30 September 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Utrecht

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Kelly
Meireles Lucas Poulsen Cole

Trying not to lose and lucky not to lose. Gutless, frustrating tactics, yet again, and if Utrecht showed any pretense of the finishing quality that saw them beat Celtic 4-0, we could have had a similar result here.

Where to start? Persisting with the Lucas/Poulsen midfield again, despite getting nothing from the pairing in each of their previous appearances? Playing Meireles out of position on the right side of a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2? Joe Cole's invisibility on the opposition flank? The disheveled, insanely deep defense? The complete and utter lack of lack of service for Torres? Waiting until the 81st minute to make the lone change, even though Liverpool had created next to nothing? No width, no pressing, none of what's led Liverpool to the few successes seen in recent seasons? It was all there, and it was all infuriating.

There's little point in a blow-by-blow recap like usual. If this wasn't a Liverpool match, I would have fallen asleep or changed the channel. There were that few chances, at least for Liverpool. Duplan shot wide in the 7th, set up by Cole's attempted diving clearance. Utrecht had a goal ruled out from a corner in the 26th because Lucas was "fouled." Reina had to palm away Cornelisse's low cross when Liverpool was again beaten down its left in the 30th. Pepe made a few more saves, Meireles cleared off the line in the 56th when Reina flapped at a corner, Mulenga narrowly shot wide when both Kelly and Carragher dawdled in defense seven minutes from full time. Lucky, lucky Liverpool; they easily could have lost to a Dutch club for the first time in 44 years – since Cruyff's Ajax. They'd won their last five matches against opposition from that country by a 12-2 margin.

The aforementioned Meireles and Reina are the only two to come away with any credit. The decision to play the Portuguese midfielder on the right baffled, and contributed to Liverpool's perpetual lack of width, but he wasn't terrible. In fact, he created two of Liverpool's few shots; unfortunately, both were tamely at the keeper. You just can't help but think he'd be better in his natural position. Otherwise, none of the players performed to their potential, and despite the lack of any attacking impetus, I still can't understand why Hodgson waited until the 81st to replace Cole with Maxi. It wasn't the strongest bench, but it contained both Babel and Ngog. FYI: Ngog is Liverpool's top scorer in this competition, and his introduction in the last two league games has led to goals.

Torres can't escape blame either, but for those claiming he looks disinterested, I'd counter that Liverpool couldn't possibly cater to his talents less. He barely touched the ball in the first half, and when he did, it led to a corner and a shot narrowly wide of the far post. In the second half, he had two chances: once on the counter, set up by Kuyt – a chance he should have converted (and should have won a corner from) – and once on a defensive mistake. He continually got the ball with his back to goal, with no Liverpool attackers going beyond the defenders, which successfully isolated the striker. As much as it pains me to write, I wouldn't blame him for leaving the first chance he gets. That's what we've come to.

But, hey, the point means that Liverpool's currently atop the group, after Steaua drew with Napoli at home (despite going up 3-0 in the first 20 minutes). It's another clean sheet, even if it's a lucky one. I can't see post-match coverage, and I won't look until finishing this write-up, but I'm sure the manager has told us we should be thankful. As if.

Calling for a manager's head during the season goes against everything I believe in, and, as I always feel compelled to write, I'm well-aware of the root cause: the tumorous owners. Liverpool is not a club that sacks managers during the course of a campaign. Unless the team's in the midst of a relegation fight or Hodgson gives an interview to The S*n, we're probably stuck with him until the end of May. But this match has me closer to making that declaration than I ever thought possible. Steady the ship? Ha. To steal a joke from someone on my Twitter timeline, a sunken ship's steady. The "low point" that was last season was miles better than anything we've been served so far this season.

Blackpool on Sunday. Ian Holloway's already announced his desire to test Liverpool's backline at every opportunity. And that actually has me frightened.

29 September 2010

Liverpool at Utrecht 09.30.10

1pm ET, live in the US on GolTV

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Sunderland (h); 2-2 Northampton [2-4 on penalties] (h); 2-3 United (a)
Utrecht: 0-1 AZ (a); 1-1 De Graafschap [4-3 on penalties] (h); 3-2 VVV-Venlo (h)

Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 4-1 Steaua (h)
Utrecht: 0-0 Napoli (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Babel, Cole, Gerrard, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Utrecht: van Wolfswinkel 4; Asare, Maguire, Mertens, Silberbauer 1

Referee: Duarte Gomes (POR)

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Kelly
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Cole Jovanovic

Hodgson's named a strong squad for tomorrow's match; only Gerrard and Agger are missing from the "first XI" – if we can say that Agger's still a first-team regular. LFC.tv journalist Paul Eaton wrote that the Dane – the de facto left back with both Konchesky and Aurelio injured – is suffering from a groin injury, while Gerrard's simply rested.

In lieu of the line-up revealed by either Hodgson or someone in the know on the internet, the above is the best guess I've got from the 20-man squad. Kelly seemingly has to play on the left. Either Skrtel or Kyrgiakos will partner Carragher, and I'd imagine Hodgson keeps his preferred pairing. I'll be furious if Kuyt doesn't start against his first professional club, even if he's recently back from a shoulder injury. And I'm begging: please no Poulsen. Give Lucas a chance and play Meireles in his favored position.

If Torres is included in the traveling party, it seems certain that he'll start, meaning that Liverpool's top goal-scorer in this competition will probably begin on the bench. Even after recent complaints about the lack of width and impotence in attack, I doubt Hodgson will deploy a 4-4-2 with both Torres and Ngog up top. But it's definitely within the realm of possibility, and if it's the case, I expect Jovanovic will make way for the young Frenchman.

Babel could also start on the left, either at the expense of Jovanovic or Cole, but after his performance against Northampton, a substitute appearance seems the most likely option. That both Babel and Eccleston, able to play as strikers, are in the squad does suggest that Liverpool has enough depth to start both Ngog and Torres. Also, that Eccleston's included but Pacheco isn't comes as a bit of a surprise. These are the games where we expected Dani to get some appearances; I assume his exclusion is fall-out from last Wednesday's calamity.

Utrecht entered this competition at the same stage as Liverpool, beating Luzern and Celtic to qualify for the group stage. Striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel, notable for his name, four goals in Europa League qualifying (including a hat-trick against Celtic), and link to Liverpool during the transfer window, is Utrecht's biggest threat. He's currently joint-top scorer in the Eredivisie, along with another supposed target, Ola Toivonen. Van Wolfswinkel was replaced at halftime during Utrecht's weekend game at AZ Alkmaar, despite being a goal down, but I can't find any suggestion that it was because of injury.

This is the only competition where Liverpool's gotten the right results, with five wins from five matches, and arguably played to their potential on a few occasions. That the club's now out of the Carling Cup increases the Europa League's importance. Two wins to start the group stage will put Liverpool in the pole position for qualification with games against the toughest opponent, Napoli, to come in the next two matches. But as we've seen so far this season, we can't assume Liverpool will take maximum points off anyone. Despite form, Liverpool are still a marquee name, and Utrecht will do their utmost to take a massive scalp in front of their fans, in what will be one of the biggest European games the club's ever played.

27 September 2010

Liverpool v Sunderland – Average Position Comparison

Normally, Soccernet's graphics are infuriating, often incorrect or unhelpful. But comparing the average position of Liverpool's starting XI in Saturday's match to last March's 3-0 win is a perfect encapsulation of the tactical differences between last season's team and the current version.

Click on the image to see it full-size, where the player numbers are actually legible. The underlined players are the outfield starters.

That graphic can be summed up in two words: deeper and narrower.

It's especially evident in the positions of the back four and the "wingers." The center backs are slightly further back; the difference explained by Agger and Skrtel's style of play. The fullbacks are massively further back; last March, both Johnson and Insua spent more time in the opposition half than their own. Cole and Kuyt – ostensibly the wide-men in Saturday's formation – are nowhere near the touchline, compared to Babel and Maxi last year, where I wrote that Liverpool's formation could have been written as 4-2-4, and where the wingers were actually supplemented by attacking fullbacks, especially on the right flank. And yes, Benitez actually used a 4-4-2 in that 3-0 win last March.

Comparing the holding midfielders, Poulsen's basically atop Skrtel as a third center-back, whereas Mascherano's position is close to where Gerrard was on Saturday. Torres is almost 20 yards deeper, just outside the center circle, needing to retreat in an attempt to link with the midfield. Last season, Liverpool had seven starters who spent more time in the Sunderland's half of the field. This season, Liverpool had four. Barely.

All in all, it makes for depressing viewing and confirms lingering suspicions. Hodgson's happier with a deeper defensive line and keeping a narrow, compact shape. Saturday's match was the worst example, but the graphics from the other five matches aren't very different (here's the fixture list; you can go from there to check if you're so inclined). Despite complaints over the previous manager's conservative strategy, these are far more defensive tactics. And so far, it simply hasn't worked in the league. Liverpool's had a very tough stretch of matches to start the season, but six points from six matches is unacceptable, no matter the opposition or off-field problems.

25 September 2010

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Gerrard Poulsen
Kuyt Meireles Cole

Kuyt 5'
Bent 25' (pen) 48'
Gerrard 64'

I can't do anything but shake my head and sigh.

Liverpool were excellent in the first five minutes and gifted an early goal, evoking karmic references to last year's beach ball horror show. They then proceeded to be utterly terrible for the next hour, as Sunderland went in front after a deserved penalty and more embarrassing defending on crosses. But, like against United, Ngog's entrance changed Liverpool's fortunes, and Gerrard soon hauled Liverpool level. But the home side couldn't take advantage of mounting momentum, spurning chance after chance in the final 15 minutes. I miss when Liverpool scored late winners; 2008-09 seems a distant memory. And we're left wondering how this result feels like two points dropped and a point earned at the same time.

The gift – which came less than two minutes after Torres had the ball in the net, only to be rightly ruled offside – was presented by Michael Turner's hilarious decision to touch a dead ball in the direction of his keeper, expecting Mignolet to take the free kick. Unfortunately for him, with the ball dead, his touch counted as the free kick, and Torres smartly stole in and set up Kuyt for the tap-in. But unlike last year's terrible beach ball decision by Mike Jones, Attwell correctly ruled the ball in play. Small favors.

However, Liverpool couldn't take advantage. Presented with an opportunity, the home side increasingly retreated into its own half. The only other Liverpool shot came from Meireles in the 21st, straight down Mignolet's throat from outside the box, as the Reds became more disjointed and more narrow, with Kuyt, Meireles, and Cole frequently switching positions, but always abdicating the flanks.

And then Poulsen, my new scapegoat, conceded an idiotic penalty, throwing his hands up in an attempt to stop Al-Muhammadi's cross. Mind-bogglingly moronic. Again, I don't like singling out players – and I've often defended past targets like Lucas and Kuyt – but I have zero clue why Hodgson's frozen out Lucas in favor of the Danish midfielder. I see absolutely nothing in his game, even ignoring this ignominy, to explain that decision. And although Reina guessed the right way, Bent's penalty had too much power behind it.

From there, Liverpool fumbled aimlessly, out-worked, out-thought, out-possessed, and out-played as Sunderland took the game to them. At Anfield. Admittedly, Konchesky's 27th-minute injury, replaced by Agger, didn't help matters, but by halftime, the away side had the edge in possession 46-54% and deserved to be level. That's unconscionable given what we've seen from Liverpool in past seasons and what we've seen from these sides in past meetings.

Despite having been better after halftime often this season, Liverpool were certainly not improved following the interval today, and it took Sunderland three minutes to go in front. In fact, the away side could have won a second spot kick seconds after the restart, when Sunderland won a flick-on header from a goal kick, and Welbeck burst through the backline, colliding with Reina. It'd be one of Liverpool's few fortunate moments, and it wouldn't last. In the 48th minute, that man Poulsen was out-jumped on Carragher's skied clearance, Malbranque found Onuoha in space (with Joe Cole failing to track his man), and Bent easily beat Johnson to head in the cross. Yet again, another goal conceded from a cross. It's far beyond the point of embarrassment.

Liverpool were frustrated, picking up unnecessary yellows, and second-best, but as against United, Ngog's entrance – for Poulsen – changed proceedings, even if the young Frenchman had little to do with it. Torres found space down the right channel – yes, using the flanks is helpful! – and despite a tricky deflection on the striker's cross, Liverpool's captain buried a header into the net. The benefits of getting Gerrard into the box. Don't worry, he'll be back behind the front four soon enough.

From there, Liverpool looked the only team capable of winning. Bramble blocked Cole's shot on target after Mignolet spilled Ngog's effort, followed by Torres mishitting an acrobatic volley from Kuyt's cross. Johnson toe-poked wide from just outside the area, then Ngog missed a free header at the near post. Deep into six minutes of injury time, with Liverpool camped in Sunderland's half, Turner made amends by somehow clearing Agger's flick-on off the line before the Dane missed a free header in the final minute from six yards out, wide open after Skrtel headed on a deep cross. That sums up Liverpool's luck this season. The result sums up Liverpool's impotence.

Make no mistake, a draw's still somewhat fortuitous since Sunderland were the better side for an hour, which is why it's partly a point earned. At least Liverpool showed some spine in coming from behind. As against United (for a little while) and (sigh) Northampton. But Liverpool shouldn't need to go a goal down before producing some passion. And all those chances not taken in the last 15 minutes, not to mention Liverpool's home record against the Mackems, contribute to the feeling of two points dropped. It was a battle of mid-table sides, and it ended level. That's what we've come to.

I'm still fairly convinced that the 4-4-2 is an outdated formation, one that doesn't work against tactically-competent teams, as the match at Manchester City demonstrated. Liverpool also seemingly doesn't have the personnel capable of playing in the formation; Kuyt, Cole, Jovanovic, etc. are not out-and-out wingers. But with how narrow and ineffective Liverpool were today, with Kuyt, Cole, and Meireles constantly atop one another, it might at least be a formation that works at home against teams like Sunderland, who pretty much played 4-4-2 with Welback sometimes dropping wide for a 4-5-1.

Whatever the solution is, it needs to be implemented quickly. Other than Skrtel's outstanding performance, Gerrard once again hauling Liverpool back from the brink, and the resoluteness shown in the last half-hour, there are few positives to take away from today's performance. Liverpool's reliant on a deep defense, "keeping the shape," and kick and rush. They're prone to conceding sloppy goals from crosses and unable to keep a lead, except in a few Europa League matches and at home against West Brom. As said above, right now, this is a mid-table team at best. The previous manager was supposedly fired because of disappointing results and a too-defensive side. While it's still early and the disclaimer that the owners are killing the club remains, all we've seen so far is regression from last season's "low point."

24 September 2010

Liverpool v Sunderland 09.25.10

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.28.10
0-1 Sunderland (a) 10.17.09
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.03.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.16.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Northampton [2-4 on penalties] (h); 2-3 United (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Sunderland: 1-2 West Ham (h); 1-1 Arsenal (h); 1-1 Wigan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 2; Torres, Ngog 1
Sunderland: Bent 3; Gyan 1

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Guess at a lineup:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Gerrard Poulsen
Maxi Meireles Cole

Predicting the team is a lot easier, and a lot less fun, with Hodgson in charge. A day in advance, and the manager's announced that he'll make 11 changes to Wednesday's team. Which is exactly what I would have guessed anyway: the same XI that lost to United last Sunday. Also, by announcing it in the way he did, Hodgson once again seems to be blaming the players – with seven of the starters under the age of 23 – for Wednesday's loss. Sigh.

Admittedly, few had any chance of playing their way into contention following Wednesday's abortion. Shelvey's still too young for consideration, and Hodgson seemingly prefers Skrtel to Agger for some reason. Neither Lucas nor Spearing did enough to displace Poulsen, Jovanovic was anonymous outside of his goal, Kuyt's still doubtful at best (Utrecht is a better guess for a return), and Meireles needs to play. Eight players saw 120 minutes on Wednesday, which doesn't lend itself to a start three days later. That seemingly leads to the same team as in the last league match, unless Dirk makes a remarkable return (which I'm obviously hoping is the case).

Whether Meireles continues to play ahead of Gerrard is up for debate. It's not what we expected when Raul signed, but I suspect Roy will stay with the same ideas. Which means the Portuguese midfielder will operate as a de facto second striker, making the formation closer to 4-5-1 than 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. But, ideally, with Liverpool at home, it'll see the Reds actually use the midfield three instead of punting the ball in the direction of Torres and hoping for the best. Fingers crossed.

After a dreadful, and dreadfully tough, start to league campaign, this match is the first in a stretch of five where Liverpool should expect to take maximum points more often than not: Sunderland (h), Blackpool (h), Everton (a), Blackburn (h), and Bolton (a), before hosting the inevitable league-leaders, Chelsea.

Sunderland, who also lost in the most-recent round of the Carling Cup at home, albeit to Premiership opposition, will be without Anton Ferdinand, Kieran Richardson, and potentially record-signing Asamoah Gyan due to injury. But Lee Cattermole is back from yet another suspension, while Titus Bramble will start despite being arrested on rape allegations Wednesday morning. As usual, Darren Bent's the dangerman, but he's scored two of his three league goals from the penalty spot; his only strike from open play was the late late late equalizer against Arsenal last week.

I'm wary of stating this given recent results, but Sunderland's perpetually struggled at Anfield, despite the specter of Steve Bruce, a manager who always gave Benitez fits. The Mackems haven't won at Anfield in my lifetime – since 1983 – and haven't scored there since September 23 2000, a day more than a decade ago. However, Liverpool been bucking trends and breaking precedent all season long.

As much as I'd love a vital victory, this season's demonstrated the need for lower standards. Tomorrow, I'm hoping Liverpool manages a shot on target from open play.

23 September 2010

Liverpool 2-2 Northampton

Liverpool lose 2-4 on penalties

Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Wilson
Pacheco Lucas Spearing Jovanovic

Jovanovic 9'
McKay 56'
Jacobs 98'
Ngog 115'

This won't be a standard review, because of its tardiness and as I'd imagine everyone's seen the wrist-slitting/condemnation/schadenfreude by now. I completely missed this match – either on radio or via stream – because of a seven-hour power outage yesterday. Evidently Liverpool had one too. But I still felt the need to watch this fiasco, in the hopes of deducing just why the side were so comprehensively awful. The short version is "shit rolls downhill," but bear with me anyway.

Let me start by saying that Northampton – the 17th-placed side in League Two – deserved to win. At Anfield. If I didn't know better, I'd suggest the Liverpool players had never met each other before. The home side started brightly enough, with Agger's excellent deep throughball allowing Jovanovic to slot in his first goal before 10 minutes were up, once again demonstrating the benefit of playing the ball out of defense. But with Liverpool unable to take the game to their opponents, Northampton grew in confidence. The Reds resorted to hoofs in the direction of the ineffective Babel and Ngog, once again bypassing midfield, and were frequently crowded out by the six men guarding the edge of the box. Only one shot – a tame Lucas effort from distance – tested Northampton's keeper in the first half. Meanwhile, the away side increasingly threatened, especially on crosses (as per usual), with chances in the 25th and 37th coming far too close for comfort.

It's long been established that Liverpool's never safe with a one-goal lead, even when in-form. They clearly weren't in-form today, and McKay punished them soon after the interval: Liverpool didn't close down after a throw-in, giving time and space for a left-wing cross, Kyrgiakos – probably the tallest player on the pitch – couldn't prevent the flick-on, and McKay stole in behind Agger and Kelly. Despicable. Yet again. So much for past as precedent; the team "improved" after the break for less than 10 minutes and Northampton deservedly equalized against the run of play. From there, the Cobblers were simply better, full of confidence, with Liverpool unable to rebound and drained of what little belief they might have had. It was nearly impossible to tell which was the Premiership team. Around the 75th minute, the traveling fans saw fit to rub salts in Anfield's wounds with a chorus of "olés" as Liverpool were unable to reclaim possession. I don't think the home side had a shot on goal in the entire second half.

Unsurprisingly, Hodgson again waited until late to make changes – Northampton made all three substitutions before Liverpool made their first. That it took until extra time seemingly means that the manager either expected the added 30 minutes or somehow hoped that the team would pull itself together despite any evidence of doing so. Neither's a heartening prospect. And Northampton were first on the score-sheet in extra time, with Wilson absolutely bamboozled by Herbert before Jacobs tapped-in after a blocked first shot and Jones save on the second.

The League Two side finally tired enough for Liverpool to get a last-ditch equalizer – Ngog heading in Kyrgiakos' flick-on from Shelvey's corner four minutes from full time – but it proved another false dawn: first, Kelly had to make an unbelievable clearance off the line when Jones flapped at a cross, then Ngog and Eccleston missed their spot kicks while Northampton converted four of their five to deservedly win the lottery. And here we are, yet again wondering if this is as low as the sky can fall. More than 12 hours after the fact, and it's still hard to keep the acidic taste of bile out of my mouth.

At times 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, with Babel coming from deeper, Liverpool were 4-4-2 for longer stretches. That sort of fluidity can be a benefit, with defenders unsure who's attacking from where, but it was a sign of the total lack of cohesion and the lack of tactics yesterday. Liverpool does not have the players for that formation, especially on the flanks, and it's baffling to see Hodgson continue with it. Players like Jovanovic and Pacheco (as well as Cole and Kuyt for that matter) are not 4-4-2 wingers. They are attacking midfielders/forwards who can threaten from wide positions, which is why the 4-2-3-1 (or even 4-3-3 if Liverpool becomes bold at some point) should be preferred.

Self-belief is crucial in this sport, and only one side had it yesterday. And that's the side that won. There's no easy answers for Liverpool's array of problems, especially when there are so many culprits. The majority of Liverpool players were dire yesterday. Pick your metaphor – the team looked like horny teenagers fumbling with a bra, fish flopping around on dry land, a blind squirrel foraging for a nut, whatever.

Showing far more awareness than we're used to, Ryan Babel perfectly assessed his own performance on Twitter this morning: No excuses for last nite .. We weren't good enough.. And I #failed personally .. Haven't lost faith, so I keep working. His strike partner also had one of his worst performances in a Liverpool shirt, but at least notched another goal. While it's somewhat unfair to pick on an 18-year-old on his debut, Danny Wilson also had a forgettable debut, especially when beaten all-ends-up on Northampton's second. Spearing was useless, Pacheco was often invisible relegated to the right flank (and deeper than he's used to, as is Roy's style), and Kyrgiakos – wearing the armband – barely looked bothered. The list is endless. It's easier to name the players who didn't disappoint: Shelvey. In a 20-minute cameo. And maybe Agger other than his defending on Northampton's equalizer.

And once again, the manager's liable for an awful lot. I want to give Hodgson a pass because of off-field drama and the brevity of his tenure, but results are making that incredibly difficult. It's doesn't help that he threw his players under the bus in the post-match interview, after bigging-up Manchester United following a game where the players did well and Liverpool could have taken at least a point. You stay classy, San Diego. A masterclass in how to win friends and influence people.

For how happy the players supposedly are, as stated in multiple interviews, you couldn't tell it from the match. Liverpool looked tactically inept, to say the absolute least, and there was no Plan B when Plan A inevitably failed. And when Hodgson finally made substitutions, they made little sense: Jovanovic for Eccleston is understandable, but Shelvey for Babel, with the central midfielder playing on the right, and then Ince for Pacheco, moving Shelvey central but putting a left-winger on the right, only increased the discontinuity. And at 1-2 down, Hodgson's solution was to send Kyrgiakos forward, which led to Liverpool's "most threatening" play. Words fail me.

Comparisons to Liverpool's recent Cup disgraces, such as the loss to Burnley in Benitez's first season, don't seem valid. Yesterday's starting XI contained six full internationals (one retired), three players capped at the u21 level, and one highly-regarded u19 international; only Spearing has never played for his country at any level. The majority of them have played together at some point. The 04-05 team that lost in the FA Cup contained the likes of Zak Whitbread, David Raven, John Welsh, Darren Potter, and Antonio Nuñez, among others. Burnley was in the Championship; Northampton's currently struggling in the lowest tier of the Football League. And yesterday's match was at Anfield, which is the height of embarrassment.

Yes, this was an unfamiliar side despite the inclusion of Agger, Kyrgiakos, Lucas, Babel, and Ngog, with eleven changes from Sunday's match. But it was also a side that led to optimism prior to kickoff; we wanted to see most of these names on the team sheet. And when the same old problems persist, you can't help but question the manager, as well worry as to what this bodes for the future. This team, from top to bottom, has become a bungling mess; they've forgotten what "pressing the ball" even means, there's been no pretense of the promised 'pass and move,' and "disjointed" doesn't even come close to summarizing yesterday's debacle. And I can't find enough scapegoats to blame for it.

21 September 2010

Liverpool v Northampton 09.22.10

3pm ET. Not on live in the US. In fact, I don't know if it's on live anywhere. And if there are no streams, there'll be no match review. Sorry. I honestly expect to have to listen to this game through BBC Radio.

Last three matches
Liverpool: 2-3 United (a); 4-1 Steaua (h); 0-0 Brum (a)
Northampton: 1-3 Shrewsbury (a); 2-1 Southend (h); 1-1 Aldershot (h)

Referee: Anthony Taylor

A Football League referee since 2006, this is the second season Taylor's been on the Premier League list, having done four PL games in total. He's never been in charge of a Liverpool fixture.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Wilson
Lucas Spearing
Pacheco Shelvey Babel

Blooding youngsters is what the Carling Cup is for. That's pretty much it. And with a talented group of youngsters, it's one of the few times I've been excited for this competition. So it's no surprise that tomorrow's match probably won't be televised.

Hodgson's taken some of the fun out of guessing the lineup with his comments today, basically guaranteeing Wilson, Agger, Kyrgiakos, Jones, Babel, Ngog, and Pacheco will start, but that was the sort of XI expected anyway. It'll be a team similar to that which faced Rabotnicki at the end of July; a chance for young players and out-of-favor "veterans" to stake a claim. And at the moment, the potential in the reserves and u-18s is one of the few positives around Anfield at the moment.

In addition to the players named by Hodgson, the likes of Amoo, Eccleston, and Shelvey also appear to be in contention. And there will have to be some first-teamers involved; Kyrgiakos and Agger are certain, while I'll be stunned if Lucas doesn't start in midfield with either Spearing or Shelvey. Predicting what mix Hodgson will choose is the hard part.

I could easily have guessed a front four of Amoo, Pacheco, Jovanovic, and Ngog instead of the one above (well, if it wasn't for Hodgson's mention of Babel). Pacheco can play anywhere along the line of three. Amoo's already featured on the right. Jovanovic, on as a sub late against the Mancs, could use more game time. That both Ngog and Babel look likely to start probably means the Dutchman will man one of the wings in Hodgson's preferred 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, but Liverpool could also play 4-4-2 with both up top and Pacheco/Jovanovic on the flanks.

The only surprise in defense is that it'll be Wilson at left back instead of Agger. Kelly was always going to replace Johnson, while fourth-choice Kyrgiakos will get appearances in this competition. Agger's played left-back previously, which is why I expected to see him there tomorrow, but it's nice to see him in his preferred position (despite recent quotes which required clarification on the official site today).

Northampton beat Reading in the second round to advance to this stage, where there'll be absolutely no pressure for a result. The only League Two club left in the tournament, the Cobblers have won twice in their last eight matches (and one of those wins, against Reading, came on penalties), but – and this will come off as patronizing no matter how it's written – they won't be expecting a win tomorrow either. They'll hope for a big gate and good day out, and anything else will be a bonus. It's the biggest game many of them will play, and they'll undoubtedly make Liverpool work hard, looking to catch an unfamiliar lineup unaware.

But the majority of the lineup guessed above has played together, whether in the Europa League or in the reserves. There's potential, experience, and talent in the squad, and a win's expected and essential. Plus, a Carling Cup run would be a massive benefit for Pacheco, Kelly, et al – players who need to get matches to stay happy, gain experience, and prove their use to the squad.

19 September 2010

Liverpool 2-3 Manchester United

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Gerrard Poulsen
Maxi Meireles Cole

Berbatov 42' 59' 84'
Gerrard 64' (pen) 70'

Liverpool, you are trying to break my heart.

Two-nil down and all was lost. Liverpool had gifted United the lead near the end of a tepid first half when man-marking failed on a corner, then Berbatov doubled his tally right before the hour mark with a stunning individual goal. But somehow, they reeled us back in: a Gerrard penalty – yes, Liverpool again won a spot kick at Old Trafford – and free kick within the span of six minutes saw Liverpool level. But John O'Shea somehow stayed on the pitch when fouling Torres to set up Liverpool's equalizer. And he's the one who provided Berbatov's winner, for the Bulgarian's hat-trick. Life is not fair. This sport is not fun.

Liverpool set up as expected, focused on keeping the shape and keeping United off the score-sheet. Packing the midfield with Poulsen, Gerrard, and Meireles (who again played further forward than the skipper), Liverpool created absolutely nothing in attack – with Johnson's 25th-minute shot wide the half's only attempt on goal – but United's frightening moments were limited to Nani's missed sitter in the 16th minute despite the Portuguese winger targeting Konchesky (and diving at every possible opportunity).

But then man-marking saw Torres out-muscled by Berbatov and Konchesky unable to help from the near post to give United a barely-deserved lead going into the break. As per usual, Liverpool were marginally more cohesive after the interval, but Berbatov doubled the lead with a brilliant bicycle kick, back to goal and controlling the ball before rifling it into the top of the net, after Konchesky gave Nani – who had hit the post two minutes earlier – too much space to cross.

At that point, it looked like Liverpool were on their way to another City-esque embarrassment. Which made for odd viewing when they were level ten minutes later once Torres sprung to life. First, Evans clumsily fouled the striker after Cole's throughball found El Niño in the box, with Gerrard sending Van der Sar the wrong way from the spot. Six minutes later, with United reeling, Meireles split the defense with a pass aimed for Torres, only to see O'Shea – the last defender – haul the striker down at the top of the area. Webb, who had been "favorable" to Liverpool until that point (any ref who dares give the opposition a penalty at Old Trafford is "favorable), only brandished yellow. Gerrard's free kick made its way through the wall thanks to Fletcher creating a gap, but you just knew O'Shea staying on the pitch would come back to haunt Liverpool.

Even though United were on the ropes, Liverpool couldn't take advantage, and the home side began penning the ball in the opposition half. Hodgson showed ambition, and made the right decision, in bringing on Ngog for the uninspired Maxi moments before the penalty, but once the sides were level, Liverpool's 4-4-2 formation (as Jovanovic also replaced Meireles in the 79th) allowed United more time in the middle of the pitch. And in the 84th, Berbatov made them pay. Yes, that languid misfit. Who's now a United cult hero.

Once again, United was given too much space on the flanks with Konchesky and Jovanovic sucked inside, and Berbatov out-jumped a static Carragher to head in O'Shea's cross. Despite Liverpool's priorities so far this season, the defense lost this game. Berbatov deserves a massive amount of credit for his performance, but two of those goals were regrettable to say the least. Carragher and Konchesky, as well as Torres' man-marking on the corner, should come in for the most criticism.

It's only been five games, and yes, era of turmoil off the pitch, new manager, etc., but this loss means it's Liverpool's worst start to a league campaign in 18 years. There were some poor performances in addition to the two soft goals – Maxi was awful, Poulsen had shaky moments, and no one in Liverpool's backline inspired confidence – but this was still one of Liverpool's better displays in the league, even considering the lack of attack outside of those six crazy minutes. Yes, that's not a heart-warming sentiment, but it was never going to be an easy game. Nearly every team is on the back-foot at Old Trafford, and Hodgson has focused on making the team disciplined and stingy, not pushing players forward. That just broke down at two terrible moments which United took advantage of, and those involved in the breakdowns have to bear the blame. And it wouldn't be Liverpool vs United without the controversy of O'Shea not sent off to add the expected kick to the crotch.

The positives were the mental fortitude needed to haul the team back into the game, created by Liverpool's talismans: Torres won both the penalty and free kick, and Gerrard converted both. The captain was Liverpool's man of the match, while Meireles also had an impressive league debut considering circumstances and opposition. It was surprising to see Cole on the left, and he wasn't nearly as involved as when in behind the striker, but his runs created space for Konchesky to get forward (pity that his crosses were awful, but all of Liverpool's crosses were awful; Maxi and Johnson were just as guilty) and he provided the pass that won the penalty.

This is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and demoralizing. Liverpool were second-best for long stretches, but it still feels like a point lost, a much-needed point that could have raised spirits immensely. However, if Liverpool can replicate the 15 or so minutes following United's second – again delivering a better performance after halftime – there might be light at the end of the tunnel. At least on the pitch.

17 September 2010

Liverpool at Manchester United 09.19.10

Live in the US at 8:30am ET on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (a) 03.21.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 10.25.09
4-1 Liverpool (a) 03.14.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.13.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Steaua (h); 0-0 Birmingham (a); 1-0 West Brom (h)
United: 0-0 Rangers (h); 3-3 Everton (a); 3-0 West Ham (h)

Referee: Howard Webb

Webb played a blinder as United's 12th man in last March's meeting.

Guess at a lineup:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Maxi Lucas Poulsen Cole

No matter yesterday's result, I can't help but think the majority of players rested – the ones who featured in the 0-0 draw at Birmingham – will be back in the side.

In fact, the above lineup isn't even my best guess at the starting XI. If forced to wager money, I'd guess Jovanovic in for Lucas, shifting Gerrard back into midfield with Cole in the hole. The lineup I'd prefer is also different than the above, as I'd have Meireles in place of Poulsen and Agger over Skrtel, but I thought this might be a "happy" – and more likely – compromise.

Meireles did well yesterday, especially in the second half, where there was more movement in front of him, but I still question whether Hodgson will give him his league debut at Old Trafford. Despite the complaints (many valid) about the Lucas/Poulsen pairing against Birmingham, West Brom, and Trabzonspor, the duo represents 'safety first' and keeping a disciplined shape, and I have to believe those will be the qualities Hodgson values most on Sunday.

Moving Gerrard to central midfield with Cole back from suspension would mean one of two would be dropped. But even if it means a Lucas/Poulsen midfield, I'd rather we see Cole out left, in place of Jovanovic, instead of the hole. Cole could also feature on the right if Hodgson's concerned about Maxi playing three consecutive games.

Liverpool have struggled for goals in the league, scoring only twice in four games. I naturally worry about Gerrard and Torres isolated and frustrated if the team lines up as I'm guessing, but a clean sheet will undoubtedly be the priority. Plus, regardless of current form, we're well aware either of those players can create something from nothing, especially Liverpool's #9 when he's up against Nemanja Vidic, who's been sent off three times in the last four meetings. Rio Ferdinand most likely making his first league start of the season after this summer's knee injury could also lead to fun times.

As always with matches against United, despite Liverpool's record in the last four meetings, I'm pessimistic and terrified. I cannot stand these derbies. United's a wounded animal after its last two games: unable to penetrate Rangers' 10-man rearguard on Tuesday and dropping two points after conceding two injury time goals at Everton six days ago. I expect to see both Rooney and Berbatov up front, while Nani – with a far bigger role to play following Valencia's horrific injury – terrorized Konchesky in a substitute appearance when United faced Fulham earlier this season (before missing a crucial penalty). The Mancs will be licking their lips in anticipation of this one after Ferguson's inevitable patented hair-dryer treatment, and it'll be up to Liverpool to match them step for step.

16 September 2010

Liverpool 4-1 Steaua Bucharest

Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Konchesky
Spearing Meireles
Maxi Cole Babel

Cole 1'
Tanase 13'
Ngog 55' (pen) 90+1'
Lucas 81'

Scoring four should be cause for a Mardi Gras-esque celebration, complete with nudity and dancing in the streets, considering Liverpool's goal return so far this season. But that resounding result is also resoundingly flattering, and it's difficult to decipher its value with two fortunate goals and two in the final ten minutes with the game seemingly in the bag. Not to mention how many changes Liverpool made to the starting XI or that Steaua hadn't won any of their last 25 matches in European competition if we're not counting qualifying stages.

It was a dream start thanks to some magnanimous charity from the visitors, with Abrudan's soft back pass allowing Cole to sneak in and score his first competitive goal for the club within 26 seconds. An early strike seemed just the prescription for Liverpool's recent maladies, but the sides were level little more than ten minutes later. Steaua's equalizer came against the run of play and right down the middle of the pitch: center-back Gerardo ran around Ngog, Spearing slipped to leave Stancu open, and the midfielder's throughball dissected a flat-footed Kyrgiakos and retreating Kelly, leaving Tanase to cleverly chip past Reina.

Unsurprisingly, the goal knocked Liverpool back, and the home side struggled to match the Romanians for the rest of the half. Babel, Cole, and Maxi appeared as if they were in competition to see who shoot straight at the keeper and/or give the ball away the most times. Spearing played in the style of a stray dog with the ball covered in raw hamburger meat. Liverpool were disjointed, impotent, and on the back foot for far too much in the first 45 minutes, and those are all familiar attributes no matter the XI on the field.

But the second half, like so often this season, was completely different – the best Liverpool's looked this season. But an unfamiliar line-up needing time (and a manager's revised instructions) to find its way isn't all that surprising. Charging in the direction of the Kop, Liverpool pegged Steaua back from the post-interval whistle. It only took the home side ten minutes to go back in front, thanks to some Greek-on-Greek crime as striker Kapetanos pushed Kyrgiakos on a corner, with Ngog nonchalantly converting the spot kick.

You can't say Liverpool were comfortable – no team is ever comfortable with a one-goal margin, especially this one – but Steaua rarely looked like getting back in the game, and more goals finally came in the final ten minutes. Like against Birmingham (and Trabzonspor and City...) Hodgson waited until after the 75th minute to make changes, but the change turned out to be inspired. Lucas came on for Babel in what appeared to be a defensive move, but the Brazilian ended up rifling a wonderful goal in from 25 yards with his second touch of the game. It was an absolute bullet the likes of which Gerrard would be proud of, and a small reminder that the kid does pack shooting boots every now and then. If only he could deliver similar more often...

Ngog added the requisite gloss in injury time, showing yet another glimpse of that strength and finishing ability that has many defending his potential, while Pacheco and Eccleston received cameos, on for Maxi and Cole respectively. And while it's a heartening win considering the changes and first-half display, there's not a lot to be learned because of the "makeshift" lineup and the opposition's second-half tenacity.

The positives are clear – confidence boosts for Cole, Ngog and Lucas, Meireles' full debut, and Maxi's vast improvement in the second half. Youth was on display in Ngog, Kelly, Spearing, and sub appearances for Pacheco and Eccleston, and that bodes well for the future. Four goals is always a positive, no matter the opposition or when they're scored; that's twice as many goals as the team's scored in its four Premier League matches this season. And for all of Liverpool first-half impotence, Reina could have parked a deck chair in the goalmouth after Steaua's equalizer.

But whether Liverpool will be able to build on this display, especially in time for Sunday's match – with a starting line-up that will probably look a lot more like last Sunday's than today's – remains to be seen. The morale boost surely doesn't hurt, but when eight changes were made for this match, it's tough to divine what it augurs for the league campaign. Let's hope, with man-of-the-match Cole and Meireles in the line-up (both soon to be first-team regulars), it portends Hodgson's team beginning to come together.

15 September 2010

Liverpool v Steaua Bucharest 09.16.10

3:05pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 481 (and should be in HD on 481-1).

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Birmingham (a); 1-0 West Brom (h); 2-1 Trabzonspor (a)
Steaua: 0-1 Unirea (a); 1-1 Timisoara (h); 0-1 Grasshoppers (a)

Qualifying Rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Trabzonspor (a); 1-0 Trabzonspor (h); 2-0 Rabotnicki (h); 2-0 Rabotnicki (a)
Steaua: 0-1 Grasshoppers (a); 1-0 Grasshoppers (h) [Steaua wins tie on penalties 4-3]

Referee: César Muñiz Fernández (ESP)

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Konchesky
Meireles Spearing
Maxi Cole Babel

This is tomorrow's team according to one of the "in the know" posters on RAWK – one that's almost always correct. While I assumed that multiple players would be rested – and would have guessed a line-up without Torres, Gerrard, Carragher, and Johnson prior to seeing this – the amount of first-teamers missing (if the above is the case, which I'd bet it is) still comes as a bit of a shock.

What jumps out is the inclusion of both Babel and Ngog, despite Hodgson publicly claiming to see the Dutchman as a striker (which makes me wonder if Liverpool will play two up top) and the exclusion of Pacheco, one who seemed certain to start these sort of matches. And Spearing starting in place of either Lucas and Poulsen, which hopefully means both aren't being rested to start in tandem again on Sunday. But it's not a line-up I'd be upset with; I don't mean to take anything away from the opposition, but Hodgson promised to use the full squad in the Europa League, and it's a lot easier to rest the big names in a home match against Steaua instead of away to Napoli. There's talent, experience, and potential in the above team.

Otherwise, Meireles will make his debut in the starting XI, Maxi keeps his place in an attempt to find form with Kuyt injured, Cole seemingly goes straight back into the hole (again, unless it's 4-4-2), Kelly thankfully gets another chance at right back, Kyrgiakos is still in plans as a defensive behemoth (despite my desire for an Agger/Skrtel pairing), and it'll be nice to see Reina with the armband (he has to captain that XI). It's not Liverpool's strongest XI by any stretch, but it's still a team that are odds-on favorite to win, with some interesting facets. I'm most interested in Meireles' performance, but also both Babel and Ngog involved, and Kelly with another chance to demonstrate his talents.

Like I wrote when the draw was made, I won't pretend to have any familiarity with Steaua Bucharest – currently third in the Romanian League, behind the two other big Bucharest sides. Instead, I'll point you in the direction of the blogosphere's go-to site for Romanian football, and what he wrote about Steaua yesterday. As the author notes in that link, Steaua have a fair few players familiar to Liverpool from last year's matches against Unirea Urziceni. I'll also air what Agger said in today's press conference, because it's probably coming from the manager's instructions: "Steaua are a typical Eastern European team. We played in Macedonia earlier and obviously Steaua are a bigger club and a stronger team, but they're similar kind of players."

Ideally, no matter the line-up, Liverpool will replicate the result from those two matches against the Macedonians.

13 September 2010

Why Were Liverpool So Bad Yesterday?

Unsurprisingly, there are innumerable facets of Liverpool's match yesterday that could be criticized. Torres' disjointed performance seems the most repeated talking point this morning, evidently because Jamie Redknapp said so. As if he's some paragon of knowledge. But how many times does the Spaniard have to pull Liverpool back from the brink by himself? And how many times has he done it in the past?

The midfield pairing was another, with marginally more basis in fact. But it's still a somewhat facile argument. It doesn't explain why the attacking players performed so bad, because how the attack performs isn't Lucas and Poulsen's brief. Lucas and Poulsen were Lucas and Poulsen yesterday. Exactly as advertised, if a little sloppier than usual from the Brazilian. Their job was to sit and hold, and both sat and held. Apologies in advance, but this post will be heavy on images from The Guardian's chalkboards: one, because they're one of the best visual uses of statistics and two, because Soccernet's diagrams for this match – especially the average position and heat map – were especially terrible. I'm fully aware these graphics aren't the end-all, be-all of analysis – and all of them focus on passing statistics – but they help illustrate the point.

As said, slightly sloppier than usual from Lucas – I remember those three of those four misplaced passes, and at least two of them led to Birmingham counters. But, as usual, neither were especially wasteful and neither were adventurous in the slightest. And while the pairing obviously hindered the attack, as (sadly) expected, it wasn't the main reason Liverpool failed to score.

That's down to two other facets: Birmingham's increasing willingness to pack the box when Liverpool got a few bodies forward, and the complete and utter inability to create a telling final ball.

I wasn't too upset with Jovanovic's contribution when watching the match, but, in my defense, I also don't expect miracles from him either: a new player, one who's a left-sided forward, not an out-and-out winger. Evidently my lying eyes deceived me. Because that graphic demonstrates the unmitigated disaster in the final third. Liverpool had the ball in some decent positions – and actually won the possession battle 56-44% despite being away from Anfield (according to Soccernet and Sky Sports, but not the BBC for some reason) – but could do absolutely nothing from them.

At the same time, I don't know if Gerrard simply had an off day, wishes he was back in central midfield, cannot play up front with Torres in Hodgson's system, or suffered because of Torres' struggles, but the pairing just did not work yesterday. And while Liverpool looked better after Meireles came on – again, no surprise given how unattacking the Lucas/Poulsen pairing is – Gerrard wasn't much more influential. But at least there were two "midfielders" looking to get forward – whether we're classifying Gerrard or Meireles as a support striker is incidental – although Liverpool were the only team trying to win the game at that point in the match.

Maxi Rodriguez, who I singled out in my match review, wasn't anywhere near as wasteful in the final third, but that's because he didn't even attempt the sort of passes Gerrard and Jovanovic tried.

One pass – one – went into the area. Two more went to the edge of the area. Otherwise, that's a graphic worthy of a right-sided central midfielder – as he was for Argentina at the World Cup – or right back. So much for providing more natural wing play than Kuyt.

Long story short, the attack was as woeful as possible yesterday, and it's been woeful almost all season long. I hate feeling like I'm throwing Hodgson under the bus before he's even fully unpacked – we simply have to support the manager, especially so soon into the season – but it's been a horrifying trend in almost every single game so far. And I've also included this or a similar disclaimer in far too many recent posts.

Hopefully, having Cole back from suspension and Meireles in the team will help remedy the situation, because the front four Liverpool played yesterday could hardly have been worse. I honestly don't know what remedies to suggest as far as different players, as it seems that the tactics are the issue. Would Babel or Pacheco, for argument's sake, really made that much of a difference given what we know about the two and how everyone else played yesterday? Liverpool, for right or wrong, are more focused on defending deep and keeping the shape, as Fulham were last season. Whether that changes as Cole and Meireles come in and as Hodgson settles remains to be seen.

12 September 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Birmingham

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Maxi Lucas Poulsen Jovanovic

Awful. Just despicably awful. The only reason Liverpool's coming away with a point is the sheer brilliance of Pepe Reina. Have I mentioned that I absolutely hate matches against Birmingham? Yet another draw, the seventh consecutive between these two sides in the league. And of those seven, it's the draw I'm "happiest" about, as Brum were the better side by far for the first hour.

There was a bit of early promise in Liverpool's ability to keep possession to start the match, but from there, it was only increasing terror and Pepe Reina saving the day time and time again. Birmingham had ten shots in the first half. I'm struggling to remember any meaningful ones from Liverpool, but they did have two firm shouts for penalties ignored by Mark Halsey. The more things change, the more the stay the same.

The first heart-in-mouth moment came in the 23rd, when Jerome found space between Skrtel and Carra, only to see Reina somehow dive to keep the free header out. The second came 14 minutes later, with Craig Gardner between Carra and Johnson, and Reina replicating his earlier heroics. Both were unbelievable stops after incredibly poor defending. Thank you, Pepe. You are phenomenal.

To say Birmingham were dominant in the first half is an egregious understatement, while Liverpool were beyond terrible. The two penalty shouts – the first for a handball on Maxi's acrobatic effort in the 32nd (with Halsey's view obstructed), the next seconds before Gardner's near goal when Roger Johnson tackled Torres in the box – would have been both undeserved and fair by the letter of the law. Having followed Liverpool as long as I have, I'm not surprised either was given.

At least Liverpool were "better" in the second half, as per usual under Hodgson, but there was nowhere to go but up for everyone bar Reina and maybe Jovanovic. Gerrard finally tested Foster soon after the restart, with a volley too close to the keeper, but Liverpool soon regressed as Scott Dann again found space for a free header, this time on a 57th minute set play. Man marking is obviously fantastic and and underutilized.

But as the match went on, Birmingham seemed more and more content to keep the scoreline blank. The home side blocked something like eight shots in the second half, packing blue shirts in the final third. Meireles' entrance for Lucas in the 76th helped massively, playing further forward as Gerrard went into central midfield, and the Brummies were under the gun for the final 10 minutes. But Liverpool couldn't find a way through as shots from Torres, Poulsen, Johnson – among others - were closed down. And Birmingham has more reasons to be angrier with one point instead of all three.

Once again, the most criticism will be directed at the Lucas/Poulsen pairing. Not only was it insipid in driving forward, but both players gave the ball away constantly, although Poulsen was the far guiltier party; Lucas played as Lucas always plays, if marginally sloppier. He wasn't the biggest problem by any definition.

Most infuriating were how isolated Torres and Gerrard were – today was as off-form as I've ever seen Liverpool's #9 – and how poorly Carragher, Skrtel, and Johnson defended at times (especially Johnson, but he was trying to get forward to supplement Maxi's banal performance). I'll be stunned if Torres starts on Thursday for fitness reasons, and I'll be stunned if Maxi starts for footballing reasons.

The few positives were Reina's continuing awesomeness, Jovanovic's effort and attempts at running with the ball, Meireles' 15 minutes, and Konchesky's second half. That's it. That and taking an arguably undeserved point away from Birmingham – and those are low standards, no matter how hard a venue St Andrews is.

It's been four league matches – and eight overall – and Liverpool still hasn't impressed outside of the home match against Sunday League Rabotnicki and a backs-against-the-wall 10-man second half against Arsenal. No matter how much time Hodgson needs to get his ideas in place, as with any new manager (especially one in this clusterfuck of a situation), that's still frightening. And after this week's Europa League match against Steuea Bucharest, Liverpool travel to Old Trafford. If they replicate today's performance – and play today's line-up – they will get absolutely massacred.

10 September 2010

Liverpool at Birmingham 09.12.10

Live in the US on FSC at 11am ET.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 04.04.10
2-2 (h) 11.09.09
2-2 (a) 04.26.08
0-0 (h) 09.22.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 West Brom (h); 2-1 Trabzonspor (a); 0-3 City (a)
Brum: 2-2 Bolton (a); 3-2 Rochdale (h); 2-1 Blackburn (h)

Referee: Mark Halsey

Halsey's one of the few PL refs I actually like. Which is probably a bad sign. But let's hope the good feelings from refereeing Carra's testimonial remain.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Konchesky
Poulsen Meireles
Maxi Gerrard Jovanovic

Is Birmingham still Liverpool's bogey side now that Benitez is gone?

Liverpool never beat the Brummies in the league while Rafa was here – just two cups victories at St. Andrew's (including one 7-0 mauling). Otherwise, there have been six draws and two losses since '04/05, with both losses coming in Benitez's first season.

To throw out another heart-warming statistic, it's been nearly a year since Birmingham last lost at home – to Bolton on September 26 – one of their two home losses last season (the other was 0-1 to Villa earlier that month). They picked up draws against Chelsea, United, Arsenal, Tottenham, and City in addition to the (im)memorable 1-1 against Liverpool last April. And to further raise spirits, Liverpool are always fantastic after international breaks, aren't they?

Kuyt's injury should mean a like-for-like replacement with Maxi on the right. Granted, the two aren't similar players, but they're competing for the same position. Maxi offers more width and more intricate passing, even if I'll continue to rant that Kuyt's underrated; he's not just a 'big game player,' he's fairly crucial to how Liverpool play no matter the opposition. He's the perpetual target for punts forward from Carragher or Reina, and chips in with crucial assists against the likes of, say, West Brom. But there's been a clamor to see what Maxi can do with a run of games since he signed, and I'm interested to see it as well. The other alternatives are Babel – who Hodgson seemingly sees more as a striker – or Pacheco – although the subs bench looks a more likely option for Dani at this stage.

Once again, with Cole suspended, I expect to see Gerrard "in the hole." It was hit-and-miss against West Brom: one, because it was his first time playing there under Hodgson and two, because of the troubles the Lucas/Poulsen midfield had linking play. But I still think he's best suited to "partner" Torres in this position – I don't need to say that the two of them have combined fantastically in the past – despite increasing time (and increasing dominance) from a central midfield role, especially in England's two recent international matches (coincidentally, without Lampard eating up space).

Sunday should see debuts for both Konchesky and Meireles. I'm far more certain about Konchesky's inclusion give the player's familiarity with the league and manager, and time spent at Melwood during the last week. But Meireles played a draining (both mentally and physically) 180 minutes for Portugal over the international break. While I assume the question is Poulsen or Lucas, there's just as good a chance it'll be Poulsen and Lucas again, despite our (my?) reservations over the pairing. At the least, that pairing should be more effective away from Anfield. And if it's Poulsen or Lucas, my guess is the natural destroying talents of Denmark's captain will win out, but that is a guess, and it's a guess again based on his experience with Hodgson.

The only question about the backline seems Agger or Skrtel partnering Carragher. I think Agger's the better defender as well as better at bringing the ball out of defense, which should lessen the reliance on route 1 football, but he's been deployed at left back so far this season and could still be suffering from the effects of concussion, despite playing twice for Liverpool and once for Denmark in the meantime. Skrtel also seemingly offers more aerial defense against the likes of 6'6" Nikola Zigic – although that could just as easily be an argument for the inclusion of Kyrgiakos.

Last April's draw at Birmingham was the last time Liverpool played 4-4-2 until the mauling at Manchester City. And yes, that was the game which led to those lovely animated gifs of Gerrard's reaction when Torres was subbed off in the 65th minute with the match level. Just felt I should note.

Birmingham will be without their star new signing, as Alex Hleb picked up a knock during the international break. But Chile's impressive World Cup winger Jean Beausejour is available – and is a pacey threat who prefers to play wide but can also start centrally. Otherwise, as usual with McLeish's currently-unbeaten side, the team pretty much writes itself. The back four's consistently been Carr, Dann, Roger Johnson, and Ridgewell, while Craig Gardner's been excellent in midfield and Cameron Jerome can score goals from next to nothing when he's in the mood – evidenced in last year's 2-2 draw at Anfield.

No matter expectations or form, recent history's proven any positive result at Birmingham is a good result. This will be a difficult, cagey match if past is any precedent. But, as often written, Liverpool has to continue momentum built up with two hard-fought victories in the last two matches, despite the week off for exceptionally necessary and important international matches.

08 September 2010

Early International Breaks Are Still Meaningful and Worthwhile

I haven't seen a full summary of how Liverpool players fared during the international break (I admittedly might not be looking hard enough, but I'm also sick of the same post atop the page for almost a week), so here's a short one. The first number is the one most important to me – how many minutes each played this week. Because that's the number which will most likely impact Sunday's team selection at Birmingham.

Gerrard - 180 minutes. Captained England in both matches, 4-0 v Belarus and 3-1 at Switzerland. Did well in both, from central midfield in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, and cleverly assisted on Adam Johnson's goal against the Swiss.
Johnson - 180 minutes. Also played 90 minutes in both of England's matches. Was far better against the Swiss.
Skrtel - 180 minutes. 1-0 v Macedonia and 1-0 at Russia. Two matches, two clean sheets.
Meireles - 180 minutes. Played 90 minutes in both of Portugal's underwhelming matches – 4-4 v Cyprus and 0-1 at Norway. Scored Portugal's second with a long-range left-footed strike against Cyprus.
Jovanovic - 154 minutes. Played the full match in a 3-0 win at Faroe Islands and 64 minutes in the 1-1 draw v Slovenia.
Agger - 90 minutes. Played all of Denmark's lone match against Iceland yesterday, a 1-0 win.
Poulsen - 90 minutes. Also played all of the win against Iceland, captaining the side.
Kuyt - 68 minutes. Scored the opener from the spot and set up two of Huntelaar's three goals in Friday's 5-0 win at San Marino before being substituted for the returning van Nistelrooy in the 68th, then injured his shoulder attempting a bicycle kick in training over the weekend. Will be out for approximately four weeks. Sigh.
Torres - 57 minutes. Scored twice in Spain's 4-0 win at Liechtenstein on Friday, then thankfully taken off before the hour mark. Was an unused substitute in Spain's trip to Argentina yesterday. That's right, Spain went to Argentina. I hope the money was worth it.
Reina - 45 minutes. Started the first half against Argentina, and it wasn't one to remember, conceding three goals in Spain's 1-4 loss. There was little to be done about the first two – both beating Spain's "offside trap" – but the third will make the blooper reel: slipping when attempting a clearance to allow Tevez a tap-in. Yes, that godforsaken gremlin.
Lucas - 45 minutes. Started the first half and scored the first goal in Brazil's 3-0 unofficial friendly victory over Barca's B-team yesterday. Mano Menezes as Brazil's manager is evidently very good for Lucas.

I'm furious about Kuyt's injury – naturally – although at least it's a position where Liverpool has a modicum of depth in Maxi, Babel, Pacheco, and Cole if necessary. The only match where he'll assuredly be missed is against the Mancs. I'm glad four different players scored (although Kuyt was one of them). I worry about the four who played two full games – especially Meireles, who's yet to feature for Liverpool, and wonder if that much action will preclude him from Sunday's match. I don't worry about Reina's performance against Argentina, simply because he's one of the strongest personalities in football and it comes with the territory. Like the mistake against Arsenal, it'll only push him harder. Finally, I'm thrilled Torres scored twice (and his first was a beauty), and am even happier he was substituted against Liechtenstein and didn't feature against Argentina, although a transatlantic plane ride for the sake of sitting on the bench is incredibly irritating.

All in all, we've had far worse international breaks.

01 September 2010

On "Destructive Summers"

If you follow me on Twitter (I'm sorry, I don't mean to plug it at every opportunity, it's just a medium I've increasingly used), you know I'm prone to infrequently reference indie rock music. Even if it seems to alienate people. Well, I've had The Hold Steady's song "Constructive Summer" in my head for some time now. The relevant line from the chorus, and the impetus for the title of this post, is "We're gonna build something this summer..."

By now, I'm sure you've seen Tom Hicks' quote from last January, most likely said to deflect attention from his son telling a supporter to "blow me, fuck face." It's how I planned on leading this post, but multiple websites beat me to the punch. Nevertheless, just in case, here it is again.

"January is a poor quality market. The summer window will be big."

Well, it's September 1. And the summer that was supposed to be "big" in terms of transfers has been anything but, at least in regards to incoming ones. As if that's any surprise.

In: Milan Jovanovic (free), Joe Cole (free), Jonjo Shelvey (£1.7m), Danny Wilson (£2m), Christian Poulsen (£4.5m), Brad Jones (£2.3m), Raul Meireles (£11.5m), Paul Konchesky (£3.5m + player exchange) = ~£25m

Out: Yossi Benayoun (£6m), Mikel San Jose (£2.6m), Albert Riera (£3.3m), Diego Cavalieri (£3m), Krisztian Nemeth (£1m), Javier Mascherano (£19.9m), Damien Plessis (undisclosed), Lauri Dalla Valle (player exchange), Alex Kacaniklic (player exchange), Alberto Aquilani (loan), Emiliano Insua (loan), Philipp Degen (loan), Nabil El Zhar (loan) = ~£37m

Fees, where available, are taken from the excellent LFC History – expect in the case of Mascherano. The BBC originally announced it as £17.25m, which is what the site has, but Barcelona's Director of Football announced the fee as €24m, approximately £19.9m. The Plessis transfer, completed after the English window closed, is listed as undisclosed, waiting for confirmation from Panathinaikos or "confirmation" from the media. We'll call it around £1m for now. I'm surprised that LFC History has the Konchesky deal as £3.5m plus the two youngsters; I've seen lower figures or simply player swaps rumored, but theirs are the numbers I'm using. And then there are the inevitable signing-on fees that free transfers often receive, which could be countered by the fact clubs often pay a loan fee, although I haven't seen that confirmed for any of Liverpool's deals this summer. So these figures are rough estimates, as per usual, but it gives us an approximation to work with. Clearly, I wish there was more transparency in the dealings, but I wish there was more transparency in a lot of things. It's in Liverpool's best interest, especially these days, to be as obtuse as possible. And since it probably reflects the club's current financial trapeze act, we can probably add another £8m to the "transfer" expenditures because of Benitez's £6m golden handshake and the £2m needed to pry Hodgson from Fulham.

Regardless, it's the fourth consecutive window where Liverpool's reaped a profit, and with eight players brought in while 13 left, a shallow squad's gotten even shallower. It's yet another symptom of Hicks and Gillett's malignant, debilitating reign.

Rushian, from RAWK, updated his post on homegrown players and Liverpool's 25-man squad, to be named later today – a clearer and more concise version of what I attempted to explain two weeks ago. And after this summer's wheelings and dealings, Liverpool won't be naming 25 to their squad. More research is needed, but I'd imagine there are few Premiership sides with that few senior players. I understand that some of the under-21 players will have a role to play this season – specifically Ngog, Pacheco, and Kelly – but it's still skating on very thin ice. If injuries strike anywhere near as badly as they did last season, Liverpool could be left stranded smack in the middle of shit creek.

After talking up the necessity of another striker, Hodgson's left empty-handed, reliant on Torres, Ngog, Babel, and potentially Kuyt, evidently waiting until the Mascherano money came through to find a warm body to fill an oft-discussed hole. But that never came to fruition (thankfully, if Carlton Cole – a more-experienced, more injury-prone, and much more expensive, version of Ngog – was the main target), which prompted outrage from all corners of the internet. Outrage is much-needed right now.

It's all further proof that no matter how much we wish differently, what occurs on the pitch is sadly a secondary concern. I'm sorry to continue beating that drum until the skin tears, but I don't see any other option.

Look, that Torres and Gerrard are still are the club is probably the best news we could have hoped for from this window. Meireles is a promising signing, as is Joe Cole (although from what little we've seen so far, I'd be happier if he weren't nailed-on to play behind the striker). Jovanovic is a versatile attacker, Shelvey and Wilson are clearly two for the future (and I'm desperate for signings not focused on the short-term). Both Poulsen and Konchesky can "do a job"; I've talked myself into Konchesky ideally being another Finnan mainly as a counter-reaction to "HE'S SHIT, I CAN'T BELIEVE IT" echoing around every forum. That I'd rather have Insua isn't Paul's fault, and Liverpool had been linked to loads worse.

But to pretend I'm not disappointed with the course of events over the past month would be disingenuous. Yet that's nothing new either. Make no mistake, Hodgson bears the blame for next to none of this. The enemies are Hicks and Gillett, and their self-styled director of football, Christian Purslow. I don't include Martin Broughton in that trio to complete a Four Horseman of the Apocalypse analogy in case he finally succeeds in finding new custodians. We were all disappointed when Kenny Huang publicly cooed then bailed, but it's worth noting that he's done similar in the past with the Cleveland Cavaliers. All quiet on the western front isn't necessarily a bad thing – I won't pretend I'm a natural optimist, but just because it's not being played out in the press doesn't mean nothing's happening behind the scenes. The crucial date seems to be early October, when RBS can call in Hicks and Gillett's mounting loans. The pace should pick up as that nears, and let's all join hands and pray no other bank will refinance for those snake-oil scoundrels.

I'm sick of suggesting diminished expectations and sounding pessimistic in every post, you're sick of reading it, but Cassandra's warnings seem prophetic once again. If Liverpool's still in this situation come January, or God forbid, a year's time... well, if you thought this summer was bad in regards to player exit rumors, you won't enjoy the next.

To come full circle with my marginally esoteric music references, the lead single and title track from the aforementioned Hold Steady album was "Stay Positive." And yes, "We gotta stay positive," especially when it comes to supporting the players on the pitch. But we also gotta stay realistic. And angry.