04 June 2018

Liverpool Season Review 2017-18

I wish I hadn't waited until after the Champions League final to start writing this. That, obviously, unfortunately, colors everything that came before.

I want to reiterate that Liverpool had little right to get the season they got.

A record amount of goals scored in a Liverpool season. Mohamed Salah setting the record for Premier League goals in a single season. Salah, Firmino, and Mané combining for 91 goals, just one fewer than Liverpool's entire total last season; it's 17 more than Liverpool scored in 2014-15, when Liverpool played two more games. And Liverpool earned a top-four place in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2007-08/2008-09. And Liverpool had that wonderful unlikely Champions League run from the play-off round to the final.

But the Champions League final also reminds that I am filled with both regrets and what-could-have-beens from this season.

There are what-ifs had Liverpool not shit in multiple beds because Liverpool will always do Liverpool.

Ten matches where Liverpool had a lead but could only draw or lose.

Seven of those came in the league. Watford, a late set play that shouldn't have counted. Chelsea, a Willian fluke cross-that-went-in. Everton, a penalty that wasn't. Arsenal, five minutes of madness with three regrettable goals conceded from individual errors. Tottenham. I still don't want to talk about Tottenham. West Brom, two late set play breakdowns when Liverpool thought the match was won, after a couple of months of not doing those things.

That's 14 points, right there. 14 points that would have made this the highest-points total for a Liverpool season in the Premier League era. 14 points still wouldn't have caught Manchester City – wouldn't have come close because good lord, City – but every point dropped remains infuriating.

There are what-ifs had Liverpool gotten a bit more from referees.

Spurs at home. United away. Among others. Seven opposition penalties to Liverpool's four, a high in opposition penalties and a low in Liverpool penalties since I starting tracking this in 2011-12. I suspect it goes farther back than that. To be fair, Liverpool missed four penalties this season, but only one in the league, and Liverpool's last penalty came in January. And the opposition missed three of their own. It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

And there are all those what-ifs from the Champions League final. Sigh.

It was what it was, for better or worse, for better and worse. But it was still far more better than worse.

Liverpool finished fourth in the league last season. Liverpool finished fourth in the league this season, with one point less than in 2016-17.

There were similar numbers in shot production, but a vast increase in goals per game, big chances per game, xG per game, and xG per shot. I suspect this is what happens when your most prolific shooter goes from Philippe Coutinho to Mohamed Salah.

Meanwhile, there were slightly fewer opposition shots allowed, but a similar amount on-target and from big chances, and almost exactly the same xG per shot, and it led to a couple fewer goals conceded. Also, Karius' save percentage this season was 68.9% and Mignolet's was 63.9% last season so that's probably got something to do with it as well.

But there's also a lot more consistency, at least in results. It certainly wasn't the best form early in the season – with the squad yet to fully coalesce, with the Coutinho transfer saga, with the massacre at Manchester City – nor late in the season, when the long campaign caught up with Liverpool and far more focus was on the Champions League. But there was no winter of our discontent, there was no "holy shit Liverpool have gone ten matches and the only win was a 1-0 replay over Plymouth Argyle." Klopp was much more willing and much more able to rotate, and Liverpool were a lot stronger for it.

And you also have to remember that last season took place with damned few games besides the Premier League, and this season also saw a run to the Champions League final. 56 matches in 2017-18, 47 in 2016-17. When Liverpool had fixture congestion in 2016-17 – again, winter, our discontent, etc – Liverpool went into the toilet. That wasn't necessarily the case this season, even if Liverpool were unsurprisingly better the few times they had a week's rest.

Firmino, Salah, Mané, Henderson, Karius, Alexander-Arnold, and Gomez all played a lot more than last season – at least eight full matches worth of additional minutes. Liverpool's ten most frequently used players all played more minutes than they had the season before. Even Matip and Can, who missed the last two months of the season through injury. It is no surprise that both Milner and Robertson looked the freshest in the last few games of the season.

And at the other end, two of Liverpool's near ever-presents last season – Lallana and Clyne – hardly featured in this due to injury. Nathaniel Clyne played the most minutes in 2016-17. He featured in just five games this season. Divock Origi made the most appearances in 2016-17. He spent all but one late substitute appearance on loan with Wolfsburg this season.

The workload caught up with Liverpool, the squad depth caught up with Liverpool.

Imagine the front three being available this often. I don't want to imagine them not.

Firmino never missed a game through injury, left out of the squad in just two of 56 matches. Salah had a minor knock which kept him out of consecutive games in early January, but that was it until the Champions League final. Mané suffered worse, with a three-game suspension in September swiftly followed by a five-match hamstring injury, but he was basically ever-present afterwards.

That's nuts.

All three of these players are machines, especially Firmino, who played 81.7% of all of Liverpool's available minutes last season as well. Salah played 65.5% of Roma's in 2016-17, but the majority of matches missed came because of the African Cup of Nations. Mané missed more time in 2016-17, both because of a longer injury as well as the African Cup of Nations.

When you're fighting against City's money and United's money and Chelsea's money, you need your best players available. Liverpool's were, more often than not.

For all the complaints about squad depth and the amount of fixtures, Liverpool were incredibly lucky with how often Firmino, Salah, and Mané were available. Almost every other position saw players miss significant time: Lallana, Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Henderson for stretches in midfield; Clyne and Gomez at full-back; Matip at center-back and also van Dijk not joining until January. But the front three almost totally stayed fit.

It's likely that won't be the case next season. Not to mention that production's gonna be hard to replicate as well.

The league results comparison highlights one of last season's biggest issues. Liverpool's play and Liverpool's results against some of the league's lesser lights. Liverpool's only league losses in 2016-17 came against teams which finished 9th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 18th.

That was far less of an issue this season, with the one loss at Swansea – narrow, to a set play goal, in the midst of some of the worst fixture congestion – the only loss to sides outside the top five.

If only we could say similar about matches against Liverpool's peers. Gulps, tugs collar, etc.

Despite the complaints above, Liverpool even dropped fewer points from winning positions, having given up a lead in eight league matches last season compared to seven in this – including two matches where Liverpool had a lead but lost, which didn't happen in 2017-18.

Set play defense was less of a problem – as written about last week.

Breaking down deep defenses was less of a problem – sure, there was Everton and West Brom and Swansea and Stoke, but it was less frequent than last season. That's what happens when that front three does all those wonderful front three things.

This was a side that curb-stomped an awful lot of teams who should be curb-stomped.

The handful of 5-1s, 6-1s, 4-1s that we saw early in 2016-17 – and rarely after that – became more frequent and more consistent. 25 out of Liverpool's 56 matches this season – 17 out of 38 in the league – saw Liverpool score at least three goals. Every single month this season saw Liverpool score at least three in at least one match. Only September and March had matches without at least one four-goal performance. 14 different matches this season saw Liverpool score four or more. The likes of Bournemouth, Stoke, and Huddersfield got smacked, but so did Arsenal, Porto, and Roma.

Have I mentioned that I absolutely adore goals? Because I absolutely adore goals. And this Liverpool did lots and lots of goals.

Liverpool's five 0-0 draws?

- Manchester United at home. Screw those guys. Also, Mané didn't play.
- West Brom at home. The only one where all of the front three played, but also smack in the middle of a horrific run of two-games-a-week fixtures. I can't any of this season's matches against West Brom. So happy they're relegated.
- Porto at home. Dead rubber, didn't matter. Salah didn't start either.
- Everton away. Late season, two-games-a-week, "screw the league." Firmino didn't start, Salah didn't play.
- Stoke at home. Late season, two-games-a-week, "screw the league." Mané didn't play.

They're all kinda explainable. Unlike more than of a few of last season's "running into a brick wall despite a full strength XI on a week's rest, and sometimes not even finishing 0-0 because you stupidly conceded at least once."

So, yes, while there are regrets, there's a lot to be happy about. And there's a lot to be excited about.

This is a settled side, especially over the last half of the season. Only five players made their Liverpool debut in 2017-18 – Salah, Solanke, Robertson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and van Dijk – compared to ten new players in 2016-17. Only three players who made a league appearance in 2016-17 didn't feature for Liverpool this season: Lucas, Ejaria, and Kevin Stewart. That number was 16 from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

As with the summer before 2016-17, Liverpool's transfer dealings were a complete success. Those five players who made their debut this season all made Liverpool a better side. Salah was unfathomably monstrous; Robertson, van Dijk, and Oxlade-Chamberlain are all in Liverpool's best XI; and Solanke at least demonstrated potential, seemingly first-choice back-up ahead of Ings and Origi at age 20.

The side that this manager is building is reaching its final form.

But it's also still a young side – the youngest average age in the Premier League last season – but one that isn't just entering but is now fully in its prime.

That's a hell of a lot of peak age players. Peak age for attackers and midfielders: almost all 24-27. Peak age for center-backs: almost all 26-30. Still young at full-back, but that's fine because they have to run for days and they're all experienced for their age. Still some young potential beginning to be realized in both the full-backs and Keïta and Fabinho and Solanke and Gomez. The three keepers Liverpool have been linked with – for what little that's worth – are all 25 years old. As is now-constantly rumored Nabil Fekir. And there's still James Milner, the aging veteran who's seen it all and can play multiple positions but also the cool uncle who'll buy you beer and can run like he's a decade younger than he actually is.

Mmmmmmmmm. I'm already way too excited for next season.

So, what'd we get this season?

That top four finish. That Champions League run. All those goals.

A reasonable job identifying and rectifying some of last season's failures, even if some others arose. A fairly brilliant job coping with two matches a week for the majority of the season, at least until the final month. Transfer business already nearing its apex and it's barely June. Fabinho and Keïta already signed. Two pieces left: attacking depth in the perpetually-rumored Fekir and please buy a new, top-shelf goalkeeper. Increased consistency, and return to European elite. And all those wonderful, wonderful goals.

Even with the regrets, it was good. It was very good. It was very fun. Football is supposed to be fun. Football has to be fun or what's the damned point.

And next season will be better.

30 May 2018

Liverpool Goals Scored and Conceded 2017-18

(Here are similar versions from 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16, 2016-17.)

There is a lot of good in here. Unsurprisingly.

Liverpool scored at a goals-per-game clip that we haven't seen since 2013-14, when – yes, Virginia – Liverpool nearly won the league.

But, for a second, I don't even care about goals per game. I care about goals. And 135 goals is a shit-load of goals. Liverpool have never scored 135 goals in a campaign before. Yes, I know that the amount of games played makes this moot in comparison to other high-scoring seasons. I don't care. I absolutely love goals. We saw 135 of them this season. Every single one was a damned treasure.

Both Salah and Firmino broke the template I had for individual scorers in that section, the first not-Luis-Suarez Liverpool players to score more than 25 in a season since Fernando Torres a decade ago. This is the first time that Liverpool have had three 20-goal scorers since 1981-82. That was 36 years ago. I wasn't even alive yet, barely. I don't know if that makes me feel better about this season or worse about my age. That it's only now happened twice in Liverpool's 125-year history, however, makes me feel better about this season.

Danger Zone goals? Great, tons of them, a higher proportion than usual. In position to score, actually scoring. More clear-cut chances than last season, a higher xG per shot than last season. Outside the box goals? A reasonable amount, although fewer than last season when Coutinho did a lot of Coutinho-ing. Penalties? Joint-fewest since 2011-12, and please don't look up that season, it hurts, it actually still hurts.

However, Liverpool's goals conceded average hasn't really gotten better. It's gotten worse, at least in all competitions. Let's dig slightly deeper.

First, the last time Liverpool conceded fewer than 40 goals in a league campaign was 2008-09. Nine seasons ago. Rafa Benitez's penultimate season. When Liverpool finished second.

That seems a good thing.

As with last season, Liverpool got better – or, at least stingier in defense – in the final third of the season, and with less of the eminently frustrating winter of our discontent. Not only did Liverpool concede fewer during the fixture-packed December and January, Liverpool were actually really good at scoring over said time frame as well. Unlike last season. A slightly deeper and more well-round side (although clearly not enough by the end of the campaign), better luck with injuries, and better use of said squad by the manager.

Plus, defending set plays has gotten a lot better!

There, obviously, remain concerns. Again, goals conceded, even if it was better than it seemed and improved over the course of the season. The heavy reliance on the front three, who scored more than 67% of Liverpool's goals.

And that timeline of goals scored and conceded.

Liverpool are really good in the middle third of halves, as the press pushes the opposition back and into mistakes, as the front three increasingly builds terror in the back-line. Liverpool are reasonably good at the beginning of halves, especially the second half, for similar reasons – although there's still too much of a propensity to concede in the opening 15 minutes. Liverpool are a lot less good at the end of halves, especially the second half, as the press slows and the side tires.

Good lord, stoppage time.

There's some garbage time in there. There's some "it doesn't matter, Liverpool were going to win/lose anyway" in there. But there's also 3-3 Watford, 3-3 Sevilla, and 2-2 Tottenham. There's also the unnecessary heartburn in the home league match against City and the away leg at Roma.

Liverpool's goals in the 90th minute or stoppage time? 7-0 Maribor, 3-0 Maribor, 2-1 Burnley, 2-1 Tottenham, 3-0 Bournemouth. Three dead rubbers, one winner, and one should-have-been-winner-but-wasn't. Not quite the same effect.

However, not counting Roma, all those matches came in the first week of February or earlier. Also known as, "hey we've signed van Dijk Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are hitting grooves and Karius has established himself as the number one goalkeeper" time. Six of the nine goals came before the end of the November.

Like with set plays conceded, like with clear-cut chances allowed, this is getting better and this has gotten better.

Like with Liverpool as a whole, it's getting better and has gotten better.

28 May 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Real Madrid

Previous Match Infographics: Brighton (h), Chelsea (a), Roma (a), Stoke (h), Roma (h), West Brom (a), Bournemouth (h), Manchester City [CL] (a), Everton (a), Manchester City [CL] (h), Crystal Palace (a), Watford (h), United (a), Porto (h), Newcastle (h), West Ham (h), Porto (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), Leicester (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), West Brom (h), Everton (h), 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. 

I mean, we know where this went wrong.

Mo Salah's first real injury of the season came at the worst possible time. I'm still more than willing to blame Sergio Ramos for doing it purposefully.

This was the first time that Liverpool had two Opta-defined errors leading to goals in the same game since 1-4 Tottenham, the only time it's happened this season. It's only the third time it's happened since Klopp became manager. We haven't seen two errors-leading-to-goals from the same Liverpool player in a single game since I started tracking errors back in 2012-13. Both came from the goalkeeper, the worst player to commit a defensive error, the most frequently punished for committing any error.

And Gareth Bale scored the winner, a goal he'll literally never score again in his life, in training or a match, no matter how many times he tries.

Yep, that all sucked.

So let's spend more time talking about the good things. There were actually a few.

The biggest regret is that Liverpool's game plan worked for the first half-hour. Mostly. In all but the always necessary goal at least.

Madrid still had more possession than Liverpool, but this was as close as we got. And Liverpool's possession was by far more threatening, with 56 attacking-third touches to Madrid's 21. Nine Liverpool shots to Madrid's two. And there would have been a couple more if not for Navas twice sweeping well and a punched cross, as well as a last-man tackle from Varane. Real Madrid were all hands-on-deck, increasingly desperate in defense. Six of Liverpool's nine shots during this spell were blocked, two from Casemiro and one each from Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, and Modric. Seven players defending, so only three could attack.

No side had blocked that high a proportion of Liverpool shots this season. Extrapolating 30 minutes into 90 is a fool's errand, but had Liverpool kept that pace, that's 27 shots, more than all but one match this season. Even without that quantity, it'd have been more than likely that Liverpool would have eventually made the breakthrough, probably before Real Madrid. We all know why Liverpool fell off that pace.

Liverpool did get a goal, if only after Read Madrid. Sadio Mané got Liverpool back in the game. He joins both Salah and Firmino with double-digit goals in the Champions League, the first time any side has ever had three players do so in one campaign. It's fitting that the three now share the record for most Liverpool goals in a Champions League campaign. Against Real Madrid, Mané took more shots, attempted and completed more dribbles, and made more successful tackles than any other Liverpool player. He nearly got Liverpool back into the game a second time, hitting the post with his weaker foot from outside the box in the 70th minute, Liverpool's only shot between Mané's goal and injury time.

And while Real Madrid won, did Cristiano Ronaldo play? Three shots, only one threatening, a clear-cut chance which Karius saved excellently – and he should have been called offside before Benzema actually was. One key pass – a 30th minute layoff for Modric's blocked shot, just after Liverpool had substituted Salah. Unsuccessful with all five attempted dribbles. Ronaldo spent the majority of the match against 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold and our old favorite scapegoat Dejan Lovren, who both did immaculately against arguably the best player in the world on the biggest stage. That bodes well.

Of course, Real Madrid are more than just Cristiano Ronaldo. And that's the biggest difference between the sides. Despite all the nonsense incurred by and created by Liverpool. Real Madrid have more than enough quality and depth to win when their best player isn't at his best. Liverpool, less so. Especially against opponents of this stature.

It has been an insanely enjoyable season, far more better than worse. And while it was especially wild in the Champions League, we hit the wall at the end. The Champions League final aptly demonstrated just how far Liverpool still have to go. As the Europa League final did two seasons ago.

But for a few moments, it could easily have been different. It could easily have been better. But – as unfair as it still feels – it's probably fitting that it wasn't. This is where Liverpool are at the moment. This is where Liverpool have been for the majority of the season. Quite fun and quite good more often than not, but prone to calamity – both self-inflicted and inflicted by others – with a shallow squad.

Next season's gonna be a different story.

26 May 2018

Liverpool 1-3 Real Madrid

Benzema 51'
Mané 58'
Bale 64' 83'

Welp, the three-peat really was cosmically ordained. Liverpool's magic in this competition just could not overcome Real Madrid's even more powerful voodoo.

Everything's humming along nicely. Liverpool are doing exactly what Liverpool need to: pressing Madrid out of any fluency, creating chances, denied by some last ditch blocks and one good Navas save. It's a really good start! Everyone's really loud! We have hope!

And then Mohamed Salah has to go off injured, with what could well be a dislocated shoulder. After the season he's had, with the World Cup imminent. Or, put another way, Sergio Ramos injures Mohamed Salah, as he's purposefully and unnecessarily holding Salah's arm and angles his shoulder directly into the ground.

Life is not fair. This is a cruel, uncaring universe. Evil often defeats good, because good is dumb.

You can't say it's a different result, because cosmically-ordained-three-peat, but it's sure as hell a different game.

It ain't over after the injury. But Liverpool are already the underdog, and it just got a hell of a lot harder. It's not Adam Lallana's fault, but Adam Lallana is not Mohamed Salah, especially when he's missed 95% of the season. Liverpool's strategy necessarily changes, Liverpool's attack unfortunately changes. It's far less threatening. Pressing comes more from the midfield rather than the front three. It's harder to get Firmino and Mané involved. Lallana wasn't very good in the front three even when at peak form last season.

Liverpool trod a fine line with squad depth all season long. You can't plan for Ramos' evil or the angle of a fall, but the bill still came due today.

So, unsurprisingly, Liverpool are pushed deeper. Real Madrid push forward. Read Madrid find angles and paths through the lessened pressure and lessened threat. But, by hook and crook, Liverpool held out as Real built momentum. A wonderful save from Karius on Ronaldo's point-blank header, Benzema with the ball in the net on the rebound but offside. Ronaldo probably was too. Isco hits the crossbar after Lallana's attempted interception fell straight to him with the goal open. We are hanging on by fingernails but we are hanging on.

Then, calamity. Unbelievable calamity. I-don't-even-want-to-think-about-it calamity. I'm-going-to-think-about-it-forever calamity. Karius, ball in hand from Real's chip over the top to Benzema, with Benzema offside anyway. Karius, looking to start the attack quickly. Karius, throwing the ball at Benzema, who sticks a leg out and directs it into the net.

It is the dumbest thing I have ever seen a goalkeeper do. I have seen a lot of goalkeepers do dumb things, especially thanks to following Liverpool. I did a lot of dumb things as a goalkeeper, at an admittedly low level.

That. That right there was the winner. In the Champions League final. To open the scoring. When you're already missing your best player but holding on.

I cannot even.

But I couldn't even seven minutes later, as Liverpool equalized. Corner, Lovren dominates Ramos, Mané's on the doorstep. Game on.

Six minutes later, game off again. Gareth Bale, the player I actually feared most, off the bench less than two minutes before. With an unstoppable overhead kick from Marcelo's cross. Literally unstoppable. Perfect technique. Lucky technique. Probably the best goal in a Champions League final, and I very much remember what his manager's done.

And try as they might, Liverpool just could not get back into this. Mané hit the post in the 70th minute, doing his best to single-handedly fire anything into Liverpool's attack, but we just got more pain. We got the perfect combination of Real Madrid's first two goals in Real Madrid's third. Bale, from nowhere, with a wickedly swerving shot, fiercely hit about as well as he could from 30-something yards out. But it's still a shot that literally goes straight through Karius. I want to feel bad for Karius. No one feels worse than Karius right now, wishing the world would swallow him up. It is very hard to feel empathy right now.

Sigh. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with banter.

It is infinitely depressing to lose a final in this manner. Salah's injury to completely wreck all the momentum and all the good, right around the point of the match where Liverpool usually find another gear. Liverpool hold on adequately, with Karius saves and an offside flag and the crossbar, but then concede an opener in the absolute worst way possible. Get back into the game, but then concede that damned Bale insanity. Keep fighting, not out of it, but again give away another eminently preventable goal from an eminently unthreatening position.

Real Madrid probably are and were the better team, but we're not relishing or respecting their victory. We're regretful. Left wondering what could have been. What could have been had Salah not gotten injured. What could have been had Karius not thrown the ball into his own net twice, despite the half-season he's had, despite making three excellent saves in the match.

I hate regret. I hate regret after how well Liverpool played otherwise – honestly! – especially Mané, Lovren, Robertson, and Henderson, especially considering circumstances. I hate that I regret after all the fun we've had this season.

I can't wait until I reminiscence rather than regret. It will happen, because this season gave us so much more than we deserved or expected, but it's gonna take a while.

25 May 2018

Liverpool v Real Madrid 05.26.18

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

CL results:
Liverpool: 2-4 Roma (a); 5-2 Roma (h); 2-1 City (a); 3-0 City (h); 0-0 Porto (h); 5-0 Porto (a); 7-0 Spartak (h); 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 7-0 Maribor (a); 1-1 Spartak (a); 2-2 Sevilla (h); 4-2 Hoffenheim (h); 2-1 Hoffenheim (a)
Real: 2-2 Bayern (h); 2-1 Bayern (a); 1-3 Juventus (h); 3-0 Juventus (a); 2-1 PSG (a); 3-1 PSG (h); 3-2 Dortmund (h); 6-0 APOEL (a); 1-3 Tottenham (a); 1-1 Tottenham (h); 3-1 Dortmund (a); 3-0 APOEL (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Brighton (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a); 2-4 Roma (a)
Real: 2-2 Villarreal (a); 6-0 Celta Vigo (h); 2-3 Sevilla (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Firmino, Salah 11; Mané 9; Coutinho 5; Can 3; Alexander-Arnold, Oxlade-Chamberlain 2; Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
Real: Ronaldo 15; Benzema 4; Marcelo 3; Asensio, Bale, Casemiro, Mayoral, Modric, Nacho, Ramos, Vazquez 1

Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB)

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

It's finally here. Gulp.

We know Liverpool's XI. It's been the same for a while now, both on form and fitness. Lallana and even Can could be available off the bench, which hey that helps, but they won't be in the XI. Liverpool's gonna dance with what brung them.

We mostly know Real Madrid's. My guess is Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Isco; Ronaldo, Bale. The one question is Bale or Benzema. Maybe there's a chance Real Madrid revert to 4-3-3, dropping one of the midfielders to restore the BBC, but it's been 4-Diamond-2 more often than not. And while Benzema's more established, and has played more, I guess I'm more afraid of what Bale's pace can do.

But either way, and more importantly, we know what Real Madrid are capable of. Cristiano Ronaldo remains the best pure goal-scorer in the world. Benzema, Bale, or both ain't bad either. That midfield is *gulps, tugs collar* a blend of creativity, dynamism, and steel. Marcelo is one of the world's best playmakers from left-damn-fullback. Sergio Ramos just does things in the biggest matches on the biggest stage, at both ends of the pitch.

All that pace and that scoring and that creativity and that individual brilliance and that history against Liverpool has kept me up at night for at least a week now.

Real Madrid have won the last two Champions Leagues. Three of the last four. They won the league last season, but finished third – 17 points behind Barcelona – in this one. It's been an unstoppable parade to the European Cup, no matter their form in other competitions. Cosmically ordained. This is their competition.

But we also know what Liverpool are capable of. Especially that front three. As Porto, City, and Roma have found out in this competition, let alone what Salah, Mané, and Firmino have done in the league. But it's been a team effort in Europe. Liverpool's best performances have seen the midfielders midfield, the defenders defend, and the full-backs do a bit of everything. When Liverpool don't get that from everywhere, you get Roma and City's almost-comebacks, both legs against Sevilla, etc, no matter what brilliance that front three conjures.

In theory, Liverpool match up as well with Real Madrid as Real Madrid match up with Liverpool. The players to press Madrid into turnovers and create good chances, as both Bayern Munich and Juventus did in previous rounds, but with the players to potentially convert the chances that Bayern and Juventus didn't. A midfield that can swarm diminutive players into relative silence when at their best and on full rest. And a defense that actually can increasingly defend, even if still prone to errors then collapses.

And this is also Liverpool's competition. Yes, this will be against the team that's won it more than any other, but we've won it five times. Liverpool winning this big, lovely trophy has been cosmically ordained before as well. We all remember Istanbul. We all have felt like this felt in 2004-05.

It's the Champions League final, in Jürgen Klopp's third season. Before this side's even been fully built. Having won their group despite *issues*, having decisively beaten the Portuguese league winners and the Premier League winners, having narrowly got past Serie A's third-best side despite taking 5-0 and 6-1 leads.

It's been a hell of a ride. Up and down and down and up and up and down and up. And it's not over yet.

Allez allez allez.

14 May 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Brighton

Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (a), Roma (a), Stoke (h), Roma (h), West Brom (a), Bournemouth (h), Manchester City [CL] (a), Everton (a), Manchester City [CL] (h), Crystal Palace (a), Watford (h), United (a), Porto (h), Newcastle (h), West Ham (h), Porto (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), Leicester (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), West Brom (h), Everton (h), 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. 

When Liverpool do games like this, it's hard to think of a Liverpool side I've enjoyed more. After a month with too much worry, at least in the league, we got good Liverpool back.

The attack finally returned to its former face-stomping form.

Liverpool rolls in a must-win game, the final league match of the season, the last match at Anfield in 2017-18. Even with ever-present James Milner out, the first time he's not been in the squad since January 2017. Even with a different formation, the first time we've seen 4-2-3-1/4-2-4 since December.

Mohamed Salah scored in a league game for the 24th time this season and in any game for the 34th time; 24 out of 36 league games played, 34 out of 51 games in all competitions. Mohamed Salah scored against a 17th different Premier League side; no player's scored against more teams in a single Premier League season. Mohamed Salah is the first player to outscore three English top-flight teams, with more goals than West Brom, Huddersfield, and Swansea.

Mohamed Salah finally broke the record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season. Mohamed Salah opened the scoring, the 17th goal he's scored with Liverpool level.

Dominic Solanke and Andrew Robertson both scored their first goals for Liverpool, the 17th and 18th different players to score for Liverpool this season.

Liverpool's 22 shots were their most in a league match since beating Swansea 5-0 back in December. Liverpool's +20 shot difference is tied for second-most in a league match this season, behind +30 in a draw with Burnley and equal to +20 in the draw with Everton, both matches featuring must more desperate shots as Liverpool chased a result. Liverpool's 17 Danger Zone shots were a high for a Liverpool league match this season. Liverpool had more clear-cut chances than shots from outside the box.

21 of those 22 Liverpool shots came with less than an hour gone; Liverpool's only shot after the 58th minute was Robertson's goal. 19 of those 22 shots came between the 19th and 58th minutes; 19 shots over a span of 39 minutes, nearly a shot every two minutes.

Unsurprisingly, goals followed. This was the 25th time this season that Liverpool have scored three or more goals in a match. They did so 14 times last season, 13 times in 2015-16, and only six in 2014-15. Only the 2013-14 Liverpool side scored more Premier League goals than this season's.

And, to complete the package, Liverpool were again stingy at the back.

When Liverpool have been at their best, it's been at both ends of the pitch. Only Huddersfield took fewer shots against Liverpool in a league match this season, with just one in Liverpool's 3-0 win at Anfield back in October.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's 17th clean sheet in the league, the highest total since Benitez left. Liverpool had 12 last season, 11 the season before (with three of them under Rodgers).

In the 29 matches since the embarrassment against Tottenham at Wembley, Liverpool have conceded the fewest goals in the league, one less than City (while only scoring four fewer) and two less than United.

It's truly been a group effort. Yes, Virgil van Dijk's made a massive difference, as has Robertson cementing his place at left-back, Karius claiming the keeper job, and Alexander-Arnold's improved form with increased minutes. And this defensive run began before any of those features truly took hold.

It's weird how Liverpool finally brought it all back together when finally having a week between matches after the fast and furious last month.

Players need recovery time to play Jürgen Klopp's style at its best. Especially the front three, so reliant on pressing and pace. And, yes, this highlights Liverpool need for better squad depth, reliant on key players to be fit. Especially the front three.

These were the types of games that Liverpool needed to win more of last season. It's not as if 2016-17 Liverpool were bad in these fixtures, but there was still 3-4 Bournemouth and 2-2 West Ham and 1-2 Palace and 2-3 Swansea and more regrets against sides that Liverpool should be beating than there have been this season. Beat the dross, win the league, etc.

Liverpool were not good against their top-six rivals and mediocre against relegated sides, but very, very good against the middle-to-bottom tier.

Or, put another way, very good against the bottom half, less so against the top half.

But season-long eulogies can wait a little longer. More important for the immediate future was what Liverpool did on Sunday.

Liverpool's players were good, from front to back, in a slightly unfamiliar formation. Liverpool won, convincingly, in a must-win match, the last of the league campaign, after failing to win the previous three. Liverpool's win sealed a Champions League place for the second season in a row.

And Liverpool's win sets themselves up nicely for a Champions League final in two weeks' time.

13 May 2018

Liverpool 4-0 Brighton

Salah 26'
Lovren 40'
Solanke 53'
Robertson 85'

That's how you end a league campaign.

Liverpool win 4-0. Salah breaks the record for Premier League goals in a single season. Solanke and Robertson both score their first goals for Liverpool. And Liverpool finish fourth to secure Champions League for next season, the first time Liverpool have qualified for that competition in consecutive seasons since in almost a decade.

When Liverpool needed to do Liverpool, Liverpool did Liverpool. Weird how a week's respite makes that much of a difference after the season it's been.

That this match was little more than a formality doesn't fit with the last few weeks, but does with how Liverpool's played in the majority of matches this season. This was 3-0 Huddersfield, 3-0 Bournemouth, 5-0 Swansea rather than 0-0 Stoke or 0-0 West Brom. Aside from a frustrating 1-1 draw with Newcastle many months ago, Liverpool did what Liverpool have done against promoted sides: 2-0 Newcastle, 3-0 Huddersfield, 3-0 Huddersfield, 5-1 Brighton, and now 4-0 Brighton.

It could and probably should have been a lot worse for the visitors. But Liverpool screwed up two clear-cut chances – Mané shooting when he should have passed, then Mané passing when he should have shot – and were denied three seemingly obvious penalties. And this was all in the first half-hour. There was a little bit of weirdness with Solanke leading the line ahead of Firmino, Salah, and Mané, with some congestion and narrow play, but there was still an unstoppable Liverpool rolling at Brighton's defense again and again and again.

Even with all the spurned opportunities, the result never felt in doubt. Sure, Brighton were safe and Liverpool needed some sort of result, ideally a win, but Liverpool still had to go and do it. Which they processed to from the opening whistle. I guess that's what happens when Liverpool have literally all the possession. When Brighton have two shots all match, both from Solly March, both from outside the box, both after Liverpool had already opened the scoring. When Liverpool's defense has been this much better over the last few months, especially in matches like these, despite a couple of recent late collapses. When Liverpool's attack have the legs to do what Liverpool's attack does best.

So, finally – he writes "finally" about an incident in the 26th minute – Salah gets his 32nd in the league and 44th of the season when one of the many, many Liverpool attacks finally clicks: Alexander-Arnold, to Solanke, to Mo, with seemingly no space for the assist or shot. And then Lovren heads in after a corner's initially cleared, with no one tracking his run into the box. And then Solanke finally opens his account, a length-of-the-pitch counter from Henderson to Firmino to Salah to Solanke, a run around and through two defenders from Salah then absolutely thundered off the roof of the net by Solanke. And then Robertson caps it all off, in place when the ball's deflected to him after lovely work from substitutes Ings and Lallana.

And then we're laughing. Lovren and van Dijk, untroubled again. Karius in the way the few times called upon, one save and one good punch that cleared out the ball and attacker. Henderson and Wijnaldum able to do all that running in the 55th match of the season. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold up and down the flanks. Solanke finally scores, Robertson finally scores, with the latter also chipping in an assist and Solanke responsible for Salah's goal even if he doesn't get an assist thanks to a slight touch. And another goal and another assist and another hockey assist from Salah. A true team performance when the team needed to perform.

It's now the 25th time this season that Liverpool's scored three or more goals in a match, the 14th with four or more. The 23rd clean sheet of the season, with 11 of those in the last 20 games. Liverpool finish unbeaten in the league at Anfield, the only club in England to do so. 75 points in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2009. Top four in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2009. Qualification for the Champions League in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2009.

It is exactly the way you want to finish the league campaign, after all the good and bad that's come before. With a lot more good than bad, and a lot more fun than not.

Now, to finish the season with similar jubilation in two weeks' time.

12 May 2018

Liverpool v Brighton 05.13.18

10am ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
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
3-2 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.03.91

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Chelsea (a); 2-4 Roma (a); 0-0 Stoke (h); 5-2 Roma (h)
Brighton: 1-3 City (a); 1-0 United (h); 0-0 Burnley (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 31; Firmino 15; Mané 10; Coutinho 7; Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain 3; Sturridge 2; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Ings, Klavan, Lovren, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Brighton: Murray 12; Groß 7; Izquierdo 5; Knockaert 3; Hemed 2; Dunk, Locadia, March, Ulloa 1

Referee: Kevin Friend (LFCHistory) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren van Dijk Robertson
Wijnaldum Henderson Milner
Salah Firmino Ings

Still stumbling face-first toward the finish. We're on big NBC in the USA tomorrow because this is the match that decides the top four. If Liverpool lose, Liverpool probably won't finish in the Champions League places, then needing Chelsea to also drop points at Newcastle.

But Liverpool also just need a draw. Because Chelsea dropped points in their last match, at home to Huddersfield just three days after beating Liverpool. At least we're both stumbling face-first toward the finish.

Just be good enough, Liverpool.

You'd think a week's respite would be a good thing. And it probably has been! Absolutely everyone needed the recovery time. But rather than "okay, folks are getting better," we're getting less enjoyable injury news, with Sadio Mané now struggling with a problem picked up in the last match.

So. Yikes. I don't need to remind anyone how Liverpool have looked when you remove one of the fantastic front three.

Otherwise, the line-up writes itself. As per usual. Lallana should at least make the bench, which means we can almost pretend at some attacking depth. But with a week since the last match and almost two before the Champions League final, I doubt we'll see any defensive rotation. There are no other midfielders to rotate. You want to keep the front three as front three as possible.

Maybe we get Woodburn instead of Ings. Or Solanke. Or maybe it'll be 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. It's not as if Liverpool aren't used to duct-taping a line-up together to face Brighton. The reverse fixture saw Liverpool go 3-4-3 without most of the fit central defenders, with both Emre Can and Wijnaldum used at center-back. And Liverpool, somehow, still won 5-1, even if lucky to do so by that margin.

I wouldn't say no to 5-1 tomorrow. It ain't gonna be that easy though. Not with the form Liverpool have been in, at least in the league.

With a win, Brighton could finish as high as tenth, currently a point behind Watford, Bournemouth, Palace, and Newcastle. With a loss, they'd finish no lower than 15th. They're safe, six points clear of what will probably be the relegation zone mark, which every single Brighton player, coach, employee, and supporter would've taken before the season started.

It's not 'nothing to play for,' but Brighton's destiny is done. All but safe for a few weeks now, confirmed safe with a win at Manchester United last week. And Brighton have been diligent over the last month in securing safety. There looked a potentially destabilizing loss, 3-2 at their peers in Crystal Palace, but three draws in April were just about enough. 1-1 v Huddersfield, fine. 0-0 at Burnley, good enough. 1-1 v Tottenham, fairly impressive, and a little helpful for Liverpool.

And then that United match. Brighton, the better side before taking the lead, with De Gea required to stop the usual few efforts. United, blunt and unthreatening without both Lukaku and Alexis, not even requiring any heroics from Mat Ryan.

That marked United's third away loss in three matches against the promoted sides. Liverpool's home record against the same sides is fine, 2-0 over Newcastle and 3-0 over Huddersfield, nothing fancy but comfortable and comprehensive. Liverpool's home record is fine in general – too many draws, which is the story of the campaign – but also the only side in the division unbeaten, with only United conceding fewer goals.

The last month has shown Brighton's stinginess, with just two goals conceded in the four matches which will keep them division. But there's also the three conceded at Palace, in a match where Brighton needed to go for it. There's also the three conceded at Manchester City three days ago. There's also the fact that Brighton have the second-worst away record in the division, with two wins (last week's at United and 1-0 at Swansea way back in November), five draws, and 11 losses.

Tomorrow's side will probably be very similar to that against City. The only likely change is Glenn Murray for Leonardo Ulloa up front. Ryan; Bruno, Duffy, Dunk, Bong; Knockaert, Stephans, Propper, Izquierdo; Groß, Murray. Ryan has been one of the best keepers in the league this season. Murray was quite good when these sides last spoke. Groß scored those crucial goals against both United and Tottenham.

So here we are. After all the drama of the last month. All the drama of the season in full. Liverpool just need a draw to secure a place in next season's Champions League.

Chris Hughton's never beaten Liverpool. Never drawn with Liverpool. Never prevented Liverpool from scoring five goals: 5-2, 5-1, and 5-0 losses while in charge of Norwich, and a 5-1 loss at Brighton a few months ago.

Liverpool know what they need to do. What they need to focus on before attention turns to Kiev. Stumble all you want, as long as you finish as you need to finish.