21 February 2013

Liverpool 3-1 Zenit St Petersburg

3-3 on aggregate, Zenit win via away goals

Hulk 19'
Suarez 28' 59'
Allen 43'

If it wasn't for individual errors…

That's this season's mantra. I can't decide whether it's a less irritating mantra than "how did you hit the woodwork again?" but neither's very reassuring.

So close, and yet so far. If only.

Liverpool's team selection was somewhat surprising, more a 4-3-3 than we've seen lately with Allen and Gerrard both ahead of Lucas and Henderson coming inside almost every time Liverpool attacked, which was clearly an attempt to keep possession in Zenit's half and to force Zenit's three midfielders deeper and deeper to remove the supply line for possible counter-attacks. And Liverpool dominated possession early on, but with moves often breaking down in the final third, as the front four or five were unsurprisingly unfamiliar with each other's movement.

Then, those stated fears were realized fairly early as Zenit opened the scoring on the break, through a catastrophic goal almost completely of Liverpool's own making. Zenit hoofed clear out of their defensive third, straight to Carragher just inside the Liverpool half. Hulk pressed quickly, as Zenit pressed fairly relentlessly throughout the match, but Carragher still had to opportunity to slam it back to Reina. Unfortunately, off balance, he barely made contact, incredibly similar to when Suarez forced Distin into the same error in last season's FA Cup semi-final. Like Suarez in that semi-final, Hulk made no mistake when one-on-one with Reina, slotting past the keeper before Reina could close the distance or Agger could recover. It was a rather disappointing way to mark what would end as Carragher's last European match, especially as "we all dream of a team of Carraghers" had been ringing around Anfield just before the goal.

Had Liverpool not conceded a horrific opener, Liverpool wouldn't have had an unsurmountable mountain to climb. But at least the concession prompted the proper response. It would have been all too easy for heads to drop as Liverpool needed four against the Russian champions after another near-unbelievable setback in a season that's seen far too many of them.

But not today.

Liverpool immediately got back on the front foot, once more pinning Zenit deep, with dangerous shots from Suarez and Henderson blocked. Agger, getting one of his rushes of blood to the head, immaculately bombed forward from defense, winning a free kick just outside the box after some surprisingly deft footwork. Which Suarez proceeded to hammer into the back of the net, aiding by Henderson creating space in the middle of Zenit's wall.

With Liverpool scoring just nine minutes after Zenit's opener, it was game back on. Liverpool camped in the opposition's half, winning free kick after free kick, corner after corner, but disappointed with each's delivery. Zenit continued to show its potential on the counter, with Danny chesting down and volleying inches wide after an early cross, followed quickly by Anyukov's shot from nowhere narrowly into the side-netting.

Liverpool needed to score before halftime to truly believe. Three goals in 45 minutes wasn't impossible, but two goals would make that mountain look much smaller. And then, just before halftime, Liverpool got that goal: a excellent move down the left between Henderson and Enrique featuring Henderson's one-touch throughball to the left-back at the byline, Enrique's cutback deflected to Allen, who saw his header saved but followed in to chip the rebound over a prone Malafeev. Game on.

Spaletti responded with two half-time changes, although both were somewhat forced. Lombaerts picked up a serious injury just before the interval, requiring Criscito to come on and Hubočan to shift to center-back. Danny may not have been 100% after picking up a knock last week, and was replaced by Fayzulin.

But the changes didn't blunt Liverpool. And Suarez continued to be at the epicenter, setting up a Downing shot that was blocked, then should have earned a penalty for handball on Hubočan, and then forced an excellent save from Malafeev with a toe-poke.

And then, in the 59th minute, he did this:

Despite getting the third, just one goal away from victory, Rodgers stuck with the substitutions lined up before the third goal: Shelvey and Assaidi (he lives!) for Henderson and Allen, going for all-out attack in the final half an hour. But the all-out attack didn't come.

Liverpool took 11 shots in the first hour, with six on target. In the final 30 minutes, in a game where Liverpool had to score just one more, Liverpool took just five more, only hitting the target once. To be fair, four of those were decent chances. One of the off-target shots was a narrowly-wide Suarez free kick which still forced a save from Malafeev, smartly pushed wide rather than into the mix for a potential rebound. Two minutes later, the Russian keeper made a phenomenal stop on Gerrard's awkward blast; I've still little idea how he got back into position to prevent yet another Stevie G special. The jerk. Shelvey charged onto a loose ball but could only fire into the side-netting, while Agger flicked a header from Liverpool's ninth corner wide.

That said, all of those chances came before the 80th minute, and bracketed another near-goal from Hulk after Zenit again pressed Liverpool – this time Agger – into a mistake in its own half, remarkably saved by Reina. The last throw of the dice, Sterling for Downing in the 84th couldn't change proceedings, as Zenit defended excellently, not allowing Liverpool to dice its way through the deep, resilient back-line, forcing them wide to attempt crosses. Which, as we painfully learned last season, Liverpool aren't very good at. And that was with Outstanding Header™ Andy Carroll in the side. But Zenit defended well for almost the entire match; it's no coincidence that two of Liverpool's three goals came from direct free kicks. Only Allen's strike featured the type of build-up play that's seen Liverpool thrive, and that wasn't one of Liverpool's seven created chances either because of the deflection on Enrique's cutback and the eventual goal coming from a rebound. I'll reiterate: 16 shots, but only seven chances created. None of them clear-cut.

So much good, but just not enough. Barely not enough. Liverpool's fight-back was massively impressive. Lucas and Enrique were superb, as was Gerrard in everything but set plays. Suarez scored two monumental free kicks; if Bale had scored one similar to his second, the entire British press corps would suffer from priapism for the next week.

Look, despite the disappointments, there are no scapegoats. Suarez may have been an irrepressible genius today, but don't forget that Liverpool are exiting this competition because of his wastefulness in the first leg as much as Carragher's error today. Rodgers' substitutions didn't work as planned, but his initial tactics helped Liverpool nearly dominate proceedings, including bringing back Allen, who scored what was almost the vital second.

I've usually little time for moral victories, but today is a moral victory. Liverpool are out of the Europa League, but not only is there clearly something to build on for the future – and this team will be even better with Sturridge and Coutinho in the side – the confidence displayed by continuing to fight regardless of the early setback is a mentality that Liverpool's lacked all too often during the failings over the last three or four seasons.

Now we need to see it during the last three months of the league campaign.

20 February 2013

Liverpool v Zenit St Petersburg 02.21.13

Zenit lead 2-0 on aggregate

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Zenit: 1-0 Milan (a); 2-2 Malaga (h); 0-1 Anderlecht (a); 1-0 Anderlecht (h); 2-3 MIlan (a); 0-3 Malaga (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Swansea (h); 0-2 Zenit (a); 0-2 West Brom (h)
Zenit: 2-0 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Milan (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Zenit: Danny, Hulk 2; Faizulin, Kerzhakov, Semak, Shirokov 1

Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED)

Kuipers has done two previous Liverpool matches, both in 2009-10: a 1-0 win at Debrecen in the Champions League (not the supposed match-fixing one) and a 4-1 win over Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinal – a match where Liverpool needed to overcome a 1-2 away leg deficit.

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

Just once in Liverpool's history have they overturned a two-goal first leg deficit in European competition. Once. Against Auxerre in the second round of the 1991-92 UEFA Cup, winning 3-0 at Anfield after a 0-2 loss at the Stade de l'Abbe Deschamps.

One-goal deficits? That's happened. Quite often, in fact; most recently against both Lille and Benfica on the way to the Europa League semi-final in 2009-10.

Liverpool have lost a European first leg by two or more goals 10 previous times in its history. Nine of those first legs were away from home, the 10th was the last time that result's happened: against Chelsea in 2008-09, losing 1-3 at home before mounting a comeback at Stamford Bridge, scoring the first two goals but then conceding four in the second half in a 4-4 draw. Liverpool have won five of those 10 second legs, but either didn't score enough or conceded away goals, with two draws and three home losses.

Precedent is not helpful in this case.

That said, I'm not trying to bury the body before even checking for a pulse. But Liverpool have a hell of a hole to dig themselves out of.

Rodgers is 100% right. The first goal, especially if it comes early in the match, could make all the difference. It'll shift much of the pressure on Zenit, hopefully buckling under a Liverpool onslaught and Anfield's vocal fury.

However, concede, and it's the nail in the coffin. If Zenit get an away goal, Liverpool will need four. And in both Hulk and Semak's goals last week, we saw how dangerous Zenit can be on the break.

I'm curious to see just who's available for the fourth match in 11 days. Seven Liverpool players – Gerrard, Suarez, Downing, Carragher, Johnson, Enrique, and Reina – have all started the previous three.

You can write Gerrard, Suarez, and Reina's names on the team sheet now. Both Johnson and Enrique have had good and bad moments in the last few matches, but both are basically certainties as well, with Liverpool needing their abilities in attack and lacking for options. With Sturridge and Coutinho cup-tied and Borini injured again, Downing – who has started more matches than anyone else over the last two months – will also be needed. Which leaves Carragher as the only question. And it's not really a question with Skrtel struggling with a knee problem. It might be a question if Skrtel were fit, as I continue to worry about Carragher's recuperation after so many matches in quick succession and as the Slovakian did well in the previous leg, but – as with far too many other positions – it seems Liverpool don't really have a choice.

Otherwise, Henderson seems more likely than Shelvey, Suso, or Allen to play in the advanced midfield role, and Lucas will almost certainly feature as the deepest midfielder. The only alternative seems playing Henderson on the left again, more defensively solid than Sterling – as we saw in Zenit's second goal last week – with either of the other three listed attacking midfielder options playing centrally. But I reckon that's a much less likely alternative.

This guessed XI isn't very different from the sides which won 3-0 against Sunderland and QPR during the festive season. We know there are goals in it, or at least the potential for goals. But it also isn't very different from the side which struggled a week ago in Russia, with Lucas coming in for Allen and Agger for Skrtel. And unfortunately, as we're all well aware, Zenit is slightly stronger than those other two sides.

As in the previous leg and as against West Brom, there are two overriding concerns. The first, the more important, is Liverpool's attacking capabilities without Sturridge in the squad. If Liverpool – read: Suarez – take their chances, Liverpool could well shock Zenit. If they're wasteful, forced to press harder and harder in search of the needed goals, Zenit has the potential to decimate them on the break. Zenit's ability on the counter-attack, Spalletti's preferred method of attack, and Liverpool's frequent susceptibility to counter-attacks is the other concern.

I'd be surprised if Spalletti's XI deviated much from the one we saw last week. They've no new reported injuries, having played no matches in the meantime thanks to the Russian league's winter break, and having nullified Liverpool fairly effectively in St Petersburg. Danny hobbled off with a knock early in the second half, but trained during the week. Domenico Criscito is also back in the squad, recovered from a month-long calf injury, but Zenit might be better served by keeping the more-defensive Hubočan at left-back. Bruno Alves returns from a one-match suspension incurred for three yellows in the Champions League group stage, and could replace either Neto or Lombaerts (more likely the latter) at center-back. Midfielder Zyryanov will again miss out through injury.

Getting back into this tie will be a difficult task. Keeping Zenit from scoring once, if not more, will be just as difficult. Liverpool will need one of those often-referenced historic Anfield nights to stay in this competition, its only remaining chance at a trophy this season. And while no one's pretending that the Europa League's comparable to those Champions League matches we saw from 2004-2009, were Liverpool to come back to win this tie, it'd undoubtedly join the list of those cherished historic nights.

18 February 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 5-0 Swansea

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), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a), West Brom (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

There's a stark difference between this graphic and that from the reverse fixture. Liverpool's totals aren't incredibly dissimilar – except, obviously, the shot total – but Swansea's sure are. More than 60 fewer passes attempted and completed, and much less possession. Five fewer interceptions and 15 fewer successful tackles. 15 fewer shots – Michu and Williams were responsible for eight of those – and 11 fewer chances created. Pablo Hernandez took four shots and created four chances at the Liberty Stadium, but didn't tally any yesterday – demonstrating just how well Liverpool severed the supply line. If more teams would like to make wholesale changes when facing Liverpool, I wouldn't be opposed.

Also, unsurprisingly, there are a few things to say about that Liverpool shot total.

Going into this match, Liverpool's conversion rate was 11.4 shots per goal. Which is lower than five of the six teams above them in the table (and slightly better than Everton's). They took 17 before finally scoring through Gerrard's penalty in the 34th minute. But from there, Liverpool needed just 16 shots to score four more, from four different goal-scorers. Which is a near-perfect example of just how excellent and just how inconsistent Liverpool's finishing can be.

Prior to yesterday's match, Liverpool had been averaging 19.3 shots per match. Which is the highest total in the league. In fact, Liverpool's 22 first-half shots were more than the side registered in 16 matches, including both previous five-goal performances against Norwich. Liverpool's previous high for shots was 29, in the 1-3 loss to Villa and 3-0 win over Sunderland.

No side in Europe has bettered Liverpool's shot total in a league match this season. Tottenham's 3-1 mauling of Reading on New Year's Day, where they tallied 34 shots, was the previous Premier League high; Roma's 31 against Cagliari was the high for Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga, or Ligue 1. Liverpool averaged a shot every 2 minutes and 3 seconds in the first half; only tallying 13 in the second half raises that average to just over 2 and a half minutes for the match.

10 of Liverpool's 16 shots prior to scoring were from outside the box, with only two – Lucas and Suarez's tame efforts – on target. Just six of the subsequent 19 came from outside the box, including only three in the second half. Incidentally, none of Liverpool's five goals came from outside the box. Now seems a good time to remind that Liverpool have scored only nine of its 49 league goals (18%) from outside the box: five against Norwich, three against City, and one against West Ham. Those shots are often the result of a desperate side, which Liverpool were early on when trying to expunge the memories of West Brom and Zenit. But Liverpool stopped being a desperate side once the first, and more importantly the second, goal went in.

Combined, Suarez and Sturridge took 14 shots and created 12 chances. Each scored once and tallied one assist. That's more shots than 12 teams average per match, more chances created than all except Liverpool, Everton, City, and Spurs average per match. Suarez's eight chances created were a high for a Liverpool player this season – and, as written yesterday, that's after not creating a single chance in his first three league games against Swansea – while Sturridge's eight shots were the second-most for a Liverpool player in a single match, with Suarez taking 10 against Reading (without scoring).

The difference between how Coutinho and Henderson played on the left is interesting, especially demonstrated by the heat maps. Coutinho played far closer to Swansea's goal, and provided much more threat than Henderson did in Liverpool's previous league match. To be fair, Henderson was far better against Norwich – where, unlike against West Brom, Sturridge was in the lineup – than he was against Albion. That was the match where Henderson truly did play as both a left-winger and third central midfielder, reflected in both the heat map and his vastly higher passing total (55 of 62, compared to 18/23 for Coutinho yesterday). Coutinho stayed wider on the left, helping stretch the defense, but also took five shots – more than Henderson against Norwich, Manchester City, and Norwich combined. There will assuredly be sides where Liverpool will need to be more cautious, more balanced on the flanks – as Henderson was against Norwich and City – while the loss to Oldham demonstrates what can happen when Liverpool are "too attacking." Nonetheless, Coutinho showed yesterday how he can provide a different, often needed option.

Finally, despite Swansea's lack of threat – or, contributing to that lack of threat – Liverpool pressed well, with 50% of the successful tackles and 39% of the interceptions in Swansea's half of the pitch.

17 February 2013

Liverpool 5-0 Swansea

Gerrard 34' (pen)
Coutinho 46'
Enrique 50'
Suarez 56'
Sturridge 71' (pen)

One goal from 22 shots in the first half. Three goals from five shots in the first 10 minutes of the second half. I think that pretty much sums up this season's inconsistency, and the biggest cause of it.

Liverpool's 22 shots were a league-wide high for a single half this season, as were the 35 in total for a single match.

That's the difference that Daniel Sturridge makes. Five players got on the scoresheet today, but Sturridge adds a second consistent scorer to Liverpool's inconsistent attack, ensuring that defenses can't focus on Luis Suarez. Who, as we all know, vacillates even more wildly between clinical and wasteful than Liverpool as a whole. Sturridge has connected immediately with Suarez, and has been a far better signing than any of us could have imagined or hoped. That I doubted him is seemingly one of the dumbest things I've ever written, and it's not as if we're lacking for choices in that department. I couldn't be happier to be proven wrong.

Also, as much as he'd rather it didn't, some credit for today's rout has to go to Michael Laudrup. Swansea have had eight days since their last match and a full week to go before the League Cup final. Yes, that fixture will be the biggest in the club's history, but you'd think that the squad would have enough time to recuperate. But Swansea made seven changes to its usual XI, with only one forced by Chico's injury, leaving out Michu, Williams, Dyer, Routledge, Rangel, and Ki. Michu has scored 15 league goals this season. Swansea's starting XI had scored just nine. Ashley Williams has been the bane of Suarez's existence in Liverpool's three previous league matches against Swansea, with the striker failing to score or even create a single chance. Not only did Suarez score today, he created eight chances – a season-high – including one assist, as well as winning the crucial first penalty to open the floodgates. And now Swansea are going into that biggest match in club history on the back of its biggest loss since promotion to the Premiership.

It certainly didn't look like finishing 5-0 after the first half an hour. Liverpool were rampant, but Liverpool were as wasteful as ever. It took just 23 minutes to surpass the amount of off-target shots Liverpool had in the reverse fixture at Swansea. Downing shot wide from an excellent position twice, Johnson missed with a free header from a corner, Suarez blasted over twice in quick succession, Sturridge headed just over the crossbar from six yards out, and Coutinho missed a close range effort after Webb ignored what appeared a clear penalty on Sturridge. Despite the ball rarely leaving Swansea's half, all those horrific memories of last week's match at West Brom came flooding back.

But then Webb did give a penalty – well, the linesman gave it – when Agustein stupidly tripped Suarez at the byline, a situation that would have been a corner at worst and most likely a goal kick. Had Liverpool erred, it really could have been West Brom all over again, just as Foster's save on Gerrard sent the home side into a tailspin. This time, the captain squirmed his spot kick under Vorm. Those moments define outcomes, and those outcomes define seasons.

With a one goal lead, Liverpool could either have put the foot on the gas or retreated, allowing a clearly second-best side back into the game. We've seen both this season. Thankfully, Liverpool couldn't have started the second half more impressively.

Swansea kicked off, Enrique intercepted the hoof out of defense, cleverly finding Suarez on the volley. Three defenders immediately converged on Liverpool's talisman, who somehow saw Coutinho bombing into the open space. Britton couldn't catch him, Monk retreated and couldn't make the block when Coutinho feinted onto his left to free room to hit it with his right, and Vorm couldn't keep out the fiercely-hit strike. The goal means that three of Rodgers' five permanent first-team signings have scored on their Anfield debut, with Coutinho joining Borini and Sturridge. Only Allen and Assaidi didn't. Still, not a bad record.

From there, Liverpool ran riot; again, the difference between taking and missing chances and the difference that confidence makes. Enrique added the third after some wonderful intricate passes from a Liverpool throw-in deep in Swansea's half, a throw won by Suarez's pressing and refusal to give up on what appeared to be a broken play. Sturridge danced to keep possession, which led to one-touch passes to Coutinho to Enrique to Suarez to Enrique to Sturridge, with the striker driving forward before centering for the left-back, toe-poked over Vorm with his weaker foot.

The fourth was much more direct: a Carragher interception and layoff to Gerrard, a quick pass to Downing, and a lovely throughball splitting two defenders for Suarez, charging into the box before finishing with his left. Total time of Liverpool possession: 11 seconds. Tiki-taka for the third, straight to the opposition's throat for the fourth. The fifth was another spot kick, the sort of spot kick conceded by a team knowingly beaten, with Routledge unnecessarily handling Enrique's deep cross. Gerrard relinquished duties to the deserving Sturridge, whose excellently-taken effort went over the despairing Vorm. It was the first time Liverpool scored two penalties in a single match since facing Aston Villa in March 2009, another 5-0 win.

Sandwiched between those two goals were even more Liverpool chances. Full of free-flowing confidence, these weren't wasted; Laudrup wasn't kidding when he said that Vorm prevented a much bigger loss, with two superlative saves on Sturridge while Suarez had a rebound well-blocked by Monk.

Liverpool then took the opportunity to rest a few players. The not-quite-match-fit Coutinho went off at 4-0, on the hour mark, but Rodgers took off Lucas and Suarez after the fifth with Zenit looming on Thursday, replaced by Allen and Borini. Not Gerrard though, whose streak of playing every Premiership minute remains intact.

And the last ten minutes saw little but Liverpool's only disappointment of the day: less than seven minutes after coming on, Borini dislocated his shoulder. Rodgers thinks he'll be out for the rest of the season. Sadly, that kid is having one of the unluckiest campaigns on record. At least with Liverpool's January signings, it's nowhere near as big a loss as when he broke a metatarsal.

There isn't much to say when the team is this overwhelmingly good. The first 30 minutes was frightening, Liverpool excellent in everything but the finish, although Swansea never looked like punishing the profligacy. Of course, neither did West Brom until they actually did. But the final hour was Liverpool at its best, all involved in earning the result. Suarez providing the magic, Sturridge providing the thrust, aided by Coutinho's guile and Downing's steadiness on the flanks, with Gerrard and Lucas spreading play wonderfully at the base. Henderson was outstanding after coming on. As against West Brom, Johnson and Enrique disappointed in the opposition's half in the first 45 minutes, but simply couldn't have been better in the second 45.

Today marks the first time Liverpool have scored at least five goals in four matches in a single season since 1995-96, when Roy Evans' third-place side beat Bolton, City, and Leeds in the league and Rochdale in the FA Cup. That, like the statistic to open this review, is another demonstration of Liverpool's inconsistency. This team has the potential to be one of the most prolific in the league. It's just that too often we've seen it profligate instead.

16 February 2013

Liverpool v Swansea 02.17.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 11.25.12
1-3 Swansea (h; League Cup) 10.31.12
0-1 Swansea (a) 05.13.12
0-0 (h) 11.05.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Zenit (a); 0-2 West Brom (h); 2-2 City (a)
Swansea: 4-1 QPR (h); 0-1 West Ham (a); 0-0 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Gerrard 6; Sturridge 3; Agger, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin 1
Swansea: Michu 15; de Guzman, Routledge 5; Dyer, Graham, Hernandez 3; Rangel 2; Davies, Sinclair 1

Referee: Howard Webb

I'm sure it's just coincidence, but the last time Liverpool won a league match with Howard Webb as referee was the 5-0 win against Birmingham in April 2011. He's been in charge of two draws and five losses since.

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

Four matches in 11 days puts an incredible strain on the squad, and fitness concerns will dominate the starting XI selection much more than form or tactics.

Lucas, Sturridge, Agger – three who didn't start against Zenit – will almost assuredly come back into the team, but who will depart? Rodgers has already promised a strong side on Thursday to try to overhaul the two-goal deficit, and he might consider that a more important match given how far behind fourth Liverpool currently find themselves.

It borders on scandalous, but I'd expect at least one of Gerrard and Suarez to be left on the bench, possibly both. Yes, Liverpool's two nuclei, Liverpool's top two scorers in the league. How the medical/fitness staff has managed Gerrard has been one of this season's biggest successes, but (unsurprisingly) I remain worried. He hasn't missed a minute of league action so far this season through 26 matches; the most league matches he's started in a single season was 35 in 2006-07 (also making one substitute appearance) and he only started 12 last season and 20 in 2010-11. I think he's slightly more likely to feature than Suarez is, but wouldn't be surprised were he replaced by Allen. It'd be a chance to further validate my "always play players against their former club" theory.

Meanwhile, Luis Suarez has struggled against Swansea in every match he's played against them. His lone goal came as a substitute in the Capital One Cup – a free header from a set play – but he's been almost wholly nullified in the three league meetings. Swansea are one of just three sides that Suarez has faced at least twice in the league but failed to score against (the others are Tottenham and West Brom). In addition, Suarez has failed to create a chance in nine of his 66 Premier League starts; three of those nine were also against Swansea. He's looked jaded since playing on the left against Arsenal, hitting the target with just two of the 18 shots he took against City, West Brom, and Zenit. Without a goal for three consecutive matches ties his second-longest drought of the season; the only longer stretch was when he was went a month without scoring between wins over Wigan and Fulham. Tomorrow could well be an excellent opportunity to limit his action and use him as a game-changing weapon off the bench.

There are also concerns about Henderson and Downing, who've started multiple consecutive matches (Downing's actually played more minutes than anyone else over the last two months), as well as Carragher's ability to start all four of these matches during this stretch.

In an ideal world, Suarez would play as the #10 behind Sturridge, Gerrard would be paired with Lucas in midfield, Henderson would reclaim his left-sided berth, and Carragher would continue to partner Agger. That's the system that's worked the best recently. I'm pretty sure we don't live in an ideal world. But at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see both Gerrard and Suarez in the XI, no matter the potential costs. Rodgers et al have a lot better idea of both's fitness and capabilities than the rest of us.

Swansea, on the other hand, who have had eight days to prepare, will start what's nearly their strongest XI. Britton should both be over a recent knock, but Chico will miss out through an ankle injury, while Neil Taylor remains a long-term casualty (although Ben Davies has done excellently in his absence).

Laudrup's side will play 4-2-3-1, as usual, with the same lineup debates he's had all season. Which three from Ki, Britton, Agustien, and de Guzman will play in midfield; which two from Routledge, Dyer, and Pablo will play on the flanks? With Danny Graham sold to Sunderland in January, Michu's almost certain to play as the central striker rather than an attacking midfielder, although Shechter did start in the reverse fixture (and only lasted 45 minutes). Chico will be replaced by either Garry Monk or Kyle Bartley, most likely the latter, while Vorm, Rangel, Williams, and Davies are certain starters in defense.

Liverpool remain winless against Swansea since the Welsh side were promoted to the Premier League, losing on the last day at the Liberty Stadium last season and in the league cup on Halloween, held 0-0 at Anfield last season and in the reverse fixture three months ago. Suarez's league cup consolation remains the only goal scored in the four matches they've played since November 2011.

And at the same time, Liverpool have won just one of nine league fixtures following a Europa League match this season, the 3-2 win at West Ham after a 1-0 win at Udinese in early December.

The omens aren't good; there are few positives to be divined from the entrails. But we're still waiting for a Liverpool response to recent setbacks. Back-to-back losses against West Brom and Zenit were the first time Liverpool have lost back-to-back matches this season. And, frighteningly, this is just about the same point where Liverpool's league form took a nose dive last season, with fourth place finally off the table after successive losses to United, Arsenal and Sunderland. No matter who starts tomorrow, Liverpool will need to be better than they've been during the first half of these difficult two weeks.

14 February 2013

Liverpool 0-2 Zenit St Petersburg

Hulk 69'
Semak 72'

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Despite not playing to their full potential, Liverpool create and subsequently spurn multiple excellent chances. Little by little, Liverpool start to dominate the game. And then Liverpool concede against the run of play. And then quickly concede a second. And then pretty much fall apart and hardly threaten the opposition's goal for the rest of the match.

The only difference was Liverpool were lucky not to fall behind during the first quarter of the match, where only Reina's agility and awareness prevented an early Zenit goal. The Reina of the first 28 minutes was the Reina we'd missed, somehow parrying Kerzhakov's 2nd minute effort after a post-corner scramble, denying Hulk from distance in the 5th, then keeping two more efforts from the Brazilian out of his net around the midway point of the half. Time and time again, Zenit found space between the lines, taking advantage of Lucas' absence, running circles around both Allen and Gerrard.

But Liverpool had chances of their own. Unfortunately, as against West Brom, we got "bad Suarez." Or, at least, supremely wasteful Suarez. Countering after Zenit's first excellent chance, Suarez fired wide from Johnson's excellent ball over the top. He couldn't even get a shot off after intercepting a lazy Lombaerts pass deep in Zenit's half, rounding the keeper but losing the opportunity thanks to a heavy touch. And five minutes before halftime, Suarez missed the best of the bunch, a cheeky back heel from two yards out bafflingly wide of the near post after Sterling picked up then laid off Allen's deflected cross.

Liverpool were both direct and disjointed, but that seemed by design. At least the former quality; the latter was an effect of relying on long passes and counter-attacks through a frequently isolated Suarez. As expected, Liverpool knew they'd have to be both cagey to prevent Zenit from breaking through and direct to keep Zenit's midfielders from getting behind the ball, hoping to spring Suarez or Sterling on the counter. Which they should have done at least once. Liverpool's first half passing was subpar and Liverpool had an unusual lack of possession in the final third, but Liverpool were always going to have to adjust to Zenit in St Petersburg rather than vice versa. And Liverpool did improve after 30 minutes, plugging the holes in the dike which led to Zenit's early opportunities, mostly because Gerrard smartly held his position while Allen attempted to chase down Witsel and Shirokov coming forward from midfield. As Dan Kennett astutely noted at halftime, it was a lot like most of Liverpool's other Europa League matches so far this season in that it could easily have been 2-0 Zenit or just as easily 2-0 Liverpool.

Liverpool were even better after the interval, demonstrating some semblance of control, keeping possession. And actually getting shots on target. Well, shot. Johnson went coast to coast in the 49th minute, running by two defenders then nutmegging a third, but was unable to fully nutmeg the keeper, as Malafeev made just enough contact to deflect the shot wide. On the hour mark, bad Suarez reappeared, curling a shot inches wide of the far post after Downing's strong run across the top of the box.

And, because it's Liverpool, you just knew they'd concede once finally obtaining a foothold but still failing to take their chances. It was only a matter of time. This Liverpool side is nothing if not depressingly predictable.

The first came when Henderson was dispossessed by Denisov near the center circle, the holding midfielder cleverly choosing when and who to press then quickly laying off to Hulk, who charged forward and rifled an utterly unstoppable shot past Reina. It was the type of goal that's hard to complain about despite the mistakes leading up to it: a flawless, jaw-dropping strike that wouldn't have been saved with three keepers in the net. However, it's much easier to complain about the second.

Sterling had come inside, chasing the ball, trying to make something happen in Zenit's half even though Henderson and Suarez already had the position covered. Okay, it happens. Less forgivable was the fact that Sterling wandered aimlessly through the middle after being dispossessed for a good 20 seconds before tracking back; with Henderson and Suarez also still central, it left Liverpool's left flank open wider than a pervert's trenchcoat. And it goes without saying that Zenit were smart enough to take advantage, immediately spreading play wide to Anyukov, who had all the space in the world to play a deep cross. Skrtel's close marking ensured Kerzhakov couldn't make contact, but Johnson, caught ball-watching, switched completely off, allowing Semak to ghost in at the back post for a tap in. Infuriating, from start to finish.

And has become all too common, Liverpool rarely looked like responding after the set-back. Rodgers' surprising alteration, bringing on Lucas for Sterling despite the two-goal disadvantage, allowed Liverpool to send men forward more comfortably knowing the Brazilian safety blanket was in place, but the only time Liverpool tested Malafeev was on a set-play. Suarez finally put a shot on target from a free kick, but Malafeev parried just far enough so that Henderson was unable to make an immediate rebound, needing to lay off for Downing, whose tame shot was blocked. And that was the sum of Liverpool's "response." And now Liverpool are micrometers away from being eliminated from a third cup competition in the same week that its slim league hopes were dashed.

I've no complaints about Rodgers' team selection or tactics. The strong squad demonstrated the manager's intent, and we'd be reveling in those tactics had Suarez taken one of his four outstanding chances before Zenit scored. Unlike against West Brom, using Borini as a like-for-like replacement for Sturridge made little sense; Suarez as a #10 against Zenit's midfield would have been banging furiously on trouble's door then asking trouble could come out to play for a while. Liverpool would have gained little in attack, but lost much, much more in defensive solidity. However, I continue to have complaints about both Liverpool's mentality and Liverpool making the same mistakes over and over and over and over.

In the last three months, Liverpool have conceded in 12 of 19 matches. In 11 of those 12, they've conceded at least twice; only Mansfield tallied a single goal, and had they scored that single goal earlier than the 80th minute, odds are that they would have gotten a second given how those final ten minutes went.

For all intents and purposes, Liverpool's European campaign is now in a world of shit. Because of the same problems we've seen all season long.

Yes, stranger things have happened. But this is not 2005. Individually, on paper, Liverpool don't look that far off from the side that won in Istanbul – at least the strongest XI – but this team isn't even on the same planet, let alone ball park: less experienced, less balanced, more fragile, more naive.

In the next leg, Liverpool will have to press and press and attack and attack, and it's highly likely that in the process, Zenit will pull their pants down on the counter at least once. Not only are Liverpool prone to that at the best of times, but we saw just glimpses of how dangerous Hulk, Danny, and Kerzhakov can be. Now imagine those three are given additional space by Liverpool's dire need for goals.

Here's hoping that the script doesn't go according to form, to Liverpool's benefit, at least once this season. Unfortunately, having hope this season has been a dangerous proposition.

13 February 2013

Liverpool at Zenit St Petersburg 02.14.13

12pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Zenit: 1-0 Milan (a); 2-2 Malaga (h); 0-1 Anderlecht (a); 1-0 Anderlecht (h); 2-3 MIlan (a); 0-3 Malaga (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 West Brom (h); 2-2 City (a); 2-2 Arsenal (a)
Zenit: 1-1 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Milan (a); 4-2 Spartak (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Zenit: Danny 2; Faizulin, Hulk, Kerzhakov, Shirokov 1

Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Carragher Enrique
Lucas Allen
Sterling Henderson Borini

Rodgers has named a strong squad, but will he name a strong XI?

With both their previous clubs still involved in this competition, Sturridge and Coutinho are ineligible. And I'd have to think that no matter how strong a side Rodgers would like, Gerrard, Agger, and Johnson – at the very least – will be left on the bench. Those three, more than any others, need to be protected, as we've been reminded all season long. It's dangerous to leave those two defenders out – Zenit's Danny would be the best player Wisdom has faced this season, while Agger remains Liverpool's best center-back, no matter those last ten minutes against West Brom. But the number of matches (and importance of those matches) this week demands some sacrifices on the altar of fitness.

However, both Lucas and Suarez may well start, something that didn't happen often in the group stages (at least in the case of Suarez; Lucas was injured), the latter more likely than the former. Liverpool's attacking options remain limited without Sturridge, as Monday's match so painfully proved, pretty much requiring the Uruguayan on from the beginning. And I suspect Suarez will be joined by Borini and Sterling. Downing's played in every match since being left on the bench against Southampton on December 1, 14 in a row, starting all of them except the FA Cup tie at Oldham; even Suarez and Gerrard haven't featured as often over that stretch.

Meanwhile, Liverpool will need Lucas' defensive capabilities in midfield, protection against Danny and Hulk's runs inside, Kerzhakov dropping deep from striker, and Zenit's fluid midfield three. He'll assuredly be joined by Allen, who's been overshadowed by Liverpool's other midfielders, and most likely Henderson. Zenit's shape – specifically that three-man midfield – suggests it'd be a bad idea to play Suarez as a #10, and Henderson will provide more and better running and work rate than either Shelvey or Suso.

Finally, tomorrow is a homecoming of sorts for Martin Skrtel, bought from Zenit in January 2008. If any opponent is likely to encourage a revitalization of form, it should be tomorrow's. He'll probably be joined in defense by Carragher, who's shown the ability to play twice in a matter of days when starting against both Arsenal and City, rather than Agger or Coates, as well as Enrique, who – like Suarez – pretty much has to start because of the paucity of alternatives. I still think Wisdom's more likely at right back because of Johnson's fitness concerns, but if any of Gerrard, Agger, or Johnson is to start, it's probably the right back because of the aforementioned problems that Danny causes.

Zenit are currently third in the Russian Premier League, three points behind Anzhi – a side Liverpool are both familiar with and were, honestly, better than in the Europa League – and five points behind CSKA Moscow. The Russian league went on winter break in mid-December, but Zenit have played a handful of friendlies over the last month, against Al-Hilal (W), Zamalak (L), Shakhtar Donestk (L), RNK Split (W), Gornik Zabrze (W), and BATE Borisov (L).

Zonal Marking's preview explains Zenit's tactics better than I'm able. Luciano Spalletti's side is flexible, but the Italian prefers a fairly orthodox, counter-attacking 4-3-3, quite similar to how Russia played in Euro 2012. Hulk and Danny playing off Kerhakov; Witsel and Shirokov ahead of the deeper-lying Denisov; and Anyukov, Bruno Alves, Lombaerts, and Hubočan in defense, with both fullbacks aiming to get forward, Anyukov more than Hubočan (who can play anywhere along the back four). Zenit's keeper, Vyacheslav Malafeev, was Russia's first-choice keeper until retiring from the national team after Euro 2012. New signing Neto, another Portuguese international, may replace Lombaerts in defense, while midfielder Zyryanov and full-back Criscito will be crucial absentees through injury. That'd be Spalletti's strongest available side, which I have to assume he'll deploy.

That Zenit thrive on the counter-attack presents a major concern for this Liverpool. We've all seen the side, no matter the personnel, rent asunder by lightning, fluid breaks. For once, tepid Liverpool possession without overcommitting players forward and without high pressing when losing the ball – facets we've often complained about – might be the best strategy. Patience and caginess will be the orders of the day.

Meanwhile, James Appell's preview for ITV, detailing Zenit's on- and off-the-pitch struggles makes me slightly more optimistic. The off-the-pitch struggles have been heavily noted: the fans group who demanded that Zenit not sign minorities or homosexuals; homegrown players such as Denisov, Kerzhakov, and Shirkov reacting poorly to the massive fees and contracts for Hulk and Witsel; and the ongoing, delayed construction of a new stadium, one which will probably end up the world's most expensive.

On the pitch, Zenit started the season slowly, knocked off balance by the eye-watering purchases of Hulk and Witsel, especially disappointing in the Champions League when failing to qualify from a group with AC Milan, Malaga, and Anderlecht. However, they've lost just once in the league since mid-September, a 3-0 defeat at Dinamo Moscow by forfeit when Dinamo's keeper was injured by a firecracker thrown from the Zenit fans, with 53 subsequently arrested. Once again, off-the-pitch issues dwarf those on it.

Also on the pitch, it'll be about -5º celsius, otherwise known as about 23ºF in civilized countries. Which is pretty damn cold, and something that Zenit will be used to that Liverpool won't, no matter how bad the weather's been in Britain or that Zenit's spent the majority of its winter break in U.A.E. and Turkey.

Liverpool's frustrating, disappointing performance against West Brom should at least provoke a response from this side; there have been some very bad matches this season, but they've almost always been followed by a good one, as after Villa, Stoke, Oldham over the last couple of months. Liverpool will need a very good one to beat the Russian champions in Russia in February, even considering the season they've had so far or their form going into the fixture.

12 February 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 West Brom

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), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

The shot-by-shot chart tells you pretty much all you need to know. For the first 77 minutes, Liverpool averaged a shot every three minutes and 20 seconds; the longest stretch without taking a shot was all of seven minutes. No matter Liverpool's other faults – and we've a few to choose from – wastefulness remains the most galling. Sure, only seven of those shots were on target, while 12 of the 23 came from outside the box, but Liverpool were creating chances and testing Foster despite West Brom's determined defense. None of those chances were better than the luckily earned 77th minute penalty. But as soon as Liverpool failed to take advantage of one of those rare strokes of luck, confidence fell through the floor. The look on every single player's face said "oh shit, not again." Yes, again. Unsurprisingly, it didn't take West Brom long to snatch the lead. And Liverpool attempted just two more shots, both blocked, in the subsequent 15 or so minutes. Once again, we're ruing Liverpool's mentality as much as, if not more than, the performance. Which has been the case all too often for the last, oh say, three years. Incidentally, there has been a new manager in each of those three seasons. Funny how that works.

That said, it's not as if Liverpool were especially coherent in attack. Neither of Sturridge's replacements – Shelvey as a starter or Borini as a substitute – were able to be that much needed second man in the penalty box, either often playing far deeper or wider, neither creating a single chance and registering just three shots between them. None of Suarez's seven shots were on target – three off, four blocked – meaning that once again, the insufferable, barely human Jonas Olsson kept him well guarded. Suarez has faced 16 teams at least twice in the league. West Brom is one of just three that he's failed to score against; the others are Swansea and Tottenham (and he scored against Swansea in the League Cup).

However, the most criminally wasteful were Liverpool's fullbacks. Jose Enrique – he of the 69.7% passing accuracy – was the only outfield Liverpool player, substitute or starter, to fail to either take a shot or create a chance. Johnson created just one, for Henderson's back heel in the 52nd, but despite attempting 27 passes in the final third, he completed just three into the box. And completed none of his four attempted crosses. That chance for Henderson was Johnson's only successful pass from inside the box, only attempting one other short, errant one on the edge of the area. With West Brom packed into their own defensive third, Liverpool were heavily reliant on the fullbacks to help find space in attack. Neither succeeded at that task, by any definition.

But Liverpool's final third passing was pretty much abhorrent from all involved. 104 completed of 150 attempted: 69.3% accuracy. Liverpool were less accurate in the final third in just four matches this season: August's 2-2 home draw against City, the 0-0 draw against Stoke, the 2-2 draw at Everton, and the 1-2 loss at Spurs.

Yesterday was just the fifth match where Liverpool took more shots from outside the box than inside the box. The others? Both 2-2 draws against City (where three of Liverpool's four goals came from outside the box), 1-1 against Newcastle at Anfield, and 5-0 against Norwich at Anfield. Six of Liverpool's 12 shots inside the box were on target, including outstanding Foster saves on Henderson's backheel and both Gerrard's penalty and blast from 15 yards out. But just one of Liverpool's 13 shots from outside the box were on target: Downing's effort in the 26th minute, well hit but too close to the keeper.

West Brom's three central midfielders – Morrison, Yacob, and Mulumbu – were responsible for 48% of Albion's interceptions and 63% of the tackles. Liverpool had the misfortune of being the first side in more than two months to face the Mulumbu/Yacob midfield pairing. The duo combined for 10 successful tackles, six interceptions, and 76/90 passes. Compare that to Yacob and Morrison in Albion's 0-1 loss at Tottenham a week ago: combined, they made four tackles, six interceptions, and 57/74 passes. West Brom's record when both Mulumbu and Yacob start is 8W-2D-4L and 3W-2D-7L when both don't. An average of 1.86 points per game versus an average of 0.92 points per game.

Which is almost as big a discrepancy as Liverpool's points per game versus the current top 10 compared to those placed 11-20. Liverpool's record against the sides currently in the top half of the table is 0W-7D-7L, an average of 0.50 points per game. And it's 9W-2D-1L against the bottom half, an average of 2.42 points per game.

As said yesterday, there comes a time, in the face of mounting, overwhelming evidence, that what we had hoped were coincidences stop being coincidences.

11 February 2013

Liverpool 0-2 West Brom

McAuley 81'
Lukaku 90+1'

Short version: No Sturridge, no party.

Slightly longer version: Once again, optimism is a dangerous thing. And once again, Rodgers doesn't seem to have learned from the season's earlier trials and tribulations.

Daniel Sturridge has made an immediate impact, far more than I thought or even hoped possible. But the second he's unavailable, Liverpool reverted to the sterility we saw all too often over the first few months. And once again, Rodgers tries to fix Liverpool with half measures. Henderson remained on the left, ostensibly playing two positions at the same time, but Suarez moved back up front with Shelvey supposedly a #10. And it absolutely demolished any coherency in the final third.

Sure, had Shelvey somehow stayed onside in the ninth minute before prodding in the rebound, had Agger not missed a point-blank free header in the 33rd, Liverpool might have strolled to victory. Like against Wigan, given how deep the opposition were defending, if Liverpool scored the first to open the game, Liverpool could well have scored three.

But they did not score the first. Not in the first half, piling shot after shot at West Brom. Not after Rodgers made changes, not when Foster made a brilliant save on Gerrard's blast then Borini pushed the rebound into the side netting rather than the open goal in the 71st, and not even after Liverpool won the softest penalty I've seen in ages, for an Olsson push on Suarez in the 77th. Which Foster again somehow saved, the fourth consecutive penalty Liverpool have missed at Anfield, a 22-month long streak.

As the clock struck the 80th minute, Liverpool had attempted 23 shots, with seven on target. West Brom had taken one, a 48th-minute Brunt effort blocked before it came within five yards of Liverpool's penalty box. The first opposition shot on target was Mulumbu's rocket on the break in the 80th minute, which Reina had to tip wide. From the subsequent corner, West Brom took the comically inevitable lead when McAuley lost Agger for a free header, in unappealing contrast to Agger missing a free header 50 minutes earlier.

And that was game over. 23 shots in the first 80 minutes when trying to break the deadlock, just two blocked efforts in the final 15 after going behind. Lukaku added a second in injury time, again on a counter-attack and again thanks to an Agger misstep, caught on the back foot when the striker shifted direction and then tore by him to crash a shot past Reina. Further dirt piled upon a deserved grave. Because Liverpool don't concede just once anymore.

After underwhelming for nearly an hour, Liverpool had needed to make changes, but the changes invite even more criticism of Rodgers. Borini for the again-disappointing Shelvey, whose final third movement was atrocious and contributed little besides the offside goal, was a no-brainer, even if Borini was also disappointing. But Sterling for Henderson at the same time raised eyebrows; Henderson had done well, always pressing, getting into good attacking positions, and unlucky not to score when Foster saved his audacious back heel in the 52nd. It really doesn't make sense unless Rodgers is resting him for the trip to St. Petersburg on Thursday. Sterling tried, because Sterling's a trier, but found next to no space behind Albion's packed defense.

But the third, later substitution was the most quizzical. It's unfair on Coutinho, but it was a desperate substitution, evidence of nothing more than Rodgers' hope that Liverpool's shiny new toy would blunt criticism were the match to end 0-0. Well, it didn't end 0-0. And to that point, Downing had actually been one of Liverpool's best players, one of Liverpool's few performing players. Again, it's unfair on Coutinho, almost certainly not ready to contribute, but the sum of his contributions was an off-target shot which should have seen a second penalty given for handball, yet a second penalty was never going to be given. And Liverpool were already down by two at that point. By no means am I blaming the young Brazilian for this result; even I'm not that reactionary or cruel. I am, however, glaring angrily in Rodgers' direction both for subjecting him to that as well as taking off Downing, which is a phrase I'm surprised to write.

However, almost every player – aside from Henderson, Downing, Lucas, and arguably Carragher and Reina – disappointed as well. Gerrard had flashes, but didn't have the permanent influence demonstrated against Arsenal and City, as well as missing the penalty. Suarez ran nonstop, as Suarez does, but was again wholly wasteful, failing to hit the target with all seven of his shots. Enrique and Johnson, constantly in space because of West Brom's incredibly deep defense, created just one chance between them – Johnson's low cross leading to that Henderson back heel – with the two completing just 66% of their final third passes. From the "highs" against Arsenal and City to this. The only consistency is inconsistency.

What Zonal Marking wrote about two months ago is exactly what West Brom did today. Soak up Liverpool pressure for those 80 minutes, partly thanks to Liverpool's profligacy and partly due to determined defending and surprisingly good goal-keeping, then two sucker-punches in the last 10 minutes aided by Agger's mistakes. Which, incidentally, is pretty similar to how West Brom won the reverse fixture, although Gera's almost-accidental wonder-strike just before halftime opened up Liverpool to errors, penalties, and red cards earlier than today's horror show.

Yes, yes, once again, Liverpool fails to beat a side currently in the top 10. More infuriatingly, that's West Brom 5, Liverpool 0 in this season's two fixtures, the first time Albion have done the double over Liverpool since 1966-67. West Brom's first league win since Boxing Day. West Brom's first away clean sheet of the campaign. And that it was done by Liverpool's former assistant manager makes it all the more painful.

This result makes it slightly harder to argue that Aston Villa was an aberration. Liverpool's personnel was different, the opposition formation was different, and the final score was different, but the end result is all too familiar. West Brom may be higher up the table, but they were almost as dismal as Villa in the matches leading up to an Anfield visit. Liverpool lost a home match that they had no business losing, to a team that had been rooted to the bottom of the form table, because they were disjointed and wasteful in the final third and made idiotic errors in defense.

There's a breaking point where these stomach punches stop being coincidence. We might have just reached it.

09 February 2013

Liverpool v West Brom 02.11.13

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.26.12
0-3 West Brom (a) 08.18.12
0-1 West Brom (h) 04.22.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 10.29.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 City (a); 2-2 Arsenal (a); 2-3 Oldham (a)
WBA: 0-1 Spurs (h); 1-2 Everton (a); 2-2 Villa (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Gerrard 6; Sturridge 3; Agger, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin 1
WBA: Lukaku 9; Long 6; Odemwingie 5; Gera 4; Morrison 3; Brunt 2; Fortune, McAuley, Mulumbu 1

Referee: Jon Moss

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

For once, it might not be a bad thing to have a match on Monday. This is Liverpool's first Monday match of the season, but they failed to win all three last season: home draws against Blackburn and Spurs, an away loss at Fulham. Admittedly, they make me nervous. However, this week, it's extra rest after an unnecessary international break, which Gerrard, Agger, Johnson, and Suarez will need, and allows the likes of Sturridge and Sterling more time to overcome recent knocks.

Maybe I'm just pessimistic, but Rodgers' assessment of Sturridge makes me think he's doubtful, while Sterling should be available. Coutinho is almost assuredly not ready to start, if he even makes the squad. If Sturridge isn't fit, will Rodgers replace him with Borini in a straight swap, keeping the same formation used against Manchester City and Norwich, or use Borini or Sterling on the flanks with Henderson as the most advanced central midfielder? How important is it to keep Suarez as the #10?

Maybe I'm just curious to see if it'd work, but I think I'd prefer if Borini was an out-and-out replacement for Sturridge, if need be. Rodgers got the best out of Borini as a central striker for Swansea, and this formation has worked well in recent matches, despite the horrific stutter at Oldham, especially compared to Liverpool's attacking fluency at Arsenal. Neither Steven Reid nor Billy Jones – whoever starts for West Brom at right-back – are likely to get forward often, which would require Henderson to spend much more time defending on the left, while Graham Dorrans, who'll play as West Brom's right midfielder, often likes to come inside. This formation should again give Henderson free reign, continuing in his excellent form, and Enrique should have acres of space to bomb up and down the left. Borini's finishing has been nowhere near Sturridge's so far this season, but his clever movement should similarly open up space for Suarez. But, it goes without saying, it'd be even better if Sturridge were available.

Otherwise, the rest of the positions pretty much pick themselves. Gerrard and Lucas will be the deeper midfielders, Johnson and Enrique will be the fullbacks, and Carragher's likely to keep his starting place ahead of Skrtel.

West Brom currently have the worst form in the league. They're winless in eight, last beating QPR on Boxing Day. But Aston Villa were also amidst a terrible run before beating Liverpool at Anfield. As were Oldham. All too often, form doesn't mean very much against Liverpool.

West Brom were excellent on the counter-attack in the last meeting, primarily through Shane Long then Romelu Lukaku, holding Liverpool at bay then scoring through Gera against the run of play, then forcing a red card and two penalties through lightning breaks. And then there was Lukaku against Carragher, albeit with Liverpool already down to ten men and behind by two, easily eluding the veteran to head in the third.

Both Long and Lukaku started in West Brom's last match, a 0-1 loss to Tottenham, but that's been the exception rather than the rule. Still, I doubt that Liverpool's deficiencies against two counter-attacking strikers – again, see the 1-3 loss to Aston Villa, as well as the 1-3 loss at Stoke – have eluded Steve Clarke's notice.

If that's the case, James Morrison will probably start on the left rather than his usual position behind a lone striker. If not, West Brom's line-up will probably be Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Brunt, Yacob; Dorrans, Morrison, Thomas; Long/Lukaku. Popov is suspended after stupidly spitting at Kyle Walker against Tottenham, while Thorne and Gera are both out with long-term knee injuries. Youssouf Mulumbu is also doubtful with a knee problem. Odemwingie's back in training after his punishment for deadline day shenanigans, but I'd be surprised if Clarke brought him back into the fold so soon. Which is fine by me, as he's scored in West Brom's last two wins over Liverpool, and won both penalties in West Brom's 2-1 win in April 2011.

Having made it over the hump with draws at Arsenal and Manchester City, Liverpool's schedule eases for the final 13 matches. There are only five fixtures against the current top 10, all at Anfield, including this one. Still, Liverpool will have to be on their guard to prevent a post-internationals Monday hangover, and both the previous league meeting and last year's match at Anfield readily demonstrate the threat West Brom can pose.

07 February 2013

On Jamie Carragher

I've been struggling to come up with a way to adequately memorialize Jamie Carragher's just-announced impending retirement.

Do I cite statistics? Maybe the fact he's made more Liverpool appearances than any player who's turned out for the club except Ian Callaghan, has made more European appearances than any other Liverpool player. That with just four more appearances, he'll reach 500 in the Premier League, something that just seven players have done (soon to be eight when Scholes makes three more). And that only Ryan Giggs, and soon, Paul Scholes, are the others to do it with a single club. That's he's been a first-team player for the club for the last 17 seasons, making his Liverpool debut when Raheem Sterling was barely two years old.

Should I try to make a highlight video, featuring Cardiff, Dortmund, Turin, Stamford Bridge, Istanbul, Camp Nou et al? Last ditch tackle after last ditch tackle, the ubiquitous cliché that he put his body on the line for Liverpool every time he donned the shirt. Maybe add clips of all five of his goals for the club? And, yes, it's five, because no one's taking his winner at Middlesbrough in 2008 off him, no matter what the Premier League's records say.

How about a list of his winners' medals? Beginning with an FA Youth Cup before moving onto one Champions League, one UEFA Cup, two FA Cups, three League Cups, two Community Shields, and two UEFA Super Cups. We all know the one gaping chasm in the man's accolades, same as Gerrard, and it's an utter shame he'll never have the chance to remedy that void.

None of those suffice, and not because I'm lazy or crap at editing videos (although both may have something to do with it). More because they don't do the man's career justice.

Jamie Carragher has been Liverpool for the last 16 years, along with Gerrard, the last holdover from a different era. He may not have become a star until Benitez shifted him to center-back in 2004-05, but he's always represented the much-needed link to the local community, a throwback footballer capable of playing in any era, and a man who truly would do anything in his power to win a match.

As many, many others have noted, Carragher was never the quickest, tallest, stronger, or best on the ball. He's arguably never reached the heights hit since Hyypia retired. None the less, for three or four years under Benitez, his name came up every time the best center-backs in the world were discussed, and rightfully so. And despite the decline of his powers, it's no coincidence that first Kelly, then Flanagan, and then Wisdom have looked better full-backs when paired with Carragher over the last few seasons. He remains a organizer above all else, having seen it all and done it all before, still capable of passing that knowledge onto the next generation.

That he's almost wholly changed his style of play under Rodgers, doing exactly what the manager wants and currently Liverpool's most accurate passer in both the Premiership and Europa League, to the point where he's forced an underperforming Martin Skrtel out of the side, is one of his more impressive achievements in recent seasons. But that also fits perfectly into the frequently-noted anecdote that he's a football anorak, fully subsumed in the game, which will translate into whatever his next career is: coach, manager, pundit. I feel safe in asserting that he'll succeed at any of them.

Last season, he was seemingly the defender no one wanted to see, keeping Coates from reaching his potential. This season? He's the only defender have appeared in a league match but not made a defensive error (from before Norwich but still applicable). Yes, I'm well aware he's made fewer appearances than all but Kelly and Coates; it's still an impressive statistic. His percentage of successful tackles this season is higher than in any of the previous three, his minutes-per-tackle rate higher than the previous two.

That he's announced his retirement now, unwilling to let speculation loom over the rest of the season, declaring his impending exit with a minimum of fuss and confirming he'll remain a one-club man for the duration of his career, fits Jamie Carragher perfectly. He is, and will always be, Liverpool to the core.

Wait, one highlight video? Still my favorite, even if it's more than five years old? Oh, go one then...

05 February 2013

Infographic – Forecasting the Finish

We've been hearing an awful lot about fourth place lately. Not necessarily because of Liverpool's improvement – and there has been improvement – but more because the Ministry of Truth the official site seemingly wants us all to always look on the bright side of life. So, is it feasible?

I admit that the "best case scenario" is wildly optimistic. Wildly. And I do not expect that it will happen. But it is "possible." It projects wins against West Brom (h), Wigan (a), Southampton (a), Villa (a), West Ham (h), Reading (a), Everton (h), Fulham (a), and QPR (h); draws against Swansea (h), Tottenham (h), and Newcastle (a); and a loss to Chelsea (h). The three matches against sides above Liverpool in the table are all at Anfield, the six away matches are all against sides currently placed between 13th and 19th. Regardless, I will be incredibly surprised if Liverpool managed 9W-3D-1L during this stretch, no matter the opposition.

Liverpool's points per game over the first 25 matches is a meager 1.44, better than last season's total (1.37) or the dismal 1.25 earned under Hodgson, but still nowhere good enough. Were Liverpool to finish the season with the same points-per-game average, they'd end on 55 points. Since the league switched to three points for a win, Liverpool have finished with a worse total just twice: 54 points in 1998-99 (Houllier's first season) and 52 in last year's campaign.

However, if you ignore the opening five matches of the season, where Liverpool took just two points, the points-per-game average rises to 1.70. Which, incidentally, is also Liverpool's points per game average in the last ten matches. Were Liverpool to continue that form, they'd finish with 58 points – the same number as in Benitez's first season, as well as 2010-11.

Liverpool have bettered that points-per-game average in the last six matches, despite traveling to the 1st, 2nd, and 6th-placed sides. By averaging 1.83 points per game for the rest of the season, Liverpool would finish with 60 points. Which actually borders on respectable. But 60 points has gotten fourth place just once in the last ten years: 2003-04. That was actually Liverpool's total in Houllier's final season. But chances are, 60 points won't do it this season; Tottenham already have 45, Everton 42, and Arsenal 41.

And if you go by Liverpool's results in equivalent fixtures last season, they'd reach 56 points: wins over Southampton (replacing Blackburn), Villa, West Ham (replacing Wolves), Chelsea, Everton, and QPR; draws against Swansea and Wigan; and losses to West Brom, Tottenham, Reading (replacing Bolton), Newcastle, and Fulham.

If you do the same for the four teams directly above Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton actually have worse comparable results in last season's fixtures. Arsenal won five, drew one, and lost seven; Everton won three, drew three, and lost seven. That'd give Arsenal 57 points and Everton 54 points, both catchable even with mediocre Liverpool results over the next 13 matches. But both Tottenham and Chelsea decimated their comparable fixtures last season – Chelsea's record was 8W-2D-3L, Tottenham's 9W-2D-2L, which would give Chelsea 72 points and Tottenham 74.

Over the last 10 seasons, the average number of points needed for fourth place is 67.8. Tottenham would need 1.77 points per game – say, 6W-5D-2L or 7W-2D-4L – to reach that mark. Liverpool would need 10W-2D-1L, two points more than the above "best case scenario."

Liverpool aren't reaching 68 points. And Liverpool probably won't reach 4th, no matter how many interviews with players they post on the official site. But Liverpool will almost certainly better last season's point total, while playing better football. And, honestly, after the last few seasons, discernible, continued progress remains all we can really hope for.

04 February 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

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), Arsenal (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Liverpool held Manchester City to its lowest pass accuracy of the season yesterday, 77.8%. The only match where City attempted and completed fewer passes was at Newcastle in mid-December, where they won 3-1. The only matches where City had less possession was a 1-1 home draw against Arsenal in September and a 2-0 win against Fulham two weeks ago. Through the first 24 matches, City had averaged 18 shots, 471 completed passes, 548 attempted passes, 86% pass accuracy and 59.3% possession. Liverpool made Manchester City register totals far below its average in all those categories. And still only drew.

In the reverse fixture, City completed 407 of 484 passes. Liverpool completed 372 of 462. City had 51.3% possession, and took 11 shots to Liverpool's 17. Liverpool bettered all of those totals yesterday, despite playing away from Anfield. And still only drew. Just like in the reverse fixture.

Like Arsenal on Wednesday, City pressed well, with 12 of 20 interceptions and four of 16 tackles in Liverpool's half, while Reina came nowhere near completing 20 passes. But that pressure didn't end up hurting Liverpool that much. It forced few mistakes, and didn't stop Liverpool from having the majority of possession or taking multiple shots. In fact, it made Liverpool play slightly more directly, which – no matter Rodgers' death-by-football possession preferences – Liverpool are often better at doing.

Combined, Manchester City's strikers – who cost approximately £65m in transfer fees – took two shots and created one chance. Liverpool's two strikers – who cost a combined £34.7m – took 11 shots, equal to Manchester City's overall total, and created four chances. Of course, Agüero and Dzeko's two shots both found the back of the net. Suarez and Sturridge scored one goal, and put two other shots on target, four off-target, and had four blocked.

Despite each's modest shooting accuracy, the Sturridge/Suarez partnership was again impressive. Each took turns dropping deep, going long, and running the channels; both worked across the length and width of Manchester City's half. Sturridge's hold-up play was especially effective – completing 88% of his passes, keeping possession until other Liverpool players could join the attack, and winning all three of his attempted dribbles. Dzeko won many, many more aerial duels, but Sturridge was better as the furthest forward striker in almost every other regard.

Liverpool's 22 shots were the most for an away side at the Etihad since Arsenal took 23 in September 2009, a match Arsenal won 4-2. 136 league matches ago. City's 11 shots were nearly a low for a season, also taking 11 against Liverpool in the reverse fixture and when hosting Swansea, 10 in a 1-1 draw at Everton, and nine in 0-0 draw at Chelsea.

Without Kompany and Yaya Toure, arguably City's most influential players, Mancini's side was happier to sit deeper, packing men between Liverpool's attack and Hart's goal, which they were better at after switching to 3-5-2 early in the second half. 12 of Liverpool's 22 shots came from outside the box. And Liverpool didn't help themselves with their shooting accuracy. Just four of Liverpool's shots found the target: the two goals, Suarez's fairly tame volley in the 45th minute, and Sturridge's toe-poke blast in the 90th minute. 10 were off-target, eight were blocked.

And that – along with the unmentionable terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Reina error for Agüero's equalizer – is why Liverpool only drew.

03 February 2013

Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

Dzeko 23'
Sturridge 29'
Gerrard 73'
Agüero 78'

No matter five goals scored in both matches against Norwich or demolitions of QPR, Sunderland, and Fulham. Liverpool's two best performances of the season so far have both been against Manchester City. And Liverpool earned just two points because they simply cannot stop shooting themselves in the crotch. It's almost unbelievable. Almost.

It's yet another 2-2 draw against a side ahead of Liverpool in the table, the fourth of the season. Liverpool had the lead in all four. And yes, we're all well aware Liverpool's still yet to beat a side that's currently ahead of them. Arsenal and Everton at least merited their draws, pinning Liverpool back for long stretches. Having a two-goal lead in both of those matches makes it that much more painful, but Arsenal and Everton's performances at least earned their points (yes, yes, I'm obviously trying to ignore the rightful winner ruled out at Everton).

But in the 180 minutes against today's opposition, Liverpool largely outplayed the defending champions, taking the the lead three times in those two matches, three outstanding goals from outside the box. And then subsequently conceded because of three mistakes. City's opener today also came because of shoddy Liverpool's defending. Overall, Liverpool can take heart from playing quite well against the safely-ensconced-in-second-place side, better than any other side at the Etihad except United and Dortmund this season, but they still drew. Which, unsurprisingly, is more infuriating than the performance was heartening.

Rodgers reverted to the more attacking shape that we saw against Norwich, with Henderson ostensibly on the left and Suarez lurking behind Sturridge. And Liverpool's attack looked massively more coherent. Aside from a routine Reina save on Silva's blast, the away side took the game to the hosts, creating all the chances prior to City's opener, out-possessing City for long stretches. Suarez saw two shots sail wide, while Zabaleta made an incredible block as Sturridge controlled Johnson's long ball around Hart.

Then came Liverpool's first brain fart. City overloaded Liverpool's right flank on a throw-in, with Agüero, Silva, and Milner dicing through Gerrard, Lucas, Johnson, and Carragher. While Johnson let Milner get behind him, allowing space for the cross, more blame is attached to Daniel Agger, not only spoiling the offside trap, but caught flat-footed when unforgivably calling for offside, allowing Dzeko to burst forward to tap in Milner's low cross. Embarrassing, but not wholly out of the ordinary, with excellent interplay to create the goal. The next concession would be far worse.

It didn't take long for Liverpool to equalize, albeit with some controversy. Anthony Taylor ignored what looked an Agger foul on Dzeko to reclaim possession, then Liverpool (rightly) ignored City howls to put the ball out of play, with extended possession in City's third culminating in Sturridge's unstoppable blast from the top of the box. Dzeko, amazingly shot up as soon as Sturridge scored, Lazarus come from the dead, come back to tell us all that the linesman was a moron. He received a yellow for his complaints.

Aside from a Zabaleta error, nearly scoring on own goal by touching a back pass around Hart just before the interval, the rest of the half was back and forth with few chances for either side. Liverpool's midfield smothered City's, as Gerrard and Lucas allowed no space between the lines, Henderson shuttled inside and out excellently, Agger stuck tight to Dzeko, and Carragher even kept Agüero under control. Moving Suarez closer to Sturridge, unlike the formation against Arsenal, helped Liverpool's ability to charge forward, transitioning from defense to attack quickly, as was needed. Special mention goes to Sturridge, who held up the ball excellently with back to goal, keeping possession until Liverpool players could join the attack, finding outlets time and time again. It's almost as if he had a point to prove against his old club. Now where have I heard that before...

Liverpool continued its control after the restart; Lescott crucially blocked Gerrard's effort then prevented Carragher from getting on the end of a corner, while Downing headed wide from Henderson's cross. As always with Liverpool, you worried there would be a stomach punch if Liverpool didn't make the breakthrough when on top. And credit where due, Mancini's change just before the hour helped shift the momentum, removing Nastasic for Kolarov, shifting to three at the back. Liverpool had to hold on for a spell, but they held on successfully, limiting City to half-chances from Milner crosses which Dzeko got nowhere near, not allowing Agüero or Silva any space to create.

And then Gerrard struck, with a carbon copy of his injury time blast in 2006 FA Cup final, probably the "best" goal he's scored since then, an atomic bomb on the half-volley from 30 yards out after City cleared Enrique's speculative cross. How hard? Gerrard.

But Liverpool could only keep the lead for five minutes, narrowly missing out a third seconds before the equalizer when Sturridge flicked a header wide and Skrtel – on as a substitute for the faltering Enrique – was unable to reach it to redirect on target.

Then, insanity. A hopeful punt upfield towards Agüero, pushed wide by the direction of the pass, seemingly covered by Skrtel and the retreating Agger (who had shifted to left back). Yet Reina decided to charge out of his goal, out of his box, and Agüero controlled around him then somehow scored from absolutely no angle. Take nothing away from the brilliant strike, but that doesn't mean we can't totally blame Reina. I'm well aware of how many times he's saved Liverpool by playing as a sweeper-keeper. That doesn't make it any less of a moronic decision, as well as the eighth error leading to an opposition league goal he's made since the start of last season.

From there, Liverpool looked slightly more likely to get the winner, but it was end-to-end stuff. Gerrard had another shot from distance well blocked, Agger and Johnson missed the target with their efforts, and Hart made an outstanding save on Sturridge's jammed toe-poke in the 90th minute. But City had opportunities of their own: Skrtel reacting outstandingly to prevent Agüero from bursting through, then making another block deep in injury time to cut out Maicon's cross to Dzeko, a similar move to the one City opened the scoring with.

Only three teams have scored more than once at the Etihad in the league this season: Southampton on the opening day in a 3-2 loss, United in a 3-2 win, and now Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool were slightly fortunate with both, as the record with shots from distance has been pretty dismal except all but three teams: Johnson against West Ham, five against in two matches against Norwich, and now three against Manchester City.

Sturridge and Henderson were fantastic, Suarez more involved in Liverpool's attack despite wayward shooting, Gerrard and Lucas at their defensive best (even if Gerrard's passing was marginally disappointing), and Carragher phenomenal (often against the speedy Agüero). Liverpool looked a far more cohesive side than in other matches against top opposition, and it was done at Manchester City.

But this, more than any other game except the reverse fixture, was two vital points thrown away. Without context, most sides would kill for two points from consecutive away matches against Arsenal. I'm sure I'll feel marginally better about it after the anger over how Liverpool conceded subsides. Unfortunately, after 25 matches, five points behind sixth and nine points behind fourth, there's an awful lot of context. Context which makes this result all the more depressing, despite the otherwise impressive performance.