31 May 2011

Infographics – Squad Turnover

This is what Hicks and Gillett did to Liverpool's playing squad.

Yes, Benitez had a Redknappian fondness for wheeling and dealing – and had to rebuild right away despite winning the Champions League in his first season – but an awful lot of that business was compelled by the tumors' poverty and indebtedness, evident in the number of transfers in the last two to three seasons.

• Just six of the 29 players used this season arrived prior to the previous owners.

• Barely more than a third made their debut before the 2009-10 season: Carra, Gerrard, Reina, Agger, Aurelio, Kuyt, Lucas, Skrtel, Ngog, and Spearing. That's not even a full XI of players; like Liverpool as a whole, it's missing a left-sided attacker.

• An 18-year-old, Jack Robinson, is the 17th-longest-serving player out of a squad of 29. Ngog, at 22, is the 9th-longest serving. Lucas, at 24, is the 7th.

• 12 of the 29 players made their debuts in 2010-11: ten purchases and two youth-team players. As per usual, quantity isn't necessarily better than quality.

• The average age of the squad is only 25.6, but nine players are 30 or older: Carragher, Gerrard, Aurelio, Kuyt, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Jovanovic, Konchesky, and Poulsen. I'd be extremely surprised if more than five were still at the club come September.

A similar graphic made a year from now probably wouldn't look much different. Multiple changes seem likely again this summer: casting out the dead wood, adding both depth and top talent.

But the most stabile teams are almost always the most successful. The despicable example of Manchester United is no small proof of that. Arsenal punches above their weight primarily through youth development – and probably would have won the league this season if the manager had spent a little more in the transfer market. And at the same time, City's extraordinarily talented band of mercenaries – on paper, the strongest squad – has been inconsistency squared, slowly climbing from fifth in 2009-10 to third last season as they've gelled. Continued familiarity in addition to a never-ending wallet is why the blue half of Manchester seems the biggest threat come next campaign if they can hold onto the talismanic Tevez.

However, FSG's plan of buying younger – Suarez is just 24, Carroll 22 – and building around the Academy will ensure that this kind of discontinuity won't be standard practice for much longer.

Bonus graphic: Where are they now...

FYI: full-size version is much clearer. Admittedly, the concept and layout was almost completely aped from Flip Flop Fly Ball, who does some of the best sports infographics on the web. Pity his focus is on cricket's even-less-exciting cousin.

It's interesting to see how few players remained at Liverpool after the Champions League victory, which is in tune with the first graphic. Nine of the 27 players who played at least one game in Europe that season left immediately after Istanbul – a third of the squad. Only five of those nine remained in the Premier League. Seven more left Liverpool after the 2005-06 season.

Because of Liverpool's economic situation, Benitez was usually selling Player A for Player B, only to sell Player B for Player C in a year's time, which continued for the duration of his managerial reign. The immediate rebuilding after Istanbul shows how flawed that team was. Making that year's victory considerably more impressive.

Five times.

30 May 2011

Infographic - Turning Points

Welcome to infographic week. Over the next five days, I'll have charts, graphs, and other visual lunacy in an attempt to further dissect the season that was. Today, Liverpool's league points week by week.

click for full size in new window

• Liverpool's points per game under Hodgson = 1.25 (25 in 20)
      - Hodgson points per game under H&G = .85 (6 in 7)
      - Hodgson points per game under FSG = 1.46 (19 in 13)

• Liverpool's points per game under Dalgish = 1.83 (33 in 18)

I briefly mentioned these stats in Friday's season review, but that doesn't compare to a visual reproduction. Liverpool's rejuvenation is far more than obvious here. There are clearly defined turning points, unlike 2009-10's oft-mentioned "false dawns." This season's points haul is almost wholly symbiotic with the off-field concerns and dependent on the manager. When those situations improved, results improved. Quod erat demonstratum. Who would have guessed...

But a second, similar image demonstrates Liverpool's lost opportunity.

An 11-point gap behind last year's points total and this year's Spurs team with 16 games to play, and Liverpool could have topped both if not for two losses to close the season.

Yes, last year was bad but nothing compared to this season's trauma, while Spurs were rightful winners in the week 37 meeting, but the revival remains incomplete. Somehow climbing into a European place while bettering last season's haul would have sent an unavoidable message to Liverpool's closest competitors.

There's always next year.

27 May 2011

It's Over, It's Over, Thank God It's Over

How do you sum up that season? To the end of the universe and back. It turns out there's no restaurant there.

This everlasting gobstopper season really was two or three different campaigns rolled into one.

For the first 10 weeks or so, absolutely everything was on life support. Players instantly looked jaded, many after a long World Cup summer and immediately back in the fray with Europa League qualifiers in July. Hodgson couldn't win a game for love or money (not that he had either) – taking six points from the first eight league matches – while Hicks and Gillett's financial shenanigans truly threatened to kill the club. Fans protested the owners, the manager complained about the fans, players loped incoherently through games, and civil war seemed inevitable, at best.

But when FSG rode in astride white horses, with help from Broughton, Ayre, and (gag) Purslow, Liverpool dodged the most-fatal bullet. And from the end of October through January, we got Hodgson "at his best." Results slightly improved, Liverpool leapt out of the relegation zone all the way up to 12th, and the team averaged around 1.46 points per game – which isn't far off Hodgson's career record in England. On the whole, it was still Liverpool's worst start to a season in 57 years, and on the pitch, it was still ugly, still frustratingly pedestrian, and still clearly not good enough. But at least it wasn't oblivion.

And then, thankfully, Dalglish took the reins, while Steve Clarke also merits a special mention. Losing the last two matches without scoring in either takes the lust off certain statistics, but however you're measuring, Liverpool were miles better under the new manager.

Under the King, Liverpool averaged 1.94 goals per game compared to 1.20 under Hodgson, conceding 0.94 compared to 1.35. Reina kept eight clean sheets in Dalglish's 18 league games versus six in Hodgson's 20. Liverpool won by two goals or more in just three of Hodgson's league games; they won by that margin in eight of Dalglish's. From 19th in October to 12th in January to 6th in May, which maintains Liverpool's streak of finishing 8th or better for 49 consecutive seasons. The next closest rival is United, who've done it for the last 21 seasons.

But no matter the statistics, the massive, much-needed metamorphoses were evident with just a quick glance at almost any match. Liverpool pressed, Liverpool hassled, Liverpool fought. Instead of three static bands of attack, midfield and defense, players were fluid and inventive. Instead of playing a conservative, "defensive" 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 every time out, Dalglish tried three at the back, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and 4-2-2-2 dependent on who was available and who were the opponents. Liverpool didn't complain about injuries, Liverpool coped. We saw tactics, blessed tactics.

And in January, we saw FSG's willingness to renovate. The loss of F••••••• T••••• could have been another cement block tied to Liverpool's ankles, a third or fourth millstone draped over the shoulders, but the new custodians used it as an opportunity for improvement. The incandescent Luis Suarez was already on his way, and would prove even more prodigious than the most wide-eyed optimist could have expected, but FSG was prepared to use the Torres money right away, paying a steep January premium for the undoubtedly talented Andy Carroll. Including the exit of Ryan Babel, Liverpool paid next to nothing to swap two forwards for two forwards, but it still made a clarion statement of intent. Carroll continues to be one for the future thanks to recurring injuries, but Suarez was often the epicenter of everything positive in the opposition's half and had an awful lot to do with Kuyt and Maxi's subsequent scorching scoring streaks.

Another positive was the reestablishment of the youth production line, which will be one of Benitez' longest lasting legacies. Spearing, Shelvey, Kelly, Flanagan, and Robinson all started at least one game – the first three with considerably more pitch time and all improving and impressing on the whole. Wilson, Wisdom, Sterling, Suso, and Coady, among others, lurk menacingly under the surface. The new backroom staff, albeit forced by injuries in most cases, has shown little hesitation in giving youth a chance. Cole could have taken Shelvey's appearances, Poulsen could have taken Spearing's, and Kyrgiakos could have played instead of Flanagan or Robinson (shifting Carra to fullback), but Dalglish went with potential and development instead of a reliably mediocre veteran. That sort of faith could prove priceless when recruiting Britain's best and brightest in the future, let alone what one player's leap to the first team could save in transfer fees. Zidanes y Pavónes, but not run by a pig-headed Florentino Perez.

Granted, not everything was hugs and kisses once the door hit Hodgson on the way out. Both managers managed to drop points to relegated sides more than once: Blackpool won both home and away, West Ham comprehensively beat Liverpool at Upton Park in February, and Birmingham were unlucky to come away with just a point from August's match at St. Andrews (a win would have kept them up, no less). Both also managed to give away far too many points from winning positions: nine by Hodgson, ten by Dalglish, each in four games where Liverpool led only to finish with a draw at best.

The last two matches of the season laid the many frailties bare. The squad was simply too shallow to sustain a last-ditch push for Europe, let alone any semblance of a title challenge. Come April and Liverpool were down to the third-choice right back and fourth choice left-back, both under 20 years of age. Liverpool's captain played in fewer than half of Liverpool's 54 games, the best center-back in slightly more than a third. At one point, Gerrard, Carroll, Agger, Johnson, Kelly, and Aurelio were all injured – at least five of whom would start in Liverpool's best XI. David Ngog played as many games as Carragher, tied with the sixth-most appearances.

Liverpool still doesn't have a player who looks capable of bringing the best out of Carroll, and if Suarez is absent or off-form, the side seems lost in the final third. Supposed depth in the form of Poulsen, Jovanovic, and Joe Cole proved to be throwing worse money after bad, adding absolutely nothing to the team; all three (and others) will need to be re-replaced in the off-season. This squad has major, glaring flaws, flaws which are remediable but expensive – and Liverpool's wages are already the fourth-highest in the league. For a team which finished seventh and sixth in the last two seasons, 23 and 22 points behind the champions respectively.

Nonetheless, the overriding narrative is that we've seen predominantly horrific moments become predominantly beatific moments. From the sun nearly setting on the club to the brightest dawn since 2008-09. Back in those dreary October days, I'd have never imagined a renaissance quite like this.

And for the first time since 2008-09, it doesn't feel like false braggadocio to state that the Reds are coming up the hill, boys.

In other news, go visit Liverpool Offside for the final results post from last week's Blog Carnival polls: Player of the Season.

And with the overly-purple end of season narrative out of the way, it's time for the slow transition to summer mode. I'll aim for some weekly nonsense at the least, and if there's anything worth writing about, chances are I'll write about it. But before that, next week is infographic week. Everybody likes pretty pictures.

25 May 2011

Poll Results: Best Win of the Season

The blogger vote was marginally closer, but as if the poll winner would be anything other than a romp over United. Romps over United better are Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, and Presidents' Day all rolled into one.

You can find the previous four results at Liverpool Offside (Worst Loss), Anfield Asylum (Performance of the Season), Paisley Gates (Goal of the Season), and two posts down on this site (Young Player of the Season).

Gareth of Well Red:
Liverpool 3-1 United (h): Hating Liverpool defines United fans, that's why they skulk this earth. So they win No.19 and what do they do? Sing about us, make banners about us, attend our games and contact us on the internet with all manner of illiterate abuse. How about celebrating what you've achieved, lads? Their Chitty Chitty Bang Bang of a squad may have limped over the line this time, but they don't like losing to us. And this wasn't just a defeat. This was a pants pulled down and arse whipped in front of the world defeat. When Suarez danced through half their team to tee up a tap in for Dirk you can bet their die-hards were screaming like Nani. Wonderful.

James of Unprofessional Foul:
Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea (a): I'll always take a United thumping whenever they arrive, but in recent seasons, we've found Fergie's title-winning lot rather easy to solve. That single-goal victory at Stamford Bridge set a tone of self-belief at the club that was nigh-on impossible to ignore and, considering that we got to duel head-to-head with our former idol so soon after his cold, calculated heel turn, I learned that it was possible to experience unbridled joy and life-affirming schadenfreude in a single 90-minute sitting. Heck, I'd take those kind of salt-the-earth performances over yet more sparring with United any day of the week.

steven. of Paisley Gates:
Liverpool 3-1 United (h): Call me when spanking United isn’t top of the Best Win List. Seriously, call me. It’s one of the signs of the apocalypse and I want to stock up on Cheesy Poofs before the sky implodes.

nate of Oh You Beauty:
Liverpool 3-1 United (h): You only won the league because every other team was somehow worse than your squad of aging mouth-breathers and staff of bent referees, and Liverpool gave you a five-month head start by hiring a lost London pensioner as manager. This match was just a fleeting glimpse of your future. Enjoy 19 while you can.

Ed of Liverpool Offside:
Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea (a): Rarely does the involvement of one player completely alter the atmosphere surrounding a match, but Liverpool's trip to Stamford Bridge in early February was almost all about Fernando Torres. The craziness of January reached its apex when Torres was eventually sold to Chelsea, giving way to one of the most tense build-ups to a match that I can remember--the mere thought of Torres scoring a goal against Liverpool less than a week after leaving was horrifying. From a Liverpool standpoint, though, the fears were never realized, as Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke had Liverpool as well prepared for a match as they were all season. Jamie Carragher rolled back the years, Daniel Agger delivered the elbow that spawned a thousand Twitter profile pictures, Lucas completely bossed the midfield, and Raul Meireles added to his hot streak with the winner. As explosive a match as Liverpool were involved in all season, and a win that, despite the narrow margin on the scoresheet, was as comprehensive as they come.

Amy of A Football Report:
Liverpool 5-0 Birmingham (h): Granted, I'm mainly plumping for this game over some other sparkling displays because I was sitting somewhere in the Main Stand that day, close enough to the pitch to see grass fly as John Flanagan made a scintillating run up the wing, close enough to see the veins in Carra's neck expand—you get the picture. The win over United was stunning—and obviously, brings with it some minor bragging rights and lovely pictures of Fergie looking as if someone's poured his last bottle of Bordeaux down the kitchen sink. Against United, we were at our epic, motivated best. But it's teams like Birmingham that we have traditionally faltered against. Usually, we'd be lucky to score two goals—let alone five. In a sense, Birmingham rolled over and played dead at Anfield - but teams have done that before and yet escaped with more flattering results.

24 May 2011

Top Ten Liverpool Goals 2010-11

The recent never-ending blog carnival can't spoil historic practice. While I'm sure you're sick of overwrought dissection of the season that was (and there will be more), a top 10 video of Liverpool's goals of the season is tradition around this parts. Also, you should go read the Goal of the Season results that Paisley Gates posted this morning.

Just under eight minutes long, hosted on rutube in the hopes it won't get pulled down for the inevitable copyright infringement. As per usual, hit play then pause and let it load for a few minutes. It'll get there.

10) Torres 1-0 Chelsea: Sorry. He shows up on this list twice more, so steel yourself now. Couldn't be avoided. Superlative control and finish, but more credit goes to Kuyt's pixel-perfect pass.
9) Carroll 1-0 City: More than just a strong head indelicately perched atop a massive body. This was a wicked left-foot strike that Riise would have been proud of.
8) Meireles 1-0 Wigan: Your 2010-11 King of Volleys, Raul Meireles. Watched it fall out of the sky until waist-high, then perfectly struck with a roundhouse kick. Good enough for mere mortals, but Meireles has more coming.
7) Torres 1-1 Bolton: I like to think this goal was scored in spite of Hodgson, as Liverpool certainly didn't show this ability very often. A gorgeous, flowing team strike: from Johnson to Ngog to Gerrard to Torres to the back of the net in under seven seconds. Gerrard's insouciant, immaculate chip – so much more difficult than he made it look – is by far my favorite part. Oh when he starts linking up with Suarez regularly...
6) Lucas 3-1 Steaua: He's good for one of these screamers a season. Pity it's not more.
5) Maxi 4-1 Fulham: The Argentinean's best strike during an unstoppable scoring stint. Not only a Louvre-worthy tempest from distance, but a crucial goal to stem Fulham's potential rally.
4) Torres 2-0 Chelsea: Just so you know, this list includes more Torres goals scored against his current club than he's scored for his current club.
3) Suarez 2-0 Sunderland: With Suarez, the extraordinary becomes boringly ordinary and the impossible happens at least once every 90 minutes or so. He's an irrepressible magician with an overflowing bag of tricks. Sane footballers simply don't score from that position.
2) Suarez Kuyt 1-0 United: If Kuyt doesn't tap in from two inches, this goes down as the best own goal ever thanks to Evra's deflection. Don't mind the name on the score sheet; this is Suarez's goal. Also, Rafael still comes to Anfield after he's done training in the hopes that, one day, he'll find the ankles that Suarez broke.
1) Meireles 2-0 Wolves: Unrepeatable.

For the first time since I started doing this four years ago, Gerrard's not featured. His free kick through United's wall and the delightfully nonchalant chipped finish for a hat-trick against Napoli were considered, but are probably behind other strikes which didn't make this list. Compare that to one entry last year, four in 2008-09, and three in 2007-08.

Also, six of the 10 happened under Dalglish, with 4 during Hodgson's reign of terror: Torres' three entries and Lucas' ballistic missile. I'm surprised there weren't more from the last five months, actually. Probability and whatnot. Evidently, more goals doesn't necessarily mean more sexier goals.

Honorable Mention:
• Torres 1-0 Wigan (Gerrard assist)
• Maxi 1-0 Bolton (Torres assist)
• Johnson 1-2 West Ham (Suarez assist)
• Carroll 3-0 City (Meireles assist)
• Suarez 3-0 Newcastle (Kuyt assist)

It was a bad year for great goals. So this year's honorable mention features my favorite assists which didn't make the top 10.

23 May 2011

Poll Results: Young Player of the Season

Today, a celebration of the wonder that is Martin Kelly, more than doubling the vote of his closest contender despite being injured since February. Tomorrow, we'll have results for Goal of the Season on Paisley Gates in the morning and Performance of the Season on Anfield Asylum in the afternoon (all times relative to me, which means US Eastern Time).

Below you'll find justification for why some of the bloggers and our guest editors voted the way we did.

Amy of A Football Report:
Martin Kelly: Months and months of declaring Glen Johnson a shit, right-sided Ashley Cole-wannabe who would have trouble dealing with Emile Heskey, let alone the more agile attacking players of the Premier League, eventually paid off when his wife went into labour (falsely, you could tell he really just didn't want to be penned in by Giggs) on Kenny's first day. That ludicrously refereed FA Cup match at Old Trafford. Step in Martin Kelly, long heralded as the next big, Scouse thing and it was clear why. Giggs and Evra were so well taken after by the 21 year old that, at some point, seemingly unnoticed, Sir Alex Ferguson replaced them both with Howard Webb (and sadly not even Kelly is a match for him). Of course, that wasn't Kelly's first game, nor would it be his last, and he's impressed in the patches he played before, and consistently ever since. Flanagan is obviously hot on his heels, Spearing's been quietly morphing into Danny Murphy with somehow even less hair, and even Jack Robinson made Theo Walcott look like a schoolchild (which, incidentally, is how he always looks) – I believe that children are the future, but for me, Kelly's rise and rise is the blueprint for the others to aspire to.

Gareth of Well Red:
Martin Kelly: A young player. A locally-born player. When either gets near the first-team, it sparks extra excitement among the fans. Spending £30million on a proven world superstar is one thing, but there's something special - something pure - about a raw rookie mixing it with the big boys and proving his worth. Kelly, 21, and born in Whiston Hospital, just like Steven Gerrard (and, er Joey Barton), has done just that. Many that have passed through Anfield have been tipped for the top before quickly falling by the wayside. Kelly though, isn't one to freeze in the spotlight. If anything, the bigger the occasion, the better he's played. Powerful, pacy and assured, he's proved to be a match for anyone he's faced - and that's included Chelsea and the Mancs. And for all the talk of Liverpool needing better crossing quality in the side to feed the forehead of Andy Carroll, look no further than Kelly, he whips in a mean ball. If he can steer clear of injury, Kelly has a long future at Liverpool.

nate of Oh You Beauty:
John Flanagan: I'll be the contrarian. Martin Kelly is so six months ago, if not last year. What have you done for me lately? Shut down Samir Nasri? No problem. Knock your captain and defensive mentor unconscious? Whatever. Somehow get called for a penalty-that-clearly-wasn't by a suspiciously incompetent referee with your team already behind? Brushed off his shoulder like errant dirt. Yeah, Flanagan's the money pick. So money.

Noel of Liverpool Offside:
Martin Kelly: For the past 18-odd months, it's been Martin Kelly who has looked most likely to break the drought and become a difference maker out of the academy. And while the second half of the season may have brought a whole slew of other possibilities to the table—from the likes of Spearing, Flanagan, and Shelvey through even younger prospects such as Jack Robinson, Conor Coady, Andre Wisdom, and Raheem Sterling—Kelly remains the safest bet to become a difference maker for the club moving forward. When next season rolls around—along with likely squad-wide reinforcements—it is Kelly and not the other candidates who will be competing for time in the first eleven. That isn't a fluke: It's entirely down to how well he played throughout much of the second half of the season. So maybe some day it will be another of the current crop of kids who is the bigger star, but right now the only certain name based on this year's showing is Kelly, and that makes him Liverpool's clear Young Player of the Season.

Sam of Anfield Asylum:
Martin Kelly: While Spearing and Flanagan had nice turns, only Kelly looks like he'll be in the first 11 when things kick off next season. So he'd have to be the most important. Gets forward just about as much as Glen Johnson, but doesn't appear to be on quaaludes in his own half as Johnson frequently does. Never awed by any of the big guns he saw. Sadly, fullback is just about the last priority on any team's list, but at least we have it settled.

steven. of Paisley Gates:
Martin Kelly: He’s young, he’s local and he’s going to be a hero. Martin Kelly was forced into Roy Hodgson’s squad due to injury and only an injury was able to force him out. Young Flanagan, Andy Carroll and Jay Spearing were all good shouts for this category but Kelly has run away with the picnic basket on this one. Cool as a cucumber and ten times as tasty, this young Scouser has us all coming back for seconds.

22 May 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Spearing
Kuyt Meireles Cole

Downing 33'

Conspiracy theorists: compare the last two games to the three or four before it. Do you think Liverpool really wanted to be in next year's Europa League?

We can argue the merits of that tournament until everyone asphyxiates, but there's no arguing Liverpool looked a different, weaker side against both Spurs and Villa. Surprise, surprise, an end-of-season match with nothing to play for was played at a flat, halfhearted pace. But once again, Liverpool were both wasteful and comprehensively mediocre, neither of which you'd like to end the season with.

Despite the initial stop-start snail's pace, Liverpool were marginally better for the opening 20 minutes, no matter Spearing's early injury which saw him replaced by Shelvey. Both Lucas and Meireles nearly opened the scoring in the 14th: the Portuguese midfielder had his shot on the turn deflected wide by Petrov before the Brazilian's prod from the subsequent corner was cleared off the line by Ashley Young. Lucas then nearly put Suarez through with a brilliant pass over the top, but the Uruguayan couldn't control, allowing Friedel time to scramble it away.

But around the 20th minute, Villa blandly seized momentum, even though Delph's injury prompted yet another stoppage and substitution. His replacement, Albrighton, and Downing caused problems with pace down the flanks, and Albrighton beating Aurelio lead to the first goal. The winger's cross sailed over Carragher and Skrtel to Downing at the back post, left open by a ball-watching Flanagan. Pity today saw the youngster's first costly mistake, last week's incorrect penalty not withstanding.

Switching to the more-familiar 4-2-2-2 after the interval, with Kuyt lurking behind Suarez and Meireles on the right, Liverpool were given chances by a deep-lying Villa back-line, but were prevented by a combination of incredible Friedel saves and last-ditch defending. Suarez found a wide-open Meireles in the 62th, but the midfielder's delay steadying himself gave Friedel time to scramble across (possibly aided by Dunne's arms). Shelvey's back-heel five minutes later again released the Portuguese, but in looking for the pass instead of shooting gave Reo Coker time to get back. Aurelio's 22-yard free kick whistled inches wide of the far corner in the 71st, and with two minutes to play, Friedel smothered a tame attempt from Suarez, set up by Flanagan.

Despite those chances, Liverpool were blunt, slow, and mostly dismal in attack. Once again, Suarez wasn't clicking on his United-Birmingham-Fulham apocalyptic level, and the side consistently broke down in Villa's end; he's become utterly pivotal to Liverpool's play in the final third. That Carroll, Maxi, and Johnson were all missing, all wrapped in cotton wool somewhere far away from the substitute's bench, left a massive hole – obviously further aided by Liverpool's already-lengthy casualty list. Joe Cole unsurprisingly created nothing, given a run out in the hopes someone might actually pay cash money for him in the summer, while Ngog's entrance for the Englishman in the 68th changed little.

Once the infinitesimal Champions League chance went up in smoke, Liverpool went into the tank. It's entirely possible that's coincidence, that a long, laborious, taxing campaign finally caught up with the team. But after Liverpool's near-miraculous renaissance from February through April, the last two results will unfairly linger in the memory this off-season.

Regardless, good riddance 2010-11, hurry up 2011-2012. It's going to be a very interesting summer.

21 May 2011

Liverpool at Aston Villa 05.22.11

11am ET, live in the US only on espn3.com. It's not delayed on either FSC or FS+ as far as I can tell either. Here's hoping for better streams – espn3 makes my computer crawl even slower than usual.

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.06.10
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.29.09
1-3 Villa (h) 08.24.09
5-0 Liverpool (h) 03.22.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Spurs (h); 5-2 Fulham (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h)
Villa: 2-1 Arsenal (a); 1-1 Wigan (h); 1-2 West Brom (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 13; Maxi 10; Meireles 5; Gerrard, Suarez 4; Carroll, Cole, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel 2
Villa: Bent 9; A Young 7; Downing 6; Albrighton 5; Agbonlahor, Clark, Collins, Heskey 3; Delfouneso, Petrov, Walker, L Young 1

Referee: Lee Probert

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

The bell finally tolls for 2010-11.

With Meireles back in training, Liverpool have two spots to be filled by three possibilities.

One of Carroll, Meireles, or Maxi will be on the bench. If Liverpool had secured 5th place on Sunday, we could have seen the likes of Shelvey involved from the start. Even though qualification's now in Tottenham's hands, Liverpool would make the Europa League by bettering Spurs' result; a full-strength XI seems mandatory.

Concerns about how Carroll fits into Liverpool's playing style have been dissected in great detail this week. Meireles might be available, but might not be fit enough to start. And Maxi came into the side when Liverpool's #9 picked up the knee injury; the Argentinean notched hat-tricks against Brum and Fulham, but could still start on the bench with Meireles on the left and Carroll up front  – as against Manchester City. My guess is Maxi will be the one left out, mostly because the other two are far more likely to have bigger roles next season, but none of the options would surprise.

Aurelio could also return in place of Flanagan, but the young fullback's barely put a foot wrong; I highly doubt he'll be dropped in the last game. Ashley Young on the left is a bigger threat than Downing on the right, which is why I expect Johnson at right-back, but the opposite could also be the case: Young frequently cuts in while Downing likes to stay wide and whip in crosses.

Villa played 4-2-3-1 in their last match, a 2-1 away win at Arsenal, with Delph, Downing, and Young behind Bent. Prior to that, stand-in manager McAllister primarily used 4-4-2, with Agbonlahor or Heskey partnering Bent. The former formation seems a better possibility with Liverpool's recent improvement (Spurs match not withstanding), but either way, Young and Downing will be the main threats on the flanks, while Carragher and Skrtel will need to be wary of Bent's ability on the counter. Agbonlahor's pace has troubled Carra in the past, but the striker's been a shadow of himself for most of the season. Unlike Liverpool, Aston Villa have no injury concerns.

After last Sunday, Liverpool can only take care of itself. But whether the club finishes fifth or sixth, the latter half of the season has been an astronomical improvement, bringing much-needed positivity and optimism for the first time in a long time. Liverpool need to end the season on the best possible note – away from Anfield, where the team's struggles have been most pronounced, would make it even better – or failure in the final two games will weigh heavy on the minds during the undoubtedly busy off-season.

20 May 2011

Poll: Player of the Year

This actually isn't a guest post. I wrote it. It's kind of sad I feel the need to point this out.

After a week of this nonsense, I reckon yet another introduction's unnecessary. Don't worry, there's only one more week left. On Monday, we'll start revealing the results, starting with Young Player of the Year on Oh You Beauty. And because I'm sure you're starting to get sick of us, we'll have some guest commentary for each of the categories from Mike Georger of Avoiding the Drop, Amy Quinn of A Football Report, Gareth Roberts of Well Red Magazine, and James T of Unprofessional Foul.

Also, I probably shouldn't have stolen my own thunder by over-writing certain entries for Performance of the Season, seeing how three of the five candidates are in both categories. C'est la vie. Stop me if you've heard this one before...

In alphabetical order, lest I be accused of any biases:

Dirk Kuyt: Poor during the Hodgson era, but at his best with Dalglish. Which pretty much sums up Liverpool. Kuyt, more than any other player, is very good when the team is very good (see: 2008-09 or Netherlands in the World Cup), and fairly bad when the team is fairly bad. Four goals from August through December, 11 since the New Year – which ties his highest single-season goal return in a Liverpool shirt. His hat-trick against United and archetypal false nine performance at Chelsea create the inference that Dalglish just has him playing in his "correct" position as striker. Yet by my count, since the King was rethroned, six of his goals have come when playing up front, with five as a midfielder. Penalties (of which he has four, and never seems to miss) are evenly split between the two positions. And even when Kuyt's playing poorly, he brings more to the team than he takes away. He thrives in big games. He tracks back incessantly, running himself into the ground for 90 consecutive minutes. He's Liverpool's top scorer and is tied with Meireles for most assists. It's no surprise Kuyt's one of the first names on the team sheet under every manager he's played for.

Lucas Leiva: Less than a year ago, Lucas was the favorite scapegoat of more than a few Liverpool fans. The manager who brought him to England was ignominiously fired. He nearly had been pushed out the door during the summer by an incompetent managing director attempting to play fantasy football. And he was initially replaced in Liverpool's starting XI by Christian Fucking Poulsen. No matter. Every single one of those slights was added inspiration, and the 24-year-old (yeah, still just 24) was consistence personified while everything else around him crumbled to dust. Only Reina and Skrtel have more appearances this season. Now under Dalglish, the Brazilian's remained an ever-present – starting 21 of the King's 22 games – and is the midfield hub where Liverpool's attacks begin and the opposition's go to die.

Raul Meireles: His absence against Tottenham, and Liverpool's subsequent loss, demonstrates just how valuable Meireles is to the team. Noel wrote an excellent summation of that importance earlier this week (and I'm not just saying that because he organized this blog carnival); I could crib this paragraph's text from that post alone. Even Liverpool's set plays were dramatically worse without him. The summer's sole transfer success (Shelvey and/or Wilson don't count yet), he's played everywhere in midfield this season. Arguably a jack-of-all-trades yet a master of none, I'm still not sure of his best position, at least in the Premier League. But there's no arguing Liverpool look a different team without his clever vision, nose for assists, work ethic, intelligent movement, runs into the box from midfield, and ability to hit some absolutely gorgeous volleys.

Pepe Reina: Another season with at least 50 appearances (well, 50 after Villa). Another season with 20 or more clean sheets (14 in the league – only Hart and Cech have more). Despite a season and a half where the defense routinely tried to one-up its previous hilarious mistake, Reina reached his 100th league clean sheet in his 198th start, a 3-0 win against Villa on December 6, faster to the mark than any keeper in Liverpool history. I've said it so often it's losing its meaning, but he has no peer in the Premiership. A wholly complete goalkeeper with fewer flaws than the Hope Diamond, and possibly one of the most hilarious footballers ever. That Reina recently restated his intention to remain with Liverpool was the best summer news we could have desired.

Luis Suarez: Boy, Liverpool must have been really terrible for a player who's only made 12 appearances to show up in the best-of-season debate. Well, yeah, they kinda were, but Suarez is also just that good and has been just that important. Four goals and five assists – impressive numbers for a recently-acquired Premier League neophyte – don't close come to telling the whole story. He's turned Liverpool into an entirely different team, and his adaptation was instantaneous. Yes, there are other factors (wave to Dalglish and Clarke), but Liverpool haven't had a player like him in far too long. Nowhere near as unidimensional as the previous goal-scoring menace, Suarez can do things with the ball at his feet other players aren't even clever enough to dream of. He's a Tasmanian Devil wearing cleats coated in super-glue, capable of dismantling four consecutive defenders to set up a crucial opener or scoring from an angle so acute it's almost obtuse and definitely obscene.

Previous Polls:
Young Player of the Season
Signing of the Season
• Best Win
• Worst Loss
• Performance of the Season
• Goal of the Season
• Flop of the Season

19 May 2011

Poll: Flop of The Season

This is a guest post from Sam of Anfield Asylum.

liverpool flop failure joe cole poulsen konchesky

Once again my cheerful nature leads me to tackle a wonderful subject, this time about just which player wasted the most time and money we’ll never get back. The fact that there are so many contenders for this award on Liverpool alone this season lets you know just how bad it was at times.

There can be something enraging about a bad footballer. In every other sport he would at least return to the bench at some point. Baseball players only get a four at-bats a game and maybe a couple hit to them in the field. American football players are only out there half the game at most and how often do they get the ball? Basketball players rotate in and out. Hockey players take shifts that last less than a minute. But football? They’re out there the whole time. You get to watch them break down moves or make defensive mistakes the entire game. You go queasy whenever the ball even moves to their side of the field. You know they’re going to get involved. Sometimes you’re pretty sure that if you could reach through the screen and murder them, you would. And with some of these cases, who would convict you?

These are the worthy nominees for Flop of the Season:

Joe Cole: Like many, I actually had high hopes for Joe. He didn’t cost a transfer fee (but is on exorbitant wages), he seemingly had something to prove after being a spot-starter for Chelsea, and he was going to be deployed more centrally, a role he had been crying out for for over a decade. Here was a genuine in-the-hole player. Then he got sent off in the first game against Arsenal and hasn't made an impact since. As Roy panicked, becoming less and less likely to give chances to an off-form player of questionable fitness, Cole became restricted more and more to the bench. That is when something wasn’t falling off of him and landing him on the treatment table. By the time Kenny took over, Cole was a ghost — or perhaps just out back having a smoke. A rarely used substitute, Cole has only been around to provide goals late in games already decided that we’re all kind of embarrassed by. In the end, then, this season was just another sad chapter in perhaps the greatest case of unfulfilled promise English football has ever produced, because there was a time when Cole looked like he was going to be truly special. If there's even the remotest chance of that still happening, it's hard to believe it will be with Liverpool.

Milan Jovanovic: Rafa's final attempt in a long series of efforts to discover a difference maker on the cheap didn't turn out a whole lot better than those who had come before, Jovanovic had it tough as the guy who brought him to Anfield wasn’t the manager when he finally arrived. Some ropey performances in South Africa didn’t exactly fill anybody with hope that he could be more than a serviceable squad player, and when he did get on the pitch he kind of just ran around a lot. He didn't pass or shoot much, and he usually wasn't particularly good at it when he did, while he usually ended up getting dispossessed at the first challenge. Though he did add to Liverpool's ever burgeoning bald guy contingent. He may have been cheap, and at least he did try to run around a bit, but that he hasn’t been seen in ages is probably a good thing.

Paul Konchesky: It would be easy to laugh about Konchesky's case if it wasn't easier to cry about it. A curious buy, as everybody seemed to agree that the absolute best Konchesky could manage would be average, what should have been a squad player for a club like Liverpool was thrust into a more prominent role when it was discovered for the thirty-seventh time that Fabio Aurelio was indeed only made of fairy dust and dreams. In the end, though, Konchesky couldn't even manage average, becoming the only Liverpool player I've seen booed by the Anfield faithful and cheered when he was substituted—and I lived through the Titi Camara and Erik Meijer era. Though his mother calling Scousers scum on Facebook probably had something to do with those jeers, it was Konchesky himself who was single-handedly responsible for points lost at White Hart Lane and St. James Park, points that could have had Liverpool chasing a Champions League spot instead of on the fringes of Europa League qualification. He was slow, not especially skillful, and at times showed the footballing brain of a small cantaloupe. The day he was sent off to Forest will rank up there with first kiss in happiest days of my life.

Christian Poulsen: Need a midfield stopper? Why not spend £5M on an aging Dane who was deemed too slow for Serie A? Nobody actually knows if Poulsen can tackle because he can never quite get there in time to show us. As for passing the ball, half the time his attempts to do so ended up looking like a painting by Peter North. Compared to Javier Mascherano, the man he was nominally replacing, it was a drop in talent a bit like stepping down from the Champions League to the Championship. His was a signing that should have been a fireable offense on the spot, but with Paul Konchesky coming along soon afterwards it certainly wouldn't be the only such offense made in the Transfer market by Roy Hodgson and Christian Purslow.

Previous Polls: (you can still vote/vote again)
Young Player of the Season
Signing of the Season
Best Win
Worst Loss
Goal of the Season
Performance of the Season

18 May 2011

Poll: Worst Loss of the Season

This is a guest post from Sam of Anfield Asylum. To make things more complicated – and to actually make you visit all four blogs – four different polls will be running today. You can find Best Win of the Season on Liverpool Offside, Goal of the Season on Anfield Asylum, and Individual Performance of the Season (written by yours truly) on Paisley Gates.

Hello there, my name is Sam and I help waste people’s time and send the economy even more into the dumper by trying to eradicate production ever so slightly with my contributions at Anfield Asylum.com. Because of my sunny disposition, I’ve been selected to write the poll for worst loss of the season. Come open a vein with me!

Liverpool 0-1 Wolves: As horrific as it was, and it’s seriously two hours I’ll probably be regretting on my deathbed, it did have the bonus of being the game that cost Roy Hodgson his job. Yes, Liverpool did win after this and Hodgson was fired after Blackburn, but there was clearly no coming back after this. Thanks to postponements because of actual winter hitting England (and not their Chicago-spring that usually comprised their winter), Liverpool hadn’t played in 14 days. And the last league game before that was the insipid loss to Newcastle. So we’d gone almost a month without seeing the Reds play well, and this wasn’t it. Liverpool only managed three shots on target against a Wolves side that usually was about as welcoming as the girl who finishes second for prom queen. Stephen Ward finally put the dagger in the 56th minute after some comical defending, and the Reds wouldn’t have scored if the game were still going. Also happened to be the first time Wolves won at Anfield in 27 years, so that’s nice.

Manchester City 3-0 Liverpool: Hey, remember when we still had hope under Roy? It came after a pretty scrappy draw with Arsenal. After being down a man for the entire second half and a glorious Ngog strike it was only not a win because of a rare Pepe Reina cock-up. So most of us were optimistic that things would go well. Ngog had added to his tally from Europa qualifying against the Gunners, and we were really hoping he might become, like, an actual striker. So did Roy, who punted him up in tandem with Fernando Torres. And the two of them played like the other had hit on their girlfriend. Gareth Barry opened the scoring in the 13th minute, which was approximately the last time he successfully kicked a ball forward the rest of the year. His goal is particularly galling because it could be argued that Rafa’s inexplicable and infuriating pursuit of him that eventually led Xabi Alonso to stick two fingers up to Benitez and head off for Madrid, which is just about where the collapse started. Tevez tallied twice in the second half, and once again Liverpool couldn’t manage three passes in a row or leave their own half. Whatever optimism we had then was surely snuffed out by the time Tevez buried a penalty in the 68th minute.

Everton 2-0 Liverpool: Losing to our neighbors to leave us in the relegation zone. Watching Sotirios Kyrgiakos thrash about. Never threatening. This is pretty low.

Stoke 2-0 Liverpool: Heading into this game, the Reds actually were stringing together some performances that we’re at least a tad above corpse-level. There was the Steven Gerrard Tour De Force against Napoli, followed by the win at home over Chelsea. A midweek 1-1 draw with Wigan didn’t exactly bring anyone to tumescence, but with the heavy fixture congestion we kind of brushed it off, figuring a win at Stoke would have brought a points haul from these three games of seven was more than acceptable. Yeah, that didn’t work. Ricardo Fuller, who I’m sure is in the team photo for worst striker ever in the Premier League, scored from about a yard out early in the second half, which I think is the only distance he can manage. Kenwyne Jones ended it in the final minute, but the match was long gone before that as once again a Hodgson-led side couldn’t find competence with a guide dog and a flashlight. We really lived through this?

Blackpool 2-1 Liverpool: Hope again. Kenny Dalglish had taken over and though his first match was an FA Cup exit at the Theater of Prawns, there were at least some signs of revival. Kenny had us playing a higher line, the players seemed to care again, and we actually thought about getting into the opponent’s box. It started so well, with Torres scoring in the 3rd minute. But Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who looks like he turned up fresh from picking fights in the pub with smaller guys, equalized just nine minutes later. D.J. Campbell provided the winner in the 69th minute, and Dalglish was fully aware now of the task at hand.

Previous Polls:
Young Player of the Season
Signing of the Season

17 May 2011

Poll: Signing of the Season

This is a guest post from Grubb of Paisley Gates. For American readers: he's Australian; that's why certain words are spelled the way they are. It's not a mistake.

One of my least favourite football phrases, guaranteed to make my teeth grind, is the age-old chestnut about football being "a game of two halves." Maybe I resent its patronising, stating-the-obvious tone, or the ritual and meaningless way it's slipped into half-time punditry. Maybe I despise the way it has become clichéd and boring, ranking alongside "football is the real winner today" in terms of overuse, and rivalling "the magic of the FA Cup" for sheer stupidity.

However this season has honestly been a season of two halves.  Sloppy, unambitious and 12th in the league during early January, Liverpool have metamorphosed into a fluid, attacking side in the second half of the season, storming up the table and back into contention for Europe: a comeback of such remarkable proportions that it's only been bettered by Jesus and Istanbul.

Each candidate for our Signing of the Season poll has played a significant part in revitalising Liverpool's form and fortunes since those dark January days. Please vote for the candidate you think has been the best signing in the poll widget and we will collate the results next week. Remember you can vote once per day, so feel free to come back and vote again tomorrow if you so desire.

Without any further ado, the Signing of the Season candidates:

Raul Meireles celebrates his newly balded head

Raul Meireles
The only player from our list to have joined the club at the beginning of the season, Liverpool's new number four endured a difficult start to his LFC career. With the team stumbling collectively as they tried to implement the rigid, organisational style of previous manager Roy Hodgson, Meireles struggled to integrate into his foreign surroundings. While it was clear from the beginning he was hard-working and intelligent with the ball, Meireles took time to adapt to the physical nature of Premier League midfield battles, and was often guilty of pulling out of contested tackles. With Hodgson unsure of Meireles best position, the Portuguese schemer was shunted out into unfamiliar territory in the wide midfield areas, and consequently looked out of his depth.

But as he acclimatised, Raul Meireles began to show his true worth. His outstanding stamina was acknowledged when he was named the fittest player in the Premier League, averaging 8.1 miles every game. Now a regular contributor at both ends of the field, Raul Meireles leads the team in chances created (58) and interceptions (65). He has also scored 5 goals and provided 5 assists - a very good contribution from midfield.

Luis Suarez: I just can't get enough

Luis Suarez
One of the most eagerly anticipated attacking signings in my time as an LFC supporter, Luis Suarez finally joined Liverpool after 3 tense weeks of negotiations between LFC and his previous club Ajax. After scoring as a substitue on his debut against Stoke City, Suarez has gone from strength to strength in his short time at the club. Ambitious and enthusiastic, Suarez has demonstrated the never-say-die attitude Liverpool fans adore in their players, combining his tenacity with flair and skill beyond anything Liverpool have seen in the modern era. His assist for Kuyt's opener against Manchester United at Anfield was one of the finest pieces of play I've seen from a Liverpool player, beating Rafael, Michael Carrick and Wes Brown before slotting through Edwin Van Der Sar's legs for Kuyt to smash the ball home.

Suarez has contributed 4 goals and 3 assists from his 11 starts, but his key strength has been the movement, skill and awareness that brings the best out in his team mates. Maxi Rodriguez in particular seems to be benefitting from the space that Suarez and his 'mayhem' creates.

Andy Carroll does his best Joe Cole impersonation

Andy Carroll
Liverpool's most-expensive-ever signing at £35M, Andy Carroll joined the club in a last-minute merry-go-round switcheroo at the end of the January transfer window. With fans grieved by the treachery of F***nando Torres, it was difficult to get a grasp of just exactly what Liverpool had received for their money.

A physical centre forward, Carroll exceeded expectations in his debut Premier League season with Newcastle, amassing 11 goals in his 19 games - not a bad record for a previously untested 22 year old. However his Liverpool form has been less remarkable. Signed while nursing a minor injury, Carroll has taken time to recover his fitness, and shown only brief glimpses of his undoubted talent: while his brace against Manchester City helped ease some of the question marks, it will take sustained  success in order to justify his massive transfer fee. With his fitness continually fluctuating, and the team seemingly unsure of how to integrate him without sacrificing the quality of their play, one can only assume we will see the best of Andy Carroll in the years to come.

Can you top this smile?

Kenny Dalglish
January 8, 2011. That was the day the tide turned. Roy Hodgson's strict adherence to an inflexible system of play had yielded scarce fruit, and fans' frustration with the dire football and the endless stream of pathetic justifications had hit an ugly, sour note. Owners FSG, true to their word, listened to the fans, and acted swiftly, installing club legend Kenny Dalglish as the interim manager. Never has a managerial choice been more perfectly suited to a club, throughout the history of football.

An inspirational figure, Kenny had captured the hearts and minds of Liverpool fans before, as both a player and a title-winning manager. More than any other, he embodies the 'Liverpool Way' beyond mere football. His fluid pass-and-move tactics may have reinvigorated the playing staff, but it is the restoration of club values and the dignity with which he conducts every element of his job which has reignited the passion of the fans and the hope we have for a glorious Red future. His appointment has been such a raging success in every aspect, that Director of Football Damien Comolli admitted it was a 'no-brainer' to award him a 3 year contract last week, and secure the short term future of Liverpool FC as they seek to re-establish themselves amongst the elite teams in the Premier League once more.

If any man can make it happen, that man is King Kenny Dalglish.

Please remember to use the poll widget above to vote for your Signing of the Season, the more votes the merrier!


Previous Polls:
• Young Player of the Season

16 May 2011

Chalkboards – No Attack, No Party

Let's start with some statistics. Last month's 3-0 win over Manchester City seems a good comparison: both matches were at Anfield, against top-six opposition, and had Carroll in the starting line-up.

Time of Possession
v Tottenham: 54-46%
v City: 53-47%

Good start. Almost exactly similar, and with little correlation to last month's essay about Liverpool getting better results when having less possession.

Total Passes - Completed Passes - Completion Percentage
v Tottenham: 531 - 389 - 73%
v City: 588 - 454 - 77%

Fewer passes with fewer completed, but not a vast difference. In the five matches between beating City and prior to yesterday's loss, Liverpool averaged 75% passing success rate per match. Only the 1-1 match against Arsenal had substantially fewer passes. Nonetheless, we're getting closer.

Shots (on target)
v Tottenham: 15(3)
v City: 21(5)

Aye, there's the rub.

So why did Liverpool have fewer shots, fewer on target, and more speculative efforts from distance?

We can't overlook how well Dawson and King played, but the short version is that Kuyt and Suarez simply failed to perform to the levels we've come to expect.

Against Spurs, Suarez' completion percentage plummets from 78% to 50%, with most of the additional unsuccessful passes in the final third. Kuyt attempted 18 fewer passes against Tottenham, a success rate of 56% compared to 76% against City. Again, most of the red arrows are on attempts into the box, with seven unsuccessful crosses and zero successful. Those two players have had a hand in nearly all of the 13 goals in the previous three games.

Carroll's passing chalkboard, on the other hand, is actually better than that against City.

Granted, Carroll rarely looked like contributing two goals as against the Mancunians, but the massive Geordie suffered from a lack of service all Sunday long. Which is why the result can't be pinned on his return to the squad.

Incidentally, while the main focus in on Liverpool's flaws in the final third, I also can't help but mention Spurs' midfield, specifically Luka Modric.

Damn. The diminutive Croatian completed almost as many passes as Liverpool's starting central midfielders combined. Lucas completed fewer passes than usual, Spearing attempted fewer than usual. That Spearing went off in the 64th minute exacerbates the discrepancy, but that doesn't diminish Modric's excellence. Nonetheless, both Lucas and Spearing found outlets more often than not. It's what those outlets did with the ball. Which, sadly, wasn't nearly enough.

FYI: If you haven't voted in the Young Player of the Year poll in the post below. Do so. Then do so tomorrow, when you come back for the next end-of-season poll.

Poll: Young Player of the Season

Note from nate: This is a guest post from Noel of Liverpool Offside. There will be a few guest posts over the next two weeks, and I'll actually have some guest posts on other blogs. Plus polls. Lots of polls. Everybody loves polls. Noel will explain, in great detail, below.

Liverpool's season ending position may not be mathematically decided quite yet, but with Sunday's loss to Spurs, the club moves into the uncomfortable position of needing to rely on others if they are to have any chance of improving their final standing. Still, it's been a heck of a ride, this roller coaster of a year that's gone from fears of relegation and administration to dreams of Champions League qualification and future glory, and with the end at hand and Liverpool having moved as high up the table as they'll be able to manage on their own it seemed fitting to gather together with some of the best regularly updated Liverpool blogs on the net for a season ending extravaganza, one that will take the next two weeks to look back at of some of the year's best and worst.

With the help of all of you, of course, wherever you may be reading this.

Today we kick things off with the Young Player of the Season vote and a look back at the kids who have made a difference for Liverpool this year. As for who exactly we are in this whole production, we're The Liverpool Offside along with (in alphabetical order) Anfield Asylum, Oh You Beauty, and Paisley Gates. Over the next few days you'll see further poll questions across all the participating blogs and written by each of those taking part, and along the way we hope that if you aren't already aware of them you'll take a look at what they have to offer and, if it's to your liking, consider adding them to your bookmarks, to your RSS feed, or to whatever else it is that kids these days add things they like to on the internet.

But that's not the end of it. We've also been lucky enough to get a few great guest editors to come on board and help when it comes time to start wrapping things up along with the results next week. First off we've got Amy Quinn of A Football Report, along with Mike Georger of Avoiding the Drop, and James T of Unprofessional Foul. For those who don't know them, they're three of the most knowledgeable Liverpool fans out there, and they're a big part of what makes the three sites they write for amongst the best places to go to on the internet for your general football needs. Then, last but certainly not least, Gareth Roberts, editor of top Liverpool fanzine Well Red Magazine, has also agreed to help us out when it comes time to sort through the tea leaves. Many of those who have already found their way to sites like this will know about Well Red, but for those who don't it's well worth your consideration if you've started to take this whole Liverpool Football Club thing a bit seriously.

But much of that's about next week. For now, then, it's on to the matter at hand:

John Flanagan: The young fullback wasn't expected to feature for Liverpool at all this season, and with other academy players being talked of far more often, it will perhaps have been a surprise to some that he found himself involved at all. However, after a disastrous stretch that saw Liverpool with no healthy fullbacks in the first team squad and a match against West Bromwich Albion that saw a backline consisting of four center backs perform horribly, the 18-year old found himself thrust into the limelight as he produced a confident display against Manchester City the following week and has started every match since without looking especially out of place. All told, he has started in and played six games in his young Liverpool career, and has received three yellow cards on eight fouls committed.

Martin Kelly: After a 2009-10 season that saw Kelly on the verge of Next Big Thing status, the arrival of Kenny Dalglish in January and the departure of Paul Konchesky on loan to Nottingham Forest saw the academy product become the first beneficiary of Liverpool's lack of depth at fullback. Forced to start nearly every match from there on out, Kelly performed admirably in a right fullback role, growing increasingly comfortable bombing up and down the flank after an at times slightly shaky start going forward that gave lie to his history as a center back. Until his unfortunate injury against West Ham United brought a premature end to his season, Kelly had started 18 matches along with coming on as a substitute once. He had one assist and three yellow cards on 14 fouls committed over the 19 games he participated in.

Jonjo Shelvey: Brought in from Charlton Athletic in the summer transfer window, the versatile midfielder made 4 starts in the Europa League for Liverpool and a further 16 substitute appearances across all competitions, registering a single assist. In those games he filled in everywhere from outside midfielder to second striker to fullback, often appearing calm and at least confident if never quite spectacular. Nonetheless, his versatility and cool head made him Dalglish's first option off the bench for an extended stretch, until he too was sidelined by injury, returning to action towards the end of the campaign to register his one assist on a cutting pass to Luis Suarez against Fulham that showed hints of the playmaking ability that had caught the eye of Liverpool scouts in the first place.

Jay Spearing: In the 2010-11 season, Spearing recorded 14 starts, three substitute appearances, and one assist across all competitions as he established himself rather unexpectedly as an at least valuable squad player for Liverpool. While in the past many assumed an eventual move to a lower league side was on the cards for the diminutive midfielder, after a strong finish to the season the questions are more along the lines of if, should his personal development continue – not to mention his promising partnership with Lucas in midfield – he might even be able to secure a larger role for the club moving forward. Having received almost as much game time in 2009-10 (though with the bulk of it coming in the Europa League and cup competitions), his sudden rise following Steven Gerrard's injury is a textbook example of a player seizing the opportunity he's been given and making something for himself when there were few expectations. In recognition of his newly-elevated role with the club, the now 22-year old local product signed a new contract at the start of May.

1 And if you really want everybody to know what you thought, the polls are open to be voted on once per day. So you can come back tomorrow and read all the above awesomeness one more time. And also vote again.

15 May 2011

Liverpool 0-2 Tottenham

Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Johnson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Maxi
Suarez Carroll

van der Vaart 9'
Modric 56' (pen)

Well that wasn't supposed to happen.

Pick your scapegoat. Most conspicuously, goals win games, and Liverpool rarely looked like scoring one. Carroll's going to get a lot of stick – he was the lone change, after all – but Suarez and Kuyt perpetually misfiring was just as culpable, if not more so.

But giving Spurs credit where due is also a sad necessity. They took the game to Liverpool at the start, bossing the midfield through Modric and Sandro, and got the early goal, albeit with help from a wicked deflection.

Liverpool were slow to establish a foothold, but were arguably the more threatening side after the first 20 minutes. Spearing pushed an excellent chance wide from 15 yards out in the 35th, Carroll mistimed a close-range header over the bar four minutes later, and Suarez sent a free kick whizzing narrowly wide in first half injury time.

But soon after the restart, Liverpool's favorite scapegoat made his presence felt. On a 50-50 shoulder barge just outside the box – the type of collision which had gone unnoticed when done to Suarez multiple times – Webb immediately pointed to the spot after both Flanagan and Pienaar hit the turf. Modric made no mistake from the spot, and a second goal killed off any hope of a comeback.

The final 35 minutes saw Spurs stifle the life out of the game. The excellent Dawson and King (brought out of cryogenic hibernation for the first time since October) gave Suarez and Carroll few chances, defending deep and spectacularly clearing their lines whenever necessary. Bringing on Shelvey for Spearing gave Liverpool a boost, and it didn't take long for the 19-year-old to send a thunderbolt just wide, but chances were few and far between from there as the game lifelessly ebbed away. Neither Ngog nor Cole, on for Maxi and Carroll respectively, made any difference.

Meireles' absence was a bigger set-back than expected; not only did Liverpool dearly miss his non-stop movement and cool head, but the change forced Kuyt out wide on the right of a 4-2-2-2, where he made little impact. Liverpool's two best candidates for player of the season – Lucas and Kuyt – were Liverpool most disappointing. Lucas simply lost the midfield battle with Modric and Sandro – archetypal creator and destroyer – while Spearing offered little support.

Flanagan and Shelvey are the only two who can be happy with today's performance, and that includes the "penalty" concession. That those were Liverpool's two youngest players on the pitch is a slight consolation, but the big names were out-played and out-worked. Liverpool won't win many games when that's the case.

This result will do little to dissuade the fear about where Carroll fits into the current style of play. But he's not the reason Liverpool lost today. He's just returned from injury, has started few games, and Dawson and King gave no quarter. Liverpool's set plays – his biggest weapon – were atrocious with Meireles missing, and it's no coincidence that player was at the heart of both goals Carroll scored against City. It'll be a far different story come next season, and judgment needs to be reserved until then.

Games like today's happen. It's an absolute shame it happened in the last home match of the season, the match after Dalglish signed a long-term deal. Tottenham's now in pole position for the Europa League, although next week's match against relegation-threatened Birmingham is no formality.

Despite the depressing performance and impotent attack, Liverpool lost to a deflected goal and an incorrectly-given penalty. This result, even if it means Liverpool finish sixth and miss out on Europe, can't cancel out all the good that's come before it.

13 May 2011

Liverpool v Tottenham 05.15.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Spurs (a) 11.28.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.20.10
1-2 Spurs (a) 08.16.09
3-1 Liverpool (h) 05.24.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-2 Fulham (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h); 5-0 Brum (h)
Spurs: 0-1 City (a); 1-1 Blackpool (h); 1-2 Chelsea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 13; Maxi 10; Meireles 5; Gerrard, Suarez 4; Carroll, Cole, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel 2
Spurs: van der Vaart 12; Pavlyuchenko 8; Bale 7; Crouch, Defoe 4; Lennon 3; Huddlestone, Hutton, Kranjcar, Modric 2; Bassong, Dawson, Kaboul, Sandro 1

Referee: Howard Webb


Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Johnson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Maxi
Suarez Carroll

As tempting as it is to see Sunday as a celebration – the last home game of the season, with Dalglish just announced as permanent manager – a win would secure European competition for next season. For a team which sat in 12th when King Kenny took the reins in early January, 11 points behind Tottenham, it's utterly remarkable no matter your feelings about the Europa League.

Nonetheless, it wouldn't be Liverpool this season had we gone more than a couple of weeks without a new injury concern. Now it's Meireles' turn, pulling up with a problem against Fulham. His absence would allow Carroll to return to the starting XI without excluding a player who's tallied two hat-tricks in the last three games, without vastly altering the formation or (in theory) the style of play – as the flowing, comprehensive 3-0 win over City demonstrated. Meireles did train this week, as did Carroll, so Dalglish's line-up will probably be a game-time decision. If both are out, or simply not ready to start, I imagine it'll be Shelvey, who replaced Raul against City.

As to which fullback will play where, Justin_TDW made an excellent point on Twitter, one I really should have come up with: since half-time against Newcastle, Johnson has been deployed against the opposition's more dangerous player. That's it's been at right-back for the last 135 minutes of football may well be coincidental. And if that's the case, I'd expect to see Johnson on the left, facing the far-quicker Lennon, with Flanagan up against either Pienaar, Modric, or Krancjar on his favored flank. All three of those players are more liable to cut inside, making it far easier for Carragher to lend support.

For all the overwrought, tear-stained valentines addressed to Bale sloppily penned by Her Majesty's press corps, Modric undoubtedly has been Spurs' best player. Far more consistently brilliant than Welsh Jesus, I've been amazed at how well he's played in the middle of a 4-4-2. The Croatian started on the left against City, but moved back into the center when Palacios went off injured. Center-back Gallas also picked up a knock in Tottenham's last match, while Gomes, Jenas, Assou-Ekotto, and Huddlestone are also big doubts.

Tottenham's last win was April 9, a 3-2 home victory over Stoke. That's Spurs' only win in the last 10 league matches – the other nine saw six draws and three losses. And five of those six draws were against teams currently in the bottom half of the table. No matter Champions League highs, no matter injuries, nine points from ten games is a massive, unforgivable collapse. Yet Redknapp gets a free pass. Other managers (specifically foreign managers who may or may not be Spanish and/or managed Liverpool) would have been drawn, quartered, and hung on Tower Bridge as a warning to future applicants.

It goes without saying that Liverpool can't get carried away after the last match. Or last three matches, for that matter. Yes, the home team has won last five meetings between these two sides. Yes, Anfield will be absolutely rocking because of Dalglish's deal. And yes, these two sides have displayed diametrically opposite form over the last two months. But this will be a one-off prize fight for a European place. Liverpool exists to win trophies and play in Europe. Spurs fans can pretend that the Europa League is a step-down for a club which beat Serie A-winning AC Milan in Europe's premier competition, but it's not fooling anyone.

Finish him.

10 May 2011

What's the Formation, Kenneth?

Yesterday, I remarked that Liverpool apparently used the third different formation in three matches despite starting the same front six in all three. What do the Daily Telegraph's average position charts (click on "team stats" on the right sidebar) have to say?

It's difficult to divine the 4-4-2 diamond from the average position diagram against Birmingham. Kuyt and Meireles occupy almost the same location, despite the fact Kuyt seemingly played as a striker, dropping deep receive the ball, while Meireles linked midfield and attack. Spearing is ahead of and to the right of Lucas, while similar goes for Maxi on the left, who's slightly narrower than in the other two matches.

The image below shows the run-up to Liverpool's second. Meireles is tucked in behind the strikers, with Spearing and Maxi on either side and Kuyt and Suarez ahead, ready for the flick-on. Lucas, at the base of the diamond, is out of the picture, protecting the defense only slightly ahead of Carragher and Skrtel.

Against Newcastle, the average position diagram clearly shows more of a 4-2-2-2 formation. Spearing and Lucas are on the same line, Meireles is deeper and wider, and Kuyt is closer to Suarez. As Johnson and Flanagan switched flanks at halftime, neither appears in their "normal" position; Flanagan is next to Lucas while Johnson's circle is hidden by Spearing.

The quick counter-attack for Liverpool's first, bursting from defense, demonstrates this formation. Kuyt and Suarez, each trying to find space, are ahead of the midfield line of four. As the attack progresses, Meireles and Maxi continue ahead of the "holding midfielders"; Maxi eventually takes up a position in space at the back post, in the right place for Williamson's poor clearance.

At Fulham, Liverpool's average position looks similar to that against Birmingham. But it clearly wasn't a 4-4-2 diamond when watching the match. If compelled to make a notation just from the diagram, it looks almost as much a lopsided 4-3-2-1 as 4-2-3-1. Or you could call it 4-5-1. Or 4-3-3. I obviously think I'm right, and it's worth differentiating from the other two matches, but herein lies the flaws of forcing football onto paper.

To again use a singular moment to demonstrate a 90-minute-long match, below shows Liverpool right before the opener, with a deeper Lucas and Spearing poised to launch a quick attack. Suarez is already out of the picture, bursting down the left channel to beat the offside trap, but Maxi, Meireles, and Kuyt form a clear line of three along the halfway line.

Of course, if I looked hard enough, we could probably show different formations from different sequences. Formational notation foibles aside, this flexibility has served Liverpool incredibly well of late. Birmingham, Newcastle, and Fulham may not have been the most daunting of opponents, but two of those three have been painful thorns in Liverpool's side in recent years, while Liverpool failed to beat both Newcastle and Birmingham under Hodgson (spectacularly failed, in the case of Newcastle).

Opposition teams have no clue who's going to pop up in the penalty area, and are infinitely scared of Suarez wherever he may be, permanently on the back foot because of his ability with the ball. Different midfielders have gone through spells of blazing-hot form: first Meireles, scoring five in six during January and February, then Maxi, with seven goals in his last three games. Kuyt's scoring like it's going out of style, tallying nine starting with his hat-trick against the Mancs and notching in each of the last five games. Johnson's return has added much-needed width to the side, creating two assists yesterday.

It'll be interesting to see if Liverpool remains this flexible come next season. Gerrard and Carroll, among others, will return to the starting XI, while Liverpool will be in the market for a left-sided winger/forward at the very least. However, for once, it's nice to live in the moment. I still can't believe I'll be sad to see this season end.

09 May 2011

Liverpool 5-2 Fulham

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Flanagan
Spearing Lucas
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Maxi 1' 7' 70'
Kuyt 16'
Dembele 57'
Suarez 76'

After months of anger, disappointment and regrets, now we're wishing the season wasn't about to end. Funny old game.

For the second time in three matches, Liverpool scores five and it's Maxi with a hat-trick. From out-of-favor squad player to absolute goal machine. 32 seconds into the match and the Argentinean was on the score sheet. Suarez – the epicenter of everything wonderful – was the catalyst, setting the tone immediately. Lucas' inch-perfect throughball split Baird and Hughes, releasing the Uruguayan into acres of space. His low cross was deflected on target by Salcido, and Schwarzer's sliding kick save pushed the ball straight to Maxi.

Less than six minutes later, Liverpool and Maxi had a second, a back post volley from Johnson's cross, released over the top by Lucas, with the goal-scorer left wide open by Baird (who played Johnson onside). A third in the 16th, Schwarzer's unforgivable mistake allowing Kuyt's shot through his legs, seemed to announce game over before all the Fulham fans had entered Craven Cottage.

But after 30 rampant, flawless minutes, Fulham finally gained a foothold. Johnson's intervention in the 34th, clearing Dempsey's effort from a corner out of the goalmouth, prevented an early lifeline, but shots from Dempsey and Sidwell were the only goal-mouth action for the rest of the half.

Zamora's introduction after the interval, in place of right winger Simon Davies, nearly prompted a remarkable comeback. An injury to Meireles – yet another hamstring concern – didn't help matters, but the home side were on the front foot for 20 minutes after the restart. Zamora's height and aerial ability flummoxed and bamboozled Skrtel; Fulham came close thrice before Zamora easily held off the Slovakian and set up Dembele for a fine low strike which sent Reina into angry hysterics. It was the first open-play goal Liverpool conceded since March 6.

Fulham remained the more threatening, invoking fears over away form and allowing comebacks as happened all too often under the previous manager. But Maxi reasserted his hero status, easing nerves with the best goal he's scored for the club, fortuitously picking up possession in Fulham's half and striding forward to unleash an unstoppable shot past Schwarzer with his "weaker" foot when defenders backed off.

Six minutes later, Suarez got his goal, latching on to a flawless, nigh-on impossible through ball from Shelvey before rounding Schwarzer. A screaming consolation from Sidwell, not long after the human victory cigar Joe Cole replaced the hat-trick hero, reduced arrears when Skrtel's clearing header fell to the midfielder. Yet Liverpool still finished the stronger, and were unlucky not to get a sixth to fittingly mark Carragher's 666th appearance, with Shelvey, Spearing, and Kuyt denied a notch in the bed post.

That Liverpool conceded twice is obviously cause for concern, but yet another five-goal romp slightly eases the pain. Once again, Maxi – of all players! – is the match-ball winning headline maker, but Luis Suarez was indescribably brilliant. Every time the ball's at his feet, he's capable of magic. Hangeland and Hughes were more terrified of the Uruguayan than Vidic ever was of Torres. A goal was the absolute least he deserved today.

Once again, Liverpool won the game with pass and move football. The same front six started for the third-straight match, as Carroll didn't travel because of his knee injury, but the formation has been different in each game. Birmingham saw a 4-4-2 diamond, Newcastle the "usual" 4-2-2-2, while today's was best described as 4-2-3-1, with Kuyt ostensibly on the right and Meireles then Shelvey lurking menacingly behind Suarez. But both Lucas and Spearing joined the attack at will. Liverpool aren't staid and static, as they always were under Hodgson and all-too-frequently were under Rafa. This team is fluid, flexible, and perpetually dangerous. They never stop pressing and never stop running. And that's with a vast list of players currently injured.

Unbeaten in five, outscoring the opposition 17-3, demonstrates what this side is capable of. Wins like the last three make it incredibly hard to keep hopes for next season from flying into the stratosphere. But, despite today's jubilation, we can't get ahead of ourselves. There is a clear foundation here. There is a clear team here. It is wonderful to be optimistic for a change. But there's obviously still work to be done – both goals conceded prove that by themselves. Thankfully, I'm positive Dalglish knows that, and will ensure the players also know that.

07 May 2011

Liverpool at Fulham 05.09.11

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.26.11
0-0 (h) 04.11.10
1-3 Fulham (a) 10.31.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.04.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Newcastle (h); 5-0 Brum (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a)
Fulham: 3-0 Sunderland (a); 3-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Wolves (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 12; Maxi 7; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Suarez 3; Carroll, Cole, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Skrtel 2
Fulham: Dempsey 12; Davies, Duff, Hangeland, Zamora 4; Johnson 3; Baird, Dembele, Etuhu, Kamara 2; Gera, Hughes, Kakuta 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Liverpool's "worst" referee, in only his second LFC match this season. The last five with Mason? 1-3 Newcastle (a), 1-1 Stoke (a), 0-2 Pompey (a), 1-3 Fulham (a), 4-0 Burnley (h). Yikes. Howard Webb has nothing on him.

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

I clearly guessed wrong last week: Dalglish stuck with Maxi despite the sentiment over Carroll facing his old club, and Liverpool ended comfortable 3-0 winners. So, will the enormous Geordie return to the starting XI this week?

Not only has Carroll had another week to recuperate, but Liverpool are away from Anfield. Liverpool will undoubtedly have less possession, and Carroll could be a useful outlet. But at the same time, Carroll struggled against center-backs Hughes and Hangeland when Newcastle hosted Fulham in November, battling to a 0-0 draw.

At least we're confident that Johnson is fit again, and will probably keep his place on the left. Last week, Jonas' threat prompted Johnson to spend the second half on the right to far better effect. This week, Fulham will probably play Davies and Dempsey on the wings of a 4-2-3-1, the formation Hughes has used over the last three games. Davies, on Fulham's right, stays far wider than the American, who prefers to cut in, which would suit the above guess at a line-up.

Dalglish also announced that Aurelio and Jovanovic could return., which seemingly means both might be in the squad. I highly doubt either will start given the time they've missed and other players being preferred.

With three games to play, Fulham are currently in the top half of the table in 9th. The Cottagers have won their last two games (and three of the last five) by a 3-0 margin: at home against Bolton and at Sunderland. Midfielders Duff and Gera are both out, but as said above, Dempsey should be available after missing the last match. The American is in superlative form, notching 12 goals this season, now Fulham's all-time leading scorer in the Premiership. Ugly handful Bobby Zamora is also fit after a broken leg, but has almost always featured off the bench since returning in March. Nonetheless, he's got three goals and two assists in his seven appearances since.

Liverpool have been dominant at home – even under Hodgson, even more so under Dalglish – but are still nowhere near the finished article away from Anfield. Dalglish's road record has been a massive improvement, but we've still seen disappointments like 1-3 West Ham and 1-2 West Brom. The latter's more worrying this week; Fulham, even after Hodgson's exit, is still a team in his image. In the last five meetings, Liverpool has narrowly won 1-0 twice (once home, once away), drawn 0-0 twice, and lost 1-3 at Craven Cottage having two men sent off. Lee Mason was the referee in that loss. Lee Mason is also the referee on Monday.

Given recent results, I'm honestly more worried about this than Spurs at Anfield a week later. But all three matches this month are crucial to Liverpool's future, both short and long-term.