30 December 2011

Liverpool 3-1 Newcastle

Agger (og) 25'
Bellamy 29' 67'
Gerrard 78'

Another tepid, frustrating, harsh 1-1 at Anfield. Until Gerrard came on at the hour mark.

As usual, Liverpool were the better side from the start, but neither keeper had a save to make in the first half. More often than not, Liverpool's possession ended at the edge of the final third, mainly with shots from distance charged down by Newcastle defenders or crosses just too high/far for Carroll. And as in Liverpool's last home frustration, the undeserving away side took the lead thanks to a more-than-fortuitous own goal. This time, too many Liverpool players shut off after Johnson's cross ricocheted off Vuckic's jaw as the young striker waved to the sidelines for treatment. Ryan Taylor didn't, crossing for Cabaye, whose flicked header veered past Reina off Agger's shoulder.

Just like when Liverpool went behind to Blackburn (and City), it didn't take long to level. Four minutes later, Taylor headed Enrique's cross to Adam at the back post. Tiote cut out the Scot's low cross to no one, but Bellamy was on hand for the rebound at the penalty spot, doing well to place his shot past three or four defenders on or near the goal line.

But to continue the infuriating Blackburn parallel, Liverpool rarely looked like converting a quick equalizer into a definitive advantage. Newcastle started the second half the stronger side, with concrete, tangible spells of possession in Liverpool's half, if still wholly starved of chances by Skrtel, Agger, and Spearing.

Then Gerrard replaced Adam, with Liverpool more a 4-3-3 as both Henderson and Captain Fantastic pushed forward. Seven minutes later, Liverpool had the lead, coming back from a deficit in a league match for the first time under Dalglish. Agger bombed forward on another trademark run, tripped by Tiote, and Bellamy's free kick eluded Williamson, Simpson, and Krul with Carroll causing statuesque havoc in front of the trio.

But if not for Martin Skrtel, Newcastle would have scored their second almost immediately after, on Demba Ba's (and Newcastle's for that matter) only true sight of goal. Cabaye's perfectly-timed throughball released Ba behind Agger before Reina could close down, but Skrtel heroically flew into the goal mouth to clear the striker's insanely smart flick. Indescribably important, and yet more evidence of just how immense Skrtel has been this season, up there with the best center-backs in the league.

Carroll could have increased the gap in the 73rd, hitting the woodwork for the 1776783rd time when out-jumping Williamson to meet Gerrard's cross. It was the captain who sealed matters in the 78th, put through by Henderson's blind through following a nice set-up by Spearing, sliding the strike under Krul from the acutest of angles after a dictionary definition run into the box. From there, 15 or so minutes of exceptionally-welcome cruise control as Liverpool finally saw out a win under no pressure.

If we're being churlish, we could complain about how Newcastle could have seen two players sent off: Cabaye's stamp on Spearing and Coloccini's elbow to Bellamy's brow line. It's the first time this season that Liverpool have overcome a referee's potentially game-altering errors. That's heart-warming in and of itself. Something along the lines of "you make your own luck" seems fitting here.

Bellamy and Skrtel were both fantastic, each deserving of man of the match. Bellamy scored twice, a typical abrasive handful, while Skrtel trapped Ba in a closet for 89:50 of 90 minutes. Nonetheless, it's impossible to look past Gerrard's cameo, arguably a more important substitute appearance than last season's hat-trick against Napoli. Just having Gerrard on the pitch was enough to make other raise their games, while Kuyt also put in a shift when replacing Bellamy off the bench. His goal was one of those Liverpool have dearly missed, midfielders supporting strikers with dangerous runs from deep, but his crossing was just as impressive. More than any other, Carroll should massively benefit from his return.

Meanwhile, defending Carroll has become like defending Heskey under Houllier – a comparison that will reassure no one, I'm sure. It's fairly easy when Liverpool win. It's a lot harder when they're struggling for goals. His hold-up play was hit and miss, his movement questionable, and his touch in front of goal terrible. But his positioning on Liverpool's goals shows how he helps the team even when wholly goal-shy: a general handful who creates space for others by occupying defenders. Liverpool far need more than a spearhead decoy during this goal drought, but at least there are signs of potential. And while it's not a very good excuse, he remains unfortunate; few if any strikers even reach the chance he headed off the bar with Williamson draped all over him. He looked far, far, far more dangerous with Gerrard whipping in crosses.

Liverpool scoring three was a long-delayed inevitability. That it was against Newcastle, no matter their form, should surprise no one. Liverpool have now scored three against the Geordies in the last four matches at Anfield, winning the last seven by at least a two-goal margin.

At the same time, it's another good performance against good competition. Newcastle are still seventh after all. Playing up to the opposition's level hasn't been an issue – see Arsenal, Everton, United, Chelsea (x2), and City for other examples. It's still, and will remain still, beating the sides Liverpool are supposed to beat, especially at Anfield.

Regardless, there are multiple good signs leading to Tuesday's trip to Manchester City. None more so than Gerrard's barnstorming comeback.

29 December 2011

Liverpool v Newcastle 12.30.11

2:45pm ET, live in the US on FSC.

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.01.11
1-3 Newcastle (a) 12.11.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.03.09
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 QPR (h)
Newcastle: 2-0 Bolton (a); 2-3 West Brom (h); 0-0 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Own Goal 3; Adam, Bellamy, Carroll, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson 1
Newcastle: Ba 14; Best 3; R Taylor 2; Sh Ameobi, Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Gosling, Jonas 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Terrified of jinxing it, but since I bash referees here all the time, unfairly or not, probably should mention that Probert is one of my favorites. Please keep it that way.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Henderson Spearing Maxi
Carroll Bellamy

And to think, in Monday's match review, I hoped that Suarez would soon get a rest, both for his and Liverpool's sake. Thankfully, the FA has everyone's best interests at heart. Due to Suarez's non-verbal "outburst" against Fulham, he's suspended for Friday's match.

With the Uruguayan absent, Carroll seemingly has to start against his former club – something he was unable to do in this fixture last May. Whether it's with Bellamy or Kuyt or, less likely, up front on his own is a far tougher question. Aside from Carroll's penalty miss, one of seemingly hundreds for Liverpool so far this season, the Carroll-Bellamy pairing played well in its last outing, against Chelsea in the Carling Cup.

The other lineup question pertains to central midfield. Maxi and Downing played well against Blackburn; there's no need to change either without fitness concerns. Conversely, Liverpool's central midfield was incredibly poor against Blackburn. Adam was the worst offender, and his unlucky own goal is irrelevant to that opinion. More important was that he and Henderson failed to look a pairing in the slightest. They were two central midfielders ostensibly playing in the same area, with only a general idea of what the other was trying to accomplish. Small wonder Liverpool looked so disjointed at times. Liverpool have multiple options for rectifying that problem: Gerrard could join the duo or replace either – although I suspect he'll have one more appearance off the bench before starting – or Spearing could replace one of the two or Shelvey could play behind the striker as against Aston Villa. Regardless, something needs to change. Cabaye and Tiote are miles upon miles better than Nzonzi-Dunn-Pedersen or McCarthy-Diame.

Finally, there also seems no need to change the back-line unless fitness demands it. If Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique start, it'd be the 10th league game in a row where Liverpool played the same back five. That's implausible consistency, and it's no coincidence the team has only conceded three goals during that 810-minute stretch. Long may it continue.

That Newcastle is just one point behind Liverpool despite winning just one of their last seven – Monday's trip to Bolton – losing four and drawing two, demonstrates just how strong the club's start to the season was. Or it's a sign that Liverpool have been wholly unable to take advantage of competitors' setbacks. Maybe both. Newcastle's descent from third on November 20 to seventh has coincided with injuries to both central defenders. Coloccini's fit again, but Steven Taylor will miss the rest of the season after tearing his Achilles. Marveaux's also out with a groin injury (surprise, surprise), while Dan Gosling is suspended.

Despite the recent slide, Demba Ba is still scoring like the world's really ending in 2012, Cabaye and Tiote have made an excellent midfield partnership, and both Obertan and Jonas could reap the benefits if Johnson and Enrique bomb forward just once too often. Ben Arfa was excellent off the bench in Newcastle's last match at Bolton; I expect he'll start on Friday, with Newcastle more a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 than the more-frequently-seen 4-4-2 with Ba and Best/Ameobi up top. Krul; Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, R Taylor; Obertan, Tiote, Cabaye, Jonas; Ben Arfa; Ba.

None of the Newcastle players who scored against Liverpool nearly a year ago are still with the club: Nolan's at West Ham, Barton's at QPR, and you all know where Andy Carroll ended up. I'm sure you remember the 1-3 loss; that followed up with 0-1 v Wolves and 1-3 at Blackburn were the blows which finally broke the doddering camel.

Meanwhile, Newcastle haven't scored at Anfield since December 2004, a Kluivert opener in a 3-1 Liverpool win. Liverpool have won all six meetings since conceding that goal, scoring 16 without reply. It's one of the best recent records against any club in the division.

But this is the best Newcastle side Liverpool have faced since then, no matter recent woes. The template for beating them remains the template to Liverpool's improvement. Keep doing the same successful things in defense, but put the ball in the back of the net slightly more often.

Meta FYI: I'll be gone through the weekend immediately following the match. Happy New Year's and whatnot. I will try to finish the match review before leaving town, but no promises. Then radio silence until Monday.

26 December 2011

Liverpool 1-1 Blackburn

Adam (og) 45'
Maxi 53'

Liverpool have been massively unlucky in an awful lot of matches, but this one's going to take some beating. Another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad home draw in a season already chock-full of them.

Blackburn had exactly one chance, from Dunn in the 79th, on the break and spoiled by his own teammate. The one they scored was entirely of Liverpool's own making. Entirely. At least Larsson struck a wonder goal to get Sunderland a point. Stoke's penalty winner was harsh but fair. Norwich and United arguably merited their equalizers; Hart's been brilliant for City in the past.

There's far less of an excuse for this one. It should have been a replica of Liverpool's last home victory against QPR, going ahead early in the second half after wasting first half supremacy; 1-0 despite frustration, despite profligacy, despite a back-up keeper's brilliance. No such luck.

To be fair, Liverpool haven't been good enough in an awful lot of matches either. Same old story writ large, again and again and again. At least the woodwork wasn't involved. Blackburn's defensive discipline was enough to cancel out being "terrible in midfield" and "absolutely invisible in attack." At least until Liverpool's inevitable, typical late flurry, which again saw yet another unfathomable save from a goalkeeper with no history of them. And then a clearance off the goal-line for good measure.

Tactics changed – back to the 4-4-2 formation with Carroll in the line-up and Liverpool looking to open by Blackburn with long passing and crosses – but the story stayed the same. All the possession, mostly in Blackburn's half, with chances missed due to a combination of poor finishing, surprising keeping, and questionable decisions. Suarez created four openings almost by himself, but put all four shots off target, then spoiled Downing's excellent opportunity by selfishly touching when clearly offside. Carroll was denied during a 27th-minute goal-mouth scramble when Bunn smartly flashed a hand up to stop his point-blank effort. And Maxi was wrongly ruled offside when he should have won a clear penalty in the 32nd. Yes, yes, Liverpool probably would have missed it anyway. Ha ha.

To make matters infinitely worse, the dominant home side were behind at half-time for the first time at Anfield thanks to one player's poor decision and one player's supremely unlucky touch. Agger lingered on a Blackburn hoof out of defense, trying to be clever when under pressure from a lumbering Yakubu, conceding an unmerited corner. In beating Formica to the near post cross, Adam somehow flicked the ball just over Enrique guarding the post, nestling unerringly in the top corner. 99 times out of a hundred, that ends up in the Kop. Even this season.

As against QPR, Liverpool had tails up after the restart, almost certainly rightfully screamed at for 15 straight minutes. A 53th-minute equalizer, Maxi at the back post heading in Skrtel's (!!!) clever cross after Liverpool's corner was only half-cleared, looked karmic retribution, with more than 35 minutes to escape to victory against opposition previously unable to do anything right. Nope. Like against Blackpool last season – coincidentally, another Mike Jones match – Liverpool didn't have enough, didn't do enough, to earn the "deserved" result.

Gerrard's return, on in the 68th for the suffering Adam, improved matters, with the captain's dynamism immediately evident, but Liverpool left the late flurry late, frustrated by Blackburn's packed defense until the final minutes.

But the infinitely repeated narratives roared back with a vengeance in those final minutes. First, opportunities squandered: a Carroll header wide, Downing shots tame then over, Enrique shots well over. Then, out-of-character, unbelievable defensive heroics. Deep into injury time, Bunn preposterously stopped Carroll's flick from a yard out. On the subsequent corner, Agger's free header found 17-year-old left back Henley on the far post.

We can only blame wastefulness and misfortune so often. Once again, stats lie. 65% possession to Blackburn's 35%. 27 shots to 6; 7 on target, 15 off, 6 blocked to 1, 4, and 1. More than 200 more passes attempted and completed than the away side. Any progress this team is making, any possible optimism, continues to be squashed by Liverpool's inability to get wins they have little excuse for not getting.

Downing played well, Maxi scored again, and the defense was untroubled aside from that moment of madness. Liverpool's midfield wasn't very good until Gerrard came on – even discounting the own goal, Adam did not play well – but Liverpool also often abdicated the center of the park in favor of long balls and working the flanks.

Carroll certainly shouldn't be the scapegoat, twice foiled by Bunn, getting into position for three of Liverpool's best chances. It's not as if today's problems have only come with the much-maligned 35 MILLION POUND!!!!!!! man on the pitch. Meanwhile, all six of Suarez's shots missed the target. It seems insane to suggest, but I'm increasingly convinced Liverpool need to leave Suarez out one of these days. Few are better at creating someone from less than nothing, losing defenders with feints, shimmies, and shakes, but his shooting accuracy's been beyond horrific. To say nothing of his off-field concerns, as I won't pretend to divine his current mental state, it feels almost as if Liverpool need to see what they're capable without its attacking focal point.

With another match on Friday, at least there's little time to linger on a familiar setback. That match will finally mark the season's halfway point; it'll be a lot harder to trot out these tiresomely reiterated excuses no matter the overall progress made over the last 12 months.

24 December 2011

Liverpool v Blackburn 12.26.11

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Deportes and FoxSoccer.tv. And all the usual streams that most will have to fall back on.

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Blackburn (a) 02.12.11
2-1 Liverpool (h) 11.10.10
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.08.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.24.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 QPR (h)
Blackburn: 1-2 Bolton (h); 1-2 West Brom (h); 1-2 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Own Goal 3; Adam, Bellamy, Carroll, Skrtel 2; Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi 1
Blackburn: Yakubu 10, Hoilett 3; Formica, Rochina, Samba 2; Dann, Gamst, Simon 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Beachball. 1-2 Blackpool at Anfield. 0-4 Spurs. Mike Jones might not be Liverpool's favorite referee.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Spearing Adam
Kuyt Henderson Maxi

Gerrard might make the bench. Spearing returns from suspension. Anything else happened over the last week?

Otherwise, it's the same old questions. 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1? What will the midfield look like? Who'll play on the flanks? Will Liverpool use Carroll and/or Bellamy? Match after match after match over the festive season, not to mention Liverpool's consistent inconsistency, makes this guessing game even more difficult than usual.

Since Gerrard almost certainly won't start – most likely coming off the bench whenever he returns, as in his aborted comeback a few months earlier – what formation Liverpool will use will probably depend on how (and if) Spearing's reintegrated into the side.

Liverpool played 4-4-2 with Spearing and Adam against Fulham, then 4-2-3-1 two out of the last three matches, with Henderson and Adam holding in midfield. My consensus solution is to push Henderson further forward, as he played against Arsenal in August and where Shelvey and Maxi played during Spearing's suspension. But there's also the small matter of Bellamy and Carroll. Either could partner Suarez, as could Kuyt, with two of the three above midfielders in Liverpool's "old" formation. Both Bellamy and Kuyt could show up on the wings, either in place of Maxi or Downing, as could Henderson with Spearing back in the side.

Liverpool aren't lacking in possibilities, just lacking answers to persistent, malingering questions: how can the side fulfill its sometimes-seen potential, will players start converting the multiple chances at goal. It's nearly January, and "own goal" is still Liverpool's second top-scorer with three. The side's scored three in just one league fixture this season, back in August against Bolton. And yet, somehow, the club's just three points from fourth spot.

All that seems certain, or at least probable, is the back five remaining the same and Suarez starting yet again. England's favorite scapegoat stuttered in the spotlight against Wigan, but I doubt he'll be left out, no matter the sky-consuming storm cloud still hovering directly overhead.

It could be worse. Blackburn have it worse. Bottom of the league, having lost the last three. Steve Kean is Lancashire public enemy number one, and poor Scott Dann's woes sum up the season – unremittingly horrible. I wouldn't wish a ruptured testicle on my worst enemy. Paul Robinson's probably out as well, which means it'll have to be Blackburn's back-up, Matt Bunn, who has the usual opposition blinder at Anfield. Givet, Olsson, and Nelsen are also injured.

Despite Blackburn's utterly woeful form, Yakubu has twice the amount of goals as Luis Suarez, and more than Suarez, Carroll, Bellamy, and Kuyt combined. That stat says more about Liverpool's current scoring proficiency than almost any other. Dalglish unsurprisingly singled out the player in pre-match comments, but it's worth noting that both Skrtel and Agger have done well against burly strikers over the last month.

Blackburn haven't beaten Liverpool at Anfield since 1999, Rovers' season of Hodgson woe, one which saw the side relegated soon after that Anfield win. Fittingly, last season's trip to Blackburn represented the end of Liverpool's Hodgson era, an all-too-typical pathetic 1-3 loss. That victory was the high-water mark of Steve Kean's short reign, the one which earned him a long-term contract. It'd be another eerie parallel if Liverpool were to doom his regime by finally exorcising their goal-scoring demons.

23 December 2011

Infographic – Captain Fantastic

I've been working on this sporadically for a few weeks. It's not finished, as Gerrard's career isn't finished, but I thought I'd open the floor for comments. Consider it an early Christmas (or late Hanukkah, very late Diwali or Ramadan, etc) gift.

All stats from the indispensable LFCHistory.net. Full-size version, in new window, available here.

Maybe this is better termed a "draft." It will obviously be updated when Gerrard retires in a decade or so (here's hoping!), and there are undoubtedly more stats I could and should have included. Plus, I'm not sold on the title layout. I welcome any and all suggestions, even more than usual.

But I couldn't wait that long to break it out, and these few days between Wigan and Blackburn presented the opportunity. He'll be back on the pitch soon, adding to these extraordinary totals, and it's not like there's anything to write about in regards to off-the-pitch matters or Liverpool's Uruguayan striker.

Preview for Monday's match against Blackburn up when I get a chance tomorrow. Have a happy holidays.

21 December 2011

Liverpool 0-0 Wigan

Remember that perverse, pervasive sense of impending doom that followed the club around throughout 2009-10? Not the dreadful, soul-killing horribleness that was the Hodgson era, but the perpetual Sword of Damocles which hung over Benitez's final campaign, where we fearfully waited to see what could go wrong next. Yeah, this week has brought back that feeling. Even this trip to Wigan paralleled that season's, Benitez's nail in the coffin, in its overwhelming disappointment. At least Liverpool held on for the point here? Regardless, feeling that feeling probably isn't good.

Instead of this week's perceived injustices catalyzing the side, we saw the most-comprehensive team failure since the 0-4 thrashing at Spurs, a failure marginally more excusable because of Adam's early red card. It is no exaggeration to suggest that every player save Reina disappointed today. Another match where Liverpool started well, missed chances, and ended the worse side probably makes the Swansea contest the closest comparison, not to mention the equivalent results, but that didn't come with the same stomach punch. It's been that sort of week.

Yes, Liverpool would have won had they taken advantage of its excellent pressing start, with a handful of chances in the opening 25 minutes. Yes, Liverpool would have won had they converted a gifted penalty soon after the restart when Caldwell handballed Suarez's bicycle, only to miss the fourth spot kick in this season's five attempts. But Wigan were simply better – at least more threatening – for long stretches after that initial promise, with 19 shots to Liverpool's 21, 45% possession to Liverpool's 55% (after something in the region of 68-32% possession in the first half of the first half), and tested Reina from in and outside the box. The consistently steady back line became stretched with Liverpool haphazardly piling players forward, and both Skrtel and Johnson committed frightening errors reminiscent of bad memories from previous campaigns.

But with another clean sheet, the full scapegoat glare will fall on Liverpool's chronic inability to put the damned ball into the damned net, whether because of poor finishing, excellent keeping, or intangible luck. The woodwork wasn't involved this time. Al Habsi did well to stop Henderson, Kuyt, and Johnson's smart first half shots, and did even better to stop Adam's 51st-minute spot kick, a harder-hit copy of the one Carroll had saved in the league cup. Despite a couple of half-chances as the match went on, mostly through set plays, Liverpool got notably worse after the penalty miss, with the frustration evident from across the ocean. Meanwhile, Wigan continued to sporadically petrify when breaking out of its nine-at-the-back defense.

Tactically, full credit goes to Roberto Martinez. Wigan's five-man back line, a replica of the formation deployed against Chelsea, blanketed Liverpool's 4-2-3-1. No space plus mounting frustration is rarely a productive combination. The away side used the same XI as against QPR, with Maxi and Kuyt replacing Shelvey and Bellamy, but kept the same formation as at Villa Park on Sunday. Most likely rattled by events on and off the pitch, Liverpool pushed harder and harder but not smarter and smarter, which allowed Wigan to expose the defense on the counter. After two solid performances, the Henderson-Adam pairing simply did not work, and like Fulham, it's a result I'm tempted to credit most to Lucas' absence, no matter Liverpool's never-ending profligacy.

I probably can't get away without writing about Suarez, off-form and often isolated. Maxi dropped deeper than Shelvey on Sunday, and never looked the magic goal-scorer he's been from the flanks. Blaming Suarez's woes on yesterday's FA verdict and his subsequent ostracism by the great and good English media is simplistic but unavoidable, trudging off miserably when replaced by Carroll in the 87th. Not that he had much help. Sadly, off-field events do matter.

With Liverpool more open than a pervert's trench-coat when Wigan counter-attacked, it'll be interesting to see if Spearing comes straight back into the side with his suspension over. And then there's the small matter of Steven Gerrard imminent return.

Things do not look good at the moment. After 17 games, Liverpool have eight wins, six (!!!) draws, and three losses. Right now, Liverpool deserve to be in sixth, and Dalglish has multiple plates to spin and problems to solve. But the season isn't half over yet, and there are many more twists and turns to come despite current, obvious faults. We'll have more than enough time to wring hands and cry woe over falling skies if need be. Hope is dwindling, but hope isn't lost because of an away draw in a venue where Liverpool haven't won in five seasons.

Liverpool at Wigan 12.21.11

This preview was written yesterday, before the Suarez verdict. I thought about rewriting it. I still don't know what to say. Everyone's fumbling in the dark with just the FA's paltry statement to grasp onto, basing every opinion (and they are opinions) on their own biases (myself included). Until the FA releases its corresponding evidence, this ordeal seems more Franz Kafka's The Trial than "standard" football discipline. Two fingers, one in the eye of Liverpool, one in the eye of FIFA, in the hopes of political point scoring. I truly hope that isn't the case.

The only change I'd make to this preview is in regards to Suarez' starting. I honestly have no clue whether Dalglish will throw him into the fray. He's not suspended (yet), but only the manager knows if his mind's in the right place to play. Or whether Kuyt and/or Carroll will play because both will be needed if Suarez ends up missing eight games. But, again, no one but the club and the FA can answer these questions, and they've not been answered yet. Anyway...

3pm ET, live in the US on espn3. Or WatchESPN. Whatever it's called now. The online-only one, available only if your TV/internet providers aren't jerk-offs.

Incidentally, ESPN has the rights to three matches today: this, Villa v Arsenal, and Everton v Swansea. They are televising none, relegating all to the internet in favor of NFL Live, Dan LeBatard, and Jim Rome. Those lazy bums in Congress should pass a law preventing ESPN from bidding on "soccer" rights or something. I will not stop complaining about this and I apologize for nothing.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 02.12.11
1-1 (a) 11.10.10
0-1 Wigan (a) 03.08.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.24.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 QPR (h); 0-1 Fulham (a)
Wigan: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-1 West Brom (a); 0-4 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Own Goal 3; Adam, Bellamy, Carroll, Skrtel 2; Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi 1
Wigan: Di Santo, Gomez 4; Diame, Watson 2; Caldwell, Crusat, Moses 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

The youngest PL referee, Oliver's been in charge of just two Liverpool games: a 2008 Carling Cup win against Crewe and Dalglish's first league game back last season, a loss at Blackpool. I remember absolutely nothing about his performance in either and hope that's a good sign.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Adam
Downing Shelvey Maxi

Once again, I doubt there'll be many changes despite another away match 78 hours after the previous.

One likely switch seems to be someone in place of Bellamy, who played 87 minutes against Villa and who rarely starts consecutive matches, especially two in the space of a few days. Maxi, in a straight swap, seems the most likely replacement, but Dalglish could also bring Downing back to the left flank with Kuyt coming in on the right.

Shelvey, a surprise starter on Sunday, also seems less guaranteed than most. I'd like to see him given a second opportunity, but either Kuyt or Carroll could come into the side if Liverpool revert to the standard 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation. Again away from Anfield, that formation seems more probable than against Villa, with Liverpool likely to dictate terms and tempo to the home side. Similar to how Liverpool lined up at West Brom earlier this season, but obviously (sigh) without Lucas.

If Carroll plays, I'm increasingly convinced he needs to start. He's had next to no impact when featuring as a substitute, almost always struggling to adapt to the rhythm. Off the bench against Bolton, Stoke, Norwich, Chelsea, City, and Villa, the only match where Carroll came close to making a difference was against City, forcing Hart into a heroic win-denying save, but that was with Liverpool pushing furiously thanks to the man advantage. Not that Carroll's often impressed from the start either (sigh), but they've been vastly different degrees of "struggling."

Currently 18th, Wigan are coming off an encouraging draw against Chelsea, definitely deserving of their point. Roberto Martinez's biggest problem has been his side's scoring inaptitude – 15 through 16 matches, joint-lowest in the league (yes, yes, only five fewer than Liverpool). Historically reliant on Rodallega over the last few campaigns, the Colombian's disappointed so far, still scoreless and now doubtful after picking up a knock against Chelsea. Either Sammon or Di Santo has usually started in his stead.

Wigan used five at the back on Saturday (which inevitably became nine at the back), attempting to soak up Chelsea pressure before bringing on both Rodallega and Di Santo, leading to Gomez's equalizer when Cech fumbled Rodallega's fairly-routine shot. Looking far more secure than in the previous home match, an 0-4 loss to a rampant Arsenal, Martinez could replicate those tactics against Liverpool, forcing the away side to patiently break them down, as many others have done to Dalglish's men this season.

With one win in the last five against Wigan and without a win at the DW Stadium since September 2007, the Latics have become something of a bogey side. Both of last season's draws – 1-1 in each, under both Hodgson and Dalglish – came when Liverpool conceded a second half goal after scoring in the first. With similar results "earned" against Sunderland, United, and Norwich earlier this season, that remains a frightening possibility if Liverpool remains unable to put chances created to full use.

18 December 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa

Bellamy 11'
Skrtel 15'

Winning with ease when not on top form is far more fun than frustrating draws or defeats when dominant. Still, if not for converting the first two corners within 15 minutes, Liverpool could well be ruing more missed chances and more effort rebounding off wider-than-normal goal posts. That narrative's not going away.

Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 formation, with Shelvey replacing Kuyt in a free role behind Suarez and Bellamy in Maxi's stead, announced the game plan. The away side were content to smother and nullify the opposition while playing for the counter-attack and set plays, allowing frequently goal-shy Villa (missing its top two attackers) less than zero time and space in the final third.

Those tactics paid off quickly thanks to Villa's abysmal set play defending. It was easy to see how they'd conceded more than a third of their goals from corners. All involved stood still as statutes while Suarez then Bellamy attempted to prod in Shelvey's near-post flick for the opener. Four minutes later, Skrtel's straight run across the six-yard box easily freed him from both Dunne and Hutton, although his header had to be perfectly placed to beat Guzan.

Two goals to the good, rather than the usual tenuous one (at best), meant Liverpool could focus on cementing defense solidity. Villa took 16 shots, 11 in the first half. Just three came from inside the penalty box (one in the first half). None troubled Reina. But Liverpool only threatened once more before the interval, with Guzan saving Shelvey's point-blank toe-poke in the 38th, set up by Suarez after nutmegging Petrov on the break.

The away side should have extended its lead in the 15 minutes after the restart, with five excellent opportunities to exterminate the game once and for all, denied by a mixture of poor finishing, decent saves, and that blasted woodwork. Agger headed wide after continuing his bursting run forward, Suarez cheekily hit both bar and post on separate delightfully-created chances, Guzan saved Johnson's swerving bolt, and Adam saw his selfish shot on the counter deflected just wide with Shelvey open and screaming for the ball. It's a good thing that Liverpool didn't need those goals. For once. The side's 17 shots off the frame is more than 15 of 20 Premiership sides had through all of last season. Suarez remains the only player to hit the woodwork more than once in a match, and he's done it twice this season.

The last thirty minutes were a mere formality. Liverpool stopped sending so many forward when countering, Villa remained wholly unable to penetrate a resolute back line. That Dalglish used all three subs – Carroll for Suarez, Kuyt for Bellamy, and Carragher for Shelvey (playing as a holding midfielder!) – seems the only matter of note.

Villa were absolutely dire, as in last season's Anfield meeting, devoid of confidence and shorn of the two players with any attacking competence. That Liverpool rendered them more hopeless than usual – while scoring twice for only the sixth time in 16 games – can't be overlooked, though. Some credit has to go to Dalglish's tactics, both in nullifying Villa's attack and exposing a slow back line with direct counter-attacks. And it's been more than a year since Liverpool scored twice from corners, Liverpool's third and fourth goals from corners this season.

The defense was the star of the show: Johnson and Enrique bombed down the flanks, Skrtel was successful in all of his tackles and aerial duels again, and Agger completely blunted the already-blunt Heskey. Bellamy's probably man of the match, scoring one and making one. Downing had another good game on the right of midfield; while still assist-less, he played a crucial role in taking Liverpool's first corner. Shelvey did well in his first start, trying to dictate play from a free role high up the pitch. Suarez, usually hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, merited at least one goal, pressing furiously from the front.

If it were eight months ago, this would have been another 5-0 or 5-2 romp a la Brum or Fulham, but we'll have to be satisfied with a comfortable 2-0. Yes, Liverpool should have had more – not the first time that's been written this season – but two goals is more than Liverpool have scored at Villa Park since 2007-08, which required an unfathomable Gerrard free kick in the dying seconds for three points. Liverpool now have five wins away from Anfield in eight matches, which is the same total taken through all of last season. Regrettable losses against Stoke and Fulham aside, Dalglish and Clarke have so far solved Liverpool's away day calculus.

Now Liverpool just need to calculate a way to convert more of its chances and remove that bedeviling woodwork from the equation.

16 December 2011

Liverpool at Aston Villa 12.18.11

9:05am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Villa (a) 05.22.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.06.10
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.29.09
1-3 Villa (h) 08.24.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 QPR (h); 0-1 Fulham (a); 2-0 Chelsea (a)
Villa: 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-1 United (h); 0-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Own Goal 3; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi, Skrtel 1
Villa: Agbonlahor, Bent 5; Petrov 3; Albrighton, Bannan, Dunne, Heskey, Warnock 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Henderson Adam Maxi
Suarez Bellamy

It'll seem as if Liverpool are playing nearly every day over the next few weeks, with eight matches in a month, but there's probably little point in wholesale changes just yet. Last Saturday's XI, while undeniably (still) goal-shy, played well, and Liverpool will probably have to break down a similarly cagey, blunt opposition.

The lone suggested alteration is Bellamy, rested after exertions against Chelsea and Fulham, in place of Kuyt. The Dutchman, while diligent against QPR, has been slightly off-form all season, failing to score since May. And Andy Carroll remains the suave, expensive elephant in the room. He will assuredly receive chances over the holiday fixtures, but I don't know if 90 minutes spent wrestling in the agricultural Dunne and Collins' pig sty is the best way to break his drought.

Otherwise, Henderson and Adam were excellent in midfield last time out, the back four has been near flawless, Maxi continues to look one of Liverpool's few goal-threats, and Downing – tantalizingly up against his former club – was much-improved on the right. More of that please.

It hasn't taken long for McLeish to mold Villa in his image. Until last weekend's win at even-more-depressing Bolton, Villa had nearly the same record as relegated Birmingham had through 14 games last season: an equal number of points, while scoring and conceding just one less goal. Villa have beaten the three sides in the relegation zone plus Norwich, lost to three of the top four and West Brom, and have drawn the other seven, all against sides somewhere between 7th and 17th. Par for the course.

Given's hamstring injury is Villa's biggest woe at the moment, although the Midlands club will also miss Agbonlahor, suspended for Sunday. With Delph recovering from a knee problem, Villa's other casualties are Jenas and American Eric Lichaj. If McLeish sticks with the 4-4-2 used in the last five or six matches, Heskey will partner Bent up front; two of Delph, Herd, and Petrov will be in central midfield; two of Albrighton, Bannan, and N'Zogbia will man the flanks; and the back four will be Hutton, Collins, Dunne, and former red Stevie Warnock.

Harsh losses against Stoke and Fulham aside, Liverpool have been marginally better away from Anfield. At the least, wins against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Everton are still the acme for the season so far.

In recent years, games against Villa have followed a fairly set pattern. Lots of goals are scored at Anfield (3-0, 1-3, 5-0, 2-2, and 3-1 since 2006-07), hardly any are scored at Villa Park (0-1, 1-0, 0-0, 1-2, and 0-0 in the same time frame). No matter Liverpool's enduring impressive knack for wasting chances or the undeniable desire to maul some hapless opponent into oblivion, any sort of win – narrow or vast, lucky or deserved – will suffice on Sunday.

12 December 2011

Infographic – Goals Through 15 Games

Goals, goals, goals. With Liverpool wasting chance after chance, profligacy to blame for home draws with Norwich, Swansea, and Sunderland as well as away losses to Stoke and Fulham, the number of goals scored has become both millstone and mantra, a clear problem in obvious need of fixing, the major fault keeping the side from reaching its full potential.

But how does this season compare to Liverpool's goal tally in previous campaigns?

18 goals through 15 games is the third-lowest total since 2004-05, behind last season's abomination (by just one) and the 2006-07 campaign. But the most goals scored through 15 games came in 2009-10, where Liverpool had 31 by this point yet finished in 7th, the worst result from these seven seasons. Which makes for poor precedent.

So, is there any correlation with goals and league position?

The best correlation isn't between goals scored and overall points total, it's goals conceded and overall points total. Those two lists are in almost the exact same order. Which would be good news for this season if correlation always implied causation; the 13 conceded through 15 games is fourth-best since Benitez took over. And that includes the four-goal drubbing Spurs gave 10-man Liverpool in September, almost a third of the total goals conceded and the only time the team's let in more than one per match this season.

Four from seven clearly isn't the most-authoritative sample size, but since 2004-05, Liverpool have never finished worse than fourth when conceding less than a goal per game through 15 matches. Writing as much seems unnecessary, but fourth place is both target and bare minimum this season.

Nonetheless, obviously, scoring more goals certainly couldn't hurt.

10 December 2011

Liverpool 1-0 QPR

Suarez 47'

Just good enough. The difference that taking just one of those oft-mentioned chances makes.

25 shots, eight on target, with the woodwork hit twice. 62% possession, 21 chances created. A handful of impressive, out-of-character saves by the opposition goalkeeper. But one went in, and one was enough.

The first half was the same story writ large in giant, tedious letters. Liverpool dominant, Liverpool untroubled, but Liverpool unable to score despite multiple opportunities to do so. The home side simply played keep-away, camped in QPR's half, winning seven corners in the first half hour. Within 15 minutes, Suarez had put a free header straight at Cerny, had an impossible-angled shot skitter across the face of goal after nicking the post, and had misfired after a brilliant one-two with the again-impressive Maxi. Cerny spectacularly denied the South American dynamic duo in the 31st and 42nd, then smothered Downing's near post blast to close the half. Suarez and Johnson also appealed for respective penalties that Mason would never deign to give. Meanwhile, QPR's lone riposte was a Wright-Phillips blast from distance that was more threatening to the stewards than Reina.

But nothing went in.

Then, in the 47th, something went in. Suarez, somehow allowed a second chance to avenge an opportunity wasted, set up by Adam's outstanding right-footed cross, put a free header from the exact same position where Cerny couldn't reach it this time.

Nothing ever comes easily, so it goes without saying that Liverpool weren't fortunate enough to burst that ubiquitous dam. Repeating heroics seen in front of the Kop all too often this season, QPR were kept in the game by their third-string (!) keeper, on a personal mission to deny Maxi an 11th goal in 10 starts. Cerny stonewalled the Argentinean twice, in the 61st and 67th, both set up by Suarez. The first was the other effort off the woodwork, saved onto the post after Suarez jinked into space and cut back to the penalty spot. The second was point blank after a four-touch one-two-one-two rendered both center-backs irrelevant.

With Liverpool increasingly content to counter-attack a compressed opposition after finally making the break-through, QPR's second substitution – replacing winger Tommy Smith with former Blackpool striker DJ Campbell with 25 minutes to play – made life marginally more terrifying. The away side finally had spells of coordinated possession, but few moments actually required Reina to contemplate intervention: a wild shot from distance here, a dangerous free kick flicked well over there, a few punches on the few corners QPR earned. When needed, Liverpool's defenders defended excellently: Skrtel consistently and Enrique notably on QPR's best and only real chance, in injury time, doing just enough to prevent a close-range back post header.

Because Liverpool's attackers got that one needed goal, the spine can get its due plaudits. The center-backs brooked no quarter and the only two available central midfielders, who hadn't previously started together in a two-man pairing, set the tone and tempo. Henderson's non-stop movement and Adam's ability on the ball muted Barton and Faurlin, and were crucial to Liverpool controlling the pace in the first hour. Adam, increasingly comfortable in every successive match, has been in outstanding form since Chelsea – better positionally, stronger on the ball, and winning aerial duels to go along with the ever-present (sometimes wayward) guided missile passing. And another pairing – the aforementioned Suarez and Maxi – will get deserved plaudits, the latter constantly threatening, as is his wont, and the former sccoring the winner, having his best game since that (sigh) first FA charge.

Admittedly, just one goal wasn't good enough against Norwich or Sunderland, and there were still far too many similarities to those set-backs. Opposition keeping and opportunities spurned remain valid, frustrating talking points, foreplay too often unfulfilled. But getting the necessary three points, any way possible, forged with resolute defending from all involved, is both confidence-enhancing progress and far more enjoyable than previously-seen alternatives.

09 December 2011

Liverpool v QPR 12.10.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 02.11.96
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.30.95
1-1 (h) 02.11.95
1-2 QPR (a) 10.31.94

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Fulham (a); 2-0 Chelsea (a); 1-1 City (a)
QPR: 1-1 West Brom (h); 1-2 Norwich (a); 3-2 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Own Goal 3; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi, Skrtel 1
QPR: Helguson 6; Bothroyd, Young 2; Barton, Campbell. Faurlin, Smith 1

Referee: Lee Mason. Sigh.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Adam
Downing Shelvey Maxi

At Anfield against a bottom-half side. What could go wrong? Oh, right. Swansea, Norwich, Sunderland. Well then.

Reina and the back four seem guaranteed, but with Lucas' injury, Spearing's suspension, and the entire strike force misfiring, I don't dare assume to be able to guess the front six with any certainty.

Does Dalglish stick with the 4-3-3 formation, which would suggest dropping Henderson deeper and bringing Shelvey in? Or will Liverpool actually try to play 4-4-2 with Henderson and Adam? Will Maxi, the only player scoring regularly, get back in the lineup? Or will we get some combination of Bellamy, Suarez, and Carroll again? And what about Kuyt – also not scoring, and hasn't started in Liverpool's last two games? So many questions. So many possibilities. So little precedent. Despite not totally humiliating myself with the "What Would Kenny Do" game this season, any predicted XI is less educated than usual.

Suarez seems the only sure starter in attack, and even he's not been in the best form of late. Think it's coincidence he hasn't scored since being charged with racially abusing Evra. Or that his last league goal came in the match prior to United? Or that he needs to be mauled with a dull hacksaw to win a free kick? Or that he's now facing another FA censure for a gesture that has seen multiple members of the England team go unpunished? If any game needed some Uruguayan thunder as a statement of intent, it's tomorrow's.

As for the other lot, Colin Wanker's side remains built in his image: experienced and irritating. At least Barton's amusing (and often redeems himself with Hillsborough campaigning). In 12th, with the same number of points as 9th-placed Villa but a -10 goal difference, Warnock's side are also maddening inconsistent. The three matches that opened the season were a win at Goodison bracketed by comprehensive losses to two sides who now prop up the table. In the last six weeks, they beat Chelsea, gave City one of its closest games of the season, and did something Liverpool notably failed to do – beat Stoke at the Britannia – but have since lost at Norwich and drawn West Brom at home.

With last season's Championship Cassanata wunderkind Taarabt still doubtful, missing the last few games with a thigh strain, the Hoops will probably continue with their 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid. Bothroyd or Mackie lurks around and behind Icelandic battering ram Helguson, Wright-Phillips and Barton patrol the flanks, and Faurlin and Derry hold in midfield. The veteran back-line – Traore (Armand, not Djimi), Gabbidon, Ferdinand (Anton, not Rio), and Young (Luke, not Neil) – is both veteran and settled, but QPR will have to play third-choice keeper Radek Cerny due to Paddy Kenny and Brian Murphy's injuries. In keeping with Liverpool's season so far, I congratulate on his game-of-the-season performance in advance.

Liverpool keep suffering glitches in the mainframe on and off the pitch, and like Monday's loss at Fulham, this will be arguably more of a test than reassuring results against Chelsea and City. The team notably struggles when facing supposedly weaker sides, emboldened against others in the "Big Six" (aside from recent bête noire Spurs). Of those currently in the bottom half of the league, Liverpool have met Norwich, Swansea, Sunderland, and Wolves at Anfield. I doubt I need to remind that they've won just one of those four, and had to fight to hold on against Mick McCarthy's side after taking a two-nil first half lead.

06 December 2011

On Suarez and Spearing's Positioning

Lucas' absence and Liverpool's subsequent change in formation altered the position of two of Liverpool's key players against Fulham: whoever the holding midfielder is and Luis Suarez.

Jay Spearing often played further up the pitch than Lucas usually defends, while far more static in general. The 4-3-3 formation, with Carroll as center-point and Suarez and Bellamy lurking on either side, meant Liverpool's talismanic Uruguayan took up positions further from goal.

I'm using West Brom away, Stoke away, and Wolves at Anfield as points of comparison in chalkboards below. As said in yesterday's review, I think West Brom is the strongest parallel except in finishing – similar opposition playing style, away from Anfield, and with Carroll and Henderson starting. Stoke away is comparable in result, losing despite domination, while Wolves at home was another where Liverpool's performance disappointed but the side ground out a result due to taking its chances early on. The possession, passing, and shot statistics against Fulham are relatively similar to those against West Brom and Wolves; the result is the same as that against Stoke. If anything, stats from Stoke and Fulham – the two losses – look "better" than those against Wolves or West Brom.

As usual, click on the chalkboards to make them pop-up full size.


The chalkboards and heatmaps against Fulham show Suarez making more of his contributions further from the penalty area, whether deeper centrally or spending more time on the flanks. He attempted the fewest passes from these four matches against Fulham, and his performance is especially disappointing in comparison to that at West Brom – where he won the penalty and set up the second goal.

Suarez was widely known as a wide forward with Ajax before coming to Liverpool, but he's played as an out-and-out striker in almost every match under Dalglish, and is now playing a similar role with Uruguay (see Zonal Marking's Copa America reports, among others). His performance in a three-man front, an admittedly unfamiliar role at Liverpool, left much to be desired.

Update: Should have included take-ons as well. StatsZone chalkboards from Fulham (1 successful, 5 total), West Brom (3 of 6), Wolves (4 of 9), and Stoke (4 of 12).


Unlike in Suarez's case, the amount of passes played seemed less important than the location, so I'm just including the heatmaps. That 40% zone stands out like a Las Vegas neon sign, surprisingly static, and further forward than Lucas usually plays. There was less movement in Liverpool's midfield without the Brazilian, as well as more space between the holding midfielder and back four, allowing more shots from distance than Liverpool regularly permits.

More chalkboards from Spearing at Fulham compared to Lucas against West Brom:

Spearing's tackles all occurred in the center of the pitch and most of his interceptions are in the same zone where 40% of his passes came from. Filling in for Lucas is a weighty burden, and it's a new role without a Brazilian safety net. Lucas partnered Spearing in all ten of the Liverpudlian's starts under Dalglish last season and in three of four prior to Fulham this season; Spearing with Adam in a 4-2-3-1 against Exeter had been the lone exception.

To be fair, Dalglish may have shifted to a 4-3-3 because of the opposition or to try to use Carroll, Bellamy, and Suarez at the same time, rather than because of Lucas' absence. Given how rarely we'd seen the formation – at Spurs was the only other time this season by my count, and that didn't last long; incidentally the only other time Liverpool's incurred a red card this season – some struggles are to be expected. But at the first time the question's asked, it's frightening evidence that Liverpool will miss Lucas Leiva very, very much.

05 December 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Fulham

Dempsey 85'

Familiar storyline: Liverpool fail to convert chances when dominant, leading to more points dropped in a game Liverpool bossed. New plot twist: Refereeing decisions punish Liverpool even more than usual, culminating in a harsh red on Spearing that gave Fulham the advantage needed to take all three points.

Despite Liverpool's upper hand until the red card, we got an initial answer as to how the team will cope without Lucas. Not well.

Liverpool started in a 4-3-3 formation, with Suarez roaming and Bellamy staying quite wide on the right. After an early scare, with Reina coming out to block Dembele's shot after Ruiz' pass bisected Liverpool's back line, patient possession led to early Carroll and Henderson chances, both unluckily spurned. Carroll saw his diving, prodded attempt on Suarez's cut-back hit too close to Schwarzer in the 8th minute, Henderson hit the inside of the inside of the far post after bursting into the box 20 minutes later. Again unable to translate superiority into tangible results, Liverpool's increasing frustration allowed Fulham into the game late in the first half, often conceding possession by looking for overly-ambitious cross-field passes in a futile attempt to open up space somewhere.

Fulham's marginal ascendancy paid off with three marginally threatening shots from distance around the 40th minute: one saved, one well wide, and one tamely deflected to Reina. Those opportunities resulted from a gap between midfield and defense. You know, where Lucas usually draws a line in the sand in blood.

Spearing's instinct to play further forward, almost always partnered with Lucas under Dalglish, didn't help matters. It rendered Zamora fairly irrelevant as both center-backs kept him under close watch, but allowed what Dempsey and Dembele are best at. Liverpool were eventually punished by one, even if Reina's flub was more culpable and Spearing was long off the field by that point. The young midfielder will suffer enough criticism for his red card, and probably feels worse than any of us; I'm not necessarily criticizing his play, just where he played. He made five interceptions before going off. Three came in or near the center circle. These hitches are sadly expected when losing as crucial a player as Lucas. And, admittedly, those first half chances came to nothing and Spearing didn't do poorly. He's just not Lucas. Lucas didn't used to be Lucas either.

Liverpool pummeled Fulham for half an hour after the restart, still unable to break the damned breakthrough, cursed by poor finishing, good keeping, and strange decisions before the turning-point dismissal. It's hard to argue against cosmic balance when the universe refuses to proof otherwise; the closest comparison to Spearing's sending-off is Rodwell's in the derby – both harsh but given because the referee saw two feet with raised studs off the ground even though the ball was won and contact was minimal. And now Liverpool's without its lone back-up defensive midfielder for three games unless the FA demonstrates an unlikely act of charity. But it is the holiday season, after all.

Fulham's onslaught began soon after, despite Dalglish immediately making changes, bringing on Kuyt and Downing for Carroll and Bellamy, switching to a 4-1-3-1. Dempsey cannoned a curler off the bar with Reina stranded, while Dembele shot too close to the keeper and then wide. But Liverpool had chances of their own: the woodwork re-reared its awful head, with Downing's blast when surrounded by three pushed onto the post by Schwarzer, while Adam placed a left-footer just wide after Liverpool went behind. But a Fulham back-breaker always looked likely, and that it came from a Reina howler reinforces the notion that when everything goes wrong, absolutely everything goes wrong: he saved Murphy's shot after the midfielder cut in and around Johnson, but spilled it straight to the first-to-react American less than two yards out.

Now seems a good time to recount the other questionable incidents. Dempsey was lucky to stay on the pitch after a retaliatory head-butt on Bellamy in the 48th, as Friend weakly booked both. Adam could have won a penalty instead of a free kick when felled by Senderos on the break in the 59th, right on the edge of the area. Suarez won just three free kicks when he could have had 10; another referee's subscribed to the media's narrative of the Uruguayan's malicious cheating. The same player should have been ruled onside when cleverly "scoring" in the 66th, level with Hangeland. We passed the point of coincidence into the realm of suspiciousness. Not unlike when Liverpool lost this fixture in 2009-10, with Lee Mason handing out two dismissals in a 1-3 embarrassment.

But regardless of those multiple, infuriating moments, Liverpool didn't look anywhere close to comprehensively fluid and yet again, Liverpool couldn't get the necessary goal from anyone. I've defended Carroll, and will most likely do so in the future, but today was not a good argument for his inclusion. His movement was decent, he tracked back, held up play – all those little things you hope for which make the icing on the complete player cake. But there was no cake. There was no there there. He did not score and did not win his battle against the opposing center-back. The focal point of a 4-3-3 instead of dropping deep to link possession between long balls and Suarez (as in previous games) allowed Hangeland to do what he does best, a brute mix of trench and aerial warfare in the penalty box, with the added bonus of the tactics moving Suarez further from goal. That combined with Liverpool's patience in the early stages, letting Fulham get back, settle into position, and defend like Hodgson was still staring vacantly from the sidelines played into Fulham's strengths rather than exploiting weaknesses demonstrated in last season's 5-2 mauling.

Maxi's relegation to the bench will receive the most howls, understandably so, but there are multiple questions about the line-up and tactics: the decision to switch formation, the decision to push both Bellamy and Suarez surprisingly wide (the former more than the latter), not including Liverpool's best crosser when playing Carroll as a spearhead (and only subbing him on when taking Carroll off). All these questions demonstrate just how important Lucas is and how much had and has to be changed to cope with his long-term absence.

But at the same time, despite all those questions and concerns, once again, Liverpool could and should have won if not for poor finishing, the woodwork, and some controversial calls. Just like that, all the good feelings from Chelsea and City evaporate and we've regressed to post-Swansea/Norwich/Sunderland/Stoke hand-wringing.

Fun times. As if anything else should be expected.

03 December 2011

Liverpool at Fulham 12.05.11

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2. Yep, espn2 is actually airing a Monday game!

Last four head-to-head:
5-2 Liverpool (a) 05.09.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.26.11
0-0 (h) 04.11.10
2-3 Fulham (a) 10.31.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Chelsea (a); 1-1 City (a); 2-1 Chelsea (a)
Fulham: 0-1 Twente (a); 1-1 Arsenal (a); 0-0 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi, Skrtel 1
Fulham: Dempsey, Johnson, Zamora 3; Dembele, Murphy, Ruiz 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Spearing Adam Downing
Carroll Suarez

They're all uneducated guesses until we see what Dalglish has in mind, but regardless of Lucas' undeniable importance, I don't expect Liverpool to change tack that much with the Brazilian out for the season.

Dalglish has clearly preferred the 4-2-2-2 this season and Carroll's started more often in away matches (West Brom, Everton, Arsenal, Stoke in the Carling Cup). Spearing as a like-for-like replacement for Lucas, in the first game after the injury and with Liverpool away from Anfield, will probably be the first fallback option. Henderson on the right instead of Kuyt, who's started the last two league games there, seems a likely half-measure used to add another body in the middle when Liverpool are without the ball given the ex-Sunderland midfielder's proclivity for coming inside.

Once again, it's difficult to argue Maxi shouldn't keep his place, scoring in both starts against Chelsea in nine days, but I think we'll see Downing back in the XI, replacing the Argentinean as he did against City, used to help stretch Fulham's defense and aim crosses into the box. Bellamy's another in a fine vein of form, and could start in place of Carroll. But Carroll been used far more away from Anfield, and played well aside from the missed penalty on Tuesday. There's also the more-important question of whether Bellamy's fit enough for two starts in fewer than seven days, something he's not done all season unless we're counting that moronic Rangers friendly. Given each's respective abilities, it's not out of the question to suggest Downing should play if Carroll plays, and Maxi should if Bellamy does.

Admittedly, there's something to be said for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Suarez up front and Maxi included, as that's how Liverpool ran roughshod at Craven Cottage last season. But as against City last weekend, I expect Dalglish to stick with this season's preferences rather than try to replicate one of last season's triumphs.

Martin Jol's tenure has begun in fits and starts, with Fulham currently 15th after finishing 8th last season under Hughes. There are signs of a team in there: one dominant 6-0 win over QPR, more-than-competent draws against Arsenal and City, and good form in the Europa League. But they've been all-too-often dismal as well: insipid in 0-2 losses at Stoke and Wolves, and 1-3 losses versus Everton and Tottenham.

Zamora was a handful when coming on in the second half in last May's meeting, causing Skrtel multiple problems and setting up Dembele's consolation. Dembele and Dempsey are both dangerous attackers, as is Bryan Ruiz if he starts on the right. Dempsey cutting in from the left can cause Johnson problems if his positioning isn't spot on. Only Damien Duff is unlikely to feature after re-injuring his calf against Twente; both Dembele and Dempsery – the other worries – should be fit.

When decent, Fulham are at least very hard to beat, with six of the 13 league matches finishing level, three at 0-0. Hangeland and Hughes – both run ragged by Suarez last May – are intelligent, strong defenders, while Schwarzer's prone to stop-stopping heroics. Which is slightly foreboding given how many scoring opportunities Liverpool have somehow failed to take, or how many opposition goalkeepers have had the game of the season against the side.

Lucas' absence may be an enormous setback for both club and player, but primary concerns still center on Liverpool finishing its chances and winning the matches they're supposed to win.

01 December 2011

Liverpool Without Lucas

Finally confirmed out for the season after a day filled with rumors, it's incredibly hard to forecast what Liverpool will do without Lucas. He's missed just three of Dalglish's 39 matches: rested for two, suspended for one. Since 2009, he's missed so few games that it's statistically irrelevant posting win-loss percentages with and without the player: he appeared in 34 of 38 league games in '10-11 and 35 of 38 in '09-10. Incidentally, he's never missed a Liverpool game through injury. Until now.

Considering the three missed under Dalglish, Exeter in the Carling Cup barely counts, so we're left with this season's 1-1 v Norwich and last season's 1-0 v Fulham. The former saw Liverpool stick with the primary 4-2-2-2 formation with Gerrard and Adam in midfield. With Liverpool's captain still out indefinitely, that's an unlikely template. The latter, early in Dalglish's reign, saw a 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard and Poulsen holding behind Meireles – also a poor template with both Meireles and Poulsen gone and Gerrard still injured. Liverpool impressed in neither.

There seem to be two options, at least until the January window when Liverpool will probably reinforce. One, stick with the 4-2-2-2 formation with Spearing or Henderson instead: the former more a like-for-like replacement, the latter probably adding more to the attack (which would require more defense out of Adam and, to be fair, he's been better in that regard lately). Or Liverpool could shift to a 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 as the primary formation, with both Spearing and Henderson included.

Either way, it's as big a loss as possible. Only Suarez and Reina are arguably more important to the side. I'm tempted to suggest that the three-man midfield is a better option, using a trio to try to cover Lucas' one-man band, but Dalglish has shown a distinct preference for the former formation this season. I expect Spearing will be given the nod in the 4-2-2-2 for Liverpool's trip to Fulham on Monday. Lucas' defense, his tackling and positioning, will be dearly missed, but Spearing's shown he can replicate that. It's the metronomic control over midfield, a calm head under pressure, settling and starting Liverpool's attacks, which will be the hardest to replace.

There are also a couple of more remote possibilities: Aurelio's covered in midfield before, while Liverpool could play three at the back, but neither seems incredibly likely.

Trying to sap the frightening emotion from this development, it'll be interesting to see how Liverpool cope. More often than not, Dalglish and Clarke have done excellently on the tactical front. This might be their biggest challenge yet. Yes, bigger than settling the ship last season, coping with the loss of the captain, or dealing with the exit of the former star striker. Interesting and terrifying.

Good luck, Lucas.