29 August 2011

Your Lying Eyes

Liverpool's 3-1 win over Bolton wasn't much better than last year's 2-1 win over Bolton. What? You thought otherwise?

Liverpool had more possession, took more shots, and created more chances in last season's meeting. Bolton's pass completion rate was far higher on Saturday than in January. Liverpool attempted a similar amount of passes with a slightly better completion rate (561 to 581; 441 to 431 successful), had the same number of successful crosses, and had a similar amount of unsuccessful crosses (16 to 19) in each meeting. Liverpool actually won eight fewer interceptions in Saturday's match.

There was one noticeable difference evident in the chalkboards – aside from the score line at the top, naturally: where Liverpool won the ball back, which I discussed when criticizing the second half against Sunderland.

Liverpool attempted eight more ground tackles compared to last year's meeting – seven more successful – and nearly every one in a "better" area of the pitch. Liverpool's higher back line has been one of the best attributes Dalglish and Clarke installed in the side; no more retreating as the team are inevitably under the gun. As you'll notice, most of those tackles came in Lucas' area of the pitch. Compare his tackling performance yesterday to that on New Years' Day last season.

But this isn't (yet another) paean at the altar of Lucas Leiva. His growth and importance has been scrutinized to nanometer-level. There were few compilation videos of Lucas' sterling performances a year ago; now we seem to get one every match. Not that I'm complaining.

Lucas' improvement assuredly matters. How high the defensive line plays assuredly matters. The team's far higher confidence assuredly matters. The new signings assuredly matter, and having the apocalypse that is Luis Suarez assuredly assuredly matters. But you can't always quantify it.

I love statistics. I will continue to use them as a crutch and write about them often. But as many of the chattering classes are quick to remind, they are not the end all, be all of football analysis. Sometimes, you just have to believe your lying eyes.

My lying eyes told me Liverpool were approximately 1500% better than in last year's meeting against Bolton. Approximately.

27 August 2011

Liverpool 3-1 Bolton

Henderson 15'
Skrtel 52'
Adam 53'
Klasnic 90+2'

And it should have been more. Potential in action. The frightening thing is that there's still plenty of room for improvement.

Liverpool's formation looked more like the 4-2-2-2 that faced Sunderland at Anfield rather than the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 at Arsenal. There's so much interchange among the front four, even the front five, that the above diagram doesn't do the side justice, let alone writing it up as I used to do. Suarez and Kuyt alternated dropping deep and floated across the entirety of Bolton's half. Henderson came inside, especially when Bolton somehow had possession, making it more of a midfield three. Downing both stayed wide to cross and cut in, providing space for Enrique to over-lap more than in the last two matches.

And as against Sunderland, it didn't take long to convert early dominance into a goal, with Henderson wrapping up a wonderful team strike in the 15th. Suarez again played creator, with an inch-perfect deep cross nearly setting up Downing's first for the club, well-saved by Jaaskelainen. But Kuyt was quickest and strongest, reacting first to lay off for Henderson, brilliantly cutting onto his left and nestling the ball into the net. It was an excellent example of what each offers: Suarez's peerless creativity, Downing's attacking guile, Kuyt's workrate and selfless, and Henderson's versatility and ability to make dangerous runs into the box.

Suarez (twice) and Kuyt had chances to get a quick second; their failure to do so begat another (more frightening) parallel with the Sunderland match. Martin Kelly's 30th-minute injury – hamstring, again – also threatened to throw a wrench into the era of good feelings, forcing a rejig with Skrtel at right back without Flanagan on the bench. Truthfully, Bolton had responded earlier, with Petrov's blast from nowhere stinging Reina's palms and then thanks to Coyle's intelligent change, bringing on the more-dynamic Mark Davies for Muamba. But other than Petrov's dangerous corner nearly setting up Cahill, Liverpool remained comfortable.

Unlike against Sunderland, half-time only proved beneficial to the home side. Eight minutes later, Liverpool were three up as Adam assisted and scored within a minute. First, one of those renowned corners found Skrtel's bullet head (beating Zat Knight far too easily), his second set play assist in three games. Then, he proved his right leg's for more than standing, charging forward from Kuyt's centered pass and placing a shot past Jaaskelainen.

Three quick efforts followed – Kuyt headed onto the roof of the net, Suarez shot into the side-netting, and Downing's strike was deflected wide – but Liverpool were increasingly content to contain and counter. Suarez nearly ran his legs off in search of the goal he felt harshly denied; in addition to an earlier non-call, when Knight evidently tripped Suarez (initially looking like Suarez had dived), Probert missed a second possible penalty and a clear back pass, both prompted by the Uruguayan's devilish movement. That Suarez stomped off in the 78th without scoring his third in three games seems wholly unfair, but he wasn't even at his best today. Possibly the best player on the pitch. But not his best.

Carroll replaced his frequent strike partner, while Maxi came on for Henderson. Another flurry followed, with Carroll caught flat-footed on Downing's whipped cross, Kuyt attempting to play Downing in instead of controlling and shooting, and Skrtel (!!!) seeing two shots blocked on his charging overlap. But with both sides seemingly happy to just go home, Carragher's unfortunate mistake allowed Bolton a last-second consolation, somehow putting Petrov through before his recovery tackle set Klasnic up perfectly. Reina, unsurprisingly, was livid.

Bolton, poor on the day, were truly lucky to only lose by two. We saw more of the tantalizing moments previewed against Sunderland and Arsenal. Suarez continues to be one of the most dangerous players in the league. Lucas is indescribably important, again brilliant in scything down potential attacks. Henderson was much improved, with a well-taken goal added to better movement and touch; his versatility, switching from the right side in the 4-2-2-2 to the middle in the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 we saw against Arsenal, will continue to be underrated for some time. And special mention goes to Skrtel, almost completely untroubled at right back, scoring on a set play and even joining the attack on occasion, notably those bruising moments ten minutes from time. That helps dispel those memories of Martin at right back three years ago in Middlesbrough.

The elephant in the room remains Liverpool's largest player (at least until Seb Coates signs sooner rather than later). Once again, Liverpool simply looked better without Carroll in the side, with the added handicap of the striker off the pace after coming off the bench. His adaptation will require patience, but at his best (which we've seen in maybe one match), he'll continue to offer something few players in the Premiership are capable of.

Otherwise, it was a remarkable performance from the home side. Kelly's injury, as with Meireles' against Exeter, is the lone concern. And as against Exeter, the consolation, while unfortunate, can be explained away as a one-off mistake – which we hope to see no more of. Progress, especially from new players, is coming quicker than expected.

That Liverpool are top of the league after three games matters little. However, that Liverpool have more points after three games than they did after eight games last year matters much more.

26 August 2011

Liverpool v Bolton 08.27.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 01.01.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.31.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.30.10
3-2 Liverpool (h) 08.29.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Exeter (a); 2-0 Arsenal (a); 1-1 Sunderland (h)
Bolton:2-1 Macclesfield (h); 2-3 City (h); 4-0 QPR (a)

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Agger Enrique
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Suarez Downing

I imagine there will be few holdovers from the Exeter match, despite the strength of that line-up. If pressed, I'd guess that only Suarez, Adam, and Reina will start for the second consecutive match.

Other than Suarez's inclusion, it's basically the same team which beat Arsenal last week. Adding Suarez while swapping Kuyt for Henderson should strengthen the side. The ex-Sunderland midfielder's been in for some unfair criticism, slower to adapt than Adam, Enrique, or Downing – which shouldn't be a surprise given where the four currently are in their careers. But Kuyt offers more attacking fluency, even at Anfield against a bruising mid-table side, and he and Downing switched flanks to decent effect a week ago. Bolton's fullbacks – the doubtful Steinsson and Paul Robinson – should be there for the taking. Maxi could be a decent option as well, helping to stretch and unlock an often-compact Bolton defense, with Kuyt on the bench as a utility attacker. With Ngog's exit inevitable, Liverpool are lacking in reserve strikers at the moment, but after 90 minutes on Wednesday with Kuyt rested, the Dutchman seems much more likely than Rodriguez.

Call the formation whatever you want: 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-3-1. It's not incredibly important with the above personnel, especially in the front four. Carroll will drop deep, Suarez will roam across the width and breadth of the final third, Downing and whomever (probably Kuyt) will switch flanks. Ideally, both Enrique and Kelly – probably still in place of the recovering Johnson – will join the attack more often than either were allowed at the Emirates.

Owen Coyle's continued his ascent with Bolton, who were excellent in their first two games – rampant at QPR and unlucky to come away with nothing from hosting Mercenary City. Klasnic and Davies, particularly Davies, are the types of strikers who make me nervous when facing Liverpool's back line. Davies is all elbows, head, and shoulders, perpetually dangerous in the air (which Carragher, Agger, and Skrtel aren't), while Klasnic is one of those poachers who pops up with a bolt from absolutely nowhere when it's least excepted – i.e. his spectacular volley against City. That clip also shows the contributions of left-winger Petrov, who has the potential to give Kelly fits. If he's up for it. And it's usually impossible to tell if he'll be up for it until the whistle blows. Eagles, on the other flank, is another tricky winger happy to stay wide and deliver crosses. Finally, a midfield of Muamba and Reo Coker will be ubiquitously combative, to put it as nicely as possible – with the former likely to stick close to whichever forward drops deep – requiring Lucas and Adam to intelligently join the attack as they did against Arsenal.

As with Liverpool's last league opponents, injuries haven't been kind to Bolton, especially at the aforementioned fullback position. Steinsson is doubtful with a foot bruise, while Tyrone Mears, Sam Ricketts, and Marcos Alonso are all out. As is American Stuart Holden, still recovering from the ACL tear caused by Jonny Evans' completely hopeless haplessness.

I do worry about Liverpool's increasing reliance on its little Uruguayan. Suarez has three of Liverpool's six goals this season, and played a large part creating in the other three. The last time the Reds scored without Suarez on the pitch was in February against Sparta Prague, 17 games ago. At home against Bolton, a side that Liverpool's beaten in the last nine meetings and which hasn't won at Anfield since 2003 (in the League Cup), marks an excellent opportunity for others in the team to prove their importance.

24 August 2011

Liverpool 3-1 Exeter

Suarez 23'
Maxi 55'
Carroll 58'
Nardiello 80' (pen)

So much for an under-strength line-up. No line-up with Luis Suarez is under-strength.

A team featuring the Uruguayan, as well as Meireles, Adam, Maxi, and Henderson, is expected to canter over Exeter. Anything less would be a disappointment and most likely cause for concern, as least as far as the media's concerned. Well, we weren't disappointed, but weren't overawed either. Except, of course, by Suarez.

Meireles' 20th-minute injury is a bigger concern than anything that occurred on the pitch – clutching his shoulder, replaced by Carroll as Liverpool reverted to last season's 4-2-2-2. But the inevitable opener came almost immediately after the substitution: Maxi found Henderson in wide open on the right touchline, Exeter keeper Krysiak could only palm the floated cross to Suarez under pressure from Carroll, and the striker blasted in his third in three games.

From there, Liverpool were on cruise control, unavoidable winners. Yes, there's always the possibility of a freak goal, especially on a gopher patch League One ground with Liverpool piling men forward, but Exeter truly never looked a threat. Liverpool's inability to get the second before half-time was mostly of their own making, increasingly frustrated by the home side's ten-man rearguard. Adam was the model of this irritation, routinely attempting the fantastic and unlikely single-handedly instead of patiently working to break down an obstinate opposition. Still, Liverpool would have been two up had Maxi converted Suarez's wicked low cross or had Adam or Suarez been able to get their dangerous attempts on target.

It didn't take long for the main protagonist to finish matters after the restart. Suarez turned creator on both – first centering to Maxi after his initial attempt for Carroll was blocked, then nutmegging an unfortunate defender before racing on to set up Carroll's unstoppable rocket. The third goal marked the end of his necessary contributions, replaced by Downing, with Liverpool switching to a 4-3-3 with Maxi and Downing as inverted wingers supported by Henderson, Adam, and Spearing.

The former Villa winger nearly scored his first for the club ten minutes later, well-saved by Krysiak at his near post. But from then on, Liverpool looked ready to call it a day, playing at the pace of some of the preseason matches. The early preseason matches. And they paid for it in the 80th minute when Skrtel brought down Nardiello on the break with Flanagan and all three midfielders caught upfield. One defensive mistake, one goal, thankfully all too late. Harsh, as otherwise all four defenders did well, but always possible with so many men pushing forward in hopes of adding their names to the score sheet and the game all but over. And ultimately irrelevant.

It's hard to take much away from Carling Cup matches no matter the personnel involved. On one hand, it's reassuring to see Dalglish's commitment to the competition. New players Henderson and Adam (and Carroll) were well served by the additional match experience, as were youngsters like Wilson, Robinson, and Flanagan – who were three of Liverpool's best players on the day. On the other, injuries like that to Meireles' can happen and it was something of a no-win situation. If Liverpool wins, great, it's expected. And anything less leads to an inquest complete with torches and pitchforks.

Less conclusively good or bad was Suarez's utter brilliance. He was absolutely crucial to everything good Liverpool did. Unfortunately, he was absolutely crucial to Liverpool doing good. With three goals and two assists in three games, as well as his involvement in the Arsenal own goal, he's had a hand in every strike notched. The season's barely started, and three matches (let alone one) aren't a trend, but Liverpool's spent far too much money to be a one-man team.

Still, it's churlish complaining about a comprehensive win with a few moments of brilliance, especially after last season's Carling Cup run. Let's hope the strong line-up pays off when Liverpool host Bolton in three days.

23 August 2011

Liverpool at Exeter City 08.24.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
6-0 Liverpool (a, League Cup) 10.28.81
5-0 Liverpool (h, League Cup) 10.07.81
2-0 Liverpool (h, League Cup) 10.30.79
3-1 Liverpool (h, FA Cup) 01.28.50

Recent matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Arsenal (a); 1-1 Sunderland (h)
Exeter:0-1 Preston (a); 1-2 Brentford (h); 0-2 MK Dons (h)

Referee: Tony Bates

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Wilson Robinson
Spearing Coady
Shelvey Meireles Maxi

Complete guess, but my suspicion it'll be an under-strength line-up. Just not as under-strength as we saw for the majority of preseason. As usual, this cup's best served by blooding youth and giving the poor sucker stuck behind Pepe Reina some playing time, but it has been a while since Liverpool's had a decent cup run. And you'd think the squad's finally deep enough to support one, especially without European competition.

The likely lineup includes those who have been on Liverpool's bench in the last couple of games – Skrtel, Meireles, Spearing, Doni, Ngog, Maxi, Flanagan, etc – plus a few other youngsters. Meireles is working his way back to fitness, hasn't started yet, and didn't really have a preseason. It makes sense for him to feature here; it's not a slight to play him with the kids in the second round of everyone's favorite cup competition. Similar goes for Skrtel.

However, there seems little point in playing the likes of Cole or Poulsen. It's clear they've no future and no amount of time in the shop window will help their fee. Ngog would be in the same boat, but Liverpool lack for a fourth-choice striker if Carroll, Suarez, and Kuyt are to be rested. Kuyt seems the most likely of the three if it comes to that; Dalglish spoke of mismanaging Carroll's fitness last season and Suarez was left out for Arsenal because of fatigue concerns.

Liverpool will certainly be wary of repeating last year's Carling Cup low point, but I expect Dalglish will have big names on the bench just in case. Starting Suarez, Downing, Carroll, Kuyt, Lucas, Adam, etc. seems madness, even without Europe. Most of the above XI has played together, whether at the Academy, in the reserves, or in the first team; it's not a mix of misfits and debutantes like Hodgson picked against the Cobblers. More importantly, the side won't be playing with Hodgson's tactics. Looking back at the lineup, that team had absolutely no business of losing, form be damned.

Everything I know about Exeter I learned from the club's official site and this outstanding season preview of all 72 Football League sides. After finishing eighth last season, the Grecians' lone win of the season to date came against Yeovil in the first round of this competition. Through five games, Exeter's only scored at home – twice against Yeovil and a consolation from the spot against Brentford. Evidently, they're struggling to replace last season's top scorer Jamie Cureton and midfielder Ryan Harley. I vaguely remember striker Daniel Nardiello from when he was a trainee at United, but couldn't pick him out of a police line-up. That's all I got. Sorry. Seems safer not to pretend.

Liverpool last entered the League Cup at the second round in 1999, a side effect of being out of Europe for the first time since that season. Exeter will look to replicate their 2005 FA Cup feat in holding United at Old Trafford to earn a second money-spinning attempt. Thankfully, the Carling Cup doesn't have replays – as we found out against Northampton – but the Grecians have previous against Premiership sides in knockout competition. And Liverpool, sadly, have previous in this competition.

22 August 2011

Midfield Partnerships vs Pairings

A quick note. Instead of the usual Guardian Chalkboards, there are links to the FourFourTwo StatsZone diagrams. Similar utilities, but StatsZone has a couple of features I like better, primarily the way they classify tackles, show passes in the final third, and its ease of use. If you have an iPhone, iPad, etc., I highly recommend it.

Against Sunderland, Lucas and Adam were a pairing. Two players playing in central midfield. Against Arsenal, they were a partnership.

Lucas is the more defensive of the two, but against Arsenal, the Brazilian was able to join the attack more than usual. Adam, the more play-making, sat notably deeper and was far better in the tackle.

Compare where each made tackles against Sunderland and Arsenal: Lucas and Adam. The combination contributed more than half of Liverpool's total successful tackles (13 of 24) on Saturday.

The better understanding allowed Lucas more influence. Adam didn't attempt to dominate proceedings and his partner benefited. Both alternated going forward to better effect – for example, Adam in the run-up to the Henderson chance in the 23rd minute or Lucas's role in Suarez's clinching goal. When one went forward, the other knew to sit, and it wasn't just Adam going forward willy nilly.

After the match, I posted a link to each's passes in the attacking third on Twitter, somewhat surprised that Lucas completed more than his partner. Again, both Lucas and Adam's output was dramatically better than against Sunderland – Lucas, Adam – despite the fact the latter was at home against a bottom-half side and the former was at a ground where Liverpool had never won. Lucas attempted and completed far more, Adam's came further forward and were more dangerous. The Scot only had two unsuccessful passes into the opposition's penalty area a week ago. On Saturday, Adam had three successful and four unsuccessful entering Arsenal's box.

Both Adam's and Lucas' passing wheels (see previous passing wheels for Lucas, Gerrard, and Henderson.) were unsurprising on the whole, typical of each's style.

The Guardian Chalkboards (there's that crutch) for each can be found here. As usual, only open play passes are included in the wheel, so two free kicks from Lucas and three free kicks, two corners, and one throw-in from Adam aren't included.

Each played his own game – Adam's passes were usually more ambitious, even sideways and backwards; Lucas had a higher completion percentage (86.0% to 82.3%) and looked for shorting, knitting passes. But countering some of the presumed beliefs, Lucas played fewer backward and had more going directly forward. In fact, the Brazilian's only unsuccessful passes came in the first quadrant.

You'd expect the two to better harmonize in their second game together. It takes time to make a central midfield partnership work; even Alonso and Mascherano took half a season to fully integrate. But Lucas and Adam's progression from a draw with Sunderland to a win at Arsenal was impressive, and bodes very well for the future, regardless of the opposition's current crises.

20 August 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Arsenal

Ramsey (og) 78'
Suarez 90+1'

The circumstances truly don't matter when it's the first away league win over Arsenal since the turn of the century.

Nonetheless – and while it's only two games into the campaign – it's hard to escape the parallels between today's home side and 2009-10 Liverpool. A manager with a sterling CV under undue criticism, implausible impossible luck with injuries, and one or two game-changing decisions (right or wrong) which ended up costing the result.

That's not to take anything away from today's winners. Liverpool were already the better side for the 70 minutes until Frimpong's inevitable dismissal, but rarely looked like putting that advantage to use. A 4-2-3-1 often turning into 4-5-1 was able to outplay Arsenal's makeshift central duo, aided by Frimpong's stupid seventh-minute yellow. Early Arsenal threats gave way to little but counter-attacks, where there's always the potential for danger through Arshavin, Nasri, and Walcott, but which the trio usually manages to waste.

Downing, Kuyt, and Henderson – the line of three behind Carroll with Suarez surprisingly left on the bench – constantly rotated. In addition, the ex-Sunderland youngster dropped deeper than we're used to from the CAM in this system, allowing Lucas to get forward and join attacks more often.

Carroll's involvement led to a second-straight game with a goal unduly chalked off for a foul he'd never been whistled for in a Newcastle shirt, knocking down for Downing to blast into the net in the 13th minute. Koscielny's subsequent injury, yet another defensive casualty prompting the entrance of 18-year-old Miquel (the latest pilfered Barca product), helped Liverpool take the game to the home side; Szczesny marvelously saved Carroll's 20th-minute header and easily claimed Henderson's three minutes later.

Arsenal responded after taking ten or so minutes to settle with Liverpool unable to make use of the disarray, but neither Frimpong nor Nasri could beat Reina with their too-easily-allowed shots from distance and Liverpool were grateful to see the intermission. The second half followed a similar pattern as the final 15 minutes of the final – half chances for both but both looked increasingly stagnant, canceling each other out.

Then came the turning point. Well, pick your turning point. Frimpong – treading the narrowest of lines for the duration – finally saw a second yellow for attempted manslaughter on Lucas, after Atkinson had ignored an earlier bad tackle and two obvious cases of dissent. Dalglish responded by immediately sending on Suarez and Meireles for Carroll and Kuyt.

The combination of both ingredients led to Liverpool's win. Suarez's fresh legs terrified Arsenal's tiring, injured, and inexperienced defenders, nearly chipping Szczesny soon after his entrance followed by Downing's narrow rocket pushed behind by the keeper. Three minutes later, Liverpool finally had the goal, mainly thanks to those two substitutions and that ethereal "luck." Suarez and Meireles passed through Arsenal's defense in a neat triangle, but the chance looked gone when Miquel cleared the ball off Ramsey's upper body and into the net. With Suarez probably offside. When it rains, it pours. And it's finally raining harder in North London than Liverpool.

A goal down, a man down, and with absolutely no belief in a comeback, Arsenal conceded a second when defenders insanely allowed Lucas space to run at a retreating back line. The Brazilian lingered just long enough, picking the absolute right pass at the absolute right moment, finding Meireles whose center found Suarez for the tap-in. Two in two for the Uruguayan, obviously on pace for a 38-goal season.

I'm prone to exaggeration, and have said it before, but this was without a doubt Lucas' best game in a Liverpool shirt. Allowed to get forward more often with Adam as the deepest midfielder and Henderson frequently dropping into a three-man central unit, he absolutely bossed the game. There were the usual necessary 'you shall not pass' tackles, but the Brazilian also joined the attack to good effect, using his aerial ability, intelligence, and vision to eventually unlock a surprisingly decent (for 70 minutes) Arsenal rearguard.

Enrique was his closest competitor, with Walcott under lock and key throughout but joining the attack more often than last week as well. Carroll was diligent if blunted by Vermaelen too often, Henderson showed improvement in keeping it simple and constantly moving (similar to Lucas a few years back, if obviously more attacking). And the substitutions worked perfectly. Suarez – clearly lacking in fitness against Sunderland – provided that pace, terror, and cutting edge needed at that point. Meireles showed his versatility and class, able to come on and fill whatever midfield role needed.

There were extenuating circumstances – namely Arsenal's Icarus free-fall – but today's Liverpool demonstrated more than the glimpses of potential we saw last week. Away from home no less, after all the pixels spilled about that problem last season. More cohesion and more fight, leading to more of that luck that's been so dearly needed at key moments.

19 August 2011

Liverpool at Arsenal 08.20.11

7:45am ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 03.20.11
1-1 (h) 09.25.10
0-1 Arsenal (a) 03.28.10
1-2 Arsenal (h) 10.17.09

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Agger Enrique
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Suarez Downing

Two things.

1) Wilshere, Diaby, Gibbs, and Traore out injured; Djourou and Rosicky doubtful; Gervinho and Song suspended; Fabregas and Eboue sold; Nasri and Bendtner's departures seem imminent (although both are in the squad).

2) February 13th, 2000.

I don't care how many players Arsenal are missing – and it's a lot. That second thing? That's the last time Liverpool beat Arsenal away from Anfield in the league. At Highbury. Since then? Five draws, six losses.

More recent history has been repeatedly written from the same script. 1-1. Always 1-1. Even if it takes an out-of-body mistake from Reina or the latest penalty in Premier League history from Kuyt. Well, almost always 1-1. Three meetings in '09-10 – that wonderful campaign – were the exception to this recent rule. Discounting those three Liverpool losses, seven of the other eight matches since '07-08 ended level – six at 1-1.

Liverpool's only changes look likely down the right flank. Johnson probably won't be fit yet, so the right back berth is again down to Kelly or Flanagan. Skrtel's availability means there's cover for Carragher and Agger (a big reason why Kelly was on the bench last week); Dalglish might go with the slightly more experienced Kelly or preserve Flanagan's confidence with another chance – and it's worth noting that Flanagan's second impressive start came at the Emirates last season. I'm honestly not sure which. The right midfield berth seems more certain. It's a big game. It's away from Anfield. It has to be Dirk Kuyt.

Aside from the obvious – the result, the second half in general – there are more positives than negatives from last week. Liverpool were initially and impressively rampant, Downing and Adam bedded in almost immediately, and Suarez looked a star for 60 minutes prior to tiring. Liverpool still would have won despite the second half devolution if not for Larsson's hapax legomenon goal. Or Phil Dowd's questionable (as per usual) first half decisions.

At least we can take comfort from Arsenal's crises galore. Liverpool fans can empathize, having been repeatedly kicked in the crotch by life over the last two seasons, but it's hard to look past the fact it's pretty much Wenger's fault. All of it. And self-inflicted injuries evoke less sympathy, especially when Arsene's involved.

Nonetheless, there's something about a wounded animal being that much more dangerous which I can't get out of my head. Van Persie can still score goals from nothing, Walcott's pace can threaten Liverpool's turtle-like backline (although Enrique, who's now had a week to train, should limit that potential), Arshavin only seems to score against Liverpool, and Arsenal actually have their two best center-backs fit. For once.

Even considering Arsenal's casualties and sales, they've a strong line-up available: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Jenkinson; Walcott, Frimpong, Ramsey, Arshavin; van Persie, Chamakh. It's not like Liverpool are facing Everton's reserves.

Tomorrow presents the first chance to put last season's away day blues – which had been partly exorcised by Dalglish by May – behind them. As anything can happen in the Premier League (© Sky Sports), the opposition's form is no reason for optimism. Last week's first half against Sunderland is though.

16 August 2011

Infographic – Late Winners Since 2007-08

The following graphic shows games Liverpool won with goals after the 80th minute. This obviously does not count those where Liverpool equalized to pilfer a point – such as last spring's late late late penalty to draw at Arsenal – or games where they've piled on the misery – as against Birmingham under Dalglish, Steaua under Hodgson, etc.

Just late winners. And there haven't been enough of them.

Click image for larger version. Click here for egregiously large version.

Goalscorers: Kuyt 7; Gerrard 6; Torres 5; Benayoun 2; Cole, Maxi, Ngog 1

2007-08: 6
• 4 PL, 2 CL
• 2 home, 4 away
2008-09: 9
• 7 PL, 2 CL
• 4 home, 5 away
2009-10: 3
• 2 PL, 1 EL
• 1 home, 2 away
2010-11: 5
• 2 PL, 3 EL
• 3 home, 2 away

Seven players, 23 goals. Two of the seven who scored late winners in the last four seasons aren't with the club anymore. Three are increasingly (and rightfully) relegated to the periphery, each responsible for only one of the 23 tallied. Captain Fantastic can't stay (or get) fit, and Kuyt's starting place is less guaranteed than at any time during his Liverpool career.

Liverpool scored fewer late winners in 2009-10 and 2010-11 combined than in that remarkable season prior. While the number of late winners rose last season, Liverpool's lone in the league came against Bolton (twice). Two of the three Europa League matches were already dead rubbers by the time Kuyt and Gerrard popped up. The third was the lone late winner in Dalglish's 24 games, the second leg against Sparta Prague in the round of 32.

Liverpool's 2008-09 points total was so dramatically better because of those nine late winners. It's better to be lucky than good, but it's even better to not know when you're beaten. That side had absolutely no clue when it was beaten, and pulled rabbits from the hat time and time again. By the end of the season, comebacks were expected, not the exception.

Watching Liverpool fumble against Sunderland for the final half an hour, reminiscent of so many failures in the previous two seasons, never encouraged that feeling. The draw became expected; in fact, given recent stomach punches, a late Sunderland winner – when Cattermole et al counter-attacked in injury time, for example – would have been wholly unsurprising.

I hate crediting confidence and luck over and over, but it's a conclusion frequently reached. Liverpool have to rebuild the former, which will lead to more of the latter. It's that simple and that difficult. Single spark, prairie fire.

15 August 2011

Chalkboard Analysis – The Inevitable Tale of Two Halves

I know how much you missed these self-explanatory Guardian Chalkboards, even if you don't.

Liverpool were outstanding in the first half on Saturday, unlucky to not be ahead by more than a solitary goal. But Sunderland regrouped, better in the second frame, and reaped the reward.

The first example of that regression was where Liverpool won the ball (when they actually did). Liverpool pressed furiously in the first half, reclaiming possession with ground tackles and interceptions much higher up the pitch.

After the restart, Liverpool won fewer ground tackles, all in their own half, with interceptions coming closer and closer to Liverpool's goal. The home side simply lost that territorial battle in the second half. They were unable to press as effectively, probably due to fitness levels, and increasingly defended deeper as confidence plummeted, while Sunderland grew in stature and belief.

In fact, Liverpool won half as many total duels in the second half: 28 to 14 – seven fewer aerial duels, five fewer ground tackles, and two fewer take-ons. The fight for aerial supremacy was another conspicuous reversion, especially since Liverpool became more and more predisposed to hopeful punts in the general direction of Sunderland's goal.

16 won, two lost in the first half; nine won, seven lost in the second. Carroll won half as many after the interval (six compared to three), while Kuyt didn't win a single aerial duel after coming on (three unsuccessful).

Meanwhile, Sunderland's pattern of play was pretty much the polar opposite. The Mackems made more successful tackles in the second half with far fewer unsuccessful, and made their inceptions and tackles in more threatening areas.

Liverpool's passing followed a similar shambling script – more successful and composed in the first half, more erratic in the second.

Liverpool attempted 38 fewer passes in the second half, but had nine more unsuccessful. The first half completion percentage was 79.3%; it dropped to 73.0% in the second. There was almost a coherent pattern in the first 45: playing from the back to the flanks, then up the flanks into the final third. Comparatively, the second half is a hodgepodge of desperate long arrows – many, many more in red – beginning in Liverpool's end and ending without finding a target. The heatmap shows how Liverpool were more bogged down in the middle of the field after the interval, pushed back toward their own goal with next to no passes in the opposition's penalty box.

Sunderland's passing wasn't dramatically better in the final 45 minutes – attempting and completing comparable totals – but the chalkboard demonstrates how they attacked Liverpool's fullbacks much more directly, especially Flanagan on the right. Far more passes into the box came from that flank following halftime. Far more passes into the box came in general.

I don't mean to suggest that Steve Bruce waved a magic wand around his enormous noggin during the half-time team talk, while Dalglish et al rested on laurels sipping tea, but there's a reason the "tale of two halves" cliché persists.

Liverpool were notably worse in multiple areas as the game went on, and Sunderland took advantage. It's one thing when that happens in the first game, with only three starters who featured in the first game of last season and four players making their debuts. But tolerance and understanding will only last so long when we've seen much of the same during the previous two campaigns.

13 August 2011

Liverpool 1-1 Sunderland

Suarez 12'
Larsson 57'

First half: new Liverpool. Second half: old Liverpool. Result: old Liverpool. Sigh.

Rampant – utterly rampant – in the first half, Sunderland were infinitely lucky to only be behind by a goal after 45 minutes. The away side should have been down to 10 men with less than seven off the clock: Suarez blocked Richardson's ill-judged clearance and charged toward goal. The left-back's sole recourse was to pull Suarez down while he was in the process of rounding the keeper. Somehow, Dowd saw it as no more than a yellow – my hypothesis is that he's too much of a coward to send someone off in the opening minutes of the opening game – and to compound matters, the Uruguayan blasted the spot kick over the Anfield Road end.

But five minutes later, Suarez proved you can't keep a good man down, easily beating Richardson to Adam's blistering free kick (which he won), stooping a header in at the near post. For the next half an hour, it looked as if Liverpool could choose its own scoreline. Dowd again demonstrated why he's one of Liverpool fans' favorites, disallowing a perfectly good Carroll goal simply because Wes Brown is too clumsy to stay upright. Adam blasted from distance straight at Mignolet, Downing blasted off the bar after torching three defenders with a jackknife run down the right.

Then came the second half and the inevitable regression toward the mean once unable to turn dominance in play into dominance in the score line. As usual, all it took was one sloppy, schoolboy defensive mistake coupled with some opposition brilliance that the player will never, ever replicate.

Larsson had the beating of Flanagan throughout the second half, and that Dalglish started him instead of Kelly is one of the most-pressing post-match questions. Sunderland's plan was clear – unsettle the youngster and unsettle him quickly. Higher pressure led to the first opportunity: caught in possession and undressed by Larsson, Flanagan could only thank Gyan for directing his header straight at Reina. Three minutes later, Flanagan was caught ball-watching the opposite flank, letting Larsson wander into space at the back post. It still required an audacious acrobatic volley to level arrears. There's just something about Liverpool which encourages wonder goals from the opposition. They should probably figure out how to stop that.

From there, Liverpool were on tilt, completely disjointed by the cruel hand of fate. After stemming the initial tide, featuring Sessegnon's blast over the bar after Carragher backed off, Liverpool turned to its wily, displaced veterans. Kuyt replaced the increasingly ineffective Henderson before Meireles came on for a spent Suarez. Liverpool remained in the 4-2-2-2 with Kuyt initially on the left before moving up top; Downing, who had spent the second half on the right until that point, went left with Meireles filling Henderson's narrow berth. Despite three months to work on Plan Bs, Liverpool's ideas were limited to more and more hoofs in the direction of Carroll regardless of the fact that Sunderland were clearly content to see out the draw. As Georger immediately pointed out on Twitter, Liverpool hoofed pre-Carroll and Liverpool will only be more prone to hoofing with him. It was simply more disconcerting because we saw next to none of the "tactic" in the first half. Sunderland had the lone chance to win in dying seconds, spurned by Cattermole (of all players) on the counter.

So, meet the new season, same as the old season. It's like Liverpool's opener last year – conceding a soft (and very late) equalizer to Arsenal at home – and the Liverpool/Sunderland Anfield match – where Sunderland came back from an early goal to get a barely undeserved draw. Depressingly, both those games came under the previous manager.

With Suarez back in the side, Liverpool reverted to the 4-2-2-2 we saw most often in the run-in. The Uruguayan floated everywhere in the final third, attacking the closest defender in proximity, while Downing stuck wide left and Henderson tucked in on the right. Liverpool moved the ball with pace, ran at the opposition, and never took their eyes off Sunderland's goal. At times, it was more impressive than in the Birmingham and Fulham demolitions.

But Liverpool couldn't seal the deal. Suarez was lightning despite missing his spot kick but faded quickly. Similar goes for Adam: so important in the first half but increasingly marginal and marginalized as the game went on. Somehow, with more hoofs, Carroll became more isolated; he looked the most likely to notch Liverpool's second in that buoyant first half. And most impressively, Enrique fit in immediately despite joining the team yesterday.

But legs tired, ideas narrowed and waned, Lucas – so crucial to Liverpool's rearguard – also bore the scars of a long Copa America, and Flanagan made his first costly mistake (that penalty concession against Tottenham doesn't count because that wasn't a penalty, Howard). That Liverpool would fire into the new campaign so perfectly seems implausible in retrospect, but that first half sent hopes into the stratosphere.

At least the first half shows this side's remarkably high ceiling. You know, if new Liverpool can exorcise the ghosts of old Liverpool sooner rather than later.

12 August 2011

Liverpool v Sunderland 08.13.11

10am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 03.20.11
2-2 (h) 09.25.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.28.10
0-1 Sunderland (a) 10.17.09

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Agger Aurelio
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Suarez Downing

Once more into the breach and whatnot.

As written in yesterday's season preview, the 4-2-3-1 looks like Dalglish's preferred formation – as much as Dalglish has a preferred formation. With Gerrard and Skrtel already out injured, tomorrow seems too soon for Suarez, too soon for Johnson, and too soon for new signing Jose Enrique. Dalglish pointedly refused to rule the first two out – saying that both Johnson and Suarez would be game time decisions – while Enrique announced he's ready to play whenever called up in his first interview for the official site.

It seems madness to risk Suarez after zero preseason appearances, having only rejoined the team earlier in the week. But Suarez is madness personified. And brilliance personified. And that's why I imagine he'll start if at all possible. Even if the Uruguayan doesn't make the first XI, he'll be one of the first names called off the bench.

Enrique and Johnson face higher hurdles. The former signed yesterday, and will train with his new teammates for the first time today. He's fit, and played in a few of Newcastle's friendlies; his participation is down to whether Dalglish feels comfortable slotting him into a "settled" backline (counterpoint: Liverpool's backline is never settled). The latter picked up a hamstring knock in the last friendly and shouldn't be risked so early in the season with Kelly and Flanagan both available.

If Suarez only makes the bench, Henderson or Aquilani should take his place behind Carroll. I still find it hard to believe that Aquilani will be a full-fledged Liverpool player this season, after all we've seen over the last two campaigns and all that's come out of his agent's mouth, but the Aquilanistas are out in full force. More likely, at least in my opinion, is Henderson facing his former club. At least we know that Henderson isn't any more likely to start based on sentiment and the opposition – Dalglish left Carroll out against Newcastle after all.

Sunderland are one of the few non-top-six sides to have notably strengthened during the summer, spending the Bent and Henderson money on reinforcements throughout the squad. Steve Bruce added Manc veterans O'Shea and Brown in the hopes that experience will prevent Sunderland's annual spring collapse. David Vaughan, Seb Larsson, and Craig Gardner are all seasoned Premiership midfielders.

Gyan's due for a breakout season, while Sessegnon showed glimpses of tricky potential in last year's run-in. Sunderland are likely to play 4-5-1/4-4-1-1, with Sessegnon behind Gyan; Larsson, Cattermole, Gardner and one other in midfield; and a backline of Bardsley-Brown-Turner-Richardson, with the vastly-underrated Mignolet in goal. The Black Cats haven't beaten Liverpool since the well-documented beach ball goal from two seasons ago, with two losses plus a 2-2 draw in the last Anfield meeting since. Steve Bruce's all-consuming voodoo over Benitez, so prevalent at Birmingham and Wigan, hasn't lasted since he joined Sunderland and Rafa got the sack.

Last season, Liverpool began its campaign at Anfield against Arsenal. The starting lineup was Reina; Johnson, Carra, Skrtel, Agger; Kuyt, Mascherano, Gerrard, Jovanovic; Cole; Ngog. I don't need to remind who the manager was. That game finished with a cruel kick to the nether regions, ending level as Reina palmed the ball into his own net with the final touch of the game, setting the tone for the duration of the campaign. Here's hoping this season begins better. And finishes far, far better.

Last warning for the OYB Fantasy League. It's hosted at the Premier League's game, and the entry code for the league is 302898-189271. With just under 100 participants so far, it's the biggest the league's been by some distance.

11 August 2011

2011-12 Liverpool Season Preview

The difference a year makes. From Hicks and Gillett setting the club's money on fire to FSG opening the checkbook at will. From an owl-faced over-matched media darling who "deserved a chance" as manager to the club's greatest living legend. Checking under couch cushions for the privilege of buying Konchesky and Poulsen to slightly less than £50m spent on Adam, Doni, Downing, Enrique, and Henderson. All this optimism is starting to make me pessimistic.

Business Time (so far)
In: Jordan Henderson (£16m), Charlie Adam (£8m), Stewart Downing (£18.5m), Doni (free), Jose Enrique (~£6m)
Out: Daniel Ayala (£850,000), Milan Jovanovic (free), Paul Konchesky (£1.5m), Chris Mavinga (£1m)
Fees taken from LFC History, except in the case of Ayala and Enrique, which haven't been finalized yet.

With news today that Liverpool and Newcastle have agreed a fee for Jose Enrique, another problem area can be checked off Comolli and Dalglish's list. Liverpool now have a completely new left side, far more threatening than any deployed on that flank in ages, to go with added depth in the middle.

Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jose Enrique, and Jordan Henderson represent an excellent summer's worth of business, while adding the experienced Doni allows prospects Gulasci and Hansen to go on loan. Downing and Enrique were crucial, giving the club proven quality at positions where Liverpool often had to cram round pegs into square holes last season. The squad desperately lacked left-footers last season; Downing, Enrique, and Adam all have gifted left pegs, and all three are outstanding crossers of the ball, which probably pleases Andy Carroll. Henderson – the first player signed the summer, with the most surprising fee – seems solely for insurance this season: capable of replacing Gerrard if he spends any extended spells on the sidelines and able to play multiple positions in midfield to cover for others. It is an outstanding haul, even without adding mooted depth at center-back or striker.

But with three weeks left in the window, business time hasn't quite ended. The flashing neon "Free To A Good Home" signs hung around the necks of Cole, Poulsen, et al haven't enticed one of those suckers born every minute yet. For some reason, other clubs don't want to pay hard-earned money for Liverpool's misfits, especially considering what a certain few (coughJoeColecough) earn in wages.

Center-back may still be addressed, although talk of another striker has died down since Wickham signed for Sunderland and Ngog's remained at the club. Dann and Cahill continue to be suggested targets, with Phil Jones pursued before United lured him to the dark side. But CB is much less a priority than left back is/was. Liverpool could certainly do with more top quality, but in Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, and potentially Kelly, Liverpool at least have strength in depth. Even if that depth is fragile, aging, or inexperienced.

Expected Formation and "Best" XI

Like at the best of times under Benitez, it's difficult to forecast next season's formation, let alone line-up.

The diagrams I posted following Adam's purchase – for potential 4-2-2-2 and 4-3-3 – still hold water. I've drawn it up above as 4-2-3-1, which we've seen most frequently in preseason and is the formation the Academy and reserves have been using for the last two seasons. The difference could well be negligible, dependent on which central midfielders and wide-men play.

However, it's even harder than usual to use preseason as a gauge because two of the most important players – Suarez and Gerrard – were unavailable throughout. Lucas, the lone out-and-out defensive midfielder (Poulsen does not count), featured for the just final 45 minutes. Including those three players could necessitate an entire change of system – where does Suarez fit in the 4-2-3-1?

By my reckoning, Liverpool only used the 4-2-3-1 formation twice in Suarez's 12 starts – the 5-2 win over Fulham and 0-1 loss at Villa. He was the out-and-out striker in both, a position Carroll seems likely to fill more often than not. Suarez is as much creator as well as scorer, but I worry that playing him on the flanks in that system could put him where he's less dangerous. That Carroll is an every-game starter is by no means a given, but it'll take all of Dalglish's chutzpah to render a £35m player a spot starter.

The other elephant in the room is the obvious central midfield glut. Stockpiling in that area suggests either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3; Liverpool would struggle to shoehorn Gerrard, Lucas, Adam, Henderson, Meireles, Spearing, etc in the 4-2-2-2 we saw during the latter half of last season. Aquilani's also lingering on the periphery, somehow still with the club, tempting us with whispered suggestions of potential. I still find it hard to believe he'll be on Merseyside come September.

It may seem too much muchness when other fields lay fallow, but it's both strength and depth in the most important part of the pitch, where the game is often won. Liverpool's best season in recent memory came with its strongest central midfield – a base of Mascherano-Alonso-Gerrard. That trio stuck to the "destroyer-passer-creator" archetype perfectly: Mascherano tackled, Alonso played chess, Gerrard made and notched goals.

This season's version is similar. Yes, it's probably weaker when everyone’s fit – Alonso is one of the best deep-lying passers in the world and Gerrard is three years older – but it's also less specialized and more versatile. Lucas isn't all snarls, tackles, and cards like Mascherano, Adam gets forward and scores more than Alonso. Gerrard's injury problems have only increased with age, but Liverpool has the likes of Henderson and Meireles (and possibly Aquilani) – each with different qualities – if the captain's (inevitably) unavailable. Both those players can also play wide if needed, as proven last season. This corps is far deeper than the '08-09 version, with Liverpool much less effective if one of Gerrard, Alonso, or Mascherano were missing. In the early, early stages of Hicks and Gillett's financial shenanigans, one of that side's biggest weaknesses was its lack of depth.

It's also worth noting that Liverpool's academy prospects are in better shape than ever. Spearing, Kelly, Flanagan, and Robinson have all successfully graduated to the first team, while Sterling, Coady, Wisdom, Ngoo, Suso, and others wait in the wings for their opportunity. I'll be amazed if fewer than 3-5 become first-team regulars in coming years, and we should start to see the likes of Sideshow Raheem et al make their debuts in this season's cup competitions.

The Chevrolet Keys To The Game
Subterranean Homesick Blues: Liverpool were indescribably atrocious away from Anfield under Hodgson. Dalglish's record was unsurprisingly better, but not better enough. Yes, under Dalglish, Liverpool did manage to win away more than once, and did manage to score more than one goal in multiple away matches. Dalglish's side even scored five in one match; Hodgson's Liverpool scored seven total in ten away matches. However, losses to relegated West Ham and Blackpool under Dalglish, as well as at West Brom and Villa, remain drilled deep in the memory.

With Liverpool's recently-acquired midfield versatility, we may well see different line-ups home and away. Dalglish's willingness to vary systems was evident in changing to three at the back against Chelsea, Stoke, and West Ham. That flexibility allows Liverpool to test multiple formations. As an example, Carroll could be used as an away day weapon/super sub – holding up play and bruising defenders away from Anfield comforts, with Liverpool reverting to a more mobile style on its own ground (as in the late season romps against Birmingham and Newcastle). But regardless of the solution, it's one of the problems most in need of remedy.

Keep On Keeping On: Liverpool were the third best side in the league from the date Dalglish took over through the end of the season. Only Chelsea and United gained more points than Liverpool from January 8 through mid-May. Remaining that strong is far easier said than done.

Liverpool never truly played without pressure after Dalglish's appointment, as some have suggested. But the pressure of expectations is both different and heavier than the pressures of playing for pride and a new manager. Not only that, but Liverpool will have to bed in new and important players into a potentially new system. And quickly. Last season's perennial starters Kuyt and Meireles look likely to lose their guaranteed places to Downing and Adam (and Carroll, in the case of Kuyt). Liverpool will need to start fast to prove to themselves and the chattering masses that they belong in the top tier of the top tier.

What is Liverpool's Best Side?: That aforementioned versatility could come at a cost. The extended, rambling discussion above hints at the fact we've no clue what Dalglish thinks is his best team. But Liverpool don't have the luxury of growing into the season at a leisurely pace. The team needs to gel quickly before the knives come out. And make no mistake, the toothy media horde are already sharpening said blades. The first six fixtures of the season are Sunderland (H), Arsenal (A), Bolton (H), Stoke (A), Tottenham (A), and Wolves (H). Two top-six trips London are no small matter, but it's a vastly easier start than last season, when Liverpool hosted Arsenal and traveled to City and United before the end of September.

No European Distraction: Yes, I'd rather be distracted, even if only by the Europa League. But I completely understand (and somewhat endorse) the argument that Liverpool's league form will benefit from a lack of continental competition. The still shallow side will have fewer games to play than their closest rivals, allowing for more training and recovery time between matches.

Liverpool's goal has to be a return to European competition, specifically THE European competition. Anything more is a pipe dream after finishing 22 points behind the leaders last season. And it'll be difficult to argue that anything less is a successful season. Liverpool have spent like a top four side, have the wage bill of a top four side, and finally seem to have a squad capable of being a top four side. But after the drama and trauma of the last two seasons, just seeing some stable progress is what's essential. Evolution, not revolution, and so on.

Just be better.

Update: As David helpfully reminded in the comments below, I've only mentioned the OYB Fantasy League on Twitter. And in case you're not following on there, I am "running" the league again this year and will try to maintain interest in it, with the potential of prizes at the end. I am sorry there were no prizes last year. There might not be prizes this year. But if I have some extra funds or advertisers send me free stuff, there will be at least one prize.

Anyway. The details. As always, the league is at the Premier League's official game. Create a team, then click "join a league." The entry code for the OYB League is 302898-189271. If you were in the league last year and create a team, I think you'll automatically be re-entered.

I'll put up another reminder in tomorrow's preview of the opening match against Sunderland.

09 August 2011

Fifth Annual League Table Guessing Game

Last season's 'prediction' wasn't a complete failure – at least in the top seven. I had Chelsea pipping United to the title (which looked possible until the Blues bought that misfiring traitorous foreigner), City and Arsenal in third and fourth, and Liverpool ahead of Tottenham – insane in retrospect, but still would have happened had Liverpool won its final two matches. All in all, three positions spot on (the aforementioned City and Arsenal, as well as Everton in seventh), and one of the three relegated sides right (Blackpool, a tremendously difficult guess). Which is good enough to continue this yearly charade.

1) Manchester United
2) Manchester City
3) Chelsea
4) Liverpool
5) Arsenal
6) Tottenham
7) Sunderland
8) Everton
9) Fulham
10) Stoke
11) Aston Villa
12) West Brom
13) Bolton
14) Wolves
15) QPR
16) Blackburn
17) Norwich
18) Newcastle
19) Wigan
20) Swansea

And it's basically the same prediction everyone else is making. Money talks. This is an arms race, and the guy with the biggest gun is probably going to walk away with the gong. The long-standing Big Four narrative is dead, long live the Super Six. Admittedly, the name needs work.

It increasingly looks like a two-division Premiership: a top six ostensibly fighting for the title (but really fighting for the Champions League places, with the two Mancs and Chelski seemingly a step above) and everyone else.

There are few, if any, contenders to break into that elite group – only teams who could drop out of it should they fail to keep up with the pack. Sunderland's coped with the loss of Bent and Henderson by adding Wickham, Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson, and David Vaughan, but there's little star power and a history of spring collapses. Stoke's slow, continual progress will probably be tempered (if not restrained) by European competition. Villa lost both Young and Downing – although Albrighton and N'Zogbia are decent replacements – and fans will be quick to turn on McLeish at the first sign of trouble. Everton came the closest last season, finishing four points behind their city rivals, but the Blues' financial situation is even more perilous than usual; unable to sign new players, at least they've held onto what they have. Otherwise, the gap between Liverpool in sixth and Fulham in eighth was nine points – the same as the gap between Fulham and 17th-placed Wolves.

As much as I'd love to be overwhelmingly optimistic in regards to Liverpool, jumping into the top four is a big ask no matter Dalglish's renaissance or this summer's business. I'll have a Liverpool-specific preview up tomorrow or Thursday, but the short version is I'm trying not to get carried away with the complete sea change we've seen over the last 12 months. Whether Liverpool can take Arsenal's fourth place is up to Arsenal as much as Liverpool.

It's inane and insane to overvalue in a single match, let alone a curtain-raising de facto friendly, but I've a sneaking suspicion that Sunday's Community Shield was the upcoming title race in brief. Parvenu Manchester City has the strongest side by some distance, but United has that eminently detestable, wholly implausible je ne sais quoi which sees them come back from two down to win in the last minute of added time every single time. Neither Mancini nor his mercenaries can be trusted to maintain any semblance of stability, especially since they'll also be competing in the Champions League for the first time.

Adding Phil Jones, Ashley Young, and David de Gea to a title-winning side frightens – the most the Glaziers' have spent in a single window – but questions remain. Will de Gea, he of the two Wembley howlers, adapt to England? Who's the first choice right back? And can a central midfield of Carrick, Fletcher, Gibson, Anderson, and Giggs really win the title? But every other squad provokes more questions: City's maddening inconsistency, Chelsea's aging legs and new manager, Arsenal's suicidal tendencies on the pitch and in the transfer market, etc.

At the other end of the table, I suspect playoff winners Swansea don't have enough lawyers, guns, or money to stay in the division – similar to Blackpool last year and Burnley, Derby, Watford, etc in previous. Norwich is in a similar, slightly sturdier boat, but parsimony from Wigan and insanity from Blackburn and Newcastle's owners could give them enough of a chance to stay up. QPR's thicker wallet, stronger squad, Colin Wanker's (hint: anagram) experience give them the best chance of survival of the promoted three. As with last season, I expect the difference between mid-table and relegation to be minimal and a season-long battle of attrition for 8-12 teams.

06 August 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Valencia

Johnson Carragher Agger Aurelio
Spearing Adam
Henderson Aquilani Downing

• 46' – Lucas for Spearing
• 46' – Robinson for Aurelio
• 59' – Kuyt for Henderson
• 59' – Cole for Aquilani
• 59' – Ngog for Carroll
• 59' – Maxi for Downing
• 74' – Flanagan for Adam
• 77' – Kyrgiakos for Agger

Carroll 6'
Kuyt 90'

Impressive and improving. A home win and clean sheet, probably the best preseason performance coming against the best opposition faced so far, with Johnson's sixth-minute injury the sole concern.

Liverpool's rampant start, featuring incisive, intelligent passes instead of hoofs as well as dizzyingly high pressing, led to the early opener. After twice threatening via Downing crosses in the first three minutes, Carroll's closing down led to Albelda's soft back pass, which he quickly seized upon. Alves pushed the striker's initial effort onto the near post, but Carroll beat both keeper and defender to the rebound.

Unfortunately, the aftermath saw Johnson limp off, replaced by Martin Kelly. Valencia twice troubled Liverpool with crosses from that flank as the young fullback took time to settle, but Alba over-hit the first while the second just eluded the on-rushing Topal. Unsurprisingly, Kelly soon found his sea legs, keeping Juan "Liverpool's Savior" Mata completely quiet, and Liverpool re-established dominance. Carroll's workrate constantly unsettled Valencia's backline while Downing continually tortured Bruno down the left flank. With Aurelio and Agger in defense, Liverpool played from the back instead of launching long balls, aided by Adam's steadier, less spectacular style of play.

Lucas and Robinson replaced Spearing and Aurelio after the interval and the Brazilian international's introduction immediately reminded of the qualities only he provides. His entrance was a security blanket thrown over a defense prone to exposure, constantly putting out small fires before any had the chance to blaze; Valencia didn't threaten until two half-chances in the final five minutes.

Liverpool sent on four new faces at the hour mark, replacing Carroll, Downing, Henderson, and Aquilani with Ngog, Maxi, Cole, and Kuyt. The changes nearly paid an immediate reward with Lucas to Kuyt to Maxi to Ngog ending with the Frenchman volleying the Argentinean's volley wide, but the multitude of substitutions (including a raft of changes from Valencia) meant the game played out at prototypical preseason pace. Banega's entrance with ten to play was the catalyst for those two Valencia chances: the first smothered behind by Reina after Banega somehow snaked a throughball to Soldado, the second whistled over the bar by Tino Costa after the subsequent short corner.

But Liverpool closed the match by scoring a deserved second, scrambled home as cymbals clattered hilariously. Ngog headed Cole's free kick into the ground, Kuyt and Kyrgiakos – both questionably offside – poked and prodded in the direction of goal as Valencia whiffed in vain, with the Dutchman apparently getting the final touch.

Johnson's injury was today's lone ink stain. Hopefully it's only serious enough to keep him out of England's totally unnecessary midweek friendly. Otherwise, Liverpool were better in simply every area, something we desperately needed to see from the final tune-up. Which, if I'm being churlish, isn't wholly surprising when Liverpool play at Anfield, unlike the previous five friendlies away from home.

Downing was easily Liverpool's best player, a constant threat as the constant option down Liverpool's left, linking up with Aurelio and Adam and firing in crosses. Carroll's pressure created Liverpool's first and should have led to a 29th-minute second, fired tamely at Alves after undressing Rami yet again. The defense didn't concede once, let alone thrice, as Liverpool's first-choice (and, yes, frequently injured) backline played together for the first time. Spearing and Adam held the midfield well in the first half, but a more disciplined Adam looked even better with Lucas for the 30 minutes they played together – a pairing we'll probably see often as Liverpool played 4-2-3-1 yet again.

The line-up guessing game can wait until later in the week, dependent on Johnson's fitness and whether there's any movement on the on-off-on-off Aquilani front. Plus, we're still to see where Gerrard, Suarez, and Meireles fit into this new movement, although none are likely to start against Sunderland. Seeing the team thrive, able to keep a clean sheet and taking the game to a talented opposition with nearly a first-choice team should suffice for a day or two.

01 August 2011

Liverpool 3-3 Valerenga

First Half
Johnson Carragher Agger Robinson
Henderson Spearing Adam
Downing Carroll Kuyt

Second Half
Johnson Carragher Agger Robinson
Spearing Adam
Kuyt Henderson Downing

• 69' – Ngog for Carroll
• 69' – Kelly for Johnson
• 69' – Flanagan for Robinson
• 80' – Sterling for Downing
• 80' – Shelvey for Adam
• 80' – Aquilani for Henderson
• 90+1' – Sama for Agger

Strand 14'
Ogude 19' (pen)
Carroll 44'
Agger 82' 88'
Fellah 90+4'

Hey, at least Liverpool didn't lose! And scored three whole times! Of course, they also conceded three for the fifth consecutive preseason match, to the second string of the 11th placed team in Norway, mainly thanks to avoidable errors. And it took until the last ten minutes to get back into the match, thanks to Aquilani's entrance and Agger's threat from corners. Liverpool still failed to score from open play, notching all three from corners, for the third consecutive preseason game.

The fluidity of Kuyt, Downing, Adam, and Henderson – especially in the opening minutes – means the first half formation's nomenclature is up for debate, but I saw it as this:

A lopsided 4-3-3, but a 4-2-2-2 if you consider Adam – who played deeper than Downing – a tucked-in attacking left midfielder. Regardless, it impressed for all of 12 minutes – with Downing's tame left-footed shot after cutting in the lone goal threat – before a cheap concession sent Liverpool reeling. Spearing allowed Valerenga too much time in slicing through midfield before finding Kone, given way too much space by Johnson. The striker easily picked out Strand, who had easily gotten free of Carragher's "marking." More than one scapegoat, just the way we like it.

The second was more on the shoulders of a single culprit. Multiple defenders failed to clear before Charlie Adam rashly dove in on Kone after the chance had gone, giving Ogude the opportunity to notch from the spot.

Liverpool took time in regaining momentum, racking up possession and corners but unable to break Valerenga's deep and narrow back four. It was on the fifth of Liverpool's first half corners when Carroll finally struck: taken short, changing the angle for Downing's swinging cross, just over Agger's head but controlled and volleyed from close range by Carroll. So what if there may have been an incidental arm involved. It's preseason's after all.

The intermission saw the formation revamped, reverting to the more orthodox 4-2-3-1 we've seen most often in preseason. Liverpool continued to set the tempo, but rarely tested Valerenga's substitute keeper. The first round of substitutions changed little, but Liverpool stepped it up a gear in the final 10-15 minutes. Carroll tested Kongshavn with a point-blank downward header in the 78th – his last action of the game and one of three spectacular saves from the youngster before Aquilani's entrance triggered Liverpool's comeback.

The Italian's first action was to thwack a volley that Kongshavn somehow palmed behind. Taking the subsequent corner – Liverpool's eighth – Aquilani's found Agger's head for the equalizer. Another belter five minutes later was barely beaten over, and Aquilani again took the corner, again finding Agger via Kuyt's lucky flick-on. It was a marvelous ten-minute cameo, sure to inspire second, third, and fourth-guessing as to why he's being forced upon whichever Serie A club will give Liverpool an eight-figure sum. I don't understand the Aquilani situation, so I'm not gonna try to explain the Aquilani situation.

Having gotten what appeared to be the winner after struggling for long stretches, Liverpool hurriedly gave away the advantage. With less than a minute of injury time remaining, Fellah out-muscled Flanagan and turned inside past Carragher into space before unleashing an unstoppable equalizer.

Having far more of the first team involved rightly leads to more in-depth analysis, rather than the banal but true 'it's preseason' cliché. That Liverpool continues to concede thanks to sloppy mistakes is an increasingly monstrous concern. Yes, some can be blamed on preseason: Johnson was especially terrible in defense, but it's his first match back. His biggest problem was being caught flat-footed and for pace too often, which is far less likely when at full fitness.

More worrying was Carragher's positioning, although the 176-year old center-back did well to make some needed last-ditch recovery tackles on a couple of occasions. Most worrying is Liverpool's lack of a definitive left back. Robinson didn't do poorly – probably the best defender in the first half – but he's still a wee lad. Claiming Aurelio's made of glass is an insult to glass everywhere. And I'm still not convinced Insua counts. Liverpool's can't go into the season hoping one of the three right backs will be versatile enough to cover. At the same time, Liverpool's defense wasn't helped by Spearing as the sole holding midfielder in the first half's strange formation – if anything, it reinforced just how important Lucas is to the side.

The lack of open play goals, of Carroll not clicking with the midfielders, is also disconcerting, but the point of preseason is to bed him in with the likes of Adam, Henderson, and Downing, as well as the teammates who he rarely played with from Febraury through May. That will come with time. But the defense needs to be fixed before the end of August.

The last preseason game, against Valencia at Anfield, is Saturday. A week before hosting Sunderland.