22 October 2014

Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid

Goals:
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.

Sigh.

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?

Sigh.

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:
Mignolet
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Gerrard
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.

20 October 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 QPR

Previous Match Infographics: 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.


Where do you start with that? An abysmal performance at both ends of the pitch, except Liverpool's counter-attack came to life in the final 5-10 minutes, against the worst side in the division. Rodgers experimenting with both personnel and formation with Madrid imminent, and none of those experiments working out.

The biggest surprise was moving Gerrard forward after using a similar set-up to finish the win against West Brom.

As a defensive tactic, Gerrard as the #10 made little sense. There have been games where he's been attacked and suffered, but his performance as the ostensible defensive midfielder hasn't been why Liverpool concede early and often. Even if QPR had started with its more-frequent 4-5-1 system, they'd still have focused on attacking down the flanks, most likely Liverpool's left.

It seems to me that it had to have been an attacking tactic, based solely off of the final 15-20 minutes against West Brom, trying to get more out of Balotelli by providing service from the captain. Which makes little sense, because the game states were vastly different. Then, West Brom had to throw men forward in search of an equalizer, there was space for Gerrard to roam. That wasn't going to be the case at the beginning of the match at QPR, up against two very defensive midfielders in Henry and Sandro. And it failed miserably.

Liverpool were utterly insipid in attack in the first half, unable to even take a shot until the 26th minute.



And Gerrard and Balotelli exchanged all of five passes. Just one came with Gerrard in an advanced role: Balotelli's key pass for Gerrard's shot off-target in the 44th minute, by far Liverpool's best chance to that point.

Yes, some of that was down to Balotelli, not only a fish out of water in this team, who still shoots from less-than-ideal positions when a pass is a much better option, but also a fish wholly devoid of confidence. We're reaching Peter Crouch territory here, a player who took 1227 minutes to score his first Liverpool goal (706 minutes in the league). Balotelli's been held scoreless for 427 minutes in the league, after registering his first Liverpool goal in the Champions League after 214 minutes for the club. A player with confidence, even with Balotelli's flaws, buries that chance in the 61st first rather than rushing his shot and hammering it over. I am admittedly still quite worried, but I also still truly believe all he needs is just one league goal to get the rock rolling downhill, as it did for Crouch.



At least Balotelli did a much better job of actually getting into the box compared to previous performances. That's not enough, but it is a start.

Regardless, is an attacking role really the best use of Steven Gerrard these days?



So it was no surprise to see Liverpool more cohesive in attack after the interval.



To be fair, some of that was QPR's doing, pressing very well, especially in the first half, with seven of their 21 successful tackles in Liverpool's half. Credit to Redknapp for realizing that Liverpool have had trouble when playing against two strikers all season long; I was fairly certain he'd bunker down with the more frequently deployed 4-5-1 formation. Liverpool have faced two-striker formations three times now: at City (4-2-2-2), at West Ham (4-Diamond-2), and at QPR (lopsided 4-4-2). Coincidentally, those are the only three league matches where Liverpool have conceded at least two goals.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have played 4-2-3-1 in five matches this season (four in the league, as well as Basel), and it's seemed reasonably competent twice: the first match against Southampton, won thanks to Sturridge and Sterling far more than the formation, and at Everton, where Liverpool were still disjointed in attack but would have won if not for Jagielka's hapax legomenon. Both with and without Sturridge – and sadly, we've far more evidence without – Liverpool remain better with two mobile midfielders deployed ahead of Gerrard, at both ends.

Finally, the elephant stomping, stamping, snorting, and screaming in the room. I'm at a loss for answers about the defense. It's been bad all season long, but yesterday's performance was the worst. Personnel certainly had something to do with it – we can lay at least 80% of QPR's first goal at Enrique's feet, almost all of QPR's chances came down that flank, Lallana (for all his positive attributes) isn't especially suited to providing defensive support, Johnson was no great shakes either – but it has to be systemic as well. Different players keep making similar errors: Henderson, Johnson, and Skrtel all missing tackles in the run up to Austin's early effort; Lovren and Enrique switching off on Zamora in the run up to the first time Fer hit the crossbar; Lovren's misplayed header going backwards perfectly for Austin on the first goal; Gerrard switching off on Vargas for the second goal, even with Joe Allen pointing and screaming about the open space. Et cetera, et cetera.

Given his complete lack of match practice, it's little surprise that Enrique was tormented all game long, but that both Skrtel and Lovren were outplayed by Zamora was embarrassing. I was amazed to see that Lovren actually won 10 of his 14 aerial duels (and Skrtel won five of six), because it certainly didn't seem that way during the match.

Even at their worst, either last season or this season, Liverpool have at least been decent at preventing danger zone shots. Not yesterday. Nine of QPR's 15 efforts came from the six-yard box or the center of the 18-yard box, including both goals, as well as those three first half chances that should have led to goals. That's a massive step backwards, and bodes very badly for the future if it continues.

At least Sterling was nearly back to his best, at the heart of all three Liverpool goals, receiving and playing his high in passes this season, and Liverpool's joint-top chance creator. That he didn't take any shots is worrying, but also symptomatic of when he plays on the right, unable to cut inside onto his stronger foot. At least the counter came to life late on, with Coutinho also impressive when Liverpool broke; the pass to set up Liverpool's third was as good as any he's played while at the club. At least Liverpool didn't lose, unwilling and unable to give up, and not for the first time this season.

But you cannot be mistake-prone, abysmal on set plays, and then allow that many danger zone shots. You cannot be that disjointed in attack for nearly 90 minutes. It is a recipe for disaster against almost every side in the world. Except, I guess, Harry Redknapp's QPR.

19 October 2014

Liverpool 3-2 QPR

Goals:
Dunne OG 66'
Vargas 87' 90+2'
Coutinho 90'
Caulker OG 90+5'

There are times when football makes absolutely zero sense. Today was one of those times.

Liverpool had no right to win that match. Liverpool had that match won twice and threw it away twice and still somehow took all three points.

QPR should have been three up at halftime. Liverpool coupled the same defensive mistakes – even more of them! – with two different, inferior fullbacks and a change in midfield which wholly disrupted the side. We're not at a loss for choices, but the first half was, by far, the worst half Liverpool's played this season.

With a eye on Madrid, Rodgers rested both Manquillo and Moreno, the first time both Johnson and Enrique have started since the 1-0 win over United on September 1 2013. After seeing Gerrard and Balotelli link up to near-acceptable effect when West Brom were chasing the match two weeks ago, Gerrard started as the #10, the first time that's happened since very early in Rodgers' first season.

Neither alteration worked. In the slightest bit. It could and should have been Aston Villa or West Ham all over again. But Austin shot into the side netting after Johnson couldn't clear and Skrtel couldn't clear and Mignolet parried his first effort straight back into his path. Leroy Fer hit the bar twice, the first after Zamora got behind both Lovren and Enrique, the second from Zamora's cross, with Johnson blocking a rebound on the line and Skrtel somehow scrambling clear. QPR clearly targeted Liverpool's left, especially with Fer tucking in on the opposite flank in a very unbalanced 4-4-2, and it should have paid dividends if not for the crossbar. But, to be fair, the crossbar has owed Liverpool for some time now.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's only effort of note was Balotelli's chance created for Gerrard in the 44th minute, the captain controlling well to make space in the box but shooting narrowly wide. Otherwise, lots of Balotelli isolated, a handful of the usual shots from distance nowhere near threatening. When Liverpool actually had possession in QPR's half.

So it was no surprise that Liverpool reverted to the more usual midfield to start the second half, with Henderson and Can ahead of Gerrard. And Liverpool were marginally better, although QPR continued to have the better chances: a massive save from Mignolet on Sandro's shot, Austin's effort from no angle skittering across the face of goal.

Balotelli should have opened the scoring in the 61st minute, ballooning an open goal rebound after good work from Sterling and Lallana, but Liverpool didn't truly improve until Coutinho and Allen replaced Lallana and Can in the 66th minute.

Still, it was both coincidental and lucky that the opening goal came a minute after the substitutions. A free kick won by Sterling quickly taken, Johnson's cross towards Balotelli poked into the net by Richard Dunne, with Balotelli not even paying attention until just before Dunne redirected the pass. It is better to be lucky than good, but it would be nice if Liverpool were good for a change.

So, how were Liverpool going to throw it away, as they did against Boro and Everton, as they nearly did against Ludogorets and West Brom? Well, for 20 minutes, it didn't look like they would, with Liverpool surprisingly secure – well, secure for Liverpool – and Mignolet making two more good saves on Austin and Traore. But then QPR's substitute striker struck, again a goal conceded from a half-cleared set play, aided by some absolutely horrific defending from Enrique. Enrique half-cleared. Enrique over-ran when trying to defend Vargas, allowing the cross. Enrique didn't track Vargas' run, perfectly placed for Austin's header back across goal. It was auspicious, to say the least. And QPR nearly took the lead two minutes later from a similar situation, with Skrtel making a last-ditch clearance just in front of Vargas. It would have seemed fitting.

But then, a ray of hope. The first time Liverpool have clicked on the counter-attack this season. A break after clearing QPR's corner, Sterling excellent run then to Gerrard then to Coutinho, the Brazilian cutting inside from the left with his shot partially deflected past McCarthy. About damn time.

Phew. Just like Ludogorets. A dumb late mistake somehow saved. Shut up shop, take the undeserved three points, do better next time. Ha. Hahahahaha.

Because QPR were again level two minutes later. Stop me if you've heard this before, but it was from a set play: Phillips' corner headed by Vargas at the near post, somehow getting through both Henderson and Gerrard and between Allen's legs on the post. Utterly, indescribably comical. More bad set play defending, but also Allen making the schoolboy error of spreading his legs while on the post, then screened by two players late to react to Vargas so he saw the ball too late to react.

One point would have been more than Liverpool deserved. But the insanity wasn't over. Another QPR set play, again cleared. Another Liverpool counter-attack featuring Coutinho, this time starting the move after Lovren's header out and playing a delicious, last season-esque throughball to Sterling, whose centered pass towards Balotelli was redirected by Caulker. In the 95th minute. Absolutely unbelievable. And, yes, it's probably for the best the pass didn't reach Balotelli. Every set play in the final 10 minutes seemed to lead to a QPR goal or a Liverpool counter-attacking goal. Feast or famine, and no in-between.

Make no mistake. If Liverpool play like that on Wednesday, they will be thoroughly curb-stomped by Real Madrid. Thoroughly. There is a reason why QPR are currently propping up the table. Multiple reasons, actually. Almost any other side would have punished Liverpool, like Villa punished Liverpool, like West Ham punished Liverpool, etc, etc. QPR did not deserve to lose that game, but it couldn't have happened to a better manager than Harry Redknapp. It almost makes up for the 2-3 loss at Loftus Road in 2012 which helped doom Dalglish.

And Liverpool did not deserve to win that game. The negatives were set play defending (obviously), the fullbacks, Rodgers' initial tactics, Balotelli's decision-making and finishing, the continued disconnect in attack, and a fair bit more. The few positives were Mignolet, Coutinho off the bench, Lovren at times, and those two late counters with the game more open than a pervert's trench coat.

And, I guess, Liverpool's resilience. For all that bad play, Liverpool didn't give up, and somehow scored twice after the clock struck 90. That's no small matter. That sort of resilience has started winning streaks in the past. Liverpool are, almost unbelievably, in fifth, only outside of the Champions League places on goal difference, at least until United play tomorrow, ahead of Arsenal, Spurs, and Everton.

But resilience alone will not be enough against better opposition. Not if Liverpool continue to play like this.

18 October 2014

Liverpool at QPR 10.19.14

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 05.19.13
3-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.12
2-3 QPR (a) 03.21.12
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Brom (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 1-1 Everton (h)
QPR: 0-2 West Ham (a); 1-2 Southampton (a); 2-2 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Sturridge 1
QPR: Austin 2; Caulker, Kranjcar 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Manquillo Skrtel Toure Moreno
Gerrard
Henderson Allen
Sterling Balotelli Lallana

Well shit. Just when we thought we were out of the woods.

Allen's back! Can's back! Markovic wasn't really injured! Lovren might even be available! For once, an international break wasn't that bad.

And then Daniel Sturridge had to go and get injured again, in training, just when we thought he'd finally recovered. A calf strain now, after the earlier thigh strain. Fantastic.

So while Allen's return (as well as Can's) has the potential to help Liverpool's midfield immensely, we're still at frustrating square one up front.

And we're left with the same cobbled solutions. Will Lallana's steady improvement after missing the start of the season through injury lead to enough improvement in the 4-3-3? Does Rodgers need to give Borini or Lambert another shot in the 4-4-2 diamond? Can Balotelli get more of his shots inside the box rather than settling for long range efforts and/or put more of his shots on target?

We supposedly have a month to find out before Sturridge will be fit again. Just in time for another international break.

So I suspect it'll be the same formation which beat West Brom just before the break, but with Balotelli instead of Lambert and Allen back in the fold, and Liverpool will continue to need the type of support that Lallana, Sterling, and Henderson provided to fairly good effect in that fixture. The other possible change is at center-back, with Lovren questionable after pulling out of the Croatia squad with an abdomen issue. If Lovren's unavailable, we'll probably get a Kolo Toure sighting, as Sakho's still injured as well. So hold onto your butts.

If Toure has to play, at least Liverpool are facing what's been the worst side and worst attack in the league so far this season. QPR are currently bottom of the table on goal difference, having taken just four points while scoring just four goals and conceding 15. Although similar abhorrent records haven't stopped sides scoring against Liverpool before.

Redknapp's primarily played 4-5-1 so far this season, rarely braving two strikers up top. Even though they're at home, chances are that'll be the case tomorrow, more concerned with packing the midfield and defense against Liverpool than testing Liverpool's sometimes shambling defense. There's a template out there for stopping Liverpool, especially Liverpool without Sturridge, and I expect Redknapp will mostly follow it.

Barton, Mutch, and Faurlin are out injured, while Kranjcar will be a late fitness test, although I expect him to play if available. Which would make tomorrow's likely XI: Green; Onouha, Caulker, Ferdinand, Traore; Hoilett, Henry, Sandro, Fer, Kranjcar; Austin. The same XI which lost 0-2 to West Ham last time out. Matt Phillips and Adel Taraabt are options if Kranjcar is unavailable or in place of Hoilett. Isla could also play at either right wing – if Redknapp wants to double up with defenders on that flank – or right-back. If Redknapp surprisingly decides to go with two up front, the second striker will probably be Zamora, but Chilean Eduardo Vargas is also an option.

Liverpool have seven matches in the next 21 days. QPR, Madrid, Hull, Swansea, Newcastle, Madrid, and Chelsea. And Liverpool cannot look past tomorrow's fixture, no matter how weak they're opponent's been so far this season. The key to this run, which will go a long way in defining Liverpool's Champions League campaign, if not the league campaign, is to start it well, to build confidence and momentum before heading into more difficult fixtures. And, as usual, the key to playing well tomorrow will be to start tomorrow's match quickly, in complete contrast to the return from the last international break, where Liverpool went behind early to Aston Villa and never recovered.

06 October 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: 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.


Liverpool were better able to get the ball in and through midfield and more cohesive in the opposition half: not counting Mignolet-Lovren, Liverpool's top passing combinations were Moreno-Coutinho, Henderson-Sterling, Coutinho-Gerrard, and Moreno-Lallana. Unlike the staid draws and losses over the last month, there's very little messing around with the ball in Liverpool's half. Only the Tottenham match, where Liverpool played on the counter-attack for nearly the entire second half, saw the center-backs attempt fewer passes – a match where Liverpool attempted and completed around a hundred fewer passes. Get the ball forward (but not with aimless long passes, mind you), get into the opposition half, cause problems.

Compare Saturday to the passing networks seen against Villa and at West Ham. Sure, the game state was very different in those matches, but that's what's possible when you don't concede preventable early goals.

Liverpool were also more patient with their build-up and more judicious with their shooting. Seven of Liverpool's nine shots from outside the box came after Liverpool took a 2-1 lead. It'd have been far better to see Liverpool create more good chances, and Liverpool's strikers are still struggling (although Lambert at least linked up better with the other attackers), but at least the side didn't resort to low value speculative efforts when the first few didn't go in. Both of Liverpool's goals featured long passing moves beginning with Mignolet, from defenders to midfielders and fullbacks to attackers, working the flanks and inside channels to actually get into West Brom's box.

Liverpool were untroubled in the center of the pitch in their half. There's a massive hole in the tackles and interceptions chalkboard, but it's not because Liverpool simply failed to make defensive actions in that zone. They just didn't have to; there's a corresponding void in West Brom's passing chalkboard. West Brom definitely wanted to play for the counter and to exploit the flanks, but I also doubt it's coincidence Liverpool were much less troubled in the middle with Henderson and Coutinho ahead of Gerrard, the first time the team's started with the 4-3-3 in the league since Allen's injury.

West Brom's three best attacks came down Liverpool's right: the giveaway leading to the "penalty" in the 56th, and two Berahino free headers, from Pocognoli and Brunt's crosses in the 42nd and 75th, the first ballooned, the second into the ground. The first two chances, especially the giveaway for the penalty, seem a big reason why Johnson replaced Manquillo after Liverpool retook the lead, and despite that final free header, the veteran played well. I wouldn't be surprised if Johnson reclaims a starting berth, at least for the near future; Manquillo is still just 20, after all, and very susceptible to burnout no matter how well he's played. It also seems worth noting that Lovren was the closest defender to Berahino for both of those free headers and lost him both times. And that the move in the 75th minute started with Lovren's weak clearance straight to Sessegnon. But those three chances – which are still three too many – were West Brom's only shots inside the box.

I certainly don't mean to suggest everything's rosy and everything's fixed. For 44 minutes, Liverpool had those recurring issues in attack, creating a couple of decent chances, but nowhere near enough, with seven shots before halftime and 12 after. Without that bit of brilliance from Lallana and Henderson – a move that, admittedly, also included eight other players – Liverpool again go into halftime frustrated and probably revert to the hit-and-hope, shoot-on-sight mentality that's plagued early matches.

And Liverpool again nearly threw it all away, with a helping hand from Michael Oliver and his linesman, just ten minutes after the restart. But, despite the unfair setback, they kept playing their game, and thankfully made amends soon after, preventing the aforementioned frustration from creeping back in.

And while the final 20-30 minutes saw few West Brom opportunities, it was still nervy because Liverpool failed to get the third when they had the chances to do so. The counter-attack, so potent last season, still stutters: players not reading another's runs, players more comfortable checking back rather than going for the throat. Pushing Gerrard forward did help though, creating four of his five chances in the final 15 minutes. Were someone other than Lucas on the end of two of them, Liverpool probably would have gotten that third in injury time. It's not a tactic I see Liverpool using from the start, but Henderson's stamina and Gerrard's guile means it makes sense in the later stages of the match when Liverpool are looking to both extend and protect a lead. At the same time, Liverpool were more compact, but it wasn't the all-hands-on-deck defensive shell which let Everton find a very, very unlikely equalizer at the death a week earlier.

Liverpool are seemingly starting to find a balance.

Against Villa, West Ham, and Basel, Liverpool were mired in mediocrity, at best. Sure, Saturday saw some of that same mediocrity, but Saturday also saw some excellence. That's obviously progress, and a good first step, no matter the opposition.

A solitary bit of brilliance can be the difference between failure and success. We saw a lot of solitary bits of brilliance to win matches last season, usually from Suarez and Sturridge. The former is gone for good, but the latter will thankfully return after the international break, which should mark even more improvement.

Liverpool just need to get the ball rolling, and, finally, they did that on Saturday.

04 October 2014

Liverpool 2-1 West Brom

Goals:
Lallana 45'
Berahino 56' (pen)
Henderson 61'

Goodbye and good riddance, September.

It certainly wasn't pretty. It was better, but still featured some of the same lingering problems. But it was enough, and enough is more than sufficient after the month we've suffered through.

For 44 minutes, it was the same attacking issues despite the change in both formation and personnel. Liverpool's midfield looked far better, much more in control with Henderson and Coutinho ahead of Gerrard. And for the most part, Liverpool's defense was untroubled. But the attack, with Lambert instead of Balotelli and Sterling still off-color and seemingly fatigued, continued to struggle, unable to conjure dangerous chances despite good work from Lallana, Henderson, and Coutinho; the creators trying to create but the scorers unable to strike.

So Lallana and Henderson took it upon themselves, capping off a flowing move involving every Liverpool player except Sterling with an intricate one-two just inside the box, Lallana dancing through defenders, Henderson's back-heel, Lallana's narrow angle finish with his weaker foot.

Just what Liverpool needed, right? A platform to build on, a goal to push them out of the current malaise.

Not quite. It was a goal that put them ahead for barely ten minutes before West Brom equalized from the penalty spot.

To be fair, it was never a penalty. It was a sloppy pass from Manquillo which directly led to West Brom's counter through an open Liverpool. It was certainly a foul, as Berahino got in front of Lovren way too easily after Sessegnon sprinted past Lallana and Manquillo, both out of position after the giveaway, and Gerrard and Skrtel were sucked over to try to cover. But it was a foul which took place outside the box, with Michael Oliver perfectly placed to see where the foul occurred yet still pointing to the penalty spot. And, of course, Berahino made absolutely no mistake with his effort.

Just Liverpool's luck.

But maybe this is a new month, because Liverpool were level for less than five minutes.

Maybe West Brom's equalizer just came too early. But Liverpool confidently pushed on from the setback, looking to make immediate amends, and with the time to do it: Liverpool's free kick in a dangerous position cleared, then Lambert firing over in space in the box. Then, after some sustained possession, Gerrard's cross-field ball found an open Manquillo, whose attempted center fortunately fell to Sterling. Oliver had an opportunity to level the penalty count when Gardner leveled the winger. But Sterling played on – we'll give Oliver the benefit of doubt and say that he played advantage, even though he probably was going to swallow his whistle – got back up and centered for an open Henderson, his shot perfectly passed between three West Brom defenders into the net.

Now, could Liverpool hold on for half an hour?

Actually, surprisingly, yes. Rodgers brought on Balotelli, Johnson, and Lucas for Lambert, Manquillo, and Coutinho, and Liverpool coped well. Sure, it was incredibly nerve-wracking. That's what Liverpool has done to us at the moment. After this horrific run, a one-goal lead is going to be nervous. But in those 30 minutes, West Brom only had one concrete chance to equalize: Brunt's fantastic cross finding Berahino, who had easily gotten away from Lovren's "attention," but with Berahino only able to head into the ground rather than at Mignolet. Sure, Phil Jagielka didn't even need a concrete chance to equalize, but this was still progress.

Otherwise, Liverpool had the better chances, and without committing too many men forward: two Balotelli shots, unsurprisingly outside the box, first narrowly wide, then tamely at Foster; a Gerrard curler straight at Foster; and somehow Lucas popping up with two efforts late on. Liverpool were reasonably in control and did well to keep possession, with Gerrard surprisingly as the most advanced midfielder, allowing Liverpool to utilize Henderson's non-stop running in a deeper role, protecting both the defense and the captain's legs.

Baby steps, and, yes, it was against West Brom and at Anfield, but maybe it really is a platform to build on.

Henderson and Lallana were fantastic, the former with the winning goal and another back-heeled assist, the latter's incredible ball control and movement responsible for the much-needed opener. Take your pick for man of the match; there was little to split them. Tactically, Liverpool looked better, especially in midfield with two players ahead of Gerrard rather than the 4-2-3-1 which simply hasn't worked. The substitutions worked: Balotelli, inspired by being left out, pressed diligently; Johnson looked like the 2010 version rather than the 2013 version; and Lucas didn't even commit any fouls. It was Lovren's turn as defensive scapegoat, but at least it wasn't costly. That has to stop happening sometime, right?

Incidentally, Liverpool's last league win came just before an international break too. Five weeks ago. Can Liverpool maintain this small bit of momentum? Can Liverpool's internationals return unscathed? Sturridge should be back from this never-ending injury when the league play restarts, and it appears Rodgers has found a solution in midfield – even if was a solution that shouldn't have been hard to find, as it was the most-used midfield throughout last season's good run. Maybe there is some hope for optimism.

Of course, it also goes without saying that one swallow doesn't make a summer, though.

03 October 2014

Liverpool v West Brom 10.04.14

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 02.02.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 10.26.13
0-2 West Brom (h) 02.11.13
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.26.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Basel (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h)
West Brom: 4-0 Burnley (h); 3-2 Hull (h); 1-0 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Moreno, Sturridge 1
West Brom: Berahino 4; Dawson, Dorrans, Morrison 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Gerrard Henderson
Lallana Coutinho Sterling
Balotelli

Allen, Can, Flanagan, Sakho, and Johnson all remain out. Sturridge probably will be absent as well, thankfully left out of the upcoming England squad, at best able to play a few minutes off the bench.

With Sterling and Gerrard almost certainly fatigued after the midweek trip to Switzerland – at least both looked very fatigued – it'd be nice to rest them tomorrow. But I doubt that's likely.

While I suspect the XI will be similar to the last two matches – 4-2-3-1 again, with the only potential changes in the attacking line of three – I'd rather something different, with both opposition and personnel issues in mind. Even though the diamond didn't work well at West Ham – although West Ham's fast start didn't even give it a chance to work well – I think it's still the best formation to kickstart Liverpool's stuttering attack.

The alpha and omega is Balotelli's struggles as a lone striker. And Liverpool are at Anfield, where they'll expect to monopolize possession and need to break through a deep defense. So play him with another more mobile striker – most likely Borini, but maybe even Lambert, who's admittedly struggling even more than Balotelli – with either Lallana or Coutinho at the apex of midfield, Gerrard at the base, Henderson on one side, and either Lallana or Coutinho on the other. Maybe playing both Lallana and Coutinho in midfield is a recipe for disaster, and if you're worried about that, Lucas is still an option, despite concerns over his form. But Coutinho did well in the #8 role opposite Henderson when Liverpool played 4-3-3 in the second half of last season. And it's West Brom, at Anfield, and not much else has worked lately in Sturridge's absence. So roll the dice.

Still, I'd be surprised if it were anything other than 4-2-3-1, with both Sterling and Gerrard starting. Markovic, Lallana, Coutinho, and Borini will compete for two of the three places in the attacking line of three, along with Sterling as the third. Maybe this time will be different than the other times.

West Brom had been typically cagey until facing Burnley last Sunday: clean sheets in two of three away matches, giving up two at home to both Sunderland and Everton, and a grand total of three goals scored through five league matches. But against Burnley, the Baggies more than doubled their season-long goal tally in a single match and rarely, if ever, looked like conceding. It was their third consecutive victory after the narrow win at White Hart Lane and a 3-2 League Cup triumph over Hull thanks to two late goals. A light at the end of the tunnel, a new manager's plan coming together, or just a match against one of the worst teams in the league when they were were missing four key players?

West Brom's first two goals came from corners, the second two from counter-attacks. This should be a massive, flashing, neon red warning sign to Liverpool, exactly the type of goals Liverpool are prone to conceding. The set plays goals were especially frightening: the first to the back post, just like the corner conceded against West Ham; the second at the near post, just like the free kick conceded against Boro.

Liverpool's recent bane, Steve Clarke, is gone, replaced by David Moyes' longtime assistant at Everton, Alan Irvine. And like Moyes, Irvine's preferred the 4-2-3-1 formation, if not quite as defensive as Moyes, using the formation in all six of West Brom's league fixtures so far.

Berahino's two goals against Burnley moved him up to joint-third in the top scorer table, and I'm amazed Hodgson failed to call him up for to the England squad, especially with Sturridge absent. West Brom have given Liverpool problems before with the Yacob/Mulumbu midfield, but both have rarely been used this season, with the more mobile Morrison and Gardner usually preferred. West Brom signed both Joleon Lescott and left-back Sébastien Pocognoli this summer, revamping the defense, meaning that Uruk-Hai Jonas Olsson, so often Luis Suarez's nemesis, isn't likely to feature.

On-loan Andre Wisdom has started all six of West Brom's matches at right back. As he's ineligible to face Liverpool, Cristian Gamboa will make his full league debut tomorrow after three substitute appearances. Gamboa is a much more attacking fullback, potentially leaving space for Liverpool to exploit down their preferred flank, but also capable of causing Moreno et al problems when getting forward.

Other than Gamboa for Wisdom, West Brom's XI will probably be the same used in the last two fixtures: Foster; Gamboa, Dawson, Lescott, Pocognoli; Morrison, Gardner; Dorrans, Sessegnon, Brunt; Berahino. Irvine could replace Sessegnon with Ideye, Samaras, or Anichebe to add another striker, while Berahino's also capable of starting from a narrow right berth.

Last season, this was one of the fixtures that Suarez won nearly single-handedly: a hat-trick within 55 minutes, including one goal-of-the-season contender, all three goals from the center of the penalty box, putting five of his eight shots on-target. And the win was capped off with yet another goal-of-the-season contender from Sturridge, an audacious chip from outside the box. West Brom had beaten Liverpool in the previous two meetings at Anfield, but that meant nothing because of Liverpool's firepower.

Well, that firepower has been extinguished. One of those strikers is gone, the other likely to miss the match through injury. And I'm sure you've read far too many words about Liverpool's current striker's current issues over the last week, including too many by yours truly. He's certainly not Liverpool's only problem at the moment, but it's still a problem.

In theory, this is a match for Liverpool to get back on track, at home against a side they're capable of beating, even if they've struggled so far this season and against West Brom in the past. But Liverpool will have to be better, in all phases of play, to accomplish that. And even if they do – and that's still a big if – there's yet another international break to derail any progress immediately after.