28 August 2015

Liverpool v West Ham 08.29.15

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.31.15
1-3 West Ham (a) 09.20.14
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.06.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.07.13

Last matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Bournemouth; 1-0 Stoke (a)
West Ham: 3-4 Bournemouth (h); 1-2 Leicester (h); 2-0 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Coutinho 1
West Ham: Kouyate 2; Maiga, Noble, Payet, Zarate 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Lucas
Milner Can
Firmino Benteke Coutinho

The only question, at least in regards to the Liverpool XI, seems whether Henderson's available.

If not, same as against Arsenal. If he is, does he replace Lucas or Can? The answer's probably "Lucas" but Can is a more like-for-like swap, the Henderson-Milner-Can midfield not showing the same balance, the same division of responsibilities we saw to better effect against Arsenal.

But chances are that Henderson's protected, on the bench at best because Liverpool do not need to him to further aggravate that foot injury and because Liverpool were fairly decent on Monday, at least in midfield and defense. And otherwise, keep on keeping on: a continued resilience in defense. Increased coordination in both midfield and attack, especially the already promising link between Benteke and Coutinho. Liverpool, at home against a West Ham side coming off of losses to Leicester and Bournemouth, should see a lot more of the ball, and have more chances to get its still-stumbling attack started.

And they'll be against a West Ham side in a bit of disarray. Both Adrian and Carl Jenkinson are suspended for red cards incurred in the last two matches. Three strikers – Zarate, Valencia, and Carroll – are out injured, while Sakho's questionable but likely to play if at all possible. Kevin Nolan, who started last Saturday, was released yesterday. There has been a lot of turnover under new manager Slaven Bilic, a sea change from the often-annoying Allardyce Era.

Which means the XI will look something like Randolph; Reid, Tomkins, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Kouyate, Obiang, Noble; Payet, Sakho, Jarvis. There are questions at right-back – Tomkins and Reid, or whoever else they deploy there, are not right-backs; questions at striker; and questions on the left – Jarvis was out of favor both last season and the start of this, although new signing Lanzani could also make his first league start.

West Ham are seriously lacking in options up front. They're trying to sign either Matri – made available on loan because of Balotelli's arrival at AC Milan – and/or Adebayor, but neither will be done in time for Saturday's match. If Sakho's absent, West Ham will have to start Maïga – who's been rumored to be sold all summer – up front, the only available first-team striker.

Nonetheless, Liverpool – despite the strong defensive start – can still find ways to concede against the most impotent of attacks, and fail to score against the most makeshift of defenses. Because Liverpool. I'm sure you remember a "confident" Liverpool conceding from both a set play and a counter-attack within the first ten minutes when these sides met a year ago. Payet has had an impressive start to the season, and that's a surprisingly strong and physical West Ham midfield that will challenge whomever Liverpool put out.

Liverpool have taken 10 points from its first four games just five times in the Premier League era: 2013-14, 2008-09, 2007-08, 1998-99, and 1994-95. I suspect you remember the last two times that happened, with Liverpool finishing second and challenging for the league to the bitter end. They haven't kept four consecutive league clean sheets since January-February 2011, when Dalglish took over as caretaker manager after Hodgson finally was fired.

At the same time, Liverpool haven't lost to West Ham at Anfield since 1963. West Ham are struggling to come to terms with a new manager, new signings, and new style, impressive against Arsenal on opening day, but fairly terrible in the two matches since, having also been knocked out of the Europa League by last season's fourth-best Romanian side.

With an international break imminent and Manchester United away to come after it, at home, against a side that's lost two consecutive matches while conceding six goals in the process, this is the match where Liverpool need to start to put things together. The first three matches have been acceptable, especially given what occurred last season, but now Liverpool needs to take the next step.

25 August 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: 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.)

I'm still not sure how a match with 34 shots – 19 for Arsenal, 15 for Liverpool – finished scoreless. It was the first time Liverpool against Arsenal has finished scoreless since the 1998-1999 season. It was only the third clean sheet Liverpool's kept against Arsenal – at either ground, in any competition – since 2001. Three clean sheets in 38 matches. So, yeah, it was a bit unbelievable.

Sure, Liverpool were two amazing Cech saves, the crossbar, and/or Michael Oliver swallowing his whistle on two potential penalties away from a third consecutive 1-0 win, equalling the start to the memorable 2013-14 campaign. Or, Liverpool were another linesman's incorrect decision, the goal post, and five Mignolet saves away from a 0-1 loss, at best. Liverpool could have won it in the first half, could have lost it in the second.

Contentious decisions and wonderful saves aside, each team "won" a half. A draw certainly feels like the fair result, although I'm certain that Liverpool fans are much happier with a point apiece than Arsenal's are.



That is a dramatic disparity in shots. And it wasn't unexpected from Arsenal in the second half; we've seen that settled, dangerous attack put multiple sides to the sword, including the same front six in this fixture last season. But we've not seen that first half from Liverpool yet this season.

It wasn't as if Liverpool were firing from all angles and from distance. 11 of Liverpool's 15 shots – 10 of 11 in the first half – came from inside the box. 73.3%. That percentage was 50% at Stoke (including, admittedly, the match winner) and 44.4% against Bournemouth. Liverpool took a higher percentage of shots inside the box just twice last season: the 2-0 wins at Villa and against Newcastle, two sides who are very different than Arsenal.

Despite failing to score, it was arguably a better shooting performance than any of Liverpool's three previous matches at the Emirates under Rodgers: more shots, more shots inside the box, a higher shot accuracy. And if not for Petr Cech, it could easily have led to a Liverpool win at the Emirates for the first time in four seasons.

Little by little, Liverpool's revamped attack is finding its form.

That Liverpool were able to create that many shots – and surprisingly decent shots – with so little possession is also encouraging, a sign that the counter-attack which blitzed the league in 2013-14 but wholly disappeared in 2014-15 might be close to returning. It'll almost certainly never be as potent as it was with Luis Suarez, but it's a crucial option to have, and frequently Liverpool's best option for breaking down the opposition. Liverpool have never had less possession in a league match under Rodgers than they did yesterday. The previous low? 38.2% in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal in 2012-13. The more things change...

That Liverpool did it with such a young side is even more encouraging. The average age of the starting XI was 25.3; Skrtel was the only player older than 30; Skrtel, Milner, and Lucas the only players 28 or older; Coutinho, Firmino, Can, and Gomez all 23 or younger. Seven of Liverpool's 11 starters joined the club this summer or last summer. Liverpool's three subs were 19, 18, and 23 respectively.

Special mention need be made for the youngest of Liverpool's youngsters. While Arsenal primarily attacked down Liverpool's right, Joe "Event Horizon" Gomez still managed to lead Liverpool in both tackles and interceptions.



In Liverpool's first match, Gomez shied away from possession, attempting and completing vastly fewer passes than the other three defenders. He's led Liverpool's defense in passes attempted and completed in the last two matches, increasingly confident in possession as he acclimatizes with his new teammates. And, yes, it's still worth noting that he's playing out of position, a position he hadn't played until coming to Liverpool.

Joe Gomez has also been very, very good for Dejan Lovren. A much more defensive fullback than Moreno, Glen Johnson, or anyone else used on the left last season, he offers Lovren more protection, especially since he's much more inclined to tuck inside as he's right-footed. It's a lot like what Jon Flanagan did on that flank during the 2013-14 season. And yes, it's put more pressure on Liverpool's attackers, without the added width from fullback in the opposition half, but the positives in defense have very much outweighed the negatives in attack so far.

After last season's individual errors and general ineptitude, Liverpool needed its fullbacks to defend. Liverpool's very much gotten that through the first three matches, from both Gomez and Clyne, and that's been the main reason why Skrtel and Lovren look a completely different pairing.

From Liverpool's youngest player to one of Liverpool's few veterans. Lucas Leiva, playing for the first time this season, has rightfully come in for a fair amount of praise this morning, one of Liverpool's man of the match candidates along with Gomez, Mignolet, and Coutinho. This, from Zonal Marking, is an unsurprisingly thorough review of his performance.

Curmudgeon that I am and as much as I enjoy Lucas, his performance wasn't anywhere near the end all, be all. That Lucas only attempted 27 passes, completed just 18, helps demonstrate why he's not an option every match. Yesterday was probably the least he's been involved in possession as a starter since joining Liverpool, and I suspect it's as much a sign of Lucas' decline in certain regards as Liverpool's tactics.

I reckon this graphic sums up Lucas' performance well:



Yeah, that's a lot of passes from Mesut Özil. Not many of them go to a dangerous position, with just one key pass that wasn't a corner or a cross, a layoff to Cazorla for a very long-range and very off-target shot. Lucas also pressed surprisingly well, with three of his six successful tackles and two of his four interceptions in Arsenal's half.

Liverpool's midfield can be better. And Liverpool often bypassed midfield, a function of yesterday's arguably necessary match strategy. But Liverpool's midfield, with Can and Milner running and pressing and getting forward and Lucas sitting and splitting the center-backs, was better balanced than in the two previous matches.

Once again, it was a narrow Liverpool match that could have gone very differently. A different decision from different linesmen in consecutive weeks means that Liverpool potentially have a single point rather than four from the last two games. That's how tenuous this revolution has been.

But Liverpool on a nearly level footing with Arsenal, at the Emirates Stadium, is definitive progress. A third consecutive clean sheet, by hook or by crook – something which didn't happen in the league until March last season – is definitive progress. That the two away clean sheets came against sides that Liverpool conceded 10 (!!!) goals against last season – Liverpool's worst two losses of the season – is clearly definitive progress.

Liverpool are clearly improving, little by little. Liverpool have bettered the result from last season for the third consecutive match. Liverpool did it against an opponent who has historically given them fits, matching one of the preseason favorites for the title on their own ground.

Liverpool just need to keep this progression going.

23 August 2015

Liverpool at Arsenal 08.24.15

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-4 Arsenal (a) 04.04.15
2-2 (h) 12.21.14
1-2 Arsenal (a; FA Cup) 02.16.14
5-1 Liverpool (h) 02.08.14

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Bournemouth; 1-0 Stoke (a)
Arsenal: 2-1 Palace (a); 0-2 West Ham (h); 1-0 Chelsea (n)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Coutinho 1
Arsenal: Giroud 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Can
Milner Coutinho
Ibe Benteke Lallana

It appears that Jordan Henderson will miss out, absent from training this week due to his foot injury. Henderson will be a major loss, but it's not as if Liverpool are without options.

Lucas *might* still exist, and could play as the deepest midfielder behind Can and Milner, but I suspect it'll be a straight swap, Can for Henderson, exactly what happened when Henderson had to go off against Bournemouth. Milner and Coutinho ahead of the deeper midfielder, Lallana and Ibe flanking Benteke.

Ideally, Henderson's fit and both Can and Firmino still come into the lineup, with both Lallana and Ibe making way, the 4-3-3 we're expecting to see when Liverpool are in full flow. Maybe Lallana's dropped for Firmino regardless: a more threatening attacker, a better presser when Arsenal's in possession. Maybe Liverpool, lacking in attack in the first two matches, revert to the diamond with Ings or Firmino partnering Benteke, and Coutinho, Can, Milner, and Lucas in midfield. But, again, I doubt it. Conservatism will remain Liverpool's modus operandi, at least for a little while longer.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are similarly predictable. It'll be 4-2-3-1. It'll almost certainly be Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Cazorla; Ramsey, Özil, Sanchez; Giroud. They're a settled side, quick, balanced, versatile, and on their day, irresistible in attack, as they were the last time they faced Liverpool. And that XI is almost the exact team which beat Liverpool 4-1 last April, with Cech for Ospina the only difference.

Liverpool that day were Mignolet; Can, Toure, Sakho; Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Moreno; Coutinho, Markovic; Sterling. At most, Liverpool will start four of those 11 players, more likely three, in a completely different formation. What a difference a little less than five months makes.

Rodgers spoke this week about "controlling the space" at the Emirates. And, unsurprisingly, it's led to jokes and jibes because Rodgers is such an easy target, but he's got a point. Liverpool's pressing, Liverpool's ability to deny Alexis, Özil, and Cazorla time and space, will be crucial. It's a bit simplistic, but when Liverpool won 5-1 at Anfield they pressed Arsenal into mistakes and ruthlessly exploited them on set plays and counter-attackers. When Arsenal won 4-1 at the Emirates in the last meeting, they pressed Liverpool into mistakes, and ruthlessly exploited them in the 10 minutes before halftime. Both home sides did well to deny space in their own half in those victories. Both home sides started as they meant to continue and coasted in the second half. Both home sides finished their chances when presented, when the opposition couldn't.

And similar happened in Arsenal's lone loss this season, disjointed and denied space in attack, conceding from a set play and a counter starting from an Arsenal error.

Easier said than done, but Liverpool will need to do that tomorrow, will need to be nearly perfect to come away with all three points tomorrow, to continue its winning streak into the teeth of this early fixture run, and all at an opponent's ground where they've won just once – in 2011-12, of all seasons – in the last 15 years.

18 August 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Bournemouth

Previous Match Infographics: 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.)

Baby steps.

Liverpool won, again. Liverpool took 18 shots compared to last week's eight at Stoke, seven Danger Zone shots (including the goal) to last week's two. Had Coutinho (44'), Milner (55'), or Benteke (90') buried glorious chances, the result would have been much more emphatic. Liverpool displayed better interplay between the attackers, although, to be honest, there was nowhere to go but up.

Of course, just two of those 18 shots were on-target, both from Benteke. Liverpool's goal shouldn't have counted, Coutinho clearly offside and going for the ball. Liverpool were lucky that Bournemouth had a 5th-minute goal ruled out from – surprise! – a corner, although it seemed a pretty clear foul with Elphick climbing on Lovren.

Obviously there's still a fair bit of work to be done.

Christian Benteke Shots: 2 on-target [GOAL], 1 off-target
Other Liverpool Shots: 0 on-target, 10 off-target, 5 blocked.

Yikes.

Liverpool's 11.1% shot accuracy would have been third-worst last season, behind the 1-3 loss at Palace and 0-1 loss to Aston Villa. And, as I'm sure you remember, Liverpool had more than a few horrific shooting performances that season.

Coutinho was clearly the most profligate, with three off-target shots (including the one clear-cut chance) and five blocked shots, all five of the shots Liverpool had blocked. Since joining Liverpool, Coutinho's taken eight or more shots just three other times: 0-0 v West Brom last season, 4-1 v West Ham and 4-0 v Fulham in 2013-14. Bournemouth clearly wanted to deny the little magician space in the final third, and, for the most part, succeeding in doing so.

That he found the space to at least attempt eight shots is kind of a good thing, even if there's more than a whiff of "if not Suarez than no one" to it, and Coutinho is not Luis Suarez. That all four of Benteke's key passes – the most created by a single player in yesterday's match – went to Coutinho is a good thing, further proof that both are nearing the same page. But Liverpool still need its best and most important player to do more when in those positions.

Liverpool's fullbacks were very good yesterday, especially Nat King Clyne (the effect he's had on the defense is obviously), and Liverpool's defense did what it had to do, but for the most part, Liverpool can thank its marquee £32.5m summer signing for all three points yesterday.




We saw Benteke receive the ball higher up the pitch, in more dangerous positions. We saw more variance between long and short passes, a greater versatility in Liverpool's attacking style. Sure, some of this has to do with the difference in opposition and in venue, but it also seems a positive development.

All told, Liverpool were better than last week, although that should be the case in the second match compared to the first, against Bournemouth rather than at Stoke. And that was with continuing – albeit less – disconnect in midfield, and fairly uninspiring performances from both Lallana and Ibe.

Liverpool have won their first two league matches, something that's happened just four times since 2000, also doing so in 2002-03, 2008-09, and 2013-14. And I'm sure you remember that the latter two were Liverpool's two best seasons in recent memory. Liverpool have kept two clean sheets in the process; Liverpool didn't have two clean sheets in the league until October 25 last season. Liverpool have taken five more points than in last season's comparable fixtures, which saw that humiliating loss at Stoke and a home draw against the promoted Championship winners (2-2 v Leicester).

That Liverpool have started slowly, with a bunch of new players and something of a new system, is little surprise. That Liverpool have started slowly yet still won both matches can't be anything other than a positive.

So yes, there's an awful lot left to be desired. There's an awful long way to go. And it's going to get an awful lot harder in the next few weeks. But, despite some poor play and performances, some seemingly poor line-up and formation decisions, this is still about as good as we could have reasonably expected.

16 August 2015

Liverpool v Bournemouth 08.17.15

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 12.17.14
2-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.25.14
4-1 Liverrpol (h; FA Cup) 01.30.68
0-0 (a; FA Cup) 01.27.68

Last match:
Liverpool: 1-0 Stoke (a)
Bournemouth: 0-1 Villa (h)

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Can
Henderson Milner
Ibe Benteke Coutinho

There won't be many, if any, changes from last Sunday's XI. Rodgers preached and practiced continuity during preseason, and I expect that'll remain the case for the time being.

That said, there should be at least one change based on Liverpool's performance a week ago. And there are two options for that one change. Either start with the midfield that finished the match at Stoke or start Bobby Firm. And either way, Adam Lallana should be the player that makes way.

Emre Can provides more midfield balance, a stronger platform to build from. Bobby Firm – in theory, admittedly, as we've seen little of the player – provides more attacking explosiveness and pressing. Liverpool could do with either of those abilities. Maybe both changes occur, both Ibe and Lallana replaced (at this point of his career, I still think Ibe's more useful as a substitute), the exact XI which finished the match at Stoke, but that seems a bridge too far at this stage of the season.

Tomorrow will help answer the question, "Was Liverpool's conservatism at Stoke because of the opponent or because Rodgers feels it's the best way for the new Liverpool to acclimatize or because Liverpool's just not very good right now?" And I suspect the answer is "Yes."

Liverpool, at Anfield, against a promoted side, have to be more threatening, but by how great a degree remains to be seen. Last Sunday was nearly a low-water mark as far as attacking output goes, a dire affair rescued by the magical right foot of Coutinho. But Liverpool's focus was on not conceding, which was wholly explainable given what had gone on the previous time Liverpool travelled to Stoke. Safety first. There's no historical trauma in this fixture, but I still suspect we'll see similar tomorrow, a more threatening Liverpool at home, but not as threatening as we'd expect or like. In August, all that matters is getting points on the board. I don't want to encourage the parallel, because this is a very different, not-as-good side, but it's the same thought process that was behind the start of 2013-14.

At least Bournemouth isn't an unknown quantity. Liverpool have had rather straightforward ties against the club in both domestic cup competitions in the last two seasons. Of course, this will be a different predicament; cup competitions were a bonus for both clubs, this is the league.

Bournemouth's XI will look a lot like last week's against Aston Villa, and a fair bit like their recent matches against Liverpool. Boruc; Francis, Elphick, Cook, Daniels; Ritchie, Gosling, Surman, Pugh; King; Wilson. Maybe new signing Lee Tomlin makes his debut in place of Josh King. Maybe record signing Tyrone Mings comes in at center- or left-back. Maybe Christian Atsu – on loan from Chelsea, missing last week through injury – or Max Gradel start on the flanks, but I suspect both will be potential attacking changes used from the bench, if at all. And that's about all the possible changes. Bournemouth, like so many other promoted sides, have a fairly small squad to choose from.

Last week's match against Aston Villa would have proceeded rather differently had Bournemouth taken one of their many first-half chances, but Gosling missed his, Pugh's and Wilson's were saved. Had it been Liverpool, you'd expect at least one of those to go in because, well, Liverpool. I also can't help but focus on Callum Wilson, a player who won 11 (!!!) penalties last season, more than double anyone else in England.

Like Rodgers was at Swansea, Eddie Howe is both praised and kind of patronized in the same measure, a young manager lauded for his unfashionable side's attacking football: dominating possession, creating chances. As they did all of last season in the Championship, and as they did against Villa. But Bournemouth couldn't convert possession into goals last week, couldn't take those chances, and succumbed 0-1 to a towering header from a corner. Any of this sounding familiar, Liverpool fans?

More than enough pixels and ink have been spilled about Liverpool's difficult start to the season. These matches, those at home, those Liverpool are "expected" to win, are where Liverpool need to shine. Last week was a start, a pleasing if also bare minimum start, but a start nonetheless. Now Liverpool need to take the next step.

---
Meta: I suspect most of you remember from previous seasons, but as tomorrow's a weekday match (as is next week's), there won't be an immediate match review because work. There will be the usual, probably-slightly-longer, match infographic up on Tuesday morning though.

10 August 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Stoke

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



Rodgers set his team up to win 1-0, and succeeded. Yes, that success was wholly down to a wonder strike from Philippe Coutinho, but the point still stands. Liverpool played for a 1-0 and got that 1-0, by hook or by crook, by an unbelievable goal. That's not something we've often seen Liverpool capable of during Rodgers' tenure.

Liverpool simply were not going to let last May happen again.

Credit for that goes to Liverpool's midfield and defense, both unbalanced, discordant, and irreparably broken in the last meeting. Four of Stoke's goals that day came down Liverpool's flanks, Emre Can the notable scapegoat on the right, Alberto Moreno not much better on the left. The other two saw Stoke players – N'Zonzi, Diouf – break through Liverpool's midfield through pressing and counter-attacks.

That didn't happen yesterday, with two debutant fullbacks – including an 18-year-old who'd never played left-back at first-team level – and a reshuffled midfield.

Sure, it's a different match if Stoke convert one of their two good first half chances, both down Liverpool's left, but Adam whiffed on a difficult shot when the ball deflected to him in the 8th minute, and Glen Johnson skied a left-footed effort in the 35th after Skrtel cleared out of the six-yard box and Clyne blocked Affelay's attempt. Gomez, caught out by both, demonstrably improved as the match went on. Meanwhile, Nat King Clyne was wholly unthreatened down the other flank, even winning a crucial aerial duel – something he rarely attempts – in front of Diouf less than two minutes before Liverpool's winner.

Mame Biram Diouf, with two goals and two assists the last time these sides met, was especially irrelevant, limited to one harmless on-target shot from distance and one key pass layoff for a harmless Charlie Adam off-target shot from distance. Which is why Lovren, of all players, has been praised to the hilt today, outstanding when one-on-one with the striker.

That said, there are – of course – still very valid concerns about Liverpool's attack. Liverpool took just eight shots, fewer than all but three matches last season (at Newcastle, at Southampton, v United), with just two from the Danger Zone. Ibe found little space down the right, well- and closely-marked by Stoke defenders, often holding onto the ball too long and running into trouble. Lallana did next to nothing, although to be fair, Gomez did need more protection than Clyne on that side. Benteke had moments of promise linking up with other players, but struggled to make things happen in the final third, limited to just one threatening-but-blocked shot. If not Coutinho, seemingly no one.

Did Liverpool's attack struggle because of its unfamiliarity, not quite clicking because of all the new players and style? Did Liverpool's attack struggle because the focus was (rightly) on remaining secure? Are there just still structural problems in Liverpool's attack?

Well, yes, to probably all of that. It is worth noting that things got better when Lallana made way for Can, making a better base to build from in midfield, with both Henderson and Milner now getting forward, pressing more intensely (especially after Firmino came on), while Coutinho remained influential from the left.

One match doesn't make a season at all, not in praising Liverpool's defense or condemning Liverpool's attack. It obviously wasn't brilliant – in fact, it was rather boring, and that's putting it nicely – but it's a still the right start.

09 August 2015

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke

Goals:
Coutinho 86'

Your star player has to win you the games where you don't play especially well. And Philippe Coutinho did that today.

Just like Brendan Rodgers drew it up, I'm sure.

Look, your concerns are all valid. Liverpool weren't very good. Liverpool's first three shots, the only three in the first half, were all blocked. Liverpool's first shot on-target didn't come until the 63rd, from Dejan Lovren of all players.

Liverpool's quasi 4-3-3, quasi 4-2-3-1 formation, with Henderson usually at the base but also trying to join infrequent attacks, left Benteke isolated, with Ibe often well-marked and Lallana invisible. Liverpool's two new fullbacks were restrained, clearly more focused on solidifying the defense than adding to the attack. It made for a fairly dire opening hour.

This side, for all the new players, clearly remembers the last trip to Stoke. Brendan Rodgers clearly remembers the last trip to Stoke.

Liverpool's priority was to keep it tight, to eliminate the mistakes and Stoke chances which plagued last May's massacre. Maybe sneak a goal, but otherwise keep it level for an hour before gradually opening up the throttle. And that's exactly what happened.

Sure, Stoke had a couple of first half chances, chances better than anything Liverpool created, both cutbacks coming from debutant Joe Gomez's (and Dejan Lovren's) flank. But Adam mis-kicked his opportunity, Glen Johnson skied his. It's about time they started earning all those Liverpool paychecks. So, yes, Liverpool got a little lucky, but on the whole, Liverpool did actually defend well, even on set plays.

The pattern remained the same until just after the hour mark, when Emre Can replaced Lallana. It wasn't the expected Firmino substitution - that'd come 15 minutes later - but Liverpool duly improved because the set-up improved: a more orthodox 4-3-3 with Can holding, allowing both Milner and Henderson to join the attack, Coutinho replacing the irrelevant Lallana on the left.

It didn't immediately result in good chances - Benteke's effort blocked, Skrtel straight at Butland from a set play, Coutinho nowhere close from distance, a couple of openings missed because of a poor final pass - but, for the first time, Liverpool actually looked the better side. Stoke had an immediate set-up play opportunity following the substitution, Adam's deep free kick through everyone, requiring a brilliant save from Mignolet, but otherwise, the home side asked few questions.

Regardless, it looked like the game would ebb away, a deserved but unimpressive 0-0 draw. Until Coutinho happened. O Mágico. It's gonna be hard to top the first goal of the season as the best goal of the season.

It's beyond cliché, but three points is three points is three points. Especially in the first game of the season. Especially at the Britannia, where Liverpool's now won two league matches in eight attempts since Stoke's promotion in 2008-09. Two wins (the other, you may remember, in 2013-14), two draws, and four losses. Especially after last May's meeting.

Would I have preferred a more-attacking Liverpool, a Liverpool that did more to try to win the game? Absolutely. Football should be fun, even if it's often not. Liverpool's problems in attack, especially in the first half, were far too reminiscent of last season's struggles.

But Liverpool's caution was understandable. Liverpool's dissonance in attack, with so many new players, was understandable.

All told, this match looked an awful lot like the preseason matches, albeit against better competition. That admittedly won't be enough to achieve this season's goals. But it'll do for now.

07 August 2015

Liverpool at Stoke 08.09.15

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-6 Stoke (a) 05.24.15
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.29.14
5-3 Liverpool (a) 01.12.14
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.13

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Swindon (a); 2-0 HJK (a); 1-1 Malaysia (a)
Stoke: 0-3 Porto (a); 1-2 Köln (a); 0-2 Brentford (a)

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Who, coincidentally, was in charge of the 1-6 loss at Stoke last May. Coincidentally.

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Henderson
Coutinho Milner
Ibe Benteke Lallana

I can't decide whether returning to the scene of the crime as soon as possible is healthy or harmful. Psychologists suggest facing your fears helps you get over those fears, but I think I'd prefer a few confidence-building fixtures before the Britannia PTSD.

At the least, Liverpool will get an immediate chance to prove this season will be different than the last.

Sunday's Liverpool side should look an awful lot like the one we saw last Saturday at HJK Helsinki, but with Benteke in place of Ings. Kind of 4-2-3-1, kind of 4-3-3, depending on how deep Henderson sits. Just like throughout preseason.

Maybe Firmino gets thrown into the deep end as well, but I suspect he'll be brought along more slowly – relatively speaking – used off the bench if at all. Maybe Lucas starts as the deepest midfielder, a more orthodox 4-3-3, with one of Ibe or Lallana left out. Maybe all the noise about Gomez starting over Moreno is just noise. Maybe Rodgers comes to his sense and picks Sakho rather than Lovren. But, again, I doubt it.

Liverpool need to start this season quickly, start this season well. It's why we've seen such a settled side in preseason. And Sunday's side will look a lot like those preseason sides.

Just like Liverpool, Stoke's XI will be a bit different than last May's. Not as different as Liverpool's, but Hughes has added a few impressive players: Joselu and Affelay in attack, Wollscheid and Glen Johnson in defense, van Ginkel on loan from Chelsea in midfield. Bojan and Sidwell are fit again after missing the previous meeting. And Stoke already had a reasonably competent attack in Diouf, Crouch, Arnautovic, Odemwingie, and Walters. Mark Hughes is building a surprisingly decent side, one that looks more than capable of challenging for a place in Europe.

I won't pretend to have watched a single second of Stoke's preseason, so guessing at their XI is very much a guess, but I suspect that – again, like Liverpool – it'll be a mix of last season's players and a few of the new signings. Something like Butland; Johnson, Wollscheid, Muniesa, Pieters; Sidwell, van Ginkel; Walters, Adam, Affelay; Diouf.

Joselu could start up front, in place of Diouf or with Diouf on the flank. Bojan or Arnatovic could feature instead of Affelay. Ireland in place of Adam, or pushing Adam deeper in midfield in place of van Ginkel or Sidwell. Stoke actually have a plethora of options. Ryan Shawcross is injured, meaning Stoke's center-backs will be two from Wollscheid, Cameron, Muniesa, and Marc Wilson – and I've no idea which two – while Arnautovic and Wilson will undergo late fitness tests.

Fair warning: for all his faults, Glen Johnson loves scoring against his former clubs. As does Charlie Adam. And Peter Crouch. Sigh. We really could have picked a better match to start the campaign with, Premier League.

But the season is what it is. Yes, yes, one match doesn't make a season, especially the first match, but you can't help take overarching narratives from this one contest. Not after last May's massacre. And it ain't getting any easier after this fixture.

Welcome back, Liverpool.