31 January 2015

Liverpool 2-0 West Ham

Goals:
Sterling 51'
Sturridge 80'

What a difference a striker makes.

Liverpool played fairly well before Sturridge came on: controlling the tempo, dominating possession, limiting West Ham's chances. As they've done in most of their matches since switching to 3-4-2-1. But, as has happened in most of the matches this season, Liverpool truly struggled to put the ball in the net. Just three shots on-target from 11 in total, and two of those three were simple saves from distance; only Coutinho's narrow-angle shot required a marginally difficult save from Adrian. Markovic missed a clear-cut chance just before the interval, while Marriner ignored a fairly clear penalty in the build-up (and two elbows from Andy Carroll earlier in the half). Promising but frustrating, par for the course.

Liverpool did finally score before Sturridge came on. And it was a wonderful goal: Sakho to Moreno, bursting down West Ham's right; Moreno's cross met by Sterling with his back to goal, perfectly chested down for Coutinho before turning on goal; a wonderful clipped throughball into Sterling, finished from close range under the diving Adrian. It was some of Sterling's best lone-striker play ever, and it was Coutinho's fifth assist of the season.

But Liverpool with Daniel Sturridge were an entirely different proposition. That Lallana switched to right wing-back helped as well, much more creative and dangerous where he was invisible earlier in the match, but Liverpool finally had a player who unsettled the defense: capable of doing all the things Sterling can do but even better: speed, touch, link-up play; capable on the counter or in intricate build-up. Sterling set him up on the break, a no-angle byline shot saved. Lallana set him up via a lofted cross, but Sturridge could only head down rather than on goal, then nearly set him up with a low cross across the six-yard box, just too far in front of the striker.

And then he struck, with aplomb. Interplay between Sturridge and Sterling in midfield, Coutinho finding space after Marriner played advantage when Sterling was fouled, Coutinho dancing around Mark Noble before finding Sturridge in the box. A jaw-dropping left-footed touch that belied his five-month absence to set himself up and find space away from Winston Reid, a flawless right-footed finish inside the near post. Today was Sturridge's seventh substitute appearance for Liverpool in the league. That was his fifth goal as a substitute. And it was another assist for Coutinho, the first time he's had two in a match since the 6-3 victory over Cardiff last March.

It was just 25 minutes, but that was a wonderful glimpse of Liverpool's potential future.

Liverpool retained its newly-found resilience in defense – even though Can had some frightening moments (and strangely switched to sweeper in the second half) – led by the imperious Mamadou Sakho, who was probably Liverpool's man of the match. Liverpool coped well with Carroll, Valencia, and set plays; Mignolet mostly did well in coming to claim crosses from open play and set plays. And it was Liverpool's third consecutive league clean sheet.

And Liverpool combined it with the cutting edge provided by Sturridge. Not only from Sturridge, but also in how he creates space for others because he requires such close attention from opposition defenders. Which was demonstrated by Jordon Ibe's late chance: West Ham defenders all watching Sturridge as Ibe combined with Lallana, picked up possession on the right, and cut into the box, his close-range shot well saved by Adrian with Sturridge putting the rebound wide.

I've had to write it often this season, but one swallow still doesn't make a summer. Especially since Liverpool's next four league matches are against Everton, Spurs, Southampton, and City. Still, based on that performance, it seems summer might not be long in coming.

30 January 2015

Liverpool v West Ham 01.31.15

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 West Ham (a) 09.20.14
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.06.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.07.13
0-0 (h) 04.07.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Chelsea aet (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
West Ham: 1-0 Bristol (a); 3-0 Hull (h); 2-2 Everton aet [9-8 on penalties] (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Markovic, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
West Ham: Sakho 8; Carroll, Downing 5; Amalfitano 3; Cole, Zarate 2; Cresswell, Kouyate, Noble, Nolan, Reid, Tomkins 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Can Skrtel Lovren
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Lallana Coutinho
Sterling

Sturridge is finally – FINALLY – back in training, but I still don't expect him to start, at least for another match. I've obviously been wrong before but chances are he's eased in slowly, used off the bench if at all. As he was when he returned from injury against Stoke last season or West Ham in his first season.

There are also concerns about Mamadou Sakho, subbed off against Chelsea with a back injury but declaring himself fit on Twitter soon after. Once again, I suspect Liverpool will err on the side of caution. However, Sakho's absence would probably mean a start for Lovren (or Johnson, but probably Lovren), so the words "err" and "caution" may not be appropriate.

Finally, the only other lineup decision seems to be the usual: will it be Gerrard or Lallana opposite Coutinho up front. It's a moot decision if Sturridge starts, because Sterling will take that spot, but again, that seems unlikely. And given that Gerrard played 120 minutes on Tuesday, clearly fatigued for the last hour, Lallana will probably be the choice. Maybe there are other fatigue concerns after Tuesday's match – Allen for Lucas, Manquillo (or maybe even Johnson) or Enrique for Markovic or Moreno – but, as usual, I suspect Rodgers will dance with the ones that brung him unless it's really not feasible.

West Ham remain Liverpool's closest competitor in the league table, one point ahead of the Reds. And that's despite four consecutive draws in all competitions before beating Hull 3-0 – a match that was closer than the scoreline suggests – and squeaking past Bristol City in the FA Cup.

This team is Maximum Allardyce, a team built around direct football, counter-attacks, and set plays. And it's only become more emphatic since Andy Carroll returned to the side. The second and third goals against Hull came from quick counters after regaining possession. Only Chelsea have scored more set play goals than West Ham so far this season. You remember, the same Chelsea which beat Liverpool on Tuesday thanks to a set play.

West Ham will again use the diamond which gave Liverpool so many problems in the reverse fixture. As in September, their plays thrives on direct football, counter-attacks, and set plays. The probable XI is Adrian; Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell; Song; Noble, Nolan; Downing; Carroll, Sakho. Jenkinson, Song, Tomkins, and Collins – who could feature in defense in place of either Tomkins or Reid – are all questionable with minor knocks, but likely to play. Kouyate could feature in place of Nolan after returning from the African Cup of Nations this week. There's also controversy over Diafre Sakho's exit from the African Cup of Nations, leaving the Senegal squad because of a back injury but immediately playing for West Ham in last weekend's FA Cup match. But that shouldn't preclude him from starting tomorrow.

Sakho, like Carroll, is excellent in air – five of his eight league goals have been from headers – but is even more dangerous with the ball at his feet. After Sakho, West Ham's joint-second top scorers are Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, two players you may be familiar with. Downing also has the fourth-most assists in the Premier League: seven, which is the same total he managed in two seasons with Liverpool.

Liverpool are not the same side which lost 1-3 at Upton Park five months ago. After going two-down very early on, Liverpool switched to three-at-the-back, the first time we saw three-at-the-back this season, but the current 3-4-1-2 is a very different animal. Liverpool are vastly more secure at the back and vastly more cohesive in the middle third. There are however, still significant problems up front, still problems scoring goals. But West Ham have kept just two clean sheets since the start of December: at home against Leicester and Hull. That, combined with the imminent return of Daniel Sturridge, even if it's only as a substitute, is a cause for a bit of optimism.

And Liverpool need all the causes for optimism they can get tomorrow, needing to respond to Tuesday's setback and needing all three points against the side just ahead of them in the table. The best chance at a trophy's now gone – a replay in the fourth round of the FA Cup notwithstanding – but there are still 16 league matches left to play, and Liverpool are only five points off of fourth.

28 January 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Chelsea aet (League Cup)

Previous Matches against Chelsea:
2014-15: 1-1 Chelsea (h; League Cup), 1-2 Chelsea (h)
2013-14: 0-2 Chelsea (h), 1-2 Chelsea (a)
2012-13: 2-2 Chelsea (h), 1-1 Chelsea (a)

All Statistics via WhoScored.


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

So close, yet so far. Again.

And it's because of Liverpool's set play defense, something we thankfully haven't mentioned in a while (*waves at Balotelli*), and Liverpool's inability to put its shots on-target, something we've mentioned far, far too often.

Through 210 minutes, the league's dominant team and top scorers couldn't conjure a single open play goal. They needed a penalty in the first leg and an extra-time set play header to beat Liverpool. Liverpool's much-maligned defense, much-maligned goal keeper kept them at bay throughout. Lucas, Skrtel, and Can were outstanding, Mignolet made three marvelous saves, Sakho defended well before going off through injury (although passed sloppily at times), and even Glen Johnson resembled a professional footballer.

But it wasn't enough. Because Liverpool struggle to score at the best of times, and really, really struggled to score against the league's second-best defense and best goalkeeper.

Unlike in the previous leg, Liverpool weren't foiled by a deep defense blocking shots and an in-form goalkeeper. Chelsea blocked just two of Liverpool's 16 shots; they blocked six of 19 a week ago. Courtois had to make two excellent saves yesterday, but both were in the first 30 minutes: on Moreno and Coutinho.

Liverpool simply could not hit the target. Liverpool's last eight shots, from the 82nd minute onward, were all off-target. Every single one, whether Balotelli or Lambert's worse-than-speculative efforts or Henderson's clear-cut headed chance. Liverpool have been erratic in front of goal all season long, but yesterday was the worst possible time to be erratic. Chelsea aren't going to give you many chances at Stamford Bridge. You've got to take them. Like Bradford City did on Saturday. But Liverpool simply couldn't.

That's the alpha and omega of yesterday's match, despite the Diego Costa talking points, the should-have-been penalty on Skrtel talking point, potential red cards for Henderson and Lucas talking point. And that's the alpha and omega of Liverpool's season to date.

It's beating a dead horse into the ground and setting the horse's corpse on fire at this point, but blame for this season lies squarely at this summer's transfer business and the enigmatic and inscrutable transfer committee. Sturridge's injury couldn't be predicted but should have been planned for, and Suarez was replaced by Balotelli, Borini, and Lambert.

Balotelli was Balotelli yesterday: some decent tricks and passes, questionable and wayward shots, a dire lack of movement and understanding of the players around him, and switching off while man-marking Chelsea's most dangerous header of the ball on the game-winning set play. Of course, I'm also not sure why Balotelli was marking Ivanovic, but he was. Kind of.

Lambert was Lambert: the last throw of the dice and unable to make an impact.

Borini was Borini: not even included in the squad.

That Raheem Sterling – barely 20 years old, playing out of position – has been Liverpool's most effective striker this season says everything.

I blame the players, but I don't blame the players. They are what they are, and we've seen it all season long. So I blame whomever bought them, and the manager for how he uses them. It's not as if Rodgers had options upon options but none of Liverpool's subs helped the side. The first was enforced, but the latter two were just throwing on strikers in the hope something would happen, at the expense of the midfield and the flanks. But, to be fair, it's also the manager who fixed many of this side's problems from earlier in the season.

Meanwhile, Mourinho's first substitution made a massive impact: Ramires helped solidify the midfield, mitigating Coutinho's impact – by far the most dangerous player in the first half – and gave Chelsea more impetus going forward.

The litany of complaints make the performance sound worse than it was. Liverpool went toe-to-toe with a far better team, a far better squad, a far more expensive squad. It was just Liverpool's second loss – a loss that came in extra time, no less – in the last 17 matches in all competitions. It honestly wasn't bad, and it was certainly better than we'd seen against Chelsea when these sides met in the league earlier this season, and better than the league match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season.

But it wasn't good enough. It really wasn't good enough in front of goal. And that's what everyone will remember.

26 January 2015

Liverpool at Chelsea 01.27.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h; League Cup) 01.20.14
1-2 Chelsea (h) 11.08.14
0-2 Chelsea (h) 04.27.14
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Villa (a)
Chelsea: 2-4 Bradford (h); 1-1 Liverpool (a); 5-0 Swansea (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 3-1 Bournemouth (a); 2-1 Swansea (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h)
Chelsea: 1-1 Liverpool (a); 3-1 Derby (a); 2-1 Shrewsbury (a); 2-1 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Sterling 7; Lallana 4; Henderson, Lambert 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Markovic, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Chelsea: Costa 17; Hazard 12; Oscar 7; Drogba 6; Schürrle, Terry 5; Fabregas, Remy 4; Matic, Ramires, Willian 3; Cahill, Ivanovic, Zouma 2; Mikel 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho
Sterling

There's honestly not very much to preview here.

We all know what Liverpool's XI will be. Maybe Lallana comes in for Gerrard, if he's not fully fit, or Coutinho, who disappointed (along with a fair few others) on Saturday, but that's about it. Rodgers is threatening to have Sturridge on the bench, but Tuesday seems too soon considering how long he was out. But Liverpool's medical staff obviously knows far, far more about that situation than I do.

Otherwise, the defense is settled, the midfield is settled. If Liverpool's more defensive wing-back back-ups were any better, one of them could be included – because Liverpool will have to defend far more than they did last week – but both Manquillo and Enrique were fairly terrible against Bolton.

First and foremost, Liverpool will have to be defensively solid; it will be a massive, massive game for Markovic and Can, again. But Liverpool will also have to score to advance, and chances will most likely come on the counter. Liverpool will need to press effectively – despite many players involved having played three matches in a week – Liverpool's build-up play will need to be quick and clever, Liverpool's finishing will need to be better than it's been for the majority of the season. Simple, right?

Similar goes for Chelsea. If the home side makes any changes from last Tuesday, it'll be Oscar for Mikel, dropping Fabregas into midfield. Mikel's already doubtful because of a head injury suffered against Bradford, but I expect he'd have been left out regardless. And that's about it. Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis; Matic, Fabregas; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa. From that XI, only Oscar and Cahill started in Saturday's surprising loss to Bradford, although Hazard, Fabregas, and Willian all came off the bench. And Bradford scored three of their four goals after those substitutions.

As if Chelsea needed any more motivation, they're coming off that 2-4 loss to League One Bradford City in the FA Cup. That was Chelsea's first home loss this season. That was the first time that Chelsea lost at home to lower league opposition since October 1995. As a reference point, Raheem Sterling was only 10 months old when that happened.

But both Bradford and Tottenham demonstrated that Chelsea can be beaten with swift counter-attacks: speedy runners on the flanks – which Liverpool have in Markovic and Moreno – and overloading the middle (especially the vulnerable Fabregas), which Liverpool can do with Sterling, Gerrard, Coutinho, and Henderson. And taking advantage of set plays – which Bradford did, which Liverpool often did last season – would be fairly helpful as well.

So here we are. 90 minutes – maybe 120, if extra time is needed, but let's go with 90 – for a trip to Wembley, a chance at a trophy. 90 minutes against the best side in England, a wounded animal, on their own ground. 90 minutes to demonstrate just how far Liverpool have come over the last few months. 90 minutes from greatness.

24 January 2015

Liverpool 0-0 Bolton

Maybe this is why Rodgers is often hesitant to rotate his team in cup competition. Because a Liverpool side with five changes from the side which drew Chelsea – even if they were expected changes – thoroughly disappointed. It was Manquillo's first start since January 5, Allen's and Johnson's first start since December 14, and Enrique's first start since December 9.

Liverpool weathered a spell of Bolton pressure early on, even if the only dangerous moment was a scramble in the box that was eventually cleared, then spent 80 frustrating minutes frustrated in the final third.

Liverpool were admittedly disjointed, but some of the main culprits were Liverpool's regulars, especially in attack. Neither Coutinho, Lallana, nor Sterling fired to anywhere near their full potential. And that's the main reason Liverpool failed to score, failed to win, and now Liverpool have to cope with a midweek replay in 11 days. Sometimes, it's just one of those days, although it'd be easier to blame that if Liverpool's attack hadn't misfired early and often this season.

Of course, Liverpool weren't helped by an opposition keeper having his best game of the season. When making his first start since August 30th. Adam Bogdan made four massive saves: on Henderson in the 12th, on Sterling in the 54th, on Coutinho in the 58th, and on Borini in the 71st. Bodgan made nine saves in total, tying the most any opposition keeper's made against Liverpool (De Gea also stopped nine).



Well, that doesn't look too bad. 23 of 24 shots coming in the center of the pitch. 14 inside the box, and 13 in the Danger Zone. Overall, nine shots on-target, five off-target, and 10 blocked.

Nine on-target isn't great, but nine of 24 is 37.5% accuracy, which is better than Liverpool's usual shot accuracy this season.



Oh. That makes it worse.

Just two of Liverpool's nine on-target shots coming inside the box. Eight of the 14 shots inside the box blocked. Liverpool's three closest shots to goal all off-target: Borini's header, Lallana's header, and Manquillo's 58th-minute effort, defined by Opta as a "big chance."

Today also highlighted the importance of wing-backs in this system, especially in attack, and especially when the opposition's happy to pack seven defenders in their own penalty box. Enrique was rightfully hauled off at halftime. Manquillo lasted just 20 minutes longer, taken off for Borini at the same time Lucas replaced Allen, with Sterling shifting to right wing-back. Neither Enrique nor Manquillo created a chance, while Manquillo added the aforementioned off-target big chance shot. Enrique's replacement, Markovic, created two chances, twice dribbled past a Bolton defender, and made the run which should have seen Bolton's best defender, Matt Mills, sent off in the 50th minute: a decision which would have changed the game. Borini had two outstanding chances to find the winner, one brilliantly saved, one depressingly off-target.

Mills was crucial to Bolton's game plan, the man of the match along with Adam Bogdan. Four tackles, five interceptions, five shots blocked, and eight clearances, leading the match in both interceptions and blocks. Which makes it worse that he was able to stay on the pitch after his uncalled foul in the 50th minute, before being subbed off for his own protection in the 73rd.

Bolton came to defend, and Bolton defended excellently. So be it. At least Liverpool didn't do anything stupid at the other end of the pitch – which is something I've been able to write a fair amount lately – keeping their fourth clean sheet in the eight matches since Boxing Day. Liverpool kept four clean sheets in the 26 matches before Boxing Day this season.

It could have been worse. Ask Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton, and Tottenham. Or Manchester United. Seven of the top 10 sides in the Premier League have played their fourth round FA Cup tie. None of those seven advanced: losses for Chelsea, City, Southampton, Tottenham, and Swansea, replays for United and Liverpool. Arsenal and West Ham play tomorrow, Stoke on Monday.

The magic of the cup, and all that nonsense. At least Liverpool's still in the competition. For now.

All stats from WhoScored

23 January 2015

Liverpool v Bolton 01.24.15

12:30pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Bolton (a) 01.21.12
3-1 Liverpool (h) 08.27.11
2-1 Liverpool (h) 01.01.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.31.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Sunderland (a)
Bolton: 2-1 Sheffield Wed (a); 1-1 Leeds (h); 1-0 Wigan (h)

Previous round:
Liverpool: 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Bolton: 1-0 Wigan (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Sterling 7; Lallana 4; Henderson, Lambert 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Markovic, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Bolton: C Davies, Pratley 5; Mason, Mills 4; Danns, Feeney, C.Y. Lee 3; Beckford 2; Clayton, Clough, M Davies, Guðjohnsen, Heskey, Moxey, Spearing, Wheater 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Lovren Skrtel Sakho
Manquillo Rossiter Henderson Enrique
Lallana Sterling
Borini

I'd prefer wholesale changes, because last Tuesday's match was draining and next Tuesday's match will be as well, but Rodgers rarely operates like that. But there seemingly have to be at least a handful of changes.

One of Lovren or Johnson seem likely to come back into the side. Possibly both, if Rodgers prefers Johnson at wing-back. But rotation is much less important in defense, and Liverpool's defense is settled and has been playing well. Still, I suspect Lovren will get another chance, whether in place of Can or Sakho.

The wing-backs, who probably ran more than any other player against Chelsea, will probably be swapped out, with Johnson or Manquillo on the right, and Enrique on the left.

Lucas is another seemingly in need of a rest. He plays much better when fresh, and Liverpool will desperately need him on Tuesday. At the same time, Rodgers clearly stated that Rossiter would be involved against Bolton. Maybe this means an appearance off the bench instead, but the quotes suggest a definite appearance, and the only definite appearance is an appearance from the start. Maybe Liverpool completely change the midfield, with both Rossiter and Allen coming in, but Henderson, the Energizer Bunny that he is, could keep his place for continuity and to captain the side.

And I have no idea what Liverpool will do up front. Lallana seems certain to be included. Coutinho probably needs a rest. If Gerrard's going to start on Tuesday, he's unlikely to start tomorrow, because he also started last Tuesday and Liverpool's finally realized he can't start three matches in a week, even if you bring him off at the hour mark. Sterling is coming off his winter break, and should be fresh enough to start three matches in a week, even if I still worry about his fitness. Markovic's a possibility in one of the two attacking midfielder spots, but I expect he'll be left on the bench for the same reason mentioned in the part about wing-backs. It's a pity that Jordon Ibe is cup-tied, as he'd be certain to start otherwise.

So, by process of elimination, Lallana and Sterling seem likely to be the attacking midfielders, with one of Borini, Balotelli, and Lambert up front. And Borini remains the most suited to Liverpool's preferred formation and style.

As frequently happens in cup matches, I won't embarrass us both by pretending to know much about Bolton. 15th in the league but 10 points outside the relegation zone, a slightly negative goal difference, consistently inconsistent but better since Neil Lennon because manager in mid-October.

Lennon's side have been alternated between 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond recently. Former Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing is wholly out-of-favor, but 37-year-old Emile Heskey is likely to start up front, whether on his own or paired with Eidur Guðjohnsen. If it's 4-2-3-1, which seems slightly more likely, Bolton's XI will be something like Lonergan; Vela, Mills, Dervite, Ream; Danns, Trotter; Feeney, Guðjohnsen, Pratley; Heskey. If it's the diamond, it'll probably be the same XI which beat Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday: Lonergan; Dervite, Mills, Wheater, Ream; Danns, Feeney, Vela, Pratley; Heskey, Guðjohnsen. Bolton will be without both Chung-Yong Lee and joint-top scorer Craig Davies in attack, but youngster Zach Clough – who scored the winner against Wigan in the last round – could partner Heskey or Guðjohnsen, with the other available off the bench.

I can't help but remember Bolton's time in the Premier League, a side that often gave Liverpool problems whether managed by Allardyce, Sammy Lee, or Owen Coyle. Even in Bolton's last top-flight season, they beat Liverpool handily, a 3-1 home win with former Liverpool striker David Ngog imperious. At most, five Liverpool players from that day are likely to feature (Skrtel, Henderson, Enrique, Johnson, Gerrard) while only three Bolton players are still with the club (Mark Davies, Wheater, Bodgan). But Bolton fans will remember it well, Liverpool fans remember it well.

Bolton hasn't had many days like this, many matches like this, since relegation. And they'll want to take full advantage. And if Liverpool aren't up for the match, are focused on Tuesday's semi-final, Bolton have the potential to take full advantage.

21 January 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea (League Cup)

Previous Matches against Chelsea:
2014-15: 1-2 Chelsea (h)
2013-14: 0-2 Chelsea (h), 1-2 Chelsea (a)
2012-13: 2-2 Chelsea (h), 1-1 Chelsea (a)

All Statistics via WhoScored.


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

I decided to do a slightly abbreviated version of the usual match infographic rather than a day-late match review for two reasons. First, WhoScored actually has full League Cup statistics now, which is a wonderful boon. Second, there was a surprising statistical disparity, even considering Liverpool were facing a Mourinho side at home in the first leg of knockout competition.

It wasn't quite the 0-2 match at Anfield last April, but it was a lot closer to that than I expected. Except, thankfully, in the final score.

I have never seen a side fail to create a single chance since I started doing these infographics in 2012-13. I have never seen a side take just two shots; the previous low for a Liverpool opponent was Swansea's three in Liverpool's 5-0 win in 2013.

Sure, a good deal of that had to do with game state. Chelsea didn't have to attack thanks to Hazard's 18th minute penalty. But Chelsea also couldn't attack after the penalty, and that had a lot to do with how good Liverpool were going forward and how well the back three and Liverpool's midfield set up and defended.

Penalty notwithstanding, it was the best defensive performance of the season considering the opposition. I reiterate: Chelsea took just two shots, and one was a penalty. Game state be damned; Chelsea are an outstanding counter-attacking team, and Liverpool gave them next to no opportunity to do so. Skrtel and Sakho kept Costa quiet all match. Can and Markovic – again, aside from the penalty – did reasonably decent again one of the most dangerous and versatile attackers in the league, especially considering that 50% of Chelsea's attacks came down Liverpool's right. Can and Markovic are both playing out of position and are 21 and 20 years old respectively.

What was most impressive doesn't show up in the stats: when Can was caught up field, Skrtel slid over, with one of the midfielders dropping into coverage. Similar happened with Sakho, to a lesser extent, on the the opposite flank. Similar happened with Liverpool's two deeper midfielders. There seemed a vastly better understanding of what a teammate was going to do, and what the Liverpool player had to do to compensate.

Also, mention need be made of Sterling's performance, by far the most comprehensive he's delivered as an out-and-out striker. Leading the side in both shots and key passes, drifting into space between the lines and into the channels. He terrified both Cahill and Terry all match long. And his goal was a thing of beauty for both his road runner pace and his intelligence; seeing that Matic was marking Gerrard, Mikel was marking Coutinho, and neither center-back wanted to come that deep to man-mark him, he drifted into space just past the center circle, deftly turned away from the too-late-to-recover Matic, and blazed past Cahill and Terry, finishing with his quote-unquote weaker left foot. Even last season's Luis Suarez would be proud of that goal, and that's the highest praise I can conjure.

It was, on the whole and considering the opposition, an outstanding team-wide performance. But an outstanding team-wide performance that ended in a draw rather than a win because of a moment of brilliance from Fabregas and Hazard combined with a moment of weakness from Can (and, to a much lesser extent, Markovic).

It's the third consecutive match against Chelsea – although all were at Anfield – that Liverpool out-passed and out-possessed Mourinho's Chelsea, also out-shooting Chelsea in two of those three. And it's the first of those three that Liverpool didn't lose.

If not for Courtois, Liverpool could have won. Had Atkinson given a fairly clear penalty for Costa's handball in first half injury time or sent off Filipe Luis for doing the same thing that got Markovic sent off against Basel, Liverpool could have won. Had Gerrard's 67th minute shot been a foot to the right. Etc, etc. Regrets piled upon regrets.

It's hard to fault Can for the penalty considering how well he played for the rest of the match, especially the second half. It's hard to be angry at an impressive draw when it's a draw against the best team in England and one of the best teams in Europe. Chelsea had scored at least two goals in their last four matches (it was just the second time Chelsea were held to a single goal since the start of December) and had kept a clean sheet in their last three matches.

But it's hard to swallow that Liverpool could play so well and only get a draw. And while it's not the worst position in the world (honestly, I expected worse), it makes next week's match at Stamford Bridge that much more difficult.

Matches against Chelsea have been eminently frustrating for the last three seasons – no matter how well Liverpool play, no matter Liverpool's form going into the fixture – and it shows little sign of abating. And that's what's so skin-crawlingly irritating about yesterday's result, no matter the plethora of positives.

19 January 2015

Liverpool v Chelsea 01.20.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Chelsea (h) 11.08.14
0-2 Chelsea (h) 04.27.14
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13
2-2 (h) 04.21.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Sunderland (a); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Chelsea: 5-0 Swansea (a); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 3-0 Watford (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 3-1 Bournemouth (a); 2-1 Swansea (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h)
Chelsea: 3-1 Derby (a); 2-1 Shrewsbury (a); 2-1 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Sterling 6; Lallana 4; Henderson, Lambert 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Markovic, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Chelsea: Costa 17; Hazard 11; Oscar 7; Drogba 6; Schürrle, Terry 5; Fabregas, Remy 4; Matic, Willian 3; Ivanovic, Ramires, Zouma 2; Cahill, Mikel 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho
Sterling

There only seems one question in regards to Liverpool's XI. Will Gerrard or Lallana replace Borini? Both should be available after injuries, and even though Lallana made the bench on Saturday while Gerrard was left out entirely, it'll probably be Gerrard. It's Gerrard, it's Chelsea, it's a semifinal.

Maybe Enrique, who was better in defense than Moreno against Villa, comes into the side. Maybe Manquillo or the supposedly-fit-again Johnson, with Markovic switching to the left. Maybe Borini, with a goal and assist in his last two starts, retains his place. Liverpool will be less open and less attacking, even though tomorrow's match is at Anfield, because it's also the first leg. The last thing Liverpool need will be to chase the game at Stamford Bridge. But if it ain't broke, etc.

And this will be the toughest test since Liverpool's switch to 3-4-2-1. Liverpool haven't beaten Chelsea since a 4-1 win against understrength opposition in May 2012, with two draws and three losses against the Blues since Rodgers became manager. Chelsea remain, by far, the best team in England, with the most goals scored and the fewest conceded in the division. And they haven't conceded a single goal in the three matches since a surprising 3-5 loss at Tottenham on New Year's Day. Which was one of Chelsea's two losses all season.

I have no idea how much Chelsea will rotate, if at all. I suspect Mourinho will pick his strongest line-up – it is a semi-final, it is against Liverpool – but Costa, Courtois, and Ivanovic are yet to start a League Cup match, while Schürrle, Cech, Filipe Luis, Mikel, and Zouma have started all three. And it's not as if Chelsea are lacking in options.

But let's assume it's a full strength XI. Two players are doubtful: Azpilicueta, who missed the Swansea match with a groin injury, and Courtois, who missed the last three matches with a finger injury but should be available. It'd be Courtois/Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis; Fabregas, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa. Which, aside from Courtois, is the same XI which romped over Swansea on Saturday. And, aside from Filipe Luis for Azpilicueta, the same XI which beat Liverpool 1-2 at Anfield in November.

So Liverpool have their work cut out for them, to say the absolute least. Both sides will be cagey, because that's how Chelsea play and because Liverpool will want to be in a reasonable position for the second, even more difficult leg. And that sort of match will favor the away side. But if Liverpool can build on the resilience shown in the last few away matches, build on the link-up play improvement since the switch to 3-4-2-1, and repeat the ability to get Danger Zone shots and convert their opportunities as they did against Villa, Liverpool absolutely have a chance.

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Nota Bene: As per usual with weekday matches, there won't be an immediate match review. But because it's a semifinal and because there aren't enough statistics to do a match infographic for League Cup matches, I'll probably eventually write a review. But it'll be very late on Tuesday, if not Wednesday morning.