28 February 2011

It's Still The Defense, Stupid

Above is the chalkboard which stood out the most. Seven interceptions in a 90 minute span. None in the center of Liverpool's half. Two from Lucas, one from Cole, Gerrard, Johnson, Kuyt, and Skrtel.

For comparison, in the last three league matches, Liverpool had 19 against Wigan, 26 against Chelsea, and 10 against Stoke (where Liverpool were rarely under threat). In the last loss under Dalglish, his first league match at Blackpool, Liverpool had 17.

West Ham had a smart strategy yesterday, whether Liverpool used three at the back (in the first half) or four (after Kelly's injury). Keep the ball out of the middle and attack the flanks. Central midfielders Hitzlsperger and Noble both looked to spread the play wide, as did Parker in more of a holding role. All three of their goals came from crosses or runs down one of the channels. That pattern of play is also evident in the tackles chalkboard.

The majority of Liverpool's tackles, either attempted or successful, were on the left. It's no coincidence that two of the Hammers' goals came from that side. First, West Ham worked the ball down that flank before Hitzlsperger and Parker played a one-two for the opener, leaving Suarez, Meireles, and Lucas chasing shadows. The crucial second, right before half-time, saw Ba beat Wilson to a hopeful punt, Carragher slow to close down the crosser, and Johnson and Skrtel flat-footed in the box. Both goals were comprehensive failures. The third, sealing the game, was an embarrassment shared by Skrtel and Reina, singularly beaten all ends up by Carlton freaking Cole. Again, the goal started on the flank, this time Liverpool's right, cutting in after Skrtel was easily shaken off before beating Reina at his near post.

Liverpool seemed to have put defensive frailties in the past over the last seven games, conceding just once (dubiously, I might add). Deploying three at the back against Stoke and Chelsea wholly blunted those sides. And it's not as if both Stoke and Chelsea played the similarly while West Ham found a novel way to exploit the tactic. Chelsea's narrowness suited a packed defense, but Stoke relies on long balls and crosses through the likes of Pennant, Etherington, and Walters (as well as set plays, obviously). Liverpool played three at the back for approximately 40 minutes because of Kelly injury, only conceding one of the three during that spell, and no one system is a comprehensive solution, but yesterday's failings unfortunately lead me to blame the personnel more than the tactics (in addition to crediting the opposition).

Yesterday, injuries finally caught up with the side. Agger – whose importance can't be overstated, despite his fragility – was ruled out before the match, as was Aurelio. The imperious Kelly pulled up right before West Ham's second goal. It left Liverpool reliant on a 19-year-old center-back at left back and the increasingly shaky Skrtel-Carra pairing in the middle. It's no coincidence that when exploring who played when Liverpool conceded last week, Agger and Kelly had the best goals against average. Incidentally, Liverpool also started a different backline for the 23rd time in 41 games. Not having a settled defense continues to haunt the club.

Lack of depth has been punishing the team all season long. Yesterday is just yet another example of that. Writing that Liverpool need to upgrade at both center-back and left back is stating the obvious in the extreme.

This defeat simply proves that Liverpool still has a long road to travel, no matter the positives from the previous seven or eight matches. Those positives can't be forgotten, and as I wrote in yesterday's match review, how Liverpool reacts to this setback will define the final 10 games of the campaign.

27 February 2011

Liverpool 1-3 West Ham

Skrtel Carragher Wilson
Kelly Lucas Gerrard Johnson
Kuyt Suarez

Parker 22'
Ba 45'
Johnson 84'
C Cole 90+1'

Well, for the fifth-straight meeting between Liverpool and West Ham, the winning team's scored three goals. Pity that for the first time, it wasn't Liverpool.

It was back to the bad old days away from Anfield. Wholly insipid; out-fought and deservedly beaten by a relegation candidate on their ground.

Liverpool started decently, despite a much-improved West Ham. Both sides had early chances: Hitzlsperger's jaw-dropping volley from distance in the 3rd was straight down Reina's throat while Meireles nearly converted a dangerous ball over the top, heading wide two minutes later. The game was finely balanced until Parker's brilliant goal knocked Liverpool completely off-kilter. The midfielder played a smart one-two with Hitzlsperger, audaciously toe-poking past Reina into the far corner.

Following that setback, Liverpool's only chance of the half was Kuyt into side netting on counter in the 24th. Heads dropped, and West Ham bossed possession through Parker, Noble, and Hitzlsperger. Kelly's injury less than five minutes before the break made matters immeasurably worse; charging down the touchline, the full-back fell after no contract clutching his hamstring. I'm completely irrational right now, but can't see anything other than an extended stint on the sidelines for him. Cole came on in his stead, converting Liverpool to a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2.

And then Ba scored seconds before the interval, a comedy of an errors and an absolute hammer blow. An out-of-position Ba beat Wilson to Green's hopeful punt before Carragher was slow to close down right-winger O'Neil with Wilson caught up-field, giving time to cross. Most unforgivable was Skrtel's "defense": slow to turn after initially facing goal, ostensibly "marking" Piquionne, slow to react to Ba's run, allowing a free header. Admittedly, he wasn't helped by Wilson unable to track West Ham's recent acquisition, but the Slovakian still takes the majority of blame. It wouldn't be for the last time today.

The injury woes continued in the second half, with two players going off in consecutive matches. The second casualty today was Meireles, unable to run off an earlier knock. He was replaced by Ngog and Liverpool became a more orthodox 4-4-2, with Lucas and Gerrard in central midfield, Kuyt and Cole on the flanks, and Suarez lurking around the taller Ngog up front.

Aside from two excellent saves by Robert Green (I know!), the second half was all sound and fury signifying nothing until Johnson's consolation in the 84th. First, Suarez deliciously turned Tompkins – a sign of consolations to come – only to see Green react with a diving fingertip save in the 61st. Then, Gerrard's run onto Ngog's flick-on and blast required the keeper to tip just over the bar in the 72nd. Other than those isolated incidents, West Ham were reasonably happy to concede possession and pack the area, ensuring little space for Liverpool to dance into.

Johnson inspired false hope seven minutes from time after Suarez again displayed his class. Wilson did well to keep Ngog's flick-on in play, setting up the Uruguayan. He torched both Parker and Tompkins with a nanosecond turn, passing across the face of goal for a Johnson tap-in. But that hope was crushed a minute into added time when Cole completely disrobed the bumbling Skrtel, holding off with ease and leaving him on sprawled the floor, before striding forward to beat Reina at his near post. A fitting capstone.

I'm struggling to think of any positives following this performance. After anonymity for long stretches, Suarez set up Johnson's tap-in brilliantly, while Kelly continued to impress before his unfortunate injury. Lucas was consistent as the metronome in the middle, if nowhere near as effective in defensive duties. That's about it. Other, Gerrard was again invisible in central midfield (shadowed by the talismanic Parker), the defense was woeful for the first time when playing three at the back, Skrtel's regressing to the point of devolution, and Wilson looked every bit a 19-year-old. Couple those disappointing performances with two additional injuries when the squad's already paper-thin, and you have a really really really bad day at the office.

Liverpool's reaction to this set-back will define the rest of the season. The team has a week off before hosting league-leaders United. Ideally, Agger will return – we still don't know the extent of his injury – Kelly and Meireles' knocks won't be that bad, and Carroll will be in contention. It's nice to dream sometimes.

This was about as bad as it gets. So much for an eight-game unbeaten streak and only conceding once in the last seven. It goes without saying that this was Liverpool's worst performance under Dalglish. The tactics and set-up are still vastly better than the previous manager, but this is a result straight out of the first half of the season. Liverpool need to prove that the recent heartening spell was concrete improvement and not just a morale boost from the new regime.

26 February 2011

Liverpool at West Ham 02.27.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.20.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.19.10
3-2 Liverpool (a) 09.19.09
3-0 Liverpool (a) 05.09.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sparta (h); 0-0 Sparta (a); 1-1 Wigan (h)
West Ham: 5-1 Burnley (h); 3-3 West Brom (a); 0-1 Brum (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Meireles 5; Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Cole, Johnson, Skrtel, Suarez 1
West Ham: Piquionne 6; Cole, Parker 4; Obinna 3; Ba, Behrami, Noble 2; Keane, Sears, Spector, Stanislas, Tomkins 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guesses at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Skrtel Johnson
Lucas Gerrard
Maxi Meireles Suarez

Well, after routinely guessing three at the back for the last few previews, I should probably stop. Which means that you should probably expect it to happen. Such is life.

Liverpool have been coy about injury problems, and I've been negligent in finding concrete info. We can add new concerns about Agger and Kelly to the ongoing Gerrard and Johnson worries. My hunch – and that's all it is; I still haven't bought an e-Season ticket since canceling because of the previous owners so I can't watch Dalglish's press conference, and nothing's been published on the official site – is that Gerrard and Johnson are likely, a decision will be made on Kelly tomorrow, and the oft-injured Agger will be protected.

Obviously, Gerrard's return would be the biggest boon, but both Kelly and Johnson are also crucial because of the squad's lack of depth. Aurelio's definitely injured; if both Kelly and Johnson aren't fit, we could see Carragher and Wilson as the fullbacks, with Kyrgiakos partnership Skrtel at center-back. Both Carragher and Wilson would struggle to contribute to the attack, paling in comparison to the current starters. At home, West Ham are less likely to sit back, but the fullbacks will still be crucial in adding width, especially considering Liverpool's "wingers." Having Suarez back in the fold for his third league appearance will clearly aid the attack, having scored on his debut and arguably man of the match (and deserving of a goal) against Wigan.

West Ham, currently 19th (although Wolves are beating Blackpool, which would drop the Hammers to 20th), have varied between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 under Avram Grant. Most, such as this Guardian preview (ignore their guessed Liverpool formation), are predicting a safety-first 4-4-2, but Obinna is primarily a striker. A front line of Cole, Obinna, and the newly-acquired Demba Ba have goals in them. I also find it hard to believe Thomas Hitzlsperger – finally fit, and a frequent goal threat from distance – would be left out. Their major injury concerns are limited to Upson and Keane, with the latter unlikely to start anyway.

Liverpool have a illustrious streak to defend, scoring three goals in each of the last four matches against West Ham. Liverpool unsurprisingly won all four, with three ending 3-0, including November's meeting.

If Liverpool manage to win – and that's still a big if, no matter the recent rise in fortunes and morale – it'll mark the first time the club have won three consecutive away games since the end of 2008-09, that magical season where Liverpool actually challenged for the title until the very end. Unbeaten in the last eight matches, Liverpool have suddenly become stingy in defense, only conceding once (which was offside) in the last seven matches. It's given the team a platform to build from, and is the biggest on-field accomplishment for Dalglish and Clarke so far. Couple that with returning attackers and we could finally see a Liverpool performing to full potential.

25 February 2011

Buy a Brick for Every Goal Scored Against Man Utd

This is not my idea, but I'm incredibly happy to support it.

CSD over at Paisley Gates has suggested a novel way to acknowledge Kenny Dalglish's massive impact on Liverpool FC. I'll let him explain it:

Since Kenny Dalglish has been so generous to return to the club and bravely steer what appeared to be a doomed ship back into calmer waters, we should make a small gesture to repay him. The best way I could think of is supporting his wife’s charity, the Marina Dalglish Appeal.

What I am proposing is that for every goal that Liverpool score against Manchester United on March 6th, we buy a brick to support. The charity has already had great success with completing projects such as the development of a Radiotherapy Centre at Aintree University Hospital, the Marina Dalglish Chemotherapy Centre at Aintree & Fazakerley Hospital, and a Radiotherapy Centre at Clatterbridge Centre for Oncology. The “bricks” are only £5 a piece and you get a nifty online certificate when you buy one to show which virtual brick is yours. Currently, the charity is raising money for future efforts to benefit cancer patients in the Northwest with new plans to be announced soon.

At a minimum, I'll be donating £5 after the United match, but I truly hope it's more. I can't thank CSD and Paisley Gates enough for starting this. I encourage everyone to read his original post and please contribute.

24 February 2011

Liverpool 1-0 Sparta Prague

Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Wilson
Lucas Poulsen
Kuyt Meireles Cole

Kuyt 86'

Just enough. Barely. But just enough will do.

There were a lot of similarities to the last leg except where it counts, in the result. Liverpool deployed a similar 4-2-3-1 formation, with key players still absent. It was a more open game, and the home side were "better" on balance, but Liverpool remained disjointed and erratic. Until the 86th minute, when Dirk Kuyt again popped up with a yet another crucial European goal.

It could have been wholly different had the referee given Liverpool a penalty within two minutes. Whiffing on an attempted clearance, the ball ricocheted off Pamic's outstretched arm, but the referee waved play on. Three minutes later, Cole – starting his first match under Dalglish – broke down the left and over-hit a cross which turned into a shot, requiring Blazek to palm over at the last second. The referee gave a goal kick. It'd be a recurring theme.

After the promising opening, Liverpool reverted to last week's stuttering form, while Sparta grew in confidence. Kadlec volleyed over in the 12th and headed too close to Reina a minute later, before Reina's flap at Vacek's corner required Wilson to clear from the six-yard box in the 22nd. Liverpool still created the better chances of the half, as Kyrgiakos' header required a diving save in the 16th, Meireles narrowly volleyed Kelly's cross over in the 22nd, and Ngog shot straight at Blazek after an excellent break from Agger and Kuyt in the 36th. However, Sparta reminded of the perpetual threat right before the interval when Kusnir was in acres of space down Liverpool's left, only to see his cutback lead to Matejovsky's shot blocked.

During the break, Kelly, Liverpool's best player in the first half, was forced off with a slight injury, replaced by Carragher. Removing the lone attacking fullback clearly dented Liverpool's already-diminished firepower, and the home side created even fewer chances with play trapped in midfield as it was in Prague. Spearing replaced the less-than-ineffective Poulsen with 25 minutes to play, and the home side slowly upped the pressure, finally spending the majority of time in Sparta's half in the final 15 minutes, at least earning dangerous corners and free kicks, one of which would finally provide the winner.

When Agger pulled up with an injury, clutching the back of his left leg with 10 minutes to play as Kyrgiakos was already off the field receiving stitches, it appeared that extra time was imminent. At best. But seconds after Skrtel replaced the Dane, following a free kick and two corners, Kuyt finally made the break-through, losing his marker in the six-yard box for a point-blank header. The 8th corner of the day was the charm. Liverpool should have extended the lead in the dying seconds, as both Ngog and Cole spurned injury-time chances, but the one was all that mattered.

With 24 shots at Anfield against Sparta Prague, you'd expect a better result than a narrow, late win from a set play. That's not to diminish the opposition, who battled for the full 180 minutes, but expectations were far higher going into this round. They probably shouldn't have been. This was an under-strength side, as has been commonplace in the Europa League this season, most generously described as diligent. Dalglish has been a revelation, but the most we can expect is evolution, not a revolution. If anything, the Europa League has highlighted Liverpool's lack of depth.

Kuyt was excellent, again thriving in ugly, important games such as these. The defense was sturdy over both legs, despite worrying injuries to two defenders today. Kelly again impressed in his 45 minutes, and it's crucial that he's not out for long. Fabio Capello was in the crowd today, and Kelly had to be the focus on his attention. After an iffy first half, Cole also grew into the game, clearly lacking in confidence and match fitness, but never stopped trying. Meireles was Meireles, spreading play well, even after being shifted out to the right in the second half as Liverpool switched to 4-4-2.

The side are through to the last 16 in the Europa League, to face the winners of Lech Poznan versus Braga. It goes without saying that there's room for improvement, but as long as the results stay the same, performances like these – however uncomfortable they are to watch – will suffice all the way to Dublin.

23 February 2011

Liverpool v Sparta Prague 02.24.11

1pm, live in the US on DirecTV channel 481 (HD on 481-1)

0-0 on aggregate

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Steaua (a); 3-1 Napoli (a); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Sparta: 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a); 3-1 Lausanne (a); 3-3 Lausanne (h); 0-3 CSKA Moscow; 3-2 Palermo (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Sparta (a); 1-1 Wigan (h); 1-0 Chelsea (a)
Sparta: 0-0 Liverpool (h); 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Jovanovic, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Sparta: Kadlec, Kladrubsky 2; Kweuke 1

Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB)

Guess at a lineup:
Carragher Skrtel Agger
Kelly Lucas Spearing Johnson
Meireles Cole

With the resumption of league matches on Sunday after a two-week respite, pre-match questions remain the same. Will Liverpool rest certain players, continuing to prioritize the Premiership? And now that Agger's fit again, will Liverpool return to three at the back, a formation we've only seen in two of Dalglish's nine matches but one that was remarkably well-received?

Once again, Gerrard's omission seems likely. The captain's back in training after missing the last two games with a groin injury, but Dalglish emphasized that Liverpool wouldn't take any risks with the player. He'll be pushing to return against West Ham. Liverpool have two replacements in Spearing and Poulsen, although both are far more defensive. The former is finally fit after an extended injury, while the latter's back after his wife gave birth yesterday.

Dalglish also highlighted Joe Cole in his pre-match press conference. Cole's first action under the new manager was the hour off the bench last week. His inclusion would allow Liverpool to rest Maxi, Meireles, or Kuyt depending on the formation; because I've guessed 3-4-2-1, I've left out the Argentinean, but Liverpool obviously have options. Ngog, who disappointed last week but remains the club's top scorer in the competition, is unsurprisingly in contention.

I'm convinced Agger is the key to playing three at the back, and his absence since the international break is the main reason why Liverpool used the 'standard' back four against Wigan and Sparta. There has to be at least one defender comfortable on the ball to make the formation work, and Agger's one of the best in the business in possession. Liverpool desperately missed his cool head in the draw against the Latics. But it's worth noting that Kyrgiakos did well last Thursday marking Kweuke.

Sparta tried to play on the front foot in the last leg, often threatening down Liverpool's flanks (especially through the overlapping left back), but lacked guile in front of goal. Three CBs plus wing-backs would give Liverpool an extra defender in those situations, ideally nullifying the main threat. At Anfield, Liverpool has to attack more than in Prague, but we saw against Stoke that the above isn't necessarily a defensive system, especially if midfield runners like Meireles, Cole, or Maxi link with the forward(s).

Last week's landmark was Dalglish's first game in Europe; tomorrow will be his first European game at Anfield. A Europa League tie against Sparta Prague isn't what springs to mind when mentioning historic European nights at Anfield, but this season's struggles coupled with King Kenny at the helm should have the stadium rocking and the team raring to go no matter the lineup.

22 February 2011

Defense Infographics

For reasons only explained by sheer masochism, I spent most of yesterday looking up some defensive statistics. In lieu of posting a much-loved data dump, I thought I'd dress it up a bit. I needed an excuse to open Adobe Illustrator anyway. There are some hard numbers in the comments if you're so inclined.

Below are two infographics. The first demonstrates how many different defenses Liverpool have used this season. Through 40 games, we've seen 22 starting backlines. Extended injuries for Carragher and Agger coupled with the usual "reserve" lineup in the Europa League have led to more changes than usual, but it's fairly evident that Hodgson never had a preferred back four. We've seen less "rotation" since Dalglish took the reins, despite the shift to three at the back in two matches (pictured as a five-man defense below). Edit: In the comments sections, there was a suggestion to differentiate between games under Dalglish and Hodgson. Kenny's nine games are now in italic text in this graphic. That Liverpool have been conceding more goals than usual this season goes hand in hand with increased rotation; there's a reason Benitez – so often criticized for rotating players – changed his backline as little as possible. Liverpool's tactics under the last manager may have been a bigger factor in conceding more goals, though.

The second infographic shows who's been on the field when Liverpool's conceded. Through 40 games, Liverpool have conceded 39 goals. Listed are each defenders' total appearances and total goals conceded. As the fine print in the graphic explains, that comes with two caveats. One, I'm not counting appearances where a defender came on a sub in the last ten minutes if Liverpool didn't concede. Two, I'm only counting games where the player was actually a defender – also known as the Fabio Aurelio rule. However, as said above, Kelly and Johnson are included for the two games where Liverpool played "three at the back."

As always with large infographics, click on the image for full-size in a new window. Because of the size of these, that's probably not necessary.

In the comments section is the goals per appearance ratio for each of the nine defenders.

17 February 2011

Liverpool 0-0 Sparta Prague

Johnson Kyrgiakos Carragher Wilson
Lucas Aurelio
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Liverpool's won a lot of two-legged ties with 0-0s away from home. Nonetheless, this was emphatically boring, dour bordering on unwatchable for long stretches. While the result puts Liverpool in a fine position for the second leg at Anfield and the side were missing a few crucial players, it's still disappointing to see such a sub-par performance and ostensible lack of ambition.

It was a "standard" Europa League away, in keeping with the tenor of the group stage despite the managerial change. Liverpool played with four at the back for the second consecutive match, drafting Kyrgiakos in for height and Wilson for the experience, albeit at left back. It was the closest Dalglish has come to replicating Benitez's preferred formation, with Lucas and Aurelio holding, Kuyt and Maxi as narrow outside attackers, and Ngog as the lone striker.

Sparta, as the underdog home side, grew into the game after almost constant if nonthreatening Liverpool possession for the opening 10 minutes. Both Johnson and Wilson were tested on the flanks, especially by Prague's overlapping left-back Pamic, with Kadlec and Keric also dangerous as the wingers in a more orthodox 4-4-2.

Liverpool were forced into an early substitution as Cole replaced Aurelio in the 37th minute, with Meireles dropping deeper and Cole behind Ngog. The away side's first decent chance coincidentally came seconds later, as Cole fed Ngog following a free kick, but the Frenchman lingered on the ball, giving the defender time to block his eventual shot. Liverpool spurned a second chance two minutes before halftime on a corner won by Cole: Ngog knocked down Meireles' ball in, but Kuyt clumsily missed contact at the back post.

The second half was equally torpid. Johnson, given more freedom, started popping up in the final third, but couldn't find attackers with his crosses. The fullback was at the heart of Liverpool's best move of the half, toe-poking wide in the 70th minute after cutting into the box following's Lucas' excellent ball over the top, but goalmouth chances were hard to come by at either end.

Yet Sparta still posed the greater threat, with 13 shots to Liverpool's three. Only one forced Reina into a difficult save, smothering Kweuke's effort on the turn from a 76th-minute corner, but had Sparta displayed cooler heads in front of goal, Liverpool would be behind going into next week's decider. The imposing Kweuke, Matejovsky, and Varek all had efforts sail narrowly wide in the second half. And none of Liverpool's three shots threatened Sparta's goalkeeper.

That Liverpool's second substitution was Skrtel for Ngog in the 83th minute seemingly sums up today's mission. It prompted a switch to three at the back, which saw Liverpool's defense push further up the field, but didn't lead to any attacking improvement and is still replacing a striker – even if an inefficient one – with a defender. That Pacheco didn't see any minutes despite Liverpool's impotence doesn't bode well for his immediate future.

Johnson and Kyrgiakos were probably Liverpool's best players, while Wilson defended well as a left back. Ngog, often isolated up front, struggled on his own, and was caught offside far too often. Kuyt's continued his shaky form when played on the right of midfield; he's looked far better under Dalglish as a striker. No one else was particularly offensive in either sense of the word. Aurelio's fitness is the biggest concern.

It's tempting to think that Hodgson would have gotten a lot more grief for this display than Dalglish will, but this result is much more palatable in the knockout round than the group stage. In addition, Gerrard, Agger, Suarez, and Carroll were all missed – and yes, I'm well aware it's hard to miss a player that's ineligible and a player that hasn't yet played for the club. Both Gerrard and Agger would have made vast differences; Agger's ability to bring the ball out of defense is indescribably important in Dalglish's system(s), while Gerrard's ability to create something from nothing is always welcomed (see 3-1 Napoli, among many others).

A win, with crucial away goals, would have allowed Liverpool to rest players and feature some of the hyped youngsters in a week's time. Now, we'll likely see a full-strength lineup as the side looks to put the Anfield advantage to full use. Sparta can advance with a score draw; Liverpool will have to keep a clean sheet as well. But, as Infostrada Sports pointed out after the match, 66.6% of away teams advance to next round after 0-0 draws in first leg.

The result could be a lot worse. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

16 February 2011

Liverpool at Sparta Prague 02.17.11

3:05pm, live in the US on GolTV

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Steaua (a); 3-1 Napoli (a); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Sparta: 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a); 3-1 Lausanne (a); 3-3 Lausanne (h); 0-3 CSKA Moscow; 3-2 Palermo (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Wigan (h); 1-0 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Stoke (h)
Sparta: 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a); 2-0 České Budějovice (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Jovanovic, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Sparta: Kadlec, Kladrubsky 2; Kweuke 1

Referee: Florian Meyer (GER)

Meyer has actually done a Liverpool match before: a 2003 UEFA Cup tie against Steaua at Anfield, which Liverpool won 1-0.

Guess at a lineup:
Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel
Kelly Lucas Aurelio Johnson
Meireles Maxi

As usual in the Europa League, the lineup is a complete guess. How strong will the starting XI be and will Liverpool return to three at the back after Saturday's disappointing result?

The 23-man traveling squad is:
Reina, Jones, Gulacsi, Johnson, Flanagan, Aurelio, Robinson, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Carragher, Kelly, Skrtel, Meireles, Cole, Maxi, Jovanovic, Lucas, Coady, Ince, Sterling, Pacheco, Kuyt, Ngog.

Andy Carroll has also traveled for team-building and training reasons. And because beer is exceptionally cheap in the Czech Republic. Gerrard and Agger are still injured, while Poulsen misses out because his wife's gone into labor.

Notably, four u-18s are also along for the ride: Conor Coady, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson, and Raheem Sterling, as is 19-year-old Thomas Ince, who was an unused substitute against Rabotnicki. I'd be surprised if any of the above featured, let alone started; as with Carroll, all have probably been brought for the learning experience.

Whether Liverpool play three at the back is probably dependent on Skrtel's recovery from the knock suffered against Chelsea. Liverpool's defense has looked far firmer in that formation, and – as Play Waved On excellently explains – Sparta are likely to rely on long balls and crosses towards powerful strikers.

It's tough to leave Ngog – Liverpool's top scorer in the competition – out of the above lineup. He hasn't gotten as many opportunities under Dalglish, coming off the bench in three of the eight matches and disappointing in the last outing against Wigan. If Liverpool play with a flat-back four, he's more likely to start, but it's hard to see how he fits into the formation with three center-backs. Last game aside, where everyone underperformed, Kuyt has done well as a striker under the new manager.

Sparta Prague – a surprise qualifier over a strong Palermo side and unbeaten at home in the competition – are currently second in the Czech league. They haven't had a league match since November because of the extended winter break – a similar situation to Liverpool's opponents in last year's first Europa League knockout round. Sparta played two friendlies in the last month, losing 0-3 to Zenit and drawing 2-2 with Ukrainian side Dnipro (losing 8-9 on penalties).

The January transfer window saw a fairly large exodus. Top scorer Wilfried Bony – who had five goals in the group stage – was sold to Vitesse Arnhem, while Slovakian international midfielder Kucka left for Genoa. The aforementioned Play Waved On article has an excellent round-up of the Czech side, unsurprisingly highlighting 18-year-old prodigy Vaclav Kadlec, who should get a chance to shine in Bony's absence.

I'd like to see as strong a lineup as possible, even with the notable absences. Liverpool haven't played since Saturday and don't have a league match before the return leg. If the hard work's done tomorrow, we might see some of those hyped youngsters in the next leg.

Tomorrow marks Dalglish's first match in European competition. That alone should be enough motivation.

14 February 2011

Spin the Wheel

Every now and then, I stumble across an absolutely brilliant idea on someone else's website. When that happens, I usually steal it.

Last week, Dan from Aston Villa Central created what he called the "passing wheel," taking the Guardian Chalkboard passing data and re-plotting all the passes from a central point. It's utterly phenomenal.

As T.S. Eliot memorably wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Don't bother looking up the second half of that quotation, by the way. Is it stealing if I give credit? Regardless, I wanted to use the idea to look at Lucas' body of work in Liverpool's last two matches.

What I like most about the diagram is how it highlights directionality. The myth about Lucas is that he's a player who plays the "safe" passes, playing sideways and backwards more often than not. These graphics help dispel that notion.

Out of the 103 passes attempted in both matches, 88 of them were played forward – 85%. 72% of Lucas' total attempted passes were both completed and went forward. Only 6 passes against Chelsea and 9 passes against Wigan were backwards and none were misplayed. 15 out of 103 attempts. So much for that myth.

Interestingly, the right side of sector 1 is almost wholly vacant against Chelsea. Johnson and Maxi were Lucas' most frequent targets, both playing on the left side of the field. Aurelio, predominantly left-footed, was also a recurring outlet when he came on a substitute for Maxi. Kelly received only three passes from Lucas in that match. Lucas, as with the rest of the side that day, clearly had a specific task, planned down to the last detail by Dalglish and Clarke. It wasn't so regimented against Wigan, with an almost similar total between left and right sides, but still a slight preference to the left.

To break it down further, into sectors 1a and 1b etc with A as the left and B as the right...

Lucas was necessarily more "adventurous" against Wigan – more passes into sector 1 than 2, the opposite of his statistics against Chelsea – but also had a higher incompletion rate. More laterally balanced, searching for some opening in Wigan's compressed defense, and more inclined to push play ahead, as Liverpool needed to be on the attack, especially after conceding an equalizer. As happened to the team all too often, it didn't quite come off, but the intent was there. As a whole, Liverpool disappointed yesterday; it's not the fault of any individual. Except maybe the linesman who completely missed Gohouri being offside.

I will probably return to this style of graphic in the future. Plotting each pass is somewhat labor-intensive; I've only had the chance to study Lucas so far, and only the last two matches. That he's the primary defensive midfielder and due to the aforementioned prevailing myth, I thought his play would be a good starting point.

All season long, Lucas has been converting nonbelievers. Long may it continue.

Edit: Here are the actual chalkboards from Chelsea and Wigan.

12 February 2011

Liverpool 1-1 Wigan

Kelly Carragher Skrtel Johnson
Maxi Lucas Aurelio
Kuyt Suarez

Meireles 24'
Gohouri 65'

All good things must come to an end. Would you rather have taken a draw at Stamford Bridge and a win today?

This was one of those frustrating games we've seen all too often. For some reason, they keep occurring against Wigan, who Liverpool haven't beaten in the last three attempts. Liverpool never looked wholly comfortable and ended up paying for it. Pick your cliché about the fragility of a one-goal lead. With Gerrard and Agger missing, Dalglish reverted to four at the back, handing Suarez his first start. Meireles was the most attacking midfielder in a formation best-described as 4-3-1-2.

It took 15 minutes for the home side to gel, ignoring a fourth-minute penalty "shout" when Suarez went down in the box. The Uruguayan was at the center of Liverpool's attack, constantly looking to play clever one-twos, but couldn't quite make the breakthrough despite some very smart touches and an excellent work-rate.

Kuyt's bobbled effort from the top of the box in the 18th marked the turn in fortunes, with Liverpool starting to take control, and Meireles soon opened the scoring yet again with his fifth goal in six matches. Gohouri could only half-clear Aurelio's cross, setting up a crashing volley past Al-Habsi. Four of Meireles' five goals have been volleyed strikes if we count the bouncing bazooka which won last Sunday's match.

Three minutes later, the lively Suarez cannoned off the foot of the far post after dismembering a Wigan defender with a shoulder feint. But Liverpool couldn't get the always-needed second goal, and Wigan ended the half stronger after 20 or so minutes of Liverpool dominance.

Liverpool stayed slightly ahead on the balance of play after the interval, but were again punished against the run of play in the 65th after scrambling a free kick clear. N'Zogbia sent a cross back in, Alcaraz ever-so-slightly flicked on, and an offside Gohouri was on hand to tap in at the far post. After a few deep breaths, it's almost understandable that the linesman missed the touch which put Gohouri offside. Nonetheless, it's a harsh way to lose the lead.

Substitutions also hurt Liverpool today. Meireles had to come off in the 54th because of "sickness," but both his and Kuyt's exit could be blamed on midweek exertions and an eye on Thursday's Europa League match. Neither Ngog nor Jovanovic could make anywhere near the needed impact.

With 10 defenders permanent ensconced in Wigan's half, Liverpool's best chances following the equalizer came from free kicks. Aurelio and Maxi wasted theirs wildly over the bar, while Suarez hit the woodwork for the second time with 10 minutes remaining. Opportunities from open play were next to nonexistant; crosses and shots were quickly blocked by diving defenders. Wigan could have been down to 10 men prior to Suarez's free kick – Caldwell should have seen a second yellow for again fouling the new #7 – but Kevin Friend did Liverpool few favors today.

We saw the detriment of international friendlies today. The break halted the momentum built up over the last four games. Not only did Liverpool miss Agger – a surprise omission – but players were clearly tired, especially Kuyt and Lucas.

Suarez was lively, and he'll be scoring from the positions he got into today before we know it. The way he looked to link up with other attackers, playing those quick one-twos and bursting forward will align well with the talents of Gerrard, Meireles, and Carroll. Meireles continued his hot vein of form. Kelly again played beyond his tender age. But no matter the positives, today's result still feels like a loss. There are no easy matches in the Premier League, but two points dropped at home to Wigan is regrettable to say the very least.

It's still six games without a loss – only Arsenal can boast the same results over that period – but today was an expected victory after last week's triumph. Liverpool's now dropped seven points from winning positions in Dalglish's seven league games – against Blackpool, Everton, and now Wigan. Comparably, the side dropped nine during Hodgson's 20 games. At least Liverpool are getting into winning positions more often.

Liverpool now have two weeks before the next league match, a trip to West Ham against another a relegation candidate. Both legs of the Europa League knock-out round will be played prior. By then, everyone should be fit, hopefully including Liverpool's £35m signing. Let's hope momentum is as easily restarted as it was lost today.

11 February 2011

Liverpool v Wigan 02.12.11

10am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 11.10.10
0-1 Wigan (a) 03.08.10

2-1 Liverpool (h) 12.16.09
1-1 (a) 01.28.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Stoke (h); 1-0 Fulham (h)
Wigan: 4-3 Blackburn (h); 2-2 WBA (a); 0-0 Bolton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Kuyt, Meireles 4; Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Cole, Johnson, Skrtel, Suarez 1
Wigan: Rodallega 7; N'Zogbia 4; Cleverly, McCarthy, Watson 3; Alcaraz, Gomez, Moses, Stam 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guesses at a line-up:
if 3-5-2
Kelly Carragher Agger
Johnson Gerrard Lucas Meireles Aurelio

if 4-3-3/4-2-3-1
Kelly Carragher Agger Johnson
Lucas Gerrard
Maxi Meireles Suarez

Will Liverpool stick with three at the back? That I'm listing two guesses for lineups should demonstrate my uncertainty. The match against Stoke proved three at the back can be attacking despite an excess of defenders, but Stoke presented far different challenges than Wigan will. Wigan often play 4-5-1, as the Potters did, but don't have the height or set play threat that Stoke provides. Rodallega is a completely different forward than Carew.

What seems certain is that we'll finally see Suarez unleashed. I can't help but wonder how he'd fit into the 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-1-1. He rarely, if ever, played as a lone striker for Ajax or Uruguay. Suarez's entrance against Stoke saw a shift to a more-orthodox 3-5-2, but the game was far more stretched as Liverpool had taken the lead.

Injury concerns have increased in the last week. Shelvey's definitely out. Skrtel, Gerrard, and Kelly are questionable after knocks against Chelsea; all three pulled out of mid-week internationals. The BBC seem to think that Kelly and Gerrard are likely to play, while Skrtel's the biggest concern. The former two will probably be late decisions taken tomorrow.

Depending on the formation, Gerrard would be replaced by Maxi or Aurelio (3-5-2) or Poulsen or Spearing (4-3-3/4-2-3-1). As usual, I find it hard to believe the captain will be absent. Skrtel could be replaced by Kyrgiakos or Kelly if Liverpool stick with three centerbacks; I wouldn't mind seeing Kelly as the right-sided CB, knowing he can get forward as Agger and Skrtel did against Stoke. If Liverpool go with four at the back – which I think is slightly more likely – he'd probably be dropped for a Carra/Agger pairing anyway.

With 12 games to play, Wigan find themselves in the relegation zone on goal difference. They've won on the road twice all season – the last on Boxing Day – but have as many draws as losses away from home. The Latics have the same number of total losses as Liverpool – 10 –  but like Birmingham, Wigan are near the bottom of the table because of too many draws both home and away.

Hugo Rodallega has been a constant thorn in Liverpool's side, while N'Zogbia's also capable of magic, although often over-elaborate. James McCarthy's return is a huge boon, with two goals in Wigan's last match – including an absolute beauty (starts at 00:17). Marking the attacking midfielder will fall under Lucas' brief. Defender Gary Caldwell has a fractured cheekbone, while last summer's supposed target Mayner Figueroa is carrying a hamstring problem.

Liverpool have struggled at the DW Stadium in recent years, drawing twice and losing once in the last three games, but have taken all three points at Anfield in four of the five meetings since Wigan's promotion in 2005.

Liverpool have an away match in Prague on Thursday, the start of the Europa League knock-out rounds, but I expect more "rotation" there than tomorrow. There are 15 days until Liverpool's next league match at West Ham. We've seen a marked improvement in form – four successive wins with four successive clean sheets – and Liverpool are finally playing the sort of football we know this squad is capable of. But resting on laurels after Sunday's accomplishment could see Wigan pull one over on the club yet again, no matter the manager or starting XI.

07 February 2011

Chelsea Chalkboard Review

As most are aware, I frequently trawl through Liverpool's chalkboards after games looking for inspiration. Stats never tell a full story, but often help color in between the narrative's lines. Today I thought I'd show how Liverpool controlled yesterday's game by using Chelsea's chalkboards.

Average Position:
Liverpool (3-1-5-1):

Sunderland (4-5-1):

Having three at the back was obviously the main difference, man-marking both Chelsea strikers with an additional CB to pick up the pieces, but Lucas' role also blunted Chelsea's effectiveness. The deep-lying midfielder was able to control Chelsea's attacking pivot – Anelka. Sunderland's unbalanced 4-5-1 saw Sessesgnon – ostensibly the left winger – more often inside, creating a midfield diamond with Malbranque, Richardson, and Henderson while Elmohamady provided width on the right. But none of those four midfielders had a strictly defensive brief; all four prefer to get forward to join the attack. Without an out-and-out holding player, Anelka had the freedom of the pitch.


Man of the match mid-week with a goal and assist, Anelka attempted 16 more passes against Sunderland, completing 12 more, and was busier in all areas of the opposition half. Against Liverpool, he was restricted to a smaller section of the pitch, far more central, where Lucas could stay in front of him.

Lampard and Essien:

Meanwhile, Chelsea's other "attacking" midfielders – Lampard and Essien, the sides of the diamond – were also far less potent. There is a distinct pattern to their play against Sunderland: Lampard stayed primarily on the left, Essien on the right. Both players had a higher pass completion rate against Liverpool, but both perpetually roamed instead of staying in defined roles, trying to force a break-through, unable to come to terms with Liverpool's stymieing formation. In addition, far more passes from both are either sideways or backwards against Liverpool compared to against Sunderland.

Torres v Kalou:

Yikes. Bad day at the office. To be fair, it was Torres' debut. But still. Yikes. It goes without saying that a striker needs to be more diligent when the team's struggling. But Torres doesn't go looking for chances; he needs to be presented with them. And Chelsea's creators couldn't do so. Which is why Chelsea's record signing was hauled off with the score level and a third of the game left to play.


All together, it led to a far reduced attacking output, which was clearly Liverpool's intent. Chelsea took eight less shots on Sunday. Half of those shots came from outside the box. None of the shots from distance found the target. Only one – when Anelka put Malouda through in the 73rd minute – forced a save from Reina, and with Malouda pushed to a narrow angle, it wasn't a difficult save. When Liverpool went ahead by a goal, the wing-backs quickly converted to more orthodox full-backs, shutting down another area of the pitch and congesting the final third, limiting Chelsea chances even further. Against Sunderland, Chelsea created shots from all angles, with four goals from nine attempts on target.

After Wednesday's match against Stoke, most assumed Liverpool's 3-4-2-1 was a one-off tactic. Now we're wondering if that match was a preview for stopping Chelsea or hearkened a tactical revolution devised to reinvigorate a shaky defense. It worked as planned in both matches, but I'm still skeptical that it's a long-term solution, especially when Suarez and Carroll come into the fold.

We'll find out a lot more on Saturday, when Liverpool host struggling Wigan. At home against a side that almost always plays 4-5-1 – without the aerial threat Stoke provides – Liverpool seem likely to focus on attack rather than defense.

06 February 2011

Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea

Carragher Skrtel Agger
Kelly Gerrard Lucas Maxi Johnson

Meireles 69'

"Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!" Yet again, David beats Goliath. And it couldn't have been sweeter.

So much for not seeing three at the back for a second-straight match. More important, so much for the notion that the game had passed Kenny Dalglish by.

Liverpool's tactics again blunted the opposition, leading to a cagey first half at the Bridge. Three defenders did well to silence Drogba and Torres while Lucas marked Anelka up and down the pitch. Carragher and Agger each picked up a striker while Skrtel picked up the pieces as Chelsea struggled to create chances. The home side had more possession throughout, but as against Stoke, Liverpool got better as half went on, especially as they settled and cut out the cheap giveaways – such as Maxi's which presented Torres a chance after less than two minutes.

The hearts-in-mouth moment of the half came from a Liverpool attack, one which should have seen the Reds take the lead into the break. On the counter, Johnson's cross deflected to Gerrard, whose dangerous ball across the face of goal found Maxi at the far post. With an unlucky bobble at an inopportune time, the Argentinean could only side-foot off the bar from two yards out.

It looked like Liverpool would rue that opportunity after the break. That seemed to be the chance. While Chelsea's front line was silent – the best opportunity for either striker came when Carragher dove in to block Drogba's 54th minute shot – the Blues upped the threat through set plays and shots from distance. Dead balls routinely found Ivanovic's head, while Anelka, Essien, and Cole blasted either high or wide from outside the area.

Yet Reina remained remarkably unthreatened. And in the 69th minute, Raul Meireles again turned the game on its head. Kelly started the move by finding Gerrard with a long ball down the touchline. Gerrard's threatening cross failed to reach Kuyt, but neither Cech nor Ivanovic could clear when under pressure from the Dutchman, and Meireles was on the spot to smash in with his left foot. That'd be four goals in the last five games.

Pinned back for the final 20 minutes, sending on Aurelio for Maxi and Poulsen for Meireles, Chelsea still struggled to create openings. We'll hear complaints about two penalties not given – an incidental handball by Lucas (with his arms at his side) and a shove by Johnson, both of which could have been called – but that was about all the offense the home side created. According to Opta Sports, it's been two years since Chelsea created so little at home, with only one of their 14 shots on target. Meanwhile, Liverpool still looked to break when possible, with Aurelio forcing Cech in a neat save on a right-footed blast with 10 minutes remaining, but a second obviously wasn't the priority as Liverpool rode out the storm.

From Liverpool's point of view, today's match wholly lived up to the hype. Maxi had a tough match, but every other player was outstanding, especially Carragher and Lucas. Either could be man of the match, as could Gerrard for creating Liverpool's two scoring chances or Meireles for the goal. The entire side fought diligently throughout. Once again, we saw a cohesive unit instead of individuals playing for themselves. And we saw intelligent, fluid tactics which stifled the opposition instead of an archaic, static 4-4-2 which only hoped (and often failed) to keep the score-sheet blank.

From Chelsea's point of view, today was a utter failure. Torres had no impact thanks to Liverpool's bright defenders, hauled off right before Liverpool's winner. Anelka had zero space to weave magic as against Sunderland with Lucas in his shadow. Neither Cole nor Boswinga could provide enough width in the 4-3-1-2 system because of Liverpool's wingbacks and packed midfield. The narrow play helped Liverpool and hurt Chelsea. Exactly how it was drawn up.

Liverpool have now won more away games under Dalglish than Hodgson. Two wins in three matches compared to one win in 10. It's the fourth consecutive victory and fourth consecutive clean sheet. Questions remained after beating three teams in the bottom half of the table, but a victory over the defending champions validates Dalglish's renaissance. An unlikely double, to say the least.

Liverpool are now up to sixth, only six points behind Chelsea and Spurs albeit having played an extra game. If one of the top four win either the Carling or FA Cups, that position would qualify Liverpool for the Europa League. Less than a month ago, that seemed implausible if not impossible. I doubt Liverpool will be satisfied with that accomplishment, though.

It's nice to believe again.

04 February 2011

Liverpool at Chelsea 02.06.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.07.10
0-2 Chelsea (h) 05.02.10

0-2 Chelsea (a) 10.04.09

4-4 (a; CL) 04.14.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Stoke (h); 1-0 Fulham (h); 3-0 Wolves (a)
Chelsea: 4-2 Sunderland (a); 1-1 Everton (a); 4-0 Bolton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi, Meireles 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Cole, Johnson, Skrtel, Suarez 1
Chelsea: Drogba, Malouda 9; Kalou 7; Anelka 6; Essien, Ivanovic, Lampard 3; Terry 2; Alex, Benayoun, Ramires 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Agger Johnson
Gerrard Lucas
Maxi Meireles Suarez

I highly doubt Liverpool will stay with same formation deployed against Stoke, whether 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2. Primarily, Liverpool will have a lot less of the ball and the defenders will be up against the likes of Drogba, Anelka, Malouda, and yes, Fernando Torres instead of John Carew. Agger and Skrtel won't be bombing forward to join the attack as on Wednesday. If Chelsea continue with the 4-3-1-2 used against Sunderland, a three-man back line makes some sense on its face, with the center-backs canceling out two strikers and Lucas marking the withdrawn play-maker (probably Anelka). But Chelsea's pace on the flanks from full-back, specifically in Ashley Cole, would pin back the wingbacks, while both Lampard and Essien can join in from deep, overrunning the midfield and forcing at least one of the free attacking midfielders back to help out.

Yet Liverpool can still replicate some of the positives against Stoke in Dalglish's "original" 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation: width from fullbacks, Kuyt up front, and Gerrard/Meireles freely getting forward (although one will have more holding duties), among others. The fullbacks will be crucial; Kelly was masterful against Cole and Malouda when these sides met in November. Kuyt will also have a big role to play in bringing others into the attack, especially if new signing David Luiz starts at CB.

With Suarez starting, Liverpool will look even more a like a 4-3-3 than the 4-2-3-1 I often use for convenience. Suarez will ostensibly play on the left, cutting inside on his preferred right foot. Maxi would provide balance on the other flank, slightly deeper and able to move inside, but also clever enough to stretch play and contribute crosses. In addition, Kuyt will drop deep and shift positions in his all-action style, almost as a false nine.

Only fit enough for the bench against Stoke, I'm again guessing Carragher will return. It seems impossible that Carra would be available and not face Chelsea, even if he hasn't played in more than two months.

Top of the table when these two club met on November 7, Chelsea took 19 points from the next 13 games, falling to fourth. Comparably, even destitute Liverpool have earned 20 points since then, albeit having played one more match. But the Blues took nine of those points in their last three games, beating Blackburn, Bolton and Sunderland by a combined 10-2 margin.

Of course, all focus will be on Chelsea's new number nine. I forget his name. There's no assurance that guy will even start – at least Ancelotti refused to give assurances in today's press conference – but I'll be stunned if he doesn't. There's no way you pay £50m for a player and leave him out six days after signing just because his old team is the opposition. You'd think that'd be a bonus in Chelsea's eyes.

With what's-his-name in the lineup, Chelsea will probably play some variation of the diamond formation, which we saw a preview of against Sunderland last Tuesday. Drogba and Kalou formed a front two, while Mikel held the midfield, flanked by Essien and Lampard. It prompted the perpetually-enlightening Zonal Marking to run an article about Anelka as potential trequartista. Injury-wise, Ramires (who'd fit into this formation flawlessly) is out, along with long-term absentees Alex and Benayoun.

The hullabaloo over Torres will dominate airways, but the match is obviously bigger than one trophy-hunting mercenary. Liverpool have unmistakably improved under Dalglish, but let's not forget that the three wins came against the likes of Wolves, Fulham and Stoke – currently 20th, 12th, and 11th in the table. It's far more difficult to do it against the 4th-placed side on their ground. At least Liverpool have plenty of motivation.

03 February 2011

Stoke Chalkboard Review: A Tale of Four Partnerships

Liverpool's tactical chess against Stoke, well-analyzed by Noel from Liverpool Offside, worked a treat yesterday. Best described as a 3-4-2-1, it was interesting to see the roles played by each in the new formation.

What caught my eye in the chalkboards was how roles overlapped and fit together, increasing the side's overall cohesion. Both Agger and Skrtel played as supplementary center-backs, bordering on orthodox fullbacks. Kelly and Johnson were up and down the pitch as wingbacks. Lucas and Aurelio formed the base of the central midfield square, while Gerrard and Meireles each fluidly roamed in a free role.

Most notable was how Agger and Skrtel supplemented the attack with Stoke pinned back. Both chalkboards look more like orthodox, deep lying fullbacks rather than center-backs. With Kyrgiakos man-marking Carew into invisibility, Agger and Skrtel both had license to get forward. That's a major part of Agger's game, but one hilarious moment saw Skrtel charging towards goal a la Mark Lawrenson, beating defenders before striking a pitiful shot wide.

But Liverpool prospered in each section. Gerrard was everywhere in a familiar free role. Lucas steadily ran the show, with an 89% completion rate against pressing, physical Stoke. Liverpool could have done with more end product from both wingbacks – Kelly looked more comfortable on his preferred side, only to have crosses routinely fail to find heads – but each worked diligently to give Liverpool real width.

The greatest compliment I can bestow is that Liverpool looked wholly comfortable in this unfamiliar system. Benitez infrequently threw tactical curve balls, such as the 3-4-3 in an 0-1 loss to Sunderland and the 3-4-2-1 which beat Portsmouth 3-2 in 2009. But in those matches, whether win or loss, it took time for Liverpool to come to grip with the changes. Yesterday, the team looked like they'd be doing this all season, taking 30 minutes to adapt and duly threaten Stoke. That's a credit to Dalglish and assistant manager Steve Clarke. As is the fact that Liverpool have kept three successive clean sheets for the first time all season.

A couple more notes of interest:

• While it doesn't fit with the overall theme of "partnerships," Reina's passing rate needs to be highlighted

35 of 39 – 90% – is an incredibly high completion rate for a goalkeeper. And it's not as if all were short passes out to a defender. Out of 11 attempts over the halfway line, Reina completed seven, which is a credit to Kuyt's play as the lone striker. Against Fulham, he completed 16 out of 24. Against Wolves, 14 out of 35. Just a wonderful display from a keeper who's already superlative when distributing the ball. And to think we were worried when his passing rate plummeted under Hodgson and Mike Kelly.

• Following the Wolves match, I wrote about the decreasing number of passes since Dalglish took the reins. Last night put paid to that notion. Liverpool attempted 578 passes, completing 449 – a 78% rate. Compare that to 379 attempted at Wolves, 434 attempted against Everton, and 517 against Blackpool. The number of passes rose against Fulham – to a similar 459 completed out of 574 – but Liverpool were far more effective yesterday, evident in both the style of play and score line.

• Glen Johnson attempted the fewest passes of any Liverpool starter with 36. Only one Stoke player – fullback Andy Wilkinson, with 43 – attempted more than Johnson. The midfielder with the most completed passes was Pennant, with 22, the same number of passes Liverpool's deepest center-back completed. It's not hyperbolic to suggest Liverpool passed Stoke into submission.

Welcome back, Liverpool.

02 February 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Stoke

Skrtel Kyrgiakos Agger
Kelly Lucas Aurelio Johnson
Gerrard Meireles

Meireles 47'
Suarez 79'

Liverpool's lineup prompted a barrage of pre-match questions. Seeing three central defenders, three full-backs, three central midfielders, and one striker-turned-right winger left many questioning exactly what formation Liverpool would use.

Today's XI most resembled the 3-4-2-1 drawn above, with width provided by the wing-backs, spending far more time in Stoke's half, supplemented by Skrtel and Agger striding forward from defense. Lucas played quarterback, holding from deep, completing pass after pass after pass, while Gerrard, Meireles, and Aurelio popped up all over the pitch. Kuyt did well as the main striker, comfortable with back to goal, holding up play for midfielder runners. The fluid movement gave Liverpool more opportunities to carve open the ten men permanently ensconced behind the ball.

Deploying three at the back fell out of use because of the proliferation of lone strikers. But Liverpool weren't out-numbered in other areas of the pitch because of how Skrtel and Agger joined the attack, often leaving Kyrgiakos in a one-on-one battle with John Carew, who spent the majority of the match nearly 20 yards away from teammates.

That the half ended goal-less aptly demonstrates Stoke's resiliency. Liverpool took time to adapt to the new formation, only pinning Stoke back in the last ten minutes of the half. The home side's lone threat in the first 35 came from a set play, when Kyrgiakos' header from Gerrard's corner was cleared off the line in the the 7th minute. Liverpool were delightfully fluid at times, but opportunities from open play were hard to come by, par for the course when facing the Potters.

Begovic was finally called into action in the 36th minute, brilliantly palming away Johnson's close-range header. Less than a minute later, Kuyt flicked a header wide of the far post on Kelly's second successive dangerous cross. Gerrard and Kuyt nearly sliced through a packed penalty box in the 39th, but Kuyt volleyed high and wide when the ball wouldn't come down. The rush subsided when Huth put two feet straight through Johnson's ankles, a tackle no different from the one where Gerrard saw red against United. Unsurprisingly, the defender only received a yellow.

Liverpool were able to maintain momentum after the interval – unlike the seven minutes which doomed the Everton result – taking little time to break the deadlock. Meireles claimed his third goal in four games after a scrambled set play: Gerrard's free kick found Kyrgiakos, who smartly set up the Portuguese midfielder instead of turning and blasting wildly towards goal.

Unwilling to ease off the gas, fully aware of how precarious a one-goal lead is, Dalglish handed Suarez his debut in the 63rd minute, shifting Liverpool to a more "orthodox" 3-5-2. Coupled with Stoke making all three changes – Delap, Collins, and Fuller for Diao, Faye, and Wilson – switching to 4-4-2, it led to an eminently watchable, increasingly open game. That Liverpool were rarely threatened, and rarely out of possession, made it even more fun to watch.

With 11 minutes to play, after demonstrating some clever touches and a much-needed burst of pace, Suarez marked his first game in the best-possible manner. Kuyt cleverly released the Uruguayan, who rounded the keeper only to scuff his shot, allowing Wilkinson time to make what looked to be a goal-saving tackle. But the fullback could only help it into the net. That the shot was initially on target should confirm a debut goal for the Kop's new hero.

Less than sixty seconds later, Reina made the one save he needed to make, smartly keeping out Walters after Carew turned Kyrgiakos and chested a cross into the striker's path. Shelvey and Gerrard nearly added more gloss in the dying minutes, each shooting narrowly over the bar (with Begovic getting fingertips to Shelvey's effort).

All the fears over whether Dalglish had been gone from the game for too long look wholly unfounded. He demonstrated a willingness to adapt to the opposition (I wouldn't expect to see this formation on Sunday), which wholly nullified Stoke. Liverpool blunted every problem the Potters caused in this season's first meeting, out-muscling the rugged side while conceding very few dangerous free kicks or throw-ins. Liverpool are playing fluid, attractive football for a change. And youth has been given a chance with Kelly's sixth-consecutive start and Shelvey's sixth-consecutive substitute appearance. This side – which has taken 10 points from its last five games – is completely unrecognizable to the one which sputtered through the first half of the season.

Liverpool are now two points from sixth, equaling Sunderland's goal difference. A third-straight league win, for the first time this season, is cause for celebration, but it goes without saying that little has been accomplished so far. Other than completely reviving the club's shattered confidence and laying down a cohesive blueprint for the future, of course.

01 February 2011

Liverpool v Stoke 02.02.11

3pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Stoke (a) 11.13.10
1-1 (a) 01.16.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 08.19.09

0-0 (a) 01.10.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Fulham (h); 3-0 Wolves (a); 2-2 Everton (h)
Stoke: 1-0 Wolves (a); 0-2 Fulham (a); 2-0 Cardiff (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Meireles, Ngog 2; Cole, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Stoke: Jones 5; Etherington, Huth 4; Fuller, Walters 3; Whitehead 2; Delap, Faye, Higginbotham, Wilson 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

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

Don't expect immediate gratification from Liverpool's new £58m strike force. Andy Carroll's out for a couple of weeks with a lingering thigh strain. Liverpool haven't dropped any hints, but as long as the paperwork's completed, Luis Suarez should be available. However, he's just coming off a two-month vacation thanks to a seven-match ban for biting an opponent. The Uruguayan's most likely to come off the bench if he sees action at all.

Except for the gaping hole in the center of the attack after Torres pranced off to West London, the side should look very similar to the team which faced Fulham. Ngog seems the most natural replacement, having been the understudy for the last two seasons, but he's seen limited action since Dalglish took the reins, with only two late substitute appearances coming against United and Blackpool. I wouldn't be wholly surprised to see Dirk Kuyt revert to his previous role as main striker, where he played before Torres arrived. Liverpool has few options up front until Carroll's fit.

Wednesday could see the return of Jamie Carragher, back in training after dislocating his shoulder in November. I wonder if he'd be better served eased back into the lineup, but with Skrtel still shaky and Chelsea on Sunday, if Carra's available, Carra will play. Lucas should also return to the starting XI after a slight knock kept him out against Fulham.

Stoke, in 10th, are two points behind Liverpool with a game in hand. The Potters finish January having added John Carew while losing Tuncay and Gudjohnsen. As usual, Stoke is Stoke is Stoke: physical, hard-working, and perpetually dangerous on set plays. Carew only adds to that; he, Jones, and Fuller are all handfuls. Danny Higginbotham is Stoke's only injury concern now that Sidibe's back from an extended absence, while center-back Shawcross is suspended.

Liverpool can't ruminate on one player's dramatic exit or look past Stoke to Sunday's enormous match at the Bridge. The season's still in a tenuous state, with Liverpool having finally, narrowly worked their way up to the heady heights of seventh. The bottom of the table's still far closer than the top, and Liverpool have only won two consecutive games. Plus, there's still an embarrassing 0-2 result from the reverse fixture to avenge.