08 October 2015

On Jürgen Klopp

I still can't believe Jürgen Klopp is about to become Liverpool's manager, with a press conference scheduled for 10AM BST on Friday.

This feels different. And not just because it's the first time that we've seen overwhelming optimism from the fan base for the first time since 2013-14 ended. The last year has been dreary and dire. Jürgen Klopp does not do dreary nor dire.

Jürgen Klopp comes with a reputation. He is a winner. His teams are fun to watch. He is iconoclastic and idiosyncratic: an oversized, outgoing, quote machine personality who should immediately mesh with Liverpool's base.

In retrospect, the thought process which led to Brendan Rodgers named manager was similar to that which led to the signings of Origi, Luis Alberto, Ilori, Can, Markovic, etc. All those "committee" signings. A high-risk, high-reward youngster. They've never proven it at the highest level, they're comparatively inexperienced, but there's room for growth. If it works out, Liverpool exploited an inefficiency in the market. If it doesn't, well, at least they didn't waste an egregious amount of resources, I guess.

Jürgen Klopp is an actual proven commodity, an innovator, one of the top 10 managers in the world. Two-time Bundesliga winner, three-time German Supercup winner, Pokal Cup winner, Champions League runner-up. And those trophies came at a club that had underwhelmed and underperformed prior to his arrival, winning despite a rival with much, much deeper pockets. It's a résumé that reminds of Rafa Benitez.

Let's be honest: Liverpool are incredibly lucky to get him. It took a series of unlikely circumstances for this to fall in place. It took Dortmund falling apart at the exact time that Liverpool did, a necessary end for Klopp's seven-year run. It took Liverpool unable to progress from last season's nadir, made worse by the difficult start to the season. It took a dearth of other attractive jobs, at least for the moment, at least to an "incurable romantic" such as Klopp. It took Klopp wanting a sabbatical over the summer, wanting to manage in the Premier League, and wanting a "project" rather than waltzing into an already set situation. It's a similar series of circumstances which led to the signing of Luis Suarez: the kind of talent Liverpool would love to deal in on a regular basis, but one not possible the majority of the time.

He's never done it in the Premier League? Neither did Benitez or Houllier. But they came with renown, with honest-to-goodness European pedigree. You know who had managed in the Premier League? Hodgson and Rodgers. I apologize for putting Brendan in the same sentence as Roy, but experience in England is obviously not a guarantee for success, with managers or transfer deals.

There's no guarantee of success here either – if you can ever guarantee success, please immediately call Ian Ayre or John Henry – but still, it's seemingly Suarez or Torres rather than Carroll or Benteke. It's Benitez, it's Houllier; it's not Hodgson or Rodgers. Liverpool, by hook or by crook, are shopping in a store they can't usually afford.

In their heyday, Klopp's Dortmund were the football hipster's darlings. Gegenpressing – literally, "counter pressing" – became a word that English speakers actually know, and not just because compound German words are more fun. You'll want to read this, from Spielverlagerung. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of outstanding articles about Klopp's Dortmund, articulating his tactics far better than I can. Just searching Klopp's name on Spielverlagerung is a good start. So are these:

• Two interviews in The Guardian, from May 2013 and November 2013
This video from BBC Football Focus
Searching Zonal Marking for old Dortmund match reviews
We Are Hooligans: Analyzing Jurgen Klopp's Tactics At Borussia Dortmund
Michael Caley on how gegenpressing made the Bundesliga the fastest league in the world

Curiously, Klopp's preferred formation while at Dortmund – at least for the majority of his tenure, at least with his best sides – was 4-2-3-1. Otherwise known as the formation that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool struggled the most with.

What's most important isn't the formation. It's the ability to counter-press; it's quick, vertical attacking transitions; it's getting the best players on the field. Klopp isn't dogmatic about the 4-2-3-1 – Spielverlagerung's tactical analysis of last season's Pokal semifinal against Bayern highlights Dortmund's use of a 4-3-3/4-Diamond-2 hybrid, a formation seen a fair amount last season because of the respective talents of Reus, Aubamenyang, and Kagawa – but it's still his favored deployment.

I have two questions. Well, more than two, but two big ones: the striker situation and the composition of the midfield.

When everyone's available, Liverpool's squad seemingly demands two strikers, whether it's Sturridge, Benteke, or Ings. Does that mean one of Sturridge or Ings will play from the flank? In the hole? Will Benteke be the odd man out in a heavy pressing system? Or will Klopp change: 4-4-2. 4-2-2-2, 4-Diamond-2? Klopp's Dortmund used those formations at times, mostly in his last two seasons, albeit not on a regular basis.

And who's going to be the central midfield pairing? This, admittedly, is a question that dogged Rodgers since the beginning of last season, because no two-man pairing as stood out. Liverpool pretty much had to play two midfielders ahead of a single holder, or a diamond, or three at the back to function. And even then, it was a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. I suspect Henderson and Allen will eventually win out. Jordan Henderson is, hands down, Liverpool's best midfielder, and almost certainly will remain captain. Joe Allen, perpetually underrated by Liverpool fans, seems to fit Klopp's style. Sure, he doesn't stand out in any area, but he can press, pass, run, and hold to decent effect; after Henderson, he's Liverpool's most well-rounded midfielder. But Emre Can should see much more time in the middle. Lucas remains Liverpool's best defensive midfielder. Your guess is as good as mine.

Also, spare a thought for James Milner, signed this summer because of Brendan Rodgers, because he wanted to play more as an orthodox central midfielder. Welp. I wouldn't be surprised if he's back to being a versatile jack-of-all-trades, mainly used as a right winger, especially once Henderson returns. Can, Allen, and Lucas all seem better suited to playing in the midfield base in whatever formation Klopp chooses, while Milner's work-rate, pressing, and crossing ability would fit on the flank opposite Coutinho, Lallana, or Firmino. Sorry about that, Jimmy.

Regardless, it'll be awhile before we see Klopp's preferred XI, with Henderson out for another six weeks, Firmino and Lovren out for another couple, and questions over Benteke and Coutinho's availability immediately after the international break.

I really wish we'd be able to see it sooner. Because Klopp's first six weeks will be a baptism by fire.

• October 17 - Tottenham (a)
• October 22 - Rubin Kazan (h)
• October 25 - Southampton (h)
• October 28 - Bournemouth (h) [League Cup]
• October 31 - Chelsea (a)
• November 5 - Rubin Kazan (a)
• November 8 - Crystal Palace (h)
• November 21 - Manchester City (a)

Eight matches in little more than a month; two matches a week until the next international break. Matches in three different competitions. Three of Klopp's first four league matches all away, against last season's 5th, 1st, and 2nd place sides, with a dangerous Southampton at home the fourth.

No one said it was gonna be easy.

Of course, Klopp's not here for six weeks. He's here for the next three years – we hope, at least. Klopp's methods, especially synchronized pressing and quick attacking transitions, take time on the training pitch, and Liverpool is not going to have a lot of training time over the next couple of months. Dortmund improved in Klopp's first season – one with a full preseason – but it was a 13th-to-6th improvement. Then fifth. Then the two consecutive Bundesliga titles.

Top 4 remains the goal this season, and this change was made early enough to ensure it's a still possible goal, but after a managerial change, anything tangible reward this season seems a bonus. And yes, Liverpool's fixture list looks a lot better starting in December, giving Liverpool more than enough time to push towards fourth in this goofy, messed up league as long as they at least survive the next month.

It's going to be an interesting ride. Buckle up, sports fans, it's about to get fun. We've been missing fun for far too long.

05 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: 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.

Unfortunately, this was a fitting capstone to Rodgers' Liverpool tenure.

Some ways, it was a typical Merseyside derby: both sides well below their usual output in both passes and shots, a potential sending-off or two ignored by a referee who wanted to "let them play," a match without a plethora of individual brilliance, a slog rather than a showpiece.

Liverpool weren't bad, considering form, fixture, opponent, and venue. Liverpool started well enough, not great in open play, but at least a little dangerous from set plays, finally converting through Ings from a Milner corner in the 41st minute. But, admittedly, it was as much Everton as it was Liverpool; we'd all be screaming had Liverpool's set play defense broken down in such a manner: Barkley not close enough to Ings, Howard failing to come just two yards off his goal-line.

Incidentally, it was Liverpool's first goal directly from a corner since Gerrard's winner against QPR last May.

Liverpool took decent enough shots, if not enough of them, even if the best of the bunch were from set plays. Nine in the Danger Zone. 11 of 13 from inside the box. Three shots in the six-yard box, which is the most that Liverpool's had in that zone in a league match since the 3-0 win at Tottenham in August 2014. 44 league matches ago.

And once again, Liverpool underperformed their Expected Goals total, converting their best chance, but only their best chance. Liverpool underperformed Expected Goals in three of Rodgers' four full seasons, 2013-14 the only exception. Meanwhile, Everton had the best three chances of the match, but little more.

And then, not long after scoring, Liverpool conceded, through both a mistake and an unfortunate ricochet. And then Liverpool fall apart. And Liverpool were subsequently under pressure for the majority of the second half, and Liverpool were unable to change proceedings through substitutions. And that's basically the story of the last 16 months. It's the same process and same result we've seen in five of the last six matches.

Aside from the same old, same old, there were two features of Liverpool's play which disappointed: Sturridge and Coutinho unable to get into the game and Liverpool's midfield once again unbalanced and unable to control proceedings.

For the most part, Everton marked Coutinho with McCarthy and Sturridge with Funes Mori. And both players did an excellent job on their respective opponents. McCarthy made seven successful tackles, of eight attempted; three were on Coutinho, two on Sturridge. Three of Funes Mori's four successful tackles came against Sturridge. The two were held to six shots, five off-target or blocked, with only Coutinho creating a single chance. Neither player did much with the ball at their feet.

That Coutinho pulled out of the Brazil squad today suggests he was carrying an injury yesterday, something his limited involvement also suggests.

As for Liverpool's midfield. Coutinho's limited involvement is part of the explanation. Average position is always somewhat of a lie, an average position based on where players touched the ball rather than where they were throughout the match, but it was still odd to see Milner as Liverpool's most-advanced player, even ahead of Sturridge and Ings in the above passing network chalkboard. Yes, Liverpool need its midfielders to get beyond the strikers on occasion, to make meaningful runs into the box, but Milner so far forward meant that there were few options available when Lucas or the center-backs wanted to make a short pass out from the back. And so, Liverpool looked long.

Everton unsurprisingly attempted more long passes – that is one of Lukaku's great strengths, after all, especially when he's working against Skrtel and Can – but Liverpool also attempted a surprisingly large amount, bypassing the midfield, looking for Ings to play like Liverpool seemingly wants Benteke to play. Danny Ings is not Christian Benteke.

And it left Lucas with a lot of work to do in defense. That he successful completed eight of nine tackles, spread across the width of the pitch, demonstrates how much work he put it, and that he was fairly successful at doing so. That he committed seven fouls, breaking up Everton attacks, while also only picking up a single yellow card, shows some veteran guile (in addition to demonstrating that Martin Atkinson, thankfully, didn't want to "ruin the game"). Along with Mignolet, for his two outstanding first-half saves, and Ings, if only for his goal and work-rate, Lucas was Liverpool's main contender for man of the match.

Thus marks the end of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool tenure. Not with a bang, but a whimper. With Liverpool not especially good, but not especially bad. With Liverpool scoring first, then conceding, then unable to change the tenor or tempo of proceedings through substitutions or tactical tweaks. It was all rather mundane, only lightened by handbags at ten paces from Can and Barkley, than Sakho and Lukaku. That seemed the sum of Liverpool's fight. Sure, there are excuses for the performance: new players, key absentees, away from home, etc. etc. It's not as if Everton didn't have similar handicaps. Ennui and mediocrity, in a Merseyside Derby.

It wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back. It wasn't the worst we've been subjected to, but it wasn't the best. And, after more than a season of similar, it just wasn't good enough anymore.

04 October 2015

On Brendan Rodgers

Can something be completely expected and wholly unexpected at the same time? Decisive and indecisive?

Brendan Rodgers has felt like a dead man walking since Liverpool hit its first stutter in August. Brendan Rodgers probably should have been fired last May, after that abysmal season hit it lowest low at Stoke. But FSG gave him a chance to make amends, for whatever reason, and when amends didn't seem like coming, FSG pulled the rug out. Feel free to pick your narrative: whether it shows FSG acting at long last or whether it's FSG scrambling for answers. I honestly don't know.

You all suffered through the last 16 months, same as I. The dire, depressing football. Repeated mistakes regardless of opposition or tactics. Little evidence of improvement, little evidence of any grand tactical plan to fix the failings. The transfer debacles, even if it's still unclear who's to blame for each purchase.

I have a theory why Brendan Rodgers was fired.

The short version: Suarez left, Sturridge got injured, Liverpool stopped scoring. I know, it's radical.

Every now and then, Liverpool would put a decent defensive run together. The end of 2012-13 through the start of 2013-14. Midway through last season. The first three matches this season, even if they were bracketed by 1-3 Palace, 1-6 Stoke and then 0-3 West Ham, 1-3 United. But Liverpool consistently let in at least one goal, if not more, throughout the course of Rodgers' tenure.

No matter who Liverpool signed, no matter who Liverpool played, no matter what formation Rodgers tried. Liverpool have not been able to score for more than a season, let alone come anywhere near the free-scoring tumult which nearly led to the title two seasons ago.

2011-12 showed promise, a plan. 2013-14 was unbelievable. 2014-15 was an abomination. And 2015-16 was cut short because it looked far too much like the previous season rather than the first or second.

It was only 16 short or long months ago that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool nearly won the title, the only good season in five years, scoring a record 101 goals in the process.

I suspect you remember the issues. That lack of goals. Consistent failings in big games, in the league, cups, and Europe, especially away from home. A scattershot approach to tactics and formations over the last calendar year, sometimes deploying three in the same match, which Liverpool inevitably drew or lost. Since the beginning of last season, Liverpool won just one (1) league match after going behind: 3-1 at Leicester in December. Since the beginning of last season, Liverpool lost or drew eight league matches after taking a lead, including this most recent.

This had to happen. And since it didn't happen last May, that it's happening before an international break, giving Liverpool time to make the hire before fast and furious league, Europe, and cup campaigns resume is at least small consolation. It wasn't the right time, but it's a right time.

It is hard to reconcile 2013-14 with what followed, especially now, at the end. I've been following Liverpool for nearly 15 years. I've been doing this blog for nine. There were seasons with better reward – 2001, 2005, even 2006 – but the 2013-14 version of Liverpool was the most fun I've ever had watching football. It was exhilarating, it was non-stop, it was a Tasmanian Devil wrecking machine, until it came up against Chelsea's anti-football, and the slip, and the decline, and the descent into madness. This, by The Anfield Wrap's Neil Atkinson, is absolutely required reading, probably the best Rodgers eulogy you'll see.

Sure, a lot of credit for that season goes to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, especially considering what came after, but Rodgers at least put Liverpool in the position for them to succeed, for Liverpool to succeed. You could say similar about 2008-09, that Gerrard and Torres carried Liverpool to that almost. But, like with Benitez, that success gets you approximately one season. You're only as good as your best players, and only as good as your manager gets out of those players. And you're only as good as your last season.

At the end, you remember the good times. And you expect the next man up to be better.

Good luck with whatever follows, Brendan. It's sad that won't be at Liverpool, but it had to happen.

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Ings 42'
Lukaku 45+2'

In isolation, a draw at Everton isn't the worst result. It's the same result Liverpool have gotten at Goodison in the previous three seasons. It's the sixth Merseyside Derby draw in the last seven meetings. Everton were the more dangerous side throughout the second half, if not the entire match; Everton have played better than Liverpool since the start of the season.

In context, it's supremely depressing. Because it's the fifth 1-1 in the last six matches. Because it's the fifth time in six matches that Liverpool have scored first only to concede a quick equalizer. Because it's the fifth goal – from 13 in all competitions – that Liverpool have conceded when a Liverpool player made the penultimate touch before the opposition scored, setting up the opposition goal through either ricochet or error or both. Because, once again, the opposition only equalized because of an individual mistake and unfortunate bounce of the ball.

Once again, Liverpool were mediocre in open play: mostly decent at the back, if needing a couple of wonderful saves from Mignolet, but outmuscled in midfield and isolated in attack. After 40 minutes of meh, with Liverpool marginally on top in possession and territory but Mignolet saving the best two chances, from Lukaku and McCarthy, it's no surprise that Liverpool's goal came from a set play, as Liverpool at least kept racking up corners and a goal didn't look like coming from open play. And it a very Dirk Kuyt goal against a side that Dirk Kuyt loved to score against from Liverpool's new Dirk Kuyt: Milner's corner, Ings in the six-yard box, beating Barkley and Howard failing to come off his line.

But – unlike Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, and Sion – Everton didn't need 15 or so minutes to find the equalizer. Just five. Everton possession, Deulofeu's cross, Can's mis-hit clearance deflecting off Skrtel straight to Lukaku, easily hammered in from seven yards. It was the exact mistake which should have cost Liverpool against Aston Villa. But Romelu Lukaku is not Rudy Gestede, especially when he's about 10 yards closer to goal. And it happened a minute before the halftime whistle, when – you'd assume, maybe incorrectly – that Liverpool would be able to regroup and solidify for the second half onslaught. Sigh.

And then came the second half, where only one team looked like winning. Where only one team appears to want to win. Nine Liverpool shots in the first half, just four in the second (just one on-target, from Coutinho, straight at Howard). Five Everton shots in the first half, nine in the second.

At least Liverpool didn't concede? At least neither Can nor Lucas picked up a second yellow; Emre Can especially regrouped well after a first-half yellow and at fault for the equalizer. Browning's header from a corner was luckily deflected just over thanks to Sakho, Mignolet denied Lukaku on a second clear-cut chance. For all of Everton's possession and better play, Liverpool actually defended well. In the previous five 1-1s, Liverpool hadn't been put under much pressure after conceding, the "better" side, at home, in all five. Not this time, but they still held on. That's at least a bit of progress, I think.

The story of the match – other than the sloppy concession, of course – is that Liverpool got nothing from its two most important players: both Coutinho and Sturridge were marked into isolation by Everton's makeshift back-line, neither given space to create something from nothing, neither supported by the teammates who need to create chances for them. Everton are not Aston Villa; it was going to take a lot more work to pass and dance through the back-line, while any attempted pressing wasn't anywhere near as effective because of Everton's ability to quickly pass over the midfield to Lukaku.

Even though he was a big reason why Liverpool had little control in midfield, Milner played well, Liverpool's most creative player, full of running and contributing more from set plays than in any previous match. Even though he picked up a stupid yellow and was at fault for the goal, Emre Can regrouped well in the second half. Even though he's not Christian Benteke, Ings worked hard to be an outlet for Liverpool's hoofs from the back, and scored the needed goal on a set play, his third in the last five matches. Even though he's been mostly terrible all season long, featuring a disturbing low save percentage, Mignolet kept Liverpool in the match.

But that's not good enough, not after what we've seen over the last month, over the course of the season so far, not with Liverpool's horrific record away from home against the Top 4 and Everton throughout Rodgers' tenure. That's not good enough when Liverpool have won just once since August 17. The 3-1-4-2 wasn't good enough in providing Liverpool a platform to attack, nor the 3-4-2-1 after Lallana replaced Ings. Liverpool should have been good enough to pose more of a threat against a back line that featured a new signing at center-back and two inexperienced under-21 full-backs. Liverpool "should be good enough" to have gotten much better results than they have all season long. But it hasn't happened, for a plethora of reasons that we've discussed time and time again: impotence in attack, little pattern to the play – mainly due to questionable tactics and an unbalanced midfield – and mistakes in defense.

So, yeah, a draw's both disappointing for all we've seen before and acceptable based on the run of play in the match. Will that be good enough to save Rodgers' job through the upcoming international break?

03 October 2015

Liverpool at Everton 10.04.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 02.07.15
1-1 (h) 09.27.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 01.28.14
3-3 (a) 11.23.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Sion (h); 3-2 Villa (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet (h) [3-2 pens]
Everton: 3-2 West Brom (a); 2-1 Reading (a); 0-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Sturridge 2; Coutinho, Ings, Milner 1
Everton: Lukaku 4; Naismith 3; Barkley, Kone 2

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Clyne Coutinho Milner Moreno
Sturridge Ings

So, are we going to get 3-2 against Aston Villa Liverpool (*waves at Daniel Sturridge*) or 1-1 against Norwich, Carlisle, and Sion Liverpool?

I'll be very surprised if it's not the same XI we saw at Villa: 3-1-4-2, Ings and Sturridge up front, Milner and Lucas returning to midfield, Sakho and Can returning to defense. Maybe it's a slight formation change, a 3-4-1-2 instead, with both Milner and Lucas behind Coutinho, as we saw against Norwich, the same formation we saw against Sion.

It's not as if Liverpool have been awful during this 1W-3D stretch. As written over and over and over and over, they've been reasonably in control in all four games, they're creating chances. Liverpool just cannot score. And when they do, they then concede against the run of play, and then they can't get the lead back. Sturridge's inclusion obviously helps this failing, playing Coutinho and Milner ahead of Lucas helps this failing, getting more players forward for both combination play with the strikers and runs into the box. Coutinho and Milner ahead of Lucas makes pressing more possible, unsettling Everton's McCarthy-Barry base, allowing for the quick transitions against an out-of-position defense so crucial to Liverpool actually getting goals. Liverpool will need the added impetus from midfield because chances are that the wingbacks will need to defend more than they've had to in this system. Which Nathaniel Clyne is not opposed to.

But whether we see "impotent Liverpool" or "almost reasonably competent Liverpool" might not be up to Liverpool. Everton are clearly a better side than the last four that Liverpool have faced. A less impressive Everton held Liverpool to draws in both meetings last season: a fairly turgid, watching-paint-dry 0-0 at Goodison, while Liverpool wasted multiple chances and conceded a late, unlikely equalizer (sound familiar?) at Anfield.

Through seven league matches, Everton have been much better this season, looking more like the 2013-14 version which competed for a Champions League place. They're unbeaten since August 23rd, a 2-0 loss to Manchester City. Since then, victories over Chelsea, West Brom, and Reading; 0-0 draws against Tottenham and Swansea; and an extra time cup win over Barnsley.

If there's any weakness, it's injuries, mainly in defense. Stones and Coleman are doubtful, while Baines, Cleverley, Besic, Pienaar, and Hibbert are out. Kevin Mirallas is also suspended. If neither Stones nor Coleman are available, it'll be another makeshift defense, similar to the one which allowed two goals at West Brom last week: a West Brom side that had scored two goals combined in the previous five matches in league and cup. But then Everton scored three, coming back from 0-2 down in the second half. Must be nice when a team's able to come back after conceding.

Lukaku scored two of those three goals and set up the other. Lukaku's four goals through seven games is joint-fourth best in the league. I'm terrified of Lukaku against Skrtel and Can, especially since the striker likes to pull towards the inside left channel, exactly where he can exploit the space between Can and Skrtel, and each's respective weaknesses. Not only is he a powerful header, just as Gestede trucked Liverpool last week, he can be brutal on the counter with the ball at his feet. The key will be cutting off supply, whether through Liverpool's pressing, whether through Lucas, whether through defense on the flanks to ensure crosses aren't coming.

Without Stones and Coleman, the XI will probably be the similar to the one which beat West Brom: Howard; Browning, Funes Mori, Jagielka, Galloway; McCarthy, Barry; Deulofeu, Barkley, Naismith; Lukaku. Maybe Kone or Lennon replaces Deulofeu, maybe Gibson plays as a makeshift right-back. Given the length of their respective injuries, I suspect Stones is more likely to return than Coleman.

Either way, it's a fairly settled and confident Everton, at home, looking for its first win over Liverpool since Roy Hodgson was Liverpool's manager. Liverpool, for once, are the underdogs. Liverpool are the out-of-form, struggling, underperforming side. Liverpool's manager is constantly rumored to be edging closer to being fired.

Liverpool need a result much, much more than their opponents, opponents who often treat this fixture as their cup final. Or else.

02 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 FC Sion

Previous Match Infographics: 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.)

From two weeks ago:

Liverpool's next four matches are at home. Liverpool's next four matches are against Norwich, Carlisle, Aston Villa, and FC Sion. We're all aware that Liverpool have the potential to lose any match against any opponent on any day, and usually in the most comical fashion possible, but those are four winnable matches, especially considering what Liverpool's fixture list has looked like so far.

Welp. At least Liverpool didn't lose any of them?

I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that more-than-tripling your opponents' shot total but only scoring one more goal is a bad thing.

23 shots against Villa. 47 against Carlisle. 21 against Villa. 19 against Sion. Six goals from 111 shots. Six goals from 43 shots on-target. Meanwhile, that murderers' row slate of opponents scored five goals from 33 shots, five goals from 12 shots on-target. I'm not sure which is worse.

Every outfield Liverpool player, including all three subs, created at least one chance. Nine of the 13 took at least one shot.

Liverpool had six Opta-defined clear-cut chances: "A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range." Six! Liverpool only created nine combined through its first seven league matches, with no more than three in any of the matches (against Bournemouth and Norwich, one of the three scored in each).

• 4' - Lallana Goal
• 16' - Ings blocked
• 39' - Can saved
• 64' - Origi saved
• 69' - Origi saved
• 74' - Lallana saved

One goal, one blocked, and four saved. Goal, Ings' touch allowing Pa Modou to recover, free header straight at the keeper, shot straight at the keeper, shot straight at the keeper, shot straight at the keeper. I reiterate: 'Reasonably expected to score.' That's not good.

It wasn't as if Liverpool took bad shots yesterday, which we've seen in more than a few disappointing performances since the beginning of last season. Those six clear-cut chances. 15 of 19 shots inside the box, with eight in the Danger Zone. Only five of 19 shots blocked. An overall shot accuracy of 42.1%.

Unlike in the first six matches of the season, creativity wasn't the problem. Which, I guess, is a modicum of progress. Liverpool. Simply. Could. Not. Finish. And not for the first time.

We worried about whether the Villa result was a Sturridge-inspired fluke, and yesterday did nothing to dispel that notion. If you can't consistently finish your chances, you're not going to win many matches, especially when you concede at least one regrettable goal per game. Yesterday's equalizer looked a bit like Carlisle's: Liverpool concede possession, Liverpool get caught out by pass in behind the defense (against Carlisle, a throughball; against Sion, a long cross-field over a failed offside trap), Liverpool's keeper fails to save a savable shot. It wasn't the insanity we saw against Norwich or the misfortune against Bordeaux, but it was disappointing all the same.

Brendan Rodgers didn't miss all those chances. Brendan Rodgers didn't pass directly to Kouassi when Liverpool were quickly pushing forward in transition. But those misses and errors could well end up costing him his job. For the fourth consecutive match, admittedly against less-than-impressive opposition, he set his team up in a way that should have led to a Liverpool victory had players done what they're supposed to do. But Rodgers picked those players, Rodgers signed those players (endless transfer committee debates notwithstanding). Once again, Rodgers' side is incapable, whether due to morale, talent, or tactics, to come back after conceding. Insert your very original *character* joke here.

In Liverpool's last four draws, beginning at Bordeaux, Liverpool conceded 16, 13, 11, and 14 minutes after scoring the opener. It's followed the same script, whether Liverpool score in the 4th, 23rd, 48th, or 65th minute: a brief flurry where Liverpool could maybe almost get a second but unsurprisingly don't, and then an opposition stomach punch. Rather than put supposedly weaker opponents to the sword, Liverpool let them get back in the game not long after. And this all happened at Fortress Anfield. Aside from the match at Bordeaux, where Liverpool scored the latest and were away from home, Liverpool had a long time and multiple chances to retake the lead. Yet couldn't, yet didn't.

And it's not as if this is a new phenomenon.

The Merseyside Derby in two days' time somehow became even more important.

30 September 2015

Liverpool v FC Sion 10.01.15

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

Head-to-head meetings:
6-3 Liverpool (h) 10.31.96
2-1 Liverpool (a) 10.17.96

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Villa (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h); 1-1 Norwich (h)
Sion: 0-1 Vaduz (a); 0-2 Grasshopper (h); 2-0 Münsingen (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Sion: 2-1 Rubin Kazan (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 1
Sion: Konate 2

Referee: Slavko Vinčić (SVN)

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Gomez
Clyne Rossiter Allen Ibe
Ings Origi

As per usual. Liverpool are going to make a lot of changes to the starting XI in this competition. Liverpool have even more incentive to make changes with a Merseyside Derby imminent. Liverpool have even less ability to make changes because of the lengthy injury list, still featuring Henderson, Benteke, Firmino, Lovren, and Flanagan.

Let's start our assumptions by assuming Liverpool will stick with three at the back. Because, well, Liverpool have been marginally better in that formation.

Gomez and Toure seemingly have to start in defense, joined by Skrtel only because he's more durable than Sakho.

Jordon Ibe will be one of the wing backs, most likely joined by Clyne, who sat out the match at Bordeaux, seemingly less in need of rest than Moreno is. There's a small chance that Can keeps his spot in central defense, allowing Gomez to play as the other wing-back, but Can is the only player who has featured in all nine of Liverpool's fixtures and Joe Gomez is not a wing-back. I doubt I need remind that Jose Enrique is still not a thing.

Rossiter and Allen look certain to be the midfield, allowing Milner, Lucas, and Can to be rested.

The attack is slightly more difficult to forecast. With Benteke and Firmino out and with Sturridge certain to be rested, one of Coutinho or Ings will have to join Lallana and Origi in attack. Ings, Energizer Bunny-in-training that he appears to be, is probably more capable of being fit for Sunday's derby after playing 90 minutes on Thursday.

Maybe Liverpool revert to 4-3-3, something like Mignolet; Clyne, Skrtel, Toure, Gomez; Milner, Rossiter, Allen; Ibe, Origi, Lallana, but if it ain't (that) broke, etc.

FC Sion are currently fifth in the Swiss league – winning four, losing four, and drawing twice – already 13 points behind league leaders Basel. Which kind of seems par for the course; they finished 7th of 10 last season, qualifying for the Europa League because of their victory in the Swiss Cup.

But Sion's owner is angry, hilariously condemning both manager and playing staff after their second successive defeat last weekend. Which, knowing Liverpool, will be a prelude to Sion heroically finding form, and which wouldn't have been wholly out of the question anyway, having beaten a favored Rubin Kazan at home in the last group stage match.

I've admittedly heard of just three of Sion's players, because I'm pretty bad about watching any competition that isn't based in England or featuring Liverpool: right-back Zverotic, who featured for Young Boys against Liverpool in this competition three years ago; left-back Ziegler, a Swiss international and formerly of Tottenham, among others; and new signing Mujangi Bia, a winger who's had short stints with Wolves and Watford in recent years.

My complete guess at their XI, based off their last few lineups, is Vanins; Zverotic, Lacroix, Vanczak, Ziegler; Salatic; Mujangi Bia, Kouassi, Edimilson Fernandes, Carlitos; Konate. Some variation on 4-5-1, whether it ends up looking more like a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3. I'm obviously hoping the former, because the latter would mean they're on the front foot far too often. 22-year-old Senegal international Moussa Konate is the main threat, linked with a host of Premier League clubs over the summer, having scored both of Sion's goals against Kazan and five goals in the league.

This is a match that Liverpool need to win if they hope to qualifying for the knockout rounds. Win your home games, compete in the away games; sometimes it really is as simple as that. This is a match that Liverpool need to win to demonstrate that Saturday wasn't a fluke and that this squad is beginning to make tangible progress, to relieve the pressure on both Rodgers and the playing staff. And even though it dwarfs tomorrow in importance, Liverpool can't already focus on Sunday's derby.

There aren't any easy matches in Europe, as every Premier League side in Europe has demonstrated, whether in the Champions League or Europa League. English sides are big scalps for the smaller countries, and lately, English sides often seem woefully underprepared for continental competition.

That simply can't happen to Liverpool tomorrow.

28 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: 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.

Scoring goals makes all the difference. Who would've guessed?

Philippe Coutinho's still shooting, probably too much. His seven shots led the team, again, as he has (at least jointly) in each match he's played this season. But he also created three chances – the same total he created in his previous five league matches combined – leading to two assists. Liverpool desperately need Coutinho to create, much more than Liverpool need Coutinho to shoot.

Daniel Sturridge had a lot to do with that. That Liverpool finally have a finisher the caliber of Daniel Sturridge has the potential to make all the difference. Each finish was delightfully spectacular in different ways: the first a volley few are capable of, the second a cool, placed, weaker-foot strike on the run.

It's no coincidence that both of Sturridge's goals came from one-two passing with one of Liverpool's more advanced midfielders, getting behind defenders and on the end of dangerous balls into the penalty box.

Via @LiverpoolGIFs: [Sturridge's first] [Sturridge's second]

None of Liverpool's strikers made these runs last season, we rarely saw this type of final third combination play last season. And without Sturridge's goals, this match probably finishes level, at best, if not a 1-2 Liverpool loss. Liverpool are still conceding goals they shouldn't concede – either Sakho or Can could have prevented the first; there was little anyone could do about the second if Amavi's perfect cross isn't blocked – but at least Liverpool are scoring more than once, for a change.

It's not as if Sturridge was the sole player to play well; he didn't even have his best game, still clearly a bit rusty and very much tiring by the time he scored his second. It's not as if Sturridge was the sole reason Liverpool won, even if he was the biggest reason. He provided the most important piece of the puzzle, the piece Liverpool had lacked during the long fall, winter, spring, and summer of our discontent.

Lucas' outstanding performance is definitely worth highlighting as well. Saturday saw the first time a Liverpool player completed 100 or more passes since the 0-1 home loss to Aston Villa almost exactly a year ago, when Henderson completed 111 of 121 and Lovren completed 100 of 118. To be fair, Gerrard completed 99 of 117 in the 0-0 at West Brom last April, but we haven't seen that arbitrary yet magical triple-digits in 41 league matches.

That Liverpool lost the last time a player completed 100 passes demonstrates it's not the be-all, end-all, obviously. You still need the players ahead to actually put the ball in the net. But it's helpful, especially when Liverpool's midfield has often resembled a smoldering tire fire over the last few months. And couple Lucas' 100 passes with 11 successful tackles – six in Villa's half – and two interceptions – both in Villa's half – and it shows a level of control in midfield that Liverpool have long lacked.

Lucas' defensive work-rate in Villa's half also demonstrates that Liverpool actually can and will press on occasion. Eight of Liverpool's 28 successful tackles, seven of 15 interceptions, and 17 of 52 ball recoveries came at that end of the pitch. Liverpool pressure was crucial in leading to the game-winning third goal: Sturridge, Coutinho, and Milner's harrying forcing Villa into a giveaway on which Sturridge and Coutinho deftly capitalized. It also led to three of Liverpool's four late chances, which Coutinho (from a direct free kick), Ings, and Sturridge failed to convert. We didn't see much pressure in the first half, when Liverpool simply monopolized the ball – 72.4% possession is the most in a half since that 0-0 at West Brom last April, only surpassed by that and the second half in that 0-1 versus Villa – but Liverpool stepped it up in the second, when Villa were tiring and when Liverpool desperately needed goals.

As more than a few people have mentioned, yes, this all happened against Aston Villa, currently 18th in the league, having won just one of their first seven league matches. I suspect you saw multiple people tweet that Liverpool's last five league wins, all of Liverpool's league wins since beating Swansea on March 16, came against sides currently 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and relegated QPR. This is obviously concerning.

I've referenced the 0-1 to Aston Villa and 0-0 at West Brom a couple of times so far, the similarities in both Liverpool's passing and possession. Both of those sides were just as bad as Villa were on Saturday. And Liverpool lost and drew those two matches, held scoreless in both.

Liverpool have found multiple innovative new ways to lose to teams worse than Aston Villa were on Saturday over the last calendar year. Clearly, Liverpool still need to prove capable of repeating it against better opposition. Liverpool at least took all three points, playing fairly well. Regardless of opposition, that hasn't happened enough since the start of last season.

The difference between yesterday and those aforementioned fixtures against Villa and West Brom? Yes, mostly Daniel Sturridge, but also better shooting in general. Balotelli led Liverpool's line in both of those matches. Coutinho took the most shots in both of those matches. Liverpool put a combined six of 40 shots on target in those two matches, with 23 of those 40 shots came from outside the box. Liverpool took better shots on Saturday, Liverpool's creators created better shots on Saturday, Liverpool put more of those shots on target.

Ings and Benteke are still better options than Liverpool had last season. I still believe that both, as they acclimatize to their teammates and Liverpool's playing style, will provide a better chance for success if – every deity forbid – Sturridge gets injured again than Balotelli, Borini, Lambert et al did last season.

Sturridge scoring, Coutinho creating, Lucas providing the platform, better balance in midfield with both Coutinho and Milner ahead of a single defensive midfielder, Ings' work-rate, Moreno's width on the left stretching Villa's defense. All of these factors played some role in Liverpool's victory. Still, Daniel Sturridge, even at, say, 80% of his best, remains the most irreplaceable.