30 May 2012

On Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers' appointment is imminent according to the BBC and Liverpool Echo, although we're still waiting for confirmation from the club.

Biography Snapshot
Born: 26 January 1973, Carnlough, Northern Ireland
Teams Managed: Swansea (July 2010 - May 2012), Reading (June 2009 - December 2009), Watford (November 2008 - June 2009)
Career Record: 151 matches (62W-33D-56L)

We might as well get the feared, loaded question out of the way up front. Is Brendan Rodgers the new flavor of the month?

There's no comparison – whether in tactics, personality, résumé, or otherwise – to the last time Liverpool hired a flavor of the month. But could Rodgers end up as this season's Owen Coyle?

No matter who FSG chose to replace Dalglish, it would have been a gamble. Martinez? Almost as inexperienced, although Rodgers has a "big club" background due to his time with Mourinho's Chelsea. Villas-Boas spectacularly failed in his last job, and was seemingly ruled out earlier in the process. The fans' choice, Rafa Benitez, was a non-starter; FSG had already been burned by reaching backwards, although Hodgson's inability to do anything right forced their hand in regards to Dalglish. They weren't going to make that mistake again, especially considering the baggage Benitez carries with a distinct segment of Liverpool fans and the British press, as well as his renowned demand for total control. Guardiola, Klopp? Not interested. Capello? Another who'd probably demand more control than FSG were willing to give and with little room for growth given his long CV.

It appears that the choice came down to Martinez or Rodgers. Two of the youngest managers in the league, one who's been in the league for just one season, the other who's never finished above 15th in his three top-tier seasons. FSG are obviously building with the long-term in mind.

Rodgers, unlike Martinez, has a preferred system. His sides play 4-3-3. Martinez's Wigan played every variation of 4-5-1 under the sun in addition to the much-written-about 3-4-3, with varying levels of success. Rodgers' Swansea side used the same formula in nearly every fixture this season: a moderately high defensive line focused on short passes and building from the back, three central midfielders, two fleet-footed wingers-cum-forwards, and a central striker.

Sure, call it 4-2-3-1 if you want – that often what Swansea looked like without the ball, Allen got forward from midfield more than Gower or Britton, and Dyer and Sinclair were as much wingers as wide forwards. Unlike other 4-2-3-1s, even when Allen got forward, he looked more a part of the central midfield than one of the attackers. This probably wouldn't be Rafa Benitez's 4-2-3-1, the style still used to define that formation in most Liverpool fans' minds.

More important than the formation are the ideas behind it. Rodgers, whose managerial lineage traces directly back to Jose Mourinho, is clearly a devotee of Barcelona and Spain's tiki-taka football – mentioned in almost anything written about Rodgers' Swansea and excellently summarized by the first half of this blog post. Two recent interviews are required reading: from the Telegraph in January and the Guardian prior to the May meeting with Liverpool, which are the sources of his subsequent quotes.

“I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game. For me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.”

For fans reared by Benitez's Liverpool, this is a comforting quote. His Liverpool sides also dictated possession, albeit using different means. Swansea were often more ponderous in possession, but Swansea's players were almost totally Premiership novices. As Who Scored wrote soon after the news broke, only Barca (88.5%), Bayern (86.3%), and Manchester City (85.9%) had a better pass success rate in the top 5 leagues this season than Swansea's 85.7%.

It's self-serving to link my own earlier work, but the frustration over how Rodgers' Swansea stifled Liverpool in both meetings still oozes from the screen. And Liverpool weren't the only side to succumb to Swansea in such disheartening manner.

“My template for everything is organisation. With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team. Then there’s our defensive organisation. So if it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again."

And there's the Mourinho heritage. Organization, movement patterns, positioning. Not quite a rigid chessboard, but definable routines. I doubt it's coincidence that FSG refused Steve Clarke's resignation after Dalglish's sacking. Clarke worked with Rodgers under Mourinho, with Rodgers crediting Clarke for bringing him to Chelsea.

"I believe if you give a bad player time, he can play. If you give a good player time, he can kill you. So our emphasis is based around our positioning both with and without the ball. And for us, when we press well, we pass well."

Liverpool gave plenty of bad players time to kill them this season, whether by standing off in the final third or in refusing to press when the opposition reclaimed possession. Brendan Rodgers' sides rarely fail to do either.

"You work on zonal pressure, so that when it is in your zone, you have the capacity to press. That ability to press immediately, within five or six seconds to get the ball, is important. But you also have to understand when you can't and what the triggers are then to go for it again because you can't run about like a madman.

"It's decision-making and intelligence. And this was always the thing with the British player, they were always deemed never to be intelligent, not to have good decision-making skills but could fight like hell for the ball. I believe they have all of the [attributes] and, if you can structure that, then you can have real, effective results."

Liverpool also had a problem with a lack of intelligence from some of its British players, especially those acquired in the last 18 months, but the less said about that, the better. I suspect training, something that Rodgers takes full part in, will be an interesting place for the next few months. The Guardian interview, which is where that previous quote came from, is a priceless insight into how Rodgers sees and runs training sessions, and fits totally into the predominant belief that Liverpool are looking for a head coach rather than an all-consuming manager.

“When we have the football everybody’s a player. The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.”

That should be music to Pepe Reina's ears. Reina's distribution (and overall form) suffered under both Hodgson and Dalglish, for various reasons. Liverpool's increasingly deep defense – whether Carragher started or not – almost assuredly hindered his talents. Returning to the 'sweeper-keeper' role he thrived in during Benitez's reign will hopefully see Reina's reclaim his place as one of the best goalkeepers in the league.

It's not incredibly difficult to see Rodgers' Swansea grafted onto Liverpool.

Short passes from the central defenders, building the attack from the back. Rodgers' Swansea never pressed as fervently as Barcelona, nor did the back four play as high a line – few, if any, do – but those are still predominant traits. Agger, Skrtel, Johnson, and Enrique should all do well in this system.

It'd be a fairly typical "runner, creator, destroyer" troika in central midfield, although the runner is usually the furthest-forward, with the two deeper central midfielders as deep-lying playmaker and holding tackler, although both midfielders need to have the ability to do both. Gerrard and Henderson can play as the most-advanced midfielder or both can play as the more-creative of the two deeper. Adam and Gower – Swansea's chance creation machine – could be similar in a deep-lying playmaker role, while Lucas is a vastly superior version of Leon Britton. As hinted at in the above formation diagram, after writing him off for the past two seasons, Aquilani could well find himself back in Liverpool's plans; a player who could star in Rodgers' system.

For Swansea, Sinclair cut inside from the left while Dyer or Routledge stretched play on the right. We could see a reversal of that with the disappointing Downing as an orthodox winger on the left and Suarez wreaking roaming havoc from the other side. The Uruguayan has played as a wide forward for both country and his previous club, and is capable of filling any forward role. Carroll is an archetypal English center-forward, better with the ball at his feet than he's given credit for, although he'd assuredly have to improve his movement and finishing to fit naturally into the system. But that's what training's for, right?

Yes, there are clear holes in Liverpool's version of this set-up, most notably in central midfield and up front. Which are obviously priority areas no matter the formation. There are clear holes in Liverpool's squad regardless of the set-up, as painfully proven during the duration of the previous campaign. I thought a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation was the way forward last summer, and I still think similar now. But this is predominantly a conversation for another day. We've got all summer to fret about summer spending.

We still don't know the overall set-up of the club going forward. The Van Gaal (who was one of Mourinho's mentors) as Director of Football rumors seem to have slowly faded away, but whether that means Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell will split Technical Director duties with Ayre in charge of the purse-strings, whether Van Gaal's still in the frame, or whether Rodgers will have a closer-to-usual Premier League manager power over his domain remains to be seen. I suspect it'll be the former, but I won't pretend to have any inside insight either.

Regardless of the set-up, this appointment needs to be given time and backing. You can't overhaul the structure and appoint a young manager while expecting immediate results. Expectations were too high in each of the last three seasons, and Benitez, Hodgson, and Dalglish paid for it. Next season may well be painful. Maybe even as painful as the previous season was, although I both doubt it and certainly hope not. But unless we're forced to suffered through Hodgson-esque perpetual doom and gloom with absolutely no hope of improvement (or even an attempt at improvement), Rodgers will need license to fail before he can succeed.

Two weeks after Dalglish's exit, FSG seems to have gotten their man for their project. A young manager, more a head coach than club Godfather, who will develop alongside his increasingly younger squad. Even if we're unconvinced by or unhappy with the choice – which I'm not – this project needs to be given full patience for every chance at success.

24 May 2012

Minutes Played 2011-12

Had a request following the last graphic, which listed each players' total appearances, to break it down into minutes played. Appearances can be deceiving, after all. Ask and ye shall receive (sometimes).

Total possible minutes were 3420 in the Premier League, 540 in the FA Cup, and 660 in the Carling Cup.

Notable miscellany:

• Unsurprisingly, two defenders and the starting goalkeeper played the most minutes. It's no surprise to see Reina lead in minutes played for the Premiership and Carling Cup – he was the only player to play all seven Carling Cup matches and the maximum minutes possible in any competition. Both he and Skrtel played every minute in the Premier League last season. This was the first season since 2006-07 where Reina didn't play every Premier League minute.

• It was, however, slightly surprising to see Gerrard lead in minutes played for the FA Cup, the only player to start all six FA Cup ties. Carroll and Downing were the only others to appear in all six matches; Downing started five, Carroll four.

• Carragher played the fifth-most minutes in that competition, behind Gerrard, Reina, Skrtel, and Downing. However, he was 12th in Premier League minutes played and 16th in Carling Cup minutes played.

• Kuyt and Bellamy had the joint-most substitute appearances in all competitions, with 19. Carroll was just one behind, with 18 appearances off the bench.

• Despite being injured since the end of November, Lucas played just 99 minutes less than Maxi, with both making the same number of Premier League appearances. This should bother you. It bothers me.

• Somehow Shelvey and Coates played the exact same amount – 845 total minutes. I just found that odd.

• Premiership totals from LiverpoolFC.tv statistics
• Cup totals added together from LFCHistory.net match reports

21 May 2012

Liverpool Stats 2011-12

More season-long statistics in graphic form, similar to those about goals scored and conceded published last week. Because no matter how painful the 2011-12 season was, this is still more fun than baseless and mindless speculation about the new manager and/or future of the club.

As often, all statistics from LFCHistory.net except for "assists," which are explained in the graphic.

16 May 2012

Dalglish Out!

I honestly don't know this club anymore. I'd better get used to that fact.

Look, we're all aware this season's results were horrendous. The denizens of the Andromeda Galaxy are aware of that. The fact remains it was one season, the season after Hicks and Gillett nearly destroyed the club and Hodgson helped dig the hole deeper.

Liverpool is not – well, was not – a club that changes managers by the minute. Especially not when the manager is the best player in club history and the last manager to deliver the league title. Hodgson was and remains a special case, for the dire football, brainless remarks, and complete lack of understanding of the club. Dalglish committed none of those sins. But this is increasingly a results-oriented business, with emphasis on the word business. Welcome to 21st-century sport.

Right now, I don't really care about how much Dalglish got to spend, whether gross or net. I don't care who was a Comolli signing and who was a Dalglish signing. FSG gave the club's greatest servant one year to rebuild from ground zero and then sacked him when the team failed to achieve the desired results immediately. I truly despair for the future.

This renders my mostly-written season review moot, but I guess I'll touch upon some of the "highlights" here. For all the bad we saw – and there was an incredible amount of bad – there were positives and are excuses. A trophy, any trophy. The emergence of a top shelf first-choice back four. Much better football, if not results, than we've seen for the majority of the previous two seasons. Liverpool's failure to win close games mostly thanks to an incredulous inability to score goals, finding it easier to hit the woodwork. Liverpool's most important player tearing his ACL in November, Liverpool's best player suspended for nine matches during the heart of the season, Liverpool's aging talisman struggling with injuries for the duration of the campaign.

Admittedly, by the end of the season, I was eminently frustrated by many things about the team and manager, most notably a lack of a cohesive tactical or transfer strategy to go along with questionable personnel decisions throughout the campaign. There were some positive signs and good matches, but Liverpool rarely looked like they knew what they were doing on and off the pitch. That is a very bad thing. I'm still not sure if it's a sackable offense given the above excuses, what (little) Liverpool had accomplished in the two previous seasons, and who said manager is was.

Now, a new manager will start all over, wanting to spend a similar amount to that spent last summer to forge "his team." Liverpool will again (still) need to settle on a preferred plan, preferred formation, and preferred tactics – things which eluded the side for nearly an entire season. There is currently no Director of Football, no Head of Communications, no new stadium, and now, no manager.

Despite the horrific results, there was a foundation in place and good football played on occasion. Now, Liverpool are back to ground zero. And that ground zero is further and further behind the league's front-runners. City will be undoubtedly bolstered by their title victory; the first is always the hardest, and it's always easier to attract players to a winning project, especially with gobs of money. Manchester United is still Manchester United. Odds are that Chelsea again fails to secure Roman's much-desired Champions League (please!), which will give them further impetus to throw unlimited rubles at rebuilding an aging squad. Arsenal and probably Tottenham will have Champions League football and Champions League money to entice players.

This was always the danger of appointing Dalglish. He was not FSG's first choice, and only Hodgson's complete inability to do anything right forced their hand. It was always going to be harder to sack Dalglish if something went wrong, and yes, things went wrong. Still, most managers deserve better, deserve more time, and this man deserves much, much better.

I thought he merited another season if not for the few positives signs than because of who he is and what he's done for the club over the last four decades.

It goes without saying that FSG had better have a plan. And that plan had better work, and soon. This sets a very unwanted precedent. If Dalglish is sacked after one bad season, the next man will get even less time and far less patience.

15 May 2012

Results Comparison 2011-12 (and bonus graphic)

For comparison, here's last year's version.

Fairly similar, horrific results, but more home draws leading to fewer points. Huzzah!

versus club:
• United (1st --> 2nd) = -2
• Chelsea (2nd --> 6th) = 0
• City (3rd --> 1st) = -2
• Arsenal (4th --> 3rd) = +1
• Tottenham (5th --> 4th) = +1
• Everton (7th --> 7th) = +5
• Fulham (8th --> 9th) = -6
• Villa (9th --> 16th) = +1
• Sunderland (10th --> 13th) = -3
• West Brom (11th --> 10th) = 0
• Newcastle (12th --> 5th) = 0
• Stoke (13th --> 14th) = -2
• Bolton (14th --> 18th) = -3
• Blackburn (15th --> 19th) = -2
• Wigan (16th --> 15th) = -1
• Wolves (17th --> 20th) = +3
• Relegated/Promoted 1 (Birmingham 18th --> QPR 17th) = -1
• Relegated/Promoted 2 (Blackpool 19th --> Norwich 12th) = +4
• Relegated/Promoted 3 (West Ham 20th --> Swansea 11th) = -2

Better against Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, and one of the relegated/promoted sides. Worse against almost everyone else.

versus league place:
• vs 1st = 3 to 1 = -2
• vs 2nd = 6 to 1 = -5
• vs 3rd = 3 to 3 = 0
• vs 4th = 2 to 1 = -1
• vs 5th = 0 to 3 = +3
• vs 6th = n/a to 6 = (0 combined with 8th)
• vs 7th = 1 to 6 = +6
• vs 8th = 6 to n/a = (0 combined with 6th)
• vs 9th = 3 to 0 = -3
• vs 10th = 4 to 3 = -1
• vs 11th = 3 to 1 = -2
• vs 12th = 3 to 4 = +1
• vs 13th = 3 to 1 = -2
• vs 14th = 6 to 1 = -5
• vs 15th = 3 to 1 = -2
• vs 16th = 2 to 4 = +2
• vs 17th = 3 to 3 = 0
• vs 18th = 4 to 3 = -1
• vs 19th = 0 to 4 = +4
• vs 20th = 3 to 6 = +3

Better against the three places directly above Liverpool in the table and, surprisingly, those at the very bottom. Otherwise, again, worse against the majority, both the clubs at the top of the table and the vast middle class of the league which Liverpool now sits among.


Another repeat from last season, as it seems helpful to organize results in this fashion. Unfortunately, since Liverpool scored far too few goals, it's not necessarily fun to look at said results in this fashion.

Some quick thoughts:

• Hey, at least Liverpool were better away from home this season! Let's not worry about how Liverpool's home record compares, though. Also, no points awarded for saying 'there was nowhere to go but up' because, seriously, don't be that guy.

• Look at all those draws. Actually, don't. It's depressing.

• Liverpool failed to win away when scoring just once. In fact, Liverpool scored just one away from Anfield twice in 18 games. The Reds were held scoreless in eight (one draw, seven losses), scored twice in six (five wins, one loss), and scored three in three (three wins). Odd.

• Last season, this graphic took up six columns. Just saying.

14 May 2012

Top 10 Liverpool Goals 2011-12

I figure we'll start the usual season wrap-up stuff with the easiest, most enjoyable post. Multiple infographics and an almost certainly depressing narrative season review to follow.

10) Carroll 1-2 Chelsea (FA)
9) Carroll 3-2 Blackburn

There's a footballer in there somewhere. These two vastly different goals demonstrate that. One, a quick-reaction late winner won in the air. The other, getting Liverpool back into the FA Cup final with clever dance moves and an unstoppable left-footed shot. The next step is Carroll demonstrating those football instincts much more frequently.

8) Suarez 1-0 Stoke (FA)
Suarez and Maxi, all up in your business, culminating with a top of the box musket shot past a forlorn Begovic. There should have been more of this this season.

7) Suarez 2-0 Wolves
Normally, when a keeper gets beat at his near post, the keeper's to blame. Not so much here. Quickly shifting from defense to attack, a well-placed ball over the top by Enrique, an expertly-timed run from Suarez. The Uruguayan seemingly took the ball too wide and delayed too long, allowing both Johnson and Berra time to get back. No matter. He bamboozled both, turning Johnson inside out and upside down before hammering past Hennessey. Also, I thoroughly enjoy how quick the commentator goes from blaming Wolves' offside trap to lauding the quality of the strike.

6) Bellamy 2-2 City (CC)
Not to downplay Kuyt's run around Lescott, Bellamy and Johnson's one-two, or the fleet-footed finish, but this isn't as picturesque, as aesthetically awesome as most of the other goals on this list. But it's importance can't be undervalued. Without this goal, Liverpool does not make the Carling Cup final, does not win its first trophy in six years, and does not even have the small consolation that is the League Cup. That and it's not as if we're spoilt for choice this season.

5) Kuyt 2-1 Cardiff (CC)
Okay, so maybe he didn't mean it. Maybe it was a lucky strike, and Kuyt's more frequent output is his first "effort"; I'm still not sure if that was a cross or shot. But if so, that somehow just makes it a more fitting capstone if this truly is the end of Dirk Kuyt's Liverpool career. By all rights, this should have been the goal that won the cup were Liverpool able to keep it together for all of three minutes. And that would have been the most fitting capstone for a man usually at his best in Liverpool's biggest games.

4) Suarez 2-0 Norwich
Suarez's third against Norwich – which is obviously coming later in the list – overshadowed the quality of this strike. It's cliché, but he could not have hit this better. An inch to the keeper's right, it's just one more off the woodwork. An inch to the keeper's left or an inch higher, it's saved. But it's perfect, p-e-r-f-e-c-t, which didn't happen nearly enough when Suarez took aim this season.

3) Suarez 1-1 Stoke (CC)
Of course, this also happened. Look, he's Luis Suarez. There's no explaining it. He will score unbelievable goals, waltz past or through defenders as if they're intangible, and curl shots into the far corner with an engineering's precision, then shoot wide when one-on-one with the keeper from 10 yards out. Love every inch of it when he does this and practice your deep breathing relaxation exercises when he does the other thing.

2) Coates 1-0 QPR'
I am biased by results. By rights, this should be #1. The technique is jaw-dropping; it's a better scissor kick than Rooney's against City last season, which won the popularity contest that was the best goal in Premier League history. Coates is a new-to-the-Premiership 21-year-old, 6'5" center-back who made just eight starts this season and speaks approximately eight words of English (just like Rooney).

But Liverpool did not win, somehow conceding three in 14 minutes to almost-relegated QPR, through little fault of Coates'. And that means this can't be #1. Sorry, Seb. There's always next year.

1) Suarez 3-0 Norwich
Unerring from fifty-something yards out, the ultimate kiss-both-cheeks capstone for Suarez's first Liverpool hat-trick. Also, in no way is this choice due to it filling me with painful pangs of Xabi Alonso remembrance. Nope. No siree.

Honorable Mention
• Gerrard 1-0 Everton (h)
Johnson 2-1 Chelsea (a)
• Essien OG 1-0 Chelsea (a)
Bellamy 2-1 Newcastle (h)
• Downing 5-1 Oldham (h)

13 May 2012

Liverpool 0-1 Swansea

Graham 86'

What an appropriate end to the season. As the Premier League explodes everywhere else, Liverpool fumbled aimlessly and purposelessly before unnecessarily conceding late on. The longest nine months in memory gave birth to this. Glimpses of potential, hints of rebuilding, few and far between blessed high points, but mostly just frustration and disappointment.

We'd hoped that Tuesday's match against Chelsea wasn't an aberration, that Liverpool were determined to finish as strongly as possible after failing in the FA Cup Final and for the majority of the league campaign. Nope. That happened because it was Chelsea and because of Chelsea's hilarity. Liverpool immediately reverted to first-gear shiftlessness, an all too common occurrence in this abortion campaign.

It was an awful lot like the reverse fixture except for Graham's late winner. Swansea dominated possession, attempted and completed nearly twice as many passes as Liverpool, and monopolized all the early chances, mostly made by Liverpool mistakes. Allen robbed Shelvey, but his cross/shot narrowly skittered wide ahead of Graham. Doni strangely handled Carroll's back pass after Carragher left it, but Carra and Maxi combined to block the free kick. Saves from the stand-in keeper denied goals for both Sigurdsson and Dyer. Meanwhile, shots from distance – wide by Maxi, straight at a defender from Shelvey, across the face of goal from Carroll – were Liverpool's lone ripostes.

Liverpool were marginally better after the interval, with Vorm cleverly denying Carroll twice – first on a brilliant bicycle kick in the 56th, then 20 minutes later when the striker was set up by substitute Kuyt. But with less than five minutes to play, as the game died a slow, painless death, Sinclair found Allen in acres of space down Liverpool's left with Johnson sucked inside, and the midfielder centered for a wide-open Graham, as Swansea's top scorer unforgivably found space smack in the middle of Liverpool's box, easily freeing himself from Carragher's "marking." Celebration for the home fans, delighted all season long by Swansea's unlikely strength. Ambivalent shrugs from the players in red.

Swansea did well to contain Carroll and stifle Suarez, clearly taking hints from Chelsea's failures five days ago, but no one in red looked especially bothered. Which, once again, remains the biggest sin. That Liverpool can look so potent on Tuesday and so impotent and apathetic today is more infuriating than Liverpool's final league position and litany of awful statistics which follow.

There'll be plenty of time for the coming hateful eulogies and excuses, but a quick rundown of the pain seems unavoidable. Eighth place is joint-worst since Liverpool returned to the old First Division 50 years ago. 52 points is the worst total since teams earned three points for a win. The Carling Cup trophy – any trophy – is a small consolation, with sad emphasis on small, and it admittedly takes time to build any team, no matter the money involved. Still, there is little to celebrate this season and little to celebrate today. And an awful lot of questions to be answered and work to be done.

11 May 2012

Liverpool at Swansea 05.13.12

10am ET, live in the US on Fuel TV.

I don't know if your cable service gets Fuel TV. Given Fox's ubiquity, chances are it does, especially if you have any extra sports packages. I suspect most providers bundle it with the same package Fox Soccer comes on. It is channel 618 on DirecTV.

Also, once again, I'd like to thank Fox for this "Survival Sunday," televising six matches with three others available via the internet and City v QPR on espn2. I can't remember the last time Liverpool's last match of the season aired on US television; it hasn't happened in the six seasons I've had this blog. Which is depressing, but nonetheless. Well done, Fox. For a change.

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 11.05.11
8-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.09.90
0-0 (a; FA Cup) 01.06.90
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.09.83

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Chelsea (a); 1-2 Chelsea (n); 0-1 Fulham (h)
Swansea: 0-2 United (a); 4-4 Wolves (h); 1-1 Bolton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Henderson, Kuyt, Skrtel 2; Agger, Coates, Johnson, Shelvey 1
Swansea: Graham 11; Sinclair 8; Sigurdsson 7; Dyer 5; Allen 4; Lita, Moore 2; Orlandi, Routledge, Williams 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Kuyt Henderson Shelvey Downing
Carroll Suarez

I'd be surprised if there were many changes from Tuesday's XI. How do you change a team which beat the Champions League finalists 4-1? Dalglish, rightfully, has prioritized finishing as strongly as possible rather than baptizing multiple youngsters by fire.

At the very least, there should be no changes up front. There's no dropping Carroll after the last two matches, and it's infinitely regrettable that it took until May to see his partnership with Suarez fire so impressively. Whether Gerrard's fit or not, held out against Chelsea with a back problem, will dictate the midfield selection. I suspect he'll be protected at all costs, especially considering the Euros this summer, which should mean another chance for the promising Henderson-Shelvey pairing.

Maxi probably made his last start for Liverpool on Tuesday, so the flanks should comprise two from Downing, Kuyt, and Bellamy; Downing on one flank, Kuyt or Bellamy on the other, with Sterling coming off the bench in the second half again. Carragher will most likely start in defense again, putting him one match away from 700 appearances. Who'll be left out? As said before Chelsea, I wouldn't mind a Carragher-Coates pairing, if only to give Skrtel and Agger a deserved early summer, but chances are at least one of them will start. If Enrique's still carrying a knock, it'll be the same back four as against Chelsea. But I suspect he'll come back into the side with Skrtel or Agger – most likely the latter – making way.

As often happens with promoted sides who impress for the majority of the campaign, Swansea have suffered of late, winning just once in their last eight matches, falling from 8th in mid-March to their current 12th position, only ahead of Norwich and Stoke on goal difference.

Still – and I mean this as non-patronizingly as possible – 12th is a remarkable accomplishment. Even if Norwich and Stoke overtake the Swans on the last day, 14th would be a remarkable accomplishment. Like Blackpool last season, Swansea have done it 'their own way,' with attacking, possession football, but will stay up where Blackpool immediately dropped back to the Championship. Brendan Rodgers has done a fantastic job; only Pardew's accomplishments with Newcastle should prevent him from getting the manager of the year award. And, as Dalglish said in his pre-match press conference, some credit has to go to Roberto Martinez for building the foundation.

Sigurdsson has been a revelation since joining on loan in January. Allen, Gower, and Britton are clever midfielders capable of monopolizing the ball. Dyer and Sinclair have speed to burn up and down the flanks, Vorm makes multiple unlikely saves, and Danny Graham simply finishes chances. Swansea will almost assuredly stick with their familiar 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation, with Vorm; Rangel, Caulker, Williams, Taylor; Gower or Britton, Sigurdsson, Allen; Dyer, Graham, Sinclair.

Tuesday's match was the perfect Anfield finale, thoroughly beating – nay, embarrassing – a hated foe with vengeful, comprehensive finishing. Here's hoping for a similar sign-off away from home, getting revenge on one of the many clubs who held Liverpool to an frustrating home draw earlier in the season.

09 May 2012

Painting the Woodwork

As many have noted since yesterday, Downing's two strikes against the woodwork bring Liverpool's league total to 33 for the season, a seemingly egregiously large number. Rubbing salt in the wounds, after the 0-1 loss to West Brom, Opta Joe noted that Liverpool would be fourth in the league if all the shots which hit the frame were goals. 10 of the 33 came in five of Liverpool's frustrating home draws, so there's 10 points right there.

The scapegoat list: Suarez 8; Downing 5; Carroll, Kuyt 4; Agger, Bellamy, Henderson 2; Adam, Kelly, Maxi, Shelvey, Skrtel 1. And one by Wright-Phillips for QPR in the 1-0 home match. 19 different Liverpool players have taken at least one shot in the league this season. 12 hit the post at least once. Coates, Gerrard, and Johnson are the only Liverpool players to have scored in the league without hitting the woodwork.

As distribution goes, it's fairly evenly weighted. 13 off the crossbar, 11 off the right post, and 9 off the left post. 8 of the 11 which hit the right post were aimed at the bottom half of the goal, 6 of 9 for the left post, showing that Liverpool consistently shoot low into the corner, which is fairly common and supported by these analyses from EPL Index and The Tomkins Times. Those which hit the crossbar were scattered across its length.

Shot placement data taken from StatsZone, this YouTube video, other random match highlights, and my admittedly faulty memory.

08 May 2012

Liverpool 4-1 Chelsea

Essien OG 19'
Henderson 25'
Agger 28'
Ramires 50'
Shelvey 61'

Well that was strange. And even though that 90 minutes was approximately the exact opposite of what we've become used to at Anfield, "strange" is entirely expected after this marathon campaign.

Remember all those times Liverpool aimlessly wandered through league matches, rarely capable of stringing passes together and always capable of conceding at any moment from any position? That was Chelsea today. And more.

Suarez announced Liverpool's intent within minutes, nutmegging John Terry for the first of many, many times, but firing wide of the far post. It could have all been different had Ivanovic not cannoned a set-piece header off the frame in the 17th minute, losing Agger after both Carragher and Carroll bafflingly ran him over chasing after their men, but the woodwork owed us. Just two minutes later, the floodgates opened.

Unsurprisingly, said floodgates were forced open by that man Suarez. He won the ball back after a Chelsea throw-in. He charged down the right touchline, avoiding Romeu's attempted clip, then outpaced the holding midfielder to the byline. After making the turn, he ran through a half-assed John Terry as if Captain Leader Legend wasn't even there. And then, with no options to pick out, he rammed in an own goal off Essien, reminiscent of his tornado slalom for Kuyt's first against United last season.

Terry's complete, seemingly drunken ambivalence arose again just six minutes later. Maxi's throughball on the break was the wrong side of Henderson, but Terry's slip put the on-rushing midfielder through on goal with the freedom on Anfield. Calmly, coolly, intelligently, Henderson placed his shot around Turnbull, nestled into the far corner. Three minutes after that, another defensive breakdown led to Liverpool's third: Shelvey's corner, Carroll easily out-jumping Terry, Torres lazily losing Agger on the second ball for a routine header.

Chelsea's defense was lost at sea, without a map, rations or flares, and seemingly without a care as to its predicament. Torres had a chance from nothing, running around Agger like the Torres of old, but blasting a shot off the crossbar. The woodwork also owed Liverpool that, but it'd come around to collect soon enough. Otherwise, it remained all, totally, fully Liverpool. And that Liverpool failed to add more was one of the few traits familiar from previous matches. Turnball saved good chances from Maxi and Carroll, Downing smacked a half-volley from the parking lot off the crossbar, and then, to rub as much salt in the wounds as possible, missed a penalty won by Carroll when Ivanovic elbowed him in the sternum competing for a cross. Naturally, Downing's penalty slammed against the post. And to safety. For the fifth miss in six penalty attempts in the league this season.

Ramires pulled one back soon after the interval when Liverpool's defense went to sleep on a set play, slightly fortunate that Malouda's looping free kick deflected off him but slightly deserved having got in front of his marker, Downing, and with Reina sprawling in the opposite direction.

But Shelvey ended hopes of an improbable comeback, again thanks to Chelsea's suicidal tendencies. Turnbull's goal kick went directly to the midfielder, but he still had much to do, controlling with one touch then half-volleying the bouncing ball into an empty net from just under 30 yards, unsaveable even had Turnbull got back on his line.

Reina made amends for any earlier culpability on Ramires' goal with an unfathomable point blank save on the substitute Lukaku's header in the 73rd. And Liverpool continued to monopolize possession, but rarely looked to further stomp on Chelsea necks. Carroll missed a chance, shinning Johnson's phenomenal cross, then landed a shot from nowhere on the roof of the net. Sterling and Kuyt replaced Maxi and Downing with six minutes left, and the young winger nearly scored with his first touch – Carroll flicking on to Suarez flicking on to Sterling, but the over-anxious winger snatched at the shot. Agger also put a header nanometers wide in the dying seconds. But 4-1 would have to suffice. Since it's the first time Liverpool scored four in a league match this season, something they've done in every season since 1919-20, I guess it does.

It's hard to take anything away from this match as to individual performances or tactics with Chelsea so dire, but I'll note a few points. First, the outcry over Carragher starting with Agger and Skrtel also involved was understandable, relegating Agger to left-back, but Carragher impressively kept Torres under wraps throughout. Henderson and Shelvey looked an excellent midfield pairing. Most encouragingly, Carroll continued to look every inch the game-changing player he did in the final thirty minutes on Saturday. He may only have a single assist to show for his troubles, but he was Liverpool's best player – despite stiff competition from the typically serpentine Suarez. He oozed confidence, won every aerial duel, gave Terry and Ivanovic fits in the air and on the ground, and, more importantly, ran as if there was no tomorrow, chasing lost causes in a "meaningless" match with Liverpool up by three goals. That's the Carroll Liverpool paid £35m for. And although I know better, performances like that make me drool over what's possible with him and Suarez next season.

This would have been more than welcomed earlier in the season, but this wouldn't have happened earlier in the season, not least because we would have seen an entirely different Chelsea no matter how well Liverpool played. Enjoy it for what is it – a rare high point, a fond memory to close the season on, with the team doing itself proud in its final trip to Anfield. It was most certainly enjoyable.

07 May 2012

Liverpool v Chelsea 05.08.12

3pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Chelsea (n; FA Cup) 05.05.12
2-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 11.20.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.06.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Chelsea (n); 0-1 Fulham (h); 3-0 Norwich (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Liverpool (n); 0-2 Newcastle (h); 6-1 QPR (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Kuyt, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Chelsea: Lampard, Sturridge 11; Mata, Torres 6; Drogba, Terry 5; Ramires 4; Ivanovic 3; Luiz, Malouda 2; Boswinga, Cahill, Kalou, Meireles 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Coates Robinson
Henderson Gerrard Shelvey Downing
Carroll Suarez

It's not wholly meaningless, especially considering the opposition. Admittedly, no Liverpool match is ever "meaningless" to most fans, but I imagine you understand the feeling at this stage of the season. Anyway, Saturday's cup final defeat is very fresh in the memory and revenge is one of nature's best motivators. At least that's the hope. Plus, a point or three here could well be the difference between 7th, 8th, 9th, or 10th – ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but still meaningful to the players, manager, and fans. But it's still kind of meaningless. Sigh.

Regardless, it's not as if we'll see a full-strength side or, conversely, an XI packed with kids. It'll probably be a mix of both. That worked well against Fulham last week.

So who seems certain? Carroll, definitely, after his near match-saving performance on Saturday, most likely partnered with Suarez. And Carroll most likely means 4-4-2. Of course, Liverpool remain handicapped for options in central midfield and the flanks. Will Kuyt and Maxi get Anfield send-offs or will Liverpool play players likely to be here next season? Does Gerrard start or will Liverpool shut him down early because of the Euros this summer? Will Spearing really play after his last two appearances? Finally, as much as we'd like to see Sterling start, he's 1000% more likely to come off the bench, and rightfully so.

Even if it's not his last campaign, Carragher will probably get an Anfield swan song, hopefully partnered with Coates for the final two matches, allowing Skrtel and Agger a deserved early summer. Aurelio got his swan song last week against Fulham; it'd be nice to see Robinson for the first time since his two appearances in the early rounds of the Carling Cup. Last week's match against Fulham thoroughly demonstrated Kelly's rustiness, and Johnson's another likely to have a busy summer. It also might be a match for Jones or Doni, as Reina didn't do himself justice on either of Chelsea's goals on Saturday, which has frighteningly been a recurring theme this season.

Chelsea ostensibly have more motivation, needing the points in the small hope of fourth, but also needing Newcastle, Tottenham, and Arsenal to drop points on the last day to achieve it. Even if Chelsea's eggs are mostly in the Champions League basket, I suspect they'll still play a mostly strong line-up tomorrow. There will obviously be some changes. In contrast to Saturday's entirely more important match, I expect both ex-Liverpool players will start: Torres up front and Meireles as one of the two deeper midfielders. Options are still limited in defense due to Cahill and Luiz's injuries, so the only changes likely in the back four are the full-backs possibly spelled by Ferreira and Bertrand. Otherwise, their XI is as much of a guess as Liverpool's.

That Liverpool are facing Chelsea is some small comfort. We've seen how bad Liverpool can be when simply going through the motions in an unimportant league match, whether against Fulham last week or Spurs and Villa in the last two matches last season. Or a bunch of other league matches since, say, March.

And we all know the litany of records Liverpool will probably "beat" no matter the outcome of this last home match: fewest home goals and home wins in something like a century, and the lowest league position since Souness' doomed regime, among others. Nonetheless, beating Chelsea tomorrow would provide some small measure of consolation as we begin to repress the memory of this dismal campaign.

05 May 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Ramires 11'
Drogba 53'
Carroll 65'

So close, yet so far. The Liverpool of old threatened to reappear, but fell just short of another fabled cup final comeback. By millimeters, and "aided" by the woodwork. Just not good enough to make up for self-inflicted mistakes, both individual and tactical, but painfully, frustratingly close. This season could barely be better encapsulated. And the universe has a very long memory; what feels like eons since Garcia's "ghost goal" seems like seconds to the cosmos. The cosmos want to be balanced.

Maybe Liverpool should have played 4-4-2 after all, eh? They couldn't make up for the first hour's hapless errors and general impotence with a furious final thirty minutes.

As threatened, easily predictable, it was always going to be a game decided by the narrowest of margins. An unsurprisingly cagey start, then Liverpool's first mistake ruthlessly punished, with additional credit to poor defending. Spearing with a defenseless giveaway, Enrique beaten for pace, positioning, and strength, Reina failing to adequately protect his near post, one of the goalkeeper's cardinal sins. A trilogy of error, each slightly less infuriating than the initial mistake, but with none involved covering themselves in glory.

It was inauspicious, to say the least, and rendered Liverpool's deep, patient tactics rather moot. Tactics which were flawed in the first place with Bellamy and Downing as orthodox wingers but refusing to stretch the full-backs wide, leaving Suarez supremely isolated as Gerrard also played deeper and deeper in an effort to have the ball more often. Liverpool's lone first-half chance to equalize came three minutes after Chelsea's opener, when Bellamy's shot was blocked after Johnson's clever turn and cross fell to his feet. At the other end, Reina nearly fumbled Ramires' cross-turned-shot, Kalou's run through Liverpool's defense required a last-ditch tackle from Agger, and Drogba and Lampard tested their luck, albeit poorly, from distance.

However, after a switch to a 4-4-2ish formation around the half-hour – with Henderson on the right, Downing on the left, and Bellamy and Suarez interchangeably playing as a support striker – Liverpool began to settle into ineffective possession, usually on the ball but without truly threatening Chelsea, happy to settle into defensive positions, protect the lead, and look to counter-attack with Liverpool mostly harmless and increasingly desperate.

It took Chelsea scoring a second to wake Liverpool up, an awakening clearly aided by Dalglish's immediate replacement of Spearing with Carroll. But before, the ball came straight back at Liverpool after Spearing's brainless, aimless clearance, Lampard jinked around the same scapegoat as if he wasn't there and fed Drogba, perfectly placed between Skrtel and Johnson and perfectly placing his shot low into the far corner.

Today's sole consolation and rued missed opportunity came immediately after. Liverpool looked a wholly different, wholly better side with Carroll joining Suarez in attack, and the removal of poor Spearing. Giving Suarez support, now no longer running in vain after lost causes, finally unsettled Chelsea, whose defense couldn't have had an easier task until then. And ten minutes later, Liverpool pulled one back through the substitute: Downing won the ball back in the final third, his tackle timed perfectly and falling to a just-onside Carroll, who cleverly danced around Terry and blasted unstoppably over Cech. Game on.

And it remained game on, as if the pitch had completely seesawed. Liverpool had near-total possession, wave after wave of chaotic red falling at deep blue back lines. But game-changing Carroll couldn't get headers won on target, Cech saved Suarez's low shot, and Henderson blasted over from range after yet another Carroll knockdown.

Then, the heart-stopping, arguably karmic moment. Downing, Enrique, Downing, Gerrard, Suarez, Gerrard quickly shifting play from left to right, getting the Chelsea defense moving out of its comfortable positions. Gerrard's ball to the flank putting Johnson one-on-one with Cole, cutting inside, running across the top of the box before handing off to Suarez, who took one stride then fired a perfect chipped cross to an open Carroll four yards out. I don't know how Cech prevented the equalizer. Maybe his save came just over the goal-line; it was impossible to conclusively judge from the replays. But he saved it, pushing it onto the bar, and it dropped onto the goal line and out. Carroll, Suarez, and Kuyt wheeled away in celebration, but the linesman didn't give it. Even if, at best, he wasn't sure – and we weren't sure after replays – he can't give it. But it makes it that much more painful, especially given the congruence with the Garcia goal that announced Liverpool's re-arrival to the game's top echelon. It's also yet another argument for goal line technology, but that's a futile argument for another day.

That was the stomach punch. Liverpool had half chances, but had to have known they'd probably see none better. Pressure remained mounted, but was limited to corners, a free kick into the wall, and Carroll caught in two minds when released by Suarez, with the resulting shot-slash-cross blocked by Lampard. The whistle blew, Liverpool players slumped to the turf, with Chelsea keeping the ball penned in Liverpool's end.

Now, this season will be remembered for a league cup and the shittiest league campaign in ages. At least today ended with an "almost came back like the Liverpool we know in cup finals" bang rather than the threatened-for-an-hour whimper. Sadly, that's not good enough. Not good enough in a cup final, and especially not good enough given the dross that's been the majority of this season's campaign. The dominant memory will still be the loss, not the almost-comeback, and it'll be a distant third memory behind the league and league cup, in that order.

Winning today certainly wouldn't have cured Liverpool's multiple problems or dimmed the multiple, rightful complaints over what came before. But it's hard to argue with a domestic cup double, something that's only been done by three sides since the League Cup's creation in 1960. Eighth place, probably at best, and a Carling Cup win is a mid-table side's campaign. No one remembers the losers. And we're all frightened of a mid-table future.

I'll still argue that Liverpool's better than they appear on first glance; there has been bad, a lot of bad, but the bad's obscured the few rays of optimism. Nonetheless, even in the most forgiving appraisals, Liverpool have a long, difficult road ahead, one without the comfort of two cups.

04 May 2012

Liverpool v Chelsea 05.05.12

12:15pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 11.29.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 11.20.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.06.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.07.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Fulham (a); 3-0 Norwich (a); 0-1 West Brom (h)
Chelsea: 0-2 Newcastle (h); 6-1 QPR (h); 2-2 Barcelona (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Bellamy 9; Carroll, Gerrard 8; Maxi 6; Kuyt 5; Skrtel 4; Adam, Downing 2; Agger, Coates, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Shelvey 1
Chelsea: Lampard 16; Sturridge 13; Mata 12; Drogba, Torres 11; Ramires 10; Terry 6; Ivanovic, Kalou, Meireles 5; Luiz, Malouda 3; Cahill 2; Boswinga 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

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

For those who think formation doesn't matter, that the tactical eggheads who reduce the game to numbers and minutiae are ruining the fun for normal people, well, you're wrong. It matters very much, especially in a match like Liverpool against Chelsea, no matter either's form, and especially in a cup final – matches which are usually decided by minutiae.

I honestly don't know whether Liverpool will play two up front or three in midfield. And the choice will probably define proceedings.

Since Adam's injury, Liverpool have usually been better with Suarez and Carroll up top. Both matches against Everton and Stoke in the FA Cup, most notably. Despite the strike partnership's two-steps-forward-three-steps-back evolution, Liverpool look more threatening with both Suarez and Carroll on the pitch, no matter any subsequent weakening in the middle. And honestly, in most matches, Liverpool's had weaknesses in the middle no matter the formation.

However, the "big game" template – at Chelsea in the league, both legs against City in the Carling Cup semi, both matches against Arsenal, and all three against United – has been a five-man midfield and a lone striker. All of those matches took place before Adam's season-ending injury. Do Liverpool now have the central midfielders to play 4-2-3-1?

Well, the short answer is Liverpool don't really have the midfielders to play either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. I know, that never looked likely in August. But that sort of postmortem can wait another couple of weeks. Each formation would have detriments and positives. The goal, obviously, is picking the one with more of the latter than the former.

There are still, always, questions over Gerrard in a 4-4-2, no matter if he's paired with Henderson, Shelvey, or Spearing. But is adding another of those three to make a three-man midfield really the best solution? Maybe I'm just biased by what we had to sit through on Tuesday. Henderson did not look good, removed after 45 minutes. Shelvey looked marginally better, but "good" remains a bridge too far. Spearing was approximately the absolute opposite of good. Maybe this won't be the case with a stronger XI. Maybe it won't be the case because it's a cup final rather than a ho-hum-who-cares league match. Maybe it won't be the case with Gerrard playing, either holding behind the attackers, as in the both legs of the Carling Cup semi-final (which remains my template for Liverpool's big game tactics), or roaming behind the striker with two others sitting.

That both of these options have such glaring weaknesses means we might see a curve ball, something similar to the 3-5-2 used at Stamford Bridge last season, but that seems a less likely option simply because the only time it's been used this season was the 0-0 against Stoke at Anfield. Still, there's assuredly a case to be made for an XI of, say, Reina; Skrtel Carragher Agger; Johnson Henderson Spearing Gerrard Enrique; Suarez Carroll.

The other concerns: who plays on the flanks and Carragher. I'm not really concerned by the latter, but I'm mostly just incredulous that he might be an option. Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, and Enrique are all fit. Dalglish has almost always chosen those four when all are fit. The lone exception, the semi-final against Everton, was a different case because it's Everton and because of how Osman played as a "right winger." Ramires (or, less likely, Sturridge or Mata) will play that role somewhat differently. If Liverpool play 3-5-2, he'll play. That makes sense. Carra starting in a center-back pairing with both Agger and Skrtel fit and Drogba likely to start does not.

As for the flanks, it seems an easy answer if Liverpool use a five-man midfield. Downing's been really really really (did I mention really?) terrible lately and Maxi played 90 minutes on Tuesday. That leaves Bellamy and Kuyt. Yet another area where Liverpool aren't exactly overflowing with options. If 4-4-2, it'll probably be Henderson on the right and Bellamy or Downing on the left.

Chelsea, on the other hand, will play 4-2-3-1. Outside of the Barcelona tie, where they were 4-2-3-1 in name only, Di Matteo has solely deployed that formation. Which is another reason I think Liverpool need three central midfielders. Drogba will play as lone striker, in front of a line of Kalou-Mata-Ramires, with Lampard and Mikel, Essien, or Meireles holding. The back four will be Boswinga, Ivanovic, St John Terry, and Shotgun Cole. Both Cahill and David Luiz remain injured.

So, it's finally here. The match which will define Liverpool's season. Win, and there are arguments that the campaign wasn't so terrible despite the overwhelming terribleness of the league campaign. A domestic cup double cannot be undervalued, no matter how much each competition has been devalued in recent years. Lose and, well, I'd rather not contemplate. It would probably be ugly.

It seems insane that there's so much hanging on one fixture, but insanity has been this season's dominant leitmotif. That it's against that lot, the nouveau riche Evil Empire from South London, is eminently fitting. Liverpool have won five trophies since 2004-05: the 2005 Champions League, the 2005 UEFA Super Cup, the 2006 FA Cup, the 2006 Community Shield, and the 2012 League Cup. They had to beat Chelsea on the path to each of those triumphs.

03 May 2012

01 May 2012

Liverpool 0-1 Fulham

Skrtel (OG) 6'

Well, that was embarrassing. On Hodgson's big day, a performance reminiscent of his horrific tenure, against another of his former clubs.

Because of Liverpool's multiple, frequent failures earlier this season, the result's basically meaningless. That's not what's so infuriating. Liverpool have lost in more frustrating or more disappointing fashion before. And yes, with nine changes, it was a very unfamiliar side, albeit with more than a few senior and u21 internationals. Holding them to a similar standard as the first team isn't fair.

But the hope was out-of-favor players would aim to impress, to force their way into Saturday's line-up. That most certainly did not happen. Liverpool were dire, Fulham were dire, and an absolutely torpid game was settled by yet more Liverpool misfortune.

It was the worse possible start in normal matches, let alone one with an unfamiliar, weakened line-up. Within six minutes, two ex-Liverpool players contributed to a Liverpool own goal: Riise's smashed cross deflecting off Kacaniklic, wrong-footing Doni by bouncing off Skrtel's shoulder. Such is this season.

Doni smartly prevented Pogrebnyak from extending the lead while Liverpool still struggled to settle, but the home side began to come to terms with the match. Some still looked disinterested, some continued to play wholly terribly, but Liverpool at least began creating chances. Kuyt, Shelvey, and Carroll all nearly pulled Liverpool level, but Kuyt's rebound volley was wide of the far post, Shelvey's effort spilled past Schwarzer but was cleared off the line, and Carroll's header from Aurelio's cross was too close to the goal-keeper. Coincidentally, those are the three players who actually seemed to be trying to play their way into Saturday's XI.

There were even fewer redeeming moments in the second half. Liverpool changed formation and personnel, bringing on Downing for Henderson, most likely to protect the latter before the cup final, although he hadn't impressed much either. But the switch to 4-4-2 only increased Liverpool's incoherence: Shelvey was pulled further from the final third, reducing his effectiveness; Carroll and Kuyt failed to find the same wavelength; and the less said about Downing, the better, as is all too often the case. Spearing, who had his worst match for Liverpool, without comparison, was even more exposed in a midfield duo.

The lone concrete opportunity to pull level came in the 58th minute, when Maxi got in behind, was fouled but played the advantage, only to have Hangeland block his shot at the last possible moment. Sterling's entrance in the 76th gave Anfield a boost, but by that point, Liverpool were lumping route one passes and deep crosses in the direction of Carroll hoping for something to fall out of the sky. Which rendered any potential impact from Sterling rather moot. Otherwise, only Doni and the width of the post prevented Fulham from adding to the score line. Liverpool had the majority of possession, but that was as much due to Fulham's supreme comfort with just a goal advantage.

Carroll worked incredibly hard, and was very good in the air when pulling deep, but continued to look hopeless when nearing goal. Doni made some good saves. Aurelio, while supremely rusty, delivered some very Aurelio crosses; it was surprising to see him removed for Enrique with 25 minutes to play. It's not like he's being rested for anything. Shelvey created some havoc when deployed as an attacking midfielder, Sterling provided a modicum of hope for the future. That's all I got.

Today's totality of awfulness just puts even more pressure on the next match. Yes, it's been "FA Cup or bust" for some time. Now, five points behind Everton, just three points ahead of 10th, it's FA Cup or nuclear meltdown. Liverpool have three losses and a draw in the last four matches at Anfield, against the 9th, 10th, 15th, and 16th placed sides in the league. Fulham have done the double over Liverpool for the first time in forever, because it's the first time Fulham have ever beaten Liverpool at Anfield. We're breaking all sorts of records this season.

Still, I'd be able to look past all that, albeit grudgingly, had the performance – more specifically, the effort – not been so unforgivably terrible from the majority in red. Win Saturday or find a bomb shelter.