26 February 2012

Liverpool 2-2 Cardiff City aet

Liverpool win 3-2 on penalties

Mason 19'
Skrtel 60'
Kuyt 108'
Turner 118'

Liverpool: Gerrard, Adam, Kuyt, Downing, Johnson
Cardiff: Miller, Cowie, Gestede, Whittingham, A Gerrard

So, yeah, cup finals. Wow. Nothing ever comes easy.

Only this side could beat league leaders Manchester City over two legs in the semi-finals – as well as two tough opponents away from home in the two previous rounds – and then barely beat Cardiff on penalties in this final. This was a breathless, heart-stopping, soul-crushing, exhilarating microcosm of the season so far. A microcosm that ended in the happiest way possible, with jubilant hands on silverware. Which, hopefully, is an excellent omen.

Liverpool took 39 shots compared to Cardiff's 11. Liverpool hit the bar in the second minute, and had a shot somehow cleared off the line in the second minute of extra time. Liverpool poked, prodded, created chances, and fumbled to break through. The first half was pure frustration, as we've seen time and time and time and time again, wasting openings both before and after Cardiff took lead against the run of play.

It was nearly the same XI which beat Brighton, with Agger replacing Carragher, but Liverpool shifted to a 4-4-2 which matched Cardiff's. Despite Liverpool chances, either created by Downing or shots from distance, Cardiff coped fair easily with men behind the ball and another poor performance from Henderson when on the right. Cardiff's goal was well worked but regrettable, as Liverpool gave the opposition space to pass before McNaughton set up Miller who set up Mason, threading a through-ball behind the defense when Agger stepped forward in an ill-concieved attempt to close down.

Knocked back once again, Liverpool's frustration was all too tangible as Cardiff defended diligently, comfortable piling men in their final third with the lead, daring Liverpool to break them down. Which they unsurprisingly struggled to do. Liverpool brought Bellamy on for the disappointing Henderson in the 57th and were level three minutes later, but it was due to a set play rather than a change in style; Suarez hit the bar when re-directing Carroll's flick of Downing's corner, with Skrtel well-placed to cram in the rebound.

Instead of using the equalizer as a platform, pushing past tiring lower-league opponents, Cardiff should have won the game in normal time. As usual, Liverpool had chances – Skrtel, Downing, and Adam had shots saved, Gerrard sailed one well over, Suarez couldn't control when released by an out-of-character defensive mistake – but Turner headed wide from point-blank range in 83rd before Miller blasted over from eight yards out with both time and space.

There only looked to be one winner in extra time; Liverpool had Suarez's header cleared off the line early on before Carroll, Bellamy, and Johnson put efforts narrowly wide. Then, three minutes into the second 15, Kuyt incomprehensibly gave Liverpool the lead. Bursting between two defenders, his initial attempt was a better cross than shot, but a deflection off a defender gave the Dutchman a second chance. He improbably seized it with both hands, hammering an unstoppable nail past Heaton despite losing his footing. He probably couldn't replicate it on a bet and it might well be the best goal he's scored for the club. If anyone deserved it. Big. Game. Player.

But again, Cardiff weren't beaten. And, almost unforgivably, Liverpool seemed to think the game was won with 12 minutes to play and an entire season-long catalog of evidence that things that can go wrong usually will. This Cardiff goal, with two minutes left, was absolutely deserved. Liverpool nearly conceded seconds earlier, cleared off the line by goal-scorer Kuyt. But he couldn't keep out the subsequent set play, scrambled in by Turner from two yards out.

Which led to the watching-through-hands-over-eyes lottery. And which started in the worst possible manner when Heaton made the best penalty save I've ever seen, somehow keeping out Gerrard's fiercely-taken spot kick. Miller missed Cardiff's first, but then Adam skied his effort out of the stadium. Cowie and Kuyt struck smartly before Gestede also hit the post, leaving it tied 1-1 after three kicks. Downing and Johnson both notched well-taken penalties despite the handicap of each's nationality, bracketing Wittingham's stone-cold finish. Then, substitute Anthony Gerrard – Cousin of Steven – walked to the spot. And horribly pushed a tame effort wide, probably saved by Reina even if on target. Cue wild celebrations coupled with agonizing heartbreak.

It goes without saying the result's infinitely harsh on Cardiff, especially the stomach punch that is a penalty loss. On the whole, they were tactically better than Liverpool and battled harder than Liverpool. Don't get me wrong, Liverpool battled as well, steadily working their way to the equalizer before taking an extra-time lead, but conceding with basically seconds to play is an absolute sin.

Liverpool's talent gap and cruel fortune won on the day. Even without Gerrard, Adam, Suarez, or Carroll at their best, other players stepped up when needed. Downing had his best game for Liverpool, Skrtel scored the crucial equalizer while maintaining his baby-killing je ne sais quoi in defense, Kuyt and Bellamy had starring roles off the bench, and Johnson and Enrique overlapped threateningly. And you can't fault the effort of anyone involved, except, of course, in the aftermath of what looked to be Liverpool's winner.

As feared, this was an awful lot like the league cup final against Birmingham 11 years ago. But while Liverpool made harder work of it than either expected or needed, Liverpool still won. Now, the club need to replicate that season's accomplishment by using this win to push on in the FA Cup and the chase for fourth.

24 February 2012

Liverpool v Cardiff City 02.26.12

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h; Carling Cup) 10.31.07
0-4 Cardiff (h) 12.19.59
2-3 Cardiff (a) 08.22.59
0-3 Cardiff (a) 02.14.59

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-2 City (h); 1-0 City (a); 2-1 Chelsea (a); 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-1 Brighton (a); 3-1 Exeter (a)
Cardiff: 1-0 Palace aet [3-1 pens] (h); 0-1 Palace (a); 2-0 Blackburn (h); 1-0 Burnley (a); 2-2 Leicester aet [7-6 pens] (h); 5-3 Huddersfield aet (h); 3-1 Oxford aet (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 6-1 Brighton (h); 1-2 United (a); 0-0 Spurs (h)
Cardiff: 0-3 Ipswich (a); 3-1 Peterborough (h); 1-2 Leicester (a)

Goalscorers (Carling Cup):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Bellamy, Gerrard, Maxi 2; Carroll, Kelly, Kuyt 1
Cardiff: Cowie 3; Conway 2, Gerrard, Gestede, Gyepes, Jarvis, Mason, Miller, Parkin, Whittingham 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Adam
Suarez Carroll Bellamy

Liverpool are in the League Cup Final. It's been six years since the club won a trophy, and they're heavily-favored against Championship opposition. I'll tell you how it plays out. Liverpool score early, are unable to get the crucial second, concede a rash injury time penalty equalizer, nearly concede a second penalty in extra time, and finally win after a shootout, thanks to the goalkeeper stopping two spot-kicks.

How do I know this? It already happened. That was the 2001 League Cup final against Birmingham. For those who enjoy symmetry, that final was played in Cardiff. Jamie Carragher, of all players, scored the winning spot kick; unsurprisingly, he and Gerrard are the only two left from that squad. Liverpool later went on to lift the FA and UEFA Cups for an unlikely treble.

There's also the 2005/06 FA Cup final, that most-recent Liverpool trophy, where the club were heavily favored to beat newly-promoted West Ham but had to stage a remarkable Gerrard-led comeback to make it to the penalty lottery. And I doubt I need to remind of last season's Carling Cup final, where everyone assumed Arsenal would break their trophy drought with a romp (including Arsenal), only to see Birmingham snatch an unbelievable winner at the death thanks to an all-time comedic clusterfuck.

Cup finals rarely play out the expected scripts. Thankfully, it's safe to assume Dalglish is well-aware of their foibles, as are Gerrard, Carra, and other senior players. I highly doubt the manager will let complacency seep in. This trophy hasn't been won just by reaching Wembley for the first time since blah blah blah. At the same time, keeping players relaxed with be just as important; every single man in red knows that Liverpool haven't won a trophy since blah blah blah, while Cardiff have next to no pressure or expectations.

Sticking with the 4-2-1-3 formation we saw against Brighton, where Liverpool's attack looked ever so potent, seems the likely plan. At most, Agger should replace Carragher, while Bellamy will probably come in for Downing; both players should be fit after missing last Sunday's match with unspecified knocks.

If Liverpool stick with the 4-2-1-3, Spearing for Henderson seems the only possible change in midfield. However, the base of Gerrard-Adam defended adequately against Brighton, Spearing usually plays deeper than Gerrard or Adam (making the formation more a 4-1-2-3/4-1-4-1, which could leave Liverpool exposed to Cardiff's multiple midfield runners), and Gerrard's rarely played as an out-and-out attacking midfielder under Dalglish.

The one argument against starting Bellamy in place of Downing is that having Suarez, Carroll, and Bellamy all on the pitch leaves little room for dynamic changes if, Fowler forbid, things aren't going to plan. God loves a trier, but Kuyt and Downing aren't impact subs. No matter the opposition, the front three combined promisingly a week ago. But Bellamy's been one of Liverpool's most-consistent scorers and scoring against another former club, this his hometown team, seems almost written in the stars.

Cardiff currently sit fifth in the Championship, smack in the middle of the playoff chase and just seven points from first. But since beating Palace on penalties a month ago, Cardiff have won just once: 3-1 over 18th-placed Peterborough on Valentine's Day, losing three and drawing one in the others.

Cardiff usually play a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 formation; this is an outstanding preview from Cardiff's point of view. Midfielder Peter Whittingham, with nine goals and 11 assists, is on the three-man shortlist for Championship player of the season. Kenny Miller, joint top-scorer with Whittingham, is a wily Scot, while Cowie and Conway are dangerous from the flanks. Miller, Cowie, and Conway, along with midfield axis Aron Gunnarson and defenders Taylor and Turner, all joined Cardiff last summer. And, as you're probably aware, Steven Gerrard's cousin Anthony could start in central defense.

The Bluebirds beat just one Premiership opponent on their path to the final, a 2-0 home win over Blackburn in the quarterfinals. Four of their six cup matches required extra time, two – including the semi-final – went to penalties. Cardiff know what it's like to win a cagey, close cup match, will be able to play without pressure as the underdogs, and will be diligent, prepared, and difficult to break down. And, like we've said all season, Liverpool will have to capitalize, something they've not done nearly enough. In this case, there's a very tangible reward just over the horizon.

23 February 2012

Infographic – Premier League Manager Turnover

Yes, a post not solely on Liverpool. I actually have them in me now and then.

The Premier League has been rife with managerial gossip over the last few months, as the league always seems to be. Mick McCarthy was recently fired after five-and-a-half seasons in charge of Wolves. Martin O'Neill and Mark Hughes replaced Bruce and Warnock at Sunderland and QPR in December and January. Steve Kean spent his holidays celebrating still having a job before gratefully seeing his name out of the headlines of late. And then there's poor, forlorn Andre Villas-Boas, hanging on by fingernails as "senior Chelsea players" attempt to throw him off the Bridge. There have been three mid-season managerial changes so far this season; there were four last season (not counting O'Neill walking out on Villa just before opening day) and five in 2009-10.

Below is a cropped version of the graphic. Necessarily wider than it is tall, click on the image for the full-size version in a new window.

Just six clubs have had four or fewer managers since 2000: notably United and Arsenal, with Ferguson and Wenger in charge since the dawn of time, as well as Everton, Liverpool, Bolton and Wolves. The latter will exit that group soon, once Wolves finally find a replacement for McCarthy. United, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Everton are also four of the seven clubs which have been in the Premiership for the totality of this time frame; Tottenham, Chelsea, and Aston Villa round out the septet.

The average number of managers each club has had over this time frame is 5.65. No, I'm not counting Alan Shearer as 0.65 of a manager. QPR leads the way with 11 "permanent" managers, 10 since 2006, dysfunctional in extremis after Holloway left until (and now seemingly including) Tony Fernandes' purchase of the club last August. Including caretaker managers, QPR has had 16 different bosses since the turn of the century. Newcastle and Sunderland are close behind with nine each, although Sunderland's tally includes the lone caretaker counted, Kevin Ball, who managed for more than two months during the Mackems' march toward inevitable relegation in 2006. And then comes Chelsea, with eight different managers since 2000. Soon to be nine, naturally, once Abramovich's yacht reaches port. The ravenous media almost always get their scalps. And they want their scalps.

With McCarthy's sacking, we're down to just five managers who have been in place since the 2008-09 season: Ferguson, Wenger, Moyes, Pulis, and Redknapp. Again, that band looks likely to lose another brother once England come calling for good old 'Arry. As always, nothing is permanent for very long.

20 February 2012

Infographic Update – A Settled Backline

Briefly, I thought I'd revisit a graphic from almost exactly a year ago.

At this point last season, Liverpool had used 22 different starting defenses through 40 matches. No back-line had started more than five matches together. Six weeks into his reign, in the wake of Hodgson's havoc, Dalglish was experimenting with every possible defensive combination, hands tied by injuries and a lack of fullbacks, including notable three-at-the-back wins over Chelsea and Stoke.

This season has been a bit different. Through 34 matches, Liverpool has used just 14 defensive combinations. The Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique quartet is clearly first choice, having started 15 of 34 matches. No other group has started more than three. Of the nine defenses to start just one match, six came in the cups, where the squad is almost always rotated to give second-choice players a run out and/or to rest the first-choice players. Comparatively, Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique has started just one cup match, the second leg semifinal against Manchester City, arguably the most important cup match of the season to date. I expect that foursome will make its second cup appearance in Sunday's Carling Cup final.

Through last season's 40 matches, Liverpool conceded 39 goals, an average of 0.975 per game. This season, through 34 matches over the same time frame, the side's conceded 31, an average of 0.912 per game. Liverpool actually kept more clean sheets through this point last season – 17 compared to 12 – but seven of those 17 came in the Europa League. Plus, six more matches played, etc.

While Liverpool haven't kept as many clean sheets as expected or hoped for, the back-line has been the side's strongest feature this season. Consistency plays a large role in that; it's no coincidence that despite Benitez's well-known fondness for rotation, he changed his back four (especially the central pairing) as little as possible. Liverpool have been relatively lucky with injuries (knocking feverishly on wood) this season, Skrtel and Agger are having career years, and Enrique has turned out to be one of Liverpool's best recent signings. Dalglish and Clarke's first task when steadying the ship was to sort out the defense, and on the whole, they've been successful. Through 25 league games, Liverpool have conceded just 23 goals, fewer than the 26 conceded in 2010-11 or the 31 conceded in 2009-10.

Now, if only it were so easy to sort out Liverpool's attack.

19 February 2012

Liverpool 6-1 Brighton

Skrtel 5'
Lua Lua 17'
Bridcutt (og) 44' 71'
Carroll 57'
Dunk (og) 75'
Suarez 85'

Well, that had a little bit of everything. Set play goals, incredulous equalizer goals, a trio of own goals, Downing to Carroll goals, and Carroll to Suarez goals. Liverpool missed a penalty and hit the woodwork and still somehow scored six. Another FA Cup tie with a glut of goals after too many games with too few. Capped off by a streaker running the length of the pitch in injury time. Typical and atypical, wonderfully so.

Liverpool started in the best possible manner, opening the scoring within five minutes. Deftly mimicking his goal at Aston Villa, Skrtel out-muscled three at the near post, flicking a header past Brezovan, the seventh time Liverpool have scored from a corner this season.

It wouldn't be the last Liverpool tallied from a corner today, and it should have been the platform for a romp. It eventually would be. But first, the usual frustration and an unlikely equalizer had to be fought past. Again. In the 16th minute, Suarez didn't win a free kick, to his obvious frustration, and Brighton immediately countered, getting a free kick of their own as Henderson clipped Lua Lua from behind. The same player stepped up from 25 yards out, blasting through a broken wall as players tried to charge down the touched free kick.

For just under half an hour, Liverpool impotently pushed back, trying to retake their deserved lead. Brighton players twice cleared off the line, from Downing's shot/cross across the face and Suarez's infinitely clever toe-poke. Carroll and Adam put efforts over the bar, Suarez had multiple shots blocked, and Carroll kept pleading for a penalty that'd never come after hand-to-hand combat with El Abd. It was all too frustratingly familiar: chances created but dreams deferred.

Finally getting the second just before the interval made all the difference. Surprise. Gerrard had a free kick palmed over, and the scramble from the resulting corner ended with a Bridcutt own goal following rebounds from Suarez and Johnson. Goals win games, but just as importantly, goals restore confidence. Clearly buoyed, it took just 12 minutes from the restart to get the game-killing third. And Liverpool had multiple chances to extend the lead prior. Suarez was twice denied, Henderson redirected Gerrard's off-target shot just wide, Brezovan parried Downing's blast. Then, in a flowing move, Downing finally set up a goal for Carroll, his first assist of the season, when the mammoth striker sweetly side-footed the winger's low cross.

The final 35 minutes were a formality – an enjoyable formality, but a formality nonetheless. Comfortably ahead, Liverpool's hardly-threatened defense soaked up pressure, content to counter-attack. Frequently. A 71st-minute counter-attack saw Liverpool's fourth, as Henderson wonderfully found Gerrard over the top, allowed possession after hilarious confusion from Greer and Brezovan, with a shot again turned in by Bridcutt after Gerrard's first effort was saved.

Four minutes later, Liverpool completed an hat-trick of own goals as Dunk haplessly made this season's gag reel, taking three touches in an attempt to clear Suarez's cross but somehow just taking the ball over his own goal line. After making a triple substitution – with Kuyt, Maxi, and Shelvey replacing Henderson, Downing, and Gerrard – Liverpool wasted a chance for a sixth when Kuyt was felled in the box; in an attempt to force a goal for his own confidence, Suarez stepped to the spot. And promptly missed for the second time this season, with his tame penalty easily saved before Brezovan somehow prevented three players from reaching the rebound. However, the same player made amends with the capstone five minutes later, heading in from close range after Carroll put Enrique's cross on a plate, with Brighton again torn asunder with a rampant fast break.

It's hard to judge on one match, especially in a domestic cup against lower-division opposition. Liverpool's performance may merit the score line, and could have merited even more goals, but a fully-demoralized Brighton conceded some very soft goals with the outcome already assured. Regardless, the 4-2-1-3 formation looked promising: pairing Suarez and Carroll without the restrictions of 4-4-2, a solid center with Gerrard, Adam, and Henderson and without an out-and-out holding midfielder. Even Downing looked more threatening. Liverpool's defense had exceptionally little to do, well protected by the midfield. The formation may have mutated into more of a 4-4-2 in the second half, especially after the crucial third, but the initial output was intriguing to say the least.

Liverpool have used multiple variants on the 4-5-1 over the course of the campaign. But Suarez, Carroll, and another have been a three-man front line in just two: the 0-1 loss at Fulham and 0-4 loss at Spurs, the two fixtures where Liverpool had a man sent off. Gerrard, Adam, and Henderson have been a midfield trio in just one: the first leg semifinal at Manchester City. It's also, notably, the first time Gerrard, Suarez, and Carroll started together all season.

The latter two scored, and all three players impressed. Gerrard dictated play with Adam while Carroll continues to improve, learning to throw his weight and talent around within Liverpool's system. Suarez wasn't as effervescently explosive, too often losing possession when trying to dribble past defenders and too often petulantly frustrated, but he was still a barely-stoppable handful trying to set the tone, regardless of his weak penalty. Downing had his best game for the club after so many invisible performances, Adam was steady and stable while still splitting defenses, and Henderson was full of running. There's little more than can be asked from the performances of all involved, with the added bonus of goals goals goals. Unfortunately, there's also the overly pessimistic notion that cup matches and lower league opposition haven't been Liverpool's problem this season.

17 February 2012

Liverpool v Brighton 02.19.12

11:30am ET, live in the US on FSC.

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.21.11
2-3 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.30.91
2-2 (h; FA Cup) 01.26.91
4-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.29.85

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 United (h); 5-1 Oldham (h)
Brighton: 1-0 Newcastle (h); 1-1 Wrexham [5-4 pens] (a); 1-1 Wrexham (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (a); 3-0 Wolves (a); 0-0 Spurs (h)
Brighton: 2-2 Millwall (h); 2-1 Leeds (a); 1-0 Leiceister (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 9; Carroll, Gerrard 5; Maxi 4; Kuyt 3; Adam, Skrtel 2; Agger, Downing, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Shelvey 1
Brighton: Barnes 9; Mackail-Smith 8; Buckley 7; Caskey, Harley, Noone, Sparrow 2; Calderon, Greer, Hoskins, Lua Lua, Navarro, Vicente, Vincelot, Vokes 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

First time Marriner's done a Liverpool game since All The Evil started against United in October.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Enrique
Kuyt Spearing Gerrard Maxi
Carroll Suarez

Did everyone have a good week? I apologize for the radio silence since Saturday, but the weekend's shenanigans necessitated a small break from football. Recharging the batteries, repressing memories, etc. You know the routine. I don't appear to have missed much, thankfully.

As it's a cup tie, expect some changes, but I'd be exceptionally surprised if Liverpool don't deploy a mostly full-strength lineup. Dalglish has taken the cups very seriously so far, evidenced by Liverpool's progress in both. Plus, it's not as if these ties are sandwiched between league fixtures, as happened earlier in the campaign. There have been eight days since the last match, and there will be seven days until the next – which happens to be the Carling Cup final.

Now back from suspension, will we see Suarez reform his strike partnership with Carroll? Or will Liverpool stick with the 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3/4-1-4-1 whatever it's 4-5-1 formation we've seen in the last five matches? Or will Dalglish keep Suarez in reserve, because it's a cup tie or because of last week's antics?

Not only do I expect Liverpool to keep faith with Suarez (even if he may not deserve it), but also a return to the 4-4-2. The 4-5-1 formation(s) has worked well for Liverpool over the last five matches, but when both Suarez and Carroll started prior to the former's suspension, it was usually in the 4-4-2. At home against Brighton, Liverpool have more license to test that formation than, say, away against Manchester United. Suarez playing wider, with Kuyt, Bellamy, or Downing on the other side of Carroll, remains a possibility, but the Uruguayan's almost always played as an out-and-out striker over the last year.

If Liverpool do play 4-4-2, Spearing and Gerrard seemingly have to be the midfield pairing. Spearing's defensive capabilities are often essential, while Gerrard rightfully remains the first-choice midfielder. Adam's started more matches than all but Reina and Enrique, but the less said about the Gerrard-Adam midfield pairing the better. As usual, questions linger over who plays on the flanks. Dalglish hinted at Maxi's return, fit after missing the last few matches with a foot injury. Kuyt, Bellamy, and Downing are the other options, but Downing's utterly devoid of confidence and form, while Bellamy's pace can be crucial off the bench.

Other than giving Kelly some match time, replacing Johnson at right back, I can't see many alterations to Liverpool's watertight defense. Given the importance of cup runs and the time between fixtures, another match for the Carragher-Coates pairing seems less likely. Skrtel, Agger, and Enrique are definitively first choice. Carragher might make his club record-tying 210th cup appearance replacing Agger, who's always an injury worry, but that's about it.

Brighton are currently 9th in the Championship, just two points off a playoff place. The Seagulls are unbeaten in 2012, last losing at Coventry on New Year's Eve. Since then, they've won five and drawn two in the league – including an impressive 3-0 demolishment of then league-leaders Southampton – and have eked out wins over Newcastle and Wrexham (after a replay and penalties) in the FA Cup. Since we last spoke, Brighton have added Assulin and Razak on loan from Manchester City. Both are eligible to make their debuts on Sunday. The Seagulls have also loaned Joe Mattock and Gonzalo Jara from West Brom and Sam Vokes from Wolves. Poyet is likely to stick with his preferred 4-3-3, with three from Barnes, Buckley, Vokes, and Mackail-Smith leading the line.

Liverpool beat Brighton in the Carling Cup because of a strong first half, allowed to play with the Seagulls standing off, scoring a crucial early goal before Kuyt's game-sealing second on the counter with ten minutes to play. Noone and Buckley both caused problems after the interval, but Brighton's change in tactics – pressing furiously in the second half – lessened the gap between the sides. I doubt Poyet will make the same mistake in this fixture. As in the last meeting, Liverpool will have to put its superiority in possession to use, likely to have more of the ball at Anfield than at the Amex. Converting some of the many chances created would also probably help.

11 February 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Rooney 47' 50'
Suarez 80'

The worst possible result. Not just a loss, a deserved loss – self-inflicted thanks to a feeble 30 minutes after the restart – but continued, probably increased, focus on the Suarez-Evra contretemps thanks to each acting like spoiled children. Fantastic. Just what everyone wants and needs.

Handshakes – irrelevant, archaic, unnecessary damned handshakes – set the tone. As a Liverpool fan, I'm constitutionally obligated to mention that it's slightly (and slightly is all I'll countenance, even when I'm straining this hard to present both sides) understandable that one might not want to shake another's hand when he thinks the latter is a liar who got him unfairly suspended. But Suarez ignoring Evra's hand was childish, Evra then making a scene by grabbing Suarez's arm was childish, and Ferdinand then snubbing Suarez was childish. It both foreshadowed forthcoming scenes and reinvigorated the media's delight in this narrative. Exactly what this match, Liverpool, and football in general didn't need.

As an aside, Phil Dowd did a masterful job today. Only two players saw yellow, Downing and Carrick, both deserved for tackles that halted attacks. At least where it relates to the actual football, the game was fairly tame and fairly played compared to this match's usual fire and brimstone. It's just beyond a pity we can't say the same about non-football idiocy.

Otherwise, there was little to write home about in the first half. Johnson had a couple of early chances, both with his left foot after cutting inside – the first tamely saved, the second pulled narrowly wide of the far post – but United increasingly controlled the game by controlling midfield. With Scholes as the fulcrum, United passed around Spearing, while Valencia was a constant threat down Liverpool's left. Gerrard had to play deeper and deeper to compensate, increasing Liverpool's disconnect in attack. Ferdinand and Evans marshaled Suarez with midfielders adding little to the attack; Kuyt at least did well tracking back, but Downing provided absolutely no benefit, looking less and less confident and more and more depressingly hapless with each step.

Still, United rarely looked like breaching Liverpool's back four. Valencia beat Enrique once, but Rafael's left-footed shot – like Liverpool, from a fullback getting forward –  was too close to Reina. The best chance of the half came when Johnson couldn't close down Giggs' cross as Scholes lost Spearing, but the newly-unretired player headed straight at Reina from six yards. Other, Agger and Skrtel kept the dangerous Rooney and Welback under tight watch while the full-backs stayed solid.

Then came five minutes of madness to start the second half, United two-up before the 50th minute after Liverpool twice shot themselves in the foot. First, when marking a corner, Henderson jumped in front of the better-placed Gerrard, somehow perfectly flicking-on for Rooney to smartly volley from close range. Less than three minutes later, Spearing handed the ball off to Valencia after Enrique had stolen it back, allowing three United players to run at Skrtel. Valencia put Rooney through before Johnson could retreat, slotting past Reina for his brace.

Liverpool didn't look anywhere near scoring until a set play consolation in the 80th, after Dalglish had made all three changes. Confidence clearly circled the toilet, expected but still infuriating, as United olé'd passes around the pitch. The home side seemed far more likely to get the third, as Rooney toe-poked wide after a flowing move, Enrique crucially cut out a Giggs center, and Welbeck's curler from 12 yards out was fortunately deflected to Reina.

Carroll and Bellamy replacing Spearing and Downing, by far Liverpool's two worst performers, added some semblance of coherence, but it wasn't until Adam came on for Kuyt that Liverpool created its first clear-cut chance since Johnson's early efforts. Yes, it was from a set play, won by Suarez, converted by Suarez, and partly due to a Ferdinand error. And had Adam started – today was the first league match he hadn't started – Liverpool might have been even more open in midfield. It's hard to imagine that's possible, but still. Regardless, Charlie Adam creates chances. No matter Liverpool's horrific conversion rate, chances are still somewhat necessary.

Liverpool had a couple of door-slightly-ajar opportunities for an unlikely equalizer, but Suarez's blast from Carroll's knockdown unfortunately deflected off the #9, De Gea tipped Johnson's straight-arrow cannon over the crossbar, and Suarez nearly got on the end of an Adam chip deep in injury time, but could only head over from an offside position. Rendering his earlier goal a consolation and this one of the more depressing losses of the season.

Finally, finishing as we started, Evra's wild, World Cup celebrations after the whistle continued into a dance directly in front of Suarez, which led to yet another half-baked scrum. Again, Dowd attempted to quickly and sensibly pulled the Frenchman away, but damage was done, the narrative further reinforced. This isn't about football anymore, to everyone's detriment.

The feared, unnecessary off-field nonsense will partially obscure Liverpool's poor play, especially those 30-35 minutes after the interval. Henderson replacing Adam seemed a good idea prior to the match, fitter and full of running and better able to counter quickly. Downing instead of Bellamy was more a matter of faith than evidence, but keeping Bellamy's pace in reserve made some sense. Neither gambit worked, nor did the hope that Spearing could hold the middle in place of Lucas. True, this is the first match where he's looked wholly out of depth, but he still looked wholly out of depth. Agger and Skrtel were Agger and Skrtel, Reina could do little about the goals, Johnson and Enrique played well (the latter after a shaky first 10-15 minutes), and Gerrard was restrained having to compensate for his midfield partners. Liverpool did manage something of a fight back, eventually. Those are the on-field positives. All of them.

But, as much as I'd rather not, we have to mention the off-field. For the first time, Suarez's petulant irascibility out-weighted the benefits he brings to the team. And yes, I still say 'for the first time' knowing he just served a ban for what he called Evra in the reserve fixture. And being well aware he scored Liverpool's lone goal. The narrative goes away with a handshake. In theory, the furor dies with a handshake. No handshake sets the tone for Evra's response, Ferdinand's response, a half-time brouhaha, and Evra's taunting, inciting post-match celebrations. All of which will be examined in nanometer detail over the next week. So easily avoided.

Yes, the handshake was incidental to this result, a game Liverpool didn't deserve to win. Which isn't wholly unexpected given previous results on this ground. But now Liverpool as a club will be raked over the coals, drowned in the mud, yet again. And that's unforgivably worse than any loss.

10 February 2012

Liverpool at Manchester United 02.11.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.15.11
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.06.11
0-1 United (a; FA Cup) 01.09.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Spurs (h); 3-0 Wolves (a); 2-1 United (h)
United: 3-3 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Stoke (h); 1-2 Liverpool (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy 6; Suarez 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
United: Rooney 15; Chicharito 8; Berbatov 7; Nani, Welbeck 6; Anderson, Carrick, Park, Valencia, Young 2; Fletcher, Giggs, Jones, Scholes, Smalling 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Spearing Adam
Kuyt Gerrard Bellamy

Joy. Another match against Manchester United, good for both the heart and soul, in no way a supreme mindfuck which reduces fans to quivering amoebae. This will be the fifth time Liverpool have faced United since Dalglish's return 13 months ago. These are always fun, always well-mannered, and always focused on what happens on the pitch. Right?

In can you hadn't heard: Suarez. Suarez, Suarez, Suarez. Lots and lots of Suarez. Get used to it, because he'll probably be the talking point before, during, and after. Will he start, will Evra shake his hand, will he defecate on the St. George's flag in the center circle then embark on a homicidal rampage, etc etc. Going by the pre-match narrative, football will be a secondary or tertiary concern. Super. Never one to shy from the spotlight, I doubt off-field concerns will prevent Dalglish from starting the Uruguayan, and a singular substitute appearance on Monday should be enough preparation for 90 minutes tomorrow. The most likely scenario is Suarez replacing Carroll as the focal point of Liverpool's attack.

Otherwise, it's unlikely the team will deviate much from that against Tottenham, aside from Enrique's availability. The tactics will probably differ – United will have more of the ball at Old Trafford compared to Spurs at Anfield; Liverpool will focus more on counter-attacking at pace, as at Stamford Bridge and the Carling Cup semi at City – but that should suit the personnel.

Where Liverpool could change is on the flanks. Bellamy, Liverpool's player of the month for the last two months, seems assured of one of the two spots. But Dalglish may want to keep his pace in reserve on the bench, breaking glass if needed. Kuyt's defensive abilities seem less necessary against Young or Valencia, especially if Liverpool's relying on speed when breaking out of their own half, but Kuyt's record in big games is superlative. Henderson, Downing, and Maxi are the other options, but Henderson's been far better in the middle (and Liverpool almost certainly won't play 4-4-2), Downing's in supremely poor form, and Maxi's appearances have been few and far between, although that might change now that his telepathic connection with Suarez can be revived.

And then there's United. Sunday's match at Chelsea was car crash fascinating. You saw the wreck coming from miles away, but couldn't slow down. All you could do was watch helplessly, careening toward the pile-up, certain United would claw back from the 0-3 deficit. As if it'd happen any other way. Chelsea collapsed, because Chelsea collapses. Webb gave two penalties, because Webb gives United penalties. Chicharito scored the crucial equalizer with minutes to play, because Chicharito always scores off the bench. And then De Gea made two unbelievable late saves to ensure the result, because De Gea... well, anyway. It was all somehow both astonishing and expected.

United's injury woes are marginally better than two weeks ago. Ferdinand and Young are available, while Smalling and Cleverley are questionable and Nani, Lindegaard, Jones, Fletcher, Vidic, and Owen remain absent. Rooney will start up front with Welbeck or Hernandez, with Carrick and Giggs or Scholes in midfield, Valencia and Young or Park on the flanks, and Evra, Ferdinand, Evans and Smalling or Rafael in defense.

The home team has won six of the last seven meetings between the clubs – the lone exception was October's 1-1 draw at Anfield. It will take a first class performance from Liverpool to break that precedent. The Mancs are truly dangerous, again among the best in the league despite less-impressive performances and a long injury list. Liverpool have more away wins than home wins and have been better in "big games," beating Chelsea, City, Arsenal, and Everton on their grounds, but have also tepidly lost some away matches they had no business losing. Nonetheless, if past is any precedent, form is most likely meaningless in the M62 derby. Blood, guts, thunder, war minus the shooting, cliche, cliche. Let's just hope all that's limited to the pitch.

06 February 2012

Liverpool 0-0 Tottenham

Spurs played for a scoreless draw, Spurs got their scoreless draw.

While Liverpool's attackers could and should have done more, Tottenham's defending merited the scoreless draw. King and Dawson were outstanding, with Parker almost as important. After a paucity of clear cut chances for both sides, each could have scored the winner in the last five minutes, with Friedel and Reina making huge saves on Bale and Suarez.

The narrative will remain the same. Liverpool outplayed a top-three side at Anfield but come away with a draw, the eighth time (out of 12 matches) the score's ended level on Liverpool's ground. Liverpool "dominated," but Liverpool couldn't score. At least this time, more credit goes to the opposition than Liverpool's never-ending wastefulness.

Having lost the last two matches against Tottenham after conceding in the first 10 minutes, Liverpool played it safe to start the match, more focused on keeping possession and setting the tempo rather than an all-out attack, the usual house-afire start. Each keeper was tested exactly once in the first half: Reina claimed Kranjcar's shot from distance in the 32nd, Friedel parried Johnson's blast in stoppage time. Otherwise, opportunities were few and far between at best; Spearing hammered a shot wide, Reina easily claimed an audacious flick from Bale. That's about it.

Given how effortlessly Spurs' midfield has overrun Liverpool's in the last two meetings, whether Liverpool played with two or three central midfielders, a first half with Liverpool on top even if not threatening is progress. Yes, Carroll was isolated and rarely looked like scoring, with both Kuyt and Bellamy just as focused on defensive duties, but the striker's growing confidence clearly improved his touch. And yes, Liverpool were still crossing to little or no effect far too often, as in the first half against Wolves. But having established control, you'd expect Liverpool to push on in the second half, again, as against Wolves. No such luck.

I hate referencing my own often-incorrect analysis, but as written here and here, among others, Liverpool's attack remains far too dependent on crossing. Liverpool attempted 23 crosses in total, with just 4 successful. Which is less than previous worst offenses (43 attempted in the draw against Blackburn for starters), but still too many with the tactic almost wholly unsuccessful today.

The home side had four decent chances to take the lead in the second half – clearly not enough, but bear with me. Just one came from a cross: Carroll, proving his right foot is just for standing, blasted over in the 75th after Kelly's cross fortunately fell in his direction. Otherwise, Kelly's swirling shot from distance in the 59th required a diving save at the near post, Suarez headed Gerrard's free kick straight at Friedel in the 86th, and the same player had two shots blocked after a Carroll flick-on in the 90th following Gerrard's long-range ball over the top. No matter Carroll's supposed strengths, Liverpool cannot play so one-dimensionally, especially when the likes of King and Dawson thrive on defending crosses. There needs to be a Plan B. Even with Suarez coming on for 25 minutes, replacing Kuyt (followed by Downing for Bellamy in the 72nd), there was no Plan B.

Make no mistake, the aforementioned King (who somehow always manages to be fit for Liverpool matches) and Dawson were crucial. At the same time, Tottenham made 25 interceptions in its own half, and importantly blocked seven of Liverpool's 17 shots (four on target, six off target). Walker also did excellently on both Bellamy and Downing. Tottenham barely threatened on the break; Bale nearly snatched an unjust winner with a clever onside run in the 85th, foiled by excellent keeping from Reina and a scrambled clearance, while the same player put a shot wide after charging forward 10 minutes earlier. But a Spurs goal would have been icing on the cake. At Anfield, and with so many players missing, the primary objective was a draw. Mission accomplished.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool's best players were in midfield and defense. Skrtel was man of the match again, Adebayor's shadow and a rock at the back. Johnson silenced Walker's frequent forays forward. Adam, Gerrard, and Spearing all did their parts in Liverpool's midfield improvement against an opposition that's given them fits in the past; notably, Adam was more consistent, safer in his passing and much smarter in defense.

Once again, it's the attack that let Liverpool down. Even crediting Spurs' near-immaculate defending, that's a very tough sentence to write yet another time.

03 February 2012

Liverpool v Tottenham 02.06.12

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
0-4 Tottenham (a) 09.18.11
0-2 Tottenham (h) 05.15.11
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.20.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Wolves (a); 2-1 United (h); 2-2 City (h)
Spurs: 3-1 Wigan (h); 1-0 Watford (a); 2-3 City (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy 6; Suarez 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
Spurs: Bale 10; Adebayor 9; Defoe 8; van der Vaart 7; Lennon, Modric 3; Assou-Ekotto, Kaboul, Walker 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Spearing
Kuyt Henderson Bellamy

With six days since the last match, there seems little need for drastic changes from the side which beat Wolves three-nil. The only assured alteration is Gerrard's return, for either Spearing, Adam, or Henderson (probably not Spearing).

Yes, I'm well aware Suarez's ban is over. I'm also unsure if he's anywhere near match fitness. He's been back on Merseyside for a couple of weeks after traveling to Uruguay, he's been training, and Dalglish rightfully hasn't ruled him in or out. But I suspect he'll be used similarly to his first match in England, coming off the bench with half an hour to play, when he scored the second against Stoke. Incidentally, he was returning from an extended ban for biting Otman Bakkal prior to that debut appearance.

There's also the question of whether Liverpool will stick with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation we've seen over the last few matches. Does Suarez replace Carroll, who's finally hitting his stride, or does Suarez replace Kuyt or Bellamy, playing wider than he usually has for Liverpool? When Suarez and Carroll have both started, Liverpool have almost always played 4-4-2; the exceptions were Suarez on the left of a 4-3-3 in the 0-1 loss at Fulham and 0-4 loss at Spurs. Liverpool have played some decent matches when using 4-4-2, but they've been few and far between, and usually against a lesser caliber of opponents (Stoke in the Carling Cup, West Brom, etc.). Using that formation against a very-in-form Spurs, with Suarez just back from suspension, is an entirely different proposal.

Gerrard will replace Henderson or Adam, as Liverpool need Spearing's defensive abilities in midfield. I suspect Adam's the odd man out due to the simple fact that Gerrard's played deeper in midfield in almost every match this season. He's not the in-the-hole second striker who struck fear into the hearts of defenses in 2008-09; three years and multiple injuries later, he's become far more of an orthodox central midfielder, for better or worse. Henderson's usually been the player drifting between the lines, and he's done surprisingly well, although he played better in the second half against Wolves when more reserved and drifting right. Also, it's worth noting Adam has started all 23 league matches; only he and Enrique are the only outfield players to do so. A more 4-1-4-1ish shape with Gerrard and Adam slightly ahead of Spearing certainly isn't out of the question. Admittedly, given Dalglish's propensity for changes – up there with Benitez at his best – little is out of the question.

Having three in midfield and Kuyt on the right seem crucial with the form Gareth Bale's in. Tracking back – one of Kuyt's favorite tasks – will be necessary, better able to double up on Welsh Jesus with Johnson than Bellamy, Downing, Maxi, or Henderson. And as Zonal Marking points out, Bale's added the ability to come inside, requiring more attention from the central midfielders. It'd be strange to see Downing left out again, but Kuyt looks more likely on the right, and Suarez or Bellamy look more likely on the left. If Liverpool sticks with the formation seen most often of late, that is.

Spurs are deservedly third, true title contenders just five points behind United and City, 11 points ahead of Liverpool. Bale's not the only player in sterling form. Adebayor, Defoe, and van der Vaart also have more goals than Liverpool's top scorer; Modric's been one of the best central midfielders in the league (again), forming an excellent partnership with Parker; and Redknapp has enough confidence in his defense to loan out both Corluka and Bassong during the January window. Spurs have a handful of players doubtful: Adebayor, Walker, van der Vaart, Lennon, and Defoe are all carrying knocks – the first three picked up in Tuesday's match against Wigan – but only Bentley, Gallas, Jenas, and Huddlestone are definitely ruled out. New signings Saha and Nelsen should be in the squad, but neither will likely start.

Liverpool have lost four of the last five matches against Spurs by a margin of 10-4. The last three losses, one under Hodgson and two under Dalglish, have seen Liverpool outscored eight to one. Tottenham have truly become Liverpool's bogey side, not only beating the Reds more often than not, home or away, but making Liverpool look wholly awful in the process. No matter Adam's early red card in September's meeting, Liverpool were second best by some distance, while last May's 0-2 loss was almost equally insipid. Coincidentally, Spurs scored in the first ten minutes of both matches.

This fixture is the first of an exceptionally important run, one which will make or break the season. Three of the toughest matches in the league and two vastly important cup ties: v Tottenham, at United, the 5th round of the FA Cup, the Carling Cup final, then Arsenal at Anfield. The next four weeks will see crucial match after crucial match with little respite. It's imperative Liverpool begins this stretch in the best possible manner.

01 February 2012

Three Midfielders, Two Halves

It's been awhile since I trawled through the Guardian chalkboards for interesting items. I know, we all missed it.

I remain convinced that Liverpool changed tact in midfield during the interval. The key seemed to be Spearing, more willing to stay in his own half and shield the defense rather than pressing higher up the pitch and leaving gaps. But the passing chalkboards suggest that all three central midfielders played differently in the first and second halves.

Both Spearing and Adam sat deeper, more content to hold their positions. Henderson was also less involved going forward, attempting fewer crosses (none of which he completed through 90 minutes), more concentrated on the right flank with Kuyt much more a striker. Spearing attempted the same number of passes, Adam and Henderson both attempted fewer. Spearing and Henderson had an improved completion rate, while Adam sacrificed a slight drop in accuracy but provided two much-needed assists.

The passing heatmaps make these trends more noticeable.

Out-and-out attack is all well and good, and often needed for this Liverpool side to score again less-fancied opposition, but the base in midfield is crucial for starting these attacks while still securing the defense. When Spearing and Adam go forward, gaps appear if either, or anyone else, loses possession, especially with both Johnson and Enrique bombing forward, which they did yesterday and often do against less-fancied opposition. And this led to a couple of Wolves' first-half chances, which, thankfully, Wolves couldn't take. Comparatively, the home side had just one second-half chance, Ebanks-Blake's rocket from nowhere, despite needing goals and shifting to 4-4-2 after Liverpool's second.

Liverpool may have had more possession in the first half (55-45% at half-time, 53-47% at full-time), but that's as much down to Liverpool being able to sit and counter after finally getting on the score sheet. Counter-attacking which led to the second and third goals. And a focus on counter-attacking also allowed Spearing and Adam to focus more on defending. But, of course, Liverpool needed to score first for that change in tactic to be successful. Round and round in circles we go.

Admittedly, Spearing's second-half improvement can also be credited to simply playing. He's missed far too much time over the winter months, first due to an unfair suspension, then following an injury in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi. It wouldn't be surprising if he needed time to find his sea legs. Hopefully, now back to fitness, he'll continue this improvement, especially with Gerrard back in the side.

Finally, a bonus chalkboard. It has little to do with the point made above, but is just as crucial to Liverpool's style of play and results.

In the first half, Liverpool attempted 17 crosses, completing five. In the second half, Liverpool attempted six crosses, completing two, one the assist for the opener.

Kuyt was 3 for 8 on crosses, Henderson was 0 for 7, Adam was 2 for 3, Bellamy was 1 for 3, and Enrique was 1 for 2. 13 of the 23 total crosses came in the first 20 minutes – an average of one every 90 seconds or so – when Liverpool were clearly on top but, again, couldn't take advantage of dominance.

I've grumbled about Liverpool's crossing before, and had Liverpool kept up its first-half crossing pace, yesterday's match would have rivaled 3-1 at Newcastle and 0-3 at City for most crosses in a league match. Punting the ball toward Carroll is an obvious tactic, something the striker thrives on. But it's not the only thing he thrives on, and usually better for the team as a whole when used as an alternative – a Plan A only if there's a viable Plan B, not the lone source of attack. The second half, where Liverpool attempted fewer and one finally led to an assist, bears that out.