15 September 2014

Liverpool v Ludogorets Razgrad 09.16.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Villa (h); 3-0 Tottenham (a); 1-3 City (a)
Ludogorets: 2-1 Botev Plovdiv (a); 1-1 Beroe (h); 1-0 Steaua Bucharest (h) [6-5 pens]

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: n/a
Ludogorets: 1-0 Steaua Bucharest (h) [6-5 pens]; 0-1 Steaua Bucharest (a); 2-2 Partizan (a); 0-0 Partizan (h); 1-1 F91 Dudelange (a); 4-0 F91 Dudelange (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Ludogorets: Misidjan 4; Anicet, Bezjak, Marcelinho, Quixada 3; Abalo, Wanderson, Younes 2; Barthe, Espinho 1

Referee: Matej Jug (SVN)

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

I am very curious to see what sort of line-up and formation Rodgers chooses in his first Champions League match.

Once again, his hands are somewhat tied thanks to injury. Sturridge, Can, Johnson, Allen, and Skrtel are all still injured, although the latter two should thankfully be back by the weekend. Markovic will also miss out, suspended for the first two Champions League because of a ban picked up with Benfica.

The only certainty that's different from the loss to Aston Villa is that Sterling will come back into the starting XI. You can guess most of the other starters: the back five, Gerrard, Henderson, Balotelli. But the other two places will be determined by which formation Rodgers thinks will be most effective against very unfamiliar opposition.

I'm tempted to think that Liverpool can get the most out of the available personnel by reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond. More attacking firepower, so obviously needed after Saturday and in Sturridge's absence, Sterling playing centrally, and a decently strong midfield base, although Liverpool will obviously miss both Allen and Can.

But Ludogorets' style may not be suitable for the diamond formation. From Rodgers, in today's press conference:

"They play an open and attacking style of football. They play 4-2-3-1 and the two full-backs look to get forward. They have two controlling players in midfield, a No.10 who moves well and wingers who are probably a little more stretched than you usually see with wingers nowadays.

The diamond can leave you vulnerable on the flanks, although that hasn't been a massive problem when Liverpool have used the formation, partly thanks to the work that Henderson and Allen have put in as the wide midfielders. And the Welshman won't be available tomorrow. With Can also absent, the options opposite Henderson are Coutinho, Lallana, and Lucas. The former two aren't as energetic or defensive – although I'm not entirely sure how much that will be needed – while the latter's mobility has rightfully come into question pretty much every time he's played over the last year or so.

The other options are 4-3-3, with Henderson, Coutinho, and Gerrard in midfield and Sterling and Lallana flanking Balotelli; or 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard and either Henderson or Lucas as the holders and some combination of Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana in the attacking line of three (or Henderson, if Lucas starts). The above 4-3-3 may be more likely – Henderson and Coutinho can press those controlling midfielders; Sterling and Lallana will help protect against the fullbacks getting forward – and I will readily admit I'm biased because I very much favor the diamond in most circumstances.

I won't pretend to know much else (read: pretty much anything) about Ludogorets, and instead direct you to much better-researched previews from Anfield Index, FourFourTwo, and the Liverpool Echo. That both the first- and second-string goalkeeper will miss out through suspension and injury respectively seems important; the only available keeper on Ludogorets' UEFA squad list is 17-year-old Emil Gospodinov, although the aforementioned Anfield Index preview suggests that 23-year-old Georgi Argilashki will start (*shrugs*).

Ludogorets have been playing since mid-July thanks to Champions League qualifiers and the early start to the Bulgarian league. They currently sit fourth in their domestic league, having played eight matches, two points behind CSKA Sofia, but are unbeaten since losing on opening day nearly two months ago. They may not have the talent or name recognition that Liverpool's players have, but they are a more settled side with more match practice.

As if rejoining the Champions League for the first time since 2009 weren't enough motivation, Liverpool have the chance to quickly dispel the bad feelings induced by defeat to Aston Villa. Liverpool have lost consecutive matches under Rodgers just three: to West Brom and Zenit in 2012-13; Southampton and Manchester United (in the League Cup), and Manchester City and Chelsea in 2013-14.

After Saturday's disappointment, Anfield really needs to see the proper response.

---
Meta: Once again, the usual schedule will be disrupted by a weekday match. I *may* have a match review up sometime during the evening; if I write one, it'll probably be up around 8pm ET and I will let you know on Twitter beforehand. There will definitely be a match infographic up Wednesday. Like for weekday Premier League matches, Champions League match reviews will be infrequent and late at best, but I will have an infographic up the day after. And if there's no match review, I'll try to cover more in the infographic write-up.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: 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.





Just to get you in the mood. Because once again, Liverpool versus Aston Villa is just a little bit of history repeating.

The closest comparison is the 1-3 loss to Villa in Rodgers' first season. Until Saturday, that was the most possession Liverpool have had in a single match since Rodgers became manager. The second half of that 1-3 loss saw the most possession Liverpool have had in a single half under Rodgers until the second half on Saturday. Liverpool dominated the shot totals, but put just 24% on target (well below its average for the season), finally scoring with its last effort thanks to a wicked, fortunate deflection. And that abysmal shot accuracy was still massively better than Liverpool on Saturday, where just one of 18 forced Brad Guzan into a save: a simple save, Sakho's header from a corner landing directly in his arms, in the 11th minute.

But there were also similarities to the reverse fixture last season: an early goal for the away side, then defensive shelling, with the hosts unable to make any breakthrough despite a massive shot dominance, mainly because those hosts were unable to put even a marginal proportion of their shots on target. Meanwhile, the away side took five shots, put just one on target, but scored from that one.

The away side has some sort of voodoo over the home side in this fixture. Since 2009-10, Liverpool have won one, drawn two, and lost three of the last six meetings with Aston Villa at Anfield. And at Villa Park, Liverpool have won four and lost just one. Which, I guess, bodes well for the return fixture in a few months.

Liverpool have now conceded the first goal in 25 of the 80 Premier League matches since Rodgers took over. They've won five, drawn eight, and lost 12 when that's happened. Incidentally, the only one of those five wins to come at Anfield was against Newcastle in the last match of last season. The others were at Cardiff, Fulham, Fulham, and (because of course) Aston Villa.

One shot on target out of 18 in total is 5.6% accuracy. The only other matches which came close to that mark since Rodgers became manager both happened in 2012-13: the 0-3 loss at West Brom to start the season, where Liverpool put just two of 16 on target (12.5%), and the 0-0 draw with Stoke, where Liverpool put two of 18 on target (11.1%). Since those matches, nearly two years ago, Liverpool haven't been below 20% accuracy in a match, a mark set at Aston Villa last season, when Liverpool took just five shots but scored with the lone shot on target.

It wasn't as if Liverpool took horrible shots yesterday. We've seen matches where Liverpool were much more desperate and much less judicious (cough Chelsea at Anfield cough), although the shot-by-shot section demonstrates how Liverpool unsurprisingly fired off more shots from distance as time ebbed away. Seven of the 18 efforts came from the danger zone, 10 of 18 from inside the box. Liverpool's shooting accuracy was just that bad. Markovic's two early efforts; Balotelli, Sakho, and Lovren's headers from corners; and Coutinho's shot off the post were all chances that could and probably should have at least hit the target, and on another day, maybe Liverpool would have eked a slightly undeserved draw.

But Michael Caley's Expected Goals map shows that Liverpool had lots of marginal chances, while Villa had the best two chances. And Villa took one of them. That's all they needed.

The major problem was Liverpool's inability to fully utilize its attackers despite that overwhelming dominance in possession. This is depressingly demonstrated by the passing network: thick black lines in midfield and defense, paltry thin lines amongst the front four, both before and after substitutions. Liverpool completed 652 passes in total, but only 139 in the attacking third: just 21.3%. Unsurprisingly, most of those came across the top of the box and on the flanks rather than into the penalty area, creating just one chance inside the area, completing just four passes into the area. That's horrific, and it's not as if Villa had to make multiple tackles or interceptions to prevent those passes, although 34 of their 42 clearances came inside the box.

Undoubtedly, part of that is due to starting three unfamiliar attackers: one making his full debut after missing preseason through injury, one making his first start after two substitute appearances, and one making his second start. All three joined Liverpool this summer. Some disjointed play was to be expected, especially given the troubles Liverpool have had with Saturday's opponents, who defend deep and in numbers, especially after scoring a goal that Liverpool probably should have prevented. But it shouldn't have been that disjointed.

At the very least, this has to be a two-fold learning experience (three-fold if you count again conceding a preventable set play goal): for the new players involved, gelling as an attacking unit, and for the team as a whole, again needing to find a way behind a parked bus. Because it won't be the last time those players have to play together and it won't be the last time that Liverpool see that strategy.

13 September 2014

Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Goals:
Agbonlahor 9'

There's just something about Aston Villa. Something soul-killing. Something like death warmed over. I could have sworn I was watching Liverpool's last two matches against Villa at Anfield.

We've spoken before about Liverpool not learning from its mistakes. And we're going to do it again. I've a terrible feeling this won't be the last time either.

A uncoordinated Liverpool, from back to front? Check, just as in the last two meetings at Anfield. An unfamiliar formation, including both Henderson and Gerrard sitting in midfield? Check, same as last season's 2-2 draw. A preventable early goal conceded after Villa surprisingly dominated possession from the start? Check, just as in the last two meetings at Anfield.

Once again, Villa were the more energetic side to start the match, despite being the away side, despite being involved in the relegation battle in each of the last three seasons, despite bringing in just Aly Cissokho and Tom Cleverley this summer, players who seem to be permanent punchlines. Liverpool are supposed to be the team that blitzes its opponent from the opening whistle, not Aston Villa.

And once again, Liverpool conceded the first goal, with multiple chances to stop it from happening. Sakho should have cleared the ball rather than trying to play his way out, allowing Agbonlahor to win the debatable corner. Liverpool could have cleared the first or second ball from the corner; Senderos won his header, hitting Manquillo, with the ball falling perfectly for Agbonlahor, all while Mignolet sat static on his line. Literally, perfectly; Agbonlahor could not have asked for it in a better position, and subsequently jammed the rebound home. Because those are the things that happen in this fixture.

Villa could have easily gone two-up soon after, which would have made today even more like the 1-3 loss almost two years ago, but Senderos missed a completely free header, from yet another set play. After that, Villa were happy to sit back, keep Liverpool at bay, maybe even counter-attack every now and then. There wasn't much counter-attacking (thankfully, I guess), but the defense certainly did its job.

It probably wasn't a good idea to start with three attackers bought this summer: one starting his second match, one making his first full start after two sub appearances, and one making his actual debut. And, unsurprisingly, Balotelli, Lallana, and Markovic played as if they'd never met. Time and time again, each wandered into where the other wanted to play. There was no fluency to their passing, no understanding of each other's movement, no runners beyond when Balotelli came deep, and no link with midfield because Henderson surprisingly sat deeper in a two-man pairing with Gerrard. It's a bad day when you make Philippe Senderos look like an immovable man-mountain.

Absences assuredly hurt, and I'm more than willing to blame the international break for some of Liverpool's problems, but these things happen. That's what a deeper squad was supposed to protect against. Any of Sturridge, Allen, Can, or even Skrtel would have made Liverpool better today. Liverpool missed each and every one of them. As would using Sterling from the start rather than a 61st-minute substitute, even though resting him made a certain amount of sense after playing 180 minutes of internationals and with Ludogorets to come on Tuesday.

Some credit's obviously due to the way Aston Villa defended. Paul Lambert's pretty good at taking points off of the top sides: not just Liverpool but beating Arsenal away, and Chelsea and City at home last season. It's the other matches, where Villa actually has to play some football, where he gets in trouble. Villa's game plan of kicking Mario Balotelli into irrelevancy also worked fairly well (thanks, Lee Mason). Still, Liverpool made it easy for them, whether in committing stupid mistakes, relying on crosses to no one, or attempting incredibly unlikely shots from distance.

Liverpool's switch to the more-familiar 4-3-3 at halftime made the midfield marginally more cohesive, but did nothing to improve the final third play. Until the 81st minute, after Liverpool had again changed formations and brought on Borini and Lambert for Markovic and Balotelli, the best chances remained marginal headers, each one off-target except for Sakho's soft header at Guzan in the 11th minute.



That's really, really, really bad. I've-been-doing-this-for-a-long-time-and-I've-never-seen-such-terrible-shot-accuracy bad.

Last season, set plays were often Liverpool's savior in these situations. That never looked like happening today.

But in the 81st minute, Coutinho was a foot away from providing the get-out-of-jail card, hitting the post with one of his trademark shots from distance – he usually gets one of four or so on-target – with Sterling hitting Henderson with the rebound (it was probably off-target anyway). And then Liverpool resumed its frustrated, Sisyphean struggle, thrashing around unsuccessfully for the final ten minutes, summed up nicely by Lambert trying to break away in injury time, then having to stop when he realized no teammate was anywhere near him. Everyone was a stranger today. It is the fourth match of the season, after all, after an international break no less.

All that complaining aside – and believe me, I could complain a lot more – we knew there would be growing pains and we knew Liverpool could struggle with the aforementioned key players absent. It's small consolation, but Liverpool are still two points better than in the same fixtures last season.

If it's just a one-time occurrence, just Aston Villa voodoo, it's a lot easier to stomach. But I'm still afraid there's more too often. We've already said, already knew that Liverpool will need to be better against the bus parkers. And we're still saying it.

12 September 2014

Liverpool v Aston Villa 09.13.14

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Tottenham (a); 1-3 City (a), 2-1 Southampton (h)
Villa: 2-1 Hull (h); 0-1 Leyton Orient (h); 0-0 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Villa: Weimann 2; Agbonlahor 1

Referee: Lee Mason

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

Well that was a productive international break. Sturridge? Out for two to three weeks. Can? Out for six weeks. Allen? Doubtful with a knee problem. With Johnson, Skrtel, and Flanagan still carrying the injuries incurred before the break. Fantastic.

At least Adam Lallana is finally fit, and looks almost certain to make his debut. And I'm curious to see where it'll be: most likely on the flanks of a 4-3-3, especially given Sturridge's absence, but he also seems capable of filling a midfield role in that formation, similar to how Coutinho plays in the position.

Thanks to Liverpool's new-found depth, even with the aforementioned absences, there are other options. 4-4-2 diamond with Lambert, Sterling, or Markovic playing off Balotelli. 4-3-3 with Markovic on the flank and either Coutinho or Lallana in midfield. Even a 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard and Lucas if Allen's really out, as we saw against Southampton, although I hope this won't be the choice.

That Coutinho travelled to Brazil for this week's friendlies, coming on as a sub against both Colombia and Ecuador, seemingly makes him less likely to start, but given Liverpool's injuries, I expect he'll have to play some role tomorrow. There's also a rumor that Sterling will be rested. Which makes sense, as he's played a ton of matches recently, including two 90 minutes for England over the last week, and Liverpool have its first Champions League match in nearly five years on Tuesday. If that's the case, Markovic seemingly has to start opposite Lallana/Coutinho if it's 4-3-3, or it'll be Balotelli and Lambert in the 4-4-2 diamond with a midfield composed of something like Coutinho, Lallana, Henderson, and Gerrard. Assuming Allen is out with injury and Lucas remains out of favor.

Sure, it's still incredibly early, but Aston Villa are currently a surprising third. It hasn't been the toughest schedule: Hull and Newcastle at home and Stoke away, but they've still taken seven of nine points. The next four matches – at Liverpool, v Arsenal, at Chelsea, v Manchester City – will be far more of a test.

But Villa's still a side that's given Rodgers' Liverpool problems in the past: a supremely disappointing 2-2 draw at Anfield and narrow, fortunate 1-0 win at Villa last season; that 1-3 loss at Anfield in 2012-13. Each of those setbacks featured some self-incurred Liverpool struggles – the insane 4-2-4 formation in the 2-2 draw; supreme defensive shelling after an early goal in the 1-0 win; multiple defensive mistakes in the 1-3 loss – but Villa have a template, and it's a template that other opponents have used to punish Liverpool before. A deep, rigid, determined defense packing the final third, then quick and dangerous with long balls and pace on the counter-attack, especially though Weimann and Agbonlahor.

Tom Cleverley, picked up on loan from United on deadline day, seems the only likely change from Villa's last XI against Stoke, most likely replacing Kieran Richardson. Guzan; Hutton, Senderos, Vlaar, Cissokho; Westwood, Cleverley, Delph; N'Zogbia, Agbonlahor, Weimann. The same eleven players have started all three of Villa's league matches so far. Paul Lambert loves loves loves a stable side. You may also recognize Villa's current left back. No Aly Cissokho jokes please. Ex-Liverpool players, even terrible ones, have a way of punishing their former club.

This will be as much of a test as Tottenham was two weeks ago, albeit a different test. Then, Liverpool's opponents were more talented, but Liverpool faced a side they'd beaten comprehensively in the last two matches. A side that Liverpool matched up well with, a side prone to going "well shit, we're boned again" once Liverpool went two goals ahead.

Tomorrow's opponent plays a very different style, a style different than Liverpool's three previous opponents this season, has troubled Liverpool in all four previous meetings with Brendan Rodgers as manager, and should be confident given their results from the first three matches of the campaign. For the first time this season, for the first time since losing to Chelsea and drawing at Palace, Liverpool will have to slice and dice through a very packed defense while not doing anything stupid in defense.

01 September 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

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


Two matches from last season were the template for Sunday's victory.

No, neither were against Tottenham, where Liverpool similarly won handily, but also dominated possession and passing totals. They were 4-0 against Everton and 3-0 at Southampton, who, incidentally, were managed by Mauricio Pochettinho.

Against Everton, Liverpool played 4-3-3, albeit a lopsided 4-3-3 with Coutinho in midfield and Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling up front. The match against Southampton was the first time we saw Liverpool in a 4-4-2 diamond. Balotelli came nowhere near replicating Suarez's output, completing just eight passes and putting just one of five shots on-target, but having that extra forward up front made a massive difference in both how many shots Liverpool took – 17, compared to 12 and 11 in the last two matches – and how the opposition were forced to defend. As did using Sterling in a floating role at the tip of the diamond rather than limiting him to a flank.

Both of those matches last season featured an early Liverpool goal, allowing the team to settle into a groove, and once the second was scored, keep the opposition at bay then counter-attack at will. Liverpool really should have added at least another goal, replicating the scoreline against Everton, if not more.



Like both Everton and Southampton, Tottenham had a mountain of possession in Liverpool's half, but did little with it. At the time, the match against Everton saw Liverpool with its second-lowest possession total under Brendan Rodgers: 39.4%. Liverpool had even less yesterday, and Tottenham's second half 70.3% possession was the most any opposition has had in a single half against Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, the only time Liverpool have been held under 30% in a half.

Both of those previous matches ended in clean sheets, which was the exception rather than the rule last season: the defense shelling unusually well and without making any crucial mistakes. Well, one mistake yesterday (which led to Tottenham's only shot on target), when Lovren charged out but failed to clear a ball he should have let Sakho deal with, but one which thankfully went unpunished, partly due to Mignolet and partly due to Chadli putting his shot too close to Mignolet. As said in yesterday's match review, I'm curious to see if Liverpool can repeat the performance when (not if) Skrtel reclaims his starting role.

Even Liverpool's final goal was similar to that against Everton: one player winning possession around the halfway line, then tearing past defenders who were pushed high up the pitch trying to rescue the game. Last season, it was Suarez. This season, Moreno. That'll probably be the last time we compare those two players.

But Liverpool did certain things even better than in those two matches last season. That Tottenham were only allowed seven shots despite 60.9% possession is amazing. That's 66.7 completed passes per shot. For comparison, Liverpool attempted a shot every 16.5 passes yesterday, similar to the 13.4 passes per shot against Everton and better than the 25.4 passes per shot at Southampton. Tottenham attempted 160 attacking third passes, but look at how few were completed into the box. The vast majority are 5-10 yards outside the box, or along the flanks.



All three key passes into the box came from deep: a ball over the top to Adebayor, which beat Liverpool's defenders but Adebayor could only chip onto the roof of the net when Mignolet reduced the angle; the ball to Chadli where Liverpool's center-backs (read: Lovren) both went for the ball; and a deep cross to Adebayor, with his contested header looping upwards. Yes, Tottenham probably should have scored from at least one of those, but Liverpool did exceptionally well to limit chances created from close range.

Luis Suarez was the key man in both of those matches last season, with a goal and assist in both. That Liverpool were able to replicate the formula without him, against opposition which expects to be in the battle for a top-four place, is incredibly encouraging. As is the fact they did so with a defense that had made a combined 24 appearances for Liverpool, featuring three defenders signed this summer, including two fullbacks who are all of 20 and 22 years old and were signed from La Liga. One of those fullbacks led the team in interceptions and blocked crosses, and tied for the most successful tackles; the other scored the crucial game-killing third goal.

And Liverpool did this in only the third match of this young season, despite this summer's massive overhaul. Of course, that doesn't ensure future success, and the template certainly won't work against every opponent. But it's still a very promising start.

31 August 2014

Liverpool 3-0 Tottenham

Goals:
Sterling 8'
Gerrard 49' (pen)
Moreno 60'

Welcome back, Liverpool. That was the comprehensive performance we'd become used to over the last five months of the last campaign.

Reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond with Balotelli coming into the XI immediately, Liverpool looked more potent up front and more cohesive in midfield. Liverpool took 17 shots, after taking just 12 and 11 in the first two matches. Sterling was much more destructively dangerous through the middle, the link between midfielders and strikers but also scoring the crucial opening goal. Henderson and Allen gave Gerrard much more protection, especially needed with the captain struggling in the first half, and Henderson was probably the only one who could challenge Sterling for man of the match award.

With Skrtel and Johnson injured, Liverpool started three defenders signed this summer and one who made all of 19 appearances last season. But Liverpool somehow kept a clean sheet, frightening a few times but only truly threatened once, when Spurs failed to capitalize on one of Liverpool's few mistakes. They held their opponents to just seven shots, with just one on-target.

Maybe it helps that Liverpool were facing Tottenham, who've they now outscored 12-0 over the last 270 minutes.


Once again, a Liverpool win began with an early goal. The away side should have struck within two minutes, Balotelli's first touch a header from six yards sent straight at Lloris, but did strike within eight. Pressing and a quick transition again leading to the break-through: Henderson and Manquillo combined to win possession on the halfway line, Henderson sent Sturridge scampering down the right, passed back inside to Henderson, centered perfectly for Sterling's tap-in at the back post.

Liverpool had chances to extend the lead in the first half: Balotelli missing the target with another close-range header, this time from a free kick, and slashing a shot from 40 yards wide with an open goal after Lloris charged out but failed to fully clear; Sterling and Sturridge countering wonderfully but the latter just missing the target after shrugging off two defenders. But Spurs' one chance, just before halftime, was Spurs' lone shot on-target: Chadli through after both center-backs charged out but failed to clear, but Mignolet making the needed save.

Yes, those are the fine margins that decide matches; Manchester City punished Liverpool's mistakes five days ago. Yes, Liverpool made fewer today, but had Spurs capitalized on that one, it might have been a very different result. Still, Liverpool very much deserved their win because of the way they started the second half.

Within 15 minutes of the restart, Liverpool had put the game completely out of reach. Sustained Liverpool possession ended with Allen cleverly winning a penalty off Dier after less than three minutes, when the right back stupidly tried to tug the midfielder back to keep him from getting to the byline and Allen promptly fell like a sack of bricks. Sure, Allen probably could have stayed on his feet, but why should he? Dier fouled him, Dier deserved the penalty. And Gerrard, yet again, made no mistake from the spot, now the first Liverpool player to score in 16 consecutive seasons.

Spurs tried to respond, but were decently smothered, and then Liverpool's pressing again paid dividends. In contrast to when Manchester City scored its third on Monday, Moreno got tight to the opposition's right winger. This time, he stole the ball from Townsend rather than letting Navas pick a pass to Agüero, and charged into acres of empty space, lightning speed preventing any Tottenham defender from getting close, Kaboul backing off and sticking to Sturridge rather than closing down. And at full pace, Moreno hammered a perfectly placed shot into the far corner from the top of the box. Magical. It's worth noting that was Townsend's first touch of the match, having come on less than a minute before. A proper impact substitution. Also, Tottenham must love letting a Liverpool left-back score the third at White Hart Lane.

From there, cruise control. Can and Markovic came on, demonstrating Liverpool's new found impressive strength in depth, the latter again a live-wire substitute. Liverpool had more chances to extend the lead on the counter than Tottenham had at Liverpool's goal despite near-constant possession, highlighted by Sterling's jaw-dropping miss after he and Can did all the hard work, the midfielder bull-rushing up the middle, the winger dancing around and through Tottenham's defenders but then shooting tamely at Lloris from point-blank range. For the first time in a long time, Liverpool's defensive shell worked to not-quite-perfection-but-close-enough.

There's an awful lot to be happy about today, there's very, very little to complain about. Not to downplay anyone else's contributions (especially Henderson and Sterling's), but I guess I'm most pleased with Liverpool's fullbacks. Manquillo was again a defensive rock – six interceptions, four successful tackles, two clearances and a blocked cross, despite picking up a first-half yellow again – Moreno was almost as good on the opposite flank and much, much more impressive going forward. It's weird seeing two competent Liverpool fullbacks on the pitch at the same time, one 20, the other 22 and both new to the Premier League.

Liverpool are much better than Tottenham's previous opponents, but Spurs have been free-scoring in their previous three matches, only winning by a single goal in their first contest because of a man-disadvantage for two-thirds of the game. That Liverpool's defense, this Liverpool defense, blanketed Tottenham so thoroughly is promising, to say the absolute least. The only worry was that Lovren looked a little rash at times, again, but the defense should continue to improve with further match time together. It'll be interesting to see whether Skrtel comes straight back into the side. Or, I guess, what happens when Skrtel comes straight back into the side.

Of course, Liverpool have kept just 11 clean sheets in the league since the start of last season. Three of those 11 came against Tottenham. So maybe we need to see Liverpool do it against different opposition as well.

Still, six points from the first three matches, matches against teams that finished in the Top 8 last season, two of those matches away from Anfield, seems a good enough start. The new-look Liverpool was always going to need some time to settle. It certainly looks as if they've started to do so.

30 August 2014

Liverpool at Tottenham 08.31.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.30.14
5-0 Liverpool (a) 12.14.13
3-2 Liverpool (h) 03.10.13
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.12

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 City (a), 2-1 Southampton (h)
Tottenham: 3-0 AEL Limassol (h); 4-0 QPR (h); 2-1 AEL Limassol (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling, Sturridge 1
Tottenham: Chadli, Dier 2; Adebayor 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

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

Rodgers has been talking up Lallana in the run-up to this match, so I suspect he'll be thrown straight into the fray. I'm still looking for other options opposite Sterling if Liverpool stick with the 4-3-3 system; Coutinho often struggles to create when used out wide, and has become strong enough to play as a central midfielder in this formation. As he did against Tottenham last season, albeit at Anfield. When used on the left in this fixture last season he took four shots – none on-target – but created just a single chance. Of course, Liverpool still won 5-0. But tomorrow's opponent will be a very different Tottenham than last season's Tottenham.

There are questions over Lallana's match fitness, but he's probably more ready than Markovic, who's most likely better served being used off the bench, as he was against City.

But then again, maybe the answer is reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond if Rodgers thinks Balotelli is ready. Gerrard at the base, Henderson and either Coutinho or Allen as the wide central midfielders, Sterling or Coutinho at the apex, Sturridge and Balotelli up front. And it's worth mentioning that Balotelli was used on the left of a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 at times when at Manchester City.

Both Johnson and Moreno were injured in Monday's frustrating final minutes. In Friday's press conference, Rodgers seemingly ruled Johnson out, but suggested that Moreno could recover in time. If he doesn't, the only option is Enrique, as Flanagan's still injured and playing Sakho at left-back shouldn't be an option. Skrtel will probably start after also picking up a knock in the final 10 minutes against City, yet again preventing the Lovren/Sakho partnership many have been clamoring for.

As said above, this won't be last season's Tottenham. Pochettinho found where Sherwood had buried Lamela, revitalized Capoue, and restored a shaky defense. His system gave Liverpool fits in the three matches against his Southampton over the last 18 months: two losses and a 3-0 win at St. Mary's, but with that scoreline slightly flattering what was still a good Liverpool performance.

Other than Lloris and Kaboul, we probably won't see any of the players used in the 3-0 Europa League win on Thursday. I suspect Pochettino will deploy the same XI that walloped QPR last weekend: Lloris; Dier, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Rose; Bentaleb, Capoue; Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli; Adebayor.

Tottenham's fullbacks are vulnerable. Dier has two goals – one from a set play, one from a clever run into the box – but he's still more a center-back than fullback. Danny Rose remains Danny Rose. This is another reason why starting Markovic or Lallana makes more sense to me, rather than Coutinho wide or the 4-4-2 diamond. It's hard to stretch the field in the latter formation, and Coutinho doesn't stay wide when he plays wide.

Tottenham were horrific in games against the five teams above them in the table last season: winning once (home v Everton), drawing twice, and losing seven, scoring three while conceding 27. And while they looked very good against QPR and Limassol, and good enough when down to 10 men at West Ham, they haven't played good opposition yet this season.

Meanwhile, Liverpool haven't come close to top gear in either of their matches, doing just enough to beat Southampton at home, decent for 30-40 minutes against City but ultimately outgunned three to one.

It may only be the third match of the league campaign, but this is a massive, massive test for both sides.

26 August 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: 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 my formation diagram from last night.

The short version: City's fullbacks were more involved than Liverpool's, both in defense and attack, and simply played better, stretching Liverpool's defense on both flanks. City's attack was impressively fluid: the front five rotated at will, creating questions over who was marking whom, disrupting Liverpool's newly-remodeled defense. Most importantly, City's finishing was impeccable, converting three from just nine shots.

This new visual, a match-long GIF of each player's average position at a certain point in the match, from Colin Trainor and Constantinos Chappas of StatsBomb, demonstrates just how well City's front five worked together.

Go click the link and watch it all the way through. I'm not rude enough to repost their work here. I'll wait.

Silva's everywhere, literally everywhere, sometimes stretching play wide and combining with his fullback, sometimes a supplemental central midfielder. Both Silva and Nasri drift from flank to flank. Dzeko's often deeper than two or three other City attackers, linking playing in and around the center circle. Toure gets forward as well, as Toure does, but still has the engine to get back when needed in defense.

Unsurprisingly, Zonal Marking also touched upon City's fluidity in attack, focusing on Silva's ability to find space in Liverpool's half. The Spaniard was ostensibly playing the same position as Coutinho, starting on the left but coming inside early, often, and deep to dictate the attacks. Both drifted laterally all over the pitch, neither actually created a chance, but one player filled the role far better than the other. Seeing Silva work was one of my least favorite things while re-watching the match a second time, far more noticeable on second viewing, but Nasri was just as influential filling a similar role on the "opposite" flank, albeit with fewer defensive responsibilities.

That GIF from Statsbomb also demonstrates just how high each side's fullbacks played, as does Liverpool's average position in the above passing network. All four fullbacks' average position for the match was in the opposition's half. That's to be expected from City at home, but it was dangerous, almost to the point of arrogance, from Liverpool, putting a lot of pressure on the midfielders and center-backs. Especially when one of those fullbacks is a 22-year-old Spaniard making his debut, and the other is Glen Johnson. But that's Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, at least last season's Liverpool. At the defending league champions? No matter. We're going to attack. And, yes, Liverpool paid for it. But at least they had the confidence to go for it. However, I suspect Manquillo will be more defensive-minded when he starts, as will Flanagan in his appearances.

Manchester City took two fewer shots than Liverpool. Liverpool had five Danger Zone shots, City had two. But City finished their chances. Meanwhile, Liverpool put just three of 11 shots on target, 27.3%, a worse average than in 35 of last season's 38 matches.

There are two excellent follows on Twitter, Michael Caley and Stephen McCarthy, who have been doing stellar work with "Expected Goals" – the probability of a shot from a certain location in a certain situation ending up as a goal. Respectively, they had City's Expected Goals at 1.1 and 1.2. And City scored 3.

Both had Liverpool's Expected Goals around one (1.4 from Caley, 0.9 from McCarthy), and Liverpool scored one, even if it was an own goal from a chance that Lambert should have buried, well-saved by Hart. City's finishing is that good. Even if breakdowns from Liverpool helped City score their first and second goals.

City's second goal was the epitome of patient probing and movement in a fluid attack, picking and poking through close spaces until the defense made a mistake and then WHAM, in behind, in the back of the net.

You can watch Liverpool's offside line fall apart in stages in the 10 seconds leading up to City's game-winning second.



All good here. All four have stepped up together, after all dropped deeper to track Jovetic's attempted run. If the ball's played through here, Zabaleta's offside and Dzeko's covered.



Deeper, but still good, with Lovren and Moreno leading the way backwards when Zabaleta looks at a run in behind, and both Skrtel and Johnson follow along. Zabaleta and Dzeko are still covered. However, Jovetic has found space behind Gerrard, who's ball-watching. This isn't why Liverpool conceded, but it did not help.



Uh oh. And now we have a problem. Lovren and Moreno both step forward, with the dual purpose of playing Zabaleta offside and trying to close down Jovetic's angle and ability to run at the defense. Because of that space that Jovetic found away from Gerrard. But Skrtel and Johnson have not stepped up. They're still closely marking Dzeko, a player who'll never run off the shoulder of the last defender. And now both Nasri and Zabaleta are onside (Nasri might have been anyway), and now Skrtel's too far from his center-back partner and goes to close down Nasri, and Johnson has to stay on Dzeko, and Jovetic's run into the box is completely, totally, wholly unmarked. Fantastic. Capped off by Johnson trying to block the shot on the line, arguably getting in Mignolet's way.

It has to be one or the other. It can't be both. When it's both, this happens, although few teams are as good as City at punishing these mistakes. These things can happen when bedding in new defenders. But the defenders will have to learn quickly how Rodgers wants them to defend, because the new-look Tottenham, next week's opponents, appear similarly capable of capitalizing on defensive mistakes.

Finally, a word about Dejan Lovren, who had a hand in all three goals conceded, after he was the standout defender against Southampton. Fault for the first lies primarily with Moreno, who waited for Lovren's marginally-soft header to come to him, allowing Jovetic to sneak in (with Moreno rightfully credited with a defensive error). Which is a pity, because otherwise, Moreno had a decent debut. That Lovren was confident enough to play a header there is both a good and bad thing, and I'm leaning more towards good. Yes, it's dangerous, but if it comes off, Liverpool are in possession and Moreno has clear vision up the field to spring the break. That's how Rodgers wants his defenders to play, rather than aimlessly getting rid and inviting the opposition to come again. As for the third, he was out-paced by Agüero, who got on the end of a perfectly-weighted pass from Navas. Credit where due to City, and Lovren isn't the first, and won't be the last, to be beaten by Agüero in such a manner.

Long story short, I'm not as THE SKY IS FALLING as some seem to be. Losing sucks, but a better, more cohesive Liverpool lost this fixture last season to an arguably marginally weaker City. Liverpool only allowed City nine shots on their own ground. They conceded two goals you'd hope they won't concede again as long as this revamped defense gels. They had City on the back foot for 30-40 minutes in the first half, by far the better side until conceding that first sloppy goal. 1-3 is harsh on Liverpool's overall performance, but also demonstrates just how potent City currently are.

For better or worse, Liverpool are in transition, and it'll be a while until they're at their best in either defense or attack. It's an unlucky quirk of the fixture calendar that the most difficult match of the season came in the second match, with new players needing to be bedded in, and with Lallana, Balotelli, and Markovic either unavailable or not fully fit.

I am certain Liverpool will be better at both ends, and I'd have been a lot more confident about this fixture in two months' time. Unfortunately, another of the more difficult matches is just five days away, and I'll be far less forgiving if similar happens at White Hart Lane.