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.

25 August 2014

On Mario Balotelli

Liverpool's not-all-that-long-but-felt-pretty-long search for another striker is now over. After one failed medical nearly a month ago, and kicking the tires on almost every top ranked striker in FIFA 2012, Mario Balotelli is now a Liverpool player. It's gonna take a while for that to sink in, and all the baggage that entails.

Have we exhausted all the "from the crazy fire to the crazy frying pan" jokes yet? How about the "Why Always Me?" ones? Super. There's one benefit of the transfer taking all weekend to complete. Let's get on with it.

The main takeaway: Liverpool sold one shot monster this summer, so Liverpool needed a new shot monster. After Liverpool's outstanding summer business so far, it was arguably the one hole left in the squad. Depth and versatility in attack? Done and done with Lallana, Markovic, and Lambert. New fullbacks? Moreno and Manquillo. A defensive organizer? Lovren. Another high-intensity midfielder, which so desperately missed when Henderson was suspended? Emre Can. Lovren, Lallana, and Lambert all have Premier League experience; Markovic, Manquillo, and Can are all young potential ready to be molded, each less than a year older than Raheem Sterling. And now, what appears the final piece. Not Suarez's replacement, but someone who can replace a few of the many things Suarez did. High volume shooters can and will be frustrating, but they're also required in outstanding attacks.

That Liverpool looked better against Southampton's packed defense after bringing on Lambert and switching to the 4-4-2 diamond which did so well last season may have added impetus to this transfer, further demonstrating the need for another striker.

Here's how Liverpool's squad now seemingly fits into the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond which Rodgers has preferred.

     

It's worth noting that Balotelli infrequently lined up on the left while at Manchester City, but I doubt he'll do so very often at Liverpool. It is yet another option though, and options are good.

He was very much AC Milan's main striker and spearhead last season, and has the shot statistics to prove it.



Okay. That's suitably bonkers.



57 shots from inside the box, 95 from outside the box. 43.86% accuracy inside the box, 27.37% outside the box. As a reminder, this is what Suarez and Sturridge's shot charts looked like last season.

Three of Balotelli's eight goals last season from inside the box came from penalties, four of his six from outside the box were from free kicks. That's only seven open play goals in 2294 minutes. Chances are he won't be taking penalties at Liverpool, and will be second- or third-choice on free kicks.

Yes, a lot of Balotelli's shots from outside the box came from set plays. There's also the argument that Milan needed Balotelli to shoot early and often, from any and everywhere. And it's a valid argument. But Liverpool won't rely on Balotelli in the same manner.

Milan took 617 shots last season. Balotelli took 152, 24.6% of Milan's total shots. Almost a full quarter of Milan's shots despite playing just 67% of the minutes available. For comparison, Suarez took 27.8% of Liverpool's last season, but played 86.6% of the possible minutes; Sturridge took 15.3%, Coutinho 14.4%, Gerrard 9.2%, Henderson 7.5%, and Sterling 6.9%.

Here's Balotelli's full stat line from Milan's 2013-14 Serie A campaign.



And as this transfer is bound to evoke all the Suarez comparisons, let's indulge at least a little bit.



Let's be clear. Ronaldo and Messi are pretty much the only players who can really replicate what Suarez did last season.

Four things stood out about Suarez last season (at least statistically): his shot volume and accuracy, his ability to create for others, and his dribbling. Balotelli can bring two of those four, and you'd expect both his key passes and shot accuracy to at least marginally improve with better teammates for the former and better chances for the latter.

It's also worth noting that Balotelli's shot accuracy (without any drop in volume), key passes, dribbles, and tackles+interceptions per 90 minutes were all higher in the 13 games he played for Milan in the second half of 2012-13, after his January transfer from Manchester City. If he can replicate the form from that spell – especially the 47.89% shot accuracy – Liverpool are getting one hell of a player at one hell of a bargain.



But there's one more distinct way where Suarez differs from Balotelli. And it's the part of this transfer that makes me the most nervous. Suarez's problems on the pitch usually, if not always, stemmed from caring too much. When he was frustrated and frustrating, he tried even harder, sometimes to Liverpool's (and his own) detriment but usually to its benefit. Suarez played every match as if his life, and the lives of everyone he loves, depended on it. When Balotelli's frustrated, he seemingly becomes less involved, and makes the irrational decisions which led to 10 yellow cards and one red card last season. It might be more media narrative than Balotelli deserves – just like how some people (*gulps, tugs collar*) thought Sturridge was too selfish before joining Liverpool – but it's also what I remember when seeing him regularly at Manchester City. It was nearly three years ago, but taking 18 minutes to pick up two yellow cards which nearly cost City all three points in a 1-1 draw at Anfield still looms large in my memory. You may also remember that City won the title that season on goal difference; they desperately needed that single point.

We're allowed to do stupid things when in our early twenties – at least I was, and did – but you've got to grow up sometime. Now has to be that time; even Balotelli's agent has said that this will probably be Mario's last chance at a big club. And Liverpool are putting a lot of faith in Rodgers' (and Steve Peters') ability as Footballer Whisperer. Yes, it's a risk.

But it's not high risk. It's £16m for a 24-year-old striker with 33 Italy appearances, 31 Champions League appearances, three Serie A winners' medals, a Premier League winners' medal, a Champions League winners' medal, and FA Cup, Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana, and Community Shield medals. If Balotelli doesn't deliver or unbalances the dressing room or whatever, he'll be gone, and there will be some (probably Italian) club who'll give Liverpool most of that money back, and Liverpool will have a readymade replacement when Origi returns from his season-long loan at Lille. There should be enough strong personalities in the squad to keep Balotelli from doing anything that throws off the group as a whole.

And if Liverpool gets the Mario Balotelli from Euro 2012 or that first half-season with AC Milan, it'll be very high-reward.

24 August 2014

Liverpool at Manchester City 08.25.14

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (h) 04.13.14
1-2 City (a) 12.26.13
2-2 (a) 02.03.13
2-2 (h) 08.26.12

Last match:
Liverpool: 2-1 Southampton (h)
Manchester City: 2-0 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling, Sturridge 1
Manchester City: Agüero, Silva 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

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

After one preseason match and 60 minutes against Southampton, I suspect Liverpool's experiment with the 4-2-3-1 is over, at least for the time being. Against the defending league champions, Liverpool will probably revert to the safer, more familiar 4-3-3, with either Allen or Can coming in for Lucas.

Unsurprisingly given Liverpool's new-found depth, there are a couple other options. Rodgers could start with the diamond that seemingly worked best against Southampton, when the game became more stretched, although – like against Southampton – that's probably something to be used if needed. Coutinho could drop into midfield with Markovic coming in on the flanks, but the Serbian will probably be used off the bench at best.

It's also seemingly too soon for Alberto Moreno, in training this week and in the squad, because he's new to both the team and league, and because of the strength of tomorrow's opposition. Then again, Rodgers threw the even-less-experienced Manquillo in the deep end against Dortmund then Southampton as soon as he was available. Lallana's also back in training, but probably won't be fit enough to appear for another week.

Meanwhile, Manchester City remain Manchester City. The defending league champions, arguably the strongest squad in the division, spending *just* £49m this summer to sign Fernando, Mangala, Willy Caballero, and Sagna. Money makes the world go 'round.

Will it be 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 for City? Well, when City start with two strikers – as they did with Jovetic and Dzeko against Newcastle – ;it's both 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, with one of the strikers often dropping off. If it's the same XI as last week, it'll be Hart; Clichy, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Nasri, Fernando, Toure, Silva; Jovetic, Dzeko. However, Zabaleta should come back in for Clichy, finally available after returning late because of Argentina's progression to the World Cup final.

But I also wouldn't be surprised to see a more orthodox 4-2-3-1, an extra midfielder coming in for one of the strikers, whether it's winger in the form of Navas or Milner, or another central holder such as Fernandinho. And like Zabaleta, Agüero, who came off the bench to score the second at Newcastle, should be available to start, whether City start with one or two up front. Only new center-back Mangala and Alvaro Negredo – who scored City's winner in this fixture last season – are unavailable.

There's always pressure when playing Manchester City, but the hosts are the side expected to take all three points, just as they did in this fixture last season. Maybe I'm just typically pessimistic, but anything Liverpool may take tomorrow would be a bonus. If Liverpool lose or draw, it won't define the season; it didn't last December, it won't after two games in this one. But if Liverpool somehow win, it could definitely push the side on to greater heights.

---
Meta: Stupid weekday matches. There will almost certainly be no immediate match review as, at best, I'll be watching this at work on my phone. As happened last season, the match infographic on Tuesday will have a longer, more-like-a-match-review write-up. Thanks to Champions League participation this season, this is going to happen a lot more than I'd like.

18 August 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Southampton

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


As an FYI: the passing networks are still a work in progress. As of now, think I'll just be doing them for Liverpool and show the substitutes in reversed colors, but this may change as they become more familiar.

Compare yesterday to the same fixture 11 months ago. Liverpool were without Suarez, and in something of a 4-2-3-1. Liverpool similarly struggled for shots (with more than half from outside the box), had a similar amount of possession, made a similar number of tackles and interceptions. And Liverpool lost that match 0-1.

Southampton's personnel may have been different, Southampton's manager may have been different, Southampton's goalscorer from last season may have lined up for Liverpool, but the pattern mostly remained the same. Except this time, Liverpool scored two to Southampton's one.

Liverpool put just five shots on target – the same number as in this match last season – but two of those five ended up in the net, both defined by Opta as "clear cut chances." If you're limited to few shots, make sure at least a couple are high value shots. Liverpool did. And in different ways: the first from a jaw-dropping defense-splitting long ball from Henderson, taking Southampton's usually well-organized defense out of play; the second primarily thanks to crosses from the right, even though both were cleared. Lambert coming on a sub allowed Liverpool to adopt that tactic, something they most definitely lacked last season; even if he won neither, he caused enough hassle where Liverpool were able to pick up the second ball.

It was pleasing to see Sterling lead Liverpool in both shots taken and shot accuracy. Sure, he's only 19 (and for four more months), but a lot of the responsibility for Liverpool's attack in the wake of Suarez's departure will fall on his shoulders. And he did not disappoint yesterday. His assist might have been even more pleasing than the goal. We know he's capable of bursting behind the defense, and his finishing's improved over the last year. But the intelligence to get into position to win the header quicker than anyone else, the strength and leap to actually win the header ahead of Steven Davis, and the ability to direct it straight to Sturridge, measured perfectly over Fonte's reach and correctly assuming that the striker would get in front of his marker, is talent well beyond his years.

Southampton clearly identified Liverpool's right as a weakness, trying to test the young Manquillo. 46% of Southampton's attacks came down that flank. 11 of Liverpool's 16 successful tackles came on that flank, six by Manquillo. The debutant right-back also made four interceptions and five clearances, won two of his three aerial duels, blocked three crosses, and committed just one foul (which he was stupidly booked for). Not a bad debut.

So, unsurprisingly, Southampton's goal came from the opposite flank, with Liverpool's veterans sharing the blame.




In theory, there are four players who could have closed down Clyne. Lucas is facing the ball, trying to help Lovren ensure Tadic goes nowhere. He's the closest to Clyne, but what he's attempting makes a certain amount of sense, making sure the winger has no room to spin away from Lovren and closing off the angle for a centering pass to Ward-Prowse. Skrtel's helping Manquillo cover Pelle; again, logical given the possibility of a cross and the youngster's inexperience. Johnson and Gerrard are the furthest from Clyne, but neither's really marking anyone.



But, thanks to a clever back heel by Tadic, now Clyne's in space in the danger zone, with four players close but not close enough. No one single player is to blame, but any one of those four could have prevented the goal. I'm pretty sure Rodgers will be going over division of responsibilities when in that position during training this week.

But, to be fair, when in a similar position 12 minutes later, Johnson made sure to track Clyne's run into the box (with Allen also closer to Clyne rather than stacking on Tadic), a move which ended with Johnson and Skrtel combining to deny Clyne an effort, then Manquillo blocking Pelle's effort.



If you're going to make mistakes, you'd better learn from them. Last season, Liverpool often didn't learn from its defensive mistakes, and proceeded to make them again. This is progress.

17 August 2014

Liverpool 2-1 Southampton

Goals:
Sterling 23'
Clyne 56'
Sturridge 79'

Liverpool had a narrow one-goal lead thanks to Daniel Sturridge, despite looking toothless up front for long stretches thanks to a combination of excellent opposition defending and a couple of final-third miscues. Liverpool weren't allowed to take enough shots, and too many of those shots came from distance. Defensive shelling was just inviting trouble. But then Simon Mignolet somehow saved all three points, and Liverpool subsequently held on through injury-time nerves.

That was how last season started against Stoke. And, exactly one year later, that's how today's match went as well. Time may well be a flat circle.

Liverpool started with the same formation as in the final preseason match against Dortmund, with Lucas replacing Emre Can. And Liverpool bossed possession in the first half, controlling the tempo and denying Southampton forays forward, but also denied any space to operate in the final third.

It took a sumptuous, unbelievable long ball from Henderson, with his weaker foot no less, to open up the opposition for the first goal: Manquillo and Henderson hassling Tadic into losing possession near the halfway line, then a defense-destroying, perfectly-weighted pass for Sterling, who split the center-backs, took the ball in stride, and coolly finished around Forster.

But unlike those impressive performances last season, the early-ish goal didn't immediately lead to more. Liverpool slightly reverted into a shell, playing it safe, and Southampton started to rack up set plays with a couple of threatening opportunities both denied by Mignolet: Ward-Prowse's free kick caught by the wind and tipped over, Schneiderlin's shot from distance tipped over.

The shelling was even worse to start the second half. Southampton looked likely to find an equalizer from the restart, taking the game to the home side, and found that equalizer after just 11 minutes. A throw-in down Liverpool's left after near constant pressure, a lovely one-two between Clyne, easily eluding Johnson, and Tadic, holding off Lovren. Tadic's back heel put Clyne in on goal, both Lucas and Gerrard standing hands on hips watching Clyne burst into the box then unstoppably hammer a shot past Mignolet.

It was exactly what we'd complained about when Lucas and Gerrard were previously paired as deep-lying midfielders. Someone has to track that run, and they've played together long enough to figure out which of them should have gone. It was no coincidence that Allen soon replaced Lucas, switching the side to the more-familiar 4-3-3.

But with Liverpool still on tilt after conceding, Southampton had two excellent chances to snatch the lead. Mignolet denied Davis, his shot too close to the keeper, after Southampton broke down Liverpool's right and defenders were completely caught out of position, as Ward-Prowse probably should have shot rather than setting up Davis. Five minutes later, a near-replica of the equalizer, against cutting through the inside-right channel, this time Skrtel and Johnson doing just enough to prevent the shot getting through.

And that was swiftly followed by yet another personnel and formation change to try to stem the tide. Liverpool went through the full range of formations today, starting with the lopsided 4-2-3-1, shifting to 4-3-3 when Allen came on for Lucas, then going to the diamond after Lambert replaced Coutinho.

And Liverpool looked better after switching to the diamond – better able to get into the final third, better able to prevent Southampton's midfield from tearing them open. Three minutes after the change, the winner: Southampton unable to clear Henderson's cross, Sterling smartly first to the second ball header, finding the poacher Sturridge who'd snuck in front of Clyne for a tap-in. Absolute jubilation, with Rodgers celebrating like we'd rarely seen before.

But then, more defensive shelling. But this time, it seemed to work. Until the 88th minute: Liverpool trying to scramble clear from Clyne's cross, Gerrard's hoof out only finding Bertrand, whose header back in made it to Pelle, with Skrtel and Lovren trying to push out too quickly. Pelle's knock-down fell to an open Schneiderlin, but Mignolet somehow pushed the shot onto the crossbar, the ball bouncing a foot in front of the goal line. Long's attempted rebound header was poorly screwed wide, £12m well spent. And Liverpool survive, just, by the skin of their teeth, the four minutes of injury time finally spent keeping possession in Southampton's half.

So, just as they did 365 days ago, Liverpool did just enough. And, seeing Arsenal and Tottenham do the exact same thing yesterday, against worse opposition, that'll do. But there's no Suarez returning from suspension to restore the attack this season. Lallana and Markovic are still to return from injury, Moreno will come into the side as well, new signings and team-wide cohesion will improve with more matches, and there might be another striker in before the window closes. But all the fears about the increased impotence in attack remain valid, and while the defense was better, there were still those moments of madness that can punish a side.

Aside from Sterling, Lovren and Manquillo were two of Liverpool's best today, despite those worries in defense. Henderson was Henderson, with the added bonus of *that assist*. Coutinho was denied time and space by the outstanding Wanyama, Sturridge was subdued but still scored the winner. Mignolet responded when called upon. The scapegoats – Lucas and Johnson – sadly remain scapegoats.

It may not have been a great performance, but it's a great result. 37 more of those might kill me, but they'll suit Liverpool just fine.