30 September 2011

Liverpool at Everton 10.01.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 01.16.11
0-2 Everton (a) 10.17.10
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.06.10
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.29.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Wolves (h); 2-1 Brighton (a); 0-4 Spurs (a)
Everton: 0-2 City (a); 2-1 West Brom (h); 3-1 Wigan (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Adam, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Everton: Baines, Drenthe, Jagielka, Osman, Vellios 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

This was a yellow card in the last Merseyside Derby Atkinson did. Sent off Kyrgiakos for a violent, two-footed 50-50 with Fellaini too (both should have marched). Liverpool still won.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Gerrard Downing

The first of October, and Liverpool will have already played at Arsenal, Tottenham, Stoke, and Everton. Four of the seven toughest away fixtures, with trips to both Manchester clubs and Moscow-in-London to come. The esoteric vagaries of automated scheduling, I guess.

I expect Liverpool will try to keep it tighter than we've seen in recent 4-2-2-2 matches, using a formation more like the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 deployed against Arsenal. Frenetic doesn't come close to summarizing; this match usually is war minus the shooting, and Liverpool will need to be far less open than against Tottenham, Brighton, or Wolves. Options were far more limited last season, but when Dalglish's side faced Everton in his second league game back, the team lined up 4-2-3-1 (after using 4-3-3 against Blackpool) with a five-man midfield of Lucas, Spearing; Kuyt, Meireles, Maxi.

It's tough to contemplate Gerrard staying on the bench for this fixture. Yes, he's only played 25 minutes, spread among two substitute appearances, since returning from the never-ending groin injury. Today's long interview on the official site dropped few hints. But he's still Liverpool's talisman, the club anthropomorphized. No matter his history of red cards in this fixture (twice against Everton, two of his six career reds), he often is this fixture. If Gerrard isn't ready, I'd prefer to see Henderson in a straight swap, playing ahead of the two sitting midfielders as against Arsenal, but there's also a case for Spearing and a more orthodox three-man midfield. There's also a case for Spearing instead of Adam as well – much-discussed, and that Adam needs time on the ball (something he's not likely to get) is well-established – but I just can't see Dalglish doing it.

Kuyt should also be one of the first names on the teamsheet. The ever-present right flank selection debate doesn't matter. Dirk Kuyt is the scourge of the bitter blues. He's scored five goals against Everton in his Liverpool career (tied with Newcastle and Wigan for his most against any club) – two winners and last season's equalizer. Three from the spot. Evertonians absolutely hate him. Which is why we love him. Even more than his goal-scoring exploits, his tracking back and work-rate will be crucial tomorrow. Baines, at left-back, is Everton's best player: bombing forward and delivering crosses for Cahill. Kuyt is key to plugging that pipeline.

Liverpool's back four continues to write itself due to injuries. Johnson's available, finally back in full training after a second hamstring strain this season, but chances are Dalglish sticks with the fitter right back. Agger's recuperating quicker than expected, but this fixture still comes too soon.

In the continuing absence of a decent striker, chances are Moyes will stick with his 4-6-0 formation with Cahill as the furthest forward. Playing a 4-2-2-2 against that is asking to be overrun and without the ball for long stretches, especially given Liverpool precedent when away from Anfield. Anichebe, one of Everton's few forwards, is the only injury casualty. Last week's starting XI – Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Coleman, Neville, Rodwell, Fellaini, Osman; Cahill – all seem likely to keep their place.

The usual derby clichés all apply. Form goes out the window. Fair play goes out the window. The venue, home or away, seems far less important. Last season was the first time Everton held Liverpool winless in the two meetings since 2006-07, the season of Everton's "historic" three-nil Goodison win. Which adds an unnecessary revenge aspect to this contest. Tempers will already be frayed, both sides will already have enough inspiration and motivation.

Orwell's quote again seems fitting. "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting." The Merseyside Derby is the epitome of serious sport.

26 September 2011

Henderson v Kuyt: Four Games on the Right Flank

Below is a comparison of individual statistics from Henderson and Kuyt's last four league games when played on the right of a 4-2-2-2. Formation notation is subjective, especially with this season's group of players, but these are how I saw each formation at the start of matches. For Henderson, that's wins over Wolves and Bolton, the draw against Sunderland, and loss at Stoke. For Kuyt, it's last season's win over City, draw at Arsenal, and losses to Spurs and West Brom.

No opinion, no commentary, just numbers. As always, remember the oft-cited 'your lying eyes' argument. Stats without context is driving without directions – you might get there in the end, but it's more down to luck than knowledge. Regardless, there are some interesting, and surprising, things to see.

All statistics from Opta via the FourFourTwo Stats Zone app. Too many chalkboards to post, so you're just getting the numbers. Check the app, or the comparable Guardian chalkboards, for the "pretty" pictures. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, I highly recommend the FourFourTwo app.

The customary caveats/notes:

• Main caveat: this focuses solely on the statistics because I don't want it to turn into a critique – or endorsement for that matter – of either. Six games into the new season with a rebuilt squad seems too soon to start second-guessing a manager with Dalglish's CV. Hodgson was different because the regression was obvious and constant. I think Henderson's done decently in his matches aside from Saturday's, especially considering circumstances. The condemnation he's received from some quarters has been mean-spirited and inexcusable, and if anything similar appears in the comments, it'll be deleted. Everyone would do well to remember he's a 21-year-old in his first season at Liverpool, adapting to a new role. And I don't need a disclaimer about my never-ending, probably illegal love for Dirk Kuyt.

• Henderson was subbed off in all four of the above matches, playing a total of 274 out of 360 minutes. Kuyt was subbed off once, in the 87th against West Brom – giving him 83 more minutes of playing time in the four games considered. All of Liverpool goals scored and all but one of those conceded (Bolton's consolation) in Henderson's games came with him on the pitch, though.

• The right-backs Henderson played with were Kelly, Skrtel, Kelly/Skrtel, and Flanagan. The right-backs Kuyt played with were Flanagan, Flanagan, Flanagan, and Carragher.

• The teams considered for Kuyt's four games finished 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 11th in 2010-11. The teams considered for Henderson's four games finished 17th, 13th, 14th, and 10th in 2010-11 (no point in using this season's table yet).

• Liverpool kept clean sheets in none of Henderson's four games and just one of Kuyt's four. Liverpool conceded four in Henderson's set of matches, five in Kuyt's set. Liverpool scored six in Henderson's set of matches, five in Kuyt's set.

• Finally, I promised no commentary, but can't help mentioning the passing completion, take-ons, tackles, interceptions, and fouls committed stats stick out like beacon bright-red sore thumbs.

• Should have done this in the original post; seeing certain numbers misconstrued around the internet, so I feel the need to add. There is an egregious discrepancy in some of the stats no matter the number of minutes played: specifically take-ons and basically all the defensive statistics. But due to Henderson playing 83 fewer minutes, there is basically no difference in the number of passes (passes attempted, successful passes, attacking third passes, passes received) when controlling for minutes played.

Averaging the above four games, Henderson attempted 44 passes per 90 minutes, with 34 successful. Kuyt attempted 47 passes per 90 minutes, with 32 successful. Henderson received 44 passes per 90 minutes, Kuyt received 46 passes per 90 minutes. Henderson attempted 20 attacking third passes per 90 minutes, Kuyt attempted 24 attacking third passes per 90 minutes, and both completed 14 attacking third passes per 90 minutes. By the numbers, Henderson is not less involved in the passing game; the completion percentage is the only significant difference in each's passing statistics. Granted, that doesn't account for the usual 'chalkboards don't tell us what kind of passes they were' argument, but that argument's not going away. Don't throw the baby out with bath water, but you have to actually watch the games for that information. Sorry.

That is why I mentioned the number of minutes played above in the 'caveats' section, but by now, I should be well aware of the need to fully explicate. My apologies.

24 September 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Wolves

Johnson (og) 12'
Suarez 38'
Fletcher 46'

Phew. Excellent, if direct, first half. Terrifying, nerve-shredding second. This team doesn't do anything the easy way.

Despite Wolves running at defenders for the first five to ten minutes, snuffed out by Enrique in open play and Carroll on set pieces, Liverpool settled with another early strike. This one had more than an air of fortune – Adam shrugging off O'Hara with a shoulder feint before firing from distance, redirected into the net by Roger Johnson – but Liverpool's due that air of fortune. It'd be a rare ray of luck shining on the home side. Thankfully, they didn't need it.

From there, as against Sunderland, Exeter, Bolton, and Brighton, Liverpool should have soon extended the gap. The Suarez and Carroll finally showed signs of its promising promise, aided by Downing and Enrique's charges at right back Stearman. Carroll headed straight at Hennessey from Downing's cross. Then the massive's striker's clever cross just eluded an on-rushing Suarez. Then the Uruguayan's first time shot from Downing's cutback just swerved wide. Liverpool, content to play on the counter-attack more than in previous matches, added to ever-present jitters, but the direct style led to opportunities as defenders, specifically Enrique and Skrtel, soaked up pressure.

But unlike in all those previous matches, Liverpool finally notched a second before the interval, the first time they've scored twice in the first half in this young season. Enrique's long throughball found an onside Suarez: rushing on goal, Suarez checked back twice trying to carve out space, allowing defenders to retreat. No matter. Somehow, the tricky Uruguayan still found the room to beat Hennessey at the near post with yet another indescribable display of skill. He does things others can't even contemplate. Sometimes it leads to frustrating nothingness. Sometimes it leads to that jaw-shattering brilliance. He nearly added to that tally in injury time, picking up possession after Downing's low cross ricocheted to his feet, beating two defenders but toe-poking just wide.

To his credit, McCarthy realized the errors of his ways at half-time and reorganized, replacing midfielder Edwards with striker Fletcher and removing poor, whipped, booked Stearman with teenager Doherty. Having been thrashed 3-0 at their own ground the last time Wolves were bold enough to play 4-4-2 against Liverpool, McCarthy was understandably hesitant to repeat that error. Indiscretion immediately proved the better part of valor as Fletcher took less than a minute to pull one back; lucky to retain possession after a ricochet from Enrique's tackle, Hunt burst into the box and centered for an open Fletcher, blasting into the roof of the net from close range.

Liverpool had chances to immediately restore the two-goal advantage, but found themselves deserted by previous mistress Lady Luck. In a three-minute span, Hennessey somehow saved Suarez's shot after palming straight to the striker, Carroll somehow only found the back post after Enrique's brilliant cross, and Downing somehow hit the crossbar on the break, again saved by the Welsh keeper. Liverpool were prevented goals by the frame thrice on Wednesday, twice today. The league really should check the width of the opposition's posts prior to kickoff. That and it's always, always better to be lucky than good.

Having survived that flurry as well as the first half, Wolves were buoyant, camped in Liverpool's petrified half. Aside from Carragher and Skrtel barely scrambling a goalmouth ball away in the 56th and O'Hara's long blast over four minutes later, the away side weren't racking up chances, but Liverpool's frailty and nerves are news to absolutely no one.

Kelly, frequently one-on-one with Jarvis as Henderson had arguably his worst game of the season, invisible with Liverpool out of possession, was under the most pressure. It was little surprise to see the home side settle once Kuyt replaced the struggling midfielder in the 72nd. Honestly, I thought it led to more disconnect the few times Liverpool attacked, with Suarez and the Dutchman trying their usual flicks and tricks but not coming off with the Uruguayan clearly tiring, but Kuyt certainly settled the defense. And it led to another spate of Liverpool chances: Lucas placed a long-range low shot wide, Suarez's cutback after brilliant trademark byline run was just deflected out of Carroll's reach, and the live-wire striker misdirected a header he had no right reaching.

Nonetheless, it remained impossible to feel safe watching this team retain a one goal. Gerrard joined the fray with ten to play – Dalglish understandably hesitant to throw his returning captain – and soon created a typical effort, heading into space from Carroll's knockdown but shooting over, the type of goal he's scored time and time again for the club. Carroll should have sealed it in the last minute of injury time, but tried too hard to dance into space, the final whistle coming with Wolves' last-ditch tackle.

It would have been lovely to maintain the first half momentum, finally stringing two excellent halves together as well as maybe keeping a clean sheet for a change, but Wolves' fierce resistance under McCarthy made that impossible. That Liverpool were able to hold on despite 45 massively frightening minutes is just as meaningful, hopefully cementing the side's confidence in its own abilities.

It continues to be impossible to do Suarez justice, while his link-up with Carroll was much-improved. We saw the giant Geordie playing to potential in the first half: ever dangerous, ever frightening defenders, dropping deep, and showing his ambidexterity and passing ability. Caught flat-footed more than once, there's obviously room for improvement, but other than getting on the score-sheet, it was the performance he needed. Just as impressive were Lucas' powers of recovery – I'm amazed he showed few ill effects from Sunday and Wednesday's exertions – as well as Skrtel and Enrique's defense, regardless of the unlucky goal. The Spanish left-back was also excellent up and down the touchline, rightfully credited with the assist for the crucial second.

Needed result is needed result, with two wins on the trot. The building blocks continue to be stacked slowly but increasingly securely. The gradual process rolls on.

Now, form, style, grace, class, and loving thy neighbor will be undoubtedly thrown out the window with next week's Merseyside derby. Today's second half fight should be perfect practice for that perpetual battle of attrition.

23 September 2011

Liverpool v Wolves 09.24.11

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Deportes and FoxSoccer.tv. Guess I'll be watching this with Spanish commentary, then. No me gusta.

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.22.11
0-1 Wolves (h) 12.29.10
0-0 (a) 01.26.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Brighton (a); 0-4 Spurs (a); 0-1 Stoke (a)
Wolves: 5-0 Millwall (h); 0-3 QPR (h); 0-2 Spurs (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 2; Adam, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Wolves: Doyle, Fletcher, Jarvis, Ward 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

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

So, if it ain't broke...

However, fitness concerns may mean fixing is needed no matter what may or may not be broken. There are doubts about Lucas, Suarez, Kelly, and Bellamy after their efforts on Wednesday (and the first two's efforts last Sunday). Dalglish has always, repeatedly, promised to use the entire squad.

As long as Bellamy's 32-year-old legs are still attached after 90 minutes on Wednesday, he should be one of the first names on the team-sheet. Yes, it was against Brighton and yes, the first half looked far, far better than the second, but his link-up with Suarez showed the most promise we've seen up front in this young season. Especially since it seems the team's best served by Kuyt playing on the right of midfield.

I will mention/caution that Jordan Henderson is one of eight who have started all five of Liverpool's league matches (along with Reina, Carra, Agger, Enrique, Lucas, Adam, and Downing). It's early yet, but Henderson and Carroll are neck and neck for favored scapegoat status, taking over for the previously-much-maligned Kuyt and Lucas. Maybe the above guess at a line-up should have been titled "preferred line-up" instead. Maybe it's a mix of both. Fair warning and all.

In an ideal world, given concerns about Lucas' fitness, the opposition, and that the match is at Anfield, if any game was a test run for a Gerrard-Adam midfield, seems like it's this. Pity we don't live in an ideal world. Gerrard will probably, rightfully be brought back slowly, featuring off the bench if at all. Be safe, Lucas.

Skrtel and Adam will both return from suspension. Skrtel seemingly has to start with Agger injured and Coates still adapting to England. That Carragher played on the left of defense on Wednesday seems preparation for Agger's extended absence. Adam, a footballer who lives on the extremes – either excellent or terrible, brilliant or moronic, with little in-between – is another of those preferred eight, seemingly crucial to how Dalglish wants this season's side to play. More than his predilection for the killer pass at the expense of the easy, it's his defensive game which needs the most improvement.

Like Liverpool, Wolves suffered two debilitating league losses prior to a morale-boosting Carling Cup win. McCarthy's side has been held scoreless in its last three league games following wins in their first two against Fulham and Blackburn, but responded with a 5-0 castration of Millwall featuring a mostly second-string side. The likes of Doyle, Fletcher, Henry, Jarvis and O'Hara, among others, are back in contention for the starting XI; chances are it'll be Doyle or Fletcher, as McCarthy switches from his preferred 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 he's used in most matches with Liverpool (all except last season's 3-0 defeat by my reckoning). Foley, Ebanks-Blake, Zubar, and Craddock are out injured, but new captain Roger Johnson, signed from Birmingham over the summer, should be back after suffering a calf injury against QPR.

Last season's penultimate Hodgson embarrassment was the worst of the bunch, but Liverpool's rarely played well against McCarthy's Wolves prior to that 3-0 away win last January, Liverpool's first under Dalglish. The side struggled to a 2-0 home win and played out an insipid 0-0 away in Benitez's final season before that 0-1 setback at Anfield last December, marking Hodgson's nadir and ultimately voted the worst loss of the season by you lot.

McCarthy knows how to contain, stifle, and frustrate, evident in the fact that Wolves have sustained Premiership status for the third-consecutive season. Stoke gave McCarthy the template for grinding out a result against Liverpool. Dalglish's side will have to overcome that on more than one occasion, and back at the comforts of Anfield, Liverpool will look to replicate their earlier excellent home performances – a bit more Bolton than Sunderland, obviously.

22 September 2011

Liverpool Managers: The First 30 Games

Yesterday marked Dalglish's 30th game in charge since taking over last January. The side's record over that span is 15W-6D-9L. How does that compare with previous bosses?

Read the hexagonal diagrams from left to right, in rows of six. Just to make things confusing. Linearity isn't really the point.

They're ranked in order of points per game in the table below. Yes, I'm aware wins weren't worth three points until 1981-82, giving draws greater importance for Paisley and Shankly, especially away from home. And that some games were in Europe, some were cup ties, etc. Bear with me anyway.

Managers appointed before the start of the season invariably, understandably had a better record than those appointed mid-campaign. Except Hodgson. Who managed 31 games in total. And whose record looks far better than it arguably should because of 10 Europa League ties, facing easier competition than his "peers" often had to handle.

Dalglish's record in his second stint is the best of managers appointed mid-season, joint-top with Souness (who needed slightly more than 30 games to wreck the house the Bootroom built) but with one more win. Houllier, in sole charge following his failed co-managerial partnership with Roy Evans, had the worst.

Outside of the Dalglish, Fagan, and Houllier outliers – the first two remarkably better, with Liverpool a perfect, soulless crushing machine devouring all comers in the 1980s, records are remarkably similar. It takes time for managers to make their mark, for better (Shankly, Paisley, Houllier, Benitez) or for worse (hi Graeme).

21 September 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Brighton

Bellamy 7'
Kuyt 81'
Barnes 90' (pen)

We'll preface this with "any win after two losses is a good result" and "this was an archetypal banana skin cup tie and Liverpool advanced." Just in case.

All the arrows in the above formation don't do the team justice. From the opening whistle, Bellamy combined with Suarez, Kuyt, and Maxi just as hoped, all moving in different, unexpected directions and leading to the early goal which appeared the beginning of the flood. Sustained, constant possession in Brighton's half ended with Suarez finding Bellamy's smart run behind three cramped defenders, cleverly finishing low inside the far post.

However, that sustained pressure couldn't have been achieved without Brighton's willingness to stand off, giving Liverpool players all the time (and more) that was lacking on Sunday. And the away side had multiple opportunities to take advantage, with only luck and what I assume is a thicker-than-regulation goal frame to blame for Liverpool holding such a slender lead.

Kuyt's 18th-minute effort following Ankergen's miscue was barely cleared off the line. Suarez put Kuyt's throughball just wide in the 26th and glanced a header off the outside of the post in the 31st. Bellamy nearly broke the crossbar with a 40-yard bazooka free kick in the 41st, and Spearing's low shot was barely pushed onto the post by Ankergen three minutes later. Like against Sunderland, Exeter, and Bolton, a second goal seemed only a matter of time, but given past precedent, you couldn't help but worry at the same time. And the precariousness of Liverpool's lead was demonstrated in first-half injury time, when an unfortunate deflection off Coates allowed Mackail-Smith to find an open Noone in the box. Reina could only fumble the strike in his goalmouth, saved by Kelly's diving clearance in front of Buckley.

Brighton unsurprisingly grew in confidence after the interval, only down by one and so nearly level, and Poyet made the necessary tactical changes, ensuring that Liverpool players didn't have that time on the ball. Pressing furiously made all the difference; Brighton had more possession and all the early opportunities after the interval. Coates nearly handed Noone an equalizer straight away – one of his few mistakes – with a cross-field pass to the former Liverpool youngster, who cannoned a shot off the same crossbar Liverpool hit in the first half. Seven minutes later, an excellent one-touch passing move ended with Sparrow's tame shot too close to Reina. Liverpool couldn't find the ball or their breath.

Unlike against Stoke or Tottenham, Liverpool didn't cheaply concede, at least until they were two goals to the good. Liverpool settled, if still second-best, while Gerrard's 75th minute entrance for Suarez buoyed hopes, the captain clearly champing at the bit. Six minutes later, Liverpool had that needed second, finally unlocking Brighton on the break. Bellamy, the lone outlet at that point, held up play well and cleverly found Maxi with a perfectly-timed pass, allowing the Argentinean to stride forward and subsequently find Kuyt on the right, beating Angerken low, again just inside the far post.

Unfortunately, once again, Liverpool couldn't keep the clean sheet thanks to another late late unnecessary penalty. For some reason, Spearing tried to keep the ball in and slipped, giving Vicente possession, and Carragher dove in to concede. Substitute Barnes, Brighton's top scorer, made no mistake with an unstoppable blast into the top corner.

Any port in a storm is one of my most-frequently used clichés, but it seems apt yet again. A result is a result is a result. The first half, specifically first 44 minutes, saw the renaissance we'd hoped for; the second half the failings we're all afraid and aware of. Bellamy-Suarez-Kuyt-Maxi were a revelation, then Bellamy-Suarez-Kuyt-Maxi weren't good enough. Same old, same old. Most worrying – more than Brighton's inevitable pressure, more than the late consolation – was how tired certain players looked as the game wore on, especially Lucas. The one player in the squad with no clear-cut replacement.

Simply put, there are no easy answers or quick-fix substitution solutions (although it's lovely to have Gerrard back). Confidence can be sapped in a moment's notice but takes multiple games to rebuild. Liverpool is still a long-term project, no matter the money spent or having the right man in the managerial hot seat. Despite moments of magic, which we've seen in every match bar Sunday's, it takes time for players to settle and teams to gel. Only Bolton has been a comprehensive victory, and – surprise, surprise – that was the one match where Liverpool's summer signings looked their best. This side, this squad, can look brilliant and hapless in the blink of an eye. It is a work in progress. And it is progressing.

Liverpool are in the fourth round. That's all we have a right to expect.

Wolves on Saturday.

20 September 2011

Liverpool at Brighton 09.21.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-3 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.30.91
2-2 (h; FA Cup) 01.26.91
4-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.29.85
0-2 Brighton (a; FA Cup) 01.01.84

Previous round(s):
Liverpool: 3-1 Exeter (a)
Brighton: 1-0 Sunderland (h); 1-0 Gillingham (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-4 Spurs (a) 0-1 Stoke (a); 3-1 Bolton (h)
Brighton: 0-1 Leicester (a); 1-0 Bristol City (a); 2-0 Peterborough (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Adam, Carroll, Henderson, Maxi, Skrtel 1
Brighton: Barnes 5; Mackail-Smith 3; Buckley 2; Harley, Hoskins, Noone 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Youngest Premier League referee in history. He's done two Liverpool games in his short career: a 2008 Carling Cup win over Crewe and the 1-2 loss at Blackpool in Dalglish's first league game back.

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Carragher Coates Robinson
Gerrard Spearing Maxi
Kuyt Carroll Bellamy

Sunday? What happened Sunday? I don't remember any match on Sunday. I must have blacked out. Maybe you blacked out.

We saw a much stronger line-up than expected in the last round against Exeter. Odds are we'll see similar tomorrow.

The main question is about Liverpool's captain: will we finally see the return of Saint Gerrard? I'd like to think yes, I want to think yes, but if he wasn't on the bench on Sunday (note: I still don't remember Sunday), is he ready to feature here? I can't help but hope so.

The defense pretty much writes itself. The young fullbacks should both come back into the side. Agger's out for a month with a broken rib. Skrtel's suspended (along with Adam). Either Dalglish is incredibly, jaw-droppingly bold and starts both Wilson and Coates – which would give Liverpool's backline an average age of 19 – or Carragher returns to partner the young Uruguayan. No rest for the weary.

The front six should see a mix of first-teamers and top reserves as in the last round. Maxi and Spearing's lone starts came in the previous Carling Cup tie. Kuyt, held out against Spurs, seems nailed on, as does Bellamy, which would be his first start for the club. Which leaves...

Andy Carroll. Oh, Carroll. I could write a dissertation-length treatise on how nine starts is still too soon to judge, how Sunday's performance means next to nothing thanks to nine men and him relegated to the flank for long stretches, that it's not his fault players around him aren't playing to his strengths (hoofing ≠ strengths), and that his elephant-in-the-room fee really is the primary reason so many are furious with him. I'd rather not. You'd rather I not. Everyone take deep breaths. A Carling Cup match, even a difficult one – and make no mistake, lower league opposition or not, this is one of the toughest ties Liverpool could have been handed – seems an excellent opportunity for him to find both form and confidence. The latter is both my main concern and his main problem.

This match is the definition of a banana skin cup tie. Promoted as champions from League One last season, Brighton's loss to Sven's Leicester on Saturday was their first in this season's nine matches; they currently sit third in the table. The Seagulls won seven of those nine, with the lone draw five weeks ago when hosting Blackpool, beating promotion favorites Cardiff away as well as a full-strength Sunderland in the last round of this competition.

My best guess is they'll deploy as strong a line-up as possible, attempting to add to the many heights hit over the last 12 months – promotion, a glorious new stadium, Gus Poyet's rise as an excellent manager, etc. I won't pretend to have scouted them anywhere near thoroughly, but I do know Craig Mackail-Smith and Ashley Barnes are both very good strikers, midfielder Craig Noone is a Liverpool lad, and they've conceded just five goals so far this season. That's right. Five. However, they're also due to face Leeds on Friday night, 48 hours after this match, which could restrain Poyet's ambition.

It goes without saying that Liverpool badly need the morale boost – the fans probably more than the players. At least with the current manager, we know that the side will be fully prepared for what Brighton has to offer. They won't look past them, but Dalglish also won't build up the opposition as world-beaters like a certain manager did with Northampton Town. There's a job to do, and there's few who'd be more trusted to plan for and do said job than the current regime.

18 September 2011

Liverpool 0-4 Spurs

Modric 7'
Defoe 66'
Adebayor 68' 90+3'

Unlike last week's loss, today held absolutely zero grasping-at-straws positives. An unhelpful, card-happy referee was the least of Liverpool's concerns. Nothing went right. No one played well. Tottenham won at a canter; a four-goal scoreline barely flatters an insipid opposition.

The starting formation, more a 4-3-3 than any other match this season, means next to nothing other than in gifting Tottenham the early initiative; it lasted less than 10 minutes. Spurs started exactly as Spurs started in last May's 0-2 loss at Anfield: running at Liverpool defenders, getting the early goal requiring Liverpool to chase the game. 'Arry's "just get out there and get at them" actually worked a treat. Again. I truly hate when that happens. And how often it seems to happen.

Modric and Parker won the midfield battle just as Modric and Sandro won it four months ago. Liverpool may have had numerical superiority, but it was confused numerical superiority – Adam ahead of Lucas and Henderson for the first time this season, leading to increased positional indiscipline from the former Blackpool man, which would soon sign Liverpool's death warrant. But that midfield superiority was also a moot point because of how quickly Spurs realized Liverpool's biggest weakness – a makeshift center-back on the right, up against a speed merchant in Welsh Jesus. No one saw that coming.

It was a mix-up on the opposite flank which should have seen Spurs' opener within three minutes: Lucas and Agger got in each other's way on Friedel's punt and Kranjcar easily held off Enrique, setting up Adebayor who somehow missed from 15 yards. They'd be ahead soon enough. Bale, after twice beating Skrtel down Liverpool's right in the first six minutes, set up Defoe when in acres of space – Skrtel sucked inside, as center-backs often are – who luckily set up Modric's brilliant, unstoppable 25-yard rocket.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Liverpool still haven't won after going behind under Dalglish, and those early tactical errors compounded Liverpool's problems quickly. Shit rolls downhill, and it was rolling at light speed today. Liverpool somewhat settled by shifting to the 4-2-2-2, with Henderson right, Downing left, and Suarez and Carroll up front, but the early indiscipline and the referee's desire to fondle his cards at the first opportunity made a comeback impossible. Adam picked up his first booking in the 12th and his second in the 28th. Mike Jones can't be blamed for either. Last summer, Noel presciently wrote about gambling on the good Charlie Adam. Five games in, and that gamble's failed more often than it's succeeded. A minute before the sending off, Agger had to go off, replaced by Sebastian Coates. Sod's law displayed in its full, horrific glory.

Honestly, Liverpool did well not to concede for 40 more minutes. Granted, not having a shot on goal in the meantime isn't a pleasant stat, but down to 10 men and unable to do anything right, Spurs really should have extended their lead sooner. The rest of the half saw few chances for either side, but included yellows for Skrtel and Coates for their first fouls respectively and one for Suarez for typical petulant dissent. That'd unsurprisingly also come back to haunt Liverpool.

Liverpool made no changes during the interval, and the pattern of play continued in the same vein. Then Skrtel picked up his second yellow; a second dismissal was inevitable – it was a race between him and Suarez to see who'd get there first. After that, it was choose-your-own-scoreline for the home side. Like the last time Liverpool had two men sent off – at Fulham two years ago – more goals were always coming with 11 men against a flailing nine, and it took Spurs five minutes to get two more, before Liverpool were ready to make any substitutions.

Defoe, onside (thanks Carra) and with the freedom of North London, held off and turned Enrique before firing under Reina. A minute or so later, Liverpool's usually reliable keeper fumbled Defoe's long-range shot (given space by, again, Carra) into Adebayor's path for an easy home debut goal. With 10 men and with Spurs failing to get a second, Liverpool had a whisper of hope. With nine men and conceding twice in quick succession, more open than a exhibitionist's trenchcoat, the game was dead and buried without a proper funeral. Just dumped into a shallow, half-dug pit in a junkyard. Which was about as much as it deserved.

From there, it was solely damage control, aided by Spurs' mercy in keeping the ball without much desire to embarrass. Bellamy and Spearing replaced Downing and Suarez, both starters protected rather than any tactical change to ease the pain. Spurs finally got a fourth in the dregs of injury time when Coates left Adebayor open and Carragher (a-fucking-gain) played him onside. You're always fighting a losing battle with nine men, but shambolic defending on the three subsequent goals, usually from Liverpool's stalwart, legendary stand-in captain, adds to this apex of embarrassment.

Today was as bad as any loss we saw under Hodgson. No one saw that coming. The main difference is that under the previous manager, Liverpool usually lost because they invited the opposition onto them, allowing their opponents to dictate play and tempo. Today, Liverpool lost because they were too ambitious in believing that an attacking, open 4-3-3 could take the game to Tottenham and that Skrtel could contain Bale and Assou-Ekotto. We can pretend losing with ambition is slightly more encouraging, but a trip to the woodshed is a trip to the woodshed, no matter how you're dragged there. Of course, I still know who I'd prefer, and although this disclaimer shouldn't be necessary, criticizing choices isn't criticizing Dalglish. Everyone can and should learn from this. Unlike the last days of Benitez and the entirety of Hodgson, the sky isn't falling quite yet.

Picking out one or two scapegoats after that abortion is an impossibility. Absolutely every decision was the wrong one, every player made mistakes, tactics were wretched, early cards set the tone, and Spurs gleefully took advantage of every single gift.

Carroll will be a favored target – Liverpool still haven't played well when he's started aside from City last season and this campaign's win at Arsenal (earned after he went off) – but he's low on the list of my concerns. Adam's decision-making was horrific. Skrtel at right back was the wrong choice no matter how poorly Flanagan did against Sunderland or Exeter. Henderson ran around headlessly, Downing and Suarez were irrelevant, Enrique was surprisingly poor, and even Lucas disappointed repeatedly. The full set; apologies if I've missed anyone. The tactics allowed Spurs to set the tone, and the yellow cards gave them more momentum. Again, all cards were earned though, harshly or not.

There are two infinitesimal consolations. One, other than on Spurs' final goal, Coates did fine, although notably lacking in pace as advertised. Two, Liverpool now have three of its six hardest away games out of the way after just five matches, with one win and two losses. Not that it's an incredibly warming fact, but that's still better than the comparable results from the previous two campaigns.

This cannot live long in the memory. Last week was unduly harsh. This was deserved. Wholly deserved. All it's good for is as motivation: a definitive nadir and lesson in what not to do for both players and management. A difficult trip to Brighton follows on Wednesday before rebooting the league campaign against Wolves this weekend.

16 September 2011

Liverpool at Tottenham 09.18.11

8:30am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Spurs (h) 05.15.11
1-2 Spurs (a) 11.28.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.20.10
1-2 Spurs (a) 08.16.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Stoke (a); 3-1 Bolton (h); 3-1 Exeter (a)
Spurs: 0-0 PAOK (a); 2-0 Wolves (a); 1-5 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 2; Adam, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Spurs: Adebayor, Defoe, Kaboul 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Jones has done two Liverpool games in his Premiership career: last October's 1-2 loss to Blackpool and, um... oh, right. I'm sure there's absolutely no coincidence between his appointment and Dalglish's "attack" on referees following Stoke.

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

There are three questions about the Liverpool side to face Spurs, the same three questions we've been asking since the start of the season. Will Gerrard finally return? Who'll play right back with injuries at that position failing to subside? And what's the deal with airline food Andy Carroll?

As for the first two questions, Dalglish stated that Johnson is the only definitive absence in yesterday's press conference. That Gerrard and Kelly are both in full training is no guarantee either will play. Troubled by a wonky groin for the last six months, Gerrard's unlikely to start right away, appearing off the bench if at all. Wednesday's league cup trip to Brighton seems a more probable return.

Even though ostensibly fit, Kelly still needs to be protected, having suffered three hamstring injuries since February. Facing Welsh Jesus, Skrtel would be under far more pressure than against either Bolton or Stoke. Flanagan hasn't even made the bench since starting against Exeter. It seems a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation for any of the three.

And then there's Carroll. Unimpressive in either substitute appearance against Bolton or Stoke, he looks a player who needs to play to find form. But with Suarez and Kuyt continuing to pair well and Carroll continuing to look like a fish out of water attempting to ride a bicycle, he simply hasn't done enough to force his way into the side. A match at barbarous Stoke seemed the perfect opportunity, but Tottenham's defense poses a different challenge. Ledley King, a perpetual question mark, was excellent a week ago, but the crucial Dawson (as well as Gallas) is out injured, probably replaced by the sometimes excellent, sometimes hilarious Kaboul. Bellamy's another option up front, in place of Kuyt, Henderson or even Downing, having been Liverpool's best player for the 20 minutes he was on the pitch against Stoke.

Last week, Stoke played for a draw at the Britannia, lucky to get the win thanks to a moment of madness leading to their lone shot on goal. Tottenham will have slightly more ambition at home. Liverpool have lost the last three meetings to Spurs, and the last four trips to White Hart Lane, with the last Lane win on the last day of the 2007-08 season.

Spurs took an under-strength line-up to their Europa League match in Greece yesterday, withholding any player likely to play on Sunday. Embarrassed in their first two league matches against the league's two best sides, Tottenham were far better winning at a difficult venue last week, beating Wolves 2-0. Adebayor linked well with Defoe, each scoring in the second half, while Parker unsurprisingly added grit to Modric's guile in midfield. With a far longer casualty list than Liverpool, including the aforementioned Dawson and Gallas as well as Sandro, Pienaar, Huddlestone and possibly Lennon, Redknapp's main choice is whether to wedge the returning van der Vaart into last week's 4-4-2, in place of either Defoe behind Adebayor or Kranjcar on the flanks.

The last time Liverpool traveled to London for a Sunday 8:30am ET kickoff saw the most discouraging loss suffered under Dalglish, a comprehensive 1-3 failure at West Ham, which coincidentally saw Scotty Parker as the game's best player. Early away kickoffs have often been Liverpool's bane in recent years. However, the last time Liverpool played in London was an early kickoff as well – that 2-0 victory over Arsenal a month ago. Please replicate the latter rather than the former.

12 September 2011

Have I Mentioned That I Hate Stoke?

30 shots, six on target, six blocked, zero goals. 76% possession to the opposition's 24%. 400 more passes attempted than the opposition. Statistically, it seems impossible.

Obviously, it's not. Because it's happened twice in three years. The above stats are from when Liverpool met Stoke at Anfield in September 2008.

It's almost like looking in a mirror. A filthy, scratched, wicked witch's mirror mirror on the wall.

There are just two notable differences. First, the obvious – Stoke had one more shot in Saturday's meeting: the one on target, the one from the spot. The second is in the unsuccessful passes. Look at the amount of crosses attempted: 49 unsuccessful in '08-09 compared to 19 on Saturday. Saturday's unsuccessful passes were more of the hoofing variety. And that was without Carroll on the field for the majority of the match.

Unsuccessful passes are unsuccessful passes, but at least it's slightly more encouraging to see those unsuccessful passes in the final third rather than booted forward from Liverpool's own half. But that's a small quibble, one already known and overly analyzed.

Liverpool have taken 20+ shots and had more than 70% possession without scoring three times since 2007/08: these two matches against Stoke and the 0-2 loss at Middlesbrough in February 2009. Three out of 229 matches. Enough to suggest it's both a freak occurrence and a credit to Stoke's tactics, as they appear twice on the list of three.

And yet, some in the media seem to want to treat it as the beginning of the end. To wit:

...That may come as a relief to the 60-year-old but for his admirers there may remain concern over his loss of temper, the sense, even, that for the second time in two decades the task of managing Liverpool is proving too great a responsibilty for the club's greatest player.

Beyond the pale backhanded references to Hillsborough aside, it's still inane drivel. Tomkins already fisked this idiocy, as well as an even more moronic 'match report'; there's no point copying his superior work. But the similarities in these articles to the overblown response following "Rafa's Rant" can't be over-looked. So much for bias ending with with Benitez's beheading. As if that should be a surprise. Only lovable Roy earned multiple reprieves from the London mafia. By now, this criticism is a badge of honor.

Again, credit clearly has to go to Tony Pulis. He knows how he wants Stoke to set up, and that stifling set-up works against more than just Liverpool. Were it not for one defensive error from a flat-footed Carragher and a couple of contentious calls, the result could have been reversed. But that's football. It means little, yet at least such a dominating performance without reward came on the road rather than at Anfield. And this year's Liverpool could do much worse than further similarities with the '08-09 version.

Update: Seems fair to link an explanation from the writer of that quoted Hillsborough reference.

10 September 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Stoke

Walters 21' (pen)

Karma. No one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.

Clattenburg was at the center of it – as is Clattenburg's wont – denying two, possibly three handball penalties. But karma is more encompassing than a handful of potential, contentious game-changing decisions. Only Begovic and Jesus know how Stoke's goalkeeper kept out five successive chances in the 62nd minute or how Suarez spurned a sitter in the last minute of injury time.

Liverpool started well, as they have in every match this season, but Stoke settled far quicker than Liverpool's earlier opponents. Their perpetually rugged style denied and nullified, aided by a pitch allowed to grow ankle-high. And the 21st-minute penalty – soft but understandable (karma again) – gave Stoke the lead and allowed them to park the bus directly in front of goal as they love so much. Carra's poor positioning allowed Walters in behind and in place to tumble a la Bamba on ice, and Clattenburg pointed to the spot post haste.

From there, Liverpool were going to have to dissect an opposition half packed to the brim with defenders, with Walters and sometimes Crouch the lone outlets. And with Liverpool's passing wholly disjointed, especially from Adam, packing the box was always going to be a successful proposition. Chances were few and far between despite overwhelming possession (73-27% by full time), mainly blocked by the six defenders constantly sitting in Stoke's penalty box.

Those numbers committed to defending deep made space incredibly hard to come by, even for the incandescent likes of Luis Suarez. Liverpool's best chance(s) came on a singular moment on the counter-attack, following one of the few occasions where Stoke piled men forward (as they'd won a rare free kick in Liverpool's half). Enrique's perfectly-placed pass found Henderson charging forward without a marker in sight, with all the time in the world to decide how to beat Begovic. Too much time. Hesitating, Henderson tried to place it under the keeper, easily saved, with his first rebound again saved and the second blocked. Adam followed up, seeing his chances first blocked then saved. Wholly implausible. Wholly fitting. Well played Begovic, but Henderson's going to come in for (assuredly overly harsh) criticism for his choices, ignoring the smart run which put in him that position.

Dalglish's changes came in the 68th, replacing Kuyt and Henderson with Bellamy and Carroll. Bellamy impressed, linking up well with Enrique on the left and spurning a good chance when heading wide of the near post in the 88th. Carroll did nothing to earn a reprieve from the nonstop questions, although Liverpool rarely played to his strengths and Stoke's height and multiple defenders limited his impact. And yet Liverpool still should have leveled in the dying seconds when Begovic finally made a mistake, colliding with the awkward Crouch trying to punch a cross clear, but caught flat-footed, Suarez could only shin inches wide. Which seemed a fitting capstone.

If not for Begovic's marvelous magnetic minute, Stoke's groundskeeper would have been the man of the match – narrowing the pitch after the last Europa League game and allowing the grass to grow for the duration of the international break. Long grass prevents pass and move football. Liverpool lives and dies by pass and move football these days.

Today's not a match for the stats nerds. Stoke took 21 fewer shots than Liverpool, scoring with their lone on target from the spot. Stoke attempted just 195 passes, 350 fewer than Liverpool and 121 fewer than any of Liverpool's other league opponents this season. Liverpool had more than double the possession Stoke had. And they still lost. Lies, damned lies, and...

Adam, Liverpool's fulcrum, was poor today, while Suarez, Downing, and Kuyt each had their least-effective games of the season. Credit has to go to Stoke's nullification, as nullification is what Stoke does best and the early penalty allowed Stoke to focus on nullification and nothing more, but Liverpool needs to do better against the bus parkers if they've any ambition of returning to the top tier of the top tier.

Despite how today's match stats show how numbers can lie, two other statistics still stand out. Liverpool haven't won away after an international break since April 2009, with five losses and a draw since. And Liverpool still haven't won under Dalglish after conceding the first goal, again with five losses and a draw since.

There are obvious bright spots which can be taken from the performance; there's no comparison between today's loss and last season's 0-2 shellacking at the Britannia in anything other than the result. But nonetheless, the more things change, the more they still seem to stay the same in too many aspects.

09 September 2011

Liverpool at Stoke 09.10.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.11
0-2 Stoke (a) 11.13.10
1-1 (a) 01.16.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 08.19.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Bolton (h); 3-1 Exeter (a); 2-0 Arsenal (a)
Stoke: 1-0 West Brom (a); 4-1 FC Thun (h); 1-1 Norwich (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 2; Adam, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Stoke: Jones, Shotton 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg (!!!)

Clattenburg hasn't done a Liverpool match since that memorable 2007 Merseyside Derby. Payback had better not be a bitch.

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

An international break with no apparent injuries? Does not compute. Both Adam and Henderson missed their respective national team matches on Tuesday – Adam after a hip knock against the Czechs, Henderson rested in case of fatigue – but both should be available tomorrow, as should Johnson, returning from a thigh injury. Gerrard, back in training, and Kelly, appear to be the only absentees. Despite Dalglish's statements to the contrary, tomorrow should be too soon for the new boys; Bellamy will probably be on the bench, while Coates will probably be given more time to acclimatize to Perfidious Albion.

Andy Carroll spent the majority of the international break in the headlines for the wrong reasons thanks to Fabio Capello. Feigning concern over Carroll's off-field proclivities (which is odd enough when the likes of Terry, ACole, Rooney etc. are given free reign to wreak havoc), Capello continued to feed the beast's desire to write about Carroll's drinking habits, something Dalglish hasn't considered necessary since signing the 22-year-old. Tomorrow is the type of match which should suit Carroll to a tee: away from home against a burly, aerially proficient side. Yes, as long as Liverpool don't regress to hoof ball, which would play directly into Stoke's desire to nullify through Woodgate and Huth.

Dalglish has used a very fluid formation so far, especially in the front four, but in Liverpool's four games, the side's looked more like 4-2-2-2 at home and 4-2-3-1 away. Will we see the same tomorrow? If that's the case – and my best guess is that it is – Carroll would be the spearhead, Suarez would buzz dangerously in a free role, and Downing and Kuyt or Henderson would play on the flanks. Kuyt seems slightly more likely, simply due to his experience, but Henderson has started every match.

The other, more remote possibility is that Dalglish springs another three at the back surprise, as in last February's meeting. That formation, albeit at Anfield, stifled Stoke brilliantly. Five players who featured in that lineup are unavailable, whether injured or sold (Gerrard, Meireles, Aurelio, Kyrgiakos, Kelly) and unlike in that match, Stoke are likely to start with two strikers, whether it's Crouch, Jones, or Jerome. I'm also not sure where Downing fits into a formation with wing-backs (unless he's playing as the wing-back, which seems doubtful). Nonetheless, it is an option, and one Stoke will have to prepare for.

Unbeaten Stoke have started the season strongly, holding Chelsea to a 0-0 draw in the opening match, scoring late late goals to salvage a draw at Norwich and win at West Brom, and easily qualifying for the Europa League group stage. Rory Delap's long throws are the lone casualty, most likely out with a hamstring injury.

The aforementioned Europa League qualification helped pay for Stoke's late transfer splurge, headlined by former Liverpool player Peter Crouch. It's always fun (read: never fun) facing former Liverpool players. Stoke's record signing, Crouch will be joined by ex-Brummie Cameron Jerome (remember this?) and Wilson Palacios, the type of diligent holding midfielder Pulis both loves and needs. Also, a quick mention for Stoke academy graduate and increasingly important super sub Ryan Shotton. Like Stephen Ward at Wolves, Shotton is a promising utility player, used as both full-back and center forward, scoring late winners against Hadjuk Split and West Brom off the bench. Ward, you'll probably remember, scored the winner against Liverpool in last year's home loss to Wolves. The similarities slightly terrify me.

This, as much as the win at the Emirates, will be an excellent measuring stick for this season's side. I still cannot overemphasize the importance of away form improvement, and Liverpool have struggled in trips to the Britannia since Stoke's promotion, winless in the three meetings. Few sides travel to Stoke and dominate proceedings; Arsenal, Chelsea, and City all failed to win there last season. It's against lesser teams, where Stoke are tempted to come out of their shell, where they drop points. The key will be getting Stoke out of the shell, exploiting the spaces that Suarez's movement inevitably creates. Unlike in previous seasons under previous managers, fluidity and movement haven't been primary concerns. Even with Carroll in the side, that will hopefully remain the case.

06 September 2011

Infographic: Before and After International Breaks

The standard narrative is that international breaks are an unnecessary disruption where players get hurt and clubs suffer. But is that really the case?

The short answer is: it depends. Liverpool were worse after the international breaks in the previous two seasons, had the same record before and after in 2008-09, and were actually better in 2007-08. The overall record over the last four seasons is 12W-4D-4L before and 10W-6D-4L after – a difference of just 0.2 points per game.

In just the previous two seasons – with a smaller, less talented squad (and a smaller, less talented manager for the first half of last season) – the difference is larger; Liverpool were 0.78 points per game worse after those international breaks. With a stronger, deeper squad thanks to Dalglish, Comolli, and FSG, that should be less of an issue. We've seen Liverpool far better able to cope with injuries over the last few months.

To narrow it down further, results haven't changed much after international breaks which come early in the season over the last four campaigns. Players are fitter, happier. Liverpool usually have the numbers to cope with any unfortunate injuries. It's the breaks later in the season where results are noticeably worse.

International breaks in February and March almost always see Liverpool drop points in the next match; it's happened after five of the seven post-New Year breaks since 2007. For example, the side had no business drawing Wigan at Anfield or losing to West Brom away after the two breaks under Dalglish last season.

Each February break has seen a draw follow a win, no matter the opposition – whether it's Wigan at home or Chelsea away. And Liverpool went from wins prior to the break (over Blackburn and Sunderland) to losses after (to Wigan and West Brom) following the last two March international breaks.

In addition, Liverpool have rarely faced top competition following an international break. They've met a "top four" club after an international match twice: beating United in September 2008 and drawing Chelsea in February 2008. Everton is a frequent opponent – a loss last October, and two wins over the Blues in 2007-08 – but otherwise, Liverpool often play a mid-to-lower table side. The type of side which doesn't usually have a lot of players away with their countries.

Unsurprisingly, the largest correlation is whether the match is home or away. As if that's a new phenomenon. Liverpool's record at Anfield after international breaks over the last four seasons is 6W-3D. Liverpool's away record after international breaks is 4W-3D-4L. And three of those four away wins came in '07-08; Liverpool's last away win after an international break was the 1-0 win over Fulham in April 2009, following the March break. Since then, over the last two seasons, Liverpool's away record after internationals is four losses and one draw. Which is even worse than Liverpool's usually atrocious away record.

And which piles slightly more uncertainty upon the small matter of a trip to Stoke, one of the toughest venues in the league, this Saturday.

The full list of matches is in the comments section.

01 September 2011

Close a window, open a door

Once again, the deadline headline is Liverpool's hands forced by Chelsea's last-minute pillaging. Unable to get Modric or Moutinho, Chelsea settled for yet another Liverpool player who scored the most-recent winner against them. With less than half an hour left in the window, Meireles' transfer request was made public and a £12m deal announced. Takes some of the shine off the most successful transfer window in recent history.

Meireles was going to be a squad player this season. A versatile, useful squad player, but a squad player nonetheless. Gerrard, Suarez, and Henderson are preferred behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1. Gerrard, Lucas, Adam, and Henderson are preferred in central midfield. Kuyt, Henderson and Downing are preferred on the right, and Downing, Maxi, and now Bellamy are preferred on the left. Liverpool have depth to cover all the positions Meireles could cover, but more cover is usually more better, especially with Meireles' clear talents. He linked (and seemed to get along) brilliantly with Suarez, Maxi, and Lucas and was one of last season's few revelations until Dalglish took the reins. But he understandably wanted a raise, FSG understandably didn't want to give him one (or one as large as he wanted), and Liverpool made a small bit of money on a 28-year-old back-up after one good year. C'est la guerre. Shelvey will get his minutes. My lone concern is how it affects squad harmony, but Dalglish doesn't seem to have a problem dealing with that.

As to Liverpool's other business of the day, I'm pleased to see Bellamy's return. Yes, he's 32. Yes, you can probably hear his knees creak from three rooms away. But he's still got bags of pace when fit, can lead the line or play on either wing (he's far better on the left), and is a tricky, creative game winner. I still have no clue why City were so eager to get rid after Bellamy was their player of the season in 2009-10 (hint: Mancini). And the dark side is strong in this one – just like Suarez – which I'm always in favor of. The fear is Bellamy's competitiveness will upset the ship if he's not consistently in the side, but one would assume he's had the future spelled out for him clearly. Plus, defending a front-line of Suarez, Kuyt, and Bellamy will be like trying to herd a swarm of bees. I cannot wait to see it.

Overall, the summer's business in total, according to LFC History:

The above chart only includes those who played for the first team, if only sparingly, so fees for Ince and Mavinga aren't included. Rory Smith, of the Telegraph, writes that Liverpool recouped something around £25m from sales this summer. More important were the savings to the wage bill – around £30m over the lives of those players' contracts. By my quick back of the envelope math, using extremely rough estimates, those 13 who actually played for the first team would probably have cost Liverpool around £12m in wages this season. That's a fair bit extra into the transfer kitty.

Liverpool paid out £54m in fees for seven players, but the two over 30 – Doni and Bellamy – were free transfers, fitting into FSG's frequently-misunderstood Moneyball philosophy. Adam, Coates, Downing, Enrique, and Henderson all have their best days ahead of them, and four of the five have already impressed in Liverpool's first matches.

Which takes FSG's total spending to around £113m while recouping about £75m. Just under £40m to turn Torres, Babel, Konchesky, Ayala, El Zhar, Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Jovanovic, Poulsen, Cole, Ngog, Degen, Pacheco, and Meireles into Suarez, Carroll, Henderson, Adam, Downing, Doni, Enrique, Coates, and Bellamy. That'll do, pig.

Yes, the club had to resort to loans and free transfers to get rid of the majority of useless players, but shifting the likes of Cole, Jovanovic, Poulsen, Degen, et al – those who added absolutely nothing to the squad – will save Liverpool a lot in unnecessary wages and headaches. Comolli earned his salary finding those suckers born every minute, and for once, thanks to the new owners, Liverpool were able to focus on quality instead of quantity.

A lot of clubs would have been forced to sell before buying, reducing overhead and overall numbers before bringing players in, but FSG opened the checkbook immediately. Getting Adam, Downing, and Henderson signed early allowed those players time to bed into the squad during preseason, and also meant that Liverpool weren't feverishly trawling for last-minute fallback options (cough Arsenal cough). And then Comolli went to work shifting dead weight. Success on all front. That rarely happens.

Aside from overwrought debates as to the necessity of Aquilani and Meireles, Liverpool fans haven't had to worry which player will turn into this window's Judas. We haven't spent the summer in fear of Reina's exit, for example, like with Mascherano the year before and Alonso the year before that. With Hicks and Gillett long gone, the days where Liverpool were "a selling club" are long gone as well. It was odd, but more than welcome, having such a stress-free summer.

As with the tactics, manager, and atmosphere, Liverpool's squad is now light years different than it was a year ago. Light years better.

That's why it was most successful transfer window in recent history.