30 August 2009

Set Piece Goals Against

So, through four games, Liverpool's conceded seven goals. All seven have come from set plays (if we count Ashley Young's penalty). Zonal marking has been a scapegoat since Benitez came to the club, so it's worth a look at the proportion of goals Liverpool's conceded that have come from set plays over his five seasons.

Two notes before we get to the graphic.

One, yes, I'm counting penalties. It's probably not fair, but I reckon the easiest distinction is goals from open play versus goals that weren't. It also doesn't fundamentally alter the totals. Two, the stats are from my game notes (if I have game notes), or match reports from the official site, BBC, or the Grauniad (depending on who actually described the goal). I might be missing some, but I've double-checked in almost all cases. My memory's admittedly not the best.

Conclusions? Well, those numbers suggest it's the players, not the system. Liverpool was fairly consistent – and fairly good – over Benitez's first three seasons. Then the number surged in '07-08 (although Liverpool conceded far more penalties that season – six – the percentage is still the highest without spot kicks), and stayed "above average" in '08-09.

What's the difference between then and now? First and foremost, Hyypia stopped being a regular starter. He's considered one of the best defenders in Liverpool history for a reason. Second, Liverpool hasn't been helped by Carragher's aging; he still provides some amazing last-ditch tackles, but he's lost a step, especially in the air, and Hyypia was easily his best partner. Liverpool conceded less from set plays in '07-08 after Skrtel arrived, but not few enough.

Those are the only conclusions I can come to. If "zonal marking" was the problem, you'd expect Liverpool to have conceded the most in '04-05, when it was a new system. But it actually "worked" for the first three seasons, only to see the number of set piece goals rise around 2007.

The complete stats:

0-1 Graz (Tokic, corner); 0-1 United (Silvestre, from FK); 1-2 United (Silvestre, corner); 0-1 Olympiakos (Stoltidis, from FK); 0-1 Chelsea (J Cole, from FK); 0-1 Brum (Anderton, corner); 0-1 Boro (Riggott, from FK); 1-1 Villa (Solano FK); 0-1 Olympiakos (Rivaldo FK); 0-1 Charlton (Bartlett, corner); 0-1 Brum (Pandiani pen); 1-1 Chelsea LC (Gerrard OG, from FK); 0-1 Newcastle (Robert FK); 1-1 Pompey (Kamara, corner); 0-1 Arse (Pires FK); 0-1 Milan (Maldini, from FK)

0-1 CSKA Sofia (Iliev, from FK); 0-1 Chelsea (Lampard pen); 0-1 Bolton (Jaidi, from FK); 1-3 Luton (Nichols pen); 0-1 United (Ferdinand, from FK); 0-1 Chelsea (Gallas, corner); 0-1 Benfica (Luisao, from FK); 2-1 Everton (Cahill, corner)

0-1 Sheffield (Hulse, from FK); 0-1 Bolton (Speed FK); 3-1 Reading LC (Bikey, from FK); 4-3 Reading LC (Long, from FK); 0-3 Arsenal (Gallas, corner); 1-2 Galatasaray (Buruk, corner); 1-2 Arsenal LC (Baptista FK); 1-2 Newcastle (Solano pen); 0-1 United (O'Shea, from FK); 3-1 Arsenal (Gallas, corner); 0-1 Milan (Inzaghi, from FK)

1-1 Villa (Barry pen); 1-1 Chelsea (Lampard pen); 0-1 Porto (Lucho pen); 1-1 Reading LC (Convey, corner); 2-2 Reading CC (Halls, corner); 0-1 Everton (Hyppia OG, corner); 1-1 Cardiff (Purse, from FK); 0-1 Reading (Hunt pen); 0-2 Reading (Doyle, from FK); 0-1 United (Tevez, corner); 1-1 Derby (McEveley, from FK); 1-1 Wigan (Bramble, from FK); 1-1 Villa (Harewood, from FK); 1-2 Villa (Aurelio OG, from FK); 0-1 Havant (Pacquette, corner); 0-1 West Ham (Noble pen); 0-1 Boro (Tuncay, from FK); 3-1 Bolton (Cohen, corner); 0-1 Reading (Matejovsky, from FK); 0-2 United (Ronaldo, corner); 0-1 Arsenal CL (Adebayor, corner); 1-1 Arsenal (Bendtner, from FK); 0-2 Brum (Larsson FK); 2-1 Chelsea CL (Lampard pen)

1-1 Crewe LC (O'Connor, corner); 0-2 City (Garrido FK); 1-1 Spurs (Carra OG, corner); 3-1 Blackburn (Santa Cruz, corner); 0-1 PSV (Lazovic, corner); 0-1 Hull (McShane, corner); 2-1 Newcastle (Edgar, corner); 1-1 Everton (Cahill, from FK); 0-1 Everton FA (Lescott, corner); 1-1 Wigan (Mido pen); 1-2 Pompey (Hreidarsson, from FK); 0-1 Boro (Alonso OG, corner); 0-1 United (Ronaldo pen); 1-1 Chelsea CL (Ivanovic, corner); 2-1 Chelsea CL (Ivanovic, corner); 2-2 Chelsea CL2 (Alex FK)

29 August 2009

Liverpool 3-2 Bolton

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Davies 33’
Johnson 41’
Cohen 47’
Torres 56’
Gerrard 83’

Lucky, lucky Liverpool. The way this season’s going, that sort of luck is deserved. Any port in a storm.

It was a sloppy and subdued first half, with Liverpool unable to assert themselves as Muamba marked Gerrard out of the game. Once again, too many giveaways and not enough cut and thrust. Torres was especially disappointing early on, unable to get on the end of a couple of dangerous balls.

Bolton started to threaten after a couple of sloppy giveaways by Kyrgiakos around the half-hour mark, Torres almost headed in his own net from a Taylor free kick, and Bolton scored their first league goal of the season from the resulting corner. Yes, another set piece. Naturally.

Another Matty Taylor ball in, Liverpool were unable to clear after Elmander flicked across goal over Insua, and Davies (of course Davies) prodded in from two yards out after Carra backed off him. Christ. As much as it pains me to write, Carragher has to take a lot of the blame for the set pieces as the organizer of the defense and the most-experienced player. It’s not a coincidence his name keeps cropping up when I’m describing the goal Liverpool conceded.

Thankfully, Johnson again came to the rescue (£17m, you’re having a laugh). He’s been Liverpool’s only consistent performer and easily the best player so far this season. And after Gerrard’s corner was only half-cleared, the right back sent in a low, left-footed shot which beat Jaaskelainen.

However, just like against Spurs and Villa, Liverpool could have given it right back. Reina had to magnificently palm away Taylor’s free kick in the 45th. Yes, another set piece. Sigh. And that wasn’t the last time.

90 seconds into the second half, Jaaskelainen took a deep free kick in his own half. Liverpool were unable to clear the bouncing ball, Carragher slipped, and Cohen hammered in. You can’t make this shit up. That would be three out of four games where Liverpool has conceded within six minutes of scoring.

Thankfully, Alan Wiley soon bailed Liverpool out, although it’s Sean Davis’s own fault. In the 54th, Davis caught Lucas’ heels on the break, and saw his second yellow after the Brazilian complained. Probably soft, but I’ll definitely take it. Seconds later, Gerrard blasted against the crossbar after a corner.

But the equalizer wasn’t long in coming, as Torres struck his third of the season in the 56th. Kuyt chested the ball perfectly for the striker from Gerrard’s chip over the top, and Torres made no mistake. No matter the harsh sending off, that was a beautiful goal.

With 10 men, Muamba couldn’t solely man-mark Gerrard, and the captain started to further influence proceedings, albeit from deep with Liverpool either 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 (after Voronin came on for Masch in the 74th). Gerrard had a few efforts from distance either blocked or narrowly wide, including one that should have been a handball on Cohen.

As time trickled away, it looked like Liverpool might be frustrated despite the numerical superiority as Bolton kept all 10 men behind the ball. We'd seen that before, after all. But, finally, the captain broke the deadlock. Johnson crossed in after a short corner, Torres jumped highest to head down, and Gerrard perfectly placed it past Jaaskelainen from 12 yards. Oh late winners, how I’ve missed you. And that's why Gerrard's shouldn't take corners – not only are his often subpar, but he's far more dangerous lurking in and around the box.

Unable to find the fourth despite two good chances (a Benayoun volley wide and a Torres tap-in that was just cleared off the line), hoofed punts forward frightened, and given how the season's gone, it wouldn't have been a surprise to see a soft equalizer. But Liverpool saw out the win and got the three much-needed points. Thank you, baby Jesus.

It obviously wasn’t the best performance. Set piece defense is still atrocious, and the sending off was fortunate. But any win will do with three points from the first three games. Johnson was probably the best player on the pitch, Torres was kicked all over the park, but still got a goal and assist, improving as the game went on, while Gerrard saw more of the ball playing deeper, especially after he lost Muamba as his shadow. And, of course, it’s the captain with the winner. Finally, other than a couple of silly giveaways, I thought Kyrgiakos had a solid debut, and his height definitely helped out.

Now, after the hard-fought win, most of the players will go away for the international break. I still think the respite will be good for Liverpool. This team needs to regroup, and the two weeks off away help that (and hopefully see Skrtel, Agger, Aurelio, and Aquilani fitter), even with most of the players featuring for their country.

Forget the first three games – other than learning from the repeated set piece mistakes – and build on this. Burnley at Anfield on 9/12.

28 August 2009

Liverpool at Bolton 08.29.09

10am, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.15.08
3-1 Liverpool (a) 03.02.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.02.07

Last two matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Villa (h); 4-0 Stoke (h); 1-2 Spurs (a)
Bolton: 1-0 Tranmere (a); 0-1 Hull (a); 0-1 Sunderland (h)

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Liverpool’s been abhorrent in two of the last three games, and I’m still picking the same line-up.

I just don’t see the alternatives. Move Gerrard back into midfield and put Benayoun in the hole? Gerrard’s far better as a support striker, and we saw on Sunday how Gerrard charging around midfield didn’t help the attack and ended up conceding a penalty. Maybe bring in Riera for Benayoun, but Albert’s been strangely missing (he hasn’t even featured off the bench), while Yossi’s known for breaking down packed defenses. Liverpool could have Riera against Villa, though.

And I think Lucas has to play. I know, he’s an easy scapegoat, but there are few options in midfield, and Lucas needs the confidence boost of not being dropped after the Villa match. No matter what state of mind he's in, he's still a better option than either Spearing or Plessis.

Bolton’s still scoreless in two league games, losing 0-1 to Hull and Sunderland, before winning away at Tranmere in the Carling Cup on Tuesday. But Villa hadn’t tallied a goal before putting three past Liverpool last week. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this.

I still half-expect Elmander to break out, having enjoyed the striker when he was at Toulouse, while Kevin Davies has the potential to cause problems. Meanwhile, it’s always fun to face former Reds, and I’m sure El-Hadji Diouf will have a quiet and introverted game, as usual (*spit*).

Just as the strength of Davies worries, set pieces really make me anxious, and after conceding all five goals from three free kicks, a corner, and a penalty, let’s hope it’s something Liverpool’s worked on this week. Maybe Kyrgiakos (who played a half for the reserves yesterday) will start because of his physical presence, but I expect Carra and Skrtel if they’re fit enough. Dossena for Insua is another option, but Benitez probably won’t drop the little Argentinean.

Just win. Please.

27 August 2009

Champions League Group Stage Draw

Debrenci VSC

Group E awaits. Not the easiest group (Groups G or H), but it’s not Groups A, C, or F either. Neither Lyon nor Fiorentina will be easy matches, but they’ll be interesting pairings against prestigious teams, while Debrecen’s a completely unknown quantity. But days out in Lyon, Florence, and Budapest (I'm pretty sure that's where Debrecen's CL games will be played) are mouthwatering; I’m incredibly jealous of the traveling Kop this year.

I saw both of Fiorentina’s qualifying games, and they were honestly lucky to go through against Sporting. Mutu and Gilardino are excellent strikers, but they’re definitely beatable. Lyon hammered Anderlecht in the last round, but have lost Benzema and were knocked off the top of Ligue 1 for the first time in a dog’s age last season. However, Lisandro Lopez, Bastos, and Gomis are all dangerous players; Lyon are definitely one of the stronger teams out of Pot 2. Debrecen are Hungarian champions, but this is the first time the Hungarian champions have made the group stage in 14 years.

Barca v Inter is the tastiest tie on paper, while Group A is probably the toughest top to bottom. Also, I’d like to delight in Manchester’s trips to Moscow and Istanbul; hopefully one of them will come right before the 10/25 match at Anfield. Plus, the reigning German champions as the fourth seed. The Mancs look likely to win all their home matches, but won’t have one easy away game. Arsenal should walk their group though, while Rangers will never have a better chance to make it to the knockout rounds.

The first group stage game will be September 15 or 16.

Draw in full:
Group A:
Bayern Munich
Maccabi Haifa

Group B:
Manchester Utd
CSKA Moscow

Group C:
AC Milan
Real Madrid
FC Zurich

Group D:
Atletico Madrid

Group E:
Debreceni VSC

Group F:
Inter Milan
Dynamo Kiev
Rubin Kazan

Group G:
Unirea Urziceni

Group H:
AZ Alkmaar
Standard Liege

25 August 2009

It's the Defense, Stupid

It’s probably a bit early for stats like this. But I am annoyed, and reactionary, and have a blog. So here’s a look at last season’s league goals scored and conceded, and the same stats through three games so far this year. I’m using ‘per game’ numbers so there’s some sort of comparison although, admittedly, three games is one hell of a small sample size.

Not much difference between the goals scored. And you don’t need a chart to tell you that Liverpool’s conceded too many goals, having lost twice. Duh. But the discrepancy is a bit alarming.

To hammer home the comparison, Liverpool’s conceded five goals in three games. Last season, it took eight league games, until Wigan on October 18th, for Liverpool to concede five.

Last season (league):
1st half goals: 28 (.74 per game)
2nd half goals 49 (1.29 per game)
1st half conceded: 12 (.32 per game)
2nd half conceded: 15 (.39 per game)

Through three games this season:
1st half goals: 2 (.67 per game)
2nd half goals: 4 (1.33 per game)
1st half conceded: 3 (1.00 per game)
2nd half conceded: 2 (.67 per game)

24 August 2009

Liverpool 1-3 Aston Villa

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Lucas (og) 34’
Davies 45+2’
Torres 72’
Young 75’ (pen)

See, I told you I’d jinx it. Three games into the league, and Liverpool has the same number of losses as the whole of last season. This is why I never guess the outcomes of Liverpool games, and why I’d never written I thought they’d win the league before. I am sorry. I truly am.

Something like five chances in the first 15 minutes, including three in the same move, and somehow Liverpool ended the half two down. There’s “that’s football” and “that’s fucking impossible,” and today was the latter.

33 seconds in, Benayoun could only flick a header wide after Torres’ chip over the top. In the 9th minute, Torres, Gerrard, and Benayoun somehow failed to score after Torres’ shot was blocked, Gerrard couldn’t make contact, Benayoun scuffed his effort, and Friedel’s failing foot kept out Gerrard’s stab. Five minutes later, Kuyt teed up Gerrard at the top of the box, but the captain’s trademark curler rose over the bar. With chances like that, it could only be a matter of time. But from there, Liverpool found a way to completely throw the game away.

Of course, it began with Lucas. The kid perpetually can’t catch a break, and neither could Liverpool. The home side saw less and less possession after the 15th, as Villa settled and Liverpool lost the ball too easily, and after a good start, Lucas concedes a stupid free kick, and has the resulting Young strike deflect off him to wrong-foot Reina. Now that’s a scapegoat moment. And these moments make it so hard to defend him.

Other than a Torres blast in the 38th that Friedel smartly saved, the last ten minutes of the half were a farce as Liverpool, for lack of a better term, tried too hard and were easily frustrated. The stupid giveaways that had intermittently crept into their play became commonplace.

Unsurprisingly, the team paid for it in the second minute of stoppage time as Davies, who wasn’t even supposed to start, got in front of Carra and Torres to head in Shorey’s corner at the near post. Summing up Liverpool’s half, Reina had picked up a yellow for kicking the ball away, seemingly questioning whether it was a corner, which it clearly was.

And then, the second half. Oh, the second half. Nearly 30 minutes of half chances against a packed defense – par for the course on the day – before it looked like Torres gave Liverpool a lifeline. Voronin came on in the 66th for the unfortunate Lucas, and started the move that ended with Torres’ volley after a Kuyt dummy opened up space for Insua to cross. Game on. Just like those late wins which saved Liverpool’s bacon last season.

Two minutes later, game off, just like against Spurs (okay, it took Spurs three minutes). Gerrard, of all people, recklessly dove in on Reo-Coker in the box, and Young hammered home the resulting penalty. 1-3 with 15 minutes remaining. No heroics left, nothing like last season’s stunners, just a smattering of near misses and saves, with Friedel renewing the trend of former Liverpool keepers playing out of their minds against the club. Liverpool gave up by the 90th minute.

So, let’s sum up the scapegoats. Lucas, obviously (please, keep it in line, Liverpool need him this season, like it or not). Two goals conceded from set plays, so let’s add zonal marking. Torres, and the entire team, overly frustrated and sniping at the referee. A careless penalty conceded by Gerrard that harkens back to the reckless days of five-plus years ago.

Let’s also add the inability to break down 11 men behind the ball (well, once, but once wasn’t enough). We can also blame Liverpool’s awful home form, carrying over from last season. I’d also like to reiterate that Liverpool should have seen this coming: a five-man midfield and a congested middle, but the fullbacks pinned back thanks to the pace of Milner, Young, and Agbonlahor. Probably should credit Villa’s defense too, which clearly remembered the last meeting between the clubs. At least no one got injured. That’s all I got.

So, now that the season’s over, we can look forward to a trip to Bolton this Saturday. For once, the international break can’t come soon enough.

22 August 2009

Liverpool v Aston Villa 08.24.09

3pm, live in the US on espn2 (plz plz HD)

Last 4 head-to-head:
5-0 Liverpool (h) 03.22.09
0-0 (a) 08.31.08
2-2 (h) 01.21.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 06.11.07

Last two matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Stoke (h); 1-2 Spurs (a)
Villa: 0-1 Rapid Vienna (a); 0-2 Wigan (h)

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Ayala Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Same as Wednesday, please. I doubt we’re at a point in the season where there are any fears over rotation.

The only question seems to be Kyrgiakos or Ayala, as it seems like I jinxed Agger in the last preview given the news he’ll be out for around six weeks. This quote from Benitez when the deal was announced – “He will have the medical this week, it has to be before the weekend" – makes me think that Kyrgiakos will play if possible. I guess it depends if Benitez sees enough in the one, maybe two (doubtful) training sessions before the match. Kyrgiakos did face Carew twice when Greece played Norway in Euro 2008 qualifying, and probably speaks English from his time with Rangers, but that might be stretching it.

Villa’s had two disappointing games to start the campaign, yet to find the target in losses to Wigan and Rapid Vienna (who beat Liverpool 0-1 in a friendly). But the defense should still have more to do than against Stoke. In particular, Johnson will have much less license to bomb forward with Ashley Young on the left. Milner also has the potential to torment on the opposite flank, which will test Insua. Curtis Davies will probably miss out after picking up a shoulder injury on Thursday, meaning Habib Beye should move over from right back.

Villa went with a five-man midfield in Vienna, with Heskey as a lone striker, and I can see the trend continuing. It probably depends on Carew’s fitness, but it makes sense to try and congest the center with Sidwell, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Gardner and Fabian Delph all in the squad, while using the pace of Young and Milner to break. Didn’t seem to work in Vienna, though. Relatedly, I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about Delph, a young English prospect purchased from Leeds.

Liverpool can’t let the 5-0 result in the last match or Villa’s poor run to start the season breed any complacency. It should go without saying, but this will still be a tough match; Villa are no mugs, record be damned. Ideally, the loss at Spurs will continue to light a fire under the team, and if early results are any indication, Liverpool will need all the points they can get.

19 August 2009

Liverpool 4-0 Stoke

Johnson Carragher Ayala Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Torres 4’
Johnson 45’
Kuyt 78’
Ngog 90+4’

The future’s a bit rosier today, no?

A four-goal margin of victory, against a side that held Liverpool scoreless twice last season, might be a little more emphatic than Stoke’s performance deserved. But make no mistake, this was a comprehensive victory, easing a few of the worries voiced after Sunday’s dismal affair. Plus, we get to gloat in United’s 0-1 loss at Burnley. Sometimes life is good.

Last season’s match at Anfield could have looked a lot like today’s had the early “goal” by Gerrard been allowed. And it was today’s strike by Torres in the fourth minute, after some lovely build-up between Kuyt, Lucas, and the captain, which sent Liverpool on its way. Lucas to Gerrard, who cut it back from the byline toward the penalty spot, and a Torres goal. No mistake, one-nil, and it took about 200 seconds.

Knowing Stoke would have to come out of their shell after going behind, Liverpool was happier controlling the tempo, giving Stoke a bit more of the ball, but looking able to break the away side at any opportunity. Insua should have added a second in the 21st, released after Lucas sprung Torres on the break following a poor Stoke free kick, but the Argentinean could only prod into the side netting from the striker’s cross.

Stoke had a succession of long throws and free kicks around the half-hour mark, which always worries, but never came close to equalizing. And on the stroke of halftime, from a corner no less, Glen Johnson popped in the penalty box, acrobatically slamming home the rebound from Kuyt’s header with a bicycle kick on his Anfield debut. 2-0, game apparently over.

But a five-minute spell from Stoke to start the second half, including an utterly immaculate save from Reina, almost saw the away side climb back into the game. The Potters did well to keep Liverpool under pressure after winning an early Delap throw, and the third successive corner from it found Delap in the box, whose low effort looked destined for the bottom corner until Reina came to the rescue to push it away.

A dangerous Beattie cross that Johnson had to clear for a corner three minutes later marked the end of that spell as Liverpool returned to dominating the tempo and possession. More and more space opened up as Stoke looked for any means back into the match, and a succession of chances followed. Gerrard forced a save from Sorensen, who almost spilled it onto the feet of Kuyt, in the 54th, Johnson nearly snuck a second inside the near post after cutting in from the right in the 60th, and Sorensen had to palm away a certain Shawcross own goal in the 66th.

Finally, Liverpool got the third that always looked like coming in the 78th after another superb assist from Gerrard, beating Etherington like a rented mule to get into the box and centering for Kuyt to slide home. Both scorer and provider went off the in the 82nd, replaced by Voronin and Riera, as Liverpool cantered to victory. For added gloss, Ngog (on for Torres in the 85th) got the fourth with the last kick after Johnson (again) stormed down the right, with the deflected cross put on a plate for the Frenchman to head home from two yards out.

Today was just what Liverpool needed. In contrast to the last match, everyone was firing on all cylinders. Johnson, Lucas, and Gerrard all stood out for me, but I could compliment something about all the players’ performances. A clean sheet on 18-year-old Daniel Ayala’s debut, a vastly-improved display from Insua, Benayoun was lively throughout, and Torres had much more influence on today’s proceedings.

Lucas was incredibly assured in midfield; I honestly thought he was better than Mascherano, who misplaced a few too many passes that could have been punished by a better team. I thought he and Benayoun played well together; both move around frequently, looking for angles, and Lucas’ mobility meant he was able to compensate when Benayoun drifted inside. Meanwhile, Gerrard had two assists in a rampaging performance where he sought out the ball despite a packed Stoke defense. But we’ve come to expect that sort of thing from him.

However, a goal and assist on your Anfield debut probably assures you the man of the match. Johnson’s already made a huge difference to this team, and has had a hand in three of the five goals scored in two matches. His pace, willingness to run at defenders, and additional attacking presence was a big difference between today’s result and those two draws last season.

Just like it was too early to draw too many conclusions on Sunday, that’s still the case after today. But being able to put a tough team like Stoke to the sword always brightens the day, and it was just the response that Liverpool needed.

Villa at Anfield on Monday

18 August 2009

Liverpool v Stoke 08.19.09

3pm eastern. No live showings in the US (delayed on FSC at 8pm Thursday); if you're looking for streams, I'll be checking here, here, and here tomorrow.

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 01.10.09
0-0 (h) 09.20.08
8-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.2000
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.25.1994

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

The sky is falling! And now, Liverpool’s up against a team that twice stymied them last season. Might as well just call it quits.

This is one of those games where Liverpool will have to unlock one of those eminently frustrating packed defenses. And yes, I’m suggesting nearly the same line-up that delivered such a dazzling display on Sunday.

To some extent, Benitez’s hand is forced. Injuries to Aurelio, Agger, and potentially Skrtel hinder the “possibilities” in those positions. With two of the three top center backs out, Liverpool’s lucky to be playing Stoke. The team could have done without both CBs and Reina last year at Anfield, although, hopefully, this one won’t end 0-0. Rumor has it the reason Riera missed Sunday’s match is because he attended Dani Jarque’s funeral, not because of the injury picked up in preseason.

It’s a toss-up between Riera and Benayoun on the left, as I assume Sunday’s performance ruled out Babel starting. This might be one of those games tailor-made for Benayoun, with his clever feet and eye for the throughball, but I think I’d rather Riera. Benayoun can change the game off the bench, and I still think he’s better suited in the middle or on the right. Even though crosses from the flank may not be the best tactic with Stoke packing their own penalty area, Liverpool will still need to be able to stretch the field and use the full width to open up space.

If Skrtel can’t go – and today's quotes from Rafa make me more optimistic than earlier reports – it’ll be Ayala or Kelly drafted in. I cannot wait for Danny Agger to return, and I’d have the Dane back in the line-up as soon as he’s healthy, my biases toward the player not withstanding. Agger’s simply the best of the lot at bringing the ball out of defense.

Carra’s always had a proclivity for lumping it forward, but it felt like even more of those balls were played on Sunday, and that’s probably not coincidence given it was Liverpool’s first game without Alonso. Sometimes, as with Torres’ stunning goal against Blackburn last season, it works. Other times, like against a sturdy pairing such as Bassong and King, not so much. I have a feeling it’s not the way to go against a packed Stoke defense either. I’m not necessarily saying Carra should be left out (I’m nowhere near that brave), I’m just saying Agger should be a nailed-on starter if fit. And I’m glad I’m not the one to decide between Carra and Skrtel.

Insua didn’t have the best of games on Sunday, but I doubt that means Dossena will replace him. One, and I don’t mean to relentlessly bash Babel, but Insua had to overcompensate for the Dutchman’s ineffectiveness and was burned by it. Two, Lennon’s pace caused him problems, but no one in Stoke’s squad offers that threat. I worry much less about Insua with either Benayoun or Riera in front of him.

Of course, after the tame performance two days ago, Stoke’s up next. Stifling, infuriating Stoke, a team that Liverpool failed to score against at both times of asking last season. The good news is if Liverpool wins tomorrow, they’ve bettered last season’s performance in the two respective fixtures. The bad news is it’s Stoke, and we’ve yet to see Benitez’s side break them down.

Stoke played well in their opener against Burnley, but – and I mean this in the nicest way possible – a lot of teams will put two past Burnley at home (we'll see if I just jinxed Liverpool on 9/12). However, what worries is that both of Stoke’s goals came from set plays. First, Shawcross rose highest to head home a free kick (Bassong, anyone?). The second came from a trademark Delap throw-in that unsettled the defense into an own goal. Gulp.

So, all Liverpool has to do is unlock a packed defense and prevent stupid set-play goals. Easy, right?

16 August 2009

Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

Assou-Ekottu 44’
Gerrard 56’ (pen)
Bassong 59’

Good start!

The only “big four” side to drop points, let alone lose, and my sole riposte is that it’s the same result as last year’s fixture. Sigh. Liverpool again paid the price for their defending on two set plays. Double sigh. Get the daggers out…

I’ll get it out of the way now. Yes, I think Assou-Ekotto’s shove on Voronin in the 86th was a crystal clear penalty. So did Sammy Lee, who was sent to the stands for complaining. But it wasn’t given. Phil Dowd may have been awful today, but that’s football, and nowhere near enough of an excuse.

Liverpool’s modus operandi was revealed when Babel got the nod over both Benayoun and Riera (who didn’t even make the squad). The team would set out in the standard 4-2-3-1 and look to counter-attack with pace, allowing the home side more possession in the hopes of unlocking the defense on the break. Needless to say, it didn’t work in the slightest.

The first third of the game was utterly devoid of chances. Liverpool’s first effort came in the 29th, when Gerrard shot wide from distance after a ball lumped forward from defense. The only moment of note prior was a frightening 18th minute collision between Carragher and Skrtel that saw both bloodied and Carra bandaged, although both stayed on – at least until Skrtel finally went off in the 75th, replaced by Ayala. I suspect the lingering effects of that accident didn’t help the defending.

Following Gerrard’s effort, Spurs came to life, and only Reina’s heroics kept Keane from scoring. First, Reina saved the Irishman’s point blank header after Modric’s cross in the 30th. Four minutes later, the former Liverpool striker was denied after beating the offside trap, while Defoe – all 5'7" of him – headed wide from the subsequent corner. In the 42nd, Keane tallied a hat-trick of misses, shooting wildly when open from 15 yards.

Meanwhile, Liverpool struggled to respond. Hopeful punts from defense, usually in the direction of Kuyt or Torres, found the players isolated and Spurs soon regained possession. Huddlestone and Palacios, both deep-lying midfielders, stopped Liverpool from launching any breaks. Torres couldn’t get into the game, while Babel was often invisible. Gerrard and Kuyt both put in the effort to try and win the ball, as did Mascherano in his own half (as usual), but it was frequently futile, and honestly, everyone except Reina was sub par.

The dam finally burst in the 44th. A free kick from Huddlestone ricocheted right to Assou-Ekotto, and the left back thumped a thunderbolt into the far corner from something like 30 yards. Despite Spurs’ superiority, it took a wonder goal to break the deadlock. Right before halftime, when Liverpool would have had the chance to regroup. Awesome.

11 minutes after the restart, after Liverpool had marginally upped the tempo to begin the half, the £17m signing brought his team back into the game. Finally delivering one of those trademark runs forward, Johnson broke into the box, sidestepped Gomes, and forced the keeper into a penalty. Gerrard duly tallied it, straight down the middle over a despairing keeper.

Three minutes later, Liverpool gave it all away. Modric’s free kick after Carragher’s foul found debutant Bassong between two defenders, and he smashed a header past Reina. Easy come, easy go. From there, Liverpool huffed and puffed as Tottenham was increasingly happy to protect the 2-1 lead.

The away side were limited to half chances – a Torres header under pressure sent wide and a Benayoun shot deflected for a corner after the Israeli jerked into space were the two most memorable – before the aforementioned no-call in the 86th. Voronin was clearly pushed off the ball, and while Gomes was charging, the Ukrainian could have gotten a shot off. Maybe Dowd was hesitant after giving the previous penalty. Maybe Dowd, who had brandished at least six yellows by my count, had just lost control of the game because he’s a shitty referee. Either way, it shouldn’t have come to that.

I love that we get the chance to write the eulogy after the first game of the season. And I really have no defense. The team was as out of sorts as during preseason. Liverpool (gulp) missed Alonso’s metronomic presence in midfield. The defense was sketchy, especially after the collision between Skrtel and Carragher, both already carrying knocks. The Babel gambit was a complete failure, to put it bluntly, and even a sub par Liverpool were clearly better after Benayoun came on. Today highlighted why I was so insistent Liverpool should buy a left-sided attacker, although I derive zero joy in writing that given the result. There’s still time if Hicks and Gillett can find some spare change under the sofa cushions.

You can never write anyone off after the first month, let alone the first game. But Liverpool showed absolutely none of the potential that made me think this could be a title-winning team.

Stoke on Wednesday, and it’s not on TV in the States.

14 August 2009

Liverpool at Tottenham 08.16.09

11am eastern, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 05.24.09
2-4 Spurs (a; Carling Cup) 11.12.08
1-2 Spurs (a) 11.01.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.11.08

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Sweet, the sixth-straight season Liverpool starts with an away game. Can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait.

I would like to reiterate that preseason is rarely a bellwether for the actual season. The team is looking for fitness, looking to avoid injuries, and testing young players. Plus, you have to remember (and this is something I should have pointed out during those preseason match reviews), the team often has a training session prior to the friendly. Preseason results have little bearing on the opening games. Last year, Liverpool hammered Rangers in the final warm-up match and utterly stunk up the joint a week later against Liege.

There are three big questions about the squad going into this match (outside of the biggest one – how well they start the season): who’s fit, who’ll start on the left, and how much will Alonso’s exit impact the formation?

I don’t really believe Gerrard’s groin problem is serious enough to keep him out, but maybe I’m just hopeful he was avoiding a worthless England friendly, like United players always seem to. It looks like it’ll be a last-minute decision at best. If he’s unavailable, I expect Benayoun to take over his role and Riera to be on the left.

As the above article above reminds, Carragher, Agger, and Skrtel have all suffered knocks during preseason. But Benitez seemed fairly certain Carra would be available last week, while Skrtel played an hour for the reserves on Tuesday. Here’s hoping.

That Riera played with Spain (and scored a superb winner, while Torres tallied Spain’s opener) on Wednesday means he’s more in contention than I thought. But given how often we saw Benayoun on the left in preseason, I think he’s more likely. Admittedly, I’d rather Riera.

As I said Wednesday, I’m still not sold on Benayoun on the left, especially if the formation adapts how I think it will adapt, and both Lucas/Aquilani and Gerrard take turns starting the attack from deeper. Liverpool need a player who will hug the touchline and offer space when the center’s congested (which will happen as much as last season, if not more), and I doubt they can be totally reliant on the fullback, whether it’s Insua, Aurelio, or Dossena. I’m less worried about the right, where Kuyt’s often shown the ability to track back, and Johnson’s got sprinter’s speed, but the left’s a concern.

Rafa’s “wingers” often operate more centrally than standard ones. But Benayoun is guiltiest of drifting inside to the detriment of the flank. Both Babel and Riera have their faults as well, but both are seemingly more suited to playing wide on the left, especially the Spaniard.

I’ve harped on the formation enough over the last couple of weeks, but I can’t wait to finally see it in action. It all centers on where Gerrard plays when Lucas (and eventually Aquilani) step in. It’s definitely something I’ll have my eye on all match, but I’ve still drawn up my guess at a squad as a 4-2-3-1.

As usual, expectations are high at White Hart Lane, and they should vastly improve on last year’s start, when the Ramos-led side took two points from the first eight games. Yet another former Liverpool striker has joined the club, and I’m interested to see how Keane links up with Crouch. And if both players even start, as Defoe was in sparkling form for England on Wednesday and has proven to be an able partner for the Gangly Handful (© Ace Cowboy) in the past.

Sebastian Bassong (from Newcastle) and Kyle Naughton (from Sheffield United) will add steel to the backline, but it usually takes defenses time to gel. Liverpool, away from Anfield (where they were arguably better last season), will have to test Redknapp’s defense early and often to put Spurs on the back foot from the off. And putting teams on the back foot is how Liverpool dominated the last 13 games of 2008-09.

Roll on 2009-10.

12 August 2009

2009-10 Liverpool Season Preview

In lieu of a longer (much longer) narrative, I’m going to go with bullet points for different thoughts, similar to how I treated the Aquilani transfer. Even in this format it clocks in at almost 1300 words. I can’t help being verbose, and there are a few factors to take into account.

On Monday, I actually predicted Liverpool would win the league. I had avoided reading other season previews before guessing the table, but now I’m seeing similar picks popping up in mainstream outlets like the BBC, Guardian, and Daily Telegraph. There probably will be more. Yikes. Nevertheless, we’ll soldier on.

The loss of Alonso hurts, but Ronaldo’s harder for United to replace. Chelsea is a strong side, but older than their competitors, and will miss key players during the African Cup of Nations. Liverpool’s coming off their best season in twenty years, and, even with the loss of Alonso, there’s still room for improvement.

Why Liverpool can be better:
• A fit Fernando Torres makes a world of difference. 33 goals in his first season, 17 last season. Torres only started 20 league games in ’08-09 (coming off the bench four times). Liverpool won 13 of those games and drew seven. And the stats look even better when both Torres and Gerrard started: 11 wins, 3 draws. If they can play together in the majority of Liverpool’s matches, the sky’s the limit.

• Glen Johnson will add a new feature to Liverpool’s attack, one that’ll coming in handy when trying to break down those packed defenses. We’ve already seen glimpses in looking to overlap at every opportunity, linking up with Kuyt, and running at defenders. Arbeloa brought a lot to the table, and it remains to be seen whether Johnson can be as consistent defensively (especially in getting back as well as maintaining the offside trap), but Johnson’s forays forward will be far stronger.

• The experience Insua gained in the final third of last season is like having a new player. He’s established himself in the side, starting in nine league games last season. Liverpool won eight and drew one. And he will continue to develop. With Aurelio, Insua, and Dossena, Liverpool probably is the strongest side in the division at that position.

• The final 13 or so games demonstrated how potent this team can be. For all the complaints about lacking in goals (especially against inferior opposition), Liverpool scored 77 in the league last season (top scorers by nine), and 41 in the final 13 games, beginning with the 4-0 romp over Real Madrid. The problem was that in took until March to really kick in. I don’t expect Liverpool to keep that up over the course of a full season, but if they can play that way more often…

Okay, now the concerns:
• I thought Xabi Alonso was player of the season for a reason last year. A few, actually. And now Liverpool has to replace him. Lucas is a better player than he gets credit for and I’m nervously optimistic about Aquilani, but stepping in for Alonso is a big ask. He made the center circle his own and dictated Liverpool’s play from there.

No one else in the squad can do that (although Mascherano had a couple of nice efforts during preseason), and Liverpool’s second-best long passer, Fabio Aurelio, is out for at least a month. The long-range pass, whether pumped out of defense (Torres’ goals against Blackburn – the goal of the season – and United came from long balls from Carra and Skrtel respectively) or a cross-field ball to open up the attack, has served Liverpool well in the past. I’m interested to see how often that’ll be the case with Alonso’s departure.

• Squad depth is still an issue. The knocks to Carragher, Agger and Skrtel in preseason highlight a lingering issue, and one Rafa will hopefully remedy before the window closes. I think Martin Kelly’s an excellent prospect from what I’ve seen, able to fill in at right back and center back, but he’s 19. Liverpool might end up missing Hyypia more than Alonso. Ngog and Voronin are the reserve strikers (behind Torres, Kuyt, and probably Babel). The amount of time Spearing received in preseason shows that Benitez thinks he might be needed. Liverpool will have to stay relatively injury-free (I cannot knock on wood hard enough) if #19 is in the offing.

• Despite coming in second in a season where I thought Liverpool could and should have won the title, a lot of things went Liverpool’s way. Most significantly, the team probably won’t take six points off both United and Chelsea, and those points will have to come from somewhere else. May I suggest not drawing seven games at Anfield?

Other odds and ends:
• So, who’s on the left? I really thought Liverpool would buy an attacker to compete on that flank. There’s still time, but Babel remaining on Merseyside combined with how much time Benayoun saw there during preseason makes me skeptical. But I really believe Benayoun’s a better option on the right and in the Gerrard role in the 4-2-3-1. And, for all his ability, he’s probably the back-up in both positions, able to come off the bench if Liverpool needs his guile. I could be convinced that there are games where Liverpool is best served by Benayoun starting on the left, games where that guile and eye for a throughball in traffic is needed. But more often than not, Liverpool could do with a player that actually stays wide more often than not, and Benayoun drifts inside every time he’s ostensibly deployed on the left.

• What about Babel? As said above, the amount he played in friendlies and the absence of his name from transfer gossip implies he’s still in Benitez’s plans. If he improves, which didn’t happen last season, he could be the player needed on the left and could fill in as a back-up striker. There’s a reason Benitez shelled out £11.5m for him. But we need to start seeing that potential realized. Along with Lucas, Babel will be the player most needed to make the leap if Liverpool is going to succeed.

• Yes, I will continue to harp on the formation until we see enough to get answers. I was skeptical of Keane because I thought he’d disrupt the 4-2-3-1 and the Gerrard/Torres partnership. And the loss of Alonso as a deep-lying playmaker, ostensibly replaced by the more attacking Lucas and Aquilani, means that Gerrard might have to drop deeper, and even fill in as a typical central midfielder if injuries or ”rotation” require it. This makes me uneasy.

I think this style of play could work. I really want to see it in action. But one player who will be essential is a disciplined Mascherano. He’s used to the freedom to do what he does best: run all over the field in search of the ball when Liverpool’s not in possession. Masch sees ball, Masch chases ball, Masch gets ball. It’s why we adore him; there’s no tackle he won’t try to make, and he usually comes out on top. That worked well with Alonso sitting around the center circle, because there was always another “holding” midfielder to prevent Liverpool from being exposed. If Lucas/Aquilani are playing higher up the pitch, there could be gaps in the middle if Mascherano goes chasing. And that solid central midfield was what usually led to Liverpool’s dominance of possession.

As always, the title will not be won in the fall. But how Liverpool starts the season, and how players such as Lucas, Insua, Benayoun, and Babel adapt to their roles, will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this campaign.

Spurs on Sunday.

11 August 2009


I’m not going to run a fantasy league this year. I always forget about it sometime between October and February. It took me until July to remember to send out the prize for last year.

But, Never Captain Nicky Butt, one of the best sites on the fantasy aspect of the sport, is running an enormous league. Literally, 1000s of people from what I can tell. I’ve joined, and we’ll see how long I keep updating my team. And I thought I should announce it here in case any regular readers are looking for a (or another) fantasy fix.

Like usual, it’s at fantasy.premierleague.com. Set up your team, and click the “join a league” link. The code for the NCNB league is 2274-957.

Preview of Liverpool’s season up tomorrow morning.

Might as well throw a screenshot of my team up. I wouldn't recommend cribbing it given my past luck, and hopefully it'll start some discussion.

10 August 2009

Third annual ‘Chances are, the final table won’t look anything like this’

1 – Liverpool
2 – Chelsea
3 – Manchester United
4 – Manchester City
5 – Arsenal
6 – Aston Villa
7 – Everton
8 – Tottenham
9 – Fulham
10 – Sunderland
11 – West Ham
12 – Wigan
13 – Birmingham
14 – Blackburn
15 – Bolton
16 – Hull
17 – Portsmouth
18 – Wolverhampton
19 – Stoke
20 – Burnley

I’ll take the blame if I jinx it. Predictions tend to make asses of any and all sportswriters, but I still feel duty-bound to tell you my best guess. FYI: I’ve never picked Liverpool to win it all in print.

I’ll expound a lot more with a preview of Liverpool's season in the next couple of days. Yes, it’ll be tough to take 6 points off both United and Chelsea again. Yes, it’ll be tough to win as many games in the final few minutes, which saved Liverpool something like 12 points last season. But I truly think they can do it.

I’d be a lot more emphatic about this prediction had Alonso not been sold. Whether or not Lucas, and subsequently Aquilani, can fill the void is Liverpool’s major concern. And, honestly, although I fear the early bedding-in process, both have the potential to be excellent players.

I trust Benitez to replace Alonso far more than I trust Ferguson to replace Ronaldo and Tevez. I think Liverpool and Chelsea are narrowly better than United on paper, but as of this writing (really, the transfer window should be from the last day of the season until the first of the next), I don’t think Valencia and Owen can replace what the Mancs have lost. I don't know if Nani can make the leap either, although he looked dangerous in the Community Shield until going off with a dislocated shoulder. United are arguably deeper than their competitors, but for the first time in a long time, I don't think they're as strong in the first XI when everyone's fit.

Chelsea’s the only one of the big four who have “improved,” and that improvement is solely adding Ancelotti and Zhirkov. I think Zhirkov’s a tidy player who’ll give both Malouda and Ashley Cole a run for their starting berth, but it remains to be seen whether Ancelotti’s style will work in England. For all of Ancelotti’s success in Europe, which is clearly Abramovich’s focus, he only won the league once with Milan in eight attempts. That question mark is the only reason I haven’t picked the Blues to win the title. If Hiddink were still in charge, I probably would.

With these three teams so tightly packed, it’ll probably come down to which side can stay the fittest and who can stay in form during the winter doldrums (where Liverpool stuttered last season and saw United overhaul the points deficit).

And I think, not far behind, will be three or four teams competing for the fourth CL spot: Nouveau riche City, Arsenal, and Villa definitely (although Villa will miss Laursen and Barry), and both Everton and Tottenham with an outside shot at it. City will be far better this year after all that spending, but I’m obviously not sure how that attacking-heavy squad will work. They’ll assuredly finish higher than 10th, but how much higher depends on whether Mark Hughes can manage all those personalities.

Arsenal lost Adebayor and Toure, but bought Vermaelen (center back) and have a healthy Eduardo, which seems almost a wash to me. They probably could have done with a couple more purchases, but such is the state of the economy (must be nice to be Real Madrid and City, the only two exceptions).

I’m guessing a six-way struggle for relegation, with Brum and Blackburn also having the potential to get sucked in. But I reckon the Brummies are the promoted side most likely to stay up – although that may just be because they're often a Benitez bogey side. After last season’s draws, I’d enjoy seeing both Hull and Stoke relegated, but now that Altidore’s joined Hull, I’m marginally conflicted. Burnley delighted me during the playoffs, but I don’t know if they can compete week-in and week-out and keep it up for a full season.

Five days until kickoff.

08 August 2009

Liverpool 1-2 Atletico Madrid

Johnson Carragher Ayala Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

San Jose for Carra 16’
Babel for Kuyt 61’
Kelly for Johnson 74’
Spearing for Mascherano 79’
Voronin for Benayoun 79’
Ngog for Torres 82’

Aguero 15’
Forlan 33’
Lucas 81’

Good riddance to these friendlies.

I had to frequently stop and remind myself that it’s still preseason while watching. It was basically the first XI and will probably be the team that starts against Spurs outside of Ayala. It was full-blooded and end-to-end at times, especially in the first half. There weren’t a raft of second-half changes, unlike in previous friendlies, even for Atletico, who are two weeks behind Liverpool in preseason preparation.

News flash: Liverpool’s isn’t as good when they’re missing the top three center backs, and Atletico has the class to exploit it in Forlan and Aguero,

Carra limping off in the 13th was the key. As always with preseason injuries, I’m nervous even after Rafa’s pronouncement that he’ll be fine for Spurs. And while Carragher was receiving treatment, Lopez (Kuyt’s man) got down Liverpool’s right and delivered a cross for Aguero (who had peeled away from Ayala) to head in.

San Jose replaced Carragher immediately after, and Liverpool had something like four chances to score in the next 15 minutes, including what appeared to be a stone penalty on Torres in the 21st. No such luck, and Atleti punished in the 33rd when the defense was caught at sea, Simao’s backheel found Forlan in space, and the striker hammered a superlative shot from outside the box. A minute later, Torres blasted a thumper off the inside of the near post. Liverpool had the superiority in possession and chances, but were punished by two excellent strikes by two excellent strikers. It happens. Best to get it out of the system now.

Liverpool were better in the second half, fitter than the opposition at this stage of the season, and it showed in the amount of possession. But the team still found it tough to make the break through, with the final touch often astray and Asenjo resilient in goal.

Still, a draw would have been a fair result after Lucas pulled one back in the 81st, beating the offside trap to reach Gerrard’s throughball and slot under the keeper, and Dowd ignored another clear penalty, when Lucas was barged over after getting into the box in the 85th.

So, despite the scoreline, and despite goals again being hard to come by, I’m fine with today’s performance. Days like today can happen when two inexperienced defenders are up against strikers like those, and that Atletico saw fewer scoring chances as the game went on is encouraging. In addition, I thought Kelly again played well at right back, and deserves to be the second-string back-up behind Johnson.

The announcer repeatedly mentioned that Rafa wrote Lucas has been the best player in preseason in the match program, and the Brazilian kept it up today. The more time he spends in the first team, the more comfortable he’s going to be when making those pass-and-move forays forward, with Gerrard sometimes coming deeper to start the attack, and the formation will look more and more like a 4-1-4-1 in attack. And I’m still under the impression Aquilani will play similarly.

As today proved, that style of play can lead to more congestion in the middle unless the fullbacks provide width in attack, and as the team gets acclimated, we’re likely to see games like today’s, where the end product is lacking. There’s an additional excuse for today, as it’s preseason, but I’m still nervous about the goal return for the first few weeks.

Hopefully, having both Gerrard and Torres fit for more than 12 league games this year will make up for it. Spurs in eight days.

06 August 2009

For the love of God, don’t call him Aquaman

The main reason I hate writing during the transfer window is it prompts even more uninformed opinion than usual. I try to have at least some observation and statistics to back up my other “analysis.”

Consequently, I’m hesitant to write too much about Alberto Aquilani or define the player before he plays for Liverpool. I simply haven’t seen enough of him, let alone the unknown that surrounds every foreign player coming to the Premiership.

However, and unsurprisingly, I’ve got a few thoughts and concerns.

The first option, with a minimum of fuss. This deal was announced one day after Alonso’s sale. One day. I don’t think Rick Parry completed a single task in a day. Granted, this was obviously in the works given Alonso’s protracted saga (which, the more I read, the more I’m convinced took so long because Benitez was fully content to wait until Madrid succumbed to the asking price), but there was no hesitation once the Spaniard was sold. Rafa picks a player, Rafa gets the player. That buys Aquilani a lot of leeway with me.

Aquilani plays further forward than Alonso. I touched upon this in earlier speculation, and all that I’ve read, the YouTube video’s I’ve subjected myself to, Benitez’s recent comments, and that different looking 4-1-4-1 in the last friendly make me suspect it even more. Aquilani seems likely to force some sort of change in tactics. I assume he will play deeper for Liverpool than he did for Rome, in an attempt to give him that much more time on the ball before he’s closed down, but some change is likely. And this isn’t a season where Liverpool will have much time or patience for experimentation.

Yes, I’ve seen his appearance record too. League appearances with Roma (since ’04-05): 29, 24, 13, 21, 14. Some of that is down to having Totti, De Rossi, and Pizzaro in front of him, but he has a reputation for being frequently injured. As he’s recovering from ankle surgery now, we’re not likely to see him play until September at best. We’ll see how his medical goes, but Benitez hasn’t been afraid to take a gamble on players with a “history” of injuries – Aurelio and Degen pop immediately to mind. However, and it’s a rather big however, both of those were free transfers. This deal falls somewhere between £15-20m. A slight discrepancy. How much you worry probably depends on how much you trust Rafa, but despite my sycophancy, I’m still wary.

It’s a small sample, but… Liverpool hasn’t had the best history with Italians, although that includes all of two players over 107 years. Reserve goalkeeper Daniele Padelli’s stint in ’06-07 was ignominious at best – a lone start in the last game against an already-relegated Charlton saw the stopper concede twice in a 2-2 draw. Dossena seemed all but on his way out before Aurelio’s injury, and even afterward, rumors of a deal with Napoli appeared around the same time as Arbeloa’s sale. But now I really don’t expect him to be sold. I’ve no idea if the two are friendly off the pitch (having both played for the national team), but as an American who’s lived abroad, I can attest that it’s nice to have a countryman around sometimes.

So, welcome to Liverpool, Alberto. Make us dream.

05 August 2009

Liverpool 2-0 Lyn Oslo

Johnson Kelly San Jose Dossena
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Babel
Ngog Voronin

Mascherano for Spearing 46’
Degen for Johnson 46’
Riera for Babel 46’
Plessis for Lucas 46’
Benayoun for Kuyt 46’
Gerrard for Voronin 62’
Torres for Ngog 62’
Insua for Dossena 62’
Ayala for San Jose 62’
Gulasci for Cavalieri 79’
Carragher for Riera 86’

Voronin 44’
Ngog 59’

I know everyone’s more interested in the Aquilani news. And, believe me, I’ll get to that later tonight or tomorrow morning, when I get my thoughts collected. But friendly fire first.

There really should have been more than a goal in the first half, with chances galore – most for Liverpool (and many of those from distance), but a notable blast off the post from Lyn Oslo on the break in the 37th and a couple of strong saves from Cavalieri. Voronin was the worst offender, over-intricate as usual, which, naturally, meant he scored the opener. It’s best he get those misses out of his system now anyway. After numerous opportunities, Babel gave him one he couldn’t miss – after a run from the right, the Dutchman delivered a cross that Voronin met with a diving header from a yard out. Finally.

Other than the annoying 'it's preseason, let's see if this backheel in traffic comes off' attack, the only thing worth mentioning was the Kuyt-Johnson pairing. We just saw glimpses of what’s possible, but that flank is going to be magic this season. M-a-g-i-c. I firmly believe that, and I don’t usually make such bold predictions (because it usually jinxes them).

The second half saw more of the same, with the pace unsurprisingly slower. Thankfully, we were treated to the solitary goal a little sooner, when Ngog tallied after a nice run and cutback from Dossena (in possession thanks to a superb long ball from Mascherano), redirecting the Italian’s pass with his knee from six yards.

The changes around the hour mark saw Liverpool alter the formation: an unbalanced 4-1-4-1 with Plessis dropping to centerback (paired with Ayala), Degen moving into right midfield, and both Benayoun and Gerrard floating centrally behind Torres, with Gerrard usually dropping a little deeper to pivot between the lines. A sign of things to come with Aquilani?

Mascherano was dominant in the holding role, tackling everything that moved, while Degen was better in a more advanced position (frequently the furthest player forward). I was impressed with Kelly at right back, who also nearly broke his duck, just wide from the top of the box after staying forward following an attacking foray in the 75th.

Some of the gloss was taken off in the 84th thanks to Oslo’s greasy pitch. Riera lost his footing trying to put a cross in, and had to be taken off on a stretcher. Benitez seemed optimistic that he just twisted it. Please don’t let it be ligaments.

So, goals from the back-up strikers. A decent run-out for the first-teamers (with a couple of honestly “good” performances). A desire to impress from the youngsters and reserves, with Kelly deservedly named the official site’s man-of-the-match. No injury concerns other than Riera, and players actually looked fitter than in previous friendlies. As always in preseason, that’ll do.

The last of these “matches” is Saturday against Atletico Madrid, on FSC at 10am eastern.

04 August 2009


Well, subject to a medical of course (of course!), Alonso’s finally been sold to Real Madrid. In other earth-shattering news, the sky’s still blue.

The sum of the text on the official website, in sum, is thus:
Liverpool Football Club this evening confirmed they had reached agreement for the sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, subject only to a medical.

The terms of the deal will remain confidential and undisclosed.
Verbose, as usual.

And, continuing with the laconic theme, I’m of little mind to eulogize Alonso’s stint, as I often do when players are sold. I’ve written more than enough proclaiming the Spaniard’s talents and contributions to the team over the past few months. Plus, and no offense meant, but Alonso’s been a more-integral part of the team than say, Arbeloa, Luis Garcia, or Warnock. No player’s bigger than the club, and Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano, and Reina are more important to the current team, but I’m still going to have to come to terms with this sale. Yes, even though it’s been in the works for weeks, I’m still not a happy camper.

So, for at least now, I’ll just say, ‘Thanks for the last five years, Xabi, enjoy your time with the other mercenaries you’re now teammates with. I hope the tax cut is worth it.’

You can read one of two things into Liverpool’s above statement. Either the fee was less than Liverpool’s supposed hard-line, or Benitez doesn’t want to tie his hands in regards to future business by showing his budget. Either way, I don’t think the fee amounts to Xabi’s true worth, especially when it’s Madrid who set the crazy market in the first place, but that’s more as a result of Alonso’s talent rather than whatever total Liverpool recouped.

And either way, the summer’s long, drawn-out saga reaches the end of phase one. Yep, only phase one. We still have, at most, a month left of speculation over replacements. Awesome. And yep, "replacements." I used the plural for a reason. I don't know if one purchase will be enough to fill the void.

I imagine most have seen the Aquilani gossip since Monday. Marca (sigh) says a £15.3m deal was negotiated (sorry for the Goal.com link), contingent upon the sale of Alonso. I don’t catch a ton of Serie A, but I thought him a player similar to Paul Scholes, who plays further up the field. Maybe Benitez sees him if a different position in England, or maybe he sees a more mobile formation, similar to Barca last season: Mascherano holding deep, Gerrard and Aquilani in the Iniesta/Xavi positions, and two of Kuyt/Babel/Benayoun playing closer to Torres.

But the Football Manager-esque speculation can wait for another day. Players will be bought, but Xabi Alonso’s going to be very hard to replace. And there are only 12 days until the league starts.

When do Liverpool concede? (And a bonus graph)

So, following this infographic, McrRed suggested comparing the totals to the goals Liverpool let in. Ask and you shall receive, and so on.

Already Ahead: 7
Go-Ahead Goals: 24
Equalizers: 9
Still Behind: 6

Similar proportions to Liverpool's tally, but in far fewer number, for the most part. Unsurprisingly, the one obvious difference is the amount of goals after the 75th minute. Liverpool's opponents scored 11 from 76-90', the joint-top time period (along with 31-45'), but it wasn't out of step with the other 15-minute segments. Liverpool scored almost double the amount of goals in that block of time (35) than during any other spell.

The "already ahead" goals are another dissimilarity; again, unsurprising – Liverpool losses were a rare occurrence. Liverpool scored 40 times when they were already in front. Opponents only went two up or more on Liverpool seven times, and Liverpool still only lost in three of those five games (with a win against City and a draw at Hull).

It's also interesting that Liverpool both scored and conceded the fewest at the beginnings of the halves. It's only a shot in the dark, but I'm guessing these numbers, and most of the stats in the "against" category, are consistent with the league-wide average. Liverpool just concede fewer than most (only United and Chelsea let in less last season).

Because this isn't really a new infographic, I reckon I'll also add one of the few one-dimensional graphics I've made. It only shows one thing – how long it took the best Liverpool goalscorers to get to 50 – but it's still different to see it visually. Plus, it's another opportunity to laud Torres. I love those opportunities.

In case you're wondering, it took Gerrard 297 games to score 50 goals. It only took him 151 more to score the next 50 – and that's a telling statistics as to what he's added under Benitez.

The club's third and fourth all-time scorers aren't on this list. Billy Liddell just missed the cut with 174 games. And I didn't consider Gordon Hodgson because he played in the 20s and 30s; Hodgson's tied with Fowler on 94.

Finally, Carragher's on pace to reach his 50th goal in 5193 more games.

Liverpool's friendly against Lyn Oslo is on FSC tomorrow at 1pm eastern. I'll have to catch it on DVR, but I should have some sort of write-up in the evening.

02 August 2009

Liverpool 0-3 Espanyol

Johnson Carragher San Jose Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Babel for Benayoun 46’
Dossena for Insua 46’
Degen for Johnson 46’
Spearing for Mascherano 46’
Plessis for Lucas 70’
Riera for Kuyt 70’
Ngog for Torres 70’
Voronin for Gerrard 70’
Kelly for Carragher 83’
Alonso for Spearing 83’

Luis Garcia 19’
Sahar 64’ 87’

Meh. ‘It’s only preseason. It’s only preseason.’

And to be fair, it was a fairly typical preseason game, even though the scoreline actually could have been worse. There were some decent moments despite Liverpool rarely leaving first gear, but there was a lot that could worry. And the fact that it was a fairly strong line-up, with only San Jose an unfamiliar first-team face, makes me contemplate worrying. But, it’s preseason. Just keep repeating that.

Espanyol were up for it as well, christening their new stadium. It didn’t look like a preseason friendly from their end, stifling Liverpool’s attack and keeping possession quite nicely. And they’ve just begun their preseason campaign.

A 2nd minute low drive smothered by Reina set the tone, but had either of Gerrard’s thunderbolts off the goal frame gone in, we might have had a different result. But he caromed a trademark blast from distance off the crossbar in the 19th, and ricocheted a free kick off the far post in the 27th. And in between, Luis Garcia scored seconds after Gerrard’s first chance, turning on a Nakamura throughball perfectly, beating the centerbacks and then Reina.

From there, I’m struggling to come up with any Liverpool attacks worth describing. Before the half closed, Espanyol should have stretched the lead in the 41st when Tamudo had a goal dubiously chalked off when the linesman flagged for offside.

The second 45 saw a lot of changes, which served to stifle an already niggly game mainly played in midfield. Liverpool’s best chance of the half came when Degen got the ball in the box, only to see Pareja make a nice block in the 60th. And four minutes later, the right back was responsible for blowing the offside trap, allowing Ben Sahar in behind to slot through Reina’s legs.

There were only three other incidents of note: Sahar’s second goal in the 87th, after a careless giveaway in midfield, San Jose getting turned, and three defenders unable to clear, with the ball falling to the former Chelsea man for an easy tap in; Sahar's chance for a hat-trick denied by a San Jose clearance off the line (after Degen again blew the offside trap) two minutes later; and Alonso actually entering the game – for Spearing, who had come on at halftime – for a seven-minute cameo.

Obviously, given my ambivalence to the final scoreline, I’m most concerned with Alonso’s participation of those three incidents. If anything, it’s just going to stoke the rumors that he’s on his way out. While the majority of the first team played the first half, he came out as the last sub for an inconsequential run-out. Which makes little sense to me. Super.

As performances go, Gerrard had some dangerous moments in the first half, Carragher had some usual imperious clearances in defense, and Benayoun and Insua linked well at times. I can’t go without mentioning Lucas after yesterday’s post, and he seemed fairly par for the course as well: he looked to make short, incisive passes and move forward, was often in the “right” position, cleaned up adequately, but also made a couple of silly and reckless tackles. San Jose had a difficult night, but that’s a good learning experience given how tough an opponent Espanyol turned out to be. And while I’d rather not focus on it, let’s just say that Degen didn’t do anything to improve my opinion of him.

I’m not going to lose any sleep over the result, and I doubt the team will either. And having to play an opposition actually up for it at this stage, and losing by three goals in the process, will hopefully be a good thing. Not only was it a good workout (and with no injuries!), but maybe, even though it’s only August 2, it’ll give the players a bit of motivation going into the real campaign.

01 August 2009

To Lucas or Not To Lucas

Okay, so I don't want to single out Marlon (second time that I've posted because of one of your comments!), but I think this sentiment deserves to be here rather than subsumed beneath 15 previous comments.
At this point I'd rather see Lucas come good then seeing a new signing flourish in our midfield.
I'm doing my utmost to not assume Alonso's definitely departing, but it's difficult. And the discussion over his possible replacement is a valid one, as much as I don't really desire to tackle the issue.

But I agree with the above comment, and for two reasons – but I'm still a little nervous about him as an everyday player, as I am about pretty much every player until they establish themselves.

One, I've been underwhelmed by the names mooted as replacements. Some are good players – even potentially Liverpool-quality – but most would necessitate a change in system (which I don't want to happen, as it'd probably break up the Gerrard/Torres partnership). And none brings to the table what Alonso can.

Two, Lucas knows Benitez's system having been a Liverpool player for two full seasons, and has turned in some good performances against big teams (United, Inter, Chelsea). And while he's had his scapegoat moments (Wigan and Everton during the dire winter stretch last season), he's also consistently improved during his tenure. And he's only 22 years old.

But, I'm admittedly still a bit wary of the Masch/Lucas pairing against the likes of Stoke and Birmingham (among others). And I find that tough to reconcile with my firm belief in the 4-2-3-1 and the Gerrard/Torres pairing.

Hopefully, this will all be moot, but while hope springs eternal, the spring often runs dry.