31 October 2012

Liverpool 1-3 Swansea

Chico 34'
Dyer 72'
Suarez 77'
de Guzman 90+5'

I can't decide which is more infuriating: Liverpool's wholly abhorrent first half or throwing Gerrard, Suarez, and Sterling on in the second half and still failing to win. Actually, nevermind, that's an easy decision. It's the latter, and it's not even close.

Today's match totally exposed Liverpool's utter lack of depth. Of course, that Joe Cole would start any match exposes Liverpool's utter lack of depth.

Both halves were criminally poor, but for different reasons. Liverpool's line-up was pretty much as expected: similar to the last round, similar to the match against Young Boys. Except for a couple of surprising changes. Henderson played at right-back, as he did as a substitute on Sunday, since both Johnson and Kelly injured and Wisdom needed a rest. With Henderson needed in defense, Joe Allen started against his former club after a draining match on Sunday. And Joe Cole started, in his "preferred position" no less. It went about as well as you'd expect.

Liverpool's starting XI had scored just 21 goals for the club. Carragher and Downing were joint-top scorers with five each; Shelvey has four, Cole three, Coates and Henderson two. That's it. So it was little surprise to see Liverpool completely impotent in attack. Liverpool at least controlled possession well for the first 15 minutes, albeit with absolutely no cutting edge, but that didn't last long. Only Swansea's profligacy kept the away side off the mark until the 34th, as Dyer couldn't control after getting behind Robinson and Carragher, Ki fired wide, Carragher made a couple of crucial last ditch tackles, de Guzman blasted over, and Jones parried another long-range effort from Ki. But Swansea eventually made the break-through, as Chico got in front of Coates to rocket in a header from a corner.

Rodgers' response was the same as against Udinese, only earlier. Here comes the cavalry: Suarez and Gerrard on at half-time for Yesil and Cole – the former out of his depth, the latter completely terrible and totally past it. There's no rest for the weary.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool had created two better chances than anything we saw in the first half within five minutes. Also unsurprisingly, Liverpool failed to hit the target with either. Shelvey's shot cleared the crossbar after Allen intercepted in Swansea's half, swiftly followed by Suarez heading over from Shelvey's cross. Around the hour mark, Gerrard cannoned a long-range shot off the post, with Downing unable to sort his feet or his brain out for the wide-open rebound. After that, Rodgers went all in, bringing Sterling on for Assaidi.

Coincidentally, that also marked the tilt back towards Swansea; as in the first half, the away side gained a foothold after early Liverpool possession and didn't take long to make Liverpool pay for it. I'm still not sure how Swansea failed to score in the 67th minute, as Brad Jones made three separate saves with the ball bouncing around his penalty box before another crucial Carragher block and an eventual clearance. Then came another excellent save from Jones, tipping Michu's shot over the bar. And then, with Liverpool sending almost everyone forward in the frantic search for an equalizer, came the stomach.

Swansea broke out of their own half after a Liverpool free kick, and once Michu out-muscled Jack Robinson, it was three-on-zero: Michu to Pablo to Dyer, for a point blank tap-in with no other defender able to get back. It's one thing to gamble when pushing for a goal, it's another to leave yourself pants-down naked against a side that thrives on the counter-attack, especially with players like the three involved in Swansea's goal.

To their credit, Liverpool pulled one back within five minutes: as against Everton, a Gerrard free kick, an unstoppable Suarez header. But one good free kick was little consolation, especially since Liverpool couldn't find the now-needed second, and were again exposed on the break in stoppage time. Routledge stole possession, Michu strode forward, de Guzman easily snuck in behind Robinson for yet another tap-in from the exact same location.

I'm not going to get up in arms about a League Cup loss. This competition means less than zero, even if Liverpool were the defending winners. Swansea started close to a full-strength XI, while Liverpool's XI demonstrated just how thin the squad is. Being out of one competition will probably help Liverpool in the long run and this is, by far, the least important competition.

I am, however, going to get up in arms about how it came about. The two players who made the difference in the last round – Suso and Şahin – two players who only played for 45 minutes on Sunday, didn't feature at all. The former stayed planted to the bench, the latter wasn't included in the squad. That Joe Cole started remains an unforgivable sin. But playing Gerrard and Suarez for another draining 45 minutes – in this competition – is the most unforgivable sin. I doubt I need emphasize how crucial they are to Liverpool's fortunes in the league and Europa League or how over-used they already are. The fixture calendar is only getting worse in November and December. Similar goes for Allen, who has played 1112 minutes out of a possible 1440 so far this season (the most of any player except – you guessed it – Gerrard and Suarez, with 1240 and 1150 minutes respectively), as well as Sterling. Sure, Liverpool were incredibly not good in the first half, and didn't look like getting better, but are Gerrard and Suarez the only answer for that?

Does Rodgers use Gerrard and Suarez if Liverpool aren't facing his former club? Does Liverpool push so hard for an equalizer that it's easily rent asunder on counter-attacks not once but twice? Those are both unanswerable and probably unfair questions, but this is also the first time I've been as angry with Rodgers as I've been with the result or players' performances. For starting Cole; for playing Henderson at right-back, requiring Allen to start; for playing Gerrard, Suarez, and Sterling in the second half; for Liverpool pushing forward without any regard for its back four – which included a midfielder, two youngsters, and Jamie Carragher – leading to two supremely avoidable goals conceded. Yes, he's damned if he does and if he doesn't in a lot of ways, but the personnel decisions did not help Liverpool's cause – either in today's match or, more importantly, for the future.

And now, Liverpool need to pick themselves up to face Newcastle in less than four days, desperately needing points in the league and facing a side that finished well above them in the table last season. Good luck, guys.

30 October 2012

Liverpool v Swansea 10.31.12

4pm ET, not on live anywhere as far as I can tell. And so far, I can't find any sign of streams. If something shows up, you'll probably hear about it on Twitter. I'm skeptical. And if there are no streams, there will be no match review. We'll find out tomorrow, I guess.

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Swansea (a) 05.13.12
0-0 (h) 11.05.11
8-0 Liverpool (home; FA Cup) 01.09.90
0-0 (a; FA Cup) 01.06.90

Earlier Rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Brom (a)
Swansea: 3-2 Crawley Town (a); 3-1 Barnsley (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Everton (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Reading (h)
Swansea: 0-1 City (a); 2-1 Wigan (h); 2-2 Reading (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Şahin, Shelvey 3; Downing, Gerrard 2; Borini, Coates, Johnson, Skrtel, Sterling, Wisdom 1
Swansea: Michu 7; Graham 3; Dyer, Moore, Routledge 2; Monk, Pablo, Rangel 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Terrified of jinxing it, but Probert is one of my favorite referees in the division.

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Coates Carragher Robinson
Henderson Şahin
Downing Yesil Assaidi

Tomorrow's XI will probably look a lot like Liverpool's side in the last round against West Brom.

Reina and Johnson are definitely out, each attempting to recover from their respective injuries in time for Sunday's match against Newcastle. Similarly, I expect that Liverpool's biggest names will finally be given a rest – as hoped for prior to last week's Europa League tie. Suarez seemingly can't start again. Gerrard seemingly can't start again. In fact, most players who featured against Everton, especially if they also played against Anzhi, probably shouldn't start again. Sunday's match was simply too ferocious, too draining.

That said, Johnson's injury, along with Wisdom's substitution on Sunday, means the 19-year-old is odds on for a fifth consecutive start. Flanagan, reportedly back from injury, may also be in contention, but he hasn't seen a minute of action this season, limited to one bench appearance in the first leg against Hearts. In theory, Carragher's another alternative on the right, but, I mean, really? Let's not go there. He and Coates will most likely resume their second-choice partnership, allowing Rodgers to rest both Skrtel and Agger. Robinson should reclaim the left-back role after Enrique's busy performance against Everton.

Şahin is another who could also feature from the beginning despite starting on Sunday. Hauled off at halftime, seemingly unable to cope with the frenetic "is this really football?" atmosphere, the midfielder continues to need match practice to adjust to the English game. Henderson looks certain to be involved – although I wrote that before the Anzhi match as well – while Shelvey seems the most likely third. Pacheco is on the periphery, involved in the first Europa League match as well as the last round of this competition, and could play as the most-advanced midfielder, on the flanks, or as a false nine. And Joe Cole's still kicking around Melwood somewhere. Wherever you are in the world, you're likely to hear me scream if Gerrard's involved, and similar goes for Joe Allen, despite the attraction of starting him against his former club.

Like in the Europa League, I expect to see Downing and Assaidi on the flanks. And, if Suarez is finally rested, it'd seemingly have to be Yesil up front, as against West Brom earlier in this competition. Pacheco as a false nine, as against Young Boys, is a more remote possibility, but wasn't a successful experiment in Switzerland. That the NextGen Series also takes place tomorrow complicates matters. The other young forward who's seen action with the first team – Adam Morgan – is part of the NextGen squad. Yesil is not, nor is over-age Michael Ngoo, who hasn't trained with the first team as far as I know. Of course, Suso, Sterling, and Wisdom are also eligible, but I doubt they'll be involved in any of the NextGen matches given their importance to the senior squad.

Still ahead of Liverpool in the table, if just, Swansea have tailed off after a fast start in the league, losing three in a row without scoring after taking seven points and scoring 10 goals in the opening three matches. Laudrup has steadied the ship since, with a slightly unfortunate draw against Reading, a victory over Wigan, and a narrow, disappointing loss to Manchester City on Saturday.

Swansea played slightly weakened sides in its two earlier League Cup matches, against Barnsley and Crawley Town, mixing usual first-team starters with a handful of bench and reserve players. I imagine they'll do similar tomorrow, but with one or two regulars probably more likely to feature. I do believe Michael Laudrup when he says that there's no added motivation by facing Brendan Rodgers' side, but also know that playing Liverpool in cup competition is usually extra motivation for any club. We see it this season in the Europa League, we've seen it in the past in both domestic cup competitions.

At the very least, there will be two enforced changes. Starting goalkeeper Michel Vorm is injured, while right-back Angel Rangel is suspended. Ashley Williams is also doubtful with an ankle sprain, while left-back Neil Taylor is a long-term absentee. Swansea will almost certainly stick with the 4-3-3/4-1-2-3 formation Rodgers used last season and Laudrup uses in this, even if the Dane has made Swansea slightly more direct. If forced to guess, I'll go for Tremmel; Tiendalli, Chico, Monk, Davies; Gower, Britton, Michu; Routledge, Graham, Dyer as the XI, but also want to emphasize that is little more than a guess. Michu, if he plays – whether as the #9 or as the most-advanced midfielder – will obviously be the biggest threat, responsible for seven goals and an assist in his ten Swansea matches.

This competition is probably last on Liverpool's list of priorities, and that it's Rodgers' first match against his former side will dominate the headlines. Still, even with a heavily changed line-up, Liverpool will look to progress in the competition, if only to ensure that the above players continue to have opportunities to develop and to prove their worth. Suso seizing his chances after appearances against Young Boys and West Brom is evidence that there are places to be won. Despite Liverpool's shallow squad, the match against Anzhi (and Udinese, to a lesser extent) demonstrates that Rodgers values Liverpool's progression in the Europa League; the Capital One Cup is where he'll look to experiment most often. And, of course, the sooner that Liverpool put the memory of Sunday fully behind them, the better it'll be for all involved.

29 October 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h)

Avert your eyes. This is, by far, my least favorite match infographic so far.

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Yesterday saw the fewest Liverpool passes attempted and completed in the nine matches this season, as well as the lowest pass accuracy in those nine matches. We saw the fewest Liverpool shots taken in those nine matches. And we saw the least possession Liverpool has had in those nine matches.

Liverpool's previous low in both passes and possession was against defending champions Manchester City, a match where Liverpool still mostly out-played its opposition and would have won if not for a despicable back pass. Liverpool completed 131 more passes that day. That was also the only other match where Liverpool were held below 50% possession this season. Even when down to ten men for long stretches against West Brom and United, Liverpool were able to keep the ball away from its opponents more often than not.

The Reds completed 224 passes more against West Brom, when they lost by three and spent just over half an hour with ten men. They completed 155 more against Manchester United, playing with ten men for just over 51 minutes. Wholly outplayed in the 0-2 loss against Arsenal, Liverpool still completed 232 more passes against the Gunners, almost double what they tallied yesterday. Liverpool actually attempted and completed fewer passes than Reading did against Liverpool last week; only Stoke, Sunderland, and Norwich's totals against Liverpool were lower than Liverpool's totals yesterday, and barely in the case of Sunderland and Norwich.

Everton are also the first opponent to take more shots than Liverpool since opening day, when West Brom took 18 to Liverpool's 16, almost all coming in the second half. Norwich equalled Liverpool's total when those sides met at Carrow Road, both with 16, but Liverpool were notably a bit more potent. The West Brom match was also the only other match with fewer Liverpool chances created, nine against the Bagges compared to 11 yesterday. Liverpool were also limited to 11 chances created against Manchester United, but of course, there was the "unfairly down to ten men" excuse in that case. And Liverpool held United to just six chances created.

Almost every Everton player out-passed their Liverpool counterpart; only Suarez attempted and completed more passes than Jelavic (although Jelavic's passing accuracy was slightly better), and combined, Suso and Shelvey attempted and completed more than Mirallas and Gueye. Most disappointing is Everton's overwhelming numbers in midfield and defense, Liverpool's usual areas of strength.

Everton's strong pressing from its front four – Jelavic on Agger, Fellaini on Skrtel and/or Allen, Mirallas then Gueye on Wisdom, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Naismith on Enrique – led to massively reduced passing totals from Liverpool's back four, even if it's not shown in the tackles and interceptions section. Skrtel completed 24 fewer passes than his average through eight league starts, Agger completed 26 fewer passes than his average through seven league starts, and Wisdom completed 32 fewer passes than his average through three league starts (although, he at least has the excuse of going off in the 70th minute). All three of those defenders attempted and completed less than half of their usual total. Similarly, Allen completed just 37 passes after averaging 69 in the first eight matches. All four of the above Liverpool players attempted and completed their lowest totals of the season, which was the case for nearly every Liverpool starter. All 20 of Brad Jones' attempted passes were long passes, and he completed just eight. Everton knew the disjointing effect this would have on Liverpool's game, and it worked excellently, hauling Everton back into the game by refusing Liverpool to settle on the ball with its 2-0 lead. I'm fairly certain other teams will try to copy the playbook if they have the legs and stamina to do so.

I realize that Merseyside derbies are often statistical anomalies, but Liverpool were beaten in almost every metric. And yes, Liverpool were away from home, while most of the matches I've compared the performance to – City, Arsenal, United – were at Anfield. Still, these totals are simply not good.

Any positives to take away? Liverpool tackled well, with 19 of 23 successful, especially on Everton's left flank – where Everton are often most dangerous. Allen was Liverpool's best in this regard, with six successful tackles all on that side of the field, doubling his previous high for the season (against West Brom); he had averaged 2.25 through the first eight league contests. Wisdom and Enrique also added three tackles each. Allen also won six free kicks, often relieving pressure in Liverpool's half, and made three interceptions. Even when his passes, possession, and accuracy stats were lower than we're used to, he was still one of Liverpool's best players.

The other positive? If not for a wildly incorrect decision by a wildly incompetent linesman, Liverpool would have won despite the statistical horror show.

I guess that counts as a positive.

28 October 2012

Liverpool 2-2 Everton

Baines OG 14'
Suarez 20'
Osman 22'
Naismith 35'
Suarez 90+5

Aren't Merseyside Derbies fun?

After 94 minutes, I was surprisingly accepting of the draw. Which is strange, because Liverpool had a two-goal lead within 20 minutes and the better chances in the second half. But Everton fought furiously, impressively back into the game within 15 minutes, deserving of both goals even if the second came from what should have been a Liverpool throw-in. And both goals were arguably down to Liverpool mistakes, something we've seen far too often even if the problem had seemingly been remedied in the last three matches. But the home side completely see-sawed the balance of play; Mirallas, Osman, and Fellaini were outstanding, and Everton fans will lament that the former had to go off at half-time with injury.

After 95 minutes, I was so livid I couldn't even see straight. One of these days, Liverpool will actually benefit from a referee's incorrect decision; the last time it happened was probably in this fixture last season with Rodwell's red card, and Liverpool still had to work to break down the home side twice. The list of stunningly incorrect and/or harsh decisions since then is approximately two miles long. I don't know if I'll live to see it, but it seemingly has to happen sometime.

There's absolutely no reason why Suarez's winner should have been disallowed. David Moyes, credit to him, admitted as much in the post match interview. Coates, onside, fairly won the header from Gerrard's free kick. Suarez, played onside by not one but two Everton defenders, rammed the knockdown home from five yards out. Only the linesman knows what he saw to make him raise his flag. I'd love to know, but the FA doesn't make referees available for interviews after the match. Which they should. I'd also love to know whether an English player, or non-Liverpool player, or just anyone other than Suarez, would have been ruled offside. I'm obviously biased, but I suspect I wouldn't like the answer. You're not paranoid if they are really out to get you.

It was a dream start with two goals before the game was a quarter gone. Everton began brightly, with three early corners and a slalom run from Mirallas past Allen, Wisdom, and Skrtel, requiring a last ditch block clearance from Agger. But just like that, Liverpool were ahead: beginning an attack after Suso intercepted Jelavic's wayward cross-field pass, switching field twice before Suso found Enrique – a surprise starter with Johnson still suffering from an injury on Tuesday. The left-back burst into the box before delivering an accurate crossed cut-back, missing Sterling because of what looked to be a push by Baines. But the ball fell kindly to the perfectly-placed Suarez, who blasted a shot into the six-yard box, deflecting off of Everton's left-back. Six minutes later, with Everton reeling, Gerrard's spectacular free kick found the Uruguayan drifting behind a negligent Jelavic, deftly directing a header just out of reach of Tim Howard.

But it was a dream deferred fairly quickly. Osman pulled one back just two minutes after Suarez's strike, Brad Jones punching a corner into the worst possible area, back into the middle and to a wide-open Everton midfielder at the top of the box. The shot took an unlucky deflection off Allen, but Liverpool should have never been into that position. That punch was utterly criminal.

And after that, Everton's second looked a matter of time. Skrtel had to head Mirallas' cross behind with two players lurking. Jones was fortunate to have gotten a foul when dropping the ball on the subsequent corner. Fellaini's heavy touch prevented a goal-scoring opportunity when Jelavic's through-ball split Liverpool's backline, then another Mirallas cross was just too high Fellaini, despite the size of that glorious afro.

The wait ended in the 35th. As said above, it should have been Liverpool's throw-in prior to the move, but the move should never have been allowed to progress. Fellaini drifted into acres of space in the box after the throw – Allen didn't track him, Skrtel didn't come out to stop him. This gave him the time to turn into more space after receiving the pass, a fierce low pass across the top of the six-yard-box. Enrique had tracked Naismith inside, taking up a central position, but then failed to stay with the winger when he went for the cross, caught unforgivably flat-footed as the Scot snuck in for the tap-in. And only one side looked likely to take the lead before half-time. Thankfully, Liverpool did just enough in defense to prevent them from doing so.

Credit to Rodgers for completely changing tactics and formation during the interval, having the audacity to switch to a never-before-used formation, playing both Sterling and Wisdom in unfamiliar positions. And it worked a treat, nullifying all the momentum Everton had going into halftime.

Sterling, now playing as the furthest forward striker, which also helped him avoid trouble when on a yellow card, should have retaken the lead. Within four minutes, Enrique's long through-ball put Sterling one-on-one with Howard. With just the keeper to beat, and time to beat him, as well as Suarez wide open and screaming for the ball at the top of the box, the 17-year-old attempted an unlucky chip which didn't come close to hitting that target. It's hard to criticize someone so young, so raw, but that was a moment Liverpool will desperately rue.

From there, it was finely balanced. Everton had more of the ball and more shots on goal, but Liverpool had the better chances, cluttering the middle with the added bodies but continuing to prevent crosses due to Enrique and Wisdom – and then Henderson, coming on at right-back in the 70th minute – willingness to bomb up and down the length of the flanks. Liverpool used Sterling and Suarez's pace to counter-attack effectively, while Gerrard was more involved as Shelvey and Allen did all of the dirty work.

Liverpool looked the most likely and most willing to grab a late winner. Jagielka made two desperate, crucial blocks: first on Gerrard's shot from Agger's layoff after good work from Henderson, then on Suarez's close range near-post effort after a trademark run across the byline. Henderson didn't quite connect with a volley, on-target but too close to Howard; Sterling fired high and wide after jinking into space at the top of the box.

Then, in the dying, dying, almost dead seconds, the free kick happened, Suarez happened, and the linesman happened. And life is not fair. I'm struggling to remember a more costly decision; the beach ball against Sunderland might have been more egregious, but Liverpool dire performance that day ensured they weren't winning anyway. This result costs Liverpool two necessary points, ensuring Everton stay six points ahead of their rivals rather than three, and prevent Liverpool from moving into the top half of the table. I am not liable for what might happen if those two points end up costing Liverpool a European place – if, god willing, they can get that far up the table, because I'm fairly certain that what goes around will not come back around.

In the cold light of day – maybe tomorrow, maybe a week from now – I'll be prouder of the performance. Everton were and are a very good side, far better in years past, demonstrated by their early season form. Liverpool showed resilience after the set-backs and the manager showed some unexpected tactical nous. Rodgers made the right changes in both personnel and tactics when required, early and often.

I've said it before, and I rather hope I'll be able to stop saying it soon. The signs are there. It has to start getting better.

27 October 2012

Liverpool at Everton 10.28.12

9:30am ET, live in the US on espn2

FYI: British Summer Time ends tonight, which is why the match is at 9:30am ET rather than 8:30am. Obviously, they do it wrong and Summer Time should last for as long as possible. We'll catch up with them when our clocks fall back next weekend.

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (n; FA Cup) 04.14.12
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.13.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.01.11
2-2 (h) 01.16.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Reading (h); 0-0 Stoke (h)
Everton: 1-1 QPR (a); 2-2 Wigan (a); 3-1 Southampton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Everton: Jelavic 4; Fellaini 3; Anichebe, Baines 2; Mirallas, Osman, Pienaar 1

[Nota Bene: The dubious goals panel have now classified Gerrard's strike against Norwich as a Leon Barnett own goal. I have precedent for ignoring the dubious goals panel when it suits me – specifically Carragher's "goal" against Middlesbrough in 2008-09 – but I think I'll stick with the PL ruling in this case, even if I thoroughly disagree with it.]

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Allen
Suso Suarez Sterling

Joy. The Derby. These matches are always good for the heart and soul and never 90 minutes of living death, now somehow made worse by Everton currently six points and eight places ahead of Liverpool.

As for Liverpool's lineup: Şahin or Shelvey, Reina or Jones. Otherwise, as in the last three league matches, the XI pretty much writes itself.

I'm tempted to suggest Liverpool stick with the same outfield 10 that started against Norwich, Stoke, and Reading, but Jonjo Shelvey starting as most-advanced midfielder seems more likely that Nuri Şahin. Despite Rodgers' changes to the structure and philosophy, the "more English = more better" mantra remains pervasive in matches like these. Shelvey's aggressiveness and all-action style could be useful qualities in tomorrow's fixture, even if it's skating on paper-thin ice Similarly, I doubt Shelvey would be sent out for the main round of interviews going into the match (see here and here, among others, although both are basically the same article) if he weren't involved tomorrow. In addition, Şahin started both matches in the last week, including all 90 minutes against Anzhi, while still coming to terms with regular matches after spending so much of last season injured.

However, even though it's the same midfield so throughly dismembered by Arsenal, I'd rather see Şahin, Allen, and Gerrard, tweaked by having the captain as the most-attacking midfielder, even though we haven't seen that since Liverpool lost to the Gunners. Which, incidentally, came after the last time both Suarez and Gerrard played 90 minutes in the Europa League. Şahin did surprisingly well as the controller against Anzhi, and you want Gerrard as close to goal as possible in this fixture,. both for positive and negative reasons. Simply put, I don't know if I trust him to stay disciplined in this fixture, which he'll has to has to has to be when sitting deeper in partnership with Allen. And which is realize is both heresy and blasphemy, and that I should be burnt at the stake post haste. So be it. Guilty as charged.

Liverpool's keeper solely depends on Reina's fitness; if he's healthy enough, he'll play, even though the defense has been excellent with the impeccably-coiffed Aussie between the posts in the last two matches. I'd suggest Jones should be undroppable after keeping consecutive clean sheets, but it is Pepe Reina. Otherwise, you know the drill. A back four of Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, and Wisdom; a front three of Sterling, Suarez, and Suso. The only slight possibility is Johnson shifting back over the right with Enrique finally fit and Downing's second-half performance against Anzhi, but that's a very, very slight possibility, even though Liverpool might be better served with Johnson on the right, helping to pin Baines back. But Wisdom did incredibly well against Anzhi, improving in each of the successive matches he's started, while both Downing and Enrique have disappointed at times, and are prone to the kind of lapses that can kill a side, especially in this fixture. At the same time, I've seen nothing to suggest Johnson's injured after being taken off at halftime in the Europa League.

Through eight matches, Everton remain unbeaten in its three home fixtures, beating United and Southampton and drawing with Newcastle. The Toffees have lost just once, 0-2 at West Brom, eight weeks ago, with just Chelsea, United, and City ahead of them in the table. Which is a frightening prospect given Everton's usual turtle slow start under Moyes, waiting until the New Year to make its trademark climb up the table.

The home side will be without Steven Pienaar due to a one-match suspension, while Darron Gibson is out through injury, but should have both Fellaini and Hibbert back to fitness. I strongly encourage the latter being used, a prospect which should leave Sterling drooling with anticipation. If either are unable to play, I suspect Heitinga will come into the lineup, either joining Neville as a holding midfielder (if Fellaini's out) or shifting Neville to right back (if Hibbert's out).

Moyes will almost certainly play 4-4-1-1/4-5-1, his preferred formation, especially against Liverpool, where he almost always names a conservative lineup no matter Liverpool or Everton's form. Howard in goal; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, and Baines in defense; Coleman, Osman, Fellaini, Neville, and Mirallas in midfield; and Jelavic up front. Pienaar will be a big miss, having started every league match so far, so I'm somewhat uncertain how Moyes will replace him. Mirallas – usually playing on the right or as the support striker – seems the most likely, but both Coleman and Osman could also feature on that flank; both are more defensive options.

Everton's points total and league position, coupled with Liverpool's, make this match even more important than usual. Which is a frightening prospect. The oft-used buzzwords are all in play. Liverpool need to be proactive, but not too proactive, away from home and frequently susceptible to counter-attacks. Liverpool need to be aggressive but not too aggressive, given the lengthy history of red cards in this fixture and Everton's threat from set plays. Liverpool need to get its fullbacks involved, overlapping with Sterling on Liverpool's left and pinning Baines back on its right, but also need to protect against Baines doing the same to Liverpool.

Most importantly, Liverpool need to continue developing its game – Rodgers' patient, controlling style of football, even if it's the antithesis of how these contests usually play out – and continue to reap the incremental rewards that we've seen earned in the last four fixtures.

25 October 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Anzhi Makhachkala

Downing 53'

After the first two group stage matches saw a combined 13 goals, this one's a narrow 1-0 decided by an unrepeatable Downing (yes, Downing) strike. Sometimes football truly is unpredictable.

I hope it was worth it. I guess we'll find out Sunday.

Admittedly, I'm slightly biased, because I really don't care if Liverpool qualify for the knockout rounds. I realize that doesn't sound right, and I guess it's not that I don't care. But Liverpool's squad is threadbare – as everyone and their extended family has already noted – and the league is all-important. The Europa League's biggest draw was that Liverpool would be able to better develop its young talent. Well, that young talent is being developed in the league because of Rodgers' willingness to baptize the likes of Sterling, Suso, and Wisdom with fire as well as Liverpool's limited resources and injuries. So playing Gerrard and Suarez, plus Johnson, Skrtel, and Agger, against Anzhi four days before facing Everton makes little sense to me, even if Liverpool pretty much needed a win here in order to qualify thanks to the last home loss against Udinese.

All in all, it wasn't very different from Liverpool's last match: in line-up, tactics, or tone. Liverpool made just three changes from Saturday's XI – bringing in Downing, Assaidi, and Shelvey for Sterling, Suso, and Allen – and once again, Liverpool mostly dominated with little reward. Liverpool couldn't finish for love of money, while Suarez was eminently frustrated by referee, teammates, and his own touch. Suarez, Johnson, and Assaidi all shot too close to the keeper after excellent moves down Liverpool's left, where Liverpool focused its attacks all match long, while Shelvey shot over from Suarez's cut-back and Johnson failed to get a shot off or win a penalty after breaking into the box.

Anzhi made it surprisingly easy for the home side. They were expected to sit back and counter-attack at pace, as they've done to excellent effect in almost every Europa League away match so far. And Anzhi did defend strongly throughout. But the advertised counter-attack was pretty much nonexistent, despite Liverpool without any recognized holding midfielder as both Şahin and Gerrard frequently went forward, trying to find the breakthrough. Maybe I'm pessimistic, but I anticipated far more threat from the Russian Premier League leaders, especially given Liverpool's propensity for conceding on counter-attacks. But Anzhi didn't even take a shot until first-half injury time, a blast from distance by Smolov which didn't come close to displacing even a strand of Brad Jones' wonderful head of hair.

The above is slightly unfair to both Liverpool's midfielders and defense, especially the defense. With Johnson bombing forward relentlessly, Wisdom, Skrtel, and Assaidi were tasked with marking Samuel Eto'o and the midfield runners who eventually joined Anzhi's intermittent attacks. And all three were outstanding, especially Andre Wisdom, who out-muscled Smolov, Boussoufa, and Zhirkov whenever required, while Skrtel and Agger marked Eto'o into oblivion, forcing him to drop deep into midfield to pick up the ball. Which he's used to, often playing in a deeper role at Anzhi. But that's when Lacina Traore also starts; Hiddink's 4-2-3-1 with Eto'o up front played into Liverpool's hands. And while Şahin and Gerrard left Liverpool exposed through the middle at times, it didn't happen very often, as both improved their passing accuracy from recent matches. Gerrard gave the ball away when trying too hard early on, but quickly settled into a more disciplined style. Meanwhile, Şahin misplaced just four passes, of his 75 in total, in the entire match.

Liverpool brought on Sterling for Johnson at halftime – ostensibly in order to give him slightly more rest for Sunday's match but with a few Twitter rumors that he had also picked up a knock – and the substitution made all the difference. But not for the reason you expected. Downing switched to left-back, with Sterling replacing him on the right, and it was at left-back where Downing stunned the world. Sterling was fouled on the right, and Liverpool took the deep free kick short and quick, Şahin to Shelvey, who switched play to Downing on the opposite flank. The the much-maligned (and rightfully so) stand-in left back cut inside past Agalarov, who backed off, before hammering a shot past Gabulov with what we all previously thought was just his standing leg. He's a scoring machine in this competition, with all of two goals. Two winners against Eastern European opposition. Stewart Downing, he scores when he wants.

Liverpool had chances to extend the lead soon after, most notably when Suarez blasted narrowly wide with his weaker foot, then Shelvey scuffed a shot at the keeper after a Liverpool break, set up by Assaidi, but as on Saturday, the away side grew more dangerous as the clock ticked down. Hiddink sending on Traore in the 64th minute helped, but Skrtel and Agger continued to defend excellently, with the gargantuan striker limited to a single, near post opportunity, poked wide with Skrtel draped all over him. More threatening were chances from Boussoufa and two late, late shots by Carcela, but Liverpool held on slightly more comfortably than against Reading, even if the final few minutes were similarly nervy. The standout moment of the last ten minutes was a goal ruled out for Danny Agger, heading the ball out of the keeper's hand then rocketing a shot into the empty net – which is, you know, somewhat illegal, but should have counted anyway solely because it's Agger.

So, job done. Despite the stronger line-up than we're used to in this competition, Liverpool's best players were 18-year-old Andre Wisdom and the ever-dangerous Oussama Assaidi, a constant terror down Liverpool's left, followed closely by Skrtel, Agger, and Şahin.

The last time Gerrard and Suarez played in a Europa League match – the second leg against Hearts – was followed by Liverpool's worst performance of the season to date, the 2-0 home loss against Arsenal. That simply cannot happen again on Sunday. Not only is the Merseyside Derby one of the most important matches of the season at "normal" times, but Everton currently sit six points and eight places ahead of Liverpool in the table. Which has to be remedied as soon as possible.

This result, combined with Udinese's 1-3 loss in Bern, means Liverpool now top the group with six points compared to Anzhi and Udinese's four. The Reds have to travel to both Italy and Russia in the next two Europa League matches, but they're now in pole position to qualify halfway through the stage.

As said earlier, I hope it's worth it.

24 October 2012

Liverpool v Anzhi Makhachkala 10.25.12

3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Anzhi: 2-0 BSC Young Boys (h); 1-1 Udinese (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Anzhi:: 5-0 AZ (a), 1-0 AZ (h); 2-0 Vitesse (a), 2-0 Vitesse (h); 4-0 Honved (a), 1-0 Honved (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Reading (h); 0-1 Stoke (h); 2-3 Udinese (h)
Anzhi: 2-1 Spartak Moscow (h); 2-0 Dinamo Moscow (a); 2-0 BSC Young Boys (H)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 3; Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Anzhi: Eto'o 7; Traore 3; Shatov 2; Boussoufa, Carcela, Jucilei, Lakhiyalov, Smolov 1

Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED)

Guess at a line-up
Johnson Coates Carragher Robinson
Henderson Allen
Downing Suarez Assaidi

Anzhi Makhachkala will be Liverpool's toughest Europa League opponents by some distance, which is saying something considering the Reds are coming off a home loss to Udinese in this competition. However, Sunday's Merseyside Derby means that Liverpool have little choice but to continue with its predominantly second-string lineup, with maybe three or four recognized first-team players starting against the Russian side.

Despite the slim squad and prioritizing the league, I honestly think Suarez may well start. Brendan Rodgers has little choice otherwise, hinting as much last week when discussing Liverpool's striking "options". Suarez won't play every match until Borini's fit/the January transfer window, but he'll play an awful lot of them. Tomorrow seems far too soon for Samed Yesil, especially against opponents of this quality – Samba and Joao Carlos are both excellent, physical center-backs – while the other options are Pacheco in a false nine role (as against Young Boys) or Adam Morgan. The one thing that would preclude Suarez from playing is if the knock he picked up against Reading – limping out of the tunnel after the half-time interval – is more serious than expected. In which case, good luck Samed.

I suspect Suarez will be flanked by the "usual" Europa League starters – two from Assaidi, Downing, Cole, and Pacheco. Unlike Suarez, who's experienced enough to cope with game after game after game, both Suso and Sterling need to be protected from overuse. Personally, I'd vastly prefer Assaidi and Pacheco, but either Downing and Cole will probably start opposite the Moroccan. Downing and Assaidi has been the pairing in the last two group stage matches. Hopefully, he – or Joe Cole – will make use of the opportunity. For a change.

It'll mostly likely be three from a probable for in midfield as well, but I'm far less certain who the three will be. Henderson is basically nailed-on, as in the two previous group stage matches, but he could be joined by Shelvey, Allen, or Şahin. Both Shelvey and Şahin could use the match time – the former after his three-match league suspension, the latter in his continuing quest for form and fitness. At the same time, Allen remains utterly crucial to Liverpool's style of play, with no one else in the squad capable of filling the role that he fills as long as Lucas is injured. The midfield against Young Boys – Suso, Henderson, and Şahin – was obviously overexposed without a clear holder, especially on Zarate's counter-attacking goal. And Anzhi will mostly likely counter at pace through Eto'o and the wingers.

Wisdom is another who probably needs to be rested after consecutive league starts, also suffering from a shoulder injury during the international break. Which means that Johnson probably has to start at right back, as we haven't seen proof that Flanagan even exists anymore other than cameos on Being: Liverpool. Robinson should start every Europa League match, but Enrique's long-awaited return to fitness may mean he plays tomorrow in order to shake off the ring rust. Carragher and Coates has been the default Europa League pairing, but Rodgers may want to consider partnering the Uruguayan with Skrtel because of the threat posed by Eto'o and Lacina Traore. Jones will again start in goal as Reina attempts to recover in time to face Everton.

Guus Hiddink's Anzhi currently leads the Russian Premier League, on 29 points after 12 matches (9W-2D-1L), two points ahead of CSKA Moscow. They're on a 13-match unbeaten run in all competitions, without a loss since August 12 at CSKA and with just two draws – against Zenit and Udinese – during that stretch.

Anzhi have been playing first-choice line-ups in the Europa League so far, with Eto'o – among others – starting all six matches. The usual line-up has been a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 with both Eto'o dropping off Lacina Traore up front; Boussoufa and Shatov on the flanks; Jucilei and Lass Diarra in midfield; Agalarov, João Carlos, Samba, and Tagirbekov or Zhirkov in defense; and Gabulov in goal. Through eight matches, Russians have conceded just one goal in this competition (at Udinese in the first group stage match), while scoring 18 of their own. Other than that draw in Italy, Anzhi have been more impressive away from home, with 1-0 wins against Honved and AZ in the first leg of the qualifying rounds before demolishing them 4-0 and 5-0 respectively in the second away leg.

Lass Diarra will most likely miss both matches against Liverpool through injury, but it's not as if Anzhi are without alternatives. Boussoufa can drop into midfield, with Smolov or Carcela coming in on the flanks, or Anzhi could shift to a 4-3-1-2 system – which they used more often before signing Diarra on deadline day – with Boussoufa in the hole and two from Shatov, Carcela, Zhirkov, and Smolov on the flanks. As we saw when he was at Chelsea, Yuri Zhirkov is equally comfortable on the wing or at full-back.

Samuel Eto'o needs no introduction; even at 31, he's still a world-class striker, Anzhi's top scorer in both the Russian Premier League and Europa League, with 7 goals in each competition. Only two players have scored more through the Russian Premier League's 12 matches. 6'8" Lacina Traore, formerly of CFR Cluj, isn't far behind with six in the league; his height and aerial ability will present a formidable challenge to Coates or Carra if he (or they) start. Liverpool fans will recognize both Zhirkov and Christopher Samba from their time with Chelsea and Blackburn. Oussama Assaidi's international teammate, the versatile Mbark Boussoufa – a Chelsea academy graduate and two-time Belgian Footballer of the Year (winning the award in the two years following Milan Jovanovic, who also you may remember) – has also become one of Anzhi's key players: able to play anywhere in attack, by far Anzhi's most creative player with seven league assists. Only Tagirbekov and Eto'o have played more league minutes so far this season.

Put simply, anything Liverpool get from the Europa League is a bonus. Rodgers knows full well that he'll be judged on league results alone. It would be disappointing were Liverpool to lose tomorrow and/or fail to progress from the group stage, but it wouldn't be the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, and wouldn't really hinder the club's development as a whole. Like against Udinese, this will one of Anzhi's matches of the season because of the caché Liverpool and Anfield still have around the world, but it's not even Liverpool's most important match this week. Which will be reflected in Rodgers' starting XI. That's not an excuse for any failings which may or may not occur tomorrow, but a warning nonetheless. Expect little, and you're not disappointed if nothing comes to fruition.

23 October 2012

Liverpool Shooting Through Eight Games

To say that Liverpool are often wildly inaccurate in front of goal seems an understatement, reinforced by Suarez's ten shots against Reading with only one hitting the target. But just how wildly inaccurate have they been so far this season?

This started as an examination of Suarez's tendencies, as it seems he goes long stretches without testing the keeper only to have matches like that against Norwich, where he can't seem to miss, but that seems to be the case for most Liverpool players. He's just the most noticeable because he takes so many more shots than anyone else.

Gerrard didn't hit the target until the fifth match of the season, when he scored with his first shot on target of the season against Manchester United. He's hit the target with six of his eight shots since, scoring twice. Borini – ostensibly a striker – had his first shot on target against Sunderland, the fourth match of the season. Sterling's started every match but the first and didn't hit the target until Saturday. Both Skrtel and Şahin scored with their first shot of the season and haven't scored since, with Skrtel tallying the lone shot on target between them.

Ten Liverpool players have taken at least five shots this season. Six of them – Suarez, Johnson, Borini, Agger, Skrtel, and Şahin – have missed the target with more than 50% of their shots.

Liverpool have taken 26 more shots than at this point last season, scoring the same number of goals (however, one of the goals in 2011-12 came from an own goal, not a Liverpool shot). But Liverpool actually have fewer shots on-target this season than after eight matches last season: 36 compared to 40. Accordingly, Liverpool have had far more shots off-target and blocked this season: 71 off-target this season, 55 last season; 41 blocked this season, 29 blocked last season.

Somehow, Liverpool are becoming even more wasteful in front of goal. That is not a good sign, especially considering Liverpool's striker shortage as well as the complete and utter reliance on Luis Suarez. Suarez accounts for almost all of the additional shots, having taken almost twice as many as he did through eight matches last season – 50 compared to 28. He's scored just one more goal.

Incidentally, Liverpool have also hit the woodwork six times so far this season: Sterling against Arsenal, Johnson and Gerrard against Sunderland, and Suarez, Skrtel, and Sterling against Stoke. Three matches where Liverpool either lost or drew. That's one more woodwork strike than at this point last season – that hellish campaign where Liverpool couldn't stop hitting the frame of the goal. Sigh.

The overall percentages of Liverpool's league shots this season:
      - Goals [10] = 6.8%
      - On-target [36] (Goals + On-target) = 24.3%
      - Off-target [71] = 48.0%
      - Blocked [41] = 27.7%

22 October 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Reading

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h)

Are we getting bored of these yet?

Match data from Stats Zone and Squawka, infographic idea from On Goals Scored (who recently posted a lovely look at previous Bundesliga champions that you should check out).

All in all, it's not incredibly different to Liverpool's statistics against Stoke, except in one key area. The goal, the crucial, crucial goal. The difference between more disappointment and three much-needed points.

Liverpool attempted and completed about 20 fewer passes than against Stoke, while the passing accuracy was a half-percent better – 81.6% to 81.1%. The match against Manchester City remains Liverpool's low for the season, but the Reds were far more accurate against West Brom, Arsenal, Sunderland, United, and Norwich. Liverpool were more accurate in the middle of the pitch on Saturday – specifically Gerrard, who played quite well, thankfully avoiding his Captain Hollywood shtick when forcing the game, but Liverpool didn't need to force the game after Sterling's 29th minute goal. But Liverpool were similarly inaccurate in attack, specifically from Suarez, Şahin, and Johnson, evidence of Reading's parked bus defense – as Stoke did at Anfield two weeks ago. It's something Liverpool will have to get used to, but that's something Liverpool have had to get used to for years now.

More noticeable is the shots and chances created total. Specifically from Suarez. Wow. The Uruguayan took 10 shots (his high for the season) and created six chances (his high for the season). Unfortunately, nine of his ten shots failed to hit the target: six off-target, three blocked. 27 shots in total was also Liverpool's high for the season – four more than the previous high against Sunderland and ten above Liverpool's average through the first seven matches. If not for Sterling's early, excellently-taken goal, we'd be lamenting Liverpool's horrific finishing yet again. Thankfully, one was all Liverpool needed. Also, despite taking 27 shots, none came after the 77th minute, that desperate stretch when Liverpool clung onto its narrow lead.

Liverpool noticeably focused their attacks down the left flank, constantly attacking Shaun Cummings, evidenced by Sterling and Johnson's season high in shots and Sterling's five chances created. Johnson spent the majority of the match as a second left-winger, with a average position ahead of both Gerrard and Allen, almost level with Şahin and Suso (via WhoScored), which allowed Sterling to move into central positions, into space away from Cummings, including on the move for Liverpool's lone goal.

Reading did similar when actually springing attacks of their own. Outside of the holding midfielder Leigertwood, McAnuff and Shorey attempted the most passes for the away side, while the majority of Liverpool's tackles and interceptions came in that zone. Wisdom, Şahin, and Suso all made two tackles in that area – joint-most for any Liverpool player along with Gerrard – while Wisdom also led the way in aerial duels, completing four of his six attempted. McAnuff is one of Reading's most-dangerous attackers, and Liverpool's raw right back did an outstanding job on him all match. Special mention also goes to Suso, who tracked back excellently to help Wisdom, something rarely seen from an 18-year-old attacker. Pogrebnyak is Reading's other focal point, and he was utterly invisible, wholly marked out of the match by Skrtel and Agger. It's amusing to see so many shots and chances created from Liverpool's striker while Reading's striker tallied none.

Finally, the possession graphic remains eminently disappointing, specifically in the second half. Liverpool have seen their possession totals drop in the second half in four of eight league matches, but two were when Liverpool had a man sent off, with the third against Arsenal, where Liverpool tried to draw the opposition out in the hopes of springing more effective counter-attacks and were throughly beaten regardless. But, no matter the lead, Liverpool should expect to dominate the ball against Reading, especially when holding onto a one-nil lead. That, more than Liverpool's marginally disappointing passing and all-too-usual profligacy in front of goal, will command Rodgers' attention this week.

20 October 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Reading

Sterling 29'

So, Liverpool finally win a league match at Anfield, but a better opponent probably would have punished Liverpool at least once, and maybe multiple times.

Admittedly, Liverpool have lost and drawn far too often when playing "weak" opposition, so I probably shouldn't complain. But Liverpool were very, very lucky that Reading were that impotent in attack.

Rodgers' style is to control the tempo, to take the sting out of the game by playing keep away. That would have been helpful today. However, this looked a lot more like last year's team, or even – god forbid – Hodgson's side. Liverpool increasingly retreated as the match went on, and the last ten minutes most likely did major heart damage to a fair few fans. The home side barely out-possessed Reading in the second half, from 60-40% at half-time to 56.8-43.2% at full time, meaning Reading almost equaled Liverpool's time on the ball after the interval. 85% passing accuracy in the first half, 78% in the second half. Liverpool dominated the ball in the second half against the likes of Sunderland, Norwich, and Stoke, but were increasingly penned back today, eventually holding onto the one-nil lead by fingernails. Rodgers' substitutions in the final 20 minutes reinforced this trend – Enrique for Suso, Henderson for Sterling – both for defensive solidity, to keep Liverpool's narrow lead.

At the same time, Liverpool finally won a game when Suarez couldn't find the target with a map. He took ten of Liverpool's 27 shots, and tested McCarthy with just one. Although, credit where due, he also set up Liverpool's opener after the home side's strong start. After nearly 30 minutes of good pressure but with Liverpool unable to break into Reading's box and resorting to long-range efforts, Wisdom won a clearing header, directing it perfectly for Suarez. A quick touch then outstanding pass over the top to release Sterling, then an excellent finish low into the far corner. His first for the club, and now Liverpool's second-youngest Premiership goalscorer.

Liverpool continued to monopolize the ball until half-time, with Reading restricted to one Leigertwood shot from distance that was nowhere near threatening, but couldn't find the needed second, with Suarez shooting wide and McCarthy saving Johnson's blast before the interval.

Maybe Liverpool's counter-attacking goal was the template for the second half. Draw Reading out, allow Suarez and Sterling to find space to operate, and attack at pace. But it didn't quite work that way, mostly thanks to Liverpool's horrific finishing. Suarez spurned five outstanding chances – straight at the keeper, over the bar, wide, over the bar, and wide – but also continued to set up opportunities: the first for Sterling, also directed too close to McCarthy, the second a jaw-dropping cross-field pass that the substitute Shelvey (on for Şahin in the 63rd) couldn't control. But beginning around the 72nd minute and reaching its apex in the last 10 minutes, Reading took the game to Liverpool in desperate search of an equalizer.

A lot of credit for today's win goes to Brad Jones, who secured back-to-back clean sheets in the league for the first time since facing Wolves and Tottenham at the end of January and beginning of February. Reading had 14 set plays in Liverpool's half – nine free kicks and five corners – and didn't come close to testing Jones on any of them, many punched clear or claimed. The stand-in keeper also made two excellent saves early in the second half, first blocking McCleary's chance when Reading quickly countered, then smartly parrying McAnuff's long-range blast five minutes later.

Unsurprisingly when a clean sheet's kept, all of Liverpool's defense played well. Skrtel and Agger marked the dangerous Pogrebnyak out of the match, while Wisdom and Johnson limited Reading's wingers; both Kebe and McAnuff are crucial to the Royals' attacking play. Johnson was probably Liverpool's man of the match, more for his efforts going forward, but also contributing three or four crucial defensive headers on crosses and set plays. Wisdom had his shaky moments, which isn't out-of-character for an arguably over-played 18-year-old, but still kept McAnuff quiet for long stretches.

Otherwise, Liverpool's midfield was decent even if none of Gerrard, Allen, or Şahin were at their best – Şahin was especially disappointing, while Gerrard was refreshingly disciplined in his positioning. Sterling scored an outstanding goal but was otherwise well-marshaled by Cummings; similar goes for Suso against Shorey on the other flank. Suarez took more shots and created more chances than in any other match this season, but rarely found the target, although he has a valid excuse thanks to playing a tough international match at altitude on the other side of the ocean just four days ago. While it's reassuring to see Liverpool make at least one breakthrough against a deep, diligent side – something that hasn't happened often enough in the last two seasons – this match was won with defense.

But this is a season built by increments. That Liverpool's defense improved, and Liverpool finally took all three points at home are strong steps forward, no matter how shaky the overall performance may have seemed.

19 October 2012

Liverpool v Reading 10.20.12

10am ET, not live in the US (except on FoxSoccer2Go). So, streams it is.

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Reading (h; FA Cup) 01.13.10
1-1 (a; FA Cup) 01.02.10
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.15.08
1-3 Reading (a) 12.08.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Stoke (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-2 Norwich (a)
Reading: 2-2 Swansea (a); 2-2 Newcastle (h); 3-2 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel 1
Reading: Hunt, Pogrebnyak 2; Guthrie, Kebe, Le Fondre, Robson-Kanu 1

Referee: Roger East

This is Roger East's first season as a Select Group referee. He's never done a Liverpool match, and has only refereed two other Premiership matches: Swansea 2-2 Sunderland and Fulham 3-0 West Brom. Incidentally, he sent a player off in both of those matches.

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Allen
Suso Suarez Sterling

My apologies for the radio silence over the last week and a half but I figured yet another international break meant it was a good time for a vacation. Other than the usual "international breaks are awful, why won't players stop getting injured???" I see I didn't miss very much.

And it definitely was a less than successful international break. Borini fractured a bone in his foot, and will be out for the next three months. Reina tweaked his hamstring during the half-time warmup of Spain's match on Tuesday. Wisdom missed u19 duty because of a shoulder injury picked up against Stoke. Both Allen and Robinson picked up viruses this week, although both should be healthy tomorrow.

And that's not including all the Reds who *just* played. Suarez, Liverpool's lone first-team forward, travelled something like 6000 miles after playing in Bolivia's altitude, where Uruguay lost 1-4. Gerrard, Johnson, and Shelvey were forced to spend an extra day in Poland as Tuesday's match was delayed, only returning to Liverpool yesterday. Allen, Skrtel, and Agger played both matches for Wales, Slovakia, and Denmark. Şahin came on as a substitute in Friday's loss to Romania, then played the full 90 minutes in Tuesday's loss to Hungary, his first start for his country in 2014 World Cup qualifying. Henderson, Sterling, and Robinson were with the England u21s. Yesil played three games for Germany's u19s.

Have I mentioned that I hate international breaks?

So Liverpool have to cobble a lineup around those injuries and fatigued players, with an already shallow squad. Fun times. Perpetually fun times.

Hopefully, Suso will continue to stand in for Borini more often than not, including tomorrow. The other options are Cole and Downing and no, please no. Moving either Gerrard or Shelvey into the front three remains an unlikely possibility, slightly closer to being forced due to the limited squad, but I still don't see it happening.

As usual, both are more likely to compete for a place in midfield. Emphasis hopefully on the word "compete." Liverpool certainly could have used Shelvey in its last combative match against Stoke; given the way that Lee Mason refereed, Shelvey could have gotten away with any type of tackle he desired. And, in theory, Gerrard shouldn't be a nailed-on starter after two draining international matches. But he probably will be. It seems almost certain that Gerrard and Allen – the one midfielder who simply has to start every league match, at least until Lucas is fit – will be two of the three in midfield, with Rodgers choosing from Shelvey and Şahin for the attacking midfield role.

Jose Enrique is back in training, but it's probably too soon for him to come back into the XI after missing so much time. Robinson just played for the u21s (along with Morgan and Pacheco), which rules out his participation. Chances are we'll see the same back four as started against Norwich and Stoke, as I doubt Robinson would start for the u21s if Wisdom was doubtful. Which means that as long as Reina's fit, we'll probably see the same XI as started against Norwich and Stoke. Reading are less physical and and more forward-thinking than the Potters, but Liverpool will still have to solve some of the same, cagey problems in tomorrow's match. Hopefully, if it is the same XI, they'll cope far better.

Reading are one of six sides actually lower than Liverpool in the table, and one of just three who've yet to win a league match. Like Liverpool until Liverpool faced Stoke, they haven't kept a clean sheet in any of their six matches, conceding at least twice in four of the six. Of course, they've also been slightly more potent at the other end of the pitch, failing to score in just one league match. Liverpool's failed to score in three of its seven.

And to be fair, the Royals started the season well, with a battling opening day draw against Stoke before an unlucky loss at Chelsea thanks to an offside Torres goal. But the last international break led to a dramatic loss of form, a turgid 1-3 home loss to Tottenham, followed by a defeat at West Brom before improving in draws against Newcastle and Swansea.

Brian McDermott's side will almost certainly play 4-4-2: McCarthy; Gunter, Mariappa, Gorkss, Shorey; Kebe, Karacan, Tabb, McAnuff; Hunt, Pogrebnyak is the most likely XI, the same XI that held Swansea except for Gunter replacing Shawn Cummings. Ex-Liverpool player Danny Guthrie could come in for either Karacan or Tabb in midfield, while Cummings started the last two matches at right-back with Gunter out. Keeper Adam Federici is the only confirmed absentee, while midfielder Mikele Leigertwood will undergo a late fitness test – and could also start in the middle if fit.

Reading had seven players away with their countries: Chris Gunter, Hal Robson-Kanu, Simon Church (all Wales), Kaspars Gorkss (Latvia), Jem Karacan (Turkey), Adrian Mariappa (Jamaica), and Leigertwood (Antigua and Barbuda). Only Gunter and Gorkss started, while Church and Robson-Kanu came off the bench in their respective matches. Surprisingly, Pavel Pogrebnyak wasn't called up for Russia's matches.

Going back to the start of the 2010-11 season, Liverpool have won just two of the 13 matches following an international break: a 3-0 home win over eventually relegated West Ham in November 2010 and 2-1 away victory over Chelsea in November 2011. Otherwise, six draws (against Arsenal, Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland, United, and Sunderland) and five losses (against Everton, West Brom, Stoke, Arsenal, and West Brom). That's an average of 0.92 points per match, compared to Liverpool's already awful average of 1.40 points per match since August 2010.

And in other depressing statistics, Liverpool have also won just two of the 13 home league matches since the start of 2012. That's an unconscionable, abysmal record, especially considering the usual advantages Liverpool have at Anfield. Even Hodgson won most of his home games. Hodgson, for pete's sake. Not that I'm arguing for his style of football by any stretch of the imagination, but Liverpool's failings in front of their own simply have to be rectified before Liverpool can progress. The last match saw Liverpool finally break the clean sheet hex. Tomorrow's match against a promoted side – no matter the international break and injury issues – needs to fix this flaw.

08 October 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Stoke

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a)

Yep, this again. Warning: this week's charts (especially Liverpool's passing) may be hazardous to your health.

All data via StatsZone and Squawka.

Liverpool's passing accuracy was slightly worse against Manchester City – 81.1% yesterday versus 80.5% against the reigning league champions – but otherwise, it was a shambolic total compared to the matches against Norwich, United, Sunderland, Arsenal, and West Brom. The first half, where Liverpool completed just 76.9% of its passes, was especially disheartening. 68% accuracy in the attacking third is also not good.

Probably not coincidentally, it was Gerrard's least accurate performance as well, completing just 73% of his passes, compared to 89% against Norwich, 95% against United, 85% against Sunderland, 81% against Arsenal, 78% against City, and 82% against West Brom. In fact, six other Liverpool starters had their least accurate match of the season: Reina, Agger, Johnson, Şahin, Suso, and Wisdom (although, admittedly, the last two have only started twice). Stoke succeeded in dragging Liverpool down to its level. That – more than the poor finishing, more than anything – should be Rodgers' biggest complaint. And is also partly Rodgers' fault. Stoke are not an unknown quantity. They do not change their style from match to match. Liverpool, and Rodgers, should know how to compensate by now.

As against Arsenal, every outfield Liverpool starter either took a shot or created a chance. It is probably not a good sign that Liverpool have scored zero goals when that happens.

We knew the shooting accuracy would inevitably drop from the heady heights reached against Norwich. I did not expected it to plummet this far this fast. 18 Liverpool shots, just two on target. 11 off-target, 5 blocked. Both of Liverpool's on-target shots came from outside the area – with all 10 from inside the box off-target or blocked – but it was two of eight compared to four of six against Norwich. One week after a hat-trick, Suarez didn't have a single shot on target: two wide (one off the post) and two blocked. Including the two substitutes, Liverpool's front four took ten shots. All ten were either off-target or blocked. Regression to the regrettable mean.

Lacking the "goal events" category, I included a timeline of Liverpool's shots instead. It's not surprising to see an increase in shots in the final 20 minutes of the match, but it's disappointing that Liverpool hit the target with none of them. Nine shots from the 70th minute on: seven off-target, two blocked, four of the nine shots from outside the box. Liverpool's desperation was all too palpable, and all too easily dealt with by Stoke. I apologize for continuing to harp on his performance, but it was surprising to see Gerrard not register an attempt after the 34th minute, though.

Defensively, Liverpool did very well cutting out Stoke's play on the flanks, whether through tackles or interceptions, ensuring Crouch had very little supply from Kightly, Walters, and Etherington. Şahin was responsible for five of Liverpool's 17 interceptions; Agger and Wisdom each had three, no one else more than one. Gerrard and Sterling were Liverpool's top tacklers, with four apiece. Stoke attempted just eight crosses (not counting the five corners); they attempted an average of 19.7 per game in the first six Premiership matches. No other opponent held them below 14 (against Manchester City). With that route cut off, Stoke's most frequent pass combination was Begovic to Crouch, accounting for eight of the 11 passes that Begovic completed.

But Stoke's defense also cut out Liverpool's main supply line, with tackles and interceptions clogging the area just outside the penalty area. Suarez and Sterling struggled to break into the box, with just ten successful dribbles out of the 25 they attempted. It's also no coincidence that Stoke committed the joint-most fouls of any Liverpool opponent this season – 18, the same total as Sunderland. Somehow Sunderland only incurred one yellow card, while Stoke had six memorable ones. And I'm sure we can all think of a few more that went uncalled.

07 October 2012

Liverpool 0-0 Stoke

Another typical match against Stoke. Another typical match from Lee Mason. And another all-too-typical match from Liverpool.

It gets boring to say Stoke are Stoke are Stoke, but Stoke were so very Stoke and Mason let them get away with it. Liverpool played into their hands in the first half, and couldn't convert its chances in a marginally-improved second half.

Robert Huth set the tone early on, stamping on Suarez's chest after less than five minutes. Mason called nothing, not the initial foul, and not the stamp, leading to a Stoke chance that thankfully went begging when Kightly's vicious cross just eluded Crouch, Walters, and Adam.

Liverpool completely failed to come to grips with Stoke's physicality, and the away side were on top for the first 20 minutes, taking four of their six shots in total – including both of their shots in target – in the opening quarter of the game. And both of those shots on target started from Liverpool mistakes. Şahin gave a goal kick straight to Charlie Adam in the 5th; luckily, Reina was quick off his line to deny him any space or angle. 15 minutes later, Reina passed the ball directly to N'Zonzi, but redeemed himself by tipping Kightly's shot over the crossbar.

After that opening 20 minutes, Liverpool stopped committing seppuku, but still weren't clicking. Gerrard finally forced Begovic into a save after 27 minutes – waist-high from distance, easily parried behind – swiftly followed by the first of four woodwork strikes: Agger's toe-poke from Suso's chip clipping the outside of the post. Otherwise, the half stayed in the same vein, with Liverpool unable to breach Stoke's determined defense or standard savagery, although at least Mason started showing cards. That Liverpool finished the half with just 77% pass accuracy demonstrates how Stoke controlled the tenor and tempo: Liverpool became impatient, were too direct, something Stoke encouraged and easily dealt with. It is the antithesis of Rodgers' preferred style. And Gerrard was the worst culprit: 59 completed of 81 passes after 90 minutes, 0 for 8 on crosses, giving the ball away 36 times in total. As Gerrard and Suarez go, so goes Liverpool.

Rodgers clearly had harsh words at halftime, as Liverpool at least reverted to more cohesive patient passing. Johnson's runs from deep led to two quick chances: the first saved by Begovic, the second ballooned over, unable to take Gerrard's outstanding long pass in stride. After Agger wonderfully intercepted a low Stoke cross on a counter-attack, saving a probable goal – the type of goal Liverpool have conceded all too often – the away side were pushed deeper and deeper, rarely exiting their own half for the rest of the match.

However, Stoke are usually content to sit deeper and deeper, defending strongly throughout. And as has happened all too often, Liverpool's finishing let them down. Liverpool created chances – sure, they should have created more – but chances came. Suarez shot narrowly wide after a jaw-dropping run through the entire Stoke defense, Sterling hit the near post after Agger's chipped cross fell to him, Suarez hit the near post when shooting from no angle at the byline, and Skrtel hit the far post in injury time after getting on the end of Joe Cole's lofted hoof. Sensing a trend here? And you thought that Liverpool were over the woodwork woes. Ha.

Also, yeah, I actually wrote Joe Cole's name in that last paragraph. Which is a helpful segue into questioning Liverpool's substitutions in addition to the questions over Liverpool's tactics and preparation. Cole was first off the bench, replacing Suso in the 67th minute. Not Borini. Not Assaidi. Not Downing, completely left out again, as against United. But Joe Cole. 10 minutes later, Assaidi replaced Şahin, shifting Cole into his "preferred" position behind the central striker, mostly because Cole made absolutely no impact on the flank, unable to get on the ball. He wasn't able to do much more in the middle, in a position where Liverpool needs more mobility, more intelligence, and more creativity to link the attacking play. Liverpool badly missed Jonjo Shelvey in this match, and as a helpful bonus, he could have made any type of tackle he wanted given the way that Mason refereed. It's no coincidence that's Liverpool's last two chances were self-created by Suarez and then from a set play – even if Cole played the pass for Skrtel's shot.

At the same time, Tony Pulis learned from previous mistakes with his substitutions. This match looked an awful lot like Stoke's 0-1 loss at Chelsea a couple of weeks back. At Stamford Bridge, Pulis replaced Adam with Michael Owen not long after the hour mark, sensing that he might be able to sneak a win away from home. Unable to stop Chelsea as effectively with one fewer midfielder and finally tiring after an entire match of concerted home side pressure, Chelsea finally snuck a winner in the 85th. Pulis was not going to make that error again, replacing Kightly with Etherington in a straight swap just after the hour mark, then defensive midfielder Edu for Charlie Adam with 10 minutes to play.

Unsurprisingly given the scoreline, Liverpool's defense was very good, Liverpool's midfield and attack much less so. All four defenders were superlative – if picking a man of the match, which I'm not inclined to do after that result, it's one of those four. Johnson has become a much better left back than right back; playing on that side requires him to pick and choose his spots going forward, less likely to leave gaps in defense when bombing ahead without reserve. Wisdom was tidy and intelligent in position. Skrtel and Agger coped manfully with Crouch and Walters' aerial presence, and were also on the end of two of Liverpool's best chances.

But it all broke down in Stoke's half all too often. Gerrard was headstrong, impatient, and egregiously wasteful. Suso and Şahin were bullied out of the game too easily, the most harried by Stoke's tactics, which is why those were the two subbed off. Sterling had little success running at Cameron or Wilson, although he showed some surprising strength and tracked back excellently: just 3 of 9 successful dribbles, but 4 of 4 with his tackles. And Suarez worked hard, nearly creating a goal from nothing twice, but (as feared and expected) nowhere near at potent with his finishing, also hindered by Mason's willingness to let Huth and Shawcross mimic pro wrestling villains. All that was missing were a few steel chairs and maybe some salt thrown in Suarez's eyes.

So, Liverpool have finally kept a clean sheet in the league, but Liverpool are still winless at Anfield after four league matches. Back-to-back 0-0s at home against Stoke, the fourth time this fixture has ended at that scoreline in the nine league meetings since Stoke were promoted. All the recent problems in defense rectified, all the familiar failures in attack returning. One of these days, Liverpool will make both facets work, but that day can't come soon enough.

06 October 2012

Liverpool v Stoke 10.07.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12
0-0 (h) 01.14.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.26.11
0-1 Stoke (a) 09.10.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-2 Norwich (a); 2-1 West Brom (a)
Stoke: 2-0 Swansea (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a); 1-1 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel 1
Stoke: Crouch 4; Kightly, Walters 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Allen
Sterling Suarez Borini

Much of Liverpool's line-up writes itself in the Premier League, in contrast to the guessing games needed to forecast the Europa League and League Cup line-ups. Suarez, Gerrard, Allen, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Reina are certainties to start when fit. Şahin and Sterling are close to that category, having seized their opportunities when given the chance earlier in the season, the former aided by Shelvey's red card against United, the latter by Liverpool's lack of depth on the flanks.

Which seemingly leaves two places up for grabs. Borini is only recently back from an ankle injury, and again underwhelmed when starting as the central striker against Udinese. I'm hesitant to criticize the player because of his inexperience, both at Liverpool and in general – it's easy to forget he's just 21, an age belied by his often-clever movement – and having to shift from flank to flank to center, without a settled position. But to say he's had a disappointing start to his Liverpool career would be putting it mildly.

The alternatives are Assaidi, Downing, and Suso. Downing was the better of the two wingers against Udinese – and would allow Sterling to play on his preferred flank, although the 17-year-old has improved in his last two matches on the right – but Downing is still Downing. We saw the inconsistency that will probably trouble Assaidi for most of the season in Thursday's Europa League match: he'll give defenders nightmares, as against West Brom, then go missing for long spells next time out. Such is the life of mercurial wingers. Suso might be the best option, impressive against Norwich, and like Downing, would allow Sterling to start on the left. Still, if Borini's physically capable of playing, I expect Rodgers to start him.

The second question is the full-back berth opposite Johnson. Enrique's probably still a match or two away from fitness, although it's been hard to keep up-to-date with his travails. Robinson was excellent against Udinese – arguably Liverpool's best player (at least starter, until Suarez came on) – but asking an inexperienced, injury-prone, 19-year-old to play two matches in four days may be asking too much. Like with Suso, the most-inexperienced teenager, 18-year-old Andre Wisdom, may be the best option. Wisdom's been a safe, reliable choice in all three of his starts so far this season, and his height and strength would be of extra benefit against Stoke's set plays. In addition, Glen Johnson's actually looked better when playing on the left so far this season. He offers less going forward from that side, but we haven't seen any of the debilitating defense errors like those on display against Arsenal and Udinese either.

It's been four painful years since Stoke won promotion. You know what you will get with Tony Pulis' side. The Potters started the season with four successive draws, including a controversial 1-1 against Manchester City where Stoke battled well to hold City to a lone set play goal but were lucky to tally one of their own, a Crouch handball ignored in the build-up to his opener. Those draws were followed by a narrow loss at Chelsea when conceding after 85 minutes of determined resistance and a fairly comfortable 2-0 win over no-longer-shockingly-potent Swansea.

And then there's the added twist of Adam, Crouch, Pennant, and Owen. So many ex-Reds who could stick the knife in. Crouch is a certain starter, far and away Stoke's best scorer, while Adam's almost guaranteed as well if he's over a shoulder injury suffered against Swansea. Pennant's been out-of-favor for most of the season, with Walters, Kightly, and Etherington preferred on the flanks. Owen has come off the bench in just two of Stoke's seven matches: a two-minute jog in the draw against City and 30 indifferent minutes – often as a deep-lying support striker – against Chelsea.

Pulis' most likely line-up is Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; N'Zonzi, Whelan; Walters, Adam, Kightly; Crouch. Whelan, like Adam, will be a late decision due to a hamstring injury; if he can't play, I suspect Adam will drop deeper with Walters playing centrally and Etherington or Pennant coming in on the flank. It's been interesting to see Pulis use Adam higher up the pitch, both to get him more involved in the attacking third and to reduce the turnovers and silly tackles which plagued his Liverpool tenure. American Reds will recognize Geoff Cameron, most likely at right-back, sometimes deployed as a defensive midfielder, even though he's become a first-choice center back for the national side.

Liverpool need to find a way to be as potent as against Norwich – half as potent would still be an improvement on the usual – while cutting out the costly concessions that have scarred every single match outside of the Europa League qualifiers. It has now been 10 matches since Liverpool last held an opponent scoreless in the league, the longest spell that I can remember since starting this blog. Going back to 2000-01 (as far back as I was willing to look, honestly), the next closest streak was eight league matches without a clean sheet from January-March 2005. Needless to say, it's been quite some time.

Rodgers has admirably attacked Liverpool's problems in midfield and up front, implementing his possession-based system ahead of schedule, leading to a more fruitful goal return compared to last season's constant profligacy (even if there was nowhere to go but up). Now, the focus needs to be on fixing the rearguard while continuing the progress made in other areas.

04 October 2012

Liverpool 2-3 Udinese

Shelvey 23'
Di Natale 46'
Coates og 70'
Pasquale 72'
Suarez 75'

Liverpool involved in another high-scoring shoot-out. Two group stage games, 13 combined goals. It has been unexpected to say the least.

But this one shouldn't have been a shoot-out. Liverpool were in control in the first half, exactly to Rodgers' template, and took a 1-0 lead midway through the half thanks to an excellent Shelvey header when he charged into the box to get on the end of Downing's cross, once again proving the importance of midfield runners. Sure, as always, Liverpool could have done with more goals, with better finishing, but Udinese were defending excellently even if they had no idea how to regain possession. To say that Liverpool were dominant would be an understatement bordering on criminality.

This one picture adequately recaps the first 45 minutes.

It took 15 minutes for Liverpool to settle, with Reina making excellent saves on Di Natale's blast and Benetia's header, but from there, it was the now-ubiquitous (and now-somewhat-tiresome) death by football. Henderson and Allen dominated the middle, Shelvey was a constant threat, Coates and Carragher closed off any potential counters, and even Downing contributed, evidenced by his first assist in some time. By the 45th minute, Udinese had forgotten what the ball looked like; Liverpool had 78% possession in the half despite those shaky opening 15 minutes.

Credit for the second half comeback goes to Guidolin's tactical changes, with a heavy dash of Liverpool being Liverpool and two outstanding finishes. Udinese replaced the wholly ineffective Armero with Lazzari, and the substitute was immediately involved in the equalizer, finished off brilliantly by Di Natale. Just 33 seconds into the half. Unfortunately, the move began with Glen Johnson, unable to control Udinese's hoofed long-ball, giving it directly to Lazzari, then passed quickly from the midfielder to Pereyra to Di Natale to Lazzari, moving into the space vacated by Johnson, centering straight back for the talismanic striker to wonderfully finish first-time.

The substitution changed Udinese's formation from 3-4-2-1 to 3-5-1-1, with Lazzari deeper than Armero and Pereyra roaming behind Di Natale. It rendered Liverpool's midfield unable to dominate as they had in the first 45 minutes, struggling to replicate the control they had in the first half. Lazzari, Pinzi, and Badu pressured Henderson and Allen, thoroughly cutting off the supply line forward.

After 65 minutes, Rodgers' response was to call in the cavalry, Suarez and Gerrard replacing Assaidi and Henderson. But rather than reinforce Liverpool, Udinese went up 3-1 within seven minutes.

The funny thing – if you have a sense of humor about these things – is that Liverpool should have gone 2-1 up just before the dam broke: Udinese half-cleared a Gerrard free-kick straight to Suarez, who rocketed a shot towards the far corner. But somehow, Shelvey blocked it on the goal line, a near-perfect replica of what happened to Norwich in Liverpool's last match, when Snodgrass kept Norwich from equalizing not long after the second-half restart.

Udinese stormed down the field, with Borini fouling Badu to stop the breakaway. And then Udinese made their set play count, again taking advantage of Liverpool's propensity for errors coupled with misfortunate as Coates headed into his own net when both Domizzi and Benatia found space between him and Carragher.

With Liverpool on tilt, Udinese added a third less than two minutes later. Robinson stopped one counter-attack after Gerrard lost possession, but the captain then lost it a second time, unsurprisingly pushing forward with reckless ambition. Badu's chipped ball over the top, Di Natale controlling around Carragher all too easily, sucking both Coates and Johnson into the center, then laying off for the on-rushing Pasquale, who hammered a sumptuous low drive past Reina. Yikes.

It's no wonder Rodgers' post-match quotes were so damning.
"It was a game where we were much the better side but lost our concentration at the beginning of the second half. I thought we'd moved on from that, to be honest. We had total control in the first half and were deservedly in the lead, but we were so loose at the beginning of the second half it was frightening. Our concentration was very poor and before we knew it we were 3-1 down. The last 20 minutes was very good but it's too late by then. I thought we were lazy. Lazy in our play, loose and sloppy."

Suarez's brilliance pulled one back not long after, a magisterial free kick from outside the box in the 75th – but Udinese's deep, well-organized defense weren't likely to allow another. Not that Liverpool didn't have chances. But Suarez headed straight at Brkic from Downing's deep cross then had a near-post effort saved, while Sterling had a dangerous shot blocked then curled a narrow-angled effort high and wide. Liverpool's final chance, through the surprisingly-not-terrible Downing, was hit directly at the keeper, an apt summation of his time at the club despite the promise intermittently demonstrated today.

75% possession. 20 shots to eight. 691 completed passed to Udinese's 173. 91% pass accuracy to Udinese's 72%. Joe Allen was Liverpool's top passer with 127 completed. Roberto Pereyra was Udinese's top passer with 22 completed. All 11 Liverpool starters, including the goalkeeper, completed more passes than Udinese's most prolific player. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

What makes this so disappointing is that aside from the five minutes to start the second half and that five-minute stretch from the 69th-74th minute, Liverpool played how Rodgers wants Liverpool to play. Everyone impressed in the first half, less so in the second, but Coates and Jack Robinson were standouts despite conceding three goals, Allen controlled the game, Henderson was outstanding in the first half (although Udinese's changes rendered him far less effective), Shelvey scored a great goal because of a clever run into a box and an intelligent cross from Downing, and Suarez was a permanent threat after coming on the pitch.

But Liverpool lost, because Liverpool cannot stop conceding stupid, sloppy goals due to a lack of concentration, individual errors, and bad luck. Whether it's in the Premier League, the League Cup, or the Europa League, this simply has got to stop.