21 September 2018

Liverpool v Southampton 09.22.18

Liverpool v Southampton 09.22.18

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.11.18
3-0 Liverpool (a) 11.18.17
0-0 (h) 05.07.17
0-1 Southampton (h; League Cup) 01.25.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 PSG (h); 2-1 Tottenham (a); 2-1 Leicester (a)
Leicester: 2-2 Brighton (h); 2-0 Palace (a); 1-0 Brighton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Firmino, Salah 2; Milner, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
Southampton: Ings 3; Højbjerg 2; Bertrand 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Milner Henderson Keïta
Salah Firmino Mané

Normal service has resumed. First, I am deeply appreciative of all who responded to this Twitter thread.

Second, I see I didn’t miss much. Just a couple of routine wins. Yawn.

So, yeah, Liverpool have been pretty impressive. A 2-1 win at Tottenham that wouldn’t have looked odd had it finished 3-0 instead, a fixture that finished 1-4 last season. 3-2 against PSG’s millions, which wouldn’t have looked odd had it finished 3-1 or 4-1. And yet that one almost finished 2-2, if not for late Firmino heroics. A match that almost certainly would’ve finished 2-2 last season, just as it did in Liverpool’s first Champions League group game in 2017-18.

There’s been some steel added to Liverpool’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot gloves so far this season. And Liverpool, aside from the opening day, are yet to truly rock or sock opponents as we know they’re capable of.

Liverpool have won six games on the spin and Liverpool have still been nowhere near their best. That bodes well.

As per usual, I doubt there will be many line-up changes. The back five’s set. Firmino should come back in for Sturridge. There will probably be one change in midfield: Keïta will return, but whether it’s for Wijnaldum or Henderson or Milner is little more than a guess. Maybe Salah or Mané get a game off, but I suspect those changes and more will come midweek.

Meanwhile, Southampton will play 4-4-2. And, thankfully, Southampton’s best player won’t be available. Danny Ings; you may have heard of him. Ineligible due to the terms of his loan. See, there is actually a benefit to loan-now, sell-next-season.

Otherwise, Southampton have been very Southampton and very Mark Hughes. Only a little bit of turnover from last season, adding Ings up front because goals were last season's biggest issue, Elyounoussi in place of Tadic, Vestergaard as van Dijk’s replacement, and Gunn as back-up keeper, at least for now. Højbjerg and Lemina have cemented their midfield places ahead of Romeu, Davis, and Ward-Prowse. And, like last season, Southampton are sometimes competent and sometime lost.

Last week’s 2-2 against Brighton is a perfect example. They were, to be blunt, dominant for the first two-thirds of the match, even more than Liverpool were against the same side at Anfield. A first-half goal, then a penalty in the 65th minute. 2-0, 25 minutes to go, game over. Or not. Foot off the gas, Brighton immediately pull one back, Southampton fall apart, changes don’t help, Brighton win and score an injury time penalty to level matters. Incidentally, Brighton’s first goal came from a set play, the second came from a penalty following a set play. Three of Liverpool's 11 league goals this season have come from set plays.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Which is a microcosm of Southampton's season so far. A dreary 0-0 opener against Burnley – who’ve yet to win in the league and are already out of the EL – then 2-1 losses against Everton and Leicester, but then wins over Brighton (in the League Cup) and Palace, but then that last good then bad draw with Brighton.

To be fair, Southampton have given Liverpool issues recently. 2016-17 is stronger in the memory, four matches without for Liverpool, but that was under a different Southampton manager and against a different Liverpool. Last season was 3-0 and 2-0, but the 2-0 was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests. An early Liverpool goal, but then four Southampton shots on-target, including one clear-cut chance. It wouldn't have surprised had Southampton scored and had Southampton scored it's potentially a different game. But Karius saved all four, then a second Liverpool goal came just before halftime, then the second half was a formality.

So, just so you know, Southampton can actually attack at times.

Southampton’s XI is pretty well set, especially without Ings. McCarthy; Cedric, Vestergaard, Hoedt, Bertrand; Elyounoussi, Lemina, Højbjerg, Redmond; Austin, Long. Maybe Gabbiadini instead of Austin; Ward-Prowse instead of Elyounoussi.

4-4-2. Potentially dangerous, potentially secure. Potentially conceding four in an hour.

This is the game where past Liverpools – at least of recent vintage – would have failed. A deserved win at Tottenham, a ground and fixture where Liverpool were humbled last season. An exhilarating win over Paris St-Germain. Two fixtures against Chelsea, then Napoli, then Manchester City to come in the next two weeks.

This is the odd match out. This is the one that Liverpool can’t underestimate, because there’s no underestimating the others. This is the one that Liverpool can’t look past, the only one with the potential for looking past.

This is the one where Liverpool need to put lesser opposition to the sword they deserve.

03 September 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Leicester

Previous Match Infographics: Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

I did not enjoy Leicester taking the game to Liverpool.

Leicester out-possessed Liverpool, not just after Liverpool scored what should have been the game-killing second, but from the 20th minute on. They're the first non-top-six side to do so since Southampton last season, where Liverpool won 2-0 after two first half goals and were happy to concede possession amidst a run of packed fixtures and European competition. That was the only non-top-six match last season where Liverpool had less of the ball than their opponents.

Leicester out-pressed Liverpool, completing more tackles in Liverpool's half than Liverpool did in Leicester's.

Leicester out-shot Liverpool, something often unimaginable, even if game state had almost as much to do with it as Leicester's style of play.

Leicester made it hard for Liverpool do to Liverpool. Even if that didn't happen until Liverpool had already scored.

And once Leicester took the game to Liverpool, Liverpool had no outlet.

The swarming attack, and compact midfield and defense made it hard for Liverpool to build possession. And when that happens, Liverpool often look long. Especially when Liverpool have a lead, because Salah, Mané, and Firmino are that dangerous on quick counter-attacks.

That didn't happen on Saturday.

So many errant long passes, considering how good van Dijk, Gomez, Alexander-Arnold, and Henderson are from range. So many attackers surprisingly well-marshalled by Leicester defenders, with Mané and Salah often unable to get down the flanks.

And when Liverpool did get the ball forward, usually up to Firmino, the center forward simply could not hold up play. His nine unsuccessful touches were, by far, a high for a Liverpool player in the first four games. Only Solanke had more in a league match last season, with ten in the 0-0 at Everton; Firmino's high in a league match last season was six, in three different fixtures. And he was also dispossessed five times – joint-worst with Wijnaldum – Salah at Brighton was the only Liverpool player dispossessed more often in a match so far this season.

That two of the three midfielders barely played more than a handful of passes in the attacking third isn't especially helpful either, with neither Wijnaldum or Henderson creating a single chance. I realize it's not necessarily either's responsibility – especially Henderson – but it's also no coincidence that Liverpool looked better against this type of opposition once Keïta came on. To be fair, Milner was better, but Milner's three key passes also all came from corners.

And, subsequently, Liverpool struggled to create chances, especially after the first 20 minutes.

Liverpool took ten or fewer shots in just five league matches last season: 0-5 at Manchester City, 2-2 v Tottenham, 0-0 at Everton, 2-2 at West Brom, and 0-1 at Chelsea. Liverpool were out-shot in just five league matches last season: 0-5 at City, 1-4 at Tottenham, 2-2 v Tottenham, 2-2 at West Brom, and 0-1 at Chelsea.

Liverpool did not win any of those fixtures last season.

Liverpool won this one. Liverpool could have won this one 2-0, if not comfortably than at least more comfortable than it was if not for one crazy moment.

That April draw at West Brom is a good parallel to Saturday's match.

An early kickoff. A non-top-six side that's given Liverpool problems in the past. A lack of shots but an early goal, then what should be the game-killing second. But then mistakes. But then collapse. Two late goals conceded, from two set plays – a haphazard scramble, then an individual error on the offside line.

Liverpool may have conceded on Saturday, and in an incredibly dumb manner, but they just conceded once. And despite our collective repeated heart attacks, Leicester rarely threatened after Ghezzal's goal. Their only shot was from Wilfred Ndidi, a defense midfielder, from 25 yards out. In the 88th minute. Almost immediately blocked by Naby Keïta.

Liverpool shelled reasonably well over the last half hour, keeping Leicester at bay, keeping Leicester out of the penalty box. Similar to the first half defensive performance where five of Leicester six shots came from outside the box, rather than the first 15-20 minutes of the second half where Leicester actually looked threatening.

And both of Leicester's late set plays went nowhere. Look, we're all still traumatized by last season's set play defense. With reason. Late corners and free kicks end in scrambles that lead to goals. No matter the increasing infrequency, we still remember.

In added time, Van Dijk cleared a free kick behind, then van Dijk headed a corner away. Incidentally, Liverpool have allowed just four shots from set plays so far this season: two from West Ham on corners (Balbuena easily saved, Antonio awkward and well off-target), Milivojevic's free kick that Alisson's excellently saved, and Maddison's free kick into the wall on Saturday. That's it. 15 opposition corners in the last three matches. Zero opposition shots.

It may be as much signal as noise, but that this result came in an early Saturday kick-off makes it even more encouraging. Because Liverpool very much suffered in those matches last season.

That was the first early Saturday kick-off which Liverpool won since Palace away at the end of March. Which was the only early Saturday kick-off Liverpool won last season, with 1W-5D-2L in those matches.

So while the style of play, subpar Liverpool performance, and procession of the match may have been similar to some of these fixtures last season, the result wasn't.

As against Brighton – Liverpool's first 1-0 win in a calendar year – Liverpool won a match when not at its best. Liverpool won a match where the opposition kept Liverpool from doing what Liverpool are capable of doing for the majority of the match. Liverpool won a match where the opposition was the better side for the majority of the match.

Liverpool won a match that they'd most likely have drawn last season.

01 September 2018

Liverpool 2-1 Leicester

Mané 10'
Firmino 45'
Ghezzal 63'

That was over-flowing dumpster set on fire careening down a hill. That was so bad. So, so bad.

Liverpool still won.

Well, let's be slightly fairer. The first 15 minutes weren't bad. The first 15 minutes were actually good, against a side that gave Liverpool tough matches in all three of last season's meetings. Liverpool should have scored within four minutes, with Firmino's clear-cut chance saved and Salah's even-more-clear-cut chance put wide. Liverpool did score within 10 minutes, with Robertson trucking through Ricardo Pereira, centering for Mané, delightfully taken in stride after a fortunate deflection from Maguire, controlled and toe-poked past Schmeichel for his fourth in four games.

Liverpool were pressing, Liverpool were creating great chances, Liverpool were ahead and seemed likely to get more.

And then they weren't.

I guess there's a reason that Claude Puel has one of the best head-to-head records of any manager with multiple matches against Jürgen Klopp. Now Liverpool can't get around Leicester's front-four press. Now Liverpool can't pass through a congested midfield, with Ndidi and Mendy terrorizing Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Milner. Now Liverpool can't even boot it long, with Salah and Mané unable to get free from markers, with Firmino unable to hold up play when actually on the ball.

But at least Liverpool continued to limit Leicester. Five of Leicester's six first-half shots were from nowhere and went nowhere close. The lone from inside the box, Gray from Ghezzal's throughball, was from a slightly acute angle, closely marked by Gomez, and well saved by Alisson.

And then Liverpool get a second, scoring just before halftime for the third time in four matches. Milner's corner, Firmino's header, slipping away from Maddison with everyone else watching Gomez. Perfect placement, strong power, 2-0. Now Liverpool are where they need to be. Now Liverpool will regroup and kill the match in the second half. We're done here, yeah?

Nope. Not only do Leicester remain the better side, but Leicester now have actual, honestly good chances. Ghezzal fizzes a low cross through the penalty area, one that someone really should have gotten onto. Gomez makes an enormous block after Maddison slithers around and away from van Dijk and Robertson. Wes Morgan somehow can't shoot when wide open after Albrighton flicks on a short corner.

And then disaster. The disaster we'd all feared. The disaster that nearly happened last week.

I'll roll the tape back a little further than most. We should have never reached the point where true disaster happened. Liverpool are again struggling to get through midfield after reclaiming possession. Henderson could have cleared rather than playing to a surrounded Gomez. Henderson, after receiving back from Gomez, fires a difficult ball to van Dijk's knees rather than a calmer pass or, you know, just clearing it himself. Van Dijk's back pass is away from Alisson, behind him and wide to the byline, where the keeper has to collect before being able to look up.

But then Alisson did an utter madness, trying to Cruyff turn away from Iheanacho rather than boot clear when he had the time and space, as he did a couple of times last week. And this time he utterly failed, with Iheanacho reading the move, stealing the ball, and centering for Ghezzal to slam in.

A mistake like this seemed inevitable. And if it's inevitable, I guess it's for the best it happened here rather than, say, last week against Brighton when Liverpool had just a one-goal lead. I'd also say "don't do it again" but I try not to be overly optimistic. Just maybe hopefully learn from it.

And now it's 2-1 and Leicester are truly in this and there are still 30 minutes left. And we're actually afraid for the first time this season.

To Liverpool's credit, Leicester had just one shot after Ghezzal's goal: Ndidi from 25 yards swiftly blocked. Liverpool calmed a little, at least after the substitutions, with Keïta and Shaqiri for Henderson and Salah helping matters. Liverpool had slightly more possession. The defense didn't do anything stupid, anything else at least, aside from Milner giving away a late free kick which led to a corner which led to nothing. But Liverpool remained horrific on the counter and in possession. Absolutely horrific.

Four consecutive wins, four from four for the first time since 1990-91, and I'm actually happy Liverpool have an international break coming up. Each of these four matches has been progressively worse, at least in midfield and attack. Mané took his goal excellently, and was the brightest of Liverpool's attackers when Liverpool were actually attacking, but that's absolutely grading on a curve. None of Liverpool's front three truly played well, for the third consecutive match. Salah was wasteful, Salah was too easily handled by Maguire and Chilwell. Firmino worked his butt off out of possession, but couldn't keep possession in the slightest bit when transitioning. Every final ball on the counter was off, everyone ran into rather than around defenders.

And the midfield was just as culpable. If not more so. Henderson's usually fantastic when Liverpool dominate possession, crucial to recovering clearances and pinning defenses back. He's a lot less so when the opposition presses and controls, often tearing around the defensive third and leaving gaps in the middle, unable to pass through the press and congestion. Similar goes for Wijnaldum and Milner, neither incisive enough nor good enough with the ball at feet to get through players. This is a big reason why Keïta – who truly didn't play well last week against Brighton – made such a difference when coming on; he's a player who does get into the spaces needed to move forward and, more importantly, can move the ball forward by himself. It's also why Liverpool will desperately miss Oxlade-Chamberlain at times this season.

But at least Joe Gomez was fantastic. So, so good. Van Dijk did enough, especially when going no-nonsense head away and hoof clear after Liverpool conceded. Liverpool's defense, moment of madness aside, was Liverpool's best feature for the third consecutive match. Liverpool doesn't have that moment of madness and we're laughing about how good this defense has been.

The overall play hasn't been good enough since Liverpool rolled what's been a terrible West Ham side so far on opening day. It hasn't been anywhere near what Liverpool are capable of doing.

But it's still been good enough to take four wins from four matches.

31 August 2018

Liverpool at Leicester 09.01.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.17
3-2 Liverpool (a) 09.23.17
0-2 Leicester (a; League Cup) 09.19.17
1-3 Leicester (a) 02.27.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Brighton (h); 2-0 Crystal Palace (a); 4-0 West Ham (h)
Leicester: 4-0 Fleetwood (h); 2-1 Southampton (a); 2-0 Wolves (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 3; Salah 2; Milner, Sturridge 1
Leicester: Gray, Maguire, Maddison, Vardy 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Milner Henderson Keïta
Salah Firmino Mané

After three consecutive matches with the same XI, we've been promised changes. And I've little idea what they'll be. Or if there will really be that many.

Back five should be the same. Most importantly, you don't want to mess with what's been Liverpool's best unit so far in this short season. But also, Lovren's still injured, Gomez has played well, neither Alisson nor van Dijk are coming out. Maybe one of the full-backs is replaced; both have defended well, as the team's defended well, but neither's been at their best in attack – especially Alexander-Arnold.

You'd expect Henderson would come into midfield, but I said that prior to the last match. It could be for any of the three. We've got 32-year-old Milner already racking up the minutes, the Wijnaldum Away From Home axiom, and Keïta nowhere near his best against Brighton. Once again, it's still probably too soon for Fabinho, although he may finally make the bench.

And then there's that front three. Firmino, left out of the squad in just two of last season's 56 matches; Salah only missing a couple with a minor injury; and Mané, almost ever-present after last season's early hamstring injury and suspension. They were almost always available last season, and almost always played when available. And they were the main reason why Liverpool accomplished what Liverpool accomplished.

But this season might be different. There's at least more depth, with a frighteningly resurgent (for now) Sturridge as well as Xherdan Shaqiri, not to mention maybe Adam Lallana is a thing that exists. You'd think the former two will get starts, and probably sooner rather than later. You'd think Liverpool could play 4-4-2 with both Firmino and Sturridge up front, or 4-2-3-1 with Shaqiri in the hole behind that front three. Maybe we'll see it tomorrow.

But I dunno. And we won't know until we get examples of how Klopp's gonna rotate and what other formations are possible. Until then, it's a guessing game, and it remains easier to guess what we've seen before. Not to mention that this is the last match before the first annoying international break of the season, so it's not as if Liverpool necessarily need to rest players for what's to come. Not for a couple of weeks, at least.

Meanwhile, Leicester. Perpetually a problem. Puel's done well in settling the side after an unsurprising fall back to earth following that unlikely league title, a more proactive and pressing side than that under Rainieri. More potent full-backs, more of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Still the proclivity for counter-attacks and set plays. Still Gray's pace and Albrighton's dead balls and Harry Maguire's massive head and two defensive destroying midfielders.

But Leicester will be without Jamie Vardy, scorer of seven goals in eight games against Liverpool. Not that Kelechi Iheanacho – who will absolutely benefit from increased playing time; he's still only 21 – is that much of a downgrade.

Tomorrow's XI seems likely to be Schmeichel; Ricardo, Morgan, Maguire, Chilwell; Ndidi, Mendy; Albrighton, Maddison, Gray; Iheanacho. Nearly the same as at Southampton last week. Ricardo Pereira played on the right wing at Southampton, with Amartey at full-back, but I'd expect Pereira to return to his more familiar position tomorrow. Maybe Jonny Evans starts instead of Wes Morgan. Maybe Adrien Silva comes in for one of the two midfielders, or – less likely – Maddison for a more solid midfield.

As with the last three matches, this is a fixture that Liverpool won last season. For all the good and promising we've seen so far, and all the room for further improvement, and all the delight at the three wins from three start, we're solely on pace with last season's comparable fixtures.

At the same time, Liverpool haven't won their first four league matches since 1990-91, before the formation of the Premier League.

It's only the fourth match of a 38-game campaign, but we're already at the point where every one feels important, more important than the last. Strap in for 35 more of these, and that's only one of the four competitions Liverpool are in this season.

27 August 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Brighton

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

As with last week's win over Crystal Palace, this wasn't great. More importantly, this was nowhere near as good as Liverpool are capable of playing.

It started off just fine.

In the first 25 minutes of the match, Mané misses the goal with a shot he'd at least hit the target on about 85% of the time, Firmino has a clear-cut header fantastically saved, Alexander-Arnold pings a free kick off the crossbar, and Liverpool are denied what appeared a fairly clear handball penalty.

And then Liverpool score, and it's great. Absolutely wonderful reading of the play and pressing from Milner, then Mané to Firmino to Salah to goal.

But from there, *shrugs*.

Liverpool's pressing slowed. Liverpool's attack ebbed away, with far too many shots both low-value and blocked or off-target. The front three's passing accuracy – to put it bluntly – sucked. Liverpool failed to create a clear-cut chance after the ninth minute, the first time they've been held to just one clear-cut chance by a non-top six or Everton side since the 2-1 win at Burnley back in January, when Mané was the only of the regular front three to start the match.

Maybe this is why Liverpool rarely start the same XI in three consecutive matches.

So, yes, I was as frustrated as most with Liverpool's attacking performance on Saturday, but I've also seen far too much criticism of Mohamed Salah after this. Similar can be said about both Firmino and Mané – who had worse games – but Salah seemingly gets it in the neck more because of the heights hit last season and subsequent expectations.

Salah scored Liverpool's winner, the lone goal in the match. Salah has scored the match winner in 12 matches so far in his short Liverpool career, and there were seven more last season where he'd have had the winner had Liverpool not stupidly conceded as Salah scored. Six of those seven ended in a draw. Both of Salah's goals this season – the same total he had after three league matches last season – were match winners. He's scored the opening goal in 14 matches – including two so far this season – and Liverpool's first goal in 18 matches.

He's played all of 55 matches for Liverpool.

Mohamed Salah is also one of just three Liverpool players to take six shots and create six chances in a single game since the beginning of the 2012-13 season. He's now done it twice. No prizes for guessing the other two.

Admittedly, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Mohamed Salah will have better matches. There was the shot saved in the 19th; the blocked, hurried shots in the 58th and 72nd minutes; the missed chances in the 87th and 90th minutes. But to believe he's started the season slowly is just wrong and it's a bad take.

Meanwhile, it's also hard to look past Brighton's defensive performance.

33 clearances, a handful more than Palace's 25 or West Ham's 20 so far this season.

Eight blocked shots, again more than Palace or West Ham, with seven of those blocks in the second half.

And 29 interceptions – the most against Liverpool since the 1-0 win against Palace a year and a week ago, the last time a Liverpool match finished 1-0. 23 of those 29 came in the defensive third, especially the central area in and around the penalty box.

Compare where Brighton's interceptions took place to Palace's last season.

Palace's were more on the flanks and slightly further forward. Brighton's were camped on the edge of the penalty box, ensuring few through-balls or dangerous passes to the likes of Salah, Mané, and Firmino.

That had something to do with Liverpool's frustratingly low passing accuracy from the front three.

But Brighton's defensive performance still wasn't as good as Liverpool's defensive performance.

Liverpool hadn't kept three consecutive league clean sheets since the final three games of 2016-17, where Liverpool had to pull fourth place from a hole where the sun rarely shines.

Pascal Groß's 89th-minute clear-cut chance was the first Liverpool had allowed all season – in 269 minutes of football – Liverpool never had as long a stretch without allowing a clear-cut chance last season. And when an opponent finally conjured one, Alisson saved it, to ensure all three points for a third consecutive match.

Liverpool have been increasingly good at the defense over the last few months.

Despite the notation on the chart, it ain't just down to Virgil van Dijk. Karius came into the side around the same time. Both Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were increasingly acclimatized to the side. Van Dijk was arguably most at fault for Brighton's clear-cut chance on Saturday, under the cross as Groß sneaks in behind him.

But Alisson saved said clear-cut chance to maintain the win, after van Dijk and Gomez had spent 88 minutes pocketing Glenn Murray et al.

As said last week, defending is a team game. And the team's getting pretty good at it.

This is almost starting to feel like the beginning of 2013-14, the last time Liverpool started the season with three straight wins. West Ham not withstanding, Liverpool aren't firing on all cylinders in attack, but Liverpool find ways to win, not quite unexpectedly, but also not necessarily what we'd seen the season before.

The turning point in 2013-14 was when Luis Suarez came into the side after suspension, although Liverpool also rarely looked as defensively secure as they did in the first three fixtures as well.

This season, it'll be when that front three goes as bananas as it did last season. And it'll happen. Ideally, Liverpool's defense will be better placed to continue in this current form.

25 August 2018

Liverpool 1-0 Brighton

Salah 23'

That was one of Liverpool's worst attacking performances in recent memory, at least with a full-strength side, with Salah, Firmino, and Mané all starting.

Multiple missed shots from Salah that he'd almost always at least put on-target, at a bare minimum. One notable effort from Mané, in the fifth minute, early enough where this probably would have ended differently.

Multiple hospital ball passes from Mané, giveaways in threatening positions, with both his line mates almost as equally guilty. Passing accuracy well below average for all of the front three.

Just one clear-cut chance, after creating four in each of the first two matches, way back in the ninth minute, with Firmino's close-range header brilliantly saved by Mat Ryan.

Whatever. Liverpool still won.

Liverpool got at least one goal, and Liverpool didn't give any away.

No prizes for guessing who the goal came from. Hello, Mo. But it wasn't a flowing start-to-finish passing move. It wasn't a blitzkrieg counter. It wasn't individual brilliance, although there was brilliance from all four individuals involved.

It was Liverpool's press, the type of press that's absolutely necessary when an opponent sits so deep and sees so little of the ball. It was James Milner, running into position to tackle Bissouma on the turn, the ball directed right at Mané. It was Mané to Firmino to Salah instantly, thankfully finished as we've become accustomed to.

You'd think that'd be the floodgates. Liverpool had beaten Brighton by four in each of the last two meetings. Liverpool hadn't won 1-0 in more than a year.

Nope. It just wasn't working today in attack. Not from that front three, aside from the goal and Firmino's chance. Not Keïta breaking lines, not crosses from the fullbacks.

As with Liverpool's romp over West Ham, it's hard to gauge just how much to credit or blame Liverpool or the opposition. Brighton defended very deep and very well, with last season's results very clear in their memory. A line of five sat directly in front of a line of four, the former pretty much on the edge of the defensive third, the latter on the edge of the penalty box. 4-5-1 rather than the usual 4-4-1-1, Bissouma brought in ahead of the creative Pascal Groß. And Liverpool weren't potent enough to break it.

To be fair, that doesn't happen often.

It's no coincidence that Liverpool's lone goal came with Brighton trying to transition: a tackle, two passes, and goal within five seconds, all within Brighton's defensive third.

From the 23rd minute on, it was all about Liverpool's midfield and Liverpool's defense, especially in the second half. The former just dominated possession for the first 75 minutes, not creative enough to break through Brighton's defense but also not allowing Brighton to counter or sustain any possession, with Keïta and Wijnaldum leading the side in tackles.

And Liverpool's defense was almost as secure as in the first two matches. Superlatives again don't do Gomez, van Dijk, and Alisson justice. Poor Glenn Murray didn't have a chance when Brighton hoofed forward, as Gomez won seven aerial duels. Virgil van Dijk commanded and controlled, organizing on corners, cutting out counters.

Of course, there's always one fright, no matter how secure Liverpool look. One goal didn't used to ever be enough. Maybe it is now.

When Liverpool's center-back pairing finally made a mistake – van Dijk misjudging the flight of a deep cross – Alisson was there, diving back across to deny Pascal Groß in the 89th minute, the first clear-cut chance Liverpool have allowed this season. Two strong punches on set plays. And three absolutely "I want to die but I love it" moments with the ball at his feet in the penalty area: a dribble around and away from Murray, a sombrero over Knockaert, and nearly turning into Murray but strong enough to toe-poke it to Wijnaldum. Let's just pretend that he was trying to keep it interesting for us.

Defending is a team game. Goalkeeper, center-backs, full-backs, midfielders, and attackers. And this team is good. And this team hasn't conceded a league goal at Anfield in six months, seven clean sheets going back to the beginning of March. And three clean sheets to start the season.

Three wins from three. One romp, two grinds. Three wins, however they're achieved.

We know the attack's going to fire. Early and often and then again. Which makes it even more encouraging to see the defense start as it has.

24 August 2018

Liverpool v Brighton 08.25.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 05.13.18
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.02.17
6-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.19.12
1-2 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.21.11

Last matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Crystal Palace (a); 4-0 West Ham (h)
Brighton: 3-2 United (h); 0-2 Watford (a)

Referee: Chris Kavanagh (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Milner Henderson Keïta
Salah Firmino Mané

There might be changes?

It's seemingly harsh to drop anyone from the XI which has won the last two matches. You'd expect Henderson to return to the line-up sooner rather than later, but both Wijnaldum and Milner have been excellent. Matip's fit, Lovren won't be for another few weeks, but Gomez has similarly impressed. Firmino hasn't had his best two games, but remains an archetypal player for this system. Fabinho's going to be bedded in very slow, as Robertson was, as Oxlade-Chamberlain was. It went alright in both those cases.

Otherwise, you've seen this side, you know this side.

So let's guess Henderson comes in for Wijnaldum, because *throws hands up, stares adoringly at picture of James Milner*. Maybe Sturridge or Shaqiri for Firmino, who's seemingly had the most World-Cup-hangover of any Liverpool player who went to the World Cup (*glares at Alexander-Arnold's crossing, then remembers Alexander-Arnold's defending*), with Salah very much capable of playing as the central striker if Shaqiri's on and Sturridge very much a central striker.

But, as per usual, I'm more inclined to guess the same as before and hope that Liverpool are capable of the same as before.

As with Liverpool, this'll probably be basically the same XI as in Brighton's last match, a delightful 3-2 win over Manchester United. Ryan; Montoya, Duffy, Balogun, Bong; Knockaert, Stephens, Pröpper, March; Groß; Murray. Lewis Dunk, with two own goals in three matches against Liverpool, was injured in that match and replaced by summer signing Balogun, while Izquierdo and Bruno are also out.

Maybe Hughton decides it's time to bed in some more new players; Brighton had a very busy summer, after all. Ten new players signed during the offseason, highlighted by Montoya, who's already made the right-back position his own in Bruno's absence; Bernardo, who may come in for Bong; Yves Bissouma in central midfield; and club-record signing Alireza Jahanbakhsh, an incredibly dangerous right-winger.

But Solly March and Anthony Knockaert were integral players in Brighton's side last season and so far in this. As have been Stephens and Pröpper in midfield. Knockaert can play in Pascal Groß's position, but Pascal Groß is great, one of the most creative players in the Premier League, especially when you consider who he's playing for.

Brighton's last match against United showed what they're capable of. United's third season Mourinho syndrome not withstanding, Brighton were great. They stymied United. They took the game to United, at least in the first half. They pressed and dispossessed United and immediately went, using both width and pace up the flanks and long balls toward Glenn Murray.

They've elements of what West Ham could well be capable of if they can put all those new players and new manager together, they've elements of what Crystal Palace threatened but failed to do to Liverpool last week.

That said, Brighton have a terrible record away from home. Their opening day match was a disappointment, a 2-0 defeat at Watford. They won just two of 19 away matches in the league last season, against Swansea and West Ham, in late October and early November.

Brighton have a terrible record against Liverpool, with four-goal defeats in both fixtures last season.

Chris Hughton has a terrible record against Liverpool, with four-goal defeats in all five of his matches as a Premier League manager.

Past is no precedent, but this is Liverpool's match to win. As in weeks one and two, it's up to Liverpool to do what Liverpool needs to. What Liverpool are supposed to. What Liverpool are capable of if they're to achieve this season's goals.

22 August 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

Did you get worried late on?

Liverpool are up by one. Just one. And that one came from a penalty, Salah barely fouled – but fouled nonetheless – as Sakho unnecessarily sticks a leg in just before halftime.

And it's stayed at one, for the next 45 minutes. Salah's missed the target with five of his six shots – four blocked, one well off-target. Firmino's registered just one effort, wild and nowhere close in the 87th minute, playing far deeper than usual. Liverpool have put a succession of late chances on-target, Liverpool have a man-advantage with Wan-Bissaka sent off, but it's getting to the deep breaths panic stage where just one bad thing needs to happen. And has before.

And now Crystal Palace have a corner, after Liverpool just about clear an unnecessary free kick, van Dijk's header up and behind. And it's the 93rd minute. And we've all been here before.

You shouldn't have been worried. 

Virgil van Dijk rises highest to head away Milivojevic's corner. Straight to Salah. Salah and Mané are running, Salah's pass splits McArthur and van Aanholt, and Mané's away, Mané's through on goal, Mané evades van Aanholt and rounds Hennessey and it's a tap-in, it's 2-0, it's a Liverpool win.

Liverpool finally take advantage of one of the counter-attacks they'd be threatening, a similar move as to the one which saw Wan-Bissaka's red card. 

Incidentally, it was nice to see Liverpool score at the end of both halves. I suspect you remember last season, when Liverpool conceded more than they scored in the last minute of each half. Which is part of the reason why were were worried.

And the story of the match is, surprisingly enough, Liverpool's defense. Don't get me wrong; Liverpool weren't bad in attack. Liverpool are rarely bad in attack. Four clear-cut chances on Palace's ground, with two scored. Six shots and four key passes in a "bad" Salah performance, as well as an assist, a penalty won, and the run for Wan-Bissaka's dismissal. Mané again scoring, for the fourth match in a row against Crystal Palace, Mané again one of Liverpool's most creative players.

Virgil van Dijk's clearing header to start Liverpool's second was symptomatic of the center-back's performance.

Passing, clearances, aerial duels, etc. etc. etc.

Van Dijk absolutely dominated Benteke, who's given Liverpool all sorts of problems in the past, removed in the 70th minute and seemingly happy to have been.

But it wasn't just van Dijk. It was his center-back partner as well, with Gomez again belying both age and experience, often the defender most responsible for tracking Zaha. It was Alexander-Arnold on the right, where Liverpool's interceptions are clustered, where Crystal Palace routinely looked to play in Zaha, aided by both Gomez and Milner. It was Keïta, Milner, and Robertson leading the side in tackles. It was Alisson as well, even if not frequently called upon, there when needed to save, claim, and organize. And distribute from the back.

Liverpool haven't yet conceded in this season's two matches – the only Premier League club that can say so – and Liverpool haven't yet allowed a single opposition clear-cut chance. Palace did have a couple of quasi-frightening moments, but two came from well outside the box – Andros Townsend off the crossbar from his "spot" and Milivojevic's free kick saved by Alisson – as well as one offside set play header that Alisson saved anyway.

Both West Ham and Crystal Palace totaled around 0.5 xG in each match. Liverpool had 3.7 xG against West Ham and 2.4 xG plus a penalty at Palace.

This is the first time that Liverpool have held Crystal Palace scoreless on their own ground in this match-up in the league since 1997. 

I was not kidding when I said this might be Liverpool's hardest match outside the top six and Everton. I fully expect Palace to finish in the top 10, if not eighth at worst. They are the type of side who's hurt Liverpool in the past, with that deep, organized defense – look how many of Palace's tackles and interceptions came in or just outside of the penalty box – and with players like Zaha and Benteke on the counter-attack.

And Liverpool won, if not comfortably than at least thoroughly and deservedly. Liverpool won without the attack anywhere near its best, even if there were still the consistent signs of potency and threat, especially in Liverpool's transitions as the match went on. Liverpool won this match more because of its organization and defense, which is something we've rarely said in recent seasons.

It's still very early, but there's more than a bit of "uh oh, Happy learned how to putt" starting to arise here.