30 April 2012

Liverpool v Fulham 05.01.12

2:45pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Fulham (a) 12.05.11
5-2 Liverpool (a) 05.09.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.26.11
0-0 (h) 04.11.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Norwich (a); 0-1 West Brom (h); 2-1 Everton (n)
Fulham: 0-4 Everton (a); 2-1 Wigan (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Kuyt, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Fulham: Dempsey 16; Pogrebnyak 6; Johnson 3; Duff, Murphy, Ruiz 2; Dembele, Diarra, Sa, Senderos, Sidwell 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Spearing
Kuyt Shelvey Maxi

There will be changes. Which, as usual, leads to the question as to how many changes. My guess is "a lot."

There's a long list of players in line to be rested. Gerrard and Agger top that list. Suarez and Johnson aren't far behind. Enrique would be as well if Liverpool had another viable option at left-back; Robinson and Aurelio both seem remote possiblities. Bellamy and Carragher almost assuredly won't start after playing against Norwich, and Downing shouldn't after the performance he delivered. Which seemingly leaves us with the above options.

Even though Carroll missed Saturday's match because of an injury concern, I suspect he'll start tomorrow. I'll be surprised if he's in Saturday's XI, more because of Chelsea's formation and tactics (and Liverpool's "big game" tactics) rather than Carroll's failings. Tomorrow presents a chance to both rest Suarez and give Carroll an opportunity to prove he should play in the cup final.

Fulham will be difficult opponents no matter the line-up Liverpool deploy. Other than the 5-2 mauling during last season's run-in, thanks to Suarez and Maxi's brilliance, they're a team that's given Liverpool problems going back to Benitez's reign. Three points and one place behind Liverpool in the table, Jol's side is capable of excellence, awfulness, and mediocrity. Sometimes within the same match. It's a side that scored six against QPR, five against Newcastle, and five against Wolves – admittedly, all at Craven Cottage – held Chelsea to 1-1 draws both home and away, and were the first to take points off of Manchester City this season. But it's also the same side which were demolished 0-5 at United in December, 0-3 against Swansea a few weeks back, and 0-4 at Everton on Saturday. So, a side as inconsistent as Liverpool, but far more likely to both score and concede more.

And I doubt I need to remind of the reverse fixture, another eminently frustrating Liverpool performance which saw the away side "dominate" but ultimately lose after failing to score, having Spearing sent off (arguably unfairly), and conceding a cheap, late goal to Fulham's top scorer by some distance, Clint Dempsey, who shouldn't have been on the field after head-butting Bellamy earlier in the match.

Fulham's usual formation is 4-4-1-1. Most impressive, at least to me, is the side's versatility within that formation. Dempsey and Dembele – one of my favorite non-Liverpool players in the league – are the keys to that versatility. January signing Pogrebnyak, with six goals in nine appearances, is the usual spearhead, but Dempsey's played up front with Dembele in support in previous matches, often against stronger opposition. Dembele could also play in central midfield or on the flanks, as Dempsey has in previous appearances.

Still, the most likely formation is Pogrebnyak up front, Dempsey in the hole, Dembele and Murphy (or Diarra) in midfield, and Duff and Frei on the flanks. With right-back Stephen Kelly injured, Hughes-Senderos-Hangeland-Riise should be the back four, although Baird could also come in for Senderos, as he did at half-time against Everton. Yep, Fulham's likely XI contains two ex-Liverpool players. That usually ends well. Ruiz, Sidwell, and Grygera are Fulham's other casualties.

Admittedly, with the FA Cup final just over the horizon, my expectations are low for this match. That Liverpool are likely to make a number of chances is actually encouraging, giving players something tangible to play for, hoping to reap the rewards with a place on Saturday rather than having the usual starters going through the motions with all thoughts on Chelsea instead of Fulham.

That both Fulham (and West Brom) are just three points behind Liverpool, albeit with an inferior goal differential, should be further motivation. Points dropped here could propel Liverpool into the bottom half of the table if maximum points aren't taken in the final two matches. No matter the relative unimportance of league place thanks to the previous 35 matches, that remains a bridge too far, one best left uncrossed.

Better Performance, Worse Results

Saturday's match was pretty much all the proof we need. It really is all about finishing.

Liverpool have played "better" than they did against Norwich in numerous matches. And it's usually, somehow, led to worse results. Suarez tallied three world-class goals – and that term isn't used lightly – three superlative finishes, each more impressive than the last. Two will probably show up on the end-of-season Top 10 goals list. And that's the sole difference between the comfortable three points and yet another frustrating draw.

Otherwise, it was a fairly pedestrian performance from Liverpool, one which wasn't wholly unexpected given where we are in the season and what's come before. And admittedly, Norwich's poor defending played a role in two of the three goals, if not all three. But aside from those three spectacular strikes, Liverpool were typically profligate: a couple misses from Suarez, Shelvey's header off the bar and bobbled point-blank strike, Downing's right-footed shot smartly saved (not to mention the numerous blind alleys he ran directly down).

As always, statistics provide just a small snapshot, but here's a brief comparison with ten of Liverpool's most disappointing matches where they've played "better" but taken fewer points.

Fewer shots in nine of the ten – on target, off target, and blocked – and less possession in six of the ten. The differences in chances created – yes, that statistic again – is the most conspicuous. That statistic seemingly defined last summer's transfer business; we all remember the ubiquitous chart showing Adam, Downing, and Henderson in the top 10 for Premier League chances created. Well, this is where it's gotten us. And where it's gotten the architect of last summer's transfer business.

According to StatsZone, the source of all of these statistics, Liverpool have created 443 chances this season, an average of just under 13 per match. And have scored just 43 league goals. Which is the fewest in a season since 1776 or something. Liverpool created just eight chances against Norwich and scored three goals. None of those chances were clear-cut, by any definition. The team created fewer chances in just four league matches this season – 0-4 at Spurs, 2-1 at Chelsea, 1-2 at United, and 0-2 at Newcastle. And yet, Liverpool still won handily on Saturday against a side they frustratingly drew with at Anfield.

Yes, Liverpool have had other problems, repeatedly discussed at length here, there, and everywhere. Inconsistent performances, inconsistent tactics, questionable purchases, key players missing for long stretches. Everyone has their favorite scapegoat. Football is rarely explained by a singular success or failing.

Incidentally, Liverpool used a range of different formations and personnel in the above matches. 4-4-2 with Suarez and Carroll, 4-4-2 with Suarez and Kuyt, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, even 3-4-2-1. Carroll/Adam/Downing/Henderson have played well/poorly in wins, draws, and losses. Some matches saw egregiously unlucky own goals, egregiously stupid defensive mistakes, and/or penalties not given. Every attacker in Liverpool's line-up has missed chances in multiple matches, often by hitting the five-inch-wide frame of the goal. But when just one player's finishing is clinical – and Suarez was supremely clinical against Norwich – the rest of the attacking statistics don't really matter.

As wonderful as Suarez's match-winning display was, his time at Liverpool shows that we can't depend on it. He's a genius, but – like the rest of the side – an inconsistent genius, made more inconsistent by the audacious tricks he often attempts. He's had more and better opportunities in multiple matches and failed to take them. Against Norwich, his two easiest chances were the two chances spurned: his mis-kick of Downing's cross blocked in the six-yard-box and his chip over the keeper and bar after nutmegging yet another defender. There's a chance this display could prompt a run of form similar to his seemingly ever-present impact when playing for Uruguay, but chances are he remains frustratingly erratic. Similarly, his most-frequent strike partner has been better coming deep to win headers, setting up others rather than seizing on chances of his own. But again, everyone – everyone, everyone, everyone – is guilty of Liverpool's most despicable crime.

This is news to absolutely no one who's watched more than half-an-hour of any Liverpool match this season. I would like nothing more than for the Suarez-Carroll partnership to be dependably prolific, but on eight months of evidence (12 if you go back to last season), it's not happening. That doesn't mean Liverpool should sell either (I've made, and will continue to make Carroll excuses due to his age and Liverpool's set-up for the foreseeable future). But it should ensure that Liverpool's most important business this summer is to find a striker capable of consistently finishing all those created chances.

28 April 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Norwich

Suarez 24' 28' 82'

You mean the difference in result is down to the difference in Liverpool's finishing? Amazing.

It's been far too long since Luis Suarez reminded us just what genius he's capable of. Bomb-throwing, mustache-twirling, evil super-villain genius, but genius all the same.

What began as a tepid, end-of-season affair with neither side with much to play for ends in a comfortable 3-0 win, where Liverpool arguably – and unsurprisingly – should have scored more. I know. Don't act surprised. Let's cherish the utter brilliance of the three which went in.

Liverpool started in a 4-2-3-1, with Shelvey playing ahead of Gerrard and Henderson, but the tepid end-of-seasonness ended when Shelvey and Gerrard switched positions. The opening goal was almost immediate, set up by the captain's pressing and a jaw-dropping throughball with the outside of his right foot, finding Suarez between the center-backs. The Uruguayan's strike wasn't bad either, immaculately and strongly curled past Ruddy with his "weaker" foot.

Four minutes later, the same player latched onto to careless passing after a Norwich throw-in with Ward hesitant – not for the last time – bearing down on Ruddy and again perfectly placing his shot, right-footed low into the far corner, hitting the correct part of the post for once. Before the interval, Suarez could have won a penalty (surprise, not given!), accidentally tested Ruddy when mis-controlling on the turn, and was called offside when potentially one-on-one with the keeper despite being in his own half when the ball was played.

Norwich were better in the second half, creating a handful of chances in the opening minutes. But Liverpool also had better chances to score than the two they converted in the first 30 minutes. Suarez mis-kicked Downing's dangerous low cross, with Shelvey heading the rebound onto the crossbar. Shelvey then mis-hit another shot a minute later, the ball bobbling when he dove into the six-yard box. Downing had a right-footed shot well saved, Suarez tried a too cheeky chip when put through and then had a header from a corner cleared off the line. Finally, it was a Liverpool match again. Change is frightening.

And just when it seemed as if the match was dying out, with a couple more Norwich chances, either put wide or blocked by Carragher, Suarez conjured the ultimate capstone. You won't find a more-fitting hat-trick goal, even more audacious than his attempted 63rd-minute chip. And you'll be hard-pressed to find a better hat-trick. Johnson cleared the ball from his own endline, and Suarez latched on near the center circle when Ward couldn't hoof clear. One stride forward, then an unstoppable 45-yard shot over the hopeless Ruddy, all without looking up. More than reminiscent of Alonso's (sigh) goal from midfield against Luton – his first – with the similarity reinforced by an open Gerrard shouting for the ball then standing stunned, applauding. Swiftly removing the goal-scoring hero and the captain for Coates and Kuyt, the lone substitutions made, Liverpool easily, painlessly saw out the final few minutes for an all-too-rare, joyous win.

Even with Suarez's superb finishing, Liverpool needed that bit of help from Norwich, especially on the second and third, both from the helpless Ward. It's proof that you both need luck and make your own luck. Suarez's shots were sublime and Suarez tortured Norwich's back-line into permanent terror, aiding those mistakes. But the mistakes were almost as crucial, and reinforces the belief that fortune's played at least some part in Liverpool's current standing.

A few others deserve special mention. Liverpool's midfield was impressive after the early switch; Shelvey and Henderson held well, with the former unlucky not to score, while Gerrard had much more impact further forward. Carragher also rolled back the years, reading the game flawlessly, making crucial blocks and diving headers. He's deserved the majority of criticism this season, but I'd imagine he knows that as well, and was determined to improve on his FA Cup semi performance.

So, it's relief and it's evidence of what possible from this team and, more specifically from Suarez. Tactics and formation somewhat unimportant, with finishing what counts. Surprise. Which makes for mixed emotions when it comes so late in the season and after what we've seen before. And that it's so late in the season, against an opposition with little to play for, had a role in the result.

Still, it's hard to criticize good and hard to criticize progress. More of the same on Tuesday. And then in a week's time.

27 April 2012

Liverpool at Norwich 04.28.12

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 10.22.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.03.05
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.25.04
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.29.95

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 West Brom (h); 2-1 Everton (n); 3-2 Blackburn (a)
Norwich: 0-2 Blackburn (a); 1-6 City (h); 2-1 Spurs (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Kuyt, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Norwich: Holt 13; Morison, Pilkington 8; Surman 4; Hoolahan 3; Jackson, Johnson, Martin 2; Barnett, E Bennett, Howson, Wilbraham 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

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

Yes, yes. Let's get the jokes out of the way now. We all know how this will go. Liverpool will start afire, have three to five outstanding sights at goal, fail to take any of them, succumb to an unlikely goal against the run of play, and maybe maybe maybe battle back for an equalizer, if that, but no more. Everyone laughs, end scene, roll credits. Joy.

That was pretty much Liverpool's previous match against Norwich, except Liverpool scored first, and has pretty much been most matches this season, much to our chagrin. Liverpool wholly dominated the beginning of the reverse fixture, denied by multiple excellent saves and the woodwork, Liverpool finally scored just before half time, but Liverpool failed to extend the advantage. Norwich found an unlikely equalizer when Holt powered Pilkington's cross (plus Johnson and Carra) into the net, and Liverpool struggled until an injury-time flurry, denied a winner by more goalkeeper heroics.

We'll see a glut of changes for the midweek match against Fulham, the one directly prior to the FA Cup Final. This, on the other hand, will most likely be similar to last week's XI against West Brom – probably as strong as possible, with players likely to feature at Wembley.

Gerrard's probable return should see him slot straight back into the middle, probably with Spearing, shifting Henderson to the right with Downing back on the left. Kuyt and Maxi should return to the bench, more likely to play against Fulham. If it's not Henderson and Downing on the flanks, Bellamy seems more probable than either of Liverpool soon-to-be-sold veterans. Once again, I also expect Carroll to partner Suarez. But once again, this is truly a guess at a line-up, as Dalglish continues to tinker with both tactics and formation, even in late April. However, this lopsided 4-4-2 has been the most often used formation.

Norwich, safely ensconced in 13th, well outside the relegation zone, has little to play for other than pride. Just like Liverpool. The Canaries, along with Stoke, are at the bottom of the mid-table pack which Liverpool barely sits near the top of, two points behind 7th place Everton. With safety assured, Norwich have both beaten Tottenham 2-1 at White Hart Lane and lost 1-6 to City on its own ground (or 0-2 to relegation candidates Blackburn) recently. The long season's caught up with Lambert's side in certain matches, losing seven of 11 since mid-February.

Norwich have a couple of injury concerns, two of whom are former Liverpool players. Whitbread and Ayala, frequent starters in defense, will both miss out against their former club, just as both missed the reverse fixture. Left back Tierney is also on the casualty list. Lambert's flexible side will probably play some variation of 4-4-2, whether an orthodox set-up, 4-4-1-1, or 4-1-3-2. The previous meeting was an apt demonstration of how Holt can punish negligent opposition, while Steve Morison has similar qualities and Hoolahan is dangerous between the lines.

If Norwich win tomorrow, they'll be level on points with Liverpool. And Liverpool would probably be in the bottom half of the table, currently level on points with Fulham, only a point ahead of 10th place West Brom and two ahead of 11th place Sunderland. For all the pain of this season's campaign to date, and all the excuses about Liverpool's terrible league form since fourth place became a wholly lost cause, the top half and bottom half represent a clear dividing line, if only mentally. Simply put, while there's little difference in seventh, eighth, or ninth, there's a very large difference between those places and 10th or lower. Even if all the focus is on next Saturday's cup final, Liverpool cannot cross that Rubicon.

22 April 2012

Liverpool 0-1 West Brom

Odemwingie 75'

If you don't laugh, you're gonna cry.

Countless chances unbelievably missed? Check. Contentious non-penalty decision? Check. Hitting the woodwork? Double check. A defensive mistake leading to Liverpool unconscionably conceding against The. Run. Of. Play? Check check check check check.

Oh, and the countless chances dried up after Liverpool's unlikely concession. It's almost as if Liverpool, with frustratingly little to play for in the league, stopped caring when it was "one of those days" yet again. I know, I'll wait for you to regain your composure after such shocking information.

Only Stoke away comes close for shots somehow spurned with an 'exceptionally harsh loss' chaser. The stats were similarly horrifying. 63-37% possession, 230 more passes attempted and completed, 30 shots to nine, but only six on target to West Brom's three. Of course, the only stat that matters is 0-1.

Since this has happened time and time and time and time again, it's especially worthless to run down the egregiously-long list of missed opportunities. Every starting midfielder or forward wearing red had at least two good chances at goal. Innumerable rebounds were scrambled wide, multiple close calls ran across the face of goal with a Liverpool player a step behind. Maxi's penalty shout in the 20th minute ignored because he fell 'too easily' and he's not Ashley Young. Shots from Henderson and Kuyt off the bar and post respectively within 15 minutes of the second-half restart. 15 Liverpool corners, and I think every single one found a West Brom player.

The most egregious came in the 67th, after what was probably Liverpool's best passing move of the season. But Suarez saw his shot saved, Carroll slipped trying to reach the rebound after Foster weakly punched, and Spearing had his effort from the top of the box cleared off the line before West Brom finally scrambled behind. Just like Liverpool's trip to Stoke, where the home side somehow missed five shots within a minute at the same point of the game. And less than ten minutes later, West Brom were ahead as Johnson, who'd been excellent, stupidly and softly tried the clever short pass after winning possession from Mulumbu, allowing that player to intercept and feed Odemwingie running on goal.

The most unforgivable, however, was Kuyt's in the 10th minute. Yet again, if Liverpool convert an early opportunity, this ceases to be a contest. At worst, it follows the same script as the reverse fixture, a less-than-impressive but easy 2-0 win. At best, it's another Fulham or Birmingham from last season's run-in, matches where Liverpool deployed a similar formation with similar tactics if different personnel. But Kuyt shot wide after he was released by Suarez 12 yards from goal, completely unhindered by any West Brom defender. It set the tone, to say the absolute least.

Because it's Hodgson and his contentious "history" with the club, this will seem far worse than it actually was. And that this is far from the first time we've seen similar certainly doesn't help; once again, it's everything but the goal. But Liverpool did not play badly. Suarez was typically effervescent, Henderson and Spearing were cohesively decent in midfield, Carroll was heavily involved in the buildup if disappointing in the penalty box, and Johnson was one of Liverpool's best players outside of that infinitely costly error. Liverpool looked an actual team with actual tactics rather than a collection of mostly hapless and harmless individuals. Which is an improvement on this season's multitude of low points.

I realize that is little consolation, especially after a loss, and especially after a loss to him. I realize that it has happened often enough to cease being coincidence. Whether Liverpool (read: Dalglish) should have bought or need a new striker is a completely different argument than whether Liverpool (read: Dalglish) were tactically competent, chose the right XI, etc. There have been multiple occasions to question Dalglish's tactics and selection. Today is not one of them.

Losses like this, or at Stoke, are incredibly painful. But they're not the reason Liverpool sits 8th. There's a massive difference in what we've seen from the team today and during the run of despicable home draws early in the campaign compared to other recent nadirs. The campaign was ruined by that interminable loss-after-loss stretch in January through March.

Had this happened far less frequently, you roll your eyes and move on. Shit happens, Liverpool played well, it's football, etc. Unfortunately, it's happened very frequently, which means all those questions and concerns aren't going away anytime soon.

20 April 2012

Liverpool v West Brom 04.22.12

11am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.29.11
1-2 West Brom (a) 04.02.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.29.10
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.17.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Everton (n); 3-2 Blackburn (a); 1-1 Villa (h)
West Brom: 1-0 QPR (h); 0-4 City (a); 3-0 Blackburn (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Kuyt, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
West Brom: Odemwingie 9; Long 7; Morrison 4; Scharner 3; Andrews, Dorrans, Fortune, McAuley, Olsson 2; Brunt, Mulumbu, Reid, Ridgewell, Tchoyi, Thomas 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

New referee link; all the ref's previous Liverpool matches, via LFCHistory.net. That website never, ever fails to amaze me. But it's somewhat unnecessary for Swarbrick, who's only done one previous Liverpool match: the 5-1 FA Cup win against Oldham in January.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Gerrard Spearing Maxi
Suarez Carroll

There will have been eight days since the FA Cup semifinal, with another six until Liverpool travel to Norwich. Which means that Dalglish will most likely deploy the strongest possible XI, with little thought for carving out game time for Liverpool's promising youngsters. All focus from now until May 5 will be on keeping key players fit and preparing the side for its crucial FA Cup final, continuing to build confidence and coherence brick by brick.

After scoring the winner in Liverpool's last two matches, Carroll looks certain to start. And when he starts, Liverpool almost always play 4-4-2; the only matches where both he and Suarez started in a three-man front line were at Newcastle, versus Brighton in the FA Cup, at Fulham, and the first 27 minutes of the match at Spurs until Adam was sent off. It's seemingly not an option Dalglish prefers.

So Suarez and Carroll should play up front, Gerrard will play in central midfield, and everyone else will be fit in around those three cornerstones. I'm guessing Downing and Maxi on the flanks because Downing's looked better on the right recently and because of Maxi's goal-scoring exploits against Blackburn. If Downing does play on the right, Bellamy could also get the nod on the left, but Maxi's been in better form in the last two matches. Considering precedent, Downing on the left with Henderson on the right is just as likely, if not more so. Both Maxi and Bellamy started against Blackburn, but Downing seems almost as likely to start as those three aforementioned cornerstones.

I'd also like to see Shelvey paired with Gerrard in the middle; the Spearing-Gerrard axis has infrequently impressed, rarely looking a true partnership, and Jonjo needs game time. But I doubt Dalglish will feel secure without an out-and-out tackler in midfield, even at home against West Brom.

Reina returns from suspension, while we should also see the return of Liverpool's first-choice back four. There's even less of an excuse for Carragher's involvement than last Saturday – and there was little excuse then – while Coates seems unlikely to step in with both Skrtel and Agger fit and rested.

And then there's West Brom. Have you missed Uncle Roy? He hasn't missed you.

Liverpool's six-month Hodgson experiment gave us first-hand experience with how easy it is to guess his side's tactics. West Brom will play either 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1, deep and compact, with two solid lines of four and an extra man either to congest the middle or bolster the attack. In attack, Odemwingie and/or Long will hope to profit on the counter or from set plays. Hodgson chose 4-4-2 in the reverse fixture, ever the ambitious gambler at home, but Tchoyi was sucked deeper and deeper by Liverpool pressure, isolating Odemwingie, and West Brom rarely troubled after Liverpool scored one of its few early goals this season.

I suspect we'll see his other variation at Anfield, with a packed midfield including three from Andrews, Mulumbu, Dorrans, and Scharner; Brunt and Thomas on the flanks; and one of the aforementioned strikers on his own in Liverpool's half. Hodgson's one curveball has been to sometimes use a striker as a winger – either Odemwingie, Fortune, or Cox – which may well be the case on Sunday since he'll undoubtedly focus on counter-attacking.

West Brom have a few injury concerns, with Marc-Andre Fortune – who has sometimes replaced Long or Odemwingie as the spearhead – will be a late fitness test, along with center-back Olsson, while midfielders Morrison and Gera and right-back Reid are out.

Albion's win over Liverpool last April was the club's first since 1981, made ever so much more painful by who their recently-appointed manager was. Otherwise, historically, this fixture has been an easy three points for the Reds. However, this campaign has proven time and time again that history is often insignificant and little comes easy. Still, easy would be more than welcome. Obviously. Liverpool simply need to keep winning, using the remaining league fixtures to continuing building confidence before the season's capstone in the FA Cup final. But, as we've seen too often this season, Liverpool can't solely focus on the cups to the detriment of the league either. Otherwise, they'll be punished, and not for the first time. It'd be yet another step backward after two steps forwards. And because of the opponent, it'd again be more painful than most of the previous painful punishments.

18 April 2012

Jamie Carragher and Defensive Positioning

Consider this an addendum to Noel's depressingly unsurprising post on Liverpool's defensive statistics with and without Carragher over at Liverpool Offside.

The numbers speak for themselves, but I've seen multiple people (not in Noel's post, by the way) credit Liverpool's inferior record with Carragher to Liverpool having to play a deeper back line thanks to Carra's notorious lack of pace. It's become something of a pet peeve of mine, because answers usually aren't that easy.

So, using the available average position diagrams from the Daily Telegraph match reports [they're missing v QPR (without Carra), v Villa (with Carra), and at Blackburn (without), because they're the Daily Telegraph and refuse to make anything easy or sensical], I thought I'd see if that was the case.


The fullbacks seem to get forward slightly more without Carragher, especially on Carragher's side, but not incredibly significantly. All in all, the charts look relatively similar expect for the white-outlined circles denoting where Carragher was. So let's get rid of the fullbacks.


That's better. And yep, looks deeper. But, again, not as much as I expected. There's a wider range of average center-back positions without Carragher in the line-up, but more interesting than how deep they play is how close together they are. I suspect having both center-backs nearer to one another, which suggests they're working better as a unit, is more meaningful than how deep either defends.

There were two matches where Carragher played notably deeper than his defensive partner: against Bolton and Wolves. Liverpool won both. The deepest Liverpool's center-backs played came at Chelsea, without Carragher in the line-up; Skrtel's average position is nearly inside the penalty box. And yes, Liverpool won that game too. So please, let's stop the focus on how "deep" Liverpool's defense is. The above suggests that isn't the alpha or omega.

Carragher has a tendency to exacerbate multiple problems in Liverpool's defense. That he's played so often borders on the unforgivable, even if there are excuses for individual games (it's Everton, it's away from Anfield, etc, etc). But crediting problems to a single factor, such as others having to play deeper because of said lack of pace, is far too simplistic. And might not even be true. As with everything else in football, defensive positioning depends on multiple factors – the other defenders on the pitch and the opposition, most notably. Often, it's not how deep Liverpool's defense plays. Who plays may well be, though.

14 April 2012

Liverpool 2-1 Everton

Jelavic 24'
Suarez 62'
Carroll 87'

So, how meaningful was that Blackburn win? Liverpool's last two matches have clearly demonstrated the importance of self-belief. That and late winners. Few things in life are better than late winners.

For just over an hour, Liverpool's tactics and team selection were under rightful heavy criticism because of yet another goal conceded because of yet another individual mistake. Agger was at left-back; Downing's ineffectiveness on the left forced him to the right, relegating Henderson to the left; and Gerrard and Spearing struggled to hold the center. And yes, Carragher was playing. But sometimes tactical and personnel errors can be overcome by self-belief.

Especially when David Moyes' Everton are your opponents. The Blues were just as insipid tactically, if not more so, failing to take advantage of Liverpool players out of position and only ahead because of Liverpool's Hari-Carra. Thankfully, what goes around comes around, and Distin's back-pass, incredibly reminiscent of Flanagan's on Tuesday, was seized upon by Suarez, holding off Distin before cleverly beating Howard with the outside of his right foot. From there, only one side was looking to win the match, limiting Everton to a couple of infrequent, self-inflicted counters. And in the 87th minute, Andy Carroll won the match.

The announced line-up did make a certain amount of sense. The front six was the same as the last derby, where Liverpool won 3-0. Agger at left back countered Osman, who frequently plays as a tucked-in midfielder, even if the change was as much to allow Carragher on the field. Again, disappointing, and evidently the wrong decision, but it's Carra, a derby, and he played well in the last one. I don't know what else to say. We all know the elephant in the room.

And Liverpool started relatively strongly: good work from Johnson and Carroll released Spearing, who shot over from distance within three minutes, and an uncleared dangerous set play ended when Skrtel hit his left-footed shot into the ground and too close to Howard. But both were tenuous half-chances, typical for a Merseyside derby, with Everton also threatening on Baines' free kick and when Neville beat Downing but Jelavic saw his attempted bicycle easily saved by Jones.

Then disaster struck, again. Typical Liverpool, and sadly, what's become typical Carragher. If it's any other player on the pitch, save maybe Gerrard, Agger clears immediately. But in this case, Agger leaves it after Skrtel's header ricocheted off Jelavic, either because Carra's screaming or just because of his presence, and when Carra finally takes the initiative, he slams his clearance off Cahill, falling perfectly for (a marginally-offside) Jelavic to slot home. Sigh.

At least Liverpool didn't fall apart, as has happened far too often after conceding, but Liverpool didn't have much of a reply either. The Reds continued to have more of the ball, helped by Everton's preference for sitting back and defending a lead, but frequently lost possession because either A) Downing was terrible on the left or B) too many players were looking for Gerrard to single-handedly rescue the side yet again. That Downing switched to the right late in the first half improved his performance, but rendered Henderson wholly insignificant. And having Henderson and Agger manning the left flank could and should have been punished by more threatening opposition than Osman and Neville.

Half-time couldn't have come sooner, and Liverpool came out for the restart better despite no changes, boosted by what was should have been 15 minutes of shouted lectures. In what eventually turned out to be a delicious bit of synchronicity, Carroll opened Liverpool's improved second-half by spurning an outstanding chance, just as he had on Tuesday. It wasn't especially delicious at the time, though. Soon after Spearing's through ball was just over-hit when he should have released Suarez clear on goal.

But then, Everton began taking the game to Liverpool, and a second goal despite Liverpool's improvement felt certain. It certainly wouldn't have been for the first time this season. However, Distin's equivalent moment of madness happened first, and from there, only one side looked capable of winning. Well, only Liverpool showed any initiative in finding a winner. Carragher still found time to almost be the scapegoat again, turned by Osman in the 77th and allowing Jelavic in behind on Fellaini's flick in the 82nd, but Jones saved the former and Jelavic hit the side-netting with the latter.

After going behind, Moyes finally attempted to take advantage of Liverpool's left flank, replacing Gueye with Coleman, an out-and-out right winger. But Coleman made little impact – Everton's chances came from the other side of the pitch – and Liverpool replaced Henderson with Maxi seven minutes later. The substitute set up Carroll twice – the first shot just wide from the top of the box, the second accidently blocked by Suarez, in the 77th and 84th respectively – but it was Liverpool's second substitute who ultimately made the difference, with Bellamy replacing Downing in the 84th.

Three minutes later, the Welshman's free kick from the left flank arced directly to Carroll's forehead, smartly positioned between Jelavic and Fellaini, unstoppably flicked backward and over the despairing Howard. Just like against Blackburn, a redemptive late winner after earlier missed chances but an overall decent display. There were better players on the pitch, but we couldn't have chosen a more-fitting goal-scorer. Never underestimate the potential for narrative fulfillment; real life loves a happy, appropriate ending almost as much as the movies.

Once again, there's more tactical uncertainty, questionable selections, and individual disappointments. But once again, Liverpool come away winners, refusing to lose a cup tie and obviously buoyed by last week's combative rally.

Suarez was Liverpool's best player, often Liverpool's best and only threat in attack, ruthlessly punishing Distin's solitary error, which was the crucial turning point. Carroll deservedly gets to play the hero for the second-straight match. Johnson and Skrtel continued to be defensive cornerstones, while Agger didn't disappoint in an unfamiliar position. And when changes came, they were the right changes, as both Maxi and Bellamy made a difference off the bench. There's still a fair few questions about both the squad and the manager, but at the very least, Liverpool have answered the mental questions over the last couple of matches. And those were the most important and most necessary. Oh, and now there's a second domestic cup final on the horizon. That should help the side's morale somewhat.

Now, Chelsea or Tottenham in the final, a club Liverpool's beaten in four consecutive matches or a club Liverpool's failed to beat in four consecutive matches. But until then, Liverpool need to continue demonstrating this newly-found self-belief in the league. It's a lot easier to lose confidence than keep building on slow, steady improvement.

13 April 2012

Liverpool v Everton 04.14.12

7:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Stoke (h); 6-1 Brighton (h); 2-1 United (h); 5-1 Oldham (h)
Everton: 2-0 Sunderland (a); 1-1 Sunderland (h); 2-0 Blackpool (h); 2-1 Fulham (h); 2-0 Tamworth (h)

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.13.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.01.11
2-2 (h) 01.16.11
0-2 Everton (a) 10.17.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Blackburn (a); 1-1 Villa (a); 0-2 Newcastle (a)
Everton: 4-0 Sunderland (h); 2-2 Norwich (a); 2-0 West Brom (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Suarez 13; Bellamy 9; Gerrard 8; Carroll 7; Maxi 6; Kuyt 5; Skrtel 4; Adam, Downing 2; Agger, Coates, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Shelvey 1
Everton: Anichebe 6; Baines, Jelavic 5; Drenthe, Osman 4; Fellaini, Stracqualursi, Vellios 3; Cahill, Jagielka, Pienaar, Rodwell 2; Gibson, Gueye, Heitinga, Howard, Neville 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Kuyt Gerrard Spearing Downing
Suarez Carroll

So, is it safe to stop Comolli-Cruyff Watch for a day or two?

Because of everything that's come before over the last few months, especially in league fixtures, this is now a season-defining match. It probably would be anyway; it's not often that both Merseyside clubs meet at Wembley for a cup final birth. But Liverpool's campaign has been focused on the cups for a some time now. Which makes it somewhat fitting that the road to the FA Cup is blocked by Liverpool's oldest, nearest, and dearest rivals.

As usual, the biggest guess comes in Liverpool's formation. Will Dalglish line up a 4-4-2, matching Everton's likely set-up, or a 4-2-3-1 with Suarez up front? And as usual, it all depends on Carroll. It'd be strange to see him dropped after Tuesday's immense late winner, more important for the resultant confidence boost than the result, but Dalglish has dropped others after better performances, and Carroll could definitely be fatigued after an hour-plus as a lone striker with the side down to 10 men.

Liverpool have played 4-4-2 with Carroll starting, and effectively at that, in both wins over Everton this season. The above formation is incredibly similar to the team which won convincingly when these sides last met. The only differences in the guessed XI and the one which won on March 13 is Johnson back at right-back and Kuyt in place of Henderson – because it's a big game, against Everton, and it's Dirk Kuyt. The Scourge of the Blues. Maxi missing out after Tuesday's performance seems slightly unfair, but he was clearly tiring by the hour mark and rarely has the legs for consecutive starts.

That Johnson and Agger came out of Tuesday's match unscathed couldn't have come at a better time. Both were handled excellently, prioritizing participation in tomorrow's match: Agger made important sub appearances in Liverpool's last two fixtures, Johnson started 53 good minutes (on the left, no less) against Blackburn. Liverpool's defense has massively missed both, especially the Dane, and Brad Jones will need all the help he can get.

It will be a vastly different Everton side to the one Liverpool beat at Anfield last month. Then as now, Moyes has focused on the FA Cup, understandably so. Pienaar is cup-tied and Rodwell is injured, but Gibson, Heitinga, Neville, Drenthe, Cahill, Osman, and Jelavic – the latter six on the bench for the Anfield meeting – should all start tomorrow.

Of course, Everton rested many of those players for their last league match against Sunderland and won 4-0, with all four goals coming in the second half. The Blues are unbeaten in five, and have lost just twice since January 11 – at Liverpool and Arsenal. Accordingly, given Liverpool's near-mirror image slide over the same time frame, Everton are now 7th in the league, a point ahead of their crosstown rivals.

As much as Everton would like to present otherwise, reveling in the underdog role against Big Bad Liverpool, they have to be the favorites tomorrow. Just look at the clubs' records over the past few months. Then look at the table. That Liverpool won the last two derbies means less than we'd hope: one, because each Derby is its own small self-contained war, and two, because of circumstances in each meeting – Rodwell's harsh red in the first, Everton's weakened XI in the second.

But Liverpool has reveled in the underdog role just as often this season, playing their best football when less-fancied and proactive football is less required. The Liverpool which has lined up in the cups has often been completely different to Liverpool in the league – not in tactics or personnel, but in form and belief – especially since fourth place became a lost cause in late February. And while Liverpool's last two results aren't especially impressive at face value – a home draw and late away win against relegation contenders! – both were important because of the fight needed to earn each result.

For once (well, twice, actually), Liverpool didn't accept unlucky fate, and worked diligently to turn bad fortune around. That type of reaction will be vital against a diligent, fighting opponent such as Everton in such a massively important, season-defining cup tie.

11 April 2012

50 Years of Merseyside Derbies

There have been 217 Merseyside derbies in total. I limited this remembrance to the previous 122, those played in the last 50 years. Which is actually a handy dividing line, as Liverpool and Everton only met once between 1951 and 1962, in the '54-55 FA Cup (which Liverpool won), because of Everton then Liverpool's relegation to the Second Division. Since '62-63, the two clubs have played at least twice per campaign, with 22 cup ties joining the two seasonal fixtures.

And one club is obviously better than the other.

54 wins, 41 draws, and 27 losses pretty much speaks for itself. Liverpool have a better record in four of the six decades, and by some distance in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s. The only competition in which Liverpool doesn't have a winning record over Everton is the season-opening Charity Shield, where both have one win, one loss, and one draw (each club had custody of the trophy for six months following the draw, if you're wondering).

Liverpool have also faced Everton in four cup finals – 1981 and 1984 in the FA Cup, 1984 in the League Cup, and 1986 in the ScreenSport Super Cup (don't ask) – and won all four, albeit with a replay in the '84 League Cup Final. The Reds also won both FA Cup semi-finals against the Blues, in 1971 and 1977. In total, Liverpool have won more matches, scored more goals, kept more clean sheets (48 to 43), and incurred fewer red cards in Merseyside derbies.

It's too bad the past isn't perfect proof of the future. Although that might well be a good thing since Liverpool have failed to win the last five derby cup ties.

As usual, most stats from the irreplaceable LFCHistory.net, without which I wouldn't be able to do approximately half of the infographics I've created. Red card totals from Liverweb and the Merseyside Derby Wikipedia page (don't laugh), all between 1979 and 2011. In theory, there could have been red cards in the derbies from 1962-78, but I couldn't find evidence of it.

10 April 2012

Liverpool 3-2 Blackburn

Maxi 13' 16'
Yakubu 36' 61'
Carroll 90+1'

Knowing the result beforehand, inevitably succumbing to spoilers, makes this review both less joyous and less frantic than it should be. Removing much of the roller-coaster emotion from that result removes much of what makes sports brilliant, and today's spectacle aptly demonstrates why I'd far rather read bloggers' match reviews that the mainstream media's. Dispassionate analysis is usually better analysis, but frantic and joyous is what that insanity deserves.

For the first 16 minutes, it was a totally different Liverpool than we're accustomed to. And it wasn't just the starting XI, which featured more changes than expected and the welcome return of Glen Johnson. It was the fact that Liverpool attacked twice and scored twice in those first 16 minutes. Liverpool taking advantage of chances created, especially early chances, is not the Liverpool we know.

The simplest explanation is Maxi's return to the line-up. And it's hard to refute Occam's Razor. But Maxi hasn't been as impressive in his few appearances since, say, December as he was during the run-in to last season, and wanting to play "the future" rather than a player certain to leave in the summer makes sense, especially in the long-term. Well, performances like the first 16 minutes makes one say 'screw sense, give him another year's contract and play him as much as his legs allow.'

All too often, Liverpool just don't have enough men in the box. Or ones who take up intelligent positions in the box. Maxi Rodriguez makes it his job to be in the box, and usually in the perfect position to score. And he did just that twice within three minutes. First, Skrtel released a remarkable clearing pass from his own box to a wide-open Bellamy, as Blackburn unforgivably failed to retreat from a blown set play. Bellamy raced down the right, and there was Maxi at the back post, easily tapping in the winger's low cross. Soon after, Shelvey smartly stole the ball off Dunn in midfield, but saw his shot saved and Carroll's rebound attempt blocked. No matter. There was Maxi, somehow standing right where the blocked ricochet fell, coolly firing into an open net.

Of course, since it is still Liverpool, it didn't stay that easy. Absolutely nothing has come easy this season. And it wasn't easy because of a yet another self-inflicted wound, one that unfortunately came from a young player who was an absolute liability. Flanagan could have been sent off for two yellows minutes before his under-hit back pass, one which forced Doni to fell Hoilett, earning yet another keeper red card. But Yakubu, who's scored 14 league goals with four from the spot this season, sent the tamest penalty possible at third-string Brad Jones, who replaced the struggling Flanagan. It was the first time an opposition player has missed a spot kick against Liverpool in almost 17 months.

Liverpool rejigged, with Henderson shifting to right back in a 4-4-1-1, but the reprieve didn't last long, from another regrettable error as Carroll completely lost Yakubu on a free kick, conceding a free header from eight yards out against a player who thrives on those chances. Spoiler alert: thankfully, redemption was just an hour away, especially since Carroll's usually excellent at defending set plays.

Otherwise, Liverpool did an impressive job stifling the opposition despite the numerical disadvantage. But Liverpool's usually better when on the back foot, containing and controlling rather than frustratingly committing seppuku against less-fancied opposition. Dunn had a couple of half chances from distance easily smothered on either side of half-time, but Liverpool should have extended its tenuous advantage soon after the interval. However, that man Carroll missed a close range header from Bellamy's corner when it looked easier to score. Spoiler alert: thankfully, redemption was just 45 minutes away.

And then Blackburn equalized. And again, it was a solitary brain fart. Multiple, in fact. Jones lingered on a back pass, had his clearance blocked by Yakubu, flapped at the deflection, just about handing it to Yakubu, then softly pushed the rather large man over. The whole sequence basically demanded Yakety Sax playing in the background. Luckily, as with Flanagan, Anthony Taylor took sympathy on Liverpool and refused to send off another goal-keeper. But this time, Yakubu made no mistake with his penalty.

In the 74th minute, soon after Agger (who came on for Johnson in the 53rd in a planned substitution) had a header from a corner cleared off the line, the match commentator Alan Parry said, "Liverpool would accept the draw at the moment." And, despite Blackburn's lack of chances (which would come in the subsequent minutes), it would have been totally understandable, not only because a far more important match on Saturday but also all the pain – fair and unfair – that's come before. But Liverpool didn't. That they didn't is even more heartening than the three points.

The 10-man away side survived the marginal onslaught over the next five or so minutes – Hoilett was offside and failed to connect with a dangerous low cross, Jones tipped over a potential own goal from Carroll, Hanley headed high at the back post – and finished the stronger side, rallying furiously for the win in the final ten minutes, with Enrique's fresh legs (on for Maxi in the 77th) also a factor.

Few would have bet that Carroll would score the winner, even before his miss in the 48th or the almost own goal in the 76th. And given the club's current situation, he'll assuredly score more important goals in his Liverpool career, no matter how long it lasts. But I doubt he'll score many more meaningful, at least to him. Saying that Carroll needed that goal barely suffices. He nearly burst out of his skin after tallying the winner, fed by Agger's header from Coates' punt back into the box, leaping to cannon a header through Robinson's hand. His relief was still tangible through the television two hours after the fact and from an ocean away. And while you rarely get what you deserve, he deserved that, not only for the frustration that's come before but his overall hard work as a lone striker, fighting for everything in the air everywhere on the pitch.

Since we've deservedly criticized Dalglish's tactics often this season, he deserves credit today. Moving Henderson to right back was a stroke of genius, possibly the best he's played all season, and probably man of the match because of the enormity of his performance in an unfamiliar position. Shelvey and Spearing were also an excellent partnership, full of much-needed running; Shelvey's intermittent pressing in Blackburn's half was especially impressive. Johnson and Agger were managed perfectly, both getting needed time prior to Saturday, and Agger boosting a potentially flagging side in the final 35 minutes. Skrtel also seemed to thrive as captain, managing an unfamiliar and inexperienced back four and managing multiple conversations with the ref. Other than the earlier-mentioned unfortunate scapegoats, we saw some brilliant individual performances and as a comprehensive side.

But Liverpool's tactics usually work fairly well when the opposition forces the side to be reactive. Both Chelsea matches, City in the Carling Cup, United at home and in the FA Cup, Arsenal away, etc. It's when they have to be proactive that they frequently shit the bed. This team is infinitely happier when it's the underdog, which probably helps explain why they've dropped 15 points to the bottom six sides. But when Liverpool had a full complement of players, Liverpool scored twice away from home against one of those lower-placed sides which they usually fail against, which was also a welcome change.

Today was and wasn't great preparation for Saturday's semi-final. Running furiously, chasing chasing chasing when down to 10 men for 65 minutes, certainly isn't helpful, even if a fair few of these players won't feature against Everton. But the boost to confidence, one of those intangibles we've harped on all season, can't be measured – both for individuals who need it, like Carroll and Henderson, and for the team as a whole. As I wrote after Liverpool marginally improved in the second half against Villa, "fighting back" for the draw, morale is the most important improvement needed over the rest of the league campaign. Whether Liverpool finish seventh or ninth doesn't really matter in the greater scheme of things. But how Liverpool finish certainly does.

09 April 2012

Liverpool at Blackburn 04.10.12

3pm ET, live in the US on FSC

FYI: For the second time in the last three matches, I'll have to miss this game due to prior commitments. Unlike the Newcastle abomination, I'll have a review up later in the evening. Just no live tweets or semi-immediate match write-up. This is what this season has done to me; I honestly forgot Liverpool were playing when scheduling a meeting. Whoops.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 12.26.11
1-3 Blackburn (a) 02.12.11
2-1 Liverpool (h) 11.10.10
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.08.09

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

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Blackburn: Yakubu 14; Hoilett 6; Formica, Pedersen 3; Dunn, Goodwillie, Nzonzi, Rochina 2; Dann, Hanley, Vukcevic 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Henderson Shelvey Spearing Downing
Suarez Carroll

How much will Liverpool change its lineup with Saturday's semifinal just over the horizon?

Granted, Liverpool have changed its lineup (and formation) with little rhyme or reason this season, whether there's been another match three days or a week later, whether the team's played well or poorly in the previous outing. Accordingly, Dalglish said in pre-match quotes that the team selection will be a late decision.

So, my convoluted selection logic from back to front. Doni's an obvious starter during Reina's suspension; that one costly flap shouldn't allow Brad Jones to sneak in. Flanagan still appears to be the only fit right back. Skrtel rarely needs rest and Agger needs game time. Enrique, on the other hand, has seen his form drop precipitously of late, and might well be replaced by Aurelio, if possible. Agger at left-back, where he played as a substitute on Saturday, isn't outside the realm of possibility either.

It's near-impossible to gauge without seeing training or fitness tests, but Gerrard seems one of a few who should definitely be rested, having played the last seven since missing the Arsenal match, one of just two matches he's missed since returning from injury in the reverse fixture on Boxing Day (the other was the 3-0 win at Wolves). Without Gerrard out, Liverpool would be limited to Henderson, Shelvey, and Spearing in midfield, with the former likely to play on the right if Liverpool revert to the 4-4-2, partly because of Dalglish's preference for a lopsided formation and partly because Kuyt is far more likely to start against Everton.

Carroll should also come back in after his relegation to the bench against Villa, while Suarez could be another who's rested for the weekend, with Bellamy starting in his place. But Suarez rarely misses games due to fatigue, and had the added benefit of an unscheduled winter break. Plus, the last time we saw the Carroll-Bellamy pairing was at Bolton, a memory few will treasure. Suarez and Carroll started up front when these sides last met, with Henderson and Adam in midfield because of a lack of options and Downing and Maxi on the flanks. Despite Maxi's usual quiet influence, I'd be surprised if he featured here, again because of his more-than-likely exit at the end of the season.

Blackburn, currently in 18th on goal difference, almost always play 4-4-1-1, with Hoilett or Dunn behind top-scorer Yakubu. Chances are tomorrow's lineup will mirror that deployed in the 0-2 home loss against United a week ago: Robinson; Orr, Dann, Hanley, Olsson; Pedersen, Nzonzi, Lowe, Olsson; Hoilett; Yakubu. Both strikers will probably be isolated for long stretches, but both are able to conjure something from nothing: Hoilett with his pace, Yakubu with his strength and experience. Blackburn are also dangerous on set plays, where Liverpool have conceded slightly less than a quarter of their goals, including in the reverse fixture (albeit from an Adam own goal). Both center-backs are excellent in the air, as is Yakubu, while Pedersen is outstanding from direct strikes. Other than long-term casualties Salgado and Grella, Rovers have no injury concerns.

Saturday's draw against Villa was quite similar to the last meeting between Liverpool and Blackburn, the sixth of Liverpool's nine infuriating home draws. Liverpool as the "better" side, but conceding an unlikely first on an aberrant attack, struggling for an equalizer, and advancing no further. Of course, that's similar to more than a few results this season.

Given Liverpool's fortunes against the bottom quarter of the table – v Villa, at Bolton, at QPR, home and away against Wigan, and, yes, home to Blackburn – this match is arguably more frightening than Saturday's much more important fixture. Liverpool have handed out so many free points to Blackburn's relegation rivals that it'll feel almost unfair if they don't do the same for Rovers.

After Everton's demolition of Sunderland today, Liverpool are four points behind the Toffees in eighth, only ahead of Norwich on goal difference. And if Fulham somehow beat Chelsea later today, they'll be in ninth, just a point and goal difference away from the bottom half of the table. Admittedly, the only difference in seventh and tenth is in morale – the pay-outs, the only tangible reward at this point, are nearly identical – but Liverpool's biggest problem has often been morale. After such an interminable stretch of poor form and results, Liverpool simply need to start winning. Simply. Ha. But both good and bad results lend to a self-perpetuating cycle and, after an infinitesimally heartening "comeback" on Saturday, Liverpool need to get on one of the good cycles for a change.

07 April 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Aston Villa

Herd 10'
Suarez 82'

Hey, at least it's not another loss! That's progress, right?

What, that's not enough consolation against a fairly dire, injury-ravaged 15th-placed side and when it's the ninth home draw of the season? Oh, right. Still, better than the alternative.

Nonetheless, it again proves overly difficult to fully stop the rot. Liverpool start well, are (arguably wrongly) denied a clear-cut chance to take the lead, and then concede on the opposition's first shot, mostly of their own making. And then completely fall apart once conceding despite the promising start. No matter the personnel, the script rarely changes.

Herd's 10th-minute goal – conceded on the break after Doni whiffed on a cross and Henderson failed to track the midfield runner – allowed Villa to play exactly how McLeish wants to play: with a narrow lead and ten men behind the ball. And Liverpool have found it difficult to break down open sides lately and packed defenses open at the best of times, so it wasn't surprising to see a struggle in this situation.

But morale clearly took yet another blow, and Liverpool failed to regain any semblance of momentum until the late in the half, with Skrtel's downward header from a corner, wide of the post, the only opportunity of note. Then came the final few minutes. First, Suarez could have had a penalty in the 39th, ignored because he took a step after clear contact before falling and because he's Suarez. After that, Liverpool should have equalized in the 44th, with Kuyt – the only player I didn't fantasize about throttling at that point – ballooning from two yards out after Gerrard's errant shot somehow found him in space. Which was followed by Suarez wriggling free but shooting straight at Given and Gerrard blasting over from a narrow angle.

Liverpool changed formation in the second half, reverting to a 4-4-2 with Kuyt joining Suarez up top and Gerrard (rather than Henderson) moving to the right. It nearly paid dividends within 10 minutes, as Suarez met Gerrard's dangerous right-wing cross, but directed his header onto the post with Given instinctively palming off the line. 13 minutes after that, Liverpool could have won its third penalty on a second possible handball, this clearer when Lichaj blocked Kuyt's attempt to control with an out-stretched arm. I fervently apologize for writing that I thought Michael Oliver was one of the league few capable referees.

Changes on the hour, with Carroll and Bellamy replacing Downing and Shelvey, helped matters, but Liverpool didn't furiously rally until the final substitution, when Agger replaced Enrique with 15 minutes to play. Bellamy then forced a near-post save from Given and Agger shot wide before the corner which led to Liverpool's equalizer . Regrouping after an initial clearance, Agger headed Gerrard's cross onto the bar, followed up by Suarez from inches out. Not quite fully deserved, as Liverpool's rarely gotten what it's deserved, and not assuredly coming given what's gone on before, but more than merited. Yet despite total possession, two chances for Carroll, and a couple of goal-mouth scrambles, Liverpool couldn't complete the comeback, with Villa hanging on for a point by its time-wasting fingernails.

Because it's Liverpool, there are excuses – could have had three penalties, Kuyt's 7th-minute shot looked over the line – but until the last quarter of the match, it was also another mostly-indefensible performance in a season overflowing with them. Which unsurprisingly makes said excuses somewhat less valid.

Still, Liverpool aren't going to revert to winning ways immediately. Not after how far they've fallen, how wrecked the side's confidence has been from top to bottom. So any sort of comeback, especially with the actually-not-quitting-for-a-change mentality displayed in the final 15 minutes, when the side easily could have seen out another pathetic loss, is marginally heartening. It's a start.

Other than that possible marginal morale boost, there were two other positives to be taken from today. The first was Agger's return; it's fitting he played such a large part in Liverpool's equalizer. The second was Gerrard's performance on the right, creating more chances than Villa did in total, and with the all-important cross leading to Liverpool's lone goal. Before the season, I rationalized Henderson's purchase with the belief he's Gerrard's long-term replacement. Well, at the moment, Gerrard can play the "Henderson role" in Liverpool's lopsided 4-4-2 far better than the ex-Sunderland midfielder. And, even with Adam and Lucas out, Liverpool have enough bodies in midfield where a shift in Gerrard's position would probably help rather than hurt the club. Of course, Benitez thought similar six seasons earlier.

That Liverpool have another match in three days is probably for the best, even considering the too-long casualty list. I'd imagine a fair few will be rested with an eye on Saturday's semi-final, but for the first time in a long time, Liverpool demonstrated a modicum of hope that the worst might actually be behind them.

06 April 2012

Liverpool v Aston Villa 04.07.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11
0-1 Villa (a) 05.22.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.06.10
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.29.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Newcastle (a); 1-2 Wigan (h); 2-3 QPR (a)
Villa: 2-4 Chelsea (h); 0-3 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Villa: Bent 9, Agbonlahor 5; Petrov 4; Keane 3; Albrighton, N'Zogbia 2; Bannan, Collins, Dunne, Heskey, Ireland, Lichaj, Warnock, Weimann 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Carragher Enrique
Gerrard Spearing
Downing Shelvey Bellamy

I don't really want to see Suarez as a lone striker again, but I also don't expect Carroll to start after Sunday's display. Unless Carroll has been pulling up trees in training all week, I suspect he'll be left on the bench because of his dive, because of his reaction to be substituted, and because of his otherwise unimpressive overall display. Punishing a striker who's biggest problem is confidence may not be the healthiest tact, but last week's display deserves some sort of reaction.

Kuyt may replace Carroll in a straight swap, and Liverpool has usually been more effective when playing 4-4-2, but this seems another potential opportunity for Jonjo Shelvey, who has to have been kept around for a reason. Just like the reverse fixture was an opportunity for Shelvey.

Liverpool deployed a similar formation in the reverse fixture, with Shelvey lurking behind Suarez with Downing and Bellamy on either side. However, Liverpool didn't win because of a rare start for Shelvey or the rarely-seen formation. Both goals came from set plays, both corners, and early corners at that. It was the definition of winning the game by converting early chances, taking advantage of the fast start for a change, something Liverpool haven't done anywhere near enough. The subsequent 70 minutes was spent smothering a stale Villa into further submission.

As usual, Downing, Bellamy, Kuyt, and Henderson are the options on the flanks, in order of likelihood of starting. Gerrard and Spearing seemingly have to be the central midfield duo despite neither impressing against Newcastle. Henderson could also come in here, but the above formation – if used – doesn't really support the youngster's talents; he won't play wide in a 4-2-3-1, Shelvey would take up his more natural position as an attacking midfielder, and he doesn't provide enough of that ephemeral "steel" when sitting deeper in midfield. Henderson and Adam started in central midfield in the last meeting because Liverpool had no other options; Gerrard was injured, Spearing suspended. So unless Gerrard really needs a rest, which isn't outside the realm of possibility, I'd be surprised to see Henderson.

Neither Agger, Kelly, or Johnson will be available yet, and Dalglish has said that Agger will be the first to return. That Doni will be forced into his first competitive start is yet another reason why Dalglish will continue to pick Carragher over Coates – experience! – but I'm still part of the overwhelming chorus who'd prefer the Uruguayan. At least Carragher played at left CB against Newcastle, allowing Skrtel to switch back to the right, where he's far more comfortable. Fat lot of good it did, mind.

With one win in their last nine, Villa are actually on a worse run than coming into the reverse fixture. They were 10th when these sides last met, now 15th, just five points outside the relegation zone. However, it's hard to believe the Midlands club will play as insipidly as they did in December, which was one of Liverpool's easiest wins of the season. Despite losing, last week's match against Chelsea showed some promise, coming back from two-down before two late goals (including one from some guy named Torres) doomed any hope of a battling upset.

Villa has one of the longest casualty lists in the league, and it's little surprise that a downswing in form came at the same time Darren Bent has been injured and Robbie Keane returned to MLS. Dunne, Delph, Cuellar, Clark, and N'Zogbia are also out, while club captain Stiliyan Petrov was sadly diagnosed with leukemia recently. That's two first-choice defenders, three first-choice midfielders, and the club's top scorer/record signing definitely absent. Ouch. Young striker Weimann and right back Hutton will also be late fitness tests, with the latter supposedly more likely to be available.

Which means Villa are probably lucky to be facing Liverpool, one of the few sides in worse form than they are. You all know the depressing stats by now. Three consecutive losses, six losses in seven, eight points from a potential 36 won since New Year's Day. Indescribably terrible and terrifying. Not to sound both Pollyannaish and like a broken record, but Liverpool seemingly have to come good sooner or later. This team has many obviously apparent issues: form, confidence, tactics, etc. But it is still vastly better than the dross we've been treated to lately.

04 April 2012

2011-12 Turning Points

Lucas Injury
• 1.77 points per game before, 1.05 after [-0.62 PPG]
• 1.31 goals per game before, 1.05 after [-0.26 GPG]
• 0.92 goals conceded per game before, 1.11 after [+0.19 GCPG]

Suarez Suspension
• 1.72 points per game before, 1.40 during [-0.32 PPG]
• 1.17 goals per game before, 1.40 during [+0.23 GPG]
• 0.78 goals conceded per game before, 1.40 during [+0.62 GCPG]

Carling Cup Final and Agger Injury
• 1.56 points per game before, 0.50 after [-1.06 PPG]
• 1.16 goals per game before, 1.17 after [+0.01 GPG]
• 0.92 goals conceded per game before, 1.67 after [+0.75 GCPG]

All three are terrifying, but the effects of the Carling Cup final hangover and, more importantly, Agger's injury are by far the scariest. Liverpool have only played six league matches since, but are averaging a point less per game and conceding 0.75 more goals per game. Having Johnson and Kelly absent for most of those certainly hasn't helped, but Agger is the the biggest miss. Skrtel may have been Liverpool's player of the season – at least before this recent stretch – but Daniel Agger is by far Liverpool's most important defender. As Bass Tuned to Red wrote earlier this week, Liverpool have conceded a league goal every 129.7 minutes with Agger on the pitch, and a league goal every 58.9 minutes when he has been absent. Yikes.

Lucas' injury is almost as significant. Liverpool's record in the 13 games prior to his injury: 6W-5D-2L. Liverpool's record in the subsequent 18: 5W-4D-9L. Fewer goals scored per game and more goals conceded, although it's slightly surprising to see a bigger difference in goals scored rather than conceded. But Lucas' as the metronomic base for Liverpool's attacks is just as important, if not more so, than Lucas as the tough tackling defensive midfielder.

Finally, Suarez's suspension. Five matches, from Newcastle at home through Wolves away, returning as a substitute against Tottenham. Liverpool actually scored more goals per game during the matches Suarez missed. Carroll started as a lone striker in three: the two matches where Liverpool scored three – wins against Newcastle and Wolves – as well as the 0-3 loss at City. Carroll and Bellamy partnered in the loss at Bolton, linking up for the lone goal, while Kuyt started up front in the 3-4-2-1 scoreless draw against Stoke. However, Liverpool's goals conceded tally rose dramatically during that span, mostly thanks to conceding three against City and Bolton, both featuring Liverpool's first choice back four of Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique. It's hard to credit that to Suarez's absence, but I suspect (without proof) that opponents are more hesitant to send multiple attackers forward with the ever-dangerous Uruguayan lurking off the shoulder of the last defender.

Missing key players for long to extra-long stretches isn't a good enough excuse for this season's horrors. Liverpool still scored too few goals, conceded frustratingly in aberrant draws, and found new and inventive ways to drop points before any of these three turning points. However, all three absences, as well as the post-Carling Cup letdown, do help explain the increasingly diminishing returns during this horror campaign.