential as a false nine – the first time he's played there for Liverpool and, to my limited-outside-Liverpool knowledge, in his career – finding space between Newcastle's lines, able to create for runners (Sterling, Henderson, Ibe, Borini) in behind. Despite playing in such an advanced position, only Lucas and Moreno completed more passes. No one took more shots, only Henderson created more chances. It won't work against every opponent, but it was a clever tactic against Newcastle, confusing a makeshift defense, drawing the center-backs out of position, creating space for other attackers. Space in attack has been at a premium for this Liverpool side throughout the season.

Finally, an amusing statistic, if incidental to the result. Yesterday's match saw Newcastle's sixth red card in their last six matches against Liverpool. The only game which hasn't featured a Newcastle dismissal since Rodgers became manager was the reverse fixture, Liverpool's pathetic 0-1 loss in November. Sissoko yesterday, Shola Ameobi and Dummett in May 2014, Yanga-Mbiwa in October 2013, Debuchy in April 2013, and Coloccini in November 2012. Six red cards, six different players.

Never stop being you, Newcastle.

12 April 2015

Liverpool v Newcastle 04.13.15

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Newcastle (a) 11.01.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.11.14
2-2 (a) 10.19.13
6-0 Liverpool (a) 04.27.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Blackburn (a); 1-4 Arsenal (a); 1-2 United (h)
Newcastle: 0-1 Sunderland (a); 1-2 Arsenal (h); 0-3 Everton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Henderson, Sterling 6; Henderson 5; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Newcastle: Cisse 11; Perez 5; Colback, Sissoko 3; Ameobi, Gouffran 2; Aarons, Cabella, Coloccini, Janmaat, Kemen, Obertan, S Taylor, Williamson 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Can Toure Lovren Moreno
Henderson Allen
Coutinho Sturridge Sterling

Wednesday added a wrinkle to what had become a surprisingly easy lineup guessing game.

Emre Can is back from suspension, but Skrtel's still banned for one more game and Sakho will be out for the next couple of weeks. So, will Liverpool revert to the 3-4-2-1 or persist with the 4-3-3 we saw at Blackburn?

Liverpool kept a clean sheet at Blackburn and Liverpool won, but neither came easily. Liverpool still struggled to put the ball in the net (or near the net, for that matter), and Liverpool allowed Blackburn far too many decent chances. But while Newcastle is certainly no Arsenal, Liverpool were even worse in the 3-4-2-1 with the makeshift back three, especially with Toure as the sweeper. Which is the main reason why I suspect that Liverpool will stick with the formation we saw midweek. But I write that without much conviction.

Emre Can, a 21-year-old central midfielder, has already played center-back, right wing-back, and right midfield this season. And I think he could do a job at right back in this formation: a more willing, more dangerous, stronger runner than Johnson was against Blackburn, also capable of dealing with Sammy Ameobi when Newcastle counter through pace and/or long balls. Whether Liverpool play four-at-the-back or three-at-the-back, the right (wing)back spot remains the hardest to fill.

There's also another alternative if Liverpool play four-at-the-back. Liverpool have the personnel to deploy a midfield diamond without changing the probable XI. Lucas (or Can, for that matter) at the base, Henderson and Allen as the shuttlers, Coutinho at the apex, Sterling and Sturridge up front.

If it's 3-4-2-1, it's an easier XI to predict. Can, Toure, and Lovren in defense; Moreno at left-wing back; Henderson and Allen or Lucas in midfield; Sterling and Coutinho behind Sturridge. The only question is the usual question: who plays right wing-back? It could be Johnson or Markovic or Ibe or Flanagan, the latter two both back in training after their respective injuries.

Newcastle, currently 13th, have arguably been the worst side in the division over the last two months, with one win, two draws, and five losses since the start of February. Only Hull – Liverpool's next opponent – have been comparably bad. And not only are Newcastle in terrible form, they'll be missing a ton of players as well. Tiote, Steven Taylor, Siem de Jong, Dummett, Haidara, and Aarons are all out injured. Cisse and Coloccini remain suspended. At least Janmaat should be fit after picking up a calf injury against Sunderland, while Jonas should be in line for a second start after missing a full year due to testicular cancer. 21-year-old midfielder, and 21-year old midfielder Abeid should be back from a month-long thigh injury.

Which means tomorrow's XI should look at lot like that which lost at Sunderland, which lost to Arsenal.Something like Krul; R Taylor, Janmaat, Williamson, Colback; Anita, Jonas; Cabella, Sissoko, Ameobi; Perez.

Coloccini's suspension along with the injuries to Dummett, Taylor, and Haidara means that Janmaat will probably be needed at center back, which means Ryan Taylor will be needed at right-back, which means Colback will be the stand-in left back again. Central midfield will be some combination of Anita, Abeid, Jonas, Gouffran, and Sissoko. Newcastle do have options in the front four – Ameobi, Gouffran, Cabella, Sissoko, Obertan, Riviere, and Perez – but none have made a position their own, with Newcastle scoring just two goals in the last five matches.

Newcastle have nothing but pride to play for. They're securely lower mid-table despite all the recent losses, seemingly just out of reach of relegation thanks to points accrued under Pardew. It's hard to see how they'll be up for tomorrow's match when they were unable to get up for a Northeast Derby against their fiercest rivals a week ago. And past seasons have followed a familiar script: Liverpool drop points they've no right to drop against Newcastle in one of the matches, then easily stroll past Newcastle in the other. It was most notable in 2012-13, a 6-0 win at St. James' Park in April after a disappointing 1-1 draw in November, but similar happened last season, Liverpool's last day 2-1 win a lot less close than the scoreline suggests, both teams clearing having nothing to play for.

Of course, little has come that easily for Liverpool this season.

09 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Blackburn

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a), Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

Match data from WhoScored.

(Nota Bene: here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

Yeah, I don't usually do infographics for domestic cup matches. Maybe I just needed to remember what a fairly-in-control performance and a winning result looked like. It's been too long.

Sure, it wasn't great. Liverpool rarely looked like scoring for almost 70 minutes. Liverpool required two marvelous saves from Mignolet, a missed free header from Rhodes, and a you-could-have-never-seen-it-in-real-time handball from Allen ignored to keep them from conceding an opener, all with a makeshift defense playing in a back four for the first time in a long time.

But it was good enough. In cup competition, that's all that matters. With a two-match losing streak and a four-match 'ugh what's happened to Liverpool?' streak, that's all that matters.

Of course, there's obviously still room for improvement at both ends.

Seven of Blackburn's 10 shots came in the Danger Zone: two on-target, two off-target, three blocked. That's a terrifyingly large percentage of higher percentage chances. And that's incredibly dangerous against better attacking sides. In Liverpool's last two losses, they allowed two Danger Zone shots to United (from six in total), and seven (from 16 in total) at Arsenal. In the 16 previous league matches, since the switch to 3-4-2-1, Liverpool allowed just 60 DZ shots from 170 in total – 35.3%.

To be fair, that's how Blackburn were always going to attack, limited to shots from set plays, crosses, and a couple of counter-attacks. But it's still worrying. 39 of the 55 goals Liverpool have conceded (26 of 36 in the league) have come from the Danger Zone, after all. And it's something that Liverpool will have to improve in future matches, especially if Liverpool are going to persist with four-at-the-back, and especially given news that Sakho will be out for the next few weeks due to a hamstring injury (with Skrtel still suspended for one more match).

And, of course, there were also the usual problems with Liverpool's shooting, specifically putting shots on-target. But Liverpool at least improved in one area compared to the reverse fixture (well, two, considering Liverpool actually scored in this match). Blackburn only blocked two of Liverpool's shots. They blocked eight of Liverpool's 22 at Anfield. Considering Blackburn routinely had anywhere from six to eight defenders in the box, Liverpool did decent job in finding space for shots. Sterling and Coutinho, used on the left and right respectively rather than the more-typical opposite, both did well with the ball at their feet: Sterling completing seven of 12 dribbles, Coutinho four of four.

Liverpool have averaged 4.3 blocked shots per match through 31 league matches, against defenses that don't sit as deep or as compact as Blackburn did (as well as 5.0 shots on-target and 5.9 shots off-target per match).

The next step is, you know, getting a few more of those shots on target.

07 April 2015

Liverpool at Blackburn 04.08.15

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 03.08.15
3-2 Liverpool (a) 04.10.12
1-1 (h) 12.26.11
1-3 Blackburn (a) 01.05.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-4 Arsenal (a); 1-2 United (h); 1-0 Swansea (a)
Blackburn: 3-0 Leeds (a); 0-1 Brighton (h); 2-3 Brentford (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Blackburn: 0-0 Liverpool (a); 4-1 Stoke (h); 3-1 Swansea (h); 2-1 Charlton (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 10; Henderson 7; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 5; Balotelli 4; Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Blackburn: Rhodes 17; Gestede 16; Marshall 6; King, C Taylor 4; Baptiste, Cairney, Conway 3; Duffy, Evans, Hanley, Henley, Spearing, Tunnicliffe 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Lovren Sakho
Markovic Henderson Allen Moreno
Sterling Sturridge

A quarterfinal replay in the FA Cup, the last chance for any meaningful reward from this trying season.

We know Rodgers will deploy a full-strength XI, or as full-strength as possible. That's his modus operandi in most cup matches, let alone a cup match that's taken on this importance. But will Liverpool persist with the 3-4-2-1?

That two of Liverpool's three preferred center-backs are suspended (along with Gerrard) makes three-at-the-back a tougher proposition. If Rodgers retains the formation, two from Toure, Lovren, and Johnson will have to start in defense along with Sakho. And that's a frightening proposition. But I'm not sure it's more frightening that Sakho and Lovren or Toure partnered against Blackburn's probable 4-4-2.

If Liverpool do switch to a four-man defense, I hope it'll be with a diamond in midfield and two strikers up front. If Liverpool stick with three at the back, I hope it'll be with two strikers up front.

Put simply, it's become fairly clear that Sturridge needs a strike partner. And right now, given that Balotelli is "injured" and that Borini and Lambert are Borini and Lambert, that strike partner has to be Sterling. Play him higher up the pitch, trying to do things that Suarez did last season – constant movement, running with the ball at his feet, dragging defenders out of position so Sturridge can exploit the space – with Coutinho deeper. Whether that's in a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-4-1-2 seems a less important facet.

Otherwise, the team writes itself. If a 4-4-2 diamond: Manqullo and Moreno as the fullbacks with a midfield of Lucas, Allen, Henderson, and Coutinho. If 3-4-1-2: Markovic and Moreno as the wing-backs with Henderson and Lucas or Allen in midfield. Both Lallana and Balotelli might be available after missing Saturday's match through injury, but I doubt either is in line (or should be in line) to start anyway.

Blackburn lost three in a row before beating 10-man Leeds by three goals on Saturday, their first comprehensive performance since holding Liverpool scoreless a month ago, with all three goals (from Cairney, Rhodes, and Spearing) coming after the dismissal. Teenage goalkeeper David Raya Martin made his debut, and strikers Gestede and Brown both went off with knocks which make them questionable for tomorrow.

Gary Bowyer's side lined up in a 4-5-1 in the reverse fixture, but have almost always played 4-4-2 in recent Championship matches. At home, they're seemingly more likely to go with the more familiar, more potent formation. In which case it'll be something like Steele; Henley, Baptiste, Kilgallon, Olsson; Cairney, Williamson, Evans, Marshall; Rhodes, Gestede.

Jay Spearing's cup-tied; as with Gestede and Brown, Chris Taylor's also questionable; Conway, Hanley, Dunn, and King will most likely miss out through injury. Gestede and Brown's availability will determine whether or not 4-4-2 is feasible; if both aren't ready to start, it'll have to be 4-5-1. Either way, Blackburn's tactics won't differ much. Sit deep, congest the middle of the park, sporadic midfield pressing, and look for Rhodes or Gestede or Rhodes and Gestede on the counter.

It will be interesting to see just how much pressing Blackburn attempt. That's how Swansea, United, and Arsenal have attacked Liverpool over the last few weeks, and that's been one of Liverpool's major failings over the last few weeks (along with Liverpool's much-discussed impotence). Will Blackburn be brave enough to take the game to Liverpool, to potentially leave space in behind if Liverpool can break the press? They are at home and Liverpool are a wounded animal at the moment, but it's somewhat antithetical to how Blackburn usually play, and how Blackburn "succeeded" against Liverpool at Anfield.

But regardless of how Blackburn approach the match, there simply has to be a response from Liverpool tomorrow. The season isn't over yet, there's more than just pride to play for (even if pride, especially after the last two losses, should be enough). But if Liverpool don't respond tomorrow, this season truly will be over. And I'm truly terrified of the fall out that will accompany it.

06 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-4 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

That was payback for February 2014, almost the diametric opposite of Liverpool's 5-1 win over Arsenal 14 months ago. It's the circle of life.

The home side exceptionally potent, mainly in the last ten minutes of the first half rather than the first 20 minutes, but exceptionally potent enough to put the game out of reach by halftime nonetheless. The home side in control early on, especially in creating opportunities – both open play and set play – due to pressing in the opposition half, leading to multiple goals in quick succession. Then, an archetypal counter-attacking second half, soaking up pressure, scoring once more, basically untroubled but also conceding an unnecessary consolation from the penalty spot.

Turnabout's fair play, I guess.

Every Arsenal player who took at least one shot put at least one shot on-target. 16 attempts, 10 on-target, an accuracy of 62.5%. Liverpool has bettered that accuracy just once this season, putting four of six shots on-target at Southampton (and scoring two goals). Meanwhile, Liverpool put just two shots on-target in total on Saturday: Henderson's penalty, and Can's fairly-easily-saved effort in the 57th. Which I guess in an improvement on Liverpool's one shot on-target in the previous match against United. Two matches to define the season. 20 shots in total. Three shots on-target, one of which was from the spot. That profligacy has been a defining characteristic this season, even in the "good matches," and the bill has come due at the worst possible time.

Just like United, just like Swansea, Arsenal unbalanced Liverpool early on by pressing Liverpool in its own half. 11 of Arsenal's 26 interceptions and 10 of Arsenal's 24 successful tackles took place in Liverpool's half. Eight of those 11 interceptions (and five of the successful tackles) came in the first half. Liverpool have been figured out, and Liverpool haven't responded.

Prior to Saturday's match, Liverpool had made all of three defensive errors since the switch to 3-4-2-1. Three. In total. One leading to a shot in both matches against Swansea, and one leading to a goal against Manchester United in December. For comparison, Liverpool made 19 (14 leading to a shot, five leading to a goal) in the 15 matches before the switch. It was an incredible turnaround.

Liverpool doubled that total on Saturday thanks to three more errors: two leading to a shot (from Allen and Toure, in the first five minutes), one leading to a goal (Moreno). Enforced changes in defense had a lot to do with it. Arsenal's pressing had a lot to do with it. Arsenal being very good and very fast and very fluid in attack had a lot to do with it as well.

Liverpool had to make changes at halftime, but it was strange to see both the switch to 4-1-4-1 and Markovic hauled off for Sturridge. Markovic played just 45 minutes – the 45 minutes where Liverpool were second-best and had much less possession – and still led the team in chances created. I'm fairly certain it wouldn't have altered the result, but I can't help but wonder how Liverpool would have done had Sturridge replaced Allen or Lucas instead, shifting Henderson inside and Markovic to wing-back, keeping the three-at-the-back formation (ideally 3-4-1-2, with Sterling partnering Sturridge because it's become fairly clear that Sturridge needs a strike partner).

But that's wholly moot. An unfamiliar defense due to a suspension to Liverpool's stalwart sweeper. A new central midfield pairing, with one of the two players just back from injury. Liverpool's best central midfielder forced into wing-back duty for the first time since New Year's Day because no Liverpool player has been able to make the position his own. Continued errant shooting in front of goal. And an in-form Arsenal strong enough and smart enough to take advantage of those weaknesses and put Liverpool to the sword. It was a recipe for disaster, partly of Liverpool's making, but just as much due to Arsenal's ability.

It was the first time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool has conceded four goals, just the third time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool has lost a league match by three goals, and it was completely deserved.

04 April 2015

Liverpool 1-4 Arsenal

Bellerin 37'
Özil 40'
Alexis 45'
Henderson 76' [pen]
Giroud 90+1'

One team completely outclassed the other. Unfortunately, Liverpool were very much the other.

With Sturridge only fit enough for the bench, Liverpool's lineup looked a lot like the reverse fixture's: Henderson at wing-back, Sterling up top, Markovic and Lucas returning to the starting XI. Unfortunately, Liverpool did not begin today's game as they did in the reverse fixture.

The first ten minutes set the tone, despite Arsenal amazingly failing to score, as Liverpool had more giveaways in their own half than touches in the opposition half. As against Swansea and United, Liverpool were completely overrun in midfield from the start thanks to opposition pressing. It's probably not a good thing that the opposition has figured out Liverpool's set-up in each of the last three matches and Liverpool have still persisted with the same formation.

But Liverpool somehow weathered the early storm, Liverpool somehow took the game to Arsenal, and Liverpool should have taken the lead when Coutinho put Markovic through but his centered pass for a Sterling tap-in was slightly overhit. Liverpool actually looked the better side for more than a few minutes. And then Arsenal thoroughly dismissed that notion in the final 10 minutes of the half.

Bellerin struck first, with Liverpool outnumbered out wide when Özil spread play wide to Ramsey, who set up Bellerin, who cut inside past Moreno far too easily with Allen late to cover, curling a left-footed shot around Mignolet through the gap between Liverpool's defenders. It was the first away goal that Liverpool conceded in 596 minutes, since van Persie's third at Old Trafford on December 14. It would be swiftly followed by two more. Eight minutes to doom the day, eight minutes to kill the campaign.

Next came Özil's pitch-perfect free kick, beating Mignolet on the side where he shouldn't be beaten. Then came Alexis Sanchez, after yet another Liverpool giveaway in midfield as Arsenal pressed Allen and Lucas, taking Ramsey's pass in stride at full speed, dancing around a despairing Toure, then slamming the ball into the net from the top of the box.

Oof. At 0-2, Liverpool have a chance. A very small chance, but a chance nonetheless. At 0-3, it's game over, and the final 45 are a formality.

Regardless, Liverpool had to change things in the second half, Sturridge had to come on. Once again, too little, too late – both mantra and modus operandi this season. But it was still strange to see Liverpool switch to 4-1-4-1.

And unsurprisingly, it was ineffective, with Arsenal happy to soak up Liverpool pressure, Liverpool stifled and smothered outside Arsenal's box, typically narrow, once again unable to stretch the defense with pace or spacing or anything from out wide. Coutinho with no room to manuever, Sturridge isolated without a strike partner. Liverpool got a consolation when Bellerin took down Sterling in the box – and, yes, Bellerin should have been sent off for a second yellow – with Henderson (barely) scoring the spot kick, but few were fooled into thinking a comeback was on the cards. That Emre Can did get a second yellow and Oliver Giroud did score his 10th goal in the last 11 games was a fitting finish for a disheartening day.

Today was the first time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have conceded four goals in a match, the first time since nine-man Liverpool lost 0-4 at White Hart Lane in September 2011. Today was the first time that Liverpool have had players sent off in consecutive matches since 2000-01 (amusingly also involving a Gerrard red card).

And today was the second consecutive match where Liverpool put just one non-penalty shot on-target and had a player sent off. The two matches to either define or save Liverpool's campaign, against the two sides directly ahead of Liverpool in the table, and that's what Liverpool produces.

That's simply not good enough. Liverpool weren't good enough today, Liverpool haven't been good enough this season. Liverpool aren't anywhere near good enough in front of goal, and the better sides can take advantage of that to take advantage of Liverpool's sometimes-good-enough defense.

There's only one thing left to save any face this season, and it starts with Liverpool's next match: the FA Cup replay at Blackburn. With just four days rest; with the team having completely lost form and confidence; and with Skrtel and Can (and Gerrard, I guess) suspended, requiring wholesale changes in defense.

Liverpool have to respond. But does anyone still have faith that Liverpool can respond?

03 April 2015

Liverpool at Arsenal 04.04.15

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 12.21.14
1-2 Arsenal (a; FA Cup) 02.16.14
5-1 Liverpool (h) 02.08.14
0-2 Arsenal (a) 11.02.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (h); 1-0 Swansea (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h)
Arsenal: 2-1 Newcastle (a); 2-0 Monaco (a); 3-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Henderson 5; Coutinho, Lallana, Own Goal, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Arsenal: Giroud, Sanchez 13; Cazorla 7; Ramsey, Welbeck 4; Koscielny, Özil 3; Rosicky, Walcott 2; Bellerin, Chambers, Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Can Toure Sakho
Markovic Henderson Allen Moreno
Sterling Sturridge

It may just be me, but that international break seemed even longer than usual. At least there aren't any more for the rest of the season, small consolation that may be. It's just the league now (and, FA Cup, I guess). Eight games to save the campaign.

There are seven undoubted Liverpool starters tomorrow: Mignolet, Can, Sakho, Moreno, Henderson, Sterling, and Coutinho.

Skrtel will miss the next three matches through suspension, likely replaced by Toure, but Lovren's a possibility as well.

Two more openings are because of injuries to Sturridge and Lallana. Both are questionable, with Sturridge back in training despite worries he'd be out for a month, and Lallana supposedly to return to training today. If I had to guess – and I guess I have to – I suspect Sturridge is the likelier starter, while Lallana will be used as a sub, at best. But there's a very viable concern that Sturridge should be protected, should be left out, due to his non-stop injury issues this season. If it gets worse, Liverpool will lose him for longer, again. But with tomorrow's match at Arsenal vital if Liverpool have any hope of fourth, risks will probably be taken.

Even less certain is who'll play at right wing-back, where we've seen Markovic, Manquillo, Ibe, Sterling, Henderson, Johnson, Can, and Lallana since the switch to 3-4-2-1. Almost all of them are available, and none of them have made the position their own, all with both benefits and flaws.

Sterling? Welp. Most of the discussion about Sterling this week is a can of worms I'd rather seal, burn, and bury than open, but there has been one truth: playing him at wing-back is a waste of his talents. Is he Liverpool's best option there? Maybe. Is he vastly, vastly better – both individually and for the team in general – in a more attacking position? Absolutely.

Otherwise? Markovic? Maybe too attacking, not in great form. Manquillo or Flanagan? Maybe too defensive, with the latter yet to feature this season. Ibe? Too injured. Lallana? Probably too injured, and not especially good there anyway. Johnson? Too Glen Johnson. So, um, Markovic, I guess? Maybe Manquillo. I dunno. Liverpool might want a more defensive option, even if Manquillo hasn't started a league match since December 29. But don't play Sterling there. Play Sterling in attack, whether as a partner for Sturridge, in place of Sturridge, or slightly deeper as an attacking midfielder. But not at wing-back.

Finally, there's a tiny chance that Lucas replaces Allen, but I doubt it. But Henderson's another in the long line that have played wing-back since the switch, so maybe he goes back to the right with Lucas and Allen in the middle.

It is worth noting that Liverpool played well against Arsenal in December, arguably unlucky to come away with just a draw, with an XI of Jones; Toure, Skrtel, Sakho; Henderson, Lucas, Gerrard, Markovic; Coutinho, Lallana; Sterling. Henderson at wingback, Sterling up front, a good performance and a reasonable (if slightly disappointing) result. So there is precedent.

Meanwhile, Arsenal. A side in even better form than Liverpool. Not only are Arsenal winning, but they're winning the close games; five of Arsenal's last 10 matches have ended 2-1, with Arsenal doing just enough to hold onto the victory. Giroud has nine goals in those ten games, his best stretch since joining the club.

Arsenal's last draw came at Liverpool, way back on December 21. Since then? 16 wins, and three losses in all competitions – the losses at Southampton on New Year's Day, at Tottenham on February 7, and against Monaco in the Champions League on February 25. That's it. A 2.54 points-per-game average in the league since that draw at Liverpool. They've all but locked up a Champions League spot for next season and should be odds-on to pass City for second given their respective form.

Arsenal have lost just two league games at home since the beginning of last season: Aston Villa in the first match of 2013-14, and Manchester United in November. But they've still struggled against other top four contenders, as noted by Michael Cox at ESPN: draws against Chelsea, United, and City last season; draws against City and Tottenham this season, as well as that loss to United.

And Brendan Rodgers has never won at Arsenal. 0-2 last season, 2-2 in 2012-13, and 0-1 while with Swansea in 2011-12. Precedent is not on Liverpool's side tomorrow.

Unusually for Arsenal, they've few injury concerns: Welbeck will be a late fitness test after picking up a knock on international duty, while Oxlade-Chamberlain's probably out for another week or so. The XI against Newcastle was Ospina; Chambers, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Ramsey; Sanchez, Cazorla, Welbeck; Giroud, and that's a good bet for tomorrow's XI. As with Liverpool, most of those players have cemented their place over the last few months. Maybe Cazorla drops into midfield, with Özil as the #10, or maybe Welbeck isn't fit, with Özil used in that position. Maybe Mertesacker reclaims his place ahead of Gabriel. Gibbs and Bellerin are alternatives at full-back. But there won't be many changes. There shouldn't be many changes considering how well they've done lately.

It ain't over 'til it's over, but in some ways, tomorrow is Liverpool's last stand. A loss will put Liverpool nine points behind Arsenal, and City (seven points ahead, and at Palace) and United (five points ahead, and facing Villa) are likely to take three points as well. Liverpool, having just ended a 13-match unbeaten streak in the league, will need to finish the final eight games of the campaign with a similar run to have a shot at qualifying for the Champions League next season. And it starts tomorrow.