31 December 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 QPR

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h), Stoke (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Not much surprising; Liverpool controlled the match from start to finish, got the early goals (emphasis on the plural) in the first 30 minutes which allowed them to cruise to the finish line without breaking a sweat in the second half.

The 520 completed passes and 614 attempted passes were second- and third-most Liverpool played in a single match this season. The side completed more against Sunderland and Norwich, attempted more against just Norwich. Those are the only three league matches where Liverpool have attempted more than 600 passes and completed more than 500.

First proposed after the 4-0 victory over Fulham, the Reina passing theory remains in effect. Reina completed 20 passes against QPR, Liverpool won. Reina completed 16 passes against Stoke, Liverpool lost. The majority against QPR were short passes, but he even completed more than 50% of his long passes (six of 11). The updated record when Reina completes 20 or more passes is 5W-1D-1L; 1W-3D-5L when he doesn't. When the opposition presses the goalkeeper and defenders, forcing more long passes from Reina, Liverpool struggles to build attacks. Thankfully, not all sides can press Liverpool like Stoke, Villa, and a handful of others.

The shot-by-shot chart emphasizes just how much Liverpool took its foot off the gas in the second half. The side's only shot in the final 35 minutes was Agger's blocked effort following a short corner. Comparatively, ten of Liverpool's 19 shots came in the final 20 minutes of the first half, including the killer third goal, with four in the three minutes prior to that death knell. A spell of pressure wearing down the opposition, leading to a goal. That's exactly what we haven't seen enough of this season. Liverpool took more than 15 shots in a single half just once this season: 21 in the second half against Aston Villa (and we all remember how that worked out, mostly because 11 of those 21 came outside the box). There have been three matches this season where Liverpool took fewer than 15 shots in 90 minutes: against United, Everton, and Chelsea.

Similar is the case when comparing Liverpool's passing chalkboards for each half. It's even clearer when considering just the attacking third passes, attempting 21 fewer in the final 45 minutes. Most notably, there's a big hole on the right flank. Much of that is due to Enrique's injury – compare Downing and Suso's passes received – but Liverpool were also simply far less attacking-oriented after the interval.

Some credit for that also goes to QPR's change in tactics; Redknapp wasn't kidding about "damage limitation" with the Derry for Cisse substitution. QPR made just one more tackle and three more interceptions in the second half, but those interceptions came far deeper in their own half, just as happy as Liverpool to keep the scoreline at 3-0, sitting back in order to prevent yet another breakthrough.

One of QPR's (and Cisse's) many failings was a failure to test Agger and Skrtel in the air, which was a large reason for both Villa and Stoke's success. The away side won 11 of the 19 aerial duels; Villa won 16 of 26, Stoke 24 of 50. That wasn't even close to an issue yesterday. QPR won just one in Liverpool's defensive third: Clint Hill out-jumping Raheem Sterling in the 77th minute during a free kick – a free kick that Liverpool eventually counter-attacked from. However, Steven Fletcher should present more of a problem on Wednesday, especially with Sunderland's willingness to cross through Johnson and McClean, as well as Enrique's likely absence at left back.

30 December 2012

Liverpool 3-0 QPR

Suarez 10' 16'
Agger 28'

The first half was another "proper response" to a Liverpool disappointment. The second half was a mere formality that both sides probably would have rather done without. So be it; that'll more than do. Goodbye and good riddance, 2012.

It followed the same script as Liverpool's last proper response. Lose to Villa, hammer Fulham, out of sight by halftime. Lose to Stoke, hammer QPR, out of sight within 30 minutes. I don't think this is the consistency that Rodgers was after, but it's consistency none the less.

That performance made it fairly easy to understand why QPR prop up the Premier League table, but – like against Fulham – Liverpool fully merited its early advantage. This time it was thanks to Suarez, all Suarez, creating both goals from next to nothing after laying a marker by testing Cesar with a fierce blast in the third minute. Clint Hill won't enjoy watching replays of the opener, made when Suarez received a pass from Henderson in space between the lines and charged at Hill, completely bamboozling him with a shoulder feint, then sprinting past to easily slot into the corner. Opta's head of content sarcastically called it a Suarez throughball for himself. He wasn't far off.

Six minutes later, that same man tallied again: flicking on a Skrtel long ball for Downing, getting the return pass and racing across the byline. His low cross towards Sterling was well cut out by Onouha, but Suarez was first to the rebound by some distance, smashing in with his left foot from point-blank range.

From there, it looked as if Liverpool could have any scoreline they chose. QPR's ragged defense retreated deeper and deeper and Liverpool monopolized the ball, with Henderson heavily involved as the most advanced midfielder and Gerrard making excellent runs from deep. Taarabt was literally the only QPR player making an effort, and was limited to more-than-hopeful shots from distance, none of which truly tested Reina.

Liverpool chose 3-0, all but declaring after Agger headed in from a short corner, the second time Liverpool's scored from a short corner in the last three games after going a full year without doing so. Gerrard had a deflected shot cleared off the line in the 37th and sailed an effort over the bar four minutes later, but otherwise, Liverpool were happy to be comfortable.

On the one hand, it's completely understandable to take the foot off the gas after a packed festive season, two more matches within a week, and with handful of players and staff suffering from sickness (Rodgers, Brad Jones, and Glen Driscoll had to miss the match with norovirus, Colin Pascoe took Rodgers' place but reportedly had a different illness). On the other, a curb-stomping – which QPR were totally there for – is not only tons of fun but good for morale. Especially when it's a Harry Redknapp side getting curb-stomped.

Liverpool took 15 shots in the first half. They took four in the second half. That about sums it up. Lucas replaced Henderson, Suso replaced Enrique, and Carragher came on for Allen in the final minutes as the side cruised home with next to no energy expended.

Unfortunately, the only incident of note in the final 45 minutes was an injury to Enrique: at best a hamstring strain, at worse a hamstring tear. Neither is good. Whether he's replaced by Downing or Johnson, with Wisdom at right back, is a discussion for another day, but he's assuredly missing the next few matches at the very least. It just wouldn't be Liverpool without some bad news.

Like against Fulham, it's hard to tell how much was due to Liverpool competence or QPR's incompetence. Given QPR's league form, it's tempting to assume their incompetence played a large part in it. Nonetheless, credit where due. In those first 30 minutes, Suarez was at his unplayable best; Clint Hill's having nightmares for at least a week. Gerrard was again outstanding in a deeper role, making smart runs into the box (and unlucky not to score at least once) while contributing with some key defensive plays. His five tackles and three interceptions were both team highs. Allen and Gerrard kept Taarabt fairly quiet despite those multiple shots from distance, Henderson did well in an attacking role, and Agger and Skrtel both responded brilliantly at the other end of the pitch, marking Cisse into such oblivion that he was taken off at half-time for a defensive midfielder. At the same time, it's the first time that QPR have conceded more than twice in Redknapp's seven matches, as well as the first time they've lost by more than a single goal.

QPR may have been utterly dire, but at least Liverpool end 2012 on a positive note. Another annus horribilis, arguably the third in a row, started with a 0-3 away defeat, but ends with a 3-0 away win (don't bother looking up the respective opposition). There's obviously a long, long way to go, but here's hoping it's a sign of better to come in 2013.

29 December 2012

Liverpool at QPR 12.30.12

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-3 QPR (a) 03.21.12
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 02.11.96
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.30.95

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Stoke (a); 4-0 Fulham (h); 1-3 Villa (h)
QPR: 1-2 WBA (h); 0-1 Newcastle (a); 2-1 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Gerrard 4; Skrtel 2; Agger, Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Sterling 1
QPR: Taarabt 4; Cisse, Zamora 3; Mackie 2; Granero, Hoilett, Nelsen 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Allen
Downing Suarez Sterling

Joy. Another "bounce back" match. Haven't been enough of those so far this season.

Unlike on Boxing Day, there should definitely be some changes for this one. As usual, the preeminent questions are about rotation in midfield and who'll play on the flanks in attack. With the preferred back four fit, the preferred back four will start, despite concerns about form after the displays against West Ham, Villa, and Stoke.

That Rodgers spoke about the need to manage Lucas' fitness when discussing injury concerns makes me think that the Brazilian may be left out of tomorrow's XI. Although that might not be the smartest idea with QPR's Adel Taarabt lurking dangerously between the lines.

Regardless, I'd be incredibly surprised if Allen didn't start for the third successive match. And assuming Lucas doesn't start, that leaves Shelvey and Henderson competing for the last spot. Because Gerrard's starting because Gerrard starts, end of discussion. Either Henderson can play deeper, with Allen behind Gerrard, or Shelvey reprises the attacking midfield role he played against Fulham and Stoke. Considering how poorly his last performance went, I'd think the former is the more likely possibility. But again, this is all dependent on whether I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, and Rodgers truly will rest Lucas.

The front three seems slightly more straight-forward. Like Allen, Sterling also looks certain to come back into the side, meaning Downing and Suso are in contention for the final slot; as far as we know, Assaidi's still battling a knee problem, and Joe Cole has reverted to being Joe Cole after his one-off rage against the dying of light against West Ham. After his inauspicious display against Fulham, and despite the team-wide failure against Stoke, Downing seems deserving of a run of games, a chance at multiple consecutive starts under Rodgers before the opening of the transfer window.

After a month on the job, Harry Redknapp's QPR remain rooted to the bottom of the table, but only behind Reading on goal difference (at least until Reading host West Ham later today). Redknapp finally broke QPR's cherry with a home win against Fulham two weeks ago, but failed to build on that breakthrough, losing to Newcastle and West Brom in the last two matches.

'Arry 'as kept a fairly consistent XI during his reign, with his hands partly tied by injuries. Nelsen, Onouha, Park, and Julio Cesar are doubtful; Boswinga, Zamora, and Andy Johnson are definitely out.

Redknapp's side has played 4-2-3-1 in five of his six matches – the lone change to 4-1-4-1 against Wigan, ostensibly to counteract Martinez's unusual formation – and it'll probably be the case tomorrow as well. If Cesar's not available, Robert Green will start in goal. If neither Nelsen nor Onouha are fit, the back four should be Fabio, Ferdinand, Hill, and Traore. Two from Mbia, Faurlin, and Diakite have been the midfielders in all of Redknapp's matches, and the former two have been preferred in the last three. The attacking line of three will be one of two options: either Taarabt plays in the middle, flanked by Mackie and Wright-Phillips, or Granero starts as the #10 with Taarabt and one of the two aforementioned wingers; Junior Hoillett, often rumored to be a Liverpool target last season, has primarily been used as a substitute. Finally, ex-Liverpool player Djibril Cisse will start up front.

Given how much trouble Carlton Cole, Benteke, and Kenwyne Jones have caused Liverpool during the last month, maybe it's a good thing that Zamora's out injured. But Djibril CIsse presents a whole host of different concerns. He's still the same player he was at Liverpool: incredibly fast and incredibly frustrating; can score from anywhere on the pitch and will shoot from everywhere on the pitch; and will probably be flagged offside approximately 16 times per match. On his day, he's unplayable. As with all ex-Liverpool players, I worry tomorrow will be that day, but in theory, Agger's well-equipped to deal with Cisse's talents. Like Cisse, Taarabt's also capable of the deliriously brilliant and the simply delirious. If Lucas is out, Allen will have a tough task marking him. And if he plays on the flank – most likely the left flank if that's the case – Liverpool's fullback, whether Johnson or Enrique, will have to restrain his runs forward to keep an eye on him. Conversely, that fullback will also know Taarabt won't be tracking back.

In the previous two seasons, a trip to relegation-threatened QPR would be cause for concern; for the most part, Liverpool punched above their weight against the top six then proceeded to draw or lose to sides in the bottom half of the table. Like, you may remember, against this side on this ground last season, when Liverpool somehow squandered a 2-0 lead in the final 15 minutes. The opposite has been the case this season. All six of Liverpool's league wins have come against sides below them in the table, while the only defeat against a bottom-half team was two weeks ago to Aston Villa. Who – yes, yes – proceeded to concede 12 goals in their next two matches while scoring none, but bear with me anyway.

The above isn't to suggest this will be a cut-and-dry three points. We're all well aware – fans, players, manager, the world – that there are no cut-and-dry three points for Liverpool. Not this season, not anymore. Nonetheless, the expectation is there. Everyone expects a response to the Boxing Day Massacre, expects Liverpool to win, even though they've won so few matches during this season and this calendar year. If you thought the howls of condemnation were loud after Stoke, I shudder to imagine the criticism if Liverpool turn out a similarly disappointing performance tomorrow.

It's the last match of 2012, a year that began with a demoralizing 0-3 defeat and somehow saw many more nadirs. End it on a different note, please.

27 December 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Stoke

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

There were an awful lot of similarities with the previous match against Stoke. Fewer passes, both attempted and completed, than is usual for Liverpool, while Stoke attempt and complete about half of Liverpool's reduced total. Lots and lots of Liverpool possession, and Liverpool taking more shots and creating more chances.

The main difference? In the match at Anfield, Stoke put just two of its six shots on target, both well saved by Reina. Yesterday, Stoke put five of ten shots on target, three in the back of net. The front four players took a combined six shots: five were on target, three resulted in goals; the off-target shots came from the fullbacks and one of the holding midfielders. At the same time, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, and Wisdom defended excellently in October, albeit with Crouch playing as a lone striker and Walters on the flank. Conversely, Enrique, Agger, Skrtel, and Johnson defended quite poorly yesterday. Liverpool made fewer tackles in the October meeting (12 to yesterday's 17), but almost twice as many interceptions (17 to yesterday's nine).

Like Şahin in the reverse fixture, Shelvey simply wasn't good enough in the attacking midfield role. Şahin was out-matched physically, not used to English football, let alone Stoke's patented brand of rugby. Shelvey was just a non-factor. One 30-yard shot on target that trickled to Begovic just before halftime, and one chance created through 90 minutes isn't good enough. 74% pass accuracy isn't good enough – the worst of any outfield Liverpool player – especially when that total drops to 60% in the final third. It's a lot easier to criticize with the benefit of hindsight, but all five of Henderson's final third passes were completed, creating two chances in just over 30 minutes. And no, not all of them went backwards or sideways. In addition, Henderson also made two tackles; only Lucas and Enrique made more for Liverpool. I realize he played in a different, deeper role after coming on, and he still has multiple faults in his game – who doesn't in this squad? – but his work rate and ability in possession could have improved Liverpool's ball retention at the business end of the pitch, something dreadfully needed yesterday.

The best visualization of Liverpool's sterility after Stoke's third goal comes in StatsZone's chances created chalkboard. Liverpool created 10 chances before the 49th minute: nine of those chances were passes into the penalty box. The team created half that total in the subsequent 40-or-so minutes, but all five led to hopeful chances outside the box, which Liverpool rarely score from, and of which only Gerrard's 87th minute blast actually tested Begovic. Similarly, nine of Liverpool's 11 shots before the 49th minute came inside the box, but five of the six shots after were from outside the box. After scoring three for the first time in 44 matches, two goals to the "good", Stoke were more than willing to camp out in its own area and let Liverpool frustrate themselves to death. Which Liverpool proceeded to do.

As always with Stoke, much of the match was decided in the air. Surprisingly, Liverpool actually won two more aerial duels than Stoke. But look where they took place. Just eight of 50 aerial duels were in Stoke's half. Kenwyne Jones' aerial presence led to all three Stoke goals: forcing Agger into the awkward header that set up Walters for the first, scoring with a header for the second, and winning the flick-on for the third. As noted in yesterday's review, Jones won 19 of his 32 contested headers, 79% of Stoke's successful aerial duels, and one of the 13 he didn't win somehow led to Stoke's equalizer.

Despite missing the target with six of his seven shots, and only completing one successful dribble of seven he attempted, it's hard to fault Suarez for yesterday's result. He was one of the few who never stopped running, never stopped trying to find the break-through. Unlike some of his attacking cohorts. And, incidentally, finally won a penalty. 40 successful out of 48 attempted was the most passes he's played in a single game, with better accuracy than his average so far this season (83.3% compared to 75.8%). The last time Liverpool faced Stoke, he completed 27 of 36 passes, which is almost exactly his average for the season, while taking three fewer shots – all off-target or blocked – and creating one less chance than he did yesterday. Suarez and Gerrard were responsible for 71% of Liverpool's shots; two defenders each took one, as did Shelvey, Sterling, and Suso. Insert usual *as Gerrard and Suarez go, so go Liverpool, because no one else steps up on a consistent basis* line here. Man, I'm sick of writing that line.

26 December 2012

Liverpool 1-3 Stoke

Gerrard 2' (pen)
Walters 5' 49'
Jones 12'

Liverpool, so stunned by winning its first penalty of the season (within 45 seconds no less), proceed to throw the match away in the next ten minutes and are never able to recover. Yep. Sounds about right.

Can you hate a team for being good at what they do? Yes, yes you can. Because, seriously, fuck Stoke.

The equalizer was Stoke boiled down to its pure essence. Shawcross thumps it out of defense, Jones out-jumps Agger to knock down the long ball, Walters picks up possession, shoves over Skrtel, and fires a shot past Reina before Johnson can come over to cover. It canceled out the dream start, as Skrtel's hoof towards Suarez baited Shawcross into dragging the Uruguayan down by his shirt, with Webb actually pointing to the spot and Gerrard sending Begovic the wrong way.

For the seven minutes after Walters' strike, Liverpool were in full panic mode, pretty much running around screaming as if on fire, allowing Stoke to get another very Stoke second. Surprise, surprise, this time it was a set play: Whelan's corner, Jones in front of Agger and Gerrard at the near post, and neither Reina nor Johnson able to repel the header thanks to being shielded by Shawcross. It rivaled Everton and West Ham for the speed in which elation turned to utter despair. Unlike against West Ham, and less so Everton, it did not get better. Not by a long shot.

At least Liverpool settled after the 25th minute – thank heavens for small favors – with Etherington's blast from the top of the box Stoke's only chance to extend the lead while Liverpool were on tilt. Gerrard had an effort from the top of the box narrowly wide, Suarez saw his near post shot saved by Begovic, but otherwise, the rest of the first half was standard Liverpool versus Stoke fare: lots of possession, very little breakthrough, with excellent pressing and last-ditch defending by the home side.

And then the second half started in the worst possible manner, despite replacing Suso with Sterling, as Stoke completed the Stoke hat-trick. The first was a hoof from the defense, the second from a corner, the third from a long throw. Wilkinson lofted it into the box, Jones won yet another aerial duel, and Walters controlled with his chest, beautifully (I use that term loosely) steering the volley past Reina with Agger not sticking close to his man.

Game well and truly over. Henderson finally came on, again for Lucas (as against West Ham and Villa) rather than the disappointing Shelvey, while Joe Cole's cameo once again demonstrated just how bare Liverpool's cupboard is. While Liverpool continued to dominate possession (final tally: 62.4-37.6%), Stoke let Liverpool dominate possession, happy to soak up the away side's impotence. I'm struggling to think of any meaningful second-half chance until Gerrard's 87th minute shot from distance finally tested Begovic. It just got more and more frustrating, both for Liverpool players and fans, with hardly any, if any, silver linings.

One step forward, two steps back. Again. A storming comeback at West Ham without Liverpool's best player followed by a demoralizing defeat at Anfield to a side which went on to lose its next two matches by a combined 12-0. A rampant, never-in-doubt 4-0 victory against a side Liverpool hadn't beaten since May 2011 followed by today's abortion.

It was the first time in 44 matches that Stoke scored more than two goals in the league, the last against relegated Blackburn on November 26, 2011. It was the third time Liverpool conceded three goals in a league match this season; it happened four times through all of last season, five times in 2010-11, and just nine times in total through Rafa Benitez's 228 league matches (never more than twice in a season).

I have a lot of time for Brendan Rodgers, whose hands are tied in a lot of ways, but he cannot keep making the same mistakes. Not wanting to change a winning side was marginally understandable, but that both Suso and Shelvey would struggle against Stoke was fairly easy to predict. As against Everton (and, to a lesser extent, Wigan), Rodgers had to rectify his initial error by taking off Suso at halftime, although Shelvey stayed on for the full 90 minutes.

Most unforgivable is the chronic regression in defense, both in the back four and Reina. Jones and Walters have given Skrtel and Agger problems before, but they ran riot today. Jones won 19 of his 32 aerial duels, just as Benteke won 10 of 17 and Carlton Cole 7 of 12. I simply do not understand why the defense has gotten worse – we know Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Enrique are capable players – and Liverpool no longer have the excuse of Lucas' absence.

Finally, the tactical inflexibility is getting old. Not counting last season's cup ties, Liverpool have best coped with Stoke when playing with three at the back, whether in the 2-0 win in February 2011 or even the 0-0 at Anfield last January. Like when Rodgers made the halftime change against Everton, it would have blunted Stoke's primary threats, whether hoofed from defense or crossed from the flanks. Coates' continuing absence, seemingly on track for a January loan, is harder and harder to explain.

I cannot and will not call for the manager's head. Even if Rodgers ultimately proves to be the wrong choice – which I'm nowhere near certain will be the case – Liverpool would assuredly be worse off with yet another managerial change so soon. He needs time and patience, this side needs time and patience – we knew as much going into the season – especially given the squad's holes and faults. But make no mistake. At times, he's been just as culpable as the players and the ownership for Liverpool's failings this season.

The Liverpool players cannot keep making the same mistakes, FSG cannot keep making the same mistakes (wave to the £12m Daniel Sturridge, everyone), and Rodgers cannot keep making mistakes.

Or Liverpool will keep taking two steps backwards after one step forward.

25 December 2012

Liverpool at Stoke 12.26.12

2:45pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 10.07.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12
0-0 (h) 01.14.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.26.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Fulham (h); 1-3 Villa (h); 3-2 West Ham (a)
Stoke: 0-0 Tottenham (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-0 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Gerrard 3; Skrtel 2; Agger, Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Sterling 1
Stoke: Crouch 4; Walters 3; Adam, Kightly 2; Jerome, Jones, Whitehead 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Suarez Sterling

Blah blah blah cold, wet Wednesday night at Stoke. Merry Christmas indeed.

My biggest question is whether Rodgers sticks with the 4-2-3-1 midfield set-up used against Fulham. That was the usual formation during Lucas' injury, but once the Brazilian returned against Southampton, the midfield was reversed, with Gerrard and Allen ahead of Lucas against the Saints, West Ham, and Villa. And it worked well against Southampton, less so against West Ham, and vastly less so against Villa. Fulham's makeshift midfield almost assuredly made Liverpool look better than it had the right to last Saturday, but the balance was far better, while Gerrard in a deeper role provided more vertical, attacking passing than Allen or Lucas, while his trademark run from far outside the box led to the game-killing second goal.

That Joe Allen is fighting a knock in addition to being fatigued seems a good reason to rest him for a second successive match. If Liverpool stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation, he's also the most likely to make way. Gerrard thrived against Fulham, while Allen hasn't shown anywhere near enough in the final third to play in a similar position as Shelvey last Saturday. However, in theory, Henderson could replace Jonjo in that formation tomorrow: more dynamic than Allen, better able to keep possession (and a cool head) than Shelvey, although similarly ineffective in front of goal as Allen (and, sadly, as Shelvey's been of late).

However, that's more a wish than my "best guess" at a line-up. Reverting to the 4-1-2-3 with Gerrard and Allen ahead of Lucas, or Gerrard/Allen/Lucas in the 4-2-3-1 (probably with Gerrard as the attacking midfielder), or the same midfield as against Fulham seem just as likely as the above alternative, if not more so.

Downing deserves another chance to build on his increasing confidence, while Sterling should come back into the starting XI after finally being rested. Otherwise, as per usual, the lineup pretty much writes itself. The back four will be Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, and Enrique as long as the latter's properly adjusted to fatherhood; Gerrard will almost undoubtedly start again; and Suarez will be the central striker.

Liverpool haven't beaten Stoke at the Britannia in the league since Tony Pulis' side were promoted in 2008 – the lone win coming in the fourth round of the Carling Cup last season – drawing twice and losing twice. Meanwhile Stoke are unbeaten at home in the league this season, winning four (Swansea, QPR, Fulham, and Newcastle) and drawing four (Arsenal, City, Sunderland, and Everton) at the Britannia.

10 days ago, Liverpool conceded three times at home to the side that had scored the fewest goals in the Premiership. Tomorrow, they'll face another similarly goal-shy opponent; Stoke have the joint-fewest goals in the league, 15, along with Villa and QPR.

Liverpool are long since familiar with Stoke's tactics, although increasing familiarity hasn't made coping with it any easier. Defend deep; use elbows, studs, and borderline criminal tackles to full-effect; and play for the counter-attack: hoofing toward Crouch, using Walters and either Kightly or Etherington's speed on the flanks and crossing ability. In addition, given my constant focus on ex-players, Stoke are likely to start two of Liverpool's – Adam (back from leave after the sad, untimely death of his father) in a more attacking role than he ever played at Liverpool and Crouch up front, although the Gangly Handful has been used as a substitute in the last three matches (with Kenwyne Jones starting) since returning from injury.

Delap and Wilson are long-term casualties, while some guy named Michael Owen might finally be fit for once after injuring his hamstring (he still has hamstrings?) more than two months ago. Stoke's probable line-up has one or two changes from that which drew 0-0 at Tottenham on Saturday, something like: Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson; N'Zonzi, Whelan; Walters, Adam, Kightly; Crouch.

Stoke has earned – more than earned – its label as one of the least likable clubs in the division. But, credit where due, Pulis has a game plan, signs the right players to get the most out of that game plan, and referees let them get away with that game plan. After the massive, much-needed moral boost against Fulham, an opponent that's given Liverpool so many fits over the last four years, away from Anfield, is a good test of just how well the sid has responded following the most recent nadir against Villa.

24 December 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Fulham

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a); Aston Villa (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool's passing totals were typical. Since beating Wigan, when Liverpool attempted "just" 418 passes (completing 353), Liverpool have attempted between 533 and 564 passes in the six matches, completing between 455 and 496. Whether losing to Villa or Spurs or beating West Ham and Southampton, Liverpool's passing totals and accuracy have remained fairly consistent, within that narrow range. The win over Wigan and draw against Everton were the only matches where Liverpool have attempted fewer than 450 passes.

One difference stood out. Compare Reina's passing against Fulham to that against Villa last week. It's a small sample size, assuredly with other variables, but when Reina has time to distribute from the back, Liverpool's results have been vastly improved. Liverpool have 4W-1D-1L when Reina completes 20 or more passes. When Reina completes fewer than 20 passes, Liverpool's record is 1W-3D-4L. Incidentally, Jones never completed more than 14 passes in the four league matches he started (three draws, one win). Reina's shot-stopping has been problematic (to say the least) this season, but his distribution remains excellent, crucial to the way Liverpool want to play.

Downing is just the fifth Liverpool player to register five chances created in a league match this season, along with Gerrard, Suarez, Sterling, and Johnson. Johnson did it against Southampton; Sterling against Reading; Gerrard against Fulham, Southampton, Swansea, Norwich, and Arsenal; and Suarez against Fulham, Newcastle, and Reading. Saturday was the first time that three Liverpool players created five or more chances in a single; while Liverpool have become known for spurning scoring opportunities, it'd be pretty amazing if Liverpool created 15 chances through three players and still somehow failed to win. All season long, we've said that as Gerrard and Suarez go, so go Liverpool. But if a third player can step up in attack – whether Downing, Sterling, or Johnson – Liverpool's odds drastically improve.

Just six of Liverpool's 23 shots came from outside the box. Against Villa, it was 14 of 29, with only one on target. Similar goes for a fair few of Liverpool's earlier disappointing draws: 12 of 23 against Newcastle (one on target), eight of 18 against Stoke (two on target), and 10 of 23 against Sunderland (one on target). Matches like the 5-2 win against Norwich, where Liverpool scored with three of its six shots from outside the box, are the rare, rare exception. Liverpool are infrequently potent, but they're usually more potent when taking shots from inside the penalty area.

In addition, Liverpool scored with its first shot on target, something that's only happened four other times this season: the 2-2 draws against City and Everton, the 5-2 win at Norwich, and the 3-2 win at West Ham. Liverpool scoring early, especially when it's the first shot on target, usually leads to decent results. As said in the match review, Liverpool have scored in the first ten minutes in just three matches this season: the 5-2 at Norwich, 5-3 at Young Boys, and the 4-0 win over Fulham. When goals come very early, goals also seem to come very often.

Saturday's match was just the second time since the start of the 2010-11 season where Liverpool scored from two corners in a single league match; the other was in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa last December. Liverpool also did it against Brighton in the FA Cup last season and Young Boys in the Europa League this season. Suarez's injury time goal was also Liverpool's first short corner goal in nearly a year, since Maxi scored on Boxing Day against Blackburn. And if that one doesn't count – as the short corner was initially cleared, only for Adam to fire a dangerous cross back in – the last short corner to lead to a goal was Ngog against Rabotnicki in September 2010. Needless to say, it's rarely a successful tactic for the Reds.

Finally, it was the first time Liverpool registered more tackles and interceptions than its opponent this season. The opposite is usually the case: Villa, West Ham, Spurs, Southampton, Swansea, Sunderland, United, Arsenal, and West Brom all had more tackles and interceptions. Liverpool had more tackles against Wigan, Reading, Newcastle, and Everton; more interceptions against Norwich, Chelsea, and City. At the same time, nine of 21 tackles and six of 19 interceptions in Fulham's half, demonstrating the effective of Liverpool pressing the opposition.

22 December 2012

Liverpool 4-0 Fulham

Skrtel 8'
Gerrard 36'
Downing 51'
Suarez 90+2'

That was the perfect response to last Saturday's loss. No exaggeration. Perfect.

But after matches like that, it's hard to know how much to credit Liverpool's improvement – which there was a lot of, all over the pitch – or Fulham's comprehensive atrociousness.

With Gerrard in a deeper role and Shelvey as an orthodox attacking midfielder, shifting Liverpool to a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first time since Lucas' return, the midfield balance was vastly better. But Fulham's makeshift midfield clearly suffered from Sidwell and Diarra's absence; that was just Karagounis' second start of the season, while Richardson played as a left-winger in all six of his previous appearances.

That change in personnel led to a change in formation, the first time Fulham have played with five in midfield this season (unless you count Ruiz as an attacking midfielder rather than a second striker, which is basically semantics, and even then it'd be 4-2-3-1 rather than a orthodox 4-5-1). Liverpool's defensive improvement could be credited to the better balance in midfield and Gerrard providing more support for Lucas, or to Berbatov's supreme isolation in the first half. By the time Rodellega came on as a substitute for the second half, Liverpool were two up, looking about as safe as a side can ever be with a two-goal lead.

And Liverpool were two up because Liverpool's finishing was about as good as it gets – even considering Agger's remarkable miss from two yards out in the 25th minute. Just under half of Liverpool's shots were on target, and just under half of its shots on target found the back of the net. But that's not necessarily surprising when the side grows in confidence after an early goal; Liverpool's scored in the first ten minutes in just two matches this season: the 5-2 at Norwich and the 5-3 at Young Boys. And while Skrtel's control and volley for the opener were outstanding, especially for a defender, an awful lot of credit goes to Hangeland's horrific defending, leaving his man wide-open to "help" Hughes close down Agger even though the corner went over all three.

Maybe most surprising was that Downing played his best game in a Liverpool shirt: setting up the second goal with a wonderful throughball and scoring the third after cutting inside. But he might have faced the worst left-back he'll face all season; Riise – sadly for those of us who remember him fondly – is a dim shadow of the Liverpool version, and he was already declining by the time Benitez sold him more than four years ago. The Norwegian's defending on Downing's goal is a textbook example of exactly what you shouldn't do against an inverted winger; yes, Downing had to find the target, which he hasn't done anywhere near enough, but it was an "easier" goal than those against Gomel and Anzhi.

Three up after 51 minutes, Liverpool could play keep away, preventing any meaningful Fulham opportunities then countering at pace. Shelvey, Johnson, Downing, Sterling, and Gerrard all had chances against a clearly demoralized opponent – a couple were blocked, a couple narrowly wide, and Gerrard's effort well-saved by Schwarzer.

Meanwhile, six of Fulham's eight shots came after Liverpool's third, with four in the final ten minutes. Three were easy saves for Reina, two were well off-target, and one was blocked. And finally, in injury time, Liverpool's counter-attack bore fruit, tearing down the pitch after a Fulham free kick, winning a quickly-taken corner. Enrique ran at Fulham's unready defense along the byline before cutting back for an on-rushing Suarez, hammering in the goal he deserved to break a month-long, six-match scoring drought. It was his 11th in the league so far this season, the same total he scored in last season's 31 appearances.

As awful as Fulham were, Liverpool fully merited that, both because of Rodgers' tactical changes and individual players' performances. Downing deserves all the praise he's receiving, with his first assist and first goal in the league. Even more important was his movement in the final third; he varied between cutting inside and staying wide for crosses, clearing space for Johnson rather than statically waiting for the ball. Shelvey linked play between the lines to excellent effect in addition to his work rate pressing from the front – as did Suso. Other than Lucas, Shelvey and Suso made the most tackles for Liverpool, with nine of Liverpool's 21 total tackles in Fulham's half. Enrique's return was more than welcome, a constant threat down Liverpool's left, even more impressive considering I doubt he slept much after the birth of his first child yesterday.

It's also another example that when Gerrard plays well, Liverpool do well. Lucas clearly benefited from the captain playing in a deeper role, with seven tackles and three interceptions, not relied upon to cover the entire width and breadth of Liverpool's half. In contrast to some performances in this position, Gerrard's passing was mostly excellent, not overly reliant on the long ball but usually completing it when attempted, creating five chances and tallying two assists. And his run for Liverpool's second shows the damage he can do from deep, making the perfect dart behind the defense to receive Downing's excellent throughball, a run that's far more difficult to make when playing in an advanced position. I'm honestly amazed – and fearful – that he remains Liverpool's only player to feature for every minute in the Premier League.

After two dismal 0-1 losses against this opponent, Liverpool run riot, similar to the 5-2 demolishment during the impressive end of the 2010-11 season.

But as much as it's a cause for optimism, further proof that there's an excellent team in there somewhere, we've been here before. It's just one match, like the 5-2 victory over Norwich or 3-0 win over Wigan was one match. That Fulham were so insipid should be an additional caution. We'll see how much effect it has going forward in just four days, against another side that's caused Liverpool multiple problems in recent seasons. One swallow isn't a summer, once burned twice shy, etc etc.

Still, after the year we've had, it's certainly not a bad way to finish 2012 at Anfield.

Merry Christmas.

21 December 2012

Liverpool v Fulham 12.22.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Fulham (h) 05.01.12
0-1 Fulham (a) 12.05.11
5-2 Liverpool (a) 05.09.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.26.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Villa (h); 3-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Udinese (a)
Fulham: 1-2 QPR (a); 2-1 Newcastle (h); 0-3 Tottenham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Gerrard 2; Agger, Cole, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Fulham: Berbatov, Petric 5; Sidwell 4; Duff 3; Baird, Kacaniklic, Rodallega, Ruiz 2; Richardson 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Henderson
Suso Suarez Shelvey

Can we have rotation? Please?

Allen and Sterling are prime candidates to begin on the bench with the fixtures piling up over the holiday season. Sure, maybe it's unlikely that Sterling will mark the first match after signing a new contract by not starting, but he and Allen – more than others – could use the rest, especially with a trip to Stoke on Boxing Day.

At least Enrique's fit, almost certain to return to his left-back berth, but Assaidi's still out with a knee problem while Şahin has just returned from surgery on his broken nose.

Henderson seems the likely replacement for Allen, playing well – mostly as a substitute – over the last month. Shelvey and Şahin are also possibilities, but I think the former should stay in the front three while the latter will most likely be on the bench at most. I'd suggest Gerrard could use a game off as well – still the only Liverpool player to feature in every minute of the Premier League – but spelling one midfielder seems the most change Liverpool would be willing to make in that section of the pitch, especially with Lucas recently returned from his long-term injury.

As for the front three: Assaidi and Borini are still out, Joe Cole is still Joe Cole – having reverted to being Joe Cole after his crucial cameo against West Ham. So if Sterling doesn't start, Liverpool's options for the flanks are Suso, Shelvey, and Downing. And that's it. A 19- and 20-year-old who prefer to play in the middle and one of Liverpool's biggest transfer flops ever. So maybe Sterling won't be rested. But if he is – and he probably should be – it'll be two from those three flanking Suarez, and I'd prefer the first two, even if it is cramming round pegs in square holes. Still, the above is more a wish, as it seems Downing's likely to feature, either instead of one of those two, or with Shelvey dropping into midfield rather than Henderson.

After beginning November in the Top 7, Fulham have struggled over the last six weeks. In the first 12 matches, Fulham won four, drew four, and lost four, scoring 25 goals (joint-second most in the league). But in the last six matches, they've won one, drawn one, and lost four, scoring just five goals, currently in 13th and behind Liverpool by two points.

Fulham could start two ex-Liverpool players on its left flank: Alex Kacaniklic – sent to Fulham in that horrific Konchesky deal – and John Arne Riise. Kacaniklic has started just once during Fulham's six-match slide, coincidentally the win against Newcastle, having injured his hamstring in the 1-3 lost to Sunderland. Riise will assuredly start at left-back.

Right-back Sascha Riether will be fit, but Bryan Ruiz, Simon Davies, and Mahamadou Diarra are long-term casualties. Steve Sidwell is suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season against QPR.

Jol's side almost always plays 4-4-2: either Rodellega or Petric up front with Berbatov; two from Duff, Kacaniklic, Frei, and Dejagah on the flanks; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, and Riise in defense; and Schwarzer in goal. I'm curious to see who'll replace Sidwell in midfield – that suspension along with Diarra's injury depletes Fulham at that position. Baird will be one of the two, but after that, Jol's strapped for options. Chances are that it'll be either Kieran Richardson, usually a winger or full-back, or 35-year-old free transfer Giorgos Karagounis, who's rarely featured so far this season. Riether's also played in midfield before, for his previous club (FC Köln), but hasn't done so since transferring to Fulham.

Rodgers has promised a response after last Saturday's disappointment, certain players have promised a response after last Saturday's disappointment. Even without those interviews, it's fairly obvious that Liverpool needs to respond after that set-back, facing a side which beat them 1-0 in both matches last season. There's no point in looking at the table, focusing on where Liverpool lie, for the near future. All that really matters is Liverpool returning to steady improvement, which we'd mostly seen until that massive defeat to Aston Villa.

20 December 2012

Zenit in the Round of 16


I reckon that Zenit St. Petersburg is one of the worst draws Liverpool could receive.

Not only is it another long, debilitating trip to Russia (I hear Russia is lovely in February!), but Zenit are an incredibly talented side. Or, at least, they've got an awful lot of incredibly talented players: Hulk, Danny, and Kerhakov in attack; Witsel, Shirokov, Denisov in midfield. Bruno Alves and Lombaerts are both outstanding center-backs, Malafeev a talented keeper, and Anyukov is Russia's starting right back.

Managed by Luciano Spalleti, formerly of Roma, Zenit play a 4-3-3 system – very similar to the 4-1-2-3 Rodgers has used since Lucas' return – but a system which thrives on the counter-attack. You know, the style of play that Liverpool's all-too-prone to conceding against.

There are a couple of positives. Zenit, like Liverpool, are often worse than the sum of their parts suggest they should be. They've only lost three league matches – against Rubin Kazan and Terek Gronzy at home and Dynamo Moscow away – but have drawn five (joint-most in the division) and were outgunned in its Champions League group, losing to Anderlecht and Malaga away, and AC Milan at home; they were the only side that Anderlecht beat in that group. A last day win at already-qualified AC Milan is the only reason the group looks close after the fact, but Zenit had little chance of progression after losing its first two fixtures.

Both Hulk and Witsel have struggled to settle, each costing €40m this summer, leading to this wonderful, tolerant, certainly-not-racist letter from a Zenit fans' group currently making the rounds. Hulk's decision-making often sucks, too frequently too greedy and selfish, but on his day, he's lightening quick, direct, and can score from anywhere – again, just the type of player who often punishes Liverpool. Danny's slow return to form and fitness following an eight-month layoff from February through September due to a cruciate injury should improve Zenit tremendously; he was the star player against Spartak and AC Milan before picking up a red card for dissent in the match against Anzhi last week.

The St. Petersburg club is currently third in the Russian League, three points behind Anzhi, a side Liverpool beat fairly easily – despite the 1-0 scoreline – when using a strong line-up at Anfield, and narrowly lost to in Russia with a vastly weaker squad. Zenit has faced Anzhi twice, home and away, and drew 1-1 both times. The transitive property suggests that Liverpool have an excellent chance to advance to the next round, but then again, the transitive property rarely if ever works in football.

Finally, Zenit will face Liverpool having spent two months without playing competitive football. That 1-1 draw against Anzhi on December 10 was the final fixture before the Russian Premier League's winter break; the league won't resume until early March. This happened the last time Liverpool were in the Europa League, facing Sparta Prague in the round of 16, who clearly felt the effects of the Czech League's three-month break. Of course, Liverpool were also poor, needing a late late late second leg goal from Kuyt to progress 1-0 on aggregate, but of course they did because Liverpool.

If Liverpool advance, they'll face the winner of the Basel-Dnipro tie, with the latter side both seeded and favored. We can complain about the next bridge after getting over the first, but the last thing Liverpool will need after a trip to Russia is one to the Ukraine.

17 December 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

From the Spurs match infographic:
The short version is: statistics lie. Or, at least, some statistics lie. But we've long since learned that possession and passes don't necessarily translate into results.

Lesson learned again.

75.8% – in the second half – is the most possession Liverpool have had in a single half this season. 72.1% is the most Liverpool have had in a match, the only time Liverpool have been above 70% for the full 90 minutes.

146 are the fewest passes completed by a Liverpool opponent this season, and yet yesterday's result is Liverpool's largest home loss since getting beat by the same opposition and the same scoreline in August 2009.

Just to highlight the vast discrepancy in passing, only three Aston Villa players completed more passes than Jordan Henderson – a substitute who played for 30 minutes. Combined, Villa's three central defenders completed fewer passes than Henderson, just 14 in total.

All that passing and all that possession led to exactly one goal, a somewhat fortuitous strike via Gerrard's headed deflection, a goal tallied with the match already long out of reach.

Villa's 18 tackles weren't an especially impressive total; Arsenal, Everton, Reading, Southampton, Spurs, Swansea, and Wigan all made more against Liverpool. Similar goes for interceptions, as Villa made 14. What's notable was that almost all the interceptions and tackles came outside the penalty box, aptly demonstrating just how much trouble Liverpool had even getting into the danger area.

More importantly, what they did do well was block, clear, and head away attempted crosses. 12 of Liverpool's 29 shots were blocked (including five of Suarez's seven), Villa attempted 53 clearances and won 16 of the 26 aerial duels (Benteke with 10 of 17), and just four of Liverpool's 37 open play crosses found a teammate (five of the successful crosses came from seven corners).

As Herd, Clark, and Baker closely marked Shelvey/Cole, Suarez, and Sterling, Johnson and Downing were the quote-unquote free players, sometimes marked by Lichaj and Lowton but usually with a bit of space as Villa's five defenders dropped into a single deep line. Which is evident in the two's passing totals – the most in the Liverpool squad, and the first time Liverpool's top passer wasn't a central midfielder (either Allen, Gerrard or Lucas in 15 of the previous 16 matches) or a central defender (Agger against Tottenham). But neither made full use of the extra possession.

One of Johnson's four shots led to Gerrard's redirected goal, one of Downing's shots stung Guzan's palms, but otherwise, both players' attacking stats left much to be desired. Johnson's three other shots were off-target, as was Downing's one other. Johnson created two chances: a low cross to Suarez in the 59th minute (shot blocked by two defenders) and a backheel to Suarez in the 84th (again, shot blocked). Downing created one chance: a low cross to Agger in the 82nd minute (who shanked the shot wildly). All three of those created chances came after Liverpool were already down by three. Downing's ten other open play crosses failed to find their target, as did Johnson's five. Both Johnson and Downing completed 84% of their passes in total, but just 71% and 78% respectively in the final third. One of Johnson's seven passes into the box found its target; two of Downing's four did, but neither led to a Liverpool chance.

This isn't to excoriate those two players while giving the other 11 a pass – Suarez, Sterling, Gerrard, Allen, Lucas, and Shelvey were all below their usual standards, especially in the final third – but Johnson and Downing were the players with the most space against Villa's well-marshaled formation. And did little with it.

Liverpool created 17 chances in total (but just three before Villa were two up). None were clear-cut chances. 204 final third passes, 37 open play crosses, seven corners, 29 shots, and zero clear-cut chances. Which speaks to both Villa's excellent defending and Liverpool's utter impotence in attack. Meanwhile, two of Villa's ten created chances were clear cut, and Villa scored both of them. That's the match. End of interview.

Aston Villa presented a lot of the same problems that West Ham did last week. Benteke was outstanding in the air, with the ball at his feet, and in front of goal, miles superior to Carlton Cole, who tormented Liverpool's defense during stretches last weekend. All three of his shots were on target, he provided the assist for the other goal, he won 59% of his aerial duels against one of the league's center-back pairings, etc. etc. With good reason WhoScored named him one of the five players to receive 10 out of 10 in their match performance rating so far this season. And with direct, counter-attacking football, Villa utilized his talents perfectly. Benteke and Weimann were two of Villa's top three passers; Guzan to Benteke was Villa's most frequent pass combination, completing 10 more passes than the second-most frequent: Benteke to Weimann. Incidentally, Liverpool's were Agger to Downing and Downing to Sterling, by some distance.

Unlike against West Ham, Liverpool couldn't rally after conceding against the run of play – this time conceding more through mistakes against a talented striker rather than bad luck – and were let down by wastefulness in the final third as Villa defended with more bodies and more competence than last week's opponent. Combined, it's a recipe for disaster, no matter how much possession you have or how many passes you string together.

15 December 2012

Liverpool 1-3 Aston Villa

Benteke 29' 51'
Weimann 40'
Gerrard 87'

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

The lesson, as always, is never ever get optimistic about Liverpool. It is inevitably a lie. There are no turning points.

So much for the belief that a resilient comeback victory at West Ham marked a new dawn. Nope. Same old Liverpool, with the added bonus of conceding multiple times to a side that Liverpool had no business conceding against in the first place.

Credit where due: Lambert's three-at-the-back strategy nullified Liverpool, and Villa were undeniably potent on the counter-attack. Benteke caused even more problems than Carlton Cole last week, and was far, far better in front of goal and with the ball at his feet. But it's hard to give the opposition manager full credit when we've seen similar so often. The fact that Villa kept a clean sheet through the opening 30 minutes was due to Liverpool wastefulness as much as Villa defending. During that spell, Liverpool's pass accuracy in the final third was a paltry 66%, with just three completed passes into the penalty area and one chance created. A disciplined, determined defense surely played its part, but awful final balls from Gerrard, Suarez, and Johnson – Liverpool's three best attackers – did as much to prevent an opening goal.

And then came the stomach punch. Well, stomach punches. It's hard to decide which of Villa's three goals was the most infuriating. Two started with Liverpool giveaways; sandwiched between was Liverpool's tender underbelly carved open like a Thanksgiving turkey.

For the first, Suarez lost possession at the halfway line, Lichaj and Holman moved the ball down the flank, Holman laid off to Benteke, and no one (read: Joe Allen) closed the striker down, as Benteke rammed a shot just off the inside of the near post from more than 20 yards out.

The second began as Bannan spun away from Gerrard in his own half, pushing the ball forward for Weimann and Benteke's attack. The two strikers sliced and diced through Liverpool's midfield; Weimann's throughball seemingly took Benteke too far wide, but a brilliant backheel removed Skrtel from the picture, setting up a wide-open Weimann on the penalty spot, with neither Agger nor Allen tracking his run and Downing unable to cover in time. Just a wonderful goal. Unless you're a Liverpool fan, in which case it's utterly soul-killing.

Both were regrettable, both were avoidable, but the third was probably the most exasperating. Cole stupidly lost possession in his own half, turning into trouble after receiving the pass from Allen, allowing Holman to intercept and hand off to Benteke. The striker ran unhindered at Liverpool's dishelved defense – Skrtel backed off and Allen recovered too late and too weakly – ambling into the box before blasting past Reina from 12 yards out. Maybe someone tackle the striker who's caused Liverpool so many problems before he gets that far, yes?

And in the meantime, Liverpool were summarily awful from the moment the first goal went in until the final whistle. No cohesion in midfield or attack, little self-belief, lots and lots of standing around, and lots and lots of crosses to no one in particular. The substitutions that worked against West Ham added nothing today, with Cole at fault for Villa's third and Henderson unable to add much to Liverpool's attack in place of Lucas, especially with Villa determined to defend resolutely when ahead by such a comfortable margin. Once again, Liverpool attackers were massively outnumbered when inside the penalty area, all too often resorting to shots from distance (14 – six off-target, six blocked) and crosses (44, with just nine "successful"). Liverpool's attack made it easy for Villa. Liverpool's attack needs to stop making it easy for opposition defenses.

Gerrard's consolation was nothing more than that, another notch on the bedpost against the side he's scored against more than any other. Johnson attempted another shot from long range – able to replicate his brilliant strike last week with none of them – but this time, Gerrard's stooping header redirected the blast past Guzan. Amazing what's possible when Liverpool get more than one player in a dangerous position deep in the penalty box, but pity it wasn't a lesson learned sooner.

Look, we all knew there would be growing pains this season. Nonetheless, this is a game that Liverpool should be winning no matter the circumstances. Villa had won all of one away game this season, a narrow 1-0 win at struggling Sunderland (where, naturally, Liverpool drew 1-1 after going behind). They had scored just four goals in eight away matches, just 12 goals through the 16 Premiership matches.

So far, Liverpool have beaten Reading, Wigan, and Southampton at home. That's it. Teams currently occupying 17th, 18th, and 20th (after Villa's win lifts them all the way to 14th).

Liverpool aren't going to win many matches when Suarez, Gerrard, and Johnson all disappoint, when they're so unable to defend counter-attacks. It's slightly unfair to single out those players when Liverpool were comprehensively awful to a man, but that's how it goes when you're reliant on the big names. Gerrard and Allen look every bit the players who've started every single match, Sterling's also suffering from fatigue, Lucas was positionally poor when defending counter-attacks, Skrtel and Agger both underperformed on Villa goals, etc. etc. I cannot explain why Henderson - in better form than both Gerrard or Allen – didn't start, or why Suso and Şahin have become personae non gratae. Sure, there's a lot of blame for individual players, but it's hard to defend some of Rodgers' decisions as well.

Last week's win meant all the talk was about being four points behind fourth. Well, after this, Liverpool are still just five points behind that place (albeit with Tottenham and West Brom still to play), but also just seven outside the relegation zone. Momentum can swing both ways, and in such a tight league, just a couple of bad results will be the difference between fourth and fourteenth. Liverpool already have had too many bad results.

Last week's win didn't lead to a proper response to build on Liverpool's momentum. Now we'll get to see Liverpool's response to further adversity against Fulham next week.

14 December 2012

Liverpool v Aston Villa 12.15.12

10am ET, live in the US on Fuel TV

Fuel TV? *shrugs* If memory serves, it's only the second time there has been a Premier League match on Fuel TV. The other was Liverpool's last day loss at Swansea seven months ago. It's channel 618 on DirecTV, if that helps you.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11
0-1 Villa (a) 05.22.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.06.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Udinese (a); 1-0 Southampton (h)
Villa: 4-1 Norwich (a); 0-0 Stoke (h); 1-1 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Agger, Cole, Enrique, Gerrard, Johnson, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Villa: Benteke 3; Bent, Weimann 2; Agbonlahor, Clark, El Ahmadi, Holman, Lowton 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Downing
Gerrard Allen
Sterling Suarez Shelvey

Once again, there are the usual few line-up questions for Liverpool.

It appears Enrique's out for another match, quoted on the official site yesterday saying that he didn't know if he'd be fit – which means he probably won't be fit. Rodgers says he'll be a late fitness test, but it seems when that's the case, those players don't usually play. His most likely replacement remains Downing – cue bitching and moaning – but Wisdom, with Johnson moving to left-back, or Robinson are also possibilities. Underused, unlikely possibilities, but possibilities nonetheless. I made a big deal of ex-players featuring against their former club last weekend, but I'm doubtful whether that magic will hold true for Downing. Because, sadly, I'm doubtful about anything to do with Downing. Incidentally, he did next to nothing in both starts against Villa last season, but hey there's a first time for everything.

Lucas-Gerrard-Allen has been the preferred midfield since the Brazilian returned from injury, but this could be a match where Rodgers tests his options, with both Şahin or Henderson capable of playing in Allen's position. It's been strange to see the on-loan Turkish midfielder so out-of-favor; the broken nose suffered against Udinese shouldn't preclude Şahin from featuring, but we haven't seen him in the Premiership since November 11. Aside from a disappointing match – for all involved – at Tottenham, Henderson's steadily improved since coming on as an early sub against Wigan a month ago, seizing his newly-founded chances to impress.

Finally, there's the usual debate over who joins Suarez and Sterling up front. Shelvey reclaiming a role on the left, as against Southampton, seems the most probable choice, but Cole, Suso, Assaidi are other alternatives – and probably in that order – along with Downing if he doesn't start in defense. Rodgers may well stick with Cole after his performance last Sunday, but I don't really see the point in pushing one's luck. Shelvey did well there against Southampton, would be heavily involved in the final-third buildup, and had a good match in an unfamiliar striking role against West Ham.

Liverpool may have just scored three goals for only the third time in the league so far this season, but Suarez's return will be a welcome sight. He was Liverpool's best player in this fixture last season, scorer of the lone goal, and should be rested and raring to go after a week off.

Aston Villa are currently 16th in the league, two points outside of the relegation zone. And all of six points behind Liverpool. They're only out of the bottom three because of a five-match unbeaten run, with two draws and three losses after being demolished 0-5 by Manchester City, drawing Arsenal, QPR, and Stoke and beating Reading and Norwich City (the latter in the League Cup). Like Liverpool, they've found some semblance of form after a rocky start in a new manager's system.

Wednesday's Capital One Cup quarterfinal victory featured a full strength line-up, with Villa scoring four goals for just the second time since February 2011 (the other was a 4-2 extra-time win in the same competition 10 weeks ago against a second-string Manchester City). The Midlands club have scored the fewest goals in the league so far this season, tallying just 12. If I had to guess, I'd assume they'll be buoyed rather than fatigued by their midweek match, especially on the back of a good run of form.

Villa have played three at the back in the last two fixtures. The starting line-up against Norwich was Given; Lichaj, Herd, Clark; Baker, El Ahmadi, Delph, Lowton; Holman, Benteke, Bent. They used a similar style in the 0-0 against Stoke City, with Guzan, Westwood, Bannan, and Agbonlahor in place of Given, El Ahmadi, Delph, and Bent. Chances are tomorrow's XI will look fairly similar to last weekend's. Weimann – who came on for Bent and scored two of the three Villa goals in the last 12 minutes on Wednesday – is also a likely starter, whether in place of Holman or pushing the Australian deeper in midfield.

Villa have one of the few squads both thinner and younger than Liverpool's. And it's a squad that's also struggled with injuries. Gardner, Dunne, and Petrov are all long-term absentees; Bent was injured in Tuesday's match at Norwich; and defenders Enda Stevens and Ron Vlaar are both questionable. The latter two injuries are seemingly what prompted the shift to three at the back.

Liverpool and Villa are also the two teams with the worst luck when it comes to penalties. Liverpool have conceded four, Villa three – two of the most penalized teams in the league. Neither have won a spot kick so far this season, two of the five teams who've failed to do so. I wouldn't be surprised if that changes tomorrow, although I absolutely don't want to guess which side will benefit. Hopefully, we'll get to have the long-promised party.

Last season, this was a typical Liverpool fixture. Liverpool start the better side, are arguably wrongly denied an opener, concede an unlikely goal, and spend the next 80 minutes trying to redress their own wrongs, able to get a late equalizer but not a winner despite near-constant pressure. We've seen similar in matches against Sunderland, Newcastle, and Chelsea so far this season.

The hope is that last weekend's fightback against West Ham was something of a turning point, proof that the team can push past adversity and actually, you know, come from behind to win a game. Hopefully they won't need to come from behind tomorrow. And facing a side that's beaten Liverpool at Anfield just once in the last decade (albeit with three draws) should be an excellent opportunity to build on the confidence gained with last Sunday's heartening win.

11 December 2012

Liverpool versus Messi: The Battle for 2012

Necessarily wider than it is tall, click to open in a new window.

Messi, Messi, Messi. He broke Gerd Müller's three-century-old record for goals scored in a calendar year! He's scored 86 goals since January!

Big deal.

In the great Liverpool versus Messi battle of 2012, Liverpool are narrowly on top with less than three weeks to go.

Messi may have 86 goals for Barcelona and Argentina. Liverpool have scored 88 goals. Therefore, Liverpool are better. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Messi sneakily took the lead after Liverpool's awesome second half of 2011-12 (remember that?!) by playing matches into late May and June, because he's a sneaky non-Englishman, and then by starting the season in good form, unlike wholesome, honest sides such as Liverpool. The scoundrel. But the Reds are back on top, thanks to scoring five in those ever-so-impressive wins against Young Boys and Norwich, where they'll assuredly stay forever and ever and ever. It's not like Messi scored five in a single European match or anything (*obstinately refuses to check veracity of that statement*).

Messi won one trophy: the Copa del Rey. Liverpool won one trophy: the Carling Cup. So their years were pretty much completely even. Fair dos, Lionel.

For some reason, Messi's goals for both Barcelona and Argentina count. Liverpool didn't even need any international fixtures to surpass Messi's total.

Not to mention that Messi needed 66 games to reach this mark. Liverpool have done it in ten fewer fixtures. Another point in Liverpool's column.

Liverpool were held scoreless in just 13 of its 56 matches. Messi was held scoreless in 22. A whole third of his matches. How embarrassing. Three times, Messi went three consecutive matches without scoring a single goal. Liverpool's haven't been held to successive matches without scoring once, let alone three times.

The defense rests. Nice try, Lionel. Maybe next year.

Adding club friendlies into the mix wouldn't change Liverpool's margin of victory. Liverpool scored five goals in four summer friendlies, Messi scored five goals in four summer friendlies.

Barcelona has three more matches before the end of year. Barring injury or other Act of God, Messi will almost assuredly play in two of the three: the league matches against Atletico Madrid and Real Valladolid. Having not featured in either leg of the last round, there's a good chance he's left out of tomorrow's Copa Del Rey match against second division Cordoba. Although I wouldn't put it past Barcelona to try to pad his total, the cheaters.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have four fixtures left in December: league matches against Villa, Fulham, Stoke, and QPR. Chances are, they actually play football in all four of them *fingers crossed*. Granted, we've seen winter postponements before, but it seems unlikely. Unless the FA conspire with Mother Nature to screw Liverpool. Again. And despite having to play Stoke, where it'll probably take an Act of God for either team to score, Liverpool should be able to hold its advantage over Messi.1

What's that? How dare I compare a club to a single player? Why don't I see how many goals Liverpool have scored relative to Barcelona?

Quiet you. You're not helping.

P.S. In all seriousness, check out this awesome Messi v Müller infographic from FourFourTwo for more stats on Messi's amazing year.

1) This disclaimer absolves me of all responsibility for when Liverpool fail to score in these matches because we all know I have a tendency to jinx things.

10 December 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Liverpool's passing totals have become incredibly consistent in the last four matches: attempting 533 against Swansea, 556 against Spurs, 555 against Southampton, and 535 against West Ham. This obviously means little in terms of results, winning twice, drawing once, and losing once, but the similarity amuses, and demonstrates that Rodgers' side is at least becoming consistent in one regard, no matter the opposition's playing style.

In other "hey look, Rodgers' philosophy is bearing fruit" news, all three of Liverpool's goals stemmed from long passing movements begun in its own half. There were five passes leading up to Johnson's firecracker, eight prior to Cole's equalizer, and twelve before the decisive own goal. Compare that to the goals that West Ham scored: a penalty after Liverpool failed to fully clear Jarvis' cross and an own goal coming on another Jarvis cross after a free kick.

Liverpool made its fewest interceptions in a match this season – just eight. It's hard to intercept a ball when it's constantly in the air. 44 of West Ham's 308 attempted passes were long passes; only three Liverpool opponents attempted more proportionally: Stoke, Sunderland, and Newcastle. Coincidentally, those four teams attempted the fewest total passes against Liverpool. And Liverpool drew all three of those earlier matches, so, hey, progress! Despite conceding twice – more than against any of those other opponents – Liverpool are doing better against direct sides. Both of West Ham's "direct" goals were just as lucky as good, despite the pressure they put Liverpool under in the final 25 minutes of the first half.

Mohamed Diame's passing totals demonstrate that you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of time on the ball to boss the midfield. Which is handy given the manager he plays for, as Sam Allardyce's sides normally don't spend much time on the ball. He used possession well, rarely giving the ball away and at the base of most West Ham attacks, but just 20 passes in 71 minutes is a surprisingly low total.

Even Diame's tackling and interceptions stats weren't exemplary: four interceptions, three of four tackles successful. One notable chalkboard was his take-ons, winning 4/5, equalling Glen Johnson for most in the match. All four came in the first half: three eventually led to West Ham chances, the fourth to a free kick. At the same time, something that doesn't show up in the statistics was how well he hassled and harried Liverpool's midfield, cutting off passing lanes and pressuring Allen, Lucas, and Gerrard with non-stop running, if fewer tackles and interceptions than expected. It was reminiscent of how Abou Diaby ran the midfield when Liverpool lost 0-2 to Arsenal, but Diaby also attempted three times as many passes as Diame. It's absolutely no coincidence that Liverpool's second and third goals came after his departure, and the incredibly busy goal events chart shows that passes leading to both goals went through areas where you imagine Diame would be playing.

The slim margin of victory aptly demonstrates one of football's maxims: there really isn't one "correct" style of play. All that's required is self-belief and playing your style well, whether it's route 1 or short passing possession. Liverpool, with time, are becoming more adapt at Rodgers' playing style, despite the absence of its talisman yesterday. Liverpool are still prone to defensive lapses when confronted with physical, direct, counter-attacking sides, and Liverpool's shooting remains far, far too wasteful – seen in eight of nine shots from the starting front three either off-target or blocked – but there's still evidence of slow, steady progress. Which really is all we could hope for this season.

And, obviously, a little bit of luck, whether in a contentious penalty decision or fortuitous own goal, certainly doesn't hurt.

09 December 2012

Liverpool 3-2 West Ham

Johnson 11'
Noble 36' (pen)
Gerrard OG 43'
J Cole 76'
Collins OG 79'

From glee to despair to horror to astonishment to elation to anxiety to euphoria. Sports are amazing and terrible and amazing.

It's Liverpool's first comeback win in the league since December 30, 2011. Liverpool's first back-to-back league wins since December 18, 2011. Liverpool's first win after a Europa League fixture this season. Liverpool scored three goals without Suarez involved, including Liverpool's first league goal after the 75th minute, and then another to win the match. Liverpool are in the top 10 and four points off fourth. Joe Cole came up with the crucial equalizer.

It is a literal barrel of monkeys that Liverpool got off its back. Sometimes you just have to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Liverpool couldn't have started better, propelled by mathematical genius Glen Johnson. West Ham's burly threat – hoof and cross, hoof and cross – led to a couple of frightening moments, but Johnson bossed the opening minutes, fittingly scoring a jaw-dropping thunderbolt in the 11th, validating my "always play players against their former club" theory. After reaching rock-bottom in the next 30-45 minutes, there'd be more validation to come.

But West Ham's pressing, pushing Jarvis further and further up the flank until Johnson was less effective, Carlton Cole's ability holding up long balls, and Diame's overall midfield dominance turned the tide. Liverpool certainly weren't helped by a 26th-minute injury to Jose Enrique, replaced by Joe Cole with Downing moving to left-back, but the home side made it hard for Liverpool to keep the ball or build on the early goal, and to be fair, an equalizer always looked likely. Because, well, Liverpool.

Of course, there are valid complaints about how easily the equalizer came, yet another harsh decision from a referee, with Allen punished for a handball despite his arms near his body and the shot from less than a yard away. There was nothing he could do about it. Probert still pointed to the spot. What's most infuriating is that you know Liverpool wouldn't get that call, proven by yet another stonewall penalty ignored in second-half injury time. But we'll get to that.

Noble slotted home the spot kick despite Reina guessing the right way, and with Liverpool on tilt, West Ham scored a second just before the interval. A soft Skrtel foul, a free kick spread wide to Jarvis on the flank, Jarvis' cross bulleted into Liverpool's net by their own captain, arguably fouled by Cole in the process. Just another day in the life for Liverpool.

It's no exaggeration to suggest the first 30 or so minutes of the second half were beyond dire. Liverpool looked awful, completely useless in attack and capable of conceding on the counter at any moment. West Ham vacuumed up Liverpool's ineffective attack and thumped it long for Cole, who held up possession before a last-ditch Liverpool tackle. It was hopeless and infuriating and par for the course.

Until the 72nd minute, that is, when two successive events comprehensively changed the game. Diame, hands down the best player on the pitch, pulled up with a serious hamstring injury, replaced by center-back James Tomkins as a makeshift midfielder. Rodgers responded by sending on Henderson for the tiring Lucas. Those two changes seesawed the midfield battle, and it's no coincidence Liverpool scored within five minutes.

Both of Liverpool's scapegoats were heavily involved in the equalizer, with a large dash of Sterling brilliance. Downing intercepted yet another West Ham hoof, starting the attack which saw Henderson shuttling through midfield before spreading play wide to Sterling. The winger worked an excellent one-two with Shelvey, given far too much space between the lines, before finding Cole with a note-perfect throughball. The former West Ham player made an outstanding run from deep to split the center-backs, dropped his shoulders to feint his marker, and fired first time into the far corner. Absolutely unbelievable. Always play former players against their old club. Always.

We almost got the trifecta three minutes later. Another strong Henderson run after patient buildup from Downing, Allen, and Cole, getting behind the left-back before crossing into a dangerous area, redirected into the West Ham net by James Collins rather than Jonjo Shelvey – although it initially looked like it came from the former academy Hammer. Ecstasy. Sheer ecstasy. Because it's Liverpool, the last minutes were nauseatingly nerve-wracking, requiring some crucial clearances from all four defenders and a free kick from an incredibly dangerous position thankfully ballooned by Maiga. But Liverpool bossed the final five minutes (!!!) of injury time, running down the clock, mainly through Sterling's excellent work, and were denied a clear penalty when Reid felled Shelvey from 10 yards out. Surprise, surprise. We really are gonna have a party when Liverpool win a penalty.

I'm still not sure how Liverpool won that game, although the Henderson/Diame moments had an awful lot to do with it. Still, Liverpool looked lost, demoralized and disconsolate. Rodgers' substitutions initially baffled, and yet it all worked out in the end. It's been far too long since that happened.

It's incredibly tempting to get carried away by the euphoria. There's the comeback, the back-to-back wins, a first win over a team in the top 10, a first away league comeback since the start of the 2009-10 season. Liverpool desperately, desperately needed a win like this: a battling, never-say-die away performance where fortitude and self-belief rather than talent took the three points. The manager's suffered some criticism – some due, some undue – and while Rodgers changes were criticized at the time, both Cole and Downing (and Henderson) proved crucial to Liverpool's victory.

What it is is an identifiable step forward. One small step, not necessarily a giant leap. We needed to see a performance like this – it's concrete proof of progress and should be a massive confidence boost for all involved – but at the end of the day, it's another milestone, not the finish line.