02 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Manchester United (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester City (h), Manchester City [League Cup] (n), Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

That was just a whole lot of bad. Bad in defense (*glares at Martin Skrtel*), bad in midfield, and bad in attack, against opposition that Liverpool had beaten in the last five meetings. Liverpool's injuries have caught up with the side, Liverpool's focus on the Europa League has caught up with the side.

Liverpool's -7 shot differential was, by far, their largest negative differential in a league match this season. Liverpool's opponent has taken more shots than Liverpool just six times this campaign: Arsenal away (-4), United away (-1), Everton away (-1), Tottenham away (-1), Tottenham home (-3), and now Swansea away (-7). One of these teams is not like the others.

Liverpool's -1.2 xG differential (by Michael Caley's numbers) was, by far, their largest negative differential in either a league or European match this season. The previous low was -0.8, against Arsenal (h) under Rodgers and Leicester (a) under Klopp.

Liverpool's 11 shots were the joint-fewest in a league match (along with Villa away and City at home, matches where Liverpool scored early and often and didn't need to keep shooting) since the 0-2 loss at Newcastle back in December, where Liverpool took just 10.

But there's not a lot that Liverpool's attackers can do when Liverpool's defenders and midfielders constantly lose possession or misplace passes. Liverpool couldn't convert their marginal edge in possession into chances at any time in the match, whether level, behind by just a goal, or down to ten men. It's probably not coincidence that Swansea made 10 interceptions and 10 tackles in Liverpool's half yesterday.

Not only did Swansea register a bunch more shots than Liverpool, they were a bunch of better shots as well. Eight of Liverpool's 11 came from outside the box, 11 of Swansea's 18 came from inside the box. Two of Liverpool's three shots from inside the box came from corners, including the goal, with the other Sturridge's half-chance awkward volley in the 10th minute. One open play shot in the box, off-target, in 90 minutes. Sigh.

Meanwhile, Swansea put nine of 18 on-target (50%), Liverpool put three of 11 (27%). If not for Danny Ward's six saves, that scoreline looks even worse. This was just the second time this season that Liverpool allowed more than five shots on-target in a league match, after the 0-2 loss at West Ham where the home side took ten.

Liverpool allowed their opponent three clear-cut chances for just the third time in the league this season, along with Watford (a) and Arsenal (h), matches which took place in December and January respectively.

And, to cap it all off, this was the first time that Swansea scored three goals in a league match this season. They'd scored two goals in just 11 of the 35 matches before yesterday, with six of those coming before the end of November. The last time Swansea scored two goals at home was January 13 against Sunderland. 16 matches earlier.

Those Swansea goals came from a set play; an inability to clear and subsequent loss of possession in Liverpool's half coupled with Skrtel backing off the goalscorer; and a Yakety Sax comedy of errors barely two minutes after Liverpool almost kinda got themselves back into the game, starting from another loss of possession in Liverpool's half. It was a trilogy of failures, all different but all very Liverpool. Probably not coincidentally, Skrtel and Lucas featured heavily in Swansea's second and third.

This, along with maybe Watford away, was arguably Liverpool worst performance and result of the season, assuredly Liverpool's worst over the last few months. I'm hoping that it's an aberration: an under-strength, incredibly young, makeshift line-up in a less-than-meaningful league match played away from home in awful conditions. I'm hoping that it's forgettable. I'm hoping we see a very different performance and very different result in four days. A rainy, cold, end-of-season day in South Wales that's immediately gone from the memory if Liverpool win on Thursday.

But I'm not very hopeful considering what we've seen from Liverpool over the last two and a half matches.

01 May 2016

Liverpool 1-3 Swansea

Ayew 20' 67'
Cork 33'
Benteke 65'

A central midfield with a combined five league starts and combined age of 41 with Martin Skrtel behind them. What could possibly go wrong?


Liverpool were very, very bad today. Honestly, there's not much more to be said. We've been spoiled by the success against Stoke and Bournemouth with these changed sides – and, obviously, to a much lesser extent against Newcastle, at least in the first half – but this was closer to what I initially feared. Swansea overran Liverpool's inexperienced midfield, Skrtel Skrtel'd, and everyone else looked like they'd rather be anywhere else besides cold and drenched in South Wales.

Liverpool looked like a much-changed away side that knows it's probably finishing seventh and nothing but the Europa League matters, Swansea looked like a home side that knows it needs a win to mathematically prevent relegation. So be it.

Swansea had a handful of open play chances before the opener, but it's fitting that opener came from a set play. Sturridge doesn't track Ayew's run towards the six-yard box (maybe it's zonal and he's not supposed to?), Skrtel and Lovren get their positioning wrong, and there's nothing Ward can do. It's the 19th set play goal that Liverpool have conceded in all competitions, the 14th in the league. It's the danger of defending set plays with a heavily changed line-up. It's the Cancer-AIDS that seems to infect Liverpool's defending every time that Skrtel and Lovren play together.

Danny Ward tried to keep Liverpool in the game, with an excellent save then punch on Cork then Ayew in the 26th, but there was again nothing he could do in the 33rd – Cork's lovely curler after out-muscling Coutinho far too easily on a midfield duel, with Skrtel hilariously backing off into nowhere as Cork prepared to shoot. Liverpool's defense and midfield deserved every inch of the two-goal deficit.

Meanwhile, Liverpool couldn't create a damned thing at the other end, consistently losing possession when transitioning from midfield to attack, whether through intercepted passes, players caught in possession, or Ibe, Ojo, or Coutinho's unsuccessful dribbles. Liverpool were limited to a marginal penalty shout for Coutinho in the 22nd (just after Swansea's first) and Ojo's lovely long throughball for Sturridge in the 36th (just after Swansea's second), chipped wide first time from outside the box.

Halftime couldn't come quick enough, and things obviously had to change. Lucas replaced the sadly-very-out-of-his-depth Chirivella while Benteke came on Coutinho, maybe still ill but also nowhere near as effective in the #10 role as he's been on the left, even considering the shenanigans going on behind him. And the changes made Liverpool better, with Swansea probably slightly complacent, as Liverpool were against Southampton and Newcastle in recent weeks.

Lucas helped to solidify midfield, Benteke gave Liverpool an outlet to be more direct and gave Sturridge someone to play off of. But Liverpool couldn't have been much worse than in the first half, and the switch to 4-4-2 didn't pay dividends for 20 minutes, until Benteke headed in Ojo's corner from close range with Fabianski pinned on his line.

Hey, maybe game on? A comeback like the few that Liverpool have allowed too often this season?

Just when you thought Benteke's goal gave Liverpool a chance, this. All of this.

Remarkable. Lucas' dalliance is by far the most egregious offense, setting the whole sequence in motion, while Skrtel's diving tackle into thin air isn't far behind, but Skrtel then Lovren leaping for headers they weren't even close to will be massively underrated. Oh, and Ojo was probably fouled, but you can't spoil great comedy.

That was that, and that was especially that when Brad Smith picked up a second yellow nine minutes later with Swansea about to counter off of a failed Liverpool corner. At least Liverpool didn't concede any more? At least no one got hurt? At least we got further proof that Skrtel should be shot into the sun? Sigh.

This clearly isn't ideal preparation for Villarreal on Thursday. At least only two or three of the players on the pitch at the final whistle should feature then. Hopefully, one of those is Sturridge, who played 90 minutes but should still be in contention for another start.

We saw too many disappointing individual performances, and failings and failures that we've seen before. Set plays, multiple-goal away losses, attacking transitions, Skrtel, etc. But it was a 12pm game in rainy South Wales after playing Thursday evening with a very unfamiliar XI and the league position all but meaningless at this point. Whatever.

It's a very, very different story if Liverpool fail on Thursday, though.

30 April 2016

Liverpool at Swansea 05.01.16

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.29.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.15
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.29.14
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Villarreal (a); 2-2 Newcastle (h); 4-0 Everton (h)
Swansea: 0-4 Leicester (a); 0-3 Newcastle (a); 1-0 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Coutinho, Sturridge 8; Benteke 7; Milner, Origi 5; Lallana 4; Henderson, Ings 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Swansea: Sigurðsson 11; A Ayew 8; Gomis 5; Paloschi, Williams 2; Barrow, Fernandez, Ki SY, Routledge, Shelvey 1

Referee: Roger East

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Lovren Smith
Milner Stewart
Ojo Lallana Ibe

Another league match sandwiched between vastly more important European contests, another match where we'll see heavy rotation but little clue exactly who will be playing in what formation.

Sturridge is definitely starting up front, Stewart's definitely starting in midfield, Ward's definitely starting in goal, at least one of Ojo and Ibe (and probably both) are starting on the flanks, Smith and either Randall or Flanagan are probably starting at full-back, Skrtel's probably (sigh) starting in central defense. From there, it's a matter of who Klopp trusts to be able to play three matches in a week and what formation best matches Swansea's 4-2-3-1.

Central defense? Who's better able to play three times in seven days: Lovren, Toure, or Lucas? Will Lucas even play next Thursday, in midfield or central defense?

Full-back? Flanagan probably won't start, considering this article on his recovery from yesterday, but I'd still trust him more against Jefferson Montero than I would Connor Randall.

Midfield? It's probably either Allen or Milner with Stewart – maybe Lucas, in an even less attack-capable duo – unless Klopp continues with the 4-3-3 we saw against Villarreal or the 4-4-2 diamond we saw against Newcastle, or either Brannagan or Chirivella get a surprise start along with Stewart. I'm always in favor of playing players against their former club, but I still suspect Milner will get the nod over Allen just because of his fitness levels. Unless Klopp's initially planning on a Lucas-Milner midfield next Thursday, that is.

Attack? Again, who's better able to play three times in seven days, and to play in the #10 position behind Sturridge? Coutinho, who was ill on Thursday? An out-of-form Firmino? Lallana? Regardless, the attack is going to be the Daniel Sturridge Show, with a massive, massive point to prove after being left out at Villarreal. You thought his ten shots at Bournemouth was egregious? I wouldn't be surprised if he takes 15 tomorrow.

Maybe Liverpool go with a 4-4-2 diamond, something like Stewart; Allen, Milner; Lallana/Firmino; Sturridge, Benteke – pretty much the XI which started adequately but then threw away two goals and couldn't get back into the game against Newcastle – but that also seems doubtful, and leaves no place for either Ibe or Ojo, both fresh, needing game time, and with points to prove.

It will be a much-changed side. And, for the most part, these much-changed sides have done well, not counting last weekend's second-half capitulation. At this stage of the season, it's all about managing resources while still trying to accrue acceptable results. We know where Liverpool's priorities lie.

Swansea, at the bottom of the mid-table pile but almost certainly safe from relegation – but would be absolutely mathematically safe with a win tomorrow – have been decent at home and very, very bad away lately. They're coming off 0-3 and 0-4 losses against Newcastle and Leicester respectively, which hopefully is a sign that they're already on the beach for the summer, but they've also lost just twice at home in 2016: 2-4 against Sunderland back in January and 0-1 against Southampton back in February. Since Boxing Day, Swansea's home record is 5W-1D-2L, with wins over West Brom, Watford, Norwich, Villa, and Chelsea. All five of those wins have been 1-0. The aforementioned 2-4 defeat to Sunderland was the only time that Swansea conceded more than once in the last nine home matches, with six clean sheets during that stretch.

Incidentally, the result when these sides met at Anfield in November? 1-0 to the home team.

Will we get the "tough to beat at home, grind you down" Swansea or the "season's over, don't care" Swansea which conceded seven in its last two matches? Whichever Swansea it is will be missing both Fer and Paloschi with hamstring injuries, which certainly doesn't help their cause, but they have replacements: either Britton or Ki for Fer, either Gomis or Barrow or even Routledge (with Ayew moving into a striker's role). The most likely XI seems to be Fabianski; Rangel, Fernandez, Williams, Taylor; Britton, Cork; Ayew, Sigurðsson, Montero; Gomis.

We all know which is Liverpool's more important match this week. But that doesn't wholly detract from tomorrow's contest. A chance to put the Newcastle result right, a chance to put the Villarreal result right. A chance for players to force their way into contention for Thursday, a chance for players to force their way into contention for more meaningful fixtures in the future, both this season and next.

The season ain't over yet, the league campaign ain't over yet. There's still much for Liverpool to do, in both of the competitions they're still in.

29 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Villarreal

Previous Match Infographics: Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Manchester United (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester City (h), Manchester City [League Cup] (n), Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

As always for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

This is the danger of playing for 0-0. Until injury time, 0-0 looked the most likely score. Liverpool had mainly stopped Villarreal from its game, preventing counter-attacks, limiting set plays, limiting mistakes. Both sides had a couple of chances – just a couple – and an equal amount of "reasonable to almost good" ones despite Liverpool's total shot advantage.

Villarreal had a spell of pressure in the 21st leading to Pina shots saved and blocked, Bakumbu's set play header hit the post just after halftime, and Mignolet's excellent save on Bakumbu in the 87th. Allen spurned an excellent opporunity in the 5th, when a deflected cross found him in space on the penalty shot, but he shot straight at the keeper. Firmino had a Danger Zone shot saved onto the post in the 65th. Moreno tore down the length of the pitch after a Villarreal corner in the 88th but wildly missed at the near post.

For the most part, it was a damp squib of a match. Which isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world in a first leg away European match. But one mistake and you're doomed, and that's exactly what happened in injury time. Bruno dispossessed Lallana in Villarreal's defensive third with pretty much every Liverpool player caught up the pitch. Lallana failed in his press, Milner failed in his press, Moreno failed in his press, and then Lucas failed in his press. With Moreno out of position, Denis Suarez was one-on-one with Toure, able to out-pace the veteran for Bruno's ball over the top, Toure choosing to stay with the attacker rather than play for offside. Moreno, now somehow in the middle of pitch, couldn't keep up with Adrian, tap in. Credit where due: it was a really good move, especially between Suarez, Bruno, and Adrian to break through midfield. Still, Liverpool didn't need to make it easier for them. Game over, plan ruined.

I rarely criticize Jürgen Klopp's decisions. Every day I wake up amazed and pleased that he's somehow Liverpool's manager. And he's rarely given me moments to criticize. Liverpool were missing key players, Liverpool had defended well, Liverpool were away in a first-leg European semi-final. But I do not understand yesterday's mid-game management.

The starting XI was understandable, even if it's not what I would've chosen. A more defensive side, a side better suited to pressing, a three-man midfield to better able to prevent Villarreal's quick transition attacks. All perfectly valid choices, and the first half, the first 60 minutes, even the first 90 minutes until added time bore them out.

Klopp didn't miss Allen's 5th-minute chance or Moreno's 88th-minute chance. Klopp wasn't one of five or so players caught out of position on Villarreal's winner. But I'm a little annoyed at Liverpool's passivity in the starting XI and exceptionally annoyed at the substitutions, or lack thereof, in the final 30 or minutes. And I can't help but think back to Liverpool's last loss, at Southampton, where Klopp seemingly sat on his hands in the final 30 minutes rather than making changes to – in that case – solidify the midfield or defense, and Liverpool ended up conceding two late goals.

This time, it was Liverpool's attack which needed the boost, and it was only one late goal, but it's still a loss and still a massive regret. It doesn't happen often – those are the only two matches where I remember getting mad at the manager's in-game choices, and Liverpool have seen a lot of goals and better play from substitutes this season, much more than from the previous manager – but the losses always stick in the memory longer than the wins.

Most notably, you leave out Daniel Sturridge in the biggest game of the season, and you deliver that attacking performance. Preferring Origi is one thing, as both legs against Dortmund demonstrated. Preferring a struggling Roberto Firmino is another. In the two months between Arsenal at home in January and United away in the Europe League in March, Firmino scored eight and assisted on four. 14 matches, 1233 minutes, 12 combined goals and assists; an average of 0.88 goals+assists per 90 minutes. Since returning from injury three weeks ago, he's got one tap-in rebound goal and no assists in 459 over seven matches. Aside from his work-rate, he's not been good.

And it's especially galling when, as predicted, the vast majority of Liverpool's attacks came from the flanks because that's where Villarreal's exceptionally well-organized two banks of four forced you to go. Liverpool's attacks seemed to go something like Moreno cross, Milner's cross, Clyne's cross, Lallana's cross, Toure's punt from defense, Milner's cross. And Firmino probably isn't heading them in. Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, and Allen almost certainly aren't heading them in. Firmino's 5'11", Milner's 5'9", Lallana's 5'8", Coutinho's 5'7", and Allen's 5'6". Those was Liverpool's five players yesterday. Sturridge at least gives you a chance at those, with headed goals against Villa, Stoke, and Bournemouth this season. He's 6'2". And his hold-up play from hoofed balls out of defense, which Liverpool played an awful lot of, is vastly better than Firmino's as well. Is Firmino's pressing really more valuable than that?

Sure, I guess, if you really are insistent on a) keeping it 0-0 and b) maybe scoring from pressing or quick passing moves on the break. At least for the first hour. And that it was Ibe first off the bench wasn't that surprising either. He was replacing the ill Coutinho, it'd only been 45 minutes, and – in theory if not practice – his pace may be able to stretch Villarreal on counter-attacks or when Liverpool hoof the ball out from the back.

But to not bring Sturridge on at all? Really? With Benteke for Firmino in the 90th minute as they only other substitution, supposedly as extra protection on any set plays? It's another thing if Benteke's brought on earlier; I'd heavily disagree, because he's often bad at the football, but at least he's an actual target-man. But for extra defensive protection in the final minute, with Sturridge still sat in his warm-up clothes? That's almost insulting.

This is going to sound much ruder than I mean, but that's brave football? You've got to dance with what brung you.

That Villarreal got the narrow win is marginally deserved. Neither side attacked well, but Villarreal attacked better and smarter. Liverpool took 15 shots, but eight of them came from outside the box, with all eight from outside the box either off-target or blocked. Villarreal took nine shots, and six of the nine came from inside the box, with two of the three from outside the box on target. Only nine of Liverpool's shots came from key passes; eight of Villarreal's nine came from key passes. One attack was less frequent, but more coherent, and that's the side that scored and that's the side that won.

To be slightly fairer to Liverpool, overturning a 0-1 deficit at Anfield in a week's time is doable. One Liverpool goal means extra time and two mean a win, as long as Liverpool keep Villarreal – a dangerous counter-attacking side if given space, as we saw in the 92nd minute – from scoring. If Villarreal score, Liverpool will need at least three, but this is a Liverpool side that's scored 14 goals in its last four home matches.

Of course, Villarreal aren't Stoke or Everton or Newcastle. And they're certainly not Dortmund, which was a performance and result we'll rarely see in our lifetimes. Next Thursday, there will be 11 Villarreal players in their own half for 90 minutes at Anfield, determined to defend, defend, and defend some more, and then counter-attack when Liverpool push too far forward too quickly. Which is exactly what Liverpool's struggled against multiple times this season, especially at home. And which is exactly how Villarreal scored, and won, yesterday's game.

Play for the 0-0, and get burned. Make one mistake (or, more accurately, multiple little mistakes on one sequence), and get burned. Stop getting burned, Liverpool. Stop burning yourself, Liverpool.

27 April 2016

Liverpool at Villarreal 04.28.16

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Newcastle (h); 4-0 Everton (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a)
Villarreal: 0-0 Real Sociedad (h); 0-3 Real Madrid (a); 1-2 Rayo Vallecano (a)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 4-3 Dortmund (h), 1-1 Dortmund (a); 1-1 United (a), 2-0 United (h); 1-0 Augsburg (h), 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a); 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Villarreal: 4-2 Sparta Prague (a), 2-1 Sparta Prague (h); 0-0 Leverkusen (a), 2-0 Leverkusen (h); 1-1 Napoli (a), 1-0 Napoli (h); 3-3 Plzen (a); 1-0 Rapid Wien (h); 2-1 Dinamo Minsk (a); 4-0 Dinamo Minsk (h); 1-0 Plzen (h); 1-2 Rapid Wien (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, Origi 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Lovren, Sakho, Sturridge 1
Villarreal: Bakambu 9; Bruno, Leo Baptistao, Soldado 2; Bailly, Castillejo, dos Santos, Pina, Suarez 1

Referee: Damir Skomina (SLO)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Toure Moreno
Lallana Milner Allen Coutinho
Firmino Sturridge

How's your week been?

Not great, Bob.

Henderson, Can, and Origi remain out through injury, Sakho's not contesting his failed drug test – which means at least a six-month ban, and more likely two years – and Liverpool are coming off a humiliating draw against probably-will-still-be-relegated Newcastle.

So it's a smashing time to play a Europa League semifinal against a team that hasn't lost in this competition since September.

Cleverer people than I – Sky Sports' Rob Palmer in the Echo and Anfield Index – have noted that Villarreal look an awful lot like Leicester if you squint hard enough. While they've not succeeded in the league to such a degree, they've been a surprisingly good side considering their underlying statistics: good in defense, not good up front, massively over-performing Expected Goals. But they've been comprehensively excellent in the Europa League.

In this analogy, Bakambu is Vardy, Soldado is Okazaki, Denis Suarez is Mahrez, Bruno Soriano is Kante, Rukavina and Mario Gaspar are both competent fullbacks who can get forward but are better in defense. But it's the playing style that's most similar: an orthodox, compact, deep 4-4-2; a reliance on quick transitions through interplay and fast passing rather than long ball; pressing from the front before settling into defensive positions; and one key player who scores the majority of their goals.

So what did Liverpool do against Leicester? And what could and should have Liverpool done better? In both matches against Leicester this season – 1-0 at home, 0-2 away – Liverpool matched Leicester's formation, basically a 4-4-1-1 in both meetings. Firmino playing off Origi then Benteke at home, with Lallana, Coutinho, Henderson, and Can in midfield; Liverpool were wasteful in attack (surprise!) but completely shut down Leicester and eventually got its goal through Firmino crossing to Benteke. Away from home, Liverpool's options were more limited, with Lallana playing off Firmino, Henderson and Milner "on the flanks," and Can and Lucas in central midfield. Liverpool were wasteful in attack (surprise!) but also didn't create enough, before falling behind to a wonder goal on the counter from Vardy – the defensive line too high and broken too easily – then quickly and somewhat unluckily conceding a second.

Which leads me to think that Liverpool will match Villarreal's formation, especially considering the dearth of available central midfielders; not only are Henderson and Can out, but Stewart's not in the Europa League squad. However, Liverpool may want to play more cautiously away from home in the first leg, more of a 4-3-3 with Allen, Lucas, and Milner behind Lallana, Coutinho, and either Firmino or Sturridge. Villarreal are dangerous in transition and dangerous through the middle, with Soldado dropping deep to create space and create chances for Bakumbu. Lucas can stay deep and drop into the defense when needed, while Allen and Milner get forward (and wide) to supplement the attacking line of three. But Lucas may also be preferred as Sakho's replacement, and I'm also not convinced that 4-3-3 attack will do enough to unsettle Villarreal. Away from home, in the first of two legs, Liverpool have to find a balance, and finding that balance isn't easy, especially considering the absences.

Regardless of personnel or formation, Liverpool must also take advantage of the flanks, not only through quick transitions of their own, but also as Villarreal often attempt to funnel the opposition's attacking play out wide. Moreno and Clyne will be crucial, especially the former, Liverpool's best crosser of the ball along with Milner. It might actually be helpful that Benteke's back, potentially able to come off the bench in the target-man role that Liverpool so infrequently use.

Meanwhile, Valencia's XI is likely to be Areola; Mario, Bailly, Ruiz, Rukavina; D Suarez, Trigueros, Bruno, Castillejo; Soldado, Bakambu. Both Sergio Asenjo and Mariano Barbosa have started in goal in this competition as well, but Areola's played the majority of matches lately. Jonathan dos Santos could be an option anywhere in midfield, starting matches on the flanks and in the middle lately. Center-back in Villarreal's only slightly concerning position, with both Musacchio and Jaume Costa out injured. Which is another reason I'd like to see Liverpool play with two up front, even if it makes the side slightly more vulnerable at the other end.

Villarreal haven't been in great form lately, winless in their last three games, scoring just once in their last three games. Rayo, despite for points to avoid relegation, out-battled Villarreal, the first goal through a rebound, conceding a quick equalizer, then getting a late winner from a cross and header in a cagey second half. Real Madrid out-possessed and outgunned Villarreal, dominating possession, not allowing Villarreal any counter-attack opportunities, and finished their own chances. And last weekend, Villarreal and Real Sociedad played out a fairly dire 0-0.

But some end-of-season malaise isn't unexpected. Villarreal are fourth – not solidly fourth, but four points and +17 goal difference clear of Celta Vigo. A drop in league form with eyes on a Europa League semifinal? That sounds vaguely familiar. Eking by Napoli, who were joint-favorites along with Dortmund at that point, was impressive, as was their dismissal of Bayer Leverkusen in the next round, before easily stomping Sparta Prague in the quarterfinals.

Cedric Bakumbu's an excellent example of Villarreal's league v European form. Their top scorer with 12 goals, he's averaging 0.59 goals per 90 in La Liga. Quite good, but not "good lord" good; Sturridge is averaging 0.90, Origi's averaging 0.68 with a lot fewer minutes, Benteke's averaging 0.49, Firmino's averaging 0.43. But Bakumbu's averaging 1.06 goals per 90 in the Europa League; with nine goals, he's got as many as Liverpool's entire likely XI tomorrow. That's "good lord" good.

For the questions about Villarreal's league position, they've definitely earned their continued participation in this competition.

But so have Liverpool, mediocre but unbeaten through the group stage and first knock-out round, then thwacking Manchester United before that comeback against the competition's then-clear favorites Dortmund. It's a surprise that both sides are here, but both sides definitely deserve to be here.

One side knows what it does, and does it well; settled, mainly injury-free, and consistent. The other is more versatile, able to change formation and style to suit both personnel available and opposition, but also more inconsistent, due to scattered injuries throughout the season and a continuing change in playing style after the midseason managerial change. When they're good, they're better than most. When they're bad, they concede two in the second half at home against Newcastle.

It's much, much easier said than done, but be good tomorrow, Liverpool. Despite the players absent, be what you've been so far in this competition.

25 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Manchester United (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester City (h), Manchester City [League Cup] (n), Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

After a month where we'd mostly forgotten all of Liverpool's issues because of those results against United, Dortmund, Stoke, and Everton, it all came rushing back. Two steps forward, one step back.

19 points dropped despite Liverpool having the lead, the most in the Premier League. Seven of nine matches at Anfield. Three matches where Liverpool had a two-goal lead ending in two draws and a loss, against two sides threatened by relegation and one which sits just a point and place below Liverpool. Four matches where a 1-0 lead ended 1-1, which also happened three times in the Europa League and once in the League Cup.

In two of those nine league matches, Liverpool took the lead only to fall behind by a goal, but at least clawed a late point back from both West Brom and Arsenal. To be slightly fairer, Liverpool have gained 11 points from losing positions in the league, coming back from a deficit to beat Chelsea, Norwich, and Crystal Palace in addition to the draws against West Brom and Arsenal.

Incidentally, those three league wins from losing positions all came away from home. Liverpool also came back from a deficit in four Europa League matches (two wins, two draws; three at home and one away) and two League Cup matches (a win and the "draw" in the final which Liverpool eventually lost on penalties, at Southampton and Wembley respectively).

11 points gained from losing positions is certainly better than Liverpool did last season, with all of those points gained from losing positions gained this season coming under Klopp. But it still hasn't made up for the points which Liverpool dropped from winning positions.

The above graphic is the long, pictorial way of saying that Liverpool have been pretty decent when the scores are level. Which is good, because Liverpool have spent a lot of time with the score level. Unfortunately, Liverpool have been a lot less good with a one-goal lead. Which is little surprise given how many times that Liverpool have dropped points this season. 17 of the 62 opposition's goals have been equalizers – 13 of 45 in the league.

And more than a few have come in matches where Liverpool's goalkeeper made an error which directly led to an opposition goal. Mignolet's committed six this season, Bogdan two. And Liverpool won just one of the eight matches where the keeper committed an error: the 2-1 victory over Bordeaux in the Europa League, with goals from Benteke and Milner after Mignolet's blunder led to Saivet's indirect free kick. Bogdan's errors were probably more hilarious than costly: the first in the 0-3 loss at Watford, the Olímpico conceded in the 2-2 at Exeter – matches where Liverpool were losing regardless and a cup tie that Liverpool ending up easily winning on replay respectively.

Mignolet's, unfortunately, are a bit more meaningful. Aside from the 2-1 win over Bordeaux, Liverpool drew the other five matches where he made an error leading to a goal: 1-1 v Norwich, 2-2 v West Brom, 2-2 v Sunderland, 1-1 with City in the League Cup Final, and now 2-2 with Newcastle. Four Premier League matches against sides near the bottom of the table. Liverpool were leading in those four matches when Mignolet committed said error and went on to drop two points. All four of those errors happened at Anfield, with three of the four (all except Norwich) in front of the Kop.

If Liverpool holds onto its lead in those four Premier League matches, Liverpool have eight more points. Don't look at the league table. You don't want to know where eight more points would put Liverpool.

Again, no offense to Newcastle (well, not much), but the opposition doesn't really matter much to yesterday's result. Sure, Newcastle's defense was very Benitez, especially in the second half; Newcastle played without fear in the second half; and Newcastle's second half changes, especially Wijnaldum for Perez, improved the side.

But this is on Liverpool, and it's down to what Liverpool did or didn't do, and what Liverpool's done before in similar situations against similar opposition. We saw this game against Palace, against West Brom, against Sunderland, etc. A stingy, compact defense limits Liverpool's shots. Liverpool usually score at least once, sometimes twice, but Liverpool get comfortable, Liverpool make mistakes, and Liverpool's opponent takes advantage – often on either set plays or counter attacks. If Liverpool don't score in bunches, Liverpool struggle to see out the game.

Liverpool, to put it bluntly, are bad against bad teams at Anfield. In the seven Anfield matches against the bottom seven sides – West Brom, Swansea, Palace, Sunderland, Norwich, Newcastle, and Villa – Liverpool have taken just 10 points from a possible 21. They smashed a horrible Villa; narrowly beat Swansea thanks to Milner's penalty; drew against West Brom, Sunderland, Norwich, and Newcastle despite taking a one-or-two goal lead; and lost on an 82nd-minute set play goal to frequent bete noire Crystal Palace.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances for Saturday's result. Shit happens in games, even if it seemingly happens too often to Liverpool. It's still Klopp's first, partial season with a squad that's not his own which is missing key players. Sakho's suspension, not known until late on Friday, assuredly altered the XI and game plan. Clyne's illness forced Randall to step in for only his second start. Injuries in midfield kept Stewart in the line-up. Liverpool started with a diamond formation for the first time since the Southampton League Cup win, which featured a very different XI; it's usually only seen as a game-changing alteration and then with Origi playing a crucial role. The spine has been ripped out of the side by Henderson, Can, Sakho, and Origi's absences – four players who'd feature in the middle, near-certain starters, all unable to play.

But we've seen matches like this too often this season. It's easy to blame Mignolet, the defense, the side's focus in general. All are at fault. Liverpool simply need to do better: better in matches with a one-or-two goal lead, better at home, and better against opposition that Liverpool need to be able to beat if they're going to accomplish anything in the league.

23 April 2016

Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle

Sturridge 2'
Lallana 29'
Cisse 48'
Colback 66'

Remember all the good results over the last month?

No, me neither. Games like this have a habit of bringing out all the pessimism. All I can remember is Sunderland and Southampton, not Dortmund, Stoke, or Everton.

It was all set up to continue the era of good feelings. A fine first half performance with two supremely taken goals from Sturridge and Lallana. Outstanding hold-up play and finish from the striker on the first, outstanding quick passing and a left-footed long-range curler on the second. Liverpool weren't rampant by any means, unable to consistently create chances and scoring from low-percentage strikes, but it still seemed comfortable and still seemed secure.

Multiple Liverpool changes to the starting XI in a different starting formation again didn't seem to diminish the performance that much, this time a 4-4-2 diamond, with Stewart keeping his place in the league, Randall at right-back again, and Toure needed due to Sakho's looming suspension. Liverpool controlled proceedings, Liverpool scored twice, and Newcastle had barely threatened.

Newcastle had scored two goals away from home just once in 2016: at Norwich, a match they still lost 3-2. Newcastle hadn't taken a single point away from home since December 13, losing nine straight.

Did Liverpool relax because they'd thought the game was won at halftime, especially given each side's respective form? Benitez's halftime change – Wijnaldum for Perez – made Newcastle better, but not that much better. Is Liverpool really that fragile? Still? After what we saw over the last month?

All Liverpool needed was for Mignolet to pull a Mignolet, then all hell broke loose. Late to leave his line, completely missing a punch at Anita's lofted cross, an easy header for Cisse up against poor Connor Randall. And from there, tilt. Newcastle, not Liverpool, looking the more likely to score next. The home side struggling to complete passes to each other in the opposition half, let alone the final third. Sturridge denied what appeared a fairly certain penalty, then Newcastle counter-attacking right down Liverpool's throat, failing to score from the opportunity solely because of Cisse's poor touch.

Aside from the penalty claim, Liverpool were unable to conjure anything except a goal rightly ruled out for offside, with Allen's header saved and Firmino a yard behind the last defender on the rebound. And that was in the 59th minute. Not long after, another horror show, another Newcastle fast break through Townsend, his cross headed out to an open Colback, and what should have been an easy save deflected by Lovren past Mignolet. One keeper error, one unfortunate deflection. Three Newcastle shots on-target, two Newcastle goals. It's the bad old days all over again.

Bringing on Coutinho and Lucas for Randall and Allen, then Ojo for Lallana altered little, as Newcastle went full Benitez, Liverpool wholly unable to break through an unsurprisingly compact defense. After 37 shots against Everton, Liverpool took just 13 against Newcastle – just five after Newcastle's equalizer, with only Sturridge's tame header on target. At least Liverpool didn't concede a third? At least it was Sunderland rather than Southampton?

I probably shouldn't be all that bothered about this result. Not after what Liverpool's given us over the last month. Liverpool are in the Europa League semifinals, a competition that's become much more important than the league. Liverpool remain two points off sixth, still capable of qualifying for next season's Europa League if they don't win this season's. Shit happens sometimes.

But shit still happens too often to this side. The defensive (read: goalkeeper) mistakes, the second half goals conceded, the dropped points against sides Liverpool should beat, the dropped points from winning positions.

And that, and today's result, along with the Sakho news, along with the injuries to Henderson, Can, and Origi, has taken an awful lot of the fun out of the last month. Now, Liverpool need to earn it back on Thursday.

22 April 2016

Liverpool v Newcastle 04.23.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Newcastle (a) 12.06.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.13.15
0-1 Newcastle (a) 11.01.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.11.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a); 4-3 Dortmund (h)
Newcastle: 1-1 City (h); 3-0 Swansea (h); 1-3 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Coutinho 8; Benteke, Sturridge 7; Origi 5; Lallana 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Newcastle: Wijnaldum 9; Mitrovic 8; Ayoze 6; Townsend 3; Cisse, Lascelles 2; Anita, Coloccini, Dummett, Sissoko 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Milner Stewart
Ojo Lallana Coutinho

Even though Liverpool again had a midweek match – albeit one with fewer exertions than recent Europa League fixtures – I doubt we'll see the same highly-rotated side that featured against Stoke and Bournemouth.

Not only are there five days between this and Villarreal, compared to the usual four, but Liverpool's options are increasingly limited in both midfield and attack with Origi joining Henderson and Can on the casualty list and Benteke still a week or two away from returning (if Benteke even returns).

There will be changes, but not as many as we've come to expect.

As usual, the questions start up front. Can we trust consecutive starts for Sturridge, up front against both Newcastle and Villarreal after 40 minutes against Everton? I think we'll have to. Really, the only other option is reverting to Firmino as false nine, which we haven't seen since the 2-2 draw with Sunderland in early February. At the same time, Firmino's the only player to start the last four games. And he's looked it, failing to impress against either Bournemouth or Everton.

So, my guess is it comes down to just a couple of personnel questions in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Will Milner or Allen partner Stewart or Lucas in midfield? I suspect Allen's more useful off the bench, while Milner's in outstanding form, and I remain skeptical of consecutive starts for Lucas, which would almost certainly lead to three starts in eight days at Villarreal. Will it be Ojo or Ibe in the attacking line of three to give Firmino a break? Ibe was much more impressive against Bournemouth, and also looked good in his short cameo against 10-men very-beaten Everton, but Ojo remains bags of potential and bags of fun, and more capable of playing on the right opposite Coutinho on the left. Maybe there's also a defensive change or two, whether Toure or Skrtel at center-back or Flanagan or Smith at full-back, but that seems less likely.

There's also the small matter of welcoming Rafa Benitez back to Anfield tomorrow, for the second time as an opposition manager. I will remain biased until the end of my days, and still can't help wishing Benitez well, still can't help getting angry at every media and opposition supporter dig. His previous return to Anfield with Chelsea in 2012-13 was, uhhhhh, interesting, with Liverpool twice equalizing after Chelsea goals, the second in injury-time from Luis Suarez after he'd already bitten Branislav Ivanovic.

And there's also the small matter of Newcastle actually playing a bit of decent football in their last two matches – a 3-0 win over Swansea and 1-1 draw against Manchester City – giving them a glimmer of hope in their attempt to avoid relegation. But they need more points, quickly. two points and -1 goal difference from 17th-place Norwich with just four games to play.

They're not yet a Rafa Benitez side, but they've had a few more moments of looking almost like a Rafa Benitez side if you squint hard enough. At least against Manchester City, where an organized side held City at bay for long stretches, equalizing soon after Agüero's very-offside early opener, with a disjointed second half ending as Newcastle the stronger, more-likely-to-win side. Newcastle had lost the last 12 (twelve!) league matches against Manchester City before Tuesday's draw. They'll play compact, deny the opposition space, battle for loose balls, work hard, ugly up the game, and counter-attack every so often. Which is, ideally for them, basically a better organized, more Rafa Benitez version of what we saw when these two sides met in December.

Because there's also the small matter of Newcastle embarrassing Liverpool in the reverse fixture, where absolutely nothing went right – one of those abysmal shooting performances, an own goal from Skrtel, a perfectly good goal from Moreno chalked off, a too-easy counter-attack Newcastle second in added time – which remains one of Liverpool's most disappointing performances and results under Klopp.

However, Newcastle still haven't taken any points away from home – not even a draw – since beating Tottenham (Tottenham!) on December 13. Since then, ten consecutive losses, at West Brom, Arsenal, Watford (FA Cup), Watford, Everton, Chelsea, Stoke, Leicester, Norwich, and Southampton. They've failed to score in six of the ten.

If Newcastle stick with the same XI we've seen in the last two matches, it'll be: Darlow; Anita, Mbemba, Lascelles, Dummett; Tiote, Colback; Townsend, Sissoko, Ayoze; Cisse. The only difference between the Swansea win and City draw was Ayoze Perez for Wijnaldum.

I wouldn't been surprised to see Wijnaldum return, but otherwise, Newcastle have few options. Shelvey's all but been excommunicated, Saivet's infrequently featured since joining from Bordeaux, and Mitrovic's been used as a substitute more often than as a starter. They still have massive injury problems in goal and defense, with the top two keepers (Krul and Elliott) out injured, as well as Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Haidara, and Janmaat.

I'm pleased to see Rafa back in the Premier League, and hope he wins every fixture but this one, even if that means Newcastle stay up. But this ain't a testimonial. It'll be a tough match against a side that desperately needs points to avoid relegation versus a side in surprisingly good form, especially at home, and wants to keep it that way. Liverpool need to keep winning, need to keep playing to the level they've hit over the last three weeks, even if there are again multiple changes to the XI. And, not for the first time, Liverpool owe Newcastle.