29 September 2012

Liverpool 5-2 Norwich

Suarez 2' 38' 57'
Şahin 48'
Morison 61'
Gerrard 68'
Holt 87'

“When you’ve got the ball 65, 70 percent of the time it’s a football death for the other team. We’re not at that stage yet, but that’s what we’ll get to. It’s death by football.”

Brendan Rodgers

After that, Brendan Rodgers could do a convincing impression of that awful Verizon guy from a few years back. "Can you hear me now? Good."

Liverpool had 67% possession today, the highest total in the six league matches so far.

Also, it probably couldn't hurt to tell Suarez that every opponent is Norwich. Or just play every match at Carrow Road.

It's the first time Liverpool have scored five in the league since beating Fulham 5-2 in May 2011. 46 fixtures ago. It's also worth noting that it took until the penultimate match to score four in the league last season. And, honestly, as said before, we should have seen more today. Like in this fixture last season, Suarez missed two arguably easier chances on his way to a hat-trick, and should have – but unsurprisingly didn't – win a penalty as well.

I apologize for continually referencing this piece, but, through the last 16 league matches, Liverpool are unbeaten when they score with the first shot on target: four wins and one draw, scoring at least twice in all five games.

It took Suarez just 67 seconds today. Liverpool drew Norwich out with quick passing possession around the halfway line for 30 seconds before Johnson ran at Martin and Surman, trying to find Şahin in the box with a smart through ball. Turner tackled it away, but only to the ever-dangerous Uruguayan. Two touches to hold off Barnett at the top of the box, then a worm-burner which wrong-footed Ruddy. Just the start that Liverpool needed.

And this was just the sort of evolution we needed to see from Liverpool. The impetus and intelligence provided by 18-year-old Suso and 17-year-old Sterling, along with Wisdom, allowed Liverpool to play as Rodgers wants to play. In depressing contrast to the likes of Downing and Enrique, singled out by Rodgers yesterday. The two young attackers were constant threats, well supported by a midfield trio of Allen, Gerrard, and Şahin, with the latter especially impressive in the attacking midfield role.

Norwich had a couple of chances on the counter through Jackson, one well saved by Reina (again with the importance of first shots on target), the other volleyed well over. But Liverpool should have had the chance to extend its lead in the 23rd: a long Agger Reina punt (read: purposeful pass) after Norwich were caught offside, Suarez wriggling behind Barnett, then judo-chopped in the neck by the fumbling center-back. Mike Jones demonstrably waved away appeals. Good thing Brendan Rodgers had that amicable chat with Mike Riley earlier in the week. Insert standard "Suarez has to be shot with a high-powered rifle to win a penalty" sarcasm here.

Thankfully, it didn't take long to get the vital second. Ruddy saved a strong diving header from Gerrard, set up by Suarez's chipped pass, before Suarez spurned his easiest chance of the day, wildly missing the target after Agger's through ball put him one-on-one with the keeper. But 20 seconds later, he unsurprisingly scored from a much-harder chance, stealing the ball from Turner after a short goal kick, nutmegging the defender for good measure, then toe-poking a preposterous curler past the helpless Ruddy. Just full-on mad scientist genius, complete with lab coat, smoking beaker, and Einstein hair. Just oh so Suarez.

Norwich came out much better to start the second half, replacing Jackson with captain Grant Holt, and creating a couple of very good chances somehow not taken: the first unknowingly cleared off the line by Snodgrass, the second a scrambled "how did we not score" when Liverpool couldn't clear a corner, the type of situation that Liverpool fans are all too familiar with. Sadly for the home side, sandwiched in between those chances was Liverpool's third, this time set up rather than scored by Suarez.

Liverpool broke quickly from its own half: Allen immediately looked up when winning possession, feeding Sterling, who raced around Martin and charged into Norwich's half. The winger passed on to Suarez after drawing defenders, allowing the Uruguayan to get to the byline after eluding Turner's attempted tackle. Suarez's first cut-back was cut out, but he made no mistake when given a second chance, putting it on a plate for the on-rushing Şahin, scoring in the second straight game simply because he's clever enough to follow play deep into the opposition penalty area. They reversed provider and scorer roles ten minutes later, another goal which followed Rodgers' template down to the minutiae: Sterling to Gerrard to Suso to Gerrard to Allen to Suso to Şahin to Suarez, Martin backing off like a child who's been burned by the stove once too often, giving the Uruguayan the space for yet another curler from the top of the box. 20 seconds, seven passes, every player in the front six involved, and another picture book goal.

Gerrard added the fifth after Liverpool began a raft of changes, replacing Suso and Şahin with Assaidi and Henderson, set up by Sterling beating Garrido before centering to the captain, the deflection from Barnett giving Ruddy no chance. From there, Liverpool were on cruise control, dominating possession but with less threat than in the first two-thirds of the match, highlighted by Suarez's other missed opportunity, shooting into the side-netting after being released by Gerrard.

That Norwich managed to score twice in the final half an hour takes a bit of gloss off the result. Unlike the previously referenced 5-2, this one was never in doubt; both of Norwich's goals were consolations. But as has happened all too often this season, both Norwich goals were of Liverpool's own making.

The first came before Liverpool's fifth, Reina unable to handle Martin's long range shot, spilled directly to Morison. The second came in the dying minutes, Skrtel – possibly blinded by the sun – totally missed an attempted clearance, allowing Holt to run unopposed at Reina before smartly finishing inside the far post. It didn't matter today, but conceding those types of goal has hurt Liverpool in the past, and will hurt Liverpool in the future if not remedied. It remains a rather large elephant in the room.

But that's literally the only complaint. Another match at Carrow Road, another match ball for Suarez, the only two hat-tricks he's scored and the only Liverpool player to have ever scored a hat-trick in the same away fixture in consecutive seasons. Only Suarez's brilliance kept Şahin from being man of the match, incredibly impressive in a more comfortable attacking role, clearly improving his fitness and form in every fixture. He's got three goals and two assists in the last three matches he's played, with his movement also crucial in Suarez's first today. In addition, his strong play in the attacking role improved Liverpool's midfield balance; both Allen and Gerrard did well in a deeper role, with Şahin and Gerrard also able to switch roles intermittently. Suso and Sterling's contribution again belied their age, while Suso's versatility looks a big benefit, almost as influential out wide as he was in two substitute appearances as an attacking midfielder. Wisdom grew into the game after some early wobbles, Johnson continues to put it outstanding performances on the left. Agger was outstanding, showing no hint of injury troubles and allowed to go forward by Norwich's lack of threat. Skrtel was Skrtel, bruising and burly but with at least one mistake in his system. And while Liverpool conceded twice, including once due to his own mistake, Reina looked closer to the form we know, making two outstanding saves, even if the more-impressive one didn't count due to offsides.

So, Liverpool are finally off the mark, and in some style. Still, matches will come much harder than this one. There will assuredly be matches where Suarez isn't as prolific, even if his strike rate has vastly improved on the whole, with five goals in the first six matches. But like this fixture last season, this could be an aberrant false dawn if Liverpool don't take advantage of the result, building on the team-wide improvements demonstrated against an often-dire opponent.

28 September 2012

Liverpool at Norwich 09.29.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 04.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.22.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.03.05
3-0 Liverpool (h) 09.25.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Brom (a); 1-2 United (h); 5-3 Young Boys (a)
Norwich: 1-0 Doncaster (h); 0-1 Newcastle (a); 0-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 2; Skrtel 1
Norwich: Jackson, Snodgrass 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Beach ball, winless in all five matches Jones has been in charge of (four losses, one draw), etc etc

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Coates Skrtel Enrique
Allen Şahin
Sterling Suarez Assaidi

Liverpool will have to cope with the three injuries incurred against Manchester United, but at least two appear to be far less serious than initially expected. Martin Kelly is definitely out, and will be for most if not all of the season, after tearing his ACL. But Fabio Borini is "50/50" due to his swollen ankle and Agger "has a good chance" of playing.

Which is good news for the latter two, but I still wouldn't risk either. Especially Agger; even if he's the 'least' injured, we're all well aware of his problems in the past. He's incredibly important to Liverpool's defense, and would probably be missed against Norwich, but that importance means that Liverpool should do nothing to risk his future in order to play tomorrow.

Which means that the still-shaky defense is likely to see two changes. Either way, Johnson looks likely to move back to his preferred position on the right, where he's far more effective, and makes Liverpool a far better side. But the left-back position is up in the air: either Enrique is finally over his knee problem, Robinson keeps his place after a decent, improving performance against West Brom, or Downing plays as a makeshift fullback. None of the options fill me with total confidence. I don't trust that Enrique's truly fit, I'm skeptical whether Robinson can play two first-team matches in three days, and Downing remains Downing, no matter the position. I guess I'm hoping the Spaniard's fit, but if not, Robinson will probably remain in the side. The second change would be Coates in place of Agger, the same change made when the Dane was suspended against Manchester City. I'd be very surprised if Carragher were preferred; if Rodgers has enough confidence in Coates to start him against the defending league champions, he should be confident enough to start him at Norwich.

This would be the first league match Borini hasn't started in, requiring a change of personnel in Liverpool's weakest area of the squad. Assaidi seems the most likely beneficiary, excellent against both Billy Jones and Craig Dawson on Wednesday, stretching play, taking on defenders, and providing the crucial assist for Şahin's winner. Either Suso or Pacheco could play if Assaidi's unable to start again after Wednesday's exertions; Sterling would most likely move back to the left flank if that's the case, but all three can play on either side. Downing's also a possibility in the position as well, but – as sadly usual – the less said about him the better.

There seem to be two options for the midfield three with Shelvey's suspended. Şahin could start again after his two-goal man of the match performance against West Brom, which would probably push Gerrard higher up the pitch. But, like with Robinson, I'm not totally convinced Rodgers will start him twice in three days; he's still finding his feet after his previous injury-plagued season and sparingly featured in Real Madrid's preseason. The other option is throwing Suso, so effective in substitute appearances against United and West Brom, to the lions, starting him as a direct replacement for Shelvey. Henderson's also in contention, and would play a similar role as Şahin in the above scenario, but I think the other two options are more likely.

It feels odd to write about another club's struggles after Liverpool's well-documented issues, but Norwich are one of the few sides to have started the season as badly. The Canaries have three draws to Liverpool's two, but only the 1-1 against Tottenham provided any boost. Norwich didn't play badly in a 1-0 loss at Newcastle last week, and were at least very solid in the narcolepsy-inducing 0-0 against West Ham, but the demoralizing 5-0 hammering by Fulham and disappointing 1-1 against QPR stand out in the memory. Like Liverpool, outside of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad opening day, Norwich's elephant-in-the-room is goal-scoring. The Canaries are one of just two sides that have scored fewer goals than Liverpool, with two through five games while Liverpool have four and QPR three.

Norwich's lineup against Newcastle is a fairly safe guide to guess how they'll line up tomorrow: Ruddy; Martin, Garrido, Bassong, Barnett; Johnson, Howson; Surman, Hoolahan, Snodgrass; Morison. Bassong will undergo a late fitness test, as will Anthony Pilkington, after picking up an injury early on against Newcastle. In addition, on-loan striker Harry Kane is out for at least another month. If Bassong misses out, Michael Turner – signed from Sunderland over the summer – will start in his stead. Either Grant Holt or Simeon Jackson could be picked ahead of Steve Morison in Norwich's attempt to find goals from somewhere. Holt and Jackson sometimes start together – 0-0 West Ham, 1-1 Tottenham, 1-1 QPR – with Jackson usually dropping deeper, but it seems more likely that Hughton will play with a lone striker against Liverpool. Even though it's a different manager, that's what Norwich did in both meetings with Liverpool last season.

Liverpool's last clean sheet in the league came in this fixture, all of nine matches ago. The side that day was Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Enrique; Shelvey, Henderson; Bellamy, Gerrard, Downing; Suarez. At least two of those players definitely won't start due to Shelvey's suspension and Bellamy not being with the club anymore; most likely it'll be five, maybe six, of the same XI. But what won Liverpool that match will need to remain consistent: Suarez's link-up with Gerrard – frequently so crucial to Liverpool's fortunes – and, more importantly, ruthless finishing. And Liverpool need that sort of ruthless performance to kickstart its league campaign, continuing on from the confidence boost earned in the midweek cup comeback. The hellish five-match start is over, but that certainly doesn't mean points will fall into Liverpool's lap.

26 September 2012

Liverpool 2-1 West Brom

Tamas 3'
Şahin 17' 82'

So, Liverpool concede through a horrendous mistake in less than three minutes. One free kick after a Henderson mistake, one goalkeeper howler, one shot into an empty net. Another match, another opponent scoring with its first shot on target. Yep, it's gonna be another one of those nights.

Or not.

I can't decide whether I'm more impressed with the comeback – that Liverpool's second-string and youngsters didn't let their heads drop and kept fighting get the result – or how quickly those players have learned and then abided by Rodgers' ethos, no matter the situation. Either development is encouraging, and incredibly welcomed.

It took Liverpool ten frightening minutes to settle; West Brom could have added a second in the sixth, when Carragher deflected Lukaku's shot narrowly wide, or the seventh, when Jones saved Rosenberg's effort. But Liverpool began playing its game: Wisdom and Robinson closed off West Brom on the flanks, Henderson and Şahin spent more time in possession dictating play, and Assaidi began running at defenders – a trend that would continue for the rest of the evening. It was the Moroccan who created Liverpool's first chance: a delicious cross that Yesil headed narrowly wide in the 10th minute.

Seven minutes later, Liverpool were level, partly thanks to a goalkeeping error from Ben Foster, but partly thanks to the viciousness of Nuri Şahin's shot. Liverpool had kept possession well prior to Wisdom's lay-off for Şahin, but the midfielder's blast from very, very long range looked likely to be saved. Until it fortunately dipped in front of Foster, squirming under the keeper. One goalkeeper error to one goalkeeping error. One to one on the scoreboard. And like West Brom, it was Liverpool's first shot on target.

Liverpool pressed, Liverpool kept possession, switching sides or going backwards rather than let West Brom rebuild momentum. Chances were few and far between; as cleverly said by the match commentator, Yesil was more of a nuisance than a threat, while Downing disappointed as Downing as is Downing's wont. Assaidi kept defenders on their toes but didn't present much danger in front of goal. Lukaku was menacing on the counter, but was limited to just one more tame shot at Jones late in the first half thanks to Liverpool's ball retention and improved defending.

The home side came out stronger in the second half, and it continued to be an enthralling (if sometimes frightening) game with chances at both ends. Foster nearly added a second farce when Yesil's fierce blast from the top of the box went through his legs, luckily bouncing over the crossbar. Pacheco hit the bar and forced another 'just-did-enough' save. Foster finally made an outstanding save, on Coates from Şahin's free kick. But Jones also had to make an excellent stop on Rosenberg's shot from distance, and was tested on a number of West Brom set plays, thankfully catching or punching whenever required. Still, the threat was there, and every back pass when West Brom forced Liverpool to regroup worried.

Then, finally, came Liverpool's substitutions. Suso for Pacheco, Jerome Sinclair – now the youngster Liverpool player to feature in a senior match – for the tiring Yesil. And then came the winner.

It can't be coincidence that Liverpool have scored within a minute of Suso coming off the bench in successive matches. Almost immediately after entering the fray, Suso had the chance to run at West Brom's back line. Sinclair occupied the defense with clever movement, Suso spread play wide to Assaidi after finally sucking in two defenders just inside the box, and the winger quickly crossed, perfectly placed for Şahin's late run into the box for a tap-in. Midfield runners getting to the penalty area remains crucial, and it was excellent to see Şahin do so to great effect. And it was only fitting that both of Liverpool's goals came from Liverpool's best player on the night.

The away side held on by fingernails for the final 10 minutes, dropping surprisingly deep, with Coates, Carragher, and Jones clearing their lines innumerable times – contrary to Rodgers' preference and allowing West Brom to come back at them immediately – but Liverpool did enough. Sure, it's not a league win, but it's a first win in domestic competition, and a win over a more-experienced foe which beat Liverpool little more than a month ago.

And it's a win from a starting XI with an average age of 23.6, which still included the 34-year-old Carragher, 30-year-old Jones, and 28-year old Downing. 22-year-old Peter Gulacsi was the old man on the bench; the other six were 20 or younger. Jamie Carragher has played 542 more Liverpool games than the other 12 players combined.

Şahin looks more comfortable in each of his three matches, controlling the midfield, running from box to box, and contributing two wildly different goals. As against Young Boys, he combined well with Henderson, who was typically tidy and efficient if unspectacular. Assaidi was a willing runner down the left; like Sterling, a player who provides something different, stretching play and willing to take on defenders on the flanks. Pacheco was far, far better in a more familiar role, if more impressive tracking back than linking play in attack (which is another sign of a player buying into the new system). The back four all played well, Yesil worked hard, both substitutions were effective. It's odd having little to nothing to complain about. But a very welcome kind of odd.

Finally, Liverpool reap some reward for the hard work and adaptation to the new system that's been evident in matches against Sunderland and United. It's even more impressive when it comes from Liverpool's second-string, an XI mostly lacking in first-team experience. No matter that West Brom were slightly weaker than the side which beat Liverpool on opening day, it's proof of the successful rebuilding of the youth system started by Benitez and further developed under Dalglish, and evidence that there's definitely light at the end of the tunnel. And maybe, just maybe, that Liverpool might just be deeper than we all feared.

25 September 2012

Liverpool at West Brom 09.26.12

3pm ET, not on live in the US. It's on in other countries, so check Twitter or your preferred bootlegger for stream links tomorrow.

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 West Brom (a) 08.18.12
0-1 West Brom (h) 04.22.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.29.11
1-2 West Brom (a) 04.02.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (h); 5-3 Young Boys (a); 1-1 Sunderland (a)
West Brom: 1-0 Reading (h); 0-3 Fulham (a); 2-0 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Gerrard, Shelvey 2; Borini, Coates, Johnson, Skrtel, Wisdom 1
West Brom: Long 3; Lukaku 2; Brunt, El Ghanassy, Gera, McAuley, Morrison, Odemwingie 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Coates Carragher Enrique
Henderson Şahin
Downing Morgan Assaidi

Chances are tomorrow's XI will look an awful lot like the one which faced BSC Young Boys last week. The modus operandi is the same for both competitions: extra experience for youngsters and out-of-favor second string players, and to protect the incredibly shallow first-team XI. Which is now even shallower after injuries to Borini, Kelly, and Agger and a three-match suspension for Jonjo Shelvey.

And as with last week's match in Switzerland, there are a couple of senior players who need the match fitness: Enrique and Şahin foremost, but possibly Downing as well. I'm slightly annoyed that Enrique's form and fitness almost demands his inclusion, rather than getting Robinson a much-needed start, but here were are. Carragher's inclusion will probably provoke some howls as well, but it's still slightly too soon for Sama, and Liverpool have to use at least one veteran in an otherwise young back line. Wilson has a better chance of being paired with Coates or even Carragher if Rodgers decides to hold Coates out until the weekend, but the "second string" CB partnership still seems the most likely.

Pacheco as a lone striker didn't work last week, and there's no Borini to pull Liverpool's fat from the fire this time. Which should mean that Rodgers will pick from Yesil or Morgan up front. It might well be the young German, included on the bench against Young Boys while Morgan wasn't. Maybe seeing Rodgers compliment Morgan early and often on Being: Liverpool prejudices me. That Sterling played only 66 minutes on Sunday makes him slightly more likely to play tomorrow; it'll seemingly be him, Downing, or Pacheco on the right, with Assaidi on the other flank. Maybe including Downing with the youngsters will be the kick in the shorts he desperately needs, if being left out entirely against Manchester United wasn't enough of a kick. And if Pacheco doesn't start on the right, it'll be him or Suso as the attacking midfielder with Shelvey suspended.

I doubt you'll need reminding, but it hasn't been that long since Liverpool and West Brom last spoke. In the meantime, West Brom have continued the form which saw them put three past Liverpool on opening day. Five matches in and they're currently 4th in the league with three wins, one draw, and one loss.

The Baggies played a fairly strong line-up in the last round of this competition, beating Yeovil 4-2 away from home. The lineup at Huish Park was Myhill; Jara, Dawson, Jones, Tamas; Brunt, Thorne; El Ghanassay, Gera, Rosenberg; Long. Only Gera and Long also started the match against Liverpool, but the majority of the XI has Premiership experience. Liverpool's will almost certainly have less in theirs. Clarke has been quoted saying "this is a competition we will take seriously", and I doubt anything he's seen in the last month has made him change his mind. 4-2-3-1 should remain Clarke's favored formation no matter the personnel used tomorrow.

So, maybe some revenge, but revenge with an almost totally different XI in a totally different competition. Regardless, remaining in this competition, allowing players like Suso, Morgan, Yesil, Wisdom et al to receive more experience has to take priority over how pleasing it would be to deliver a modicum of payback.

24 September 2012

Making Use of Shots on Target [Infographic]

Yesterday, United scored an equalizer with its first shot on target. It was the third league match this season – of five in total – where Liverpool conceded on the opposition's first shot on goal. Against Manchester City and Arsenal, Liverpool conceded on the second shot on target they faced.

This is a worrying trend. Especially since it seemingly takes scads and scads of shots before Liverpool are finally able to make a breakthrough of their own. If they ever make the breakthrough.

Liverpool's opponent scored with its first shot on target in seven of the last 15 league matches, plus Fulham tallying an own goal before even taking a shot on target in the 0-1 loss last May. In three others, the opposition scored with its second shot on target. In contrast, Liverpool scored with its first shot on target in just four matches: 2-2 against City this season and 4-1 Chelsea, 3-0 Norwich, and 3-2 Blackburn last season. Needless to say, it's a fairly good omen when Liverpool strikes early. It usually means they strike often. It also goes without saying that it doesn't happen often enough.

The goals-per-shots-on-target statistic is even more damning. During this stretch, Liverpool have averaged a goal for every 4.5 shots on target – 72 shots on target, 16 goals (not including one own goal). The opposition has averaged a goal for every 2.17 shots on target – 50 shots on target, 23 goals (not including one own goal).

Liverpool's opponents took more shots on target than Liverpool in just two of these 15 matches. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool lost both: a dismal performance at Newcastle last spring and this season's opening day match at West Brom, with Liverpool failing to register a shot on target after Agger's dismissal.

Unfortunately, that suggests there are two issues here, at both ends of the pitch. The first has been very much discussed and is very much obvious almost every time Liverpool play. Liverpool's shooting accuracy sucks, Liverpool don't have enough strikers, Carroll shouldn't have been loaned out, and now Borini's injured. At least 5% of all the pixels on the internet have been devoted to this topic over the last 16 months. Even when Liverpool hit the target, it's with shots that are easily saved far too often. And by all accounts, Liverpool aren't hitting the target enough considering the overall number of shots taken either. Liverpool have attempted 279 total shots in these 15 matches; 26% of their total shots were shots on target. Comparatively, the opposition took 156 total shots, hitting the target with 32%.

Somehow, Liverpool have taken 123 more shots than the opposition over these 15 matches, yet Liverpool have scored seven fewer goals. One hundred and twenty three. That's a lot. And you really don't want to know the overall goals-per-shot average over this stretch. What? You do? You masochist. Well, Liverpool have averaged a goal every 16.4 shots since losing to QPR six months ago. The opposition is averaging a goal every 6.5 shots. Not only does the opposition make better use of its shots on target, they're more accurate with their shots in general. Double whammy.

But the second issue is that Pepe Reina also isn't saving enough of them at the other end of the pitch. Sure, he's had little to no chance on a surprisingly large number of shots faced. Just this season, he can't be blamed for either of United's goals – Rafael's stunner and a penalty – or two of West Brom's three: an unstoppable half-volley from Gera and yet another penalty. Time and time again, teams seem to score wonder goals against Liverpool. That Liverpool's sometimes shaky defense is allowing easier shots than the ones Liverpool get is also mostly likely a factor. Nonetheless, saving slightly more than half of the shots on target faced is not a good ratio. That Liverpool have kept just one clean sheet in its last 15 league matches is also an abhorrent statistic, but one not wholly down to Reina. Meanwhile, the opposition has kept six clean sheets in Liverpool's last 15 league matches.

Liverpool have been unable to hit the target on a regular basis, score with even an average percentage of its shots on target, prevent opposition shots on target, and keep out opposition shots on target on a regular basis, with a dash of bad luck thrown in to complete the stew. All together, it makes a recipe for utter disaster.

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 United

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h)

This has been a less than successful series so far. And it seemed like such a good idea after the Manchester City match. My bad.

As with the last two, all data via StatsZone and Squawka, except for first half possession total from EPL Index. Credit for the graphic idea still goes to On Goals Scored, whom you should still be reading regularly.

Notes after the image...

On the whole, Liverpool had the better attacking statistics despite playing with 10 men for more than half the match. Except in the one attacking statistic that counts. Otherwise, more chances created, more passes attempted and completed, and – although they're not listed above – more attacking third passes, more successful take-ons, more corners, and more crosses. A slight edge in possession by full time; the first half possession hints at how the match might have gone had Liverpool kept a full complement of players. And 14 shots to United's 8, with twice as many on target, but United scored twice as many goals. What else is new.

Meanwhile, United had far more defending to do, making more interceptions and tackles than the home side, although worth noting that Liverpool completed more tackles in the opponent's half. The disparity in clearances is even more emphatic. United attempted 44, Liverpool just 19.

23 September 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Gerrard 46'
Rafael 51'
van Persie 81' (pen)

Fun times. Always fun times.

Well, let's get it out of the way.

There was Gerrard's dismissal in the FA Cup against United in Dalglish's first match two seasons ago.

There was also Javier Mascherano versus Steve Bennett against United in 2007-08. That one was a good one.

Suffice it to say there's some history here. Sadly, I've come to expect the worst possible decisions happening in the worst possible moment when these two sides meet. Because it's Manchester United, because it's Liverpool, and because sports are trying to kill me. And succeeding.


The closest comparison is probably Spearing's sending off at Fulham last season. Both players stupidly, rashly went in two-footed. Evans rolled around on the ground, Shelvey got sent off. Both players probably should have seen yellow, especially given all the contentious history which surrounds this fixture. But that the Liverpool player got a red card while the United player went unpunished should surprise no one.

Of course, we're not done. What, that's not enough controversy for you? Too bad.

Earlier penalty shouts for Agger and Suarez had been ignored, then Valencia gets that in the 77th minute, already falling over before Johnson even attempts his tackle. After a five-minute delay due to Agger's injury (of course), van Persie notched the winner. Liverpool rarely need help being torn apart on the counter-attack, on a giveaway of their own making – this one from Agger in United's half, prompting Valencia's three-on-two breakaway – but Manchester United certainly had help. And to compound matters, Agger eventually stretchered off after being unable to walk off. Early reports suggest the medical staff fears he tore his MCL. Fantastic.

United's two goals were United's only shots on target until a late time-wasting effort from nowhere. Liverpool bossed the game with 11 men, and were the better side with 10. And lost almost wholly because of the referee's decisions. That's hard to take against any side. It's utterly soul-killing against Manchester United.

It had been 39 minutes of butt-kicking but no name-taking until Shelvey's red. Liverpool needed the first two minutes to get the ball off United, but from there, United barely got it back until the sending off. The frequent "can't take their chances" failing reared its ugly head, but United never, never, never looked likely to spring the ubiquitous stomach punch. Allen and Gerrard bossed the midfield, while Kelly and Johnson were outstanding. Both those facets continued after Liverpool went down to 10 men.

It was only fitting that Gerrard struck immediately after the restart, aided by Liverpool bringing on Suso for Borini even though it was a substitution forced by injury, with the Italian suffering an ankle knock. The 18-year-old showed no fear, starting the move which ended with Gerrard's strike. Suso ran at Scholes and Evra before crossing, which Ferdinand headed out to Johnson, beating one man before Scholes' tackle. Which sent the ball straight to Gerrard, wholly unmarked 10 yards from goal. Chest, left foot, goal.

But Liverpool were only ahead for five minutes thanks to Rafael's admittedly wonderful goal. Rafael split Allen and Suso, and laid off for Valencia. Cross to a wide-open Kagawa, chest down to set up the right-back, insane swerver off the inside of the far post from no angle. Couldn't do it again on a bet, etc etc. It was just United's fifth shot, and its first on target. Because of course. It's now the third league match this season where Liverpool's opponent scored with its first shot on target. Through five matches. Both Arsenal and City scored with their second.

Despite the result, I remain incredibly impressed with how Liverpool stuck to its game after the sending off. Liverpool were very good in everything but goals until the red card, then changed formation twice in the second half to trouble United despite the man disadvantage. We've had something to be aggrieved about in almost every match this season, but today takes the horrific-tasting cake. The team were simply on the end of two unconscionable referee decisions and a worldy from Rafael.

Henderson replaced Sterling in the 66th to give Liverpool more support in midfield. Both Suso and Suarez had excellent chances to re-take the lead: the former's shot pushed over the bar by Lindegaard, the latter blasting across the face of goal from even less of an angle than Rafael's equalizer.

Then disaster (and Halsey) struck. Liverpool had kept the ball in United's half until Suso's ill-conceived pass to Agger. However, Agger, under pressure from van Persie, made the strange decision to back heel the ball away into unoccupied space. Valencia beat both Agger and Johnson to the ball, taking each other out in the process (where Agger picked up his injury) and raced toward goal with only Skrtel and Allen in their own half. The two defenders did well to close off passes to Giggs or van Persie, but then came Johnson charging back and that decision. Despite Liverpool's continued belief despite all those set-backs, game over. And to compound the compounded matters, Kelly also picked up an injury in stoppage time. Borini, Agger, Kelly could all miss extended spells, with Shelvey suspended and Lucas also a long-term casualty. Tremendous.

United win at Anfield for the first time since 2007. Liverpool are winless through five league games. Rodgers is now the ninth consecutive manager to fail to win his first match against United as Liverpool manager, a streak dating all the way back to Bob Paisley. Blah blah blah.

Regardless of result, and how painful each bad result as been, today truly was further evidence of progress. Just like the draw at Sunderland was, despite the disappointing draw. We were all prepared for a rocky road – or should have been, at least – especially given the dismal fixture list to start the season. Soon enough, that progress will turn into results. It has to.

22 September 2012

Liverpool v Manchester United 09.23.12

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (a) 02.11.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.15.11
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.06.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-3 Young Boys (a); 1-1 Sunderland (a); 0-2 Arsenal (h)
United: 1-0 Galatasaray (h); 4-0 Wigan (h); 3-2 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 2; Skrtel 1
United: van Persie 4; Buttner, Chicharito, Kagawa, Powell, Rafael, Scholes 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Allen
Sterling Suarez Borini

Liverpool versus Manchester United matches are the worst. If Liverpool win, it's often more relief than celebration after the 90-minute mind fuck (unless it's one of those rare 3-1 or 4-1 victories, which doesn't look likely tomorrow). If Liverpool draw or, god forbid, lose, that's the weekend ruined, even more than usual. And then there's the surrounding off-pitch issues in this rivalry, none of which I'd touch with a twenty-foot pole. Not fun times. Rarely fun times.

Anyway. On to the selection issues.

Enrique's dismal performance against BSC Young Boys probably ensures at least one more week of Kelly on the right, Johnson on the left at full-back. Sure, Enrique has the excuse of a lack of match practice, and should be better in his next appearance, no matter who it's against. And Liverpool are far, far more cohesive when Johnson plays on the right, even if he's a decent stand-in on the opposite flank. But I simply wouldn't trust Enrique tomorrow, up against either Valencia or Nani. Do you?

Conversely, Shelvey's cameo on Thursday should ensure that the 20-year-old again starts in Liverpool's preferred XI. Şahin seemingly still needs more time to adapt, and played the full 90 minutes on Thursday, as did Jordan Henderson. With Lucas probably out for at least another month, it's those three competing for one spot. Allen will assuredly start. And, despite his form, despite complaints (rightfully) careening around the internet, so will Gerrard. As against Sunderland, Shelvey will probably be the most-advanced midfielder with Allen and Gerrard sitting deeper. There's a slight chance Rodgers will again use Shelvey as a impact substitute off the bench, done to excellent effect in Bern, allowing Gerrard to play further forward (where he's caused more damage for Liverpool than the opposition so far this season), with Şahin or maybe Henderson partnering Allen, but that's a much less likely possibility.

It goes without saying, but no matter the personnel chosen in midfield or defense, they'll have to be diligent and disciplined. They have to have to have to cut out the mistakes and limit the counter attacks which have doomed Liverpool in every match so far this season. I'm looking at you Gerrard, you Skrtel, you Johnson, and you Reina. Because United at Anfield will play for the counter attack, always play for the counter attack. And can be utterly ruthless on the counter attack.

After last week's 'Suarez on the flanks' experiment, Liverpool should revert to the more common front three. Sterling's outstanding performance on the right against Sunderland should settle that debate, allowing Borini to line up on the left, where he's more comfortable, using inverted forwards against United's sometimes sketchy back line, with Borini and Sterling getting at the full-backs as Suarez's movement drags center-backs out of position. Rafael can be a liability, Ferdinand has similar – if less dramatic – issues with the ravages of time as Carragher, and Vidic's been sent off in his last two Anfield appearances. If the gods are good, United might avoid the whole Evra situation by starting Buttner in the second successive league match, but it's seemingly the right football decision too. Buttner impressed in his debut against Wigan, while Evra disappointed in United's meandering, narrow victory over Galatasaray on Wednesday. Of course, that back line's 'sometimes sketchiness' pales in comparison to Liverpool's defensive woes this season, but ssshhh don't tell them that.

As for United. You know United. Already near the top of the league, one point behind Chelsea. The struggling, surprising 0-1 loss to Everton was fun, but the other three matches were par for the course: standard improbable-for-anyone-else comebacks against Fulham and Southampton, then the all-too-typical mauling of Wigan. Ferguson's side will probably line up in a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1, historically their preferred formation at Anfield and the preference pretty much regardless of opponent this season, especially with Rooney absent. The above back-line, with either De Gea or Lindegaard in goal (Ferguson will most likely flip a coin in about 20 hours or so). Cleverley plus one in midfield; Carrick or Anderson seem more likely than Scholes after the latter played 80 minutes against Galatasaray, and it'll probably be Carrick after his performance in that midweek match. Valencia should get the nod over the frustrating Nani on the right, with Giggs – held out on Wednesday – or Welbeck on the left, Kagawa in the hole, and the always-terrifying van Persie up front. Rooney, Jones, Young, and Smalling will miss the match through injury.

Not to tempt fate, but United haven't beaten Liverpool at Anfield since 2007, winless in the last five visits. Incidentally, Mark Halsey was also the referee in charge of that fixture. Since that 2007 match, Liverpool have won four, drawn one at home. At Old Trafford, United have won five, lost one. Venue has become vital in this fixture. Which is slight consolation given Liverpool's form both home and away so far this season.

Thankfully, I guess, form frequently means little when these sides meet.

20 September 2012

Liverpool 5-3 BSC Young Boys

Ojala (og) 4'
Nuzzolo 38'
Wisdom 41'
Ojala 53'
Zarate 63'
Coates 67'
Shelvey 76' 88'

Well that was all sorts of preposterous. There was a full complement of good, bad, and ugly, but thankfully more good – especially in the final 25 minutes – than bad or ugly.

Hilarity and/or misfortune typified the first five goals, but the last three demonstrated Liverpool's quality. It was a makeshift line-up – with an average of 24, five players who are 22 or younger, three players making their Liverpool debuts, and a 21-year-old appearing for the first time in 18 months – but it was Liverpool's young players who impressed, the veterans who made the match closer than it should have been.

The insanity seemingly started in the best, and most fortunate, manner. Within four minutes, Ojala accidentally headed the ball into his net, through no fault of his own, as Veskovac headed Downing's cross to nowhere off his teammate's noggin. That goal made "own goal" Liverpool's top scorer in the competition. By the end of the match, it'd just be joint-top scorer.

Despite the makeshift line-up, Liverpool settled into its possession game fairly quickly, but were unable to extend the lead – as per usual – because of a lack of any threat in the final third. Henderson, Şahin, and Suso were tidy in midfield, while Assaidi raised hopes with some clever, strong runs, but the Pacheco-as-striker experiment was a complete failure. Downing added little, and all too often, Downing or Assaidi crossed to a 5'8" Pacheco marked by two or three defenders. Set plays, typically corners, and a wicked Assaidi shot from distance curling wide of the far post were Liverpool's best chances at extending the lead.

Liverpool susceptibility to counter-attacks and continued, mind-boggling ability to make unforgivable defensive errors also reminded sadly consistent, leading to Bern's equalizer. Both Carragher and Enrique had looked shaky throughout, and both Carragher and Enrique lost the plot in the 38th, "aided" by Brad Jones' strange positioning. Farnerud and Bobadilla combined to easily blow by Carragher, but Enrique looked able to shield the ball back to Jones. But Jones was late in coming out, and Enrique took it off his own keeper, then cleared directly to Nuzzolo, who slotted into an empty net. Enrique will never have an easier assist in his Liverpool career. Pity it, like the opener, was at the wrong end.

To Liverpool's credit, the score stayed level for less than three minutes. Enrique's dangerous cross won the corner, almost another Ojala own goal, then Şahin found Andre Wisdom, out-jumping and out-muscling Scott Sutter, to head in a debut goal. But Young Boys' threat remained evident just before halftime, as Farnerud blistered a long-range shot off the outside of the post.

The next two goals, both from the home side, further demonstrated Liverpool's failings: lapses on set plays, then individual mistakes on counter-attacks. In the 53rd, Liverpool cleared the initial corner, but Ojala somehow found space between Coates and Wisdom for the ball back in, with Jones late to react to the not-quite-bullet header. Ten minutes later, Bobadilla undressed Carragher then turned away from Suso after Young Boys broke following a Liverpool corner, feeding Zarate storming down Liverpool's left. Neither Enrique nor Şahin retreated fast enough, compounded by Brad Jones charging out to nowhere's land – ignoring Enrique's shout to get back onto his line – leaving him wholly exposed on Zarate's chip. Just a cavalcade of ineptitude.

Then, simply put, the substitutions made the difference. Shelvey gets the headlines by scoring twice, but the first substitution – Borini on for Pacheco immediately following Zarate's goal – was just as important. The Italian, who's actually a few months younger than Pacheco, was infinitely more effective, his runs vastly contributing to Coates' goal and both of Shelvey's. The defender tallied Liverpool's equalizer, Liverpool's second from a corner, seconds after Shelvey entered the fray. Coates' flicked on Downing's corner, but while Borini missed contact at the far post, his movement took the Bern defender off the post, allowing Coates' flick to somehow sneak in. Sure, slightly lucky, but it's hard to argue Liverpool aren't perpetually due for some luck, even considering how the opening goal came about.

Four minutes later, Liverpool scored the pick of the bunch to re-take the lead. Shelvey harassed Zverotic into a bad backwards pass, allowing Borini to smartly intercept. He ran at Veskovac before smartly centering across the box to Henderson, whose one-time pass to Shelvey for a side-foot tap-in can't be done justice with words. Most players would have taken a touch, whether deciding to pass or shoot. Henderson, without breaking stride, redirected it perfectly – perfectly – for Shelvey, whose first-time finish was also impressive. Pressure on the halfway line leading to an interception in the opposition's half, a strong run to put the defender on the back-foot, the right decision in centering across the box, a one-touch pass, and a one-touch shot. Just three players involved. Beautiful. Also, it's worth noting that both players Borini had the option of passing to were midfield runners storming into the box from deep. You cannot overemphasize the importance of midfield runners getting into the box, especially in a team that has such trouble scoring.

The final substitution, Sterling – on in the 77th – contributed in an unexpected way: his most important attribute was in giving Enrique some much-needed defensive help. Wrap your minds around that one. Which made Liverpool more secure when pushing for a game-sealing fifth, in addition to preventing yet another Young Boys' comeback. Farnerud's blast from distance, this time well-saved by Jones, was Bern's lone chance to draw level. Then Shelvey sealed the match. Liverpool drew the sting out of the game by keeping possession before Henderson's pass to Shelvey, who had cleverly found acres of space between the lines. Borini's shifting run took one center-back completely out of the picture while setting a pick on the other – while Sterling's threat kept the right back marking him – allowing the midfielder to stride into the box before unleashing an unstoppable left-footed rocket, an excellent way to cap a frenetic game.

First half not so good, last thirty minutes very good. Young players very good, certain veterans very bad. Suso and Assaidi played well, as did Coates and Wisdom despite Liverpool conceding three, while Henderson was the star of the show. Both Shelvey and Borini – just 20 and 21 in their own right – were outstanding. Şahin's assist was his highlight, otherwise, similar to the Arsenal match in doing little wrong but making little impact as well; nonetheless, it's outstanding match fitness. Enrique, despite the many, many flaws, also has the "match fitness" excuse in returning from his knee injury. The less said about Downing, Carragher, and Jones, the better.

I doubt today will be replicated often. Oddly enough, it's been exactly 500 days since Liverpool last scored five goals away from Anfield, only scoring five or more in FA Cup matches against Brighton and Oldham last season. Liverpool scored more goals today than in its first four league matches combined, just one fewer than the total tallied in the four Europa League qualifying matches.

Overall, it's a confidence boost for almost all involved and the team in general. An away win in European competition, regardless of how earned, is always an excellent result, especially when compared to the drudgery often suffered the last time Liverpool were in this competition (under both managers that season). Most importantly, it was an incredibly strong argument for selecting this type of side in this competition. But they'll assuredly face tougher opposition against the other two sides that comprise Liverpool's group.

19 September 2012

Liverpool at BSC Young Boys 09.20.12

1:00pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Young Boys: 0-2 Midtjylland (h), 3-0 Midtjylland (a); 3-0 Kalmar (h), 0-1 Kalmar (a); 0-1 Zimbru (a), 1-0 Zimbru (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Sunderland (a); 0-2 Arsenal (h); 1-1 Hearts (h)
Young Boys: 5-1 Wettswil-Bonstetten (a); 2-1 Lucerne (a); 0-2 Midtjylland (h)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Borini, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson, Suarez 1
Young Boys: Bobadilla 2; Costanzo, Farnerud, Frey, Mayuka, Raimondi 1

Referee: Michael Koukoulakis (GRE)

Guess at a line-up
Flanagan Coates Carragher Enrique
Henderson Şahin
Downing Suso Assaidi

Simply put, most who'll be involved on Sunday against Manchester United should not be involved tomorrow.

Which appears to be the case, according to the Liverpool Echo. Gerrard, Suarez, Johnson, Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Allen, and Reina are all staying in Liverpool, with Pacheco, Suso, Yesil, Morgan, Wisdom, Coady, Flanagan and Robinson in the traveling party, if not the squad.

However, unmentioned are at least two first-team players who should play, even if they're scheduled to start against United on Sunday. Both Enrique and Şahin need match fitness, Enrique to recover from his long-standing knee problem, Şahin to get back in the habit of playing regularly and adjust to his role in the Liverpool system. Both could feature against United if they play well tomorrow.

We could also see Borini, Downing, Shelvey, and Sterling. I truly hope Sterling will remain planted firmly on the bench, for all the burn-out reasons we've mentioned over and over. Shelvey's in a similar situation, ideally rested, which would give either Suso or Pacheco a chance in the attacking midfield role. But Downing's likely to start on the right, while Borini could do with further match practice as well. Opening day against West Brom was the only league match where the Italian lasted the full 90 minutes; he only played 54 and 64 minutes in the last two fixtures, notably misfiring in both – although his efforts against Sunderland suggest he's getting closer to finding form. As much as Liverpool need to bring more young players through due to the lack of squad depth, I'd still rather Borini start instead of Adam Morgan or Samed Yesil. Rodgers' highlighted Yesil, saying "Yesil will certainly be fast-tracked. He will be involved in the Europa League game." Whether that involvement means he'll play or just that he'll be involved in the squad remains to be seen; if Borini doesn't start, Morgan seems more likely because he's started a senior match before.

With Skrtel and Agger missing, Carragher and Coates appear definite starters in central defense. Flanagan's also fairly certain with both Kelly and Johnson back on Merseyside. Finally, we should finally seem Oussama Assaidi make his debut, fit from the injury that has kept him out until now and available for the Europa League group stage after sitting out qualifying. More than any other, I've high hopes for the Moroccan; Liverpool badly need another wide forward/winger to step up so Liverpool aren't wholly reliant on the likes of Sterling and Borini.

BSC Young Boys are eight matches in the Swiss Super League season, which began in mid-July, winning three, drawing three, and losing two, currently fifth out of ten teams. They haven't finished lower than third since 2006-07.

Liverpool assistant manager Colin Pascoe says Young Boys play 4-3-3, while Football-Lineups.com has Young Boys using a 4-1-4-1 in the last 10 fixtures. The vagaries of modern formation notation.

The starting XI in its last league match, on September 2 at Lucerne, was Wölfli; Zverotic, Nef, Veskovac, Lecjaks; Spycher; Gonzalez, Costanzo, Farnerud, Scheneuwly; Bobadilla. Argentinean Raul Bobadilla is Young Boys' top scorer in both league and Europa League qualifying, joining the club in the January transfer window. Christoph Spycher's been around forever, a Swiss international from 2003-2010, able to play at full-back or as a defensive midfielder. England fans may remember defender Elsad Zverotic, who scored in last year's final Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro, a 2-2 draw (that was where Rooney kicked a Montenegrin player, getting himself suspended for the first two matches of the Euros). Young Boys recently sold the player I'm most familiar with – Emmanuel Mayuka, star of Zambia's African Cup of Nations win last year – to Southampton. Honestly, the only time I've seen the club play was when they faced Tottenham in Champions League qualifying in August 2010; chances are only 4 or 5 players who played then are likely to feature: Wölfli, Spycher, Constanzo, Schneuwly, and Swiss-English right-back Scott Sutter (who'll probably be kept out of the side by Zverotic). Yes. I realize this is even less helpful than my "scouting reports" for Gomel or Hearts. Such are the dangers of Europa League opposition.

Regardless of Liverpool's current struggles, this will be one of BSC Young Boys' biggest matches of the season, if not the biggest. Unlike in the league – for the last two or three years now – Liverpool's name still inspires awe in European competition. Awe, but not terror, evident in the matches against Gomel and Hearts, where both looked to get at Liverpool, especially in the home legs. Liverpool are a vulnerable giant, and – no slight intended – players can make a name for themselves by putting another Lilliputian arrow in Gulliver's back. No matter the personnel used, this competition is the first chance for the club to begin rebuilding its reputation on the continental stage. And developing the young players who'll add depth to Liverpool's shallow squad is more important.

17 September 2012

How Does Your Sterling Grow?

"I said when I first came here, I won't judge people on their status or what they've done, it's about what I see now in front of me, and [Sterling's] a young player who's improved every single day since I came in here."

"He was a player who played on his own, in the one v one. You look at him now, playing for the team, his tactical understanding playing against a really experienced player. He was blocking the line of pass, he was pressing at the right time, he was coming back to block the lines inside."

Brendan Rodgers after the Manchester City match

Sunderland: 33/35 (94%) [most accurate in the side]
Arsenal: 27/31 (87%)
City: 24/30 (80%)

Attacking Third
Sunderland: 16/16 (100%) [most accurate in the side]
Arsenal: 17/20 (85%)
City: 13/16 (81%)

Passes Received
Sunderland: 48
Arsenal: 40
City: 34

Sunderland: 2 (1 off-target, 1 blocked)
Arsenal: 1 (off-target)
City: 0

Chances Created
Sunderland: 4 [joint most created in the side]
Arsenal: 1
City: 2

Sunderland: 5/11 [joint most successful take-ons in the side]
Arsenal: 3/6
City: 0/1

Sunderland: 5/5 [most successful tackles in the side]
Arsenal: 2/2
City: 1/2

Fouls Suffered
Sunderland: 7
Arsenal: 1
City: 1

Admittedly, Sunderland were weaker opposition than either City or Arsenal, even if the result doesn't necessarily show it. Regardless, that Sterling's output has improved in each successive start can't be overlooked.

Each link goes to the StatsZone chalkboard for that match, but I embedded the images for the categories I thought most relevant. His passes show he was more involved in the build-up, coming inside more often even though he was a right-footer playing on the right. Similar goes for the 'passes received' category, coming inside and deeper to make himself more available but also stretching play by getting the ball near the penalty box more often. He attempted and completed far more take-ons than in his two previous league starts, more of which took place directly outside the penalty box. And his tackles chalkboard against Sunderland is massively impressive for a winger, in his own half and the opposition's, let alone a 17-year-old winger.

Everything Noel wrote two weeks ago still applies. He is too young to start every single game without risking his future, too young to be relied upon in match after match. However, his improvement in each match has been demonstrable, important, and demonstrably important. He's gotten better in almost every statistical category from City to Arsenal to Sunderland.

He's come a long way from "There are very few players in the world who get into a Premier League team at 17, never mind a top club. [Sterling] has certainly shown qualities and we'll decide over the next few weeks whether he stays and he's involved now or if he goes for a loan period." Which was said by Rodgers in mid-July, just before Liverpool's first preseason match.

On Saturday, Sterling was Liverpool's most accurate passer, overall and in the final third, and made the most successful tackles (both Gerrard and Kelly attempted more, but each had four successful). He and Suarez each created four chances and completed five successful dribbles – the most in the Liverpool team. Sterling suffered seven fouls, four more than the second most-fouled player. And three of those seven fouls came in the last ten minutes, including Seb Larsson's yellow card – Sunderland's only yellow card of the match – evidence of the home side's increasing desperation.

It was also heartening to see him do all this on the right side of the pitch. Both he and Borini have been far better on the left in previous matches; both had struggled to replicate their better moments on the opposite flank. Until Saturday, Downing arguably had been Liverpool's most-effective right winger.

I cannot emphasize the "we can't get carried away" mantra hard enough. But I also cannot help but express my surprise and joy at Sterling's accelerated development.

15 September 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Sunderland

Fletcher 29'
Suarez 71'

It could have been worse, it should have been better, it was still way too similar to past failings. And it's getting harder and harder to find new ways to write the same exact damn thing every damn time.

You've seen it all before. Rodgers threw a few curveballs with his tactics and selection – Suarez started on the flank for the first time in his Liverpool career, Gerrard played in a much deeper midfield role with Shelvey further forward, Sterling started on the right even though Borini played as the central striker – but it was still same old, same old. Liverpool created a handful of chances, but suffered from poor finishing and a lack of movement. Borini had the two best, intercepting a soft back header and a first-time blast from the top of the box, but shot too close to Mignolet both times. And then, just when Liverpool edged closer to making the breakthrough, Sunderland sucker-punched.

It's no coincidence that Fletcher's goal came at almost the same point of the match as Podolski's did in the previous fixture. Liverpool are too easily torn asunder by counter-attacks, in midfield, on the flanks, and in central defense. At least there was no single scapegoat this time. Liverpool were caught flat-footed after Atkinson played advantage following Gerrard's foul, Gardner beat both Suarez and Johnson when ambling down the flank, Reina missed the low cross, and Fletcher embarrassed Skrtel, getting behind him far too easily to pounce in the six-yard box. It was Sunderland's first shot of the match.

Liverpool struggled its way to halftime, then found increasingly hilarious ways to not score after the restart. It wouldn't be a typical, soul-killing Liverpool match without hitting the woodwork; Johnson cannoned a blast off the crossbar, Gerrard caromed off the outside of the post on an opportunity he'd bury 11 times out of 10 three years ago.

But then Liverpool's savior finally struck. No, not that savior. Well, yes, that savior, but because of a different savior.

For long stretches, Sterling was the only Liverpool player holding up his end of the bargain: running at defenders, eager to take players on, trying to make a difference. He's 17, starting his third Premier League match, and was the only player who didn't disappoint. Finally, one of those crosses after a yet another clever run found its mark, with a generous assist from walking calamity Titus Bramble, blocking Suarez's shot straight back to Suarez. I'm tempted to say he couldn't miss from three yards out, but we all know better. Regardless, after 341 minutes of league action, Liverpool's first goal from open play. It was Liverpool's 19th shot of the match.

But Liverpool couldn't find a second, losing steam after the exertions leading to the equalizer. The lone substitution, Downing for the again-disappointing Borini in the 65th, added little, although that substitution allowed Suarez to move into a central position. Shelvey struck a fierce left-footed effort after running across the top of the box in the 80th minute, but again shot too close to Mignolet. Otherwise, Liverpool couldn't penetrate Sunderland's penalty box, packed with six or seven defenders, and the home side actually had the better efforts in the dying seconds, but McClean and Colback's crosses were wayward, Saha's shot from distance high and wide.

So sure, it could have been worse. We've become accustomed to stronger stomach punches. Sterling impressed, and Johnson saved Liverpool with three or four recovery tackles, even if he didn't do enough to stop Sunderland's goal and shot wastefully far too often. Joe Allen seemed slightly off-color, and that's after completing 103 of 113 passes. Shelvey had impressive moments and reckless moments in an attacking role, while Kelly defended well. Liverpool did dominate for long stretches, and were blessedly patient in their build-up leading to the equalizer, as is the plan, rather than frantically hoofing and hoping. Rodgers' system is taking hold. But, once again, Liverpool's most important players were its biggest disappointments. Moving Gerrard into a deeper role didn't improve his performance and didn't improve Liverpool's midfield balance; Joe Allen still had to try to do the work of two men. Suarez failed to make any impact in a wide role and was again profligate until his point-blank goal, his only shot on target of six in total. Borini was even less influential in his preferred striker position.

Once again, the stats tell a totally different story than the scoreline. Sunderland had 34% possession, attempted and completed 300 fewer passes, and took just one shot from inside the penalty area, its only shot on target. And they scored with that one shot on goal.

Liverpool controlled the ball, created twice as many chances, took three times as many shots (seven on target to Sunderland's one), and attempted and completed twice as many passes in the attacking third and in total. And still drew.

In some ways, that's progress. If not for one mistake, Liverpool wins 1-0. If not for the woodwork or poor finishing, Liverpool wins 3-0. It was an improvement on Liverpool's last away match, and on most of Liverpool's away performances last season.

In other ways, it's massively disappointing, because we've seen similar far too often since the beginning of last season. It can't stay like this forever, can it?

14 September 2012

Liverpool at Sunderland 09.15.12

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Sunderland (a) 03.10.12
1-1 (h) 08.13.11
2-0 Liverpool (a) 03.28.11
2-2 (h) 09.25.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Arsenal (h); 1-1 Hearts (h); 2-2 City (h)
Sunderland: 2-2 Swansea (a); 2-0 Morecambe (h); 0-0 Arsenal (a)

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Allen Şahin
Borini Gerrard Sterling

"The worst start to a league campaign in fifty years." "The last time Liverpool failed to win at least one of its first four league fixtures was 1911-12." "Liverpool currently have the worst conversion rate and lowest shooting accuracy in the league." "Liverpool have kept just two clean sheets in its last 17 league matches."

So, how were your two weeks without Premier League football?

I imagine Brendan Rodgers' were less than enjoyable. All those issues, still adjusting to his new job and his understrength squad, and almost everyone goes away for international duties.

Liverpool's small squad means the line-up should be fairly predictable. Şahin or Shelvey, will Enrique finally be fit? Otherwise, basically the same as against Arsenal, the same as against Manchester City.

Nuri Şahin struggled against Arsenal, both in his role in Rodgers' system and in general match fitness. Despite conceding a second soon after, Liverpool looked better when Shelvey entered the fray two weeks ago, and better when Shelvey had to replace Lucas early against Manchester City. Şahin came on as a substitute in both of Turkey's international matches, for 10 minutes against Estonia and for 30 minutes against the Netherlands, so his match fitness should be improving, but he's had little time to adjust to Liverpool's style of play and his necessary movement in relation to Allen, Gerrard, and the rest of the Liverpool team. Which leads me to think that Shelvey's a more likely starter tomorrow. Then I remember Rodgers' willingness to throw Şahin in the deep end last time out, and reckon that'll probably be the case again tomorrow.

If Enrique's absent again, chances are Downing will have to play left back, as Martin Kelly is also doubtful after picking up an injury in Monday's u21 match. Whether it's Enrique, Downing, or Johnson, they'll have to cope with Adam Johnson's pace – if the winger's fit after pulling out of the England squad with a thigh injury – or Seb Larsson's guile, a dangerous player in his own right but less of a threat when running at defenders. Either will be tough opposition.

As usual, you know what you get with a Martin O'Neill side. Wingers attacking, defenders defending, a contentious, physical midfield, and a target man up front. Steven Fletcher – that target man – is Sunderland's club record signing, scoring twice in five minutes on his debut against Swansea. Fletcher's good in the air, scoring more than half his goals via headers, and (unlike Liverpool) a clinical finisher; only Frank Lampard had a better clear-cut chance conversion rate last season. Left winger James McClean and attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon will also be threats.

Sunderland had to use two midfielders as fullbacks against Swansea, with Gardner at right back and Colback on the left. Gardner looks likely to continue in this role due to Phil Bardsley's absence, but on-loan Danny Rose could make his debut on the left. Assuming Johnson's absent, Cattermole's fit (he had to go off in the first half against Swansea because of a dead leg), and Rose will debut, I'd expect their line-up to be Mignolet; Gardner, O'Shea, Cuellar, Rose; Cattermole, Colback; Larsson, Sessegnon, McClean; Fletcher.

Like Liverpool, Sunderland are still winless, but have drawn twice rather than Liverpool's two losses and a draw. Both of their draws were heartening rather than disconcerting: defending excellently against Arsenal (who, I doubt I need remind, ran over Liverpool last time out) then holding a surprising Swansea side which had won its two previous matches 5-0 and 3-0. Tomorrow will be the Mackems' first home match of the season, as the fixture with Reading was postponed due to a water-logged pitch.

The litany of concerns that started this preview demonstrate the amount of pressure Liverpool will be under tomorrow, both external and internal. I have no idea whether this week's Hillsborough revelations will exacerbate that pressure or invigorate the players, but it will be an emotional day regardless. One can only hope it'll be a rewarding one as well.

12 September 2012

Hillsborough Links

Many are more qualified to write on this topic: more passionately, more intelligently, closer to the situation, whether by age or proximity. Whether on today's developments or the history of the Hillsborough Disaster. This is one of those times where it's hardest being a Liverpool supporter on the wrong side of the ocean.

But that's no excuse for avoiding such an important moment in the club's history; every supporter, Liverpool or otherwise, should know the details of what happened and recognize today for what it is: some much-needed closure, after 23 long years, and some semblance of justice. First concrete steps toward justice, at the very least.

So all I can recommend is "read." Read the history, read the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report and conclusion, and learn for yourself.

Hillsborough Independent Panel: Disclosed Material and Report
LFC.tv – David Cameron's statement
• ITV and BBC documentaries via Liverpool Offside
• Daily Mirror: Brian Reade on the day that changed football forever
• The Guardian: Hillsborough and Battle of Orgreave
• Tony Evans: New report will accuse police of orchestrating Hillsborough cover-up
The Anfield Wrap: Watching last night's documentary on Hillsborough was like getting run over by a truck
Iain Macintosh – Hillsborough: An Apology

I'll update this when links to more videos from LFC.tv's live stream come online later today. Also, some more on the history of the Hillsborough, links I've usually posted on the anniversary of the disaster:

Hillsborough Justice Campaign
Hillsborough Family Support Group
The Hillsborough Football Disaster
Don’t Buy The Sun
LFC.tv – Hillsborough: 10 Key Questions
LFC.tv – 1 Question, 96 Responses
Liverpoolfc.tv tribute page
• Sheila Coleman: Hillsborough 23 Years On
• The Anfield Wrap – Hillsborough: Still Waiting for The Truth
• Dave Kirby: The Justice Bell

03 September 2012

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h)

Well, I promised to do these comprehensive infographics for all the "big" matches. I guess I can't stop after one because the second big match went so comprehensively awful. And no, I still haven't come up with a better title for the series.

As with last week's, all data via StatsZone and Squawka.

A couple of notes after the image...

This graphic seems to serve even more of a purpose than last week's against City. Because it makes it obvious how Arsenal won the game: midfield passing, a sturdy defense, and taking its chances.

Liverpool attempted and completed more passes – and a higher percentage of passes – and had more possession, but Arsenal's midfield put Liverpool's to shame. Arteta and Diaby controlled the game, while it felt like Cazorla could score or create a goal every time he waltzed into the final third. 72 passes, 65 completed is an egregious, egregious total for an attacking midfielder and again helps demonstrate just how much Liverpool missed Lucas' ability to cover that area of the pitch.

The tackles and interceptions section is almost as frightening. Especially as you near the penalty boxes. Arsenal's is ringed and filled with tackles and interceptions. Liverpool made one tackle inside its box and three inside the defensive third; nine of Liverpool's 17 tackles came in the opposition half.

Finally, every outfield Liverpool player – all 12 of them, starter and substitute – took at least one shot or created at least one chance. But once again, Liverpool wasted every single one. Seven of Arsenal's 13 outfield players created a chance or took a shot, but they made two of theirs count.

02 September 2012

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal

Podolski 31'
Cazorla 68'

Somehow, that was more demoralizing than the 0-3 loss at West Brom, despite the quality of the opposition and the slightly less embarrassing scoreline.

There were excuses for that first loss, most stemming from the red card. But this script becomes more painful the more we're subjected to the same film. Liverpool were deservedly beaten, horribly impotent and utterly clueless in the final third, and Liverpool conceded from a Gerrard giveaway and a Reina mistake. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

That's not to downplay how well Arsenal played. More specifically, how well Arsenal defended. Jenkinson did outstandingly against Sterling, Vermaelen was Vermaelen, and Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain tracked back brilliantly. Aside from one early moment, Suarez couldn't even test Mertesacker, never finding space to run at the slow defender because of his poor control and decision-making and Arsenal defending in numbers.

It was all so terribly predictable. Arsenal's short passing and strong defense – in addition to Liverpool's much-noted attacking impotence – prevented the home side from taking advantage of the edge in possession and decent start to the match. Then Arsenal struck on the counter, as Arsenal loves to do, beginning with yet another Gerrard giveaway, the third consecutive league match where a bad decision errant pass is severely punished. And there have only been three league matches.

Gerrard leads Suarez too far, his only option, with Suarez encircled by three defenders. Vermaelen easily intercepts, and immediately finds Podolski just outside the center circle. Liverpool are carved wide open, Podolski's pass splitting Şahin and Allen, both stepping forward to the halfway line, neither covering as a holding midfielder. Cazorla runs 30 yards before Enrique comes close to catching up, then returns the ball to Podolski, who had sprinted past Johnson even though the defender had a head start. The right back's unable to block the shot, Reina's unable to stop it, one-nil to the Arsenal.

Liverpool tried to make amends, both before and after the interval, but kept doing the same things. Gerrard and Suarez continued to misfire, Sterling couldn't find any space because of Arsenal's good work, and Borini was utterly invisible. Webb ignored three penalty shouts – one correctly, one arguably, and one insanely, as Webb is prone to do – but Arsenal remained the more dangerous, and nearly punished Liverpool on the counter twice more. Giroud wildly misfired after an excellent run from Diaby carved open Liverpool's tender belly yet again just before halftime, Reina made an excellent save on Gibbs' near post shot not long after the restart.

Liverpool improved after Downing replaced the hopeless Borini in the 54th minute, but still couldn't penetrate the Arsenal defense: Suarez had a shot tipped over, Downing had one blocked after a clever run then couldn't direct a header on target from Sterling's clever cross.

And then Arsenal struck again, a flawless passing move that diced through Liverpool's defense: Diaby to Podolski to Diaby to Cazorla to Podolski to Cazorla, with Shelvey (on a minute before as a substitute) unable to close down when chasing like a dog after a tennis ball and everyone else standing off. But Reina should have easily parried Cazorla's near post blast, once again letting a goal slip through his fingers. Less culpability than the Hearts' calamity because of the ferocity of Cazorla's shot, freely sprinting between Downing and Johnson, but still fairly unforgivable.

Arsenal simply had to sit back to prevent a Liverpool consolation, and despite Suarez's chip over and a couple of Shelvey shots saved, a consolation rarely looked on the cards, nevermind the needed two. Giroud probably had the best chance of the last 20 minutes, a free header from a corner with Downing lazy and Skrtel static, but ballooned the opportunity.

And with Liverpool suffering in attack, what did Rodgers have on his bench? A goalkeeper, three defenders, two central midfielders, and Stewart Downing. And Downing had replaced Borini (who really was indescribably bad today, once again not helped by playing on the right) early in the second half; Liverpool had no options once going behind by two. There's a reason everyone went insane when deadline day ended without new signings. The furor will most likely get louder before the situation gets better.

Once again, Liverpool lose when Gerrard and Suarez underperform, the former more inexcusably than the latter. Once again, only Joe Allen comes away with any credit, although Sterling had his moments and Shelvey did well off the bench. That's right, a 17-year-old making his second league start was Liverpool's best attacker. Liverpool's total lack of depth means that he's going to have to repeat that type of performance often. Far more often than he should have to do.

And, sadly, so much for not missing Lucas. Şahin looked off the pace, inoffensive but unthreatening, clearly needing match fitness. Allen may have played well, but he's not a defensive midfielder, not in a match like this. He completed one tackle and made three interceptions, Şahin two tackles and no interceptions. Arsenal made nine more tackles and six more interceptions than Liverpool. One match is not proof, especially Şahin's first match, but this doesn't appear to be a pairing capable of stopping the strongest sides; both want to press, neither are an effective shield for the back four, all too painfully evident on Arsenal's opening goal. Nine of Liverpool's 17 successful tackles were in Arsenal's half. All six of Liverpool's unsuccessful tackles came in their own half.

Still, the most blame for Liverpool's broken midfield lies with Liverpool's captain. Only Borini and Suarez had a worse pass completion percentage, and his giveaways somehow continue to punish Liverpool in the harshest possible manner. Once Liverpool went behind, he played more as an out-and-out attacker, almost a 4-4-1-1 formation at times in the second half, creating chances – five of Liverpool's 15 in total – but had next to no combination with the other two midfielders and did the typical "well, I just need to make longer, more ambitious passes" decision which infuriates more than it helps. And he, along with the front three, is supposed to be Liverpool's first line of defense. That line of defense did not perform well today despite those nine tackles; Diaby and Arteta – neither a defensive midfielder in their own right – were allowed to boss the game, especially Diaby. This match only strengthened the argument that Liverpool might be best served by playing Gerrard in the front three. And as against West Brom, most infuriating was his seeming indifference once Liverpool went two behind.

Now, with one point from nine, Liverpool have fulfilled all our fears, unable to come to terms with the difficult start. And now, instead of being able to regroup, the majority of players will go away for the international break. The schedule doesn't soften once players return, traveling to Sunderland before facing United, with the added bonus of Europa League and League Cup matches to test the thin squad.

We worried that it'd get worse before it got better, having to start from the ground floor against strong opposition. But we didn't expect it to be this much worse, with so many of last season's faults somehow amplified and little improvement in almost every area.

01 September 2012

Liverpool v Arsenal 09.02.12

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11
1-1 (a) 04.17.11
1-1 (h) 08.15.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h); 2-2 City (h); 1-0 Hearts (a)
Arsenal: 0-0 Stoke (a); 0-0 Sunderland (h)

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Allen Şahin
Borini Gerrard Sterling

As long as Şahin's ready, and I can't see why he wouldn't be, the line-up seems to write itself. We all know Liverpool's strongest XI, after all. It's when forced to contemplate squad depth that everyone rightfully gets all shouty.

The same front six as against City except for Şahin replacing Lucas/Shelvey. The same back five as against City but with Agger returning from suspension, and maybe Enrique if he's somehow fully fit.

Enrique sounded doubtful about his availability in today's interview on the official site. Downing did adequately against Hearts, but defending against Arsenal is a different test, especially when he'd be facing Walcott, Gervinho, or Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool play far, far better when Johnson's on the right, but still defend adequately when he's on the left, especially since Kelly's improved in the last three matches compared to his performance against West Brom.

With Sterling left out of the starting lineup against Hearts, it seems likely he'll start again tomorrow. Liverpool would probably best be served by Sterling on the left and Borini on the right, as against City, in contrast to how the two played as substitutes on Thursday. Both have struggled on the right, both right-footed and fairly reliant on cutting inside from the flanks, but Borini seems more likely to be able to alter his game, while Sterling's pace against 20-year-old right back Carl Jenkinson is an enticing prospect.

Arsenal have had a strange but not strange start to the season. Two 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke certainly weren't the expected results – the only Premiership side to have failed to score – but both were thoroughly explainable. Both opponents set up for the draw, compact and packed in their own halves. Arsenal were obviously going to struggle for goals after losing van Persie, and played into Sunderland's hands in the opening match by starting a front three of Podolski, Gervinho, and Walcott – three quick forwards, none an out-and-out striker, who all thrive on quick, intricate movement and finding space. Despite starting Giroud, Arsenal were even blunter at Stoke, but more than a few sides have traveled to the Britannia and come away with nothing. Arsenal took a combined 40 shots against Sunderland and Stoke. Just five were on target. This will sound vaguely familiar to Liverpool fans.

Arsenal should find a bit more space tomorrow, especially with the match at Anfield. Unlike in the last two fixtures, Arsenal should be able quickly counter – something they thrive on – when winning the ball off of Liverpool, who will look to control possession as always under Rodgers. There will be space to run into behind Liverpool's high back line if Liverpool aren't careful, if the offside trap fails, if Liverpool make the kind of mistakes we've seen against City and West Brom. Imagine a quicker, more technically competent version of West Brom's first penalty decision on the opening day. That's what's Arsenal are perpetually capable of if given the chance. Much will depend on how well Liverpool's midfield controls the game, especially contingent on Gerrard's discipline, as his giveaways have led to opposition opportunities in both of Liverpool's league matches. Both Cazorla and Arteta are intelligent, patient midfielders, and Arsenal is typically excellent at the style of play Rodgers wants to encourage: keeping possession with quick passes and hunting in packs to close down options. Cazorla will be the playmaker, the conductor, and Joe Allen will have to be at the peak of his powers to keep him under wraps.

Szczesny will be a late decision, missing the last match with a rib injury, while Koscielny should make his first start of the season after a calf strain. Rosicky, Sagna, Frimpong, and Wilshere are all medium-to-long-term absentees; for approximately the 38th season in a row, Arsenal cannot catch a break from injuries. I expect their XI will be very similar to last week's, but with Szczesny and Koscielny in defense, and possibly Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain instead of Gervinho. Something close to Szczesny; Jenkinson Koscielny Vermaelen Gibbs; Arteta Diaby; Walcott Cazorla Podolski; Giroud.

Liverpool's starting XI in this fixture last season was Reina; Kelly Carragher Skrtel Enrique; Adam Spearing; Henderson Kuyt Downing; Suarez. And the only reason Arsenal won 2-1 rather than losing 0-1 was van Persie, beating Carragher twice, thumping two outstanding goals. The above guessed XI is far, far better than the one Liverpool deployed last March, while Arsenal's will be missing that goalscoring talisman.

While Liverpool have become known for raising its game against better opposition, Liverpool also haven't beaten Arsenal at Anfield since 2008, the 4-2 Champions League quarterfinal. It's been since 2007 in the league, Crouch's perfect hat-trick guiding Liverpool to a 4-1 win. Since then, four matches: two draws and two losses.

Yes, this is only the third game of the campaign, but both sides will be desperate not to fall further behind the league's best. Both sides' biggest issue is goal-scoring, both sides are coming to terms with a new playing style: Liverpool because of the new manager, Arsenal because of the summer's personnel overhaul. Arsenal have strength in depth but no superstar, Liverpool have a very good first XI but no depth.

No matter how early it is in the season, this match will tell us an awful lot about both sides, as well as their future for the next few months.