28 November 2010

Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Torres

Skrtel 42'
Skrtel (og) 65'
Lennon 90+2'

Missed chances and the worst left back I've ever seen in a Liverpool kit (and I saw a lot of Djimi Traore) destroy any chance of taking something from Liverpool's best away performance this campaign. Yet another 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane, and just like in '08-09, it's after a 1-0 lead at halftime. Wonderful.

Liverpool deservedly had the advantage after 45 minutes. Maxi had a shot saved and another narrowly wide within the first 20, linking up exceptionally well with Torres. Meireles blistered Gomes' palms with a shot from distance in the 40th. Spurs were limited to few opportunities as Meireles and Lucas bossed the midfield, although Carragher had to brilliantly clear the one threatening chance off the line as Reina flapped at Modric's cross when the Croatian left Konchesky for dead. And in the 42nd, Liverpool got its just rewards when Skrtel poked in a shot following a scramble from Meireles' free kick.

But Liverpool clearly regret not extending their lead before the interval, twice through on goal in stoppage time. First, Maxi mis-controlled after Torres' lovely pass into the box, allowing Gomes to smother. Then, Torres was put through on the break, only to linger and see Bassong somehow get back. Immediately after the break, Bassong – who had come on for the injured Kaboul in the first half – replicated his heroics, again getting back to stop Torres after Lucas' excellent throughball.

But from there, Spurs upped the pressure. Unsurprisingly muted after their midweek exertions, the home side constantly threatened. For once, Liverpool under siege was down to clear improvement from the opposition instead of a steadily-retreating defense hoping to hold a narrow lead. Meireles provided Liverpool's second clearance off the line in the 52nd after Reina again flapped at a cross.

The home side should have leveled on the hour mark, given a soft penalty when Ngog raised his arms on a soft free kick, even though offense appeared outside the area on replay. Thankfully, arguably justly, Defoe missed his spot kick, hitting the outside of the post. But Spurs would equalize less than five minutes later after Modric embarrassed Carragher and Johnson, easily splitting the two, before Skrtel unfortunately turned in his cross.

Atkinson could have equaled the soft spot kick count five minutes after that when Assou-Ekotto took Kuyt out in the box, but the referee – who seemingly favored Spurs at every opportunity – waved play on as Tottenham continue to press. Defoe scuffed a shot wide, Reina saved Bale's volley after again missing a cross (although fouled, unsurprisingly uncalled), and Defoe was rightfully ruled offside after heading in following a well-worked move. Meireles' fierce left-footed shot from distance in the 84th, inches wide, was Liverpool's lone riposte, increasingly pushed back after Ngog went off with a calf injury in the 74th.

And the stomach punch came in the second minute of injury time. The backline was already unsettled by Carragher's dislocated shoulder in the 87th, replaced by Kyrgiakos. When the Greek was beaten in the air by Crouch, the flick-on caught Konchesky flat-footed for the 45th time this match, allowing Lennon to nip in for the winner. Unacceptable. Embarrassing. How Konchesky continues to draw a paycheck, let alone start, is beyond me. Liverpool would have been better served setting £5m on fire. Instead, they bought him, while shipping out Insua and two youth prospects. And that's why Liverpool's going home with no rewards for a mostly excellent display from the other 10 players.

I'd feel a lot better if we'd seen this performance a month ago. Losses are far easier to stomach when the side shows ambition. But we're getting to the point where wins are essential; the season's almost half over. Liverpool merited at least a draw, and that point would have eased the pain of conceding an unfortunate equalizer.

Meireles and Lucas were impressive throughout; they're becoming an excellent pairing. Despite the missed chances, Maxi and Torres combined promisingly. Johnson kept Bale quiet for long stretches, while Liverpool's center-backs played well despite mistakes on Spurs' opener. But one player can ruin the entire day, and however unfair it is to pick out scapegoats, Konchesky did that today.

Tactically, Liverpool were excellent, despite the inevitable Spurs pressure and the result. The team looked to play at a high tempo, press the opposition, and get forward. Liverpool created chances, fullbacks entered the opposition half, and central midfielders made runs to the edge of the box. The only blame Hodgson takes today is for buying and playing Konchesky. Sadly, that was enough.

With the loss, Liverpool remain 10th. Seven points behind 4th and seven points from last place. Despite today's improvement, this is still a mid-table side. But, hopefully, if Liverpool can replicate this form, results will follow. It's just hard to think that way after losing in such a manner.

26 November 2010

Liverpool at Tottenham 11.28.10

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:

2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.20.10
1-2 Spurs (a) 08.16.09
3-1 Liverpool (h) 05.24.09
2-4 Spurs (a; Carling Cup) 12.11.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 West Ham (h); 0-2 Stoke (a); 1-1 Wigan (a)
Spurs: 3-0 Werder Bremen (h); 3-2 Arsenal (a); 4-2 Blackburn (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Kuyt, Kyrgiakos, Maxi 2; Johnson, Ngog 1
Spurs: van der Vaart 6; Bale 5; Pavlyuchenko 4; Hutton 2; Crouch, Huddlestone, Kaboul, Modric 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky

Maxi Meireles Lucas Cole
Kuyt Torres

Will Liverpool play anything like they did against West Ham when facing tough opposition away from Anfield? Will Hodgson keep the faith with the same line-up – albeit with Lucas returning from suspension – or will Joe Cole walk straight back into the line-up?

If Cole starts, I expect it'll be in place of Ngog, with Kuyt moving up front and Maxi switching flanks. But, especially since this is an away match, Cole could also play behind the striker with Kuyt and Maxi staying in the positions they played against West Ham. If Cole's only fit enough for the bench, Liverpool should keep faith with the young Frenchman, who combined well with Torres last Saturday.

The other change should come in central midfield. Ideally, Poulsen will make way for Lucas, but I'm obviously frightened that Hodgson will use the Dane's previous performance – where he couldn't have had more time on the ball – to either keep Lucas out or shift Meireles back to the flank. Which would be a mistake given how much Tottenham like to press and the side's pace in attack. I can't shake the feeling that Modric would relish facing Poulsen.

Tottenham's major threat, especially in the rumored absence of van der Vaart, is obviously Gareth Bale. It'll be a stern defensive test for Johnson after last week's complete focus on attack. The Welshman's blistering pace is an argument for starting Kuyt on the flank because of the Dutchman's willingness to track back and all-action style. It's also an argument for starting Lucas in midfield: he's much more capable of doubling up on dangerous wingers, as Malouda found out when Liverpool faced Chelsea.

Glen Johnson's never been the securest defender, which is why he's come in for criticism of late, especially when sat back in Hodgson's deep line of four. Johnson's quick enough to keep pace with Bale, but his awareness of the winger's runs will be paramount to being in good defensive positions. That frequent lack of awareness is why I'm tempted to suggest a start for Martin Kelly, who – like Lucas – did well against Chelsea, preventing attacks from Malouda and Ashley Cole down Liverpool's right. Conversely, I'm also afraid that Hodgson will go for 'safety first' by picking Carragher at right back with Skrtel and Kyrgiakos in the middle, which would be a recipe for disaster. Hodgson's post-West Ham comments about 'attacking' fullbacks – "What was most pleasing today was that we've done a lot of work on trying to get our full-backs forward and trying to get our midfielders to create space for them." – hopefully suggest that Liverpool won't regress to a deep, defensive flat back four.

Spurs have fitness questions about both van der Vaart and Jenas. Jenas has done well paired with Modric – proving that teams can succeed with two "attacking" central midfielders – and has been even more important since Huddlestone's injury. But van der Vaart's been a revelation for Tottenham, having scored seven in seven games at White Hart Lane. Even if van der Vaart's available, Tottenham's formation could be 4-4-2, with the Dutchman ostensibly on the right and two from Crouch, Pavlyuchenko, and the recently-fit Defoe up front (as against Arsenal), or 4-4-1-1, with van der Vaart floating behind one of the strikers. If the Dutchman can't go, Lennon will start on the right, as he did against Bremen on Wednesday. I'm sure Konchesky's looking forward to that.

While Spurs can score, having tallied 10 goals in their last three games, they also concede, especially after mid-week European games. They've kept three clean sheets in all competitions – against Manchester City (in the first game of the season), Young Boys, and Bremen – which is fewer than Liverpool have in just the league. Not counting Wednesday's victory, Tottenham have won three Champions League matches. They've lost two of the three successive league games – to Bolton and Wigan – after those European victories.

Spurs' defensive struggles and record after mid-week games suggests that Liverpool should try to match them in attacking ambition. If the away side sit back, Tottenham have a tendency to run riot. Sadly, Liverpool have a tendency to sit back away from Anfield; Hodgson's utterly inability to win away matches, combined with a demonstrable lack of appetite for attacking, is well-documented. And, to be fair, Liverpool also have a poor record at White Hart Lane under the previous manager, losing in their last three trips.

Countless words have been written about Liverpool finding form and turning some metaphorical corner. But if Liverpool don't become more aggressive away from Anfield, that corner will stay unturned and Liverpool will remain a mid-table side at best. Sunday presents an opportunity to make headway against a strong club which Liverpool should be competing with in the table; Spurs, in sixth, only have three more points than the Reds. Hopefully, Liverpool will play as if they can beat the opposition instead trying not to be beaten.

20 November 2010

Liverpool 3-0 West Ham

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Poulsen Maxi
Ngog Torres

Johnson 18'
Kuyt 27' (pen)
Maxi 38'

An attacking 4-2-2-2 system allowed to dominate every phase of the game. A hapless opposition content to sit back and be annihilated. If Liverpool weren't on cruise control for the entire second half, it could have been a cricket score. West Ham really were that bad. But a win's a win, especially this season, and any cause for optimism is warmly welcomed.

It was only a matter of time before Liverpool opened the scoring. The home side created three chances in as many minutes as Johnson bombed forward, Maxi perpetually found space in dangerous positions, and Ngog held up play well. Meanwhile, West Ham set up in a poor copy of Liverpool's usual away tactics: more than content giving opposition defenders and midfielders time on the ball. They quickly paid the price for it, with Liverpool finally cohesive in attack and with fullbacks eager to get forward.

Hodgson's criticism of Glen Johnson's been thoroughly discussed and overblown, which made the fullback's opener – albeit from a corner – even more gratifying. Johnson was Liverpool's most ambitious player from the start, constantly looking to get to the byline, and deserved his 18th-minute strike, chesting down Meireles' corner and slotting past Green.

Liverpool continued to take the game to West Ham, given the green light by a midfield desperately missing Scott Parker, and Kuyt made it two in the 27th after Gabbidon handled Torres' flick. Maxi added a third in the 38th, left alone in West Ham's box to easily head in Konchesky's cross, four minutes Gabbidon cleared his volley off the line.

From there, it looked as if the scoreline could have been whatever Liverpool wanted. But West Ham were marginally better in the second half, bringing on the winger Barrera for the ineffective Obinna, shifting to more of a 4-4-2, while Liverpool were happy to maintain the three-goal lead. But the Reds could have added more if Probert gave a deserved second penalty for another Gabbidon handball when trying to defend Torres, or if Green didn't come up with two magnificent saves on Torres and Poulsen's efforts in the 73rd.

Finally, Hodgson made substitutions in the final 15 minutes – first, Aurelio for Ngog followed by Shelvey for Meireles and Babel for Torres with less than 10 to play. It would have been nice to see all three sooner with the match dead and buried, but it's a small complaint after such a comprehensive win.

I'm well aware of the maxim that you can only beat what's in front of you, and Liverpool clearly did that today. But West Ham couldn't have made it much easier. On this form, the Hammers are assuredly going down. It was nice to see an ambitious, attacking side – something we certainly haven't seen enough this season – but West Ham's tactics played right into Liverpool's hands and heads dropped immediately after conceding the opener.

As much as I'd love for this to mark a turning point, I'm afraid it doesn't. Yes, Liverpool were excellent from top to bottom: Meireles impressed in his natural position, Torres is hitting full fitness, Johnson was a constant threat, both Poulsen and Konchesky actually looked like professional footballers (Konchesky even had an assist!), and Liverpool scored goals that weren't created or tallied by Gerrard or Torres. If nothing else, it's a huge boost in confidence for an inconsistent side, especially one that's missing its captain for the next month.

But Liverpool, even this Liverpool, are expected to win matches like these. Traveling to Spurs next weekend – a side that came back from two down at the Emirates today – will be a true test.

19 November 2010

Liverpool v West Ham 11.20.10

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:

3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.19.10
3-2 Liverpool (a) 09.19.09

3-0 Liverpool (a) 05.09.09
0-0 (h) 12.01.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Stoke (a); 1-1 Wigan (a); 2-0 Chelsea (h)

West Ham: 0-0 Blackpool (h); 2-2 West Brom (h); 2-2 Brum (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Kyrgiakos 2; Kuyt, Maxi, Ngog 1

West Ham: Piquionne 4; Parker 3; Noble 2; Behrami, Cole 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Konchesky

Maxi Meireles Poulsen Jovanovic
Kuyt Torres

Gerrard's injured, Lucas is suspended, and Spearing turned his ankle in training today. At least Hodgson won't be able to name six central midfielders in the squad for once. Step forward, Christian Poulsen! Oh, and we should finally get to see Meireles play in his preferred position. Small favors...

On the plus side, Torres, Kuyt, Skrtel, and Johnson have been declared fit. Kuyt and Skrtel withdrew from this week's international duty, Torres made it through 45 minutes against Portugal unscathed, and Johnson trained all week at Melwood. We know how much Hodgson prefers to stick with his favored XI, so both Torres and Kuyt should start if at all possible. But whether the same goes for Johnson and Skrtel is up for debate.

The winter of Johnson's discontent has been played out in the press recently. Hodgson's disappointed with Glen's form, Glen's disappointed with Hodgson's "tactics." A deep backline does not suit an attacking right-back, as Noel wonderfully explained at Liverpool Offside this week, and Johnson's struggled with defensive duties before his most recent injury. Carragher's been preferred at fullback, as has the talented Martin Kelly, because both have been better fits for the manager's "strategy." But Carragher would always rather play in the center, and I believe Hodgson will give Johnson one more chance after their public spat, which today's press conference suggests.

Yes, Johnson could play further forward – his potential to replicate Bale's success as a winger is oft-discussed and Liverpool are struggling for bodies on the flanks – but I'm still skeptical of his potential in midfield. If Johnson does start at right back, one of Kyrgiakos and Skrtel will partner Carragher. Kyrgiakos' aerial ability and threat of set plays offers the team more than Skrtel, even if such a static defense could be undone by the quick Piquionne and Obinna.

Since Meireles seemingly has to start in the middle – the only other option appears to be Shelvey, and like Raul, it seems Hodgson would rather play him on the right – changes will come on the flanks. Cole is still recovering from a hamstring injury. Maxi will man one of the two spots, while Jovanovic or Babel seem likely to take the other. As said above, Shelvey's a possibility on the right, or if Hodgson really wants to rock the boat, he could deploy Kuyt on the right and partner Torres with Ngog. But Liverpool's tigerish manager hasn't often changed his stripes this season.

West Ham deserve to be bottom of the table, if only on goal difference, after a third of the campaign. One of two sides which have scored fewer goals than Liverpool – the other being Wigan – only Piquionne and Parker have consistently performed for the Hammers. They've been specialists in finishing level throughout the season, with a record of six draws, six losses, and one win – which came at home against Tottenham at the end of September. They've barely been mediocre in both attack and defense this season, but have still found ways to take a point – including in their last three matches – and a Parker/Noble midfield could control the pace if Liverpool casually concede possession as in the last two matches.

This is one of the games Liverpool expects to win, even under the current manager – a lifeline during a tough time, yet another false dawn to save Hodgson's job. At Anfield, against a underperforming relegation candidate. But we said similar about last month's meeting with Blackpool. Piquionne's punished Liverpool before, in last season's loss against Pompey, while it'd be true to form if the fumbling Carlton Cole actually played to his potential against a team rumored to be interested in signing him.

As always, Liverpool cannot simply expect to win; they must actually dictate proceedings. They need to pull the strings instead of being the puppet; sitting deep and reacting to opposition tactics is a recipe for disaster no matter who you're facing. And even though Liverpool desperately need points, more important is the style of play and ambition. This is the 14th game of the league season. We need to start seeing progress.

15 November 2010

League Goals Through November 15

Games: 13; 4W-4D-5L (16 points; 1.23 per game)
Goals: 13 (per game = 1)
Goals Against: 17 (per game = 1.31)
Difference for/against per game: -.31

Games: 12; 6W-1D-5L (19 points; 1.58 per game)
Goals: 27 (per game = 2.25)
Goals Against: 17 (per game = 1.42)
Difference for/against per game: .83
• Liverpool finished 7th with 63 points (1.66 ppg)

Games: 13; 10W-2D-1L (32 points; 2.46 per game)
Goals: 21 (per game = 1.62)
Goals Against: 8 (per game = .62)
Difference for/against per game: 1.0
• Liverpool finished 2nd with 86 points (2.26 ppg)

Games: 12; 6W-2D-4L (20 points; 1.67 per game)
Goals: 21 (per game = 1.75)
Goals Against: 13 (per game = 1.08)
Difference for/against per game: .67
• Liverpool finished 5th with 58 points (1.53 ppg)

Games: 12; 5W-2D-5L (17 points; 1.42 per game)
Goals: 18 (per game = 1.5)
Goals Against: 14 (per game = 1.17)
Difference for/against per game: .33
• Liverpool finished 4th with 60 points (1.58 ppg)

Since NESV supposedly loves statistics...

I bothered to tally the numbers for five seasons: this year, Benitez's annus mirabilis and annus horribilis, his first year, and Houllier's last. Those seemed the most relevant, especially the comparison between Hodgson and Benitez's first seasons and to last year's terrible campaign. It doesn't make for pretty reading.

This season's seen the lowest points total, fewest goals scored, most goals conceded, and largest disparity between goals for and against – despite having played one more game than in '09-10, '04-05, and '03-04. Hodgson's reign is the only with more league goals conceded than scored by this point of the season.

If this season's form holds, Liverpool's on pace for 47 points, scoring 38 goals, and conceding 50. Last season, Fulham had 46 points, scored 39 goals, and conceded 46. Fulham finished 12th. Liverpool currently sits in 11th. These last two matches haven't been a "blip." The blip was the three successive victories, including one landmark win away from Anfield.

After 35 years, a manager simply does not change his stripes. Or, evidently, his tactics.

13 November 2010

Liverpool 0-2 Stoke

Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Kuyt Torres

Fuller 56'
Jones 90+1'

Just when you think it can't get more embarrassing.

As against Wigan, Liverpool sat back and allowed Stoke to dictate terms. And as against Wigan, the tactics made Stoke look like bloody Brazil. 2-0 actually flatters Liverpool. All of this is completely deserved, which makes it even harder to take. Is it clear that Chelsea was an aberration, that normal service has been resumed? Is it clear that Hodgson isn't even trying to win away from Anfield? How about that Hodgson needs to go as soon as possible, is that clear?

It's impossible to do justice to the complete and utter awfulness on display today. Indescribable and indefensible excrement. It was a car crash so horrific you actually want to turn away. Stoke could have scored four within 20 minutes: twice from Delap long throws and twice from free kicks. Liverpool retreated as deep as possible, allowed Stoke all the possession they could want, and left Torres completely isolated, complete with deck chair and umbrella-laden drink.

Yes, Liverpool actually improved over the subsequent 25 minutes – there was nowhere to go but up – registering not one but two (two!) shots on target, but soon regressed back to form. And Stoke scored a typical Stoke goal 10 minutes after the interval, finally taking advantage of Delap's long throws. Defenders hilariously tried to clear, missing multiple times, before Etherington's deflected shot fell to Fuller, who twice hit the hapless Konchesky before toe-poking in.

The goal finally brought Liverpool out of its shell, which begs the question why the manager thought it clever to play Stoke's game, waiting until Liverpool went behind before pressing the opposition and actually attacking with more than two men. Kuyt presented Maxi with an opportunity in the 64th, cutting back from the byline only to see the Argentinean's shot saved, while Skrtel prodded a wide following Kyrgiakos' knockdown from a free kick. Hodgson tried to make changes by bringing on Ngog for Meireles and Babel for Maxi, but the complete disconnect remained. Too little, too late.

Already ahead, Stoke's big defenders could protect the edge of their area, continue bludgeoning attackers with Halsey happy to 'let them play,' and Liverpool offered next to nothing. Tactical simplicity, tactical ineptitude. Babel's blast two yards wide after cutting in from the left was the only chance of note in the final 15 minutes.

Stoke piled on more misery in the first minute of injury time. Gerrard's hopeful Hollywood ball was easily intercepted, Konchesky couldn't close down Pennant, and Jones found acres of space between a static Carragher and Skrtel for an easy strike. To add insult to injury, Lucas picked up a second yellow a minute later, ruling him out of next week's match against West Ham. Just what Liverpool needs... more Poulsen.

The team's now taken all of three points off of Birmingham, Sunderland, Blackpool, Everton, Wigan, and Stoke. That's humiliating. Two of those six – one draw, one loss – were at Anfield. Continuing the process started by Hicks and Gillett, Hodgson's succeeded in making Liverpool a laughing stock. That's the only thing he's succeeded in.

Stoke had 64% of the possession today. Sixty. Four. Percent. Making the comparison is as depressing as this result, but even when Liverpool were absolutely dire under the previous manager – as in this fixture last season – they at least attempted to keep the ball. Today, Liverpool let Stoke do whatever they desired. Eleven players stood around and waved Stoke towards their own goal, while the manager stood complacently on the touchline. Watching this was cruel and unusual punishment.

NESV needs to put this regime out of its misery as soon as possible. The same tactics time and time again, and the completely frustrated body language from every single player suggests it's not getting any better.

12 November 2010

Liverpool at Stoke 11.13.10

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:

1-1 (a) 01.16.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 08.19.09

0-0 (a) 01.10.09
0-0 (h) 09.20.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Wigan (a); 2-0 Chelsea (h); 3-1 Napoli (h)
Stoke: 3-2 Birmingham (h); 0-2 Sunderland (a); 0-1 Everton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Kyrgiakos 2; Kuyt, Maxi, Ngog 1

Stoke: Jones 3; Fuller, Huth 2; Delap, Faye, Tuncay, Walters, Whitehead 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a line-up:

Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky

Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Kuyt Torres

Another away match, in a tougher venue than Wednesday's, with an exhausted first XI on short rest. Fun times.

The good news is that Kyrgiakos should return from a bout with tonsillitis. He scored the only goal Liverpool's registered at the Britannia Stadium since Stoke's promotion, and his height, strength, and aerial ability are crucial against a physical, bullying side.

The bad news is that Johnson, Agger, and Cole all remain injured. Coupled with fitness concerns over the recently-returned Kuyt and Meireles' illness, it leads to questions over who'll man the right flank. Hopefully, Raul's recovered. Otherwise, the best argument is for Kuyt on the right and Torres/Ngog up top, to match Stoke's shape and include a striker who enjoys playing with his back to goal and holding up the ball. Torres cannot be left isolated as we saw against Wigan, and as happened all too often during Liverpool's shaky start to the season.

Despite the tough slate of games during this week, I don't expect much rotation. Aside from assuming that Carragher will shift to right back, both to spell Kelly and allow Soto to partner Skrtel, I expect the same XI as against Chelsea and Wigan. Let's just hope they're somehow fresher, and more up for it, than on Wednesday.

In 16th, three points behind Liverpool, Stoke are still Stoke, even if they've only won once in their last five games. Each of the recent losses – at Sunderland, at Everton, v United, at West Ham – have been close, hard-fought games, and they could have gotten something from the Sunderland and Everton games if not for questionable refereeing decisions. Which Liverpool's more than familiar with. Tuesday's win over Birmingham was surprisingly open – a 3-2 victory – but unsurprisingly direct – crosses, long balls, and counters, straight out of the Tony Pulis handbook.

Former Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant's been in surprisingly decent form – having target-men such as Fuller and Jones suits him to a tee – while Delap's long throws and Huth's nose for goal on set plays are always threats. Stoke will most likely play a standard 4-4-2, with Jones and either Fuller or Walters up front, Etherington and Pennant (or possibly Tuncay) on the flanks, Delap and Whitehead in the middle, and a backline of Huth, Shawcross, Collins, and Faye.

If Liverpool concede possession and sit deep, we could be in for a repeat of Wednesday's ugliness. Stoke would love nothing more than to retain possession and rely on Delap's long throws and crosses from the flank – most likely Liverpool's left – to agitate an often wobbly defense. And while I haven't looked up the stats, I'd imagine that the majority of goals Liverpool have conceded have come from crosses – as happened with Rodallega's equalizer and could have happened with Malouda's point-blank strike were it not for Pepe Reina.

Liverpool cannot approach this as they did the away matches against Bolton or Wigan, or they'll almost assuredly be punished for it. The team needs to play with ambition – to play like they're Liverpool – and deserve to be in the top half of the table, let alone amongst the top teams in the league. Not to mention to atone for Wednesday's failures.

10 November 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Wigan

Kelly Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Kuyt Torres

Torres 7'
Rodallega 52'

Early ecstasy ends with familiar agony.

Torres' seventh-minute strike should have sent Liverpool on its way to a fourth-successive league win, building on what was accomplished on Sunday. It looked possible within 180 seconds, when Lucas' 20-yard blast was well saved, and Liverpool's resident genius opened the scoring soon after, released by Gerrard's wonderful through-ball, controlling marvelously and toe-poking past Al-Habsi from the top of the box. But Liverpool almost instantly regressed, on the back foot and penned in their own half by the 20th minute, spelled only by a lovely counter-attack between Gerrard, Torres, and Kuyt, with the captain awkwardly volleying Kuyt's flick over the crossbar in the 16th.

From there, Wigan constantly threatened with fast-paced possession and dangerous crosses, almost always from Liverpool's left, where N'Zogbia and Stam routinely embarrassed Konchesky as Maxi typically drifted inside. The home side had the ball in the net in the 32nd, rightfully ruled out as Carragher cleverly stepped forward to play Rodallega offside after Lucas' horrendous giveaway. So much for the young Brazilian building on Sunday's masterclass, but it's not as if he was the only player who disappointed today.

And it didn't take long for Wigan to grab the deserved equalizer after the interval as play continued in the same vein, despite the entrance of Shelvey for Meireles. Stam again crossed following sustained possession, and Reina palmed the ball straight to the dangerous Colombian with Gomez lurking in wait at the back post. As in this fixture last March, Rodallega made no mistake.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, Liverpool had little response. Both tactics and fitness are to blame, but seeing Poulsen brought on for Kuyt in the 73rd – after Kuyt had switched to the right in a 4-1-4-1 formation – raises the belief that the manager was satisfied with a draw; it reeked of protecting what little Liverpool had. As usual away from Anfield. It's this frustrating negativity against inferior opponents that overshadows what little progress actually has been made.

Despite the utter dross we were treated to for more than 70 minutes, Liverpool still could have taken all three points had Gerrard not cannoned off the crossbar on Liverpool's lone break, in the 79th. Eccleston replaced Maxi soon after – while Ngog (and Jovanovic) remained on the bench for the duration – but couldn't make the same impact as against Chelsea. On Sunday, his pace was an outlet to relieve pressure. Today, Liverpool needed substitutions that could create if they wanted to actually win. Which, again, begs the question as to whether that was the case.

Today was Exhibit A why teams rotate with three games in a week. It didn't demand a massive overhaul a la the Europa League, and the bench – Hansen, Shelvey, Spearing, Poulsen, Jovanovic, Eccleston, and Ngog – was admittedly thin. But the tank was clearly empty after Sunday's exertions, and Liverpool rarely looked like regaining a toe-hold or setting a positive tempo.

Make no mistake, fitness and depth partly led to Hodgson's tactics, but we've seen this no ambition nonsense time and time again in away matches. The contrast with Wigan's pressing and desire to run at defenders through N'Zogbia and Rodallega was painfully evident. Liverpool simply retreated once conceding possession, usually after hoofing out of defense in the general direction of an isolated Torres. If Gerrard and Torres – who have either scored or assisted each of Liverpool's league goals since the opening match at Arsenal – couldn't conjure something from nothing, it wasn't going to happen. And that's was the sole tactic in attack, which is hard to pull off when the other nine players are permanently ensconced in and around Liverpool's box.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this dross was still better than last season's trip to Wigan. A draw's massively disappointing, but I still probably would have taken four points from the last two matches if asked prior to Sunday's win. However, after this weekend's good feelings, and the false belief that a corner had finally been turned (it's déjà vu all over again), we're basically back to square one. And I'm back to criticizing the manager's small-team, small-minded tactics. Liverpool could have laid down a marker and moved up to 5th, three points behind 4th. But they're seemingly content to stay static in 9th.

Once again, Liverpool is not Fulham. These tactics may have suited an underdog role against the league leaders, but not a match against 18th-placed Wigan, even if it's at Wigan. And now, with all 11 starters even more fatigued, Liverpool face a tough trip to Stoke in three days time, a venue where they haven't won since the Potters were promoted.

09 November 2010

Liverpool at Wigan 11.10.10

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:

0-1 Wigan (a) 03.08.10

2-1 Liverpool (h) 12.16.09

1-1 (a) 01.28.09

3-2 Liverpool (h) 10.18.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Chelsea (h); 3-1 Napoli (h); 1-0 Bolton (a)
Wigan: 1-2 Blackburn (a); 0-2 Fulham (a); 2-0 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 4; Gerrard 3; Kyrgiakos 2; Kuyt, Maxi, Ngog 1
Wigan: N'Zogbia, Rodallega 3; Alcaraz, Gomez 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a line-up:


Kelly Carragher Skrtel Konchesky

Johnson Meireles Lucas Maxi


As crazy as it sounds, this will be as much a sign of Liverpool's progress as Sunday was. Success in the Premier League is won on wet Wednesdays at Wigan, after all.

In theory, I'd love the same team as against Chelsea, continuing the high earned after that match. But there's a fear over the team's exertions – clearly exhausted by the 75th minute – and the short recovery time. That fear stands out for five players: Kuyt, Torres, Lucas, Meireles, and Maxi. Kuyt's only recently back from injury, Torres' struggles are well-documented, Lucas and Meireles put in miles of running on Sunday, and we haven't seen how Maxi copes with playing multiple games in the space of a few days since he's rarely had an extended run in the side. My guess is that Torres will be risked, Kuyt will be rested, and Maxi will continue on the left in Cole's absence. One of Meireles or Lucas will probably be on the bench – hopefully replaced by Spearing instead of Poulsen – although I can't bring myself to put that in the above guess. And the above is truly a guess; Hodgson gave us few clues in today's press conference.

He did say that Kyrgiakos and Cole are still out, but Johnson's most likely fit again, and should start unless there's a setback in training today. Whether that start will come in midfield – as was rumored against Chelsea before picking up a knock – or at fullback is the big question.

I'm not as intrigued by Johnson in midfield as many seem to be and I don't see the same parallel with Gareth Bale. Bale's pure speed and close control are his main weapons in attack, better suited further up the pitch. Johnson's at his best when he has room to gain a head of steam, allowing him to sprint past static defenders after already starting his mazy run. His control's not as good – as evidenced by the somewhat lucky penalty won against Napoli, among other moments – and I think he needs the space coming from fullback provides to be successful in the final third. Nonetheless, I imagine we'll get a chance to find out.

Wigan's amidst a poor spell – in the relegation zone having won once in the league since August and without their creative hub in James McCarthy – but this won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Wigan had specialized in draws before the two recent road losses, and Liverpool hasn't made any away matches easy for themselves this season. The Latics have only tallied eight goals this campaign, the fewest in the league, but have given Liverpool a tough game in each of the last six meetings – especially at the DW Stadium. The 0-1 loss in March 2010 was that campaign's final nail in the coffin, while the 1-1 in '08-09 was one of many regrettable draws which saw Liverpool narrowly miss out on the league title. The club's current joint top-scorers both struck in last season's meetings – Rodallega with the winner in March, N'Zogbia with a consolation in December.

Wigan will miss McCarthy, as well as the suspended Gohouri, but Roberto Martinez is no mug – a good manager and tactician – and will set out his side to spoil and counter, probably in a 4-5-1 as against Blackburn last Saturday. Wigan can play two up front, with former Chelsea striker Franco Di Santo partnering the Colombian, but rarely do against the top sides – and, yes, we're still including Liverpool in that classification despite all evidence to the contrary. Rodallega will be the main threat on the counter, having given Carragher headaches in the past, as will N'Zogbia, most likely down Liverpool's right (which could be another argument for doubling up Johnson and Kelly on that flank). Gomez will be the axis in midfield, while Diame and Thomas will looks to close down. Liverpool cannot sit back and hope to pick up a narrow away victory, as they did at Bolton, or we're in for a long, ugly night.

So let's see how much progress Liverpool's made.

08 November 2010

Home Cooking

Today's image of the day...

Granted, it doesn't explain much. It's solely an excuse to highlight (and re-watch) the utter brilliance that is Fernando Torres, who's now scored 44 league goals in 47 appearances at Anfield. An average of almost a goal per home league game despite being injured for long stretches over the last three seasons is beyond my powers of description.

Random notes:
• Goals at Anfield make up 73% of his strikes in the league (60) and 58% of his total goals for Liverpool (76).
• 27 (61%) were scored at the Kop End.
• 18 (41%) were game-winners.
• Eight were headers (18%), five were left-footed (11%), and 31 were right-footed (71%).
• Only three came from outside the box – two in his hat-trick against Boro and this season's strike against West Brom. His wonder-goal against Sunderland last season came from just inside the area. An apex predator, to say the absolute least.

Long may it continue.

In the comments are the full list of goals and a breakdown of the above statistics.

Growing up is hard to do

I couldn't be happier to see praise for Lucas echo around the internet after his dominating performance against the league leaders yesterday. Passing, tackling, interceptions, the whole package. It's as if he suddenly turned a corner.

Oh, wait. Those are his passing statistics against Manchester United in March 2009. This is yesterday's chalkboard.

And this is a comparison of his tackles in the two matches.

Now, the above could be an example of how statistics never tell a full story. And Lucas was comparatively better yesterday: more incisive forward passes, more tackles attempted and won, with a far bigger role than he had in March 2009. I remember being impressed by that Lucas' performance almost 20 months ago, but nowhere near as impressed as I was by his all-around dynamism yesterday. He's frequently been better against bigger opposition, but never 'grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck' as he did yesterday. You didn't see YouTube compilations like this after the United match.

In addition, there were vast differences in the two victories. Yesterday's win came be summed up by perseverance, a willingness to work until legs fell off, and two superlative strikes from Torres. This season's Liverpool is a side struggling for form, swimming against an incoming tide. In contrast, the victory over United was utter domination after the Mancs opened the scoring, with Liverpool in the middle of a streak where they played some of their best football ever under Benitez.

But the point remains. No matter how impressive he was against Chelsea, deserving every bit of praise he's come in for, it wasn't his first rodeo. He's deserved criticism in the past, on a steep learning coming from Brazil at the age of 20. I can't and won't pretend he hasn't made some mistakes, and has had to improve every aspect of his game. There have been growing pains every step of the way. Yet people seem to forget he's still only 23, held to a higher standard than many players at a similar age, especially foreign ones still adapting to a different style of play and massively different culture. Central midfield in the Premier League is an unforgiving position. But the kid's strength of character, replying to boos from the Anfield faithful by putting his head down and working harder, always led me to believe that growth was possible. Not to mention that he's been one of Liverpool's most consistent players for more than a year now, although that's admittedly not much to gloat over after the year Liverpool's had.

What I'm trying to hammer home is that yesterday wasn't the first time he's shone in a Liverpool shirt, even if it was his best overall performance. And, with Liverpool needing the young man to play an increasingly larger role, I'm fairly certain it won't be the last.

07 November 2010

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

Kelly Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Torres Kuyt

Torres 11' 44'

All Torres all the time in the first half – yes, British media, he's back. All hands on deck, and everybody behind the ball, in the second, but Liverpool held on thanks to some terrific team defending and Reina and Carragher's refusal to concede. This is what we've missed. This is what I worried Liverpool weren't capable of under Hodgson. As usual, shows was little I know.

It was simply a different Liverpool from the start. Everyone pressed incessantly, intent on taking the game to the highly-favored opponents. Unlike against City, the 4-4-2 formation won the midfield battle against a 4-3-3, mainly in part to Lucas' revelatory performance. Kuyt's return, supporting Torres up front, also played a key role, and it was the Dutchman who provided an inch-perfect cross over the top to Torres in the 11th minute, allowing the Spaniard to control and chip Cech, that sent Liverpool on its way.

Chelsea didn't know what hit them, and Liverpool kept coming after the opener. The league leaders couldn't string two passes together in attack. Malouda, joint top-scorer in the league, was rendered invisible by the Brazilian, while youngster Martin Kelly kept the dangerous Ashley Cole in his pocket all game long. Meanwhile, Maxi volleyed over from Torres' flick-on and Liverpool could have won a penalty when Zhirkov inadvertently handled in the box.

And on the stroke of half-time, Torres reasserted his dominance and doubled Liverpool's lead. In space on the left from Meireles' quick ball wide, the striker cut inside around Ivanovic and unleashed an unstoppable curler that left Cech flat-footed and shaking his head in wonder. Today should put an end to questions over his commitment and overall brilliance. Once again, when Torres is on his game, he simply has no equal.

You knew Chelsea would respond, bringing the ever-dangerous Drogba off the bench for the start of the second half. And Liverpool spent the next 45 minutes couched in their own half, permanently under threat. But, unlike all too often this season, the back-line never broke. The two lines of four ran themselves into the ground, kept their shape, and kept Chelsea out for long stretches. The Blues nearly made the breakthrough twice, bracketing Cech's kick-save on Kuyt's 74th minute shot, but Reina and Carragher were equal to both. First, in the 66th, Reina somehow kept out Malouda's point-blank effort after Drogba burst down the left and crossed. In the 85th, Anelka found space, with Reina only able to parry his fierce blast onto the crossbar, but Carragher dove in to heroically block Drogba's follow-up effort. All out effort, plus that little but of luck, led to an immense, well-deserved victory.

Torres will get all the plaudits for his two excellent strikes, but today's truly was a team effort. Lucas, Meireles, and Kelly were all excellent; if this match doesn't silence the Lucas doubters, I don't know what will. Kuyt demonstrated just how dearly missed he's been over the last month. It was a total performance reminiscent of the best matches in 2008-09.

Of course, how deep Liverpool sat in the second half made for uncomfortable viewing – easily leading to snipes as to how it looked like Fulham holding onto a 1-0 lead away from home – but Chelsea were always going to make life difficult. That Liverpool prevented a goal which would have gotten the away side back into the game can't be dismissed. And I'm worried as to how the team will respond on Wednesday against Wigan – players were utterly drained by the 75th minute yet still held on for the win and the clean sheet – but that's a problem for tomorrow.

Into the top half of the table, five points behind 4th and level with the likes of Spurs, today's a celebration for the return of the Liverpool – and the Torres – we hadn't seen nearly enough of this season.

06 November 2010

Liverpool v Chelsea 11.07.10

11am ET, live in the US on FSC.

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Chelsea (h) 05.02.10
0-2 Chelsea (a) 10.04.09
4-4 (a; CL) 04.14.09
1-3 Chelsea (h; CL) 04.08.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Napoli (h); 1-0 Bolton (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h)
Chelsea: 4-1 Spartak (h); 2-1 Blackburn (a); 2-0 Wolves (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 3; Kyrgiakos, Torres 2; Kuyt, Maxi, Ngog 1
Bolton: Malouda 7; Drogba 6; Kalou 5; Anelka 3; Essien 2; Alex, Benayoun, Ivanovic, Lampard 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Yep. Him again.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Konchesky
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

Barely three weeks after Kuyt injured ankle ligaments, initially feared to be out until 2011, the Dutchman seems likely to come back into the side. He's an absolute cyborg; the Six Million Dollar Man has nothing on Dirk. And he'll be more than needed against the league's strongest side, especially with Joe Cole out. Both Kuyt and last week's late goal-scorer Maxi can man either flank, although Maxi's more comfortable on the left.

I don't know who to suggest if Kuyt's unavailable, as I'd really rather not see Meireles on the right – especially since that'd probably mean Poulsen would start in the center – and both Pacheco and Jovanovic appear out of favor. 4-4-2 with Torres and Ngog up top also seems unlikely, even though the young Frenchman's done well when asked this season, as we saw how easily that formation can be torn asunder by top teams when Liverpool traveled to City. That Liverpool are at Anfield mean we should see more ambition and creativity, but the battle in midfield will still be where the match is won.

The other big line-up question is in central defense now that Johnson's healthy. Does Hodgson go with slow and steady – with Kyrgiakos' threat on set plays – or the marginally quicker Skrtel? We know Carragher's not being dropped.

Lucas and Meireles have to start in midfield, Gerrard should continue to play behind the striker – hopefully as hungry as he was against Napoli – and Torres has scored four goals in the four home matches where he's faced Chelsea, only drawing a blank in the infamous Riise OG match in 2008 and unavailable for last May's 0-2 loss. But Liverpool also haven't beaten Chelsea in their last four meetings.

Perpetually supremely confident, Ancelotti named his team in yesterday's press conference, revealing that game-time decisions will be made over Malouda and Essien's participation. "I can give you nine men: Cech, Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, Cole, Mikel, Zhirkov, Anelka, Drogba. Malouda or Kalou, Essien or Ramires." Lampard's still not available after undergoing hernia surgery at the end of August.

Chelsea weren't at their best against Wolves or Blackburn but still got the win. Those struggles, combined with a draw at Villa and loss at City, have been magnified by enormous wins to open the season, scoring six, six, and four against West Brom, Wigan, and Blackpool. But Chelsea were always going to fall back to Earth. And by 'fall back to Earth,' I obviously mean 'still lead the league by five points after only 10 games.' All season they've looked the Premiership's best, and are deservedly favorites to retain their title.

It goes without saying that Liverpool need to continue to build upon their three-match winning streak and the improved play we've seen of late. And it also goes without saying that this'll be the toughest test since Liverpool's improvement.

04 November 2010

Liverpool 3-1 Napoli

Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Konchesky
Spearing Poulsen
Shelvey Meireles Jovanovic

Lavezzi 28'
Gerrard 75' 88' (pen) 89'

Ste Gerrard, Gerrard. He's big and he's fucking hard. And he can still win games almost single-handedly.

With a similar line-up to that which started in Italy, the first half went as feared. Napoli found it far easier to penetrate with the home side more interested in maintaining possession – although it unsurprisingly led to few efforts on goal – leaving Liverpool exposed on the counter-attack, capitalizing when usual scapegoat Poulsen made a jaw-dropping mistake in the 28th.

Attempting to clear, the Dane badly mistimed his jump, heading straight to Cavani. The Uruguayan slotted it through to Lavezzi, beating the offside trap as Johnson stepped up when Kyrgiakos didn't, and the forward made no mistake in sliding his shot under the diving and helpless Reina. Liverpool almost replied immediately, though Ngog thanks to Poulsen's throughball, only to see the striker push his shot wide under pressure from Aronica, but the home team struggled to make headway against an increasingly deeper defense, who were happy to protect what they had.

Bringing Gerrard on at halftime ultimately won Liverpool the game, but for almost half an hour, it only made Liverpool narrower. It was a surprise to see the captain replaced Jovanovic – one of the few who actually looked a threat in the first frame. Meireles and Shelvey manned the flanks with Gerrard behind Ngog, and the lanky Frenchman had a second opportunity to equalize in the 51st, foiled by De Sanctis' foot after nice work from Shelvey and Meireles, but Liverpool didn't truly improve until Eccelston replaced Poulsen with 25 minutes to play.

Despite his inexperience, adding Eccleston's pace (and removing one of the five central midfielders) gave the home side far more impetus. Meireles should have leveled seconds later, missing a close-range shot by inches after Ngog's control inadvertently set him up with a sitter. But then, we got yet another Steven Gerrard show.

And it started thanks to a former Liverpool player. Shelvey picked up possession in a dangerous area and ran at the defense, only to be crowded out. But Andrea Dossena's soft backpass allowed Gerrard to charge in, reaching the keeper just as he attempted a diving clearance, tackling the ball into the net.

When Lucas replaced the injured Ngog – hobbled by a horrible tackle that the referee somehow missed – with seven minutes to play, it appeared Liverpool were happy with what they had. But three minutes later, Johnson charged forward, played into space by a lovely ball from Meireles, winning a penalty with a wicked run into the box. Funny how things like that happen when an attacking right-back's allowed to attack. Gerrard duly converted the spot kick, with De Sanctis going the right way but unable to keep out the vicious blast.

A minute later, the captain wrapped up the three points and snatched a deserved 14-minute hat-trick. Lucas latched onto Dossena's poor control of Spearing's header, tackling straight to the captain, who chipped the keeper with a Dalglish-esque finish.

Yes, Gerrard's heroics will obscure others' subpar displays. It's beating the same drum time and time again, but Poulsen yet again proved he shouldn't be anywhere near the starting XI. Like so many other matches, this was The Gerrard Show, and otherwise a fairly poor team performance until the final 25-30 minutes. But regardless of any complaints about the tactics or personnel, it's an incredibly heartening victory – Liverpool's third successive – if only because it proves that the captain can still do it. Besides Gerrard's genius, young players like Shelvey, Spearing, and Eccleston had a chance to shine at Anfield, Carragher and Kyrgiakos were solid at the back, Johnson finally reminded us what he can do in the opposition's final third, Torres was rested with no consequences, and as against Bolton, Liverpool demonstrated they still have late winners in the locker.

Obviously, you wish the victory was more emphatic, cohesive, and thorough, but this still sets Liverpool up nicely for Chelsea's visit on Sunday.

03 November 2010

Liverpool v Napoli 11.04.10

4:05pm ET, live in the US on GolTV

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Bolton (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h); 0-0 Napoli (a)
Napoli: 1-0 Brescia (a); 1-2 Milan (h); 0-0 Liverpool (h)

Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Napoli: 0-0 Liverpool (h); 3-3 Steaua (a); 0-0 Utrecht (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Babel, Cole, Gerrard, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Napoli: Cavani 3; Vitale 2; Denis, Hamsik, Lavezzi, Maggio 1

Referee: Fredy Fautrel (FRA)

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Konchesky
Spearing Poulsen
Maxi Shelvey Jovanovic

Hodgson may have promised us a 'strong' team, but I still expect it to be closer to the side that drew at Napoli than the one which beat Blackburn and Bolton. There is the small matter of Chelsea on Sunday.

Cole, Kuyt, and Agger are still injured, while Babel's struggling with a rib bruise incurred during a reserve game, but Johnson could – and ideally should, if possible – return from his layoff. Maybe we'll see Carragher at right back again, given that Kyrgiakos and Skrtel have been an impressive partnership in the last two matches, but I'm skeptical of the vice-captain's ability to recover in time for Sunday after playing at right back, especially in a home match where he's be expected to support the attack. I'd almost rather Carragher be rested, with either Kelly or Johnson on the right and Kyrgiakos-Skrtel at center-back, but I'm not sure his new contract allows for that.

The front six is harder to forecast. Torres, despite still needing to find form, looks most likely to be rested given his history with injuries and recent performances. Three games in a week is a lot to ask even if he's not carrying any knocks at the moment. At the same time, Gerrard, Lucas, and Meireles have played a lot of games – Lucas less so, but still the majority of late – which is why I'm guessing the Spearing-Poulsen-Shelvey axis again. There are fewer options on the flanks because of injuries to Babel, Cole, and Kuyt, which seemingly ensure Maxi and Jovanovic will start – possibly as inverted wingers as in the last leg – but it's worth noting that Pacheco didn't play in yesterday's reserve match, even if he's been frozen out seen since the Northampton fiasco.

Napoli are now sixth in Serie A, having lost to Milan and beaten Brescia since these two sides last met. No new injuries or suspensions mean they're likely to deploy the same XI. Napoli's 3-4-1-2/3-4-3 was ineffective in Italy against a side determined to defend; neither team registered many shots on goal, and the few taken rarely tested either keeper. The home side's three center-backs easily marshaled a lone Ngog, but meant that not enough players joined in attack when Napoli had the bulk of possession, and Liverpool arguably created the better opportunities playing counter-attacking football.

But in a home match, even if the XI is mostly similar, Liverpool will expect to see more of the ball and attack much more than they did in Italy. A win tomorrow would put Liverpool on eight points, which would almost ensure qualification with two games to spare. However, playing on the front foot, especially if the fullbacks get forward, will leave space for Napoli's wing-backs – the familiar Andrea Dossena and either Maggio or Zuniga – to lead the counter-attack, and with attackers like Lavezzi, Hamsik, and Cavani, Napoli have players who can conjure the clichéd something from nothing. Which is another reason why I expect two out-and-out holding midfielders – Spearing and Poulsen – to start.

As usual, we're looking for improvement from Liverpool – a continuation of what we've seen in the last two or three matches. But also as usual, Liverpool will have to be steady, resolute, and – most importantly – aware at the back to keep this momentum going.

On Damien Comolli

Former Spurs Director of Football Damien Comolli has been hired as Liverpool's new "Director of Football Strategy." A slightly-fancier title which should be an approximation of his old role at Tottenham, and should pave the way for former chief scout Eduardo Macia's exit. Comolli's 38 years old; NESV now has their Theo Epstein, I guess.

I'm conflicted on a few counts. First and foremost, I don't trust Hodgson with any amount of money – and we can blame Poulsen and Konchesky for that (I'm still not convinced Meireles wasn't a Macia signing). Which makes this news warmly welcomed, especially the if the manager's somehow still around come January. But at the same time, I've never been a fan of the Director of Football continental set-up. Maybe I'm used to the manager being a sometimes-benign dictator, but if he's the one who has to write the team-sheet, shouldn't he be the one picking the transfer targets. And to invoke the oft-cited cliché when the British media discusses this set-up: can you imagine the likes of Ferguson or Wenger operating with under similar constraints?

Granted, the method's worked for the likes of Juventus, Bayern, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and a host of other big European clubs, but it's been exceptionally hit-and-miss, at best, in the Premiership. It's succeeded at West Brom so far, but that's one of the few, if only, current examples.

This piece, by Football Fancast has a mostly-thorough list of players signed by Spurs during Comolli's tenure. It also excoriates the man for Tottenham's "mish-mash" of players, and rightfully argues that Redknapp's been far better from them than the previous set-up. But as Wenger, who hired Comolli as a scout, noted, "anything can work as long as people, when they sign their contracts, know clearly what is their responsibilities." That arguably wasn't the case at Tottenham.

There are definitely some highlights – Bale, Modric, and Berbatov, among others – but other than the languid Bulgarian, Spurs paid in full for them. And there are the inevitable lows, where ~£15m for Bentley flashes in neon lights. Scrolling through that list, I'm surprised to see the cost of Bent, Kaboul, Hutton, Gomes, etc. – all higher than I would have guessed (except in the case of Bent, which I remember simply because it absolutely stunned me at the time). Comolli will work under a much tighter budget at Anfield, even if NESV loosens the purse-strings far more than the previous owners.

Given the new owners' resumé, references to Moneyball have become unavoidable. And Comolli's often mentioned in articles about Beane's 'love affair with soccer' – as recently as last week and as far back as 2007. Hiring a Director of Football, especially one with Comolli's history, is certainly a step in that direction.

That Hodgson was only recently talking about identifying transfer targets leads me to believe (hope?) that this was somewhat out of the blue for him. But that could well be my bias creeping in. He's quoted on the official site saying, "I am looking forward to working with Damien whom I have known for many years. We are engaged in an exciting project here and he will bring a lot to the table," but we've seen similar spin before. And on face value, Comolli and Hodgson represent diametric opposites.

More important were John Henry's quotes.
"Today's announcement is just the first step in creating a leadership group and structure designed to develop, enhance and implement our long-term philosophy of scouting, recruitment, player development and all of the other aspects necessary to build and sustain a club able to consistently compete at the highest level in European football.

"We intend to be bold and innovative. We will not rest until we have restored Liverpool Football Club to the greatness Liverpool fans expect."

"Bold and innovative" aren't words I'd associate with the managerial regime so far. Time will tell where this heads, but it seems a promising development.

02 November 2010

A priest, with milk in a bottle, atop a mountain of sugar

As of June 2010, I thought I was finished writing overwrought apologias for Rafa Benitez. But the media's constant attempt to rewrite history, Hodgson's recent out-and-out lie, the day before an important match at Bolton no less, and Benitez's inevitable riposte (video here) rendered that thought moot.

If you're on this site, you're probably well aware of the lengths I went to defend Rafa while he was manager. If not, there are a whole host of posts tagged "Benitez" on the right sidebar. 38, in fact, as soon as I hit "publish post." I'm more than conscious that many will see this as biased. So be it. And yes, defending the manager of Inter Milan while criticizing Liverpool's isn't just unfamiliar territory, it feels almost wrong. I shouldn't have to write that I support Liverpool FC, not Rafa FC, to cut off the inescapable retorts. But here we are.

And, for another disclaimer, this isn't to argue that Benitez didn't make mistakes. Robbie Keane and Alberto Aquilani, among others, will top the list of transfer gaffes, and you could argue that almost every purchase since the summer of 2008 – the last window where Liverpool spent more than they made – backfired. Alonso's name will be inevitably and unfairly raised. There were the conservative tactics, especially away from Anfield, although those tactics look less conservative after what we've seen so far this season. Benitez was inflexible far past the point of stubbornness more often than not, as are most managers. And he was political animal all too willing to use the media to fight his battles, especially with the owners.

But when Liverpool's current manager uses one of the club's greatest legends to insult the former manager, ostensibly in an attempt to buy himself time and curry favor with a xenophobic media, it's distasteful in the extreme and deserving of a response, no matter the uncomfortable position it puts the club and the fans in.

"When it was mooted the club wanted me for the job I made it clear to Kenny I wanted him on board and it wouldn't be like it was with Benitez where you are here in name but never allowed to set foot into Melwood and we don't want anything to do with you."

Paul Tomkins, who had multiple opportunities to visit with Benitez, called it a 'flagrant lie.' Given all we read about how Benitez was the one who brought Dalglish back, and how happy Dalglish was to be back, I absolutely believe that it's a flagrant lie. And it's an infuriating, self-serving, bush league lie. In keeping with almost everything that's exited Hodgson's mouth over the last three months.

I've made it crystal clear that I think Hodgson is the wrong man for the job, and I'd like him gone as soon as possible. His comments weren't the straw that broke the camel's back, as that back was broken long before. Two narrow wins over the mighty Blackburn and Bolton haven't changed that opinion. But that's not why I'm writing this screed.

It's also not written to promote Benitez as some sort of martyr, saint or savior, or to lobby for his return. For now, that chapter's been written. Abruptly and unfairly concluded too soon, but concluded nonetheless. But I won't stand for unfair revisionism – with the media still blaming Benitez for Liverpool's problems this season – or out-and-out lies. Yes, he made mistakes, but Benitez was the best manager Liverpool manager that I can remember – a list that also includes Souness, Evans, Houllier, and Hodgson. Not a murderous' row by any means, and certainly not comparable to the brilliance of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, or Dalglish, but that's still an almost 20-year span. Benitez restored this club, if not to where it belongs – back on the "fucking perch" – than at least its pride. To deny or dismiss that is either agenda-driven or utterly lunacy. With Hodgson, or with the British media for that matter, it could be either or both. I'm sure it's a happy accident that the media took Hodgson's accusations at face value while Benitez's responses are labeled as "cryptic" or "rants."

Had Hodgson not made those unfortunate, ill-advised jabs, this wouldn't be the talking point. We'd be focusing on the marginal progress made on the pitch, looking forward to both Napoli and Chelsea, and Benitez wouldn't have suffered questions about Roy's comments in a Champions League press conference. But Liverpool's current manager would rather snipe at the former in an attempt to curry favor with the fans and buy himself more time. It's only fair that Benitez replied, to both set the record straight and protect his reputation. It would have been better for Liverpool, and certainly better for Hodgson, had Rafa not responded, but that can't be expected after what was said. And of course, those 90 seconds, and not the other 30 minutes about Inter Milan's upcoming match against Spurs, now dominate the national media.

After all we've heard this season, I can't say I'm surprised that Hodgson once again shoved his foot down his own throat, although trying to win over the fans and media by bashing his predecessor is a new low. And at the same time, I won't apologize for continuing to defend Benitez. Rafa fought for us – the first to sound a public warning about the owners' lies – and still fights for us even after his exit – see his Purslow comments from two weeks ago, which (coincidentally, I'm sure) came the day before Purslow resigned, in addition to yesterday's.

That's why I'll continue to defend the former manager, and continue to lobby for the exit of the current.