25 October 2016

Liverpool v Tottenham 10.25.16

2:45pm ET, live in the US on beIN Sports.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 08.27.16
1-1 (h) 04.02.16
0-0 (a) 10.17.15
3-2 Liverpool (h) 02.10.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Brom (h); 0-0 United (h); 2-1 Swansea (a)
Tottenham: 0-0 Bournemouth (a); 0-0 Leverkusen (a); 1-1 West Brom (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 3-0 Derby (a); 5-0 Burton Albion (a)
Tottenham: 5-0 Gillingham (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Coutinho 5; Firmino, Mané, Milner 4; Lallana 3; Origi, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Klavan, Lovren 1
Tottenham: Son 5; Alli 3; Eriksen, Kane, Lamela 2; Alderweireld, Janssen, Onomah, Rose, Wanyama 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Alexander-Arnold Matip Klavan Moreno
Grujic Stewart Wijnaldum
Sturridge Origi

Liverpool almost always play a stronger than expected XI in this competition. They did throughout last season, and they did in the first two fixtures this season. But I just can't see that happening tomorrow. Lallana and Wijnaldum are recently back from injury. Emre Can's still working his way to match fitness. Henderson's suspended. Nat King Clyne's played every available minute so far, while Coutinho, Firmino, Mané, and Milner aren't far behind.

So screw it. Let's see the kids. And, because it better suits who's available, let's see a 4-4-2 diamond.

Admittedly, I'd be a bit surprised with this many changes. But Tottenham are also expected to rotate almost its entire XI. Mignolet's certainly coming in. Klavan and Moreno need match time. Grujic, Stewart, and possibly Lucas can come into midfield. Both Alexander-Arnold and Ejaria have been mentioned as possible debutants. Wijnaldum seems the most likely front-six starter to keep his place, having played just 11 minutes against West Brom in his comeback from injury. And since I don't want to pick between Sturridge and Origi, hell, just play them both.

The 4-Diamond-2 worked just fine against Southampton in this competition last season. And, unlike in most other positions, Liverpool don't really have back-up wingers. Ojo's still injured, Woodburn's playing for the u23s. Lallana and Wijnaldum are capable, but usually more needed in midfield. All three of Liverpool's currently-reserve strikers – Ings, Origi, Sturridge – *can* play wide, but it's not something they thrive upon.

Not that form counts for much in a match where both sides will rotate heavily, but Tottenham have underwhelmed lately. Three straight draws, scoring just one goal in those three. But conversely, they've conceded just once in their last five matches. And, somehow, they sit just one point back of Liverpool. It helps when you're the lone unbeaten side left in the division, I guess. Draws are still better than losses.

If Tottenham rotate as heavily as Liverpool, as expected, there will probably be nine or ten changes. Something like Vorm; Trippier, Carter-Vickers, Wimmer, Davies; Dier; N'Koudou, Carroll, Winks, Onomah; Janssen. Maybe it's 4-2-3-1 with Carroll and Winks holding, and either Alli or Eriksen as the #10. Maybe it's Wanyama or Dembele at the base rather than Dier. Maybe youth striker Harrison starts up front rather than Janssen. Even if Spurs start all their kids, they'll still need one or two senior players to fill out the ranks. But like Liverpool, Tottenham's settled XI has played a lot of minutes lately, and Pochettino will want to spell his stars.

Of course, I can't forget that these sides met less than two months ago. And I can't forget that Liverpool should have done better than a draw. And I can't forget that Michel Vorm, who'll come into the Tottenham side, was a big reason why that match finished level. Liverpool and back-up keepers, man.

Incidentally, the same referee from the last meeting – Jon Moss – will also work this one.

This fixture has finished level each of the three times that Klopp and Pochettino have met. Thankfully, I guess, that can't happen today, with extra-time and penalties to come if it's honors even after 90 minutes. No matter who plays, for either side, it's going to be close and contentious, hard-fought between two of the hardest-working sides in the league.

With Liverpool's improvement in the league this season – so far *knocks feverishly on wood* – anything in this competition is gravy atop the Sunday roast. Sure, we'll see the public "we're in it to win it" quotes which are both necessary and ubiquitous, but this competition doesn't have the "we need the matches, we need the time together" impetus it had last season.

It's extra. It's fun. Liverpool have been fun so far this season; still-trying-to-kill-us fun, but fun nonetheless. Let's see more fun, and see where it takes us.

24 October 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

It's getting tougher to pick out things to write about in these matches.

Like against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Swansea, Liverpool struggle at times, but Liverpool win, against an opponent that's given them fits in the past. And Tony Pulis has given more fits than most. On the whole, Liverpool look increasingly competent in attack, not too shabby defending in open play, and terrifying when defending set plays. It's a more malevolent attack and a more resilient side, but a side still prone to nerves at both ends of the pitch and conceding goals from set plays.

Might as well start with the bad.

Loris Karius has conceded three goals from six shots on-target in his four league starts. That's not good. All three goals have come from set plays, all three were corners. That's also not good. Liverpool faced two corners against West Brom, one against United, three against Swansea, and two against Hull. Three goals conceded from eight corners. 37.5%.

And all three have been from corners where Liverpool failed to clear the cross in, the opposition winning the second ball and subsequently scoring. Hull in-swinger, Maguire knock-down, Meyler goal from nine yards out. Swansea in-swinger, Borja knock-down, Lovren slight redirect, Fer goal from a yard out. West Brom out-swinger, Robson-Kanu knock-down, McAuley goal from four yards out. All three crosses going to the top of the six-yard box, all three goals from close range in the center of the box.

Which makes it slightly harder to blame Ser Loris. Oh, and Liverpool still won all three matches.

It's too bad, because Liverpool have actually defended well from open play since losing to Burnley. They've kept only one clean sheet, but have conceded just once in all the other matches, winning six and drawing one. Liverpool have only conceded three open play goals in the last seven matches: Rose for Tottenham and Costa for Chelsea were well-worked goals by very good sides, Vardy for Leicester was a hilarious and egregious error.

After nine league games last season, Liverpool had committed eight Opta-defined defensive errors, three of which led to goals. Liverpool drew twice (Norwich, Everton), and lost once (West Ham) when committing said errors. The two errors in the draws directly led to an equalizer, matches where Liverpool dropped four points they really shouldn't have.

This season, Liverpool have committed just four defensive errors. Two led to goals: Clyne at Burnley and Lucas v Leicester. A match Liverpool won and a match Liverpool might have lost anyway. It's been six weeks and six matches in all competitions since Liverpool committed an error which led to a goal.

So even if set plays remain the bane of our existence, at least Liverpool have mostly excised the painful individual errors.

And thankfully, aside from the draw against United, Liverpool's attack has been very good since that loss at Burnley. Liverpool are joint-top scorers with City, with 20 goals through nine games. Liverpool have scored two or more in six of nine league games, and four or more in three of those.

Liverpool probably should have scored more than two on Saturday, with Liverpool unable to extend its lead in the second half, Can and Firmino both denied on clear-cut chances. It should have been Hull or Leicester rather than Swansea, which is why we all felt like imminent death during the last ten minutes on Saturday.

This is a good chart.

It may not be coincidence Liverpool's lone loss came in the one match that Sadio Mané missed.

But it's also not just Mané. Coutinho also has four goals and two assists; he hit that mark on November 8 last season. Firmino has three goals and an assist; he scored his third goal on January 13 last season. Lallana has three goals and three assists; he got his third assist on December 30 and his third goal on March 3 last season.

"Is that good?" 🤔

After nine matches, we've learned what Liverpool can do. Liverpool are averaging more than two points per game for the first multi-match stretch since 2013-14, Liverpool have taken 16 points from a possible 18 since the draw at Tottenham almost two months ago. Liverpool have taken 20 or more points from the first nine matches just four times in 25 Premier League seasons: 23 in 2008-09, 21 in 2002-03, and 20 in 2013-14; the last two times it happened, Liverpool finished the season second.

We've already seen Liverpool hit heights rarely achieved in the last couple of campaigns, and can still tell they're capable of much more. There are fewer recurring issues, and we know what the remaining recurring issues are. We know what Liverpool need to keep doing, and what Liverpool need to fix to actually achieve what they're capable of.

22 October 2016

Liverpool 2-1 West Brom

Mané 20'
Coutinho 35'
McAuley 81'

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Liverpool dominate. But Liverpool are denied a needed goal multiple times, including three clear-cut chances either saved or blocked. Then Liverpool concede from a set play. Liverpool concede from the opposition's first shot on-target. Liverpool concede against West Brom at Anfield in the final ten minutes of a match they should have sealed long before.

All against a Tony Pulis side, a manager that Liverpool's failed to beat in the last eight league meetings.

Then again, you haven't heard this one before. The difference between this and past vexations was Liverpool's first half and Liverpool's front three, which scored two typically impressive goals. Two very Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool goals: the first a blitz attack featuring a Coutinho dummy, Firmino's sumptuous first assist of the season, and Mané's fourth goal of the season; the second starting from Firmino pressing Foster into an awful clearance and ended by Coutinho dropping two defenders before slotting home.

Despite all the recurring bad and recurring bogeymen, Liverpool won. Liverpool ended Tony Pulis' five-year voodoo. My heart would be a lot healthier had Liverpool made it easier, but this Liverpool just don't do easier, and the three points are all that matters.

With Lallana fit enough to start, a healthy Sturridge returned to the bench. And a healthy Sturridge left out is something that would have surprised every single one of us three, six, twelve months ago – and still surprises some now. But Liverpool's first half is a perfect demonstration of why Firmino, Mané, and Coutinho are Klopp's preferred front three. All three press, run, create chances, score. They baffle defenses and smother attempts to play out from the back. On their day, their movement and interplay is simply malevolent, all three consistently on a single wavelength, a higher plane than the rest of us mere mortals operate.

And all three were heavily involved in both goals: a goal and assist for Mané, a goal for Coutinho, an assist for Firmino, Coutinho's dummy to open up the first, Firmino's pressing to start the second.

I would really prefer Liverpool did things the easy way, though. This could and probably should have been Hull or Leicester all over again. But at 2-0, Firmino's denied by McAuley's last ditch block, Foster brilliantly saves Lovren's header, and Olsson somehow stuffs Can on the break, among a handful of other opportunities.

Meanwhile, West Brom didn't even attempt a single shot until the 70th minute. Any type of shot. Unsurprisingly, said first shot – spooned over by Chadli – came from a corner. And then it got a bit nervous.

West Brom finally pushed forward with nothing to lose, probably waiting as long as possible because Liverpool really is that dangerous, aided by Morrison and Robson-Kanu's entrances. Then, the inevitable set play disaster: West Brom's third corner, a scramble just outside the six-yard box when no one from either side made clean contact on the cross in, a fortunate ricochet for a wide-open McAuley. To be slightly fairer to Liverpool, the goal should have been ruled out as Dawson was both offside and directly in front of Karius – the textbook definition of interfering with play – but evidently the linesmen also expect Liverpool to stupidly concede from at least one set play.

And then it got a lot more nervous. Classic headless chicken content, end-to-end, with Liverpool frantic in both halves. I still think Liverpool probably should have made a sub, any sub, long before the 79th minute. But, to be fair, frantic is what Liverpool does, and the best chances remained the home side's: Firmino twice denied by Foster, Wijnaldum inches wide in injury time. West Brom had more possession, but managed just two shots: Chadli from distance nowhere near the goal and Robson-Kanu from (surprise!) a free kick swiftly blocked.

As if we needed more reminding, Liverpool struggle to defend set plays, Liverpool struggle against bigger and more physical sides, Liverpool concede to many goals from the opposition's first shot on-target, Liverpool – less than previous seasons but still too often – don't take enough of the chances they create.

But it's also clear this Liverpool attack ain't last season's Liverpool attack. We aren't at 2013-14 levels yet, not the tornado up front or the hilarity at the back. It's not simply scoring more than the other side, because Liverpool have yet to concede more than once since losing to Burnley nine matches ago. But it is still doing enough in attack to cancel out what happens in their own half.

Still, it is only the ninth match of the campaign. It is coming together. When it's not causing heart attacks, it's tons of fun.

And Liverpool finally beat Tony ******* Pulis.

21 October 2016

Liverpool v West Brom 10.22.16

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 05.15.16
2-2 (h) 12.13.15
0-0 (a) 04.25.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.04.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 United (h); 2-1 Swansea (a); 5-1 Hull (h)
West Brom: 1-1 Tottenham (h); 1-1 Sunderland (a); 1-1 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Milner 4; Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 3; Henderson, Lovren 1
West Brom: Chadli 4; Rondon 3; McAuley, McClean 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Firmino Coutinho

It appears we're back to full-strength, first-choice Liverpool. Just in time for one of our least favorite fixtures of the season.

As for those struggling with minor injuries: Lallana seems a certainty simply because he was fit enough for half-an-hour five days ago. If Wijnaldum's not ready, Can will probably keep his place; if Milner's still bothered, it'll be Moreno.

I wouldn't expect Sturridge to start unless there are multiple absentees, as there were in the last match. As crazy as it is to write, Liverpool have usually been better without him this season. Maybe that's more down to opposition, and he'd be more effective against the sit-deep-and-hoof likes of West Brom, but I still we'll see the "preferred" XI, with Sturridge used as a substitute when or if needed.

Otherwise, same worries, different day. Up against a deep, determined defense who's okay at counter-attacking and excellent at set plays. Liverpool did it against Hull and Leicester, but didn't do enough against United. We've said we need to see Liverpool succeed against this style more consistently, and they'll have to do it against a side and manager that routinely foil and flummox.

It's a Tony Pulis side. You know the drill. Blunt the opposition's attack by any means necessary, hoof to height. Win set plays, score from set plays. And it often leads to a dire, dispiriting match, one where Liverpool often drop points.


At least Liverpool are at Anfield, where they've won three and drawn four against Tony Pulis teams, compared to one win, five draws, and three losses away from home.

But, regardless of venue, the last time Liverpool beat a Tony Pulis side in the league was February 2011, a match notable for Luis Suarez' Liverpool debut. There were two cup wins in 2011-12, the season Liverpool made both domestic cup finals, but otherwise, two draws and two losses against Stoke, a draw we won't discuss at Crystal Palace, and three consecutive draws against West Brom since 2011. The only times Liverpool have kept clean sheets, the match ended 0-0.

Unsurprisingly, this Tony Pulis side is a lot like all the others. Five of West Brom's nine league goals have come from set plays (two open play, one counter-attack, one penalty), including two of the last three that have led to three successive 1-1 draws. Four of the five set-play goals have been corners, three of those four have been clear-cut chances.

I doubt I need remind that both of West Brom's goals in this fixture last season came from set plays. And came from West Brom's only two shots on-target.

At least West Brom's line-up is predictable. They've no injuries, but Jonny Evans is suspended, which could be a big miss in defense. The XI will almost certainly be Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Nyom; Fletcher, Yacob; Phillips, Chadli, McClean; Rondon.

Maybe Saido Berahino or Jonathan Leko gets a look-in because counter-attacks, maybe Craig Gardner in midfield for set piece delivery, but those seem doubtful. As usual for Pulis, it's been a very settled XI. And Nacer Chadli has been the star since signing for a club-record fee at the end of August, with four goals and two assists in his five matches. West Brom has scored all of seven goals in those five matches; he's had a hand in six. Rondon's a danger as well, Pulis' favorite type of all-around target-man, but it's Chadli who's wreaked all the havoc lately, the much-needed link between Rondon and everyone else behind the ball.

The second phase of the season starts now. The first phase saw Liverpool play five of the tougher sides in the league in the first eight games. Liverpool's next eight league games are against West Brom, Palace, Watford, Southampton, Sunderland, Bournemouth, West Ham, and Boro: one promoted side, two sides who finished top-half last season but have disappointed so far in this, and the five teams that finished 13th through 17th last season.

We're all aware that Liverpool have been both better and more consistent when facing better opposition. Now Liverpool have an extended run to show they can do it against the type of sides they often disappointed against. And it starts with Tony Pulis.

18 October 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

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

It seems fitting that this was Liverpool's first league clean sheet in this already strange season. It was Liverpool's first 0-0 in the league since Klopp's first match at Tottenham exactly one year ago. It was Liverpool's first 0-0 at home in the league since Sunderland in December 2014. And it came in a fixture that hadn't finished 0-0 in 11 years.

We all got Mourinho'd. A wet fart in what's usually an ugly but at least closely fought fixture. A fixture that both sides at least usually try to win. A match best defined by a late substitution: Ashley Young finding a way to waste a minute after his number came up in injury time, ambling towards the center circle rather the bench he was yards away from, eventually shoved off by an incredulous Emre Can.

It was all so Jose Mourinho. And it's annoying that Jose Mourinho so thoroughly Mourinho'd. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. But we've all been Mourinho'd much worse in the past.

Jose clearly learned from the Manchester Derby. Sure, United were home in that match, but more important was that United tried to be more adventurous, with Fellaini and Pogba "holding" and a front four of Ibra, Rooney, Mkhitaryan, and Lingard. And United were blown away in the opening 40 minutes, with City scoring twice before Bravo's error got United within touching distance but no closer. He learned that his United couldn't go toe-to-toe with an above average attacking side, not yet and hopefully not ever.

So the way the Manchester Derby went absolutely wasn't happening yesterday. Herrera came into midfield for added control. United's back four sat approximately a mile deeper, with both Bailly and Smalling all but banned from passing in their own half to counteract Liverpool's press. Young and Rashford stayed as wide as possible, with United's "attack" focused on long balls and crosses, and Ibrahimovic did little more than receive long balls and crosses (and commit fouls). They would've liked to go the set play route, still a massive Liverpool liability, but it's hard to win set plays when you don't attack, with just one corner and three attacking free kicks (two crosses, one wild direct shot).

United's front six pressed fairly effectively for the first 30 minutes (all three of their free kicks came during this spell), especially in the middle third. And it unsettled Liverpool, with the home side not helped by the midfield changes. But United also quickly got into deep defensive possession if Liverpool got into United's half, and also clearly tired by the hour mark, sitting in what was basically a 6-3-1 formation for the majority of the second half.

Mourinho came to do what he did when Chelsea murder-death-killed Liverpool's title bid in 2013-14. He got the 0-0, but he didn't get the 0-1 or 0-2.

35% possession is Manchester United's lowest Premier League total since 2002-03. United took all of two shots in the box – both headers – and that accounted for 33% of their total touches in Liverpool's penalty area. 90 minutes. Six touches in the opposition box. Liverpool only took nine shots, half of their average for the season so far, but United took just seven, 44% of their 16-shots-per-game average.

So both sides got Mourinho'd.

Is this what United will be happy with? The most expensively assembled side the world wholly parking the bus against their bitter rivals? Congrats, guys.

This isn't to detract from United's defensive performance, which really was quite good. De Gea and Herrera especially, but also the entire back four. Blocks, tackles, interceptions, clearances. Denying space for passes, denying opportunities to dribble. Mané and Sturridge both rendered irrelevant, both failing to register a shot or create a chance. But it is to ridicule both their ambition and their attack, in a match that usually means the world to both clubs.

So be it. Liverpool still need to improve in cutting through both an early press and packed defenses; as Klopp said (which he also said after Burnley), patience is a virtue. It's gotten better, it's getting better, but Liverpool are still frustrated too easily. But we're still only eight games into the campaign.

Liverpool also clearly missed Lallana and Wijnaldum in midfield, and it's no coincidence that Lallana's entrance on the hour led to increased Liverpool control, although United's inability to match Liverpool's pace and work-rate for 90 minutes certainly helped. Emre Can unsurprisingly struggled early on, but at least got better throughout the match, and nearly won the match with Liverpool's best chance of the game.

The short version is that we're rightfully annoyed, but at least Liverpool didn't make mistakes. Well, Liverpool didn't make any costly mistakes, conceding possession too easily when pressed early on but quickly back into position to ensure nothing came of it. The one clear defensive horror show – Karius' bad pass after Lovren returned the ball to him around the hour mark – went unpunished when Ibrahimovic couldn't get back onside (and missed the chance anyway).

Still, Manchester United also had the only clear-cut chance of the match: Ibrahimovic's header from a deep cross, only able to put the ball across the six-yard box to no one rather than on goal. Which was about as weak a clear-cut chance as you'll see (I'm stunned it survived the Opta update). 

Meanwhile, Liverpool's best two chances weren't high-value chances – Can surrounded by defenders in the 59th, Coutinho from distance in the 71st – but both would have been goals against the majority of keepers in the Premier League.

It's worth mentioning Valencia's impressive last man tackle on Firmino midway through the second half, but once again, and as always against United, there was David De Gea in the way. As in last season's meeting at Anfield, which ended 0-1 because Liverpool couldn't defend a solitary set play. Even in the Europa League at Anfield last season, where De Gea heroically kept the scoreline down to 2-0 as the world burned around him. Just leave for Real Madrid already.

Again, so be it. It's a better result than Liverpool got in the last four league matches against United. It's a point more than they got last season, even if Liverpool played "better" on that day. Through eight matches, Liverpool now have six points more than they took from comparable fixtures last season.

Be annoyed Liverpool didn't attack as well as we know they can, be annoyed Liverpool didn't score, but also be pleased Liverpool didn't bollux anything up either. It could have been Burnley (congratulations United, that's the first side I think to compare to), but it wasn't. Take the point, and as Liverpool did after the Burnley match, learn from proceedings and move on.

15 October 2016

Liverpool v Manchester United 10.17.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 03.17.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.10.16
0-1 United (h) 01.17.16
1-3 United (a) 09.12.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Swansea (a); 5-1 Hull (h); 3-0 Derby (a)
United: 1-1 Stoke (h); 1-0 Zorya (h); 4-1 Leicester (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Milner 4; Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 3; Henderson, Lovren 1
United: Ibrahimovic 4; Rashford 3; Mata 2; Martial, Pogba, Rooney, Smalling 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Henderson Can Coutinho
Mané Sturridge Firmino

Like last month, the international break was unnecessary and boring but not too harmful. Three players suffering with minor problems had more time to recover, and only Gini Wijnaldum picked up an injury.

So it appears that Liverpool have just two of the usual starters doubtful for this, the most important and anxious of fixtures: Wijnaldum after this week's hamstring pull and Lallana still bothered by the groin problem suffered at Swansea. If either are available, Sturridge is probably left out. I've no real idea, but it seems safer to guess that both are out, which would almost certainly require Coutinho to play in midfield – as he did after changes at Swansea – with Firmino and Mané flanking Sturridge. If possible, Lallana seems marginally more likely to play, just because his injury came a few days earlier.

Lovren and Clyne also dealt with knocks over the international break but are much more likely to be available. But maybe that's just hope, because I don't want to see what happens to Liverpool's defense with both of them missing. Not that I really want to watch Liverpool's defense in any match.

Liverpool have only played two home games this season, but we've seen Liverpool at its best in both: 4-1 over Leicester and 5-1 over Hull. An immediate Liverpool onslaught, opening goals within 20 minutes, a second to extend the lead within 35. Because Liverpool, a concession to give the opposition a modicum of hope, but Liverpool's class winning out, Liverpool's blitzkrieg adding more.

Doing that again would obviously be helpful. But Liverpool matches against Manchester United rarely go according to form or plan. Which may well benefit United. Because we've seen all facets of United's form so far in this short season.

Manchester United are still fighting with the demons accrued over the last couple of years, Louis van Gaal's two seasons still linger. They've underwhelmed at times, they've underperformed at times, and they've looked bang back at it at times.

They started the season as they hoped, with a Community Shield victory followed by three successive league wins. But then the Manchester Derby happened. Then two more consecutive losses happened, including a loss upon return to Europe and an embarrassing 1-3 defeat at Watford. That was followed by a bounce-back against Leicester, a 4-1 win that flattered but still impressed. Then a narrow but routine 1-0 in the Europa League. Then a home match against Stoke where United played even better than they did against Leicester, but drew 1-1 because of finishing and because of Joe Allen.

Swings and roundabouts and peaks and valleys already, under a new manager with different needs and a slightly different system, and still only three points behind Liverpool. It obviously helps when you have the money to spend more on one player last summer than Liverpool have in the last four seasons (net spend, of course).

We pretty much know what we're getting with United's XI. 4-2-3-1: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Pogba; Martial, Mata, Rashford; Ibrahimovic. The big question, as for United as it's been for England, is what to do about Wayne Rooney. Both club and country have been better without him this season, but he's still Wayne Rooney, who still loves playing against Liverpool. I wouldn't be surprised to see him, in place of either Martial or Rashford, with Mata moving out to the right. United's one other line-up decision is Fellaini or Herrera: the more cohesive midfielder (and the better player) or the more physical? Outplay and out-pass Liverpool on their own ground or unsettle Liverpool with height and elbows?

I doubt I need remind how Liverpool routinely struggled against van Gaal's United, at least in the league, with four consecutive league losses against United: three under Rodgers, one under Klopp. Fellaini was a big part of most of those, but Liverpool were a big part of most of those, especially in the one meeting under Klopp. Control the game but don't take your chances and inevitably concede, often on a set play.

United are still bigger and taller than Liverpool, and United are still dangerous on set plays, with four goals from free kicks and corners.

But we also saw what Liverpool were capable of in last season's Europa League meetings. A thorough 2-0 win at home that would have been so much more if not for De Gea, a 1-1 draw away from home where United faded and collapsed after Liverpool's equalizer. That's what Klopp's Liverpool can do to Manchester United, that's what Klopp's Liverpool can do to almost any other side.

Still, this is a different season. It's a different Liverpool – still dangerous at the back, but much much more dangerous up front – and a different Manchester United. With new players bought at eye-watering prices, and a new manager who's consistently foiled and flummoxed Liverpool throughout his career.

But it's still Liverpool and it's still Manchester United. It's still Liverpool versus Manchester United. Just remember to breathe.

03 October 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

That could and probably should have gone a lot worse. But it didn't. But Liverpool won.

Whether that's reassuring or a sign of imminent disaster depends on your weltanschauung.

Over the last year, if Klopp's Liverpool doesn't score in the first half, Klopp's Liverpool are often in trouble. As said in Saturday's match review, that had happened in 16 games prior to this weekend; Liverpool won just four, drawing five and losing seven. And Liverpool were level at 0-0 in three of those four wins, eking out 1-0 victories; the only comeback was 2-1 at Crystal Palace thanks to Benteke's very late and slightly dubious penalty. Liverpool had failed to score in the first half just once this season, and I suspect you still remember the 0-2 loss at Burnley.

Liverpool didn't even put a shot on-target in the first half on Saturday.

It's not as if Klopp's Liverpool necessarily come out guns blazing – Liverpool have actually scored the lowest percentage of goals in the first 15 minutes under Klopp compared to the previous four Liverpool managers – but they tend to score a lot between the 16th and 45th minutes, 38% of all goals scored since Klopp became manager.

Just look at the first goal in the games so far this season:

- Arsenal: 45'
- Burton Albion: 15'
- Tottenham: 43'
- Leicester: 13'
- Chelsea: 17'
- Derby: 24'
- Hull: 17'

Win, win, draw, win, win, win, win. News flash: early Liverpool goals are often good things, and often lead to more.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have conceded a first-half opening goal in nine of Klopp's 36 league matches prior to Saturday. They came back to beat Chelsea (a) and Arsenal (a), drew with Chelsea (h) and West Brom (a), and lost to Palace (h), Watford (a), West Ham (h), Swansea (a), and Burnley (a).

There's a pretty clear distinction between classes of opposition. Liverpool can come back against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, but Liverpool have usually been absolutely boned when conceding early against the likes of Watford, West Ham, Burnley.

And the likes of Swansea, which we saw in last season's 1-3 loss, but which was admittedly with a radically different and under-strength XI. Still, the pattern held.

It didn't hold on Saturday.

Swansea certainly started the better side. They should have opened the scoring in the fifth minute. They did open the scoring in the eighth. Swansea had four clear-cut in the first 26 minutes, somehow only converting one (two missed, both headers, and one saved).

Through the first six league matches of the season, Liverpool had allowed just four clear-cut chances combined: one at Arsenal, two v Leicester, and one at Chelsea.

The most clear-cut chances that Liverpool had previously allowed in a match under Klopp was three, in three different matches last season: 0-3 at Watford, 3-3 v Arsenal, and 1-3 at Swansea. Since 2012-13, Liverpool had allowed four clear-cut chances in four matches: 1-6 at Stoke in 2014-15, 3-2 at QPR in 2014-15 (lol QPR), 1-3 at Southampton in 2012-13, and 1-2 at United in 2012-13. And that's it.

Five clear-cut chances is an egregious amount even for "free-scoring" Liverpool. They've had four or more clear-cut chances in just three league matches under Klopp: 4-1 at Manchester City, 4-1 v Leicester, and 5-1 v Hull. That Swansea created that many chances that good and scored just once is a bit bonkers.

All four of Swansea's first-half big chances came from crosses, as did the fifth in second-half added time, which could have easily spoiled Liverpool's comeback. Two of the early four came from set plays.

How did they happen?

5' - Loss of Liverpool possession on Matip's hopeful cross-field pass leads to a counter down Liverpool's left
8' - Lallana dispossessed in final third leads to counter leads to corner
21' - Swansea possession with Liverpool down to 10 men after Lallana's injury, Sigurðsson's chipped cross coming from the area where Lallana plays
26' - Henderson fouls Cork when Swansea attack from a long header out of defense

To recap: four of four from crosses, three of four from quick transitions from Swansea's half, two of four from set plays. Four clear-cut chances from five shots in total. Liverpool still don't allow a lot of chances, but Liverpool still allow high-value chances.

In case you were wondering where Liverpool still have issues. In case you somehow weren't already aware.

So it should have been game over within half an hour. It should have been an even clearer repeat of 0-2 Burnley, with Liverpool needing a much more difficult comeback. Liverpool were very, very lucky it wasn't. And that luck is a big reason why Francesco Guidolin's out of a job this morning.

But, by hook and by crook, Liverpool held on for those first 30 minutes. Liverpool took 10 or so minutes to settle after Sturridge's introduction, adjusting to the new shape. From five Swansea shots in the first 26 minutes to just three for the rest of the match: Sigurðsson's deep free kick saved in the 44th, Fulton's header blocked in the 72nd, and van der Hoorn late late late chance. From just one Liverpool shot in the first 26 minutes (Lallana from distance not close) to 17 in the subsequent 65.

Still, it ain't as if Liverpool were any great shakes, at least from open play. Swansea still blocked half of Liverpool's total shots. Six of Liverpool's 10 in-box shots were blocked, six of Liverpool's 10 in-box shots came from set plays or the penalty.

And Liverpool's two clear-cut chances came from a set play and a penalty. Thankfully, and in contrast to Swansea, Liverpool took advantage of both of them.

It was just Liverpool's second headed goal of the season, after Firmino's against Burton Albion. It was just Liverpool's third free kick goal, after Coutinho's direct blast at Arsenal and Lovren's back post strike at Chelsea. But it was Liverpool's fourth penalty of the season, through just seven games.

Liverpool won just two penalties in last season's league campaign: Ibe's cross handled by Neil Taylor against Swansea and Benteke brought down at Crystal Palace. And that's it.

This season, Firmino has twice been brought down in the box, Sturridge brought down once, and Elmohamady handled Coutinho's goal-bound effort. It's early, small sample size, random variance, etc but this seems an example of Liverpool's better movement in the final third and increased willingness to get into the box and do something in said box.

That's something.

Basically, the takeaways are easy to pick out. It's reassuring that Liverpool had the fortitude to come back despite all the evil early on, with similar starts leading to awful results in the past. It's reassuring that Liverpool did it despite the long-standing precedent of not being able to do it often enough in this sort of fixture. It's reassuring that Liverpool did it away from home, at a ground where they've historically suffered, and despite needing to change shape and tactics after 20 minutes due to an injury to one of Liverpool's best players so far this season.

But Liverpool still need to do better. Liverpool still need to start better away from home in "winnable" matches; Liverpool still need to defend better against crosses, set plays, and quick transitions. Liverpool still struggle and concede chances when opposition forwards press in Liverpool's half. Liverpool still struggle against deep defenses in open play, even if slightly less than than they have in the past.

Liverpool could have lost, Liverpool probably should have drawn, but Liverpool won.

And we've seen similar to that before as well. Barely October and beginning to draw parallels with 2013-14 probably isn't clever, but we saw this match a few times that season, most notably 2-0 v Hull (needing two set plays to break down a side that embarrassed Liverpool earlier in the season) and 2-1 at West Ham (Gerrard scoring two penalties, Liverpool conceding from a corner to make it nervous).

Win when you don't play well. Survive and come back in a difficult away match. By any means necessary, take the points, learn from it and move on. And then do better next time.

01 October 2016

Liverpool 2-1 Swansea

Fer 8'
Firmino 54'
Milner 84' (pen)


Let's get one thing clear. That was bad. The first half was, no exaggeration, as bad a half as we've seen since Klopp became manager. Liverpool should have been behind by much more than a single goal. It felt like, and was almost the scoreline of, the we're-still-talking-about-it Burnley loss.

But Liverpool won. And that Liverpool won – despite going a goal down early, despite conceding from yet another set play, despite losing Lallana to injury in the 20th minute, despite being behind at halftime, despite failing to put a single shot (from all of four in total) on target in the first half, in one of those much-discussed pitfall away matches – is almost more reassuring than if Liverpool had comfortably won 4-1. Almost.

Just like at Burnley, it started in the worst possible manner. Swansea should have taken the lead three minutes before they did: their first attack, their first of four clear-cut chances, but Borja's header between the center-backs over. Then, their first corner, their first shot on-target, their first goal: Borja beating Clyne at the back post, Lovren deflecting the flick-on to Fer, open for the tap-in. At that point, Karius had faced three corners and two shots on-target and Liverpool had conceded two goals. It's hard to blame him for either.

And there was little response from Liverpool, one long-range not-close shot from Lallana in the ninth minute the sum of Liverpool's attack until the 35th minute. In between, Lallana groin injury saw him replaced by Sturridge, with Coutinho moving into midfield, while Swansea had two more clear-cut chances: Cork tamely hit a deep cross from close range at Karius, while Borja (offside but not called) headed wide when open on another set play.

Liverpool's two decent attacks in the final ten minutes of the half – better than the first 35 at least! – were both blocked by Amat. Again, just like Burnley, Swansea pressed Liverpool into problems, Swansea defended brilliantly, and Swansea had the lead. Even more deservedly than Burnley did.

To put it bluntly, Liverpool have been terrible when they've failed to score in the first half since Klopp became manager. It had happened 16 times in the league. Liverpool had won just four – 1-0 v Swansea, 1-0 v Leicester, 1-0 at Sunderland, and 2-1 at Crystal Palace – drawing five and losing seven. Other than the Palace hilarity, Liverpool needed to keep a clean sheet to do it. Liverpool haven't yet kept a clean sheet in the league this season. Liverpool have kept just one clean sheet away from home in the league in 2016, a 6-0 win at indescribably bad Aston Villa.

Most of Liverpool's goals under Klopp, in contrast to the last few managers, have come in the first half. Liverpool often need to score early to click into gear. Or else.

Not today, Satan.

Because Liverpool responded, without making personnel changes. Liverpool finally put a shot on-target three minutes into the half, Liverpool finally scored nine minutes into the half. As against Arsenal, as against Tottenham (albeit a penalty), as against Chelsea, Liverpool needed a set play goal to break through the wall.

It was all down to the second phase. Coutinho put the free kick into the wall but every attacker took up a clever position as Henderson regrouped, a perfect chip over beating Swansea's broken line, Firmino in acres of space to direct a header past Swansea. Back to even. Time to go.

Between the 46th and 70th minutes, Liverpool took nine shots to Swansea's none, with both Coutinho and Sturridge having excellent opportunities to give Liverpool the lead, both narrowly wide. That Liverpool failed to put the pressure to use annoyed, but it truly seemed a matter of time before the second.

But then things began to ebb, and again, a fair bit of credit goes to Swansea. Guidolin made three changes between the 62nd and 72nd minutes – Barrow for Routledge, Ki for Britton, and Fulton for Fer. Swansea had clearly tired, pressing and pushing in the first half and unable to keep up with Liverpool in the second. But then they were able to keep up. Then they were able to press. For ten minutes, Liverpool were unable to control the game, unable to take a shot, and nearly gave the game away when hassled into a mistake, with Matip necessarily blocking the cross with Liverpool outnumbered in the defensive third, followed by Karius completely missing the corner but Swansea unable to get a player on it.

Still, Liverpool preserved. And Liverpool were rewarded for it, coupled with Swansea defending like Liverpool are prone to. Otherwise known as "cue Yakety Sax." A misplayed clearance by Barrow, Rangel unable to hold off Firmino, then tackling Firmino – not a football tackle but an American football tackle – with Liverpool duly awarded its fourth spot kick so far this season. Which Milner unfailingly converted.

Finally, a marginally undeserved lead, but a lead nonetheless. By hook or by crook, Liverpool on pace to win a match that could have been out of sight after half an hour. Liverpool able to sit back, smother, and counter, Coutinho and Origi missing chances and an almost own goal.

But Liverpool also almost gave it away, in the last minute of the match, under unnecessary pressure, because Liverpool, Rangel's deep cross finding an unmarked van der Hoorn when Karius didn't come, a hesitation and mis-kick thankfully trickling wide.

So yeah, Liverpool weren't good. And I should care, but I don't really care. Because Liverpool won. Because Liverpool did enough in the second half, and Swansea couldn't quite do enough in the first half. Because Liverpool won away at a bottom half side after conceding first for the first time since the aforementioned Palace match last March. Because Liverpool did what they weren't able to do against Burnley, a match we're going to keep mentioning until Liverpool get results more like today's than six weeks ago.

Because we get to look past this and plan for better over the next 16 days (thanks, unnecessary international break!) rather than dwelling on another painful setback. Rather than mad and moaning and complaining and criticizing, we'll see another Liverpool win, three more points, and Liverpool in a very-early-don't-pay-too-much-attention-don't-talk-about-it top four place.

Beat the dross, no matter how, win the league. By hook or by crook, dross beaten. That's all that matters.