23 July 2016

On Georginio Wijnaldum

Liverpool now have its seventh signing since Jürgen Klopp became manager. Liverpool now have its second £20m+ signing of the summer. And after months of speculation and multiple names mooted, Liverpool now have a new midfielder.

Welcome to Liverpool, Georginio Wijnaldum.

Most importantly, like Sadio Mané – and, at least so far in preseason, Marko Grujic – Wijnaldum provides goals from midfield. He scored 11 last season, including one penalty, which was a quarter of Newcastle's total. Liverpool need goals. More goals. All the goals. Especially from midfield: Milner scored five last season, Henderson and Allen two, and Can just one.

Yes, Wijnaldum scored six of his 11 in two matches: four against Norwich and two against Tottenham on the last day of the season. Yes, Wijnaldum failed to score between mid-January and mid-May, with Newcastle mired in its struggle against relegation. Yes, Wijnaldum scored all of his goals at St. James' Park.

I'm willing to chalk that up to Newcastle being a bad team. Maybe it's more out of hope than fact. The record away from home is the most forgivable. Newcastle scored 73% of their total goals at St. James' Park. Bad teams are usually dramatically better at home. It's not unreasonable to assume Wijnaldum will be better away from home in a better team. It's not unreasonable to assume Wijnaldum will simply be better in a better team.



So many runs into the box from deep, in position to convert from crosses, cut-backs, knock-downs, and lay-offs. That's exactly what Liverpool need from midfield.

It's notable that four of his goals – four of the first five he scored last season – came from headers, despite being a 5'9" midfielder. But that's more evidence of the clever positions he takes up on the pitch and in attack. Because, like Sadio Mané, Wijnaldum gets a lot of goals by getting into good shooting positions.





Only two Liverpool players with 10 or more shots in the league last year took a higher percentage from inside the box than Wijnaldum: Benteke and Skrtel. Benteke's a center-forward reliant on headers. All of Skrtel's shots came from set plays.

Incidentally, only three Liverpool players took more shots in total than Wijnaldum's 54: Coutinho, Firmino, and Benteke.

More importantly, compare Wijnaldum's proportion to Liverpool's other midfielders, whether attacking or central. Attacking midfielders? Firmino 61.9% inside the box, Lallana 61.4%, Ibe 44.8%, Coutinho 37.8%. Central midfielders? Allen 66.7% (just 12 shots), Milner 48.7%, Can 33.3%, Henderson 30.8%.

Liverpool took 629 shots last season, more than any other side but Tottenham. But just 53.9% of Liverpool's shots came from inside the box. Only five teams – Watford, Swansea, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, and Stoke – took a lower proportion of their shots from inside the box.

It is harder for Liverpool players to find space inside the opposition's penalty box than for Newcastle players, just because of how deep most opposition defenders were against Liverpool. Sit back, stay compact, keep Liverpool out. And Liverpool will eventually begin frustratedly firing from any and all angles. Time and time again last season. But lesser teams sit deep against Arsenal, Manchester City, etc. and those sides didn't have the same problem getting shots from inside the box that Liverpool routinely had. So Liverpool need to add players ready, willing, and able to look for and get those shots.

Yes, it will be harder for Wijnaldum to find that space next season, but that he's always trying to do so, and at least capable of doing so, remains a very crucial element which this Liverpool squad has needed.



Wijnaldum's also incredibly versatile – just like Sadio Mané. He can play in a two- or three-man central midfield, as a #10, or on the left flank. His best performances last season came as the #10, but I suspect he'll be much more of a central midfielder at Liverpool, a box-to-box player ahead of Henderson, Can, Lucas, etc, making the late runs into the box that Liverpool have so desperately lacked. Liverpool have the players in attack – Firmino, Coutinho, Mané, Lallana, even Ojo and maybe Markovic if need be. Liverpool assuredly need more in central midfield, especially after Allen's inevitable exit.

Still, a variety of options are a great problem to have, especially since Liverpool will certainly use a smaller squad this season, something already pointed out by the manager.

     

I'm admittedly a bit concerned about Wijnaldum's ability to play in a deeper position, just because he didn't do it as often or as effectively for Newcastle. His defensive profile is closer to Firmino and Coutinho rather than Allen, Henderson, Can, or even Lallana. But Klopp's seemingly not; after ostensibly chasing Dahoud and Zielinski, this is the player that Liverpool decided on, and are happy to pay £25m for. And, to be fair, Wijnaldum has done in more often and effectively for the Netherlands (pay no attention to the Netherlands failing to qualify for Euro 2016).

And like Sadio Mané (are you sensing a trend here?), Wijnaldum is entering the prime of his career, 25, to turn 26 in four months. Liverpool, with one of the youngest squads in the league over the last two seasons, are finally entering their prime, and Liverpool's two star summer signings fit directly into that demographic.



These are the 22 players I'd consider as Liverpool's most important, those who'll see the vast majority of next season's minutes. Others will assuredly feature – there will be domestic cups and injuries, and I still expect Liverpool to sign one more player to challenge Moreno at left-back – but these will be on the pitch most often, especially since Liverpool are without European competition. In 2013-14, the last time Liverpool just had domestic football, only 16 players saw at least 700 minutes in the league.

12 of these 22 players are between the ages of 24 and 27. In or entering their prime. Including the two players than Klopp signed for £20m+ this summer.

It's time for Liverpool to grow up, and this summer's additions – except for Grujic's potential, Klavan taking Toure's role, and Manninger basically signed to be the new goalkeeping coach – fit right into that category.


The contradictory narrative is that Wijnaldum is yet another over-priced PL player who played well against Liverpool. So many signed since FSG took over, whether by Dalglish, Rodgers, or Klopp. Liverpool fail to get Götze, so Liverpool go for the PL-proven Mané. Liverpool fail to get Dahoud or Zielinski, so Liverpool go for Wijnaldum.

I do not care. Those deals are old deals. This is a different manager who's working off what appears to be a cohesive plan. Who's adding the type of players that Liverpool need to add, in the age range that Liverpool should be working in. Jürgen Klopp's already done enough to get the benefit of the doubt, at the absolute least.

Georginio Wijnaldum provides Liverpool with mobility, versatility, shots in the box, and goals from midfield. He's already shown more than competence in the Premier League but still has the potential to do so much more. That's what I'm focusing on. That's all I'm focusing on.

Next season's shaping up very nicely.

28 June 2016

On Sadio Mané

This could be a very short article. It won't be, because I can't help myself, but this seems quite simple.

Liverpool need a wide player who can add goals. Liverpool need a more direct attacker, a fast attacker who can stretch defenses and run in behind defenders. Liverpool need that attacker to be flexible: to be comfortable on either flank or centrally. Liverpool need that player to fit into Liverpool's current system: specifically, the ability to press from the front, to work non-stop both with and without the ball.

Sadio Mané is every single one of those things. Pay no attention to the fee. Pay no attention to the club he's coming from. They're incidental.

Mané is 24, two months older than Coutinho, six months younger than Firmino. He scored 15 goals last season, more than any Liverpool player, with 11 in the Premier League last season, also more than any Liverpool player. And I suspect you remember that four of those goals came against Liverpool.

Only eight players have scored 10-or-more league goals in the last two Premier League seasons: Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa, Olivier Giroud, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Graziano Pelle, Alexis Sanchez, and Sadio Mané.

Liverpool need goals.





There's a bit of almost everything in his goals last season. He runs behind defenders, he twists away from defenders, he poaches. He gets on the end of throughballs and crosses and second balls. He gets into the penalty box, from all angles. Seven right-footed, six left-footed, two headers. All except his first goal of the season, in a Europa League qualifier against Vitesse Arnhem (which, for some reason, isn't in the above video) came from inside the box.



Statistically, everything's good (if not great) except Mané's passing and possession loss, and more than comparable to Liverpool's current first-choice attackers. But one thing stands out.

Partly by design, partly because of the way defenses lined up against Liverpool, and partly because of the players involved, Liverpool took too many shots from outside the box last season. 290 of Liverpool's 629 shots in the league came from outside the box (46.1%), but only 13 of Liverpool's 63 goals. Unsurprisingly, Coutinho was the worst offender.

That's not where Mané shoots from. 76.7% of his 86 Premier League shots – and all 11 of his goals – came from inside the box, a vastly higher proportion that any of Liverpool's attacking midfielders. That's exactly the type of player that Liverpool needed to add this summer.

Admittedly, Mané's chance creation is concerning. He's not far behind Coutinho, Lallana, or Firmino's assists per 90 minutes, but his key passes and throughballs are vastly lower, as is his successful passes per 90. However, Mané's not necessarily there to create. He wasn't for Southampton, and he probably won't be for Liverpool. He's the one who gets on the end of throughballs from Coutinho, Firmino, and Lallana.

The possession loss is less concerning, a combined metric of unsuccessful touches and being dispossessed by the opposition. That's the price of being a tricky dribbler who wants to run with the ball, and it's still not much worse than Coutinho or Lallana, and barely better than Firmino.

It was too easy for defenses to sit deep against Liverpool last season. Drop into the defensive third, get in front of Coutinho, Lallana, and Firmino, and just stifle the hell out of the match. All three of those attackers are very good players who I like having at Liverpool, but it was too easy to frustrate them, with the end result too many shots from distance and too few goals scored. That's why Origi was so valuable upon returning from injury, that's why Sheyi Ojo got games at the end of the campaign. Mané simply makes it much, much harder for defenses to play that way.

Right now, it seems most likely that Mané replaces Lallana in the starting XI. Which is amusing, as Mané was signed to replace Lallana at Southampton. It's the circle of life. But make no mistake, Lallana will start games. There will be injuries, and even without Europe, there will be cup matches. Lallana proved himself a vital part of Klopp's system over the second half of the season with his pressing and combination play and work rate. Liverpool still need that. Lallana's biggest failing was his lack of goals. This signing's meant to remedy that.



Plus, it's not as if Mané always has to play on the right. He played centrally and on the right for Southampton last season, and mainly on the right in 2014-15, but often features on the left for Senegal, which is also where he usually played when at Red Bull Salzburg. He's right-footed, but scores with both feet. He can play anywhere along Liverpool's line of three attackers, on either flank if Liverpool play 4-3-3, in the hole or as a striker if Liverpool play 4-Diamond-2, or as a false nine as Firmino did last season.

Goals, pace, pressing, versatility. That's why I don't care about the fee, and that's why I don't care what club Liverpool bought him from.

But yes, the Southampton jokes are inevitable. Five players. Somewhere around £95-100m in transfer fees over the last three years. Yes, it's weird. Yes, it's very easy to mock. Just take the players and the deals individually. Clyne was excellent last season. Lallana probably cost too much, but has become a valuable player under Klopp. Lovren's slowly become a competent defender and will almost certainly be first-choice next season. Lambert was a bad signing, but for what, £4.5m? Whatever. For the most part, these have been okay to decent to actually good signings.

And there's the fee, and the "Premier League-proven" gripe. They're overpriced. They don't always settle quicker than players from foreign leagues. Buying from mid-table sides makes you a mid-table club. Again, there's a bit of truth to it. But there's also the fact that prices have skyrocketed, both domestically and internationally, thanks to the new TV deal, and that Liverpool don't have the allure of Champions League football next season.

Maybe Sadio Mané's not one of the "big names" that fans want to see signed. He's not coming from a foreign league. He's not Mario Götze. Which is too bad, but Mario Götze didn't want to come to Liverpool. So be it.

The alpha and the omega of this transfer is that Sadio Mané brings qualities to the Liverpool squad that Liverpool desperately lacked last season. Sadio Mané meshes with Liverpool's current style and system.

Sadio Mané fits.

25 May 2016

On Loris Karius

You have no idea how tempted I am to just post nothing but pictures of Loris Karius. Well, if you follow me on Twitter, maybe you do.

That's slightly a disservice to Liverpool's new #1, Klopp's third signing since taking over. Only slightly.







Both played 34 league games. Both conceded 42 goals. Loris Karius faced a lot, lot more shots than Simon Mignolet.



Mignolet still somehow gets by on his "shot-shopper" reputation, which is supposed to make up for his shaky command of the penalty box, mediocre-at-best distribution, and propensity for errors.

There aren't may shot-stoppers who average 63.1% save percentage, better than only Rob Elliott, Brad Guzan, and John Ruddy for regular goalkeepers in last season's Premier League. And he wasn't much better the two seasons before, saving 67.4% and 67.5% of shots faced in the Premier League.

Karius saved 74.4% last season, and in fewer games, 75.3% of the shots faced in 2014-15 and 76.2% in 2013-14.

Karius saved higher percentage of shots on-target in total, Danger Zone shots, Wide Box shots, and Outside the Box shots. He saved a higher percentage of Clear Cut Chances, as well as two of the seven penalties he faced (three scored, two missed). In every conceivable "shot-stopping" metric, Karius was better last season, and often by a healthy margin.

Command of the penalty box? Karius made 81 successful claims last season with just one failed claim, as well as 16 punches. Mignolet made 74 successful claims, but failed on nine (by far the most in the league), as well as 17 punches. Karius isn't the most awe-inspiring, just about average for Bundesliga keepers, but average remains better than Liverpool have done in the last few seasons. Especially last season.

Distribution? Mignolet has a higher pass accuracy (60.6% versus 54.1%) but that doesn't quantify a) Mainz's very different playing style or b) how many times I've screamed at the television as Mignolet holds onto the ball for five seconds while the opposition retreats into position before he plays a safe pass which gets Liverpool nowhere.

Defensive errors? Karius made three last season, none leading to a goal. Mignolet made six – joint-most in the league – four of which led to a goal.

There are disclaimers, because there are always disclaimers. Karius is only 22 (for one more month) – both a good and bad thing – and while he spent a little more than two years in Manchester City's academy (no, he doesn't count as a homegrown player), he's never played in the Premier League. A league where teams play a lot more crosses and defenders get away with a lot more contact.

More notably, and probably painfully, I hesitate to remind that I wrote similar three years ago. "Wow, look at this younger keeper who's saved a bunch of shots, including more shots in dangerous positions, compared to Liverpool's current mistake-prone keeper who faced a lot less shots and has gotten worse in each of the last three seasons." Mignolet's save percentage and error frequency in his last two seasons at Sunderland is almost exactly the same as Karius' last two for Mainz. And then the Simon Mignolet Era happened. So, caveat emptor, etc.

Do we blame Rodgers for Mignolet's decline? The difference in playing, and defending, style? Liverpool's ever-changing, often-disappointing defense? The presence of Martin Skrtel, whether or not he's playing? Unfireable, unkillable, will-be-here-with-the-cockroaches-and-Keith-Richards-after-the-nuclear-armageddon goalkeeping coach John Achterberg?

Yeah, probably those things too. And, hopefully, Liverpool will also upgrade on both defenders and goalkeeping coach this summer. Both are very much needed, and Liverpool have already started with the free transfer signing of Jöel Matip. Goalkeeper is a tough position. Good goalkeepers go through baffling swoons, mediocre goalkeepers all of a sudden play their faces off (often, amazingly, against Liverpool). Predicting how goalkeepers will play, and react to a new side and style, is not easy.

The short version is that Klopp signed his first-choice goalkeeping target, from a club and league he's very familiar with. Liverpool will pay all of £4.7m as a transfer fee, just about half of what Mignolet cost. Karius' wages will almost certainly be no more than Bogdan's, if not lower, as Bogdan signed as a free transfer. Karius has a lot of time to adjust to Liverpool, and the league, at only 22 years old. And it's only May 25.

It's a start to what'll be a very important summer for Liverpool. And it's a damned handsome start.

23 May 2016

Liverpool Goals Scored and Conceded 2015-16





Here are similar versions from 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15.

98 goals scored in all competitions isn't bad! 63 goals scored in the league isn't bad! Sure, it ain't great, but it's a hell of a lot better than last year's 52 in the league, 74 in all competitions.

Since Rafa Benitez took over in 2004-05, Liverpool scored more than 63 in the league in just four of 11 seasons: 2007-08, 2008-08, 2012-13, and 2013-14. Liverpool finished 4th, 2nd, 7th, and 2nd those seasons.



This was almost average in front of goal, at least for Liverpool. Average! Seeing as last season was pretty much historically bad in front of goal, and Liverpool switched managers mid-season, and Liverpool had all those injuries, and Liverpool competed on four fronts for most of the season, I'll take "almost average" as a first step.



Admittedly, it's a very, very small sample size for Rodgers this season – 11 matches, 1020 minutes – but those averages are both worse than last season's and didn't seem to be getting better anytime soon. Remember, Liverpool scored more than once in one of those first 11 matches: at home against Villa, an unnecessarily nervy 3-2 win thanks to Daniel Sturridge. Liverpool kept three clean sheets to start the season, but conceded two or more in three of the next eight matches.

To be slightly fairer to Rodgers, this season compares fairly poorly to Rodgers' first in 2012-13, where Liverpool scored more and conceded fewer.



Admittedly, Liverpool played a lot fewer matches that season, especially during the run-in (when Liverpool lost just once in the last 11 matches after the Europa League Round of 32 exit). Nine fewer matches in total, 1170 fewer minutes. And Liverpool still had Luis Suarez – not at the apex of his powers, but still Luis Suarez.

Liverpool did get better as this season went on, at both ends of the pitch, at least in the league. And that's including Liverpool pretty much giving up on the league in the last month with all focus rightfully on the Europa League.



Liverpool still don't score enough. Liverpool still concede too many – although not a disproportionate, unusual amount. Except on corners. 12 goals conceded from corners is a high since I started keeping track five years ago, with Liverpool averaging a goal conceded from a corner once every 483 minutes, once every five or so matches. At least goals from free kicks were down this season, making the set play goals conceded total pretty much in line with the previous four seasons.



With a full preseason, and more time between matches, it'd be surprising if Liverpool didn't continue to improve in every area. Buy a new attacker, a new center-back, and a new goalkeeper (this one seemingly almost done!). Maybe a few others. Score more, concede less.

It's a simple game, this.

19 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Sevilla

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (a), Chelsea (h), Watford (h), Villarreal (h), Swansea (a), Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Manchester United (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester City (h), Manchester City [League Cup] (n), Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)
As always for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.


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

Life is not fair. Sometimes there isn't a storytale ending.

Liverpool needed this. We needed this. And it's all set up perfectly.

The narrative's written. First, Manchester United. Then, that comeback against Dortmund. Then, a comprehensive victory over a similar, higher-in-the-table Spanish side in Villarreal. The overwhelming parallels with Liverpool's Champions League run in Benitez's first season 11 years ago.

Liverpool weather Sevilla's brief early storm. Liverpool are denied five potential penalties – three handballs, two fouls, a handball and foul on the same move in the 12th minute, the third handball seemingly stone-cold certain – but then Liverpool score one of the prettiest strikes you'll see, when Sturridge somehow breaks every one of Newton's laws of motion to score with the outside of his left foot in the 35th minute.

Sevilla had offered next-to-nothing after the first five-to-ten minutes of somewhat frightening possession with no results. Liverpool grew in control and confidence from then on. Sevilla took just one shot in the entire first half: Gamiero's overhead on a scrambled corner, covered by Mignolet if it was on-target at his near post. Liverpool should have made more of their dominance, should have created more chances – and it's not as if we're saying this for the first time this season – but between their control and the lead and the fact that the referee was the only thing keeping Sevilla in the game and THE NARRATIVE, it seemed as if Liverpool would be okay. Liverpool would continue to do good things in the second half, eventually get the second, and lift that much-needed trophy.

Whoops.


In the future, maybe don't concede 18 seconds after the restart.

It's hard to do more than scapegoat Alberto Moreno and ready the rocket to fire him into the sun. First, the weak clearing header to Mariano on Escudero's hopeful cross-field ball. Then, brainlessly charging in and trying to tackle rather getting into position to push Mariano wide or to the byline; he gave Mariano an angle rather than removing one, and reduced the amount of time Liverpool's other defenders had to get into position. He's got a record of doing similar over and over and over and etc.

To be slightly fairer, Moreno's not the only one at fault: Coutinho wandered into the middle on the kick-off, coming in to "track" N'Zonzi (who looking like coming forward but quickly retreated into his midfield position) rather than the right-back he should be up against, leaving Moreno to defend the entire side of his pitch when Escudero crossed; both Toure and Lovren were caught flat-footed on Mariano's centered pass, marking the same space which Can pretty much had covered; and at the last second, Toure tries to play the offside trap, which wouldn't have worked and he was the only one to do so. Sigh. And let's give credit where it's due: that was a lovely step inside and nutmeg by Mariano.

Most importantly, Liverpool still had 45 minutes to reassert themselves despite the set-back. There was still an entire half left.

Put simply – maybe too simply, but I doubt it – Liverpool lost their heads. "Oh shit, here we go again. And it's the final! Why, lord, why?!" Sevilla, who hadn't won this competition the last two seasons on blind luck, didn't lose theirs. They regrouped at halftime. They got the early goal and pushed for more. They got the needed bit of luck and combined it with an absolutely brilliant 25 minutes of football.



They broke Liverpool's lines, something they'd wholly failed to do in the first half. They beat and bypassed Liverpool's counter-press, most notably on the second goal. That was a thing of beauty. A bit of patience in their own half to draw Liverpool's attackers into the press then out of position, then Vitolo to Coke to Vitolo to Banega to Vitolo to Coke to smash through Liverpool's midfield. It was pass and move football that the all-conquering Liverpool side in the 1980s would've been proud of.

Sevilla should have scored a second long before then, with Liverpool given a short reprieve first by Toure's last-ditch recovery tackle in the 48th, then Mignolet's point-blank save on Gamiero in the 60th. The first with Can and the center-backs the only Liverpool players in Liverpool's half (and all three fairly high up the pitch) as Liverpool pressed too hard too fast to get back in the game and lost consecutive aerial duels in midfield, with Gamiero released by an easy throughball; the second from a set play (Escudero's long throw) because of course there has to be at least one set play involved.

And then there's Sevilla's third. A flawless, cue-Yakety-Sax, oh-so-Liverpool capstone six minutes after Coke gave Sevilla the lead: first, Can's slip and giveaway in midfield, then Clyne's tackle at the top of the box hitting Coutinho and ricocheting perfectly for a wide-open Coke seven yards from goal, onside because of Liverpool's touches, with Mignolet unable to do much about it. As many Liverpool players were involved in the build-up to that goal as Sevilla players.

You need that bit of luck in finals. And you need talent, which Sevilla simply had more of, fully on display in the 25 minutes after halftime. And you need self-belief, which seemed to completely evaporate after Sevilla's first goal.

The belief we saw against Dortmund simply wasn't there. Liverpool did not, could not regroup. Sure, Klopp probably should have made changes earlier (*glares at 2-3 Southampton and 2-2 Newcastle*), but you've got to credit Sevilla for a good bit of that.




Experience matters. Sevilla, and the majority of these players, had been here before. Have won things before. Five of Sevilla's starters also started last year's final, with three others involved as substitutes. Liverpool, the vast majority of these players, haven't. The first hill is always hardest to climb.

This is how far Liverpool still have to go. A young side, nowhere near built in the new manager's image yet. A new manager who came in midseason, had to work with this unbalanced squad, and had to cope with numerous injuries and more matches than any of his teams' have ever played in a single season.

Yes, Liverpool lost two cup finals. And it really hurts. You can't help but wonder what might have been: both the relief of rejoining the big kids' table and the doors that qualification to next season's Champions League could have opened.

But Liverpool hadn't been in a single cup final since 2011-12, when Dalglish's side won the Carling Cup against second-division Cardiff on penalties and lost in the FA Cup to Chelsea. Those are the only two cup finals Liverpool have been in since Athens 2007. Nine years ago. Since then, we've seen Hicks and Gillett's attempt to gut the club, Benitez coming close to in the league and Europa League then getting sacked, The Hodge, Dalglish, and Rodgers. We've seen league finishes of 2nd, 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd, 6th, and 8th.

And Klopp somehow got Liverpool to two cup finals in his first abbreviated season.

There is still a lot of work to be done. A lot of room for growth, for players individually and Liverpool as both a team and a club. And it's going to be a very interesting summer; in Klopp's first at Dortmund, they brought in 11 players (six for a fee, two free transfers, Schmelzer promoted from the youth squad, Kevin Prince-Boateng on-loan, and Sahin's return from loan) and sold or released nine.

It's been less than 24 hours, and I've mostly processed this. Accepted this. Mostly. As much as I can, and as much as I will. And I don't want to eulogize this match or this season (although, as usual, there will probably be a lot of season wrap-up graphics and stuff over the next few weeks). I just want next season now. Optimism, which still remains despite this setback and this season, is a hell of a drug. It's one we've been without for far too long.

Up the Reds.

17 May 2016

Liverpool v Sevilla 05.18.16

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 West Brom (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Watford (h)
Sevilla: 1-3 Athletic Bilbao (a); 1-4 Granada (h); 3-1 Shakhtar (h)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 3-0 Villarreal (h), 0-1 Villarreal (a); 4-3 Dortmund (h), 1-1 Dortmund (a); 1-1 United (a), 2-0 United (h); 1-0 Augsburg (h), 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a); 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Sevilla: 3-1 Shakhtar (h), 2-2 Shakhtar (a); 1-2 Athletic Bilbao (h), 2-1 Athletic Bilbao (a); 3-0 Basel (h), 0-0 Basel (a); 0-1 Molde (a), 3-0 Molde (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 3; Coutinho, Milner, Origi, Sturridge 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Lovren, Sakho 1
Sevilla: Gamiero 8; Llorente 3; Banega, Kolodziejczak, Konoplyanka, Rami, Vitolo 2; Iborra, Mariano, Tremoulinas 1

Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE)

Coincidentally, the last time Liverpool saw Jonas Eriksson was the last time Liverpool were in Basel: a 0-1 loss in last year's Champions League group stage. No, that wasn't the match where Markovic was sent off.

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Clyne Lovren Toure Moreno
Milner Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho
Sturridge

Gulp. Has it really been nine years since Liverpool were last in a European final? Deep breaths, deep breaths, deep breaths...

We're all but certain what Liverpool's side will look like. Nine of the XI are nailed-on starters. Origi's in the squad, but almost certainly only available as a substitute. The only question seems whether Henderson's actually ready to start, and if he is, whether he replaces Milner or Lallana. Either way, it should be 4-2-3-1, with Henderson and Can in midfield and either Lallana or Milner ostensibly on the right.

If Henderson does start, I suspect it's Lallana left out. Milner can press and cross from an "attacking right" position – he doesn't press as effectively as Lallana, he's not as dangerous with the ball, but he's arguably been more important to the attack this season – with Lallana better suited to be an attacking change coming off the bench. But I still think it's Henderson left on the bench, just because he's been out for a while and has struggled with injuries throughout the season. Trust the line-up which won 3-0 against Villarreal. Dance with the one that brung you.

Either way, I'd rather not see Liverpool in a 4-3-3. That way lies Firmino on the right. That way lies less attacking cohesion and a more defensive Liverpool. That way usually lies a less impressive Liverpool. League record be damned, Sevilla are a very good side, especially in this competition and especially on the counter-attack. But Liverpool have gotten to this point by playing their game, not by reacting to the opposition.

But we're still less certain which Liverpool we'll get. The more defensive (and, yes, often 4-3-3) Liverpool who twice drew 1-1 and once lost 0-1 away in the last three knockout rounds, or the more attacking Liverpool who won 2-0, 4-3, and 3-0 in the home legs? It won't be Anfield, but I suspect it'll still be a fairly partisan crowd. As it was in Istanbul 11 years ago, in Athens nine years ago.

Rise to the occasion. Play your game.

Meanwhile, Sevilla gave up on the league even more than Liverpool, finishing seventh, 12 points behind fourth-place Villarreal (they finished fifth in 2014-15, 16 points ahead of Villarreal). They won just one of their last nine league matches – a 2-0 derby win over Real Betis – drawing one and losing seven. Seven. They lost the last two (since qualifying for the EL final) by margins of 1-4 and 1-3, with vastly changed XIs. And like Liverpool, Sevilla haven't qualified for Europe next season due to their league failings, although they still have the chance to be in the Europa League even if they lose tomorrow by beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

Sevilla didn't win a single away match in La Liga this season – nine draws and ten losses – and won only one of their seven European away matches. Let's hope playing in Basel still feels like an away match for them.

Having not watched Sevilla often (read: pretty much at all) this season, my best guess at their XI is the same which won 3-1 over Shakhtar to advance to this final. Soria; Mariano, Rami, Carrico, Tremoulinas; Krychowiak, N'Zonzi; Coke, Banega, Vitolo; Gamiero. Coke is usually a right-back, but started in attack against Shakhtar; if Emery chooses a more orthodox winger, it'll probably be Konoplyanka, who's fit again after an injury worry but started on the bench against Shakhtar despite being fit for that match. Jose Antonio Reyes and Michael Krohn-Dehli are their only injury absences.

Sevilla's goals in the 3-1 win over Shakhtar seem a good demonstration of what they're capable of in attack. The first came from Gamiero's awareness, dispossessing a dawdling defender then running straight at goal. It wasn't a concerted press, although they'll do that at times, but just paying attention. The second, Krychowiak's through-ball for Gamiero, came just after halftime to deflate the opposition, less than two minutes after the restart, less than three minutes after Shakhtar had leveled the score. The third, Mariano from distance with Shakhtar's defenders backing off, a first-time strike before the defense could get into position, sealed the match.

Sevilla don't play a possession game – averaging slightly less than 50% in La Liga – but not every one of their goals is a lightning counter-attack or a set play, like Liverpool's last Spanish opponent. They don't score tons, especially in the league, but they've scored 14 through the eight knockout matches: three matches with three (all at home), two matches with two, one match with one, and two matches with none. But they score when it matters, as they did against Shakhtar. And Kevin Gamiero is at the heart of it.

Gamiero, with 28 goals in all competitions, has scored more than Liverpool's top two players combined (Coutinho and Sturridge, each with 12). He's scored as many Europa League goals as Lallana, Coutinho, and Sturridge combined, and Sevilla's only been in this competition since the Round of 32.

The only starter in the above guess at Sevilla's XI under 26 years old is the goalkeeper, 23-year-old David Soria (34-year-old Beto's the usual keeper in La Liga, but Soria's started all eight in this competition). Rami and Tremoulinas are 30; Mariano, Coke, and Gamiero are 29; Carrico, N'Zonzi (yes, that N'Zonzi), and Banega are 27; Krychowiak and Vitolo (and Konoplyanka) are 26. They're an experienced side. And the majority of them have been here before.

Long story short, Sevilla just win in this competition. They do *just enough* in the knockout rounds, and then perform in the finals. They're the title holders the last two years running, and no side has ever won three years in a row.

This will be Liverpool's 63rd match of the season. It'll be Sevilla's 62nd, with the Copa del Rey final to come on Sunday. It is the culmination of both sides' seasons. If they win, the season's a success, league results be damned and forgotten. If they don't, it's a failure, simple as.

So don't fail.

16 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 West Brom


Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (h), Watford (h), Villarreal (h), Swansea (a), Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Manchester United (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Manchester City (h), Manchester City [League Cup] (n), Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.


This was Jürgen Klopp's 30th league match, and this was Jürgen Klopp's 30th different starting XI.



It has been a season of change. Of change in style, of change in sides. A season where Klopp has needed to use the entire squad: because of injuries, because of the amount of games, and because he's needed to see just how full or empty Liverpool's pantry currently is.

Yesterday was Liverpool's 62nd match of the season. The Europa League final on Wednesday will be the 63rd. Liverpool played 58 matches last season, just 43 in 2013-14, and 54 in 2012-13. Liverpool have played 63 matches just one other time: 2000-01, when Liverpool won the League Cup, FA Cup, and UEFA Cup.

It has been a long season. It has been a long league campaign, one which ended after the collapse against Newcastle three weeks ago, if not after the collapse at Southampton two months ago. So it's no surprise that Liverpool have stuttered during the run-in, at least in the league. That Liverpool stuttered during the long winter, when injuries and fixture pile-up was at its worst. That Liverpool stuttered at multiple times this season, that Liverpool stuttered in the final league game.

Or that Liverpool stuttered against West Brom, a side that Liverpool's beaten just once in the last five meetings. Liverpool's record against West Brom in the last ten meetings is just 3W-4D-3L.

Or that Liverpool stuttered against Tony Pulis, who has a better record (3W-9D-3L) against Liverpool than Mourinho, Wenger, or Ferguson, and probably more than a few others.

Pulls knows how to Pulis against Liverpool. Four matches in row – three with West Brom, one with Palace – all ending level, although that Palace match was about as flukey as they come and let's not talk about it any more. Liverpool had at least 66% possession in each of those four matches. Liverpool played at least 300 more passes than the opposition in each of those four matches.

But yesterday was the first time that Liverpool was out-shot in those four matches. West Brom's 13 is three shots above its average; Liverpool's seven is nearly 10 lower than its average. Liverpool's 67% possession led to just seven shots – just one in the second half and none after the 57th minute – which is Liverpool's lowest total in a league match this season. The only match where Liverpool took fewer in any competition was six in the dead rubber at Sion to close the Europa League group stage: a match as meaningless in the greater scheme of things as yesterday's was.

It's completely unfair, but I can't help but glare at Liverpool's #9.



And it's even more noticeable when you see who's responsible for Liverpool's goals and assists when Benteke plays versus when he doesn't.



He (and Liverpool when he plays) has actually been better under Klopp, a trend I'm almost totally crediting to his play as a substitute. Six of his seven league goals under Klopp came as a substitute, as well as two of his three assists. The only match that Liverpool lost when he scored or assisted as a substitute was at Swansea three weeks ago, a dire Liverpool performance where he was arguably Liverpool's best player.

But when Benteke starts, as he did yesterday, and even as a substitute (to much lesser effect), Liverpool have to play through him. Change their style to suit him. And it usually makes Liverpool worse. Yesterday, Liverpool switched Ojo and Ibe from their usual flanks, ostensibly for better crossing to Benteke. Not one of Liverpool's 13 crosses found Benteke. Only three of those 13 were "successful." Not one of Liverpool's 13 crosses led to a shot. At least Ibe on the right led to Liverpool's goal.

But, again, the majority of these complaints about both Benteke and Liverpool's overall performance – at least in regards to yesterday – aren't fair, because yesterday didn't really mean much. Liverpool's earlier failings in the league (and successes in cup competition) ensured yesterday didn't mean much.

Roll on next season. But first, roll on Wednesday.

15 May 2016

Liverpool 1-1 West Brom

Goals:
Rondon 13'
Ibe 23'

That was a game of football. Two teams, 22 starters and six substitute, played some sport for 90 minutes. There were two goals. A couple of other things happened. And that's pretty much all there is to say about that.

It's the last game of the league campaign where neither side had much to play to for.

And it didn't take long to go downhill, quickly.

West Brom hadn't scored at home since March 6 – three and a third matches without a goal in front of their own fans. It took them just 13 minutes today, thanks to Allen's bad pass, an out-of-position defense not ready for the turnover, and Adam Bogdan's "goalkeeping." 17-year-old Jonathan Leko ran around and through three defenders before playing in Rondon, who unforgivably beat Bogdan at the keeper's near post.

But at least Liverpool responded. Jordon Ibe responded, picking up the ball in Liverpool's half, embarrassing Evans and running the entire way to West Brom's penalty box. Olsson et al thankfully backed off, which was probably a very bad idea, allowing Ibe room to shift sideways, find space in the area, and slot a left-footed shot

Okay, back to square one. 66 minutes left. A goal for each side. Time for an actual contest to break out.



Oh.

To be slightly fairer, I've no idea how West Brom didn't score at least one more. I've no idea how Rondon didn't get a hat-trick. In the 47th minute, Rondon hit the post, a free header from a free kick, then missed the rebound when off-balance because he was already celebrating what he thought was a goal. 14 minutes later, the same player headed across the face of the goal from Dawson's cross. In the 66th, wide-open at the back post on a corner, Rondon missed his initial shot, then saw his second effort deflected just wide. And in the 82nd, when Liverpool again failed to clear a corner, Rondon saw his shot blocked by West Brom substitute Tyler Roberts, then Roberts saw his shot hit West Brom defender Craig Dawson in the face.

Meanwhile, Liverpool (read: Benteke) fouled up a couple of breaks, but that's about it. There were no real attacks of note. Obviously, there weren't any shots on-target, but Liverpool only took three shots in total after Ibe scored: Joe Allen low and well wide from 30 yards out in the 31st minute, Benteke's free kick into the wall in the 45th, and Ojo off-target in the 57th.

The second half was about Liverpool's substitutes: the returns of Ings and Henderson, a debut for Sergi Canos. No one really did anything – Henderson at least moved well, Canos was involved in one of Liverpool's half-assed counters which they eventually boned up – but that all three even played is a boost in and of itself.

No one played their way into discussion for Wednesday's final. Well, maybe Henderson, but just by being fit, not because of anything he did today. If anything, Benteke and maybe Allen played their way out of contention. But, still, it's hard to read anything into today's match. It's been hard to read anything into Liverpool's last few league matches, at least the ones played on weekends.

Looked at in a certain light, today's a hell of a motivation job by Klopp. Just a draw coupled with Southampton's win means the only way Liverpool are in Europe next season is if Liverpool win on Wednesday. It's Champions League or bust, without any potential consolation of the Europa League qualifying rounds.

So that's the 2015-16 Premier League campaign. Liverpool finish eighth, a joint-low for the Premiership era along with 1993-94 and 2011-12. Liverpool finish with 60 points, two fewer than last season and the worst since 2011-12, when Liverpool made two cup finals but Dalglish still got sacked.

And I'm not really that bothered. There's a lot to regret this campaign, there are multiple matches where you look back and go "hell, how did Liverpool drop points here?" But any time you change managers mid-season, the season usually becomes a wash. Noticeable improvement matters much more than results. And Liverpool have noticeably improved under Jürgen Klopp. Especially in cup competition, but even in the league.

I know we can't help but think that Liverpool lost a great chance to be a lot better and finish a lot higher in the league, given Chelsea, United, City, Arsenal, and Tottenham's seasons, given that Leicester (Leicester!) just won the league with the fourth lowest points total in PL history.

So be it. I'm biased, and sometimes surprisingly optimistic, and I can't help but think Liverpool will have more chances under this manager.

As for this season, it's a start. It probably should have been a better start. It probably should have been a better finish, at least to the league. But the ultimate eulogy for and lasting memories from this season will be decided on Wednesday.