29 March 2011

Infographic: Liverpool Injuries 2010-11

Liverpool have had 43 separate injuries to first team players since the beginning of August. The above graphic shows only 38 for two reasons. First, there are two different Gerrard groin injuries listed in February. However, since he didn't play any matches in the meantime, I'm only counting it as one. Second, I'm not counting illnesses. Just actual injuries.

Only four players with more than 10 appearances this season don't appear on this list: Lucas, Maxi, Kyrgiakos, and Jovanovic. But the latter three all missed at least one game due to virus or illness. Evidently, durability is another Lucas asset which often goes unmentioned. Unsurprisingly, Agger features the most often, with five different afflictions: concussion, calf strain, groin strain, back injury, and thigh strain.

38 injuries is almost the exact amount as during the same time frame last season; There were 37 reported from August 2009 through March 2010 (again, not counting illness). But both seasons have been above Liverpool's recent average. There were 25 reported injuries during the same stretch of 2008-09, 27 in '07-08, 31 in '06-07, and 33 in '05-06. I'm sure it's just coincidence that Liverpool's best points haul came in the season with the fewest casualties.

Which is yet another woe to add to the vast list of often-unlucky calamities that Liverpool have dealt with since the summer of 2009. Ideally, last summer's overhaul of the medical department will bear fruit sooner rather than later.

25 March 2011

Liverpool in Europe since 2000

It ain't over 'til it's over, but as of now, European competition for a twelfth-straight season looks unlikely. Last missing out in 1999-2000, Liverpool have racked up a fair amount of frequent flier miles since the turn of the 21st century.

As usual, click to enlarge in a new window. Egregiously large version available here.

11 consecutive campaigns. 77 matches against 58 different opponents, taking place in 46 cities in 26 countries. 50 matches were in the Champions League, 25 in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, and two in the Super Cup. During this streak, Liverpool have played in five European finals: two Champions League, two Super Cups, and one UEFA Cup.

The thickness of each line represents the number of trips to each city. Unsurprisingly, the most-visited is London, where Liverpool's faced Chelsea five times and Arsenal once. Other frequent destinations have been Istanbul and Bucharest (four times), and Athens, Barcelona, Eindhoven, Madrid, Marseilles, Monaco, and Oporto (three each). Spain is the most-visited country, on nine occasions, followed by France (eight), England, Italy, and Portugal (six each).

What a long, strange trip it's been. Liverpool have eight league games to ensure that it continues.

In the comments is the full list of cities and countries, as well as a breakdown of each campaign.

21 March 2011

Daniel Agger, Danish Swagger

January 12th, approximately 9:30 p.m. in the United Kingdom.

That was the last time Liverpool conceded with Daniel Agger on the pitch.

It was DJ Campbell's 69th-minute winner in Blackpool, Dalglish's first league game. Since then, Agger played 45 minutes without conceding against Everton before starting in six clean sheets: against Wolves, Fulham, Stoke, Chelsea, Sparta Prague, and Sunderland. 606 total minutes, not counting whatever injury time was played in each game. That's an impressive run, to say the absolute least.

In contrast, Liverpool have won just one of the last six games when Agger hasn't played – the 3-1 victory over United. The recent record with the Dane absent is one win, three draws, and two losses – against Braga (a), Braga (h), United, West Ham, Sparta (a), and Wigan.

When fit, Agger is a prototypical modern center-back: good at almost every facet of the game. Quick, strong in the air, strong in the tackle, comfortable on the ball, and willing to pass and move or crack a shot from distance. The problem, as everyone knows, is that he isn't fit nearly enough.

Agger's played 20 of Liverpool's 46 games this season. Granted, that number's lower than it should be because of Hodgson's blatant insanity, but it's not far off past seasons. Agger played 36 of 56 in 2009-10, 26 of 55 in 2008-09, 6 of 59 in 2007-08 (when he twice broke his metatarsal), and 43 of 58 in 2006-07. That's 131 of 274 games over the last five years: just 48% of Liverpool's matches since August 2006. Admittedly, it's hard to build your defense on that availability.

But when he's available, he's worth the hype.

What Agger does doesn't always show up in chalkboards, my frequent crutch. Against Sunderland, Skrtel had more successful tackles, more successful clearances, and a better pass completion percentage.

Opta's charts don't show how Agger's cool head settles the rest of the back line. They don't show how his pace, especially compared to Liverpool's other center-backs, allows the Reds to play a higher defensive line. They don't show the times he strides forward to start the attack, linking midfield and defense. And they don't show how his presence immensely lessens Liverpool's tendency to hoof toward the forwards.

There are holes in Liverpool's defense, Agger or no Agger. Upgrades are needed at full-back and center-back. But, as the recent scoreless streak shows, any back four is better with Daniel Agger involved. It's no coincidence that Dalglish has brought him back into the fold and the defensive record is vastly improved. Under Hodgson, Liverpool had just six clean sheets in the league through 20 games. Agger only played in one – at left back in the 1-0 win over West Brom. Liverpool's kept five clean sheets in the league through Dalglish's 10 games and Agger's featured in all of them. There are coincidences and there are trends. This is the latter.

Now we can spend the next two weeks worrying that he'll come back from the international break in one piece.

20 March 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland

Carragher Skrtel Agger Johnson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Suarez Carroll

Kuyt 33' (pen)
Suarez 77'

It wouldn't be Liverpool-Sunderland of recent years without a refereeing controversy. Last season's fixture saw the infamous beach ball. This season's previous meeting featured the free kick that wasn't. And today's game turned on a contentious penalty.

Sunderland began strongly as Liverpool struggled to win or keep the ball. But, as would persist throughout the match, they couldn't convert possession into opportunities, something Liverpool's all too familiar with. The away side created the early chances, albeit both from set plays; Mignolet saved Kuyt's shot from Carroll's knock-down before the Dutchman headed over on the subsequent corner.

The Mackems continued to impress without reward, unable to breach Liverpool's back four, before being fortuitously beaten on the break. Spearing, surprisingly excellent throughout, both started the move and won the spot kick. Laying off for Meireles after intercepting a Sunderland hoof, the midfielder burst forward immediately to give Lucas an outlet. The Brazilian's pass went awry, but Mensah's mis-control allowed the Liverpudlian in. Clipped outside the box, Kevin Friend initially signaled for a free kick, but conceded to his linesman, who called for the spot kick. Sunderland will complain heartily, and I almost sympathize, but Liverpool will argue that the foul continued into the box. And I'll argue that life isn't fair and what goes around comes around. Eventually. Kuyt tailed the penalty to prolong his goals record against Northeastern clubs, having already scored in the reverse fixture and at Newcastle.

Instead of coalescing behind a bad decision, Sunderland retreated, further hampered by having to make two changes prior to conceding – both Muntari and Richardson went off injured before the 23rd minute, replaced by Cattermole and Malbranque respectively. Liverpool could have extended the lead in the 37th if not for Mignolet, saving Suarez's fierce shot after a ball over the top from Spearing.

Sunderland returned to first half form immediately after the interval, but found themselves increasingly exposed on the break and permanently exposed on set plays. Cattermole amazingly cleared Carroll's header (again from a corner) off the line in the 51st. Meireles blasted over on the break three minutes later, and when that was called back for a foul on Carroll, Suarez nearly scored from the free kick.

Bruce's last throw of the dice, replacing the recently-returned Welbeck with Elmohamady on the hour mark, prefaced Sunderland's last fitful spell of pressure. Excellent defending from Agger, Johnson, and Spearing kept Reina from needing to contribute.

Soon after, Liverpool sealed the result. Spearing's left-footed blast well-saved by Mignolet was the overture to Suarez's 77th-minute virtuoso symphony. Released down the byline by Kuyt, Suarez paced past Cattermole before unleashing an unthinkable close range shot from absolutely no angle, outside of the foot over an incredulous Mignolet at the near post. Mensah's straight red in the 81st, rugby-tackling the irrepressible Uruguayan on a ball over the top, was unnecessary confirmation of Liverpool's victory. Down to 10 men and down by two goals, at least Sunderland finally got a shot on target in the 86th: Henderson straight down Reina's throat with Liverpool wasting time until the final whistle.

Despite Liverpool's luck with the opener, the win was comprehensive and comfortable by the end. It was a refreshingly-thorough away victory when we've been treated to so much dross on the road. Suarez deserves the plaudits he'll get for an all-action performance capped by a jaw-dropping goal, but Spearing was absolutely superb; it was easily his best game for the club, and necessary with Lucas surprisingly inconsistent for probably the first time all season. Carroll obviously lacks sharpness, but again threw his weight around, winning almost everything lumped in his direction, aware of Suarez lurking threateningly at all times. Finally, Agger's return can't be understated. There's no coincidence that he came back into the side and Reina barely needed to pay attention. Or that he came back into the side and Liverpool's hoofs decreased by a factor of 10. The 4-2-2-2 formation, while conceding possession far too cheaply in the first half and often narrow against a packed midfield, bent but never broke.

This was exactly the response needed after Thursday. A victory, a clean sheet, a sign of greater things to come with Carroll and Suarez, and some promise for the future with Spearing's performance. Now, one game at a time and every other related cliché, and come what may come May.

19 March 2011

Liverpool at Sunderland 03.20.11

9:30am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 09.25.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.28.10
0-1 Sunderland (a) 10.17.09
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.03.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Braga (h); 0-1 Braga (a); 3-1 United (h)
Sunderland: 0-0 Arsenal (a); 0-2 Everton (a); 1-2 Spurs (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Kuyt 7; Meireles 5; Gerrard 4; Maxi 3; Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Cole, Skrtel, Suarez 1
Sunderland: Gyan 9; Welbeck 6; Richardson 4; Bardsley 2; Henderson, Onouha 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Johnson
Meireles Lucas Spearing Maxi
Kuyt Suarez

Liverpool needs to pick itself up quickly after Thursday's disappointment. Fifth place is improbable, but not an impossible dream.

It's controversial but I expect Carroll to be rested after having to play the full 90 minutes against Braga. Two starts in four days is a lot to ask for a recently-returned long-term absentee. However, it's worth noting Carroll absolutely destroyed the Mackems in the Tyne-Wear derby last Halloween. The Geordie didn't find the net in the 5-1 romp, but set up Nolan's second, won Ameobi's penalty, and crashed a header off the bar which led to Ameobi's rebound.

Two returns, one certain and one hopeful, should improve Liverpool immeasurably. Suarez will definitely start after his enforced absence in the Europa League, still basking in the glow of his all-action romp against United two weeks ago. Ideally, Agger – who returned to training on Tuesday – will slot straight into the back line. That alone would cut the hoofs by more than half. Liverpool still have just Carragher, Johnson, and Wilson available at full-back.

Sunderland currently sit 8th, four points behind Liverpool, and one of the few teams who could push the Reds further down the table by the end of the season. The draw against Arsenal two weeks ago was impressive more for Arsenal's wastefulness than Sunderland's fortitude. The Wearsiders are on an awful run, winless since January 22, with four losses and that draw at the Emirates since beating Blackpool. Funny, that was right around the time Sunderland sold Darren Bent. I'm sure it's just coincidence.

Having two weeks off has somewhat eased Sunderland's injury concerns. Cattermole could return after an extended absence, while Welbeck, Onouha, and Zenden should all be over lesser knocks. At home, Steve Bruce is slightly more likely to play 4-4-2 than usual, but 4-5-1 with Gyan up front and Welback on the left is a better bet. Henderson, Muntari, Sessengon and Richardson would fill out the rest of midfield in that formation. Goalkeeper Mignolet has been in good form, initially the stand-in for an injured Craig Gordon but now first choice on merit. It's actually a compliment to suggest he was just as responsible for the 0-0 at Arsenal as the referee and linesmen.

I can't help but mention last year's trip to the Stadium of Light, starring Mike Jones and his beach ball. Other than that comedy act, Liverpool have a decent record on Wearside, with six wins, one draw, and one loss in the previous eight visits since Sunderland were first promoted to the Premier League in 1996.

Obviously, Liverpool have to respond from this most recent setback. That Liverpool are/were even in the conversation shows the progress that's been made under Dalglish. At the same time, the two legs against Braga proved there's still quite some distance to go.

17 March 2011

Liverpool 0-0 Braga

Braga win 1-0 on aggregate

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Wilson
Cole Meireles Lucas Maxi
Kuyt Carroll

Hoofing in the direction of Carroll is slightly prettier than the previous aimless hoofing, but it's no more successful.

Without true wingers, Liverpool's attack broke down when Cole broke down. He lasted a little more than 20 minutes. For the first half of the first half, the home side were actually excellent. The 4-2-2-2 formation showed attacking intent, Johnson and Wilson attempted to get forward, and Carroll won header after header. Braga posed a couple of early threats from set plays, but otherwise couldn't trouble Liverpool's back line.

Unsurprisingly, Carroll was the centerpiece. His flick-on created the first opening, in the 8th minute, with Cole's point blank shot saved. Carroll then won the subsequent corner, heading wide of the near post. Four minutes later, clever play from Maxi nearly released the new number 29, only to be arguably ruled offside (not for the last time). And in the 22nd, the referee could have leveled the tie's penalty count when Carroll was pushed in the back on a corner, but – like his counterpart last week – ignored protests and, to delightfully add insult to injury, called a foul on the striker. There were two softer shouts in the 34th minute when Braga defenders resorted to pushing Carroll and Lucas to prevent chances, but – again like last week – Liverpool's problems were more of their own making than the officials'.

After 25 minutes, Braga began nullifying Liverpool by keeping possession. Increasingly reliant on hoofs toward a giant striker and out-numbered in midfield was a deadly combination. To compound matters, Alan had the beating of Wilson time and time again, but Carragher and Skrtel kept Reina fairly comfortable.

Matters didn't change much after the interval, especially since Braga were happy to retreat step by step, packing men into its own half. Getting absolutely nothing from the flanks, play was wretchedly bogged down in midfield. Liverpool had no response other than more and more punts to the forwards. Lucas and Meireles probably have stiff necks from watching the ball sail overhead all day.

The substitutions, made with 15 minutes to play, only exacerbated the trend. Spearing replaced Maxi, Ngog replaced Cole, and Liverpool kept the same formation. Kuyt went left, Meireles went right, and the ball went in the direction of Ngog or Carroll, both surrounded by approximately three defenders at all times.

With complete possession in the last ten minutes, the home side finally created three more chances. The first was a Carroll header from Meireles' corner, on target, blocked by Kuyt's head. The second, moments later, came when Carragher hoofed the ball back into Skrtel, whose barely-believable chest then volley was smartly parried by Artur. The third, deep in injury time, saw Ngog unable to make contact with Meireles' perfectly-lofted free kick. You've probably noticed all three of those started from set plays.

And thus, any hope of Europe next season or a trophy in this ends not with a bang but a whimper. Liverpool have few complaints about either. The squad is supermodel thin and suffering from injuries, but Liverpool could have played until tomorrow without scoring. The club may have been unbeaten in the competition until the last leg, but through ten Europa League games (not counting qualifiers), they only won three. Five of the six draws ended 0-0.

Just as the league has often revealed Liverpool's problems in defense, the Europa League laid bare the weaknesses in attack. Suarez couldn't have been more missed against both Braga and Sparta Prague. Carroll looks a handful, but also ended up hindering Liverpool tactically, as was feared. This team has no width and no guile. Suarez remedies just one of those faults, and he's just one player.

Liverpool have a lot of work to do this summer. And now it has to be done without the allure of European football.

16 March 2011

Liverpool v Braga 03.17.11

4:05pm ET, live in the US on GolTV

Braga lead 1-0 on aggregate

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sparta (h); 0-0 Sparta (a)
Braga: 2-0 Lech Poznan (h); 0-1 Lech Poznan (a)

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Steaua (a); 3-1 Napoli (a); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Braga: 0-2 Shakhtar (a); 2-0 Arsenal (h); 1-0 Partizan (a); 2-0 Partizan (h); 0-2 Shakhtar (h); 0-6 Arsenal (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Braga (a); 3-1 United (h); 1-3 West Ham (a)
Braga: 1-0 Liverpool (h); 2-1 Benfica (h); 0-0 Naval (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Kuyt 2; Cole, Jovanovic, Lucas 1
Braga: Lima 5; Alan 3; Echiejlie, Paulo Cesar 1

Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)

Guess at a lineup:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Wilson
Lucas Spearing
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Will he or won't he?

Dalglish on Carroll:
"He's fit and well, but what we're going to do with him remains to be seen. We either start with him or he comes on in the second half - it's up to us to make that decision."

That's a good a sign as any.

Otherwise, the injury 'crisis' has only slightly abated. Agger and Shelvey are back in training, with Agger a bit further along. Gerrard, Aurelio, and Kelly are definitely still out. I suspect Agger will continue to be handled with kid gloves, probably protected with an eye on Sunday's trip to Sunderland, but his return would be a vast boon. Without Agger, it's a choice between the back-line we saw last Thursday and Wilson coming in at left back. Kyrgiakos, responsible for the penalty, was a step slow against the likes of Lima and Alan, which tempts me into thinking Carragher will partner Skrtel, with Johnson back on the right.

Liverpool played both 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-2-2 in the last leg. We've seen a lot of the first formation in the Europa League (at Braga, both legs against Sparta, approximately half the matches under Hodgson), while the entrance of Carroll prompted the switch to 4-2-2-2 a week ago. If starting, Carroll could play as the lone striker, with the likes of Kuyt, Meireles, etc joining the attack from deep, or the man-mountain Geordie could partner the Dutchman with some combination of Meireles, Cole, and Maxi ostensibly on the flanks.

That Spearing joined Dalglish at the press conferences is as good a sign as any that he'll start. Crammed into an ineffective right-sided berth last Thursday, I'm hopeful he'll replace Poulsen tomorrow. The combination of Lucas and Spearing holding should be enough protection at Anfield whether the formation's 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2.

Like Liverpool, Braga had the weekend off, which has marginally aided their injury concerns. Skipper Vandinho could return from a month-long absence, while Kaka (Señor Elbow) and Alan picked up knocks in the last leg. Holding midfielder Custodio and left back Elderson Echiejile are still out.

Braga did incredibly well to take the game to a sub-par Liverpool in the first half last week, but will most certainly look to hold what they have at Anfield, reliant on defending deep (as they did once Carroll came on) and counter attacks through the fleet-footed Alan and Lima. If Liverpool play too openly, attacking midfielder Mossoro (who won the penalty in the last meeting) will have room to operate; Lucas and Spearing will have to mark the trequartista step for step. Conceding an away goal would be an absolute hammer blow, requiring Liverpool to score three.

Of course, that's exactly what happened when Liverpool came back to beat Olympiakos in 2004-05, with a late late late late late goal to qualifying for the knockout rounds, ultimately winning the tournament (as you may remember). Never count out Liverpool on European nights.

10 March 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Braga

Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Johnson
Lucas Poulsen
Spearing Meireles Cole

Alan 18' (pen)

0-1 isn't the worst result to return to Anfield with. But that doesn't make today much easier to stomach.

The above line-up is the best demonstration of Liverpool's complete lack of depth yet. With Gerrard, Agger, Kelly, Shelvey and Aurelio injured, Suarez ineligible, and Carroll not ready for 90 minutes, Liverpool started Reina, 3 center-backs, one right back at left back, four central midfielders (three of whom are defensive midfielders), one attacking midfielder and a striker converted to winger converted to striker. And crammed them into a fairly orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation. Small wonder the side was goal-shy until Carroll came on in the 57th.

This will come off harsher than it's meant, but if you ever wanted to see what "a team of Carraghers" looks like, today was your day. Lacking in pace and attacking guile, Liverpool's plan was fairly clear: strangle the center of the pitch and pack the defense. Kuyt was wholly isolated and often caught offside. And to make matters worse, Liverpool consistently gave the ball away in dangerous positions, ensuring that keeping possession was a lost cause.

So it wasn't much of a surprise when Braga took the lead after 18 minutes, following yet another giveaway and a rash challenge by Kyrgiakos. Johnson, on one of his few forays forward, was too easily dispossessed, leading to a quick counter where Liverpool let Alan run 40 yards with the ball before he found Mossoro, scythed down by a step-too-slow Kyrgiakos after a clever turn. Alan duly converted the spot kick low into the corner despite Reina guessing correctly.

The goal prompted little response from Liverpool. Unable to stretch the opposition, Braga remained the better side. Liverpool never suffered another defensive breakdown from open play; Braga only threatened once – on a clever set piece where Mossoro was left open for a centered free kick but whiffed, followed by Silvio's cannon off the crossbar from approximately a mile away. But the complete and utter inability to string anything together in attack kept Liverpool second-best. The away side didn't take a shot until a minute into added time, a Meireles flicked header easily claimed by Artur.

Liverpool were marginally brighter after the interval, clearly lectured by an irate manager, with either Lucas or Poulsen looking to join the attack. But things never truly changed until Carroll replaced Poulsen, shifting to a 4-2-2-2 with Lucas and Spearing holding and Meireles and Cole on the flanks. The enormous striker won everything in the air, and took less than two minutes to create an excellent opportunity: flicking on for Kuyt, who was unable to collect when one-on-one with the keeper.

Four minutes after that, Liverpool should have gotten their own spot kick when Kaka felled Cole in the box. Cole dramatically emphasized the tackle, but Kaka clearly made contact with the player. It wasn't the first time the Belgian referee apparently favored the home side, and it wouldn't be the last.

Liverpool kept up the pressure for the next five to ten minutes, with Carroll's fierce shot deflected, Kuyt's chest-to-volleyed-effort saved, and Kyrgiakos header from a corner shouldered over the bar, but Braga blunted Liverpool's momentum by bringing on an extra defender for attacking midfielder Mossoro in the 69th, allowing the away side even less room to awkwardly operate.

With few opportunities to write about, the main talking point came in the 91st, when Kaka decided the best (read: only) way to stop Carroll was to intentionally elbow him directly in the face. Unsurprisingly, the referee saw absolutely nothing wrong with the challenge, which absolutely deserved a red card. It could have been much worse for Liverpool had Carroll been injured, but that he wholly threw himself into the next aerial duel demonstrated no ill effects.

Braga did well in the opening half with Liverpool so impotent, but it should still be an entirely different story at Anfield, especially if Gerrard, Agger or Aurelio's available or Carroll's ready to start. 0-1 is obviously precarious, but not the end of the world. Liverpool are behind, but will need to prevent the crucial away goal. If Braga score at Anfield, Liverpool will need three. But just one goal will get extra time, two will win the tie. And Liverpool can score twice against this lot.

A loss has been coming in this competition based on past European performances. It wasn't all that different from matches against Utrecht, Napoli, or Sparta. That Liverpool were so ineffective and disappointing for the first hour clearly worries, but they still could have gotten the desired 0-0 were it not for one rash challenge.

09 March 2011

Liverpool at Braga 03.10.11

1pm ET, live in the US on GolTV

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sparta (h); 0-0 Sparta (a)
Braga: 2-0 Lech Poznan (h); 0-1 Lech Poznan (a)

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Steaua (a); 3-1 Napoli (a); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Braga: 0-2 Shakhtar (a); 2-0 Arsenal (h); 1-0 Partizan (a); 2-0 Partizan (h); 0-2 Shakhtar (h); 0-6 Arsenal (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 United (h); 1-3 West Ham (a); 1-0 Sparta (h)
Braga: 2-1 Benfica (h); 0-0 Naval (a); 2-0 Lech Poznan (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Kuyt 2; Cole, Jovanovic, Lucas 1
Braga: Lima 5; Alan 2; Echiejlie, Paulo Cesar 1

Referee: Serge Gumienny (BEL)

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

We knew that Shelvey, Kelly, Aurelio, and Agger would definitely be out. The 21-man squad announced today confirms that the worries about Gerrard were correct, as the captain didn't travel.

via Liverpoolfc.tv:
The travelling party is: Jones, Johnson, Meireles, Suarez, Carroll, Cole, Pacheco, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Kuyt, Lucas, Wilson, Carragher, Ngog, Reina, Spearing, Poulsen, Shelvey, Kelly, Skrtel, Hansen, Gulacsi, Flanagan, Mendy.

Suarez is still ineligible, Kelly and Shelvey are still injured. Those three are on the trip for experience, the same reason Carroll traveled to Prague in the last round. Of those 21 players, four are keepers – Reina, Jones, Hansen, and Gulasci – only two of whom should be involved. Which means one of youngsters Flanagan and Mendy will make the bench.

The big question is about Andy Carroll's participation. He'll play some part, but will he start after Sunday's cameo or appear off the bench again? The official site was unsurprisingly coy, while an over-excited copy editor at the Liverpool Echo gave the same interview a headline of 'Andy Carroll set to start Liverpool FC Europa League clash vs Braga' before editing the article about an hour ago (the URL still gives it away). In Carroll's favor is the fact that – like following the first leg in Prague – Liverpool won't have another match for a week. If the big Geordie somehow starts, Kuyt would shift to the right with one of Maxi or Cole on the left. Another alternative is Ngog up top with Kuyt on the right, as in both legs against Sparta Prague.

Liverpool will have to deploy a makeshift defense again, especially at full-back. On the flanks will be Carra and Johnson or Johnson and Wilson. There are few other options. The back line did well after Aurelio went off against the Mancs, which is an argument for the above rather than Johnson-Carra-Skrtel-Wilson.

With Quim and Kaka (no, not that one) on the roster, Braga are a puerile writer's dream. I'll do my best to not beat that dead horse into the ground, but no promises.

Braga are currently sixth in the Portuguese Liga on 31 points. Porto's running away with the league, with double the points that Braga have, 11 ahead of second-placed Benfica. Those two have an incredible gap on the chasing pack, with Braga amidst a tightly-packed mid-table. The difference between third – Sporting Lisbon – and 11th – Beira-Mar – is the same as the difference between first and second.

Braga sold its top scorer in Europe, Matheus (among others) in the January window, but this is still the club that beat Arsenal at home in the CL group stage. They play a pressing and physical style, a 4-2-3-1 formation which can become 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3. Both goals against Arsenal were late and on quick counters (although, admittedly, Arsenal were down to 10 men at that point). All of this sounds vaguely similar to Benfica's tactics in the 2005-06 Champions League.

They've won three, lost three, and drawn once since the beginning of February. Braga's line-up in the last Europa League match against Lech was: Artur; Miguel Garcia, Rodriguez, Kaka, Silvio; Viana, Custodio; Alan, Mossoro, Barbosa; Lima. Last weekend saw a 2-1 victory over Benfica, but Alan, Custodio, and Silvio picked up knocks which make them doubts for Thursday's match. RAWK's Spyin' Kop – a question and answer with Braga fans – in an interesting read for more information about the club.

Without a league match until March 20, Liverpool have to use the Europa League to build on last Sunday's big win. Now into the round of 16, I expect Liverpool's side to be increasingly stronger, less reliant on youngsters and the B-team. Beating Sparta Prague was a struggle over two legs, failing to score for almost the entire 180 minutes. Yes, it's Europe, and yes, it's away from Anfield, but Liverpool can't play as cagily against more dangerous opposition.

07 March 2011

Luis Suarez, Perpetual Motion Machine

There has been a cavalcade of praise for Luis Suarez following yesterday's match. A deservedly massive sack of love letters and valentines for the player.

He had his tantalizing moments against Stoke, Wigan, and West Ham, but we saw the total package yesterday, a comprehensive beatdown jam-packed with all-around brilliance.

His barbarous run to set up the first goal was obviously the highlight (and Liverpool Offside has the video), but Suarez never stopped contributing. A quick glance at his passing and tackling chalkboards helps demonstrate the full weight of his influence.

The passing chalkboard shows an archetypal second striker, busy all over the pitch. He came deep to cover and help start the attack, and spread play well throughout the United's end of the pitch. A 64.4% completion rate leave a little to be desired, especially when crossing in the final third, but it's still a full day's work.

The tackles chalkboard is arguably more impressive. Suarez won more individual duels than any other Liverpool player yesterday – seven successful take-ons, two tackles, and one aerial challenge. The two red blotches are both halted dribbles, but a seven of nine success rate is still superb, something Liverpool has desperately lacked. And as in the passing chalkboard, Suarez shows up in both halves, not restricted to waiting for Liverpool to cross the center circle (unlike a certain striker sold in January).

Plus, to my infinite delight, he's got more than a touch of the devil in him.

It all kicked off yesterday after Carragher and Rafael's tackles. During the handbag-filled melee following the Brazilian fullback's idiocy, Suarez played peacemaker. And by peacemaker, I mean tried to rile the frustrated Rafael up even further.

Pulled away from the fracas by Carrick, Rafael was moments away from calming down. Until Suarez cheekily yanked his faux-fro behind Dowd's back, which prompted a second round of stomping like a toddler who had his favorite toy taken away.

That's not nice. It's sure to provoke the ever-righteous 'spirit of the game' brigade into howls of condemnation. But it is funny. I'm sorry, but it's always funny when it happens to the opposition (yes, I'm a hypocrite). And I doubt it'll be the last time we see similar.

The dark side is strong in this one, and that image sums it up. Suarez will poke at the rhinoceros until it charges. He'll get so far under your skin it'll cause an infection. And then he'll smile in holy innocence.

Gamesmanship works, and Rafael didn't have anywhere near the same impact after the incident. Having a yellow card restricted him more than anything else, but Suarez adding fuel to the fire helped put the player off. Every little bit makes a difference.

Liverpool needs a Slytherin-esque dark side as much as they need a speedy, dribble-happy attacker who creates and scores goals. The club's gotten two for the price of one in the feisty Uruguayan.

Long may it continue.

Edit: I'm an idiot, and rushed this. There's another chalkboard I wanted to include.

Suarez won six free kicks yesterday, conceding just one. Liverpool won 15 in total. Kuyt and Lucas were joint-second for most won with two each; Kuyt conceded three while Lucas conceded two. That's a fairly big gap.

Suarez is already picking up a reputation for diving, so it remains to be seen whether he can keep us this pace. But those each of those free kicks won represents a goal-scoring opportunity – especially the three closer to United's penalty area – despite Liverpool's frequent inability to convert set plays. It's yet another weapon in his armament and another sign of his menace. Either he dribbles by you or you foul him, because chances are you aren't stopping Suarez any other way.

06 March 2011

Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Maxi

Kuyt 34' 39' 65'
Chicharito 90+2'

Other than a late consolation and yet another unfortunate Aurelio injury, that was absolutely perfect. Just perfect. As if the universe would allow anything else on Dalglish's birthday weekend.

No matter what frailties Liverpool have had this season – and there have been more than a few – they've often upped their game against top opposition, especially at Anfield. Liverpool were the brighter side from the word go, attacking United, keeping possession. Meireles nearly put Suarez through within two minutes, while Maxi and the Uruguayan blazed efforts off target soon after. It's cliché, but the home side were hungrier, and it was immediately evident.

Berbatov's 20-yard blast off the outside of the post in the 16th, conjured from nothing, given space by retreating defenders, reminded of United's perpetual threat. Aurelio's injury, forced off in the 24th, could have been a turning point on the back of the Bulgarian's effort. But, following a bedding in period for five to ten minutes with neither side on top, the change actually helped Liverpool. Kyrgiakos was the replacement, shifting Carragher to right back and Johnson to the left. The big Greek repeatedly headed out crosses, blunting United's main threat.

Following a couple of corners, Luis Suarez single-handedly made the breakthrough, regardless of the fact that Kuyt's name is on the score sheet. The Uruguayan picked up possession in the box and danced between Rafael and Smalling before beating Brown then Carrick, passing across the face of goal for Kuyt' to tap in. Four United defenders left completely befuddled, and Liverpool with a player able to torch static markers by dribbling. It's been a long time coming.

The opener unsurprisingly knocked United back. Maxi forced a close-range save from van der Sar before Liverpool were two up within five minutes thanks to Nani's moment of madness. Suarez's right-sided cross was easily headed away, but Nani headed the second ball back towards his own goal, allowing Kuyt to steal in for a point-blank header past a wrong-footed keeper. Fortune smiled on the good guys for 90 straight minutes.

The final five minutes of the half was when we got the usual contentious controversy. First, Carragher could have seen red for a blistering tackle on Nani, who started a hullabaloo before crumpling to the ground, eventually replaced by Chicharito. Seconds later, a frustrated Rafael replicated Carragher's rashness, diving in two-footed on Lucas. Once again, both sides ran to the referee swinging handbags. All we can ask for from referees is consistency, and Dowd gave similarly terrible tackles yellows. In the last meeting, Howard Webb ignored Rafael's two-footed ankle-breaker before sending Gerrard off for a lesser offense.

Liverpool started the second half where they left off. In the 49th, a flowing move from Suarez to Meireles ended when van der Sar barely stopped the Portuguese midfielder from picking out Gerrard at the near post. Half-chances from Chicharito and Giggs – the former sliding into meet Giggs' cross in front of Kyrgiakos but shooting high and wide and the latter blasting over from the top of the box after being picked out by Rooney – prefaced United's best opening of the game. Taking advantage of Liverpool slow to regroup after a corner, Rooney crossed from the left, Chicharito flicked across goal from the far post, and Berbatove dove in to make contact, only prevented by Meireles' presence on the line.

Three minutes later, Liverpool had three, Kuyt's first hat-trick for the club and only the third hat-trick scored against United since the the Premier League's inception. Kuyt won the free kick 25 yards from goal, and surprisingly, Gerrard let the ever-dangerous Suarez take the set piece. The Uruguayan blast's required a diving save from van der Sar, but Kuyt was the first – and only – to react, for a second tap-in. His three goals came from a combined two yards out. They all count just as much as 30-yard screamers.

From there, Liverpool were happy to soak up pressure, with today's joy amplified by Carroll's debut in the in the 74th. His first action was a win a towering header from a free kick, shooting just too close to the keeper. Five minutes later, the giant striker cleverly knocked a long ball down for Kuyt, who volleyed over from the top of box – his only off-target shot of the day. Four would be asking too much. Let's not get greedy.

Asking for a clean sheet was evidently too greedy as well. Chicharito popped up for a consolation deep into injury time, heading in Giggs' cross after starting the move from deep and losing Gerrard with his clever run into the six-yard box. That and Aurelio's injury were today's only blemishes. I guess that'll do.

It'd be impossible to pick a man of the match if not for one player's superlative performance. Every player was excellent, but Suarez was different class. The defense had none of the maddening lapses which doomed the last match, led by Kyrgiakos and Johnson's flawless displays. Meireles and Maxi were fluid, busy, and clever, with the formation as much a 4-2-2-2 as a 4-4-1-1. Lucas was amazing in his usual holding role, again upping his game against the likes of United or Chelsea, while Gerrard was disciplined and intelligent as his midfield partner. Kuyt's hat-trick obviously earns the headlines.

But Suarez was something else. Liverpool's lacked a player of his ilk for far too long. Perpetual motion and a perpetual threat. Able to dribble and dance through infinitesimal openings and more than willing to run at defenders. I still have no clue how he set up the first goal, he had a big part in the third, and he started the attack which led to the second. He was at the center of everything in attack and still tracked back as needed. I don't have the vocabulary to do his match justice.

But, as is necessary, everyone played their part in today's win. Today, as in both wins over Chelsea, Liverpool showed just how good this team can be. And, arguably more important, just how resilient this team can be, which is a credit to the backroom staff. Agger and Kelly's absence, coupled with Aurelio's injury, should have been massive setbacks. But they weren't. Liverpool never lost hope or ambition and played to its full potential. That, more than anything else, bodes well for the future.

04 March 2011

Liverpool v Manchester United 03.06.11

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 United (a; FA Cup) 01.09.11
2-3 United (a) 09.19.10
1-2 United (a) 03.21.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 10.25.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 West Ham (a); 1-0 Sparta (h); 0-0 Sparta (a)
United: 1-2 Chelsea (a); 4-0 Wigan (a); 0-0 Marseille (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Meireles 5; Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Cole, Skrtel, Suarez 1
United: Berbatov 19; Chicharito, Nani 9; Rooney 7; Park, Vidic 4; Fletcher, Giggs 2; Evra, Fabio, Macheda, Owen, Scholes 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guesses at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Lucas Gerrard
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

So, who's fit? Both Kelly and Shelvey are definitely out. Concerns remain about Agger, Meireles, Aurelio, and Gerrard. And then there's Andy Carroll, who only exists in training pictures on the official site and as a figment of our collective imagination at this point. There will be increased temptation to start the ballyhooed signing because of United's defensive problems, but that won't happen unless he's 100% ready. Which is hard to imagine given that he hasn't even made the bench yet. The enormous Geordie should finally be named as one of the seven substitutes come Sunday.

Dalglish, who had his press conference yesterday, dropped few hints. There's a lot of time for things to change between Thursday and Sunday. Outlets such as the BBC and Daily Mirror give hope that those four worries will be available. If Agger's out, it's Skrtel or Kyrgiakos. If Aurelio's out, it's probably Wilson at left back. Cole would replace Meireles, Poulsen would replace Gerrard. Each of those potential changes would prompt a shift in formation and tactics.

I jokingly said similar before last week's match, but I highly doubt Liverpool will play three at the back on Sunday. Primarily, United's width through Nani (and Giggs every so often) poses a big threat but also because of Liverpool's injuries in defense, especially to Agger. When playing four at the back recently, Liverpool were best described as 4-2-3-1 in both legs against Sparta and against Fulham, and as 4-3-1-2 against Wigan.

United have a fair few injury concerns of their own. Vidic is suspended, while Anderson, Evans, Valencia, Park, and possibly Evra and Ferdinand will all miss out. Top scorer Berbatov, who scored all three of United's goals in the reverse fixture and dove for the winning penalty in the FA Cup meeting, has found himself on the bench fairly often of late. Rooney was on his own up front in the 2-1 derby win three weeks ago, while the Shrek and Chicharito partnership has started the last two matches.

Regardless of precedent, it'd be incredibly strange to see Berbatov left out. He gave Carragher a torrid time in September's meeting, bamboozling the defender for two of his three strikes. United's main problems lie in defense, headlined by the absence of Vidic, so often torched by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in this fixture, sent off in the dying seconds against Chelsea ostensibly to avoid another Anfield humiliation. At the same time, Evans is injured, as are Ferdinand and Evra. Ferguson proclaimed that Wes Brown – not seen in the league since November's 2-2 draw at Villa – will partner Smalling, but that manager's potential for mind games (read: drunken lies) is well known.

I hate these matches. This fixture makes me far more insane than any other, and if you follow me on Twitter, you know that every fixture makes me insane. Does United's loss to Chelsea midweek finally demonstrate a chink in the armor or will it provide further ammunition to reassert dominance and put one over on their rivals? Either way, we'll see a hard-fought, contentious, controversial fixture. As always.

02 March 2011

Passing Wheel – Gerrard at West Ham

Remember the passing wheel for Lucas posted two weeks ago? That was fun. Let's do that for Gerrard against West Ham last Sunday. We've got some time to kill before previewing the United match.

The word of the day is "more." More total passes, more ambitious passes, more incomplete passes, more sideways passes, and more backwards passes. Which makes sense given that Gerrard spends far more time on the ball than Lucas does. That's his role in the side. Gerrard attempted at least 10 passes longer than any Lucas tried against Wigan. Again, that's just how he plays.

There's a lot more red on Gerrard's chart, but it's easily explainable. More incomplete passes and more sideways/backwards passes are expected in a freer role and higher up the pitch. And West Ham were happy to pack their half of the pitch, especially after going ahead. Compare the actual chalkboard of Gerrard's performance to Lucas' against Wigan. Where the passes take place is fairly important, among other caveats that these snapshots don't come close to explaining everything. Simply put, Gerrard is asked to play a different role, no matter the formation.

But we can compare this performance to some of his past games. How about against the same opposition last season? Liverpool played 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard behind Torres, and won 3-2 in a back-and forth game. Or a match earlier this season, such as the 1-3 loss at Blackburn – Hodgson's final outing. Like Sunday's match, Liverpool were second-best and had to chase the game away from Anfield. As against West Ham this season, he was paired with Lucas in central midfield, albeit in an orthodox 4-4-2.

Here are the actual chalkboards: West Ham '09-10 and Blackburn. Corners aren't included in these wheels for obvious reasons. Gerrard didn't take any on Sunday, but took five (three successful, two unsuccessful) against Blackburn and two (both unsuccessful) against the Hammers last season.

The wheel from last year's match against West Ham demonstrates how Gerrard alters his game when playing as an attacking midfielder/second striker. Most notably, he attempted fewer passes and had far fewer incomplete. More passes in the 4th quadrant shows how he needed to hold up play and bring midfielders into the attack. There are still the usual long-range Hollywood attempts – one successful and three unsuccessful – but fewer than against West Ham this season or Blackburn.

There are a couple of similarities between his output last Sunday and the January match against Blackburn. The wheel appears flattened, a symptom of Blackburn's heavy pressing until going three up just before the hour mark, and Gerrard favored different halves of the pitch in each match (left against West Ham and right against Blackburn), but the total number of passes and percent completed are almost identical. Gerrard's completion percent against West Ham was 66.2%. It was 67.2% against Blackburn. Incidentally, it was 74.6% when playing behind Torres against West Ham last season.

There are examples of Gerrard playing well as a central midfielder, even from this season. Two that immediately spring to mind are the 2-3 loss against United and the 2-0 home victory over Chelsea. But those examples are increasingly few and far between. It's the age old debate. What's Gerrard's best position? And more importantly, what position is best for the team?

Noel from Liverpool Offside wrote a couple of posts on the subject following Sunday's loss, including a poll asking where people think he should play. Last I checked, attacking midfielder was running away with the vote, with 59% compared to 20.5% for central midfielder.

We still don't know what Liverpool's formation will be once everyone (read: Carroll) is fit. Whether three at the back becomes standard fare, Liverpool shifts to 4-3-3, or uses some variation of 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. We've seen them all since Dalglish took the reins. The plan will undoubtedly change over the summer when Liverpool gets a chance to upgrade the shallow squad.

But questions about whether Gerrard in central midfield is best for Liverpool have been asked for more than five years. I doubt they're going away anytime soon.