31 January 2011

Crazy Money and Andy Carroll

Two in, two out. We'd known about Babel exit's and Suarez's signing but today saw Torres push his way out and Andy Carroll joining for a rumored £35m. In addition, Liverpool weren't able to pry Charlie Adam from Blackpool. Combined, the outlay on Suarez and Carroll almost exactly equals what was recouped from selling Torres and Babel. Yet another window where Liverpool fails to spend significantly, I guess...

Had you told me at the beginning of the window that Liverpool would end January having replaced Torres and Babel with Suarez and Carroll, I'm not sure how I would have reacted. With time to come to terms with Torres' mercenary exit – which merited its own post – I'm happy with what Liverpool's recouped, even if they had to pay far over the odds to do so. Adding Adam to the mix would have made the day complete.

Liverpool were forced into steep prices by Torres' late demand. Carroll's price comes as the largest surprise – only seven players have cost more: the aforementioned Torres, C Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Kaka, Zidane, Figo, and Crespo. But you pay a premium for strikers. You pay a premium for youth. You pay a premium for a British passport. And you pay a premium in January, especially on the last day of the window.

At 22, Carroll represents both a leap of faith and investment in the future. He's about the same age as Torres, Alonso, Mascherano, and Reina were when they signed, and the first three on that list help demonstrate the resale value of a player at that age. If Carroll progresses and Liverpool were somehow forced to sell, they recoup their crazy money. If FSG are willing to pay, so be it. While £35m doesn't fit with "Moneyball ethics" on face value, that money's might be better spent in January before the UEFA Financial Fair Play requirements kick in over the summer. Plus, Liverpool needed a replacement now. The last time Kenny Dalglish broke the British record for a Geordie – Beardsley for £1.9m in 1987 – it turned out alright.

Right now, Liverpool isn't geared towards an aerially dominant striker. Gerrard, Johnson and Aurelio are good crossers, while Maxi and Kuyt have their moments, but Liverpool's best football over the last six years has come when keeping it on the floor. Buying Carroll is a deal that Roy Hodgson would love to have done: a gargantuan striker used to having long balls lumped in his direction. Carroll is more than an ox, with the clichéd good touch for a big man, but he brings talents Liverpool haven't often had.

Assuming Dalglish continues with the 4-3-3, Liverpool's best XI is probably:

Kelly Carragher Agger Johnson
Gerrard Lucas Meireles
Kuyt Carroll Suarez

That could be a frightening team. Bringing in Adam would have allowed Gerrard to be pushed forward, adding a better passer to the mix, but the above's still a tantalizing prospect. The summer's business will assuredly center on buying a winger.

Not that grand dramatic gestures are required, but today's a statement of intent from FSG. It's ambitious and almost reactionary from a group that's been exceptionally deliberative so far.

On Torres' Exit

And the deal's done. No link to Liverpool's official statement, but the BBC, among others, are reporting £50m, with a rumored wage rise to £175,000 a week. Fernando Torres is confirmed as yet another football mercenary. I don't know why I was initially surprised.

Torres is a tremendous talent – he's demonstrated that time and time again at Anfield – but just urinated all over his potential legacy. He could have been a Liverpool legend, one of the greatest players in club history, and now he'll be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Owen at best. It's not like when he left Atletico, saying all the right things to fans of both clubs, which demonstrates how little regard he actually had for Liverpool. I expected better. I know I shouldn't have. I'm too old to fall for modern footballers.

At nearly 27, it's understandable that Torres isn't up for a rebuilding project. He left his boyhood club for less. And yes, Liverpool is a rebuilding project. You may have noticed the struggles over the last 18 months. The root cause of this remains Hicks, Gillett, and Purslow.

But that's not an excuse for handing in a transfer request with three days left in the January window and not an excuse for joining an aging, soulless team that Liverpool has to face in a week's time.

Torres scored 81 goals in 142 games and ran himself into the ground in the process, leading to injuries which kept him out of matches against his former club and the World Cup. And he still kept scoring despite missing so many matches – he's got nine in 23 during this horrific league campaign; only Berbatov, Tevez, Carroll and Nolan have scored more league goals this season. He's actually made more appearances in the league this season than through all of last year. That blighted campaign saw 22 league appearances. He made 24 the season before. £50m for a striker prone to muscle injuries is a lot of money.

He developed into one of the world's best strikers at Liverpool, but the club haven't won any silverware since Torres signed. It's not his fault by any means, but still a fact of life. Three of Rafa's Spanish-speaking jewels – Torres, Alonso, and Mascherano – are now gone, having made Liverpool nearly £60m in profit. Only Alonso held any silverware aloft – in his first two seasons.

Torres' exit isn't like Alonso's, or even Owen's. Alonso left time for Liverpool to find a replacement, returned to his home country, and has been wholly complementary about the club since his departure. While Owen ran down his contract until Liverpool could only get £8m + Nuñez, he at least also went abroad – and we knew it was inevitable. This Torres malarky leaves a much worse taste in the mouth. If he left next summer, he'd leave with acceptance. Shafting Liverpool during such a chaotic spell, seeing out Hodgson, Hicks and Gillett only to want away once FSG and Dalglish had brought back optimism, does that much more harm.

It's unfortunate that a player who gave us so many magical moments over the last three and a half years is leaving in such a manner. And other than the damage done by the previous owners – which he's not alone in suffering – it's his own fault. He's the one sneaking out the back door in the slim hopes of silverware at a club whose fans used to spit venomously at him. We hate you now because we loved you, and thought the feeling was mutual. Thanks for the memories, but I can't wish him well.

28 January 2011

I Still Hate Transfer Windows

Only at Liverpool could a day where a fee for Luis Suarez is agreed first be dominated by news of Fernando Torres' possible exit. The last remnant of the Hicks and Gillett era is the perpetual expectation that only bad things are going to happen. It's going to take more than a few months where we've seen the return of the King and slightly improved results to wash away the preeminent feeling of paranoia.

Overnight news that Chelsea bid somewhere between £35-60m for Fernando Torres raised alarms, but was quickly refuted by the club and generally assumed to be a desperation throw of the dice. However, reports this morning that Torres wanted Liverpool to negotiate sent the Internet into an absolute frenzy. Thankfully, that's hit the back burner in the last hour. As the highly-respected Roy Hodgson said a few months back, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I doubt this story's dead by any means, but January should be a non-starter because of the club's situation. As with Charlie Adam and Blackpool, there's no fee that'd replace the player's value at the moment. My sneaking suspicion is to get ready for another summer filled with rumor and innuendo much like the last.

Some have cheekily suggested that the rumors from Torres' camp were delivered to push FSG into making today's signing, after transfer talk had ebbed and flowed for more than a week. If that's the case, it's a frightening sign of player power. I'm not so convinced the two are linked, but still love a good conspiracy now and then.

Whether the fee for Suarez is €25m – as reported by De Telegraaf – or Suarez and Liverpool reach the incentives to push it up to €26.5m, it's still the club's record signing. It's not the €30m that Ajax initially wanted, but a substantial sum nonetheless. It's also a statement of intent from the new owners: they haven't given up on this season and will open the purse-strings when needed. Suarez certainly isn't Carlton Cole or Charles N'Zogbia. That FSG took their sweet time over firing Hodgson and completing this deal demonstrates the group's deliberation. Deliberation isn't what the fans want and can backfire, but it's often a smart way to do business.

A 24-year-old support striker with 110 goals in 154 appearances at Ajax (49 goals in all competitions last season), Suarez will probably play alongside Torres, replacing Maxi or Kuyt, in Liverpool's current 4-3-3 variant. Of course, that a goal-scoring record in the Eredivisie doesn't always translate to the Premier League (yes, I'm aware Kuyt scored 83 in 122 games for Feyenoord) will be incessantly mentioned.

Forlan rightfully took the plaudits for Uruguay's World Cup performance, but Suarez's contribution can't be understated, and not just for his genius handball. Uruguay's formation varied, but it was most often a 4-3-1-2 with Suarez and Cavani up front and Forlan in the hole. Liverpool Offside have the required YouTube clips; he's good with the ball at his feet and is quick – two attributes currently lacking in the squad – but his versatility is the attribute I'm most excited about. Unfortunately, I wrote similar about Ryan Babel. As with all signings, they must be given time to settle – the failure to do so with Aquilani is a very recent warning.

Despite having last rites performed thanks to Hicks and Gillett, despite a season-long struggle that's seen Liverpool's recent rise to seventh cause for celebration, this deal is a sign that Liverpool can still attract big-name players. Suarez has the potential to improve Liverpool immensely. And hopefully, it'll help convince current players that Liverpool will be back where they belong sooner rather than later.

26 January 2011

Liverpool 1-0 Fulham

Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Poulsen
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Pantsil (og) 52'

Far too closely-contested for comfort, especially during a nerve-wracking final 15 minutes, but still enough for a win. Fulham had enough chances to take something from the game – more than the home side – and Liverpool were clinging on by the end. It's fitting that Hodgson's old team hung on to beat Hodgson's old old team by hoofing. At the same time, Liverpool continued to improve in regards to pressing, possession and overall play until those frightening final minutes. That the deciding goal came from a comical scramble shouldn't obscure the fact that Liverpool should have been up a goal after six minutes.

The referees, specifically the linesmen, were always going to be a talking point after this week's Sky-induced controversy. Today's male linesman incorrectly raised his flag when Meireles put Torres through, with the Spaniard slotting past Stockdale. Four minutes later, the reserve keeper's heroics kept the scoreline blank, wonderfully sprawling to prevent Meireles' diving header. Taking one of those two early chances could have led to a different game, as happened when Torres scored the first half goal at Wolves. Johnson, continuing to adapt at left back, was also a frequent threat, demanding another Stockdale save after a 25th minute run and creating a close-range chance for Torres in the 33rd.

Even though Fulham hasn't won at Anfield in the last 29 matches, they've been hard to beat over the last few seasons, earning 0-0s in their last two visits. It was little surprise that the Cottagers caused problems. Reina was forced in action twice in the 29th minute, stopping Dempsey's blast before keeping Dembele's shot out, both aided by errors from Kelly and Skrtel respectively, demonstrating the back line's continued instability.

Liverpool's ability to keep possession and blunt Fulham certainly wasn't helped by Lucas' absence. For the second straight game, Poulsen didn't play badly. There's nothing wrong with his football brain or positional sense, but his complete lack of pace leaves Liverpool susceptible, and Lucas' steady head, ball retention, and tracking of runs were missed.

Seven minutes after the interval, it was Fulham punished for a succession of costly mistakes. Dempsey gave the ball away to Torres, whose deflected shot caromed off the post. Meireles charging in prompted a comedic scramble which ended with Pantsil somehow slicing a clearance out of Stockdale's hands backwards into his own net. After the calamities suffered so far this season, Liverpool's recent play deserves that fortune.

But, unable to get the crucial second, Fulham pressure pushed Liverpool back to the deep defensive line that's often been the side's downfall. Chances on the break came few and far between – most notably when Hughes somehow got back to prevent Meireles centering for Torres – and Liverpool ended the match pinned to the top of their 18-yard box, happy to hoof clear. Fulham twice threatened on corners just after the 80th minute, with Reina saving Hughes' header and Meireles shinning Hangeland's subsequent header off the line. Five minutes later, Liverpool again failed to grasp the finer points of set play defense, but Dembele couldn't finish Dempsey's flick-on from Murphy's free kick.

All that matters is that Liverpool held on. The Reds haven't kept consecutive clean sheets since beating West Brom and Birmingham in September – wins over Bolton and Chelsea were bracketed by conceding against Napoli – and haven't won consecutive league matches since those Bolton and Chelsea victories almost three months ago. While seeing Liverpool regress as the match went on isn't a positive development, it's been quite a while since hanging on in such a fashion actually worked.

Lucas' absence and ineffective performances from Liverpool's wingers led to today's problems. That Gerrard was anonymous on his return, still in a deeper CM role, again begs the question of his best position, but Meireles continued his fine form as the furthest forward of three central midfielders. Both Johnson and Kelly got forward as often as possible to add some width, with Johnson far more dangerous. The 'make-shift' left back, Meireles, and Reina all merit being named man of the match.

Five games in 17 days caught up with Liverpool and the Reds still took all three points, now up to the heady heights of 7th place. Against Wolves, Liverpool continued to improve on its performances and finally got a deserved result. Today, Liverpool didn't perform as hoped but still got the result. As United's disgustingly proven so far this season, that's all that counts. Winning often becomes habit no matter how the games are won.

25 January 2011

Liverpool v Fulham 01.26.11

3pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 04.11.10
1-3 Fulham (a) 10.31.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.04.09
0-0 (h) 11.22.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Wolves (a); 2-2 Everton (h); 1-2 Blackpool (a)
Fulham: 2-0 Stoke (h); 1-1 Wigan (a); 6-2 Peterborough (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 9; Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Meireles, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Fulham: Dempsey 6; Hangeland 3; Baird, Davies, Dembele, Kamara 2; Etuhu, Gera, Hughes, Johnson, Zamora 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

This is Liverpool's other game in hand thanks to the winter postponements. Will Gerrard's return from suspension prompt the only change or will Dalglish rest others after three matches in a week?

The need for rotation may be moderated with Liverpool out of the FA Cup; the next match is a week later. Kuyt and Poulsen looked the most fatigued after beating Wolves, and it's safe to assume that Poulsen won't be starting. Home against Fulham is the type of game that frequently leads to calls for Kuyt's omission in favor of a "more attacking" player. Tomorrow could see Cole or possibly Pacheco take his place. Or Johnson could move up to midfield, with Aurelio at left back and Kelly keeping his place.

But after four consecutive matches, Kelly could be another rotation casualty. Honestly, I thought he'd be spelled before this. His performances have made him impossible to drop, relegating England's first-choice right back to the opposite flank, but five games in 17 days is a large ask for a 20-year-old defender with all of 17 total starts. Also, it's been a while since we've seen the supposedly-fit Aurelio.

Fulham currently sit 14th, three points and three places behind Liverpool. The Cottagers are the only side Liverpool haven't faced in the league yet this season. Unbeaten in four since a loss at Tottenham on New Year's Day, Fulham are still struggling to get over the same disease Hodgson left Liverpool with: appalling away form. Fulham are the highest-placed of five sides with only one win on their travels this season, a group that Liverpool escaped with Wednesday's victory. However, Fulham's lone road win came at Stoke in December, a site where Liverpool meekly lost 0-2. And Fulham under Hodgson were difficult opponents at Anfield, with successive 0-0s in the last two visits.

Clint Dempsey's in fine form, having scored both goals in Fulham's last match. Andrew Johnson and Moussa Dembele were both finally fit enough to start against Stoke, adding more firepower to Fulham's meager attack. Bobby Zamora remains a huge miss, still out with the broken leg suffered in September, as is Mark Schwarzer, away at the Asian Cup with Australia. Aaron Hughes and Dickson Etuhu will be late injury decisions. Captain Danny Murphy will assuredly be up for the game: a match against his former club and a chance to avenge Dear Ol' Roy.

Coming off the first win under Dalglish and the first clean sheet in the league since beating Villa at the beginning of December, building momentum is crucial. Liverpool are at home, where – even during such a calamitous season – they've actually won a few games. It's not too late to dig out of this mile-deep hole. Tottenham and fifth place are only nine points away, and two games still constitutes a winning streak.

24 January 2011

Passing Makes Perfect?

Liverpool's capstone goal against Wolves, a flowing, fascinating 31-pass move hearkened the return of the one true style of football. Pass and move, it's the Liverpool groove. Dominate possession, keep it on the floor, and poke at the back line until you find an opening akin to the one which ended with Torres slamming home from six yards out.

'Move' is the key part of that mission statement. Because we saw an awful lot more passes, including successful passes, under the last manager.

In each comparison, Liverpool made more passes and had a higher success rate under Hodgson. Yet in two of the three matches, Liverpool bettered the result under Dalglish; both managers managed to lose 1-2 against Blackpool.

The least number of passes, fewest successful passes, and lowest success rate came in Liverpool's most recent match – a three-goal romp and the only victory. Each game under Dalglish has seen fewer and fewer passes attempted.

It's not news to anyone, but simply put, it's the type of passes attempted and where they were played that matters. Evidently, there's enough time to constantly hoof and play sideways passes in a 90-minute match.

In each of the earlier contests, the center of the pitch is almost wholly blue, with furious lines in front of Liverpool's 18-yard box. The derby at Goodison is by far the most formulaic: a stripe of passes in Liverpool's half, a chasm where midfielders watched the ball fly over their heads, and a stripe of passes outside the Everton box, where Liverpool aimlessly prodded before blasting an empty shot from distance. Coincidentally, that's the match where Liverpool attempted the most passes out of the six listed. Small wonder that 81% were successful. Also, small wonder that was the one match where Liverpool failed to score.

If you've seen Liverpool this season, this is all fairly obvious. I was surprised by the vast and increasing disparity in passes, and the amusing trend of fewer passes attempted in each successive match since Dalglish took the reins, but the difference in style of play (and its chances for success) are evident on first glance.

Aside from the interesting trends, it's just a reminder that there needs to be an end which justifies the means. Making lots of passes and having a high success rate are all well and good, but – and pun heavily regretted – there has to be a goal in the process.

22 January 2011

Liverpool 3-0 Wolves

Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Lucas Poulsen
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Torres 36' 90+1'
Meireles 50'

After four games, performances finally lead to a result. A deservedly comprehensive three-goal away win, for Dalglish's first victory in his second stint as Liverpool's manager. A continuation of the pressing, shackles-off style that the King has brought back, three well-taken goals, no costly defensive mistakes, and an absolute master-class from Raul Meireles. That'll do nicely.

Today began looking more like rugby than football, as expected in a trip to Molineux. Martin Atkinson seemed content with Wolves' physicality, but was quick to show Poulsen a 4th-minute yellow, a frightening prospect for a shaky defensive midfielder. But Liverpool demonstrated its attacking intent with a clever move five minutes later: Johnson set up by Torres after taking the throw-in, putting Lucas in with a smart pass only to see Poulsen's shot from the Brazilian's cutback blocked. That's right, Christian Poulsen actually got in the box and threatened.

Torres and Meireles were at the heart of almost every good Liverpool attack, and the two nearly combined to open the scoring in the 22nd, with Torres' controlling Meireles' brilliant cross-field pass only to see his left-footed shot saved. Ten minutes later, the Spaniard's flick led to Meireles' shot from distance skittering wide of the far post. But in the 36th, the two finally provided the needed goal, with a cameo from the oft-criticized Poulsen. The Dane's throughball found Meireles just onside, played on by Zubar, bursting through and centering for a Torres tap-in.

Wolves' attempted to spark to life, hoping to catch Liverpool out, as happened in the last two games once the Reds took the lead. Reina saved Fletcher's shot from the top of the box and Milijas' point-black far post-effort before halftime. But Liverpool never looked like cheaply conceding after the interval, as happened in those seven minutes last Sunday. The away side got the desperately-crucial second goal five minutes from the restart thanks to an indescribable volley from Meireles.

We'll be hard-pressed to find a better goal this season. Berra attempted to clear an aimless free kick from Liverpool's half, heading the ball skyward. The Portuguese midfielder watched it all the way before blasting an unstoppable shot. The movement of the ball, dipping like a cut pitch, broke at least four laws of physics. As McManaman said on ESPN after the game, "The goalkeeper could have had stilts on and wouldn't have stopped that." Seconds before, Kuyt should have tallied the second when one-on-one with Hennessey from Maxi's quick pass.

From there, Liverpool were rightfully content to quash Wolves attacks and hit back on the counter. Unlike in previous games, especially under the previous manager, Liverpool rarely looked like capitulating, in control throughout. Wolves had chances, from open play and dead balls. But any mistakes, like Skrtel's giveaway when under pressure in the 66th, only led to Reina saves, in that case from Ward's vicious long-range strike. And thankfully, there were few mistakes.

Liverpool's third goal, to cap proceedings, was the perfect way to mark Dalglish's first victory and an end to the previous era: keeping possession for more than minute with one-touch passing, with more than 30 passes and every player getting a touch of the ball, ending with a quick strike when Johnson put Kuyt through, the last ditch tackle setting Torres up for his second goal. Pass and move, with a small sprig of luck on the finishing touch. It hearkened back to better days.

Liverpool had played good football in the last three games without getting a win. Today, they played their best football under Dalglish and got those deserved three points. That it comes away from Anfield is further confirmation that the times are a changin'. Confidence is up, performances are improved, and the tactics are suited to the players. The back-line is slowly becoming settled and secure. The midfield looked coherent as Meireles had his best game in a Liverpool shirt, Lucas was typically consistent and diligent, and Poulsen didn't disappoint. Kuyt and Maxi actually gave Liverpool width and looked threatening on the break despite each's respective lack of pace. And the change in Torres under the new manager is like night and day.

But it's still one win against the 19th-placed side, even if it is one of the few and far between away wins. Liverpool are still only up to 10th, and that's before every other weekend game's been played. There is still much work to be done, and confidence can be sapped in the blink of an eye by one bad play. But this is what had to happen today. Dalglish has made a difference during his short tenure and Liverpool are beginning to get what their play deserves. Today just can't be a one-off game. We've seen enough of those.

21 January 2011

Liverpool at Wolverhampton 01.22.11

7:45am ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Wolves (h) 12.29.10
0-0 (a) 01.26.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.09
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.20.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Everton (h); 1-2 Blackpool (a); 0-1 United (a)
Wolves: 5-0 Doncaster (h); 3-4 City (a); 2-2 Doncaster (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 7; Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Meireles, Skrtel 1
Wolves: Ebanks-Blake, Fletcher 4; Doyle, Foley, Hunt, Jarvis, Milijas 2; Edwards, Jones, Ward, Van Damme, Zubar 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Spearing Lucas
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

With Gerrard suspended for one more match, my best guess is the same XI which drew with Everton last Sunday. At the very least, I assume Liverpool will stick with the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation instead of a potential 4-4-2 with Ngog partnering Torres. We've seen the more fluid formation in each of Dalglish's three matches.

The Daily Mirror, surprisingly, suggests an interesting possibility: Joe Cole could start his first game since Hodgson's final loss at Blackburn. I expected Cole to get chances because of Gerrard's suspension, but he hasn't featured in the two previous games. Cole survived 45 minutes with the reserves on Wednesday, proving his fitness. He could take up Gerrard's usual position behind Torres, which would allow Meireles to play deeper in his preferred role, relegating Spearing to the bench.

Playing Glen Johnson at left back continues to provoke questions, but Johnson was better against Everton than Blackpool, and Kelly's recent form has made it near impossible to leave him out. The clamor to see Johnson in midfield remains, but I'm still skeptical. I don't see the same parallel with Gareth Bale, whose close control and acceleration are far better than Johnson's, making him better suited for a more advanced position. Johnson's attacking improves as he has room to operate, charging forward from deep. I don't think he'd have anywhere near the same effect in midfield. I am admittedly curious, though.

Questions also remain about Martin Skrtel, who's suffered a mind-boggling drop in form this season. Arguably at fault for both goals conceded against Everton and Blackpool's winner, among multiple other defensive calamities, Skrtel's regression has fostered the belief that Liverpool needs another center-back. It hasn't helped that this regression parallels Carragher's extended stint on the sidelines. But Liverpool's options are limited: Kyrgiakos, who also looked shaky against Everton, and the untried Wilson are the alternatives to partner Agger. Kelly could also feature at center-back, where he spent time in the reserves, but his performances at right-back have been so promising that I doubt he'll change position in the near future. For now, I imagine Dalglish will stick with the devil he knows best until the vice-captain's fit.

I've seen few Wolves matches this season, but every one I manage to catch leaves me wondering how they're stuck in 19th, only one point off the bottom of the table. They hammered one of the many nails in Hodgson's coffin with a 1-0 win at Anfield, beat Chelsea at the beginning of the month, and surprised Manchester City in October. United needed goals after the 90th minute for victories in both the league and Carling Cup. And Wolves deserved something from a 3-4 thriller at City a week ago. But then you look at their full results and see five losses out of seven games played against sides placed 15th or lower, including two losses against 18th-placed Wigan and a loss and draw against bottom-of-the-table West Ham.

Wolves played a reasonably strong lineup mid-week in an FA Cup replay, starting Fletcher, Doyle, and Hunt among others. Hopefully, that will lead to fatigue, as happened to Liverpool against Blackpool after a tough FA Cup match at United. Joint top-scorer Ebanks-Blake is still out with a calf problem, while Kightly and Mancienne are long-term casualties and left-back Elokobi is suspended.

Yesterday, Wolves bought highly-regarded former Liverpool trainee Adam Hammill. During a week where Dalglish rightfully lauded Benitez's contribution to the Academy, Liverpool's opponents purchase one of Rafa's biggest youth mistakes. That El Zhar got chances ahead of Hammill still rankles many fans. Tomorrow may be too soon for young winger's first appearance, but a cameo would be poetically frightening. Hammill playing a crucial role would fit perfectly with this season's gruesome leitmotif.

Tomorrow could mark a first win for Dalglish and a break with the usual away day voodoo. That Liverpool needs a victory goes without saying; it's gone without saying since August. 13th place, only four points above the relegation zone and five points ahead of Wolves, with a negative goal difference, is no place to be in the middle of January.

Liverpool have deserved more than a draw and two losses from their performances since Dalglish took the reins. Now they need to start turning performances into results.

20 January 2011

What Makes a Bad Transfer?

In the previous post on Babel and the worst transfers of the last decade, I should have better differentiated between a "bad player" and a "bad signing." Buying Alberto Aquilani was an awful, awful deal, but Alberto Aquilani's an outstanding player. Philipp Degen is a terrible full-back but was a free signing that didn't cost Liverpool much more than wages and overtime for the medical staff.

I guess therein lies the rub in Tuesday's poll. Is it a poor signing because of the player's lack of talent? Is it a poor signing because of the fee? Did the bad transfer hold a better player back? Did the deal hinder the club's future chances of success? The last question seems the most important, and arguably what led to the downfall of both the Houllier and Benitez regimes.

First, the results. Poll's still open, but the order's stayed the same for awhile now, and votes have barely trickled in since the morning. Some of you did not vote for five transfers.

Total Votes: 116
1) El Hadji Diouf: 69.8% = 81 votes
2) Christian Poulsen: 65.5% = 76 votes
3) Robbie Keane: 50.9% = 59 votes
4) Jermaine Pennant: 39.7% = 46 votes
5) Salif Diao: 33.6% = 39 votes
6) Ryan Babel: 31.9% = 37 votes
7) Alberto Aquilani: 28.4% = 33 votes
8) Djibril Cisse: 24.1% = 28 votes
9) Philipp Degen: 20.7% = 24 votes
10) Christian Ziege: 6.9% = 8 votes

My choices:

1) Diouf – The pinnacle of bad players and bad deals, and to make matters worse, an absolutely terrible human being. Should have gotten 100% in the poll. Never worth £10m, which if spent on a better player could have pushed Liverpool over the top after finishing second the previous campaign and having won the treble two seasons before. But Liverpool spent £10m on Diouf, £4.7m on Diao, and £3.7m on Cheyrou, and dropped to fifth. All three were gone within three years, as was Houllier.

2) Keane – Decent player, easy target, costly deal. Yes, Liverpool went on to their highest points total under Benitez after buying Keane, but it wasn't because of the transfer. Benitez ended up getting rid in record time, selling Keane for at least a £3m loss after less than six months. Like Diouf, it's a question of what could have been. Imagine if Liverpool had bought Andrei Arshavin – who went to Arsenal in January for approximately £16m (and scored 4 goals in a 4-4 draw at Anfield that season) – instead? At least Liverpool recouped what they could; Tottenham's still struggling to sell Keane.

3) Aquilani – The real beginning of the end. With Liverpool strapped for every last penny because of Hicks and Gillett, Benitez spent what little he was given out of the £35m Alonso deal on a player that couldn't get fit. By the time Aquilani was available, Liverpool's season was long off the rails, in no small part because of the Alonso-sized hole in midfield. And he was rarely available. But this season, this was going to be when we saw the real Aquilani... until Football Manager extraordinaire Christian Purslow loaned the finally healthy player to Juventus, where he's unsurprisingly flourished. And now Juventus can buy him for £13m, a £4m loss and far less than what he should cost after the season he's had. Not to mention the lingering belief that Liverpool would have been much this season with Aquilani in the lineup. As a player, he doesn't deserve to be on this list, but as business goes, it's hard to be worse than this.

4) Diao – The difference between Diao and Diouf is that Diao was cheaper and didn't spit on anyone during his tenure. Less offensive personality, similarly offensive waste of money at a crucial time. He held on longer than his cohorts from the summer of 2002, actually making 14 appearances under Benitez before being shipped out on various loans until his expensive contract expired.

5) Poulsen – Here's where it gets tricky. The previous four are head and shoulders above the rest. I went for Poulsen here because of his complete lack of footballing ability, but can see arguments for almost any other candidate. Poulsen's utter inability to replace Mascherano and continuing reminder of the Roy Hodgson era "wins out" for me. Might as well have set £4.5m on fire during a summer where Liverpool actually made around £10m in transfer profit.

If you're picking based solely on talent, there's a valid argument for including Degen. If unfulfilled potential and losing money are a larger motivation, Babel's an excellent choice. Cisse was arguably the biggest waste of money on this list, although he never got to play for the manager who bought him. And two players I should have included – Konchesky and Dossena – are also debatable: both were the football equivalent of flushing money down the toilet when Liverpool had none, and at the same position no less.

The true cost of a terrible transfer is only evident in the long-term. Diouf and Diao were bought after Liverpool finished second to Arsenal in the league. Keane and Aquilani were bought in successive summers before Liverpool started this 18-month free-fall. The first two epitomize Houllier's downfall. The latter two Benitez's. It's not wholly fair in either case – Benitez especially thanks to Hicks, Gillett, and Purslow – but that's the peril of bad transfers. Liverpool are still paying for the above four deals; each marked a clear regression when potentially on the cusp of greatness.

I don't think Ryan Babel deserves to be on that list. His unfulfilled potential heavily disappoints. Losing money on the deal certainly doesn't help. That £11.5m definitely could have been better spent, and the position he was supposed to fill has been a problem area for the entire decade. We truly thought Babel could be the answer.

But he still contributed more than he cost. There are similarities with the Pennant deal, although Babel hasn't frittered away Liverpool fans' goodwill or lazily run his contract out. Babel cost more and was a "better prospect," while Pennant was a cheaper second-choice option that got more chances, but we expected both to improve Liverpool's flanks. Neither could. Each had moments of excellence – most notably, Babel against Arsenal, Pennant in the CL final – but all too often failed to improve or live up to that potential. Yet neither caused the long-term damage that Diouf, Diao, Keane, Aquilani, and arguably Dossena did (and Poulsen and Konchesky potentially could).

Caveat emptor.

And good luck wherever you go, Ryan.

18 January 2011

On Ryan Babel and Bad Transfers

Liverpool have confirmed that they've accepted a bid from Hoffenheim for Ryan Babel. Media reports put the fee at €7m, or £5.8m, which is almost exactly 50% of what Liverpool paid for the winger/striker/professional Tweeter in the summer of 2007. The deal's not done yet – Babel still has to agree personal terms – but I expect we're past the point of no return.

I've little desire to rehash his term at Liverpool. His first season was his best, and he had some moments of brilliance throughout his tenure – including an undeniably important cameo in the Champions League quarterfinal against Arsenal – but disappointed more often than not. I had hoped he'd turned a corner last spring. Babel rarely got a consistent run of games, but always looked more impressive as a substitute, and Liverpool's last three managers have had little use for the player since that 2007-08 season.

So instead of a requiem, I'd like to do a poll.

Friend of the blog Mike Georger (you had better be reading Avoiding The Drop regularly) suggested that Babel was one of the worst five transfers in club history. It's a valid argument to make; only six players cost more: Torres, Keane, Mascherano, Johnson, Aquilani, and Cisse. Babel came with immense hype, looked to be a huge signing for the future, and could have put Liverpool over the top in 2008-09 if he performed to his potential. As Georger argued on Twitter, Liverpool has badly needed a winger for ages, and Babel was supposed to be the solution to that long-standing problem. For the cost and the need, situationally, the transfer was a huge flop.

But I'm still unconvinced. Liverpool have had more than a few questionable deals in the past decade, let alone in club history. So I thought I'd open this debate up to the general population.

My memory gets worse every day, so I'm limiting these choices to transfers in since Houllier. Please pick five. All fees (and links to player profiles) taken from the indispensable LFCHistory.net.

Your choices are:

El Hadji Diouf: Bought £10m, Sold £3.5m
• Salif Diao: Bought £4.7m, Sold Free
Christian Ziege: Bought £5.5m, Sold £4m
Djibril Cisse: Bought £14.5m, Sold £6m
Jermaine Pennant: Bought £6.7m, Sold: Free
Ryan Babel: Bought £11.5m, Sold £5.8m
Philipp Degen: Bought Free, Sold Free
• Robbie Keane: Bought £19m, Sold £16m
Alberto Aquilani: Bought £17.1m, Sold £13m if Juve take option
Christian Poulsen: Bought £4.5m, Sold Not Yet

I encourage you to comment to explain your choices or suggest any that I forgot. I'll try to remember to do a wrap-up post for this poll in a few days with a vote total and my choices.

17 January 2011

Liverpool v Everton: Four Crucial Changes

1) Tackles won
Everton (H): 20 out of 46 in opposition half (43%)
Everton (A): 14 out of 38 in opposition half (37%)

2) Successful clearances
Everton (H): 23 out of 44 clearances successful (52%)
Everton (A): 13 out of 33 clearances successful (39%)

3) Shots
Everton (H): 4 of 20 shots from outside the box (20%)
      - 1 on target, 2 blocked, 1 off target
Everton (A): 15 of 21 shots from outside the box (71%)
      - 4 on target, 4 blocked, 7 off target

4) Reina passes
Everton (H): 27 out of 35 passes successful (77%)
Everton (A): 20 out of 30 passes successful (67%)

1) Pressing from the front
Goes without saying, and the biggest improvement we've seen in the last three games. The increased number of tackles taking place in Everton's half demonstrates the return to pressing from the front, a trait which Liverpool used to great effect under Benitez and sorely lacked under Hodgson.

2) Less hoofing (successful clearances)
'Hoof and hope' doesn't allow a team to control possession or the pace of the game, which is almost always asking for trouble. The return of Daniel Agger has assuredly helped in this regard, and Liverpool somewhat returned to the 'bad old days' when Kyrgiakos had to replace the Dane at halftime, but the chalkboard still shows progress. The increase in successful clearances means Liverpool's at least keeping possession instead of waiting for the opposition to attack yet again. Also notice that the vast majority of clearances yesterday came from inside Liverpool's penalty box, whereas in October, a number came from the flanks (cough Konchesky cough). The increased number of clearances from outside the 18-yard box also demonstrate a slightly higher defensive line, with the center-backs playing further forward, compared to how deep the back four sat when Hodgson was in charge.

3) Less hoofing (Reina passes)
Neither chalkboard is the horror that was Reina's performance against Wolverhampton, but more completed passes show Liverpool's increased focus on building from the back and maintaining possession. As suits Reina's talents. Incidentally, the higher number of successful passes to the right flank shows that Kuyt was doing his job collecting Reina's clearances – a combination that also thrived under Benitez. The Dutchman was missing from the last meeting due to injury.

4) Attacking cohesion (shots from distance)
Liverpool continues to look disjointed in front of goal, but far less so than when Hodgson was in charge. All those shots from distance in the October derby demonstrate a lack of a plan once Liverpool got into the final third – basically, it was the attacking version of Liverpool's defensive 'hit and hope.' With no concrete ideas up against two strong center-backs, Liverpool resorted to blasts from distance, praying one would come good. That wasn't the case on Sunday, where attacking players actually attempted to get into the penalty box, leading to two goals. The improvement we've seen from Torres in the last three games, clearly looking far more interested, also played a huge role.

Yesterday's result, as well as the two goals conceded, show that Liverpool still have some distance to make up. There are still big worries about the defense and the team still hasn't won under Dalglish. But, at a bare minimum, we wanted progress, and we're getting progress, as well as a playing style that suits the players in the squad. Which is all we could ask for after this season from hell.

16 January 2011

Liverpool 2-2 Everton

Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Spearing Lucas
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Meireles 29'
Distin 46'
Beckford 52'
Kuyt 68' (pen)

Liverpool score an early goal. They can't get a second despite bossing the game, and concede an equalizer because of a defensive mistake. Heads drop, and they concede a second. Time and time again. At least this time they came back for a point. It's January 16th, and that's only the second time that's happened in the league. 2-2 against Sunderland and 2-2 against Everton after being behind 1-2. Two "comebacks," for two points, in 22 games. That's beyond frightening. But it's better than coming away with absolutely nothing, as has happened all too often.

The Reds paid the price for not being further ahead at the interval. The first 45 minutes were as good a performance as we've seen in the league other than the first half against Chelsea. It was a open, exciting game with chances for both sides, and Torres should have started the scoring in the 17th, holding off Distin, turning Heitinga, and cannoning a shot off the post, with Kuyt's rebound deflected over.

Meireles finally popped his cherry twelve minutes later. Howard saved Kuyt's header from Johnson's dangerous cross and blocked the rebound, but couldn't keep out the third effort from 12 yards out. Less than two minutes later, Liverpool should have had a second, when Howard saved Torres' acute shot and Maxi ballooned the second chance. Meireles had another effort saved, Maxi shot straight down Howard's throat, and Torres chipped over just before the break. With Liverpool in that form, it looked a question of how many. Not this season, though.

Play completely changed after halftime. Less than 60 seconds in and Everton were unjustly level. Agger had to be replaced by Kyrgiakos due to illness, but it was his defensive partner Skrtel who shoulders the blame, caught wrong-footed and easily out-jumped by Distin on a corner that should have been given as a goal kick.

And as we've seen all too often, Liverpool went under. All the confidence accrued dissipated and Everton kept up the pressure. The go-ahead goal seven minutes later was a comedy of errors. With Kelly down, elbowed by Anichebe when winning the flick on, Beckford beat Skrtel to lay off for Osman, dancing between two (Lucas and Kyrgiakos) to return the ball to the striker, who held off Meireles' weak challenge and slotted past Reina.

At least this time, Liverpool didn't lay down. Unlike against Blackpool, where tired legs had a massive impact, cooler heads prevailed, and Liverpool reestablished some sort of possession. Chances remained few and far between – Meireles had a tame lefty shot saved and Howard coolly collected Maxi's flicked header – but at least Liverpool restored some semblance of sanity.

And then the attack finally came good in the 68th, aided by Everton's shaky set-play defense and some incredibly rash keeping from Howard. A Meireles free kick found Skrtel in space at the far post, and while he scuffed his close-range shot, Howard hauled down Maxi before the Argentinean could reach the loose ball. Kuyt, often the hero in this fixture made no mistake from the spot.

But Liverpool found few chances to take the lead, limited to two Torres openings: heading at Howard and chipping over the bar from Kelly's excellent throughball. Shelvey replaced Meireles, but fresh legs couldn't change proceedings, and Liverpool were lucky to see Coleman's deflected effort skitter wide in the dying seconds of normal time.

The play is improving. Tactically, Liverpool have looked far better pressing from the front, playing out of defense, and adding more steel to midfield. The formation can be described as 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, or 4-3-3, which is a good distance better than a static 4-4-2. Hopefully, results will follow. After three games, it hasn't happened yet. But had Liverpool played like this all season, they'd be far better off in the table and Roy Hodgson would still have a job.

Liverpool's problems are three-fold. Defensive mistakes continue to cost the team; primarily, Skrtel is a shadow of his former self. The lack of confidence continues to weigh heavy on players' minds. And Liverpool, while marginally better, remains disjointed in the final third. Today's chances demonstrated improvement in that area, but only two opportunities after the equalizer show that improvement's still needed.

The most heartening thing – outside of the rarely seen "comeback" – was Dalglish's continued faith in youth. For the third straight match, Martin Kelly was excellent. Even though he's stepped in brilliantly at full-back, where he's predominantly played throughout his short career, I'm tempted to suggest he could be the answer at center-back in Carragher's absence. It's hard to think that the defense could be worse. Spearing showed few signs of a long injury layoff, providing little in attack – his pairing with Lucas isn't creative enough for most games – but he did much better in defense than Poulsen on Wednesday in tenaciously hunting play. And once again, Dalglish turned to Shelvey off the bench.

Torres continues to look more interested under the new manager. Johnson was much-improved at left-back, although Aurelio's continued absence still baffles. Meireles finally got on the goal sheet, Kuyt returned to form against his favorite opponents with a goal from the spot and an assist off his rebounded shot, and Maxi was diligent if disappointing in front of goal. As repeatedly stated, overhauling a deficit to at least earn a point is the biggest positive.

At the end of the day, it's a disappointing result. Liverpool looked on pace for a much-needed win after 45 minutes. A draw does little to get out of a potential relegation battle, still only four points ahead of 18th place. But if performances continue in this vein – outside of those seven minutes of madness, obviously – results will surely follow.

Today can be the first step towards rebuilding the club's shattered confidence. But if defensive mistakes aren't fixed, it could also be a 'one-off' Merseyside Derby and yet another false dawn.

14 January 2011

Liverpool v Everton 01.16.11

9am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Everton (a) 10.17.10
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.06.10
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.29.09
0-1 Everton (a; FA Cup) 02.04.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Blackpool (a); 0-1 United (a); 1-3 Blackburn (a)
Everton: 5-1 Scunthorpe (a); 2-1 Spurs (h); 0-2 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 7; Gerrard 4; Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Everton: Cahill 9; Arteta, Coleman 3; Baines, Beckford 2; Pienaar, Saha, Yakubu 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

The last time Phil Dowd took charge of a Merseyside derby was March 2006. Gerrard and van der Meyde were sent off, Dowd showed yellow to 10 other players, and Liverpool won 3-1.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Kyrgiakos Agger Aurelio
Maxi Meireles Lucas Babel
Kuyt Torres

There's no better way to restore confidence than beating the city rivals.

I doubt Liverpool will persist with the 4-3-3 we saw against Blackpool. Whether than leads to 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formation or a 4-4-2 in the absence of Gerrard remains to be seen. At the least, most of the players rested against Blackpool should come back into the side.

Despite recent form, Kuyt has to play. He's called "The Scourge of the Mongrels" for a reason, with four goals and two assists in eight starts against Everton. I'm sure it's just coincidence he was injured for the meeting earlier this season and Liverpool lost 0-2. Actually, yeah, it was coincidence; Liverpool were simply awful that day. But games against Everton are tailor-made for the Dutchman.

I've guessed a 4-4-2 formation to get Kuyt closer to goal, in the hopes it helps raise his game. Maxi should start on one of the flanks, with Babel or Cole on the other; Cole should be fit despite not playing in the last two matches. I think Babel's pace would be more of a boon, but we'll see if he's in contention. I'm tempted to believe he was held out against Blackpool as punishment for the Twitter fiasco which saw him charged by the FA.

Kelly's done a job when called upon in the last two games, and was excellent against United, but I'm still worried about 'too much, too soon.' Playing three tough games in a week is a lot to ask of a 20-year-old defender. I'm guessing a return for Kyrgiakos because of Skrtel's inconsistency – he was back to his shaky ways against Blackpool – not because of his enduring friendship with Fellaini, but it's just as likely that the Slovakian will start on Sunday.

Everton will be without a number of recognizable names. Like Liverpool's Brad Jones, top-scorer Tim Cahill is away at Asian Cup. Leicester have signed Yakubu on loan for the rest of the season. And there are also rumors that Pienaar will be sold in the next couple of days – although some have stated he's just signed a pre-contract agreement – which should preclude his participation as well.

The Blues are level on points with Liverpool, one place ahead of the Reds on goal difference. In the absence of Cahill, Moyes deployed two strikers against Scunthorpe and Tottenham, starting both Saha and Beckford instead of his usual 4-5-1 formation. Arteta's a frequent threat, while young right-winger Seamus Coleman's been in fine form this season.

It's fitting that Dalglish's first game at Anfield is against Everton. Not because Everton were his last opponents during his first stint as Liverpool boss, but because of the importance of Merseyside derbies. Last October's match excepted, Liverpool are almost always up for these games – combative and feisty even during poor runs of form.

This match is massive for both clubs, both just four points above the relegation zone. We've seen much written about turning points and false dawns over the last 18 months, but a win – for either side – on Sunday will set them up well for the rest of the season.

And because of the return of the King, Anfield will be rocking down to its foundation. The team simply has to respond.

12 January 2011

Liverpool 1-2 Blackpool

Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Meireles Poulsen Lucas
Kuyt Torres Jovanovic

Torres 3'
Taylor-Fletcher 12'
Campbell 69'

The perfect start, fitting for a new era. Then the old era crept in. It's going to take more than "good feelings" to fix this side.

When Torres scored in the third minute, sent through by Kelly and smashing over Kingson from an acute angle, it looked as if we'd see a new Liverpool. The attacking, mobile 4-3-3 formation demonstrated intent.

But that formation, and individual mistakes, let Liverpool down fairly quickly. Blackpool leveled less than ten minutes later because of errors from Torres, Meireles, and Agger: misplaced passes from the first two let Taylor-Fletcher in, while Agger wasn't strong enough to hold the striker off, his "tackle" unluckily letting the Scouser in for the equalizer.

And because of the horrors from the past six months, confidence plummeted. Blackpool could have had a second minutes later, only Campbell headed wide from six yards out following a corner. Liverpool remained completely disjointed until the final minutes of the half, when Agger headed at the keeper from a free kick and Kingson just kept out Lucas' near-post flick from a corner.

But with no ability to string anything together in attack, Blackpool were by far the better side after the interval. Their confidence increased with every kick, while Liverpool's vanished – especially in defense. Only Reina prevented Blackpool from quickly getting a second, saving shots from Adam and Vaughan ten minutes after the restart.

Liverpool started to build up some slight momentum – Torres volleyed over, Meireles shot wide, and Kingson saved Kuyt's bouncing effort from distance – but mistakes and poor defending soon condemned the away side. Another Meireles giveaway led to a corner when Agger got back to block Phillips' effort. While Liverpool cleared their lines, Blackpool quickly regrouped, Evatt easily out-jumped Skrtel to head across goal, and Campbell easily headed in when Johnson abdicated any defensive responsibilities.

And that's when morale hit rock bottom. There was little attempt at a comeback after Blackpool's second. Having conceded, and lost a lead, so often this season, you could clearly see heads drop. Other than a Meireles header over the bar and a cast-iron penalty shout for handball – ignored because of a questionable push – Liverpool had no response. Blackpool spent the majority of the final 20 minutes toying with their opponents, which would be the height of humiliation had Liverpool not been humiliated so often this season.

I didn't get on Hodgson's back after the first couple of games, and I won't get on Dalglish's. Confidence is at an all-time low, and it's evident in almost every single player. Only Reina, Lucas, Kelly, and Torres can come away with any credit today.

But there were some exceptionally questionable line-up decisions which came back to haunt Liverpool. Glen Johnson is not a left-back – he's only played there once for Liverpool, against Atletico in last year's Europa League, where his mistake led to the goal that knocked Liverpool out of the competition. Jovanovic, finally given a chance by the new manager, completely disappointed. Kuyt continued his dismal form when not playing against the likes of Chelsea or United. Et cetera, et cetera...

Up until Blackpool's second, Liverpool at least tried to play football, tried to pass the ball through midfield instead of hoofing and hoping. But the lack of quality in the final third other than Torres' moment of magic and the utter lack of self-belief are unfortunate holdovers from the previous regime. A tired side following Sunday's match – which led to many of the line-up changes – didn't help; that Blackpool rested nearly its entire side in the FA Cup made a difference.

I'm already dreading the 'see, it wasn't Hodgson's fault!' comments. Hodgson's at fault for the total lack of confidence. That's not to ignore today's team selection or the individual performances. But it's Dalglish's job to restore morale, and that won't happen overnight. And it's the job of FSG and Comolli to provide funds to fix the glaring holes in the squad – specifically at left back and in attacking width, which isn't news to anyone.

At least it should be harder for the team to roll over on Sunday, at Anfield against their most bitter rivals. If Liverpool can't get up for that game, maybe the problems do run far deeper than the manager.

11 January 2011

Liverpool at Blackpool 01.12.11

3pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Blackpool (h) 10.24.10
2-2 (h) 01.09.71
0-0 (a) 08.17.70
1-3 Blackpool (h) 05.13.67

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 United (a); 1-3 Blackburn (a); 2-1 Bolton (h)
Blackpool: 0-2 Southampton (a); 1-2 Brum (h); 0-1 Man City (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 6; Gerrard 4; Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Blackpool: Campbell 6; Harewood, Varney 5; Adam 3; Taylor-Fletcher 2; Baptiste, Eardley, Evatt, Phillips, Vaughan 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Cole Maxi

The return of the King in the league, in the midst of a crush of games where we're sure to see rotation of some sort.

Gerrard's suspension begs the first lineup question: will he be replaced by Cole or Shelvey? A start for Cole would necessitate a slight change in formation from the predominantly 4-1-4-1 we saw against the Mancs, as Cole's even more an attacking midfielder than Gerrard. But Shelvey could also slot straight into the formation as he did when Liverpool were down to 10 men on Sunday. That Shelvey saw any time in such an important match, let alone when Liverpool were behind and down a man, seemingly shows the faith that Dalglish has in the player.

Another talking point is whether Glen Johnson will walk back into the side after missing Sunday's match when his wife went into labor. Martin Kelly deservedly won many man-of-the-match awards, having now impressed against the likes of Lyon, Chelsea, and United. But Noel at Liverpool Offside wrote an intelligent (if not wholly well-received) piece about the danger of expecting too much too soon from young players. In addition, while Johnson struggled against Blackburn in his last start – and against Blackpool in these sides' last meeting – he's still a very good, if predominantly attacking, right back. No matter Kelly's potential, I'd expect Johnson to return if available. Kelly will have his chances this season.

There are also questions about Agger and Aurelio's ability to play three games in a week. Both will be more valuable against Everton. We saw Danny Wilson on the bench against United; if Agger or Aurelio miss out, maybe it'll be an opportunity for the young Scot, who Dalglish had a hand in convincing to come to Liverpool. At the same time, it's not really a game for Kyrgiakos, with the speedy D.J. Campbell as Blackpool's main threat. Agger's more likely to play than Aurelio – when Agger's fit, there have been fewer concerns over consecutive games than with the Brazilian left back – which means if there are any changes to the back line, Konchesky will probably return to the XI. Fair warning. Be nice.

Other possibilities? Maybe a start for Babel? He played well off the bench on Sunday, offering a more direct attack with Liverpool up against the wall. And while it's an exceptionally tenuous comparison, Dalglish used a similar tactic when in charge of Liverpool in the 1980s – one "winger" tucked in (Kuyt or Maxi) and one far more pacey and direct (Babel in this version, Barnes in the '80s – which is where the comparison becomes stretched). Meireles, who had a tough return from injury on Sunday, could also be withheld if he's not fully fit.

Blackpool are level on points with Liverpool with a game in hand but an inferior goal difference. They're winless in their last three – but ran both City and Birmingham close – yet still haven't suffered the expect fall back to Earth (read: the relegation zone) after such an impressive start to the season. Manager Ian Holloway remains one of my absolute favorites, and has been doing himself favors by talking up Dalglish and Liverpool this week.

Blackpool rested players in FA Cup, making nine changes from the team which faced Birmingham mid-week. The Seasiders' other joint-second top scorer, Marlon Harewood, will miss out through injury, as will starting goalkeeper Matt Gilks, who notably denied Kyrgiakos late late late equalizer in October. Blackpool will almost assuredly stick with Holloway's 4-3-3/4-5-1 variant with Campbell, Taylor-Fletcher, and Varney up front; Adam, Vaughan, and Phillips (or possibly Grandin if he recovers in time) in midfield; and Cathcart, Eardley, Evatt, and Crainey in defense. Ghana's keeper Richard Kingson, formerly of Wigan and Birmingham, is Gilks' back-up.

It's easy to get ramped up for an emotional return against the Mancs. Liverpool's best match of the season had been the 2-0 win against then-league leading Chelsea; other than the embarrassment suffered at Man City, the side's been better against tough opposition. They've rallied when underdogs. As Andy Gray would say, it's a bit harder to do it on a wet Wednesday in Blackpool. Dalglish had less than 24 hours in charge before facing the Mancs; we should see more of his preferred tactics and ideas against the Tangerines. And picking up league wins, especially away from Anfield, remains utterly crucial.

09 January 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United

Kelly Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

Giggs 2' (pen)

So much for a storybook return.

1st minute, Webb gives a penalty for Berbatov's clear dive. 32nd minute, Webb shows Gerrard a straight red for a tackle similar to one Rafael went unpunished for. Welcome to the FA Cup at Old Trafford. Somehow, it's still Roy Hodgson's fault.

In all seriousness, aside from the result, I'm actually happy. Okay, happy may not be the right word – it's a loss to the bloody Mancs after all – but we've had very few signs of positivity for a long time. The team selection, formation, style of play, and player desire were all a vast improvement on the dross we've been treated to all season long. Dalglish's substitutions were ambitious, and he wasn't afraid for slay sacred cows. Were it not for an amazingly soft – and incorrect – penalty after less than 60 seconds, Liverpool would have gotten a draw despite being down to 10 men for an hour.

Liverpool's higher back line let Berbatov in right away, but Agger made no contact and the linesman didn't flag. Howard Webb, in a far inferior position, saw things differently, immediately pointing to the spot. Webb gave Liverpool a penalty in the league meeting at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Alex Ferguson obviously wasn't going to allow him such free reign in this match, and Giggs made no mistake from the spot with a well-taken effort.

But Liverpool heads didn't drop. Unlike in every single away match we've seen this season, they didn't sit back. Liverpool pressed high, tried to play the ball out of defense, out-numbered United in midfield because of the Gerrard-Lucas-Meireles axis, and had far more possession. Liverpool were still disjointed in the final third as Torres continued to under-perform, but positives were readily evident.

The penalty was an unfair body blow. But the red card made certain Liverpool wouldn't get back into the game. And, as per usual, it's a contentious decision. Any time you go into a tackle with two feet, you're asking for trouble. But it's hard to stomach when we saw similar from Rafael earlier in the match, Gerrard got the ball, and Carrick rolled around as if he were shot. It certainly wasn't worse than De Jong's kung fu challenge on Alonso, but the World Cup final wasn't at Old Trafford.

And even with 10 men, Liverpool limited United chances. It took until the 38th minute for the Mancs to create a shot from open play – Nani's tame effort easily saved by Reina. But Evans roaming free in the box in first half injury time, heading a corner off the post, set the tone for the second half as Liverpool's 10 men tired.

Chicharito headed Fletcher's cross over in the 48th. Berbatov volleyed over after Reina could only palm a cross under pressure from the Mexican striker in the 56th. Kuszczak was called into action on an Aurelio free kick angled towards the top corner against the run of play in the 65th, but soon after, Reina had to make five saves in quick succession, somehow impossibly keeping the scoreline at 0-1.

Also heartening were Dalglish's substitutions. Babel and Shelvey replaced Maxi and the underwhelming Meireles with 30 minutes to play; that Shelvey saw action seems to confirm the high regard Kenny supposedly holds Jonjo in. And in the 77th, Ngog replaced the ineffective and jaded Torres, who – in his defense – was always going to struggle with a man disadvantage. The changes not only demonstrated an attacking intent, but a willingness to shake things up. Hodgson lived in perpetual fear of removing Torres. Dalglish gave no thought to it.

Babel had a couple of chances, forcing a save from Kuszczak from the top of the box and heading wide at the near post, but United were comfortable with Liverpool's dead legs and an extra man (or two, if we're still counting Webb). It's always painful to lose to United, but that Liverpool finally looks like a team is a bigger positive than going out of the FA Cup to that lot.

4-2-3-1 – although as much a 4-1-4-1 with Lucas often deeper than Gerrard and Meireles for those 32 minutes – was the correct formation. Kelly was man of the match, silencing Giggs and Evra for long stretches. Liverpool's defense was vastly improved, again, with Agger and Aurelio involved. Reina's string of saves was absolutely mind-blowing. Kuyt was more effective than in recent poor performances, although this type of match suits him down to the ground. But most important was the self-belief, something desperately missing for months, even after unfairly going behind and then going down to 10 men.

Gerrard's expected three-match absence – although there's a slight chance the suspension will be overturned (Liverpool will appeal) – means that Cole will probably replace him in a straight swap. It's not the end of the world in that department. And if Liverpool continue in this vein, we won't be worrying about being in the bottom half of the table for much longer.

I cannot wait for Blackpool on Wednesday. And I could not be happier that feeling's finally present after dreading matches for the last six months.

08 January 2011

Long Live the King

"Dalglish told me that we're the ones who make people's dreams come true. The fans can't play, so they live their dreams through us." - Fernando Torres

Dalglish in, Hodgson out. Finally. It's been a long, long wait.

It goes without saying, but from here on out, I'm done on the Hodgson vitriol. I apologize to those who thought it offensive and out-of-control over the last few months. I am irrational, petty, and quick to overreact. Thankfully, it's over now. He's a nice guy, it didn't work out. Time to move on as soon as possible.

But I can't help cite a few statistics as a requiem.

• Premier League win percentage:
Roy Hodgson: 35%
Rafa Benitez: 55%
Gerard Houllier: 49%
Roy Evans: 47%
Graeme Souness: 41%

• One league away win in 10 attempts, scoring only seven goals in the process.

• Goal difference of -3 after 20 games.

• 4 points above the relegation zone after 20 games.

• Liverpool hasn't been 12th place or lower after January since the team was relegated in 1953-54. That was the last season Liverpool had 9 or more losses after 20 games.

This is why Roy Hodgson's leaving by "mutual consent." Not because of FSG's itchy trigger finger. Not because of fan power. Not because of the 'shit squad left by the nasty Spaniard.' Cold hard stats, cold hard reality, and massively poor results. That's why he's leaving.

And yes, this is the outcome I'd hoped for.

The comparisons to Kevin Keegan and Newcastle are facile and wrong-headed. Yes, Dalglish hasn't managed in more than a decade, but his record at Liverpool, Blackburn, and even Newcastle was light years better than Keegan's with the Geordies, Fulham, England, and Manchester City. Dalglish has won the league title four times, with two separate clubs. Keegan finished runner-up twice, and won Division One (the current Championship) twice. Liverpool's current squad, despite the recent trouble, is far better than the relegated Newcastle team.

Many have written about the bind this puts FSG in. What happens if Dalglish isn't successful? What happens if he's "too successful?" First, even out of the hot-seat as long as he's been, I doubt he'll replicate the horrendous results we've seen so far this season. The respect from players he's rightfully earned and resulting morale boost should be enough to raise form. And that's not even considering tactics; it's hard to suggest what Liverpool's style will look like because of Kenny's extended sabbatical, but I doubt we'll see so many players out of positions; rigid, antiquated tactics; and a complete refusal to press higher up the pitch. If Dalglish does well this season, excellent, give him the job for as long as he wants. FSG are here for the long-term; they will get the chance to hire "their manager" in time.

This is a brilliant, brilliant day. I can't remember the last time football made me so happy. Which is how sport should be.

And just in time for a trip to Manchester. Adds a bit of luster back onto that match-up.

07 January 2011

Liverpool at Manchester United 01.09.11

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-3 United (a) 09.19.10
1-2 United (a) 03.21.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 10.25.09
4-1 Liverpool (a) 03.14.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Blackburn (a); 2-1 Bolton (h); 0-1 Wolves (h)
United: 2-1 Stoke (h); 2-1 West Brom (a); 1-1 Brum (a)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Ngog 8; Torres 6; Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Babel, Cole, Jovanovic, Kyrgiakos 2; Johnson, Lucas, Skrtel 1
United: Berbatov 15; Chicharito 9; Nani 7; Park 6; Fletcher, Owen, Rooney, Vidic 3; Bebe 2; Anderson, Evra, Gibson, Giggs, Macheda, Obertan, Scholes, Smalling, Valencia 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Howard Webb has to be in charge of any Liverpool/United match. It's in the Premier League rules. Look it up.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi

The unbeaten Mancs (yes, I know they lost in the League Cup to Jonathan Spector, but bear with me) against a Liverpool side that can't win away. A lame duck manager and morale plummeting through the floor. The narrative's already written. Either United will hammer the last nail in the coffin or Liverpool will complete a miracle on grass in beating in the Evil Empire. And either way, I've never been less anxious over a match between these two sides.

Liverpool will name a stronger team than against Blackburn even though the FA Cup means far less than Liverpool's terrible league position. Ideally, it will have Gerrard behind Torres with Lucas and Meireles in central midfield, but I'm not holding my breath.

Agger and Aurelio should both return, having been rested for Wednesday's match and having played far better than the counterparts who took their places against Blackburn. Cole might play instead of Maxi – Kuyt will reclaim a starting spot as well – but I hope that won't be the case.

Meanwhile, United also rested players in their last league match, with Ferguson ready to return Rooney, Ferdinand, and van der Sar to the starting lineup. Berbatov, who tallied a hat-trick when these sides met in September, is in excellent form. United also primarily uses 4-4-2 this season, but with players such as Nani and the 87-year-old Giggs, has the ability to get outside Liverpool's narrow back-line to excellent effect, as in the 2-3 league loss at Old Trafford. At least Poulsen and Konchesky aren't likely to start in this meeting.

And after the match, no matter the result, Slur Alex will tell us that Roy's had an impossible job made harder by the shit squad left by the nasty Spaniard and should be given until the end of season.

Happy days.

End scene. Cue curtain.

05 January 2011

Liverpool 1-3 Blackburn

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Cole Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Torres Ngog

Olsson 32'
Benjani 38' 57'
Gerrard 81'

The most embarrassing defeat in a season full of them.

We saw a side more shapeless than against Blackpool. A loss more unexpected than the 2-0 drubbing at Stoke, and far more unexpected that the deserved thumping suffered at Manchester City. It may have been less embarrassing than being beaten by Everton, but it was far less respectable as well. That Gerrard scored a consolation ten minutes from time and missed a penalty (which he won) with five remaining shouldn't obscure matters. Liverpool only marginally got back into the game because Blackburn shut off and starting defending their penalty box, in contrast to the usual harrying tactics that have beaten Hodgson's Liverpool with depressing regularity. If today isn't the straw that breaks the camel's back, the camel's utterly impervious.

And again, defensive mistakes were the culprit. Johnson switched off, allowing Olsson in behind, for the first. Kyrgiakos was beaten all ends up by Benjani, of all strikers, for the second. And Johnson and Skrtel both waved Hoillett towards goal from an impossible position for the third, with the midfielder easily squaring for Benjani's brace. It's little coincidence that defensive uncertainty returned after Agger and Aurelio reclaimed to their usual positions – the bench.

But Liverpool's insipidity again stemmed from a completely uncoordinated attack bereft of any ideas. As has happened all too often away from Anfield, there was zero plan once Liverpool got into Blackburn's half. Shakier and far more prone to punting up-field with Kyrgiakos and Konchesky back in the line-up, we had the added bonus of more Cole giveaways when attempting to run with the ball. And Cole actually created most of the offense before Gerrard fired back at the end, with a strike across goal in the 27th and the first shot to actually trouble Bunn in the 74th.

There's little point in a blow-by-blow match review: today was basically every away match but Bolton with the added bonus of conceding more than usual while actually scoring a consolation in the process. And make no mistake, no player did himself credit today. Once again, Gerrard came alive in the final ten minutes – and shouldn't be blamed for missing one penalty out of the countless he's taken – but spent the previous 80 far too far away from the action in attack yet again because of Hodgson's love affair with 4-4-2 and the captain's supposedly preferred position. Of course, morale has been plummeting through the floor for the duration of the season; it's hard to forgive, but it's understandable that the will to live disappeared after conceding first in yet another away match.

Liverpool have now lost one less away game than through all of the previous horrific campaign, conceding just one less goal as well. Of course, that's comparing 10 games to 18. Liverpool were never in 11th last season, let alone as late as January, having conceded more goals than they've scored. Five points from the bottom of the table, 19 points from the top. Blaming the previous manager is the trendy thing to do amongst the English fourth estate, but this season's dire statistics both home and away fall mainly at the feet of the current gaffer. But he simply can't be blamed; the nasty Spaniard lost the empire, not our nice old respectable English bloke.

Today's tactics were once again incomprehensible. Agger and Aurelio were "rested" with the FA Cup in mind – even though a cup run does little to alleviate the perilous league position – and the defense completely lost the positives from Saturday's match. All four made costly individual mistakes while resorting to the usual hoofs from the back instead of building up play. Blackburn, with players like Nelsen and Samba – neither of whom started in the previous meeting – ate up balls over the top and crosses from the flank, but Liverpool didn't deviate from the attacking "plan," which led to Ngog rendered irrelevant and Torres completely frustrated. As said above, Gerrard's attacking talents are often wasted when a central midfielder in a 4-4-2, especially away from home (in contrast to the magic weaved against Bolton). Today did not make sense and it was readily evident from the opening whistle and in the final score.

It would be nice symmetry if Hodgson lost his job after losing to the last English team he ruined. It's impossible (or massively depressing) to think that he'll be in the dugout come Sunday.

04 January 2011

Liverpool at Blackburn 01.05.11

3pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.24.10
2-1 Liverpool (h) 02.28.10
0-0 (a) 12.05.09
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Bolton (h); 0-1 Wolves (h); 0-0 Utrecht (h)
Blackburn: 0-3 Sunderland (a); 3-1 West Brom (a); 0-2 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 6; Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Blackburn: Kalinic, Pedersen 4; MB Diouf, Nelsen 3; Emerton, Roberts, Samba 2; Benjani, Dunn, Givet, Nzonzi 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Lucas Maxi
Torres Ngog

The ankle injury which saw Meireles removed from Saturday's match in the 20th minute rules him out of Wednesday's match at Blackburn. Otherwise, there's little reason to change the line-up which beat Bolton in the dying seconds.

Most important will be keeping Agger and Aurelio in the squad. Who would have thought that adding two classy defenders would help Liverpool keep possession and play the ball out of defense? Granted, both are frequent injury concerns, and Aurelio rarely played two games in four days in his best spells under Benitez, but if at all possible, both defenders should start. And yet, I can't help but fear Liverpool will return to a backline of Johnson-Soto-Skrtel-Konchesky away from the comforts of Anfield.

In addition, the manager might choose to rest key players with an FA Cup trip to United imminent – he spoke of that possibility earlier today. However – and I'm sure this won't be a popular opinion – if key players need to be rested, do it in the FA Cup. Yes, I'm well aware who Liverpool's opponents are in that competition, but given that the club is currently struggling in the league, that's where the priority lies. Liverpool will need players like Gerrard and Torres if they're going to break the all-consuming away day voodoo tomorrow.

The meeting between these two sides in October was one of the first games where Liverpool actually played to its potential. Coming after embarrassing losses to Blackpool and Everton, the Reds actually took the game to its opponents, maintaining possession and creating chances. A comical own goal equalizer nearly killed any momentum, but Torres found a winner minutes after conceding. The emphatic smackdown had to be one of the reasons Blackburn's new owners dismissed Allardyce upon arrival. Yes, even though that happened a month and a half after Liverpool's win. Blackburn were that pathetic at Anfield, despite the relatively close result.

Rovers' form has been hit-and-miss since Steve Kean took over as caretaker four matches ago. Blackburn looked impressive in a 3-1 win at West Brom, but were easily beaten by both Sunderland (3-0 away) and Stoke (2-0 at home), and could only draw relegation strugglers West Ham at Ewood Park.

Blackburn currently have the same number of points as Liverpool, although with an inferior goal differential and having played two more games. Like Liverpool's last opponents, Blackburn also have a reduced squad list: Kalinic is suspended, Emerton is at the Asian Cup, and Andrews, Grella, Jones, Nzonzi, Roberts, and Paul Robinson are injured. Robinson was especially influential when these two sides met at Anfield. But Blackburn still have the Diouf brothers (FYI: they're not really brothers), especially the infernal El-Hadji, while Pedersen is perpetually a threat on set plays. Even with a weakened squad, Blackburn still have ways to punish Liverpool mistakes.

Obviously, the biggest concerns rest on the fact that this is an away match. We're into the New Year and still wondering when, if ever, Liverpool will be able to replicate Anfield performances on the road. The late win over Bolton in October remains the only away victory of the season. Decent matches against the likes of Blackburn, Villa, and West Ham didn't lead to subsequent away success. If Liverpool are ever going to rise above the 'around 10th' mid-table mire, they need to start winning these winnable away matches.

03 January 2011

2010-11 Midseason Stats Comparison

For the fifth year running. Not for those with weak stomachs.

Points total after 19 games:
10/11: 25
09/10: 30
08/09: 42
07/08: 37
06/07: 34

Results over 19 games:
10/11: 7 wins, 4 draws, 8 losses
09/10: 9 wins, 3 draws, 7 losses
08/09: 12 wins, 6 draws, 1 loss
07/08: 10 wins, 7 draws, 2 losses
06/07: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses

League position after 19 games:
10/11: 9th
09/10: 7th
08/09: 1st
07/08: 4th
06/07: 3rd

# of points behind 1st place:
10/11: -16
09/10: -12
08/09: +1
07/08: -10, with a game in hand
06/07: -13

Goals scored after 19 games:
10/11: 23
09/10: 36
08/09: 30
07/08: 33
06/07: 28

Goals against after 19 games:
10/11: 24
09/10: 25
08/09: 12
07/08: 12
06/07: 15

Home Goals:
10/11: 17
09/10: 26
08/09: 16
07/08: 20
06/07: 20

Away Goals:
10/11: 6
09/10: 10
08/09: 14
07/08: 13
06/07: 8

Clean Sheets:
10/11: 6
09/10: 6
08/09: 11
07/08: 10
06/07: 10

Goal scorers:
10/11: Torres 6; Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Skrtel 1
09/10: Torres 11; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
08/09: Gerrard 6; Keane, Kuyt, Torres 5; Alonso, Riera 2; Arbeloa, Benayoun, Babel, Carragher 1
07/08: Torres 9; Gerrard 7; Babel, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Benayoun 2; Hyypia, Sissoko 1
06/07: Kuyt 6; Bellamy 5; Alonso, Gerrard 3; Crouch, Garcia, Gonzalez 2; Agger, Carragher, Fowler, Riise 1

# of games Liverpool failed to score in:
10/11: 5 [Wolves (h), Stoke (a), Everton (a), Brum (a), City (a)]
09/10: 4 [Chelsea (a), Sunderland (a), Blackburn (a), Pompey (a)]
08/09: 4 [Villa (a), Stoke (h), Fulham (h), West Ham (h)]
07/08: 5 [Pompey (a), Birmingham (h), Blackburn (a), United (h), City (a)]
06/07: 7 [Everton (a), Chelsea (a), Bolton (a), United (a), Arsenal (a), Boro (a), Portsmouth (h)]

Home form:
10/11: 6 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses; 20 points out of 30
09/10: 6 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses; 20 points out of 30
08/09: 6 wins, 4 draws; 22 points out of 30
07/08: 4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss; 16 points out of 27
06/07: 8 wins, 2 draws; 26 points out of 30

Away form:
10/11: 1 win, 2 draws, 6 losses; 5 points out of 27
09/10: 3 wins, 1 draw, 5 losses; 10 points out of 27
08/09: 6 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss; 20 points out of 27
07/08: 6 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss; 21 points out of 30
06/07: 2 wins, 2 draws, 5 losses; 8 points out of 27

I guess it's not all bad news.

Liverpool conceded one more goal at this point last season. They scored one fewer goal at Anfield in 2008-09. There were two more scoreless performances in '06-07. Liverpool kept the same number of clean sheets last season and had the exact same home form. And I was assuming historic lows in all regards...

Otherwise, this season's seen Liverpool fewest wins, most losses, lowest points total and league placement, and fewest goals scored after 19 games since I started this blog. It's the first time that Liverpool have conceded more league goals than they've scored. As has become painfully apparent, away form is the all-consuming problem. Five points out of 27 is indescribably horrific. That's relegation form. But Liverpool is only two points worse at Anfield than they were in 2008-09, when they led the league at this point. That's the saving grace, which is why the insipid loss against Wolves last Wednesday was so worrisome. Home form is all Liverpool's had.

Liverpool's points per game after 19 games gives us a fairly safe estimate for the end-of-season total. Liverpool's currently averaging 1.32 points per game. Over the last four seasons, the differential between points per game at mid-season and the end of the season has been 0.08 or less.

Points Per Game after 19 end-of-season
2009-10 1.58 (30) 1.66 (63)
2008-09 2.21 (42) 2.26 (86)
2007-08 1.95 (37) 2 (76)
2006-07 1.79 (34) 1.79 (68)

The respective differential over the last four seasons is +0.08, +0.05, +0.05, and 0. If Liverpool increased their points-per-game record by 0.08 over the rest of this season, they'll end with 53 points. If form remains the same, they'll end with 50. I highly doubt either of those will secure 4th; it would be lucky to earn an Europa League place. 53 points would have gotten 9th in '09-10, 7th in '08-09, 9th in '07-08, and 10th in '06-07. Right around the position Liverpool currently occupies.

It will take a vast improvement over the second half of the season to reach last season's "poor" results. Liverpool would have to win 38 points over the rest of the campaign to equal last season's total of 63, an average of two points per game. That's title-contending form; United's currently the only team hitting that mark.

All we can really hope for is improvement. Especially away from Anfield.

01 January 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Bolton

Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Torres

K Davies 43'
Torres 49'
Cole 90+2'

Improved tactics and hard work lead to the right result. It's the first time this season that Liverpool have gone behind in a league match and went on to win. Had it not taken until January 1 to achieve that result, and had Liverpool played like this all season, both Liverpool and Hodgson wouldn't be in their respective situations.

The changes to the starting XI showed more ambition and absolutely contributed to this victory. But the catalyst was the enforced substitution made in the 21st minute. And that catalyst was Liverpool's usual catalyst: Steven Gerrard. Rested following Wednesday's match, Gerrard had to come on when Meireles pulled up. And the captain was at the heart of both goals, pulling the strings throughout. The Meireles/Lucas pairing had done well prior to the injury, and the Portuguese's exit looked to be a loss, but today was one of those days where Gerrard dragged the team to victory. Yet, obviously, it wouldn't have been possible without a complete team effort.

By halftime, it looked a calamitous result in keeping with this campaign's leitmotif. Liverpool had started off better, actually keeping possesdion, aided by the changes in defense; both Agger and Aurelio started moves by keeping the ball on the floor instead of losing possession time and time again with hoofs from deep. It brought Torres into the game far more than against Wolves, but the striker misfired throughout the first half. None the less, at least the intent was there. Maxi, returned to the starting XI, had Liverpool's two best chances, seeing a ball across the box cleared off the line and a header ping off the crossbar.

Misfortune soon reared its head. Having conceded far too many soft free kicks in their own half, Liverpool succumbed two minutes before the interval. Aurelio saw yellow for a foul on the flank, Taylor whipped in a free kick, and Kevin Davies out-jumped Johnson as Skrtel drifted away, another appalling breakdown of man-to-man marking. Soon after, Lucas missed an absolute sitter of an equalizer, unable to tap-in Kuyt's chipped cross. The kicks kept coming.

But Liverpool finally demonstrated resiliency. Torres smashed in an equalizer four minutes after the break with a gorgeous volley following a flowing move: Johnson to Ngog laid off to Gerrard, whose inch-perfect cross put the chance on a plate for Torres. Four minutes after that, a quick counter from Reina to Gerrard ended with the striker shooting just wide of the far post.

And Liverpool kept battling. Yes, the play broke down in the final third frequently, and Bolton had chances on the counter. Liverpool could have a had a penalty in the 68th when a prone Mark Davies handled the ball, but the situation could have been reversed in the 87th, when Lucas incidentally handled in Liverpool's box. Reina was forced into saves from Mark Davies and Klasnic, while the Croatian substitute also turned an effort wide after two crucial blocks by Liverpool's fullbacks.

But the battling, the increased tempo, and the far better morale finally paid off, and it was Liverpool's maligned substitute who won the game in injury time. Joe Cole replaced Ngog with 10 minutes to play, and his entrance was followed by increased Bolton pressure and the two of the three aforementioned chances. But in the second minute of injury time, Liverpool pushed and Gerrard delivered another excellent cross from the right, which bounced off a Bolton defender under pressure from Maxi at the back post for Cole to tap in from inches out. Any question of offside eliminated by the Bolton defender's touch, it was Cole's first league goal. He couldn't have picked a better time to score it.

Gerrard may have been man of the match, a tremendous performance yet an arguable fluke because of Meireles' unfortunate injury, but the pre-match changes set the tone. Agger's return couldn't have been more welcome – his desire to play the ball out pervaded the entire backline, obviously helped by Aurelio's similar predilection. The defense looked far steadier throughout, and it led to passing and moving instead of hoofing and moping.

Liverpool needed this win. Had previous performances and results not been so demonstrably poor, a draw wouldn't have been the worst result. Liverpool showed improvement and Bolton were once again difficult opposition. But three points were thoroughly necessary today. That they're coupled with Liverpool's first come-from-behind win in the league in more than a year and Liverpool's first late winner since these sides last met in October can only help matters.