12 December 2017

Liverpool v West Brom 12.13.17

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.16.17
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.22.16
1-1 (a) 05.15.16
2-2 (h) 12.13.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Everton (h); 7-0 Spartak (h); 5-1 Brighton (a)
West Brom: 0-1 Swansea (a); 0-0 Palace (h); 2-2 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 13; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
West Brom: Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez, Rondon 2; Chadli, Evans, Field, Hegazi, Morrison, Phillips 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren Klavan Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Coutinho

Sunday was the Sam Allardyce Redemption Match, and now we get Alan Pardew as a second act. Fantastic. The magical manager tour is coming to take us away.

It shouldn't matter. And Liverpool should have been up for this match regardless, but now they've extra motivation after Sunday's miscarriage of justice.

Maybe we'll get the first choice front four, but I suspect rotation and rest will continue and this time it's Salah's turn. But even if that's the case, your guess remains as good as mine who will start and how they'll line up. As per usual of late.

Maybe the above. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank with Coutinho in midfield. Maybe 4-4-2, with Sturridge, Solanke, or even Ings joining Firmino up top and one of Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum left out. Moreno and Matip remain absent, but Adam Lallana returns to contention. Given it's his first game back in the squad after a short absence after a long absence, I suspect he'll be used as a substitute at most.

Whomever starts, in whichever formation, I expect a reaction to Sunday's disappointment. I expect blood and thunder, hellfire and brimstone. I expect – nay, demand – goals. Lots of them.

Especially since Liverpool's opponent is winless since August.

You live by Pulisball, you eventually die by Pulisball. And that's exactly what happened. West Brom finished 13th in 2014-15 after Pulis took over midway through the season, 14th in 2015-16, and 10th in 2016-17. It was exactly as expected: good enough and organized enough to stay up, but not a whole lot more, and a whole lot of ugly football. And then West Brom won its first three matches this season: 1-0 against Bournemouth and Burnley, 3-1 in the League Cup.

And then West Brom fell off a cliff. They'd draw four and lose seven in the next 11 games and Pulis would be fired with West Brom in 17th, just a point outside the relegation zone.

And now West Brom's contracted a severe case of Pardew-mania.

Pardew's played all three of West Brom's strikers in the front three of a 4-3-3 in his two matches in charge, but Klopp doesn't think that'll be the case tomorrow. McClean, Brunt, and Burke are all more orthodox wingers, as are Chadli, Phillips, and Brunt if they're available. Incidentally, West Brom are yet to score since Pardew became manager despite playing three strikers in a front three.

My guess at tomorrow's XI is still pretty close to the side we've seen from Pardew's two games. Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs; Livermore, Yacob, Field; McClean, Rondon, Rodriguez. Morrison, Barry, and Dawson are absent through injury, while Chadli, Phillips, and Brunt are doubtful. If any of the doubtful three are available, they'd be definite possibilities on the flanks. Krychowiak could also start in midfield in place of Field.

Pardew doesn't have the same history of frustrating Liverpool that Allardyce has, but we've had our moments. His first meeting with Klopp's Liverpool saw Palace win 2-1. His record for Newcastle and Palace against Rodgers' Liverpool was 2W-2D-3L. He is one of that tribe of perpetual Premier League managers whose career goal seems to be to take charge of every single club outside the top six.

And Pardew's style is more attacking than Allardyce, but it won't be that much more attacking. The remnants of Pulisball still linger. West Brom remain tough to beat: 0-4 v Chelsea – Pulis' last match – and 0-2 at Arsenal are West Brom's only losses by more than one goal. Only Chelsea and City have scored more than twice against West Brom. West Brom haven't scored in Pardew's two matches, but they've only conceded once: Swansea's late winner from a fortuitous corner scramble on Saturday.

Hegazi's big like West Brom's center-backs are always big, but can actually play a little. Jonny Evans was supposedly wanted by Manchester City last summer. Barry and Yacob can ugly up a game in midfield, Rondon and Rodriguez are handfuls on both counter-attacks and set plays.

But if Liverpool can do Liverpool – the Liverpool we saw in seven wins while scoring three goals over the last ten matches, not the Liverpool which fumbles and frustrates and concedes from a late stupid mistake, mind you – it won't matter. It shouldn't matter.

11 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Spartak Moscow (h), Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

We have said it before, we will say it again.

Liverpool live and die by the goals they score. And they only scored one on Sunday.

The finishing pixie is a cruel mistress. Liverpool had been on an almost unsustainable scoring streak. That ended against Everton.

The three above pieces showing Liverpool's shooting should be sufficient. That shots, assists, chances created graphic. That shot-by-shot graphic. That shot location graphic. Ouch.

23 Liverpool shots, but only three on-target: Salah's goal, Mané's egregious bicycle kick attempt from just outside the box, and Coutinho's free kick from 30 yards out. 13% shooting accuracy, when the side had averaged 42.5% in the six previous league matches since the Tottenham defeat.

Three Opta-defined clear-cut chances, all with Liverpool up 1-0, and all off-target: Mané's miss with three players waiting for the tap-in, and Salah and Gomez's second-half headers. Liverpool converted 13 of 18 clear-cut chances – 72.2% – in the six previous league matches since the Tottenham defeat.

Sure, Liverpool's shot quality was a good deal worse than in previous matches. 13 of 23 from outside the box, and an average xG per shot of 0.087. Liverpool's xG per shot this season prior to Sunday's game was 0.116 and since Spurs it had been 0.149.

But Liverpool still had the chances to win that game.

One of which will live long in the memory.

This game hinged upon two moments. Sadio Mané's miss in the first-half added time was the first.

*screams internally*

Remember Liverpool's second goal against Spartak Moscow? Mané to Salah to Firmino to Coutinho. Quick passes, unselfishly looking for a teammate rather than doing it yourself. The final pass taking the chance quality from – and this is a rough guess here – something like 15% to 40%. Do that. Always aim to do that. Don't do this.

If Liverpool get a second goal, going into halftime two-up rather than one, there's an excellent chance that Liverpool score more. Everton have to come out, whereas they can stick deep and continue to hope for just one moment and one mistake at 1-0, and even though two of Liverpool's best counter-attacking players weren't on the pitch, Salah and Mané should have thrived with more space in behind compared to how the match played out at 1-0. Two Liverpool goals had led to at least three in eight of the previous nine matches. Liverpool have finished with just two goals twice this season, and never in the league, and it hasn't happened since early September.

But 1-0 still should have been enough. Because Everton's penalty in the 77th minute was the second moment. And that was not a penalty. (Edit: I don't know why the GIFs aren't loading here; click on them to open in a new window and play)

Come on, now.

Okay, yes, camera angles can lie.

So, here, this is a worse angle for Lovren – which unfortunately, was also the referee's angle – but you can still see Calvert-Lewin move towards and into Lovren, then fall to the ground as Lovren's pulling his arms away from him.

I don't care that Lovren's caught on the back foot and gets too close and "gives the referee a decision to make." I don't care that Lovren has previous, which makes us extra likely to extra blame him. That you're giving that penalty against Liverpool on Liverpool's own ground when Everton have had just two shots and next to no possession is a crime against humanity. Especially after the non-penalty which Brighton got last weekend. That was forgivable because Liverpool were cruising by that point. That made it almost funny. This was assuredly not funny.

I also can't help but think that was Grade A "Big Sam's an English manager and Calvert-Lewin's an English striker" beef.

Without one of those two moments, the other doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter that Liverpool rotated more heavily than expected, that Liverpool left out both Firmino and Coutinho, as well as Can and Wijnaldum. Liverpool should have done enough, even if 1-0 is rarely ever enough for this side.

And now we get a result that brings memories to the mediocre old days. Liverpool's fifth 1-1 draw of the season, the most common score line so far. Three of those 1-1 draws came with Liverpool taking the lead but losing it – the last three of them.

The mediocre old days of an inability to break down incredibly deep sides, with a bunch of possession and a bunch of shots but not enough good shots and not enough of those shots converted. The mediocre old days of drawing a match that Liverpool *should* have won against a side they *should* be beating. Something we thought we'd mostly gotten past with the wins over Huddersfield, Maribor, West Ham, Southampton, Stoke, Brighton, and Spartak.

So, yes, it's a set-back. But it's not the end of days. It's one match, one during a spell overloaded with matches, against seven before where Liverpool did what they couldn't on Sunday.

10 December 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Salah 42'
Rooney 77' [pen]

We've been Allardyced. And Pawsoned. And it's really damned annoying.

But the story is still the story we've known before, even if it's been awhile since seeing that story. If Liverpool don't score more than one, Liverpool are at risk of doing a Liverpool. Which is exactly what happened, even if it was never a penalty because come the hell on.

It's everybody's fault.

It's Sam Allardyce's fault, because he made the game exactly as ugly as he always does. That felt more like a Sam Allardyce match than a Merseyside Derby. Not ugly as in vicious, which these games can be, but ugly as in the least ambitious side Liverpool's faced this season. Which is completely their right, and proven right. Two massively, massively deep lines of four, the most possession Liverpool have had in a match this season. The most since losing 0-2 to Burnley in August 2015, actually.

It's Jürgen Klopp's fault, because Liverpool couldn't cope with the ugly. Because Klopp kept Firmino and Coutinho out, again using the full squad to prevent the winter collapse which happened last season. Because he continued to make unexpected changes to the starting XI but this time got burned. Because that 4-3-3 couldn't play through the middle because Henderson and Milner aren't creative enough and Mané and Salah were too wide, and crossing did not work. Eight Liverpool shots in the first 41 minutes of the match: three off-target, five blocked. Five from outside the box, just one in the Danger Zone.

It's not Mohamed Salah's fault, because in the 42nd minute, Mohamed Salah did Mohamed Salah things, turning Cuco Martina, beating Idrissa Gana, and curling an unstoppable shot past Pickford to finally break the deadlock. His 13th goal in the league this season, his 19th goal in all competitions. He's really good at the football.

It's Sadio Mané's fault, because just before halftime, Mané wins possession and steams towards goal and he's got three runners inside for a tap-in and he screws a left-footed shot wide of the goal. That was Liverpool's first clear-cut chance of the game. And 2-0 kills the game. It kills it dead. Liverpool desperately needed 2-0. Liverpool would not get 2-0. This remains unforgivable.

It's Jürgen Klopp's fault, because he took off Liverpool's best player in the 67th minute. That was Klopp's adjustment to Allardyce's changes. Not Can or Wijnaldum for bodies in midfield. Not Coutinho for creation. Firmino – who is a very good player who I like very much but does the pressing more than anything else and that's not what was needed – for Salah. I understand worries about player overload, especially in regards to Salah, but we've proven time and time again that 1-0 isn't enough for Liverpool.

And 1-0 wasn't enough today. Even though Everton had next to no possession, even though Everton had all of two shots to that point, both from well outside the box and not dangerous in the slighest.

It's Craig Pawson's fault, because that was almost as soft a penalty as Brighton's in Liverpool's last match. It's Dejan Lovren's fault because he did a Dejan Lovren thing again. It's Firmino's fault, because he tried an incredibly unlikely back heel to try to get a doubly-marked Mané a chance at goal and lost possession and now Liverpool have five players ahead of the ball (including both left-sided players) and Everton countered down Liverpool's left side and Rooney crossed to Calvert-Lewin from deep and Calvert-Lewin fell over because Lovren looked in his direction.

And it's Liverpool's fault. Because, once again, Liverpool lost a one-goal lead they took into the 70th minute. As at Watford, against Sevilla, at Sevilla, and against Chelsea. Because, once again, Liverpool couldn't find a needed late winner; the last time Liverpool got one after the 70th minute was 2-1 at Stoke last April. The last time Liverpool got one after the 80th minute was at Everton almost a calendar year ago. Because, once again, substitutions did little and the other manager's changes helped more than Liverpool's.

23 shots to three. 79% possession. And Liverpool drew. Because they couldn't create more chances, they couldn't take the few chances they did create, and then they committed one soft, unlucky, and stupid mistake that a referee absolutely helped. And then dropped points from a winning position for the fifth time this season and the 23rd time since Klopp became manager. Against the team you want to beat more than any other.

It is absolutely infuriating.

But here's the thing. Liverpool are still unbeaten in their last 10 matches. Liverpool are still fourth, a point ahead of Arsenal and two ahead of Tottenham. Everton still haven't won a Merseyside Derby since Roy Freaking Hodgson was manager. Mo Salah remains amazing, Joe Gomez is an absolute prodigy, and on the whole, Liverpool did more good things than bad things today. In the seventh match the side's had to play in the last three weeks.

Still. It could have been more. It should have been more. And – not to be too selfish after all the good we've seen over the last eight weeks – it's certainly not for the first time this season.

09 December 2017

Liverpool v Everton 12.10.17

9:15am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.01.17
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.19.16
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.16
1-1 (a) 10.04.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 7-0 Spartak (h); 5-1 Brighton (a); 3-0 Stoke (a)
Everton: 3-0 Apollon (a); 2-0 Huddersfield (h); 4-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 12; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Everton: Rooney 7; Niasse 5; Baines, Calvert-Lewin, Sigurðsson 2; Williams 1

Referee: Craig Pawson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Milner
Mané Can Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino

This seems like a good place to start:

It is a mischievous question to Jonjoe Kenny that may require some thought.

What is preferable? Winning the Under 20 World Cup or ending an 18-year winless streak at Anfield in the Merseyside derby?

No hesitation. “Winning the derby,” he says, snappily. “Everything I have ever wanted is win a derby. To go to Anfield to win? I don’t think you would get much better.”

Liverpool haven't lost a Merseyside Derby since October 2010 – since Roy Hodgson! – 15 derbies before tomorrow's. Liverpool haven't lost a derby at Anfield since September 1999. Jürgen Klopp's won his three derbies by a combined 8-1 margin.

This is the history that Everton has to cope with. And these are the expectations that Liverpool has to cope with.

It's seemingly a good time for Liverpool to play one of its most important matches of the season, at least for the supporters. They're unbeaten in nine with seven wins and two draws. They've won their last three matches by a combined 15-1 margin, including 5-1 and 7-0 wins in the last two. Liverpool's attacking superstars – Coutinho, Salah, Firmino, and Mané – are simply taking folks to the woodshed, but Liverpool have also kept clean sheets in five of those last nine, including four of the last five at Anfield.

Moreno is the only new player ruled out – and I very much expect to see Milner instead of Robertson tomorrow – although I guess I'll mention that multiple outlets ran with a "Coutinho not pictured in training!" story yesterday. For what that's worth. I'd be surprised if he missed out, but let's not pretend I have any special insight.

I suspect the larger question is Liverpool's formation. 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or something else? It remains wild that I'm writing that sentence after we saw 4-3-3 in literally every match for 12 months, no matter personnel or opposition.

I'm often of an "if it ain't broke..." mindset. And Liverpool certainly ain't been broke lately. But the above XI could clearly line up in 4-3-3 – as we thought would happen prior to kick-off against Spartak, and I suspect it'll be that XI whether Liverpool decide to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. I remain concerned about Henderson in a double-pivot, I'd be concerned about both Coutinho and Milner ostensibly on the left given that neither is left-footed.

That is also almost exactly the same XI as against Spartak on Wednesday, with Henderson, Milner, and Mignolet for Wijnaldum, Moreno, and Karius the only changes. And we've usually seen one or two more changes over the last few weeks, given Klopp's emphasis on fresh players to maximize Liverpool's style. So, maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain. Maybe Sturridge or Solanke. Maybe even Lallana, who's back in full training and available. I've been guessing wrong a lot more than guessing right lately, and given results compared to guessing right a lot more often last season, I'm okay with that.

Whichever formation, and whomever starts, the game plan remains the same. Attackers attack, early and often, from all angles. Defenders defend. Midfielders support where needed, more often slightly deeper than we saw earlier in the season.

Get at these, no matter local rivalries. Do you, do what's succeeded in recent matches against varying opponents.

Meanwhile, Everton ain't doing too badly, at least compared to doing really, really badly for the first few months of the season. They've won three consecutive, after a spell where they won just once in 12.

They've got a new manager. We've met him before. Sam Allardyce.

Multiple clubs under Allardyce have foiled multiple incarnations of Liverpool. Including in Allardyce's last two matches: a 2-2 draw with Sunderland at Anfield with Liverpool throwing away a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes, and a 1-2 loss against Crystal Palace at Anfield despite Liverpool scoring first and scoring early.

There are players in this Everton squad who can hurt Liverpool. Calvert-Lewin on the break. Sigurðsson on set plays. Wayne Rooney loves playing against Liverpool, sometimes too much. Pickford is an excellent keeper, and there remains the worry a keeper will somehow play on turbo mode against Liverpool.

Everton have used pretty much the same XI in the last two league fixtures, the first before Allardyce was technically manager. 4-1-4-1, with Pickford; Kenny, Keane, Williams, Martina; Gueye; Lennon, Davies, Rooney, Sigurðsson; Calvert-Lewin. Everton, already eliminated from the Europa League with just one point through the first five group games, played a completely changed side in Cyprus – even Allardyce didn't bother to go – and I doubt any involved will start tomorrow, including Lookman, Klaassen, Schneiderlin, and Mirallas. McCarthy, Barkley, Funes Mori, Coleman, Bolasie, and Stekelenburg are out injured; Leighton Baines is doubtful. Both Keane and Jagielka are back after missing the last match.

We know how Allardyce will try to stop Liverpool. We know that Allardyce's alpha and omega will be stopping Liverpool, then maybe hoping for maybe a counter-attack or set play stomach punch. Defend deep, deny space, have a little kick at those dangerous Liverpool attackers. Maybe more than a little kick; it is a derby after all, where a referee might tend toward leniency. Frustrate, frustrate, frustrate.

It's worked against Liverpool before, both for Allardyce and for others. But not lately. Not when tried by Huddersfield, Maribor, Southampton, Brighton, or Stoke.

Now Liverpool have to do it again.

07 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow

Previous Match Infographics: Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

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

That formation was not what we expected. Everyone, including UEFA, had it as a 4-3-3. Mané left, as usual. Salah right, as usual. Firmino central, as usual. Coutinho in midfield. But that was not how Liverpool played. Liverpool played 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2, depending on your preferred nomenclature, a similar formation to the side we saw at Stoke and West Ham, but with all four of Liverpool's superlative front four involved for the first time.

And if it confused us – people who watch Liverpool too devotedly, every single week – what do you think it did to Spartak?

It did this. 7-0, against a side that hadn't conceded more than twice in a match since August 19, whose only matches where they'd conceded more than two both came when Spartak had a player sent off.

A hat-trick for Philippe Coutinho, the first Liverpool hat-trick in more than two years. Two goals for Mané, a goal and assist for Firmino, a goal and two hockey assists for Salah.

7-0 for the second time this season, for the second time in eight weeks. 7-0 against two different group stage sides, one home and one away.

7-0 against Spartak Moscow, who conceded once, once, once, twice, and once in their other group stages games. 7-0 at Maribor who...

Liverpool's second goal's an excellent example of how these players can absolutely demolish any opponent, especially when in playing from positions the opposition didn't necessarily expect.

Mané picks up possession on the halfway line (as he also did in Liverpool's third and sixth goals), from Lovren's clearing header. Salah's dropped deeper this time, bringing Bocchetti with him, while Tasci's well behind the other three defenders out of the picture, trying to keep Firmino in front of him. And Eschenko's basically where he should be to keep an eye on Coutinho.

Firmino makes the run from inside to out, and Bochetti goes with him, trying to maintain the back four spacing, which creates the lane for Mané's pass to Salah. Eschenko has to come over to help, because Tasci's still way too deep to do anything about it. Which leaves space for a certain someone after Salah slips it in to Firmino.

Uh oh. And it's not as if this was Liverpool's only play. Firmino's in a fine place to shoot. There's a centering ball on for Salah, faster than Tasci and ball-side of Eschenko. But Firmino has the vision to find Coutinho. The most open player. The player who has the chance to take a shot most likely to go in.

"Uh oh" is damned right.

In this 7-0 win and Saturday's 5-1 win at Brighton, Liverpool have taken 29 combined shots. Coutinho, Salah, Mané, and Firmino took 26 of those. Those four players scored 10 of Liverpool's 12 goals – 11 if you want to give the front four (read: Coutinho) credit for Dunk's own goal on Saturday.

Liverpool did this with 17 shots yesterday and 12 last Saturday. Seven goals from 17, five goals from 12. 12 goals from 16 shots on-target combined. The finishing pixie is sprawled out, euphorically drunk, on the floor somewhere. Liverpool's shot accuracy has been bananas, Liverpool's shot conversion has been beyond bananas. It's probably somewhat unsustainable, but it's also been somewhat deserved. They're good shots, Brent. They're high-value shots, something Liverpool struggled with in its setbacks against bottom-half sides last season. Just as a brief example, Liverpool had three more clear-cut chances yesterday (seven) than Liverpool had shots from outside the box (four). I suspect you remember how often we screamed about outside-the-box shots last season.

So, the attack is attacking, which means that the defense can focus on defending. When the attack is this good, when the front four can create and score and do it themselves, the fullbacks and midfielders can play slightly deeper (although let's not downplay Milner's three assists in the second half here), a center-back's not striding forward to add another passer over the halfway line, and Liverpool's exposure to counter-attacks drops significantly.

And that's a big reason why while Liverpool have scored three or more goals in eight of their last nine matches, they've also kept a clean sheet in five of the last those nine. And it should be seven, if not for Willian's fluke and Brighton's non-penalty.

Liverpool have attacked well in the league of late; only City and United have scored more goals, and the 1-1 draw against Chelsea is the only match where Liverpool haven't scored at least three since late October. But we've really seen it in Europe. These poor sides – Hoffenheim, Maribor, Sevilla, and Spartak – often haven't known what's hit them. Two goals, four goals, two goals, one goal, seven goals, three goals, three goals, seven goals. Liverpool scored 23 goals in the group stage, the most any English side's gotten in the Champions League.

Those group stage sides only earned a few draws because Liverpool either wasted chances (see: Spartak away or, to a lesser extent, Sevilla at home) or did incredibly dumb things in defense (you know which match).

It's harder for Liverpool in the league, where most opponents have seen you before. Have played you before. In Europe, Liverpool have the advantage. There's only so much film you can watch, but then Coutinho's running at you, Salah's running behind you, Firmino's there but wait now he's there, they're coming from all angles, they're not stopping, and the ball's in the net. Again and again.

And, recently, Liverpool have been increasingly able to do it in the league as well.

Four all-world attackers, who are creating and converting at an insane pace.

Tactical flexibility, and a willingness to change the shape in order to both confuse the opponent and get the best out of those all-world attackers.

There's still pressing, but it's more around the halfway line than in the opposition half, which both draws out the opposition and gives Liverpool space to counter into, where they're creating and converting high-value chances.

A defense that's – more often than not, and more often than previously – actually protected, and can focus on defending.

And now, Liverpool are in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2008-09. Where they'll play either Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Shaktar Donetsk, Porto, or Basel.

It's been fun lately. It's been very, very good football. But there's still loads more work to do, both in the league and Europe.

05 December 2017

Liverpool v Spartak Moscow 12.06.17

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2 and ESPN3

Previous Group results:
Liverpool: 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 7-0 Maribor (a); 1-1 Spartak (a); 2-2 Sevilla (h)
Spartak: 1-1 Maribor (h); 1-2 Sevilla (a); 5-1 Sevilla (h); 1-1 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Maribor (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Brighton (a); 3-0 Stoke (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
Spartak: 1-0 Arsenal Tula (a); 3-1 Zenit (h); 1-1 Maribor (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Firmino 6; Salah 5; Can 3; Alexander-Arnold, Coutinho 2; Mané, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sturridge 1
Spartak: Promes, Ze Luis 2; Fernando, Glushakov, L Adriano, Melgarejo, Samedov,1

Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino Mané

Not that I necessarily know what "full-strength, first-choice" is anymore, but I'm guessing "full-strength, first-choice" tomorrow.

4-3-3, because despite all the tweaks and variations we've seen in recent weeks, that's what Liverpool have played in Europe and that's what Liverpool have played at home. Karius in goal, because Karius has been the Champions League keeper. Gomez and Klavan are fit again, so Gomez and Moreno at fullback, and Lovren and Klavan at center-back. Coutinho and two more from Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum in midfield; I'm guessing Can left out because he's a yellow away from suspension (along with Moreno) but *shrugs*. And Firmino, Salah, Mané up front, to wreak all sorts of havoc.

But, sure, I wouldn't be all that surprised if we get Oxlade-Chamberlain or Sturridge or Milner somewhere in the front six. Liverpool have eight matches between now and New Years' Day. There's a Merseyside Derby on Sunday. I don't think I've guessed a lineup remotely correctly since Sevilla. And Liverpool have options, increasingly so going by the lineups and results we've seen over the last month. Which is fun.

Meanwhile, Spartak have lost just once in the 12 matches since hosting Liverpool, a 1-2 defeat at Sevilla in this competition. They were seventh in the Russian Premier League with 14 points from 11 games when we last spoke, now they're fourth with 34 points from 19 games. But they have kept just two clean sheets during that stretch: a 0-0 draw against Amkar Perm five weeks ago and a 1-0 win at Arsenal Tula last Friday.

Spartak played 5-4-1 the last time these sides met, but that's not Spartak Moscow's usual formation. They've used 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 in almost all of their matches since. Maybe Spartak stick with what worked, as they stifled Liverpool fairly well – even if Liverpool's wastefulness was as much a culprit – but Liverpool now has been a vastly more potent side than the Liverpool of two months ago.

No Spartak player who was available for the last meeting between these sides will miss tomorrow's match; Kombarov, Tigiev, and Ananidze remain absent. But both Promes and Glushakov – important players who missed for the last tie – will be available. Promes is obviously the most terrifying, with 10 goals and eight assists in the league and Europe this season. Either Gomez or Moreno are going to have their hands full tomorrow.

Let's guess Selikhov; Eschenko, Tasci, Kutepov, Dzhiklya; Popov, Fernando, Glushakov; Samedov, L Adriano, Promes. As usual, emphasis on guess. It could be 4-4-2. It could be 5-4-1. Luis Adriano, approaching Promes in terms of both output and potential damage, could play on the flank with Ze Luis starting as the central striker, in place of Samedov.

Spartak need a win to qualify for the knockout rounds, three points behind Liverpool and two behind Sevilla. Liverpool will progress with a draw, topping the group with a win tomorrow. The only way Liverpool advance with a loss is if Sevilla somehow fail to win in Maribor, which is incredibly unlikely.

It's safe to assume that Liverpool won't play for the draw. That's not what Liverpool do, that's not how Liverpool succeed. Liverpool will go for the throat. Liverpool will look to score, repeatedly, as they've often done over the last month, with at least three goals scored in seven of their last eight matches. With just six goals conceded at home all season, and only one in the last five matches.

Draws against Sevilla (twice) and Spartak have made qualification harder than it should have been. Liverpool have one more chance to remedy that.

04 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 5-1 Brighton

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

We've seen more starting formations in the last four away matches than we saw throughout all of last season.

At West Ham, a very counter-attacking 4-4-2, which looked like 4-2-4 more often than not. Liverpool won 4-1.

At Sevilla, a reversion to the typical 4-3-3, a formation and style less familiar to European opponents than Premier League opponents. Liverpool went up 3-0 within 30 minutes, then I blacked out and I assume the game ended comfortably.

At Stoke, similar to West Ham but as much a 4-2-3-1 as a 4-4-2. Liverpool won 3-0.

And, now, at Brighton, the most confusing and surprising of the bunch, 3-4-3 with two midfielders as center-backs. Liverpool won 5-1.

Last season, Liverpool used three different starting formations by my count. In the entire season. A 4-4-2 diamond in the last two matches of the campaign as well as in the 1-1 at Manchester United in January; a wacky 3-5-1-1 with loads of changes and players absent in the 2-1 win at Stoke (switching to 3-4-3 when down at halftime); and the usual 4-3-3 in the other 43 matches.

Sometimes, writing out numerical formations doesn't help much. A 4-3-3 with Lallana and Wijnaldum in midfield will play far differently than one with Can and Coutinho; one with Sturridge, Firmino, and Mané in the front three will play far differently than one with Coutinho, Firmino, and Salah.

But tactics matter. Line-ups matter. And, yes, formations matter.

To put it bluntly, Liverpool were predictable last season, especially in fixtures like Saturday's. There were matches where it didn't matter – against Liverpool's peers in the top six; early in the season when Liverpool's style was less familiar to most opponents; or in a handful of matches where Liverpool simply blitzed the opposition regardless of personnel, style, or opposition. But there were matches where it did matter, and Liverpool's attack ran headlong into a brick wall, regrouped, and ran headlong into it again. And again. See: 0-2 Burnley, 0-0 Southampton (twice), 0-2 Hull, etc.

Liverpool have been far less predictable this season, especially over the last month. Especially in the types of matches where Liverpool struggled last season, and struggled earlier in the season: 1-1 Burnley, 1-1 Spartak, 1-1 Newcastle, etc.

Because this was exactly the type of match that Klopp's Liverpool have struggled in before.


Incidentally, Liverpool's home record against promoted sides is five wins, no draws, and no losses, with 15 goals scored, just two conceded.

Saturday's was a formation that got the best out of Liverpool's front three, and Liverpool were wholly reliant on that front three for shots and chance creation. And that front three came through, with the side set up in a way to play to their strengths despite what the opposition would look to accomplish. As at West Ham, as at Stoke, etc.

*long, low wolf whistle*

Saturday's match and Saturday's result wasn't easy, at least not as easy as the score line suggests. And a lot of it didn't make sense. But it's another needed win, with three or more goals scored and one or fewer conceded, as we've seen in six of the last eight matches. This formation and these tactics are another arrow in Liverpool's quiver, demonstrating the deeper squad and Klopp's greater tactical versatility than we saw in previous seasons, in previous disappointing results in fixtures like these.

We've seen fairly heavy rotation to go along with these tactical and formation tweaks, at least more than Liverpool were capable of last season. Salah, Coutinho, Firmino, Mané, Henderson, Can, and Moreno have all been used as substitutes, at most, in one of the three matches in the last nine days. Because we've seen two matches a week for the last couple of weeks now. And this is just the start. Liverpool still have eight more matches over the next 28 days.

After a disappointing September and beginning of October, Liverpool have set themselves up well for those next 28 days.

02 December 2017

Liverpool 5-1 Brighton

Can 30'
Firmino 31' 48'
Murray 51' [pen]
Coutinho 87'
Dunk OG 89'

3-0 Huddersfield, 3-0 Maribor, 4-1 West Ham, 3-0 Southampton, 3-0 Stoke, 5-1 Brighton. Patience, then potency. Set play, then counter then counter – which was also the 2013-14 Liverpool mantra – then set play then counter. No matter Brighton's completely nonsense consolation. And, no matter how often Liverpool get goals, it's the first time Liverpool have scored five in the league in more than a year.

Same again, then.

Not quite.

First and foremost, what the hell was that formation. Sure, Matip's injured, Gomez is ill, and Klavan hasn't trained because of illness. So, sure, let's go with 3-4-3. With Can and Wijnaldum as the wide "center-backs."

Liverpool's commitment to banter remains undefeated.

I mean, in theory, it makes some sense. You ain't really got a partner for Lovren. Brighton's gonna have next to no possession, not until Liverpool scores at least, so you might as well put two quick players who can pass there, with the potential for forward runs when Brighton get really, really deep.

But, then again, you played Wijnaldum and Can as center-backs.

And, early on, it went about as well as you'd expect. Liverpool had a couple of set play chances, with Firmino missing a free header from a corner in the fourth minute, but Liverpool also struggled to find space. Liverpool struggled to connect in a formation and XI that might have seen one session on the training pitch. And Brighton had the best chance in the first 29 minutes, with Brown getting a low cross in from the right on the counter, around Alexander-Arnold, behind Lovren, and to Glenn Murray, but Wijnaldum did *just enough* to force him into a close-range shot over the bar.

Liverpool possession, few Liverpool chances. One terrifying moment in defense.

Sounds about right.

And then Liverpool scored. And then Liverpool scored again.

Emre Can nails a header from Liverpool's second corner, exactly the type of bullet you'd want from your center-back. Barely a minute later, a textbook Liverpool counter-attack. Brighton kick-off, a hoof deep. Can's easy clearing header to Lovren to Firmino holding up at the halfway line, laid off to Salah with space to run. Around one, then a charge at terrified defenders, picking out Coutinho, a first-time low cross to Firmino. Boof. 18 seconds from kick-off to goal. A minute and 19 seconds from goal to kickoff to goal.

So, yeah, Liverpool can stutter through the first half in an unfamiliar formation, with tons of possession and hardly any shots, when Liverpool can be that potent twice in two minutes.

Lock down for the rest of the half, with a similar pattern of play to the first 30 minutes, but thankfully without any Brighton attacking. Which is completely fine with a 2-0 lead with this lineup.

Liverpool had done good things in first halves against Sevilla, Chelsea, and Stoke. And all three of those sides responded, to varying degrees, in the second half. What would Brighton do?

Nearly score within three minutes of the restart.

Brighton has more possession, needing to get back into the game with Liverpool happy to try to draw them out. Brown again finds space against Alexander-Arnold, taking advantage of the full-back's uncertain positioning. And the cross is perfect. And Glenn Murray's on the absolute door step. And he hits it really well. Not perfectly, but really well, controlled and low, making it truly hard for the keeper to get down.

And Simon Mignolet somehow saves it with his trailing leg. And Liverpool immediately blitzkrieg down the pitch and score again. Lovren hoof, Coutinho headed flick-on, Firmino lay-off to Coutinho, through to Salah, who zoom zoom zooms at goal, drawing two defenders away from Firmino, finding him with the reverse ball that's thumped into the net. 15 seconds from save to goal.

Good lord, that front three. It actually feels unfair sometimes.

So, now 3-0, with about the hardest stomach punch Brighton could suffer. That's that, then.

Come on. Act like you've been here before.

Brighton get a goal back within three minutes. For no damned reason. It's a Brighton corner. Brighton's first! Yes, we hate corners. But Firmino clears it! But Graham Scott, who's in his first season as a Premier League referee by the way, points to the spot for a Henderson push on Shane Duffy.

Jordan Henderson did not push Shane Duffy. Maybe it looks like that when your positioning is very, very bad, but that's not really an excuse. Henderson has a hand on Duffy's back. Duffy then jumps. Duffy then swan dives. Whistle. Spot kick. Goal.

If you're calling that, you're calling the same number of penalties as there are corners in the match. It's the most make-up of make-ups calls and you're not even making up for anything. You're just an inexperienced referee who actually feels bad for the stomach punch the home team just suffered.

And now Liverpool have license to fall apart.

But Liverpool don't fall apart! Brighton have too much possession, which makes us crazy because we have been here before, but Brighton are limited to two low-value set play chances which don't come close to threatening for the next half-hour. And Liverpool have better chances to extend the lead: Salah shooting straight at Ryan on the counter; Coutinho's shot that's absolutely going in blocked by Dunk's arm, more a penalty than Brighton's penalty; then Coutinho unnecessarily offside on another potential counter.

Brighton make subs, taking off both Knockaert and Brown. Liverpool finally make subs, replacing Salah with Oxlade-Chamberlain. Brighton's got one more chance, because we really are never allowed to feel safe, but Alexander-Arnold gets a bit of redemption in blocking Izquierdo's goal-bound effort (which Mignolet's maybe possibly saving) after the substitute sprinted away from Henderson far too easily.

And instead of the game petering out, Liverpool add two more through the absolute, indescribable, incomparable brilliance of Philippe Coutinho. First a free-kick replica of his goal against West Ham in the 2015-16 FA Cup: giving the wall the eyes, coaxing them into jumping as he places his shot under them. Then another Tasmanian Devil dribble dash at retreating targets, a probably-off-target shot on the run that's headed in by Lewis Dunk. Still might be one for the dubious goals panel.

Let's quickly recap Coutinho's day. Two assists, then a hockey assist. A free kick goal then single-handedly forcing an own goal. 5/6 successful dribbles, which felt like twice as many as that, just mindbogglingly good with the ball at his feet today. He's too good for words sometimes.

He wasn't the only one. Not in that front three. I can almost be as effusive about Firmino, while Salah still dominating the game without scoring thanks to his runs on those two counters.

Five goals. A nonsense XI. A nonsense penalty. Liverpool at their most potent. Liverpool 3-0 up against a promoted side and still somehow causing us palpitations.

Madness. Absolute madness. As if we've come to expect any less.

First, never play that XI again. At least not in that formation. A better attacking side punishes Liverpool. Probably repeatedly. Wijnaldum – and I feel bad for him – truly and unsurprisingly struggled in the position, unsure where to play out from that deep, unable to turn onto his left if and go up the flank if under any semblance of pressure. Playing Alexander-Arnold at wing-back makes him more capable in attack, but much more frightening in defense – the side of the game he's not as strong at. Similar, to a lesser extent, goes for Robertson.

But Liverpool probably don't play that XI or formation against a better side so *shrugs*. Horses for courses, after all.

Second, I truly appreciate when Liverpool's attack more than makes up for Liverpool's defense. Liverpool scored five goals, could have had three or so more. Mohamed Salah didn't have score any of them and Sadio Mané never made it off the bench.

This team is madness, for better and for worse. We've seen more better than worse lately, and fair bit of it. 25 Liverpool goals in Liverpool's last eight matches, with just six conceded: three in the aberration at Sevilla and West Ham's one, but also Chelsea's fluke and Brighton's that-was-never-a-penalty-I-will-never-forgive-you. With Liverpool rotating heavily in the last three matches, both due to injury and illness, but also to protect players and keep fresh legs with all these matches over this month.

It's gonna continue to be madness. Enjoy the ride.