19 April 2014

Liverpool at Norwich 04.20.14

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
5-1 Liverpool (h) 12.04.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 01.19.13
5-2 Liverpool (a) 09.29.12
3-0 Liverpool (a) 04.28.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 City (h); 2-1 West Ham (a); 4-0 Tottenham (h)
Norwich: 0-1 Fulham (a); 0-1 West Brom (h); 0-3 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 29; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Skrtel, Sterling 7; Coutinho 5; Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Norwich: Hooper, Snodgrass 5; Fer, Johnson 3; Howson 2; R Bennett, Elmander, Hoolahan, Pilkington, Redmond, Tettey, Whittaker, van Wolfswinkel 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Lucas Allen
Sterling Suarez Coutinho

Will Sturridge be available and who replaces the suspended Henderson?

How Liverpool cope with Henderson's absence partly depends on Sturridge. If he's fit, it's a simple question: either Lucas or Allen replace Henderson in something of a straight swap. And I strongly suspect it'd be Allen.

“It’s vital you have players who can come in and do a fantastic job. We’re fortunate to have both Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen. They have both shown their qualities, particularly Joe in recent weeks. When he’s had the chance to play, he has been exceptional. I said when he first came to the club that Joe is an outstanding player. As time goes on and he starts to show that, what the club paid for Joe will be a bargain. You look at other midfielders with his qualities, they are going to big clubs for £40million. Joe is perfectly suited to this way of working. I have no doubt that in years to come he will be deemed a snip at £15million.”

- Brendan Rodgers

Neither Allen nor Lucas can replicate Henderson's pressing or overall work rate, but Allen's better able to make Henderson's attacking runs forward and link play in attack, and that'll be more important against Norwich than Lucas' patience passing and defensive capabilities.

But Sturridge's absence would render that debate moot; both will probably start if he's unavailable.

There's no like-for-like replacement for Daniel Sturridge. Aspas is the closest, but he's had next to no impact on the season since the first few matches. So you seemingly change the system, going back to what worked when Sturridge was absent in December, including in the 5-1 win against tomorrow's opponents. Sterling and Coutinho flanking Suarez, three midfielders behind, with at least one if not two of those midfielders joining the attack early and often.

Liverpool could also retain the diamond formation with Sturridge missing; Raheem Sterling seems more than capable of playing up front with Suarez, his pace suited to taking him behind Norwich's defenders, his runs pulling those defenders out of position to create space for Suarez. Coutinho at the apex of the diamond – chances are, he'll cut inside often in the 4-3-3 anyway – with Allen and Lucas the wide midfielders, and Gerrard at the base.

There is one other option: using Coutinho rather than Lucas in midfield if Liverpool play 4-3-3, and starting Moses in the front three. It's what The Guardian guessed in its match preview. But it's also frighteningly similar to the lineup Liverpool used in the 1-3 loss at Hull. So yeah, maybe not.

Regardless of formation, Luis Suarez will be crucial, the butcher of East Anglia in his last four matches against Norwich. 11 goals in those four matches; two hat-tricks in the two matches he's played at Carrow Road. That Suarez could keep up this one-man crusade against the Canaries seems unlikely, if not impossible. His shooting accuracy in those four matches was 64%. Six of those 11 goals came outside the box, including three unfathomably spectacular strikes. One of those days he'll regress to the mean. He has to. But I hope it won't be tomorrow.

Norwich are not in a good place right now. They've lost their last three, lost seven of the 11 since February 1. From 12th place on January 31 to 17th today, outside of the relegation zone by just two points, and with their last four games against Liverpool, United, Chelsea, and Arsenal.

Last Saturday was supposed to be the bulwark. Last Saturday was the reason Norwich fired Hughton, hoping to catalyze the side going into the six-pointer against woeful Fulham. It did not work as expected, losing 0-1, to give Fulham a slight ray of hope, and to drag Norwich further down into the morass.

Norwich played something of a diamond formation in that loss to Fulham, with Redmond and van Wolfswinkel as the strikers. It did not work especially well, as Norwich continued to Norwich despite the change in formation and manager. The away side started the better side and had some golden chances, but were denied by a combination of poor finishing, bad luck, and excellent goalkeeping. That inability to score has been the story of the season. No side has fewer league goals than Norwich; Suarez has three more than Norwich by himself. Then they conceded against the run of play late in the first half, and subsequently never looked as threatening as they did before Fulham struck.

So I've little idea how Norwich will line up tomorrow. I suspect it'll be similar to last Saturday, with Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Olsson; Johnson, Howson; Snodgrass, Fer, Redmond; Van Wolfswinkel, in either the 4-4-2 diamond or the more familiar 4-3-2-1 that Hughton usually used. But maybe Hooper or Elmander or both start instead, in the hopes of finding goals from somewhere. Maybe Hoolahan or Murphy start in midfield, in the hopes of adding more creativity. Adams has next to no track record, and it's not as if any of Norwich's players (especially in the front six) have nailed down a starting spot.

As against Sunderland, it's the archetypal trap game. Liverpool on a ten-match win streak away to a truly struggling side. Liverpool, missing two key players. Norwich, fighting for Premiership survival. It'd be too easy to look past tomorrow's match, to next week's supposedly season-deciding fixture against Chelsea. Thankfully, this is a side that rarely looked like falling into those traps.

And it's a side that still has Luis Suarez, the killer of Canaries and curse of Carrow Road.

So we go again.

17 April 2014

Liverpool Players' Goals by Game State [Infographic]

Luis Suarez is the king of scoring when Liverpool are already ahead – 21 of his 29 goals came with Liverpool in the lead – although Sterling's quite good at is as well. Which is little surprise considering how dangerous both are on the counter-attack, when running at defenders.

Conversely, 77% of Gerrard's 13 goals have been with Liverpool either tied or behind by a goal, including all three of his non-penalty goals. 80% of Coutinho's five goals came in the same situation.

Skrtel's the only player with more than one goal to have scored all of his goals with the game 'still in the balance' – one goal with Liverpool behind by a goal (at Cardiff), three goals to give Liverpool the lead (at Chelsea, v Arsenal, and at Cardiff), and three goals with Liverpool ahead by just one (v Fulham, v Arsenal, v City).

Liverpool have scored only once when behind by two goals: Sturridge against Villa, a match that Liverpool went on to draw. Although, to be fair, Liverpool have been behind by two goals for just 42 minutes this season: for 31 minutes in the 0-2 loss at Arsenal, for the last three minutes of the 1-3 loss at Hull, and for eight minutes against Villa.

And, strangely, all four of the own goals scored by Liverpool's opponent happened with the score tied. Liverpool went on to win all four of those matches. As I've said more than a few times this season, it's better to be lucky and good.

Here's another way of looking at it.

15 April 2014

Remember the 96

As always, April 15 is a day to remember 96 men, women, and children who went to a football match and never came home. And if you don't know the full story, it's a day to educate yourselves.

Hillsborough Family Support Group
Hillsborough Justice Campaign
Hillsborough Independent Panel
The Hillsborough Football Disaster
Liverpoolfc.com's Hillsborough Section
Hillsborough: A Survivor's Story (Liverpool Echo)
The Anfield Wrap: What Have You Done In The Last 25 Years

For American readers: tonight, ESPN will air a two-hour 30 for 30 documentary on Hillsborough starting at 8pm.

Justice for the 96.

14 April 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (a), Tottenham (h), Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

I'm still fairly amazed that both Coutinho and Sterling started in a diamond formation. Sterling reaped more of the plaudits, wonderfully scoring the first, setting up what should have been the second for Sturridge, and terrorizing City's midfield and defense. Pellegrini did not expect that set-up, and it most definitely led to Liverpool's mesmerizing start. Incidentally, that unpredictably has been a massive factor in Liverpool's fast starts: managers now don't know what to expect from Rodgers' Liverpool, only that they're most likely going straight for your throat.

Coutinho, in even more of an unfamiliar role, was just as impressive when Liverpool were in control of the game. He's rarely looked like an orthodox central midfielder while at Liverpool, even during his best performances in the 4-3-3. But that's exactly what he was yesterday.

Only Sakho attempted or completed more passes for Liverpool yesterday. Coutinho's six tackles were a high in yesterday's match, and a high for Coutinho this season. And every tackle he attempted was successful. But five of those six tackles, all five on the right flank, came in the furious first half.

Liverpool needed those performances from Sterling and Coutinho with both Suarez and Sturridge off-form. Part of that was due to City's defense, even with a mistake prone Kompany. They'd conceded the second-fewest goals in the league prior to this match, behind only Chelsea, for a reason. In addition, Zabaleta and Clichy were more hesitant to get forward than usual, much more concerned with doubling up on Liverpool's strikers, sealing off the channels where both can be so dangerous.

Combined, Suarez and Sturridge took just three shots, all off-target; created just one chance, which was Suarez's throughball for the first goal; and completed just two of 17 attempted take-ons. Sterling, in contrast, was successful with six of his eight attempted take-ons. Yes, Suarez should have also won a penalty – Clattenburg most likely ignoring the shout because of his previous histrionics – but City could have won two. And we've still no word on whether Sturridge will miss any time having gone off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury in the 66th minute. It was more than encouraging to see Liverpool able to beat one of the best (if not the best) sides in the league without those two on form, demonstrating how impressive Liverpool have become as a team, but they'll definitely be needed over the next month. At least next week's match is at Norwich. Suarez is already sharpening his knives in anticipation.

All five of yesterday's goals were fairly respective of the sides that scored them. Three from Liverpool: some Suarez brilliance as well as a killer throughball; a set play; and ruthlessly capitalizing on an opposition mistake. Two Manchester City strikes from patient build-up play with short passes, triangles, and one and two touches per player.

Both City goals came during the 10-15 minute period where Liverpool were flagging. Liverpool have allowed very few opposition goals that looked like City's two. More often, at least one Liverpool player is able to press, hassle, harry the opposition out of possession before they can pass pass pass pass pass through the midfield. But after an all-guns-blazing opening 45 minutes, the midfield had tired, and it was strange to see neither Allen nor Lucas come on. And those two goals were partly the result.

Milner, on in the 50th minute, made a massive difference – tucking instead where Navas stayed wide, drawing the fullbacks out of position, another attacker that actually linked with the others – but David Silva was the epicenter, far better able to find space amidst the tiring Liverpool midfield.

A similar amount of passes received in each half, but in much more threatening positions in the second half. Silva scored the first, set up the second, and could and probably should have added a game sealing third, inches away from connecting with Agüero's slightly-too-heavy centering pass.

It was worrying to see Liverpool tire so quickly in the second half. They still have four furious games left, games that will take a lot out of them no matter the opposition. It's no coincidence that City didn't score another Allen came on – not only providing a fresh set of legs but changing the formation to a more secure 4-1-4-1 – although City had two glorious chances to do so (both chances presented by Liverpool mistakes in their own half).

And Liverpool will be without its Energizer Bunny for three of those four matches. Henderson's late red card was Liverpool's first of the season. There have been just three Premier League seasons where Liverpool failed to pick up a single red card: 1995-96, 2006-07, and 2008-09. Only four teams are yet to have a player sent off this season: Aston Villa, Cardiff, Southampton, and West Brom.

13 April 2014

Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Sterling 6'
Skrtel 26'
Silva 57'
Johnson OG 62'
Coutinho 78'

Football. Sometimes it's impossible to describe.

Today saw every possible emotion. Anxiety to hopefulness to ecstasy to fear to resignation to utter jubilation to relief. There was not a single lull through 90 minutes, not one chance for anyone to catch their breath. At full time, it felt like we'd all run a marathon.

As in the home matches against Arsenal, Everton, and Tottenham, Liverpool began in the best possible manner, attacking towards the Kop, backed by four walls of ground-shaking noise.

The starting lineup was a bit of a surprise. Both Sterling and Coutinho were in the XI, but Liverpool persisted with the diamond, with Sterling at the apex and Coutinho deeper than usual. Two months ago, I never thought that possible, none of us thought that possible. And Sterling – still, I remind, just 19 years old – opened the scoring in the 6th minute.

Liverpool were all over City, and it seemed a matter of time before the second. That Yaya Toure had to go off through injury in the 19th minute – the player they'd least like to lose – made it seem even more imminent. Sterling's early cross found Sturridge in a perfect position, but the striker flicked his shot narrowly wide. Gerrard, letting Coutinho take a corner, bashed his free header too close to a quick-to-react Hart. But the reward finally came on the subsequent corner. This time, Gerrard took. This time, Skrtel ghosted in front of three players (zonal marking!) for a near post flick-on, giving Hart no chance. That's seven for him this season. I checked the records a few weeks back. I may be wrong, but I couldn't find a Liverpool center-back who has scored more in a single season.

But Manchester City aren't Swansea or Fulham. They aren't Arsenal or Everton. They were bound to regroup. It began in the final 10-15 minutes of the first half – Gerrard made a crucial block on Dzeko; Sakho,could have been called for a penalty on Dzeko; Sterling and Johnson both cleared a corner off the line; Mignolet had to make a marvelous save on Fernandinho; Liverpool got away with three frightening, casual passes in their own half – but in the second half, Manchester City made a comeback that looked worthy of champions.

You knew there'd be a response, and you had to be prepared for it. Liverpool seemingly weren't. To be fair, it helps when you can sub on £55m or so worth of players in Milner and Agüero. Milner made the bigger impact, by far, with Agüero clearly not fully fit, coming on after City got their two goals. The England midfielder – on in place of Navas, who'd been utterly smothered by Flanagan – was involved in both of City's goals, and it's not as if Liverpool weren't warned. Neat one-twos around Liverpool's defenders, wide players getting to the byline, cutting back for well-placed attackers.

Liverpool got that warning a minute before City's first when Silva had the ball in the net, called back because Milner couldn't keep it in before playing the pass, and City's opener came from the exact same situation – this time, Silva slamming in Milner's cutback. And five minutes later, they were level; City given too much space down Liverpool's right, one touch from Milner to Nasri to Silva, Silva's ball at the byline deflecting off both Johnson and Mignolet, the own goal given to the right back. As in the first half, fortune favors the bold.

"You didn't think it'd be that easy, did you?"

Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.

Just as important was how Liverpool's diamond midfield had tired after the frenetic first hour, with the game crying out for Allen or Lucas in place of Coutinho or Sterling, no matter how well those two had played in the first half. But rather than replacing one of the midfielders, an injury to Sturridge required his exit, with Allen coming on and Liverpool switching to 4-1-4-1/4-3-3.

It was a good thing that Coutinho didn't come off. Liverpool still had to weather a bit of an onslaught: Mignolet saving Dzeko's effort, Nasri blasting wide from distance, and the closest they came, Silva toe-poking Agüero's centered pass wide after Skrtel's mistake in defense left Sakho up against both Agüero and Silva. But Liverpool began to find its bearings. The old Liverpool would have lost faith, at best drawing 2-2 but more likely losing 2-3. Not this Liverpool. Not the Liverpool unbeaten since the new year, not the Liverpool that'd won nine straight. Not the Liverpool that believes.

But it's still better to be lucky and good rather than lucky or good. Liverpool, achieving its toe-hold, keeping possession in City's half, won a throw-in near the corner flag. Clichy could only head skyward, Kompany completely fouled up his attempted clearance, and Coutinho was onto the loose ball as if he were shot from a cannon, barely looking up before rifling past Joe Hart.

From there, you expected a City onslaught. And City dominated possession, but despite 15 minutes to play, despite five minutes of added time, the closest they came was a downward header from Demichelis from a corner, easily claimed by Mignolet. Flanagan's brutal tackle not long after Coutinho's strike, cleanly clearing out both ball and man before roaring in the direction of his teammates then the crowd, set the tone. "We will not be moved."

That Henderson picked up a deserved straight red in the dying minutes ended the day on a downer, or as much of a downer as possible after that result. He'll miss the next three matches, the only time he's missed this season, but at least Liverpool have replacements in both Lucas and Allen.

Today was the second-straight match where Liverpool have won without either Suarez or Sturridge scoring. Those are the only two matches where that's happened this season.

Over the last four months, Liverpool have become an amazing team. Emphasis on the final word. From reliance on Suarez and Sturridge, to beating the presumptive league favorites led by the performances of Gerrard, Sterling, Coutinho, and Flanagan. Neither of Liverpool's talismanic strikers were anywhere near their best. Suarez was the epicenter of Liverpool's first, bullying two defenders before an nanometer-perfect throughball for Sterling, but was too often petulant and frustrated after picking up an early yellow. Sturridge was a shadow of his usual self, made worse by picking up an injury in the build-up to City's second goal.

But Liverpool coped, and Liverpool responded. You can't look past the aforementioned efforts of Sterling, Coutinho, and Flanagan, but Gerrard was the man of the match. Liverpool has become Gerrard, the destroyer of worlds. To crib a terrible Chelsea banner, one that Gerrard's far more deserving of, he's Captain, Leader, Legend. And it means the world to him.

Nothing is settled, nothing is finalized. But it's another step on the road, this road we never thought Liverpool could travel this season. There are four games left for greatness, and I've no doubt Liverpool will treat each as importantly as they did today.

12 April 2014

Liverpool v Manchester City 04.13.14

8:37am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 City (a) 12.26.13
2-2 (a) 02.03.13
2-2 (h) 08.26.12
2-2 (h; League Cup) 01.25.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Ham (a); 4-0 Tottenham (h); 2-1 Sunderland (h)
Manchester City: 4-1 Southampton (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a); 3-0 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 29; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Skrtel, Sterling 6; Coutinho, Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Manchester City: Y Toure 18; Agüero 15; Dzeko 11; Negredo 9; Silva 6; Nasri 5; Fernandinho, Navas 4; Kompany 3; Jovetic 2; Demichelis, Kolarov, Milner 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Lucas Henderson
Sturridge Suarez

There seem to be more questions about Liverpool's starting XI and formation than usual this week.

First, there's the most frequent: diamond or 4-3-3? Liverpool have started with the 4-3-3 in the last two matches, but switched to the diamond in the second half. And controlled the game better in the diamond formation, although Liverpool could have controlled the second half against Tottenham in any formation. I suspect Rodgers will deploy it from the start tomorrow. Manchester City can cause pain on the flanks, but aside from Navas, it's mostly through the fullbacks. It's more important that Liverpool "win the midfield", especially against the likes of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.

A diamond formation raises two personnel questions. Sterling or Coutinho, Allen or Lucas? Who plays at the apex and who plays on the side opposite Henderson?

Sterling seemingly has more value as a substitute, able to stretch the game when legs are tiring, and is more versatile, increasingly comfortable in the middle in addition to his performances on either flank. Coutinho, a more orthodox midfielder, better able to link play between midfield and attack and more capable of playing the defense-killing throughball, seems a more appropriate starter.

It was surprising to see Lucas come on at halftime for Coutinho a week ago, and even more surprising to see where he played: Liverpool shifting to the diamond, and Lucas playing ahead of Gerrard. And Lucas' introduction made Liverpool much more defensively secure, both through the middle and when Lucas chipped in to support the fullback. Most amazingly, he also got forward, playing the crucial pass to win the crucial penalty. Allen is no slouch defensively – he was outstanding against United in this formation – but the more combative, physical Lucas seems a better pick against Toure and Fernandinho.

Finally, regardless of formation, Agger or Sakho? The former's fit again after missing last week through injury, but the latter did quite well in Agger's absence, especially considering how much time he'd missed prior to starting against West Ham. City don't pose the aerial threat that West Ham did, but they're more than capable in the air, especially if Dzeko starts. Rodgers often sticks with the devil he knows, preferring consistency, especially in defense, which would suggest another start for Sakho, but I honestly have no idea who he'll choose.

Worth noting: Liverpool have kept ten clean sheets in the league this season. Agger has started in all but two. Yes, he's also played when Liverpool have conceded three against Everton, Swansea, and Cardiff, but the previous stat hardly seems coincidence. More than half of Agger's league starts (15) have ended with Liverpool's opponent scoreless.

Agüero is fit again after a month on the sidelines, injured in the first leg at Barcelona four weeks ago. City have coped with his absence surprisingly well, winning four and drawing one of the five league matches, but there seems little doubt he'll come straight back into the starting XI, by far a better option than Dzeko or Negredo.

City's likely XI is Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Toure, Fernandinho; Navas, Silva, Nasri; Agüero. Dzeko may well start; there have been matches where he's played in the hole, behind Agüero in a sort of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid, flanked by two from Nasri, Navas, and Silva. Knowing that a draw will still put City in control of its destiny, Pellegrini could also use the more defensive Milner instead of Navas or Nasri, as he did at Barcelona, but Milner's only started two league matches since January 1.

11 of the 40 league goals that Liverpool have conceded this season have come from headers; seven of those 11 have come on set plays. Facing Agüero rather than Dzeko might better suit Liverpool, especially an Agüero in his first game back after a month's absence. But let's not downplay how good Sergio Agüero is. Three players have more goals than Agüero this season – Suarez, Sturridge, and Yaya Toure – but Agüero's done it in far fewer appearances, with a goals per 90 average of 1.13, compared to Suarez's 1.04 and Sturridge's 0.90. This piece, from Ben Pugsley six weeks ago, aptly demonstrates how important Agüero is to this City side.

Let's face it. Manchester City are loaded, from top to bottom. They can beat you in any number of ways. That's what spending ungodly amounts of oil money can and should buy you. But they also often appear a collection of incredibly talented individuals rather than a team.

I hate falling into the "THIS IS LIVERPOOL'S MOST IMPORTANT GAME SINCE BLAH BLAH BLAH" trap. Liverpool could win on Sunday but still fail to win the title if they mess up in one or more of the next four matches. Liverpool could lose or draw tomorrow but still win the the title if City (or Chelsea) mess up in one or more of their final matches. Tomorrow could decide a lot, but won't decide everything.

That said, this is Liverpool's most important league match in a very, very long time. A draw or loss means that City's back in the catbird seat. It's fitting that Liverpool will need to beat both their closest competitors in the last five weeks to win the championship. There will be no backing into this title. And both of those matches will be at Anfield. A very, very loud Anfield.

Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them.

07 April 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (h), Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Liverpool have now won 12 penalties this campaign, converting ten of them. This is the most that Liverpool have won in a Premier League season; the previous high was 10 in 2003-04 and 1992-93. Historically, it's usually somewhere between four and seven league penalties a season. Manchester City and Chelsea are tied for second-most penalties this season; they've each earned seven.

The last side to win 12 penalties in a season? Chelsea in 2009-10. Who set the record for goals scored in a Premier League season. And won the league.

Luis Suarez has earned five of those 12 penalties (as well as Liverpool's one penalty in the FA Cup): two via handball, two via mistimed tackles by the defender, and one when taken out by a goalkeeper. Sterling's earned three, Sturridge two, Allen and Flanagan one each.

It shouldn't be surprising that Liverpool have won so many spot kicks when they've the capacity to score at will, and with fast, clever players such as Suarez, Sterling, and Sturridge. But 12 is still a surprisingly large amount of penalties. And we can easily come up with more than should have been given: at City, at Chelsea, at United just to name three.

It took chutzpah to take off Philippe Coutinho at halftime. He'd created three chances of Liverpool's five first half chances, looked the player most likely to find the pass that finally broke West Ham's defense. It was not the obvious change if Rodgers was looking to make changes. No matter. Liverpool's midfield wasn't working, Liverpool weren't in control, West Ham were threatening too often, and Rodgers wasn't having it. So on came Lucas.

From there, Liverpool played and completed more passes, had much more possession, took more shots, created more and better chances. In addition, Andy Carroll was rendered mostly moot and mute.

Obviously, Lucas wasn't solely responsible for Liverpool's improvement or Carroll's nullification. But the switch to a diamond midfield with a stronger defender as one of the wider midfielders did negate West Ham's primary attacking strategy to a large extent. And, to the shock of pretty much all involved, it was Lucas' throughball which earned the winning penalty. Rodgers has increasingly been praised for his willingness to tinker, often in the starting formation and personnel. Now we're seeing those adjustments during the match as well.

Once again, Liverpool did an excellent job limiting the opposition to shots from less dangerous positions, with only four of 11 shots coming inside the box. One of those four – the goal – obviously shouldn't have stood. Another, from Nolan, was as much an attempted flick-on as a shot, and didn't go anywhere near Mignolet. Credit for that is team-wide, defending well in both midfield and defense, but special mention goes to Skrtel and Sakho, combining for 21 clearances and winning eight of 17 aerial duels against a difficult opponent. Skrtel's renaissance has been remarkable, but Sakho's efforts were even more impressive given that he hadn't started a match since December 29.

However, three of those four shots came from set piece situations, the fourth – Carroll's header off the bar – from Diame's right-flank cross. It's worth reiterating a stat from yesterday's match review: Demel's goal was the 12th set play goal Liverpool have conceded this season (not counting penalties, which would bring the total up to 15). Only Fulham, Stoke, Sunderland, and West Brom have conceded more. Granted, it's vastly improved in recent weeks – Liverpool conceded nine in the first half of the season, but just three since the New Year – but it's still enough to worry at times.

Liverpool have also scored the most set play goals in the league this season. Second-most? Next week's opponent: Manchester City.

06 April 2014

Liverpool 2-1 West Ham

Gerrard 44' (pen) 71' (pen)
Demel 45+1'

Sometimes, the universe tries to trick me into believing that karma actually exists.

West Ham were able to impose their style on the game, to drag Liverpool down to its subterranean level. But, aside from one moment of madness from Anthony Taylor, Liverpool wrestled in the mud just as well as West Ham.

Do you want to know why Allardyce and Pulis' teams often play rugby rather than football? Because it achieves their limited aims, and, more importantly, because referees let them get away with it. 60% of the time, it works every time, and that's enough to avoid relegation and give the bigger clubs a game every now and them, so that's good enough.

Anthony Taylor's decisions led to all three of today's goals. Yes, I'm biased. But the first was a 100% clear and correct decision. The second was a 100% clear and incorrect decision. And the third was arguable, debatable, and most likely very much a make-up call.

For 43 minutes, pure frustration. West Ham controlled the tenor and tempo, even if it was mostly harmless thanks to Liverpool's strong defending. Sakho, starting for the first time since December 29 because of an injury to Agger, battled manfully, but Skrtel was again Liverpool's rock at the back, matching Carroll step for step and header for header. Liverpool had opportunities to counter, allowing West Ham to come forward in the hopes of ripping them apart through transitions, but either the final pass or shot went astray.

Then, Steven Gerrard happened. There are still valid complaints about his positional discipline and awareness when deployed as the deepest midfielder – although they're increasingly few and far between – but it's freed him to make passes like today's: an inch-perfect, defense-destroying 60-yard pass to Suarez, peeling behind Demel and Tomkins, forcing a handball from the central defender in a similar position to Rafael's at Old Trafford. Gerrard trotted forward to the spot, and sent Adrian hopelessly in the wrong direction.

Rodgers' mantra after taking a first half lead is to not do anything stupid in the dying minutes before halftime. Be clever, see out the remainder. And despite conceding an unnecessary corner in injury time, they'd looked to have done so. Until Anthony Taylor intervened. Mignolet appeared to claim, until Carroll punched him in the head. Taylor either ignored or didn't see it, signaling goal while his linesman's flagging furiously for the foul. So he stops, goes to talk to the better positioned linesman ... and still gives the goal. Amazing. You'll never, ever convince me that's given had Taylor not awarded Liverpool a penalty two minutes earlier. Referees always want to "even" things up.

So yes, it was by hook and by crook, but it was still the 15th set play goal Liverpool have conceded this season. Only Fulham, Stoke, Sunderland, and West Brom have allowed more. That's not good.

Rodgers clearly wasn't happy at halftime, and wouldn't have been pleased even if the game was still 0-0 or 1-0. He changed both shape and style, bringing on Lucas and reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond, the defensive-minded Brazilian in place of the attack-minded Brazilian, which better solidified the center of the park, and clustered more players around Carroll and West Ham's other attackers who were looking for the big lump's knock-downs. From 55.6% Liverpool possession in the first half to 72.4% possession in the second half. And, surprisingly enough, the substitution was crucial to the game-winning penalty. Had you told me that Liverpool would win because a Lucas throughball to Flanagan would earn Liverpool a penalty, I would have had you institutionalized. Gerrard, back at the spot, this time going to his left. As did Adrian, but the keeper still had zero chance of keeping the ferocious blast out. A hammer blow, if you will.

From there, Liverpool did an admirable job of seeing out the match, even after Allardyce brought on a second lumbering colossus striker in Carlton Cole, with Rodgers replying with Toure for the misfiring Sturridge. It was nerve-wracking, because Liverpool are often nerve-wracking, but the only chance I can remember in the final 20 minutes fell to Downing at the top of the box. Every Liverpool fan breathed a sigh of relief, remembering Downing's time at Liverpool, as the winger ballooned his shot well over.

With better finishing, it wouldn't have been this nerve-wrecking. The counter-attack just didn't click at times, but both Suarez and Sturridge missed opportunities they've had seized with both hands earlier in the season. Suarez twice hit the crossbar with efforts conjured from nothing, Sturridge put three of five shots off-target, with his two on-target efforts both tamely hit at Adrian.

Liverpool needed two penalties to do it – taking the season total up to 10 (not counting the spot kick in the FA Cup at Arsenal, or misses against Everton and United) – but Liverpool are now only the fourth team to score 90 goals in the Premier League era, joining 1999-00 Manchester United, 2009-10 Chelsea, and 2011-12 Manchester City. And yes, all three of those sides won the league.

Once again, we're complimenting Liverpool for showing the resilience needed in a title chase. Gerrard, cool as you like from the spot, setting up the opening goal, foraging for knockdowns when Carroll won headers, and tracking West Ham's runners well, is a microcosm of that composure, deservedly the center of our attentions. It's telling that he remained the deepest midfielder despite Lucas' introduction. Liverpool's center-backs weren't far behind in the man-of-the-match race, especially Skrtel, while Liverpool's fullbacks defended well enough, even if both were beaten by Diame and Downing on a couple of occasions (especially Flanagan by Diame).

Another mark in the correct column, for the ninth (!!!) consecutive match. Just five more to go.