28 March 2012

Liverpool at Newcastle 04.01.12

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

FYI: I'm away all weekend, posting from the road thanks to the magic of the internet, so there will be no review for Sunday's match. Here's hoping history doesn't repeat itself, as the last match I didn't watch live was last season's wonderful contest against Northampton.

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.01.11
1-3 Newcastle (a) 12.11.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.03.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Wigan (h); 2-3 QPR (a); 2-1 Stoke (h)
Newcastle: 3-1 West Brom (a); 1-0 Norwich (h); 1-2 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 7; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Newcastle: Ba 16; Cisse 5; Ben Arfa, Best 4; Sh Ameobi, Cabaye, Jonas, R Taylor 2; Gosling, Guthrie, Obertan 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Kuyt Gerrard Spearing Downing
Suarez Carroll

So, everyone's feeling optimistic? Liverpool are on quite the run. At least this week the match is against a side higher in the table, although away from Anfield. That usually bodes better than the alternative.

Adam's absence has now been confirmed, at least for the near future, while Agger, Bellamy, Johnson, and Kelly remain either doubtful or absent. I suspect Kelly is closest to fitness, while I – like everyone else – truly hope Coates replaces Carragher, even though this is an away match and even if Liverpool have to use Flanagan at right-back.

With Suarez suspended for the reverse fixture, Liverpool played 4-2-3-1, with Bellamy and Downing on the flanks, Henderson behind Carroll, and Adam and Spearing holding midfield. Of course, Liverpool won by replacing Adam with Gerrard, shifting to a more-orthodox 4-3-3. That win wasn't because of any change in tactics or formation, though. Liverpool won because Gerrard, once again, almost single-handedly dragged Liverpool to the win.

Carroll underwhelmed when facing his club last time – and it's hard to say whether that was due to all-too-often general malaise or not being "up for" facing his boyhood club – but Coloccini's absence should help his cause immensely. Once again, I've become a broken record, but Carroll, Suarez, and Gerrard seemingly have to start together considering Liverpool's results with all three in the line-up. And Suarez seemingly can't start as a lone striker/out-and-out #9 again. Liverpool simply don't have the players to provide him enough support.

I suspect Henderson will be taken out of the firing line after being hooked at half-time in the last match, which most likely means Downing and Kuyt will start on the flanks, whether on each's stronger side or as inverted wingers. They switched often in the loss against Wigan a week ago. Or, less likely, Maxi might make another appearance, but I suspect his spot on the bench has been stolen by Raheem Sterling for the majority of the final eight games. Who assuredly won't start.

Newcastle are deservedly a spot ahead of Liverpool in the table, eight points in front thanks to the Reds' most-recent massive disappointments. Unlike Liverpool, Newcastle have taken advantage of playing sides they're supposed to beat, with victories over Norwich and West Brom following a four-match winless streak.

Newcastle are also currently rivaling Liverpool in injury troubles as well. Center-back and captain Coloccini will be the most-missed, out for the next few weeks with a hamstring tear, which means Williamson and Perch will be the Geordies' defensive pairing. Steven Taylor, Best, Marveaux, Lovenkrands, and Sammy Ameobi are also out, while Cisse, Tiote, and Ryan Taylor are questionable, although I suspect all three will be available, especially Cisse and Tiote if at all possible.

Despite trailing off recently, without a goal since February 5, Ba has still scored the same amount as Liverpool's top three strikers – Suarez, Bellamy, and Carroll – combined. January signing Papiss Demba Cisse has picked up the slack, with three goals in the last two matches. At home, Pardew will most likely start with Ba and Cisse up top – as long as Cisse's available, obviously – with Cabaye and Tiote (or Guthrie) in midfield; two from Jonas, Obertan, and Ben Arfa on the flanks; and Simpson and Santon (or Ryan Taylor) at full-back.

All too often, Liverpool have made fools of fans' hopes and aspirations, at least in the league, and themselves. Which makes it fitting that Sunday's match takes place on April Fools' Day.

24 March 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Wigan

Maloney 30' (pen)
Suarez 47'
Caldwell 63'

We should have learned by now. It can always get worse.

After this most recent atrocity, Liverpool have taken all of eight points in 2012: two wins, two draws, and seven losses. An average of 0.73 points per game. It's now five games without a win against Wigan, Liverpool's worst recent record against any club in the division. That's the same Wigan who had won four matches all season – profligate, awful Wigan scoring two goals with just two shots on target. Liverpool have now dropped 11 points against the bottom four sides; only Wolves were exempt from the alms Liverpool have repeatedly handed to the poor.

Rather than just the individual mistakes and confidence issues on full view in the final 13 minutes of Wednesday's match, Liverpool added questionable tactical/personnel decisions to complete the trilogy of error. Phenomenal. More fun for the whole family.

I still have no idea why Andy Carroll didn't start. Yes, he's struggled at times and yes, Liverpool had other problems, but that was the most baffling. Rather than returning to the 4-4-2 which worked well against Everton and Stoke in the FA Cup, Dalglish redeployed the 4-3-3 variant used in recent losses to Arsenal, Sunderland, and QPR. Once again, Carroll was left on the bench, with Liverpool still unbeaten when Carroll, Suarez, and Gerrard all start.

This time, Liverpool didn't even have early chances to repeatedly spurn. Wigan's 3-4-3 steadily soaked up any home side "pressure," with Suarez again almost always isolated as a lone striker, easily marked by three defenders. Suarez and Downing combined once, in the 25th, with the winger released by the Uruguayan's clever flick, but blasted narrowly wide of the far post.

And Wigan were ahead five minutes later. Henderson conceded a soft free kick on Liverpool's right, Carragher and Skrtel comprehensively failed to clear the set play, and Skrtel insanely booted Moses in the face when trying to "defend." Another mindless decision from Liverpool's strongest defender; it's almost as if he's more unsettled when partnered with Carragher. Who knew? After a three-minute delay, Maloney hammered the spot kick past Reina despite the keeper guessing correctly.

Liverpool had little response until the second half, when Carroll came on for the struggling Henderson, completely ineffective in an advanced free role. Two minutes later, Liverpool were level. Gerrard surged forward and centered for Suarez, freed from multiple markers because Carroll also demanded attention. Even if ostensibly uninvolved, Carroll's inclusion creates space for others, proven with five goals against Everton and Stoke. Six minutes after that, Liverpool apparently took the lead through Suarez's second, bundled over the line after Skrtel headed a free kick toward goal. But Mason, probably correctly, disallowed it, bundled over by Suarez's arm, accidentally or not.

Rather than continuing to push on, Liverpool's lack of confidence reappeared, as the disallowed strike took the steam out of the home side's attack. And then Wigan retook the lead: another free kick from the left channel, more hapless defending, and a surprisingly calm, collected finish by center-back Caldwell, in acres of space after the cleared free kick came back in, played onside when Carragher – the closest defender – stepped forward but Skrtel and Carroll didn't, fortunately receiving the ball from a fortuitous deflection off Liverpool's long-time stalwart. Bad luck and stupidity comprehensively punished. The story of Liverpool's season.

Another set-back, further back-sliding. Liverpool never looked like getting back into the game, and what else is new. That Shelvey and Sterling came on, for Downing and Kuyt in the 73rd and 84th respectively, is the only positive worth mentioning, the only players who looked "up for it," although to little effect. Otherwise, we were treated to more and more forced, improbable passes and heart-warming 'it's not MY fault!' arm-flailing. Wigan unsurprisingly, correctly shut up shop, and only Sterling's pace or a set play seemed to have any chance of unlocking it. Sterling and Shelvey's performances, combined with Coates' on Wednesday and Carragher's lack of today, makes what I wrote prior to Sunderland moot. Now it really is time to play the kids. It can't get any worse, can it?

The most frustrating thing – more than the lack of league progress (if not outright regression since the New Year) – is that Liverpool can look wholly competent (in the cups, against stronger opposition) and then completely dismal in the space of consecutive games, if not in the same game. Players impress and tactics work against the likes of Stoke and Everton – or Chelsea earlier in the season, among other examples – but then Liverpool somehow refuse to learn from those positives in subsequent matches. And then there's the repeated, constant confidence issues.

I will still maintain that this is a transitional season, and it's not wholly surprising to see the side struggle in the league with Champions League qualification out of reach. The same happened in the final two games last season after some thoroughly excellent performances against Birmingham, Fulham, and Newcastle. All the recent bad makes it hard to remember some of the good. Success is not immediate, Rome wasn't built in a day, etc. etc. But the inconsistency from everyone involved remains infuriating, disappointing, and costly; it's happened far too often to be coincidence. And this inconsistency can cost both players and manager their jobs.

23 March 2012

Liverpool v Wigan 03.24.12

11am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 12.21.11
1-1 (h) 02.12.11
1-1 (a) 11.10.10
0-1 Wigan (a) 03.08.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 QPR (a); 2-1 Stoke (h); 3-0 Everton (h)
Wigan: 1-1 West Brom (h); 1-1 Norwich (a); 0-2 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Wigan: Di Santo, Gomez 4; McArthur, Moses, Watson 3; Caldwell, Diame, Rodallega 2; Crusat 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Liverpool's bad luck charm in past campaigns, Mason did an excellent job in the away leg of the Carling Cup semi-final and Liverpool have won the three matches when he's been in charge this season.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Gerrard Spearing Downing
Suarez Carroll

While it hasn't been announced yet, rumor – an almost certainly accurate rumor from a typically correct source – is that Charlie Adam will miss the rest of the season after suffering what looked like a similar injury to the one which ruined Lucas' campaign. Bellamy, Agger, and Johnson are also all still out.

As for the other player who went off against QPR, Dalglish said that Kelly should be available, although target="blank">Steve Clarke hinted differently at the end of an interview primarily about Coates. Even if Kelly's fit, Coates should start, regardless of whether Carragher's available after starting the last three matches as well. And if Kelly's unavailable, Dalglish will have to choose between Flanagan and Carragher at right back. While Flanagan hasn't started since August, I truly hope Dalglish picks the former if it comes to that. Of course, the devil we know is frequently the "safer" option – safer obviously a relative term – especially since Liverpool had defended excellently in its last three matches until 13 minutes of utter madness on Wednesday.

Last time Liverpool faced Wigan – another frustrating, malignant draw – Suarez was the lone striker, with Maxi between the lines, Downing and Kuyt as inverted "wingers," and Adam and Henderson in midfield. Regardless of Adam's injury, I doubt we'll see similar tomorrow, and not just because that line-up led to zero goals. Primarily, Carroll should be restored to the line-up after being rested against QPR, hopefully returning Liverpool to the formation which led to wins over Stoke and Everton.

The two midfielders who missed the reverse fixture – Gerrard through injury, Spearing through suspension – look likely to start their fourth consecutive match, although there are obvious worries about Gerrard playing 90 minutes in four games over 11 days. Adam's injury should lead to more opportunities for Shelvey (I guess not loaning him out again was the right move), but not necessarily in a starting berth tomorrow. Henderson's still more likely to play on the right, and the flanks are still Liverpool's biggest question mark. Inverted wingers, with Kuyt or Maxi on the left and Downing on the right, as against Stoke and QPR? Or Downing wide on the left with Henderson tucked-in on the right, as against Everton? Your guess is as good as mine, and all this assumes Dalglish deploys a 4-4-2 rather than the 4-1-2-3/4-3-3 we saw in the first half against QPR.

Roberto Martinez has deployed five at the back on occasion this season, with Alcaraz, Caldwell, and Figeroua as a back-line and Boyce and Beausejour as wing-backs. That's a distinct possibility tomorrow, but the 4-4-1-1 used when these sides met in December seems more likely, the same formation used in Saturday's 1-1 draw with West Brom. That XI was Al Habsi; Boyce, Caldwell, Alcaraz, Figueroa; Moses, McCarthy, McArthur, Beausejour; Maloney; Di Santo. Wigan's injury woes are limited to doubts over Rodallega, midfielder Dave Jones, and back-up keeper Pollitt.

Wigan are one of the few teams more goal-shy than Liverpool, with just 15 goals this season and with a top-scorer who has just four in the league. Martinez's side dominated West Brom at home a week ago but scored just once despite multiple chances, and ended up drawing when Scharner equalized with West Brom's lone shot on target. This may sound vaguely familiar.

In 19th, only off the bottom only on goal difference (right where QPR were prior to Wednesday's match), Wigan have one just once in their last 15 matches: a 2-1 win at Bolton five weeks ago, drawing seven and losing seven. The Latics have won just four matches all season: that win at Bolton, plus QPR at home in August, at Sunderland in November, and at West Brom in December.

Of course, that three of those four wins came away, combined with Liverpool's utterly abominable record against lower-table sides, doesn't bode especially well. And Liverpool haven't beaten Wigan in the last four attempts: a tepid 0-0 draw this season, two 1-1 draws (after taking the lead in both) last season, and an 0-1 loss at the DW Stadium in March 2010 which helped seal Benitez's fate.

Not only have Wigan been Liverpool's bogey side recently, every relegation contender has seemingly been Liverpool's bogey side this season. Liverpool's failings have been laid bare, repeatedly. And as everyone's aware, there is little time left to remedy them.

21 March 2012

Liverpool 2-3 QPR

Coates 54'
Kuyt 72'
Derry 77'
Cisse 86'
Mackie 90+1'


In a season full of stupid, regrettable results, this may well be the worst – a line I've definitely written before. Liverpool, despite some poor play, had all three points wrapped up, signed, sealed, and set for delivery. And, beyond carelessly, handed them straight back to an equally-if-not-even-more insipid QPR. Because of individual mistakes from supposedly-stalwart veterans, and mostly because this team has all the confidence of a hormonal, pubescent teenager.

Liverpool were never going to deploy the same XI which beat Stoke, or Everton for that matter. Three games in eight days, with Wigan on Saturday, made that an impossibility. Still, the change in formation, if not personnel, was surprising. Adam and Kuyt came in for Maxi and Carroll, with Liverpool shifting to a 4-3-3.

While it wasn't as fluid as the 4-4-2 we'd seen in the last two matches, it was certainly strong enough. Had Liverpool – read: Suarez – scored in the 4th minute, it might have all been different. Once again, Liverpool began like a house engulfed in flames, but were frustratingly unable to burn said house to the ground. Adam's through-ball put the Uruguayan striker one-on-one with Paddy Kenny almost immediately, but Suarez shot too close to the keeper rather than rounding him. Liverpool racked up 11 corners in the first 20 minutes, but failed to score on any; Skrtel and Kuyt had efforts cleared out of the six yard box, while Downing had a couple of shots blocked in open play.

As has become all too typical, Liverpool started to push too hard, too frantically, making too many mistakes once the goal didn't come. Then came the QPR chances and Liverpool injuries. Enrique nearly scored the goal of the season at his own end, amazingly redirecting a QPR cross backward but over the bar. Then Cisse sent half of Loftus Road into hysterics when his shot appeared to hit the back of the net, but actually whistled past the post and behind the goal.

Just as debilitating were injuries to Kelly and Adam, the first evidently not over the knock suffered against Stoke, the latter when wildly (read: typically) chasing a ball down the byline. Coates came on for Kelly in the 34th, with Carragher moving to right back and Coates strangely slotting in at right center-back, probably because the coaching staff doesn't trust Coates without Carra lecturing him along. Fat lot of good that did. Adam went off at halftime, replaced by Henderson, which completely changed the formation.

Henderson played tucked-in on the right, Downing shifted to the left, and Kuyt drifted behind and around Suarez, similar to the formation used against Arsenal. And it stuttered and stopped and stuttered and cheaply conceded possession and then Coates struck. Oh boy did Coates strike. There's no way words will do it justice.

It looked to be another chance gone on Liverpool's 14th corner. Gerrard's delivery scrambled away to Downing, but cleared off the line. Ho hum, yet another near goal rifled away at the last minute. At least it didn't hit the woodwork. But Zamora's clearance didn't take the Uruguayan defender's technical ability into account, a trapeze artist's goal, acrobatically scissor-kicked past an unsighted Kenny. The ferocity of the strike would have taken the keeper into the net with it were he unfortunate enough to get in the way.

Suarez's something from nothing, with the woodwork unsurprisingly involved, appeared an end to the fixture's competitiveness. At least it should have given QPR's abysmal record over the last four months. The Uruguayan striker, who only scores wonder goals, somehow jinked behind three defenders before rocketing a shot off the foot of the post. Downing followed up, with his rebound saved by Kenny, but Kuyt was typically on hand for a typical slide-tackle rebound. 2-0, game over. Or not.

Sometimes, one substitution can change the game. Jamie Mackie's introduction did just that. Admittedly, Mackie came on in the 62nd, ten minutes before Kuyt's goal, but the mood of the stadium noticeably turned when the winger replaced the massively awful (and evidently unliked) Joey Barton. And a loud ground can give the home side confidence while draining the opposition. Not that Liverpool needs help with draining confidence.

QPR's opener absolutely drained Liverpool, already precariously unconfident all too often. Five minutes after QPR were definitively beaten, QPR were back in it. Of course, it should have never come to that. Howard Webb, who'd let multiple fouls go unpunished for both sides, punished Skrtel for a nothing foul on Zamora. QPR wasted the free kick, but not the resulting corner: Derry easily out-jumped both Henderson and Carragher, both idiotically facing their own goal rather than whomever they were marking.

If you thought Loftus Road was loud after Mackie's introduction, now Loftus Road was really loud. I hate to keep harping on confidence and luck and confidence, but those intangibles matter. There are no easy remedies, but Liverpool need to find a remedy. Only one side looked like scoring after Derry's goal. It was not Liverpool. And of course it was Cisse who struck the equalizer, heading past Reina after Taiwo crossed all too easily around Henderson and Carragher. Less expected was the defender Cisse out-jumped – Martin Skrtel, Liverpool's player of the season so far, caught flat-footed and ball-watching like the past season of brilliance had never happened.

Pity there was enough time for QPR's third, because there was enough time for another defender to make another unconscionable error. Enrique, in the grand tradition of Liverpool left-backs like John Arne Riise, proved his right leg was only good for standing, at best, completely missing when trying to clear a nothing header, allowing Mackie one-on-one with Reina. Unlike when Liverpool were in a similar position at the start of the game, the substitute made no mistake with his finishing. Story of the season and so forth.

This result didn't happen because Liverpool changed formation or personnel. It didn't happen because of the two injuries. Or because of Liverpool's usual profligacy early on, unable to take chances while the opposition has no problem doing so. Or because Adam started. Or because Suarez was subbed off not long before QPR's second, replaced by Carroll in a misguided attempt to keep possession. Admittedly, none of those things helped. But this result happened because three defenders did incredibly stupid things at the worst possible moments – two who have been two of Liverpool's best players this season. And it happened because Liverpool seemingly expects things to go wrong instead of ensuring that things go right.

This game was won. Unfortunately, the eleven players on the field thought similar, then apprehensively retreated after conceding, like a beaten puppy who expects another whipping. Well, they got it. Liverpool have set a few unwelcome milestones this season, but today saw a new one. This is the first time that Liverpool have let a two-goal lead slip since November 2000, a 3-4 loss to Leeds. 11 and a half years. 136 months. Blah blah blah days and seconds. It's been a long time.

After a result like this, it's hard to care where Liverpool finish in the league after the next nine games, a situation ensured by disappointments before this most recent. They'll undoubtedly be better in the FA Cup, because cup runs seemingly restore this side's lost confidence. All I care about over these next nine matches is this side finding some self-belief and intelligence instead of scrambling around like headless chickens waiting for the next ax to drop. Pretend that every match is a cup tie if that's what it takes. Both players and management – equally, everybody – are at fault for the all-too-frequent lack of either.

20 March 2012

Liverpool at QPR 03.21.12

4pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.10.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 02.11.96
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.30.95
1-1 (h) 02.11.95

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Stoke (h); 3-0 Everton (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a)
QPR: 1-2 Bolton (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-1 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll 3; Adam, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
QPR: Helguson 8; Mackie 4; Barton, Bothroyd, Cisse, Smith, Young, Zamora 2; Buzsaky, Campbell, Faurlin 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Gerrard Spearing Downing
Suarez Carroll

No matter how well Liverpool's consistent line-up has worked over the last two matches, three games in a week makes the same XI unlikely. Maxi almost assuredly won't start two matches in four days, Carragher probably won't start three in eight. At the same time, Agger's still out, as are Johnson and Bellamy. There are also concerns over Kelly and Suarez, both picking up knocks in the second half against Stoke, but neither were mentioned by the manager in his pre-match injury update.

Dalglish has to find the balance between fatigue and a settled, performing line-up. Henderson should reclaim his place on the right, shifting the finally-finding-form Downing back to the left. As usual, I'm again tempted to think Adam will return, but Liverpool have been much better in midfield without him; the Spearing-Gerrard partnership is the first real midfield partnership Liverpool have had since Lucas' injury. Carroll's another who might have trouble starting three matches in a week – if he can't, expect Kuyt to take his place – but Liverpool have won every match that Suarez, Carroll, and Gerrard have all started. Since losing at Bolton in late January, Liverpool are unbeaten when Carroll starts, with six wins and a draw, compared to a draw and three losses without him in the line-up.

Incidentally, Liverpool's line-up in the reverse fixture was fairly similar to that used in the last two matches, except with Kuyt up top and a different central midfield pairing. Liverpool were typically profligate in that match, but narrowly won 1-0 on Suarez's goal. That was one of just four fixtures where Maxi has started on the left and Downing on the right. Liverpool were unbeaten in all four, with FA Cup wins over Stoke and United as well as the 1-1 draw against Blackburn.

In 18th, only off the bottom on goal difference, QPR are winless since January 21, when the side beat fellow relegation candidates Wigan 3-1 at home. Since then, Hoops have lost five and drawn two, including losses against similarly struggling Blackburn, Wolves, and Bolton. QPR are the only side in the league without a win in its last six matches, easily bottom of the form table, and have won just two of their last 19 matches: the aforementioned victory over Wigan immediately preceded by an FA Cup win over League One MK Dons.

However, of those 12 defeats since late November, QPR have lost by more than one goal just once: 0-2 against United three months ago. Every other loss has been by a single strike – whether 2-3 at Blackburn, a relative goal-fest, or 0-1 at Arsenal or versus Chelsea or versus Liverpool. They may have lost far far far too many matches, but they haven't been overwhelmed in any of them.

Hughes has preferred a 4-4-2 formation in the 10 matches since he took over, rarely shifting to a 4-4-1-1 with Buzsaky or Wright-Phillips between the lines. At home, QPR will threaten Liverpool more with two up front, almost assuredly Zamora and ex-Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse. I expect QPR to be relatively unchanged from the side which narrowly lost to Bolton last time out: Kenny; Onouha, Ferdinand, Hill, Traore; Barton, Derry, Diakite, Wright-Phillips; Cisse, Zamora. Barton might play in the center, with Mackie or Taarabt coming in on the flanks, but that's the extent of likely changes.

Cisse can conjure goals from little, well-rounded but erratic, as Liverpool fans most likely remember. Zamora's burly threat is common knowledge. Wright-Phillips, Mackie, and Taarabt are all quick wide players, most dangerous on the counter, which is mostly likely how QPR will have to play. Despite Rangers' lack of goals of late, there are goals in this side. Campbell and Helguson, both out-of-favor since Cisse and Zamora signed during the January window, are QPR's only injury concerns.

Four of Liverpool's next five matches are against sides placed 15th or lower in the league: at QPR, against Wigan, against Villa, and at Blackburn, with a trip to sixth-placed Newcastle smack in the middle. Not to be overly, wrongly optimistic, but the fixture list sets up nicely for a late charge in the league. Of course, this season's largest failing has been frustrating, goal-shy disappointments against sides Liverpool should beat handily. Form and confidence are more important than Liverpool's final league position; finishing the season as strongly as possible is by far the most important goal. The next five matches, beginning tomorrow, will demonstrate how much progress the side has made over the last few weeks.

18 March 2012

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke

Suarez 23'
Crouch 27'
Downing 57'

Stoke never make it easy. Liverpool needed two superlative goals, two vibrant wildflowers in an otherwise barren field, to cancel out an unlucky concession and return to Wembley for the second time this season.

Other than Suarez and Downing's rays of sunshine, we were treated to typical Stoke attrition. The away side hoofed and hoofed, hoping for set plays and settling for crosses toward Crouch and Walters. The home side had the majority of possession but frequently broke down in a jam-packed final third.

Dalglish kept faith with 10 from the 11 who faced Everton, replacing Henderson with Maxi, shifting Downing to the right flank. The inverted wingers led to both breakthroughs – Maxi setting up Suarez's thunderbolt, Downing scoring after cutting inside – but Liverpool struggled to put Stoke under consistent goal-mouth pressure. But the tactics worked as much as necessary. After all, Stoke never make it easy.

It took 23 minutes to carve out an opportunity, but what an opportunity it was. Suarez and Maxi worked a wonderful one-two cutting from the left, Suarez flawlessly controlled the difficult return in stride, and absolutely thwacked an unstoppable blast past Sorensen from the top of the D.

But Liverpool's joy was short-lived. Unable to clear a string of corners, Liverpool finally conceded on the third. A third which shouldn't have been given, as the second never touched a Liverpool player, but still a third should have been dealt with. Carroll, usually one of Liverpool's better set-play defenders, stood staring agape as Crouch easily eluded his marker, with Reina prevented from coming to the rescue when fairly blocked off by Shotton. The ex-Liverpool striker couldn't have missed from three yards out. Stoke nearly tallied a second with Liverpool temporarily knocked a-kilter, but Walters could only shoot into the side-netting when released behind Enrique by Whitehead on the break, and Liverpool finished the half back on top, in possession if not in chances.

It wasn't night and day, but Liverpool noticeably improved in the second half, if still not comprehensively. There were times when Stoke had the advantage in midfield, compared to Everton having none, but Liverpool again had better balance when playing 4-4-2 with Spearing and Gerrard in midfield against an opposition using the same formation.

Downing's flawless free kick, crossed directly onto Suarez's head in the 53rd but flicked wide of the far post, was a sign of things to come. Four minutes later, Downing and Gerrard combined, if fortunately, when Gerrard's possibly unintentional backheel allowed Downing to cut across the top of the box before driving a shot through defenders into the net. It's no coincidence both Liverpool goals came from wingers working one-twos with central attackers, cutting in from the flanks. It's almost as if Liverpool drew it up that way.

Having retaken the lead, there looked little likelihood that Liverpool would softly relinquish it a second time. Suarez had a couple of self-created chances to get his second (both saved), Carroll finally got between the bruising Shawcross and Huth only to head wide, and Kelly saw his close-range shot blocked at the last moment by Shawcross (again after a one-two triangle down the flank, this time with substitute Kuyt). Stoke had a handful of late chances for another set play stomach punch, through Pennant corners and Delap long throws, but Liverpool solidly defended on all.

Other than the goals, nothing was as spectacular as against Everton. That's a credit to Stoke rather than a lesser performance from Liverpool, either individually or as a unit. Gerrard wasn't as rampant, Downing gave the ball away more often, Carroll was less involved, and a fifth-minute booking restrained Kelly. Maxi, Suarez, Downing, and Gerrard started and finished the moves which led to Liverpool's goals, but Stoke kept most under-wraps for long stretches – except the often-unwrappable Suarez, who's finally returning his best form. Still, Liverpool did what they intended – other than conceding on a corner that wasn't a corner – a two-match win streak since consecutive losses against Sunderland and Arsenal. And Liverpool took two of its few chances, scoring world-class goals rather than missing multiple sitters. Baby steps.

Liverpool haven't been able to win ugly often enough, especially considering how ugly Liverpool have been in certain games. But this is the second such victory over Stoke, in different domestic cup competitions, achieved both home and away. A side which has given Liverpool problems from the moment they stepped foot in the Premier League. This steady redevelopment of confidence, a settled line-up evolving but with a tactical twist on Tuesday's romp, is almost as heartwarming as another trip to Wembley.

16 March 2012

Liverpool v Stoke 03.18.12

12pm ET (stupid daylight saving time), live in the US on FSC

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 6-1 Brighton (h); 2-1 United (a); 5-1 Oldham (h)
Stoke: 2-0 Crawley Town (a); Derby (a); Gillingham (a)

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 01.14.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 10.26.11
0-1 Stoke (a) 09.10.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Everton (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a); 1-2 Arsenal (h)
Stoke: 0-1 Chelsea (a); 1-0 Norwich (h); 2-0 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Bellamy 9; Gerrard 7; Carroll 6; Kuyt, Maxi, Skrtel 4; Adam 2; Agger, Downing, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Shelvey 1
Stoke: Crouch 10; Walters 9; Jerome, Jones 6; Etherington, Huth, Shotton 3; Delap, Shawcross, Upson, Whelan 2; Fuller, Pugh, Whitehead 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

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

Suggesting that Liverpool keep the same XI which demolished Everton is all well and good, and incredibly tempting, but Stoke presents different problems than a surprisingly-indifferent Everton did on Tuesday.

This will be the fourth time Liverpool have faced the Potters this season, meeting twice in the league and the 5th round of the Carling Cup. Liverpool have tried to solve Stoke's tactical conundrums in different ways this season, with various levels of success.

It's fairly safe to assume Dalglish won't deploy three center-backs again, as in the 0-0 Anfield meeting. Not only did that formation woefully disappoint, but Suarez is back from suspension and Carroll should (and needs to) start again. Liverpool played 4-4-2 in the other two meetings, both at the Britannica, with Suarez and Carroll up top, Henderson on the right, and a center-back at full back either for added height or because of injury to the usual starter. Liverpool won the Carling Cup tie thanks to two brilliant second half goals from Suarez, and should have won the league fixture but spurned somewhere in the region of 25 shots at goal.

I expect we'll see a similar set-up tomorrow. And I expect the lone change to be Charlie Adam back in the side – mostly because Charlie Adam's been in the side so often –  as his overambitious long passing could help open up an assuredly compact and defensive Stoke. Spearing would make way, with an out-and-out defensive midfielder less necessary against very vertical opposition. I also suspect Carragher will keep his place, but Coates did well against Stoke in both the Carling Cup tie and the Anfield meeting.

Regardless of the solution, Liverpool will need to replicate the newly-discovered cutting edge displayed against Everton. Liverpool's first goal against the Blues bore some striking similarities to Suarez's opener against Stoke in the Carling Cup: a quick, end-to-end break involving a clutch of attackers and smart pass-and-move play. That sort of fast-paced football – where Liverpool has looked its most potent – will be necessary against a side that will dig deep into its own half and dare Liverpool to carve them open.

Johnson and Agger will again miss out, most likely joined by Bellamy, who sat out the midweek match with a knock. Stoke's only absentee appears to be Ricardo Fuller, suspended after a sending off at Stamford Bridge.

The Potters have won two of their last three, but that comes amid a run of six losses in nine matches since the end of January. The three victories during the last six weeks were over Crawley in the FA Cup and two promoted sides at home. Two promoted sides which Liverpool could only draw at Anfield, I hesitate to add. Stoke were in 8th at the end of January but now sit 13th, as fatigue caught up following good runs in the Europa League and both domestic cups. Nonetheless, Liverpool know full well how difficult it is to beat Tony Pulis' side, a side with Wembley experience after making the final in this competition last season and a side will fight furiously to return there in this campaign.

Liverpool's cup runs have partly overshadowed the depressing league campaign, with the side unbeaten in ten knockout ties. While those cup runs have tempered frustration and begat much-needed optimism, there's still the small matter of Liverpool's overwhelming inconsistency. The three ties against Stoke have been this season in a microcosm: one loss where Liverpool deserved to win but couldn't score, one mostly-deserved home draw because Liverpool never looked like scoring, and an excellent cup victory because Liverpool were able to overhaul an early and unfortunate deficit for a change.

Just as important as advancing to Wembley for the second time this season is putting together a run of form, building on the positives from Tuesday's comprehensive victory. While Champions League qualification and overall improvement in the league increasingly looks a lost cause, Liverpool need to use these final months to create consistency. Getting back to Wembley would simply be an added bonus. Admittedly, a very big bonus.

14 March 2012

Converting Defense Into Attack

That goal-scoring has been one of Liverpool's greatest problems is no great secret. But Liverpool's first two goals last night – more specifically, how Liverpool scored those goals with quick transitions from defense to attack – shows the promise in this side. If Liverpool play a certain way.

The first was an archetypal break from defense.

Enrique's interception and pass, a one-touch layoff from Suarez, Downing's run into the opposition half before returning the ball to Suarez as central pivot, another one-touch move – a give and go with Henderson, which led to a throughball for Kelly, fortunately directed into his path by Gerrard. From Enrique's interception to Kelly's shot, Liverpool's procession from one penalty box to the other took all of 15 seconds.

This was Suarez at his most influential; he didn't have to singlehandedly conjure brilliance, but was the hub for the entire move, completing pass-and-move triangles with both Downing and Henderson before releasing Kelly. It would have been more aesthetically pleasing had the right-back finished the move – Brazil's hallmark goal in the 1970 World Cup made all the better because Carlos Alberto tallied it – but Liverpool scored despite Howard's save because Liverpool got midfielders into Everton's penalty box.

When Kelly takes his shot, Liverpool have five attackers in the penalty area – Kelly, Carroll, Henderson, Suarez, and Gerrard – matching Everton's five defenders. Five evenly-spaced attackers, all consciously trying to find space away from markers. No matter where Kelly's rebound fell, a Liverpool player had an excellent chance of following up. Which Gerrard did, sublimely.

For Liverpool's second, Kelly tackled Pienaar just inside Liverpool's half. 12 seconds later, after two passes and one mazy run, Gerrard slammed the ball into the back of the net.

Moments like this are why Henderson seems so promising. He immediately turns, gets his head up, and charges forward, instinctively starting the break as quickly as possible. Suarez takes off, splitting the retreating center-backs, both on the back foot not expecting Everton to cheaply concede possession. Gerrard's also beginning his burst forward, as is Downing on the far left.

And this is where Suarez makes goals by being Suarez. He'd ignored Henderson's run into the box, seemingly selfishly, preferring to take Distin on at the byline with a typical mazy dribble. But because he's Suarez, he beats Distin, then Jagielka for good measure.

Right here is where Suarez has had to take the shot in numerous other games, a shot which is probably saved by Howard or cleared off the line by Rodwell. But because Gerrard kills himself to get into the box once again, not picked up by Baines covering in the middle, Suarez has someone to pass to. Someone who isn't Downing, with two defenders between him and Suarez, or Carroll, who planted himself at the top of the box for an unlikely cutback.

It's not Route 1 football – which we saw at times yesterday, most notably when Reina's goal kick to Carroll was flicked on for Suarez, his shot saved by Howard – but it's direct football, whether with a quick counter-attack from Liverpool's own half or because Liverpool won the ball by challenging the opposition in their half. Move the ball at pace, before the defense settles, and move with pace without the ball. Those two goals were similar to some of the best that Liverpool have scored this season: Suarez's equalizer against Stoke in the Carling Cup and both goals in the 2-1 league win at Chelsea, among others. Too few others.

This team has been most potent when in free flow. Whether we've not seen it enough because of Liverpool personnel or tactics, or because most opponents don't allow it, is a valid question, one I'm not wholly equipped to answer. Having both Gerrard and Suarez at their best, combined with another attacker in Carroll and with Henderson and Downing both having bright moments, certainly helped. Gerrard, Suarez, and Carroll have started three matches, and Liverpool have won all three, scoring 11 against Brighton, Cardiff, and Everton. Even though he didn't score, pushing his lone chance wide of the post early in the second half, Carroll demonstrated that he's not a fish out of water in a quick passing, quick movement style of play.

As written in yesterday's match review, Liverpool need to take these tactical successes into account in the future. Quick, cohesive transitions have seen the team at its most promising during this transitional season. It's lead to an attack few can cope with when on top form, but that top form hasn't been displayed anywhere near enough.

13 March 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Everton

Gerrard 34' 51' 90+3'

Happy 10th anniversary, David Moyes. Love, Steven Gerrard.

Another performance in a "big game" which, while utterly wonderful – especially because it's in the derby – also makes us rue what's come before. Three goals in a league game for only the fourth time this season, all three from a rampantly dynamic Gerrard. Suarez and Carroll linking brilliantly, with Carroll all over the pitch in a deeper role and Suarez setting up two of Gerrard's strikes. Henderson impressive on the right, aided by the superlative Martin Kelly. Carragher thriving in a perfectly Carragher game. No defensive mistakes, tactically versatile (using a healthy mix of long balls and pass-and-move football), and runners from midfield supporting the strikers. More than celebratory for its one-off excellence, it's a reminder of what could have been. And no, it's not all down to Charlie Adam's omission, wise guy.

Admittedly, with matching 4-4-2s from both sides, Liverpool were assuredly better without Adam. It's hard to take much precedent from these fixtures, but Liverpool's balance was far better without the controversial midfielder. In just the third match where Suarez, Gerrard, and Carroll have all started, Liverpool took the early initiative, denied an opener by two Howard saves – on Gerrard and Suarez – with Rodwell impressively blocking Henderson's rebound from Gerrard's effort.

Liverpool weathered Everton's fight-back after the first 15 minutes, but the away side couldn't convert increased possession into opportunities on goal, mostly thanks to Kelly and Henderson blunting Everton's best creator in Baines, especially as Pienaar frequently cut inside, picked up by Spearing. Meanwhile, Skrtel and Carragher stuck fast to Anichebe and Stracqualursi, surprisingly starting ahead of Jelavic and Cahill, ensuring neither had space to do damage in the box.

Everton's impotency in the final third would soon be severely punished. Fellaini, surging forward, chose the wrong option in trying to release Coleman. Enrique coolly intercepted and immediately turned defense into attack, straight down the field in a flowing move: Enrique to Suarez to Downing to Suarez to Henderson to Suarez to Kelly, sent free by a fortunate deflection off Gerrard's shin. Kelly's shot was saved by Howard, but Distin's weak clearance under pressure from Liverpool's right back fell straight to Gerrard, who immaculately curled a left-footed strike over the stranded Howard and defender on the line.

Kelly was unlucky not to tally minutes later, pushing a shot just past the far post on another hurricane run down the flank as Liverpool looked to ramp up the pressure. Those type of runs were crucial in pinning Baines back. But Everton remained combative and solid, although pushed deeper and deeper into their own half, relieving the already-limited pressure on Spearing and the back four.

Liverpool's killer second came seven minutes after the restart, with the side able to keep up the frenzied first half pace. Pressure from Henderson and Kelly when Everton attempted to start an attack led to Kelly easily dispossessing Pienaar then sending Henderson on his way. The midfielder released Suarez behind Everton's defense on the right, and a trademark byline run past the hesitant Distin and Jagielka allowed the Uruguayan to hand off to Gerrard charging forward from midfield, lashing a shot into the roof of the net from eight yards out.

It was a singular moment which demonstrated the importance of pressing in the opposition half, Henderson's intelligence on the break, Suarez's iridescence and, most importantly, the supreme value of midfield runners. Especially a midfield runner like Steven Gerrard. Liverpool should have added a third in the subsequent seconds, but Carroll shot just wide after set up by Suarez (from a long Reina goal kick), then a diving Kelly was unable to make contact with Downing's perfect cross following a short corner.

Everton nearly responded on the hour mark, one of few opportunities all game, after Baines finally got behind Kelly, released by Pienaar's throughball, but Rodwell tamely tried to pass into the net from the left back's cutback, and Enrique was able to clear the shot – which was going wide – from inside the six-yard box. Moyes then made a triple substitution, sending on Jelavic, Osman, and Drenthe (all three were surprise omissions), but the only other chance was an irrelevant one with Fellaini unnecessarily offside. And was spurned by Jelavic anyway.

Liverpool's lone substitution came when Kuyt replaced Henderson in the 72nd, using the Dutchman's work rate when defending deeper with quick strikes on the counter. Which worked to perfection as Liverpool easily soaked up pressure, frustrating an increasingly-jaded opponent, before Gerrard got his hat-trick – the first in a derby since Ian Rush scored four 30 years ago. Gerrard burst forward after Drenthe slipped, charging into a two-on-two with Suarez and playing the Uruguayan in at just the right moment. But instead of shooting, Suarez smartly and unselfishly checked onto his right foot, taking Distin out, and centered for his wide-open captain. Suarez creates chances, lots of them, if he's got someone who can finish them off.

Despite (or because of) Liverpool's excellence, both individual players and as a team, focus will probably fall on one who didn't feature. It's harsh, but somewhat deserved after Liverpool were comprehensively excellent. Playing Everton made it "easier" – both sides ran and ran and hoofed and ran, as they always do in the fixture, and Everton consistently deploy a 4-4-2. But Spearing had his best game since Lucas' injury, clearly more comfortable with this midfield partner, and Gerrard supported the attack brilliantly. I'll probably continue to be an Adam apologist, but at the very least, this is further proof that he's not suited to a 4-4-2 formation. But Liverpool may well be. That's what we need to find out over the next 10 matches.

Everton are now just the second side Liverpool's done the double over this season, joining hapless Wolves. I'd love to proclaim this a turning point, but at this point of the season, there's little left to turn. Of course, Liverpool need to take advantage of this confidence boost and learn the tactical lessons on offer. Henderson can play on the flank, he and Downing can excel in a 4-4-2. Suarez and Carroll can play together, and Carroll isn't a wholly immobile lug.

Just as necessary as any lessons learned or confidence gained will be showing this ambition in the future, "up for it" against the likes of Sunderland or Stoke instead of just the Evertons, Uniteds, or Chelseas. There is a real team here, both in progress and in actuality, but we need to see it far more often.

12 March 2012

Liverpool v Everton 03.13.12

4pm ET (stupid daylight saving time), live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.01.11
2-2 (h) 01.16.11
0-2 Everton (a) 10.17.10
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.06.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Sunderland (a); 1-2 Arsenal (h); 2-2 Cardiff aet (n) [3-2 on pens]
Everton: 1-0 Spurs (h); 1-1 QPR (a); 2-0 Blackpool (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
Everton: Anichebe, Baines, Drenthe, Osman, Vellios 3; Jagielka, Rodwell 2; Cahill, Fellaini, Gibson, Howard, Jelavic, Pienaar, Stracqualursi 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Gerrard Spearing Adam
Suarez Carroll Downing

Maybe a knock-down, drag-out, no holds barred Merseyside Derby is exactly what Liverpool need to shake off the current malaise. For once, form's irrelevancy in this fixture might well be a good thing.

Liverpool will assuredly make some changes from Saturday's disappointment. Gerrard should be fit enough to start, Carragher will probably replace Coates (you try keeping him out of a derby). Tomorrow's match probably comes too soon for Johnson, but Dalglish will decide after today's training. Hopefully, Carroll will also come back into the fold after not starting in the last two matches.

Continuing to guess the above 4-3-3ish formation is probably wishing without evidence, but I still firmly believe Liverpool need to change its shape and, more importantly, need to find a way to partner Suarez and Carroll while deploying a three-man midfield to compensate for Adam's flaws and Lucas' absence. The hybrid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 worked well without results against Arsenal but assuredly didn't work against Sunderland. Admittedly, motivation seemed more at fault than tactics in the latter.

In addition, Suarez has struggled as a out-and-out #9, especially since returning from suspension, with three losses in the last three league matches. It's one thing to play him in that position when he's converting chances, as during last season's run-in. But Suarez has struggled to convert chances all season. At the same time, nine of Suarez's 10 goals this season have come with Carroll on the pitch. Both strikers scored in the reverse fixture, a two-nil win at Goodison.

Liverpool played 4-4-2 in the previous derby, matching Everton's 4-4-1-1, but Rodwell's early sending off admittedly made formation moot. Liverpool pressed, pushed, and attacked for an hour, finally making the break-through against a tiring ten men. Unless Phil Dowd makes a similarly stupid decision, for either side, there's little precedent to be divined. Everton are likely to stick with the same formation, Moyes' clear favorite, with Jelavic as spearhead where Saha was in the last meeting.

In contrast to Liverpool's supremely stuttering form, Everton are unbeaten since January 11, with five wins and four draws since – including victories over City, Chelsea, and Tottenham. But all of those wins came at Goodison, while three of the four draws were away from home, including two against teams currently in the relegation zone. Moyes' sides have rarely travelled well, and he's never beaten Liverpool at Anfield; Everton's last derby away win came in 1999.

Everton's lone injury concern is January signing Darron Gibson, meaning two from Fellaini, Osman, Rodwell, and Neville – most likely the first two – will start in midfield. The back line will probably be Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines – unless Jagielka is fit enough to reclaim a place – with Drenthe and Pienaar on the flanks, and Jelavic and Cahill up front. We usually know what to expect from Moyes' side. Everton will be combative in midfield, look to stretch the pitch with width from Baines, Pienaar, and Drenthe, and use Jelavic and Cahill as target-men. Liverpool's central midfielders will have to be smart in possession (attention: Charlie Adam), whoever plays on the right will have to limit Baines and Pienaar's crosses, and Skrtel will have to closely mark Jelavic and/or Cahill.

Despite winning a trophy little more than two weeks ago, Liverpool seem near the precipice. Some are on the edge of revolt, prompted by too little progress and too many unnecessary failings during this transitional campaign. It's one thing when Liverpool lose after a good performance, as against Arsenal, or simply fail to convert multiple chances. It's another entirely when Liverpool lose feebly, hopelessly, and deservedly, as at Sunderland. I still want to preach moderation and patience, but time is running short.

Tomorrow's match will either mute those cries or exponentially increase them. Derbies have a way of heightening any and all emotions. More importantly, if Everton win, they'll leapfrog Liverpool in the table, an unthinkable possibility just a month or two ago. Fair or not, a poor result tomorrow will make the post-Sunderland fervor look warm and fuzzy in comparison.

10 March 2012

Liverpool 0-1 Sunderland

Bendtner 56'

That was the absolute worst possible response to last week's stomach punch. Liverpool never looked up for it – every player disappointed – and they meekly succumbed to a fortuitous goal from unimpressive opposition.

Liverpool's formation replicated that against Arsenal, but with Bellamy and Coates in place of Downing and Carra; Kuyt drifted behind Suarez, frequently switching with Henderson on the right, Bellamy stayed wide on the left, Adam and Spearing "held" in midfield. That and the result are the only similarities to last Saturday's fixture.

Aside from a threatening first 15 minutes from the home side, with two decent chances from set plays, Liverpool dominated possession. But did less than nothing with that possession, with three efforts on goal in the entire first half, only one of which caused Mignolet any trouble, and accidentally at that. It took until the 30th minute for Kuyt to get a tame header on target, while Suarez's run past O'Shea ended with Mignolet easily blocking a point-blank prod just before the interval. The most-dangerous was Adam's wind-aided free kick, which wasn't even a shot, misjudged but palmed over.

Liverpool were even worse after the interval, with no discernible changes to the dross we'd been treated to, and Sunderland finally made them pay just over ten minutes after the restart. Charging down to the other end after Spearing conceded an unnecessary free kick when trying to make amends in Sunderland's half, Campbell found space when easily turning away from Skrtel. His worm-burner shot bounced off the post, off Reina, and off the post again, sitting up perfectly for Bendtner as none of Liverpool's defenders thought it necessary to track the rebound. Fantastic. The woodwork finds new ways to torment.

Just as Liverpool never looked like scoring before Bendtner's opener, Liverpool never looked like replying in the 35 minutes after. Suarez and Adam wildly snatched at half-chances in the ten minutes following the game's lone goal, but that's about it. The three substitutes – Gerrard, Carroll, and Downing for Adam, Bellamy, and Henderson – did no better than the under-performers they replaced. O'Neill shifted to five midfielders with 15 minutes to play, and Sunderland easily soaked up Liverpool's pathetic possession.

Credit where due, Sunderland's tactics easily dealt with Liverpool, but Liverpool made it easy to deal with Liverpool. It's not especially difficult to work out how to beat this side. Close men down, don't allow midfielders – wide or central – time on the ball, and double-team Suarez. Wait for Liverpool to make the inevitable mistakes Liverpool inevitably makes, but rush them into sloppier play and poorer decisions than the usual sloppy play and poor decisions when certain players are on the ball.

There's no point in singling out scapegoats, no matter your favorites. And your favorite scapegoat was probably terrible today. Because Liverpool's starting XI were all terrible, the three subs were terrible, and the coaching staff was terrible. Adam did the usual awful Adam things, but Kuyt and Bellamy did nothing to support Suarez, Henderson was invisible in his best moments, Enrique and Kelly provide little support for to Liverpool's nonexistent attack, Spearing was rushed and undisciplined, the subs changed nothing, both Skrtel and Coates made mistakes, and Reina could have done better on the goal. Hurrah! Everyone sucks!

As much as it pains, the most fault lies with the manager and his staff. Liverpool went through the motions, and sloppily at that. It reminded of the final two matches last season, where Liverpool meandered through losses against Tottenham and Villa knowing that Champions League qualification was finally mathematically impossible. Whatever Dalglish said to the side, either tactically or for motivation, didn't lead to tactical superiority or motivate the players in the slightest. Only 1-3 at Bolton was as comprehensive a failure, and we had more excuses for that abortion.

Maybe Liverpool were looking ahead to the next two fixtures, against Everton then the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. That's not much of a consolation, and success in either – as unlikely that looks on today's performance – won't wash away this stain. This is the first time Liverpool have lost three successive matches since Houllier's last season. Liverpool have won just one league fixture since the New Year – at relegation-threatened Wolves not long before McCarthy's dismissal – with two draws and five losses in the others. Somewhere, Hodgson sits a dark, poorly-decorated room and laughs while waiting to be offered the England job.

I maintain what I wrote over the week, that Liverpool need to continue with the summer signings and usual starters to at least give the chance of coming good in the future, but today's disaster makes that look even shakier logic. I'm as tempted as most to scream 'kill them all, painfully if possible, and just play the reserves' simply because today was so pathetic. But that's little help in the long-term. Liverpool need these players to come good; the club's not making seven new signings this summer.

The players need to perform and the manager needs to manage. It's that simple because it's a simple bloody sport. Sunderland showed how little more than commitment and one or two lucky bounces are enough to win games. For whatever reason or reasons, Liverpool have absolutely none of that self-belief. Which is the minimum expected.

09 March 2012

Liverpool at Sunderland 03.10.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 08.13.11
2-0 Liverpool (a) 03.20.11
2-2 (h) 09.25.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.28.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Arsenal (h); 2-2 Cardiff aet (n) [3-2 on pens]; 6-1 Brighton (h)
Sunderland: 1-1 Newcastle (a); 0-4 West Brom (a); 2-0 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
Sunderland: Sessegnon 6; Larsson 5; Bendtner 4; Gardner, McClean 3; Ji, Richardson, Vaughan 2; Bramble, Brown, Campbell, Colback, Elmohamady, Wickham 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Spearing Adam
Suarez Carroll Downing

I still want to see more of the 4-2-1-3/4-3-3 style formation used against Brighton in the FA Cup, although that's looking more and more like a one-off. It puts Adam in a three-man midfield while still partnering Suarez and Carroll, but with additional attacking support in Downing, Kuyt or Bellamy. However, Liverpool subsequently played 4-4-2 against Cardiff, and used a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid against Arsenal last week. The fact we're still doing this formation guessing game so deep into the season is more a sign that Dalglish still doesn't know Liverpool's strongest XI or formation – although injuries have certainly played their part – more than a sign of Liverpool's versatility.

Much internet ink has been spilled about the Carragher v Coates debate in Agger's absence. I've said my piece, and hope Coates gets the start tomorrow. Carragher remains more likely to start on Tuesday because it's a Merseyside derby and he's Carragher, but Coates needs chances. In addition to Agger's broken rib, Gerrard and Johnson still have injury concerns. Gerrard's the bigger doubt, mostly due to his recent injury history; his absence would bring either Spearing or ex-Sunderland midfielder Henderson into the lineup. Potentially both if Liverpool go with the above formation. If I had to guess – which I do in lieu of concrete statements from Dalglish; we just know both trained this week – I'd assume Gerrard will be on the bench, ready to start in the derby, with Johnson back in the fold tomorrow. Kelly continues to be Johnson's obvious replacement at right-back.

However, having the derby three days after this fixture may demand more changes than we've seen recently. Liverpool haven't played two matches in a week in more than a month, since facing United and Wolves in the last week of January. All matches seem equally important at this stage, but a Merseyside derby probably takes precedence over a trip to the Northeast at this stage. Because it's a Merseyside derby. If Liverpool ring changes in one of the two, it'll probably be tomorrow.

Sunderland have won ten, drawn three, and lost four since Martin O'Neill took over in early December. The Mackems were 16th when Steve Bruce was sacked and now sit in 12th, but are just five points behind seventh-place Liverpool. Early impressive results have settled back toward reality, winless in the league in the last month – losing to Arsenal and West Brom while drawing Tyne-Wear derby last week. Sunderland's wins since early February have come in cup competition, beating Boro after extra time in an FA Cup replay before knocking Arsenal out in the next round. And three of Sunderland's four losses since December were on the road; only Arsenal have won at the Stadium of Light after O'Neill took charge.

The home side will miss two key players due to suspensions incurred in last week's derby: top scorer Stephane Sessegnon and midfield ankle-breaker Lee Cattermole. Sunderland will probably start Bendtner and Campbell up top, McClean and Larsson on the flanks, and two from Colback, Gardner, Vaughan, and Richardson in central midfield. Richardson may miss out with a calf strain, while Wes Brown, Titus Bramble, and former Liverpool defender (and God of the Sea) Soto Kyrgiakos are also out injured.

In eight matches against O'Neill's Aston Villa, Liverpool lost just once, winning four and drawing three. Admittedly, there's little precedent given Liverpool's change in managers and personnel since, but O'Neill's never had the best record against the Reds, either home or away.

The opening day draw in the previous meeting set the tone for the entire season. Liverpool was eminently wasteful – missing chance after chance, including from the spot, hitting the woodwork, etc. – and Liverpool finished level at Anfield after a solitary irreproducible volley from Larsson. It's probably too late to fully reverse this season's curse, even if (yes, Virginia) there's still something to play for, but sometimes simple revenge can be sufficient motivation.

07 March 2012

It's Still Not Time to Play the Kids

So fourth place finally looks futile, unattainable for yet another year. Liverpool won't qualify for Europe's premier competition for the third-consecutive season, a millennium given the club's historical accomplishments.

However, I respectfully disagree with two very intelligent Liverpool bloggers. It's still not time to play the kids.

This season has been transitional, for better and worse. But Dalglish, Comolli, et al shouldn't give up on the plan for transition in the hopes of speeding up the development of long-term prospects such as Jonjo Shelvey, Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Conor Coady, or, the most precocious, Raheem Sterling.

Thanks to Daniel Agger's recent injury, Sebastian Coates is a different case. The young Uruguayan should and will see more playing time than otherwise expected. Playing him instead of Carragher for the majority of matches from here out seems a no-brainer, regardless of events against Arsenal. But Agger's injury is what makes Coates' situation different. I'd say the same for Shelvey or Robinson if Gerrard or Enrique – Fowler forbid – suffered an extended injury. That's not the same as increasing Shelvey, Flanagan, Robinson, or Sterling's appearance total simply because the Champions League is now a lost cause.

The reasoning for this is two-fold. The first delves deep into the realm of hypothetical. Say Liverpool start Shelvey et al more often, and Liverpool's results become even more inconsistent and infuriatingly frustrating. Not only could that hinder the development of the individual players, it could hinders the club in general. In isolation, finishing 5th is little different than finishing 7th, especially with Europa League qualification assured due to the Carling Cup. But how Liverpool finish the season – with confidence, playing well or on a losing streak, questioning every and anything – matters very much. It will set the tone for both the off-season and the start of the next.

The second, slightly more tangible, is that Liverpool are already in transition. The first team still needs as much work as Liverpool's next generation. We'd hoped that wouldn't be the case after two-thirds of the campaign, but it is. The likes of Downing, Adam, and Carroll – whatever your feelings on any of them – have important parts to play for the foreseeable future, and we haven't seen any of them play to their potential, at least as it relates to overall team performance.

To take the most-controversial example. As much as you may not like it, Kenny Dalglish sees Charlie Adam as a crucial part of his team. Otherwise, Adam wouldn't have started 25 of Liverpool's 26 Premiership matches and 29 of 36 in all competitions, no matter the debilitating injuries to Gerrard and Lucas. Adam has a role for the next few years and he needs the playing time as much as, if not more than, Liverpool's prospects. He will most likely remain a divisive player for the duration of his Liverpool career, but there's still room for improvement within the context of the team. His long-range passes will find more targets as he continues to familiarize with attackers' runs, his positioning will improve as his learns how his ever-changing midfield partner (or partners) positions himself. We know what we're getting with Charlie Adam, but we still don't know how well Charlie Adam can play for Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool. And similar can be said about Downing and Carroll. Regardless of age or experience, we've seen new signings improve in their second season, even if we think we know the extent of each's capabilities.

There is a set plan for developing the likes of Coates, Shelvey, Flanagan, Robinson, Sterling, etc. The increasing unlikeliness of qualifying for the Champions League shouldn't change that plan. Use Shelvey sparingly, mostly off the bench with a start or two, if he's not going back out on loan. Involve Sterling with first-team training and away trips for acclimatization, maybe even a handful of bench appearances, but no more. Admittedly, if I had my way, almost every player mentioned above (excluding Coates and Sterling) would be out on loan for the rest of the season. But that's a different argument. And it doesn't appear to be part of the plan.

In addition, playing in the Europa League next year will benefit Liverpool's younger players more than anything, even more that a few forced first-team appearances over the remainder of this campaign. Livermore's progression at Tottenham is evidence of that.

What this boils down to is "keep on keeping on," as painful or boring as that may be. If this is truly a transitional season, stick to the plan for transition. Coates, Shelvey, Flanagan, Robinson and others are Liverpool's future, but the future isn't now yet.

04 March 2012

Why Can't Everything Be Like Last April?

There has been lots of talk around the internet and in the comments of yesterday's match review about this side regressing from last season's run-in. And Dalglish (and Comolli) is obviously at fault and I'm an idiot for holding fire on the manager. Instead of replying under the fold, I figured I'd ramble here on the front page. The short version is that Liverpool weren't as good as you remember last season and aren't are bad as you think now. There. I saved you 1500 words.

But if you're still here...

A five-match stretch from April through early May is used as definitive proof of regression. 3-0 v City, 1-1 at Arsenal, 5-0 v Brum, 3-0 v Newcastle, and 5-2 at Fulham. All very good results. But those results also blind some to the memory of Liverpool losing 1-3 at West Ham, 1-2 at West Brom, 0-2 v Spurs, 0-1 at Aston Villa and insipidly going out of the Europa League, both before and after than five-match stretch.

Regardless, there was some very good football played over that stretch. Some very good football and even better results, which seemingly raised expectations for this season more than a little bit too high. There are also, unsurprisingly, some vast differences between the end of last season and Liverpool's current state.

Goals, goals, goals
Conversion of chances. Pretty much the alpha and omega of Liverpool's problems, as has been written since September. A handful of draws this season (and at least one of the losses) were just about as impressive as last season's large wins in everything but the goals. Liverpool pummeled Sunderland, United, Blackburn, and Stoke, among others, but drew, drew, drew, and lost. Aside from Maxi, who I mentioned in yesterday's review, it's the same players who were scoring at the end of last season who aren't scoring now: Kuyt, Suarez, even Carroll (against City). And not playing Maxi is not the reason Liverpool are tallying fewer than 10% of their chances. At the same time, Liverpool usually played 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 through that run-in, but 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 this season is the devil and should be killed with fire, whether it's Kuyt-Suarez or Carroll-Suarez up front.

As for chances created, the focus of last summer's spending. During that Brum-Newcastle-Fulham stretch, with 13 goals scored, Liverpool created 35 chances – 13 against Birmingham and Fulham, nine against Newcastle. Compare that to three of the eminently-frustrating results mentioned in the previous paragraph. Liverpool created 12 chances against Sunderland, 18 at Stoke, and 19 against Blackburn. And these aren't cherry-picked numbers. Chances created in other disappointing results: 12 at Wigan, 17 at Fulham, 15 against Swansea, 20 against Norwich, etc. All via FourFourTwo's StatsZone.

Two of Liverpool's summer signings, Adam and Downing, have created the most Liverpool chances by some distance. The reason each was purchased. The obvious logic is that more chances created leads to more goals created. This season's done much to kill that notion. Liverpool's attack at the end of last season was ruthless in front of goal. The same front players, on the whole, are the opposite of ruthless this season, and it's not because of fewer opportunities or where they're getting said opportunities.

And it's a problem that grows as the monkey on strikers' back grows. Each miss makes the player think longer and harder about the next. Confidence drains with every post hit and penalty spurned. At the same time, it's far easier to score after scoring. Hot and cold streaks happen in every sport, even when they're sustained over the course of a season. After all we've seen, I still believe one or two ruthless demolitions like we saw 11 months ago changes an awful lot. Much like a fortunate hat-trick against United pushed Kuyt on for the rest of the campaign or, further back, Crouch's first Liverpool goal after a long barren stretch led to him scoring seven in the same month. And Liverpool's current players have ruthless demolitions in them, whether for Liverpool in the past or at their previous clubs. As unfulfilling as it as to credit intangibles like confidence and luck, both go a long way in determining form. Single spark, prairie fire. Yes, still.

Short-term v long-term
Last season's attack during the run-in was consistent; Carroll played against City and Arsenal, but otherwise it was Suarez, Kuyt, Maxi, and Meireles in Liverpool's big wins. That consistent front four was also getting on in years. Kuyt, Suarez, Meireles, and Maxi's average age at the time was 28.5; Kuyt and Maxi were 30, Meireles 28. Keeping the latter and using Kuyt and Maxi more might have led to a few more points this season (although, given Kuyt and Maxi's form when they have played, that's in doubt), but it would also put Liverpool in a worse position long-term, even if Liverpool's most recent signings don't pan out. It's also probably churlish to mention that Meireles has had a stinker of a season for Chelsea.

The damage which Hicks and Gillett inflicted required a massive overhaul, no matter a five-match hot streak with Champions League qualification a lost cause. Liverpool made six summer signings not counting Doni, four of whom usually start if available. The average age of Adam, Bellamy, Coates, Downing, Enrique, and Henderson is 25, which drops to 23.6 without free-transfer Bellamy. Because of Hicks and Gillett (and because of Hodgson's signings), Liverpool had to get younger. And fast. With four to six changes to the first-team, growing pains were inevitable. At least now Liverpool have a foundation for the future. Downing and Adam may have disappointed more than they've impressed, Henderson remains more potential than potent, but those three players still put Liverpool in a better position for the future than Maxi and Meireles did. The squad is now deeper, younger, and more valuable.

Liverpool are in transition. We'd hoped the transition would go more smoothly. We arguably had a right to expect it. It hasn't. Nonetheless, again, aside from that five-match stretch, Liverpool weren't radically better during last season's run-in, simply more ruthless in front of goal. Performances this season, while massively inconsistent, remain better than under Hodgson and 'nearly' as good as during last season's run-in, even if results don't measure up. Because of goal-scoring. Because Suarez and Kuyt and even Carroll aren't scoring as they did at times last season. It's not Adam, Henderson, and Downing's fault those players, in position to score, aren't scoring more.

I love you, Lucas Leiva
Also, this. Goal-scoring may be the alpha and omega, but missing the Brazilian midfielder has been almost as much of an issue. Admittedly, Comolli and Dalglish deserve criticism for not replacing him; Spearing is a useful squad player, but nowhere near Lucas' level, and has played his best football for the club when partnered with Lucas. Spearing's not as effective holding in front of the back four, setting the tempo, starting the attacks, etc. In retrospect, no other absence could have hurt Liverpool's more: not Suarez, not Gerrard, not Agger. Maybe not even Reina.

Also, a lack of Lucas has assuredly hurt Charlie Adam. I maintain what I've said all season: Adam has his faults and his benefits, and the former frequently obscure the latter. Without Lucas, those faults are magnified. That partnership was increasingly potent as they formed an understanding, a near-archetypal blend of creator and destroyer. And without Lucas, Adam (or Gerrard, for that matter) necessarily has more defensive work to do. Which isn't his strong suit in the slightest. Still, it's hard to blame Adam's frequent inability to tackle for Liverpool's problems when conceding goals isn't Liverpool's problem. Liverpool miss Lucas as metronome much more than Lucas as wrecking ball. Which is the one facet that Adam, Gerrard, and Spearing can't replicate.

Liverpool could and should have planned better, but there's only so many fingers to stick in the dike's numerous holes. And Liverpool couldn't have predicted that Lucas would have missed 2/3rds of the season thanks to a freak injury.

There are other, less important excuses. Suarez's stupidly-incurred suspension(s). Gerrard's continued injury problems. Reina conceding a handful more goals because of arguable mistakes. And, yes, a handful of mistakes from the manager: tactical, selection, or substitution. Still, I'm content laying most of the blame with goal-scorers, transition, and a lack of Lucas. One facet at the foot of aforementioned players, two thanks to the cruel hand of fate.

The easiest recommendation is adding an out-and-out scorer, either replacing or in addition to Carroll. As much as I hate writing it, that purchase looks Liverpool's worst business by some distance, record fee or no record fee. I really want to like the player: young, multi-talented (even if he doesn't show it enough), and with a physicality that most defenders can't handle when he's on his game. But goals are the problem and Liverpool's most-expensive striker rarely looks like scoring. When he can even get in the side.

But then again, Andy Carroll is just 23. It could also mean, much to our chagrin, that Liverpool still needs more time to adjust to the past year's overhaul, made with an eye on the future despite short-term hopes for an immediate return to the Champions League.

I'm not exonerating Liverpool's player recruitment or certain team selections. Despite the above excuses, there's still a chance Downing, Adam, Henderson, and/or Carroll don't work out. It was a calculated gamble, one we still can't fully judge. Liverpool's pre-FSG state, Chelsea and City's oil money, United's insane commercial revenue, Financial Fair Play regulations, and no Champions League football means Liverpool have to gamble. But Liverpool also gambled when paying £10m for Alonso, taking West Ham-outcast Mascherano on an expensive loan, and breaking the club transfer record on an unproven-outside-of-Spain Torres. And gambled on Pennant, Gonzalez, Riera, etc solving the non-stop problem on the flanks. Sometimes gambles work and sometimes gambles don't.

All I meant by yesterday's review was that things aren't as bad as some make out and Liverpool's tactics against Arsenal worked well everywhere but in front of goal. We all mock Chelsea for failing to give Villas-Boas time and leeway to make necessary changes, then demand Dalglish return to what worked for a month almost a year ago. No one likes suffering through the short-term in the hopes it'll eventually pay off, but patience remains a virtue. Yes, even when the sky is falling. Which it isn't at the moment. Even if/when Liverpool miss Champions League qualification for next season, there's still a very good chance that patience pays off in the future.

03 March 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal

Koscielny (og) 23'
van Persie 31' 90+3'

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Liverpool are the better side but score only once despite multiple chances, missing a penalty (and the rebound) and hitting the woodwork twice. Then Liverpool concede on the lone opposition opportunity when van Persie gets in front of Carragher far too easily. And that was just the first half. It got worse in the second.

One you haven't heard is that all this led to a Liverpool loss, the first of the season at Anfield and the first Liverpool's suffered after taking the lead. Of course, eight of the other 12 home matches finished level. Which is why Liverpool are where they are. The dream that's been deferred by draw after draw finally seems dead.

We worried about Carragher against van Persie, and the worries proved truer than feared. Liverpool's stand-in captain bears much of the blame for both Arsenal's goals, but both were outstandingly taken by the league's top scorer. Still, he's only part of the reason why Liverpool lost, and probably not even the biggest reason. The team with the league's best finisher, despite defensive frailties and injury issues, beats the "better" team who can't score for love or money. Stop the presses!

With Gerrard, Johnson, and Agger unavailable, Liverpool deployed a 4-2-3-1 as expected, but with Kuyt lurking behind Suarez and Henderson ostensibly on the right. And tactically, Liverpool's plan "worked": keeping possession, creating chances, and limiting Arsenal's. Until van Persie struck almost solely on his own. Liverpool truly were the better side in everything but the goals and it's hard to fault the tactics for the forwards' utter profligacy.

Granted, Liverpool's lone goal was incredibly lucky, a disappointing low Henderson cross which Koscielny fortunately turned into his own net, but once again, there's opportunity after opportunity to lament. The first epitomized Liverpool's intent, a Reina punt bypassing midfield, Koscielny's error letting Suarez in, but Downing whiffed on his attempted 25-yard volley into an open net. Suarez and Henderson contrived to foul up a fast break four minutes later, over-intricate and mis-controlled by the midfielder.

Then came the penalty fiasco. Suarez won it after a smart one-two with Kuyt, going down on Szczesny's stupid lunge despite minimal, if any, contact. It was still a cast-iron penalty. Which Kuyt sent too close to the keeper, also seeing his weak rebound well-saved, Liverpool's sixth miss (eight if you count the Carling Cup spot-kicks) in nine attempts this season. Koscielny's own goal four minutes later looked a reprieve, karma for the early blown opportunities, but Liverpool failed to take advantage, continuing to spurn shots for the rest of the half, in keeping with the totality of the season so far.

It could have been two two minutes after the opener. Another break led to Kuyt smartly finding an open Henderson. Szczesny saved his effort, Suarez put the rebound onto the post. Six minutes after that, Arsenal were level. Sagna had too much space to cross, and van Persie easily got in front of Carragher, unstoppably heading past Reina from close range. The rest of the chances in the half were Liverpool's, as usual: Szczesny palmed Suarez's poke behind after a magic jinking run, Skrtel headed the subsequent corner over, and Kuyt hit the post with the last kick of the half after redirecting Adam's low cross.

Arteta's frightening injury soon after the restart blunted the home side more than Arsenal had to that point, with the Gunners keeping possession far better (but with few sights of goal) after a six-minute delay. Each side had two excellent chances in the final half-an-hour. Kelly whiffed on Kuyt's cross from yards out after regrouping following a corner and a long ball five minutes later released Downing and Suarez behind Arsenal's defense but the winger's center that should have led to an open goal was too close to the keeper. Those opportunities sandwiched Walcott's near goal, brilliantly saved by Reina after Gibbs got behind Kelly.

Liverpool continued to have the majority of possession after those quick-fire chances, but without any of the earlier opportunities. As the team was playing "well" (coupled with unnecessary midweek exertions), Liverpool waited until very late to make changes, replacing Downing with Bellamy in the 86th. But then van Persie struck in added time, coolly taking Arsenal's second excellent chance of the half, as you'd expect from the league's runaway top-scorer. Song's ball over the top found van Persie in space between Carragher and Kelly, uncovered by either, with his volley sweetly (and too easily) past Reina at the near post. Two shots, two goals. That's the difference between these sides. Pretty much the only difference. Liverpool had 12 shots to Arsenal's 10 in total, but seven of Arsenal's 10 were on target, compared to Liverpool's four of 12. Liverpool had 12 corners to Arsenal's zero. Zero.

Admittedly, you can criticize some of Dalglish's selections. Carragher instead of Coates was a worry, but nearly every manager ever is going to go with a veteran club legend (despite his obvious flaws) rather than a promising 21-year-old who's made all of two league appearances, especially if Liverpool's regular captain is out injured. If Suarez is playing as a lone striker, Maxi should probably play given how well the two link up. But it's hard to criticize Liverpool's tactics, which mostly stifled an XI which rampaged over third-placed Tottenham last week. Had Liverpool converted one of those chances in the first 75 minutes, Liverpool probably wins the game. Again, that's the difference between these sides.

Which is why any criticism should fall on the shoulders of the players. Kuyt, Downing, and Suarez should have tallied today, the first two far more disappointing than the latter, who actually had his best game since returning from suspension. Spearing and Henderson were excellent in midfield, Skrtel was again superlative at the back, and Enrique silenced Walcott just like in the reverse fixture. The strikers, along with Adam and Carragher, are the scapegoats. I have little defense for any of them.

But it's hard to countenance universal dismissal of this team's potential or the manager's intelligence. The changes since Dalglish and FSG took over are undeniably evident, and no matter league position or repeated disappointments, this side is vastly better than anything we saw under the previous regime. Granted, that's little consolation given the money spent, but if you can't see progress, even if Liverpool's now basically assured of missing the Champions League for the third-straight season, I can't help you.

02 March 2012

Liverpool v Arsenal 03.03.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11
1-1 (a) 03.20.11
1-1 (h) 09.25.10
0-1 Arsenal (a) 03.28.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Cardiff aet (n) [3-2 on pens]; 6-1 Brighton (h); 1-2 United (a)
Arsenal: 5-2 Spurs (h); 0-2 Sunderland (a); 0-4 Milan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
Arsenal: van Persie 23; Walcott 5; Arteta, Gervinho 4; Vermaelen 3; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey 2; Andre Santos, Benayoun, Chamakh, Koscielny, Rosicky, Sagna, Song 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Gerrard Spearing Adam
Suarez Carroll Downing

A potential Carling Cup hangover, with the added bonus of a wholly unnecessary midweek internationals. Going into an utterly crucial contest that will go a long way in deciding who finishes fourth. Fantastic.

The above would be as much 4-1-4-1 as 4-3-3, with Spearing replacing Henderson, using elements of formation deployed against Brighton rather than the more-orthodox 4-4-2 in the Carling Cup final. Most importantly, playing three central midfielders against an Arsenal team that often dominates possession rather than a midfield duo.

Of course, all this is contingent upon Gerrard being available after picking up a knock 30 minutes into a meaningless England friendly which, of course, England lost. Thanks Pearce, thanks FA. If Gerrard's out, it seems like Henderson would replace the captain in almost a straight swap. He's been at his best in an advanced role through the middle, which would probably render the formation more a 4-2-3-1 with Henderson ahead of Spearing and Adam. Spearing and Adam would help mark van Persie and whoever plays behind van Persie when Arsenal are in possession, while Henderson would close down Arteta's deep-lying creativity.

Carroll surprisingly started in the reverse fixture, the second match of the campaign, without Suarez and with Liverpool in a reasonably-defensive 4-2-3-1 at the Emirates. I expect both Suarez and Carroll to start regardless of the formation unless fitness demands otherwise, as they have in the last two matches. Once again, it's tempting to substitute Bellamy for Downing in this formation, but the winger has shown improvement over the last few matches, culminating in him man-of-the-match performance on Sunday, while Bellamy remains a dangerous weapon off the bench. In addition, Bellamy played 75 minutes in Wales' Wednesday friendly, and his ability to play two games in so short a spell remains in doubt. Kuyt could also come in, on the right with Suarez moving to the opposite flank, a big game player for yet another big game. But as in the Carling Cup final, Dalglish has shown a proclivity for playing 'his players,' those signed in the last year, in the most-important fixtures.

Agger's injury pretty much demands Carragher as his replacement, with Skrtel moving over to play on the left of central defense. Both are worrying facets. Skrtel's looked far better paired with Agger and playing on his more-comfortable side, while Carragher against van Persie always frightens. With Agger out for at least a month, I expect Coates will get chances. But a match against Arsenal – whatever form they're in – that will be fairly crucial for deciding fourth is probably not the place for that chance.

Arsenal had a horrific week prior to their North London demolition derby, ostensibly knocked out of two competitions after losing 0-4 in Milan followed by an 0-2 loss in the FA Cup at Sunderland. The 5-2 mauling of Spurs, after initially going 0-2 down, was more than a proper response. But 7-1 against an insipid Blackburn earlier in February demonstrated their potential for ruthlessness, as did a 5-3 victory at Stamford Bridge in October. Only City and United have scored more league goals than the Gunners.

Van Persie has 23 of Arsenal's 53 league goals – 43%. Liverpool's joint-top scorers, Bellamy and Suarez, each account for just under 21% of the club's league goals. Of course, Bellamy and Suarez have only scored six each. And Liverpool has only scored 29 in total. Arsenal have scored 29 solely at the Emirates.

Last time these two teams met, Arsenal were riven with injuries. It's gotten better in the intervening months, but not massively better. Andre Santos, Frimpong, Mertesacker, Coquelin and Wilshere are still long-term casualities. Ramsey recently incurred an ankle injury which rules him out. Rosicky picked up a back injury which makes him a late fitness test. And most importantly, Vermaelen and van Persie suffered knocks during those unnecessary midweek internationals, but both will probably be available. If Vermalen and van Persie are fit enough to play, Arsenal's XI will look something like Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Song; Walcott, Benayoun, Gervinho; van Persie.

As said over and over, as necessary and lovely it was to see Liverpool's trophy hex broken, the Carling Cup victory was just as important as a platform for the future. Success breeds success and so forth. Seven points behind Arsenal (and Chelsea) with a game in hand, it's hard to see Liverpool pushing on to fourth if they lose tomorrow. 10 points in 12 games begins to push the bounds of mathematical credibility. But Liverpool has an all-too-familiar tendency to stretch credibility to its breaking point.