31 October 2011

Trying to Find a Balance

"Balance" has been a word tossed around frequently as Liverpool tries to fine-tune its recently-acquired shape. Balance between attack and defense, balance between controlling the game and pushing the tempo, balance between direct football and pass and move football.

On Saturday, Glen Johnson started at right back for only the second time this season, for the first time with summer signing Jordan Henderson ahead of him on the right.

Liverpool have deployed a somewhat lopsided formation every time Henderson's started on the right, deeper than his counterpart on the opposite flank. Saturday's difference was that with Johnson, Liverpool were able to balance Henderson's proclivity to cut inside with an attack-focused fullback willing to stay wide and overlap.

Downing and Enrique, who have had a few more games to build an understanding, form a more orthodox pairing. Downing, a true winger, spends far more time in the opposition half, further forward, than Henderson. Enrique, therefore, spends more time coming inside, especially when in Liverpool's half, whether starting the attack or doubling up on an attacker with Downing less likely to track back than Henderson.

What's still best described as a 4-2-2-2 – two strikers, two central midfielders, and two "wide" players – easily becomes a lopsided 4-3-3 with how Henderson and Downing play their roles.

It's interesting to see Downing's average position so far forward, while Henderson's as much a part of a midfield three as a right-midfielder, especially given Adam's ability to pull wide to the left for deep crosses and diagonals. And at the same time, Lucas's holding position seems deeper than usual, almost like Busquets in front of Barcelona's center-backs, protecting the back line and ready to pull wide to cover where needed.

Simply by looking at the average position diagram, you could classify the formation as 2-3-2-3: Skrtel and Agger deepest, the full-backs and Lucas, Henderson and Adam linking defense and attack, and Downing, Carroll, Suarez up front. It's almost replicating the historic W-W formation from the 1930s. Which, incidentally, Jonathan Wilson wrote about in regards to Barcelona almost exactly a year ago. Not to compare an evolutionary, maturing Liverpool to Barca or team which won consecutive World Cups or anything.

With West Brom supremely lacking in ambition and with Thomas and Brunt on the wings – neither the trickiest opponent – both Johnson and Enrique were relatively untroubled in defense. The fullbacks attempted four tackles combined, three successful, through 90 minutes.

Against routine opposition, we got to see the Liverpool of the future, what Dalglish is seemingly building towards: a fluid, adaptable formation. If direct football, with long passes, runs at defenders and deep crosses, isn't working down the left, Johnson and Henderson make it possible for slower buildup with overlaps from the full-back on the right. Admittedly, most opponents will put up more of a struggle, will make Liverpool work far harder in both halves, and will put both Henderson and Downing under far more pressure, requiring each to contribute more in defense.

But against mid-table opposition and lower, both home and away, this is seemingly the template to be followed. Saturday's match against West Brom, with Johnson back and with Henderson having his best game so far for Liverpool, was the first conclusive demonstration that it could actually work.

29 October 2011

Liverpool 2-0 West Brom

Adam 9' (pen)
Carroll 45+1'

A thorough, comfortable win, never in doubt after notching a second on the stroke of halftime, a clean sheet easily kept away from Anfield.

Had Liverpool scored so early in their last league match, converting just one of the chances from their fast start, we could have seen a similar result. Typically, Suarez was the vital epicenter, teeing up Adam's 2nd-minute opportunity before winning the 7th-minute spot kick somewhat fortuitously. The penalty itself – Thomas barging a spinning Suarez near the edge of the area – wasn't so fortuitous; we've all seen similar shoulder challenges both ignored and given. What was fortuitous was that the linesman correctly feverishly flagged, forcing a reticent Lee Mason to award the foul. In contrast to the pervasive, malignant narrative, Suarez wasn't looking for it, neither rolling around nor gesturing wildly. Adam, Liverpool's third different penalty-taker of 2011-12, notched the first of the season by sending Foster the wrong way.

Liverpool remained on top, clearly stronger, but weren't creating the chances spurned in the last match, which isn't necessarily surprising when away and up against a Hodgson side at home. Other than Suarez's one clear-cut opening, ballooned over when leaning back for Skrtel's center from a corner, the best opportunities of the half until Carroll's crucial second came on subsequent penalty shouts that Mason didn't call: a clear handball on Carroll's on-goal header from Suarez's early cross and a rugby tackle on a corner that somehow became a foul on Carroll.

But right before the interval, after "suffering" a spell of West Brom pressure, Liverpool got that crucial second at arguably the best possible time. Lucas nipped in to steal possession and immediately found Suarez at full sprint, and the Uruguayan deftly hit his long pass first-time into space for Carroll to run onto. The big striker's first touch looked to take it away from him, but he quickly regrouped to smartly toe-poke under the despairing Foster with his stronger foot. A back-breaking goal, giving West Brom 15 minutes to wonder how they were going to come back from a two-goal deficit when they had less than 40% of the possession and zero shots on goal.

The lone surprise after the restart was that Liverpool failed to widen the gap during another impressive spell to begin the half. Suarez and Carroll continued to combine brilliantly, the best we've seen from the pairing, but neither Henderson nor Carroll could smartly connect with shots after West Brom's defense had been sliced open, while Suarez chipped onto the roof of the net after brilliantly creating space for himself and Olsson importantly blocked Suarez's blast after good work from Enrique and Carroll.

The final 25 minutes, with both Liverpool and West Brom on cruise control in opposite directions, saw sporadic opportunities for Liverpool – Carroll shots saved and wide, Downing's 90th minute effort off the post – with even fewer for West Brom. Bellamy, replacing the irrepressible Suarez with ten to play, was Liverpool's lone substitution as the team hummed along unthreatened.

West Brom weren't especially terrible, simply unambitious. It's somewhat distasteful to return to the scene of the crime to further beat the same dead horse into submission, but Liverpool fans will remember more than a few analogous performances during Hodgson's tenure. Admittedly, most came on the road – at Everton and City the closest comparisons – but West Brom similarly conceded an early goal, similarly 'battled back' to almost but not quite make a game of it, but then conceded the second and never looked like coming back.

There's little to complain about after such an assiduous victory. Most pleasing was how well Suarez and Carroll harmonized. Neither had their best game – although Carroll wasn't far off his City apex while Suarez remains singularly important – but it was the best they've looked together by some distance. Lucas also again demonstrated his importance; Liverpool controlled play, set the tempo, and protected the back-line far better than against Norwich. And with Carragher still sidelined by Wednesday's calf injury, we finally got to see Skrtel and Agger in the league. And weren't disappointed. They, along with the full-backs, barely put a foot wrong. Incidentally, all three of Liverpool's clean sheets – against Arsenal, Everton, and West Brom – have come away from Anfield. This was the first without the opposition reduced to ten men.

As against Stoke, another win and further progress. An excellent team display with few disappointing individual performances. A clean sheet victory away from Anfield should never be downplayed, no matter the opposition. That Liverpool were so comfortable, and that it's such guilty schadenfreude to win so convincingly when facing the previous manager, can't overshadow the team continuing to coalesce and impress.

28 October 2011

Liverpool at West Brom 10.29.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 West Brom (a) 04.02.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.29.10
2-0 Liverpool (a) 05.17.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.08.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Stoke (a); 1-1 Norwich (h); 1-1 United (h)
West Brom: 2-1 Villa (a); 2-0 Wolves (h); 2-2 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Bellamy, Carroll, Gerrard, Henderson, Skrtel 1
West Brom: Long 3; Odemwingie 2; Brunt, Morrison, Olsson, Scharner 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Downing
Carroll Suarez

How much of Wednesday's line-up will Liverpool replicate? And have you heard that Roy Hodgson manages West Brom?

There are doubts over both Carragher and Suarez, the former going off at half-time against Stoke with a calf injury, the latter picking up a first-half knock and limping off with five minutes to play. Both have fairly readymade replacements: Skrtel (or, less likely, Coates) for Carragher and Bellamy (or, less likely, Kuyt) for Suarez. Not that anyone can truly replace Suarez or anything, who admittedly looks as if he could use a rest. Still, given how both are ever-presents if remotely fit, chances are they'll start.

With Gerrard, Adam, and Lucas all available, and after Spearing's excellent game against Stoke, Dalglish has a few choices to make in midfield. It's somewhat unfair on Spearing, but the other three are higher up the depth chart, and one of them will probably miss out as well if Dalglish continues with the 4-2-2-2. Adam has started every league match so far, but both Gerrard and Lucas are in better form and more important to Liverpool's fortunes. With all the permutations available, Liverpool still haven't used Gerrard and Lucas in a two-man pairing since beating United 3-1 in March, mainly thanks to the captain's long-standing injury. If Suarez doesn't play, there also a chance Liverpool will line up similarly to that against United, a 4-3-3/4-5-1 with all three involved.

After an inauspicious start for Uncle Roy, winning just one of the first five games, scoring three goals through the first six, West Brom are unbeaten in four, coming off wins over Wolves and Villa. That last win was on the road and after going down 1-0, both exceptionally unfamiliar for a Hodgson-led side. It's seen the Baggies rise up the table to 12th. Which is admittedly more familiar. Still, just four points behind Liverpool and only four worse on goal difference.

West Brom's main injury concern is to starting striker and record signing Shane Long, out for six weeks after chipping a bone in his knee. Somen Tchoyi or Simon Cox will partner Odemwingie if Hodgson sticks with his preferred 4-4-2. If Cox starts, it could be the same front six as featured against Liverpool in April: Reid, Scharner, Mulumbu, and Thomas remain West Brom's first-choice midfield. And I barely need mention that Hodgson's sides are always, always, always better at home and that Liverpool are still recovering from the effects of his away day tactics, both of which were evident when the two sides met in April.

Liverpool are quietly unbeaten in six, with more focus on the goal-shy disappointments of Norwich and United rather than recent positives. Which is an apt demonstration of Liverpool's potential and promise; we should be disappointed Liverpool aren't higher up the league table. It's a sign that the we're all – fans, players, staff – getting over the traumas of the last two seasons. Expectations are rightfully high.

Of course, that might all change if West Brom manages to pull one over on Liverpool for the second-straight meeting.

27 October 2011

Goal Breakdown: Suarez 1-1 Stoke

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can take away from the sheer, singular brilliance of Suarez's swirling strike, but I wanted to highlight the contributions of those involved in the build-up, specifically three off-the-ball runs and two cross-field passes. Mostly to ensure they don't get lost in the utter majesty of the finish.

In case it isn't clear, in the above chart solid lines represent passes, the black dashed line is Agger striding forward in possession, and the red dashed lines are the player's movement off the ball following their pass.

Henderson, ostensibly the right-sided midfielder, comes inside to start the attack after Liverpool successfully defended a Stoke free kick (it was Lucas who won possession). After correctly spreading play to the full-back, Henderson follows Agger's run instead of retreating to the right flank. And having followed Agger's run, he's perfectly placed to draw Robert Huth (who's initially marking Suarez) away from the Uruguayan with a sprint to the byline, leaving Suarez one-on-one with the unfortunate right winger Shotton.

Meanwhile, Agger's continued going forward after setting up Maxi, getting into the box despite being a center-back pushed out to the left, but smartly retreating when the early cross didn't come. And at the same time, Maxi joined him in the penalty area after quickly passing onto Kelly, occupying the right-sided center-back Shawcross to ensure he didn't double up on or close down Liverpool's eventual scorer.

And we can't sell two brilliant cross-field balls short of credit. Maxi's to Kelly, shifting play from left to right, opened up the space for Henderson, Agger, and Suarez's runs. Spearing's from deep was pinpoint to Suarez drifting out wide, deftly weighted and easily controlled.

This goal, regardless of the necessarily wondrous finishing touch, is the epitome of both pass and move football and a fluid formation where numbered notation and starting position mean next to nothing.

When done correctly, it creates unwanted chaos for the opposition, requiring defenders to leave their planned marker, not necessarily sure who to pick up. The quick passing between Maxi, Kelly, and Spearing – two of three long in the air – ensures the defense has to chase, unable to settle into the preferred default shape. Henderson, Agger, and Maxi were comfortable enough to leave their required roles, demonstrating some of the intuitive attack we've been hoping for, seen so often in last season's big wins. The problem is that is not easy to build that intuitive understanding, especially with a fair amount of new signings over the summer. This goal is an apt demonstration of Liverpool's undeniable potential, in both creation and finish.

More of that please. And more heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, different class finishes from Suarez wouldn't be too bad either.

Liverpool Offside has video of the goal if you'd like to relive it in a more visual manner.

26 October 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke

Jones 43'
Suarez 54' 85'

For 53 minutes, it was last month at Stoke and last weekend at Norwich all over again. The same overriding, unavoidable, all-consuming narrative: Liverpool couldn't take their chances while the opposition managed to tally from far fewer, usually from a defensive mistake. In the 54th minute, the overriding, unavoidable, all-consuming Luis Suarez changed the narrative. And after 90 minutes, Liverpool are into the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup, having finally overhauled a deficit under Dalglish, scoring a much-missed late winner in the process.

Today's frustrating display was slightly less aesthetically pleasing than Saturday's cruel, unfulfilled domination. With Carroll back in the starting XI and Lucas and Spearing in midfield, Liverpool were far more direct, far happier to look for the early ball to one of the two strikers, either to be held up by the target-man or run onto by the speedy dribbler. Liverpool still had the chances to miss the chances – Suarez kneed a rebound from Carroll's strike wide; Lucas, Agger, Maxi, and Suarez diced Stoke open but Sorensen made the close-range save; Carroll spurned a couple of opportunities – but not in as dramatic a fashion as against Norwich.

And then came the requited stomach punch. There was always an air of vulnerability when Stoke came forward, more so than in Liverpool's last two frustrations, mostly due to Jones and Walters' physicality up front and Etherington's crossing ability. Coates mostly coped well, paired with Carragher in the first half and Skrtel in the second, using his height to nullify Jones. But in the 43th minute, Liverpool were again punished for a solitary mistake: Coates let a long clearance bounce near the touchline, expecting a throw-in. Walters muscled his way in and, with Agger caught upfield, charged down the flank, cutting back for Jones (who had peeled away from Carragher) to deftly head into the far corner. The story of the season.

A goalless streak of such horrendous, implausible proportion was always going to need a wonder strike to dispel the curse. Suarez' indescribably perfect blast was just such a strike, guaranteed to top the end-of-season goal lists. Killing a cross-field pass with one touch, he feinted, nutmegged Shotton, and curled an outlandish shot into the far corner. A beautiful, beautiful goal incongruent with the mainly disheveled contest.

The picturesque goal did little to change the course of the game. At 1-1, Liverpool were marginally on top – with a couple of half-chances to Stoke's none – but the home side continued to threaten simply by being Stoke. Both teams seemed if not content with extra-time at least aware it was the most likely possibility. Carragher replaced Sktrel during the interval, but Liverpool's first attacking substitution came with just over ten minutes to play. Bellamy replaced Maxi and created Liverpool's best chance since the goal, but scuffed Carroll's layoff onto the post.

A minute later, Liverpool were ahead, again thanks to Luis Suarez. Less miraculous than the first but oh so much more important, Suarez was in the right place at the right time to receive Henderson's clever first-time ball over the top, heading past Sorensen at the back post.

After seeing out the inevitable quasi-pressure in injury time, it's Liverpool's first win from a losing position under Dalglish – the first since beating Bolton on New Year's Day. It's Liverpool first domestic late winner since the same match, with the lone under Dalglish against Sparta in the Europa League.

Suarez will obviously get the headlines, as is his wont and rightfully so. But the majority of the side turned in decent if not jaw-dropping performances. Workmanlike rather than wondrous. Other than his costly misstep, Coates was impressive, negating Stoke's much-discussed strengths. Liverpool looked much more secure with the Uruguayan partnering Skrtel. Agger did surprisingly well at left-back; put into the lineup to help combat Stoke's aerial threat, the defender's also known for his talent with the ball at his feet. Both Spearing and Lucas were tidy and efficient in midfield, although the pairing seemed to exacerbate the long-ball tendency. Carroll put in a shift as well: dropping deep, tracking back, and showing a few hoped-for combinations with his strike partner, if still lacking in confidence in the box. It's churlish to mention that Liverpool still don't look like scoring if it's not coming from Suarez.

The result should be a massive boost, showing the fortitude to finally shed multiple monkeys of their back: getting the needed goal and then getting the second, a late win and a comeback, into the next round and avenging last month's disappointing defeat. It should go without saying, but saying the obvious is a hobby. Now Liverpool need to build on those multiple steps forward. Which is easier said than done.

West Brom on Saturday. I'm sure we'll hear something about their manager's history with Liverpool between now and then.

25 October 2011

Liverpool at Stoke 10.26.11

2:45pm ET, live in the US on FoxSoccer.tv. Most of us will have to make do with streams. There is a delayed showing on Fox Soccer Plus at 5:00pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Stoke (a) 09.10.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.11
0-2 Stoke (a) 11.13.10
1-1 (a) 01.16.10

Previous round(s):
Liverpool: 2-1 Brighton (a); 3-1 Exeter (a)
Stoke: 0-0 Spurs [7-6 pens] (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Norwich (h); 1-1 United (h); 2-0 Everton (a)
Stoke: 1-3 Arsenal (a); 3-0 Maccabi Tel-Aviv (h); 2-0 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Bellamy, Carroll 2; Adam, Gerrard, Henderson, Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 1
Stoke: Jones, Walters 4; Crouch, Shotton 3; Jerome 2; Delap, Pugh, Upson, Whelan 1

Referee: Peter Walton

You may remember Mr. Walton from Saturday's match. Odd that he has two Liverpool fixtures in a row.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Henderson Lucas Spearing Maxi
Suarez Carroll

A third consecutive Carling Cup tie away from Anfield. The luck of the draw, eh?

In keeping with what we've seen in the last two rounds, I'd imagine a slightly-weaker than usual side: stronger than under previous managers in this competition, but with a handful of second-string veterans and/or youngsters. It'll be similar to the line-up which started at Rangers a week ago.

As Carragher's missed just one match this season – in the 2nd round against Exeter – I'm hopeful we'll see a different center-back pairing. Either Skrtel and Agger, the potential first-choice pairing in the near future, or Coates and Agger, the potential first-choice pairing in the long-term. More specifically, I'd like to see if either of these duos will play higher up the pitch, limiting the space between midfield and defense. Tomorrow could also be another step towards full fitness for Johnson if he escaped Saturday unscathed, with similar true for Aurelio, who's hardly featured this season.

Lucas should return from suspension, partnered with Spearing or Adam (with Gerrard rested after starting against United and Norwich). Maxi's lone starts have been in the two previous rounds of the competition, while Henderson's also due a place in the XI, whether in central midfield or ostensibly on the right. A Lucas/Henderson midfield, with two of Maxi, Downing, and Kuyt on the flanks is also a distinct possibility.

Finally, up front, Carroll seems nailed on to start. His partner, if Liverpool continue with the 4-2-2-2 base formation, is less certain. Bellamy seems the most unlikely, having played an hour in each of Liverpool's two matches this week. Kuyt's been unimpressive in his last few starts. And Suarez's troubles in front of goal have been much-discussed; tomorrow could be an opportunity to avenge misses against Norwich et al (as well as the last meeting between these sides) or an opportunity to give Liverpool's magician some much-needed time off. Especially with Suarez's good friend Peter Walton as referee again.

Stoke used a mostly full-strength side in the last round of the competition, beating Spurs on penalties after 120 minutes of 0-0. The Potters also have five days before their next match, on Monday compared to Liverpool's Saturday trip to West Brom. Liverpool are more than acquainted with Pulis' strangling, burly set-up. Two wingers, at least one (probably two) physical strikers (from Crouch, Walters, Jones, and Jerome), and the likes of Huth, Upson, Woodgate, et al in defense. Pennant, a familiar threat from the flanks, is the lone injury concern.

Tomorrow's primary narrative is revenge: a chance for Liverpool to make amends for dropping three points to this team at this venue a month ago. It's also a real chance at a trophy for the first time in six seasons, with only 16 teams left in the competition. There are 11 Premiership sides remaining, but the majority are playing each other in this round (except United, obviously); at most, there will be just six from the top-tier left after Wednesday.

Vengeance is fun, but success is obviously more meaningful. And this side could do with some success.

24 October 2011

Image of the Day

Nine games. 39 shots: 17 on target, 16 off target, six blocked. Four goals. That's an awful lot of shots without much return. Which seems to be the story of Liverpool's season so far.

This isn't to criticize Suarez. More often than not, especially against Norwich, he's looked the only one capable of magic, capable of somehow hauling Liverpool to three points. On Saturday, he created chances from absolutely nothing at least twice, somehow turning away from defenders in a phone booth-worth of a space, only to hit the frame or see Ruddy make yet another unexpected save. He is undoubtedly Liverpool's best and most important player, no matter Lucas' essential holding, no matter Gerrard's talismanic capacity, etc. Nonetheless, his 11 shots against Norwich – six on target, four off, one blocked – are the most without scoring for a single player in a Premier League game since Ronaldo did similar almost five years ago.

Yesterday, Dan Kennett wrote an outstanding look at Liverpool's chance conversion, game-by-game and compared to opponents and rivals. Needless to say, it's not pretty.

Sometimes it's worthwhile to dissect matches with chalkboards, tactics, and pseudo-scientific divination. Sometimes over-analyzing really is over-analyzing. Take chances, take the points.

The overall shots statistics for all Liverpool players through these nine games follows.

22 October 2011

Liverpool 1-1 Norwich

Bellamy 45+1'
Holt 60'

Like watching a replay of the season opener against Sunderland.

At Anfield? Check. Failure to convert multiple first half chances? Check. First-half goal? Check. Early second-half equalizer? Check. Increasingly frustrated and increasingly impatient? Check. Some dubious but not game-changing decisions from the referee? Check. And for added spice, Liverpool had two jaw-dropping chances deep into injury time: one just wide, one miraculously saved. Just what we needed. Salt in the wounds.

29 shots, nine on target, with efforts off the crossbar and both posts. That Liverpool continues to spurn brilliant chances seems unbelievable. It's no exaggeration that the home side should have been three up and out of sight by the 15-minute mark. Skrtel crashed Adam's corner off the bar within 120 seconds, Suarez somehow turned past two only to shoot into the side-netting three minutes later, and Ruddy pulled off his first outstanding stop on a Suarez effort in the 11th, pushing the Uruguayan's blast onto the post.

Unsuccessful in front of a baying Kop, frustration quickly mounted, and Norwich responded with a spell of pressure, testing Reina from distance and on corners. After regaining momentum following ten nervous minutes, Liverpool seemingly pushed too hard in trying to replicate the fast start and make the breakthrough, losing possession in the final third, caught offside too often, and generally wasteful when anywhere near the 18-yard box.

That is, until Bellamy finally, fortunately found the net with the last kick of the half, running onto a ball over the top aimed for a fouled Suarez, his shot deflecting in off Tierney's heel. In theory, with that curse lifted, Liverpool should have gone to seal the win. In practice, Liverpool came out in familiar form, starved of chances save Suarez creating something from nothing yet again, turning one defender, fooling a second into going to ground, and nearly poking past Ruddy, only to see his shot deflect off Martin off the post. Again.

And then came the predictable Norwich stomach punch, due to Lambert's smart substitution. For once, there's not one scapegoat for the opposition's equalizer: Adam lost possession seeking a soft free kick, Enrique gave Pilkington space to check the wind before angling in a cross for Holt, who beat both Carragher and Johnson in the air as Reina charged out only to flap.

Dalglish's response saw Henderson replace Bellamy in the 69th and Carroll replace Downing ten minutes later. Despite the change in system, Liverpool remained reliant on Suarez until the injury time flurry; the closest he came was in the 78th, shooting wide after his buzzing movement saw Norwich's excellent center-back Barnett slip. With hope dashed yet again, Liverpool nearly got the late winner that's so often eluded the side. In the 93rd, Carroll powered Gerrard's deep cross just wide. In the 95th, Ruddy again came to the rescue, somehow palming Suarez's sweet volley over. The Uruguayan took 11 of Liverpool's 29 shots – six on target, four off, one blocked – and drew zero free kicks. One of the Canaries would have had to sever a limb before Walton whistled, the result of the now-pervasive media narrative and his own checkered antics.

That Liverpool have taken two points from matches against Norwich, Stoke, and Sunderland – two of three at Anfield, matches where they set both tone and tempo, matches where they created countless chances spoiled by both keeper and woodwork – borders on unforgivable, no matter the novelty of the side and the vagaries of luck.

Suarez remains Liverpool's lone menace; while he's a bomb-throwing handful, he also can't buy a goal for love, luck, or money. Little came from his strike partner Kuyt, who often dropped into the hole to link play with both Gerrard and Adam sitting deep. Without a third midfielder, a runner like Henderson or holder like Lucas, the duo replicated each other's abilities and mainly got in each other's way. A less than auspicious debut for the partnership in a 4-2-2-2. At the same time, little came from Liverpool's inverted "wingers." Bellamy's general hassle created the goal, but he clearly tired. Which, I'll churlishly mention, might not have been the case had he not played an hour on Tuesday. Downing was wasteful in shooting but did well crossing with either foot on either flank, completing five of nine. Unfortunately, that was with Suarez as target-man. With Carroll on the bench for 80 minutes, Liverpool actually attempted 37 crosses in total, 12 successful, which is 11 more than in any other fixture. Second-most? At Stoke. Surprise!

Besides the comparison to this season's opening fixture, I'd like to draw one other parallel. Holt's introduction in the 56th reminded of Zamora's second-half entrance in Liverpool's 5-2 win over Fulham last April: a burly striker who held up play, rumbled with Skrtel and Carra, and nearly brought his side back into the game, setting up Dembele and unsettling Liverpool until Maxi's wonder strike resealed the match. The difference is that Liverpool weren't three goals to the good today, unable to take advantage of its house-on-fire start. And there was no wonder strike to reseal the match.

I'm not saying that all of Liverpool's problems stem from the inability to convert chances. I am saying it certainly couldn't hurt.

21 October 2011

Liverpool v Norwich 10.22.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.03.05
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.25.04
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.29.95
4-0 Liverpool (h) 01.02.95

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 United (h); 2-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Wolves (h)
Norwich: 3-1 Swansea (h); 0-2 United (a); 2-1 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll, Gerrard, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Norwich: Pilkington 3; Barnett, de Laet, Holt, Hoolahan, Johnson, R Martin, Morison 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Agger Enrique
Henderson Gerrard Adam Downing
Carroll Suarez

There will be a temptation to ring changes against "weaker opposition" at Anfield and with a trip to Stoke on Wednesday, in a competition Dalglish seems to be taking very seriously. I hope that isn't the case.

With Lucas suspended, it looks as if Liverpool will start both Gerrard and Adam in central midfield. That pairing is frightfully defense-free, and if Liverpool line up in the 4-2-2-2, I'd expect Henderson on the right to offer some extra support. Henderson hasn't been a defensive stalwart on when on the right by any means, but his inclination to come inside would add a bit more security to a potentially very open midfield.

And I do expect Liverpool to revert to the 4-2-2-2. That Carroll "played" 90 mostly harmless minutes in Tuesday's friendly shouldn't preclude him from returning to the starting XI, with Liverpool reverting to the two-striker set-up we saw against Wolves and Everton. If the side keeps the same 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation as against United, we'll see Suarez up top, Kuyt and Downing on the flanks, and some combination of Gerrard, Adam, and Henderson (or possibly Spearing) in central midfield.

This week's (deservedly) much-maligned friendly was at least a boon for Liverpool's defense in allowing pitch time for the returning Agger and Johnson. Agger looked fitter than Johnson against Rangers, playing 78 minutes compared to Johnson's 64. Johnson, recovering from a hamstring injury, needs to be protected more than Agger, who suffered a rib injury. At the same time, Kelly's looked a more-than-able deputy, while Skrtel still has to propensity to frighten at times. But as much as I appreciate Liverpool's homegrown right-back, Johnson's overlapping ability in attack will add another dimension to the side, complimenting Enrique's bursts on the opposite flank and combining well with the talents of both Henderson or Kuyt.

Quietly in ninth, Norwich have adapted to the Premiership quicker than expected. Rather than last season's 4-4-2 diamond, Norwich now usually line up in a more pragmatic 4-4-1-1. Wins over Swansea, Sunderland, and Bolton; and draws against Wigan and Stoke see the club on 11 points after eight matches, just three behind Liverpool. Losses came against Chelsea and United – both away and sealed with late strikes – as well as a narrow defeat when hosting West Brom five weeks ago.

Steve Morison's keeping last season's hero Grant Holt out of the starting XI, while left winger Pilkington is Norwich's top scorer. The Canaries' two injury concerns are both in central defense, and are both former Liverpool players: Zak Whitbread is still recovering from a hamstring injury while Danny Ayala did his knee in his first start after joining the club. Those injuries in defense help account for the fact that Norwich is one of only two Premiership clubs which have failed to keep a clean sheet in the league this season. That Norwich's defense audibly creaks and groans will undoubtedly perk Suarez's vulcan ears up.

Even if Norwich plays some of their aesthetically pleasing football from last season, this will be another test of Liverpool's ability to break down a pragmatic, resilient side. Which, as we're all well aware, they've had varying levels of success with, both home and away. This season's home win against Bolton is an excellent template for taking the game to the opposition.

20 October 2011

Lucas: The Holding Midfielder

With Lucas suspended for Saturday, having already picked up five bookings (four in the league, one in the Carling Cup), I thought I'd take a look at how his defending has matured since becoming a regular starter in 2009-10.

Lucas appeared in 35 league matches (32 starts, three subs) in 2009-10, 33 (32 starts, one sub) in 2010-11, and in all eight so far this season.

The above shows a natural evolution for a still-young foreign player becoming accustomed to the league and receiving more responsibility in each successive season. He's made more tackles, both successful and attempted, and has markedly improved tackling percentage without a subsequent increase in fouls committed. But can we call it "maturation" with Lucas incurring so many more bookings this season?

Lucas didn't pick up his first league booking in '10-11 until Liverpool's 12th game: at Wigan on November 10. In '09-10, his first league booking came in Liverpool's 13th game: against City on November 21. His first this season came in the second match, at Arsenal, followed up with cards against Wolves, Everton, and United in the last three fixtures.

I have two theories for the increase in yellow cards. First, he's had far more cleaning up to do when paired with Adam in midfield, which also partly accounts for his increase in tackles. Second, due to his increased visibility, referees are simply paying far more attention to the player. I like the second excuse. It has just the right conspiratorial mix of "it's not his fault" and "it's the referee's fault." There are probably elements of truth in both.

His 111 successful tackles and 172 attempted tackles led the league in both categories last season. If he plays the same number of fixtures as last season, he's on pace for 144 successful tackles and 198 attempted tackles.

There is one disclaimer in regards to Lucas' 2010-11 numbers. As with everything last season, there's a clear difference between Lucas under Hodgson and Lucas under Dalglish. In his 17 matches under Dalglish (compared to playing in 16 of Hodgson's 20), Lucas averaged 4.06 successful tackles, 5.94 attempted tackles, 2.06 fouls committed, and 0.18 yellow cards per match. Significantly more successful and attempted tackles, slightly more fouls committed, but fewer yellow cards. That tackling percentage works out to 68.3%, similar to his '09-10 number.

It's not as if Lucas played with a less-defensive partner under Dalglish last season, as with Adam so far in this. Lucas' usual partner in last campaign's run-in was Spearing; he was usually paired with Gerrard, Meireles, or (less frequently) Poulsen under Hodgson. Like with many at the club, Dalglish has been good for the player, and Lucas has responded in kind.

Now, if he could just cut back on the bookings. Liverpool can't have him missing many games this season.

18 October 2011

Liverpool 0-1 Rangers

Johnson Coates Agger Wilson
Spearing Lucas Aurelio
Bellamy Carroll Maxi

McCulloch 20'

58' – Hansen for Doni
64' – Adam for Lucas
64' – Downing for Bellamy
64' – Flanagan for Johnson
64' – Kuyt for Aurelio
78' – Enrique for Wilson
78' – Henderson for Maxi
78' – Skrtel for Agger

The match was poor, Liverpool were poor. This is why if any mid-season club friendlies take place, they're usually unseen by mere mortals, behind closed doors. But Rangers really need money, while Liverpool wouldn't mind some sweet sweet cash of their own. Plus, the pretense of a pretend European match held a bit of allure for both sides. Not to mention the actual, tangible benefits of match practice for those returning from injury, out-of-favor, or inexperienced. Unfortunately, the one player who actually impressed, Doni, now has a broken or dislocated finger.

Today doesn't seem to deserve the usual formation diagram. Besides, the initial set-up only lasted until Rangers' opener. What started as something like a 4-3-3, something like a 4-3-2-1, with Bellamy and Maxi playing off Carroll, the first half ended with Bellamy behind Carroll and Maxi on the right, much more a 4-4-1-1 seemingly intent on calming and balancing an open, unfamiliar side.

Liverpool had scads of early possession, but were bogged down by a deep midfield and defense soaking up disconnected pressure. Rangers' chance on the counter turned into three when Liverpool couldn't clear: Doni had to make two smart saves before Liverpool failed to empty a corner, Johnson's half-clearance falling to McCulloch, whose shot fortunately ricocheted off both post and Aurelio.

The first raft of substitutions again altered the formation, now a more familiar 4-2-2-2, but Liverpool still lacked tempo and chances. Rangers, at home and with more to gain and prove, had chances: Doni's injury came when scrambling to somehow keep out Lafferty's effort, while the same player hit the bar and Weir's strike landed on the roof of the net. But it was no surprise to see Liverpool finally threaten in the last ten minutes with more usual starters on the pitch, but Henderson had efforts deflected over and volleyed wide, Carroll headed wide and didn't win a soft penalty, and Downing's right-footed shot was easily smothered. Alas.

Regardless of result, game time for the returning-from-injury Agger, Aurelio, and Johnson, two of whom start in Liverpool's best back four, assuredly benefits the club. Coates, one of the better players on the day, got 90 more minutes with his new teammates. Doni also needed a chance with Reina playing in the Carling Cup as well as every league match ever, and his injury was today's biggest blot. Those just outside the first-team looking in probably should have done more; neither Maxi, Bellamy, nor Spearing furthered their cause. Carroll, finally an out-and-out target man, was the worst offender, without service for long stretches but also appearing wholly uninterested. I'll be more concerned if that's the case in the league or cups. The entire side, even those supposedly looking to force their way into contention, played like, well, like it was a friendly.

Today saw something akin to a Carling Cup line-up in previous years: predominantly second-string veterans with a couple of regular starters and a youngster or two. Liverpool were able to give these players games in a situation where the club aren't punished if/when it doesn't work perfectly. Unlike when we've seen the side booted out of an actual competition by the likes of Northampton, Reading, or Braga.

It'd be nice to have more positives, to write something other than "friendlies are friendlies," but we've enough to worry about from competitive fixtures. I'd rather save complaints (and praise, if any) for when it counts.

17 October 2011

Chalkboard Miscellany v United

Instead of an in-depth look at a single facet, I thought I'd post multiple chalkboards from Saturday's match, highlighting a couple of predominant themes.


That Zonal Marking mentions this in his weekly league-wide roundup demonstrates how glaring a stat it was. 22 attempted crosses, two successful. Liverpool attempted more crosses in only one other match: 26 against Stoke (seven successful, 19 unsuccessful). Interestingly, it's the exact same total as against Everton, where Liverpool were away from home playing in a different formation with Carroll included. It was an odd strategy to maintain on Saturday with Suarez as a lone striker, matched up against Rio Ferdinand, and demonstrates the necessity of attacking variation. Also, it's worth nothing that Downing accounts for both of Liverpool's successful crosses against United, creating chances for Kuyt and Henderson in the final ten minutes.

United's impotent wingers

United hurt their own cause by leaving Nani on the bench, but Manchester's wingers were utterly silent on Saturday. Park and Young attempted 33 passes combined, fewer than Kuyt (44 of 56) and Downing (35 of 42) completed on their own.

It's hard to overemphasize each's excellent performance on Saturday, primarily in shutting down the opposition. Kelly was more reserved in going forward on the right, using less of the touchline than his counterpart, but both were extremely effective. Enrique, at £6m, is looking like Liverpool's best bit of summer business, and has been the best left back in the league through these eight matches.

Charlie Adam

On the whole, Adam was much-improved. A more-thorough stat line reads: 31/41 passing (75.6%); 31/39 in open play; 3/4 tackles; 1/1 aerial; 1/1 take-on; 4 interceptions; 3 FKs won, 0 conceded. This is what his StatsZone dashboard looks like, with all incidents on one chalkboard.

The defensive statistics are probably more important than the above passing chalkboards. It's the second-most amount of tackles he's made in a Liverpool match (behind five at Arsenal) and the most interceptions. That he won three free kicks without conceding any fouls is also an impressive and heartening change. And that's with Lucas having a sub-par match as the primary holding midfielder.

What the above passing chalkboard shows is Adam in a freer role at its fullest. Relieved of more responsibilities in a midfield with both Gerrard and Lucas (and then Gerrard and Henderson), Adam had his best game for the club. Which is unsurprisingly no coincidence. His other excellent game came at Arsenal, the other match where Liverpool played five in midfield (4-2-3-1). The extra body in midfield meant Adam could actually be free in the free role he's been playing. If he could only do better with his final ball.

Defensive chalkboards

Only the match at Arsenal saw Liverpool attempt more tackles than against United. And no match saw more Liverpool interceptions; again, at Arsenal is the closest comparison, with 17 to 19 against United. Seven of those 19 on Saturday came in United's half – three of which were by Adam.

Relatedly, Liverpool also attempted fewer clearances than in any other match save Stoke. Despite the deep back line, the four defenders were rarely under copious pressure and mainly cleared without hoofing. And that was without Agger and Johnson, Liverpool's two best ball-playing defenders.

On the whole, Liverpool bolstered the defense by subtracting from attack, mainly by creating better balance in midfield. For the second time, Liverpool changed the formation against one of the historic "big four." Unlike against Arsenal, Liverpool weren't able to take advantage of tiring legs, especially without the advantage of an opposition red card. The return of Gerrard and five in midfield made Liverpool more secure, but Liverpool also created fewer chances than usual against United at Anfield and needed a United set play mistake to score. Unfortunately, despite that bolstering of defense, Liverpool still committed enough sloppy errors – one, in fact – to be punished.

Evolutionary progress was also going to be a slow process, and after eight games, Liverpool are still finding the balance between attack and defense, between 4-2-2-2 and 4-5-1. Once they do – and find a way to cut out those defensive errors – Liverpool will be difficult opposition for any side.

15 October 2011

Liverpool 1-1 United

Gerrard 68'
Chicharito 81'

So close. But Liverpool can't take full advantage of chances created, and United keeps scoring late goals. Narratives are awesome.

Both managers would have been happy with the first hour of play. United's surprisingly defensive lineup – without Rooney, Nani, and Chicharito and with Phil Jones in midfield – limited Liverpool opportunities. Liverpool kept it tight, with United even more lacking in the final third, but Suarez was often isolated as Liverpool lined up in a fairly orthodox but fairly fluid 4-5-1.

And each goal came from an opposition set-play mistake. Gerrard broke the deadlock by breaking United's wall with a free kick, eerily parallel with his equalizing goal at Old Trafford last year. Hernandez leveled 13 minutes later, five minutes after coming on, when Welbeck lost Carra on a corner and Chicharito lost Skrtel to follow up the flick-on.

It was a frustrating first half: both sides clearly prioritizing defense, somehow both over-exuberant and cagey. The 4-5-1 formation did well to blunt United, but United also blunted themselves, reliant on Young and Welbeck to break Liverpool's back line with pace, which they were unable to do with Carragher, Skrtel, and at least one fullback sitting deep. Despite Suarez as a lone striker, most of Liverpool's forays into the final third ended with crosses from Downing, Enrique, Gerrard, and Kuyt, as if Carroll were still involved.

Jones had an early half-chance before Liverpool fully settled, heading into the side-netting at the back post following one of Evra's few overlaps down the left. Liverpool's mainly came on set plays and breaks of the ball: Gerrard slammed a short corner across the face of goal in the 22nd and Suarez luckily picked up Adam's deflected shot, only to slam his effort straight at De Gea, in the 34th – which was the only save required from either keeper in the first half.

The second half continued in the same safety-first vein until Liverpool finally took advantage of one of those door-opening missteps. Adam bought a free kick, marginally clipped by a retreating Ferdinand, and Gerrard found the gap between Welbeck and Giggs. I won't quote all those clever folks who made "Giggs was protecting his most important body part" jokes. It was clever, though.

United were planning on sending on both Rooney and Nani prior to the opener, one of Ferguson frequent double substitutions, ready to exploit tiring Liverpool legs with fresh attackers. Chicharito joined the fray soon after, and inevitable United pressure followed – not necessarily a matter of Liverpool protecting a lead; almost every side responds after conceding and the substitutions certainly helped. And Liverpool were coping well until two defenders were beaten on a set play for the only time in the match, on United's third corner (compared to Liverpool's eight), scoring with their second (and only threatening) shot on target. Liverpool are making fewer defense errors, but are still being punished for them. Life isn't fair sometimes.

While the concession could have sent Liverpool reeling and retreating, allowing United to complete the "champions comeback" narrative, the equalizer buoyed the home side. De Gea's save on Kuyt diving prod and palming away the subsequent corner came immediately. Three more chances came in quick succession in injury time: Liverpool's only substitute, Jordan Henderson, forced a lovely save from De Gea with a dipping volley and somehow headed Downing's inch-perfect cross over the bar, bracketing Skrtel ballooning a scrambled corner after Suarez and Adam couldn't make clean contact.

Liverpool shaded pretty much everything: possession, chances created, pattern of play, shots on goal, and unlucky 50-50 referee decisions (could have had penalty for Evans' handball in the 51st, Ferdinand could have seen a second yellow for fouling Adam prior to Liverpool's goal, but no-calls on both are 'understandable'). That they did without coming away with all three points certainly irritates. As does Liverpool wasting five chances in the final ten minutes.

Gerrard's return was a revelation, roaming all over midfield and notching a trademark free kick on his return. Adam benefited most from his inclusion, adding extra support for the playmaker in midfield. Both fullbacks impressed, as did Henderson off the bench. On in place of Lucas, who clearly struggled following the international break, the midfielder's fresh legs and willing, clever runs were crucial to opening up the game, and Liverpool notably coped with losing Lucas' midfield tackling. If he'd only taken his chances. Also, that Lucas (and Suarez to a lesser extent) disappointed after returning from their South American sides unpleasantly contrasts with Chicharito's impact off the bench.

So nothing won, nothing lost, and Liverpool are probably more aggrieved with the result. On the plus side, Liverpool almost totally shut down a side who looked to be running away from the rest of the league. That Ferguson deployed an unfamiliar defensive shape gives Liverpool more credit than they probably deserve. Gerrard immediately demonstrated what Liverpool missed, adding many more options to a still-maturing side. Yes, Liverpool aren't scoring, but at least they got into those scoring positions in a frequently cautious fixture – although that's little reassurance when it's been routinely repeated through the first eight games. Some credit has to go to De Gea as well (thanks everyone who jinxed it by questioning his competence). There are still multiple signs of an evolving, capable team somewhere in there.

On the negative side, it's one point instead of three. And Liverpool are probably more aggrieved with the result.

14 October 2011

Liverpool v United 10.15.11

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.06.11
0-1 United (a; FA Cup) 01.09.11
2-3 United (a) 09.19.10
1-2 United (a) 03.21.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Wolves (h); 2-1 Brighton (a)
United: 2-0 Norwich (h); 3-3 Basle (h); 1-1 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll, Henderson, Skrtel 1
United: Rooney 9; Nani, Welbeck 3; Anderson, Chicharito, Young 2; Park, Smalling 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

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

Suarez and Carroll in the 4-2-2-2, or more like a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 with Gerrard supposedly, finally fit to start?

The above is the same front six I guessed last week, expecting/hoping Liverpool would keep it tight in midfield at Goodison. With Gerrard even more likely to figure, it's less of a pipe dream. But that Dalglish has almost always gone with a 4-2-2-2, Gerrard or no Gerrard, remains an important hint. Gerrard could replace Adam, keeping the same formation, or Carroll, changing to the above 4-5-1 derivative. While it's been pleasing to see Carroll start to shift people's preconceived perceptions and find a decent vein of form, I think he's probably odd man out. Regardless, I'm still incredibly interested as to how Captain Fantastic fits into this side. It's somewhat unfortunate that the first opportunity comes against the Mancs.

If Dalglish says everyone's fit, I'm more than tempted to take him at his word (which may not be the brightest idea in the run-up to United). And I'd be quite happy to see Agger and Johnson reclaim starting spots: Agger because of the solidity and composure he offers Liverpool's defense, Johnson because of his greater ability on the overlap whether paired with Kuyt or Henderson. However, returning two players from injury seems a bold move before facing the Mancs. Kelly, even considering the knock suffered while with the u21s and Skrtel could well keep their places. If only one makes it, I'd guess that Johnson is further along the road to recovery than Agger simply due to their respective injury time-frames.

And as an annoying aside, two of Liverpool's most important players are on short rest after flying back from the Americas on Wednesday. Not that it should preclude either's participation. Just an irritating, hopefully unimportant fact of life. At least similar is the case for United's Chicharito, Fabio, and Valencia.

United have dropped points in just one of their seven league matches so far: a draw at Stoke three weeks ago. England's hero, villain, and comic relief Wayne Rooney is in blistering form, having tallied nine goals already this season. But the Mancs are also fallable: conceding the equalizer at Stoke, letting a two-goal Old Trafford lead slip to Basle in the Champions League, and struggling before ultimately finishing off Norwich in the last league fixture. In Rooney, Nani, Young, and Chicharito (or Welbeck), United have a superlative attacking quartet. But with Anderson and Carrick in midfield, and a clutch of promising but problematic defenders, United are also vulnerable. Right-back continues to be an issue, with round pegs Valencia, Smalling, or Jones to be crammed into that square hole, giving greater importance to Downing and Enrique (as well as Suarez, who loves working the left channel). As for injuries, Cleverly and Rafael are out, while Smalling and Vidic will be game-time decisions. I would imagine that everyone's favorite Serbian will be incredibly excited to revisit the scene of so many torments.

The home team has won the last five meetings between the sides – going back to that splendiferous 4-1 at Old Trafford – and Liverpool have beaten United in the last three meetings at Anfield. Which is a stat that frightens more than it reassures. United will already be up for this match – with Ferguson again stating it's the biggest match of the league campaign – and I'm sure Slur Alex has bemoaned United's recent Anfield record more than once in training this week. This three-match win streak is Liverpool's best run over United at Anfield since winning nine straight between 1972 and 1979.

These games are nerve-wracking in the extreme, just like Liverpool's last league contest. There has been no easing-in process this season, no time to wade around the shallow end before trying to swim in deep waters; Liverpool have had tough match after tough match from the start of the campaign. This will be more of the same and, considering the opposition, much much more at the same time.

10 October 2011

Infographics: Liverpool Penalties

Yep. More infographics as yet another international break is driving me insane.

Fairly straight-forward. As usual, click to expand images. A few random notes:

• Reasonable degree of variance from Liverpool's two main penalty takers: Kuyt and Gerrard. Kuyt went to the keeper's left four times (one saved), to the keeper's right twice, and down the middle once – with six of seven strikes along the ground. Gerrard went to the keeper's left three times, to the keeper's right twice, and down the middle once (which he blasted over).

• Liverpool haven't had the best of luck when it hasn't been one of the two main penalty takers. Ngog buried his against Steaua low to the keeper's right, but Cole saw his tame, waist-high effort saved and Suarez blasted well, well over.

• Odd to see that Lucas is joint-top for penalties won over the last three seasons, tied with N'Gog and Suarez. But he never gets into the box. Also noteworthy that Suarez has won Liverpool's last three spot kicks. In case you hadn't realized, he's quite good at football.

• Strikers accounted for eight of Liverpool's 17 penalties over this time frame (N'Gog, Suarez 3; Torres 2). Midfielders won six (Lucas 3; Gerrard, Maxi, Spearing 1) and defenders won three (Johnson 2, Kyrgiakos 1).

• The last time Liverpool missed consecutive penalties was in 2006-07: Bellamy and Gerrard both had spot kicks saved in November and December 2006, against Birmingham (Carling Cup) and Fulham respectively. Incidentally, Gerrard blasted home the rebound from his, and Liverpool won both games regardless. That was the only time Liverpool missed consecutive penalties under Benitez.

• Liverpool only won four penalties in 2009-10, compared to 11 in 2010-11 and two through nine games in 2011-12. That's an impossibly low number, especially when compared to Benitez's other seasons: Liverpool won 10 in 2008-09, eight in 2007-08, eight in 2006-07, 10 in 2005-06, and seven in 2004-05. A long out-of-date observation, but luck truly was against that season's side.

05 October 2011

Seven-Game Shots Comparison: '09-10 – '11/12

As usual, I'd recommend opening the main graphic in a new window. It's prettier that way, plus you can zoom in to see all those painstakingly placed bars. Also, as an FYI, when goals appear atop shots (circles on top of bars), it means the two incidents happened in the same minute, and it's usually for one of two reasons. If a goal's atop a blue or gray bar (on target or blocked shot), it's a goal tallied from a rebound. If it's atop a red, off-target bar, it's probably an own goal. Just to clarify the potentially convoluted design.

So, the point of this?

It's not especially heart-warming to see very similar totals between this season and the 2009-10 campaign, one where Liverpool struggled to seventh place and ultimately saw Benitez sacked.

However, that similarity comes with at least one caveat. This season's match at Tottenham was an aberration in extremis. In the past three seasons, Liverpool took fewer than eight shots in just one other match: the 1-2 loss at United in '09-10. After Adam's early red card, Liverpool were lucky to get those three shots. That Liverpool have incurred first-half red cards before and still managed more than three shots suggests it truly was an exceptional aberration, one which substantially affects the above totals.

Also, as results under Hodgson proved, more shots isn't always better. Not that we needed to live through the Era of Roy to learn that. Of course, sometimes more is better; Liverpool averaged 19.4 shots per game in 2008-09 (approximately four more per game than '10-11 and '11-12 so far and 2.5 more than '09-10), which led to an average of 2.05 goals per game. But that season, Liverpool averaged 9.46 shots per goal – almost exactly the rate from the seven games analyzed in '09-10. The season-long shots per goal averages for '09-10 and '10-11 were 10.56 and 9.86 respectively. Unsurprisingly, the '10-11 average was heavily impacted by the managerial change; Liverpool averaged 12.92 shots per goal during Hodgson's 20 games and 7.77 shots per goal in Dalglish's 18.

What's changed – besides the line-up, obviously – between Dalglish's side last season and the seven games so far in this? Liverpool averaged 15.1 shots per game under Dalglish last season, and 15.3 so far in this. Which makes the increase in shots off target significant. 46% of shots have been off target this season, compared to 37% in '10-11 and 36% in '09-10 in the same seven fixtures. Liverpool had more shots off target than on in five of the seven matches, with the totals equal in the other two. In Dalglish's 18 games last season, Liverpool had more shots on target than off (one more, actually: 105 to 104). This season, the team was particularly wasteful against Sunderland and Stoke, and the results clearly suffered.

Long story short: score more goals please. However, that's not necessarily dependent on firing more shots in the general vicinity of the opposition's net.

01 October 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Everton

Carroll 71'
Suarez 82'

The referee will be the focal point, so we'll start with the controversy. Yes, Rodwell didn't deserve a red. Yes, Liverpool deserved their win regardless.

In fact, Liverpool should have taken an earlier lead, especially since Kuyt is usually automatic for the people from the spot, and the sending off actually helped Everton until the players inevitably tired. Everton are at their best when sitting deep and compact. Moyes does nothing better than organizing his defense, and Liverpool had surprisingly few opportunities despite a man advantage for almost 70 minutes.

Liverpool started the better side, intelligently keeping possession – even if mainly in their own half – to make sure Everton didn't start afire (which is what doomed Liverpool's last away league game). That start resulted in two early chances: Downing on the break centering just ahead of an open Suarez, followed by Kuyt capitalizing on Jagielka's mistake, looping a high cross to Suarez at the back-post but tamely headed straight at Howard.

Everton unsurprisingly responded, winning five corners and two dangerous left-channel free kicks in the first 20 minutes, but Liverpool's set play defense was excellent, with Carra, Carroll, Skrtel, and Lucas dominant in the air against tough opposition. Then came the game-changer.

Martin Atkinson clearly remembered his last Merseyside derby, where he failed to send off Pienaar until the South African racked up multiple dismissal-worthy offenses, and only sent off Kyrgiakos in an incident where both the Greek and Fellaini should have marched. That's the only explanation for Rodwell's straight red. His studs were marginally high, with a trailing leg designed to take a second bite at Suarez's ankles, but it was yellow at best under normal circumstances. Somehow, it's tough to empathize.

As said above, the sending off actually initially helped Everton, as much as a sending off can. Everton knows how to defend with backs against the wall. Liverpool had all the possession, but couldn't carve out opportunities until late in the half. Early balls in Carroll's direction weren't coming off – the strike force failing to link as they had at Wolves – while both Hibbert and Baines sealed off the flanks. Liverpool's first of two chances came on a mistake from Jagielka: a clear, unnecessary penalty taking out Suarez on the left edge of the box. Up stepped Kuyt, so deadly from the spot and in derbies. His low, placed penalty was too easy for Howard: a smart reaction save, but also the Dutchman's worst spot kick. A minute later, Adam pinged an effort off the crossbar from the same location he created an own goal against Wolves, the sixth time Liverpool hit the woodwork since losing to Spurs.

Liverpool kept creating chances after the interval. Carroll had two threatening headers from corners – the first cleared off the line by Saha, the second scrambled behind by Howard – followed by Kuyt placing wide after a quick free kick, but the away side looked increasingly disjointed and frustrated. Finally, substitutions broke that ubiquitous deadlock. With 23 minutes to play, veterans Gerrard and Bellamy replaced derby debutantes Adam and Downing and made all the difference. Gerrard added dynamism, patience, and intelligence in midfield. Bellamy's terrier pace created Carroll's opener.

Everton's increasing fatigue certainly helped, penned back and chasing since Rodwell's exit, but Liverpool still needed an excellent team goal to go ahead. Lucas intelligently spread play to Bellamy on the counter, with both Hibbert and Neville retreating too deep, unable or unwilling to press the ball. Sliding it through to Enrique at the byline, the left-back's cross was cleverly dummied on the bounce by Kuyt (whose run drew both center-backs), warned by Carroll, who blasted on the half-volley for his first league goal of the season. Redemption. Potential realized.

Ten minutes later – with Everton's sole response a quick, tame effort from Cahill immediately after the restart, released by a long flick-on – Liverpool had the crucial second. This one was down to Suarez's innate unwillingness to give up, aided by some baffling defense from the usually reliable Distin. Carra's hoof (and I hesitate to call an accurate long-range pass a hoof, but it is Carra...) found Kuyt between defenders, who knocked down for the Uruguayan. Beating Distin, Baines made a lovely recovery tackle. But with Distin still retreating, the defenders got in a muddle, and Suarez fortunately picked up possession for a point-blank, easy-as-you-like death blow, placed past Howard with his weaker foot. Game, set, match, celebration.

Of course I'd rather focus on Liverpool's resiliency, perseverance, and skill in finally finding the needed goals. It's only the second clean sheet of the season, both surprisingly coming in early kickoffs away from Anfield. Lucas was typically outstanding in a big match (stat line: 68/74 passing – with 40/46 passes forward – 65 passes received, 4/6 on tackles, 2 interceptions, 2/3 on aerial duels); Carragher was untouchable, winning every aerial duel against the dangerous Cahill and Saha; Enrique continued to impress, close to cementing his status as one of the three best left backs in the league; and Kuyt was Kuyt, solidifying the right flank, ensuring Baines rarely threatened with his outstanding crosses, no matter the surprising spot kick mishap. Both Liverpool's strikers scored on their derby debuts, and Dalglish's double substitution made a massive difference. Tactics worked exactly as drawn up, even though it was surprising to see Liverpool stick with the 4-2-2-2 against a packed midfield prior to the man advantage.

But the post-match media narrative will undoubtedly focus on Atkinson's contentious decision, despite subsequent worse fouls by Fellaini, Jagielka, and Hibbert going unpunished. Given past history in derbies, let alone past Liverpool luck with red cards, I'm certainly less than sympathetic. And I'd much rather focus on Liverpool's professional, eventually comprehensive win away from Anfield in one of the most important fixtures of the season.