22 August 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Burnley

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.


No side can go from "We gonna win the league!" to "The sky is falling!" as fast as Liverpool.

We are damaged as a fanbase.

Admittedly, that was bad. Really bad. It was everything Liverpool did badly in similar matches last season taken to the extreme. An inability to score despite an overwhelming disparity in chances. Unpromising chances created despite multiple shots. A reliance on speculative shots from distance. Dismal shooting accuracy. An early, avoidable goal conceded through an error allowing the opposition to bunker in even tighter; a second goal conceded on a counter-attack to put the match further out of reach. Two goals conceded from three shots – the joint-fewest allowed against any opponent since Klopp took over – with all three from outside the box. It was Liverpool's highest passing and possession totals under Klopp, and Liverpool failed to score. Failed to come close to scoring.

But Liverpool were never going to be fixed in two matches. In less than a season under Jürgen Klopp. It takes time, as much as we'd prefer that it didn't. It took Klopp time at Dortmund, and it takes time for any team to adjust to the type of style that Klopp wants to play.




Saturday was just the second match of the season. It's just the second time we've seen this new 4-3-3 formation. It's the second time that Lovren and Klavan have played together, and also the second time Henderson has been used as the sole deep-lying midfielder. It's the second time that Milner's played at left-back for Liverpool. It's Wijnaldum's second match for Liverpool. Etc., etc.

It is still safe to assume that things will get better, as hard as that might be after that result.

That said, it's not as if we haven't seen these issues before.



Dan's tweet includes cup matches against City and United – two wins and a draw (well, a loss on penalties), conceding just two goals. For consistency's sake, let's just look at the league results.




The above table includes Tottenham, City, Chelsea, and Arsenal home and away, and United at home in the "Big Five"; Newcastle and Watford home and away, and Norwich, Villa, Bournemouth, and Burnley away in "Promoted and Relegated."

It doesn't make for good reading.

There's Liverpool's inability to prevent goals by lesser opposition. There's the goal difference against those opponents; if not for the 6-0 win at a horrific Aston Villa, Liverpool's goal difference would be -3 against promoted and relegated clubs. There's Liverpool's shot creation and accuracy against that opposition. There's that 44% (!!!) save accuracy against those opponents – 14 goals from 25 shots on-target. There's Liverpool's inability to save the opposition's fewer clear-cut chances.

There's the fact that Liverpool have conceded three more goals in the eight matches against promoted and relegated clubs than they have in nine matches against the best of the league. Two at Newcastle, three at Watford, four at Norwich, two against Newcastle, two at Burnley. Liverpool conceded more than once in just two of the nine matches against the "Big Five": three in both games against Arsenal, matches that Liverpool drew and won.

There are lots of bad things that have happened in those matches. But there's also a lot of good things that Liverpool did against better opposition. I'll again remind that Liverpool consistently failed to perform or win against good opposition in the vast majority of matches under the previous manager.

We know where Liverpool need to improve: decision-making at both ends of the pitch. Better movement and intelligence in attack, the elimination of errors (especially when transitioning) in defense – something that's now cost Liverpool the opening goal in both matches this season. The players missing yesterday – Mané and/or Ojo in attack, as well as not using Sturridge as a winger; Matip, Sakho, Can, and Karius in defense – should all help in these regards.

Even after this dismal result, I still believe Liverpool have the players and manager to put it right. Ideally, that'll happen sooner rather than later.

20 August 2016

Liverpool 0-2 Burnley

Goals:
Vokes 2'
Gray 37'

One step forward, two steps back. The more things change...

This is where everything's gone wrong. This is where Liverpool have failed. Not away against good opposition, where Liverpool have space, where Liverpool over-perform. Not in the marquee matches. Away against teams that Liverpool *should* beat, away against teams Liverpool seem to assume they'll beat.

And then they don't. Because Liverpool perpetually struggle to break down a deep defense and Liverpool perpetually do something stupid in defense.

It's made vastly worse, and vastly more difficult when you unnecessarily concede in the second minute. That's when you get 0-3 at Watford and 0-2 at West Ham and 1-3 at Swansea and countless other matches in seasons past.

This match saw every one of Liverpool's previous failings, exacerbated ad infinitum.

Liverpool concede early because they gave the ball away in their own half. Liverpool concede later on a counter-attack with everyone upfield. Liverpool routinely and horrifically fail with everything in the attacking third. Liverpool resort to speculative-at-best shots from distance that almost totally fail to trouble Tom Heaton.

Liverpool haven't been able to break down teams who sit deep and are well-organized for so many seasons in a row it's not even funny. Yes, it happened less with Luis Suarez, but it still happened with Luis Suarez. It was a distinct problem under Brendan Rodgers, and with nine months of Jürgen Klopp, it remains a problem.

And when that's the case, you probably shouldn't gift the opposition a goal within 90 seconds: Clyne's give-away to Gray with Liverpool trying to build from the back, the striker sliding a pass through to his partner for a wonderful finish from the top of the box, Liverpool's defense completely out of position because they're transitioning to attack and don't expect to concede possession in that position.

You may remember similar happening for Arsenal's first goal just six days ago.

Unlike last week, Coutinho couldn't conjure an equalizer from nothing – not for a lack of trying. And failing. Unlike last week, Burnley didn't give Liverpool an inch of space in the final third.

And when Liverpool conceded a second – Sturridge losing possession in the final third, Defour charging upfield, somehow getting around Klavan before finding Gray, who cleverly worked space for an impressive left-footed strike – that seemed that, despite 53 minutes remaining.

Incidentally, Liverpool have now conceded from each of the last five shots on-target they've faced. The only shot Mignolet's saved since the 7th minute against Arsenal was a penalty. Taken individually, it's hard to fault him for any of the goals, but it's also a trend we've seen before.

The struggle is real, and we've also seen that before. Liverpool completed almost six times as many passes as Burnley, Liverpool had 81% possession. Liverpool completed more than twice as many final third passes as Burnley completed passes in total. Liverpool took 26 shots, Burnley took three shots. But 17 of those Liverpool shots came from outside the box. Just five of those 26 shots were on-target: four from outside the box, and only two which remotely troubled the keeper. 23 Liverpool crosses, but just three found a Liverpool player, and just one – a set play in the last minute – led to a shot. 12 Liverpool corners, zero chances created.

The 4-3-3 formation seemed a problem, weak and uncreative in midfield, without the space needed for runners to make an impact. Sturridge ostensibly on the right seemed a problem, putting Liverpool's best natural goal-scorer further away from goal. Milner rather than Our New Favorite Scapegoat seemed a problem, Liverpool missing width and pace on the left. The substitutions seemed meaningless – Origi for Sturridge, Moreno for Milner, Grujic for Lallana – just different pegs in the same problem holes with the game probably already gone. It's easy to scream, "play 4-2-3-1, play 4-4-2, do something different!" But we've seen Liverpool similarly bad in similar matches with different players, different formations, and different managers.

Let's be fair to the opposition. Burnley's shape was fantastic; Burnley's center-backs blocked, headed, and cleared everything; Burnley's two goals were exceptionally well-taken. But Liverpool seem to have a special talent for making the opposition look that good.

This couldn't have gone worse. The players were bad, the tactics were bad, the substitutions didn't help. The only positive is that no one got hurt.

Well, that and Liverpool might learn a lesson. It is only the second week of the season, after all. That they haven't yet doesn't bode well, but we needed the reminder. Not everything was fixed with last week's euphoric win. There are more matches like this than there are matches like last week's.

There are still miles upon miles to go to even come close to achieving anything.

19 August 2016

Liverpool at Burnley 08.20.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.04.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.26.14
4-0 Liverpool (a) 04.25.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 10.12.09

Last match:
Liverpool: 4-3 Arsenal (a)
Burnley: 0-1 Swansea (h)

Referee: Lee Mason

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

With Sadio Mané almost certainly out due to a slight shoulder injury, Liverpool have two options: either the same formation as at Arsenal, with Can coming into midfield and Lallana shifting into attack, or a switch to 4-2-3-1 with either Sturridge or Origi up front, Lallana-Firmino-Coutinho in the line of three, and two from Wijnaldum, Henderson, and Can in midfield.

This, much more than last week's match, will be evidence of how determined Klopp is to use a 4-3-3 formation this season. On paper, it's a match seemingly better suited for a 4-2-3-1. Liverpool will have a lot more of the ball. Liverpool will need less of the breaking-the-lines counter-attack from midfield, with less emphasis on pressing in midfield. Liverpool will need more cutting edge up front: attackers capable of going around and through a resilient defense and single-handedly creating and scoring chances when there are seven or eight opposition players behind the ball.

But 4-3-3 has seemed the preferred formation so far this short season, and I wouldn't necessarily be surprised to see it again, with Sturridge/Origi again left out, or with one as the central striker, Firmino moving to the right, and three from Lallana, Wijnaldum, Henderson, and Can in midfield.

The other line-up question is, unsurprisingly, at left back. Will it be Milner or Moreno? Too many pixels, too many words, too much ink has been written, said, and spilled about Moreno's performance last week. We know it wasn't good, but it also wasn't as bad as made out. And in a match like tomorrow's should be, Liverpool could need his pace and width. But Milner's fit again, and, yes, Moreno wasn't good last week. Milner's steadier, Milner's a better crosser, and Milner can get up and down the pitch as well, if not as quickly. We need to see what Milner's capable of in this position if he's going to be used there with any regularity this season, and tomorrow's match should be a decent opportunity to do so.

Jöel Matip's also back from injury (while Sakho and Lucas aren't far off), but I'd be surprised if he takes the place of either Klavan or Lovren. I suspect his first appearance will be Liverpool's cup tie at Burton Albion next Tuesday.

Burnley struggled at home against Swansea on opening day, a tepid 0-1 loss with the visitors scoring late. Less possession, worse passing, and seven fewer shots, despite being on their own ground, and being a newly-promoted side looking to impress against what might be one of their rivals for relegation. The loss was Burnley's first in a league match since December 2015, finishing the second half of their Championship-winning campaign unbeaten. Welcome back to the Premier League.

That said, basically all of Burnley's chances came from either set plays or counter-attacks, even though they were at home, even though they were against Swansea. And we all know how much Liverpool love messing up at least one of those opportunities in matches that Liverpool are supposed to win.

Burnley's XI will pretty much be the same as last week's. Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Marney, Defour, Arfield; Gray, Vokes. The only change is in midfield: record signing Steven Defour replacing recently sold David Jones. Jon Flanagan is, of course, ineligible due to the terms of his loan.

It'll be 4-4-2, it'll be two compact lines of four, it'll be reliant on keeping Liverpool out and hoping Andre Gray or Sam Vokes can conjure something on the break. Gray scored 23 goals last season, and had chances last week. He just couldn't take them. That probably won't last.

More than half of Burnley's likely XI were a part of the sides which faced Liverpool in 2014-15. Which twice lost to Liverpool in 2014-15 without scoring. Both of those games were too close for comfort, both saw Burnley defend reasonably well, but both saw Burnley struggle to create anything in Liverpool's half, with one shot on-target (from 26 in total) over 180 minutes.

Don't do anything dumb in defense, and prove that this is a better attack than we saw in away matches where Liverpool were heavily favored last season. We still remember the 0-2 at Newcastle and at 0-3 Watford, the 1-3 at Swansea and 1-1 at West Brom.

Last week was a tremendous, if unnecessarily frightening, way to start the campaign. But this will be an entirely different challenge than last week, one which has often been harder for Liverpool to navigate.

15 August 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 4-3 Arsenal

Match data from Stats Zone, except average player position from Liverpool FC.


"It was a game of contrast between two halves but I felt as well that mentally we kept going and we have been absolutely remarkable on that front. But I believe that the first goal was a big shock for us because we didn’t see that coming in the first half and maybe we didn’t recover from that." – Arsene Wenger

Not really.

No matter how bad Liverpool seemed in the first half – and it was pretty bad! – Arsenal didn't do much to Liverpool. Yes, Arsenal pressed effectively, taking advantage of Liverpool's struggles playing out from the back and the unfamiliar and underwhelming midfield. But Arsenal took fewer shots. Arsenal struggled to get its out-of-position lone striker into the game far more than Liverpool did. Arsenal created just one clear-cut chance: Walcott's penalty, completely unnecessary and unforgivable from Moreno. Arsenal's goal came from another self-induced horror show, with Lallana conceding possession and Moreno charging heedlessly upfield.

Meanwhile, Liverpool still had decent chances from Firmino (both missed), Mané (blocked), Klavan (blocked), and Wijnaldum (saved). 0-0 wouldn't have been an undue scoreline, far more deserved than the unfathomable 0-0 in this fixture last season where both sides where vastly better.

So if 0-0 would have been merited, it's hard to complain about 1-1. Yes, Liverpool needed an absolutely mind-boggling free kick from Coutinho to level matters, and yes, that probably did knock Arsenal for a loop (although they did have the same 15-minute break that Liverpool had to recover). But then Liverpool had that second half, as thoroughly dominating Arsenal in the opening 20 minutes as anyone's thoroughly dominated Arsenal, permanently camped in Arsenal half, with six shots to none, three goals to none, and something like 65% possession. From Coutinho's opener to Mané for Liverpool's fourth, Liverpool didn't put a single shot off-target: five shots on-target (four goals), two blocked.

For the most part, the match was even: from 1' to 45' and from 65' to 90'. But in those 20 minutes, Liverpool blew Arsenal completely out of every body of water. And that's why Liverpool deservedly won the match.

Arsenal were out-shot at home just three times last season: narrowly by Tottenham and Chelsea in a 1-1 draw and 0-1 loss respectively, and massively in a 2-1 win against Manchester City, where Arsenal scored two first-half goals and proceeded to hold the the defending champions at arm's length.

Two of those three matches – 0-1 Chelsea and 2-1 City – were the only two times that Arsenal were held under 10 shots at the Emirates last season. Despite conceding those three goals, Liverpool – for the most part – did well at both ends of the pitch, even if the middle was a bit shakier (especially in the first half).

As I've frequently mentioned, Liverpool's shot selection was fairly terrible last season, routinely settling for (or forced to take) too many shots from distance. Only 53.9% of Liverpool's 629 shots came inside the box last season, only five teams had a lower proportion of inside-the-box shots.

12 of Liverpool's 16 shots yesterday – 75% – came from inside the box, a proportion equalled or bettered in just three league matches last season: 1-3 at United (where Liverpool took just eight shots), 1-1 at Everton, and 1-0 against Swansea.

To be fairer, Liverpool were usually better in this regard against tougher opposition. 73% inside the box at Arsenal last season (15 shots), 62% at Chelsea (16 shots), 71% at City (14 shots). But not in all of the away games, with just 33% at Tottenham (12 shots) and 36% at Leicester (14 shots).

Liverpool's shooting, Liverpool's scoring, and Liverpool's result yesterday weren't completely out of the ordinary away from home against good opponents under Jürgen Klopp. I'm sure you remember 3-1 at Chelsea and 4-1 at Manchester City. Liverpool drew 0-0 with Tottenham in Klopp's first match. Klopp's sides have now travelled to Stamford Bridge, the Etihad, White Hart Lane, and the Emirates, and are unbeaten, with three wins and one draw, with a +6 goal difference (11 scored, five conceded). I'm quite tempted to say "bring on Old Trafford and Goodison," but you know how I feel about tempting fate.

Nonetheless, this was the first time Arsenal conceded four goals at the Emirates in more than seven years, since a 4-1 loss to Chelsea in May 2009. These are the only two matches where Arsenal conceded four at the Emirate since the stadium opened a decade ago. As mentioned in the match review and in numerous other places, it's only the second time that Liverpool have won at Arsenal in the last 16 seasons, in both league and cup competition.

Liverpool scored from a set play – having scored just two direct free kicks in all competitions last season. Liverpool scored twice from extended, patient, probing build-up, including that unbelievable, 19-pass, 1:17-long third goal. And Liverpool scored from a counter-attack blitz, winning possession then letting Mané do Mané. The goals were varied, and the attacks were varied, and Liverpool profited immensely.

And while Liverpool's scoring feats, especially in the 20-minute post-halftime blitz, garnered all the headlines, Liverpool's killing of the game after conceding a third was nearly as impressive.



Liverpool mostly restricted Arsenal to the middle third and the right flank, keeping Arsenal out of dangerous positions. Liverpool weren't massively out-possessed, doing reasonably well in maintaining possession once winning possession and trying to get into Arsenal's half. But at the same time, when Liverpool had to hoof clear, Liverpool were happy to hoof clear and regroup. Liverpool took the only two shots during this stretch: Firmino and Henderson's apparently on-target efforts necessarily blocked.

And Liverpool's secure defense wasn't down to a supreme tackling or intercepting performance, with Arsenal forced to make more defensive actions to stop potential Liverpool attacks rather than vice versa. Liverpool were simply well-organized, with two solid bands of five and four in midfield and defense. Liverpool stayed in position and stayed compact without dropping too deep. Klavan and Lovren were both impressive, heading and hoofing multiple crosses clear. And Liverpool made sure not to give away stupid, dangerous free kicks, committing just three fouls – all deep in Arsenal's half – while winning four time-wasting free kicks in the middle third.

But Liverpool would still need help. Arsenal twice made it into Liverpool's box in added time. Walcott stood on the ball and fell over in the first instance (albeit with three Liverpool defenders in position to possibly block or tackle); Cazorla's cross hit Monreal in the back after a lay-off in the second instance. Luck's good and being good is good, but it's always best to be lucky and good.

Yes, Arsenal have been consistently poor on opening day for a while now, with a record of 1W-3D-3L since 2010-11. Yes, Arsenal missed Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Gabriel in defense, and Özil and Giroud in attack. Yes, Liverpool have been better away from home against good sides, especially compared to Liverpool's record – both home and away, but more so away – against the lesser lights who won't and don't give Liverpool space to play or space to counter. Yes, Liverpool still have multiple areas where improvement's needed.

But this is still a very welcome way to start the campaign. The next goal is making those phenomenal 20 minutes happen more regularly. Liverpool need to hit these heights – heights we infrequently saw last season, but saw nonetheless – with much more consistency.

14 August 2016

Liverpool 4-3 Arsenal

Goals:
Walcott 31'
Coutinho 45+1' 56'
Lallana 49'
Mané 63'
Oxlade-Chamberlain 64'
Chambers 76'

If we're in for 38 matches like there, I'm not gonna make it. None of us will. No one gets out of here alive.

That was bananas. And wholly unexpected after a tire fire of a first half. Arsenal were no great shakes – not atypical in an opening day match – but Liverpool's midfield was broken, Liverpool couldn't piece together few-and-far-between bits of promise in attack, and Liverpool continued to do some incredibly dumb things in its own half.

It started, unsurprisingly, with Alberto Moreno, our new favorite scapegoat. And, at times, rightfully so. Like when he brainlessly dives in on Walcott after Henderson's failed clearance on the edge of the box, a clear, needless penalty.

Mignolet saved Walcott's mediocre spot kick, but we weren't out of the woods. Ball don't lie, etc. Barely a minute later, Lallana turned into traffic when trying to play out of defense and is cleverly robbed by Coquelin, his tackle falling to Iwobi, who found Walcott in miles of space where Moreno should have been. To be slightly fairer to our new favorite scapegoat, his job is often to burst forward quickly, providing width and an outlet down the left, but you can't help but think he should be smarter in that position. Maybe wait under Liverpool actually establish some semblance of possession? This time, Walcott made no mistake with this finish, arrowed into the far corner under Lovren's attempted block and a sprawling goalkeeper.

But Coutinho single-handedly redeemed the half, winning a foul on 45 minutes before smashing in an unstoppable free kick from 30 yards out. Our magical unicorn, once again attempting to score Liverpool's goal of the season in the first match of said season, for the second year running. Level at intermission and lucky to be so.

And there was that second half. That's what Liverpool are capable of, for both good and evil. Three goals in less than 15 minutes and nearly a fourth. Then two goals conceded in 11 minutes, from switching off and then a set play.

Coutinho remained the epicenter of everything good in attack, first releasing Wijnaldum with a typically tricky blind outside-of-the-boot throughball. Wijnaldum crossed to Lallana, seemingly losing the opportunity by taking it on his chest but actually creating the space to get away from Monreal and somehow beat Cech at the near post. Seven minutes later, Coutinho finished off a 19-pass move, charging into the box to convert Clyne's low cross in front of a slow-to-react Rob Holding. And two minutes after that, he should have had a hat-trick, but a shot similar to his previous goal was a foot too close to Cech.

Thankfully, Mané soon got Liverpool's fourth, a move that almost immediately justified both his price tag and hype. Lallana's pass over the top found him in space, his speed taking him behind both Monreal and Chambers before his footwork took him around and through Monreal and Chambers, cutting in from wide right before unleashing a rocket left-footer. That's what he was bought for: a release valve over the top, pace, trickery, and goals goals goals with either foot.

Liverpool would need that fourth.

That should have been it. Liverpool were three up against a demoralized Arsenal, who had also lost both Iwobi and Ramsey through injury. But, because Liverpool, it wasn't, and because Arsenal, it was the accidental substitutes who changed the game.

First, with Liverpool still glorying in their fourth goal, Oxlade-Chamberlain broke down Liverpool's right, released by the other substitute Cazorla, somehow cutting between Clyne and Lallana before a deflected shot squirmed past Mignolet. Then, with Arsenal actually almost starting to believe, and at least reasserting possession and control, Liverpool failed when defending a set play. To be fair, it was immaculate delivery by Cazorla and Chambers jumping highest; well-taken and well-scored. There was little that Liverpool could do about it aside from not conceding the free kick in the first place. Shit happens. But shit happens to Liverpool too often.

Sigh. There were still 15 minutes plus injury time to go. Liverpool were rocking, and all the memories of Southampton, Newcastle, etc. from last season came roaring back.

But for all the nail-biting and heart palpitations, Arsenal didn't take a shot after scoring their third. Substitutes Can and Origi were a massive factor in that: the former calming and solidifying the midfield, the latter both a bother and holding play up well when Liverpool hoofed clear. The back four looked miles better, especially Klavan and our new favorite scapegoat, making sure the speedy Walcott and Bellerin had little space on that flank. Liverpool won free kicks and corners and Liverpool time-wasted. By hook and by crook, Liverpool held on.

Deep breaths. It was the best of Liverpool and the worst of Liverpool, the back-to-back 90 minutes against Barcelona and Mainz smashed into a single match. It was Liverpool's potential up front but Liverpool's terror at the back, but it was also the same surprising ability to kill the game that we saw at Dortmund last season.

Liverpool almost never win at Arsenal. Before today, they'd done it just once in the last 15 years, in 20 visits. No matter if Arsenal were missing their three best center-backs, no matter if it's the first game of the season, no matter if Liverpool came too close for comfort to losing a three-goal lead. Any win at Arsenal is a good win.

As we saw in preseason and hoped was true, there's a real team in there. There's a very, very capable blitzkrieg attack, ability in midfield, and the defense really doesn't look bad most of the time as long as no one does something dumb. For all the flaws, this is a very promising start. But Liverpool still have quite a long way to go to put it all together.

Liverpool just scored four goals at Arsenal and won there for just the second time in 15 years, and still have that much room to potentially grow.

13 August 2016

Liverpool at Arsenal 08.14.16

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-3 (h) 01.13.16
0-0 (a) 08.24.15
1-4 Arsenal (a) 04.04.15
2-2 (h) 12.21.14

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 0-4 Mainz (a); 4-0 Barcelona (n); 1-2 Roma (n)
Arsenal: 3-2 City (n); 8-0 Viking FK (a); 3-1 Chivas (n)

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Clyne Lovren Klavan Moreno
Henderson Can Wijnaldum
Mané Firmino Coutinho

We're here. After much-needed respite following last season's a-match-every-three-days grind and the disappointing finish to both league and cup competition. After a promising summer, with encouraging signings and encouraging preseason performances and results.

Now, real football's back.

And, because Liverpool, we've no idea how it's going to play out. Liverpool could be very good. Liverpool could be very similar to last season. Liverpool are already coping with injuries. Liverpool are going to be challenged immediately, with one of the more difficult fixtures to start the season.

Yep, football's back.

As Sturridge likely fit enough for just a spot on the bench, it seems the only line-up question is Henderson or Lallana. Liverpool will play 4-3-3, the formation we've seen for the majority of preseason. Liverpool will probably go with Klavan over Matip, as he's had more time partnered with Lovren over the last few weeks. Firmino will play as the false-ish nine, flanked by Mané and Coutinho. Clyne and Moreno will start because they're Liverpool's only two available senior full-backs. Can will sit in front of the back four, with two from Wijnaldum, Henderson, and Lallana in front of him.

Despite how important Lallana has been under Klopp – he's become both the epitome of Klopp's gegenpressing style and Liverpool's struggles in front of the opposition goal – I suspect he'll be the one on the bench, at least to start the campaign. Wijnaldum, Liverpool's second most-expensive signing of the summer and so impressive going forward, seems a certain inclusion. Henderson provides a bit more protection and calm possession than Lallana, which'll be needed away from home against last season's runners-up, and is still Liverpool's captain. And Lallana's a handy option to have off the bench, able to come into either midfield or attack if Liverpool need to change the game.

Meanwhile, Arsenal remain Arsenal. They will be very good. They're always very good. They've been very good over the summer, unbeaten in five preseason matches. Despite making the fewest signings of any of the "big clubs," they've had a good summer just by adding Granit Xhaka, exactly the type of player they've lacked.

And, because Arsenal (and just like Liverpool), they'll be missing key players. Mertesacker and Gabriel are out injured – a very big concern against Liverpool's promising attack – as are Wilshere and Welbeck. Özil, Koscielny, and Giroud didn't play in preseason, late to return after the Euros.

Which makes Arsenal's likely XI Cech; Bellerin, Chambers, Monreal, Gibbs; Elneny, Xhaka; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Iwobi; Alexis. It could be Debuchy or youngster Rob Holding in central defense rather than Monreal. Coquelin or Cazorla could start in midfield; Cazorla or Joel Campbell in attack. Maybe Arsenal rush back Koscielny, Özil, and/or Giroud given this fixture's importance, although that's not really Wenger's style.

Regardless, they'll be Arsenal, looking to keep possession, slice and dice through you, breaking lines and accumulating shots. Which could suit Liverpool, giving Liverpool space to counter-attack, with the pace of Mané and the creation of Coutinho and Firmino getting chances against a makeshift defense. If, of course, Liverpool's defense can keep Arsenal out long enough to provide those counter-attack chances. Which, as we all know, is a pretty big "if."

Liverpool certainly could have done with an easier fixture to start the campaign. They've won at Arsenal just once in the last 15 seasons: under Dalglish in the second match of 2011-12, a promising beginning to what was ultimately a very disappointing campaign. Last season saw a 0-0 in the third match, with Arsenal unbelievably keeping Liverpool out in the first half and Liverpool unbelievably keeping Arsenal out in the second half.

But it's not the worst thing to be so challenged at the inception. Set a marker, start as you mean to continue. And, not to be completely cliché, but it's the Premier League; anything can happen. See: Hull 2-1 Leicester.

It's the first game of the season; there will be 37 more over the next 10 months. But it's massive: because it's the first, because of the fixture, because of Liverpool's potential. I'm already counting the minutes, which always seems a recipe to disaster.

Goodbye, sanity and serenity. Welcome back, real football.

11 August 2016

Liverpool Season Preview 2016-17

For reasons both internal and external, no one has really any idea where Liverpool will finish this season.

Could Liverpool win the league? I mean, maybe. I guess. We all saw what Leicester did last season. Can't hurt to hope. (It always hurts to hope.) 


Could Liverpool finish Top 4? Absolutely. They've got the talent, they've got the manager.


Could Liverpool improve but only finish sixth or seventh? Without a doubt.

It's up to Liverpool, but it's not up to Liverpool.


The Season That Was...

According to the fancy stats, Liverpool weren't bad in 2015-16. A lot of the time, Liverpool didn't look just the eighth-best side in the country. 3-1 Chelsea, 4-1 and 3-0 Manchester City, 4-0 Everton, 4-1 Stoke, 3-3 Arsenal, etc., not to mention that Europa League run. In addition to the European final, Liverpool made it to the League Cup final, only losing on penalties. They were only the second side to beat champions Leicester, who lost only three times all season, and the first to hold Leicester scoreless.

Liverpool took the second-most shots in the league and allowed the second-fewest shots. Liverpool had the third-best total shot differential and the third-best shots on-target differential, behind Manchester City and Tottenham in both categories. By Michael Caley's numbers, Liverpool had the fifth-best Expected Goals, the third-best Expected Goals allowed, and the fourth-best Expected Goal Difference.

And those stats were all an improvement on 2014-15, some by vast margins.

But in practice, Liverpool scored the sixth-most goals in the league and conceded the ninth-fewest. In practice, Liverpool conceded more goals when winning – 20 – than any other side in the league; I suspect you remember Liverpool leading Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, Sion, Everton, Southampton (twice), West Brom, Arsenal, Sunderland, Newcastle, and Sevilla, only to draw or lose. In practice, there was that stretch from the end of August through mid-February where Liverpool conceded a goal from the first shot on-target in 21 of the 26 games where Liverpool conceded.

Liverpool had real problems at the back, real problems with cohesion and fixture congestion, and real problems with injuries. And, as I suspect you also remember, Liverpool had problems up front, most specifically Liverpool's too-frequent inability to break down a deep, determined defense. See: 0-2 Newcastle, 0-3 Watford, 0-1 Manchester United, etc.

So how are Liverpool going to fix these issues?


Transfer Business



I didn't include transfer fees because A) they differ from outlet to outlet, B) incentives that may or may not be reached, and C) wages are just as important and we ain't getting those confirmed, but it's a net spend of around £20m. Which will be in the negative numbers as soon as Liverpool can find someone to take Christian Benteke.

Two central midfielders, two central defenders, two goalkeepers, and a blazing fast, goal-scoring winger in; bits and bobs and Ibe and Skrtel and Joe Allen out.

The ten players sold by Liverpool – plus the loaned-out Flanagan, Bogdan, and Ward – played 5,745 league minutes for Liverpool last season. The seven players signed by Liverpool played 17,149 league minutes for their sides last season. None, except Manninger, have been added just to make up the numbers.

By position, Mané replaces Ibe, Wijnaldum replaces Allen, Matip and Klavan replace Skrtel and Toure, Grujic replaces Rossiter (kind of), Karius and Manninger replace Ward and Bogdan (for now). Most of the players that Liverpool sold (aside from the center-backs and Allen) featured infrequently last season. Every player that Liverpool bought is an upgrade.


More importantly, all of these signings have addressed problem areas. Mané provides much needed speed and goals in attack, replacing a pacy young winger who did little more than dribble. Karius provides much needed competition for Mignolet. Wijnaldum and Grujic should provide more pressing, mobility, and goals from midfield. Matip and Klavan will assuredly be better defenders (and passers) than Skrtel and Toure.

Both Mané and Wijnaldum are shot monsters from inside the box; while Liverpool took the second-most shots in the league last season, only five teams – Watford, Swansea, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, and Stoke – took a lower proportion of their shots from inside the box than Liverpool last season. Mané, Wijnaldum, and Grujic can all press and hassle when out of possession. Matip, Grujic, and Klavan add height to a squad that desperately needs it, and at 5'9", both Mané and Wijnaldum are more than capable in the air, both having scored multiple headers last season.


There seems a cohesive plan behind the signings, and it's an extension of the plan Liverpool started to implement last season, while also also addressing last season's weaknesses.

Liverpool still have players to get rid of: Benteke and Balotelli almost certainly, possibly Markovic, Luis Alberto, and Andre Wisdom, among others, as well. Liverpool still have a big (if unbalanced and too mediocre) squad and Liverpool will play something like 10-15 fewer games this campaign. And Liverpool could and probably should still add another player or two: there's a massive hole at left-back, and a slightly smaller hole at right-back. 



Preseason

We saw the best of Liverpool and the worst of Liverpool in this summer's nine (!!!) preseason matches.

It's rarely smart or safe to read too much into preseason, but Liverpool were unconscionably good at both ends of the pitch against Barcelona. Liverpool were less good but still impressive against AC Milan. An understrength Liverpool looked competent against lower league opposition in the first three matches.

But Liverpool were much less impressive against Chelsea and Roma, and abhorrent against Mainz, albeit with a very different XI one day after the Barcelona match.


So what did we learn? Liverpool have the potential to be very good: if they're firing on all cylinders, if they have space to counter-attack, if they don't make mistakes in defense. And Liverpool still have the potential to be last season's Liverpool: stuttering against deep, determined defenses and vulnerable on set plays and counter-attacks.

We learned that Liverpool will press even more ferociously; it's no coincidence that all four goals against Barcelona came from winning possession high up the pitch. We learned that Mané adds a much-needed new dimension to Liverpool's attack, that Marko Grujic might be more ready than initially thought, that we should expect much more dynamism from midfield this season, and that Liverpool's preferred formation appears to be a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 we saw most often last season, at least for now.


Tactics and Formation

Once again, we enter a season not entirely sure of what Liverpool's best XI, or preferred formation, actually is. This is one of the (many) downsides of needing to sign three, four, five new starters every summer.


It *seems* that 4-3-3 will be the most frequently used formation given what we've seen over the last month.




This formation appears to be somewhat similar to the 4-3-2-1 formation which Klopp first deployed upon joining Liverpool, but Liverpool will look to get much more from central midfield: more pressing, more players in the box, more shots, more goals. Wijnaldum specifically was bought to break lines and get into the box. Lallana looks more likely to play in this position rather than in attack. Both Henderson and Can are capable of getting forward, even if we've not seen enough from either during their Liverpool careers. Coutinho will cheat infield, Firmino and/or Sturridge will drop deep, and Mané will run in behind, as will Origi when he plays.

And in theory, a three-man midfield will offer more protection to what was a sometimes vulnerable defense last season, as long as they've got the legs to get back and get into position. So far, it looks as if Wijnaldum, Lallana, Henderson, Grujic, and Can have the legs.

But Liverpool have options.




4-2-3-1 still seems to me the best way of getting Liverpool's two biggest goal-threats – Sturridge and Firmino – on the pitch. We've learned over the last two seasons that Liverpool cannot rely on Sturridge's availability, but when he's available, he's Liverpool's best scorer. There's no argument about it. Liverpool are a better side when he plays. And I suspect he'll be better in this formation.

As we saw last season, this 4-2-3-1 can easily become 4-4-2 with both Sturridge and Origi or Ings playing, and even when Firmino partners one of the strikers.

Liverpool will almost certainly start the season with this 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 formation, but don't expect to always see this formation. I'm not saying Liverpool will rotate heavily – and Klopp's definitively saying Liverpool won't rotate heavily. The last time Liverpool were without European football, in 2013-14, only 16 players played at least 700 league minutes. Last season, it was 18, nearly 19 (Origi was 31 minutes shy), with 34 different players appearing in the league (to be fair, five of those players played one half or less). We're not seeing that this season.

But Liverpool have options, and will use the options at its disposal, as players are available and make their claims, and as Klopp sees fit.


Versatility

Beginning last season, and with almost all of this summer's signings, Liverpool have become increasingly focused on versatility, mostly in midfield and attack, but even in defense. Versatility in formations and versatility in playing positions. We've seen more of Firmino as the nine, false or not, during preseason than we did in the second half of last season. We've seen Mané on either flank or behind the striker and Lallana in both midfield and attack. Wijnaldum will play as both a midfielder in a two or three-man group, at the #10, and can even be used as a left-sided attacker if need be. Lovren has played at both center-back positions throughout preseason, and Milner looks as if he might well be first-choice left-back.

No more square pegs in round holes, because Liverpool are trying to eliminate having square pegs in the first place. Liverpool need adaptable pegs, which aligns with Klopp's "team, not players" aesthetic.


Key Players

So it's hard to pick just one or two key players. Coutinho was clearly Liverpool's most important last season: joint-third in goals, fourth in assists, joint-third in key passes, and first in total shots (league only). As went Coutinho, so went Liverpool. Firmino had more goals and assists – ten and seven, 0.77 NPG+A per 90 minutes – but Coutinho was more influential, played more of a role in more matches, for both good and ill.


Liverpool should be much better balanced this season.

In attack, an already impressive Firmino will improve in his second season, in consistency if nothing else. Mané's pace gives Liverpool something they've desperately lacked. Sturridge, Origi, and Ings should all be more available after injury-ravaged campaigns. And Coutinho should improve when not having to shoulder so much of Liverpool's creativity and scoring (shoot less, Phil!).

In midfield, Wijnaldum, Lallana (when he plays there), Henderson, and Grujic look capable of adding more open play goals than we've seen from central midfield in years; last season Liverpool only got eight – three from Milner (plus four more from penalties and set plays), two from Henderson, two from Allen, and one from Emre Can. That total will rise this season.

In defense, there's still the worry at full-back, either full-back, because Moreno remains Moreno and Milner's a midfielder and Joe Gomez is hurt again and he's really a center-back anyway and oh no what will Liverpool do if Clyne gets injured. But Liverpool will be much, much better at center-back. Matip especially is an upgrade, massively experienced for a 25-year-old and as comfortable in possession as we've seen since Agger, while Klavan also looks the part and the Lovrenaissance should continue apace. And Liverpool should be much better at goal-keeper (it's hard to be worse than a 60% save average, Simon!). At the very least, Mignolet should regress (progress?) to the mean, and I'm actually excited to see what Karius can do – as much for his distribution and claiming as his shot-stopping – once he returns from a broken hand.

And almost all of the players mentioned are either in or just hitting their prime. Coutinho, Firmino, Sturridge, Mané, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lovren, Matip, Clyne, Moreno, and Ings are all between the 24 and 27-years-old. It's time.


Injuries

Of course, you may have noticed there are a lot of "well, if Player X stays healthy" in the above section.

Liverpool were one of the most injury-ravaged sides last season, as Sturridge, Origi, Ings, Henderson, Sakho, Gomez, etc. all missed significant time. Only relegated Newcastle had more regular starters miss more minutes. That should ease with fewer matches this season.


Nonetheless – and I don't want to go all renowned-Twitter-egg-slash-fake-doctor here – Liverpool have suffered a disproportionate amount of injuries during preseason. Sturridge, Karius, Milner, Grujic, Gomez, Sakho, and Lucas all picked up injuries of varying severity over the last six weeks, and all of them look likely to miss Sunday's trip to Arsenal at the very least.

A full preseason, a new fitness staff and physio, and no European competition should help Liverpool avoid the injury issues incurred last season. But we're not off to the most promising start. And Liverpool won't achieve what they're capable of if injuries are as debilitating as they were last season.


The Rest of the Premier League

Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea all have new managers, and all of them should improve their new clubs. United added Pogba, Mkhitaryan, and Ibrahimovic. City added Sané, Stones, Gündogan, Nolito, and Marlos Moreno. Arsenal are still Arsenal, and even just adding Xhaka will make them better. Tottenham have had another summer to coalesce under Pochettino, with what was already one of the most-settled but youngest XIs in the league last season. And Leicester, who actually honestly for real won the league, have only lost N'Golo Kante (so far).

This league is stacked. It is the most stacked I've seen. And that means we could see the second-best Liverpool in the last eight seasons – aside from 2013-14, obviously – but still see Liverpool finish outside the Champions League places.

It is especially stacked at the top, but increased revenue from top to bottom means that even the bottom half will be better as well. And Liverpool have too often struggled against the so-called dross of the league.

At least United, City, Chelsea, and Arsenal are under more pressure than Liverpool. They've got to be good, right away. Liverpool, with Klopp having signed a new six-year deal (!!!), and with rightfully lower expectations, have a bit more breathing space.


August is the cruelest month, scheduling. Also, so is September.




Liverpool will face four of those aforementioned top six clubs in the first month of the season. The campaign starts at Arsenal, then Liverpool travel to Burnley and Tottenham, then the first home game of the season against Leicester, then a trip to Chelsea. And because of renovations to Anfield, Liverpool's first three matches, as well as the second round of the League Cup, will be away from home.

But that might not be as bad as it appears on first glance. Liverpool were initially better away from home after Klopp became manager, because Liverpool had space to counter and opponents to press.

Also, Liverpool were actually pretty decent in these fixtures last season. The results in those four matches last season? Draw, draw, win, win.

Liverpool have a chance to make the league take notice with its first five fixtures. It's a long campaign – it's always a long campaign – but Liverpool, like Leicester last season, need to start as they mean to continue.


In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast...

Liverpool have added quality and needed pieces to an already interesting squad. Liverpool appear to have a coherent (and fun!) plan. Liverpool have a top-quality, charismatic manager. Liverpool aren't there yet, but Liverpool are well on their way to developing an identity.

At their best, Liverpool are tremendous to watch, a gegenpressing, crazy goal-scoring, hurricane of a side, capable of beating you up and beating you down. Yes, yes, preseason, but that Barcelona match rivaled and probably exceeded any of last season's superlative performances. At their worst, well, *looks at last season's table*.

For now, don't worry about where Liverpool will finish. Expect Liverpool will be better. Look forward to what Liverpool can and should do on the pitch.

Liverpool have those players in attack. Liverpool have Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool haven't hurt us yet.

Let's have fun.

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.