19 November 2014

On Mario Balotelli (again)

Yes, we need to talk about Mario Balotelli.

We needed to talk about Mario Balotelli before Sturridge picked up his third injury of the season. We needed to talk about Mario Balotelli before Liverpool picked up just eight points from their last eight matches.

I've undoubtedly missed a couple, but this is extensive enough. Also not included? Players more expensive than Balotelli and players who weren't coming to Liverpool even if Liverpool tried: for example, Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and Danny Welbeck, with nine, eight, four, and two goals respectively.

This seems a fairly large indictment of Liverpool's vaunted transfer committee.

Balotelli's Premier League scoreless streak is nearing historic lengths, memorably Peter Crouch's from 2005-06. Crouch went 18 matches, 1229 minutes, before scoring his first for Liverpool. But his drought in the league lasted 706 minutes. Balotelli, although with two goals in cup competitions, is without a league goal through 685 minutes for Liverpool. He's got 22 minutes against Crystal Palace on Saturday before reaching Crouch's ignominious mark. Notably, Crouch's streak might have been even longer had Rafa Benitez not removed him from the firing line, increasingly using him as a substitute with Cisse and Morientes starting, because of Crouch's struggles.

So, is it a failure of Liverpool's scouting, opting for a player who didn't fit the system when there were cheaper and better available? Is it a failure of Brendan Rodgers, unable or unwilling to make alterations or set up the side to maximize Balotelli's strengths? Is it a failure of Balotelli's, devoid of confidence and disappointing in the extreme?

Yes. To all of the above.

A comparison of this season's Balotelli to last season's Balotelli, via the handy radar graphic created by Ted Knutson.

Sigh. We worried about, but tried to talk ourselves into, his statistical profile from last season when he signed a few months back, and he hasn't even reached those marks. Sure, he's done a few things better: most notably in his defensive workrate and in retaining possession, but also a slightly better shooting and passing accuracy. Unsurprisingly, his key attacking statistics – goals, total shots, key passes, and dribbles – range from "a bit lower" to "what the $#!% happened?"

My suspicion is two-fold, and fairly obvious. He's not only vastly different to Suarez and Sturridge, who last season's team and successes were built around, but Liverpool aren't being set up to take advantage of his talents either.

I doubt it's coincidence that Balotelli has looked more effective in matches at Tottenham and against Real Madrid, partnered with Sturridge in a diamond in the first, partnered with Sterling in a diamond in the second and actually taking the game to Madrid before their superior talent blew Liverpool away.

The only other time we've seen the diamond since Sturridge's injury was at West Ham, where Liverpool's horrific defending saw them concede twice in the first seven minutes, ultimately abandoning the formation for a marginally more secure 3-5-2.

I obviously don't watch enough Serie A to argue about the merits of Balotelli as a lone striker in that league, but it's become fairly clear it's not working in this league, with this squad.

Nor is it coincidence that Balotelli's two cup goals have come from deep inside the opposition's penalty area, making strong runs into the box to get on the end of crosses from Moreno and Borini.

Mario Balotelli has received 220 passes in his nine Liverpool appearances (not counting passes received when offside). Just 23 have been inside the penalty box, including just one in each of Liverpool's last two losses against Newcastle and Chelsea.

As he's increasingly isolated, as Liverpool struggles, Balotelli drops deeper in search of the ball, leaving Liverpool even more bereft of power up front and removing the one guy who's supposed to be scoring the goals from the area where you score those goals.

For comparison, here is Daniel Sturridge's average position in the last eight league matches that he played without Luis Suarez: the five to start last season and the three before his injury this season.

Except for two matches – at Villa and against United last season, where Liverpool notably shelled after Sturridge's early goal – Sturridge's average position is much higher up the pitch, whether the other attackers are Coutinho or Sterling or Henderson or Aspas or Moses or Balotelli. Here are some of Sturridge's stats from those eight matches compared to Balotelli's nine matches for Liverpool this season.

There are actually a couple of similarities, primarily in chances created (and the subsequent lack of assists), but also number of shots on-target and amount of successful passes. The differences? Well, obviously, goals. Also, shot accuracy, successful dribbles, and throughballs. You know, those dangerous attacking metrics, the things that Sturridge and Suarez and Liverpool thrived upon last season. And, Daniel Sturridge's proportion of shots from inside the box.

Three of Sturridge's five goals in the above eight games came inside the six-yard box (the one at Swansea was in the center of the 18-yard box, the one against Stoke was from just outside the box). Mario Balotelli has taken all of four shots from inside the six-yard box in the league since he joined Liverpool: one on-target, three off-target (including that amazing woodwork blast against Everton).

And in match-by-match GIF form…

Yikes. Especially that massive gap in the left side of the penalty box, which is unbelievable for a right-footed player who often drifts to the left channel. I'll also remind that's the area where his first goal, against Ludogorets, came from. And while that shot chart is terrifying, Balotelli actually took a higher percentage of his shots with Milan last season from outside the box. It could be worse?

But has Liverpool really been that much worse than in the same fixtures last season?

Liverpool created 23 more chances in these 11 fixtures last season, but that disparity is explained by two matches: at Newcastle and against Chelsea. Liverpool created 19 chances in each of those matches last season, with Newcastle reduced to 10 men for the majority of the match and Chelsea happy to play with 10 or 11 men in their defensive third. Liverpool created 12, combined, in those two matches this season. Otherwise, the totals are fairly similar.

Similar goes for Liverpool's total shots in these 11 fixtures. 197 last season, 162 this season – a difference of 35 – but the discrepancy came against Newcastle and Chelsea, against those two deep defenses. Combined, Liverpool took 31 more shots in those two fixtures last season.

Neither statistic explains why Liverpool scored 14 more goals in these 11 fixtures last season. Maybe the fact that Suarez and Sturridge were responsible for 16 of those 28 goals last season, and that Sturridge has just one goal this season, does though.

You've probably seen this graphic before, either here or on Twitter.

Yes, Liverpool are shaky in defense, and it has cost them points during this turgid season. Similar goes for Liverpool's at-times-unbalanced midfield anchored by Gerrard. But those things happened in matches last season too.

The difference is up front. Balotelli is not the only failure so far this season (*glares at Liverpool's other two "strikers"* *glares at Rodgers*), but he's been the most egregious. I'm not smart enough to know what the solution is: whether it's using the diamond or 4-2-2-2 more often, Balotelli partnered with Borini or even Sterling or Markovic, or a more extended run for the also-struggling Rickie Lambert. Using Sterling on the left or centrally, another drum I've repeatedly beaten, would probably help as well.

But I know that this isn't working.

10 November 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

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

Same shit, different day, huh?

Well, let's talk about the few positives first. The positives besides the fact that Liverpool played fairly badly and still should have taken a point if not for Anthony Taylor swallowing his whistle in the 88th minute.

Liverpool played 24 passes prior to goal, over the space of 65 seconds. Every player except Balotelli touched the ball at least once. For 55 of those seconds, Liverpool had possession in unthreatening positions, forced to pass and poke and prod, mainly in their own half, trying to find a hole in Chelsea's organization, or to create one by pulling players out of position.

And Liverpool succeeded before Liverpool could do something stupid. Fabregas came to join Oscar and Costa in pressing Lovren, Gerrard, and Henderson, and Gerrard and Henderson exploited the space that Fabregas left: a quick pass to Henderson on the flank before Fabregas could recover, quickly to Sterling in the space Fabregas had vacated to press, quickly to Can who was in space when Matic chased over toward Sterling. Sure, Can was lucky that his shot deflected off of Terry, but this seems one of those times where you make your own luck.

Liverpool's longest passing move leading to a goal prior to that was the first against West Brom, with 12 passes before scoring. The second against West Brom and consolation against West Ham both had 11 passes in the sequence. But the majority of Liverpool's goals this season – not that there have been very many – have seen five or fewer passes, a remnant of last season's quick-strike attack but without last season's prolific scorers. The goal was proof that Liverpool actually can play out from the back at times, even with Lovren, Mignolet, and Skrtel heavily involved. Of course, subsequent turnovers leading to dangerous Chelsea chances in similar situations proves that they can't do it often enough.

Raheem Sterling was more influential when deployed on the left, finally, more involved in Liverpool's overall passing game (compare Saturday's output to his 25 passes attempted, 16 completed, supremely isolated performance at Newcastle) and able to assist Liverpool's goal by cutting inside into space on his stronger foot before finding a charging-forward Emre Can. That he only created the one chance and only took two shots disappoints, but also demonstrates how strong Ivanovic et al were in marking him and Liverpool in general. Both Coutinho and Lallana are more two-footed than Sterling, so hopefully Sterling will continue to be deployed on that flank with one of the aforementioned two on the right if Liverpool continue with some variant of the 4-3-3.

Liverpool also at least did well against Fabregas, who, along with Costa and Agüero, are on the early shortlist for player of the season. Fabregas has nine assists so far this season, had averaged 3.13 key passes per match, but had no assists and no key passes yesterday. Fabregas had averaged 75 successful passes per match, but completed 36 passes yesterday; 74 passes received per match, but 25 passes received yesterday. Yes, part of that was due to the way Chelsea played – only the 6-3 win at Everton saw them with less possession, attempting fewer passes – and yes, Liverpool still lost, but that was at least one thing that Liverpool's midfield – specifically Henderson and Can; Allen and Coutinho to a lesser extent – did well on Saturday.

Of course, there are those pesky negatives.

• Liverpool still concede sloppy goals, both from open play and from set plays.

Liverpool hadn't actually conceded a set play goal since Real Madrid's third at Anfield two and a half weeks ago. From Madrid's third to Chelsea's opener, slightly more than three and a half matches, Liverpool had successfully defended 12 free kicks in their own half and 18 corners, allowing just three chances directly from those set plays (in addition to the four shots that Madrid took from direct free kicks at the Bernabeu).

But then Saturday happened: Costa won the first header over Lovren, and Liverpool's quasi-zonal marking failed to win the second ball, allowing Terry, Matic, and Cahill touches inside their own six-yard box. Mignolet made the first save but couldn't stop the second.

The open play goal was almost as frustrating. Chelsea have what appears to be harmless possession inside their own half, but Liverpool are rent asunder by Willian's long cross-field pass to Azpilicueta, with Glen Johnson very out-of-position, leaving Coutinho one-on-one against Chelsea's left back. Touches from Mignolet and Moreno, the latter caught ball-watching rather than marking either Oscar or Costa at the back post (preferably Costa, as Lovren had decided to kind-of-but-not-quite follow Oscar), and the ball falls perfectly for an open Costa, one of the two most-potent strikers in the league.

But Liverpool had other problems than those two sequences. 12 of Chelsea 15 shots came from inside the box, an egregious proportion (for comparison, just five of Liverpool's 12 were inside the area). Nine of Chelsea's 11 key passes came from inside Liverpool's penalty box or just outside it centrally – high value chances – highlighting the need for an out-and-out defensive midfielder, at least in matches such as this. This video of Gerrard as "defensive midfielder" makes for difficult viewing. Liverpool added four more defensive errors leading to opposition shots to the season's tally – we're up to 16 for the season – this time from Lovren (twice), Gerrard, and Coutinho. Thankfully, none actually led to a goal. It could actually be worse; only four of Liverpool's 16 errors have led to a goal. Compare that to Everton, who have the second-most defensive errors with 13. Six of those errors have resulted in an opposition goal.

• And at the same time, Liverpool are still fairly impotent in attack.

Liverpool's strikers remain responsible for just one league goal this season: Sturridge's winner at Southampton in the first match. This chart remains terrifying:

I think I'll have to stretch a digression on Mario Balotelli into a longer post later this week, but here's a quick preview. He's getting worse, it's getting worse.

That GIF starts with Liverpool's last win, at QPR. He had seven shots in that match. Since then, he's taken two, two, two, and one in his subsequent four starts. So much for Mario Balotelli, Shot Monster. Admittedly, Madrid and Chelsea are difficult opponents and it's not as if Liverpool are creating enough for him, but repeatedly held to those low margins and playing that deep against the likes of Hull and Newcastle astounds.

Liverpool are also still having an amazing proportion of their shots blocked. Chelsea blocked seven of Liverpool's 12 on Saturday, including four of Liverpool's five after they took the lead. Through 11 league matches, Liverpool have had 51 of 162 shots blocked, 31.5%. Last season, only 19.8% of Liverpool's shots were blocked. But that's what happens when the opposition knows how impotent you are and is willing to have well-organized defenders sit deep. Only Sterling, Coutinho, and Lallana have shown any capability of creating space to shoot, with the latter two not doing it often (or not getting the chance to). Balotelli, Borini, and Lambert simply cannot create the space that Suarez and Sturridge reveled in last season.

The passing network shows just how deep all of Liverpool's starting attackers were forced despite Liverpool's near monopoly on possession, and how isolated Liverpool's three attacking substitutes were.

• Liverpool's supposedly deeper squad hasn't led to substitutes having any sort of impact on the game. Allen created two chances – the only Liverpool player to create more than one – but Borini was limited to one off-target shot in injury time, a ballooned header from Moreno's cross, while Lambert created a single chance, a layoff for Gerrard's shot from distance in the 88th minute. You may remember that was the shot which should have given Liverpool the chance for a draw, clearly blocked by Cahill's arm.

08 November 2014

Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Can 9'
Cahill 14'
Costa 67'

"Better" hardly feels better when you still lose and it's Chelsea and you're denied a clear penalty in the 88th minute.

But "better" remains very much a relative term. It's hard to be worse than Liverpool's performances against Hull and Newcastle.

And Chelsea were better than Liverpool, Chelsea are better than Liverpool, and that was Liverpool's third loss in a row. Liverpool remain broken in attack, even though they took more shots than against Newcastle and Madrid combined, and Liverpool again conceded regrettable goals from set plays and counter-attacks, even if both were well-designed and well-taken by Chelsea.

Liverpool did and didn't learn from the almost-adequate performance at Real Madrid. Emre Can kept his place, but Lovren and Johnson returned to the side, and Toure, Lucas, and Manquillo returned to the sidelines (Manquillo wasn't even in the squad). Liverpool finally switched Sterling to the left, with Coutinho on the right, but remained 4-3-3. At least it was 4-1-2-3 rather than 4-2-3-1.

And Liverpool started well, as they did at City and against Madrid at Anfield. And this time, Liverpool actually reaped an early goal reward. Lovren and Mignolet passed the ball out from the back surprisingly well, Henderson and Sterling found space in midfield, and Can's deflected shot left Courtois flat-footed. It's probably not coincidence that Sterling started on the left, where he's much better than on the right, and cutting inside into space and running at defenders led to an assist.

But Liverpool couldn't maintain the lead for very long, with Chelsea's clever set play exploiting the mostly zonal marking instituted against Hull. Lovren was beaten to the first header, Chelsea's numbers overwhelmed Liverpool's set-up to the rebound from Mignolet's first save, the second effort just crept over the line and was confirmed by goal-line technology. Hard to come by but easy to go for this Liverpool.

The home side had a couple of chances to retake the lead – Henderson misplaying a clever corner routine, Coutinho's strong run ending in a shot saved and Cahill first to the rebound – but Chelsea were the stronger side by the 30th minute. Liverpool suddenly became unable to play out from the back, with turnovers leading to excellent chances twice blocked by Johnson, and Hazard shooting straight at Mignolet.

And the second half began in the same vein until Chelsea finally went ahead, even if it was slightly against the run of play: Willian's cross-field ball finding Azpilicueta just onside one-on-one against Coutinho with Johnson caught upfield and barely bothering to amble back, the left-back beating Coutinho, his deflected cross falling perfectly for an open Costa, with Moreno not marking either Chelsea player at the back post.

Once again, it never felt as if Liverpool were going to get back into the game after going behind. The substitutes – Allen for Can, Borini for Coutinho, Lambert for Balotelli, with Liverpool switching to a 4-Diamond-2 – did nothing to help the side. Liverpool had more possession, because Chelsea were happy to defend its lead knowing Liverpool's impotence, but the team was reliant on ineffective crosses and Liverpool's "best" two chances from those crosses came almost by accident: Moreno's cross, Borini's flick-on, Henderson's wild shot deflected wide; a cleared cross falling to Gerrard, his shot from distance blocked by Cahill's arm with no penalty given.

You could see Rodgers' logic behind the changes: he wanted to switch to two strikers, so Coutinho was always going to come off rather than Sterling for Borini, with neither Lallana nor Coutinho trusted to fill the shuttling role that Allen filled. Allen mostly played well (and was the only Liverpool player to create more than one chance), but the two substitute strikers remained just as ineffective as the starting striker. Chelsea are very good defensively, especially in the air, and well-organized. Liverpool are poorly organized in attack and, devoid of the ability to play through Chelsea's defense, resorted to crosses not likely to succeed.

And yet Liverpool still could have gotten a point if Anthony Taylor hadn't swallowed his whistle. Life is not fair.

So, yeah, even though Can played well and Liverpool actually scored and Liverpool were a bit better in defense, midfield, and attack, Liverpool still weren't good enough in defense, midfield, and attack, and this still looks a mediocre side at best. A mediocre side isn't beating this Chelsea. Liverpool still conceded on a set play and a counter-attack. There is no meritocracy if Lovren and Johnson start over Toure and Manquillo after Tuesday's match; Lovren (2/4), Johnson (2/4), Moreno (2/4), and Gerrard (1/2) were successful with just 50% of their attempted tackles. Liverpool are inconsistent playing out from the back, ineffective when pressing in the opposition half, and unable to create good chances in attack. "Shot monster" Mario Balotelli – who again at least worked hard – took just a single shot, after getting just two against both Newcastle and Hull.

That said, at least Liverpool scored, at least Liverpool took 12 shots, at least Liverpool looked marginally, barely more competent. Obviously not competent enough, but at least it wasn't Hull or Newcastle again. A vastly better Liverpool "earned" the same result last season. Now, Liverpool have yet another international break – and maybe even Sturridge will return after this one! – to try to remedy the remaining, on-going problems and maybe put today's few bright spots to better use.

The fixes need to happen fast. This season's quickly getting out of hand, if it's not already gone.

07 November 2014

Liverpool v Chelsea 11.08.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Chelsea (h) 04.27.14
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13
2-2 (h) 04.21.13
1-1 (a) 11.11.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Real (a); 0-1 Newcastle (a); 2-1 Swansea (h)
Chelsea: 1-1 Maribor (a); 2-1 QPR (h); 2-1 Shrewsbury (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Chelsea: Costa 9; Hazard, Oscar 3; Ivanovic, Schürrle 2; Drogba, Fabregas, Matic, Ramires, Remy, WIllian 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Liverpool are unbeaten in the eight matches Anthony Taylor has been the referee for since Brendan Rodgers became manager (5W-3D). There's a first time for everything.

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Toure Moreno
Henderson Can
Borini Balotelli

Did we learn anything after Tuesday's loss to Real Madrid?

Yes, Kolo Toure can be a comedic figure. Yes, I very much remember massive mistakes against West Brom and Fulham, among others. Yes, I know that the Toure-Skrtel pairing kept just one clean sheet in 10 matches last season. Yes, I worry about Toure and Skrtel's lack of speed against Chelsea's attack. But I don't really care. The Toure-Skrtel pairing looked far, far better against Real Madrid than Skrtel-Lovren has looked at any time this season.

Emre Can was the other player to make a strong case for continued inclusion. Pairing Henderson and Can would give Liverpool two willing runners in midfield able to press Chelsea's midfielders relentlessly – specifically Fabregas – and both have the ability to break the opposition's lines with strong runs from deep, even if neither is an especially strong finisher.

Could we see the return of the 4-Diamond-2? Chelsea's attacking line of three interchanges early and often, but whether it's Hazard, Oscar, or Willian out wide, they often come into the center. Liverpool shouldn't be as reliant upon wingers tracking back, and both Henderson and Can are mobile shuttling midfielders capable of covering a lot of ground. In addition, Borini was another who played well against Real despite Liverpool's overwhelming lack of an attack. I'd still like to see what he and Balotelli are capable of in a front pairing.

The other diamond alternative is Sterling up front with Balotelli and Coutinho as the #10, a formation that allows both Sterling and Coutinho to play without relegating them out wide. More specifically, without relegating Sterling to the right. Once again, please don't play Sterling on the right.

Do I think any of this – Toure, Can, diamond – is likely to happen? Probably not. 4-3-3 (whether 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3) with Henderson, Allen, Gerrard in midfield, Coutinho, Balotelli, Sterling up front, and Johnson and Lovren back in defense still feels like it's the "preferred" formation, for reasons beyond my explanation. Maybe this time will be different than all the other times.

Regardless, Liverpool will have to be their best, up against the Premier League Champions-in-waiting.

As much as it pains me to say, Chelsea are good. Really, really good. After adding Diego Costa and Fabregas, they've no weaknesses. They were already defensively sound and well-organized, as Mourinho teams always are, and now they've got the firepower that's been lacking. Courtois is also an upgrade on Petr Cech. The starting XI is the strongest in the league, and the bench is usually made up of players such as Schürrle, Ramires, Drogba, Remy, and Salah.

The Chelsea XI seems simple to predict. Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Fabregas, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa. The only question is at left-back, where Mourinho could pick either Azpilicueta or Filipe Luis. Loic Remy and Mikel, two players who usually come off the bench if they feature, are Chelsea's only injury doubts.

It's safe to assume that Chelsea won't play as they played in their last visit to Anfield. They've no need for that style, in outstanding form with the weapons to play on the front foot on any ground. And Liverpool obviously don't have the weapons they did last season. If anything, Liverpool will be the more defensive side, first attempting to be secure at the back before launching potential counter-attacks.

Liverpool are unfavored, unfancied, out of form, and up against the wall. There's an excellent chance they'll be completely outclassed once again tomorrow. But we've seen backs-against-the-wall deliver brilliant performances before, even if we're yet to see it this season. There's no time like the present.

05 November 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Real Madrid

Previous Match Infographics: Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

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

(As usual when there's no match review, here's the formation diagram for thoroughness' sake.)

The Great Selection Debate of 2014.

Yes, statistically, that was about as severe a 1-0 whipping as it gets. But you may have noticed that Liverpool aren't in a very good place right now. Which is why a 1-0 loss at Real Madrid doesn't feel especially bad, especially given the starting XI that Brendan Rodgers decided to name.

Aside from the 1-1 draw against Everton, Liverpool have been bad, simply bad, since Sturridge was injured. The systems haven't worked, key players have underperformed, and Liverpool's defense has been leakier than a roof made of swiss cheese.

The so-called first XI lost at home to the same side 0-3, and were down by that scoreline after 41 minutes. Real did little more than show up in the second half, and Liverpool still couldn't score a lone consolation.

Credit where due. For all of Rodgers' perceived inflexibility, rightly and wrongly, he was pragmatic enough to make dramatic alterations yesterday, alternations which almost (but obviously still didn't) earned a point.

I very much remember Sam Allardyce gloating after West Ham's victory over Liverpool six weeks ago.

Rodgers has been resilient to change this season, to put it nicely. A continued insistence on a lone striker, usually in a 4-2-3-1, a continued reliance on Gerrard and Sterling despite underwhelming performances from both, a baffling faith in Dejan Lovren despite woeful form, Glen Johnson still getting games, etc. Yes, Liverpool don't have a plethora of options with injuries to Sturridge and Sakho, in addition to the other absentees earlier in the campaign, but attempting to cram square pegs into round holes again and again and again has been frustrating to say the least.

All that changed yesterday. An away match against Real Madrid is a hell of a time to do so, but Rodgers had little to lose given Liverpool's form and Real's strength, especially considering the massive fixture on the weekend. Yesterday's match had little bearing on Liverpool's ability to qualify from the group; that'll be decided against Basel and Ludogorets.

We'll see if it was a one-off. I'd expect most of those left on the bench to come back into the side against Chelsea, but Toure and Can, at the very least, made strong cases for their continued involvement.

That said, despite Liverpool's improvement in defense, Liverpool could again have lost by multiple goals if not for Simon Mignolet. Mignolet's eight saves yesterday tied the most he's made in a match for Liverpool, set in the 3-3 draw at Everton almost a year ago. His previous high for the season was four, in six matches this season. Incidentally, Liverpool kept a clean sheet in none.

The previous four sides to visit to Bernabeu lost 5-1, 5-1, 5-0, and 3-1, and the 3-1 was the mighty Barcelona. Yesterday was always going to be some form of damage limitation. And it nearly worked, if not for a moment of brilliance from Marcelo and Benzema. Toure bears little blame for the goal; he had a split second to guess whether Benzema would try to run across him or veer to the far post, and chose wrong, with Marcelo's cross pin-point perfect. It happens.

The 27 shots that Real Madrid took were the most Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have allowed in a single match. Only twice has Liverpool's opponent taken 20 shots or more against Rodgers' Liverpool: Sunderland's 23 last season, when Liverpool went 2-0 up in the first half then defensively shelled, and City's 20 last season, where they comprehensively outplayed Liverpool in a 2-1 win after Liverpool took an early lead. But this is a very different Liverpool than last season's Liverpool. Or even 2012-13 Liverpool. And Real Madrid are the best side that Liverpool has faced since Rodgers became manager.

27 shots. And they scored just once. There's no such thing as a moral victory, but that's almost a moral victory.

Sure, it would have been nice had Liverpool been able to go toe-to-toe with Real on their own ground, to take no prisoners. It would have been nice had Liverpool been able to create more than four shots when playing such a deep, defensive performance.

But that's not where Liverpool are at the moment.

Borini held play up well but can't create chances on his own; Lallana and Markovic had flashes in attack but rarely troubled Real on the counter. That Alberto Moreno was the only player to take multiple shots and to both take a shot and create a chance says a lot. Liverpool's attack probably would have been slightly more threatening in the same system with Coutinho and Sterling instead of Lallana and Markovic, and maybe even Balotelli instead of Borini. But then again, they've not set the world afire lately, and there is the small matter of Chelsea on Saturday. And it's worth noting that Liverpool failed to create a chance or even take a shot after Sterling, Gerrard, and Coutinho came on, although Real did sit a bit deeper when Liverpool kinda sorta tried to find an equalizer in the final 20-25 minutes.

Liverpool played a similar style in those famous 0-0 draws at Juventus and Chelsea in the quarter- and semi-finals of the 2004-05 Champions League. Except Liverpool's center-back pairing then was Hyypia and Carragher, and now it's Toure and Skrtel (or Lovren). This is not a new phenomenon, even if Liverpool attempted to do similar yesterday with a surprising XI.

Through Mignolet and Toure, through Lucas and Can, through Manquillo and Moreno, through the crossbar and Real Madrid's below-average-for-them 33.3% shot accuracy, Liverpool's defense looked better than it has since drawing Everton. Finally.

Now, Liverpool have to build upon that, whether it's with the same personnel or some regular starters coming back into the side, whether it remains a more-defensive-but-not-that-defensive system. Chelsea, even at Anfield, are likely to come at Liverpool with a similar fury. Unlike last season, this side has to become more secure before figuring out the goal-scoring woes. But, yes, Liverpool assuredly still have to figure out the goal-scoring woes.

03 November 2014

Liverpool at Real Madrid 11.04.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Newcastle (a); 2-1 Swansea (h); 0-0 Hull (h)
Real: 4-0 Granada (a); 4-1 Cornelia (a); 3-1 Barcelona (h)

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Real: 3-0 Liverpool (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (a); 5-1 Basel (h)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 1
Real: Benzema 4; Ronaldo 3; Bale, James 1

Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)

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

Screw it. You're going to the Santiago Bernabeu to face the best side in the world. You're going to be penned back. You're going to play for the counter-attack, at best, and hope that your defense doesn't do anything stupid for a change. Your attack has been beyond insipid, especially when starting Balotelli (or Lambert, for that matter) as a lone striker, and your defense hasn't been that much better.

So why not try that "Sterling-as-false-nine" strategy mooted by This is Anfield and others in the run-up to the reverse fixture? What do you have to lose?

There's no possible way Liverpool's attack could be worse than against Hull or Newcastle. That was about as bad as it gets. Liverpool tried the diamond in the reverse fixture, with Balotelli and Sterling up front, and it looked like it might work for about 20 minutes until Real blew Liverpool out of the water. I doubt Liverpool would have that much joy – which wasn't even that much joy – in Madrid, where they'll be even more susceptible to Real Madrid's fire power.

I'd also suggest using Markovic rather than Lallana or maybe Coutinho, simply because he's supposed to be a more direct, faster player better suited for this style, but he hasn't shown that yet for Liverpool, probably more because of Liverpool's team-wide failings rather than his own flaws. Also, maybe bring Lucas – who played well against Swansea, even if it was in the league cup – back into the side, most likely for Allen.

Aside from replacing Johnson with Manquillo (please!), there aren't many possible changes in defense. Sakho's still injured, and Toure's not seen as an alternative to Lovren or Skrtel, even if Toure-Lovren (like Lucas) did fairly well against Swansea.

Three at the back, which we kind of sort of saw at Newcastle, might not be the worst idea in the world, as long as the midfield isn't in the same staid shape, Balotelli has some support up top, and Glen Johnson's not involved. Maybe something like Manquillo/Toure, Skrtel, Lovren; Henderson, Allen/Lucas, Gerrard, Moreno; Coutinho, Sterling; Balotelli. Henderson seems a better option than Sterling as wing back, both defensively and to get Sterling closer to goal, while Balotelli would need as much support as you feel comfortable providing when at Real Madrid. But Balotelli's still not suited for a counter-attacking style, which Liverpool will have to play, and Liverpool didn't exactly set the world afire playing a similar-ish style at Newcastle, even if Newcastle and Real Madrid are entirely different propositions.

And Real Madrid should be even stronger than they were at Anfield, both because they'll be at home and because Ramos and possibly Bale will be available. If AS – pretty much Real Madrid's in-house media – is to be believed, Ramos for Pepe will be the only change, with Bale to be used off the bench if he's fit. Jese, Coentrão, and Carvajal are still injured, while Khedira and Illaramendi – who both featured as substitutes two weeks ago – are doubtful.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see Liverpool attempt to cram square pegs into round holes again, because that's what's happened since Sturridge was injured. I'm still pretty sure Rodgers is smarter than we are, but it's been baffling to see Liverpool stick with the "if at first you don't succeed, keep doing similar things" method.

I don't expect much from tomorrow's match – and you shouldn't as well – no matter how depressing that state of affairs is. You know what we've seen from Liverpool so far this season, you know what Real Madrid's capable of. But Liverpool still can't repeat this season's numerous mistakes while hoping to get some sort of result tomorrow, because Real Madrid will punish them in ways that Newcastle, Hull, Basel, etc can only dream of.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

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

You could also add "fewest chances created" and "second fewest shots in total" to that ignominious list.

It was simply the most insipid attacking performance we've ever seen during Brendan Rodgers' tenure.

This from Anfield Index is a thorough review of the tactical changes: how Liverpool's formation was both a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-2-4-1, why Rodgers made that alteration (expecting Newcastle to press from the front, as they did at Tottenham, rather than sit in middle and low blocks), and how Newcastle nullified Liverpool's strategy by cutting off the avenues to Coutinho and Henderson. It's not especially difficult to stop Liverpool at the moment, but Pardew cleverly understood what Liverpool would try to do and made sure they weren't able to do so.

But that's no excuse for some of Rodgers' decisions, nor is it an excuse for not changing things mid-game.

There's a lot to complain about. Not altering the midfield when it became clear that Newcastle where able to cut off passes to Henderson and Coutinho. Not bringing on a second striker earlier, and using Borini on the left, in basically the same formation, after he replaced Allen, simply shifting Henderson into Allen's role and Borini into Henderson's. Balotelli's dropping so deep his average position is behind Coutinho, more because of Liverpool resorting to long balls to him rather than how he saw his role.

But I'm angriest about how Sterling has been used of late. To say he was isolated and ineffective as a very advanced wing-back/wide forward is to put it far too mildly.

Admittedly, it's a much smaller sample size for Sterling on the left flank and when played centrally compared to when he plays on the right. This makes it a little closer.

Including Liverpool's points-per-game average isn't quite fair, as so much more is involved besides where Sterling plays, but it seemed enough of a discrepancy to make it worth mentioning.

And there's a vast discrepancy in pretty much every other attacking statistic as well.

Raheem Sterling *can* be effective on the right. He did well there at Spurs, against Cardiff, against Everton, at Fulham, and at West Ham, among others, last season. He can create chances running at the opposition left back and either crossing or passing from the byline, and every now and then, he'll pop up with a goal: like at West Ham this season after shifting to right wing-back or on the counter against Spurs or Cardiff last season. But almost all of his good performances when used on that flank came with Suarez or Sturridge or both in the line-up. When Liverpool had other attacking options.

Liverpool are vastly more reliant on Sterling's attacking output now, and even more so when Balotelli plays, especially in shooting. And Sterling is nowhere near effective enough when deployed on the right with Liverpool's current players. The smallest discrepancy is in chance creation, but Liverpool need his shooting far more than chance creation at the moment.

While we're complaining about the attack. You may have noticed that Lambert isn't included in the passing network. That'd because he made zero contribution after coming on in the 80th minute. No passes attempted, no passes received, no tackles, no interceptions, no touches at all. The only statistic he registered was one failed aerial duel. No matter how much Liverpool are struggling as a team and Lambert as an individual, that's bad. Very very bad. Especially when Liverpool are a goal down, and could have used help from one of their strikers-in-name-only. But it's also symptomatic of how little Liverpool offered in total after going a goal down.

To be a little fair to Rodgers, the set-up would have at least kept Liverpool secure if not for individual errors. Newcastle took nine shots before scoring, but its only excellent chance came from Mignolet's mistake on Colback's free kick, a missed punch leading to Cisse's close range effort, which would have been a goal if not for Johnson heading off the line. Lovren's three failed clearances leading to Colback's shot in first half injury time also went down as an error, but at least the shot was quickly blocked.

Then Moreno happened. And he'd been Liverpool's best defender – relatively speaking, of course – to that point, even if he was as much an attacking wing-back as a defender (he still made six tackles, all successful, and four interceptions, Liverpool's leader in both). Johnson conceding possession cheaply with an ill-advised shot, then failing to close down as Newcastle attacked down that flank, as well as Lovren chasing the ball across the box like a terrier who'd been locked inside all day, didn't help but Moreno's failed interception put the ball on a plate for Perez. Two minutes later, he failed to clear Henderson's back pass from a corner, leading to a two-on-Mignolet which the Belgian keeper somehow saved.

You can't legislate for those type of individual errors. Yes, Liverpool's defensive system has been flawed for a while, has broken down before, but that wasn't really the case on Saturday. Liverpool defended set plays well, except for Mignolet's error, for the third consecutive match if you count the league cup tie. Seven of Newcastle's 14 shots came inside the box, but four of those seven were from those individual errors; the other three were either well off-target (twice) or blocked (once).

Liverpool have been better defensively since getting mauled by Real Madrid, both in open play and on set plays. Had Liverpool's defensive set-up actually worked on Saturday, we'd still be furious about the attack, annoyed with Rodgers' in-game strategy, and disappointed in the result, but it would have at least been a point.

But because of continued individual errors, we don't even have that consolation. We don't have any consolation at all.

01 November 2014

Liverpool 0-1 Newcastle

Perez 75'

That was horrific. We've seen some bad performances this season, but that was the worst, in every facet and phase of play. Liverpool deserve to have points taken away from them after that.

There are a few things that I don't understand:

1) Why Rodgers persists with Balotelli as a lone striker
2) Why Rodgers persists with 4-2-3-1
3) Why Sterling continues to play on the right
4) Why Glen Johnson is preferred to Manquillo
5) Why Liverpool keep making insane defensive mistakes

There's more, but those seem the most egregious. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Today's performance and result are on Brendan Rodgers, continuing to ignore the few things that had worked on Tuesday to again try to smash square pegs into round holes. Neither Borini nor Lambert started, Balotelli was again isolated, Sterling was again rendered fairly useless by playing him wide on the right. Liverpool were 4-2-3-1 when out of possession, with Coutinho central and Henderson on the left, but pretty much three at the back with Moreno and Sterling as very advanced wing backs when in possession. Which makes the decision to prefer Johnson to Manquillo even more baffling.

It's one thing if that had led to the defensive stability we've craved, but nope, Liverpool stupidly conceded, again, because of individual mistakes. Johnson's zero-percentage shot led to a Newcastle counter down Liverpool's right, Moreno appeared to have intercepted the centered pass but could only tee it up for Ayote Perez. He'll be blamed, but Johnson's giveaway, abdicating Liverpool's right flank, and Lovren's positioning were even more at fault. Systemic failures, individual errors, yet again. It's not as if Liverpool had been incredibly secure to that point – Newcastle had nine shots to Liverpool's five at that point – but they'd at least allowed few concrete chances.

It was Basel all over again, playing it "safe" but still conceding thanks to mistakes, and wholly unable to create anything in attack. Against opposition that wasn't even very good in the first place.

Liverpool controlled possession, Newcastle controlled the match. Out-managed by Alan Pardew. That's embarrassing.

64.5% possession led to all of six shots. Six! The only other match under Rodgers that comes close to that low-water mark was last season's 1-0 win over Aston Villa, when Liverpool got an early goal and then defensively shelled like they'd never shelled before. Today, Liverpool needed a goal all game long, whether at 0-0 or 0-1, and still only managed six attempts. There are no words for how bad that is.

Liverpool's first shot didn't come until the the 40th minute, Skrtel's off-target header from a set play. That was one of just two Liverpool shots in the box. Liverpool's first open play shot didn't come until the 55th minute. Liverpool's only shot after Newcastle scored was Moreno's attempted acrobatic volley from a cross in the 87th, easily held by Krul. Liverpool created all of three chances from open play, despite 64.5% possession, despite attempting 575 passes in total.

There's blunt, there's toothless, there's impotent, and then there was Liverpool today.

Mario Balotelli is a useful scapegoat, but it hardly seems his fault when he's used like this. He's not going to grab the game by the throat, to single-handedly win you points like Suarez or even Sturridge. It's just not who he is, not how he plays. We knew this. He pressed, he tried to link play, but Liverpool don't provide him any support, Liverpool aren't set up to provide him any support. And this is exacerbated by playing Sterling on the right, taking away his best weapon – cutting inside and shooting – and making Liverpool even more reliant on crosses when Sterling gets the ball out wide.

But it's not as if the substitutions – Borini for Allen, Lambert for Coutinho – made Liverpool any more potent. There was simply no cohesion, at all, as Liverpool continued to play low-percentage long balls and crosses that were easily defended.

It's incredibly easy to stifle Liverpool at the moment, made even worse by the system and personnel Rodgers insists on using. We knew sides would set up defensively and look to counter against Liverpool, but Liverpool are getting worse, not better, against the tactic.

Liverpool are simply bad at football at the moment. Liverpool are missing its best player, Liverpool are misusing its best-at-the-moment player, and Liverpool continue to look apprehensive and error-prone in defense. No one played well today; even usually reliable players (Henderson, Allen, Moreno) were off-color. But what's most infuriating is that Liverpool aren't set up to take advantage of its personnel or strengths. They continue to do what didn't work before. And blame for that lies nowhere but at the manager's feet.