31 October 2014

Liverpool at Newcastle 11.01.14

8:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.11.14
2-2 (a) 10.19.13
6-0 Liverpool (a) 04.27.13
1-1 (h) 11.04.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Swansea (h); 0-0 Hull (h); 0-3 Real Madrid (h)
Newcastle: 2-0 City (a); 2-1 Tottenham (a); 1-0 Leicester (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Newcastle: Cisse 4; Aarons, Ameobi, Janmaat, Obertan, Perez, Williamson 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Allen
Borini Balotelli Sterling

Fabio Borini should and seemingly will start after his performance in the midweek league cup match. His mobility caused Swansea problems, and even though he ostensibly played on the right, his inclusion helped Balotelli, adding another forward who'll actually get into the box into the mix rather than another of Liverpool's diminutive attacking midfielders.

But I still don't know what formation Liverpool will use.

Borini's versatility, unlike Lambert or even Sturridge, means that it doesn't have to be a diamond or 4-2-2-2 to have two "strikers". Those are options, but – as against Swansea – Borini is capable of playing as a wide forward. It was 4-2-3-1 midweek, but I still believe Liverpool's midfield – especially when Gerrard starts – is more comfortable in a 4-1-2-3: Henderson and either Allen or Coutinho (or, possibly, Lallana, I guess) ahead of the captain. Which is what I've guessed above, but your guess is as good as mine.

Borini playing on the right would also allow Sterling to shift back to the left, where he's vastly more dangerous.

If it's a diamond, it'll probably be Sterling at the apex, and Henderson and Allen ahead of Gerrard. If it's 4-2-2-2, it'll be Henderson and Gerrard central, and Sterling and Coutinho or Lallana out wide. If it's 4-2-3-1, it'll be Henderson and Gerrard central, Sterling and Borini as the wide forwards, and Coutinho or Lallana as the #10. They're not ideal options, but Liverpool do have options, and no matter who starts, Liverpool will also have options off the bench.

The defense continues to write itself with Sakho and Flanagan injured, although it's worth noting that Glen Johnson looked much better when deployed at left back rather than right on Wednesday. But Moreno has still looked even better.

After going winless in its first seven league matches, Newcastle have somehow turned it around, beating Leicester and Tottenham in the league before the 2-0 league cup win at Manchester City last week. That mini-winning streak sees them now just four points behind Liverpool. Because of course Newcastle finds form just before a match against Liverpool.

Newcastle will be looking to end an auspicious streak tomorrow. They've had at least one player sent off in the last four matches against Liverpool, and two sent off in the last meeting. Five red cards in four matches. That's impressive, in an "you ate the whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the fridge?" type of way. And yet, Liverpool have only won two of those four matches, drawing the other two despite a man-advantage for a significant amount of time.

Pardew's side are still struggling with injuries: Tiote, de Jong, Santon, and Jonas are out, while both Cisse and Williamson will be subject to late fitness tests. If neither pass that test, the XI will most likely be Krul; Janmaat, Taylor, Coloccini, Dummett; Anita, Colback; Gouffran, Sissoko, Ameobi; Perez – pretty much the same XI which beat Tottenham last week. If he's fit, you suspect Cisse will go straight into the side, but I can't say the same about Williamson. Emmanuel Riviere is back from injury, and could also start up front. Cabella, benched during this winning streak, is an option on either flank, whether in place of Gouffran or Ameobi, or even Anita (who he replaced as a substitute against Spurs), playing as the #10, shifting Sissoko into a deeper position.

This fixture's always a strange one, whether it's those famous 4-3s nearly a decade ago, a 6-0 shellacking without Suarez at the end of 2012-13, or last season: two difficult matches, a draw and narrow win, despite Liverpool being much better than Newcastle going into either contest. Home or away doesn't seem to matter, form going into the match doesn't seem to matter.

Both sides are trying to steady themselves. Liverpool adjusting to life without Suarez and Sturridge, unbeaten since losing to Real but failing to impress in nearly every match, yet somehow only two points off the Champions League places, level with Arsenal and ahead of United, Everton and Tottenham. Newcastle starting to get its season on track and saving its manager's job.

Given past results, an emphatic Liverpool win, a disappointing draw, or narrow loss wouldn't surprise. Pretty much anything's possible. It goes without saying that any sort of win would suffice, and that any other result would be a fairly bad thing with Real Madrid and Chelsea to come over the next seven days.

27 October 2014

Liverpool v Swansea 10.28.14

4pm ET, live in the US on BeIN Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-3 Liverpool (h) 02.23.14
2-2 (a) 09.16.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 02.17.13
0-0 (a) 11.25.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Hull (h); 0-3 Real Madrid (h); 3-2 QPR (a)
Swansea: 2-0 Leicester (h); 1-2 Stoke (a); 2-2 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Rossiter, Sturridge, Suso 1
Swansea: Bony, Dyer 4; Routledge, Sigurðsson 2; Emnes, Gomis, Ki, Shelvey 1

Referee: Keith Stroud

This'll be the first Liverpool match that Keith Stroud has done.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Toure Skrtel Enrique
Markovic Lucas Henderson Coutinho
Balotelli Lambert

Play two strikers up front: either Lambert and Balotelli, as Mario could seemingly use all the match practice he can get, or Lambert and Borini, or even Balotelli or Borini – although I'd bet the farm on Lambert starting, as he captained the side in the last round.

Don't play Gerrard or Sterling. This one's self-explanatory.

Without Gerrard, there are few options in midfield, in regards to both personnel and shape. If Liverpool play two strikers – and I think I've emphasized that I hope they do – it's usually a diamond in midfield, but Liverpool played 4-2-2-2 after the changes against Hull, and that seems a possibility here: Lucas and either Henderson, Can, or Allen (probably Henderson) in the middle, Coutinho and Markovic on the flanks. If it's the diamond, it should be Lucas holding, two from Henderson, Allen, and Can as the wide players, and Coutinho as the #10. Maybe Rossiter's in contention again, but he doesn't seem as needed as in the last round.

Defensive alternatives are handcuffed by injuries. If either Sakho or Flanagan were fit, they'd assuredly feature. As they're not, it'll almost certain be Johnson, Enrique, and Toure, with one of Skrtel and Lovren starting and the other rested. I'm guessing Skrtel because at least Toure and Skrtel have played together before, but Rodgers does love him some Lovren. Maybe one of Manquillo or Moreno starts as well, but I doubt it. Mignolet played the last round, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brad Jones replaced him tomorrow, as it appears Jones will be the back-up until January at the least now that the Valdes move is dead.

Swansea played a quasi-second-string side in the 3-0 win over Everton in the last round – the usual mix of first-team players and stronger reserves – but I expect we'll see a stronger XI tomorrow. There will assuredly be some changes – players get tired even without midweek fixtures and they've got a difficult match at Everton on Saturday – but they're not as handicapped as Liverpool are by European competition and injuries.

Sigurðsson almost certainly won't be risked after picking up an injury on Saturday, while Tiendalli, Amat, Richards, and Britton are also likely to miss out. If forced to guess at an XI, it'd be Tremmel; Rangel, Williams, Fernandez, Taylor; Shelvey, Carroll, Ki; Dyer, Gomis, Montero. Kyle Bartley's also an option in defense or defensive midfield; Routledge could feature instead of Dyer or Montero; Emnes and Bony are also options up front. Maybe I'm guessing that Swansea rest Bony more out of hope than logic.

As always in this competition, and especially with Liverpool both struggling and in still in Europe, it's much more about the performance than the result. This competition is, by far, the lowest on the list of priorities. Don't get me wrong; given how poorly Liverpool have played of late, any port in a storm, and Liverpool could certainly use the confidence and momentum of a win, but keeping key players fresh and giving reserves a chance to impress seems far more important in the greater scheme of things.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Hull City

Previous Match Infographics: 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.

Since, for once, there's absolutely nothing to complain about defensively – Liverpool were about as unthreatened as possible, with Hull offering next to nothing from open play and allowed just one attacking set play – I guess we're back to complaining about the attack.

2013-14: Percentage of Liverpool shots blocked = 19.8% (129/651)
2014-15: Percentage of Liverpool shots blocked = 29.9% (43/144)

In Liverpool's four wins – against Southampton, Tottenham, West Brom, and QPR – Liverpool opponents blocked an average of 3.25 shots per match. In the other five draws and losses, Liverpool's opponents blocked an average of six shots per match.

We knew that teams would follow Chelsea's template from last season's 0-2 loss at Anfield, but Liverpool have become even less effective against packed defenses thanks to the personnel changes.

And, as against Chelsea, Liverpool are resorting to even more shots from distance. Liverpool took an awful lot of shots from distance last season, because Luis Suarez took an awful lot of shots from distance, but they're averaging even more this season. That 11 of Liverpool's 17 shots came outside the penalty area against Hull seems a recipe for disaster, even if Hull's über-defensive five-at-the-back is an exception rather than the rule.

2013-14: Percentage of Liverpool shots from outside box = 43.3% (282/651)
2014-15: Percentage of Liverpool shots from outside box = 47.9% (69/144)

2013-14: Liverpool outside box shot accuracy = 28.4% (80/282)
2014-15: Liverpool outside box shot accuracy = 20.3% (14/69)

2013-14: Percentage of Liverpool outside box shots blocked = 20.2% (57/282)
2014-15: Percentage of Liverpool outside box shots blocked = 40.6% (28/69)

True, the season's not even a quarter of the way finished, but these statistics are clearly trending the wrong way.

It's also not coincidence that Liverpool had just seven shots blocked in the first three matches – the three matches with Sturridge available – and an average of six shots blocked per match in the six matches since.

Michael Caley, of SB Nation and the Washington Post, helpfully provides a little insight as to why that's the chase.

It's news to no one that Liverpool's attack has become staid this season, especially without Sturridge. But attacking at a slower pace, allowing defenses already predisposed to sit deep to get into position, and then taking more shots from distance because you don't have the personnel or nous to get into the box all compound the problem.

2013-14: Successful dribbles per match = 12.4
2014-15: Successful dribbles per match = 10.2

2013-14: Successful Through Balls per match = 1.8
2014-15: Successful Through Balls per match = 1.1

Without Sturridge, there's no easy fix. But it's also no coincidence that Liverpool looked marginally more dangerous against Hull after A) Lambert joined Balotelli up front and B) Coutinho came on. Clearly not dangerous enough, and still attempting too many shots from distance, but at least better.

Balotelli, perpetually dropping deep, simply has to have a strike partner, even if neither Lambert nor Borini are anywhere near as dynamic as Sturridge. Coutinho, even if still finding his form and – like too many others – prone to speculative long-range shots, is Liverpool's best at through balls and one of Liverpool's best dribblers. He was at the heart of Liverpool's best moves late against Hull, he was at the heart of the two counter-attacking goals which won last week's match at QPR.

I suspect we've simply had a reprieve from complaining about the defense. Manquillo and Moreno improve the back four, and no one did anything stupid – and we've seen the side do stupid things against other impotent attacks – but Hull truly did not come to Anfield to attack.

However, yesterday's match exposed Liverpool's attacking flaws in great detail. Hull gave Liverpool similar problems last season, stifling a much better side in open play, only winning because of corner and direct free kick goals. Liverpool's inability to convert set plays even close to last season's rate is a totally different problem; last season was most definitely an outlier, but Liverpool regressing this much this fast remains surprising. And we'd also be complaining a lot less had Liverpool gotten at least one of two possible penalties on Saturday. But it's not as if these were new and different problems for this season's Liverpool: Villa, West Ham, Basel, etc all saw the same issues.

But yesterday's match at least also hinted at a possible band-aid solution after the substitutions. Now, Liverpool have to put those potential solutions into effect, at the very least improving enough to tread water until Liverpool's attacking talisman returns.

25 October 2014

Liverpool 0-0 Hull City

It may not feel like it, but that was actually progress.

Liverpool still weren't very good in attack, at least until subs came on after an hour, but I've no idea how they didn't score at least once. When it rains, it pours, etc. This is the first 0-0 that Liverpool's been involved in since May 5th 2013, 58 matches ago. A handful of chances in the first half, a hatful of chances in the second half, Gerrard's best set play deliveries of the season, and two seemingly clear penalties ignored.

True, it started worryingly, with Liverpool typically blunt in with the same attacking formation: Balotelli isolated, Sterling handicapped by playing wide right, by far his weakest position. Lovren's header cleared off the line and Balotelli's fierce shot from Sterling's throughball were Liverpool's only true chances in the first half – aside from the first non-penalty, when Lallana was tackled very late after crossing – but they were better chances than almost anything created against QPR or Real Madrid.

At the same time, Liverpool were much, much better in defense. Hull offered next to nothing aside from three half-chances just before halftime, but Liverpool's conceded to opponents offering next to nothing before. Liverpool didn't have to worry about set plays because Hull had just one set play in Liverpool's half: a corner, easily dealt with. Manquillo and Moreno did well to prevent Hull's wing-backs from countering, decently protected by Allen, Can, and the center-backs. Still, that no one did anything stupid is also progress, no matter how much threat the opposition posed.

But then came the substitutions, and then came the tangible improvement, and that's where Liverpool will feel aggrieved that they didn't win the match. Lambert and Coutinho replaced Lallana and Allen; Liverpool switched to a 4-2-2-2 formation with Coutinho on the left and Sterling on the right, although both had license to roam.

Liverpool immediately upped the pressure, absolutely pinning Hull back. Coutinho was the pace-setter, Liverpool's best player despite playing only 30 minutes, and Balotelli unsurprisingly improved with more support up front. Sure, Liverpool still didn't threaten as we'd become accustomed to last season, Liverpool failed to create any clear cut chances. But they had more than enough opportunities to score, denied by a deep defense blocking shots, another goal line clearance, Lovren's complete air shot after Balotelli created an excellent chance, and another penalty ignored when Balotelli was pushed over in the 88th minute.

We probably shouldn't be surprised that Hull's third-choice keeper played out of his mind – evoking traumatic memories of 2011-12 and 2012-13 – denying Liverpool's two injury time chances: tipping over Coutinho's shot from distance and somehow stopping Balotelli's point-blank effort after more good work from the little Brazilian.

All told, that was an awful lot like last season 2-0 victory over Hull except that A) Liverpool can't rely on set plays to save the day when suffering from open play anymore and B) Neil Swarbrick ignored two penalties that should have been given. Then, even with Suarez (but again without Sturridge), Liverpool couldn't create anything from open play against a resilient back five but still won because a center-back converted a corner (*glares at Lovren*) and then tallied a direct free kick.

So what did we learn? Balotelli needs a strike partner, whether Lambert or Sterling in the pseudo-diamond we saw early on against Real Madrid or even Borini if he's ever seen again until Sturridge returns. The Italian didn't play badly in the slightest, but I still expect all the post-match nonsense to focus on him, especially after failing to take that late chance (which was well saved by Jakupovic). Coutinho needs to start more often; it's amazing how he began the season badly, then was rested and used intermittently, and now he's getting back to full form (*stares at Brendan Rodgers, then Raheem Sterling, then Rodgers again*). If Sterling has to start (and he evidently has to), don't play him on the right. Liverpool's defense is better when Manquillo and Moreno play.

Regardless of the disappointing result, that was a much more sustainable performance that the one which somehow won Liverpool all three points last week, when Liverpool were horrific and conceded twice (which should have been somewhere around five), but scored also three because QPR.

It was better to be lucky than good against QPR, but after awhile, you've got to make your own luck. That obviously didn't happen today, but if Liverpool can repeat and build on this performance – more specifically, the final 30 minutes of this performance – they'll start making that luck sooner rather than later.

24 October 2014

Liverpool v Hull 10.25.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.14
1-3 Hull (a) 12.01.13
0-0 (a) 05.09.10
6-1 Liverpool (h) 09.26.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 Real Madrid (h); 3-2 QPR (a); 2-1 West Brom (h)
Hull: 2-2 Arsenal (a); 2-0 Palace (h); 2-4 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Hull: Diame, Jelavic 4; Hernandez 3; Chester 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Allen
Sterling Lambert

It's just a guess, but I suspect Balotelli will be left on the bench after his performance against Real, and I don't know how I feel about this. It's fairly obvious that he's not playing well, that he's low on confidence, but I still maintain Liverpool are vastly more problematic at the other end of the pitch. Balotelli's an easy scapegoat, and that's what he's being portrayed as, evidenced by the utterly inane focus on swapping shirts with Pepe at halftime on Wednesday, a non-story if there ever was one.

There are much better scapegoats to be found in defense. Once again, the central pairing has to remain the same because Sakho's still out injured and Liverpool are frightening enough without adding Kolo Toure to the mix thank you very much, but Glen Johnson cannot start. Please. No one's free from blame in that back four but Johnson has been dire in his last two starts, and has a readymade replacement in the rested Manquillo, much more impressive so far this season.

There are seemingly two options for how Liverpool's attack is deployed. The pseudo-diamond with Sterling as a second striker – which changed into something of a 4-3-2-1 when Liverpool defended – deployed against Real Madrid, or the more-usual 4-3-3 with Lambert or Balotelli flanked by two from Sterling, Coutinho, and Lallana. There's also a slight chance that the diamond includes both Lambert and Balotelli, but that's a fairly immobile pairing. Borini, left out of the 18 in the last two matches, doesn't seem a plausible alternative.

With Allen back, the midfield still pretty much writes itself, unless Rodgers gambles and drops Coutinho deeper in an attempt to get him, Sterling, and Lallana all on the pitch at the same time. But that's a fairly lightweight team, even at home against Hull, and drastically limits Liverpool's options off the bench.

Hull, currently in 11th, three points behind Liverpool, will be missing key players as well, with Michael Dawson, Nikica Jelavic, and the top two goalkeepers out absent, requiring a second appearance for third-string Eldin Jakupovic.

Steve Bruce's side has scored in every league match this season – which bodes poorly for Liverpool's ability to maybe, possibly, for-once-in-their-damned-lives keep a clean sheet – and have scored two in each of the last five matches: a 2-2 draw against Arsenal last time out is one of three 2-2 draws, also beating Palace 2-0 at home and frightening Manchester City before losing 2-4. But those 13 goals have been scored by just four players, as well as one own goal. And one of those four players, the ex-Evertonian Jelavic, will miss out.

Without Dawson, Steve Bruce may decide to switch away from his preferred three-at-the-back formation. Dawson's replacement, Alex Bruce, is a much less effective sweeper, and was at fault for Arsenal's equalizer last week. The two options are drafting Bruce into the 3-5-1, or a 4-4-1-1 formation with Gaston Ramirez or Hatem Ben Arfa playing off of Abel Hernandez. I still think he'll try to shoehorn his son into defense, but Liverpool will need to be prepared for either formation. Regardless, Mo Diame will be the key player in midfield; he's caused problems for Liverpool in previous seasons when at West Ham, with lung-busting runs from midfield breaking Liverpool's tenuous lines.

Last season, this fixture featured one of Liverpool's ten clean sheets: a tepid 2-0 win thanks to set play goals from Agger and Suarez. Liverpool rarely looked like scoring from open play, but were supremely unthreatened at the other end, as Hull failed to put a single shot on target. Well, both of those goal-scorers are gone, Liverpool have scored just two set play goals all season, Liverpool's opponents have averaged almost six shots on-target per match in the last four league fixtures, and the last non-Tottenham clean sheet came at Manchester United in March. Liverpool actually failed to score an open play goal against Hull in both meetings last season, the other a 1-3 loss away, arguably Liverpool's worst performance of the season.

So tomorrow should be fun. Liverpool simply have to respond after the drubbing incurred on Wednesday, and – despite all the bad feelings of late – continue this two-match mini-winning streak in the league. But it certainly won't be easy.

23 October 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid

Previous Match Infographics: 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.

In both attack and defense, the stats speak for themselves.

Allowed only four shots inside the box: two blocked, one off target, and one on target?

That's a paddling.

Your first shot from inside the box after the opposition's already scored three goals?

That's a paddling.

Just two shots on target in total?

That's a paddling.

Seven of 12 shots in total blocked?

That's a paddling.

Completing nearly 500 passes and 90% of your total passes but creating just 10 open play chances?

That's a paddling.

Barely more than 50% of your tackles successful (22 of 40)?

That's a paddling.

The opposition scoring three goals from its first four shots on target, from its first six shots in total?

That's a paddling.

Another two goals conceded which started from set plays?

That's a paddling.

Liverpool were simply out-classed in every part of the pitch, in every phase of the game. That's not necessarily surprising, even at Anfield. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single Liverpool player who'd get in that Real Madrid XI.

Liverpool's continuing woes in the attacking third, in front of goal, remain a massive problem. Even though that's been a lingering issue, more than a little credit is due to Real's defense. Seven blocked shots is massive. 26 successful tackles and 13 interceptions inside your defensive third is massive. Liverpool successful with just two of 22 crosses, zero of nine corners, and four of 19 attacking third dribbles is massive.

That was a supremely well-organized defense. Better attacks would have run into the same brick wall, just as Bayern Munich did last April. This is, after all, a side that's conceded just once in the last five matches. The only way Liverpool were scoring was if one of those speculative efforts from distance (specifically Gerrard or Coutinho's) were even better placed, or had Allen's difficult chance been on-target in the 43rd minute, or if Casillas had made one of the mistakes that he's increasingly prone to make. Joe Allen had both of Liverpool's danger zone chances, the other an immediately blocked shot in the 50th from the top of the box. Joe Allen. That's a full-on smothering. On a different day, maybe Liverpool lucks their way into a solitary strike, but they certainly weren't getting three.

Meanwhile, Liverpool do not have a well-organized defense, supremely, moderately, or marginally. I still maintain there was little to be done about the first goal, although, yes, maybe Lovren intercepts James' pass if he doesn't take that two-step charge forward, but the assist and strike really were that good. The second and third goals, on the other hand. Set play organization, individual mistakes. Again.

Liverpool had partly cleared the corner. Mignolet came and punched and it fell to Coutinho, who lost possession to James. From there, Johnson and Coutinho switch off as Real pass across the top of Liverpool's box, Benzema with space behind Johnson (about as unfair a match-up as you'll find) and Coutinho completely failing to track James' run back into the box. It's too easy for Kroos, his cross is odds-on to reach one of the those. Of course, it did.

Somehow, Kroos' corner eluded three Liverpool defenders, with Skrtel the player who's supposed to be marking Pepe. Three defenders go for the header, all miss, and Pepe's able to head down. So Mignolet, charges out to try to deny the space, which isn't the worst idea in the world, but he's a step too slow and misjudges, and Johnson and Gerrard ball-watch as Benzema's first to it for a tap-in.

Systemic failures and individual errors. The never-ending story.

Liverpool were never going to outscore the opposition game after game after game after selling Suarez, especially with Sturridge once again on the sidelines. So fix the damned defense first. You've spent somewhere around £40m on center-backs and £20m on fullbacks in the last two summers. There's absolutely no reason that it should be getting worse.

Then we can start worrying about whether or not Balotelli's a failure and how to fix Liverpool's disjointed attack.

22 October 2014

Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid

Ronaldo 23'
Benzema 30' 41'

Remember the 1-3 loss to Manchester City? That, but worse, because the defending on the second and third goals was vastly worse, and Real Madrid are even better than Manchester City, and Liverpool were at home, and there was no own goal late consolation.

Liverpool were up for the game, Liverpool started well. Balotelli started, but it was much more a diamond than the expected 4-3-3, with Sterling his partner up front and Coutinho at the apex of midfield. But Liverpool's attack remained impotent, and couldn't take advantage of the side starting well. And Liverpool were eventually punished. All that good work in the first 20 minutes led to Gerrard's shot from 30 yards parried wide and a couple of corners that didn't really threaten and that's about it.

Then Cristiano Ronaldo happened.

Usually, when Liverpool concede, you can point to at least one player doing something wrong. Surprisingly, that wasn't the case there. There's wasn't much that any side could do about Real Madrid's first goal.

Maybe if Liverpool have a true midfield destroyer, the build-up doesn't happen. But Liverpool don't, and Brendan Rodgers doesn't seem to want one. And once Ronaldo and James had space to play a one-two, there was nothing that could be done. James' absolutely perfect chip over the defense just eluding Lovren's despairing dive, Ronaldo's unbelievably controlled volley with Skrtel marking as closely as possible somehow getting around both the center-back and Mignolet. It really was pure class.

Unfortunately, at that point, given Liverpool's attacking impotence and Madrid's strength, it's game over. Today's Liverpool weren't scoring unless Real's entire side suddenly succumbed to sleeping sickness. That said, the subsequent two goals were infinitely regrettable. As per usual.

Week in, week out, it's the same problem. The back four's positioning, Mignolet's weaknesses behind them, and set plays set plays set plays. In the 30th minute, Liverpool only half-cleared a corner, and were completely out of position when the ball came back in, overloaded at the back post with only Johnson, Allen, and Coutinho even somewhat close to three Real attackers, with Benzema's header perfectly placed, but seemingly an attempted pass across goal rather than a shot. In the 41st minute, even worse set play defending, Mignolet completely missing when trying to come for the cross and an easy tap-in for Benzema.


Liverpool's best two chances of the first half came after Liverpool were three goals down: Allen shooting wide from Balotelli's cut-back, Coutinho hitting the post from 30 yards out, both in the final five minutes of the half. Neither was an exceptionally good chance, but it was as close as Liverpool came. No matter how good Real Madrid are, that's as much of a problem as the paper-thin, super-soft defense.

The second half was a formality. Balotelli, again unimpressive but by far nowhere near Liverpool's most disappointing, gets thrown under the bus, more because he once again doesn't fit the system rather than playing badly, replaced by Lallana at halftime, Rodgers shifting to the striker-less formation mooted in the run-up. And Liverpool's little giants buzzed around well, pressed well, but remained about as threatening as they were in the first half, if more susceptible to Arsenal-esque overplay in the final third rather than shooting.

The final substitutions were Henderson and Coutinho replaced by Can and Markovic. Resting key players with the match gone is obviously a good idea. Liverpool have an awful lot of games in the next three weeks. Both Can and Markovic need the match practice. But Coutinho had been Liverpool's best player – "best" very much a relative term – and Henderson can run for approximately 84 hours before needing a break. Not Sterling, who's already overused? Not Gerrard, who's played every minute in the Premier League and Champions League?


That Real Madrid didn't add one, two, three more on the counter-attack, picking Liverpool off when they threw players forward is a small consolation, especially since Liverpool didn't add their own small consolation. It's not as if the defense had tons to do, especially after Ronaldo and Kroos went off, but Mignolet did make one excellent save, and no one did anything stupid. Gotta focus on the positives, yeah?

This will be news to no one, but yes, Real Madrid are better than Liverpool. A lot better. For all the praise that Ronaldo and Benzema will get, spare a thought for Isco, who was absolutely phenomenal – albeit up against the hollow shell of a human being who used to be Glen Johnson – for Modric and Kroos, who controlled the midfield when Madrid where in control, and for Real's entire back four. Yes, Liverpool aren't good in attack, but the strength of Pepe and Varane and the organization of the entire back four also had a lot to do with limiting Liverpool's attempts, especially limiting potential attempts inside the penalty box.

The result was sadly predictable, even if the process was infuriating, and featuring many of the same problems that Liverpool's had all season. Liverpool raised their game for Madrid, at least at the start of each half, and this still happens.

This is the first time that Liverpool have ever lost by three goals at Anfield in European competition and it didn't feel unfair in the slightest bit. That's where Liverpool are at the moment.

But you're not going to fix this season against Real Madrid. One swallow, not a summer, etc. You fix it by being better in attack and smarter in defense against the likes of West Ham and Aston Villa, against the likes of Hull. Who Liverpool will host on Saturday.

21 October 2014

Liverpool v Real Madrid 10.22.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 QPR (a); 2-1 West Brom (h); 0-1 Basel (a)
Real: 5-0 Levante (a); 5-0 Athletic Bilbao (h); 2-1 Ludogorets (a)

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Real: 2-1 Ludogorets (a); 5-1 Basel (h)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 1
Basel: Benzema, Ronaldo 2; Bale, James 1

Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)

Rizzoli's actually done one previous Liverpool match: the 3-0 win against Eden Hazard's Lille during the 2009-10 Europa League run.

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Allen
Lallana Balotelli Sterling

So how can Liverpool be better than they were on Sunday? Because, up against what's probably the best team in Europe, I suspect they'll need to be somewhat better.

I think it's safe to assume that Liverpool's far better in the 4-1-2-3 than the 4-2-3-1. With Allen back after a substitute appearance against QPR, the midfield should write itself: Henderson and Allen ahead of Gerrard, by far the best performing midfield Liverpool have deployed the season. Henderson and Coutinho are also an option, but Allen seems the safer choice.

However, Liverpool have few options in defense. Manquillo and Moreno will, thankfully, come back into the side, but with Sakho still injured, the central pairing seemingly has to be Skrtel and Lovren again. Maybe this time will be different from all the other times?

Even at home, Liverpool will almost certainly have to play for the counter, creating opportunities from either fast breaks or pressing from the front. Aside from those last ten or so minutes against QPR, Liverpool haven't been very good on the counter.

Nonetheless, I suspect it'll be the devil we know: a front three of Balotelli, Sterling, and either Lallana or Coutinho. But there has been an increasing groundswell for using Sterling as a central striker rather than Balotelli, a front three of Sterling flanked by Lallana and Coutinho – Carragher mentioned it on Monday Night Football, This is Anfield wrote about it this morning, as did Dominic King of the Mail.

It's an idea that makes a certain amount of sense. They're all quick, clever players who are good on the counter-attack, good at pressing, and excellent passers, things that Liverpool simply have to do well. With Henderson and Allen ahead of Gerrard, there are two more players who can press Real's midfielders when in possession, attempting to disrupt the team at its base. Flood the midfield, ideally prevent the ball from being played up to the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema, James, Isco, etc etc etc, then try to sprint around and through Madrid's defense. Throughballs. Lots and lots of throughballs.

However, it's also an idea that would see three undersized players trying to force their way past the likes of Pepe and Varane, and if/when Lallana and Coutinho need to track back, Raheem Sterling will be very, very isolated. And a team as strong as Real Madrid might not be the ideal opponents for Sterling's first start as a central striker.

There's simply no one good way to attack Real Madrid.

They're rightfully Champions of Europe. They've won their last seven games, scoring five in four of those matches, including the last two, and eight against Deportivo la Coruña. They have this player you may have heard of named Cristiano Ronaldo, who only has 15 goals in seven La Liga appearances. Incidentally, Liverpool have scored 13 goals in eight league matches this season.

Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Jese, and Coentrão didn't travel; Varane missed Real's last match through illness but should return. Regardless of those absentees, it's not as if Real are wanting for options. These are the 20 Madrid players who are traveling to Liverpool: Casillas, Navas, Pacheco; Varane, Pepe, Marcelo, Carvajal, Arbeloa, Nacho; Khedira, Kroos, James, Modric, Isco, Illaramendi, Medran, Marcos Llorente; Ronaldo, Benzema, Chicharito.

That's simply not fair.

If Real use the same formation as in the 5-0 victory at Levante, a 4-2-2-2, but at full strength, it'll most likely be Casillas; Carvajal, Varane, Pepe, Marcelo; James, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema. Or play 4-3-3, bringing in Illaramendi or Khedira for either James or Isco. Navas could start instead of Casillas, Arbeloa instead of Carvajal in either formation, Illaramendi or Khedira for either Kroos or Modric in the 4-2-3-1, Chicharito instead of Benzema. It's fantasy football for real, and yes, pun somewhat intended.

Regardless of formation, Real Madrid are the most vicious team in the world on the counter-attack, capable of punishing the most minor mistake in the blink of an eye. Liverpool don't make minor mistakes. They make enormous, neon red, monstrous mistakes. With players like Kroos and Modric, two of the best ball-playing midfielders in the world, they can also dominate possession and tempo. Real Madrid are barbarous on set plays, especially when Ramos plays, but even in his absence. Liverpool are not the best at defending set plays, to put it far more nicely than Liverpool deserve.

This will be one hell of a challenge.

But this is the sort of challenge that Liverpool dreamt of during those five years in the wilderness. It's Real Madrid back at Anfield, in the Champions League. Make it count.