31 August 2012

On Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam

I've said it before. If a manager doesn't like a player, doesn't want a player, it's almost always better to cut bait immediately.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

There's little I can add to James Tyler's wonderful piece for ESPN FC on Andy Carroll.
The new Liverpool is one of Raheem Sterling and Joe Allen. Of Adam Morgan and Fabio Borini. If you loathe Rodgers for being so swift to dismiss the likes of Carroll, at least credit him with having an identifiable plan. Unlike with Dalglish, there appears to be a crystalline method to such madness, even if it does mean Carroll's depressing demise.
Aye, there's the rub. So be it.

As painful as it is to admit, still, Carroll was a misguided purchase to begin with. Rodgers clearly doesn't believe he fits with Liverpool's future – he did everything but drive Carroll to London himself, and he probably didn't do that only because Liverpool had a match yesterday. Liverpool want him off the wage bill, and Carroll wants and needs to play regularly. And Liverpool simply can't get a better offer at the moment.

Personally, I'd still prefer Liverpool kept Carroll.

We'll see who, if anyone, Liverpool purchase with the added money, but the club will save all of approximately £3.2m (40 weeks at £80k/week), plus a rumored £1m loan fee. That's not much added to the piggy bank, as Rodgers admittedly earlier today.

Even if Rodgers has determined he has no use for Carroll, it's depressing. Carroll's 23. Liverpool paid an enormous, club record amount to sign him. And Rodgers won't even give him the chance to prove himself? That's an indescribable condemnation of Carroll as a player and Liverpool's spending under Comolli and Dalglish. And I truly hope it doesn't bite Liverpool in the ass. Carroll has more than enough time left in his career to prove Liverpool wrong, and now that much more motivation to do so.

Maybe he'll thrive at West Ham, and return to Liverpool a conquering hero and better player, with a role to play next season. Admittedly, not bloody likely. But maybe he'll thrive at West Ham and Liverpool will actually be able to sell him for a reasonable fee. That's the hope, and a distinct possibility. Or maybe he'll fail, West Ham will be relegated, and it'll be that much harder to find someone to take him off Liverpool's hands. That's a frightening prospect, but not as frightening as the concern that Liverpool will actually miss his few-and-far-between goals. But we'll get to that.

Adam departs for similar reasons, on a smaller scale, and permanently, transferred to Stoke for an undisclosed fee, most likely somewhere around £4-5m. Another of last season's scapegoats – right or wrong, right and wrong – another who didn't fit with Rodgers' future. I'm less sorry to see him depart, mostly because Liverpool should have more than enough in midfield to cope thanks to the Allen and Şahin additions. I'm still sorry he got more criticism and less credit than he deserved, but mostly I'm just relieved I won't have to tortuously defend his flaws any more. Can't help but wish Charlie luck, no matter how much I detest Stoke, because he should fit very well in that squad. And will probably punish Liverpool when Liverpool face the Potters this season because that's what happens.

Adam (and Spearing) aside, I still can't help worrying about squad depth. Maybe there will be a late purchase to ease concerns, but eight players have departed – Carroll, Adam, Spearing, Bellamy, Kuyt, Maxi, and Aurelio (even if Aquilani barely merits mentioning) – and four have come in, one only on loan for a season: Allen, Assaidi, Borini, and Şahin. It seems Sterling has a large role to play this season, so maybe we should call it five. More specifically, Liverpool have gotten rid of four forwards – Carroll, Kuyt, Bellamy, and Maxi – who played 8593 minutes and made 149 appearances combined, and scored 29 of Liverpool's 79 goals last season. If you add Adam's stats to those four, they contributed 39% of Liverpool's goals last season (31 of 79) and 39% of Liverpool's assists (22 of 56).

Scoring goals have been an issue, the issue, since the beginning of last season. And now, Suarez, Borini, and Morgan are Liverpool's only central strikers. Eccleston does not count. Eccleston will never count. Adam Morgan made his senior debut yesterday. Liverpool signed 18-year-old prospect Samed Yesil yesterday as well, who's just a month younger than Morgan, but his first interview for the official site suggests that he's a ways away from first team action, making just one late substitute appearance for Leverkusen last season. He'll almost assuredly spend the season with the u-21s. It's no surprise that Liverpool are currently scrambling around like a last-minute Christmas Eve shopper trying to buy a forward. We'll find out if it comes to fruition within nine or so hours.

As much as I regret Carroll's loan, it's the manager's decision, and an identifiably new era. And the manager's clearly decided Carroll has no role to play in it. Carroll and Adam were two of Comolli and Dalglish's marquee signings. I doubt Liverpool are consciously ridding themselves of the last regime, but you can't help but wonder, especially with yesterday's mooted Henderson for Dempsey swap deal – a deal with makes less than zero sense and is hopefully massively incorrect. The new regime's regime's strategy is simply far, far different than the last one. Which is probably the point.

Do you trust Brendan Rodgers? FSG sure seems to.

30 August 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Hearts

Liverpool win 2-1 on aggregate

Templeton 84'
Suarez 88'

A match for experimentation, a result that came oh so close to going the wrong way.

Downing at left back, a more orthodox 4-3-3 with Shelvey and Gerrard notably ahead of Allen, and Henderson and Morgan – making his senior debut – on the left and right of the front three.

But still the same old Liverpool. Chances missed and dominance unsecured, but Liverpool looked like holding on to its narrow aggregate advantage. But then, with just over five minutes left, an unfathomable error leading to an opposition goal, this time from Pepe Reina.

It had been just one of those days for Suarez, mis-controlling almost everything, missing chance after chance. Then it was just one of those days where Suarez singlehandedly saves Liverpool.

Hearts actually out-shot Liverpool in the first half, but were limited to blasts from distance that never tested Reina. Liverpool were expectedly disjointed in attack with the aforementioned changes, but managed to hit the target with all five of its first half shots. Which has to be a record for recent seasons. Suarez had a header cleared off the line after Morgan headed Downing's cross back across goal, McDonald made a wonderful save on Gerrard's toe-poke after a time-machine barnstorming run through three defenders. Morgan looked as if he had a debut goal, a point-blank tap-in from Suarez's pass, but the Uruguayan took the ball just over the byline before centering. Still, it looked a matter of time before Liverpool opened the scoring.

And the home side continued its total control of the ball after the restart, camped in Hearts' half with four corners in the first 15 minutes, but failed to test the keeper; the lone shot until the hour-mark was Shelvey's from distance, rising well over the bar. So much for the first half accuracy. It was fun while it lasted.

Sterling replaced Morgan in the 62nd; it was surprising to see Morgan taken off considering his fresh legs, and it was surprising to see Sterling stay on the right, as Henderson remained on the left, but Liverpool dramatically improved. Sterling's pace and trickery made a marked difference in Liverpool's output, with six outstanding chances in the subsequent ten minutes. But they were still six chances that Liverpool failed to convert. Suarez could only hit the post, via deflection, after rounding the keeper, then blasted wide of the far post from a narrow angle with two open players around the six-yard box. He nearly latched on to a brilliant through-ball from Henderson, only to see the keeper just win the race. Sterling and Gerrard shot wide from distance, then the captain had a shot saved at the near post after Sterling's mazy run.

Liverpool's began to slow the tempo around the 75th minute. Borini replaced Henderson, but the home side seemed happy to hold what it had. And it looked like they'd see it out fairly comfortably, despite Taouli's speculative shot from distance – Hearts' first effort of the second half – and despite the 20-yard free kick when Sterling fouled Templeton, tracking back too aggressively, which led to Hearts' first corner of the match when the wall deflected his shot well over.

But Liverpool failed to fully clear, and Sterling and Borini failed to close down Templeton. Worst of all, Reina spilled Templeton's shot, even though it was straight down his throat, from 25 yards out, and he saw it all the way. It was the first save he had to make, and he utterly failed to do so. I wish I could say it was wholly out-of-character, but that doesn't seem to be true anymore. Today's howler joins previous like the one against Arsenal on the opening day of 2010-11 or at Fulham in a 0-1 loss last December. Sadly, there's probably more, but those two spring immediately to mind. This analysis by Bass Tuned to Red doesn't make for pleasant reading.

That Liverpool didn't collapse, didn't crawl its way into extra time then maybe, maybe not win on penalties at least demonstrates some progress. It demonstrates self-belief, confidence, a never-say-die attribute that was lacking all too often in the last two seasons.

Or it demonstrates just how brilliant Luis Suarez can be.

Four minutes after Hearts' equalizer, Borini brought the ball out of defense, handing off to Suarez on the halfway line. McGowan's slip, over-committing when trying to intercept, certainly helped matters, but Suarez turned away fiercely, almost immediately reaching full speed. Unable to stop him, Zaliukas tried to push him wide, and mostly succeeded in the attempt, but that didn't take into account Suarez's ability to score from absolutely no angle even after he's missed multiple chances from better angles. McDonald gave him too much of the near post, neither Grainger nor Webster retreated to cover the goal line quick enough, but few strikers in the world can score from that spot. We've seen Suarez do it multiple times.

So, a let off. Maybe some much-needed good fortune. Some of the old faults reoccurring – especially in the continued inability to score when dominant – but some excuses given Liverpool's experimentation and the freakish quality of Hearts' equalizer.

Downing looked capable at left-back, but spent the majority of the match as as auxiliary attacker given how often Liverpool pinned Hearts back. Henderson also did well on that flank, a more-than-willing runner, if far better when coming inside to deliver through-balls and work one-twos with other midfielders. Shelvey looks more comfortable every match he plays. Sterling again made a massive difference, even if his end product was lacking, explainable by needing to run at defenders then cut in and shoot, hard to do on the right flank for a right footer. And both Gerrard and Suarez created excellent chances, linking up as we know they're capable of, even if almost all of those chances went begging.

Once again, Joe Allen's probably my player of the match, three of three when he's started. Templeton, usually a winger but in the hole behind Sutton today, actually did fairly well shadowing the Welshman, but it did little to hinder his influence. More important than Allen's calm, tempo-setting passing was his defensive positioning, tackling, and interceptions – a large reason why Hearts were wholly limited to shots from distance, even if one eventually went in through no fault of his own.

Of course, Allen, Suarez, and Gerrard all played 90 minutes, yet Liverpool could only draw, and now all are on short rest before Arsenal on Sunday. But Liverpool are through to the group stage, with the resulting boost in confidence that brings, before facing Arsenal on Sunday.

The Night Before Deadline Day

Twas the night before deadline day on Merseyside
All the creatures were stirring, with Jim White as our guide
Carroll was loaned out, Liverpool's cupboards were bare
But everyone knew soon a striker'd be there!

The ITKs logged onto Twitter and said
Rodgers promised a signing, we'll get a new Red!
A new number nine, one who can score a big goal
The last was a bust, he ran like a foal

Now Llorente! Now Sturridge! Now Cavani and Messi!
Now Huntelaar, Lewandowski, Loic Remy, or Dempsey!
To Sky's Transfer Ticker, that fine yellow bar!
To the top trending topics, they'll know who they are!

And on my TV and on my computer
I saw every name and heard every rumor
One had to be true, which one could it be?
It's almost deadline day, I can't wait 'til I see!

The timer counts down, soon Big Ben will toll
And we'll all know the striker who'll score that big goal
Jim White will come on with a grin and he'll say
"Happy Deadline Day all, Liverpool just bought Pelé!"

29 August 2012

Liverpool v Hearts 08.30.12

Liverpool lead 1-0 on aggregate

3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Hearts: n/a

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 City (h); 1-0 Hearts (a); 0-3 West Brom (a)
Hearts: 0-0 Aberdeen (a); 0-1 Liverpool (h); 2-2 Inverness CT (h)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Borini, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson 1
Hearts: n/a

Referee: Vladislav Bezborodov (RUS)

Guess at a line-up
Kelly Coates Carragher Enrique
Henderson Adam
Downing Shelvey Cole

Like last week, expect certain key players to be left out with Arsenal due at Anfield on Sunday. But like against Gomel, Liverpool will probably start a stronger line-up in the home leg, trying to both protect and extend a narrow 1-0 advantage from the previous match.

As almost always, Gerrard seems the most likely to be rested: age, injury history, importance to the team, etc. With Şahin (as well as Assaidi) ineligible tomorrow, Allen might be more likely to play, but he's another that could be protected for the Arsenal match, available as a substitute as in the last leg, especially since he's now that much more important because Lucas will miss the next 2-3 months due to the thigh tear he suffered on Sunday.

A quick, unavoidable aside on Lucas' injury. As much as I love a good scapegoat, this one isn't on the medical staff. It was criminal to allow him to keep playing against Chelsea in the Carling Cup last year. It was less criminal to start him against Manchester City after feeling a twinge in his thigh when warming up. There's more leeway with a muscular injury, because it might well have just been a cramp or a strain, run off easily enough. When it didn't go away, he was immediately substituted. Three minutes of the match probably wasn't the difference between a strain and a tear; I'm no doctor, but I doubt that brief action made the tear much worse. He made no high impact challenges, didn't jump for any headers. He tried to run it off, he couldn't run it off, he came out. Sure, hindsight makes it easy to demand that he shouldn't have started, that he needed to be handled with kid gloves after coming back from such a serious injury sooner than expected. I suspect he wanted to try to play, Rodgers agreed, and the fact that Liverpool were facing City made both more willing to give it a go.

So it sucks, and I'm angry, and you're angry. Man plans and God laughs. If you want to blame anyone, blame Lucas for pushing for too much too soon or even blame Rodgers, because it was his final decision. But also remember that it's nowhere near the death knell that was last season's injury because of Rodgers' planning. Liverpool are in a far better position to cope after signing Joe Allen and securing Şahin on loan. So much for questioning whether Şahin was a superfluous acquisition.

Anyway. I'd hope this doesn't affect the possible sale of Spearing, but it does mean that Henderson and Adam are more likely to see playing time in midfield, especially in the Europa League. Shelvey has played an awful lot lately, more than expected, but I still suspect he'll start tomorrow given the paucity of options. Chances are he won't start on Sunday with Şahin available, and if someone's going to be over-extended, I'd rather him than Gerrard.

Similar goes for Sterling. After starting the last two matches, a third would probably mean he won't be in the XI against Arsenal. I think I'd rather him in the XI against Arsenal. Liverpool's options on the flank are Downing, Borini, Sterling, Cole, Henderson, Shelvey, and maybe Suarez, if Carroll somehow starts up front. I haven't seen anything, on the pitch or in the media, which makes me think Carroll's likely to start. So, Suarez, Carroll, or Morgan up front; Sterling, Borini, or Cole on the left; Downing, Borini, Cole, Henderson, or Shelvey on the right. Guessing which combination Rodgers will choose on form and fitness with Arsenal on Sunday is truly nothing more than a slightly educated guess.

Downing as left-back has become a hot topic since the last leg, but two factors make me doubt whether we'll see it tomorrow. First and foremost, after 25 minutes against City, Enrique needs match fitness before Arsenal. Second, as mentioned above, Liverpool still have few options for the flanks, especially on the right. Borini wasn't especially effective on that side against City, and Sterling is also far better on the left. Joe Cole's probably fit by now, but he's still Joe Cole, and he's also more likely to play on the left, as he did for nine minutes against Gomel. Henderson started there in the last leg, sometimes switching with Shelvey, but I think both will be needed in the middle if both Gerrard and Allen are rested. Finally, while Downing may well be a viable option in defense, and it's always handy to have more options, I'd still prefer Jack Robinson as Enrique's primary back-up.

Otherwise, I expect the second-choice back four: Kelly, who's improved with each match he's played this season, instead of Johnson; Carragher and Coates in place of Skrtel and Agger, with the Dane eligible to face Arsenal after his one-match ban.

Hearts slightly changed its system in last weekend's scoreless draw at Aberdeen, similar to how they readjusted after Liverpool scored its opener a week ago. With Templeton suspended for a second SPL match, Driver played in the hole behind Sutton, while Paterson – who started as the holding midfielder in the first leg against Liverpool – was on the right of midfield. Which was where he was nearly scoring in the dying seconds last Thursday, a shot that Reina deftly parried aside after Paterson out-muscled Downing.

While 4-1-4-1 had been Hearts' preferred formation until Sunday's match, and Templeton will be available, we may see the above 4-4-1-1 repeated in tomorrow's match. Down a goal, Hearts may prefer an extra attacking midfielder to an extra defensive midfielder. Or, just as likely, Hearts could sit deeper in the 4-1-4-1 formation, playing for the counter-attack, hoping to stifle Liverpool then catch them unaware. So, you know, one or the other. I realize this helps little. Sorry.

The one-goal lead is a narrow advantage, and Liverpool will come out looking for more, as in the last round. Liverpool have played far better at Anfield, whether against Gomel, Leverkusen or City, compared to performances at Gomel, West Brom or Hearts. While the Europa League remains a second-tier competition, advancement to the group stage remains the bare minimum expectation, and today's line-up and tactics should reflect that.

27 August 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

The idea for this style of comprehensive infographic is from the incredible On Goals Scored, who did similar for the Euro 2012 final. All statistics sourced from StatsZone and Squawka.

My goal is to do this type of graphic for all the "big matches" this season – although I'm not yet willing to define "big matches" yet, as these take a fair amount of time to put together.

26 August 2012

Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

Skrtel 34'
Yaya Toure 63'
Suarez 66'
Tevez 80'

No matter all the differences, the end result is the same. For all of Liverpool's good play, clever tactics, and growing into Rodgers' passing system, it's another season where another two points are dropped at home despite being the far better side because of self-inflicted errors. Another season where Liverpool out-play stronger opposition but don't reap the full reward.

Of course, going toe-to-toe with Manchester City is a positive. Playing far, far better than last week is a positive. But there were an awful lot of positives from Liverpool's play in matches that they lost or drew last season. I know it's a different manager, different players, and a different system. I know that we need to be patient during Liverpool's development under Rodgers. But I still can't help but be sick of the similarities, especially in the result.

The match sure seemed to start in the worst possible manner. Well, conceding an early goal would probably be the worst possible manner, but an injury to Lucas within five minutes is a close second, clutching at his right thigh and replaced immediately, supposedly first incurred during the warm-up. Shelvey came on, playing as the more advanced midfielder, but it was far more a 4-3-3 than the previously-seen 4-2-3-1, with both Shelvey and Gerrard usually ahead of the absolutely immense Joe Allen.

Liverpool created a few early opportunities: a couple of tame Gerrard shots from distance wide of the mark and a blistering, wonderful cross from surprise-starter Raheem Sterling which Borini steered narrowly wide after getting in front of Zabaleta. But it was still a tentative opening 20 minutes, highlighted by Carlos Tevez's near-goal soon after Borini's chance, a shot from the byline trickling across the face of goal and off the far post. But from there, Liverpool were the better side, from 37-63% possession in the first 23 minutes to 49-51% at half-time. Gerrard starting roaming across the midfield more effectively, while Shelvey also drifted to the right, allowing Borini to play more centrally. The short, tempo-setting passes, highlighted by Joe Allen's 21 successful of 21 attempted after 45 minutes, became pervasive. Suarez and Borini were winning the ball high up the pitch, putting Manchester City's back three under constant pressure, while Sterling frequently tested Kolo Toure.

And in the 34th, Liverpool opened the scoring, from a set play no less. Kompany had just nearly put Gerrard's dangerous cross in the net, but Skrtel struck from the resulting corner, taking advantage of Manchester City's zonal marking – read: a flat-footed, ball-watching Pablo Zabaleta – an unstoppable header that Hart had no chance at. Incidentally, Skrtel's now scored in eight Liverpool matches. Liverpool won just four of them: against Bolton, Villa, Brighton, and Cardiff last season – although the Carling Cup final shouldn't really count because of penalties. Either way, it hasn't been the best of omens.

And it doesn't help that Skrtel bears blame for both of Manchester City's goals, the second far more than the first. After continuing in the same vein for the first 15 minutes after the restart, stifling Manchester City with controlled passing, a resilient midfield, and pressing in the opposition half, City's first equalizer was also a direct result of a Mancini substitution, as happened in last season's 2-2 draw in the Carling Cup semi-final. Jack Rodwell replaced the ineffective Nasri, shifting Yaya Toure into a more advanced position. Three minutes later, Yaya Toure scored.

Gerrard gave the ball away trying to spring Suarez on a quick counter, frighteningly familiar to the first penalty conceded against West Brom. City attacked without pace down Liverpool's left: Dzeko held possession then laid off for Milner, with Johnson following the striker into his own penalty box. Which left Tevez one-on-one with Sterling, something that should never happen, although some credit goes to City's clever movement. Reina looked likely to cut out Tevez's cross, but either Skrtel didn't hear Reina's call, ignored Reina's call, or Reina didn't call loud enough, getting in front of his keeper to weakly head the ball across goal, with Kelly unable to control off his chest, falling "fortunately" at Yaya Toure's feet, unmissable from five yards out.

But, in a show of resiliency we didn't see often last season, Liverpool were back in front three minutes later, from Suarez's brilliant free kick 25 yards out after Rodwell unintentionally blocked Gerrard's blast from distance with his arm. There's no doing the free kick justice with words. I have no idea how Suarez managed to curl the free kick around City's wall, nestled low inside the near post. But after 19 months of seeing Suarez in a Liverpool kit, I should be aware that the laws of physics often don't apply to the Uruguayan.

Unlike so many of Manchester City's opponents, Liverpool didn't sit deeper and deeper after taking the lead, which is what allowed City back into the game against both Chelsea and Southampton in the last two matches. Liverpool continued to play their football, continued to try to keep possession, blunt City, and press high up the pitch. Johnson could have won a penalty in the 73rd, tackled by Kolarov, who got ball and man at the same time. It wasn't very surprising to see Atkinson wave appeals away, though.

Then disaster struck in the 80th minute. Liverpool have become heavily reliant on the back pass by design, looking to take the sting out of the match and regroup with Reina. It's understandable that when Skrtel was put under pressure by Dzeko, he immediately thought of going back to his keeper. It's less understandable that he failed to look up before attempting the pass, delivering it straight to Tevez without a covering defender in sight, leaving the Argentinean one-on-one with Reina, rounding the keeper than tapping in. Horrific. We knew there would be bumps and bruises as Liverpool learned a "new way" of playing football, but I didn't expect those bruises to be so unforgivably self-inflicted and so painful.

From there, both teams frantically created chances in search of a winner. Shelvey whizzed a left-footed shot narrowly over the bar, Dzeko spurned two opportunities, Shelvey had another shot deflected behind by Kolo Toure, and from the resulting corner, Suarez had a shot blocked and Carroll a header cleared off the line – seemingly trying to set up Coates rather than going for goal.

So, yes, there's both good and bad. Once again, Joe Allen was Liverpool's best, unflappable in midfield, comfortable on the ball and crucially positioned to halt City attacks, which was even more crucial in Lucas' absence. Gerrard was vastly improved, more influential in a roaming role, a perfect corner for Liverpool's first goal and winning the free kick for the second. While he faded in the second half, Sterling was a lightening rod in early on, never over-awed by the occasion. Outside of one early moment where he lingered in possession early on, Coates didn't look out of place either, finally getting his chance in a big match. Kelly was vastly improved at right back, demonstrating the importance of match practice against West Brom and Hearts, while Shelvey was much more disciplined and intelligent than on Thursday. Even Skrtel was excellent outside of those two disappointing moments. But those disappointing moments were ever so costly.

Again, like last season, there's something to build on despite the result. Like last season, Liverpool raised its game against difficult opposition, demonstrating that they can "play with the big boys" but still leaving us wondering why they can't do it against the minnows. Still, for all the positives, for all the improvement – both individual and within Rodgers' style of play – the outcome also remains far too much like last season.

25 August 2012

Liverpool v Manchester City 08.26.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h; Carling Cup) 01.25.12
1-0 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 01.11.12
0-3 City (a) 01.03.12
1-1 (h) 11.27.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Hearts (a); 0-3 West Brom (a); 3-0 Gomel (h)
City: 3-2 Southampton (h); 3-2 Chelsea (n; Community Shield)

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Coates Enrique
Lucas Allen
Downing Gerrard Borini

Will it be Carragher or Coates who replaces the suspended Agger? Will Enrique be fit? Otherwise, the XI writes itself.

I may be seeing what I want to see in the entrails, but all signs point to Coates instead of Carragher. At 34, Carragher's not likely to play against both Hearts and City in four days. Rodgers had to have noticed how poorly Carragher coped with a high back line against West Brom, even if Liverpool were down to 10, with Lukaku embarrassing him twice, once to set up Morrison's missed sitter then eluding him to head in West Brom's third. And Coates, for all his youthful error-prone tendencies, is both quicker and taller, better equipped to cope either with Tevez's speed or Dzeko's aerial ability.

If Enrique is unavailable, I expect the same full-back pairing as against West Brom, with Kelly on the right and Johnson shifting over to the left. Johnson is far better on the right, especially going forward, and makes Liverpool far, far better when he's on the right, but he's still a capable defender on the left. None of West Brom's three goals came from his area of the pitch. And Liverpool's full-backs will be far more focused on defending against City than they were against West Brom.

Maybe there's a slight chance of three at the back – Kelly-Coates-Skrtel, with Johnson and Enrique or Downing as wing-backs – but that seems incredibly unlikely this early in Rodgers' tenure.

Otherwise, the front six should remain the same as last weel, all of them obvious choices at their positions. Suarez will continue to play as the central "striker" with Borini on the left, rather than vice versa, as I've seen suggested by a few. We'll also likely get our first glimpse of Oussama Assaidi, even if it's only a glimpse of him planted firmly on the bench. If any speedy winger is going to come on as a substitute, chances are it's Sterling after his performance against Hearts.

Manchester City remain the league favorites, remain the benchmark. They've scored three in both of their competitive fixtures this season, albeit conceding two in each. Agüero may be injured, but Tevez, Balotelli, and Dzeko remain available. Nasri was outstanding in both matches, scoring in each, assisting Tevez's opener against Southampton. More importantly, City had to overhaul a deficit in both matches, down 0-1 to Chelsea and 1-2 to Southampton. As cliché as it is, that's what champions do. Incidentally, Liverpool came back to win just four matches last season: the 2-1 Carling Cup win at Stoke, the 3-1 league win against Newcastle, and the 5-1 and 2-1 FA Cup wins against Oldham and Everton.

I'm curious to see how City deal with Agüero's absence. Dzeko replaced him against Southampton, switching from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-2-2-2, but I don't expect that to be the case tomorrow. My suspicion is that Milner will come into the side, most likely on the right, with Silva moving to a more central position. But it's not as if the league champions lack for options. City also played three at the back in the Community Shield, as they did against Liverpool in the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final last season, but I doubt that'll be the case tomorrow; the back four should be Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, and either Clichy or Kolarov.

With Gareth Barry still injured, either Rodwell or de Jong will partner Yaya Touré in midfield. Both are liabilities for different reasons, whether de Jong's savage indiscipline or Rodwell's mistakes – as we saw against Southampton. Of course, I also can't forget de Jong's unfathomable goal in the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final, one of just two he's scored for the club. Lucas and Allen winning the midfield battle, as Lucas did in the 1-1 draw against City last season (one of many draws that Liverpool "deserved" to win) is Liverpool's best hope for winning the match.

This is the first chance to see if last season's "best" quality continues: Liverpool's ability to raise its game against the toughest opposition. Three of Liverpool's four matches against Manchester City were three of Liverpool's most impressive matches of the season: a 1-1 draw that was only a draw because of Hart's miraculous saves, a supremely solid 1-0 away win after taking an early lead, and a battling 2-2 draw where Liverpool twice came back from a goal down to advance to the Carling Cup final. We'll just forget the 0-3 demolishment at the Etihad.

And, hopefully, tomorrow's match will make us forget about last week's 0-3 embarrassment.

On Nuri Şahin

Nuri Şahin's loan is finally officially announced, contingent upon a medical later today.

I can't help but ask, "Why?"

It's not as if Liverpool lack for central midfielders. Sure, Adam and Spearing did not look good on Thursday, and one or both may find their way out of Anfield. Shelvey also showed signs of youth and immaturity, signs we've seen before despite his obvious potential. But that still leaves Gerrard, Lucas, Allen, and Henderson.

It's a one-year loan with no option to buy at the end of the season. No matter how well he plays for Liverpool, how well he adapts, or how important he becomes, he goes back to Real Madrid in June. At best, it seems a short-term solution, a roll of the dice that Şahin will help Liverpool be better this year, be better immediately.

Rumor has it Liverpool were willing to pay more of Şahin's wages, 70% of his weekly €150,000, which would be around £84,000/week. That'd make him the highest-paid Rodgers acquisition, and one of the top earners at the club, behind Gerrard, Carragher, Cole, Suarez, and maybe Johnson, Carroll, Skrtel, and Reina. That's also fairly large chunk of the wage budget when Liverpool supposedly have to sell before making any more transfer purchases.

So let's assume that weekly wage is correct. Let's also assume the season-long loan means Liverpool will have him on loan until the end of May, 40 weeks from now. That's £3.36m Liverpool will pay for Şahin's one season, in addition to any potential loan fee; Arsenal fans wrote of a possible £2m fee, which would bump the total spent to £5.36m. You're telling me that £5.36m couldn't be better spent to improve Liverpool as a whole? To improve Liverpool for more than just one season?

Well, maybe not. The simple answer to "why" is probably just "it's Nuri Şahin." If you have a chance to add a player of that quality, even if only for a season, even if in a position where Liverpool are relatively set, you take that chance.

The midfield is the key to Rodgers' side, to Rodgers' style. We saw that demonstrated yesterday, painfully, as the Shelvey-Adam-Spearing trio fumbled and erred and was pretty much positionally inept until Joe Allen replaced Spearing. Nuri Şahin's statistics, discounting the last season with Real Madrid, show a player who could add something to almost any midfield in the world.

Last season's do little good; he only made eight appearances for Real Madrid: four starts in the Champions League, two starts and two substitute appearances in La Liga. An injury early in preseason prevented him from appearing until November. By then, Alonso, Khedira, Diarra, and Granero were ahead of him in the midfield order. Worryingly, he only lasted 45 minutes in both of his La Liga starts, hauled off at halftime against Gijon and Granada as Madrid struggled, only to see his team make the comeback once he was pulled off. He played well in the Champions League, but those matches were all romps over the likes of Dinamo Zagreb, Ajax, and APOEL. It's not surprising that Madrid want to loan him out, but that they'd only consider a loan demonstrates they haven't given up on Şahin quite yet.

Şahin's statistics from his last season at Borussia Dortmund certainly help explain why Liverpool are so willing to do this deal.

Six goals, eight assists in 30 starts. Only five players started more league matches: Schmelzer, Weidenfeller, Großkreutz, Hummels, and Subotic. Only four players scored more goals: Barrios, Großkreutz, Lewandoski, and Kagawa. Only Götze made more assists, with 11. Only Sven Bender made more tackles-per-match, with 4.8 to Şahin's 3.7. Only Bender and Hummels made more interceptions, 3.3 and 2.9 to Şahin's 2.3. He averaged 59.3 passes per match, 10 more than the next closest Dortmund player. He averaged 3.5 chances created per match; Götze was second with 2.5. He averaged the most accurate crosses-per-game, the fourth most shots per game, and drew the most fouls per game. Şahin completed the 4th-most accurate through balls per match in the Bundesliga in 2010-11, behind Diego, Podolski, and Holtby, with 0.3 per match (8 out of 22 for the season). Comparatively, Joe Allen completed 0.1 last season: eight attempted, three successful. Lucas completed 0.2 in 2010-11: 14 attempted, five successful. Only Charlie Adam completed more – 0.4 per match, 16 attempted, 11 successful – while only Suarez attempted more: 24 attempted, 10 successful.

Both kicker Magazine and the German Players' Union named Şahin the Bundesliga player of the season in 2010-11, as did the Guardian's Rafael Honigstein, who also raved about the player for Sports Illustrated prior to his move to Madrid. His statistics from 2009-10 were similarly impressive, with four goals and seven assists, but again top or near the top in tackles, interceptions, key passes, total passes, and appearances.

Şahin is still only 23, turning 24 next month, hardly older than Henderson or Allen, but with seven years of first-team football on his résumé. He is still the youngest player to appear and to score in the Bundesliga, feats achieved in the 2005-06 season, and the youngest player to start and score for Turkey, against Germany on his international debut in October 2005. He has already lifted league championships in Germany and Spain, as well as the Dutch Cup during his year-long loan at Feyenoord in 2006-07.

Şahin makes an already deep central midfield even deeper, able to play either one of the two holding positions, whether in place of Allen or Lucas; that's where he played almost every match for Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp, with Kagawa, Götze, or, going further back, Zidan or Hajnal in the attacking role. Given his versatile qualities, I wouldn't be surprised to see him as the most advanced midfielder under Rodgers. In his earliest seasons, he sometimes played on the left of midfield in a 4-1-3-2 before Klopp arrived, while Real Madrid threatened to use him at left back this season before deciding to loan him out, but those seem much less likely options under Rodgers.

Some have speculated that adding Şahin could see Gerrard pushed into the attacking three: a midfield of Lucas-Allen-Şahin and a front three of Borini-Suarez-Gerrard, more a 4-3-3 than the 4-2-3-1 we've seen in the four competitive fixtures so far. I fear it's one of those things that sounds great on paper and works great in FiFA 13 but we'll never see in practice. This is not 2005, not even 2008. I don't know if Gerrard has the stamina to play in a role that will require constant running and constant tracking back, and a role that takes him out of the middle of pitch. He may have been Liverpool's player of the season in 2005-06 when mostly playing on the right, but if memory serves, he wasn't incredibly happy about the role either. Of course, I didn't expect Gerrard to return to an attacking midfielder role after two seasons where he almost always played in a deeper position, so maybe I shouldn't be trusted to forecast these things.

Even though it's a one-year loan, at least one Liverpool player will probably leave, whether it's Adam or Spearing sold or Shelvey loaned or all of the above. I'd prefer the former, you'd prefer the former, but that all depends on whether Liverpool can find a buyer. That Şahin is left-footed also suggests he's more of a straight replacement for Adam. Shelvey is a different player, able to play as one of the deeper midfielders, an attacking midfielder, or even on the right of a front three if need be, as he did for Blackpool on loan last season. Regardless, there seems too many bodies in midfield and too few in other areas of the squad.

Admittedly, Liverpool will need a fairly large squad if they progress in the Europa League; despite the almost total lack of domestic cup matches in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Liverpool played 56 and 54 games those seasons, compared to 51 last season despite making the finals of both the FA and Carling Cups. Last season's 51 matches were the fewest in a campaign since 1999-2000, the last time Liverpool weren't in European competition; the side routinely averaged just under 60 per season during Benitez's time at the club. And right now, Liverpool simply does not have the squad to cope with that many fixtures.

Şahin assuredly won't start every match, or even close to it. The reason Real Madrid were so willing to loan him out is that he needs playing time, but he also needs to be eased into playing regularly after last season's injury problems and lack of first team action.

For all the caveats, the opportunity to add such a talented player to the squad, even if only for one year, seems simply too good to pass up.

23 August 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Hearts

Webster (OG) 78'

"A narrow, 1-0 win would suit me just fine. It could be a lucky 1-0 win for all I care, similar to the away leg against Gomel."

How prescient.

Believe me, I'm more surprised than you are; there won't be very many posts referencing how I correctly predicted something. Because it doesn't happen often.

Nonetheless, for all the discomfort, a 1-0 away win does suit me just fine. Sure, the line-up was questionable; Carragher, Spearing, Shelvey, and Adam all had frightening, horrible moments; and the only reason Liverpool are taking a lead into the home leg is a Hearts own goal.

Make no mistake, Liverpool struggled their way to this fortunate victory. The midfield, with Spearing and Adam holding, Shelvey in an attacking role, and Henderson on the right, was fairly dire. Carragher, surprisingly starting instead of Coates, looked even more heavy-legged than usual, often troubled by Sutton. Borini was frequently isolated, and Sterling was Liverpool's only attacking threat.

But Hearts weren't much better. Liverpool's failings made them look far better than they actually were. The home side threatened Reina just once until the last few frantic minutes: a neat passing move ending with Taouli's back-heel setting up Novikovas in the 11th minute, whose 30-yard blast forced Reina to palm behind. The frequent switching between Templeton, Taouli, and Novikovas unsettled Liverpool, and while Liverpool had more possession, Hearts usually had more threatening possession, but the defense still rarely broke. Jack Robinson, frequently challenged, did admirably, as did Kelly and Agger more often than not.

Liverpool's midfield seemingly tried to play as fluidly as Hearts'. Shelvey and Henderson often switched positions, Adam tried to burst forward from deep to join the attack. The latter forced the first save from McDonald, charging forward and having his low shot palmed away in the ninth minute, but all too often, Liverpool's midfield looked disjointed. Shelvey and Adam both attempted too many Hollywood passes, which (it goes without saying) didn't come off, while Spearing was caught out of position and gave simple balls away time and time again. Relegated to the right, just like last season, Henderson found it difficult to make an impact outside of two chances in two minutes – first winning possession in the final third, setting up Shelvey which ended with Borini's shot blocked, then a wicked early cross from the right that just eluded the open Borini.

Otherwise, Liverpool were reliant on Sterling, looking for him at every opportunity, hoping his pace would see him past defenders. And it usually ended with him out-pacing the right back, cutting inside, but seeing his shot either blocked or sail wide. But in the 45th, he cleverly intercepted an ill-conceived cross-field pass, bursting forward to set up Borini, who could only hit the post. Just like Saturday; meet the new season, same as the old season.

The second half proceeded in the same fashion, with a couple more chances for Hearts – both of Liverpool's making, both wide of the target – until Rodgers made substitutions: Downing for Robinson, then Allen for Spearing. Downing added slightly more threat in attack, but Allen made the difference, settling the muddled midfield, his composure extending to others. The goal followed soon after, extended possession in Liverpool's half (which started after a throw-in following Allen's interception) dragging defenders into the middle, Sterling to Downing to Henderson, who spread play wide to a wide-open Kelly, in acres of space on the right. Borini couldn't get on the end of his dangerous cross, but an unsighted Webster shinned it into his own net. Again, sometimes, often, it's better to be lucky than good.

From there, it was an exercise in keeping possession and taking the sting out of the match, an exercise Liverpool desperately need practice in. And it worked for 10 minutes, until Hearts threatened twice, their two best chances of the match, in the 88th and 90th minutes. First, the substitute Driver luckily scuffed a ten-yard shot after Adam failed to track back after committing a foul and Carragher awkwardly failed to clear. Then, neither Adam nor Shelvey chased the ball after Agger's headed clearance, assuming the other would clean up. Taouli immediately put the ball in the box, Paterson outmuscled Downing to claim possession, but Reina excellently parried his low, angled shot. Phew. That Adam Morgan made his senior debut in injury time was the most-pleasing moment outside of the goal and the final whistle.

Sterling played well, Robinson and Kelly got much needed match time, Allen looked excellent off the bench, Reina made the three saves he needed to make, and Borini worked diligently no matter his constant isolation. Rodgers learned something, for good or ill, about all involved. Liverpool played an under-strength, fairly young line-up, and Liverpool won.

All that matters is Liverpool won.

22 August 2012

Liverpool at Hearts 08.23.12

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

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Hearts: n/a

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 West Brom (a); 3-0 Gomel (h); 1-0 Gomel (a)
Hearts: 2-2 Inverness CT (h); 1-1 Hibernian (a); 2-0 St. Johnstone (h)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Borini, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson 1
Hearts: n/a

Referee: Florian Meyer (GER)

Liverpool have actually had Meyer as a referee twice before, the 0-0 draw at Sparta Prague in Liverpool's last Europa League campaign and a 1-0 win over Steaua Bucharest at Anfield in 2003.

Guess at a line-up
Kelly Coates Agger Robinson
Henderson Allen
Downing Shelvey Sterling

As with every match preview for a cup tie, the question is "how strong with Liverpool's line-up be?" Not only are Liverpool more likely to use youngsters and reserves in this competition, but the subsequent match is against the reigning Premier League champions.

Which meant it was no surprise when the BBC's Ben Smith, and others, reported that Gerrard, Johnson, Skrtel, and Suarez weren't included in the traveling squad earlier this morning.

The provisional squad is reportedly: Reina, Jones, Kelly, Agger, Carragher, Coates, Flanagan, Shelvey, Lucas, Adam, Allen, Henderson, Spearing, Downing, Borini, Carroll, Wilson, Robinson, Sterling, Eccleston.

More than any other, Gerrard should be rested, not only for Saturday's disappointment but because he needs to be used more sparingly this season if he's going to make it through the entire campaign. I was surprised to see him play both legs against Gomel, but that was arguably still preseason. Now, with three matches in eight days, playing him in this one would have been even more surprising and, honestly, makes little sense.

Lucas, even though he wasn't one of those announced as absent, is in a similar situation. He wasn't at his best against West Brom, arguably still showing the effects of his extended injury. Tomorrow's seems a match for the "second-string" midfield: some combination of Henderson, Shelvey, Spearing, and Adam. There have been rumors about both Adam and Spearing leaving Liverpool (the former if anyone will pay £5m, the latter on loan to Bolton), and if any of the usual starters play, Allen seems the likeliest because of his relative inexperience at the club.

Agger looked likely to start even before Skrtel's reported absence, if only because he's suspended for Sunday's match, but the rest of the back four is guesswork. Coates should be the other center-back if Liverpool really are using this competition to develop players (as they should be), but you'll hear the internet howl around 1:45pm ET tomorrow if it's Carragher. Enrique's also still dealing with the knock picked up in training last week. I'm excited to see Jack Robinson play, assuming Jack Robinson does play, and it's not Kelly shifting over to left back with Carragher or Flanagan on the right. Or Agger at left back.

I've been trying to come up with someone other than Downing for the right flank, but Liverpool have so few options. Assaidi is ineligible, cup-tied for just the qualifying stages because of his participation with Heerenveen; reports from Holland also suggest he's more likely to play on the left when available as well. Cole is injured. Suso isn't registered in the UEFA squad, at least for this round, while Pacheco started in Monday's u21 match. With Suarez absent, Borini will probably play in the middle, with Sterling likely to be on the left. I guess there's a small chance Carroll could start up front, flanked by Sterling and Borini, but it seems a very small chance. That leaves Shelvey, who played there in the second half against Leverkusen. And that's it. This position needs needs needs to be addressed before the transfer window shuts, more than any other.

New manager John McGlynn has Hearts playing in a 4-1-4-1 system, winning the opening match of the SPL campaign against St. Johnstone before draws against city rivals Hibernian and Inverness Caley Thistle. If he names a full-strength XI, it should look something like: McDonald; Peterson, Zaliukas, Webster, Grainger; McGowan; Templeton, Taouli, Barr, Driver; Sutton.

Center-backs Zaliukas and Webster are the cornerstones of the side – it's probably no coincidence that Caley Thistle came back from 0-2 down, despite having playing with 10 men, after Zaliukas was injured. If the Lithuanian club captain is unable to play, chances are Barr drops into defense with Robinson coming into the side, as Hearts lined up in the second half on Saturday. Striker Sutton has scored from the spot in two of Hearts' three matches this season, while Driver and Templeton – or Novikovas if he starts instead – are dangerous wingers; each has scored once this season, responsible for the three goals not scored by Sutton.

A mostly full-strength Tottenham demolished Hearts at this stage of the competition last season, winning 5-0 at Tynecastle before the kids and reserves played out a 0-0 draw in London. The Jambos XI will look very different to last year's, with only four to six of the same players that started the loss against Spurs. But that match will almost assuredly be on players' minds before kick-off.

That's obviously not the required scoreline for Liverpool; that was a different, stronger Tottenham side and a different, weaker Hearts. A narrow, 1-0 win would suit me just fine. It could be a lucky 1-0 win for all I care, similar to the away leg against Gomel. The side needs to put Saturday's result behind them as quickly as possible, even if it'll be a very different XI, and an away win is the best way to do so. Further evolution in Rodgers' style would be welcome, more than welcome, but given the likely second-string nature of the squad and the importance of qualifying for the competition proper, the performance matters slightly less than the result.

20 August 2012

On Suarez and Gerrard at West Brom

"Even if Liverpool gets better production from the supporting cast – and honestly, there's seemingly nowhere to go but up in that category – as [Suarez and Gerrard] go, so goes Liverpool."

I hate being right.

And yesterday, in the first match of the league campaign, Suarez misfired and Gerrard had little influence on proceedings, and Liverpool failed to take advantage when in control then succumbed to a wonder goal followed by multiple defensive errors and a sending-off. We're all well aware it's the not first time that's happened, and it most likely won't be the last. Agger and Skrtel's mistakes, Downing and Borini's ineffectiveness, and Phil Dowd being Phil Dowd also played a large role in Liverpool's inadequacy, but it sure felt like the rot started at the top.

Suarez's shooting

That's abhorrent accuracy, and yet Suarez was the only Liverpool player to put a shot on target. All three of Gerrard's were off target, while Borini, Cole, Downing, Johnson and Kelly took one and missed one. Two of Suarez's shots, the two off-target from inside the six-yard box, were clear-cut chances, errant headers from Johnson and Borini's excellent crosses. The first, mistiming his jump for Johnson's cross after good work from the stand-in left back on the half-hour mark, sure felt like a turning point when West Brom opened the scoring 13 minutes later.

But this is nothing new. Suarez had one of the worst clear-cut chance conversion rates in the league last season.

Opta's definition of a clear-cut chance:
A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range.
Suarez converted seven of his 25 clear-cut chances last season – 28%. Rooney? 17 of 29 (59%). Agüero? 13 of 27 (48%). Van Persie? 18 of 40 (45%). But those were three of the league's best finishers. However, this EPL Index chart (from this article) lists 33 attackers; just six had a worse conversion rate: Bendtner, Bale, Carroll, Defoe, Gervinho, and Kuyt. The league average was 39%; had Suarez converted at that rate, he would have scored three more goals last season.

His shooting accuracy against West Brom was even worse than last season's abysmal return. 48 of his 128 total shots in 2011-12 were on target – 38% – compared to yesterday's 25%. He took eight or more shots in just one match, with 11 in the 1-1 draw against Norwich (the most any player took in a Premier League match last season), and at least tested Ruddy with six of those 11 even if he didn't score, including one near-miraculous save in the fifth minute of added time to preserve the draw.

Dan Kennett wrote extensively on this topic for The Tomkins Times back in March, and his findings remain relevant.

There will be matches where Suarez's is unerring, where Suarez scores in style early and often. Unfortunately, after 54 matches for Liverpool, those like his hat-trick against Norwich have become the exception rather than the rule. Admittedly, it's slightly easier to forgive missed chances when the player creates so many of the chances by himself. But his two best opportunities yesterday came from crosses put on a plate by Johnson and Borini, and he failed to hit the target on either.

I'm not necessarily saying that Suarez needs to be used differently, especially this early into Rodgers' reign. There's the temptation to demand he plays wide, not used as the main goal-scorer, which will only increase if this trend continues. And his talents might serve Liverpool just as well, if not better, on the flank. But his ability to run off the shoulder of the last man, to drag defenders out of position with his movement or with the ball at his feet, and his ability to involve others in the attack seem suited for his current role. He played on the flanks more often at Ajax, but it's no coincidence he's also become the central #9 for Uruguay since joining Liverpool.

However, if Suarez is going to play as a #9 in Rodgers' system, even if a roaming #9, a #9 as focused on creating as much as scoring, he needs to better that scoring return. And quickly.

Gerrard's passing

56 passes attempted, 46 completed. Just 17 passes into the attacking third, completing 12, with only one incomplete pass inside the penalty area.

Allen, Lucas, Suarez, Johnson, and Borini all completed more passes in that crucial area of the pitch. Gerrard's completion percentage in the final third was 71% – only Downing (7/10), Skrtel (1/5), and Reina (0/2) were less accurate, and both Skrtel and Reina were limited to long hoofed passes from their own half. Agger's red card started from one of those five unsuccessful attacking third passes, the mistake compounded by losing possession with so many Liverpool players in West Brom's half, as both Allen and Lucas went forward when Gerrard dropped deeper to receive possession.

Gerrard's overall pass completion percentage from open play was 82%, the worst of any outfield Liverpool player. And it's not as if the sending-off made him any less accurate, pushing too hard to try to haul Liverpool back; he was 27/33 when Agger went off, again, 82% completed, with nine of 11 successful in the attacking third but none of those 11 into the penalty box.

Gerrard also created two chances against West Brom – only Glen Johnson created more, with three – but both were fairly poor excuses for chances. The first, in the 50th minute, was when he spread play wide to Downing, with the winger running into traffic then taking an easily-blocked shot. The second came after Liverpool were down to 10 and down by two goals, in the 72nd minute, when he spread play wide to Cole, with the winger running into traffic then taking an easily-blocked shot.

There was little of the one-touch quick passing with Suarez, Borini, and Downing that caused so many problems against Gomel and Leverkusen. Gerrard passed to Suarez just five times; Allen and Kelly was Gerrard's most frequent targets, receiving eight and seven passes respectively from the captain. On the other hand, Suarez set Gerrard up 11 times – only Kelly to Skrtel, Johnson to Agger, and Agger to Johnson were more frequent combinations – but just one of those passes came inside the penalty area and just two were forward passes, one in the center circle and one where Gerrard burst forward from midfield ahead of the ball, as has been so crucial in the past.

And his crosses? Six attempted, zero successful. Borini also attempted six, but at least completed one – that one clear-cut chance for Suarez – while no other player attempted more than four. Incidentally, Liverpool delivered 22 crosses in total – they averaged 22.1 per match last season, the most in the league – but completed just three, a success rate of 14% where they averaged 19% in 2011-12. Needless to remind, but it was not a very successful tactic last season.

Moving Gerrard into a more attacking position was supposed to make him more influential, but he couldn't have been much less so on Saturday. Still, days like that will happen; time makes fools of us all and whatnot. But even when that happens, Gerrard's leadership and mentality remain vital qualities. They are more intangible qualities, but as captain, it's Gerrard's job to ensure heads don't drop and Liverpool keep playing after setbacks like Agger's red card or the second penalty. But Liverpool looked beaten as soon as West Brom's second went in; the last 25 minutes weren't even damage control, but playing out the clock, and it was little surprise that West Brom added a third. It wasn't the first time a team crumbled to dust after a sending off and it won't be the last, and, of course, a comeback was massively unlikely. But you never want to see the players look as if they believe that. All too often, Liverpool rolled over and died at the first sign of trouble last season. That trait cannot carry over into this one. Taking responsibility in an interview today, for the first penalty concession if little else, is a reassuring step, but words are far easier than deeds.

During this transitional phase with a new manager and a new system, Liverpool will rely on its established stars to carry them through difficult spells. It may not necessarily be fair to hold them to a higher standard, but it's warranted. Despite all else that occurred against West Brom – Dowd's decisions, Agger and Skrtel's penalties, inefficient flank play – when both Suarez and Gerrard disappoint, it's no surprise that Liverpool loses.

18 August 2012

Liverpool 0-3 West Brom

Gera 43'
Odemwingie 64' (pen)
Lukaku 78'

A little bit of optimism is a dangerous thing. The threatened, bound-to-happen set-back sure happened sooner than expected.

After two frightening minutes where they couldn't get the ball off of West Brom, Liverpool dominated the first half. Suarez is ever dangerous, but fails to convert four chances, while both Johnson and Borini also miss decent opportunities. Then, just before halftime, West Brom open the scoring through Gera, a goal the player couldn't replicate with a gun to his head, with the ball fortunately falling to his feet after Skrtel's clearing header then unerringly, unstoppably volleyed into the roof of the net. New season, meet the old season.

And then came the comedy. Another Suarez missed chance, a free kick curled wide of the post, then two penalties conceded, a red card, and a third goal to rub salt in the wounds.

It all started in the 58th. Gerrard gave the ball away after extended Liverpool possession, trying to find a well-marked Suarez with an unlikely pass, and West Brom stormed down the pitch with Liverpool wholly wide open in the middle as both Lucas and Allen had come forward to join the attack. Morrison found Shane Long with a long through-ball, taking full advantage of Liverpool's high back line, and the striker eluded Skrtel, who over-ran Long trying to mark too closely then comically slipped when Long spun away. Agger retreated, but Long out-paced him, then easily fell over as soon as Agger made contact. A soft penalty, but a penalty nonetheless. You'll hear that expression again soon. With matters compounded by a straight red for Agger, the last man denying a goal-scoring opportunity. Agger should just miss the Manchester City game, a one-match ban rather than three, but he'll be a very big miss in against that class of opposition.

Reina provided a slight ray of hope, saving Long's woeful spot kick, the first he's saved since Rooney's in March 2010. But it didn't last long. Three minutes later, Skrtel again donned the motley and jester's hat, intercepting Ridgewell's cross but failing to control and clear, unforgivably dawdling in his own box then accidentally, softly tripping Long when the striker slipped in to steal the ball. Again, Long went down all too easily, looking for the penalty. Again, Dowd complied. You can criticize Phil Dowd for many things, in today's game and in the past, but the penalties aren't really among them. Both were soft. It's safe to assume neither would be given to Suarez in those situations. But the striker went down when contact was made – even if light contact, even if incidental contact – and the referee blew his whistle. That's what happens. Don't put yourself in those situations. This time, Odemwingie made no mistake from 12 yards out.

Liverpool spent the final 30 minutes just trying to save face. Carragher replaced Downing after the first sending off, Cole replaced Lucas – who had been carded earlier – in the 69th, then Carroll replaced Cole, who seemingly injured his hamstring yet again, in the 79th. Trying to get back in the game, it was a fairly attacking 4-2-3 system, but it was West Brom who attacked. Morrison missed a sitter in the 72nd with Liverpool players caught up the pitch, then Lukaku scored with a point-blank back post header in the 78th after Liverpool once again failed to clear a set play. Suarez nearly notched a consolation in the last ten minutes but unsurprisingly spurned yet another chance, this one even easier than the first five, a free header wide of the far post after Borini's strong run and cross.

It's no surprise after a three-nil loss, but there are few positives to take from that match. Joe Allen played very well, completing 66 of 69 passes (including 24 of 25 in the final third), while Suarez caused West Brom problems with everything but his shooting. Agger and Skrtel were typically solid until the 58th minute, but Skrtel absolutely fell apart after West Brom's first, and it's probably not coincidence that it happened after Agger departed. That's all I got. More importantly, the failings were failings we've seen before: missing chances despite creating chances and controlling possession, resorting to hoofs and crosses when unable to find a way through West Brom's solid back line, far too little contribution from the flanks – especially the frequent scapegoat Downing – and a failure to cope with opposition set plays coupled with mental errors in defense. Still, Rodgers' system worked in the first half outside of Liverpool's tentative start and dreadful finishing; it was the players who let him down with poor shooting then defensive mistakes.

Once again, another ex-Red punishes his former club. Not a manager, not a player this time, but an assistant manager. And Steve Clarke deserves a hell of a lot of credit. As with Liverpool's successes after his appointment in 2010-11, that win was built on defense, keeping Liverpool off the score-sheet when dominant, then having his side ruthlessly punish their mistakes.

Brendan Rodgers now becomes the sixth-straight Liverpool manager to fail to win his first league match, a streak dating back to Graeme Souness in May 1991. Dalglish lost at Blackpool, Hodgson drew against Arsenal, Benitez drew at Tottenham, Houllier lost against Leeds, and Evans drew at Norwich. Of course, that Souness was the one of those seven managers win their first match shows there's little predictive power in the first league result.

It may be the worst possible start, the worst top-flight opening day defeat since losing 1-6 to Chelsea in 1937, but it is still one match. And no matter how much we wished different, it will take time to turn this team around.

17 August 2012

Liverpool at West Brom 08.18.12

10am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 West Brom (h) 04.22.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.29.11
1-2 West Brom (a) 04.02.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.29.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Leverkusen (h) [friendly]; 3-0 Gomel (h); 1-0 Gomel (a)
West Brom: 2-0 Nottingham Forest (a); 3-1 Walsall (a); 1-1 Sheffield Wednesday (a) [all friendlies]

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Lucas Henderson
Downing Gerrard Borini

The Premier League officially starts tomorrow. It seems like it's been ages since the last season ended and yet I can't believe the new season's here so soon. Time flies when you're gossiping about potential signings, I guess.

Whether or not Joe Allen plays seems the only possible deviation from the XI which beat Gomel 3-0 eight days ago.

Allen has only trained for a few days since his move thanks to the midweek internationals. Where he played 90 minutes for Wales. And that's after two weeks of Olympics matches for Great Britain. I'd be surprised if he started tomorrow, no matter how much Rodgers wants him in the team as soon as possible. But needs must, and Rodgers will want the player in the team as soon as possible, so I'm ready to be surprised.

If Allen doesn't start, that midfield place will be filled by either Henderson or Shelvey. Shelvey played there against Gomel and didn't disappoint, but did look almost every bit his age compared to the otherwise full-strength XI. Henderson, slightly more experienced, slightly fresher, seems the more logical choice, but your guess is as good as mine.

Otherwise, I expect Liverpool to continue with the 4-2-3-1 system we've seen in the last two matches. If Henderson's included ahead of Shelvey, both he and Gerrard might play ahead of Lucas, more a 4-1-4-1 than 4-2-3-1 style of 4-3-3, but I suspect the formation deployed against both Gomel and Leverkusen will continue to be the template. Liverpool's back five writes, itself, Lucas' inclusion writes itself, Gerrard should continue to play as an attacking midfielder, and Liverpool don't have many other options for the front three. Borini reportedly picked up a knock earlier in the week which kept him out of Italy's friendly against England, but should be available tomorrow. New signing Oussama Assaidi would be lucky to even make the bench. Liverpool announced the completion of his transfer in the last hour, just after 3pm British time, but he would have to have been registered with the Premier League by 10am today to be included in tomorrow's squad.

This is somewhat shameless self-promotion, but I participated in a Q&A with Kevin Koczwara of LFC Boston yesterday. In it, Kevin rightly pointed out that any improvement in Liverpool's league form will come from beating the likes of West Brom et al given Liverpool's usually decent performances against the league best but woeful disappointment after disappointment against the bottom half of the table.

Liverpool have lost two of the last four meetings against the Baggies, two of the three matches when Albion were managed by current England boss and ex-Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson. Now, West Brom are managed by Liverpool's ex-assistant manager, Steve Clarke. I'm sure that bodes well.

Clarke's first move has been to notably strengthen West Brom's front line, signing Markus Rosenberg from Werder Bremen and bringing in Chelsea's Lukaku on loan. They've also added Ben Foster on a permanent deal, winger Yassine El Ghanassay from Gent, and Argentinean holding midfielder Claudio Yacob. The Guardian's West Brom preview, most of the Baggies' preseason matches, and this Birmingham Mail interview with Clarke suggests Albion will play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Foster in goal; Reid, Olsson, McAuley, and Ridgewell in defense; Mulumbu and Yacob as the deeper midfielders; Gera, Morrison, and Odemwingie as the attacking line of three; and either Long or Lukaku up front.

Morrison and Olsson picked up knocks during the midweek internationals, but both may be fit in time for tomorrow's match. Rosenberg is less likely to be available, while Graeme Dorrans is on leave because of a family illness. Peter Odemwingie has been the thorn in Liverpool's side in the two losses over the last two seasons, scoring the winner last April and winning both penalties in April 2011.

Prior to those two losses, Liverpool had beaten West Brom in 13 consecutive meetings dating back to 1985, by a combined score of 38-2, and hadn't lost to West Brom since 1981. That's the sort of form Liverpool needs to rediscover against the league's lesser lights. No time like the present to remedy that failing.

16 August 2012

On Oussama Assaidi

Usually when Liverpool signs a player, I've at least a passing familiarity with them. Sometimes, it's someone I've watched often – like Joe Allen, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, etc. You know, players bought from other Premiership sides. Less often, it's someone I've seen on a few occasions and can supplement with statistics and those damned YouTube videos, like Fabio Borini. And if I haven't seen them very often, the signing's been rumored for long enough that I can do a modicum of research; you know, like if the Gaston Ramirez rumors had any semblance of truth.

I had never heard of Oussama Assaidi until today. Not while he was playing with Heerenveen, as I rarely if every catch an Eredivisie match, and not linked with Liverpool, as none of the gossip sites, forums, or Twitter ITKs breathed a word of his name in the last couple of months. While it amuses me very, very much when that happens, it doesn't help my ability to analyze signings.

So I'm kind of at a loss as to how to approach this.

• Cursory biographical details: 24 years old (his birthday was yesterday), 22 caps for Morocco, 20 league goals in 68 appearances for Heerenveen, with 10 of those goals (and seven assists) coming last season.

• The YouTube videos are a good place to start. Of course, there's the much-needed caution that they don't make highlights of a player's bad decisions and bad matches, but it's a decent starting point. Here's the one linked on the official site when announcing the transfer. Here's another comprehensive compilation. Here's 11 minutes of highlights from Heerenveen 6-2 Twente, where Assaidi scored three and assisted three. Here's an audacious goal that didn't count, with Assaidi marginally offside, that's just fun to watch over and over and over.

• As usual, Twitter is a fairly big help. Most informed writers, such as Andy Brassell, Leander Schaerlaeckens, and Mohamed Moallim, among others, have described him as a speedy, versatile winger who's an excellent dribbler. Most say he's better on the left than right, more willing to take players on, run with the ball, and cut inside from that flank, more comfortable crossing from the right when he's on his stronger foot. Dutch analyst 11tegen11 linked to an 18-month-old match review of the aforementioned 6-2 demolition of defending league champions Twente where Assaidi scored three and created the other three. I especially liked this quote, linked by Andy Brassell, from Moroccan manager Eric Gerets to current QPR player Adel Taarabt: "Watch (Assaidi) & you'll figure why you're not in the team." Liverpool could certainly do with a better, harder-working version of the sometimes-gifted, often infuriatingly erratic Taarabt.

• Football-lineups.com is often one of my favorite resources; their line-ups show that Assaidi started on the left, in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, in all 25 of his league starts for Heerenveen last season. He also came on as a sub twice, was subbed off in 13 of those 25 starts, and was chosen as football-lineups.com man of the match on four occasions, all in the first two months of the season.

So what does the transfer suggest for Liverpool?

First, it's finally one of those vaunted MONEYBALL!!!! type transfers we've heard so much about. A 24-year-old player, unknown by the masses, in the last year of his contract for all of a reported £3m. If he's a success, fantastic. If not, little harm done.

That he's primarily an inverted winger who scores and assists when cutting inside fits with how both Borini and Downing have played in the last two matches, and suggests he'll primarily be Borini's back-up on the left. What this means for Raheem Sterling is less certain, but I highly doubt it'll involve a loan for Sideshow Raheem.

I also doubt this will be Liverpool's only wide forward signing. Liverpool lost three of these kind of players over the summer – Kuyt, Maxi, and Bellamy – and have now replaced two with Borini and Assaidi. That Assaidi plays for Morocco, and will most likely miss most of January and February at the Africa Cup of Nations reinforces this notion. Morocco have to beat Mozambique over two legs during the September and October international matches, but they should be heavily favored to do so. This strengthens Liverpool's depth but doesn't cure those issues.

Finally, no parallels with previous Eredivisie signings. For every Afonso Alves or Mateja Kezman, there's Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dirk Kuyt, or Cheick Tiote. Or Luis Suarez. The league they come from doesn't ensure success or failure. Just felt the need to get that out there. And no parallels with Nabil El Zhar because don't. Just don't.

Assaidi will need time to adapt to Liverpool and time to adapt to the Premiership. That he played in a similar formation, if not similar system, at Heerenveen is a benefit, but it will still take time. That he should be limited to spot starts and substitute appearances behind Borini, mostly used on the left but capable of playing on either side if need be – if all goes according to plan – will be of great benefit to the player and his development at Liverpool.

It's a promising signing in a need position, with low risk and high reward. That's good business, the type of business that Liverpool haven't done nearly enough, and that's cause for optimism in and of itself.

Welcome to Liverpool, Oussama.

15 August 2012

2012-13 Liverpool Season Preview

Year Zero? Year Zero.

Is this the third year zero or the first? It's the third year in a row where Liverpool have started the season with a new manager, something that's never happened in the club's 120-year history. Brendan Rodgers replaces Dalglish who replaced Hodgson who replaced Benitez. But if Hodgson wasn't year zero and Dalglish wasn't year zero, why is Rodgers?

Hodgson was the last dismal dying breath of the previous owners' malignant regime. Dalglish was never FSG's choice for Liverpool's renaissance, with their hand forced by the surprisingly improved results during the 2010-11 run-in. Brendan Rodgers is FSG's first manager, and their ownership will be defined by his results – not necessarily this season's results, but over the long term. Because this is a long-term hire. Which is why this is much more a year zero than any Liverpool season since 2004-05.

Summer Business:
In: Joe Allen (£15m), Fabio Borini (£10.4m) = £25.4m
Out: Alberto Aquilani (£7m), Fabio Aurelio (free), Craig Bellamy (free), Dirk Kuyt (£1m), Maxi Rodriguez (free) = £8m

Rodgers impressed FSG so much that they did away with their notion of a director of football, although Damien Comolli's almost-wholly inauspicious tenure may have made that an easier decision.

Comolli's one true success – aside from signing Luis Suarez, of course – was last summer's deadwood clear-out. Joe Cole somehow found his way back, but Konchesky, Poulsen, Jovanovic, Kyrgiakos, El Zhar, and Degen got gone and stayed gone, saving Liverpool millions after Hicks, Gillett, Purslow, and Hodgson wasted more millions on their purchases and salaries.

And as with last summer, Liverpool prioritized clearing out older players on relatively high wages, slash-and-burn agriculture so new fields can start from scratch. Or as close to scratch as possible.

If reports are to be believed, Rodgers didn't want to lose either Bellamy and Maxi – both would have fit fairly flawlessly into the new system – but relented to let them join boyhood favorites in their home countries. How touching. Kuyt was one of Liverpool's highest earners and a fan favorite, but his increasingly decreasing output made him more than expendable. We've finally passed the point of no return with Alberto Aquilani: no more band-aid loans, no more false hope that this might be the year where he returns to save the world. All, along with the sadly perpetually-broken Fabio Aurelio, cost Liverpool more than they were worth to the club or Rodgers' squad.

Rodgers first two signings followed this new template. Both are under 22, Premiership-experienced, teeming-with-potential starlets who've already made international debuts. Both are prototypical Rodgers-style players who Rodgers has managed before, and both fill problem areas from last season's Liverpool squad. And, incidentally, neither happen to be English.

The summer's business isn't over by any stretch of the imagination, and probably won't be until the last minute and last second of the transfer window. Liverpool will continue to try to sell Carroll, hoping that someone will pay somewhere near £20m and Carroll might actually agree to the move. We can scream, shout, and threaten all we want, but if City stump up £27m, Daniel Agger will probably depart as well. I am not liable for my words or actions if that happens, but we'll burn that bridge if we come to it.

Despite a still somewhat-too-shallow squad, there's only one huge hole apparent. And it's the drum I've been banging all summer: Liverpool needs needs needs at least one more wide forward to compete with Borini, Downing, Sterling, and Cole (and sometimes, possibly, Suarez). We've seen Clint Dempsey, Cristian Tello, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson, and Gaston Ramirez mooted, but we've no idea who, if any, the club prefers. Or could get. Which, I guess, it how it should be. That Shelvey was used there for 45 minutes in Sunday's friendly – a position he played while on loan at Blackpool but assuredly isn't his best – demonstrates that the manager's cognizant of the issue as well. But whether he's able to rectify it before August 31 remains to be seen.

Expected Formation and Suspected Depth Chart:

Otherwise, Liverpool has a fairly strong first XI, and a fair bit of depth in certain positions. With the signing of Joe Allen, Liverpool has an impressive, versatile, and relatively youthful central midfield. Nearly every three-man midfield is built on the creator-passer-destroyer archetype: Gerrard, Henderson, Shelvey, and potentially Adam can play as the attacking midfielder creator; Allen, Henderson, Shelvey, and Adam can fill the passer role; and Lucas, Allen, and Spearing can play as the deeper destroyer. All but Gerrard are 26 or younger; Adam is 26, Lucas 25, Spearing 23, Allen and Henderson 22, and Shelvey is 20. If Liverpool sign Nuri Sahin on loan, as has been heavily rumored, the midfield will be even stronger, but that would seemingly demand someone make way, whether it's Shelvey loaned out or Adam sold.

If Agger stays (pleasepleaseplease don't make me beg), Liverpool's first-choice defense should remain one of the strongest in the league. He and Skrtel are arguably the best center-back pairing in the Premiership, while Glen Johnson is one of the best right-backs and Jose Enrique – for all his faults, especially in the opposition half – is at least "above average." Only City and United conceded fewer goals last season, with 29 and 33 to Liverpool's 40 (Everton also conceded 40). As with everywhere else in the squad, depth is a concern (except at right back), but Carragher remains serviceable – and, on the whole, impressed in preseason – while Coates has clear potential. Danny Wilson, Stephen Sama, and Andre Wisdom all made preseason appearances as well, and could all benefit from loan moves. Jack Robinson is another for the future, while both Johnson and Kelly can also deputize at left-back if need be.

Suarez, Borini, and Carroll (with the now-usual "if he stays" caveat) can all play as the central striker, with Morgan as fourth-choice back-up if the other three are somehow absent. None can replicate Suarez's all-around brilliance, but Borini has played as the focal point in Rodgers' system before, while Carroll demonstrated that there's at least a chance that he can fit in this style of play against Bayer Leverkusen.

However, the flanks remain an rather large issue. If Downing can continue in the form he's shown on the right in these very early matches, the Borini-Suarez-Downing troika could be very impressive; how they linked up against Gomel is the template, and in theory, should get even better as they familiarize with the system and each other. But if Borini or Suarez are missing, Liverpool could well be in trouble. Deep trouble.

Liverpool are going to play 4-3-3. Whether it's a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3 variant remains to be seen, but the last three matches suggest the former will be the dominant version. Even if Suarez or Gerrard or Lucas or Borini or Allen or whomever is missing, that will almost certainly remain the preferred formation. Liverpool will have to find a way to plug those holes if key players are missing, because the pattern of play will likely remain the same. On the whole, Liverpool should be able to compensate if one or even two of those players are absent, as long as it's not for an extended spell. Any more than that, however…

Miscellaneous Thoughts, Comments, Concerns…
• Whither Fortress Anfield? If we're starting from square one, the first task is improving Liverpool's home form. Liverpool's Anfield winning percentage last season was an abhorrent 32%. Six wins, nine draws, and four losses. A possible 57 points and Liverpool earned just 27, an average of 1.42 points-per-game. The last time Liverpool failed to win less than half of its league matches at Anfield? 2002-03. Prior to that? 1969-1970. Despite the multiple, egregious failings in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Liverpool still won 68% and 63% of its home matches. Hopefully the new red nets portend a better future. It can't get much worse.

• We always complain about the difficulty of the first few fixtures and the necessity of a strong start to begin the campaign on the right foot. But it's exceptionally true this season. Liverpool will face last season's top three within the first five games, albeit at home, with trips to West Brom – against Liverpool's previous assistant manager – and Sunderland – where Liverpool have lost in two of the last three seasons – rounding out the bunch. Incidentally, Sunderland away was the last opening day fixture which Liverpool won, way back in August 2008. Since then, Liverpool have lost, drawn, and drawn its first league match.

The Europa League will also impact those league fixtures. Matches against Manchester City and Arsenal will take place three days after the two legs against Hearts; neither City nor Arsenal will have Champions League matches that week. If Liverpool qualify for the group stage, they'll play United (H), Stoke (H), Everton (A), Chelsea (A), Swansea (A), and West Ham (A) after each of the six group matches. Liverpool's schedule will be far more compressed this season – matches will come fast and furious, on the dreaded Thursday/Sunday schedule more often than not – and it's still more than debatable whether Liverpool has the squad to cope.

• And whether or not Liverpool has the squad to cope with the amount of matches, the club will also remain fairly reliant on Suarez and Gerrard. That's not to downplay the importance of, say, Lucas – especially Lucas, which last season painfully proved – or Agger or Reina, but only those two lightning rods can grab the game by its cliched 'scruff of the neck,' evidenced by the dramatic difference in the home and away legs against Gomel. The two started together in just nine league matches last season, and Gerrard played as a deeper 4-4-2 midfielder in most of them; it should be a much different story if he remains in a more attacking role. Liverpool should be a more cohesive team this season, one of the hallmarks of Rodgers' system, but its fortunes will most likely stay dependent on Gerrard and Suarez's successes. The two combined for 34% of Liverpool Premiership goals last season, 33% of the goals in all competitions. Even if Liverpool gets better production from the supporting cast – and honestly, there's seemingly nowhere to go but up in that category – as those two go, so goes Liverpool. Plus, Lucas. Always Lucas.

• Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good. And Liverpool had less than zero luck last season. The woodwork, the missed penalties, Suarez's suspension, Lucas injured for two-thirds of the season. If Liverpool can convert more clear-cut chances, if Liverpool can keep key players fit and available, then Liverpool will be better. If Liverpool are "luckier" than average, whatever your definition of luck, then Liverpool could be really good. Those are obviously fairly big ifs. Honestly, all I'm asking for is regression – or, more aptly, progression – to the mean.

The usual mantra of "just be better," that all that's required is evolution from the previous season, won't suffice this year. Liverpool should better last season's return, at least in the league, just by showing up. There seems little way that Liverpool could hit the woodwork 33 times or miss five penalties. Liverpool cannot possibly draw 150% more home games than they win.

However, I'm sick of hearing about the importance of fourth, the importance of the Champions League. I imagine you're sick of hearing it too. Of course that's a goal, but it's not an expectation. It can't be an expectation when Liverpool haven't come close to achieving it in the last two seasons.

Still, the core of Suarez, Gerrard, Lucas, Reina, Skrtel, and Johnson (and Agger!) rivals almost any other club at those positions. Borini and Allen are valuable additions, Henderson, Shelvey, and Sterling could well be stars of the future. Once Liverpool's best players became involved, Liverpool looked incredibly promising against both Gomel and Leverkusen. While that's not saying much at this very, very early stage, it's cause for optimism.

And after the last few years, we could certainly do with some optimism.

Tradition dictates that I restart the OYB fantasy league, after a couple of people asked about it and I got a handful of replies on Twitter. There are almost assuredly no prizes unless advertisers send me free stuff (ps: send me free stuff), and I will probably stop remembering to update my team around November, but dammit, tradition is tradition.

I use the official Premier League game. Create a team, then click "join a league." The entry code for the OYB League is 853013-274016. I'm pretty sure if you were in the league last year and create a team, you'll automatically be re-entered.

12 August 2012

Liverpool 3-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Sterling 3'
Lucas 30'
Carroll 65'
Sam 75'

That was more like it, a much more reassuring friendly than the three in the USA. Which may have had something to do with the stronger XI, not all that different from the one which faced Gomel on Thursday. It was far stronger than expected, with Gerrard, Suarez, and Lucas all surprise starters. Those left out were those who'll play in international fixtures during the week, most notably Skrtel and Agger (along with Reina, Adam, Carroll, and Coates); only Borini and Johnson didn't feature despite no international duty.

And Liverpool reaped the benefits immediately, with Sterling scoring his first senior goal – if only in a friendly – after just 128 seconds. Liverpool had kept possession since the opening whistle, on the right flank and in its own half before Shelvey spread play wide to Enrique, whose through ball was perfectly weighted for Sterling, bum-rushing past Schwaab to pick up possession and cut inside, unleashing an unstoppable rocket into the far corner. That's his game-changing potential aptly demonstrated and a concrete indication as to why we'll probably see a fair bit of him over the course of the season.

To be fair, Leverkusen responded well, taking the game to Liverpool for the next 20 minutes. Kadlec, Schürrle, and Kießling all had strikes at goal, but all failed to find the target as Liverpool's defense bent but never broke. Leverkusen are the best opponents Liverpool have faced so far under Rodgers, with a starting XI as close to full-strength as Liverpool's, and a response was always coming. But after 30 minutes, Liverpool added a second, somewhat against the run of play and from a well-worked set play. Suarez broke down the field following a Leverkusen corner, winning a free kick just outside the box. Rather than going for goal, Gerrard touched it off to Downing, who cleverly fed Suarez on the penalty spot rather than blasting into the wall. Suarez's first touch made it look an opportunity lost, but Kadlec's rushed clearance fell straight to an otherwise-offside Lucas for a tap-in. Matches where Lucas scored are simply better than other matches. Look it up. It's science.

From there, Liverpool were able to control proceedings, keeping possession, poking and prodding at Leverkusen's defense, albeit with little success. Still, the increased confidence following the second goal – and resulting drop in confidence for the opposition – was clearly evident. Goals do change games after all, and Liverpool desperately needs to improve on last season's scoring totals. Nonetheless, Leverkusen had its best chance of the half just before the interval, a intricate passing move between Rolfes, Kießling, and Schürrle that ended with yet another Kießling shot off target from ten yards out.

The tempo unsurprisingly dropped in the second half, partly due to the established lead, partly due to the half-time changes. Liverpool made all five of its substitutions during the interval, as much to experiment as to rest the likes of Gerrard, Suarez, Lucas, Downing, and Enrique. Most notably, Shelvey went to the right flank, the same position he played on loan at Blackpool, while Adam was the most-advanced of the midfield three. Andy Carroll also received his best chance to impress, getting 45 minutes after just 20 at the end of the dismal Tottenham friendly.

And Carroll made the most of it, scoring Liverpool's third in the 65th. Carragher intercepted Kießling's pass, quickly spreading play to Shelvey on the flank. After taking the air out of the ball, with Adam, Henderson, and Kelly interchanging passes, Spearing fed Adam, whose clever, quick, one-touch back-heel opened up space for Carroll. With defenders backing off, the striker took a fierce shot from the top of the box, one which probably should have been saved but squirmed under the unfortunate Leno. Maybe we can credit the power of the strike rather than an egregious goalkeeper blunder.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool did change its style of play after Carroll's introduction, far more content to cross towards the gargantuan striker, but Carroll didn't look wholly out of place either. His movement was better than expected – although expectations are admittedly low, especially in a friendly – pressing encouragingly, chasing back to defend, and holding up possession well to involve Sterling and Shelvey in the attack. Adam also did better than expected in a more advanced role; the move further forward required him to play quicker passes than he'd prefer, evidenced by his assist on Carroll's goal. It's when he's given time and space in a deep-lying role that he can kill Liverpool's momentum, even if that's also when he has a better chance of playing those jaw-dropping, sometimes successful Hollywood passes.

Leverkusen pulled one back 15 minutes from time, an unbelievable screamer from substitute Sidney Sam after the winger received possession 30 yards from goal, bounced off of Carragher's tame tackle all too easily, and blasted past Reina from the top of the box. I also doubt Rodgers will fail to notice that the attack started when Carroll sloppily lost possession just inside the opposition half, allowing Leverkusen to counter at pace with Liverpool players out of position. Liverpool nearly conceded a second soon after when Coates lost his mind, dwelling in possession deep in Liverpool's half before blasting an insane over-hit back pass just wide of the near post, but those were the only two moments of madness in Liverpool's defense. Otherwise, the tandem of Carragher and Coates played well, with Carragher notably at left-sided center-back, as he has been with Skrtel in previous friendlies, in contrast to how he and Coates played when paired last season.

As against Gomel, other than conceding the late consolation, it was what we'd hoped for from a Liverpool match, miles different than the three matches on the American tour. Those three preseason fixtures (as well as the first leg against Gomel) prompted a concern over Liverpool's competence in front of goal, which hasn't looked anywhere near a concern since Gerrard and Suarez returned to the XI. Liverpool have been far more threatening and far more clinical with those two on the pitch, and that the goals came from unlikely scorers such as Lucas and Sterling is definitely reassuring. However, I still think Liverpool will go as far as Gerrard and Suarez – the only two attacking game-changers on the books – can carry them.

Gerrard reveled in an attacking role yet again, and I can't describe how reassuring it is to see him back in that position. Suarez was less influential than on Thursday, but there was nowhere to go but down after that performance and, yes, today was a friendly. I'd be hard-pressed to pick three players I'm happier to see on the score-sheet; the goal will do both Sterling and Carroll's confidence a world of good, while Lucas deserves it for his continued all-around brilliance and importance. Both Kelly and Reina clearly benefited from the playing time, the two who've needed it most. Shelvey and Sterling also both looked increasingly comfortable the longer they've played.

More importantly, Liverpool again looked capable of implementing Rodgers' playing style, impressively in the first half but even in the second with the likes of Carroll and Adam heavily involved. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, most likely sooner rather than later, but almost every player looks more confident in the last two matches than they did at almost any point last season.

Six days until the season truly starts against West Brom.