30 November 2012

Liverpool v Southampton 12.01.12

10am ET, not live in the US (unless you have the FoxSoccer2Go mobile app). Otherwise, delayed on Fox Soccer Plus at 2:00pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Southampton (a) 01.22.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.28.04
0-2 Southampton (a) 03.14.04
1-2 Southampton (h) 12.13.03

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Tottenham (a); 0-0 Swansea (a); 2-2 Young Boys (h)
Southampton: 1-1 Norwich (h); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 3-1 QPR (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Enrique, Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Southampton: Lambert 6; Fonte, Lallana, Puncheon, Ramirez, Schneiderlin 2; Clyne, S Davis, Fox, Rodriguez 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Shelvey
Sterling Suarez Enrique

After two consecutive disappointing results, despite a handful of positives shown in each match, Rodgers has to rotate some players for this match. Right?

All this talk about Lucas' potential return over the last couple of days has me far more excited than I've any right to be. Still, after two serious injuries in the last year, Rodgers has to be hesitant to start him tomorrow, after a week of training and 60 minutes of reserve football. Or so you'd think.

Gerrard and Allen have still played every minute of Premier League action. While Gerrard was one of Liverpool's better players against Tottenham – which isn't saying much – Allen again looked fatigued. In theory, I certainly wouldn't mind one of these players, most likely Allen, making way for Lucas' return, but I still think it's unlikely. At most, Lucas should get 30 or so minutes of the bench. Of course, the medical staff are far more appraised of his condition than we are.

If Gerrard and Allen both start yet again, then as per usual, the biggest issue is the third midfielder: Henderson for a third successive start in the league; Shelvey, who's replaced him as a substitute in the last two matches; Şahin, who hasn't been seen in the league since being hauled off against Chelsea – surprisingly, as he's one of the few proven goalscorers from midfield; or, less likely, Suso. A Gerrard-Allen-Lucas midfield trio's not out of the question either, but my suspicion (and that's all it is) is that Shelvey replaces Henderson in the same 4-1-2-3ish set up we've seen since the first-half change against Wigan.

The other issue is at left-back. Downing's participation should be out of the question. I'm still not sure why Robinson hasn't gotten a chance in the league, with Rodgers ever so willing to blood attackers – as well as Wisdom, until his injury – but Wisdom returning with Johnson on the left seems more likely. Or Enrique could drop back into defense with Suso coming in on the flank. All three of those options should be streets ahead of giving Downing a third successive start in defense.

In the last few matches, Nigel Adkins has played record signing Gaston Ramirez (remember him?) behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with good effect. He was especially impressive in Southampton's 2-0 win over struggling Newcastle, assisting Lallana on the first goal and scoring the second. Southampton are unbeaten in the four matches he's started in the middle, drawing twice and winning twice since a comprehensive 2-0 loss at West Brom to start the month.

Like Liverpool, Adkins has rotated sparingly, if at all, over the last month. The same XI has started the last four matches: Gazzaniga in goal; a back four of Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Shaw; Cork and Schneiderlin in midfield; Puncheon, Ramirez, and Lallana as the attacking line of three; and top scorer Rickie Lambert up front. It's also the third match in a week for the Saints, but I suspect we'll see few changes for Adkins' side as well. Danny Fox, the usual left-back but out with a knee injury recently, is questionable to return in time for tomorrow's match.

The eight points Southampton have taken in the last four matches have seen them almost escape the relegation zone, just a point behind Sunderland and Aston Villa. And just four points behind Liverpool.

There have been a fair few banging on about how December is full of winnable fixtures, starting with tomorrow's match against a promoted side. With the state that Liverpool are in, have been in for the last couple of seasons, this is a flawed assumption, and simply not the way to go into matches. It's a recipe for disappointment, at best. There are no easy wins, no matter the opposition, whether due to Liverpool's form this season or Liverpool's form against relegation candidates since, say, 2010.

Southampton's struggles in defense do pose an opportunity for Liverpool's attack to get back on track – or get on track in the first place. Not that we'll have a repeat of the Norwich performance, but Southampton is similarly vulnerable, conceding in every match except last weekend's win over Newcastle, letting in an average of 2.22 goals per game so far this season and conceding at least three in more than a third of their fixtures. It's no coincidence that their improvement in the last month has come by tightening up at the back, conceding just three in total in the last four matches, no more than once per game. And no coincidence that Southampton have stopped changing personnel in defense during this stretch.

At the same time, Southampton know where the back of the net is. 10 Saints have scored so far this season – compared to just six for Liverpool – including seven or eight of tomorrow's likely starters. Lambert is a prototypical predatory striker, Lallana an excellent winger, and Ramirez dangerous in one-on-one situations, especially on the break. Southampton have the weapons to punish Liverpool if they're similarly open and similarly profligate, as we've seen in far too many matches this season.

There are no rightful wins anymore. Liverpool will have to earn each and every point, no matter the opposition, through tangible improvement. These December fixtures are an opportunity to right the ship. But these fixtures will not be straightforward or uncomplicated, especially if Liverpool demonstrate the flaws which have led to the situation the side's currently in.

29 November 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Aside from possession, Liverpool's stats were quite similar to Sunday's match against Swansea. 14 more passes than on Sunday. Four fewer shots – 17 to 21 – with four fewer on target, but one more goal. Three more tackles and seven fewer interceptions, and like against Swansea, many came in the opposition's half. Which I guess is no surprise given Liverpool started with the same XI and made similar substitutions.

At the same time, Spurs attempted and completed around 200 fewer passes than Swansea on Sunday, making approximately half as many in the attacking third. After Swansea had made the most tackles by any Liverpool opponent this season, Spurs did one better with 27 successful out of 37 attempted. Spurs also had fewer shots than Swansea did, but put seven of theirs on target compared to two from the Swans.

The short version is: statistics lie. Or, at least, some statistics lie. But we've long since learned that possession and passes don't necessarily translate into results.

For the first time, a defender is Liverpool's most voluminous passer, rather than Gerrard or Allen. Agger attempted 72 passes, completing 64. Just eight came in Spurs' half, including one of the six Liverpool chances created. Five of those six were created by defenders, the sixth from Enrique. None from Gerrard, Sterling, Henderson, Shelvey, or – as against Swansea – Suarez, for just the ninth time in his 55 Premiership starts. Granted, he set up one of Liverpool's best opportunities – the throughball that should have led to a Gerrard penalty – and, as per usual, registered far more shots than any other Liverpool player. Small margins, but the last two matches have sadly reinforced the notion that as Suarez goes, so goes Liverpool. If not Suarez then no one, unless we get a comedy own goal off of Bale's face.

Meanwhile, Jose Enrique was Liverpool's least accurate outfield starter, the only one to complete less than 75% of his passes. Again. He may present more attacking threat than Liverpool's other current options for the left-sided forward berth, but remains guilty of giving the ball away in the final third far, far too often; 11 of his 14 unsuccessful passes came in the attacking third, killing any headway Liverpool had built. Again, none of this is news, and as long as Liverpool remain wasteful and profligate in the final third, Liverpool will continue suffering setbacks.

Yesterday was just the fourth time that Liverpool have had more than 70% possession in a single half, along with the second halves against Sunderland, Newcastle, and Norwich. Two of those previous three ended in draws, with Liverpool scoring just once in the second half despite that vast edge in possession. At least those were both equalizers. Like against Sunderland and Newcastle, Liverpool got the one goal, but unfortunately, Liverpool were two behind rather than the usual one by the time they got their act together.

For all the talk about how Villas-Boas was going to change everything, upset the finely tuned Harry Redknapp machine, this Spurs side looked an awful lot like the same Spurs side which has beaten Liverpool four times in the previous two seasons. They were more effective in pressing from the front, but remain similarly direct and similarly open, reliant on speed down the flanks and Dawson and Gallas heading everything out of the box. And as it's been since, say, 2008-09, it remains successful against Liverpool.

Finally, while Liverpool yet again lose because of an inability to score and continued defensive errors, I can't go without another mention of Phil Dowd's refereeing performance. Dempsey's free kick for the second goal was a joke, that neither Suarez nor Gerrard won a penalty was a joke. As Rodgers rightfully pointed out after the match, but like with Dalglish, I assume it'll be treated by non-Liverpool fans as "the lady doth protest too much" and referees will continue to smile and wave away valid appeals.

That said, just as frustrating was the amount of fouls called for either side. Tottenham won 17 free kicks, Liverpool just seven. Seven of those 17 Tottenham free kicks came in Liverpool's half, leading to scoring opportunities – including the second goal conceded. None – none! – of Liverpool's free kicks came in Tottenham's half. Tottenham commit fewer fouls than every side but Manchester United (quelle surprise!) while Liverpool were necessarily more aggressive, behind for nearly the entire game, but that stat still seems incredibly unlikely. No matter. Bale's dive will be brushed under the carpet, as will Dempsey's, as will Vertonghen's late on. It's typical that after Bale received the yellow for his tumble, the Spurs fans started singing "Luis Suarez, we know what you are." Narratives are hard to change, especially when Her Majesty's Press Corps has little desire to change them.

Regardless, complaining about the referee after a loss always appears sour grapes. And, yeah, it partly is. The above statistics show that Liverpool weren't necessarily awful, and don't necessarily deserve the defeat. But defeats will continue for the same reason Liverpool have previously lost and drawn matches. We know where Liverpool need to improve. We've known for quite some time now.

28 November 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham

Lennon 7'
Bale 16'
Bale (OG) 72'

So, what do you want to talk about?

The surprising XI, the exact same personnel and formation who struggled so mightily in the second half against Swansea – which partly led to Liverpool being pushed back for seven minutes until conceding?

Liverpool's continued, unsurprising, utterly abysmal finishing?

Phil Dowd's refereeing? A Spurs free kick for Dempsey's dive leading to the second goal when Bale's vicious free kick took a deflection off the wall. Two blatant penalties, for Suarez in the first half and Suarez in the second half, shockingly not given. 18 Liverpool fouls to just eight from Tottenham.

Let's just bask in the comedy that was Gareth Bale's own goal. It's literally the only positive I'm taking from today.

Three days after Liverpool travelled to Swansea, increasingly terrible as the match went on until a late injury time flurry without reward, Rodgers names the same starting XI. No matter the already fatigued, shallow squad. No matter Downing's complete ineffectiveness at left-back. No matter Bale's pace either exploiting or negating Johnson's strength in bombing forward. No matter Gerrard looking less and less fit as he completes yet another 90 minutes, already surpassing his total Premier League minutes played last season.

It's no surprise that the three above players were involved in conceding Liverpool's first. Bale's pace took him past both Gerrard and Johnson – the former flat-footed, the latter too high up the pitch to properly defend the situation – storming down the left flank before a perfect cross to Lennon at the back post, who had unsurprisingly gotten behind Downing. It was Bale's first assist of the season because of course it was.

But it's also the same problem as when Liverpool last travelled to White Hart Lane. A Tottenham blitzkrieg from the start leading to an early goal that Liverpool have little chance of coming back from. Liverpool actually started in a 4-3-3 formation in last season's match too, one of the rare times it was used last season. And Tottenham similarly exploited Liverpool's vulnerabilities in midfield and on the flanks, requiring them to chase the game from the start. New managers, same match. I'll also churlishly remind that Liverpool still haven't overturned a league deficit in nearly a calendar year, last coming back from behind to win against Newcastle last December.

The goal was the first nail, with the last hammered in less than 10 minutes later. Suarez had a chance on the break in the 9th, set up by Henderson's run at Tottenham's back four, shooting too close to Lloris from 12 yards out, but the game was decided by the two minutes between the 14th and 16th.

Liverpool should have equalized from a Tottenham error – lord knows that the opposition's scored from far too many Liverpool errors; the Reds are due to pay someone back – as Lloris rashly charged from his area to try to intercept Suarez's throughball for Enrique, colliding with Walker, setting up Jordan Henderson with an open goal. Which he shot wide off. 90 seconds later, Spurs were two up; Henderson was called for the "foul" on Dempsey, nowhere near touching him, then Bale's free kick deflected off Henderson in the wall. It was not a good two minutes for Jordan. Two of the three incidents weren't his fault, but Liverpool – again – pay for profligacy. One of these days maybe that lesson will sink in.

Tottenham were no great shakes after those first 20 minutes. They didn't have to be, content to stifle Liverpool, living on the edge, but not really that close to the edge because of Liverpool's impotence. Time and time again, Liverpool chose the wrong option in the penalty box, misplaying the final pass or taking a poor final shot. On the one occasion where the final ball didn't let Liverpool down – neat play from Suarez putting Gerrard through in the 36th – Dowd didn't call a penalty when Walker shoved Gerrard in the back, followed up by Suarez's shot cleared off the line at the last second. Seven minutes later, a Downing cross to no one ricocheted off two defenders, as likely to settle in the back of the net as sail over the bar, with the Tottenham defenders and goalkeeper at sea. It sailed over the bar. Liverpool can't score, can't get a stonewall penalty, and can't get the luck of a bouncing ball. And you expect to win at a ground where Liverpool haven't won since 2008?

It played out similarly in the second half. Aside from a 15-minute spell where Tottenham had possession but little threat, Liverpool were on top but unable to convert passing and possession into goals. Again. Dawson and Gallas did enough, heading multiple crosses and corners behind or out of the danger area, but Liverpool's lack of attacking threat made it too easy for them. It was a fairly open, fairly shambling performance from both sides.

At least, unlike against Swansea, Liverpool's substitutions – well, the first substitution – led to Liverpool improvement. Shelvey possessed far more threat than Henderson, and it was his corner which led to Bale's own goal. Agger won the first header, Gerrard – in the box rather than hitting the first man with his deliveries – won the second, and Lennon's goalmouth clearance blasted off of Bale's ample face. High comedy. Thank heavens for small favors. It was Liverpool's third own goal of the league campaign. No one other than Suarez has more than one.

But despite constant Liverpool pressure in the final 15 minutes, a second goal rarely looked like coming. Which was unsurprising given Liverpool's failure to score after the 75th minute all campaign long. Suarez volleyed over after Agger's brilliant bicycle at the byline in the 80th, Enrique rocketed a 25-yard half volley narrowly wide in the 87th, but more pressure led to the same result. Liverpool are simply not very good in the final third.

The sky isn't falling anymore than it was yesterday. Certain players disappointed, certain personnel decisions confused. The hot stat isn't "unbeaten in eight games"; it's now "one win in six." But Liverpool's major failings in previous matches remained Liverpool's major failings today. They make too many mistakes in defense. They can't capitalize on the opposition's mistakes. They struggle to score for love or money.

This side remains a work in progress, and will remain a work in progress all season. January may improve things. Lucas' return should improve things. But there will be more pain than pleasure for some time. Buckle up for the ride. All we can hope for is that some of these problems are slowly rectified. And that maybe Liverpool might someday win a penalty or two.

27 November 2012

Liverpool at Tottenham 11.28.12

2:45pm ET, live in the US on espn3

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 02.06.12
0-4 Tottenham (a) 10.18.11
0-2 Tottenham (h) 05.15.11
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Swansea (a); 2-2 Young Boys (h); 3-0 Wigan (h)
Tottenham: 3-1 West Ham (h); 0-0 Lazio (a); 2-5 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Enrique, Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Tottenham: Defoe 7; Bale 5; Caulker, Dempsey 2; Adebayor, Assou-Ekotto, Dembele, Gallas, Lennon 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

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

Oh, look. Like Wigan 11 days ago, another side that Liverpool hasn't beaten since Rafa Benitez was manager. Here's hoping this recent curse is so thoroughly rendered moot. I suspect it won't be nearly as easy.

Rodgers announced that Wisdom is back in contention, which should put an end to the Downing at left-back experiment. Johnson will go back to that flank, hopefully replicating the excellent combination with Enrique in Liverpool's last league win while still contributing to attack as he did against Swansea, the most dangerous player in Liverpool's far better first half.

Which, as per usual, means that the lone question is about Liverpool's set-up and personnel in midfield. I doubt Rodgers will play Allen as the lone controller, behind Henderson and Gerrard, as in the last two matches. Gerrard's performances, especially in a deeper role, have become an unwelcome issue. Having played 90 minutes in all 13 league matches, he's just 42 minutes away from equaling his total Premiership minutes played last season. He and Joe Allen are the only two players to feature in every minute of every league match this season; Suarez is three minutes off that total, removed for Shelvey at the end of last Saturday's match against Wigan.

But no matter Gerrard's injury history over the last two seasons or recent performances, no matter Allen's evident fatigue in the last month or so, I doubt we're in for radical changes. If Rodgers reverts to the more-familiar two holding midfielders and one attacking midfielder set-up, those two are odds-on to play in the deeper roles, with Shelvey, Şahin, Henderson, and Suso competing for the more-advanced position.

We haven't seen Şahin in the league since he was substituted against Chelsea, the impetus for the change in formation and Liverpool's resurgence that day. Given how he's been used, Henderson seems more likely to play only if Liverpool replicate the formation against Wigan and Swansea. The role Suso played against Wigan, which didn't work against that opposition, may be more effective against a strong Tottenham side, although it'd still be somewhat of a surprise to see the 19-year-old chosen in a match of this magnitude. By process of elimination, Shelvey seems favorite for the role, coming closest to the needed goal against Swansea during the disappointing second half on Sunday.

There's a small chance that Rodgers may try to replicate the starting set-up at Chelsea earlier this month, with three center-backs and Sterling and Suarez up front, trying to smother a competent Tottenham attack and counter at pace, added protection for a midfield that's been beaten on the break far too often and a raw right back. But given that experiment's failure at Stamford Bridge, with Liverpool only challenging the Blues after shifting to the more-standard 4-2-3-1, that change seems incredibly unlikely.

Not only are Spurs a club that's frustrated Liverpool on the pitch in the last two seasons, but they've added extra fuel to the fire by beating Liverpool to two of this summer's transfer targets. Neither Sigurðsson nor Dempsey have set Tottenham afire, competing for the same spot in the starting XI – replacing van der Vaart – but both would have added a much-needed dimension to this Liverpool squad.

As with Liverpool, Spurs are still struggling with a new manager and new style of play. Villas-Boas is an easy target after his shenanigans at Chelsea, made worse by the fact that Spurs are 11 points behind their total at this point last season. They've lost three of the last four in the league; away defeats to Arsenal and Manchester City weren't necessarily surprising, but the setback against Wigan which started the rot was regrettable, to say the least. Normal service seemed resumed on Sunday against West Ham, who began the day ahead of Spurs in the table.

Gallas, Dembele, and Sandro should return from recent injuries. The latter two are far more important, especially since Scott Parker (along with Assou-Ekotto and Kaboul) remains a long-term casualty. Adebayor is suspended for two more matches following his red card against Arsenal.

Villas-Boas will almost certainly deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation. Lloris is the more-likely keeper, having evidently seized the place from Brad Friedel. Walker and Vertonghen will be the fullbacks, while Dawson, Gallas, and Caulker will compete for the two center-back spots. Sandro and Dembele, if both fit, will be the holding midfielders, while the front four seems certain: Lennon, Dempsey, and Bale operating behind top-scorer Defoe, who has tallied seven so far in this league campaign, not far behind his total through all of last season.

While both clubs have caused Liverpool multiple problems in recent seasons, the difference between Tottenham and Wigan is that tomorrow's opponent has finished above Liverpool in the last three campaigns, and by some distance in the last. Given each's respective form over the last two or three years, it's little surprise that Tottenham have beaten Liverpool thrice while drawing once. That doesn't make it any less painful, mind.

The easy narrative is Villas-Boas versus Rodgers, one manager tasked with rebuilding a struggling club, the other with following the darling of Her Majesty's Press Corps. But the real issue is Liverpool's performance against a club it has notably struggled to beat no matter each's form since 2008-09, taking just two of the last nine matches against Tottenham and winless at White Hart Lane since the last day of the 2007-08 season. The winner that day was scored by Andriy Voronin, with Fernando Torres adding a second. Which should emphasize just how long it's been.

That said, Liverpool can't lose the forest for the trees. No matter the opposition, the real, real issue is demonstrable improvement and continuing progress, both in tactics and performance, under the new manager and in the new system. As said multiple times, that's pretty much all we can hope for this season.

Still, it'd be nice – and is fairly crucial – to get points on the board. Unbeaten in eight means little when five are draws, preventing Liverpool from making demonstrable progress in the table. Making that progress against tomorrow's opponents would just be extra gratifying.

26 November 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Swansea

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

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

The two sides, unsurprisingly I guess, were nearly equal in passes and possession. Other than the dangerous and heavily involved Pablo Hernandez, Liverpool's forwards completed more passes than their counterparts. Liverpool also heavily out-passed Swansea in the attacking third. Gerrard and Allen completed more passes than any other player; Swansea's defense played more passes than Liverpool's defenders – except for Agger, who notably came forward at times to try and add an extra man in the opposition half.

Ki's involvement, along with Liverpool's fewer shots in the second half, demonstrate how effective that substitution was. The other four changes, two for each side, did little to change the tenor of the game, but Swansea were much more secure in the second half with Ki's steadying presence in midfield. Liverpool may have had more possession in the second half, but took five fewer shots, only four from the restart until the final ten minutes. I was surprised that Laudrup didn't start him from the beginning, similar to the tactics used in last month's League Cup meeting, where Swansea so thoroughly negated Liverpool while scoring three: once on a set play (when they were at their most-threatening yesterday) and twice on the break.

That substitution, however, also negated what little impact Michu had in the first half. Swansea's top scorer and best player so far this season was surprisingly irrelevant. The only match where he completed fewer passes was against Wigan, a game where he scored the winning goal and was named man-of-the-match. Yesterday was just the third time that Michu failed to create a single chance; Swansea have drawn all three matches when that's happened.

At the same time, Swansea did well in canceling out Liverpool's talisman. Suarez also created zero chances, for just the eighth time in his 54 Premiership starts. Three of those eight games came against yesterday's opponents, all three of the league matches against Swansea since promotion. Three games, I'll churlishly remind, where Liverpool have failed to score.

Liverpool had its joint-highest percentage of shots on target in the league, equaling the 42.86% against United, with six of 14 on target in that 1-2 loss. Gerhard Tremmel's nine saves were a high for any Premier League match this season. But as the above shots on-target chart demonstrates, most were easy saves for Tremmel. Johnson's effort in the 24th when through on goal, Shelvey's rocket in injury time, and Suarez's 58th-minute low drive into the near post corner from a narrow angle were the only which truly tested the keeper; the other six were routine catches, none even close to spilled in the hopes of a fortuitous rebound.

There was, however, a vast disparity in the defensive statistics, which I guess shows that Liverpool were more threatening, on the front foot for longer. Not that it did much good, as those totals also demonstrate just how well Swansea defended. 30 interceptions and 26 successful tackles were both highs for Liverpool opponents this season. The vast majority of Swansea's tackles and interceptions were deep in its own half. Five of Liverpool's 12 tackles and five of 16 interceptions in the opposition's half.

In a match so narrow, it was unsurprisingly decided – or not decided – by the finest of margins. Enrique narrowly offside – or as some (including Rodgers) have argued, narrowly onside – on Liverpool's best passing move of the game, a chance that would have been created by Suarez. Sterling's rocket off the crossbar, the first time that Liverpool have hit the woodwork in the league since they were punished by three woodwork strikes in the last 0-0, against Stoke.

Like last season, many, many Liverpool matches are decided by narrow margins. And like last season, those narrow margins haven't gone Liverpool's way anywhere near often enough.

25 November 2012

Liverpool 0-0 Swansea

A completely impotent, inept second half erases almost all memory of a quasi-competent first half, where Liverpool played well but – surprise, surprise – failed to score despite a handful of close calls.

Liverpool are now unbeaten in eight league matches. Liverpool kept consecutive clean sheets in the league, just the fourth clean sheet of the league campaign. It's a better result than in this fixture last season, where Liverpool tepidly lost 1-0 to a late Danny Graham goal in the last match of the depressing campaign. But somehow, this doesn't feel like cause for celebration.

Maybe it's because Liverpool also haven't scored in three league matches against Swansea. Swansea hadn't kept a clean sheet since August 25. Liverpool still haven't scored after the 73rd minute in the league, still haven't won a league match via a late goal since Carroll's 90th minute header at Blackburn last April. Liverpool haven't won back-to-back league matches since beating QPR and Villa nearly a year ago, and Liverpool haven't won following a Europa League match yet this season. There were positives, but the negatives loom larger.

Swansea started much brighter, highlighted by Routledge's fierce shot in the 12th, well parried by Pepe Reina. But Liverpool eventually woke up, the more dangerous side from the 15th minute despite Swansea's continued advantage in possession. The rampaging Glen Johnson nearly set up Enrique in the 17th, a menacing low cross chested wide by the now-winger. The same two players combined seven minutes later, when Enrique's throughball put Johnson on goal, his shot smartly saved by Tremmel. Rangel crucially blocked Suarez's close-range shot, Sterling cannoned an effort off the crossbar following a corner, and Enrique had a goal rightfully, narrowly ruled out for offside after Johnson's back heel in the box allowed Suarez the space to chip a cross.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool immensely regret their inability to score when on top, but, for once, weren't wholly punished for it. Today's biggest positive was Liverpool's defense, with Agger and Skrtel excellent – marking Michu into near-oblivion and dominating Shechter so thoroughly that he was removed for Ki at halftime. Reina was also ready for action when called upon, evidently benefiting from his injury layoff, while Allen was steady if unspectacular, committing a handful of fouls in dangerous areas but making up for it with four crucial interceptions. Henderson's work rate also helped cover for Gerrard's disappointing performance, at least everything but chances created.

And that defense was the only positive in the second half, until an eventual final flurry in injury time. Liverpool had increased possession, but gone was the attacking threat, as Swansea created almost all the serious chances until added time. Liverpool had double the shots on target in the second half, but most were easy saves for Tremmel. Swansea's best chances came from set plays, mainly because of Reina's goalkeeping and Skrtel and Agger's marking, but they still felt the far more threatening side.

After sticking with the same system which won last week's game against Wigan, Rodgers finally changed track in the 77th, bringing on Cole for Downing and Shelvey for Henderson. The substitutions did nothing to change the game, as Liverpool's lone chance until added time came when breaking from a corner: Sterling and Suarez against a lone Swansea defender, spoiled by Sterling's poor pass to Suarez, ending with a tame shot at Tremmel after the Uruguayan tried to check back into space after defenders recovered.

With time running out, after Liverpool had apparently decided to settle for the draw, the aforementioned flurry finally came. But Gerrard shot narrowly wide from outside the box with Shelvey inches away from redirecting, Tremmel parried Shelvey's long-range rocket, and Williams did just enough to unsettle Agger on Cole's deep cross, with the Dane unable to knock down a header for the on-rushing Gerrard. At least it ended with a bang, not a whimper, but the bang truly should have come sooner.

Again, unbeaten in eight is a positive. Liverpool's defense was definitely a positive. On the whole, these were two evenly matched, similar sides, demonstrated by the near-equal possession and passing totals. But, once again, we're talking about Liverpool's inability to put the damn ball in the damn goal. If not Suarez than no one, and after the pre-match Williams v Suarez hype, Swansea's center-backs did well against Liverpool's talisman.

Sadly, it looks like we'll be talking about this inability to score until January, as both fans and, seemingly, the players wait in the hopes that reinforcements will arrive.

24 November 2012

Liverpool at Swansea 11.25.12

8:30am ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Swansea (h; League Cup) 10.31.12
0-1 Swansea (a) 05.13.12
0-0 (h) 11.05.11
8-0 Liverpool (home; FA Cup) 01.09.90

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Young Boys (h); 3-0 Wigan (h); 1-1 Chelsea (a)
Swansea: 2-1 Newcastle (a); 1-1 Southampton (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Enrique, Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Swansea: Michu 7; Dyer 3; Hernandez, Routledge 2; de Guzman, Graham, Rangel 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Only his second season as a Select Group referee, Moss has never done a Liverpool match before.

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

Rodgers and Allen back at the Liberty Stadium. Rodgers and Allen back at the Liberty Stadium. Rodgers and Allen back at the Liberty Stadium. Rodgers and Allen back at the Liberty Stadium.

There. Now that we've got that out of the way, can we focus on what will be an incredibly important match for both sides sat next to each other in the table?

Agger, Allen, Enrique, Johnson, Gerrard, Suarez, Sterling will all come back into the side after not starting against Young Boys, although the latter three notably had to come off the bench. Which leaves two places up for grabs with Reina and Skrtel remaining as starters. It appears Wisdom will be available after his early substitution against Young Boys, which would allow Liverpool to continue with last week's successful Enrique in Attack experiment. If he's not, Enrique will probably move back into defense – neither Henderson nor Downing seem likely to play at full-back against Swansea while both Flanagan and Robinson played for the u21s yesterday – with Johnson at right-back, requiring one of Suso, Assaidi, Downing, or Cole to step in on the flank.

Then there are the routine questions over how Liverpool's midfield will line up. Away from Anfield, I assume Rodgers will return to the usual 2-1 set-up with Gerrard and Allen behind Şahin, Shelvey, or Suso. However, that could change based on how Rodgers thinks Swansea will line up. If Michu plays as the lone attacking midfielder rather than a false nine, with two from de Guzman, Ki, and Britton behind him, Rodgers may well replicate the tactics against Wigan, mirroring Swansea's midfield formation man for man and relying on Allen to mark Michu. Still, I expect that Rodgers will be more cautious, willing to change shape at halftime (or earlier) if need be.

The Swansea that Liverpool face tomorrow won't be much different than the side which beat Liverpool 3-1 in the League Cup. Rangel returns from suspension, Ben Davies will come back in at left-back, and Ki is suffering with a hamstring injury, although he appears odds on to play. Otherwise, the team that won at Anfield three weeks ago was a full-strength side.

The main issue is where Swansea's danger-man will play. Will Michu line up as a false nine or as an attacking midfielder? If Ki is fit, the former's more likely, as in the last meeting between these sides. If it's the latter, Israeli loanee Itay Shechter or Danny Graham will play as the main striker.

And as with Liverpool, there's the question of whether Laudrup will play 4-2-1-3 or 4-1-2-3, whether he uses two deeper midfielders – Ki, de Guzman, or Agustien paired with Britton – or two more-attacking midfielders in front of Britton. It'll be two from Dyer, Pablo, and Routledge on the flanks, most likely the first two.

Swansea have followed up the month-long swoon which prefaced the League Cup win over Liverpool by storming back into form, with draws against Chelsea and Southampton and an important win at Newcastle last weekend. They remain a point ahead of Liverpool, three points ahead of where they were after 12 games under Rodgers last season.

As I'm sure you're all aware, Liverpool have yet to beat Swansea since their promotion last season, losing twice and drawing once, failing to score in both league meetings last season. Swansea are unbeaten in its last four, Liverpool are unbeaten in its last seven league matches. But Liverpool haven't won back-to-back league matches in nearly a year, since beating QPR and Villa in mid-December 2011.

Consistency remains this side's biggest failing, although its not as if we're wanting for choices. Putting together a full 90-minute performance against Rodgers' old club would be a good start.

Shit, I mentioned Rodgers' Swansea history. Maybe it is unavoidable. At least until he creates a new history with Liverpool.

22 November 2012

Liverpool 2-2 BSC Young Boys

Shelvey 33'
Bobadilla 52'
Cole 72'
Zverotic 88'

Way to spoil Joe Cole's best game for the club, Liverpool.

Liverpool take the lead twice, Liverpool stupidly concede twice. Both of Liverpool's goals were outstanding. Both of Liverpool's concessions came because the side remains more open than a pervert's trench coat on counter-attacks. It's déjà vu all over again.

With a surprisingly weak XI and surprisingly strong bench, the home side needed 20 minutes to get going, pinned back by the Swiss but only coming close to goal with two tame efforts at Reina. Both sides were forced into early changes through injury – Ojala came on for Veskovac; Gerrard came on for Wisdom, with Henderson shifting to right back – which ended up solidifying Liverpool's slowly-progressing advantage. Şahin began taking control of midfield, winning four tackles in the first 45 minutes (half of Liverpool's total), while Suso started finding attackers, taking advantage of Shelvey and Cole's constant movement.

It was those three players who combined for Liverpool's first goal: Suso's perfectly-timed throughball after a one-two with Cole, Cole's run and expert chip into the danger area, Shelvey dart into the six-yard box for a tap-in header. Starting from Şahin winning possession in Liverpool's half, an end-to-end, flank-to-flank move of eight passes in under 30 seconds. Suso and Skrtel each nearly added a second within five minutes – the former when a fierce shot deflected just wide, the latter after redirecting Cole's shot on a scrambled corner, cleared off the line – and the young Spaniard had a second chance right before the interval from Cole's excellent throughball, placed narrowly outside the far post.

But Liverpool made the same mistakes to start the second half as in the first. Young Boys were brighter, and despite another Cole chance from another Suso throughball just seconds before, scored an equalizer in the 52nd. Wölfli saved on Cole's shot, then straight down the pitch: Farnerud running at Şahin before a sumptuous cross-field ball to Bobadilla, unforgivably sneaking in behind Henderson, then jaw-dropping control and an unstoppable half-volley. Not only do Liverpool have a habit of conceding on the counter, they've a habit of conceding wonder goals. The universe is against me. I am convinced of it.

Credit where due, Liverpool responded. Bringing on Suarez on the hour mark, for the unfortunate Suso – who again played well, but was the obvious choice to go off – may have had something to do with it; Liverpool re-took the lead just 12 minutes after his entrance, after monopolizing possession in the run-up. It was another longish passing sequence – 10 passes from a throw-in – quickly moving the ball around midfield before the dagger through the middle, as Suarez found Gerrard who found Cole, smartly running into the vacated space better center-backs in the box, a quick turn and shot that Wölfli couldn't keep out.

That should have been game over. Liverpool should have enough nous to keep possession, take the sting out of the game, and play keep-away. Young Boys should have tired, as they did in the meeting in Switzerland, after pressing heavily and harrying Liverpool players for 75 minutes.

Instead, it was the away side on the front foot for the final 15 minutes, pinning Liverpool deeper and deeper, coming again and again with fresh attacks. Sure, Liverpool's personnel wasn't built to be defensive – removing one of the three starting defenders early on due to injury, finishing with a formation comprised of Suarez, seven midfielders, two center-backs, and Reina. But Rodgers didn't help his own cause with the final substitution. Enrique, Allen, and Coates were on the bench. Instead, despite taking the lead, Rodgers still sent on Sterling for Cole in a straight swap. Which would make sense if Liverpool could keep or win possession, using Sterling's pace to counter. But Liverpool couldn't keep or win possession. Rather, Young Boys had the chance to hammer shot after shot after shot from distance at Reina's goal, coming closer with each attempt. It was only a matter of time before one went in.

All Liverpool had to do was keep possession. Instead, given the chance to break from their own half, they piled men forward, eventually losing possession when Suarez tried to dance past three defenders. The third was the charm. Young Boys quickly broke as the four players involved in the attack jogged towards the halfway line. Assaidi eventually broke into a sprint, but failed to stop Sutter. Şahin rashly dove in, trying to intercept; when he missed, it gave Zverotic all the time in the world to line up a shot. He didn't miss this time.

Sure, Reina didn't cover himself in glory, but before I'll criticize him, someone needs to explain to me what Carragher's doing here, as Skrtel also retreats and Assaidi's too far to get there in time after failing to stop the attack earlier:

It is the same problem over and over and over and over and I am incredibly sick of Groundhog's Day. It wasn't even a very good movie to begin with.

I'm really not kidding when I say that Joe Cole was Liverpool's best player. The assist and goal speak for themselves, but he had more shots than any other Liverpool players, added two other chances created, and completed all three of his attempted tackles (behind only Şahin, who added just one more tackle in the second half). He really was Liverpool's best goal threat, and deserved his place on the scoresheet. It truly is a pity that Liverpool's flaws will be remembered rather than this performance.

Gerrard disappointed, despite the assist. Suarez attempted eight take-ons in his 30 minutes, completing just one. Jordan Henderson is not a right-back – and while we're here, neither is the again-invisible Stewart Downing. While Shelvey worked hard in a "false 9" role, the goal was his lone shot. Even scoring twice, Liverpool remain too toothless and, more crucially, Liverpool simply cannot stop conceding on the counter-attack, no matter the personnel involved.

Now, Liverpool need to equal Young Boys' result in two weeks. Anzhi held up their end of the bargain, beating Udinese to assure their progression and the Italians' exit from the competition. Young Boys host Anzhi, with the Russians having nothing to play for, likely to rest any important players. Liverpool travel to a chagrined Udinese, with a point to prove in what will be their last Europa League match. Liverpool's advantage in goal difference makes a big difference, but otherwise, I'd rather be in Young Boys' position (get your minds out of the gutter; I didn't pick the club's name).

Happy Thanksgiving. I guess I'm thankful for the fact that Liverpool haven't killed me yet. Yet.

21 November 2012

Liverpool v BSC Young Boys 11.22.12

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

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

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Young Boys: 0-2 Midtjylland (h), 3-0 Midtjylland (a); 3-0 Kalmar (h), 0-1 Kalmar (a); 0-1 Zimbru (a), 1-0 Zimbru (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Wigan (h); 1-1 Chelsea (a); 0-1 Anzhi (a)
Young Boys:0-0 St Gallen (h); 5-1 Muttenz (a); 3-2 Udinese (a)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 3; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Young Boys: Bobadilla 6; Farnerud, Nuzzolo 2; Costanzo, Frey, Mayuka, Ojala, Raimondi, Zarate 1

Referee: Alon Yefet (ISR)

Guess at a line-up
Wisdom Coates Skrtel Enrique
Gerrard Henderson
Suso Suarez Assaidi

The same old Europa League question. How many senior players can Rodgers spare to start? It sounds like the answer is "a lot."

It'd be little surprise to see a mostly, if not totally, full-strength XI, similar to the home match against Anzhi. This match, at Anfield, against a side that Liverpool beat in Switzerland with a makeshift lineup, is far more winnable than when the team travels to Udine in two weeks. Qualification tomorrow isn't totally in Liverpool's hands – the only way Liverpool can assure progression to the knockout rounds is to win coupled with a Udinese loss or draw in Moscow – but a victory against Young Boys is pretty much vital to Liverpool's hopes.

There are a few players I worry about more than others. Sterling because of his age. Agger and Gerrard because of each's injury history. Allen because he's showed signs of fatigue in the last couple of matches. Johnson because he's only recently back from a two-week absence.

But then again, what are Liverpool's choices? Coates should spell Agger, partnered with Skrtel rather than Carragher due to Young Boys' pace on the counter. Wisdom's been overused as well, but if Rodgers keeps the formula which worked well against Wigan, both Wisdom and Johnson will continue to start at fullback with Enrique further forward in the league, requiring one of the two to play tomorrow with Rodgers choosing from Enrique and Robinson on the other flank.

As much as it annoys me, it appears Gerrard's likely to play. Liverpool's 32-year-old captain, who made just 24 appearances in 2010-11 and 28 in 2011-12, has already played more minutes than anyone in the squad. So be it, I guess.

Henderson also seems likely to start, excellent against Wigan and having played three of the four group stage matches so far. So does Rodgers replicate Saturday's success, with Henderson and Gerrard ahead of Allen, or play those two in a deeper role with Shelvey, Şahin, or Suso as the attacking midfielder? Your guess is as good as mine. Suso seems the least likely for two reasons. One, Saturday's match. Two, he'll be needed on the flanks if Sterling is rested, given that Enrique seems more likely to play at left back, Downing's wholly out-of-favor, Borini's still injured for a month or two, and the less said about Joe Cole, the better. Which leaves Suso and Assaidi, or possibly Morgan in a wide role, as in the home leg against Hearts.

While it'd be nice to rest Suarez every once in a while, the squad depth almost demands his inclusion if tomorrow's XI is anywhere near full strength. Morgan or Yesil can start up front in two weeks if Liverpool assure qualification. Suarez *knocks furiously on wood* is one of the rare players who seems happier playing every single game in a row. And, news flash, Liverpool will be without him for at least one match in the league sooner rather than later when he picks up an inevitable fifth yellow card. I'm honestly surprised it hasn't happened yet.

In this competition, Young Boys are coming off a surprising 3-2 victory against Udinese in Italy, prefaced by a 3-1 win against the same side in Switzerland. They've scored three in three of their four Europa League group matches, those two matches against Udinese and against Liverpool on the first matchday, requiring the Reds to comeback from a deficit and score five. This improvement in the Europa League has coincided with struggles in the Swiss Super League, still in fifth – where they were when facing Liverpool in September – but currently miles behind Basel in fourth. They're winless in their last four league matches, since the end of September, with draws against St Gallen and Zurich and losses to Grasshopper and Basel.

Bobadilla, with six goals in this competition (including four of the six against Udinese), is the clear threat. Against Liverpool, he was provider rather than scorer, setting up both Ojala and Zarate's goals. But I doubt I need remind how dangerous Young Boys' wingers – Nuzzolo and Zarate – were against Liverpool, especially on the counter-attack. With no injuries to report, I'd be surprised if Bern's lineup deviated much from the last meeting: Wölfli; Sutter, Veskovac, Ojala, Raimondi; Zverotic, Spycher; Zarate, Farnerud, Nuzzolo; Bobadilla. Schneuwly or Costanzo could come in from Spycher in central defense; Nef for one of the two center-backs, but those seem the only likely changed based on Young Boys' recent lineups in the Swiss and Europa Leagues.

For those not based in the USA, tomorrow's Thanksgiving, which means most of us will be stuffing face and silently begrudging the presence of family members we don't see often for good reason. I will, however, make time to watch the match, and should be able to eke out space for the review as well. Americans: try to get away from the family for a couple of hours, and maybe we'll have something to be thankful for.

19 November 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Wigan

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

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Only the 2-2 draw at Everton saw fewer passes attempted and completed; Liverpool had less possession against just Everton and Manchester City, another 2-2 draw. City currently top the table, Everton are in fifth. Wigan are 16th.

And yet Liverpool won 3-0.

Liverpool won because a Wigan mistake, combined with Sterling's pace and intelligence, allowed them to take a much needed lead. Liverpool won because Suarez converted both of his shots of target. Liverpool won because another Liverpool player besides Suarez scored for the first time in nearly a month. Liverpool won because of a surprisingly strong left flank, using Enrique in an advanced position; despite having the second-lowest pass completion percentage of any outfield player, he also created the most chances – four; only Suarez, Gerrard, and Sterling have created more in a single match this season. Few players are capable of making that bull run then flawless throughball to set up Suarez's second. Liverpool won because of a determined defense, which allowed just two shots in the penalty box, neither closer than 12 yards out, neither on target.

And Liverpool won because of Brendan Rodgers' 36th minute tactical change, removing Suso for Henderson, shifting the shape of the Liverpool midfield.

Liverpool were better by almost every metric after the alteration.

Most importantly, the change allowed Liverpool to press higher up the pitch, unsettling Wigan before they had the chance to settle into controlled possession – something that multiple sides have done to Liverpool this season (most notably Everton). Just six of Liverpool's 19 tackles came when defending its final third, seven of the 17 interceptions. Comparatively, eight of Wigan's 16 tackles and 10 of its 22 interceptions were in their own final third. In addition, Henderson also gave much more help to Liverpool's other two midfielders, who had struggled to impose themselves to that point.

The passing chalkboards for Gerrard and Allen helps demonstrate how Henderson's presence freed both of them from shackles.

Gerrard had more license to roam, allowed to play closer to goal and take up wider positions without exposing Liverpool's tender underbelly – which has been exposed far too often this season. Allen could concentrate on starting Liverpool's attacks without being the sole focus of Wigan's own determined pressing from Maloney, DiSanto, and Kone.

This isn't to A) blame Suso or B) canonize Rodgers.

The former, despite being almost wholly uninvolved in the passing game, had been Liverpool's most threatening player to that point, with two excellent chances to score the opener. I do hope that Rodgers has a long conversation with Suso at some point this week, explaining the reasons for the change. Suso has never appeared to lack in confidence, but he is just 18 years old, and it can be mortifying to be hauled off so early without an injury.

The latter, until Saturday, has determinedly stuck with two holding midfielders no matter the opposition – to the detriment of Liverpool's attack – ever since Arsenal opened up Liverpool on multiple occasions more than two months ago. And has rarely given Henderson the chance to demonstrate what qualities he brings to the side so far this season.

Regardless, credit where due. Rodgers saw what was lacking and had the audacity to make the substitution so early in the game, not waiting until halftime to shuffle the pack, trusting the side would be smart enough to shift gears without needing the halftime team talk to explain the new system. I'm sure he also remembered the stomach punches that were Gera and Cabaye's goals right before the interval in earlier league matches, goals which knocked Liverpool off its stride and led to either a debilitating loss or regrettable draw.

We saw similarly strong in-game changes against both Everton and Chelsea, changes which helped Liverpool preserve and earn draws in matches they almost certainly would have lost last season. That, as much as a three-goal clean sheet at Anfield, a venue where Liverpool have desperately underwhelmed during this calendar year, is cause for optimism.

17 November 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Wigan

Suarez 47' 58'
Enrique 66'

The death of the Wigan curse. It's been a long time coming. Five matches, in fact. A comprehensive victory, a clean sheet: the first three-goal clean sheet in the league at Anfield since beating Everton last March, only the third league clean sheet this season.

After that, there are two big talking points: Brendan Rodgers' early tactical substitution and Liverpool's left flank. Well, and the consummate genius of Luis Suarez, but that's almost always a talking point following a Liverpool victory.

The starting lineup was the same which finished the match against Chelsea aside from Skrtel recovering from last week's virus: Suso as an orthodox #10, Enrique as a left-sided midfielder, but otherwise the same personnel we've become accustomed to. And for 36 minutes, it was the same Liverpool we've become accustomed to. A decent amount of the ball, a couple of concrete chances, but more disappointment, not enough ruthless, and too much disconnect in attack.

Suarez's mazy runs nearly forced a couple of own goals, Suso had two excellent opportunities – a long range strike and mishit header – and Agger nearly scored from an early corner, but Liverpool weren't clicking on all cylinders, even to the level we saw in draws against, say, Sunderland and Stoke. Wigan were very Wigan, cohesive, intelligent, and canceling Liverpool out more often than not, bettering the home side in both possession and passes.

So, with 10 minutes left in the first half, Rodgers had seen enough. Even though Suso had two of Liverpool's best chances, he was the man to make way. It might have had something to do with the fact he had more shots than passes, but it's not as if he was playing poorly, and it was somewhat confusing to say the least.

I guess there's a reason Rodgers is a professional manager and we're sat at home or in the stands. Henderson, seemingly behind both Shelvey and Şahin in the midfield hierarchy, came on instead, with Liverpool shifting to a 4-3-3 which looked more like a 4-1-4-1 formation rather than the usual 4-2-3-1.

During the midweek internationals, I'd wondered why Henderson hadn't been able to replicate his England u21 performances for Liverpool, whether under Dalglish or Rodgers. So much for that question. Despite playing just 55 or so minutes, only Gerrard, Allen, and Johnson completed more passes than Henderson. He ran the length of the pitch, always available for a pass, and added two tackles and two interceptions, all in Wigan's half. Rodgers gambled that Henderson's pressing from the front and link play would contribute more to Liverpool's attack than Shelvey's dynamism or Şahin's calming influence, and the gamble was absolutely correct.

Liverpool made the breakthrough soon after the restart, a goal which propelled them to the much-needed win at a canter. And while a Wigan mistake had a lot to do with the opportunity, it stemmed from pressing the opposition in Wigan's half. Sterling hassled Beausejour into a soft back pass, latching onto the loose ball and driving at the defense, delivering a perfect cutback for Suarez in space, rammed into the roof of the net from ten yards out.

Wigan tried to respond with a couple of direct attacks, but Di Santo's shot from distance was comfortably deflected to Reina, then Johnson defended Maloney's early cross brilliantly, in the right place to head behind with Kone lurking dangerously at the back post. And 11 minutes after the opener, after defending well enough to not concede a cheap equalizer, Liverpool got the crucial second to kill the game.

That crucial second came from the aforementioned left flank, where Johnson and Enrique often linked to excellent effect. Enrique had seemingly ignored the fullback's foray forward into space, instead deciding to cut inside, a decision that had me screaming at the television. Ten seconds later, the ball was in the net after Enrique ran past two defenders before providing an immaculate throughball for Suarez, timed to the nanosecond and put on a plate with all the trimmings, the striker charging onto the pass before beating Al Habsi into the far corner.

From there, there was only going to be one winner. Suarez had two chances at a hat-trick, scuffing a shot wide then seeing a second well-blocked from close range. Unsurprisingly, he was central to Liverpool's third goal, in the middle of a delightful one-two with Sterling, which saw the 17-year-old's shot saved, spilling fortunately for the on-rushing Enrique to tap in. Not only providing the crucial assist, but scoring his first Liverpool goal. Hell has frozen over. Josemi Enrique is dead, long live Jose Bale, who nearly set up Liverpool's fourth just seconds later when Henderson ballooned a volley from Enrique's chipped cross.

Then, cruise control, the opportunity for Liverpool to settle into the calm possession Rodgers has drilled into his side, for the first time in the match. A period of the game which saw Liverpool's possession total go from 47.8% in the first half to 50.2% in the second. Wigan's attempts at a consolation were limited to a single set play, Reina punching clear a corner only for Wigan to lump the ball back in the danger area for Kone, who hit the post from point-blank range but was also offside due to Liverpool's well-marshaled defense. Patient control led to three chances for a fourth, but Johnson shot narrowly wide of the far post after more impressive combination play with Enrique, Suarez scuffed another attempt wide, and Shelvey – on as a substitute for the talismanic Uruguayan in the 84th – sent a tame shot directly at Al Habsi in the 90th.

Rarely has a Liverpool match been so satisfying after 90 minutes, especially this season and especially in the league. Beating a side that's caused convulsions for the last three seasons, scoring three, and comfortably keeping a clean sheet. Rodgers coming out of the match with full credit, making an (arguably overdue) early, intelligent tactical change in using Allen as a single holding player at Anfield rather than relying on two controlling midfielders, adding an extra body in attack and an extra body to press the opposition in their own half instead of settling for the sometimes listless possession dominance in non-threatening areas.

While it was disappointing to see Suso hauled off so soon, I can't help but be pleased for Henderson, whose work ethic gave Liverpool extra impetus in the middle. Even though the switch ostensibly made Allen the lone defensive midfielder, Henderson's running allowed the Welshman a calmer match, giving him more support rather than having to shoulder the load in starting Liverpool's attacks while stopping the opposition's. In addition, using Enrique as in midfield also worked a treat, an always-willing runner who'll get up and down the touchline and see a lot of the ball, combining well with Johnson as one player could cut inside while the other stays wide. Enrique remains a frustrating player at times, completing just 73% of his passes (only Suarez was less accurate), but he was also Liverpool's most creative – responsible for four chances, while Suarez, Sterling, and Gerrard each had three. Still, he was far less frustrating than some of the other options Liverpool's tried in that position (*waves at Stewart Downing and Joe Cole, then realizes the former isn't even in the squad*).

And, of course, no matter the impressive performances from Henderson and Enrique and others, the star man remains Luis Suarez, with 10 of Liverpool's 17 goals through 12 games, scoring in four consecutive matches, the hub of everything good in the opposition's half of the field. No controversy, no petulance, just permanent threat and goals goals goals. Exactly what we want to see.

More of that please. The players need to take confidence from the result, in both defense and attack, while the manager will hopefully remember how his clever adjustments helped Liverpool win today's match.

16 November 2012

Liverpool v Wigan 11.17.12

10am ET, not live in the US (unless you have the FoxSoccer2Go mobile app). Otherwise, delayed on FSC at 2:30pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Wigan (h) 03.24.12
0-0 (a) 12.21.11
1-1 (a) 02.12.11
1-1 (h) 11.10.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (a); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-1 Newcastle (h)
Wigan: 1-2 WBA (h); 1-0 Tottenham (a); 0-0 Bradford aet [2-4 pens] (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Wigan: Kone 4; DiSanto 3; Boyce, Maloney, McArthur, Ramis, Watson 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

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

Reina's fit and back in training after missing the last seven matches, Shelvey's fit and back in training after missing last Sunday's match with a thigh problem. We're also on Lucas watch: nowhere near fit enough to play tomorrow but back in training and close enough where I've started marking the calendar with red pen, like a small child counting the days until Christmas.

Does Rodgers continue tinkering with the starting XI, as we saw with three at the back against Anzhi and Chelsea, or return to his default 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, as in the last 30 minutes on Sunday?

Despite other issues (*cough defensive errors cough susceptible to counter attacks cough*), Liverpool's main concern remains finding some support for Luis Suarez, who's currently carrying the club on his back. After the match against Chelsea, Rodgers claimed that this was the goal of Sunday's formation. Which, obviously, did not work at planned, with Liverpool only looking remotely threatening once reverting to the default formation.

In theory, given Wigan's usual 3-4-3 formation, Liverpool's 3-5-2ish system would make some sense. Liverpool played 4-2-3-1 with Suarez as the lone striker in the dismal 1-2 Anfield loss against this side in March, only scoring an equalizer after a halftime change to 4-4-2 (before sloppily conceding a second time). Wigan were able to isolate Suarez in this fixture last season, nullifying any Liverpool threat with the spare defenders and midfield control.

Still, I'd be surprised if Rodgers deviated from his usual template. Which leads me to want to suggest a few tweaks: Suso as the attacking midfielder, Gerrard or Assaidi or Shelvey in the front three, or even the XI which finished the match against Chelsea with Enrique in attack – a move that, while often frustrating, did lead to two excellent chances to win late on.

But odds are that tomorrow's XI will look fairly familiar. The most hoped-for change is Suso as the attacking playmaker, but that would leave a hole in the front three. Despite any pronouncements to the media or on Being: Liverpool, we've seen no sign that Rodgers might use Gerrard in the front three. Assaidi? Has played in just two league matches, as a late sub against Stoke and Norwich, and hasn't started since the league cup loss to Swansea. Downing? Cole? Don't make me laugh. And the above line-up guess reflects that, with the usual Şahin or Shelvey dilemma the only foreseeable question mark.

The aforementioned 3-4-3 has become Martinez's preferred formation, used in every match so far this season, whether in the league or league cup. Midfielder James McArthur and on-loan winger Ryo Miyaichi are questionable, which means the most likely XI is the same that featured in the last two matches: Al Habsi; Ramis, Caldwell, Figueroa; Boyce, McCarthy, Watson, Beausejour; Di Santo, Kone, Maloney. Sometimes, it's worked like a charm, as in the 1-0 victory against Tottenham two weeks ago. More often than not, it's led to a loss, albeit a narrow loss. Only United and Chelsea have beaten the Latics by two goals or more. Wigan actually have one more win than Liverpool so far this season, but four fewer draws, holding both Stoke and Everton – two teams Liverpool also drew – at home.

Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers work from similar playbooks. Rodgers built on what Martinez started at Swansea, Martinez was the other main candidate during Liverpool's summer managerial search. Three-man midfield, patient control, prioritizing possession. Top scorer Arouna Kone, formerly of PSV and Sevilla, has given them a direct option, and he and Maloney are responsible for seven of Wigan's 12 goals. Relatedly, Wigan also have the same problem as Liverpool: putting the damned ball in the damned net: averaging just over a goal per game, shut out in three matches, scoring twice in three matches, and failing scoring more than twice so far this season.

The sad fact is that Liverpool haven't been Wigan in nearly three years: a 2-1 win at Anfield in December 2009. When Rafael Benitez was the manager. Since then, three draws and two losses, against a side who finished 16th, 16th, and 15th in those three seasons. It's Liverpool's worst record against any club that's been in the league throughout that span.

While we're recounting soul-killing statistics, here's another. Liverpool have played Wigan 14 times since the Latics were promoted, with 11 players scoring 20 goals (and an own goal). Just one of those 11 players is still with the club: Luis Suarez, in March's 1-2 loss at Anfield.

We spent the run-up to last weekend's match against Chelsea talking about "bogey sides" thanks to Roberto DiMatteo. Wigan are a textbook bogey side for Liverpool, one of the worst offenders in a division filled with contenders.

And Liverpool desperately, desperately need to beat this bogey side tomorrow.

13 November 2012

League Goals via Top Scorer [Infographic]

That Liverpool have become heavily reliant on Luis Suarez is no secret, the only Liverpool player to have scored more than once in the league, and now joint-top scorer in the Premiership with eight goals through 11 games.

It turns out that Liverpool aren't the most reliant on a single player, at least.

Sunderland are, by far, the worst offenders. Fletcher has 71% of Sunderland's seven goals; Adam Johnson has one, while they scored an own goal against Newcastle three weeks ago. Newcastle are slightly more dependent on Demba Ba than Liverpool are on Suarez; he's got 58% of Newcastle's goals, Suarez has 57% of Liverpool's. These are the only three clubs with one player responsible for more than 50% of their strikes.

I doubt it's coincidence that the top half of this chart is populated by teams in the bottom half of the table. West Ham's reliance on Nolan is the anomaly, but eight other players have at least one strike for Sam Allardyce's over-performing side. No, Andy Carroll is not one of them; Noble has two, while Diame, Jarvis, Maiga, Reid, Taylor, Tomkins, and Vaz Te all have one.

It's obviously still quite early in the season, but spreading the wealth seems crucial to a club's league place. No side in the current top nine has fewer than seven goal-scorers. From sides placed 10th through 20th, only Southampton (10) and Reading (9) have more than seven goal-scorers. Reading may not have a consistent scorer – Pogrebnyak, Hunt, and Robson-Kanu lead the way with two each – but both clubs' problems mainly lie at the other end of the pitch.

The clubs with the most goal-scorers are United (13) and Chelsea (11), currently 1st and 3rd in the table. Comparatively, second-place City have "just" nine, but Dzeko, Tevez, Aguero, and Yaya Toure all have at least two strikes.

The worst offenders for spreading the wealth? The top four clubs in this chart. Sunderland have just two scorers, Newcastle and Stoke have four, and Liverpool have five: Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, and Sterling with one apiece (and two own goals) to go with Suarez's eight. Bottom of the table QPR is the only other side with just five scorers.

So, is it January yet?

12 November 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

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

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Getting a bit rote by now. Oh look, Liverpool had more passes. Oh look, Liverpool out-possessed Chelsea, with 57% in total, the most for a side at Stamford Bridge since Arsenal in February 2010 (Chelsea won that match 2-0). Oh look, Liverpool drew again, for the sixth time in 11 matches.

What was unusual was that Chelsea took more shots than Liverpool, joining West Brom and Everton as the only sides to register more attempts than Liverpool through 11 matches. On average, Liverpool had taken 7.2 more shots than their opponents through the first 10 matches, with the average raised by egregious totals against Sunderland (draw), Stoke (draw), and Reading (narrow win). But, in a role reversal of sorts, Liverpool and Chelsea had the same number of shots on target – three – with each side scoring from a set play. It was Chelsea's profligacy in front of goal, especially in open play, whether Mata, Hazard, or Oscar, that kept Liverpool in the game in the first half.

Yesterday was the first time this season that Gerrard hasn't registered a shot or a chance created. He'd taken at least one shot in the first ten matches (26 in total), created at least one chance in every match but at Sunderland. In the run up, I'd written about how Gerrard would need to stay disciplined to prevent sloppy turnovers and chances for Chelsea to counter, which he did successfully, even if it compromised his attacking game. The only match where he passed with greater accuracy was against Manchester United, completing 52 of 55 passes, a match where he scored Liverpool's only goal and was far and away the star player (which was necessary after Shelvey's dismissal). It's not coincidence that his most-disciplined, most-diligent matches come against the best opposition; both Carling Cup semi-finals against Manchester City last season spring to mind immediately. Whether he does it against less-fancied opposition, rather than trying to force the game, remains the issue.

Both sides tallied their highest number of tackles so far this season. Liverpool made 27, Chelsea 29; each had averaged 15 tackles through the first ten matches. Only once had either side made more than 20 (Liverpool with 21 against Newcastle, Chelsea with 23 against Arsenal). Enrique was Liverpool's star player in this regard, with seven tackles, while Johnson had five. Ramires and Mikel were Chelsea's top tacklers: the former had six, the latter four (Ivanovic and Azpilcueta also had four). Which is an apt demonstration of each side's respective threat. Chelsea's came from Hazard and Mata on the flanks, having cut inside to great effect all season long. Liverpool's came from Suarez and Sterling running through the middle. Despite Liverpool's wing-backs doing well against Chelsea's wingers, Hazard and Mata still created seven chances, the same total as the entire Liverpool team.

By all accounts, Liverpool were far better in the second half, changing back to its default shape, forcing Chelsea onto the back foot in the final minutes. Which is why it's slightly surprising to see Liverpool's second-half possession total drop so precipitously. Once again, possession doesn't equal potency, no matter Rodgers preferred system. As against Everton, as in Suarez's equalizer against Newcastle, sometimes Liverpool are better without the ball, allowed to utilize Suarez and Sterling's speed on the counter.

The half-by-half passing totals make for an interesting comparison:

Which led to the difference in Liverpool's shots in the first hour compared to the final 30 minutes:

This is not a criticism of Brendan Rodgers or his preferred playing style. It was the return to Rodgers' default formation which led to Liverpool's second half improvement. It is, however, recognition that sometimes it's better to be more direct, that – as we've painfully learned – passing and possession don't always translate into results. Which Rodgers has shown awareness of with the in-game tactical changes against Everton and Chelsea. Liverpool's lone substitution altered the game for the better, Chelsea's two second-half subs added nothing to the side. After early criticism that Rodgers is too formulaic, that he only has one way of playing, there has become a Plan B when Plan A isn't working.

11 November 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Terry 20'
Suarez 73'

You can't help but be disappointed with a draw given Liverpool's results in the 10 matches that have preceded today's and having beaten Chelsea in the last four league encounters, but that could and probably should have been a whole lot worse. Especially after the first half.

Rodgers kept the same formation used against Anzhi, with wing-backs, three center-backs, Gerrard ahead of Şahin and Allen, and Suarez and Sterling as strikers. Which, in theory, made sense in order to nullify Chelsea's incredibly potent attacking line of three – that's what £80-90m or so will buy you – especially with Skrtel unavailable. But, like against Anzhi, it also did nothing to solve Liverpool's never-ending woes in attack. Liverpool out-passed Chelsea, Liverpool out-possessed Chelsea, but Liverpool had zero cutting edge, with Gerrard and Şahin unable to link defense and attack, leaving Suarez and Sterling incredibly isolated, especially with Chelsea's fullbacks sitting deeper than excepted, wholly willing to thrive on the counter-attack and set plays.

And the formation can't legislate for set plays. Terry eluded Agger on a corner in the 20th, with Liverpool's defender blocked off by Ivanovic and Johnson, allowing Chelsea's captain an unforgivably free header from eight yards out. I think this is where everyone rails against man-to-man marking, although Liverpool usually use a mix of man and zonal. Much like against Anzhi midweek, albeit even earlier, Liverpool's conservative strategy was upset by a relatively cheap goal conceded. Terry had to go off 15 minutes later, most likely damaging knee ligaments when Ramires pushed Suarez into his standing leg.

Soon after the opener, Rodgers tweaked the system. Rather than having Şahin and Allen behind Gerrard, Allen sat deeper than the other two midfielders. At the same time, Sterling started coming into midfielder to receive possession, rather than Suarez, leaving the Uruguayan as Liverpool's furthest-forward striker, hoping to breach the back-line on the back shoulder of the last defender, as against Newcastle. Neither change did much to bridge midfield and attack, to turn possession into tangible shots, if not shots on target. Liverpool remained limited to three speculative efforts from distance – one from Agger, two from Şahin – that came nowhere near troubling Chelsea's goal.

Meanwhile, the change in starting formation did little to cut out the never-ending calamitous errors. Chelsea could have opened the scoring within six minutes, as Oscar pressured Joe Allen into a giveaway deep in Liverpool's half, but the Brazilian's shot rose narrowly over the bar after getting the ball back from Torres. Hazard sprinted away from Allen in the 27th after another Liverpool giveaway – this time, Suarez trying to singlehandedly force his way through three Chelsea defenders – but Jones did well to save Torres' shot on the break. The best chance came in the fourth minute of added time: a long throw saw three Liverpool players (Allen, Agger, and Carragher) collide when trying to clear, allowing Oscar to send Mata clear, but the winger thankfully rushed his wide-open shot from the top of the box over the bar.

Liverpool were lucky that Chelsea never took the opportunities granted to extend the lead. But Liverpool were also vastly improved in the second half, especially after Rodgers changed the formation back to Liverpool's usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 on the hour mark. The two sides remained in a holding pattern for the first 15 minutes after the restart, with the lone opportunity again from a set play, as Jones again denied Torres after the striker peeled away from an injured Gerrard (deep breaths; he'd be okay).

But with Suso replacing Şahin in the 60th, Liverpool switched Wisdom to right back, Johnson to left back, and the substitute played ahead of Gerrard and Allen in the midfield three. As against United, WBA (in the league cup), and Anzhi midweek, the young Spaniard proved an impact sub, able to work between the lines in a way that both Gerrard and Şahin were unable to. A quick glance at Liverpool's shots before and after the hour mark says more than enough about the increase in tempo and cohesion.

At the same time, Liverpool was more comfortable in its preferred formation, better able to stifle Chelsea and defend more solidly. Liverpool made none of the terrifying errors which often lead to goals conceded, and once again, Chelsea were limited to chances from set plays, most notably Jones' excellent punch on Mata's dangerous free kick in the 68th.

Still, Liverpool also needed a set play breakdown for its equalizer. No prizes for guessing who the goalscorer was. Suarez and Wisdom linked up well to earn the corner, Suso's dead ball found Carragher at the near post, flicking on for Suarez to head in from point blank range. Maybe Suarez's shoved Ramires in the build-up – he was definitely onside – but Liverpool were due that bit of leeway after so many punishing, incorrect decisions.

From there, Liverpool looked content to ensure they didn't concede another, hoping to find a winner on the counter with Chelsea necessarily pushing more and more men forward. Which they nearly did twice, ending the match as the more threatening side. Cech smartly charged off his line in the 88th, denying Suarez the chance to round the keeper after a first-time throughball from Enrique. We've seen numerous keepers beaten by Suarez's pace and trickery in that position before, but Cech darted out incredibly well. Six minutes later, with nearly in the last kick of the game, Cech denied Enrique his first Liverpool goal with a save at the near post after good work from Suso, Sterling, and Suarez set up the chance.

So, the change in formation may not have worked as hoped, more due to the set play concession rather than defensive weaknesses in open play. But as against Everton, Rodgers demonstrated the ability to change the system to get the minimum needed result. Once again, Jones was excellent, making it harder and harder for Reina to immediately return when fit. Johnson and Enrique also did well, although the latter remains bafflingly able to vary from superb to stupid within seconds. Agger was also crucial to Liverpool's defense while Carragher – Carragher! – notched an assist, his first since the Champions League tie in Debrecen in November 2009. Multiple players looked more comfortable in the 4-3-3: Wisdom, Gerrard, Allen, Enrique, Suarez, and Sterling all improved after the change in shape.

Most importantly, Liverpool didn't lose, which looked eminently possible after the first half. While getting more points on the board remains of the utmost importance, that sort of resilience was both reassuring and necessary.

10 November 2012

Liverpool at Chelsea 11.11.12

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12
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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-1 Newcastle (h); 1-3 Swansea (h)
Chelsea: 3-2 Shakhtar (h); 1-1 Swansea (a); 5-4 United aet (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 7; Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Chelsea: Mata, Torres 4; Ivanovic, Lampard 3; Cahill, Hazard 2; Cole, Moses, Ramires, Sturridge 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Webb's been in charge of two previous LFC-Chelsea matches: Liverpool wins in October 2008 and November 2010. Somehow, amazingly, he's already given United a penalty in tomorrow's match.

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

Johnson's almost assuredly back. Reina has a decent chance of playing as well. Otherwise, same old, same old. The Liverpool line-up guessing game has become a bore.

It'll be a big day for Liverpool's two holding midfielders and the full-backs. Almost all of the danger in Chelsea's side comes from the attacking line of three. Mata, Oscar, and Hazard are all world-class footballers, capable of turning a game by themselves, capable of constantly switching positions to baffle their markers. Mata and Hazard each have five assists, Mata is Chelsea's joint-top scorer in the league, and Oscar is their top scorer, by some distance, in the Champions League.

Gerrard and Allen will need to be diligent with their tracking and intelligent with their positioning to ensure that none of the three find space between the lines, getting into that dangerous "Zone 14," which Noel wrote about following Liverpool's win over Chelsea in February 2011. Much has changed in the last 21 months, but Chelsea's main threat still comes from that area of the pitch. In Liverpool's defense, they've rarely conceded from that position this season – Arsenal's first goal, on the counter-attack, springs to mind, but few others, at least in the league. Still, Allen will need to be ready for a full defensive shift, while Liverpool will need Gerrard to play with the discipline we saw against, say, Manchester City in last season's Carling Cup semi-final.

Where Liverpool do often concede is either on the counter-attack or from the flanks. Sometimes both: Newcastle and Sunderland's goals, as well as Norwich's second, down Liverpool's left; Arsenal's second, Everton's second, and Norwich's first down Liverpool's right, And this is where the full-backs come in. Hazard and Mata are clever enough to stay wide to stretch the play if needed, pulling defenders out of position. Both Johnson and Enrique have been susceptible to individual errors, especially when also tasked with going forward to support the attack, and Liverpool have allowed too many crosses – whether crosses to heads or crosses to feet – from wide positions. Johnson, if he even plays, is coming off an extended injury, likely to display at least a little rust. Enrique is Enrique, capable of both the sublime and senseless within a matter of seconds. And in Ramires and Oscar, Chelsea have the midfielder runners that get into the box which Liverpool have all too often lacked, to say nothing about the potential of Chelsea's misfiring number nine.

Oscar and Ramires (and Mikel, if he's gone forward) will also take turns pressing Allen quickly whenever he's on the ball, looking to disjoint Liverpool's system at the base. Gerrard will have to provide deep support rather than charging forward to support the attack, as will Şahin, while Liverpool's defenders will probably rack up even more passes than we've seen in some of the pass-heavy matches so far. Chelsea will undoubtedly remember how pressing the deepest midfielder is what led to them conceding the first goal at Stamford Bridge last season.

And then there's Liverpool's attack. Read: Luis Suarez. I sincerely hope John Terry still has nightmares of their league meeting last May, turned inside out time and time again, left wholly uncertain which way was up, with the center-back at least partially responsible for Liverpool's first three goals. Left out of Chelsea's last Champions League match, Terry hasn't played in almost three weeks, and hasn't played in the league since October 6. Either of his potential center-back partners – whether Luiz or Cahill – are, like Liverpool, capable of egregious, baffling errors. Both Sterling and Suso, more the former than the latter, have the ability to pin Chelsea's full-backs deep, and neither Hazard nor Mata are likely to track back to give much help. Sterling's speed will be especially valuable given Ivanovic's propensity for a rash tackle, already sent off twice this season.

Both sides will almost certainly play matching 4-2-3-1 formations, with Liverpool's slightly more a 4-3-3 because of Şahin playing deeper than Oscar and Suso and Sterling marginally higher up the pitch than Hazard and Mata, even though Liverpool's wingers are also more likely to necessarily track back to help in defense. Chelsea's XI is almost as easy to guess as Liverpool's; whether Cahill or Luiz partners the returning Terry seems the only question. Otherwise, Cech in goal; Ivanovic at right back; Bertrand at left-back; Mikel and Ramires in midfield; Hazard, Oscar, and Mata as the attacking line of three; and you-know-who up front. Lampard and Cole are Chelsea's only injury issues.

Don't let Roberto DiMatteo lull you into a false sense of security. No matter if Liverpool have won the last four league meetings and five out of the last six matches in all competitions, few Liverpool fans or players would consider Liverpool to be Chelsea's bogey side. Not this Liverpool, not this Chelsea, after what we've seen so far this season.

A "bogey side" also suggests the winning team is tangibly inferior to the losing team, yet finds a way to blindside the latter. Think, say, West Brom, Sunderland, Wigan, Fulham against Liverpool in the last couple of seasons, Birmingham and Bolton against Benitez's sides. Yes, Liverpool somehow seem to have a lot of bogey sides of late. Anyway. Liverpool were the deserved winners in all four of those previous league wins, dominating play in three of the four; only Dalglish's first match against the Blues saw Liverpool cagily nullifying Chelsea with the 3-5-1-1 used, scoring the lone goal on the counter-attack. Chelsea haven't been at the races in any of the four fixtures.

If this Liverpool beats that Chelsea tomorrow, then maybe we can start talking about bogey sides. Because on form, Liverpool will have to play far above their current station – will have to put together a full 90 minutes of the glimpses and flashes of promise that we've seen in other matches – to challenge this Chelsea.