31 January 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal

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

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

373 attempted and 300 completed is Liverpool's fewest passes since the 2-2 draw at Everton, where Liverpool completed 241 of 314. Those are the only two matches where Liverpool have attempted fewer than 400 passes; the win over Wigan and draw at Chelsea are the only other matches where Liverpool completed fewer than 400.

More depressing was how few passes Liverpool attempted and completed in the attacking third – 54 successful of 76 in total. Again, only the Everton draw rivals that total, where Liverpool completed 63 of 103. In fact, Liverpool completed more attacking third passes than they attempted yesterday in every match except that at Everton. Aside from Everton, the previous low was 88 completed at Manchester United.

Unsurprisingly, it was also Liverpool's lowest possession total of the season. 40.7% possession in the first half was a low for the season, quickly broken by 35.7% possession in the second half. Prior to yesterday's match, Liverpool had been held to less than 50% possession in just three previous matches this season: at City and Everton and against Wigan.

Knowing how easily Liverpool can be exposed on the counter-attack and considering how strong Arsenal were in attack helps explain why Rodgers was so conservative. It's still disappointing because of Arsenal's defensive fragility and even more because that Liverpool went on to lose a two-goal lead, but it's at least understandable. Maybe Liverpool could have snatched a third by piling bodies forward in the last 15-20 minutes, but Liverpool were even more likely to lose the match by doing so. As West Ham, Newcastle, and Tottenham – among others – can attest.

Some credit where due. Arsenal prevented Liverpool from playing, whether through pressing or midfield ball control. Wilshere was phenomenal, Arsenal's best player and the closest thing I've seen to Gerrard at his peak in a long time, but Aaron Ramsey's passing total was also impressive. Via to Stephen McCarthy of EPL Index, no player has attempted that many passes against Liverpool in the last four seasons; the next closest was Modric with 104 at White Hart Lane last season, a match where Liverpool had two players sent off. With its passing and possession, Arsenal did to Liverpool what Liverpool usually does to its opposition. And like in multiple Liverpool matches, especially prior to December, all Arsenal got for it was a single point.

It's no revelation that using Suarez on the left flank decreased his attacking efficiency. Although he scored the opener, Suarez's shots and chances created were both below his usual output; he's averaging just under six shots and just under three chances created per match this season. Often starting from a deeper position, he was also less effective taking on a defender, with just one of seven dribbles successful. However, four interceptions and four tackles were both highs for the season; four interceptions was the most in the squad, only Lucas made more successful tackles. But, as Rodgers noted after the match, Suarez eventually tired at a crucial time, with both of Arsenal's goals coming from that side of the pitch before Enrique could come on, unable to help out before Johnson fouled Walcott for the free kick, unable to get close to Arsenal's attackers during the passive move for the second. While his four shots were a team-high, he didn't take one between the 29th and 88th minutes. The match at Oldham showed how Suarez as a #10 can disrupt Liverpool's balance, yesterday's match demonstrates how pushing him out to the wing somewhat nullifies his threat. Rodgers still has a massive task to figure out how to fully integrate him and Sturridge in the attack, and that's without Borini or Sterling seeing the field and Coutinho still to come.

And it seems I can't write one of these without mentioning the Reina Passing Theory, again coming true. He only completed 10 of his 24, his worst accuracy of the season, although he made fewer passes against Aston Villa. Liverpool's record when he completes fewer than 20 passes is now 1W-4D-6L and 6W-1D-1L when he completes 20 or more. All those Arsenal tackles and interceptions in Liverpool's half definitely affected Reina's passing and Liverpool's build-up. You can be sure that City will do similar on Sunday.

22 interceptions were a season-high for Liverpool. They'd averaged slightly more than 13 per match, with a previous high of 19 against Fulham. All but four of those interceptions came in Liverpool's half. 43 clearances and 19 successful tackles were also well above Liverpool's average. Meanwhile, 10 of Arsenal's 13 interceptions were in Liverpool's half – again, the sort of high pressing which frequently disjoints Liverpool's control of a match.

30 January 2013

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal

Suarez 5'
Henderson 60'
Giroud 64'
Walcott 67'

One week ago, Arsenal beat West Ham 5-1, with four goals in seven minutes, after being held 1-1 at halftime. One month ago, Arsenal beat Newcastle 7-3 after being held 1-1 after halftime. No side has scored more goals at home than Arsenal. So maybe it's not incredibly surprising that Arsenal scored twice in three minutes against a constantly-pinned-back Liverpool.

That said, anytime you lose a two-goal lead is a massive failure. Liverpool have now drawn two games this season after going 2-0 up: at Everton and at Arsenal. Incidentally, those are the two clubs directly ahead of Liverpool in the table. Funny how that works, huh?

Some responsibility for both of Liverpool's goals is due to Arsenal mistakes. Both of Arsenal's goals were quite well-taken. That doesn't make it better either.

It was a dream start when Liverpool scored within five minutes, and it was a comedy of errors from the home side. Sagna's slip allowed Johnson in behind when there had been no threat, Vermaelen hilariously whiffed when attempting to cut out the cross, and while Szczesny made an excellent save on Sturridge, Wilshere deflected the ball straight to Henderson, who laid off to an open Suarez, his shot finding the back of the net via Mertesacker's deflection.

Arsenal's best chance of the half came almost immediately after Liverpool scored – keep this in mind for later – that dangerous period when a contented side goes to sleep. Wilshere's excellent throughball somehow made its way to Walcott between Johnson and Agger, but Reina somehow parried the point-blank shot.

The rest of the half proceeded in a similar vein: Arsenal pressed, Arsenal attacked, Liverpool held them at bay, and Liverpool countered. Liverpool's first half possession – 40.7% – was a low for a single half this season. Until the second half.

But with Carragher and Agger defending resolutely, Suarez tracking back well down the left, Henderson shuttling all over the pitch, and Gerrard utterly immense, Arsenal struggled to find an equalizer. Reina made another save on a Walcott shot, Giroud fired wide, and Liverpool defenders blocked three dangerous chances. But it's not as if Liverpool couldn't respond, and were unlucky not to extend its lead before the interval with Arsenal's defense looking capable of a mistake at any opportunity. Suarez and Sturridge shot narrowly wide on separate counters – Sturridge's set up by a jaw-dropping pass from Suarez – Agger had a header from a corner cleared off the line, and a Henderson chip with Szczesny stranded barely ended up on the roof of the net rather than in it.

The second half started as the first half went, with Liverpool finally getting the second on the hour, again with help from Arsenal's error-prone back four. But saying that goal came from an Arsenal error doesn't do Jordan Henderson justice. Sturridge passed the ball to the midfielder with both Mertesacker and Santos blocking his path to goal. Somehow, Henderson slipped between them, leaving Mertesacker kicking at air while he held off Santos and ran at Szczesny. Ramsey blocked Henderson's first shot, but despite being out-numbered five to one by Arsenal players, Henderson was first to the rebound, slotting into the empty net.

Rather than killing the game, the second goal marked a complete transformation. Arsenal may have had near-permanent pressure throughout the match, but Liverpool arguably had the better chances until Giroud scored. That stopped being the case as soon as Arsenal pulled one, then two back in quick succession.

Once again, Liverpool somewhat shut off after scoring. Podolski could have gotten the first sooner, barely missing with a fierce blast from 20 yards out after squirming through Liverpool's midfield. Then came Giroud's set play header, left open when Agger misjudged the flight of the ball. From Arsenal's next attack came Arsenal's next goal, again from Liverpool's left. Liverpool failed to fully clear after Walcott's cross; Cazorla, Sagna, Giroud threaded the ball in front of and through Liverpool's ever-deeper defense, with Walcott firing past a surprisingly static Reina from next to no angle, finally finding the outstanding finish he'd been threatening.

From there, it was all Arsenal until Suarez almost won it in injury time. Liverpool stemmed the tide for about 15 minutes, but after the 80th, Cazorla shot across the face of goal with no Arsenal player able to tap it in, Reina denied Giroud's blast from the top of the box, and then the Frenchman missed a sitter, unable to sort his feet out to tap in Podolski's low cross. Suarez nearly won it singlehandedly at the death, winning possession in the center circle, getting the return ball from Downing, and blasting at goal, forcing a save from Szczesny and with Enrique and Henderson inches away from the rebound. As against Everton, no such luck with a late winner to save face. At least this time it wasn't cruelly and wrongly denied.

There will undoubtedly be over-the-top criticism of both Rodgers and Liverpool after losing that lead. Which is understandable given everyone's frustration. It was surprising to see Liverpool defend so deeply, happy to concede possession, almost as if we were watching Hodgson or Dalglish's wins over Chelsea in 2010-11. Which, despite the opposition, is exactly the type of game Carragher thrives in, with a man-of-the-match performance today (along with Henderson and Gerrard). Of course, it also limited Liverpool's attacking prowess, but as Oldham proved, sorting out Liverpool's midfield and defense seems slightly more important.

It was less surprising to see Rodgers unwilling to make attacking substitutions. The only real complaint is that Downing again, mindbogglingly, stayed on the pitch rather than bringing on Sterling or Borini. But that Enrique replaced Sturridge in the 71st isn't one of the reasons for criticism. For one, Sturridge is still finding fitness and injuries and a lack of matches, having played 90 terrible minutes at Oldham. In addition, that substitution did what it was designed to: stop Theo Walcott, who won the free kick for the first goal and scored the second. All three of those Arsenal chances after the substitution came from the opposite flank. When Liverpool concede once, they often concede twice, and frequently concede three. At that point, keeping the 2-2 scoreline and continuing to try for the counter-attack makes a certain amount of sense, if depressing sense. A draw is disappointing after the first hour, but Liverpool could not could not could not lose that match.

Not that it matters, but would I have taken a draw before kickoff? Probably. Last year's win at Arsenal was something of an aberration, with eight key Arsenal players missing; before that, Liverpool had drawn four and lost three in the previous trips to the Emirates. And Arsenal totally mopped the floor with Liverpool in the reverse fixture. Some credit where it's due: despite those defensive errors, Arsenal were pretty good today, at least in midfield and attack; Wilshere and Ramsey were outstanding, requiring Gerrard and Henderson to be at their best (especially since Lucas wasn't), Giroud and Walcott were frequent threats.

Still, losing a two-goal lead is cause for righteous anger, throwing away what had been an excellent defensive performance. No matter the opposition, no matter the location. Liverpool, still yet to beat any side above them, desperately needed that win, and with less than half an hour to play, looked likely to register that win.

Somehow, Sunday's match at Manchester City is now even more important. Under pressure...

On Philippe Coutinho

Finally passing his medical and approved for a work permit, Philippe Coutinho is the 15th player bought since FSG took control of the club. 10 of the previous 14 are still with the club: Suarez, Henderson, Downing, Enrique, Coates, Borini, Allen, Assaidi, Yesil, and Sturridge (no, we're not counting Carroll or Doni). The average age of those players when they signed was 22.5. Downing was the only older than 25, Enrique was 25, and Suarez had just turned 24. Everyone else was 23 or younger.

Compare that to the players brought in during the summer of 2010, the last Hicks and Gillett transfer window: Jovanovic (29), Cole (28), Aurelio (29), Poulsen (30), Jones (28), Meireles (27), Konchesky (29), Shelvey (18), and Wilson (18). While Shelvey, Flanagan, Wilson, Eccleston, Pacheco, and Robinson – all younger than 20 – made appearances that season, you also may remember the likes of Kuyt, Poulsen, Maxi, Kyrgiakos, Konchesky, Aurelio (when actually fit), and Jovanovic playing key roles, especially under Hogdson. All were either 29 or 30. The only players in this season's squad who are that age or older are Carragher, Gerrard, Reina, and Jones.

Liverpool are not wholly without experience. In addition to those four who are 30 or older, Agger, Skrtel, Downing, and Johnson are 28; Suarez, Enrique, and Lucas are 26. Still, Liverpool are the only club to name three teenagers in a Premiership starting XI this season. They've done it in six of the 23 league matches.

That was a long, somewhat tangential introduction to that fact that Philippe Coutinho is 20. If you hadn't heard.

In theory, Coutinho is a player who fits into Rodgers' system, whether 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Predominantly right-footed but capable with his left, Coutinho is versatile enough to play anywhere along the attacking line of three. He made his Inter debut under Rafa Benitez, most often as a left-sided attacker, but has increasingly preferred to play as a central attacking midfielder, a #10 in the vein of how Suarez has played in the last 135 minutes of league football, a player who wants the ball at his feet, taking on a defender one-on-one.

Making just a handful of appearances for Inter this season, he's started in all four attacking positions: as a forward, on the left, on the right, and in the hole. His preferred position has usually been filled by Guarin or Palacio. With Stramaccioni often using three at the back, the width has primarily come from wing-backs or out-and-out forwards rather than midfielders, which is why more of Coutinho's appearances this season have come in the front three.

He's only started three league matches, also making seven substitute appearances, but started five of Inter's six Europa League group stage matches. Only Bayer Leverkusen's Karim Bellarabi, who's played in just two matches, is averaging more successful dribbles per match in that competition. There are just nine players who are averaging more shots per Europa League match than Coutinho (he's even averaging more shots than Suarez, although both players have scored just once).

Given his paucity of opportunities at Inter following the departure of Benitez, a loan to Espanyol last season came at a crucial time. Coutinho made 14 starts during his loan at Espanyol last season: 10 were on the left of Pochettino's 4-2-3-1, two were on the right, and two were as the #10. Only Sergio Garcia took more shots per game for Espanyol last season, only Garcia and Vladimir Weiss averaged more successful dribbles. All five of Coutinho's goals and his lone assist came as a left-sided attacker. This seems his most likely position at Liverpool, but it's also where Borini has looked most comfortable in his few appearances, as well as Sterling's preferred position.

The Score, In Bed With Maradona, and the Daily Mirror (I know, right?) have excellent articles about Coutinho's progress and promise if you're interested.

My short version: it's another raw attacker added to a still developing group. Rodgers already has to figure out how to combine Sturridge, Suarez, and the returning Borini (which went, um, poorly last time out); now he's adding another laden-with-potential youngling to the mix. And, of course, I can't go without mentioning that Coutinho will almost assuredly need time to adapt to the Premier League. Brazilian-born and coming from Serie A? Double whammy.

Have you repressed Oldham yet? I apologize for digging at recently formed scabs, but it's not as if Liverpool's problem appeared to be in attack, despite scoring just twice against the League One side. Liverpool were young (the starting XI had an average age of 22.7; only Skrtel and Jones were over 23), Liverpool were unbalanced, and Liverpool were outmuscled. Liverpool can be both mentally and physically fragile, and Liverpool are inexperienced. Coutinho, while an incredible prospect, addresses none of those concerns.

He has piles and piles of potential, but he is a project. Liverpool already have an awful lot of projects.

Also, loan Suso. Immediately. From all I've read and seen, he's the most similar to Coutinho in Liverpool's squad, if younger and even more inexperienced.

29 January 2013

Liverpool at Arsenal 01.30.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Arsenal (a) 09.02.12
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11
1-1 (a) 04.17.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Oldham (a); 5-0 Norwich (h); 1-2 United (a)
Arsenal: 3-2 Brighton (a); 5-1 West Ham (h); 1-2 Chelsea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 16; Gerrard 5; Agger, Skrtel, Sterling, Sturridge 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Henderson, Johnson, Şahin 1
Arsenal: Walcott 10; Cazorla, Giroud 8; Podolski 7; Arteta 4; Gervinho 3; Koscielny, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

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

It goes without saying that Liverpool need to put Oldham out of the memory, as quickly as possible. Except to respond to the setback. Liverpool have become fairly competent at responding to setbacks – not losing back-to-back matches no matter the competition yet this season – although it'd probably be better if there were no setbacks in the first place.

Johnson, Enrique, and Reina will all return, a much-needed boost for Liverpool's defense. Agger will also come back into the XI after remaining on Merseyside for the FA Cup tie. So who'll be the fourth defender: Carragher or Skrtel? While mostly untested, Carragher was excellent against Norwich. Skrtel was the opposite of excellent at Oldham, but was surrounded by three inexperienced defenders and a back-up keeper. The Slovakian is almost always much better when paired with Agger, and often hapless when he isn't. Carragher improves Liverpool's defensive organization. Carragher's pace against Arsenal terrifies. Still, that Carragher was left out against Oldham, requiring Suarez to be the stand-in captain with Gerrard also on the bench, makes me think that he'll start tomorrow.

Liverpool's midfield in the reverse fixture, containing Gerrard, Allen, and Şahin (with the captain as the most advanced midfielder), was wholly outclassed last September. And Sunday's match at Oldham demonstrated how exposed Liverpool's tender underbelly can be with Suarez as a #10. That might not necessarily be the case with Gerrard and Lucas returning to the side, but it's still a concern as Arsenal's three-man central midfield is one of the side's strongest features: full of clever movement and able to play keep away.

That said, Henderson ostensibly on the flank, dropping into the middle when Liverpool were out of possession against Norwich, could offer more protection than Borini or Sterling did on Sunday. This formation has had some elements of Dalglish's 4-2-2-2 used in the run-in during the 2010-11 season, the same formation Liverpool used when the two sides drew 1-1 at the Emirates in April 2011.

There are, however, a couple of caveats. While both sides play 4-2-3-1, Arsenal are obviously not Norwich. Walcott and Sagna bombing down Liverpool's left is a bit different than Russell Martin and Robert Snodgrass; two from Diaby, Wilshere, Ramsey, and Arteta will control the ball a bit better than Tettey and Bradley Johnson. In addition, with Enrique likely to return, Johnson won't be playing on the left. I'm nowhere near convinced Enrique can replicate Johnson's control of the entire left flank. My best guess is that means Liverpool swap the wingers, with Henderson tucked in on the right and Downing as an orthodox left-winger ahead of Enrique. Or maybe it means that Liverpool will revert to a more traditional three-man midfield, with Henderson ahead of the Gerrard-Lucas duo, and Sturridge potentially left on the bench after a full 90 minutes on Sunday or either him or Suarez used as a wide forward.

Arsenal are currently sixth in the league, three points ahead of Liverpool. So far this month, they've lost to Chelsea and Manchester City and were held at Southampton, but the last league victory, a 5-1 win at West Ham, demonstrates just how potent the Gunners can be. Level at halftime, Arsenal scored four in 12 minutes after the restart; just about every attack ended with a goal, one on a set play and three on blitzkrieg counters. Something that Liverpool will hopefully remember from the last meeting, with the first-half winner coming on the break after Liverpool lost possession deep in Arsenal's half.

Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal successfully rested key players in the FA Cup and still won, albeit by the skin of their teeth. Walcott, Wilshere, Gibbs, Cazorla, and Sagna were left out of Saturday's starting XI, although the first three came off the bench in the final 25 minutes, with the newly-resigned striker/winger scoring an 86th-minute winner.

Arteta and Vermaelen are both questionable, but should be fit – the latter more likely to return to the side than the former. Arteta's missed the last five matches, Vermalen went off with a knock against West Ham. Coquelin is still injured, while Gervinho remains at the African Cup of Nations.

Arsenal's biggest line-up question is whether Giroud or Walcott starts up front. Each presents a different, frightening problem. Liverpool's defense has been exposed by pace, especially on the counter attack, and especially if Carragher's present. However, Giroud's strength and aerial prowess is a similar challenge as Benteke, Matt Smith, Jon Walters, et al – all those physical, excellent headers who've caused Liverpool so many problems. Either way, Liverpool's defense will be rigorously tested.

After seeing how Liverpool struggled on Sunday, even with a markedly different defense, Giroud is probably more likely. The Frenchman has started five of the last six matches, scoring a brace in Arsenal's last two. Which would make the expected XI: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Diaby, Wilshere; Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud. If Walcott starts up front, Wilshere will probably move into the attacking line of three with either Arteta or Ramsey coming into midfield.

The next two matches will go a long way in determining the course of Liverpool's league campaign. Trips to Arsenal and Manchester City are arguably the two toughest fixtures left. Liverpool still have to face Chelsea, Everton, and Tottenham – the other three sides ahead of them in the table – but all three matches will be at Anfield. And Liverpool are somehow just seven points behind fourth place, still a slightly unrealistic target I'd prefer to not mention given all that's come before, but still the obvious goal.

If Liverpool somehow win both, they'll be in spitting distance of the Champions League places. Win one or draw both, and it could still be a confidence boost that propels the club forward. Lose both, and the league campaign is basically over, a week after that mortifying exit from the FA Cup. That last proposition is a thought that should chill players, manager, and fans down to the bone.

27 January 2013

Liverpool 2-3 Oldham

Smith 2' 45+3'
Suarez 17'
Wabara 48'
Allen 80'

Look at that front four. Look at it. It looks glorious, doesn't it? Three strikers, plus Sterling. Borini, Sturridge, and Suarez all start, Arsenal on Wednesday be damned. Oldham didn't stand a chance.

What? Oh, right. Midfield and defense matter too, huh? Well, shit.

That was a new low.

Oldham set a marker within 15 seconds when Robbie Simpson stamped on Joe Allen's ankle. Lee Probert also set a marker by not even considering a yellow card for the foul. There will be lots and lots of complaining about the referee to come, but make no mistake, Liverpool's performance merited absolutely nothing from this match.

Once again, this side simply cannot cope with physical, pressing, foul-happy opposition. And it has been an on-going issue all season long. Both matches against Stoke, especially at the Britannia. The loss to an Aston Villa side which hasn't won any of its subsequent league matches and went out of both cup competitions. The last 20 minutes against Mansfield. Liverpool are wholly unable to handle burly strikers; Matt Smith, playing non-league football less than two years ago, is just added to the list already containing Long, Lukaku, Kenwyne Jones, Jon Walters, Lacina Traore, Benteke, Carlton Cole, and probably a few others that I've repressed. And now this. It's not getting better. It just gets worse.

Let's just get all the referee fun out of the way. Coates was clearly fouled by Smith for the opener. Suarez pulled a goal back but had a potential go-ahead second debatably chalked off. Oldham's second, in that crucial period just before halftime, came from Jones' horrific mistake but started when Probert ignored a clear foul on Sturridge. Sterling should have won a penalty in the 54th, clipped by Winchester, unsurprisingly not given. Oldham got away with foul after foul after foul; the magic of the FA Cup: not penalizing lower league teams at home because they're lower league teams at home. Maybe it takes chutzpah to criticize refereeing after the way Liverpool won at Mansfield, but I've never made any pretense about being unbiased.

All that said, Liverpool's defense was abhorrent, Liverpool's midfield nonexistent. Sure, we were all drooling about seeing that front four in action going into the match, but in retrospect, starting with a little more strength in the middle of the park against a side comprised wholly of headers, elbows, and studs maybe might have been cleverer. It's a lot easier to make those declarations in retrospect.

After that early foul on Allen, Oldham pinned Liverpool inside their own half, taking advantage of Henderson and Allen's inability to get a foot on the ball, Coates' evidently still-drunk hangover, and Robinson and Wisdom's naivety. The goal came within two minutes when Liverpool couldn't clear a ball into the box, no one challenged M'Changama on Liverpool's right, and Smith climbed all over a static Coates to win the point-blank header.

Oldham continued in this vein for the first 15 minutes, with Liverpool lucky not to concede a second after Jones spilled Croft's shot (taking a studs-up kick in the chest from Simpson for his trouble – a foul that should have been Simpson's second yellow) followed by Baxter shooting narrowly wide from the top of the box.

Then Suarez singlehandedly struck, charging at Oldham's defense, playing a one-two with an Oldham defender who intercepted an attempted pass to Sturridge, slotting past Bouzanis. Liverpool could, should have had a second when Suarez appeared level on Henderson's 24th-minute free kick, barely getting a touch to deflect it in, but the linesman flagged. Sterling's tame left-footed shot at Bouzanis five minutes later marked the end of Liverpool's first of two decent spells, unable to score on what was Liverpool's best move of the match, highlighted by Borini's wonderful back heel to put the winger through on goal.

You'd expect Liverpool to assert dominance after canceling out Oldham's opener – which is exactly what happened when these sides met in this competition last season – but no such luck. All the initial problems remained. That massive gap between attack and defense you see in the above formation diagram was still a massive, debilitating gap. Baxter continued to find space between Liverpool's midfield and attack, driving Oldham forward against an over-matched Henderson and Allen. Both Baxter and Simpson put efforts just past the post from the space between Liverpool's midfield and defense.

Liverpool cruised past Oldham a year ago by scoring just before the interval, with Gerrard's penalty sealing the Latics' fate. Today, Oldham struck at that crucial time, again from Smith, and again through Probert ignoring a clear foul coupled with a jaw-dropping Liverpool mistake. Brad Jones has no excuse for spilling Wabara's tame, low cross. None. But he did, Croft reacted first to tap it towards Smith, and Smith tapped it into the net. Two goals, from a combined three yards out.

Maybe it's all different if Liverpool level almost immediately after the restart, charging down the left flank, Robinson with a perfect cross for Borini to slam home. He put the clear-cut chance wide of the near post. Two minutes later, Wabara put Oldham 3-1 up, a lead they'd never relinquish. Oldham had two chances for 4-1 before Rodgers could respond: another Baxter shot not far off and M'voto out-jumping Wisdom but heading wide.

Then came the cavalry: Gerrard and Downing for Borini and Wisdom, with Henderson shifting to right back. And then came incoherent Liverpool attack after incoherent Liverpool attack, a 30-minute "onslaught." Shelvey replaced Sterling soon after, but the tactics were clear. Throw as many attackers against the wall and hope something sticks. Something finally stuck, but that Liverpool got it within one in the 80th minute was as lucky as it was deserved. Liverpool had yet another corner cleared, but Allen's blast back in, albeit on-target, needed a wicked deflection off Baxter to find the back of the net. And until Allen's goal, Oldham actually had the best chance during this spell, as Simpson poked wide not realizing how much time he had after Smith flicked on Bouzanis' hoofed goal kick.

Gerrard crashed a shot against the crossbar in the 90th minute – the woodwork has been far quieter this season, but unsurprisingly reared its head at the worst possible time – but otherwise, all sound and fury signifying nothing. There was no pattern to Liverpool's play, no patient build-up, no intelligence or control, just hoof, hope, pray, and fail. Even in defeat, it's not what we've come to expect from Rodgers' side.

And now, Suarez, Sturridge, Henderson, Allen, and Wisdom have played a full frantic 90 minutes three days before a trip to Arsenal, with Gerrard also needed for 35 minutes off the bench. I'm not having that Liverpool looked past Oldham, expecting an easy match, ahead to Arsenal. Liverpool simply couldn't cope with Oldham's strength or desire. That would be the Oldham who are in 19th place in League One, who don't have the money to afford a first-team coach or a fourth stand for their ground. Rodgers' tactics were worryingly naive; maybe it's different with Lucas and Gerrard in midfield, but that was an inauspicious start for the Borini-Sturridge-Suarez-Sterling front four. Once again, it was an if-not-Suarez-and-Gerrard-than-no-one match, and it wasn't nearly enough today.

For each's promise, that wasn't a match for a Henderson-Allen midfield, while Coates, Wisdom, and Robinson all demonstrated just how inexperienced they are. However, I'm more disappointed in Liverpool's veterans: Skrtel once again looked lost without Agger, unable to cope with the 6'6" Smith, while Jones made a complete hash of Oldham's second (among other errors, both in claiming and distribution). You can forgive defensive errors made by 20, 19, and 18-year-olds. But it's unforgivable from proven veterans aged 28 and 30.

Each of Liverpool's dismal losses in the last month – against Villa, at Stoke, at United – has been followed by a supremely impressive reaction. But those reactions took place against Fulham, QPR, and Norwich. Arsenal, at Arsenal, will be a much more difficult – and vastly more important – proposition.

26 January 2013

Liverpool at Oldham 01.27.13

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Previous Meetings:
5-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.06.12
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.15.94
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.16.93
2-3 Oldham (a) 05.05.93

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Mansfield Town (a)
Oldham: 3-2 Nottingham Forest (a); 3-1 Doncaster (h); 2-0 Kidderminster (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Norwich (h); 1-2 United (a); 2-1 Mansfield (a)
Oldham: 0-1 Notts County (a); 1-2 Coventry (a); 0-2 Brentford (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 20; Gerrard 6; Shelvey 5; Downing, Şahin, Sturridge 3; Agger, Cole, Henderson, Johnson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Borini, Coates, Enrique, Wisdom 1
Oldham: Baxter 11; Derbyshire 6; Smith 4; Simpson 3; M'Changama, Montano, Mvoto 2; Byrne, Furman, Grounds, Slew, Tarkowski, Taylor, Wabara 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Coates Robinson
Henderson Allen
Sterling Sturridge Borini

Remember Oldham from last season in the FA Cup? Shelvey and Downing each scored their first goal for the club in a 5-1 win? Good. The opposition may be the same, the manager may be the same, but Oldham will probably field three, maybe four, of the players who featured in last year's cup tie. Such is life in the lower leagues.

To be fair, Liverpool's XI will be quite different as well; five of last season's starters aren't even with the club anymore. But Liverpool's XI should look a lot like that which faced Mansfield in the last round: similar to those usually used in the Europa League, mostly the second-string with a handful of senior players. Rodgers is promising a strong squad, but Liverpool have a balance to strike. The club have had a week off, meaning everyone should be fully rested, but will travel to Arsenal on Wednesday. Two days off between Oldham and Arsenal is a short rest, but 10 days off can lead to rust.

Sturridge not only has the chance to be the first Liverpool player to score in his first four matches, but still needs match fitness. Like against Mansfield, playing him for 45-60 minutes, to be replaced by Suarez, seems the best option. Borini, also returning to fitness and used as a sub in the last two matches, is another likely to start. With Sturridge's addition, Borini's return, and Downing's improvement, Sterling has found pitch time more limited; these are the sort of matches he'd have been limited to starting if Liverpool had a full complement of players going into the season.

Like Sterling, Allen and Shelvey have also played fewer minutes over the last few weeks, and are almost certainly in line for starts here. Whether the third midfielder is Henderson, Lucas, Suso, or even Coady is a tougher guess. It can't, won't, shouldn't be Gerrard. Lucas is slowly returning to his best, but still not quite there yet, and desperately needed against Arsenal. Shelvey seems more likely than Suso to play in the attacking midfielder role. Coady's an option if Shelvey plays further forward, but Henderson's work rate and physical capabilities should mean he's able to play both Sunday and against Arsenal if need be.

As in the last round, Wisdom and Robinson almost have to be the fullbacks. Enrique, Kelly, and Flanagan remain injured; Johnson's evidently picked up a knock as well. Fullbacks are cursed at this club. Rather than Wisdom, tomorrow could be a chance for under-21 fullback Ryan McLaughlin to debut for the club, which would be exciting; he's been incredible going forward in the few reserve matches I've seen. This is the sort of match that Coates should be starting, at the very least, now that it looks as if he won't be loaned out. Whether he partners Skrtel or Carragher will be a big clue as to which will start against Arsenal; chances are on will start tomorrow, the other on Wednesday. Either way, it's two center backs from Coates, Carragher, and Skrtel, given that Agger's often been left out of cup competition. And rightfully so.

Oldham are currently 19th in League One, having lost seven of their last eight matches. The Latics' last league win came on December 8. Since then, seven losses, one draw, and the 3rd round FA Cup win at Nottingham Forest. But while League One has been a struggle, Oldham have exceeded expectations in this competition. Donchester are joint-leaders of League One; they beat Oldham home and away in the league, but lost 3-1 in the 2nd round. Nottingham Forest are mid-table in the Championship, just five points outside of the playoff places; Oldham won 3-2 on their ground.

Names you should recognize: Dean Bouzanis, Jose Baxter. Bouzanis is a Liverpool academy graduate, released by the club in May 2011, and has taken the starting goalkeeper job from Alex Cisak. Baxter was supposed to be the next big thing out of Everton's academy, Everton's youngest ever senior player. Then he was arrested for possession of marijuana and counterfeit money in 2009 (he was never charged), and his Everton career stuttered. Then he was loaned to Tranmere and subsequently left Everton as a free agent. After failing a trial with Crystal Palace, he signed for Oldham at the start of the season. Still only 20, he's now their top scorer, by some distance, with manager Paul Dickov calling him "one of the top talents outside the Premier League." And it's pretty safe to assume an ex-Evertonian (and professed Liverpool fan) will be pretty excited about this cup tie.

Names you may recognize: Robbie Simpson, Jean-Yves M'voto, James Wesolowski. Those are the three Oldham players who started in last year's meeting most likely to start on Sunday; Matt Smith, who came off the bench last year, also plays far more often this season, and is Oldham's second top scorer following Matt Derbyshire's return to Nottingham Forest (and then loan to Blackpool). Simpson scored Oldham's lone goal in the previous meeting, the first of the match, an excellent blast from outside the box with Carragher and Coates backing off. M'voto is a burly center back, formerly of PSG (from the same reserve side as David Ngog) and Sunderland, although he never appeared in either club's first team. Wesolowski, a central midfielder and Oldham's captain with Dean Furman at the African Cup of Nations, would probably be an Australian international by now if not for constantly recurring injuries.

As it was for Mansfield, this will be the biggest match of Oldham's season, televised against a Premier League side. Liverpool will be under all the pressure; Oldham can play without fear, on their own ground in front of their own fans, knowing that a loss is all but expected. Liverpool struggled with that weight at times in the last round, pinned back by Mansfield in the final 15 minutes and conceding a goal which racked nerves until the final whistle.

Boundary Park will be a less than enjoyable place to play, packed to the rafters. Well, three rafters; the main stand was demolished in 2008, but hasn't been redeveloped, caught in the middle of a controversy whether to renovate Boundary Park or build a new stadium (sound familiar?). Chances are it'll get mighty cold and windy once the sun sets around half-time.

Can Liverpool handle the pressure? Can Liverpool focus on tomorrow's match without looking past to Arsenal on Wednesday?

24 January 2013

Steven Gerrard with and without Lucas

Last season seemingly proved that Liverpool are a vastly different, weaker side without Lucas. With Liverpool's captain back to full fitness as well, still the only Liverpool player to feature in every minute of every league match, this season is proving that Steven Gerrard is also a far better player when paired with Lucas.

Since Lucas's return, Gerrard's attacking statistics have improved in almost every category. More shots, more shots on target, slightly more chances created, more passes, and a higher pass accuracy. He's averaging fewer attacking third passes since the Brazilian's return, but completing a higher percentage of them.

At the same time, Lucas' return has freed him from some defensive duty, averaging fewer tackles and interceptions, and without a single defensive error in the last nine matches after making one against Newcastle and one against Swansea.

Incidentally, I'd love to know the methodology for WhoScored and Squawka's player ratings, but both have been almost totally in line – for Gerrard and others – with my initial opinions during the respective matches. And, it goes without saying, both sites (along with FourFourTwo's StatsZone if you have an iPhone or iPad) are incredibly valuable resources.

There is, however, one major caveat. The average current league position of the 13 sides Liverpool faced during Lucas' absence is 9th. The average position of the nine sides Liverpool faced since Lucas' return is 13th. Yes, Liverpool have obviously improved of late, partly due to continued overall progress, Lucas' return, Gerrard's improvement, and the acquisition of Daniel Sturridge, but they've also played "easier" matches since the beginning of December.

Liverpool's matches will get harder, and quickly, with trips to Arsenal and Manchester City in the next two league fixtures. Whether Gerrard can continue his recent form will go a long way in deciding how Liverpool fare in those matches and for the rest of the season.

21 January 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 5-0 Norwich

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

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

It was the first time since the reverse fixture that Liverpool have scored twice from shots outside the box. These two matches against Norwich are the only two matches where Liverpool have scored multiple goals from outside the box. But then just seven of Liverpool's goals this season have come from outside the box: Suarez's free kick against Manchester City, Johnson's volley at West Ham, and five against Norwich. 189 shots, seven goals. Five of the seven against the same side.

Gerrard's 107 completed passes of 115 attempted were the most for a Liverpool player this season; he and Joe Allen (at Sunderland) are the only two to top 100 in a match this season. Most importantly, 31 of those completed passes (37 attempted) came in the attacking third, 11 more than the next Liverpool player. Liverpool were outstanding in the final third, completing 166 of 200 passes (83%). That's the highest attacking third accuracy of the season and higher than total pass accuracy against Everton, Reading, Stoke (h), and City. Liverpool's average pass accuracy this season is 85.5%; the average attacking third pass accuracy prior to Saturday's match was 73.7%.1

Gerrard remains the only Liverpool player to feature in every league match, and he's both started and played for 90 minutes in all 23 of them. Had you told me that before the season, I would have had you declared insane. He's played more league minutes this season than total minutes last season, has already surpassed his appearance total for both 2010-11 and 2011-12. Saturday's goal means he's now just six away from 100 in the Premiership; Fowler and Owen are the only other Liverpool players to reach that total. I don't know what they're feeding him at Melwood these days, but make sure he keeps eating it.

While we're on the topic of rejuvenation, Carragher's 73 completed passes are the most for a Liverpool defender this season, one more than Agger completed at Sunderland. Just for comparison, here's his passing chalkboard compared to Skrtel's in the reverse fixture. Look, we all know Carragher's limitations. But in matches like these, where he's not tested often, where he's not up against a speedy striker, he's still a valuable, experienced organizer. Yes, that limits his options. Yes, Liverpool might be better served in the long-term by using Coates more often. But it's not hard to see why Rodgers loves Carragher so much. In playing far fewer matches, he has been vastly improved compared to 2010-11 or 2011-12.

Brad Jones didn't quite reach the 20 passes mark that has become the Reina Passing Theory™, but 17 is the most passes Jones has completed in his five starts, while 81% is his highest pass accuracy. In addition, 15 of his 21 total passes – 71% – were short passes. As the outstanding Bass Tuned to Red noted after Jones' last league start against Chelsea, 69% of Jones' passes this season had been long passes. Compare Saturday's total to Mark Bunn's passing. All 20 of his attempts went long. Just two found a Norwich player.

Meanwhile, Bradley Johnson had one of the worst midfield performances I've seen since doing these match infographics. 51 attempted passes dwarfed any other Norwich player, but he completed just 56.9% of them. He took no shots. Created no chances. Made three interceptions, but no tackles. No tackles, but one foul committed. Yikes. Just yikes.

Of course, Norwich created just one chance in the entire match, put just one shot on target (of four in total) – both on the early Snodgrass to Bennett set play. That was a low for both shots and chances created for a Liverpool opponent this season, with Sunderland (away) and Southampton also tallying just one shot on target against Liverpool.

1) Didn't think it merited inclusion in the body text, but worth noting that the only match where Liverpool completed or attempted more attacking third passes was in the 1-3 loss to Aston Villa, with 202 completed of 252 attempted. That was the only other match where Liverpool completed more than 145 attacking third passes. The more I do these comparison infographics, the more I'm forced to relive the Villa result, the more that match seems a complete and utter aberration. Not that it's much of a consolation.

19 January 2013

Liverpool 5-0 Norwich

Henderson 26'
Suarez 36'
Sturridge 59'
Gerrard 66'
R Bennett OG 74'

Every match against Norwich gets better.

We'll just forget the first, wholly undeserved draw at Anfield last season. Then came the 3-0, all Suarez all the time. This season's first saw the 5-2 at Carrow, where Liverpool similarly dominated in attack, more of a team performance again led by a Suarez hat-trick, but also sloppily conceding twice.

This was the culmination of the previous two performances. Another five goals, but with everyone contributing in attack, each goal scored and set up by a different player and a wonderful team-wide performance. Another clean sheet, with just two Norwich chances of note. Liverpool's biggest home win of the season – where they had taken just 18 of an available 39 points – and Liverpool's biggest win since beating Birmingham 5-0 in April 2011.

Tony Barrett summed it up nicely.

Granted, Liverpool were five up by that point, but this was pretty much done as a contest when Liverpool's second went in. As it should be.

Unlike in the last meeting, it took a marginal amount of time for Liverpool to assert its dominance. They monopolized possession as per usual, but struggled to find a way through Norwich's packed defense. It was still a 4-2-3-1 formation, but with elements of the 4-2-2-2 used by Dalglish in the 2010-11: Suarez lurking dangerous behind Sturridge, popping up all over the pitch, while Henderson was ostensibly on the left but came infield early and often.

Those first 26 minutes saw one of Norwich's few chances: actually the first shot on target registered by either side. Unsurprisingly, it came from a set play, which was where Norwich's danger was always coming from. Snodgrass' deep free kick found Ryan Bennett unmarked between Agger and Wisdom, but his free header went softly straight at Jones. It'd be the last chance Norwich had all half.

You won't be able to tell it from the stat sheet, but Liverpool's opener had an awful lot to do with Luis Suarez. I know, surprising. I'll give you a moment to regain your composure.

Seven of Norwich's nine defenders are focused on Suarez. And rightfully so, I guess, given how he's singlehandedly destroyed them in the last two fixtures. Elliott Bennett finally makes the tackle to dispossess, but it falls kindly for Henderson, who curls an utter beauty past Bunn into the far corner from the penalty arc. Suarez causes the havoc, but let's not downplay the strike. It's just his second of the season, first in the league, fourth in his Liverpool career, and Liverpool are yet to lose a match when he scores.

Ten minutes later, after near constant possession, that man added the crucial second. Again, there's more than enough credit to go around. Liverpool sprung quickly from its own half after a Johnson interception, Lucas played a long throughball aimed for Sturridge but cleverly dummied, freeing Suarez to run on goal and beating Bunn with a left-footed shot just inside the far corner. Incidentally, that was Liverpool's only goal not scored and assisted by an English player.

Norwich's second close call came soon after the restart. Carragher cleared Snodgrass' cross, but straight to Tettey, whose first-time shot was wildly wide, but with Holt in an almost perfect position to redirect into Liverpool's net. He missed. Missed everything, not just the target. Two chances, both untaken. Liverpool still would have won given the form they were in, but like against Sunderland, Liverpool stroll when the opposition miss chances. And, of course, when Liverpool are capable enough to take their own.

The game-killing third came less than ten minutes later, after close calls set up by Johnson and Suarez. With Liverpool camped just outside Norwich's penalty box, Henderson shifted play with a cross-field ball to an open Downing, whose first-time volleyed cross gave Sturridge a tap-in. Those are the sort of blue moon moments where you realize Downing is actually a professional footballer; it really couldn't have been a better hit pass. And it was Sturridge's third in as many Liverpool games, in just 158 minutes, the first Liverpool player to score in his first three games since the legendary Ray Kennedy in 1974-75.

Liverpool weren't satisfied with three, as Gerrard scored his 94th Premier League goal in the 66th, bombing a shot from 25 yards out after Johnson's burst down the left. It's the first time Liverpool have scored with two shots from outside the box since Liverpool last faced Norwich. I really love you, Norwich. You had better stay up.

That marked the beginning of the end, with Rodgers almost immediately bringing on Sterling and Borini for Lucas and Sturridge, the former playing on the left with Henderson dropping into midfield, the latter in a straight swap with Liverpool's newest acquisition. Because it was one of those days where everything simply went according to plan, Liverpool's substitutes paid dividends soon after, again down Liverpool's left, as Johnson flicked on Gerrard's long pass, Sterling easily out-muscled Michael Turner (really) and raced on goal, his shot-cum-center deflected into Norwich's net by Ryan Bennett.

Liverpool mercifully shut down after the fifth, still pressing to ensure they kept possession, but content to play short passes around midfield as Norwich feverishly tapped out, hoping the referee would stop the match.

As against Sunderland, as against Fulham, as against QPR, we'll hear a lot of "well, Norwich really weren't very good." And while there's something in that, especially given the side's results since mid-December, Liverpool did an awful lot to make them look not very good, even more than in those last three comprehensive wins.

As in the second half against United, Suarez was an almost orthodox #10, if unsurprisingly mobile, popping up all over Norwich's half. He continued to link marvelously with Sturridge, highlighted by the second goal, with Sturridge already aware of the exact run Suarez would make with barely a look up. Johnson was pure magic on the left flank, helped by Norwich's lack of attack with both Hoolahan and Pilkington oddly left out, allowing Henderson to play (and play well) as both an inside left and central midfielder. Gerrard could and did bomb forward at will with Lucas back to his security blanket best, with three tackles and four interceptions, averaging nearly a pass a minute as he completed 63 in 69 minutes. Liverpool's two defensive changes – Carragher for Skrtel and Jones for Reina – led to no drop off; Carragher actually seemed to enjoy wrestling with Holt where similar strikers like Benteke, Carlton Cole, and Jon Walters caused Liverpool problems, while Jones made the one needed save and completed more passes than in his previous four starts (if not the 20 Reina evidently needs for Liverpool to win).

Norwich has become the exact opposite of the fabled "bogey side", with Liverpool in top form in each of the last three wins. That it's another win over a bottom-half side means we probably shouldn't get too excited; Liverpool hasn't had many problems beating teams below it. But it's hard not to be optimistic after a performance like that, after the way Sturridge and Suarez linked up in the new formation, after the way Henderson both scored and pressed from the front, after another superlative Gerrard passing performance, after seeing Lucas back to his best and another terrific match from Johnson, after Liverpool's defense was almost totally untroubled.

Progress keeps being made, at least for the time being. Again, that's all we can ask for at this point.

18 January 2013

Liverpool v Norwich 01.19.13

10am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
5-2 Liverpool (a) 09.29.12
3-0 Liverpool (a) 04.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.22.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.03.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (a); 2-1 Mansfield (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h)
Norwich: 0-0 Newcastle (h); 3-0 Peterborough (a); 1-2 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 15; Gerrard 4; Agger, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Sturridge 1
Norwich: Holt, Pilkington, Snodgrass 4; Bassong, R Martin 3; Hoolahan, Jackson, Johnson, Morison, Turner, Whittaker 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Downing
Gerrard Lucas
Sturridge Suarez Borini

Can we just put Suarez down for a hat-trick now? No? Please? You're no fun.

That is, if the match actually occurs. It's snowing in Liverpool. I will try not to be patronizing, despite being raised in the snowiest city in the United States, as I know from experience that a couple of inches will almost completely shut down England. The Liverpool Echo has a live blog going, with pictures as the millimeters rack up, in case you want to keep updated. As of now, there has been no announcement as to the status of tomorrow's game, but I'm pessimistic. Because I'm always pessimistic.

If the match does take place, Rodgers will have an almost full contingent of players to choose from. With Sturridge getting another 45 minutes and Borini appearing for 30 minutes against United, both should be able to join Suarez in Liverpool's "first choice" front three. If any of those three are left out for fitness concerns, it'll probably be Borini, but I'm hopeful he'll be available with Sterling on the bench as a "super sub" – which is how I expect Liverpool to play more often than not. I'm obviously still interested to see how Suarez and Sturridge line up; here's Wednesday's post how on the second half against United gave us some clues, but I'm still skeptical that Suarez will play as an orthodox number 10 – which is how he spent the majority of those 45 minutes.

Related to Suarez's potential as a #10 is the perpetual debate over Liverpool's best midfield. What combination of Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, and Allen works best? Is it contingent on the opposition? Henderson has simply been better than Allen over the last six weeks or so; Liverpool were far better against United after Lucas went off with a midfield containing just Gerrard and Allen. Allen played well as an attacking midfielder against Sunderland at Anfield, he was dreadful in a similar role at Old Trafford. Henderson appears to be out of Rodgers' favor, at least compared to the other three (and formerly Shelvey), but has increasingly improved when used in smaller doses (compared to being a struggling ever-present last season). And I'm admittedly very, very biased in favor of Lucas' inclusion. So the above is my best guess, but consistent with my preferences. Maybe Suarez does play between the lines, behind a front three of Borini, Sterling and Sturridge, supported by Lucas and Gerrard. Or Gerrard and Allen. Or Gerrard and Henderson. Maybe Allen gets another chance at the attacking midfield role since Lucas and Gerrard are seemingly the preferred deep-lying duo. Or Henderson. I've admittedly little idea what Rodgers will choose going forward now that he has a full complement of attackers.

Finally, as I expect Liverpool to be more attacking against a side that Liverpool should expect to take the game to, don't be surprised if Downing drops to left back with Johnson on the right. That's nothing to do with Wisdom's form; Downing offers more going forward than Wisdom, despite the latter's attempts against United. Although it's hard to say Downing "deserves it" after his tepid display against the Mancs.

Norwich lost all four matches during the festive season prior to a third-round FA Cup victory over Peterborough and a scoreless draw against Newcastle. They had been one of the most in-form sides during the fall, unbeaten from October 20 through December 11, taking 22 points from ten league matches. Since then, they've taken one point from five league matches, an even worse run than the start of the season which saw them in 19th before that eight-week streak.

Norwich's away record is a paltry 1W-5D-5L. Only Newcastle, Reading, and QPR have taken fewer points away from home. That said, Villa's away record before facing Liverpool was 1W-2D-5L and we all remember how that turned out (unless your ability to repress memories is better than mine).

Starting keeper John Ruddy is a long-term injury, while Whittaker and Morison are also out. But midfielders Howson and Surman should return to the squad, as will joint-top scorer Grant Holt. With Howson and Holt back, Norwich's likely lineup is Bunn; Martin, Turner, Bassong, Garrido; Howson, Johnson; Snodgrass, Hoolahan, Pilkington; Holt. Tettey could keep his place instead of Howson, Jackson instead of Holt, but the above seems Norwich's strongest line-up. Chris Hughton's side usually plays 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, but started with a 4-4-2 against Liverpool in the reverse fixture. I doubt he'll make that mistake again. Holt's burliness could cause similar problems as Benteke, Walters, and Carlton Cole, but that attacking line of three is the danger area: Pilkington and Snodgrass routinely chip in with goals – the latter mainly on set plays – while Hoolahan is Norwich's creative hub. His potential for havoc is a main reason why I think Lucas is likely to be included in the XI.

Liverpool have usually (usually, he emphasizes) been better against sides in the bottom half of the table. Liverpool have beaten Norwich by three goals in the last two meetings thanks to consecutive Suarez hat-tricks. All this optimism is making me pessimistic. Of course, if the match actually takes place.

16 January 2013

On Suarez and Sturridge Against United

45 minutes is a piss-poor sample size, but there were some clues as to how Liverpool's new signing will link up with Liverpool's star player.

Heat Maps via Squawka:

Pass Combinations:

Overall Second Half Passes:

Both Suarez and Sturridge dropped deep, drifted wide, and spent time in the penalty box. Suarez actually spent less time on the flanks than in the first half, when he was supremely isolated in United's half, trying to find some way to have an effect. No matter the formation, both showed a willingness to switch roles, as well as the adaptability to do it successfully, despite never having played together in a competitive match.

Two of Sturridge's nine passes to Suarez were chances created: a layoff in the right channel which led to a blocked shot just before the move for Liverpool's goal and a ball over the top from the left for Suarez's tame header in the second minute of added time. One of Suarez's five to Sturridge created a chance: a long diagonal from right to left that led to Sturridge's shot into the side-netting in the 70th minute.

A fair few of Sturridge's passes came from the left channel, more of Suarez's passes came from the space between the lines in the middle of the pitch, much as you'd expect from an "orthodox" attacking #10. And, yes, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Sturridge made almost twice as passes to Suarez as vice versa and completed more passes in total in the second half. He actually passed to Suarez in the penalty box twice. Daniel Sturridge! I know, right!

That Liverpool basically played 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1; it wasn't 4-3-3, it wasn't really 4-2-3-1 either with Downing and Borini playing deeper than Suarez) meant that neither Sturridge nor Suarez really had to drift to the channels to defend or track back. Both Borini and Downing mostly stayed wide (one to better effect than the other).

This probably won't be the formation going forward, unless Rodgers tries to adapt his 4-2-3-1 for Suarez to feature as the #10. The Uruguayan would play the role very differently than Henderson, Allen, Gerrard, or Şahin. Shelvey might be the closest example; see his heat maps against Fulham and Stoke (primarily Fulham) last month. But Shelvey still dropped deeper, more involved in the midfield whether Liverpool were in or out of possession, than Suarez ever will. Or should be. And it might create even more problems in midfield, where Liverpool are already struggling to find the right blend of Lucas, Gerrard, Allen, and Henderson.

Nonetheless, as others have said, the way the two forwards linked up, joined by Borini just after the hour mark, looked promising. There were signs that both can play centrally or either can shift to the flank. Those 45 minutes against the league leaders, where the league leaders were on the back foot on their own ground, demonstrate that – as hoped – Sturridge and Suarez could well be versatile enough (and clever enough) where their starting position truly doesn't matter.

14 January 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 United

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

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

As the possession stats suggest, it really was a game of two halves. Although, as we've painfully learned time and time again, possession stats certainly don't equate to winning performances. So does the shot chart. Just one, Suarez's wild effort following a throw-in, came in the first half. Wisdom added a second prior to United's eventual game winner. And then Liverpool took 11 shots, including Sturridge's goal, after United's second, while the home side managed just three more efforts.

Cleverley and Carrick, two of the three United players to attempt more passes than their Liverpool counterparts, made 64% of their passes in the first half, 44 and 46 respectively. Carrick's drop-off was especially noticeable, with Suarez and Sturridge taking turns dropping deep when United were in possession, giving the midfielder none of the time he had when Allen was the most advanced midfielder. In addition, Suarez playing between the lines forced United's midfielders to pick him up, allowing Gerrard much more freedom to operate. That was the main difference in his night and day performances in the two halves, and it was no coincidence that his interception of a Cleverley pass to Carrick led to Liverpool's goal (as well as actually getting a Liverpool shot on target).

Also, once again, the Reina Passing Theory™ holds true. Reina completed 15 of his 24 passes; 10 were long passes. Liverpool's record when he completes fewer than 20 passes is now 1W-3D-6L and 6W-1D-1L when he completes 20 or more.

Liverpool made 11 more successful tackles than United, but that was partly because United were successful on only 15 of 25 attempted tackles. Lucas, despite going off at halftime, made four of those tackles, surpassed by only Glen Johnson. Taking off Lucas was a surprising decision, despite being on a yellow card. Gerrard hadn't made a single tackle or interception, Allen had made two tackles but no interceptions. It was a surprising decision that worked surprisingly well, although I'm still not sure what it means going forward.

Pity no one made a tackle during the extended stretch leading to the opener. That Kagawa, Cleverley, Carrick, Welbeck, and Evra were able to string so many passes in front of Liverpool's box is criminal. I implore you to go back and watch the sequence (unless you treasure your sanity); watch Downing, Gerrard, Allen, and Wisdom stand off as United players knock the ball back and forth. All four are on the back foot, sucked out of position – mainly by Kagawa's excellent movement – as Evra drifts into space, unable to cut out the cross which travels between five Liverpool players before reaching van Persie. That sort of timidity, which seems to be a reoccurring trend in big games (at least until the opposition score), is primarily what made the first half so infuriating.

However, where United's defense was successful was in stopping Liverpool's take-ons and clearing Liverpool's crosses. Just four of Liverpool's 21 dribbles were successful, none of Liverpool's 11 crosses found a target (nine from open play). Meanwhile, four of United's 15 crosses were met by a United player, including Evra's low cross for the opening goal and van Persie's free kick which led to Vidic's deflected second.

13 January 2013

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

van Persie 19'
Vidic 54'
Sturridge 57'

So, why can't Liverpool start playing until they're two goals down? That is an excellent question and I don't have an answer for you.

Once again, an inability to perform for a full 90 minutes, coupled with some questionable choices for the starting lineup dooms Liverpool's chances.

I truly don't have enough pejoratives in my vocabulary to adequately describe that first half. Let's just go with "completely awful" and hope that suffices. United really could have finished the half three or four goals ahead and it wouldn't have been harsh on Liverpool.

It wasn't wholly surprising to see Allen play as the most advanced midfielder. But it was a gamble, and ended as a massive, massive failure. I don't care how well Carrick played (and it was pretty well), this is not the chalkboard of an attacking midfielder, no matter the opponent. He was by no means Liverpool's only disappointment, but it was the most notable change from Liverpool's tactics in the wins against Fulham, Sunderland, and QPR, and it did not work in the slightest.

Nearly everyone was a passenger, and it's become depressing to see Liverpool stutter its way through halves, if not full matches, against the top sides. Even during Benitez's final season, the worst times under Dalglish, or, hell, a fair few matches under Hodgson, Liverpool "were up" for matches against the top sides. That has not been the case this season outside of the home draw against Manchester City and until the red card in the reverse fixture against United, comprehensively beaten by Arsenal, overwhelmed until down by two at Tottenham, and stuttering against Chelsea until the change in formation after two-thirds of the match.

That Liverpool mostly defended adequately, at least through Skrtel and Agger, also played a large part in United's narrow halftime advantage. But United's opener came because Liverpool allowed the home side far too much possession on the left flank, stringing something like 13 passes together before Wisdom drifted too far inside with Downing nowhere to be found, allowing Evra far too much space to cross for van Persie, who beat Agger to the low pass. To be fair, Wisdom regrouped well after that mistake, never hiding in either defense or the few times going forward; no matter how he's played this season, we need to remember he's still been developed as center-back. And is all of 19 years old.

Still, United had multiple chances to extend the lead. Van Persie split the center-backs to receive Young's throughball, blasting over when not realizing how much time he had. Agger made a crucial block on Welback after Allen's giveaway put Liverpool under pressure. Welbeck blasted wide from a narrow angle, Cleverley barely missed the target with a volley when Liverpool failed to fully clear Young's cross. And the best chance came just before halftime, when Rafael got behind Johnson on Carrick's long pass, but Reina saved van Persie's backheel, then was taken out by Kagawa when blocking the rebound. I have no idea how Pepe wasn't seriously injured, although he stayed down for a couple of minutes.

Credit where due, Rodgers' halftime change improved Liverpool, but once again, it came after choosing the wrong starting XI. And it was a surprising change, removing Lucas (on a yellow) for Sturridge, shifting to 4-4-2 for the first time during his tenure. Liverpool's midfield trio simply had not worked; Allen was uncertain in his role, but neither Lucas nor Gerrard played well either. Liverpool didn't press, didn't string together passes, and no one's movement complemented his teammates (when there actually was movement).

But before Liverpool could take advantage of the improvement, United got the needed second from a free kick. A free kick where Liverpool were lucky not to see Skrtel sent off for taking down Welbeck on the counter, with Webb evidently assuming that Reina could have come out to cover. Liverpool were actually lucky neither Skrtel nor Johnson were sent off –  the former for this foul, the latter for a later possible second yellow. So, surprisingly, we don't get to blame Howard Webb for today. This one's on Liverpool.

And that's despite being able to argue that Vidic was offside for United's second, but it's no surprise that the linesman missed it. It was an exceptionally narrow decision, with tons of bodies in the area on the set play, and we needed multiple reviews to even tell whether he or Evra had the final touch. More worrying was how open Evra was at the back post, with Johnson trying and failing to pick up three United players. Even more worrying was that Liverpool's performance to that point fully merited a two-goal deficit.

But then Liverpool remembered how to play football, obviously aided by the halftime substitution. That change, more than anything else, shifted the match in Liverpool's direction; had the team not fallen asleep on a set play, Liverpool could have come away with an undeserved draw. They nearly did so anyway.

It took less than three minutes after United's second to reduce arrears. I would hope Liverpool learned a few important lessons from the goal.

Most importantly, Liverpool are much better when midfielders and attackers press high up the pitch. Liverpool don't score if Gerrard doesn't tackle Carrick in the final third. Also, attackers making runs into the box, following shots from outside the area, helps immensely. De Gea saved Gerrard's effort from 19 yards out, but Sturridge was quickest off the mark, beating a static Rafael to the loose ball and hammering in with his left foot.

Reina soon had to make another crucial save to keep Liverpool in the match, smartly denying Kagawa's blast after Gerrard and Allen lost possession in their own half by getting in each other's way. But from there, it was almost all Liverpool. Ferguson's subs – Jones for Kagawa, Smalling for Vidic – were to protect a lead; Rodgers, in bringing on Borini for Sterling and Henderson for Allen, gave Liverpool even more impetus going forward, both in firepower and pressing from the front.

Comparing Liverpool's shots before and after United's second pretty much tells the entire story. But, as is all too common, Liverpool also paid for inaccurate shooting after already paying for the woeful first half. Sturridge had two chances sent into the side netting and an excellent one thwacked well over the crossbar, Borini narrowly missed the target on his best opportunity, and Suarez's tame header at De Gea near the death came with Borini in a much better position to take the shot. Still, that Liverpool were able to pen United back is promising, and Borini's return to fitness at the same time as Sturridge's acquisition bodes well going forward.

Honestly, I'm not surprised Liverpool got nothing from the game. It is an inconsistent, young, often-struggling side trying to rebuild against the near-runaway league leaders, on a ground where Liverpool's lost eight of the last nine matches. We all need a bit of realism, and realistically, this United should expect to beat this Liverpool on its home turf, as painful as that is to write.

But it's impossible not to be disappointed by how Liverpool got nothing from the match. Liverpool were thoroughly poor in all phases in the first half, one of the worst displays against United I can remember which didn't involved a Liverpool red card. That Liverpool improved in the second half – better in midfield, promising in attack – is a cause for optimism, but continued inconsistency in both performances from all involved as well as the manager's tactics and selection remains a cause for worry.

All told, it's probably best to remember that this is Rodgers' first season rebuilding from the ground up, and the growing pains are going to continue. Set your expectations accordingly.

12 January 2013

Liverpool at Manchester United 01.13.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (h) 09.23.12
1-2 United (a) 02.11.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.15.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Mansfield (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h); 3-0 QPR (a)
United: 2-2 West Ham (a); 4-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 West Brom (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 15; Gerrard 4; Agger, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin 1
United: van Persie 16; Chicharito 8; Rooney 7; Evra 4; Evans 3; Cleverley, Kagawa, Rafael 2; Buttner, Fletcher, Nani, Powell, Scholes, Welbeck 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Lucas
Sturridge Suarez Sterling

If Rodgers sticks with his usual formation, there are only a handful of selection decisions, with most of Liverpool's spine same as it ever was.

The first is at full-back: does Rodgers continue with Wisdom on the right and Johnson on the left, or does Downing drop into defense? Downing's started in the front three in the two matches since Enrique's injury, but that's less needed with Sturridge available (while Borini's also soon to return). Johnson's equally comfortable on either flank. Which means it'll come down to whether Rodgers trusts the 19-year-old Wisdom, likely to be facing either Young or Welbeck. Wisdom did well against the dangerous James McClean in Liverpool's last league match, but I can't help remembering how he was tormented by Kevin Mirallas at Goodison a few months back – another contentious, high-stakes high-strung derby. Not that Downing at left back is a much stronger option.

The second is in midfield, specifically the attacking role. Lucas and Gerrard have (rightfully, on form) become the default controlling pair – which is a large reason why Şahin's loan has prematurely ended. Will the third midfielder be Allen, Henderson, or Shelvey? I think we can rule out the third option, partly because of his red card in the reverse fixture, partly because the other two have been far better than him recently. We saw Allen in an advanced role as a substitute against Sunderland, moving well in attack and unlucky not to score his first Liverpool goal; he could help Liverpool keep possession higher up the pitch. But Henderson's impressed in his last two starts, he's usually quite good on the counter, and his pressing from the front could be crucial in blunting United's attacks before they break, putting a defense prone to errors under even more pressure.

The third is about how Suarez and Sturridge would line up when playing together, discussed almost ad nauseum already. Does Suarez shift out to the flanks, something that's rarely happened during his Liverpool career, or does Sturridge reprise the role he played so well under Andre Villas-Boas? The phrasing of that rhetorical question probably reveals my preference, but we've seen more than a few quotes about how Rodgers sees central striker as Sturridge's best position.

However, "Bib Theory" suggests Rodgers might have something wholly different in mind. Those highlighted were Reina, Wisdom, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Lucas, Allen, Henderson, Gerrard, Suarez, and Downing. Which could be either the usual formation with Gerrard in the front three, or 3-5-2 with Johnson and Downing at wing-back. Either way, both Sturridge and Sterling would be on the bench, with Liverpool looking to pack the midfield and (aside from Wisdom) go for "experience." 3-5-2 makes some amount of sense, nullifying United's main threat down the flanks and in front of the 18-yard-box, offering more protection against Enrique's absence, but at the cost of Liverpool's attack. Liverpool have played three at the back in three matches: the second half against Everton and from the start for about an hour against Chelsea and Anzhi. Liverpool failed to score in those 170 or so minutes, but also conceded just twice – once from a set play, once from a Liverpool error with both Coates and Carragher caught out. So maybe bib theory will prove true again. Or maybe Rodgers is just screwing with both United and us.

As for that lot. Ferguson seems almost certain to deploy 4-2-3-1, the primary formation used this season. Rooney has been ruled out through injury – taken with multiple massive grains of salt – while Jones, Anderson, and Nani are doubtful. Even with those four players missing, it's not as if United as lacking for options. Unsurprisingly.

De Gea will probably be in goal rather than Lindegaard; Rafael and Evra are the likely full-backs. But which two from Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evans will start at center-back? Ferguson will also have to pick two from Scholes, Carrick, and Cleverley in midfield; the latter two seem more likely, but preferring Scholes' experience in this match isn't outside the realm of possibility. Valencia and Young are the usual wide players, but Welbeck, Giggs, Nani if fit, or even van Persie could play there. And while Kagawa in the hole and van Persie up front have been the central attackers in Rooney's absence, Hernandez could also start as the spearhead with van Persie dropping off. And then, again, there's also Welbeck, and probably Rooney since Ferguson's probably telling lies. So many choices. So many hateable choices.

No matter the encouraging wins during the last few weeks, Liverpool still haven't beaten a team above them in the table. At the same time, Liverpool have lost eight of their last nine matches at Old Trafford (how about that ninth though, huh?), a streak stretching back to Rafa Benitez's first season.

United's questionable defense – actually conceding two more goals than Liverpool so far this season – presents opportunities. But United's outstanding, irrepressible attack presents a massive challenge. It goes without saying that an away match at the near-runaway league leaders, a local rivalry no less, will be Liverpool's toughest match of the season. Wins against lowly Fulham, Sunderland, and QPR were much needed and warmly welcomed, especially after the losses to Villa and Stoke, but this challenge will tell us even more about the progress made over the festive season.

09 January 2013

Liverpool Goals By Position

Sometimes, it seems as if Suarez has scored almost every Liverpool goal. If not for the striker, Liverpool would rarely tally.

39.3% of this season's goals have been scored by strikers, 14.3% by wide forwards, 21.4% by central midfielders, 7.1% by fullbacks, 8.9% by center backs, and 8.9% via own goals.

And how does that compare that to last season?

39.2% by the strikers, 21.5% by the wingers, 19.0% by central midfielders, 2.5% by fullbacks, 8.8% by center backs, and 8.8% via own goals.

So, not much difference. Suarez has scored more, but Liverpool had more strikers last season, especially since Dalglish used 4-4-2 about as often as any other formation. There have been fewer goals via the wide players, which isn't much surprise given that Maxi, Kuyt, and Bellamy (responsible for 15 of those 17 goals) aren't with the club anymore. And there has been a higher percentage from central midfielders and full-backs. Again, no surprise: Liverpool have used more central midfielders because Rodgers doesn't play 4-4-2 and Gerrard's actually been healthy this season (*knocks feverishly on wood*), and Johnson's in far better form (plus Downing and Wisdom have also chipped in with one each from full-back).


1) These totals are taken from how I saw the formations in each match, using my game notes, match reviews, and videos of goals. So some might argue with how I classified each formation and position. If you'd like, I can put full lists of positions and formations in the comments section, but it'll take up way too much space here.

2) Aside from the three times when Liverpool played three at the back (and failed to score) during matches against Everton, Chelsea, and Anzhi, the side has always used some variation of 4-3-3, whether 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3. So classifying which goal came from which position was fairly straightforward, except for the rare cases where players switched mid-match (e.g. Downing moving to left-back mid-match against Anzhi).

However, in 2011-12, Liverpool used 4-4-2 and some variation of 4-5-1 almost equally, starting in a 4-4-2 in 23 matches and either 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, or 4-3-3 in 27 matches (plus 3-4-2-1 in the 0-0 against Stoke). So, some of Bellamy's goals came as a striker (4), some as a winger (5). Similar goes for Kuyt. By my count, 45 of Liverpool's 79 goals last season came when playing 4-4-2, 34 when playing some version of 4-5-1.

3) In addition, there were matches where Dalglish altered the formation during the match, usually changing from 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 – as against United, Brighton, and Chelsea in the FA Cup; Wigan and Villa in the league (and a couple of others), most often when either behind or level.

Thanks to Meru from Berkeley for suggesting this infographic via email, and for the multiple people who reminded me that Downing's goal against Anzhi came from left-back when I attempted to be clever on Twitter this morning. It's a good thing that many of you are smarter than I am.