09 February 2016

Liverpool 1-2 West Ham aet

Antonio 45'
Coutinho 48'
Ogbonna 120+1'

Liverpool lost on a last-minute extra-time goal, Liverpool displayed a handful of the same problems – and those problems are the reason that Liverpool lost – and yet there might still be more positives than negatives. Which is weird.

We know how we got here. Liverpool can't finish chances – even when they create some decent ones – and Liverpool struggle to defend crosses: one from open play, one from a set play, both to the back post. All four of West Ham's goals against Liverpool at Upton Park this season came from crosses to the back post. It's not a coincidence.

But a very young Liverpool side (again) mostly outplayed a much more experienced West Ham side, this time on their own ground. Liverpool started with a midfield of Kevin Stewart, Pedro Chirivella, and Joao Teixeira – a combined 12 appearances prior to today; 22, 18, and 23 years old respectively – and more than matched West Ham's triumvirate of Mark Noble, Cheick Kouyate, and Pedro Obiang. Meanwhile, Liverpool's center-backs were Lucas and Ilori, and both did surprisingly well, Lucas' concession of the free kick for West Ham's winner not withstanding. The returning Coutinho, Sturridge, and Origi all played an hour – the first scoring Liverpool's lone goal from a clever free kick, with Sturridge also coming close on a couple of opportunities.

But if you miss multiple chances and fail to fix defensive deficiencies, you're probably going to lose most matches. As Liverpool is, by now, well aware.

• 15' - Benteke at the back post from a corner, saved
• 29' - Teixeira from 12 yards out, just wide
• 34' - Coutinho from close range, off the post
• 34' - Stewart's rebound from Coutinho's shot, blocked
• 35' - Benteke at the back post from a corner, again, saved
• 56' - Benteke, eight yards out, blocked
• 80' - Benteke's clever free kick, saved
• 90' - Ibe vicious left-footer from distance, saved
• 99' - Benteke from the top of the box, wide
• 99' - Benteke one-on-one with Randolph, saved
• 108' - Sturridge, just outside the box, just over the bar
• 109' - Origi, from a tight left-footed angle, wide of the near post

It's not as if West Ham were without chances of their own. In the first half, O'Brien hit the post, then Payet's free kick was saved onto the post before Mignolet parried Antonio's rebound. In the second half, Mignolet tipped over a no-angle outside-of-the boot shot from Antonio and Valencia mis-hit a header from Payet's wonderful cross, while Ilori could have also been called for a penalty on Valencia.

Liverpool had more and better chances, were dominant for longer spells. But Liverpool's couldn't take advantage. And then Ogbonna struck in added time of extra-time: a perfect free kick, out-jumping Stewart and Flanagan, with the added bonus that it was a Charmin-soft free kick unnecessarily conceded by Lucas but also unnecessarily called.

Over the two matches, Liverpool outshot West Ham 38 to 26, 12 on-target to eight. Benteke had 13 of those shots – more than a third – with six on-target, five off-target, and two blocked. At least two were clear-cut chances. None led to a goal. He remains without a goal in 2016, having played 668 minutes over 11 and a half matches, six as a starter and six as a substitute. That's not good. With Sturridge and Origi returning, and if they stay fit (*knocks on every piece of wood in the house*), it's hard to see him staying in the side.

But, again, despite the disappointment as well as my usual proclivity for pessimism, I can't help but focus on the few positives. The above list of shots were still more and better chances than the side's created in recent matches, in most matches, even if only one led to a goal: Coutinho's clever free kick, hit under West Ham's jumping wall. The players who returned today will make a massive difference to the side. The kids are again alright: Stewart, Chirivella, and Teixeira most notably, but Ilori to a lesser extent, and even Brad Smith, despite having what seemed his worst match as a starter. I'd hope that Liverpool give them all more opportunities weeks to come, even if those opportunities will be harder to come by with Liverpool exiting this competition.

It'd have been nice to see Liverpool advance in another cup competition, but it's not as if they'll really rue missing yet another match this month. The benefit of an FA Cup run pretty much only benefited the above players who rarely play otherwise.

Today certainly wasn't perfect. Today again featured problems we've seen in the past. But it also wasn't last Saturday's late capitulation. It wasn't the attacking ineptitude we saw at Leicester or against Stoke in the second leg League Cup semifinal or any number of other matches. It wasn't the complete and utter failure at West Ham in the league, or Watford, or Newcastle. And it happened with an almost completely different XI than we usually see in league matches.

Maybe it's a sign of just how much the season's beaten me down, but I still can't help be grateful that at least we had positives and at least we can see promise, despite the result.

08 February 2016

Liverpool at West Ham 02.09.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h; FA Cup) 01.30.16
0-2 West Ham (a) 01.02.16
0-3 West Ham (h) 08.29.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.31.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Leicester (a); 0-0 West Ham (h)
West Ham: 0-1 Southampton (a); 2-0 Villa (h); 0-0 Liverpool (a)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 0-0 West Ham (h); 3-0 Exeter (h), 2-2 Exeter (a)
West Ham: 0-0 Liverpool (a); 1-0 Wolves (h)

Goalscorers (FA):
Liverpool: Allen, Ojo, Sinclair, Smith, Teixeira 1
West Ham: Jelavic 1

Referee: Roger East

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Caulker Sakho Smith
Ibe Lucas Can Teixeira
Benteke Sturridge

*Looks at league table*

Yep, cups are all that really matter now. But this cup still matters slightly less than the other two cups, and Liverpool are still going to make a handful of changes. The side's still going to look more like the last meeting than the usual league XI.

At least three of the players who started ten days ago won't be available: Lovren and Allen after minor injuries incurred against Sunderland, and Cameron Brannagan, who's ill.

Meanwhile, Sturridge, Coutinho, and Origi are finally available, but all three won't start. Not after all three have been out for weeks, not with the possibility of extra time. I'm assuming Sturridge is the closest, solely because Sturridge was the only one included on the bench on Saturday.

Maybe none start, with one or two used off the bench if needed. Maybe I just want to see Sturridge back, and if he can play with Benteke. Liverpool don't play 4-4-2 often, but with Allen and Brannagan out, and Henderson in need of game management, Liverpool have few options in midfield: Lucas, Can, Milner, and Kevin Stewart. I doubt Lucas and Stewart – both very much defensively inclined and limited going forward – can play together. Milner's spent more time in attack lately, albeit out of necessity rather than performing better in that position. Neither Can nor Milner have even been included in the squad for a FA Cup match this season.

But, sure, 4-1-2-3 with Lucas or Stewart as the holder; two from Lucas, Can, Milner, Teixeira, and Coutinho ahead of him; two from Ibe, Teixeira, Ojo, Lallana, and Coutinho on the flanks; and Benteke up front is definitely a possibility. Or, in what I guess is the weakest possibility, 4-2-3-1 with, say, Lucas and Stewart behind Ibe, Teixeira, and Ojo, and Benteke up front. Fine. I just really want to see Sturridge back. 4-4-2 seems the best way to achieve that, even if it means conceding ground and possession against what'll likely be a three-man West Ham midfield.

Defense is a bit more straight-forward: Flanagan and Smith at full-back, Caulker at center-back, with either Toure or Sakho partnering him – whoever looks more capable of playing twice in four days. Also, play Danny Ward. Please play Danny Ward.

Meanwhile, West Ham are pretty much in the same position they were in 10 days ago. Four points and three places ahead of Liverpool in the table, and reasonably competent in the two matches in between: a routine 2-0 win over 10-man Villa and a battling, narrow 0-1 loss when unable to break through 10 men at Southampton. They're still missing a few key players – Tomkins, Kouyate, Lanzini, and Sakho are injured; Sam Byram's cup-tied – but nowhere near as many as Liverpool.

And they'll probably make a couple of changes as well, but it'll be still be a reasonably strong side. Let's guess Randolph for Adrian in goal; Ogbonna for either Collins or Reid; Obiang in midfield; and Carroll for Valencia. Something like Randolph; O'Brien, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Obiang, Song, Noble; Moses, Carroll, Payet. Which is very similar to both the side that stifled Liverpool at Anfield in the previous meeting, and that whomped Liverpool 0-2 the last time Liverpool traveled to Upton Park. West Ham's ability to sit deep and smother and counter, Payet's ability to create, Carroll's ability on crosses. It's been a recipe for disaster far too often in recent meetings.

We've reached the point where these matches stop being more trouble than they're worth, partly because of the stage of the competition and partly because of Liverpool's woeful league form. They're opportunities rather than hindrances. An opportunity to continue Liverpool's decent record in cup competition. An opportunity for a few players who otherwise wouldn't start. An opportunity to finally get one over on a West Ham side that's had Liverpool's number far too often of late. An opportunity to put the last ten minutes against Sunderland firmly in the past.

Take advantage of the opportunity.

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (a) Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Ten bad minutes can erase the 20 good ones which came before. As well as the 60 indifferent minutes that came before that.

Another late goal conceded? Yep. Two, in fact – the tenth and eleventh goals that Liverpool have conceded after the 75th minute this season in all competitions (ten in the league, one in the Europa League). Liverpool have won just one of the matches where they've conceded in the last 15 matches: the 5-4 victory at Norwich. In total, Liverpool's record when conceding in the last 15 minutes is 1W-3D-6L.

Another set play goal conceded? Yep. The 14th set play goal that Liverpool have conceded this season, from 45 goals conceded in total. That's nearly a third of Liverpool's goals conceded. To be fair, this was the first direct free kick that Liverpool have conceded from this season, but dead ball situations are dead ball situations, and Liverpool remain bad at them. Those 14 goals have come in 12 matches (two set play goals for both West Brom and Norwich). In total, Liverpool's record in those 12 matches is 2W-6D-4L.

Another goal conceded due to a goalkeeper error? Yep. It's the sixth time that's happened; those goals were 2-1 Sunderland, 1-2 Exeter, 0-1 Watford, 1-1 West Brom, 0-1 Bordeaux, and 1-1 Norwich. Which is probably being generous (at the least, Crystal Palace's winner should count as one, and probably some others I've repressed), but those are the Opta-defined goalkeeper errors. Four from Mignolet, two from Bogdan. Six times it's happened, and Liverpool have won just one of those six matches. Liverpool's record in those six matches is 1W-4D-1L.

Liverpool let a lead slip for the eighth time this season, failing to win despite taking the lead: 1-0 against Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, Sion, Everton, Southampton, West Brom, and Arsenal turns into a draw, six of the eight finished 1-1, with a 2-2 and a 3-3 draw as well. Liverpool also went 1-0 up on Norwich, which turned into 1-3, which turned into 5-4.

To be fair, five of those nine matches happened under the previous manager. But this is the first time this season that Liverpool let a two-goal lead slip. Of course, Liverpool have also rarely had a two-goal lead this season: 11 minutes against Villa, eight minutes at Chelsea, 67 minutes at City, 45 minutes at Southampton in the league cup, 16 against Exeter in the FA Cup, and 12 minutes on Saturday. And that's it. 159 minutes, out of 3570 minutes of football in total this season.

When you so rarely out-score the opposition, and every single match seems to be paper-thin, knife-edge narrow, you can't keep doing stupid things in defense.

I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the "Liverpool have conceded from the first shot on-target in 21 of the 26 games where Liverpool have conceded this season" stat. Sure, there's more than a bit of misfortunate in there, but it's also a condemnation of the entire defense, not just Mignolet, and it's still an unfathomable record. Saturday was a helpful example of how pretty much everyone's at fault: the first goal completely on Mignolet's shoulders, the second a comprehensive breakdown where Liverpool gave the ball away from a throw-in, failed to clear, allowed Sunderland to play across the width of the final third, allowed van Aanholt an easy entry pass to Khazri in the box, before Khazri turned Toure and Defoe turned Sakho.

It'd make up for it if Liverpool were doing even close to similar at the other end of the pitch. Unsurprisingly, they aren't. Liverpool have scored in 28 matches this season. They've scored from the first shot on-target in just nine: 5-4 Norwich, 2-2 Exeter, 6-1 Southampton, 2-1 Bordeaux, 4-1 Manchester City, 1-0 Kazan, 1-1 Sion, 3-2 Villa, 1-0 Bournemouth. Seven wins, two draw. Four in the league (all wins), three in the Europa League (two wins, one draw), once in the League Cup (win), once in the FA Cup (draw). That's, uh, somewhat worse than the opposition's record.

Liverpool are averaging 5.31 shots on-target per match in all competitions. Which is okay! They're fourth-best in the league for total shots on-target. On average, in matches where Liverpool have scored, they're scoring with their 2nd or 3rd shot on-target (2.43, if we're going by the exact average). And in total, Liverpool are averaging 3.98 shots on-target per goal. That's less good. Liverpool simply aren't converting enough, not that this is news to anyone. The best attacking performances have few and far between, and otherwise, Liverpool are infinitely frustrating at worst and mediocre more often than not.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's opponents are averaging 2.6 shots on-target per goal. Liverpool's save percentage in all competitions is 61.54%. The opposition's save percentage in all competitions is 74.88%. In the league, it's 58.8% for Liverpool and 73.7% for Liverpool's opponents. And the league average is 69.4%. Conceding twice from just two shots on-target yesterday, Liverpool have now passed Bournemouth for the worst save percentage in the league. Only Tottenham have faced fewer shots on-target than Liverpool this season.

If it's not one end of the pitch, it's the other. And sometimes, it's both. Again.

Are there any bright spots? Well, football folks who know a lot more about this nonsense than I do think there's a fair bit of flukiness involved in Liverpool's woes. That's something.

Otherwise, at least Roberto Firmino's becoming one hell of a player. A goal and an assist on Saturday, involved in seven of Liverpool's last ten league goals (five goals, two assists), involved in pretty much everything good that Liverpool did against Sunderland. He's scored with his left foot, his right foot, and his head; he's scored from crosses, from distance, from pressing opposition defenders into mistakes; he's assisted with layoffs, cutbacks, and crosses.

By my count, Firmino has played as a striker in nine league matches this season: eight as the lone striker, once in a partnership with Origi/Benteke (1-0 at Leicester). In those matches:

He still can go missing in games (0-2 Leicester, 0-3 Watford), his shot accuracy can still improve (five of those nine matches were without a single shot on-target). But he's finally fully adapting to a new team, new league, and new position, and he's done it without a lot of help from his teammates.

It bodes well for the future. Unfortunately, not enough else does.

06 February 2016

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland

Firmino 59'
Lallana 70'
Johnson 82'
Defoe 89'

The easy joke is that the Liverpool players joined a large portion of the stadium in walking out after 77 minutes. They aren't – or, at least shouldn't be – related events. Sure, it probably didn't help matters, but if you buy a ticket, you've the right to do whatever you want with it. And you don't get to criticize those in the stadium from the comfort of your couch or the local pub.

The players, however, are paid to play for 90 minutes. And they didn't. That's it. That's the alpha, that's the omega. That's Liverpool.

2-0 in the 70th minute, against a team that hadn't scored against Liverpool since March 2014, should have led to a routine win if the stadium completely emptied. If Liverpool's entire back line spontaneously combusted. Under any circumstances. It took 59 minutes, because Liverpool, but Liverpool finally had control of the situation. Liverpool should have maintained control of the situation. Liverpool didn't.

For 59 minutes, par for the course. Liverpool utterly dominate possession – 81.6% in the first half, the highest percentage I've ever seen – but Liverpool struggle to create chances, struggle to take shots, take said shots in poor positions, and put the majority of said shots off-target. But then, two excellent goals: a wonderful cross from Milner finding Firmino open at the back post (aided by van Aanholt's "marking"), then Firmino pressing Jones into a mistake before running on goal and centering for Lallana's tap-in. The assist made both of those goals, during a three-match spell where Liverpool had failed to create those types of chances. There had been 359 minutes of goalless football from Liverpool between Lallana's winner against Norwich and Firmino's opener, but then, all of a sudden, two in ten minutes.

Hurrah! 2-0 up against second-from-bottom Sunderland, who'd barely attempted to play football, who'd taken just four shots in 80 minutes: all off-target, three of four from outside the box. Fine. Cruise control. We'll spend the final 15 minutes talking about the fans' protest – which, again, isn't something I'd be comfortable doing but is completely understandable and more than within their rights – and leave with three much-needed points.

But, no, because Liverpool. A free kick from nothing, an unnecessary foul by Moreno. A wall that failed to block Johnson's free kick, which somehow snuck under Mignolet's hand. Another set play goal conceded. Another concession from the opposition's first shot on-target, for the 21st time in the 26 matches where Liverpool have conceded. 21 of 26. There aren't even words.

Fine. Shit happens. Very much against the run of play, a perfectly-placed shot, a bit of a fluke both with and without context. Just collect yourselves and see the game out. Just do your damned jobs. Ha. Ha ha ha ha. Because it only got worse. Because, somehow, every single Liverpool player lost their minds. Because Liverpool.

Back to all those Rodgers' performances where Liverpool let a lead slip, all those 1-0 wins which somehow turned into 1-1 draws, a failing we'd thought we'd fixed after those first few Klopp draws. Liverpool couldn't collect, Liverpool couldn't clear. Liverpool players stand off Sunderland's, Sunderland's players allowed time and space to pass in front of Liverpool's box, allowed the opportunity to find a way through for the second. Lucas brought on to add an extra defensive presence does nothing. And with a minute left in normal time, van Aanholt in space passes to Khazri, back to goal, allowed to turn. Khazri passes to Defoe in the box, back to goal, allowed to turn. And Defoe summarily and simply turns around Sakho, hammering past a flat-footed Mignolet.

From 2-0 to 2-2 in seven minutes, against the 19th-placed side. Against a side that hadn't scored any sort of goal against Liverpool in almost two years. At Anfield. It'd be unbelievable if it wasn't so very Liverpool. Liverpool have now conceded 10 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches this season – three in Rodgers' 11 matches, seven in Klopp's 28; six at Anfield, four away from home. It's not a protest problem, a fans' problem. It's not a Rodgers problem, it's not a Klopp problem. It's not an Anfield problem. It's a Liverpool problem.

So here we are again. Stuck with an underperforming, disappointing, simply bad football team. There are either breakdowns in attack or breakdowns at the back, and often both. Somehow decent, tepid, and horrific, all within 90 minutes. It seems that Liverpool find a way to throw away points in new, inventive, and soul-killing fashion every single week.

Once again, it's sound and fury signifying nothing. And not even that much sound or fury. A nothing result. A nothing performance. Liverpool have become irrelevant. And Liverpool are very close to becoming just another mid-table side.

05 February 2016

Liverpool v Sunderland 02.06.16

10am ET, live in the US on USA Network

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 01.10.15
0-0 (h) 12.06.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.26.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Leicester (a); 0-0 West Ham (h); 0-1 Stoke aet (h)
Sunderland: 0-1 City (h); 1-1 Bournemouth (h); 1-4 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho, Firmino 5; Milner 3; Henderson, Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Lallana, Origi, Skrtel 1
Sunderland: Defoe 9; Fletcher 4; van Aanholt 3; Borini, Lens, Watmore 2; Johnson, Jones, M’Vila 1

Referee: Robert Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can Milner
Firmino Lallana

To Benteke or not to Benteke? I guess that’s the question.

Liverpool have been held scoreless in the five hours since the five-goal outburst at Norwich. One of those matches – the FA Cup tie against West Ham – saw an almost entirely different XI, but those against both Stoke and Leicester were basically the same as at Norwich: Henderson, Lucas, Can in midfield; Firmino, Milner, and either Lallana or Ibe up front. And it’s been dire. Absolutely dire.

There’s really only one way Liverpool can change things, and that’s starting Liverpool’s only (and rightfully maligned) out-and-out striker. Otherwise, it’s half measures: Ibe or Ojo add pace, but little experience or guile in front of goal; Allen’s fitter than Henderson, Lucas, and maybe even Can, but that’s not a massive help up front; Brad Smith's seemingly in better form than Moreno, but it has been against weaker opposition; Teixiera might add more creativity, but who’s he creating for?

Christian Benteke wasn’t good against West Ham with the kids. Or Exeter, for that matter. He hasn’t been good as a substitute in the aforementioned painful scoreless draws or losses. But is he really worse than the "we tried hard, but that’s about it" that we’ve seen over the last few matches? Maybe. At this point, I’m almost happier with the devil we don’t know rather than the one we know all too well.

Coutinho, Origi, and Sturridge have all returned to training, but will return for the replay against West Ham at the soonest. They truly can make a difference. Until then, it remains a holding pattern.

This team needs goals. That’s the alpha, that’s the omega. Benteke’s certainly no guarantee of goals, but he has to be more likely, even if only slightly, than what we’ve seen lately.

Of course, Benteke started the last time these two sides met. And Benteke scored the winner. But, once again, it was an insipid attacking performance, a narrow 1-0 win. It certainly wasn’t a vote of confidence; after that, Benteke started the next league match, an abominable loss at West Ham, and has only started FA Cup matches since.

And that narrow, just-barely-good-enough performance came against a Sunderland side who’ve conceded the most goals in the division, one more than second-worst Norwich. Which might well be an argument for the same XI which faced Norwich. Sunderland have been especially porous away from home, conceding 34 of their 47 in total, six more than the second-worst side. They’ve allowed three goals away from home three times, four goals three times, and six goals once. They’ve kept just one away clean sheet: at Palace in November.

Of course, always assume Liverpool can buck that sort of trend.

Sunderland are currently 19th, four points and goal difference from safety. Given their position, it’s little surprise that they were one of the busiest in the January transfer window, adding Dame N’Doye and Wahbi Khazri in attack, and Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff in defense. Both Kone and Kirchhoff – the latter as a defensive midfielder – started on Tuesday, both Khazri and N’Doye came off the bench.

Jeremiah Lens, Yann M’Vila, and Younes Kaboul are questionable; Seb Larsson’s still out injured.

Assuming it’ll be a similar line-up as against Manchester City – where Sunderland played well but lost 0-1 to an early Agüero goal, with City happy to just sit back and stifle after taking the lead – the XI should be Mannone; Jones, Kone, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Kirchhoff; Khazri, M’Vila, Cattermole, Borini; Defoe. We’ll assume Lens, who needed to be replaced at halftime on Tuesday, and Kaboul, out for the last six weeks, aren’t available, but M’Vila will be. If he’s not, Sunderland could play Rodwell, Adam Johnson, or Ola Toivonen in midfield, or switch formations: to either five at the back or 4-4-2.

With Liverpool held scoreless against both Stoke and West Ham, Anfield hasn’t seen a goal since the FA Cup replay against Exeter on January 20th, and hasn’t seen a league goal since Joe Allen’s 90th-minute equalizer against Arsenal on January 13th.

No offense to Sunderland (okay, only slight offense, and all towards Sam Allardyce), but tomorrow is all about what Liverpool do. It’s all about goals. Liverpool simply have to score more of them. Any of them.

03 February 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Leicester

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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.)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Liverpool are the better side. But Liverpool can’t score. Then Liverpool concede. Then Liverpool lose.

Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties ‘cause it's cold out there today. Yep, it was Groundhog Day. Again.

An inability to break through a deep, well-organized defense, poor chances created, poor shot location, poor shot accuracy. And then, a concession, a tremendously struck shot, the kind Liverpool rarely recreate, and then a defensive mix-up coupled with some unlucky caroms.

Just two of 14 Liverpool shots on-target, 14.3% accuracy: Lovren’s lofted and tame set play header in the 34th minute, and Can’s no-angle wide-box shot in the 69th. Nine of 14 shots from outside the box, with none on-target. Just two Danger Zone shots: the aforementioned Lovren header and Can’s deflected effort (from one of Liverpool’s best moves of the match) in the 48th. Zero clear-cut chances created, for the fourth time in Klopp’s 16 league matches.

It’s hard to score when your opportunities to score are that bad. Unless you’re Jamie Vardy, I guess. I also wouldn’t recommend Emre Can taking more than a third of your total shots, but hey, someone's got to do it.

It’s almost as if Liverpool are using up their goals in bursts. Score six at Southampton in the League Cup, then held scoreless in the next two matches. Score five at Norwich, held scoreless in the next three matches. Let’s try spacing them out a bit more judiciously, guys.

Liverpool haven’t scored a goal in the last five hours – five. hours. – of football. 120 minutes against Stoke, 90 against West Ham and Leicester.

Liverpool have now been held scoreless in nine of Klopp’s 27 matches – exactly one-third. It happened just twice in Rodgers’ 11 matches to start the campaign. Liverpool’s goals-per-game is higher under the new manager (1.44 v 1.0 in all competitions), but the variation is greater. It seemed as if Liverpool scored just once in every one of Rodgers’ matches; under Klopp, it’s more often two or three or four or five or six, or it’s zero. And zero is happening far too often.

Leicester also held Liverpool to its lowest xG since Klopp became manager: 0.5, tied for worst with the 1-0 win at Stoke on opening day. Liverpool took just eight shots that day, and scored from one of those one-in-a-hundred chances. You’ve got to work really hard at being really insipid to take 14 shots but only total 0.5 expected goals.

To be slightly fairer to Liverpool, Leicester haven't conceded a league goal at home since Chelsea on December 14. 0-0 Manchester City, 0-0 Bournemouth, 3-0 Stoke, and now 2-0 Liverpool. Leicester have conceded 13 in 12 home games this season – more than six other sides – but ten of those 13 came in the first four home matches of the campaign, including five in a 2-5 loss to Arsenal. Since then? Three goals in eight games: five clean sheets, and one each from Watford, United, and Chelsea.

Leicester are very, very good defensively, especially at home. They’re built off the deep defense, and then countering quickly and countering long to Mahrez and Vardy. Leicester know what Leicester does well, so that’s what Leicester does, and that’s all that Leicester does. And Leicester leads the league. We still don't know what Liverpool does well, and so Liverpool still sits firmly mid-table. Except disappointing us. They're quite good at that.

Unlike the last time these sides met, Liverpool’s 4-4-1-1 couldn’t match Leicester’s. Leicester – who have no injuries to key players, had 10 days since their last match, and played three fewer matches in January than Liverpool – out-worked, out-thought, and out-finished Liverpool. But that’s also the difference between a 4-4-1-1 with Origi/Benteke up front, Firmino in the hole, and Lallana and Coutinho on the flanks versus Firmino “up front,” Lallana in the hole, and Milner and Henderson “on the flanks.” The front six was four central midfielders, a #10 much better without the ball than with it, and an inconsistent false nine who’s still very much adapting to this league and style of play.

Incidentally, as in the last meeting, Liverpool weren’t terrible in defense. They were certainly better last time, but Leicester’s attack was very much worse last time. And unlike Liverpool's front six, Liverpool's back five was the same as in the last meeting. Consistency matters. Liverpool allowed just three shots inside the box. Liverpool kept Leicester at bay for an hour, although they had two very good saves from Mignolet to thank for that. Between the save on Mahrez’s dipping effort in the 35th and Vardy’s goal in the 60th, Leicester took just one shot: Okazaki from distance, well over the goal.

The last time Liverpool saved the first shot on-target – this time, the first four shots on-target – but still conceded was the 1-1 draw against Southampton on October 25. More than three months ago. Since, the 0-0 v West Ham in the FA Cup, 1-0 at Stoke in the League Cup, 3-0 v Exeter in the FA Cup, 1-0 v Sunderland, 1-0 v Leicester, and 1-0 v Bournemouth in the League Cup. Of course, in all the other matches, Liverpool either didn’t allow a single shot on-target (1-0 Swansea, 0-0 Sion, and 1-0 Kazan) or conceded from the opposition’s first shot on-target (the other 15!!! matches).

But then, Mahrez’s hopeful punt forward when Liverpool yet again lost possession in the final third, Vardy in behind Liverpool’s dozy high line, and a goal from absolutely nothing and nowhere, almost certainly the Premier League goal of the season.

It’s seemingly not fair. But that’s the difference an actual out-and-out in-form striker makes. So it was little surprise when, 11 minutes later, Liverpool’s defense reverted to Keystone Kops: Sakho misjudging and mis-hitting what should have been an easily cleared header, Okazaki’s shot taking a fortunate deflection off of Moreno, Lovren caught on the back-foot and wholly unaware, the deflection perfectly placed for a Vardy tap-in. Two Vardy shots, two Vardy goals.

So very Liverpool. So very Groundhog Day.

But with continuing injuries, an unbalanced squad, and woeful form from the few potential replacements (looking at you, Christian and Jordon and then Christian again), there’s seemingly little that the manager can do at the moment. The January transfer window could, and probably should, have helped, but I understand Klopp not wanting to overpay and also wanting to know exactly what he has and what he needs before the massive overhaul that has to be coming. I honestly still believe – but there's a good chance I'm wrong – that can be a much different, much better side with just one or two from Sturridge, Ings, Coutinho, and Origi available.

As painful as it is, it feels as if we’ve just got to grin and bear it for the next few months. And hope that Liverpool can replicate one of those few-and-far-between goal bursts in the now even more important cup matches.

01 February 2016

Liverpool at Leicester 02.02.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.15
2-2 (h) 01.01.15
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.02.14
0-0 (a) 03.28.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 West Ham (h); 0-1 Stoke aet (h); 5-4 Norwich (a)
Leicester: 3-0 Stoke (h); 0-2 Tottenham (h); 1-1 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho, Firmino 5; Milner 3; Henderson, Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Lallana, Origi, Skrtel 1
Leicester: Vardy 16; Mahrez 13; Okazaki 4; Ulloa 2; Albrighton, Drinkwater, Dyer, Huth, Kante, Schlupp, Wasilewski 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Lucas Can
Milner Firmino Lallana

On Boxing Day, Liverpool almost wholly negated Leicester, and eventually eked out a 1-0 victory, mainly by matching Leicester’s formation 4-4-1-1 v 4-4-1-1 and matching Leicester’s notorious work-rate. But Liverpool are still missing two players crucial to that formation: Coutinho and Origi, even though Benteke replaced the latter after 37 minute due to – what else? – a hamstring injury.

Klopp says that Coutinho, Origi, Skrtel, and (even) Sturridge are close to returning, likely to join training by the end of the week, but none will be available tomorrow. Which makes it harder to repeat the tactics which led to all three points five weeks ago.

Liverpool can get close – Benteke up front, either Milner or Ibe on the flank – but the "usual" XI seems more likely, basically the same XI we saw against both Stoke and Norwich. Liverpool’s very, very different results in those two matches demonstrates the inconsistency in this side and in this squad, as well as the strength of their respective opponents. Of course, Leicester is even better, both in defense and attack, than either Stoke or Norwich.

Maybe Henderson’s out with his recurring foot injury; either Milner drops into midfield, Allen keeps his place, or Liverpool change to the above 4-4-1-1 formation. Maybe Lovren’s still not ready to start two matches in three days after recently returning, and Toure (or Caulker) start instead. Otherwise, Liverpool still don’t have a ton of options, but this is nothing new.

As usual, Liverpool will succeed by running a lot and not doing anything stupid in defense – as they did when these sides last met, as they’ve done against Stoke, Sunderland, and Swansea in recent weeks. Because matches like 5-4 at Norwich, or even 3-3 against Arsenal, have been much more the exception rather than the rule.

And as when these sides met on Boxing Day, Leicester are still the league leaders. They’re 13 points ahead of Liverpool, a gap that’s decreased by just a single point since these sides last season. They’ve scored 12 more goals than Liverpool, they’ve conceded six fewer.

Unlike when these sides last met, Leicester have had 10 days since their last match; I doubt I need remain that Liverpool have had just three. Unlike last time, both Vardy and Mahrez will be rested and fully fit. Vardy and Mahrez have the same amount of league goals scored as every Liverpool player combined, a solitary own goal at Manchester City the only difference between Liverpool’s 30 and Vardy and Mahrez’s 29.

Which is good news for Leicester, both in the short- and medium-term. Because the next three matches – against Liverpool, then at both City and Arsenal – will go a long way in determining their final place. Win all three, and Leicester have almost certainly secured a top four spot and will remain in pole position for the title. Drop points, in any or in all, and questions begin to arise.

As has become usual, and is a big reason for Leicester’s still-shocking form, they’ve no injuries to worry about. Schlepp’s probably still out, but also probably wouldn’t play anyway, and that’s it. Ranieri’s had a full-strength squad to choose from almost all season. So it’s likely that tomorrow’s XI will be quite familiar: Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Ruth, Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Kante, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy. It's the same XI that Liverpool faced little more than a month ago.

Leicester have added winger Demarai Grey and midfielder Daniel Amartey during the transfer window, and are still looking to add a striker (whether Remy or Ahmed Musa or Dwight Gayle), but the former will probably be limited to substitute appearances at most and the latter wouldn’t be signed in time to feature tomorrow.

Maybe Grey starts in place of Albrighton, maybe Ulloa in place of Okazaki, but that’s it. Leicester is Leicester, have been Leicester all season. They will work as hard as any side in the league, deny space in their half, and counter-attack at pace, with Vardy and Mahrez perpetually dangerous. They know what they do and they’re very good at what they do. And they’ve lost just twice in 23 league matches.

But one of those losses was against Liverpool. It was at Liverpool. Liverpool had a couple more players available, Leicester were more fatigued. It was one of Liverpool’s best defensive performances of the season, it was one of Leicester’s worst attacking performances of the season, both almost equally out of character. Tomorrow’s match will be even more difficult, for exactly those reasons.

Still, Liverpool have done it before, and Liverpool have the potential to do it again.

30 January 2016

Liverpool 0-0 West Ham

That could have been worse, that should have been better. But that’s Liverpool.

At least Liverpool didn’t do anything stupid. At least Liverpool didn’t concede against the run of play. At least Liverpool didn’t concede from a set play. At least Liverpool didn't concede from the first, and only, shot on-target that Liverpool faced. Those things have happened all too often, lately and over the last 18 months, even when Liverpool have been “the better side.”

So it could have been worse.

And Liverpool were the better side today, despite basically the same side as against Exeter ten days ago. Three new faces in defense – Clyne and Lovren returned from injury, Caulker made his full debut – but otherwise, eight of the same XI that beat Exeter 3-0 at Anfield. West Ham started seven first-team regulars: Payet, Valencia, Song, Kouyate, Tomkins, Reid, and Cresswell; every player, even the back-up keeper, had made at least three Premier League starts this season.

Liverpool controlled the game, and Liverpool controlled the midfield, whether facing West Ham's 4-3-3 or West Ham's 4-4-2. Liverpool pressed quite well. Liverpool were – despite a couple of set play scares, because of course – reasonably secure at the back.

Liverpool rarely looked like scoring.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Liverpool had some good chances to score, and, unsurprisingly, a couple were either mis-hit or wildly off-target. But Liverpool also put six good shots on goal: Brannagan’s wonderful effort from distance, two wide-box near-post shots by Teixeira, and three in quick succession in the 75th: Benteke through on goal but saved, Allen’s rebound saved, Benteke’s rebound saved. All except Brannagan’s could have been better taken, but they weren’t badly taken either.

That said, Benteke disappointed again, failing to seize another chance to find form. Ibe disappointed, his throughball to Benteke in the 75th the only moment of note before Ojo replaced him in the 80th. Liverpool created enough to win, but Liverpool still need to create even more than that to win.

So it should have been better.

Meanwhile, West Ham’s chances were limited to a couple of shots from distance and a set play scramble in the 50th minute, where Caulker could have been penalized for handball and Reid’s point-blank shot was saved and smuggled away. And that’s about it.

When Liverpool save the first shot on-target, Liverpool keep a clean sheet: as against Exeter (h), Stoke (a), Sunderland, Leicester, etc. It’s when they don’t that Liverpool have problems.

It wasn’t as strong a West Ham side as those Liverpool lost to in the league, but it was an even weaker Liverpool side. And this was the best that Liverpool have played against West Ham this season, by some distance.

Liverpool have now played 270 minutes against West Ham this season. They’ve taken 54 shots. They’ve put just nine on-target – six of them today – for just 16.7% accuracy. They’ve yet to score.

That’s bad. And it’s not for the first time, with Liverpool failing to score in seven of the last 15 matches. At least we know where Liverpool most need to improve. Not that we didn’t already.

As said after the first match against Exeter, Liverpool really don’t need any more matches, the fixture list already far too full. We’ll do this one again on February 9th, sandwiched between league matches against Sunderland and at Aston Villa. Liverpool will have at least seven matches in February, eight if Liverpool win the replay. Either seven or eight in 28 days. Liverpool haven’t had a week between games since 2015, with six whole days between the December 20 loss at Watford and December 26 win over Leicester.

But if it’s this XI again, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Rested players often play better than tired ones, and you can see the progression these players have made: from the first match at Exeter, then at home against Exeter, and now against a reasonably strong West Ham. Brannagan, Teixeira, Smith, and Stewart were some of Liverpool’s best today, along with Clyne and Allen. This has been valuable experience for them, and another match – this time at Upton Park – should be as well.

Still, I’d rather a reasonably competent Liverpool side which had multiple chances to finish the job today had actually done so.