29 April 2011

Liverpool v Newcastle 05.01.11

7am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Newcastle (a) 12.11.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.03.09
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.08.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Brum (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a); 3-0 City (h)
Newcastle: 1-1 Blackpool (a); 0-0 United (h): 0-1 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 11; Maxi 6; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Carroll, Cole, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel, Suarez 2
Newcastle: Nolan 12; Best 6; Ameobi, Lovenkrands 5; Barton 4; Coloccini, Jonas 2; Ben Arfa, Tiote 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Robinson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

Can you change a team that won its last game 5-0? More importantly, can you drop the hat-trick hero?

Dalglish seemingly has two options: Carroll or Maxi. Either keep the faith with the Argentinean (and probably keep the the 4-4-2 diamond) or restore Carroll and the 4-2-2-2 against the massive striker's previous team. I expect it'll come down to the striker's fitness; if he's available, he'll start, no matter Maxi's treble. As usual, Dalglish was coy. Having the usual pre-match press conference on Thursdays often doesn't clarify touch-and-go injuries.

If Carroll comes back, the diamond's out. Neither Kuyt nor Suarez would thrive in a shuttling midfield role; Dalglish has the Dutchman closer to goal than ever. When this front six has been healthy – and I'm guessing Carroll will be – it's been used in a lopsided 4-2-2-2 formation since beating Sunderland in early March.

Of course, I thought using three at the back against Stoke was a one-off as well, a singular tactic used to cope with injuries and the opposition's tactics. But who'd get dropped if both Carroll and Maxi started? Kuyt? Spearing? Neither seems as likely, even after Maxi's goals against Brum.

And Carroll will do all he can to be fit. On an individual level, it's better than his first match against his boyhood club is at Anfield rather than St James' Park, where he'll have the support of the fans. These confrontations always seem to go one of two ways. Either the former player is the conquering hero (as usually happens when a past Liverpool keeper faces the Reds) or he tries too hard and ends up muzzling his team (as usually happens when Rooney faces Everton). It's nice, but expected, to read Dalglish predict the former; he certainly wasn't going to say otherwise.

Newcastle, contrary to expectations, haven't plummeted since firing Hughton, hiring Pardew, and selling Carroll. The Geordies are settled smack in the middle of the table: 11th, seven points above the drop zone and six behind seventh place. The team has won two, drawn five, and lost four since selling Carroll, although he did miss a month prior to being sold.

Like its opponents, Tyneside has also seen a fair few injuries of late. Nolan should play, having returned in the last match against Blackpool. Carroll's "replacement," Leon Best, has missed the last month. On-loan Steven Ireland's out for the final four games, while Ben Arfa has just a small chance of returning from a broken leg before the end of the season.

Newcastle has usually played 4-4-2 under Pardew, including in its last two matches: away to Blackpool and at home against United, both draws. The lone change in those games was the aforementioned Nolan comeback. Expect a backline of Simpson, Coloccini, Williamson, and Enrique; a midfield of Barton, Nolan, Tiote, and Jonas; and Amoebi and Lovenkrands up front. Nolan's always a threat, Barton's been excellent on set plays and crosses, Enrique bombs forward dangerously (which has him on Liverpool's radar), and Tiote's been one of the signings of the season, a wrecking-ball in midfield.

Prior to December's 1-3 embarrassment, Liverpool had a fantastic recent record against the Geordies, winning the previous four by a margin of 14 to 1. Let's hope the return of the King (in addition to Newcastle's loss of Carroll) will restore that sort of form.

23 April 2011

Liverpool 5-0 Birmingham

Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Robinson
Spearing Lucas Maxi
Kuyt Suarez

Maxi 7' 66' 74'
Kuyt 23'
Cole 86'

After seven consecutive draws, a five-nil thrashing. Complete domination, a Maxi hat-trick, and a capstone from Joe Cole. Predictable.

In a lot of ways, this match paralleled the much-referenced 7-0 FA Cup mauling, mostly because Birmingham again committed seppuku after Liverpool's early goals. The result was a formality by intermission, and the opposition wouldn't have scored if they played until Tuesday.

Another tactical curveball from Dalglish and Clarke worked like a charm. With Carroll unavailable after Sunday's knock, Maxi was drafted in. More surprisingly, the formation shifted to a 4-4-2 diamond, with Spearing and Maxi bombing forward in support of Meireles and the ever-willing front line.

The movement was superb: Maxi, Spearing, and Meireles shifted from flank to flank, while Suarez dropped deep to link. The interplay and support led to the early opener, with Maxi first to the rebound when Foster spilled Spearing's swerving shot from the top of the box.

Brum's response – keeping possession and marginally threatening through crosses from fullbacks – lasted less than ten minutes, and Liverpool got the crucial second midway through the half. Meireles, in acres of space just inside Birmingham's half, strongly flicked Reina's goal kick onto Suarez, unforgivably open thanks to Johnson stupidly cheating forward. Jiranek did well to get back, while Foster redeemed himself with close-ranges saves on the Uruguayan and trailing Kuyt, but couldn't keep the battery-powered Dutchman out a second time, pinned by Carr and left watching the turned shot find the netting.

To compound matters, Foster picked up an injury during the scramble and was substituted 17 minutes later. Liverpool could have extended the gap before the interval, seeing two halfhearted penalty appeals not given in the 39th (for a Gardner shove on a Kuyt and a Carr "handball"), Kuyt heading a corner wide in 44th, and Suarez tamely shooting at substitute keeper Doyle on the break in added time. But by the second half, Liverpool were fully content to soak up pressure and look for more on the counter.

This was where Lucas came to the forefront. Relentless when Birmingham entered Liverpool's half, the opposition rarely made it into the final third, shut down by the Brazilian and the covering Spearing and Maxi. Both Flanagan and Robinson did well to prevent crosses (Flanagan was again exceptionally impressive), while Carragher and Skrtel doubled-team the isolated Jerome.

It took 20 minutes for Liverpool to dissect Birmingham on the break. Suarez beat the offside trap – played on by Carr, who was distracted by Kuyt – and charged into space down the right, finding a wide-open Maxi at the back post for the clever volley. Eight minutes later, Liverpool had a fourth and Maxi had his third, again on the rebound, this time when Doyle saved the Argentinean's shot and Meireles poked the ricochet back to him.

Once again, it was awful defending by Birmingham, letting Reina's goal kick bounce for Suarez to pick up, then leaving Maxi open as every defender converged in the Uruguayan's direction. That kamikaze defense led to Liverpool's fifth by Cole barely two minutes after he replaced Meireles. Given space to run into the box after linking up with Kuyt (again from a Reina pass out), Cole's weak effort slipped past Doyle and inside the near post, a shambolic error reminiscent of Maik Taylor allowing Cisse's blast to roll under him for Liverpool's seventh in that romp five years ago.

Today's performance was a thorough beatdown, clearly aided by some Birmingham errors. But it's also worth remembering just how many players Liverpool are missing; Gerrard, Carroll, Agger, Johnson, Kelly, and Aurelio all would have started.

With so many players injured, including the talismanic captain, this team's taken on the persona of Kuyt and Lucas – rarely the most talented, but often the hardest-working and most reliable – with a heavy dash of Suarez's talent. It also helps that Suarez never stops running either. Liverpool won today by swarming the midfield, pressing in droves, and forcing Birmingham into those errors.

Which is why Suarez and Lucas vie for man of the match. But, as against Sunderland, Manchester City, and Arsenal, this was a team performance. Maxi's goals get the headlines, Kuyt scored for the third consecutive game, Spearing and Meireles worked nonstop, Flanagan and Robinson again belied their age, and Carragher and Skrtel never yielded. Reina, utterly untroubled, is an afterthought.

Dalglish's renaissance continues, and Spurs' home draw with West Brom opens the door just a little bit more (the first good thing Hodgson's done for the club). Maybe Liverpool doesn't have such a shallow squad; even with all these injuries, the team's taken 13 of the 18 points available since the start of March.

Now, with only four games left, the season looks promising. Funny how that works.

22 April 2011

Liverpool v Birmingham 04.23.11

10am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 09.12.10
1-1 (a) 04.04.10
2-2 (h) 11.09.09
2-2 (a) 04.26.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Arsenal (a); 3-0 City (h); 1-2 West Brom (a)
Brum: 1-3 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Sunderland (h); 1-1 Blackburn (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 10; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Maxi 3; Carroll, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel, Suarez 2; Cole 1
Brum: Gardner 7; Zigic 5; Ridgewell 4; Bowyer, Jerome, Larsson 3; Beausejour, Dann, Johnson 2; Fahey, Hleb, Phillips 1

Referee: Howard Webb (!!!)

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Robinson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

As if injuries would subside during the run-in. Ha. Not this season. Aurelio's unsurprisingly back on the sidelines, joining Johnson and Kelly with a hamstring injury, while Liverpool will make late decisions on Carragher and Carroll.

I actually hope Carragher doesn't play. It's not as if Liverpool are especially deep in defense at the moment, but Carra clearly had a concussion. If he can't remember that incident, he's not 'absolutely fine.' From how long he was out, it was probably a Grade II or III concussion. Rushing back from that is dangerous, to say the absolute least. If Carragher doesn't make it – which (knowing Carragher's temperament) seems unlikely – Kyrgiakos would probably start over Wilson.

Liverpool have more options if Carroll isn't fit and will probably be more cautious with the £35m man, but – like with Carragher – expect his participation. Suarez and Kuyt would probably play up top in the striker's absence, with Maxi, Shelvey, or Cole coming in on the flank, but Dalglish could also turn to Ngog. Regardless, Liverpool seem likely to stick with the 4-2-2-2 formation; it's been awhile since Kenny and Clarke threw a tactical curve ball as with three at the back.

There are obvious fears about playing two young full-backs yet again, regardless of each's impressive performance. Overplaying a young full-back is what ruined Insua's Liverpool career (that and Christian Purslow). But Liverpool truly have little choice. Johnson, Kelly, and Aurelio are all injured; Insua and Konchesky are on loan. That's five full-backs unavailable. Carragher could play on the right, Wilson could play on the left, but either would be mashing square pegs into round holes. The kids have been alright enough to merit another match ahead of those square pegs.

Birmingham suffered a hangover following the hilariously-surprising Carling Cup triumph, winless through March and booted from the FA Cup quarterfinals, but were unbeaten in April before losing at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. Two home wins over Sunderland and Bolton plus an away draw at Blackburn have seen the Midlands club up to 15th, five points out of the relegation zone.

The Brummies have a few injuries of their own. Strikers Zigic and Martins are out with groin problems, playmaker McFadden is close to but not ready for a return after missing almost the entire season through knee injury, and supposed Liverpool target Scott Dann – like so many current Liverpool defenders – has a hamstring issue.

Away from St Andrews, McLeish is likely to play 4-5-1/4-4-1-1, regardless of Birmingham's striker injuries. Hleb started behind Jerome against Chelsea, but McLeish could also pack the middle with Gardner, Ferguson, and Bowyer (using two of Larsson, Fahey, and Bentley on the flanks) and force Liverpool to carve them open. If the latter's the case, Lucas and Spearing will have a large task to ensure they're not outnumbered in the same way Lucas and Poulsen were in the reverse fixture.

And Liverpool have struggled to carve Birmingham open for a few years now. The Blues were Benitez' bogey side – never beating Brum in the league – and then stifled Hodgson's Liverpool in a dire 0-0 at St Andrews. The two clubs have played out seven consecutive league draws dating back to 2005 – the longest such streak in the league.

At Anfield, Liverpool are odds-on favorites despite this fixture's history. Picking up points at home is one of the few things this team's done consistently well (along with raising its game against better opposition). But Liverpool will have to break down determined foes, no matter Birmingham's line-up, and will probably have a lot more possession than usual (something I wrote about earlier in the week). One game is just one game, but this should tell us a lot about the progress made since August's meeting.

20 April 2011

Jay Spearing is Not a Defensive Midfielder

Up until the last four games, Jay Spearing's rarely looked liked having a long-term future at Liverpool. Admittedly, he also hadn't gotten a consistent run in the side until Gerrard's season-ending injury, only once playing more than two consecutive games: earlier this season against Steaua and Northampton. He didn't stand out in cameos against Real Madrid and PSV in 2008-09, three starts in 2009-10 (the two league cup matches and at Sunderland), or seven appearances under Hodgson. Happily, with Liverpool's hand forced by injuries, he's shown remarkable improvement since the 2-0 win at Sunderland.

Since Xabi Alonso left, fans have alternated between cries of "Gerrard's not an orthodox central midfielder" and "Lucas and X are too defensive." And there's truth in both statements. Lucas/Mascherano was too defensive at times. Lucas/Poulsen was definitely too defensive, with the added bonus of Poulsen being so far over the hill he's on flat ground. Two managers have been mostly unwilling to play Meireles in a central midfield pairing with Lucas, aside from a two-week stretch against Spurs, Villa, and Newcastle. But the Lucas/Spearing partnership hasn't as defensive as initially feared.

Spearing's passing chalkboards and heat maps from the last four games illustrate his development and abilities well.

Passing Chalkboards:

Heat Maps:

Click on the images. Trying a new plug-in; they should open full-size in a Javascript box. Let me know if there are any problems with this. My CSS knowledge is both dangerous and limited.

Unsurprisingly, the home match against City was his most-attacking performance of the four, if not the all-around best. It also happened to be Liverpool's largest win. He completed 18 more passes than against West Brom – his second-highest total of the four – and was more active according to the heat map. Liverpool bossed that game; it's no surprise to see Spearing's so influential.

But we can also see progression from Sunderland to West Brom to City to Arsenal. Despite his won penalty – another example of how he can get forward – the away match against Sunderland was his most "defensive" performance, evidenced by the heat map which shows his focus on the center circle area. Out-numbered in midfield against West Brom, in what was easily Liverpool's worst performance of the four, Spearing still attempted to prod Albion's defense down the left, shown in the passing chalkboard.

But the heat map and chalkboard from City and Arsenal show a player who's looking to link midfield and attack, highly-mobile and almost always on the run. Against both clubs, despite Liverpool's different strategies in the two matches, Spearing's heat maps show as much time spent in the opposition half as Liverpool's own – even against Arsenal, where Liverpool were frequently pegged back, but Spearing could have won another first-half spot kick.

I've been fighting the "Lucas is too defensive" stereotype since 2007. But Lucas is the defensive midfielder these days, and that's the area of his game which has most improved. He does rarely get forward, although still doesn't get enough credit for when he does – scoring against Benfica last year and Steaua this year, among others. No matter how he was billed when joining the club, the fact is that Lucas has become unarguably better when deployed deeper.

However, Spearing is more of a link player, and has become important to Liverpool's attack over the last month. Bustling, busy, and full of running, but still willing to get forward. These traits make him an ideal partner for Lucas.

The pairing still limits Liverpool in certain regards. Spearing doesn't have huge range of passing – Liverpool's weakness in this area explains Dalglish's January pursuit of Charlie Adam – while neither he nor Lucas score with any semblance of regularity. But intelligence and endeavor go a long way. And Spearing's dramatic improvement since earning his starting place bodes well.

18 April 2011

Possession isn't nine-tenths of the law anymore

Yesterday, Liverpool managed to earn a draw despite dramatically losing the possession battle. Arsenal had 62% of the ball, the most any opposition have had since Dalglish took the reins. Liverpool were under pressure and pegged back for long stretches of the match, but only conceded thanks to a sloppy penalty eight minutes into injury time.

Normally, you'd think that a bad thing. Even after the season we've seen, most of us are still used to the Rafa Benitez method deployed over six seasons: keep possession first and foremost. Blunt the opposition, set the tempo, play keep-away. Spain and Barcelona have won everything under the sun in recent years with similar (if far more effective) tactics, so it must be the "right method." But that hasn't been the case for Liverpool this season. And more often than not, losing the possession battle has actually been a good thing.

Simply put, whether under Hodgson or Dalglish, Liverpool have been better in matches where the opposition has more of the ball.

In the league, Liverpool have eight wins, four draws, and nine losses – an average of 1.33 points per game – when they out-possess their opponents. When the opposition has more possession, Liverpool have won six, drawn three, and lost three – an average of 1.75 points per game, and a difference of almost a half-point per game.

Liverpool have been held under 45% possession in six matches this season: v Arsenal, v Chelsea, at Wolves, at Chelsea, v United, and at Arsenal. Twice under Hodgson, four times under Dalglish. And Liverpool are unbeaten in all six, winning four while drawing twice against the Gunners.

The disparity grows when just considering Dalglish's 13 games: 3W-2D-2L with more possession than the opposition, 4W-1D-1L when the opposition out-possesses Liverpool. An average of 1.57 points per game versus 2.17 points per game. The games won with more possession have been against City, Stoke, and Fulham (all at Anfield); the games won with less possession were against Sunderland, United, Chelsea, and Wolves (all but United away from home). Getting results on the road has happened with defense and counter-attacking football. Finally.

It's been a trend all season, but the January changes were the turning point. Dalglish and Clarke have done a far better job organizing the team, especially the defense. Exchanging Torres for Suarez and Carroll improved Liverpool's ability to counter-attack, with both better at bringing in midfield runners such as Kuyt and Meireles. Liverpool are scoring more goals – having notched in every one of Dalglish's league matches – and conceding less.

But they're doing it with some similarities to Hodgson's team. As said above, players have changed, as have certain tactics (pressing higher up the pitch being the most noticeable). But Liverpool's still reliant on the counter-attack, back in a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation since injuries to Gerrard and multiple defenders, and still getting better results when conceding more possession to the opposition.

Clearly, it's not so simple as just having less possession or the likes of Stoke, Bolton, and Blackburn (or whoever Hodgson's managing) would win the league every season. But it's strange to see such a variation in results contingent upon how much of the ball Liverpool has.

At the end of August, I lamented Liverpool's lack of possession, unhappy with early performances and results under the new manager and still expecting Benitez's metronomic tactics.

Sometimes, a tiger can change its stripes. But it needs the right manager to do so.

17 April 2011

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

van Persie 90+8' (pen)
Kuyt 90+12' (pen)

Football. Sometimes it's just so indescribably ludicrous. Which is what makes it so wonderful.

It looked like Liverpool had dropped points in injury time for the second-straight meeting. After holding out for 97 minutes, through injuries to Carragher and Aurelio and despite heavy Arsenal pressure, Spearing – arguably the man of the match – brought down Fabregas in the box. Notched in the last minute of added time, Liverpool looked sunk.

A last gasp spell of pressure following the requited hoof down ended with a ray of hope when Lucas won a free kick just outside the top of the box. Just outside. Suarez sent the effort into the wall, but Eboue's moment of madness – bundling over Lucas with the ball going away from goal and Marriner's whistle at his lips – gave Liverpool a second reprieve. Kuyt stepped up to maintain his 100% record from the spot with the last kick of the game.

It was one of those rare examples that this might be a just universe. The word "deserves" is meaningless when it comes to sport, but Liverpool deserved a point today. After a impressive opening 10 minutes, Arsenal took the game to Liverpool for long stretches. Arsenal's increasing onslaught was aided by Aurelio's 20th-minute injury, replaced by Jack Robinson, but the tide had turned before the substitution.

Liverpool deserves this point because of how resolutely they defended, forced to use two teenage fullbacks for 80 minutes, each making his second appearance. With Flanagan up against Nasri and Robinson facing Walcott, each had an enormous task. Liverpool changed formation following Robinson's entrance, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 with Suarez wide left and Meireles behind Carroll, which helped blunt Fabregas and Wilshere in the middle, but led to Arsenal repeatedly attacking Robinson through Walcott. It's hard to overrate the young defender's effort, but Walcott's usual horrific final ball admittedly helped matters.

Make no mistake, Arsenal had chances. Arsenal always have chances. Koscielny cannoned a header off the crossbar in the 16th, van Persie had a goal rightfully ruled out for offside in the 25th, Fabregas shot wide of the near post in the 29th, and Skrtel barely blocked Eboue's injury-time effort. Liverpool rarely countered with the midfield forced so deep, made worse by Suarez and Carroll's surprising disconnect. Each side also had a first-half penalty shout rightfully turned down, foreshadowing the game's preposterous finish: Spearing was fouled by Djourou during Liverpool's early flurry, but appeared to handle in the build-up; Kuyt was lucky not to be called for handball in the 16th when Walcott's shot hit his chest then arm.

Liverpool were better after the interval, reverting to 4-2-2-2, but Carragher's horrific 57th minute injury, colliding with Flanagan, killed any burgeoning momentum. The extended stoppage would end up helping Liverpool, but it didn't look that way with Carragher frighteningly carried off, replaced by Kyrgiakos, and Arsenal resuming its pressure. Carroll went off soon after, having picked up an earlier knee knock, replaced by Shelvey with Kuyt shifting up front.

Van Persie created two half-chances, while Suarez forced Szczesny into a decent save on the break, before each side nearly won it before the 90th minute. First, Reina incredibly stopped van Persie's close-range shot, onside and through, before Suarez wastefully tried to replicate his Sunderland wonder-goal to decidedly worse effect.

Deep into injury time, with Liverpool looking likely to hold on, Spearing stuck out a leg and Fabregas made the most of it. But then Arsenal crumbled, as Arsenal is wont to do, Eboue did something crazy, as Eboue is wont to do, and Kuyt smashed in the equalizing spot kick, as Kuyt is wont to do. Happy days.

Admittedly, a point does Liverpool little good in its Sisyphean attempt to qualify for Europe. It's worse for Arsenal's "title chase," but Liverpool would probably have to win its final five games, with Tottenham losing at least two in addition to going down at Anfield.

And yet, there's no reason to be unhappy with that performance or result. Liverpool's response to adversity was its best of the season. Liverpool lost its sole senior fullback in the 20th minute and its organizing center-back captain in the 57th. The average age of the team which finished the match was 24, the back-line 23, and that's including 31-year-old Kyrgiakos. Having Flanagan, Robinson, Spearing, and Shelvey – all homegrown, all under 22 – bodes incredibly well for the future. Spearing, Lucas, and Skrtel were outstanding, while Liverpool turned in one of its best defensive performances of the season despite the incredibly-makeshift back four.

This season has been a wash at best, unforgettably horrible at times. But the future's bright, the future's red.

16 April 2011

Liverpool at Arsenal 04.17.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 08.15.10
0-1 Arsenal (a) 02.10.10
1-2 Arsenal (h) 12.13.09
1-2 Arsenal (a; Carling Cup) 10.28.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 City (h); 1-2 West Brom (a); 2-0 Sunderland (a)
Arsenal: 3-1 Blackpool (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-2 West Brom (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Maxi 3; Carroll, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel, Suarez 2; Cole 1
Arsenal: van Persie 12; Nasri 9; Chamakh, Walcott 7; Arshavin 6; Song 4; Fabregas 3; Bendtner, Diaby, Koscielny 2; Djourou, Eboue, Sagna, Squillaci, Vela, Wilshere 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

As long as Johnson and Kelly are injured, it's hard to see anything other than the lineup we saw against City. Liverpool have used the same front six in the last three league matches. With Johnson, Kelly, and Agger out, and after both Flanagan and Aurelio impressed on Monday, this should be the defense until the first-choice full-backs are fit.

Liverpool have little option but to stick with Flanagan after his excellent debut. He'll be thrown straight into the deep end again. Up against the likes of Milner and Balotelli last match and barely tested, now he'd face Samir Nasri, which is a frightening prospect for any defender. But it's better than the alternative of Carragher on the flank and Kyrgiakos or Wilson partnering Skrtel. Kyrgiakos would most likely get the nod over Wilson, and Arsenal's strengths – pace, movement – are Soto's biggest weaknesses.

At the same time, Arsenal's defense will be frightened of Liverpool's front line. Szczesny and Djourou should both return from injury, which isn't as tantalizing as Suarez and Carroll facing Squillaci, Koscielny, and Lehmann, but Arsenal's frequent uncertainty and propensity for errors can be exploited.

Still tangentially in the title race – at the least, United's closest competitors – Arsenal have repeatedly spurned opportunities to seize momentum, drawing with the likes of Blackburn (h), West Brom (a), and Sunderland (h) in its last four league games (in addition to losing the Carling Cup Final and going out of the FA Cup and Champions League in the same time frame).

Nonetheless, Arsenal are perpetually dangerous opponents. They're quick in every phase of play; have small, speedy players who'll challenge Liverpool's lack of pace; and love to have possession. Lucas and Spearing will have a far harder time winning the midfield than against Manchester City, facing a Fabregas-Wilshere-Song triangle.

Injuries mean that Liverpool won't be able to replicate the formation, but the game plan will probably be markedly similar to the 1-0 away win at Chelsea: focus on defense, press and hassle furiously, and look to spring the counter attack. And that game plan's worked (for other opponents) against Arsenal in the past.

Liverpool need to have the same movement and desire as against City, and need to play aggressively despite being away from Anfield (which, admittedly, is a big ask). Arsenal can be both stifled (as against Blackburn) and exposed (at West Brom). Matches between these sides are always tight despite recent returns; 10-man Liverpool should have won the reverse fixture if not for Reina's inexplicable gaffe, an occurrence almost as rare as a Torres goal for Chelsea. But Liverpool have also never won at the Emirates in six attempts, with three draws and three losses since 2006.

15 April 2011

Hillsborough: 22 Years Later

22 years later, there are still families and survivors coming to terms with the unspeakable tragedy they've suffered. There are still many who don't understand the actual causes of the disaster, in part thanks to a major newspaper which continues to traffic in lies. And there are many still fighting for justice and the truth. After 22 years.

As a supporter on the wrong side of the ocean, it's impossible to fully empathize with those who lost loved ones. I will never be able to fathom how horrible April 15 1989 was for them. But the sentiment remains sincere. All Liverpool fans – all football fans – can sympathize with the tragedy and fight to ensure it never happens again. You'll never walk alone.

Hillsborough Justice Campaign
Hillsborough Family Support Group
The Hillsborough Football Disaster
Don’t Buy The Sun
Liverpoolfc.tv tribute page
• LFC.tv: 1 Question, 96 Responses

14 April 2011

Kit Happens

You're all probably well aware how much I enjoy irrelevant statistics. And often, they really are irrelevant; correlation clearly doesn't always imply causation and the past isn't always precedent. Still, coincidences can be fun.

click for full size in new window

From 1896 through 1987, Liverpool wore just three kit colors: red, white, and yellow. Yellow was only added to the repertoire as an infrequent change strip in the late 1960s; it wasn't used as an away kit until 1982-83. Incidentally, Liverpool won the league that season. Liverpool branched out to a fourth tone with a striking gray number in 1987-88, and again won the title. Keeping the silver/gray for four seasons, the club picked up its last league championship to date in '89-90.

After finishing second in 1990-91, Liverpool added a fourth variation to the away scheme: green. It was the 1990s – that ne plus ultra of fashion and design – and everyone else was doing it. The club plummeted to sixth that season, its lowest position since the mid-sixties. Admittedly, Souness also may have had something to do with it. Regardless, and although results summarily improved once Souness got the sack, Liverpool kept the color for the next five seasons, usually with a heavy amount of white. But the damage had been done.

Really, this is a nonsensical correlation to my aesthetic preference. Liverpool's away kits should be white, gray, or yellow. Green almost always looked horrendous (granted, so did a couple of the yellow/gold kits), and I'll always think of black as a United color. No matter what the club claims, next season's away kit sure looks black.

But the club claims it's charcoal. Charcoal gray. And the difference between gray and black might actually matter. Liverpool have never finished better than 5th wearing black (sample size: 2) and never worse than 2nd in silver or gray. So which is it?

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Q.E.D.

You can find images of all of Liverpool's kits here and here.

12 April 2011

Manchester City Chalkboard Review

Liverpool were impressive all over the pitch yesterday, but three areas stood out, especially when contrasted with last week's disappointing result at West Brom.

• Midfield Passing

Both Spearing and Lucas were far more influential against City. Some of that was down to Mancini's surprising tactics, with a central midfield of Barry and Toure, but both were vastly improved in their own right. They hunted in tandem, closed down relentlessly, and both looked to get on the ball as much as possible.

Spearing attempted 21 more passes than against West Brom, completing 18 more, with a success rate of 82% compared to 80%. Similar goes for Lucas, who attempted 25 more passes and completed 19 more. Lucas delivered the type of big-game performance we've become accustomed to, but Spearing was a revelation, and his chalkboards were remarkably different: Jay was much more involved and got forward to much greater effect against the far-tougher opponent.

• Integrating the Strikers

No surprise that these two made an enormous difference. Suarez was Liverpool's best player against the Baggies, the only one who appeared able to make the needed difference, but both he and Carroll were isolated and ineffective for long stretches with Liverpool unable to assert dominance. That wasn't the case against City, where both dropped deeper to bring midfield runners into the attack and completed more passes, especially amongst themselves. Despite far more incompletions – usually from flick-ons and knock-downs – Carroll was much busier and stronger against City's backline, and was rewarded with two excellent goals.

• Defending the Flanks

We've rightfully complained about the output from full-back in recent weeks thanks to the increasingly frustrating injury crisis, but that wasn't a problem against City, despite having weapons such as Johnson, Silva, Milner, and Balotelli to punish from those areas. Both Flanagan and Aurelio defended well, mostly unconcerned with getting forward, but each had a lot of help. Both Kuyt and Meireles dropped back to defend excellently, recording a number of key tackles, each with far more stops than in the previous fixture. Kuyt won more tackles than any other Liverpool player; Meireles was joint-third, tied with Carroll and one less than Lucas. Kuyt's work-rate and assistance were undeniably crucial because of Flanagan's inexperience, and the young debutant wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful without the Dutchman.

11 April 2011

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Carroll Suarez

Carroll 13' 35'
Kuyt 34'

Revenge. Bettering City's 0-3 dominance in the reverse fixture, beating City as thoroughly as City beat Sunderland last week. Liverpool strolled for the final 55 minutes after Carroll tallied the third – his second of the match – the opposition, fully demoralized, fumbled aimlessly.

Whatever Dalglish said to the players prior to kickoff needs to be echoed before every match. There was only side ready to run through brick walls for the win; City were seemingly focused on the weekend's trip to Wembley.

Mancini's selection hinted at a focus on the future. City had played 4-2-3-1 with fairly decent returns for the last few weeks. Dzeko, struggling to come to terms with English football, had been relegated to the bench. Mancini's 4-3-3 formation in August's meeting took Liverpool's 4-4-2 to the woodshed, and odds were that Dalglish would stick the 4-2-2-2 seen against Sunderland and West Brom (he did).

But City went against all those precedents today. Most resembling a 4-4-2, Milner and Dzeko came in at Silva and De Jong's expense. The Bosnian partnered Tevez in an orthodox front two while Johnson and Milner manned the flanks with Barry and Toure (who has been better further forward this season) in the middle.

Tevez's 16th-minute injury made matters infinitely worse – he's absolutely essential despite City's galaxy of stars – especially since Balotelli replaced the Argentinean in a straight swap, but Liverpool were already ahead thanks their new number nine. After pressing from the opening whistle, creating chances for Kuyt and Suarez, Carroll opened the scoring after a hint of fortune: Meireles' shot from nowhere deflected straight to the striker's feet, but he still had to bazooka an unstoppable left-footed blast from the top of the box.

The front six may have been the same which lost to West Brom nine days ago, but Liverpool's energy and movement were wholly different. Suarez continues to be different class, while Lucas and Spearing bossed the middle, aided by Mancini's decision to play two central midfielders instead of the usual three.

City had a spell of ineffective possession for 10-15 minutes following the Tevez substitution, but all of a sudden Liverpool were ahead by three. A prolonged, probing attack pinning eight defenders in City's final third ended with Aurelio's blocked shot falling to Kuyt's feet. The Dutchman's finish was perfectly placed into the far corner. Seconds later, with City rocked, Carroll beat Kolarov – who probably shouldn't be marking a 6'6" striker – to Meireles' deep cross, flicking a header past the sprawling Hart.

Liverpool spent the second half completely nullifying the opposition, content to counter on the break. City had slightly more of the ball, Liverpool had the far better chances. Meireles, Kuyt (both twice), Suarez, and Carroll all could have increased the gap. Meanwhile, the away side hardly tested Reina until Yaya Toure's 40-yard rocket straight at the keeper in the 85th minute. That Mancini removed the substitute Balotelli in the 83rd for holding midfielder De Jong – the man he should have put on in the 16th – was a white flag, as close to a mid-match admission of defeat as we'll get.

There's nothing to criticize in Liverpool's performance. Every player impressed, every player ran until legs fell off. Carroll's two goals and Suarez's remarkable adaptation will get the headlines, but three others deserve special mention. 18-year-old Flanagan didn't look out of place for a second, silencing Milner, ably aided by Carragher's willingness to shout directions and Kuyt's willingness to drop deep and double up. Spearing improved on his promising Sunderland performance, a tornado in midfield. And Fabio Aurelio restored serenity and smart passing to the defense, class once again now that he's actually fit.

But Kuyt was also excellent, with yet another big-game notch in the bedpost. Lucas was as steadily furious as Spearing, although it's become expected from the Brazilian. Carragher and Skrtel kept Dzeko stone silent, Meireles was back to his two-month-ago best, albeit without the wonder goals.

Liverpool did everything required to finish the season on the best possible note. Today truly couldn't have gone better. But, as against Chelsea and United, doing it at home against the top sides when unfancied and up against the wall hasn't been Liverpool's problem.

09 April 2011

Liverpool v Manchester City 04.11.11

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 City (a) 08.23.10
0-0 (a) 02.21.10
2-2 (h) 11.21.09
1-1 (h) 02.22.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 West Brom (a); 2-0 Sunderland (a); 0-0 Braga (h)
City: 5-0 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Chelsea (a); 1-0 Kiev (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 8; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Maxi 3; Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel, Suarez 2; Cole 1
City: Tevez 19; Balotelli 6; YToure 5; AJohnson, Silva 4; Barry, Vieira 2; Kolarov, Lescott, Richards, KToure, Zabaleta 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a line-up:
Carragher Skrtel Wilson Aurelio
Kuyt Lucas Meireles Maxi
Suarez Carroll

It just gets better and better. Gerrard's joined Agger on the sidelines until 2011-12 after yet more groin surgery, while Johnson and Kelly's hamstring injuries will keep them out another month.

Even in Gerrard's absence – which we've unfortunately become accustomed to – defense remains the biggest concern. Both right backs are injured. Liverpool's best (read: only) ball-playing center-half is done for the season. There are two left backs on loan, leaving one perma-crock who's only recently "healthy." Not counting barely (if at all) tested prospects like Robinson and Flanagan, Liverpool are limited to two over-the-hill center-backs, one underperforming center-back, one inexperienced 20-year-old center-back who's almost always used at LB, and Aurelio, who'll hopefully stay fit for more than 20 minutes this time. That's it.

Will Liverpool stick with the 4-2-2-2 we've seen in the three league matches since losing at West Ham? Three at the back remains unlikely because of the threadbare defense, especially at right wing-back, where choices would appear to be Kuyt and Carragher, each with glaringly-obvious flaws. I'm hoping Wilson gets a chance at center-back with Aurelio available and after Kyrgiakos' abortion against West Brom. Otherwise, there aren't many possibilities.

The lone debate in midfield, regardless of formation, seems to be Spearing or Maxi. Either Spearing continues to partner Lucas, as against both Sunderland and West Brom, or Meireles moves back into the middle with Maxi coming in on the left. I'm hoping for the latter, but the recent past is often a good predictor. I guess Cole's a possibility as well, but a more unwelcome and unlikely one. Shelvey has little chance to start after just 60 uneventful minutes for the reserves since returning from injury.

Liverpool hasn't beaten City in its last four attempts, since October 2008, playing out three consecutive draws prior to August's mauling at the City of Manchester Stadium.

As against Liverpool last time out, City were absolutely rampant a week ago, bombarding Sunderland with five goals from five different players. It was one of the few matches where Mancini removed the shackles. However, they've only impressed at home; City last won away on Boxing Day, with five draws and four losses on their travels since the New Year.

Mancini has used a 4-2-3-1 formation in recent weeks – even though Balotelli basically played as a striker for long stretches last Sunday due to Sunderland being pinned so deep. Because of an injury to Richards and Kolo Toure's suspension, the back four writes itself: Kompany will partner Lescott in central defense with Kolarov and Zabaleta at full-back. Against Sunderland, the front six was Silva, Johnson, and Balotelli behind Tevez with De Jong and Yaya Toure holding, but Barry or Milner could return, especially if Mancini reverts to his usual caution.

Aside from August's drubbing, matches between these two sides have been incredibly tight in recent years. There's little to suggest that won't be the case tomorrow, despite City's recent form or Liverpool's injury crises. In theory, City have one of the strongest squads in the league, if not the outright strongest. But currently in fourth following Chelsea's win against Wigan, out of the title race after topping the table mid-January, they've been inconsistency squared this season. And wins over Chelsea and United have demonstrated Liverpool's ability to raise its game against "better" opposition.

02 April 2011

Liverpool 1-2 West Brom

Carragher Skrtel Agger Johnson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

Skrtel 51'
Brunt 62' (pen) 89' (pen)

Horrifying. And, of course, it had to align with every possible narrative. A Liverpool defensive collapse, like we saw in almost every match from August through January, leads to Roy's Radical Rampant Revenge.

West Brom's home diligence was a carbon copy of Hodgson's Fulham. Liverpool's luck with injuries – with two defenders off by the 25th minute – reminded of his disastrous stint at Anfield. The opener, a towering set play header from Skrtel, was the type of strike Liverpool relied on in the first half of the season. And then Liverpool utterly collapsed, conceding two penalties from two egregiously stupid mistakes. If that doesn't remind you of Hodgson, nothing will.

Liverpool began the first half with the back line written above. They finished it with Carragher-Skrtel-Kyrgiakos-Wilson: four center-backs – three slower than molasses and one playing in his second league game. Those two injuries canceled out the bright start and ensured the half would end with one-way traffic in the opposite direction.

Within two minutes, Suarez had a cheeky chip saved and Kuyt failed to tally two close-range efforts. Then Johnson pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 6th, replaced by Kyrgiakos with Agger moving to left back. That "worked" for 20 minutes, blunting Liverpool but with the away side still superior in possession. Then the replacement left-back sustained what appeared to be a knock to his previously-injured knee. Yes, I know, stop the presses, Agger's injured again. Life is not fair.

From there, West Brom were ascendant. Only Reina prevented a first-half opener, denying Reid, Odemwingie, Brunt, and an accidental Skrtel header. An early second half goal – Skrtel beating Scharner to Meireles' corner – appeared to swing momentum, bracketed by Carson's saves on Carroll and Kuyt. But West Brom continued to press far more than we're used to from Hodgson sides, and capped a furious four-minute stretch with Brunt's penalty; Kyrgiakos dove in on Odemwingie, too easily beaten by the turn.

Severely lacking in depth with two enforced substitutions in defense, coupled with Atkinson allowing West Brom to play rugby while limiting Liverpool to football, saw the away side struggle to respond. West Brom remained marginally dominant, although increasingly content with the draw. Then came Kyrgiakos' second moment of madness, again undressed by Odemwingie on Olsson's hoof. Reina came out to cover, sprawled for the ball, and Odemwingie fell over his prone body. Naturally, Atkinson pointed straight to the spot.

Injury time saw Liverpool's best spell of pressure since the opening minutes, saved by the ex-Liverpool keeper curse and a clearance off the line. Carson parried Meireles' shot from distance, Skrtel headed the subsequent corner wide. Suarez then tried to win the game single-handedly, first prevented by Carson's save (with the rebound somehow scrambled clear) before having a chipped effort cleared somehow cleared by Shorey. It wasn't enough to exorcise the futility from the previous 90 minutes.

That Hodgson gets the last laugh makes this hurt as much as any defeat this season. The media will be insufferable for an entire week. Adding insult to injury were the actual injuries, as well as Atkinson's "refereeing."

The game would have been far different if Liverpool didn't require those two changes, losing the best defender as well as the sole remaining fullback. It also would have been different if not for the contentious winning penalty. Sunderland said similar on both counts following Liverpool's last match. It's hard to argue that what goes around doesn't eventually boomerang back.

It's also hard to argue that Liverpool deserved more, no matter the cruel hand of fate. Outside of the one set play, Suarez was Liverpool's lone threat. Carroll was clearly tired and less than fit, hindered by an early yellow card and last-warning lecture. Lucas and Spearing were out-numbered in midfield, while Kuyt and Meireles were often found narrow as Liverpool, unsurprisingly, got absolutely nothing in attack from full-back. And then there's Kyrgiakos, clearly the goat. Again. As when replacing Agger against Everton, as against Braga in conceding a similarly-stupid penalty.

That Tottenham dropped points in an away draw at Wigan keeps the "race" for fifth place on life support. But, finally, it's hard to argue that Liverpool merit better than its current league position. Which, I won't hesitate to add, is far better than where Roy Hodgson left the club.

01 April 2011

Liverpool at West Brom 04.02.11

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.29.10
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.17.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.08.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 04.01.06

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Sunderland (a); 0-0 Braga (h); 0-1 Braga (a)
West Brom: 2-2 Arsenal (h); 3-1 Brum (a); 1-1 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 8; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Maxi 3; Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Suarez 2; Cole, Skrtel 1
West Brom: Odemwingie 10; Morrison, Mulumbu 4; Scharner, Tchoyi, Thomas 3; Brunt, Fortune, Vela, 2; Dorrans, Jara, Olsson, Pablo, Reid 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Johnson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

Hodgson v Liverpool, the revenge match. Time to put those mean, small-minded Scousers in their place for wrecking the reputation of little England's lovely old Roy. From the way it's written in the media, it'll be Hodgson on the pitch against the Liverpool XI, and bet on Hodgson scoring a hat-trick while keeping a clean sheet. Vendetta, vendetta, vendetta.

Outside of Gerrard's potential return, I can't see much deviation from the side which beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light two weeks ago. The groin strain that kept Suarez out of Uruguay's last two matches miraculously healed once the international break ended, but Aurelio, Kelly, and Shelvey are all doubtful at best. Gerrard's still talismanic, but I expect he'll be handled with kid gloves, used off the bench if at all. Dalglish spoke cautiously about the captain this week, necessarily so considering how many groin problems Gerrard's had over the last calendar year.

Agger, Carroll, Kuyt, Lucas, Meireles, and Skrtel all returned from the international break unharmed, while Johnson has a slight achilles problem but should be available. Both Kuyt and Carroll had impressive appearances for their countries; Kuyt got three goals and an assist in his two games with Holland, while Carroll scored his first for England. Hopefully his first for Liverpool will be in short order.

West Brom are one point above the relegation zone in 16th, but unbeaten since Hodgson took the reins, winning one and drawing three since mid-February. In keeping with Hodgson's modus operandi, the Baggies haven't kept a clean sheet under their new manager, but increasingly demonstrate the clichéd resiliency Roy installed at Fulham. Before destroying Liverpool from the inside, Owl-Face's teams routinely caused trouble, taking six points off of Liverpool in Benitez's last season. And as we know from the first half of the season, Hodgson-led sides are always more dangerous at home.

Odemwingie's top scorer by some distance with ten league goals, while Mulumbu's had an excellent campaign as the primary holding midfielder. Brunt can cause multiple problems on set plays, Morrison's dangerous from distance, and Olsson's done very well at both fullback and center-back. West Brom's packed defense caused Liverpool plenty of problems in August's narrow 1-0 victory.

That Liverpool haven't lost to West Brom since 1981, a streak of 17 matches, means next to nothing. Nor does the fact that Albion haven't even scored on Liverpool since promotion to the Premiership in 2002 – nine consecutive wins by a margin of 25-0. The narrative's been written; all Roy has to do is show up, park the bus in the 18-yard-box, and attempt to counter every so often. It's up to Liverpool to change the script.