19 August 2017

Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Goals:
Mané 73'

Just enough is good enough.

Of course, it was too close for comfort. Of course, we really would like and need Liverpool to be better and more coherent, especially in midfield.

But Liverpool made five changes, needing to rotate the side with injuries and fixtures already accruing at too fast a rate. I mean, just look at that starting XI. Robertson's debut, Joe Gomez's first league start since October 2015, Klavan partnering Matip, Milner's second league start in midfield since the beginning of last season.

But, after suffering for the first hour, Liverpool finally made necessary substitutions, with Salah for Sturridge and Solanke for Wijnaldum – and a switch to something like a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 – improving the side immensely.

But Liverpool more than quintupled Palace's shot total. Liverpool had three times as many shots on-target as Palace had shots. Crystal Palace's last shot came in the 55th minute. Liverpool took 15 shots – even if that total only included one goal – after that.

But Liverpool finally scored.

But Liverpool never conceded.

But Liverpool ground out a necessary win against the type of opposition who's given them so many problems over the last season and a bit more. Against a club that's given them so many problems in recent season.

But the home side hadn't won this fixture since Palace beat Liverpool on their own ground in November 2014. Liverpool hadn't beaten Palace at Anfield since October 2013; you know, the season they almost won the league. Liverpool hadn't kept a Premier League clean sheet against Crystal Palace since December 1997, 12 matches before this one.

But three points. And that's really all that matters.

So, yes, Liverpool weren't good in that first half. Liverpool's midfield – for the third straight match – was actually bad; or, at the very nicest, uncreative. Andrew Robertson was the only player creating anything of note. Once again, the match featured Liverpool running headlong into all those deep defenders and failing to break through them.

The 55th minute was the turning point. The second half had started the same as the first. Lots of possession, a couple of speculative shots from distance, and Liverpool seemingly no closer to finding the breakthrough. And then, what had been the sucker punch in far too many fixtures. One long ball forward. Loftus-Cheek beating Klavan far too easily, to the byline, and a cut-back to a wide-open Benteke eight yards out, with Matip in no-man's land and Gomez struggling to catch up.

And the player who'd scored seven goals in his eight matches against Liverpool skied his sitter.

Not long after, Salah replaced Sturridge, and Liverpool incrementally kicked up the gears in attack. Not long after that, Solanke replaced Wijnaldum, and Liverpool kicked them up a bit more. It was a revolutionary idea: the midfield and individual midfielders aren't playing well, so play fewer of them.

And not long after that – two minutes, in fact – Liverpool finally made the breakthrough. Once again, it's Sadio Mané. Once again, it's both a bit of fortune, a bit of talent, and a bit of individual brilliance. Another attempt to quickly link through the final third. Solanke causing trouble with his strength, Mané determined enough and clever enough to continue his run, Liverpool lucky that Milivojevic's touch was poor, and Mané quick enough and talented enough to finally beat Hennessey.

While we're all traumatized and expect the worst and probably rightfully so, Palace had no response. Their solution was to throw Scott Dann forward with Benteke and hoof more long balls. And Liverpool dealt with it just fine. No Palace shots, no Palace threats. Meanwhile, Hennessey needed to deny Salah (twice), Firmino, Solanke, and Robertson in the final ten minutes to keep the scoreline at 1-0.

So, yes, that'll absolutely do, pig. There are still real, discernible problems, problems with we've all screamed about already this season. There's still so much more improvement needed, and there are still transfers which need to be done.

But this early in the season, with this lineup, against this opposition, a win, any win is sufficient.

18 August 2017

Liverpool v Crystal Palace 08.19.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Palace (h) 04.23.17
4-2 Liverpool (a) 10.29.16
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.06.16
2-1 Palace (h) 11.08.15

Last matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 3-3 Watford (a)
Palace: 0-3 Huddersfield (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino, Mané, Salah 1
Palace: n/a

Referee: Kevin Friend (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Trent A-A Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

It's hard to see where any changes to the starting XI might come. Sturridge is fit again, but I highly doubt Liverpool want to mess with that front three, the only phase that's been without complaints so far this short season.

There's not much to be done in defense, at least personnel-wise. Clyne's still injured and Alexander-Arnold's done fine. More than fine for 89:30 of 90 minutes against Hoffenheim. Lovren and Matip have each had their issues, but are still probably a better idea than bringing in Klavan or Gomez. Left-back is where Liverpool could make a change, but Moreno hasn't been the problem area in the defensive unit, holding up well despite being target by both Watford and Hoffenheim.

I am, however, tempted to suggest changes in midfield, with Milner replacing Henderson – as happened for the last half-hour against Hoffenheim. It didn't show in preseason, but the first two games suggest something's not right with Liverpool's captain. But even still, without Coutinho and Lallana, with Woodburn not even named in the squad after understudying in the position throughout preseason, Liverpool have a desperate lack of creativity in the center of the pitch. There's a chance Milner helps with that, at least compared to Henderson, with Can moving deeper. At least with this match being at Anfield, Gini Wijnaldum may actually play.

Unless, of course, Liverpool changes are forced. Both Mané and Can appeared to miss training on Thursday, at least according to the training pictures released by the club. But I'm not necessarily sure we can divine absences from official club pictures. It's not as if the club will also announce injuries, but this still feels as if we're reading tea leaves here. Still, if they're both missing, we're getting Sturridge, Solanke or Origi up front with Firmino on the left, and Milner, Henderson, and Wijnaldum in midfield. Which is *shrugs*.

And regardless of who's available for the hosts, Liverpool will be facing a side with a point to prove, a side that will probably play the type of style which has hurt Liverpool in the past, and a side that's bedeviled them over the last few seasons.

Palace were absolutely rinsed by Huddersfield last week, a 0-3 loss at home not flattering the promoted side in the slightest. Huddersfield's crosses – both open and set play, both high and low – punished Palace, while Palace were wasteful – Zaha denied on a glorious chance from a long ball and flick-on, Benteke errant on a couple of trademark chances. Well, Liverpool won't attack Palace as Huddersfield attacked Palace, and Benteke is rarely errant when facing Liverpool.

I suspect Palace will stick with the same 3-4-2-1 formation we saw against Huddersfield as well, despite the result. Something like Hennessey; Fosu-Mensah, Dann, Riedewald; Ward, Puncheon, Milivojevic, van Aanholt; Loftus-Cheek, Townsend; Benteke.

Wilfred Zaha will be a massive miss for Palace, while Bakary Sako's also out. Cabaye, McArthur, Wickham, and Souare are doubtful. If available, there seems a small chance that Cabaye starts rather than Townsend.

I had almost forgotten that these sides met in Hong Kong a month ago. Liverpool's 2-0 win, with second-half goals from Solanke and Origi, was good for preparation but not for precedent.

When the fixtures have actually counted, Palace have won each of their last three matches at Anfield: 1-2, 1-2, and 1-3. The away side, whether Palace or Liverpool, have won the last six meetings. And, probably more notably given what we've complained about over the last couple of weeks, Liverpool haven't kept a clean sheet against Palace in the last 13 fixtures, since a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup way back in 2003.

When the fixtures have actually counted, Christian Benteke's run riot against Liverpool, with seven goals in eight appearances, including both of those scored in last April's loss. Five of those seven goals have come at Anfield. And, of course, I'll remind that his winner last April came from a Crystal Palace corner.

Liverpool know what Liverpool have to do. Better than they did at Watford, in attack, midfield, and defense. They'll need to do it when missing key players, they'll need to do it with a more important fixture lurking next Wednesday. And, as against Watford, they'll need to do it against a side and in a situation where they've disappointed far too often.

16 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Hoffenheim

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.



(Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

It's second-half injury time. Liverpool are clinging onto a one-goal lead. A Liverpool substitute who'd come on just moments before gives away a cheap free kick. And an opposition set play leads to an opposition clear-cut chance.

Four days ago, Britos converted his, which came from a corner following Gomez's foul. Yesterday, Benjamin Hübner sent his header from Demirbay's free kick just over the crossbar.

After Saturday's match, I wrote that "what goes around comes around." Here's yet more proof.

And to be completely honest, it's hard to argue that Liverpool fully merited its win, especially had it remained a two-goal margin.

Liverpool's goals came from the most unlikely of sources: Trent Alexander-Arnold's wonderful free kick and Milner's fortunately deflected cross leading to an own goal. The last time Liverpool scored at least two goals with none coming from Liverpool's front five was nearly a year ago, 2-1 over Chelsea with goals from Lovren and Henderson.

It took both heroics from Simon Mignolet and poor finishing from the hosts to keep Hoffenheim out for 86 minutes. Hoffenheim failed to score any of their three clear-cut chances. Had Kramaric converted his 12th minute penalty – which was admittedly incredibly soft – this is certainly a very different match. Mignolet did well to deny Gnabry in the 43rd, followed up by Wagner's rebound off the post rather than in an open goal-mouth. And then there was the aforementioned Hübner off-target header in the 91st minute.

To be slightly fairer, Liverpool also failed to take two clear-cut chances of their own – Salah's right-footed shot wide on the counter in the 15th and Firmino's close range effort saved in the 47th.

Liverpool's Henderson-Can-Wijnaldum midfield again suffered and again disappointed. All three struggled to get onto the ball in the face of constant Hoffenheim possession, and as at Watford, chances came when defenders found attackers, bypassing the central zone. Neither Henderson nor Wijnaldum created a chance or took a shot, and Liverpool looked vastly better when Milner replaced the captain, shifting Can to a deeper role.

Not that a lack of possession seems to hurt Liverpool. This was the 14th match under Klopp where Liverpool's had less than 50% possession. Liverpool's record in those matches is 8W-5D-1L – 2.07 points per game – with the lone loss coming due to an injury-time goal conceded in the 0-1 loss at Villarreal. But 36.6% possession is by far a new low, the first time Klopp's Liverpool have been held under 40%.

Once again, it's any port in a storm, especially in European competition. Liverpool's had done to them what they did to Hoffenheim far more often than the reverse has happened.

And despite that lack of possession, Liverpool still out-shot Hoffenheim, and could have scored more with better finishing of their own, especially from that vaunted front three. I'll almost always take 50% shooting accuracy – especially when compared to Hoffenheim's 30.8% – but Salah, Firmino, and Mané all left chances out there.

Aside from Lovren In The Time of Cholera (© Not Too Xabi) – responsible for the penalty, completely out of position and up the pitch for Gnabry's chance, and playing Uth onside for the goal – Liverpool defended reasonably well. As usual, there's at least one mistake you can point at for each of the four, but I was still pleased, especially with Liverpool's full-backs.

Special mention goes to Alexander-Arnold, who unfortunately stopped playing when assuming offside for Hoffenheim's goal, but was otherwise faultless, and gave Liverpool that indescribably important lead from a free kick which stunned us all. It's been too long since a Scouser scored for Liverpool – since Steven Gerrard in Steven Gerrard's last game, in May of 2015. This one's only 18.

And with that free-kick, Alexander-Arnold joins a short list of players who've scored from that situation over the last five years.



And while they all count in the end, it bears mentioning that both of Henderson's free kicks, as well as Milner's, came from left-wing crosses missed by both attackers and goalkeeper. In matches which ended 6-0, 6-0, and 4-0.

Long may this continue, Trent.

When all's said and done, Hoffenheim hadn't lost at home since the final day of 2015-16, unbeaten at the Rhein-Neckar through all of 2016-17, with 11 wins and six draws. By hook and crook and talent and luck, Liverpool broke that streak.

Liverpool now take an edge – albeit more slender than we'd like, because of failings we've seen in the past – into next week's match. Liverpool still have work to do, but they're in a position we'd have all happily taken prior to kickoff.

14 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Match data from WhoScored and Squawka.




Notate Bene: Without Stats Zone, the passing network I included last season is all but impossible for the way I do these infographics. Sorry. I'll miss them too; hopefully Stats Zone will be back in the future. Also, I have no idea how I'm going to handle Europe this season, because of work, life, etc crunch. Probably infographics the day after, but maybe no writing. We'll see. And while we're on the subject of Europe, no Hoffenheim preview later today because, again, work. I will try not to be a terrible blogger this season but we're not starting out well.


I feel as if I've written this before.

Liverpool conceded early, as they did against Burnley (a), Swansea (a), Stoke (h), Burnley (h), and Bournemouth (a) last season. Three of those four sides finished in the bottom half of the table.

Liverpool conceded from a corner, as they did against Hull (h), Swansea (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Hull (a), Everton (h), and Crystal Palace (h) last season. Three of those five sides finished in the bottom half of the table, West Brom finished 10th, and the other was Everton.

Liverpool conceded late and Liverpool threw away points, as they did against Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (a), United (a), and Bournemouth (h). Bournemouth and United at least finished in the top half of the table.

So, yet again, Liverpool dropped points against a side likely to finish in the bottom half of the table, as they did against West Ham (h), Leicester (a), Palace (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Hull (a), and Sunderland (a). Seven of the ten teams who finished in the bottom half of the table last season.

But there are a couple of differences worth mentioning.

Liverpool failed to take at least 14 shots in nine of the 12 matches against the rest of the top seven, but only three times against the other 13 sides in the division: the 3-4 loss at Bournemouth, the 2-1 win against Burnley, and the 1-0 win at Watford. One match Liverpool should have never lost, one match Liverpool were fairly fortunate to win, and one that Liverpool required an absolutely indescribable moment of brilliance from Emre Can to win. But it might not be coincidence that Watford's on this list, and Saturday also happened.

Liverpool conceded three goals in one game just four times last season: a 4-3 opening day win at Arsenal, 3-4 at Bournemouth, 2-3 v Swansea, and 1-3 at Leicester. The Bournemouth match was the only one where Liverpool had a lead but still lost. That Liverpool have already done so in the first match this season might bode poorly.

The last time Liverpool conceded from two corners in the same match was 2-2 against West Brom in 2015-16. 20 months ago. In Jürgen Klopp's 14th match. That's the only other time it's happened since Klopp became manager, but it also never happened during Brendan Rodgers' little-more-than three seasons.

To be fair, we're not really complaining about Liverpool's attack, at least once it finally got going. They absolutely merited those three goals. 13 of 14 shots from inside the box. 12 of 14 shots from key passes rather than unassisted. An Expected Goals total of somewhere between 2.2 and 2.4, depending on who's calculating, when including Firmino's penalty, which is a xG per shot total vastly better than Liverpool's average last season. A goal for each of Liverpool's first-choice front three: Salah on his debut, Firmino now that he's first-choice on penalties, and the second year in a row that Mané's scored on opening day.

I will, however, complain about one more thing.

Liverpool's midfield was nowhere near good enough on Saturday.

At the most basic, Liverpool's defense and Liverpool's attack took more shots and created more chances. Liverpool's three midfielders all attempted and completed fewer passes and had fewer touches than their averages last season, especially for a match where Liverpool dominated possession for the first 60 minutes. And then they offered little protection or help in the 30 minutes where Watford pressed for and finally got their equalizer. Can gave away the throw-in leading to Watford's second, Henderson completely failed to track Cleverley's run into the box on Watford's second. And I don't really remember anything Wijnaldum did except miss a fairly decent chance in the 86th minute. Oh, and completely messing up an attempted clearing header on the corner for Watford's late equalizer.

Liverpool's early problems going forward from midfield started at the base.



It was not a good day for Liverpool's captain.

• A surprising amount of long passes, although given Mané and Salah's pace, that was probably partly by design.
• A horrific pass accuracy when playing forward and directly.
• 45/65 passes completed – 69% passing accuracy – in open play.
• Only 17 passes – 13 completed – in the opposition half.
• Only one chance created – spread wide to Moreno for his shot tipped over by Gomes in the 64th minute, which was Liverpool's only shot from outside the box.
• And, while it's not passing related, no shots, two of four tackles successful (with none in the middle of the pitch), and only one interception.

I may be mistaken, but I can't remember Henderson with such a low pass accuracy when playing in this role. He's a player who averaged 86% pass accuracy last season, as well as 3.7 successful tackles and 1.7 interceptions per 90 minutes.

He was not Liverpool's only under-performer yesterday – Can only created one chance as well, although it was the assist for Liverpool's opener, as did Wijnaldum, in addition to two poor shots – but he was also nowhere near that player we've become accustomed to. I'm hoping it's mainly because he hasn't played a competitive fixture since early February, but I'm also increasingly worried that this midfield three isn't going to work in matches like these.

And Watford, like so many other sides, knew how they wanted to attack Liverpool. And took just enough advantage.




No one could have guessed they'd want to target Liverpool's left flank. Otherwise known as where Lovren and Moreno play.

To be fair, Lovren and Moreno weren't wholly terrible, and dealt fairly capably with Watford's repeated attacks down that flank. The second goal was obviously an issue, but there were others far more at fault than those two. Still, Watford won't be the last to try to exploit that area.

So, yes, there's a lot to be annoyed about, and a bit to be worried about. A bit to be pleased with as well, but probably more concerns than positives.

And while 3-3 is rarely ever a welcomed result, especially when it happens because you've conceded in the dying seconds, especially when we're complaining about the things we've complained about for months now, sometimes what goes around eventually comes back around. Even if it feels as if it comes back around far too often for Liverpool.

In this fixture last season, Prödl crashed a clear-cut chance off the crossbar in the 94th minute with Liverpool hanging onto a one-goal lead. This time, Britos converted his, albeit from an offside position, albeit arguably interfering with Mignolet.

I'd still prefer it came back around less often.

Those three points at Watford last season rather than one, with three games left, played a crucial part in Liverpool getting fourth place. If forced to choose, I'll take that and then this result.

Because Liverpool still has 37 games in this season to make this right.

12 August 2017

Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Goals:
Okaka 8
Mané 29'
Doucoure 32'
Firmino 55' [pen]
Salah 57'
Britos 90+3'

I can't even anything right now. Football must be back. Liverpool are absolutely back.

It is going to be a long damn season, for both better and worse.

Of course we get a microcosm of Liverpool in the opening match, the full spectrum of Liverpool in the opening match. Last season's first match set the narrative. I truly hope this one doesn't as well.

The first half was basically everything bad away from home against a bottom half side.

A parked bus, a big unit of a striker, and set plays. Conceding within eight minutes, conceding from a corner within eight minutes. The first opposition corner of the season, the first opposition shot of the season, the first opposition goal of the season: a point-blank header inside the six-yard box, indecision from Firmino and Matip as to whose at fault.

After 20 minutes, finally a response, neat interplay between Mané and Can, an even neater finish from Mané. But less than three minutes later, a Watford attack of Liverpool's own making, Cleverley in behind Moreno, a cross that Alexander-Arnold clears off of Matip which falls directly to Doucoure. A couple of daft individual decisions and an unfortunate deflection. And then 13 minutes of futility until halftime, with a couple of good chances but no goal.

But then we got good Liverpool. We got that attack. We got Salah winning a penalty off Firmino's pass within 10 minutes of the restart, easily scored by Firmino. We got Salah's tap-in less than two minutes later: Lovren's well-aimed pass over the top, Firmino in space, a chipped was-it-a-shot-or-pass to the Egyptian. Two clear-cut chances in the space of two minutes and two goals. 57 minutes into the new season and Liverpool's blitzkrieg front three have all scored.

For the next 35 minutes, we get okay Liverpool. A bit too frightening Liverpool, somewhat annoying Liverpool, but seemingly good enough Liverpool. Watford with far too much possession and Liverpool too focused on the counter-attack for comfort, but Liverpool still with all the chances. Between the restart and the 93rd minute, Watford had one shot: Holebas from nowhere not close in the 76th. Liverpool had six: Moreno tipped over, Matip off the crossbar, Lovren saved from a corner, Salah blazing over and into the side netting, and Wijnaldum's errant effort from the top of the box.

Any one of those chances taken – all decent, five of six from inside the box, but four of six off-target – seals the match.

Liverpool need one of those chances. Liverpool will probably always need to take at least one of those chances. Because three minutes into the five of added time, bad Liverpool happens.

It all starts from the injury time substitution. Which probably isn't fair, at least to the player coming on, but I'm far from fair and far from caring right now.

So, Joe Gomez replaces Trent Alexander-Arnold. I understand wanting to waste 30 seconds, but why change the defense? Why not Wijnaldum or Mané? And, of course, within 30 seconds, Gomez commits a soft foul deep on the right flank. The free kick's cleared, but Watford immediately regroup with Liverpool scrambling into shape, and Mignolet has to save Britos' blast from the top of the box.

And then the corner. Another corner. Another delivery towards the six-yard box from the player who assisted Watford's opener. Wijnaldum's missed header sets up Richarlison. Mignolet's flap leads to Britos heading in on the goal kick. Britos is arguably offside. Britos is absolutely interfering with Mignolet. There's a decision Liverpool's way in there somewhere, but it's ignored by both referee and linesman. And Watford are level. And Liverpool have thrown away points late in the game, as happened in four matches against bad teams last season, three of them away from home: Bournemouth twice, Sunderland, and Manchester United.

Arsenal snatch three points with two goals in the final ten minutes yesterday. Liverpool drop two. It's one of 38 here, but that bodes poorly.

You know what bodes even more poorly? Four Watford shots on-target, three Watford goals. Four Watford shots from inside the six-yard box, three Watford goals. Three Watford clear-cut chances – compared to two for Liverpool, and one of those was a penalty – three Watford goals. Three Watford corners, two Watford goals.

One game in, and we seemingly have all the proof we need that Liverpool really will have to outscore everyone to win, because that defense is going to try to kill us all season long. Meet the new season, same as the old season.

Liverpool scored three and failed to win just once last season: that away match at Bournemouth, where Liverpool somehow contrived to throw away a 3-1 lead in the final 15 minutes. At least this wasn't that?

But this obviously wasn't good enough. And we all know why.

And we're all increasingly less convinced that Liverpool will ever be able to consistently fix it.

11 August 2017

Liverpool at Watford 08.12.17

7:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 05.01.17
6-1 Liverpool (h) 11.06.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 05.08.16
0-3 Watford (a) 12.20.15

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Athletic (n); 1-1 Atletico aet [4-5 pens] (n); 3-0 Bayern (a)
Watford: 0-0 Sociedad (h); 0-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Eibar (n)

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Alexander-Arnold Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

Hey, football's back! If nothing else, it'll be a welcomed respite from the summer transfer window.

Yes, yes, Coutinho wants to leave. That sucks. Can't do anything else except take FSG at their word and assume he's not getting sold for any price, and hope he responds as Luis Suarez responded after the Great Arsenal Release Clause Fiasco of 2013.

Let's worry about the football instead. It's a much more tangible worry.

Coutinho wasn't likely to play tomorrow any due to a back injury (yes, you can put back injury in sarcastic quotation marks if you'd like, it makes no difference to the situation). Neither will Sturridge, Lallana, or Clyne.

We've yet to start the season and Liverpool will be missing two absolutely certain starters, one starter-if-anyone's-missing-in-the front-five, and one of Liverpool's best attacking replacements.

This bodes ominously.

With those four absent, the line-up pretty much writes itself, at least in 10 of 11 positions. The only other question is at left-back: whether Klopp sticks with ol' reliable Milner, rewards Moreno for his preseason performances, or goes with the new signing. It's probably going to be Milner, at least in the beginning, and I'd hope that Andrew Robertson makes the position his own by the end of the season, but, screw it, I'm guessing Moreno, for how much possession Liverpool's going to have, for his pace, for how he's looked over the last month, for his potential partnership with Sadio Mané on that flank, and, admittedly, for the LOLs.

Despite all the hand-wringing and absentees and THE SKY IS FALLING, Liverpool still have that front three. This will be Mohamed Salah's full debut, and he'll have it alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Liverpool have a reasonably secure and reasonably dynamic midfield, although it's okay to worry about the creativity without Coutinho and Lallana.

With that front six, even considering who's missing, and considering how Liverpool's defense ended last season, there should be reason for optimism. I know that's hard for us.

But Watford's more than ready to bring Liverpool back down to earth. A side that beat Liverpool 3-0 the first time they hosted Jürgen Klopp's side, in arguably Liverpool's worst performance of 2015-16. A fixture which Liverpool narrowly won last season thanks to Emre Can's unrepeatable acrobatics and Seb Prödl missing a clear-cut chance in second-half injury time. The type of side with the type of style which so often frustrates Liverpool. A new manager who embarrassed Liverpool last season, in charge for Hull's hilariously awful 2-0 win in February.

Watford have had a fairly busy summer – beside Marco Silva in the dugout, they've added Andre Gray and Richarlison up front, Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes in midfield, Kiko Femenia at right-back, and Daniel Bachmann as Gomes' understudy in goal.

If preseason is any indication, tomorrow's XI seems likely to be a mix of old and new. Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Doucoure, Chalobah; Richarlison, Cleverley, Pereyra; Gray.

Watford have options. Prödl could start at center-back, Kiko Femenia at right-back. We could see either Capoue or Hughes in midfield, either part of the deeper two or as the more advanced. There's Amrabat or Success if Richarlison's not ready. There's Stefano Okaka or Jerome Sinclair if Andre Gray's not.

Club captain Troy Deeney will, however, miss out through injury, while both Cathcart and Kabasele are questionable.

This is probably Watford's strongest squad in years. That's a diligent, deep, and rugged back-line, and similar goes for the two defensive midfielders. Pereyra's incredibly tricky, and Richarlison's billed similarly. Andre Gray has punished Liverpool before in an early season away fixture.

As happened 12 months ago, Liverpool need to start as they mean to continue. They laid down a marker at Arsenal, a raucous 4-3 which highlighted both Liverpool's scoring prowess and defensive insecurity, and also foretold Liverpool's unbeaten run against the rest of the top seven that season.

Tomorrow, Liverpool can demonstrate that they're capable of winning more these matches this season, the ones we so often worried about last season. They can put themselves in the correct stead and mindset for Tuesday's oh-so-important Champions League qualifier.

They can show that, for all the drama over the last couple of months, this is still Liverpool, dammit, and Liverpool will be again be a force to be reckoned with this season.

Football's back. Don't make us regret it.

08 August 2017

Liverpool Season Preview 2017-18

Liverpool should be entering this season on a high.

Liverpool took 76 points last season, 16 more than the season before, their second-highest points total since the Rafa Benitez era.

Liverpool finished fourth last season, in an incredibly difficult league, and will be in the Champions League proper this season if they get past Hoffenheim in the playoffs later this month.

Liverpool's underlying statistics suggest they absolutely merited that fourth-place finish last season. They were one of the league's best attacks, one which should be even better this season. Of course, they were also too often terrifying in defense despite strong shot suppression numbers.

Liverpool stormed through preseason, scoring 16 and conceding just three, never once playing what we'd guess as the first-choice XI when real football actually begins. They were technically unbeaten, only losing to Atletico Madrid in the Audi Cup final on penalties, and also won the Premier League Asia Trophy. The highlight was a 3-0 thumping of Bayern Munich on Bayern Munich's own ground, and yes, it's preseason, but it's also still further proof that this Liverpool side is quite good against other quite good sides. Not that that was anywhere near the top on our list of concerns.


But Liverpool doesn't seem to be entering the season on a high. At least not according to the majority of Liverpool supporters who populate the internet. Because, as per usual, the sky is falling.


Everyone Loves Transfer Windows

With the season starting in just four days, Liverpool have added just three players. One exceptionally talented attacker, one defensive signing in a necessary position, and one surprisingly promising young striker.


But Liverpool have also missed out on two of their top three targets, at least so far. RB Leipzig refuses to consider selling Naby Keita, despite Liverpool reportedly offering something in the region of double the club's record transfer fee. Virgil van Dijk remains a possibility considering his transfer request on Monday, but even if it happens – and that's still a rather substantial if – it's a deal that should have been done more than a month ago, and seemingly would have been had Liverpool not maladroitly attempted to tap him up.


Had Liverpool already signed those two players, this would be a very different preview.

And it appears that if Liverpool can't get those two targets, Liverpool are happy to keep their money in the bank and go with the squad they have.



At this point last season, Liverpool had brought in seven players and sold ten. So far, Liverpool have added just three – as well as Flanagan and Ward returning from loan – and have sold just three, with Randall already loaned, Ojo likely to be, and Manninger having retired. It's not quite three in, three out, as those coming in are almost certain to play a lot more minutes than the three departing, and play in different positions. Also, I had honestly forgotten that Andre Wisdom was still technically a Liverpool player.

The lack of turnover is not a bad thing. Liverpool added seven players in the summer of 2016. Liverpool added seven players in the summer of 2015. Liverpool added nine players in the summer of 2014. There has been an insane amount of change over the last few years. Last season's Liverpool was one of their best in the last decade, and a bit of stability isn't unwarranted.



18 of Liverpool's 27 most-likely squad players have or will have debuted within the last three seasons, including six of Saturday's likely starting XI. Liverpool's longest serving player had played just 50 games, and probably won't add many to that total this season. Jordan Henderson's the only player with more than 200 appearances for the club. Lucas Leiva, just sold this summer, had more than twice as many Liverpool appearances than every other player bar Henderson, Coutinho, and Mignolet. That will probably still be the case next season, too.

And this is still a fairly young team; last season, only Southampton and Tottenham had a younger average age. It's a Liverpool side that's just now entering its peak years.



There are two players older than 30 in this squad: Ragnar Klavan and James Milner. Both Mignolet and Lallana will turn 30 late in the season.

It is time for this team to settle. And prove what they can do in the prime of their careers.


That said, there's always room for improvement, and a couple of positions in need of upgrading. And we all remember how a title challenge turned into a race for top four during the winter because of injuries, absences, squad depth, and fixture congestion.


Squad Depth



Yes, midfield and wide forward might be understaffed. Probably are understaffed. Liverpool have a lot of players capable of playing in these positions, but they're potentially needed in other areas, and better in other areas. If both Mané and Salah miss out, Firmino's moved wide or Coutinho's moved forward. Sturridge, Origi, and Ings can all work from wider positions if absolutely necessary, but it's certainly not ideal. If both Henderson and Can miss out, Liverpool are reliant on Wijnaldum or Milner dropping deeper. Which, again, certainly doesn't seem ideal.

Incidentally, two of the three players sold this summer were holding midfielders, with one of those two also starting ten matches (six in the league, four in the cups) at center-back.

And center-back remains my biggest concern. By some distance. Maybe there's still hope for Virgil van Dijk, and he'd be an outstanding addition, but I remain convinced that Liverpool need someone, anyone. Liverpool currently have just four players capable of playing center-back. Matip's great. But the other three are the oldest player in the squad, a 20-year-old with 10 Liverpool appearances (the majority at right-back) who's missed big chunks of the last two seasons with injury, and Dejan Lovren.

Dejan Lovren has missed at least nine league games, if not more, in all three of his Liverpool seasons. Somehow, he has the exact amount of appearances as Alberto Moreno, having signed in the same summer, with Moreno barely even getting to look at the pitch last season.

P.S. – this is not license to start talking about Mamadou Sakho as if "Mamadou Sakho, Liverpool player" is a concept based anywhere near reality. You're just gonna get yourself all worked up for no reason.

We're already seeing some of these concerns bear out. Lallana's out for two or three months, Clyne apparently for a couple of weeks, and Henderson, Coutinho, and Sturridge all missed the last friendly with minor issues. And while, yes, preseason, the starting XI was a bit frightening: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Grujic, Can, Milner; Salah, Origi, Firmino. The team looks a bit better when adding Wijnaldum and Mané – who came on in the second half – but it's barely August and we're already fretting over injuries and depth.

That's not the best sign.

At a minimum, Liverpool are playing 48 games this season. 38 in the league, eight in Europe (two qualifiers and six in the group stage, whether it's in the Champions League or Europa League), and one in each domestic cup. And that's highly unlikely. You'd except Liverpool to win at least a couple of domestic cup matches, and at least get to the first knockout stage of the Europa League, whether by losing in the CL playoff round and progressing through the EL group stage or by finishing third in their Champions League group.


Liverpool played 47 matches last season.



Formation and First-Choice XI



We're pretty sure what formation Liverpool will be playing in the majority of those 48+ matches. The same formation we saw in almost every match last season, the same we saw in almost every moment this preseason.

And Liverpool have a very, very strong first XI. From basically front-to-back.

When everyone's fit, the attack is beyond reproach. I'll put it up against anyone in the league. Even Manchester City. Even Chelsea. The midfield's got a bit of everything: creativity, passing, tackling, dribbling, and players capable of scoring from both inside and outside of the box. Yes, the defense remains concerning. Lovren and Matip each have their issues, but were good together last season when they actually had a consistent run of games. Left-back is up for grabs – Milner will probably be first up, but I expect Robertson to make the position his own as the season goes on, and those two plus a rehabilitated Moreno should be enough cover. Similar can be said for the goalkeeping position. In theory, Karius has the most tools and the most room to grow, but there can and probably will be brain farts, and we can't forget how crucial Mignolet was in last season's run-in.

When there are more than a few players absent, well, *gulps, tugs collar*. But, to be fair, that's the case for almost every side in the division.

With five strikers on the books – as long as Sturridge and Ings are healthy, as long as Solanke and Origi continue to progress – a 4-4-2 formation seems a reasonable alternative if the squad becomes stretched.



Either way, Liverpool are going to attack. Liverpool are going to press. Liverpool are very much built for both of these traits. Liverpool are going to make it hard for the opposition to get shots, and hopefully Liverpool will make it harder for the opposition to get goals. Practice may well eventually make perfect.

Liverpool will have a lot of possession against 13 or so teams in the league, and will need to be better at breaking them down. Mo Salah should absolutely help with that, Coutinho in midfield should absolutely help with that. Liverpool will look to counter, thrust, and absolutely dagger the other five or six, just as they did last season.

To a certain extent, we know – and the opposition knows – what we're getting with Liverpool.


Oh, yeah, there are other teams too

And it's not as if the opposition's stood still. Chelsea have added Morata, Bakayoko, and Rüdiger, ostensibly an improvement in attack, midfield, and defense to last season's title winners. City have added Mendy, Walker, Bernardo Silva, Ederson, and Danilo, rebuilding the full-back position, fixing the weak spot in goal, and adding yet another attacking midfielder. Arsenal now have Lacazette. United now have Lukaku, as well as Matic and Lindelof, three more orcs for Mourinho's horde. Everton spent their Lukaku money on Pickford, Klassen, Michael Keane, and Sandro, and are still making cooing noises at The Gylfi. Only Tottenham haven't added anyone, yet, and it's not as if that team needs much work.

The Top 6, Top 7 if we're being charitable, gets stronger and stronger every season. But matches against their peers aren't where Liverpool have struggled. Sides that already gave Liverpool issues last season will be better too. Leicester added Iheanacho. Bournemouth added Ake, Begovic, and Defoe – two of whom scored against Liverpool last season. West Ham's got Arnautovic, Chicharito, and Joe Hart. Etc, etc, etc.

And there will be no easy stretches of games next season, whether it's the Champions League play-off followed by Arsenal and City in the next month; a back-to-back against United and Tottenham with Europe sandwiched in-between in October; a festive schedule against bottom-half sides, but with two matches against teams who beat Liverpool last season; or a trip to Chelsea in May with hopefully all still to play for.

I would appreciate the Premier League not being this good of a league.


In conclusion, Libya is a land of, wait, I made this joke last season

But the sky is not falling. And the internet being reactionary should be news to no one.

Sure, there are some genuine fears and complaints. But the complaints and fears aside, warranted or unwarranted, Liverpool do have a lot to be optimistic about. Liverpool were really good at times last season, and Liverpool still have all the players responsible for it. Mohamed Salah is one of the best signings any side's made this summer.

And Liverpool still have Jürgen Klopp, one of the best managers in the world, whose Dortmund team made the leap from fifth to first in Klopp's third season. Dortmund's goals scored total rose by 13 that campaign, and goals conceded total dropped by 20 – and that was with adding only one defender, a right-back, in that summer window.

This Liverpool side is a settled side, one that should be entering its peak years, with a settled style.

Everything may not be as perfect as we'd like it. This summer hasn't been wholly ideal. But the sky is not falling. And this should still be a very good team that has a very good season.

18 July 2017

On Lucas Leiva

The inevitable finally happens. After 10 seasons at the club – Liverpool's longest serving player by some distance – Lucas is moving to Lazio for a rumored £5m. It's a day long in coming, a day filled with happy memories, but also a day filled with regret. And sadness.

And with a couple of what-ifs.

What if Lucas Leiva scores on his league debut, coming on as a substitute for Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside Derby at Everton with the score 1-1? A goal-bound shot in added time, saved on the line by Phil Neville's handball. Dirk Kuyt scored the resulting penalty for Liverpool's win, but I still wonder if Lucas' career would've turned out differently had he been the hero.

More meaningfully, what if Lucas doesn't blow out his ACL in a League Cup match against Chelsea in November 2011? He's in the best form of his career after nearly being sold in the summer of 2010 by Roy Hodgson, notably dominant in the previous match, a 1-1 draw against eventual league winners Manchester City. He's the linchpin of Liverpool's midfield under Kenny Dalglish, a side finally returning to form after the Hodgson horrors. And it wasn't a stepped-wrong, would-probably-have-eventually-happened-regardless injury. It came from contact: first, a bad foul from Ramires, then a collision with Mata less than a minute later. In a League Cup match, more than an hour in, with the tie all but won. And Liverpool's medical staff sent him back on to play for three more minutes before he finally came off, unable to get off of Chelsea's pitch under his own weight.

That season, and the season before, Lucas might not have been Liverpool's best player, but there was a case to be made that he was Liverpool's most important. Gerrard had been dealing with injuries, and would do so off and on for all of 2011-12. Lucas' back-ups were Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing. Jordan Henderson, signed that summer, was used as a tucked-in winger as often as an orthodox central midfielder. So, unsurprisingly, Liverpool are notably worse without him, for the rest of the season. Liverpool end the campaign as League Cup winners and FA Cup runners-up, but finish eighth in the league. And Kenny Dalglish gets fired.

And, honestly, Lucas is never the same player again.

Lucas played more than 2800 Premier League minutes in each of the two seasons before that ACL injury, making 32 league starts in both campaigns. He never played more than 2000 league minutes in a season again.

Nevertheless, Lucas ends his Liverpool career with 346 appearances, the 46th-most all-time. He's 6th in Premier League appearances – behind only Carragher, Gerrard, Hyypiä, Reina, and Fowler.

Since World War II, there have been only four non-British or Irish Liverpool players to last at least 10 years with the club. Lucas Leiva is one. The others are Bruce Grobbelaar, Jan Mølby, and Sami Hyypiä. Grobbelaar, Hyypiä, Pepe Reina, and John Arne Riise are the only non-British or non-Irish players with more Liverpool appearances than Lucas Leiva.

Lucas has made the most Premier League appearances of any Brazilian player. Nobby Solano and Antonio Valencia are the only South American players with more than Lucas.

That's some company.

And no one could or would have predicted it ten years ago.



Incidentally, Lucas made his debut in the same match as Sebastian Leto: a 4-0 win over Toulouse in the Champions League qualifying round. Leto started. Lucas came on as a substitute, replacing Momo Sissoko. Leto made just four appearances for Liverpool, none in the league, mainly due to work permit problems. I'm fairly certain most would have expected Leto to do more in a Liverpool shirt than Lucas Leiva would.

Lucas would have to wait three months to make his first Premier League start.



There are some fun names in those two sides. And some very good players. It is safe to say he's seen quite a bit of change over the last 10 seasons.









It has been an eventual 10 seasons. As I suspect you remember.

Lucas has played alongside just shy of 120 different Liverpool players. For five different managers. Five very different managers: Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers, and Jürgen Klopp.

He came billed as a Bola de Ouro-winning box-to-box midfielder – taking the Brazilian league award a year after Carlos Tevez won it – then grew into an at-times-dominant defensive midfielder after a period of adjustment, and finished his tenure as a reserve splitting time between holding midfielder and center-back.

From young golden hope, to scapegoat, to under-appreciated internet darling, to one of the first names on the teamsheet, to useful squad player, to cagey veteran, to cult hero.

From this:



To this:



Time makes fools of us all.

He remains a still-valuable member of the squad, if only for his presence in the dressing room and institutional memory. Sure, he's still more than capable of putting in good games, even if it's mixed with poor ones and mistakes. One week, he'd stuff Harry Kane in his pocket. The next, he's being beaten all ends up by Jamie Vardy. He'd become serviceable but not great at both defensive midfielder and center-back, and he's probably not good enough to play more than a few games at either position in a side being built to compete for the Premier League title.

But, at this point in his career, it seemed the legacy that mattered more. He was the last player signed by Rafa Benitez still at the club. He made it through both Hicks and Gillett, and Roy Hodgson. He played a fairly substantial role in two of the best Liverpool sides in the last 25 years, and played for the side which tallied Liverpool's lowest points total in a league campaign since the switch to three points for a win (which, coincidentally, was Lucas' ACL injury season). He'd become a Liverpool fixture, wholly understanding both club and city. At the absolute least, I suspect he was crucial in helping Coutinho and Firmino adjust to life at Liverpool. And, I mean, the man did this. "Unluckeeeeeeee" will live long in the memory.

Liverpool's longest serving player is now Liverpool's captain: Jordan Henderson, who joined the club in June 2011. Who has made 107 fewer appearances for Liverpool than Lucas Leiva. Who is still only 27 years old. And who also embarrassed himself in all sorts of ways in that "Unluckeeee" video, but that's not really here nor there.

For better and for worse, one of the youngest sides in the league has gotten even younger.

To be fair, it's time for Lucas to move on. Long past time if you believe some, but the right time in my opinion. That doesn't make it any less sad. But I'm still proud that Lucas Leiva played 10 seasons for Liverpool. I'm still delighted that Liverpool didn't sell him in 2010, or 2014, or 2016. Lucas Leiva still is, and will always be, one of my favorite under-loved Liverpool players from the last 15 years, alongside Agger, alongside Kuyt.

Also, hey, Liverpool, when's the testimonial? You really need to get on that. It's embarrassing that it hasn't already happened.

Obrigado e boa sorte, Lucas.