31 March 2013

Liverpool 2-1 Aston Villa

Benteke 31'
Henderson 47'
Gerrard 60' (pen)

The 15 minutes after halftime were the difference between a win today and the loss in the reverse fixture. The first half was all too similar to December's meeting: Liverpool possession and a couple of decent opportunities, mostly resulting in blocked shots by Villa's deep defense, but the opposition also created chances thanks to their direct football and Liverpool's all-too-worrying defense, especially when dealing with long balls and crosses.

And again, right around the half hour mark, Benteke scored the opener. It was in the 29th minute at Anfield, a hammer strike starting from a Suarez giveaway in midfield. It was in the 31st minute today, a hammer strike starting from a Suarez giveaway in midfield, set up by Agbonlahor's layoff from Westwood's hoof downfield with Benteke first to the second ball, catching both Johnson and Carragher flat-footed. Deja vu all over again.

There was one other crucial difference, though. The last time Liverpool conceded just once when conceding in a league match was 21 matches ago, a 1-1 draw at Chelsea on November 11. Since then, Tottenham, West Ham, Villa, United, Arsenal, City, West Brom, Tottenham, and Southampton have scored at least one more after scoring a first, with the majority of those goals coming in the first half.

Unlike the last meeting, Villa couldn't add a second before the interval – Benteke's 38th minute header straight at Reina was the closest they came – while Liverpool actually responded, as only Guzan's heroics kept either Suarez or Gerrard from an equalizer before the break. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't cohesive, but it was enough.

And then Liverpool completely turned the match around by the 60th minute. The equalizer was a sumptuous break-out: Gerrard's accurate clearance from Liverpool's defensive third spread out to Coutinho, who played an outstanding throughball to meet Henderson's outstanding run into the box, and then a finish that topped all the good that came before it, a supremely classy chip that gave the diving Guzan no chance.

The onslaught continued. Coutinho should have added a second, timing his run perfectly to stay onside for Suarez's throughball but putting his shot just wide of the far post, quickly followed by Johnson's deflected effort cannoning off the woodwork. But Liverpool got the needed goal while on top when Baker stupidly lunged in on Suarez at the byline; Suarez is the most dangerous player in the world in that position, but it seemed the Uruguayan was going nowhere. So soon after hitting the woodwork, a missed penalty might have been fitting – that's assuredly what would have happened last season – but Gerrard's spot kick was hit firmly and placed perfectly, finding the target despite Guzan's dive in the right direction.

More than anything else today, Villa will regret not equalizing in the subsequent 10 minutes; they certainly didn't lack for chances. An open Weimann thundered a shot well over from Sylla's center, Gerrard made an indescribably outstanding clearance off the line to prevent Benteke's header, and Reina did well to tip Lowton's deep shot/cross over the bar. Frightening Liverpool was back again.

But from the 70th minute on, we got the sterile domination that was needed. Villa had the edge in possession, but struggled to create anything from it, often closed down when getting into dangerous areas, especially by Enrique and Agger. Suarez should have sealed the game in the 83rd minute, somehow wriggling into the box but losing possession as he rounded the keeper, then taking the ball away from the better-placed Sterling.

Injury time saw a Westwood tackle that should have seen red quickly followed by the ball in Liverpool's net, but put there by a very offside Benteke. Liverpool's defense caused worries until the last second, but did *just enough* for the final 30 minutes, the game sealed by scary scramble, but a scary scramble that led to a well-held offside line. Just enough will do.

Liverpool weren't great by any definition, whether individually or as a team, but they're taking all three points against a side that beat them 3-1 on their ground earlier in the season. Rodgers had never beaten a Paul Lambert side in the Premier League, whether in the reverse fixture or when the two were at Swansea and Norwich last season. Henderson and Coutinho were probably the pick of the bunch, so crucial in scoring the first goal. Henderson was Liverpool's most accurate passer in midfield, assuredly covered the most ground, and led the team in interceptions. Coutinho has now scored twice and assisted three goals since he joined the club, averaging a goal contribution every 73 minutes. Reina was also one of Liverpool's best, making some crucial saves, seemingly finally back to the form we know he's capable of, while both Gerrard and Lucas improved in the second half (seriously, can't say enough about Gerrard's goal-line clearance), and Enrique was very good in defense.

Prior to this season, Liverpool hadn't come back to win an away game since Rafa Benitez was manager. They've now done it twice under Rodgers, and have come back to win two of its last three games. That's the sort of mental strength we hadn't seen enough of in Benitez's last season, under either Hodgson or Dalglish, or earlier in this campaign.

If Liverpool aren't at their best, at least they've become resilient on a much more frequent basis. That's progress too, progress that's been as needed as the improvement in attack and in the personnel.

30 March 2013

Liverpool at Aston Villa 03.31.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11
0-1 Villa (a) 05.22.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Southampton (a); 3-2 Tottenham (h); 4-0 Wigan (a)
Villa: 3-2 QPR (h); 2-1 Reading (a); 0-1 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 8; Sturridge 4; Downing 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Villa: Benteke 13; Weimann 6; Agbonlahor 5; Bent 2; Clark, El Ahmadi, Holman, Lowton, N'Zogbia 1

Referee: Lee Mason

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

Everyone remembers the last match against Villa, yes? Let's make sure that doesn't happen again, especially since Liverpool are coming off yet another unexpected, unnecessary 1-3 setback at Southampton.

Carragher, Lucas, and Reina should all return from knocks which kept them out of the starting XI at Southampton.

Should Liverpool worry about fielding four out-and-out attackers? It's left the side massively exposed at times this season, even worse in the first half against Southampton with Lucas unavailable. That seems the only line-up question. Whether Coutinho and Downing flank Sturridge and Suarez, or Henderson comes in on the left – as against Norwich, for example – or Henderson plays as the #10 with Suarez as a wide forward and either Coutinho or Downing left out.

Otherwise, as long as there are no last minute casualties, Lucas and Gerrard will again form the double pivot, Reina will return in goal, and Johnson, Carragher, Agger, and Enrique will be the back four.

If Villa sit similarly deep as the last meeting – and I'd expect they will – Johnson and Enrique will have to be more effective in attack than Johnson and Downing were in the last meeting. Liverpool's fullbacks were, by far, the free players in attack, but only created three half-chances and combined for an abysmal 74% pass accuracy in the final third. All too often, Liverpool were reliant on crosses, completing just four of 37 in open play, a tactic that often failed with a big lump of a striker in attack last season, let alone this season.

In addition, I'd hope Carragher has a better time against Benteke than Skrtel did in the last meeting. The Belgian scored two of Villa's three goals and set up the third for Weimann, winning 10 of 17 aerial duels. Guzan to Benteke was Villa's most frequent pass combination. Villa will be direct, Benteke will be burly, and Liverpool simply must cope with it better than in mid-December at Anfield.

Aston Villa, while just three points outside of the drop zone, have played well over the last six matches. In the last two months, they've beaten fellow relegation strugglers QPR and Reading as well as West Ham, earned a 3-3 draw at Everton, and narrowly lost to both Arsenal and City.

The international break was and wasn't kind to the Villans. The extended time off should allow Baker, Bent, and El Ahmadi to return from injuries but both Ciaran Clark and Brett Holman are doubtful with knocks sustained while with their national teams. In addition, Herd, Albrighton, Gardner, and Dunne are long-term casualties, but Fabian Delph will return from suspension.

In the last few matches, Villa have moved away from the three/five-at-the-back formation that so frustrated Liverpool in the last meeting, using it infrequently since being hammered by Chelsea, Tottenham, and Wigan after their win at Anfield. Lambert may return to the formation given how well it worked against Liverpool in the last meeting, but if Villa stick with the system most often used over the last couple of months (and assuming all the injury doubts don't play), the starting XI should be Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Bennett; Delph, Westwood, Bannan; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. El Ahmadi or Sylla could replace Delph, while Lambert will probably risk Clark if possible, but otherwise, injuries mean Villa have a notable lack of options.

Once again, Liverpool are in the position of needing to respond to yet another setback, this one two weeks in the memory thanks to an international break. The loss to Southampton makes it even more difficult to catch Everton and Arsenal, three and five points ahead of Liverpool and each with a game in hand, let alone that not-gonna-happen dream deferred of fourth. Qualification for the Europa League will remain a goal, but more importantly, Liverpool have eight matches to return to the form demonstrated against Norwich, Swansea, Spurs etc., continue the incremental progress made over the course of the season, and prove that setbacks like the last match against Southampton or the reverse fixture against tomorrow's opponents in December will become rarer and rarer occurrences.

26 March 2013

March Madness: The Liverpool Edition

Click on the image to properly embiggen in a new window.

189 players have featured for Liverpool since the 1992-93 season, the beginning of the Premier League. From that list comes 64 (no play-in games!), with seeding based on an intangible mix of what they achieved at Liverpool and personal preference. We're limiting this to players from the Premiership era because it's a handy dividing line; most of us have seen most if not all of the players involved and going back much further would probably drive me insane. It was hard enough picking 64 from the last 20 years.

Feel free to argue over all of the seedings and pairings. I think that's the point of this. Are Mølby, Barnes, Rush, etc. are ranked too high considering the timeframe? Wonder what players who've signed in the last two seasons did to deserve spots on this list? Are all the 16 seeds just there for comedy value? Actually, the answer to that last one is a simple "Yes" but otherwise, there's lots to debate!

Voting will start tomorrow over at The Liverpool Offside, and all voting will take place there during the next week and a half. Because they're willing to handle this fiasco; I was more than comfortable with just dropping this bracket in your laps and letting you argue about it amongst yourselves. But, through next Friday, we'll actually pick a winner over at their place. There also might be punch and pie, but no promises.

I think we all know who'll win, but let's have some fun getting there.

18 March 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Southampton

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), Swansea (h), Wigan (a), Tottenham (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

How bad was Liverpool's passing yesterday? Compare the starters' season-long accuracy to yesterday's totals (season averages via WhoScored):

Every single player's accuracy was worse – whether marginally worse (Downing, Suarez) or dramatically, horrifically worse (Allen, Sturridge, Jones). Even the substitutes weren't exempt; it's hard to include Henderson as he only attempted six passes, but Lucas' accuracy was 5% lower (83.7% compared to his usual 88.7%).

Southampton's pressing – with 43% of their interceptions and 45% of their tackles in Liverpool's half – as well as Liverpool's unbalanced, overly attacking starting XI both were culprits, but it was also just one of those inconsistent days which have plagued the side all season long, with almost every player involved demonstrably off the pace from the opening whistle. See: Arsenal (h), Villa (h), Stoke (a), WBA (h), among more than a few others. Funny how it seems to frequently happen when Liverpool's confidence is high. Maybe "funny" isn't the right word.

Unsurprisingly, Lucas's entrance at halftime improved both Liverpool's possession and passing totals noticeably. But Liverpool's weren't able to convert that into a meaningful improvement in attack – just two additional shots in the second half, and the same amount of chances created.

Because Liverpool were terrible in the final third for all 90 minutes. They were marginally better in the second half, but there really was nowhere to go but up.

Liverpool's 57 completed passes in the final third were the second lowest total of the season, behind only the match at Arsenal, where Liverpool completed 54 but still scored two goals. And Liverpool only attempted 76 attacking third passes at Arsenal. Liverpool's 53.2% final third accuracy at Southampton was its lowest of the season by a healthy margin. The only match remotely close to that nadir was last week at Tottenham, completing 68 of 116 for 58.6% accuracy. And Liverpool scored three goals. The two matches in the last two weeks are the only two matches all season where Liverpool has been below 63% in the attacking third; the season-long attacking third accuracy is 72.9%.

Those matches at Arsenal and against Tottenham also differed in an even more important way. Two goals in both matches stemmed from an opposition mistake, even if Liverpool had work to do to get those goals. Southampton didn't make any of those mistakes on Saturday.

And at the same time, Southampton were excellent in the final third, dominant in the opening stages, taking an early two-goal lead, and then clinical on the break late in the second half to finally punish an overeager and overexposed opponent. Liverpool may have completed 47 more passes in total than Southampton, but Southampton completed 54 more than Liverpool in the attacking third. Subsequently, Southampton was able to create four more chances and take eight more shots, with 11 on target to Liverpool's five.

Which is a handy segue into Bass Tuned to Red's interesting metric for analyzing a team's efficiency in the final third: accurate final third passes divided by shots on target. Unsurprisingly, Southampton were more efficient than Liverpool yesterday. I implore you to check it out; it's excellent. But first, finish reading this.

The key to Southampton's advantage in attack was the clever movement of the front four. And all four players put shots on target, all four created at least one chance. You can't say either about Liverpool's supposedly impressive front four. Jay Rodriguez had the type of day that often sees Suarez single-handedly decimate sides: a goal and an assist, just two fewer shots than Liverpool took in total. Squawka's heat maps for Lambert, Rodriguez, Lallana, and Ramirez are exceptionally awe-inspiring.

That's the sort of interchanging movement which pulls defenders out of position, which opens up space to operate both for the player on the ball and his cohorts. The sort of interchanging movement we'd seen from Suarez, Sturridge, Downing, and Coutinho/Henderson in comprehensive wins over Wigan, Swansea, and Norwich. Which were wins defined by Liverpool's quick starts, torpedoing the opposition's game plan through non-stop early attack, reaping multiple goals.

From start to finish and from back to front, Liverpool were beaten at its own game on Saturday.

16 March 2013

Liverpool 1-3 Southampton

Schneiderlin 6'
Lambert 33'
Coutinho 45+1'
Rodriguez 80'

Evidently, there are still no turning points. Liverpool simply refuse to stop taking lots and lots of steps backwards after one or two steps forward.

What seemed a massively important 3-2 comeback win followed by a debilitating, deserved loss to supposedly inferior opposition. It happened against Aston Villa after the victory at West Ham, and now it's happened at Southampton after the joyous win against Tottenham.

No Reina and Carragher meant there was no vocal organizer in defense, complemented by Skrtel's complete lack of confidence. No Lucas meant Southampton's fluid attacking line of three had the freedom of Liverpool's defensive third, with neither Gerrard nor Allen able to replicate the Brazilian's holding abilities.

It has been four months since Liverpool have conceded just one goal when conceding in a league match: November 11, a 1-1 draw at Chelsea. Since then, 10 clean sheets, but two allowed at Tottenham, two at West Ham, three against Villa, three at Stoke, two at United, two at Arsenal, two at City, two against West Brom, two against Tottenham, and now three more at Southampton. When it rains, it monsoons.

Liverpool had made a habit of storming out of the blocks in its recent wins, scoring early on against Norwich, Swansea, Wigan, and Tottenham (as well as Arsenal and City). But Southampton did exactly that to Liverpool today, as the away side were almost totally unable to clear the ball, let alone keep possession. Within six minutes, the home side were ahead after Lambert held up play well from a long ball out of Southampton's half before laying off to Ramirez. His deep cross found Rodriguez at the far post, eluding Johnson all too easily, knocking down for Schneiderlin to poke past Jones, with Skrtel unable to beat the midfielder to the ball and with both Gerrard and Allen ignoring the midfielder's burst into the box.

Schneiderlin's goal was the earliest Liverpool have allowed in the league this season, a minute before Lennon's for Tottenham at the end of November. Despite the more recent painful memories against Villa, Stoke, and West Brom, that Tottenham match was the closest parallel to today's set-back – at least until Rodriguez's game-sealing third gave us the same result as the Aston Villa apocalypse. Liverpool were overrun from the opening whistle, conceding twice before settling – and probably should have conceded more – before pulling just one, not the needed minimum two, back after finally getting its act together. Until Rodriguez's game-sealing third on the break with 10 minutes to play.

Southampton had multiple chances to extend its lead before finally doing so. An onside Lambert burst through Liverpool's failed offside trap, thankfully denied by Jones. The stand-in keeper then repelled Lallana's blast, with Ramirez acrobatically sending the rebound over the bar.

By the 25th minute, Liverpool finally began to settle, able to keep possession longer than microsecond moments, although still all too prone to giving the ball away through a combination of poor passing and Southampton pressure.

Which, of course, was quickly followed by a second stomach punch. Skrtel was again penalized for climbing all over a defender, conceding a free kick in the left channel. Lambert's effort would have bounced harmlessly off the wall had Sturridge not turned away from contact, allowing the ball to deflect off him through the gap, wrong-footing Jones. Sigh. It was no more than Southampton deserved, but once again, Liverpool's biggest problem seems to be Liverpool.

You can't help but fault the changes to the starting lineup for much of Liverpool's incoherence. No one played well today, but the two alterations to the XI were, by far, the two biggest scapegoats. Rodgers has managed Liverpool's fitness excellently this season – it's why Gerrard's been able to play every minute of every league match, why Agger and Johnson have missed far fewer games than usual – but leaving Lucas and Carragher out, for whatever reasons (and with an international break imminent, no less), completely unbalanced the defense, while both Allen and Skrtel were abysmal at best. The former looked a man in need of surgery, three steps off the pace, unable to provide even marginal defensive cover. The latter looked shell-shocked, totally bereft of all confidence.

Coutinho pulled one back just before half-time to give Liverpool hope, hammering in a fortunate rebound after Sturridge's shot from Gerrard's knockdown was blocked. Lucas replaced Allen to start the second half, remedying one of the first half's predominant issues, while Coutinho took up a central position as Suarez pulled wide.

But Liverpool still flailed about discordantly, unable to convert its two marginal openings before Southampton steadied the ship: Coutinho was unnecessarily caught offside when released by Downing's deep cross, followed by Suarez just unable to reach Lucas' clever chip over Southampton's back line.

From there, aside from a Suarez free kick straight down Boruc's throat, Southampton had the better opportunities, nearly unlocking Liverpool twice, requiring last ditch defending from Johnson and Enrique to cut out dangerous openings. Once again, it baffled that Rodgers made no further changes, refusing to bring on Henderson for the disappointing Sturridge or the tiring Coutinho. And then Rodriguez finally made Liverpool pay on the break, charging away from Lucas with Skrtel backing off and backing off and showing Rodriguez onto his stronger foot and backing off some more. Jones parried the first shot, but Rodriguez was quickest to the rebound. Comeback aborted. Game over. Humiliation complete.

And then, in what appeared an effort to troll Liverpool fans, Henderson finally replaced Sturridge after the third goal. Too little, too late. Much, much too late.

Everything that was feared came true, both from Southampton and from Liverpool. St. Mary's remains a cursed ground. Southampton again raised its game against more impressivee opposition, looking the side that demolished City rather than the team which embarrassingly lost to Newcastle and QPR. The home side's pressing completely unsettled Liverpool's duct-taped defense, while the movement of Southampton's front four completely confused those duct-taped defenders. Lallana, Rodriguez, and Ramirez interchanged brilliantly, finding gaps all over the final third. Lambert dragged center-backs out of position, then other attackers moved into the vacated space. It was a masterclass of attacking movement. It was the style of attacking that makes Liverpool look its best, but a style of attacking that Liverpool all too often lacks.

Credit to Southampton for their comprehensive display, but Liverpool made it easy for them, as Liverpool is all too prone to do. The lineup changes may have confused, may have made it worse, but no Liverpool played looked especially bothered. It's a sad state of affairs when Downing, even if ineffective, seems the hardest worker. The early concession sent Suarez into that frightening state of frustration, screaming at officials and teammates, angry at the world. Sturridge barely got into the match. Allen and Gerrard were overrun in midfield, the defense was wholly unsettled, and Liverpool's passing was utterly abhorrent from everyone involved. Liverpool's 74.4% accuracy is a new low for the season, a full percentage point worse than last week against Tottenham.

And in what seems to be a recurring phenomenon, an international break comes at an inopportune time. Liverpool's next match isn't for 15 days, and Rodgers won't be able to rectify today's multiple problems on the training pitch.

One of these days, maybe I'll learn. There are no turning points. Liverpool's only consistency is inconsistency. Two steps forward, but even more steps backwards.

15 March 2013

Liverpool at Southampton 03.16.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.01.12
0-2 Southampton (a) 01.22.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.28.04
0-2 Southampton (a) 03.14.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Tottenham (h); 4-0 Wigan (a); 3-1 Zenit (h)
Southampton: 0-0 Norwich (a); 1-2 QPR (h); 2-4 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 8; Sturridge 4; Downing 3; Agger, Enrique, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Coutinho, Johnson, Şahin 1
Southampton: Lambert 12; Puncheon 5; Ramirez, Schneiderlin 4; Rodriguez 3; S Davis, Fonte, Lallana 2; Clyne, Fox 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

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

Predicting the Liverpool XI has become a bit boring.

There are still concerns over Reina's fitness, but the back four will be the same as we've seen in the last five league matches. Lucas and Gerrard will start in midfield, as we've seen in the last nine league matches.

The only question is whether Liverpool use three midfielders or four fairly out-and-out attackers. If it's the former, either Allen – still putting off his shoulder surgery – plays in an advanced midfield position or Henderson features on the flank but often tucks inside. Or, Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho, and Downing all keep their places, deploying the same front six that beat both Spurs and Swansea.

The first hour against Tottenham demonstrated both the benefits and liabilities of that all-out attack. Coutinho and Suarez, along with Enrique, linked up for an excellent goal as Liverpool took the game to Tottenham, while Sturridge put the central defenders under pressure and Downing chipped in with an excellent all-around game. But it ended with Lucas and Gerrrad over-run by Tottenham's three-man midfield, with Liverpool behind before bringing on Joe Allen.

However, while Pochettino's side will use a similar 4-2-3-1 formation, Southampton is not Tottenham. If Steve Davis – back from injury, along with Danny Fox – starts as the most advanced midfielder, Southampton will better able to keep possession, but Pochettino is just as likely to use Gaston Ramirez or Adam Lallana behind the striker, both more attacking players. But – and I mean no offense – none of Southampton's midfielders are Dembele, Parker, and Livermore.

That Liverpool are away from Anfield may also come into the equation; both matches with Sturridge, Suarez, Coutinho, and Downing starting were at home. Still, I think the more attacking line-up is more likely, looking to put Southampton under early pressure in search of the crucial early goal, before bringing off Coutinho for one of the two midfielders around the hour mark.

Pochettino's Southampton also use the same formation as Nigel Adkins' Southampton, but with a few twists. In theory, his sides play how Rodgers wants his sides to play: controlling the game through passing, fluidity in the attacking positions, and pressing effectively when out of possession.

Southampton have no injury concerns, with both Davis and Fox available after missing last weekend's match. Their likely XI is Boruc in goal; Clyne or Yoshida at right back; two from Fonte, Hooiveld, and Yoshida at center-back; either Fox or Shaw at left back; Cork and Schneiderlin in midfield; and three from Davis, Ramirez, Lallana, Rodriguez, and Puncheon in attack behind lone striker Rickie Lambert.

Either Yoshida or Clyne will be the more attacking full-back, looking to get forward whenever possible, but that could be dangerous if they're opposite Coutinho – a player Pochettino knows quite well. The front four will switch positions constantly, but Puncheon, Lallana, and Rodriguez – the likely wide players – all prefer to play narrowly, which should provide space for Johnson and Enrique's forays forward. Rickie Lambert remains the top scoring English player in the league with 12 goals, although he's scored just twice in the two months under Pochettino.

Pochettino's first four games were more impressive were than the last three. A 0-0 draw against Everton; a battling, exceptionally close 1-2 loss at United; a 2-2 draw at Wigan (dropping two points to an equalizer in the last minute); and a thorough victory over Manchester City. However, in the last three weeks, Southampton were blown out at Newcastle, lost a 1-0 lead to QPR at home, and only drew at Norwich thanks to Boruc's penalty save in injury time.

Despite letting in four goals at Newcastle, Pochettino's side have been more defensively secure than Adkins'. It's an incredibly small sample size, but Southampton have conceded fewer goals per game under the new manager – which fits with Pochettino's career as a central defender. Unfortunately, they're also scoring fewer, and are subsequently earning fewer points per game, currently just four outside the relegation places and with Wigan having a game in hand.

Pochettino's Southampton have been better against stronger opposition, highlighted by the comprehensive and deserved home win over City. Meanwhile, Liverpool have somehow been both better and worse against inferior opposition. There are the demolitions of Norwich, Swansea, QPR, Sunderland, etc, but it's hard to forget the demoralizing losses to Villa, Stoke, and West Brom.

As usual, it'll probably come down to whether Liverpool can convert its chances. When they do, they almost always win, often handily. Especially if they can convert said chances early in the first half, putting the game out of reach before the opposition can grow in confidence while Liverpool's frustration correspondingly mounts. When they don't convert those chances, sucker punches tend to happen, and then results like 1-3 Villa and 0-2 West Brom happen.

14 March 2013

Update: Forecasting the Finish Infographic

Earlier this week, I was asked to update this graphic from a month ago, so here's a quick look.

Taking nine points from the last three games – the first time Liverpool have won three consecutive league matches since the end of the 2010-11 season – made a slight difference, raising all of the potential final point totals.

Four matches ago, Liverpool's season-long points per game average was 1.44. It's now 1.55. The points per game average discounting Liverpool's awful first five matches was 1.70. It's now 1.79. Liverpool's points per game over the last six matches remains the same as before, 1.83, with three wins, two draws, and a loss.

If Liverpool finish with the same points per game average earned so far this season, Liverpool would end on 59 points. If Liverpool finish with the points per game average starting after the first five matches or the points per game average from the last six matches, Liverpool would end on 61 points. Four games ago, those totals were 55, 58, and 60 points respectively.

Liverpool's results over the last four games were even better than my "best case scenario" – which again, wasn't really a best case scenario but "quasi-realistic optimism." A loss to West Brom was three points worse than expected, but wins over Swansea and Spurs – matches I thought Liverpool would draw – along with a victory at Wigan, gave Liverpool nine points when I hoped for eight. And it demolished last year's results in comparable fixtures, where Liverpool took just two points from the same four matches.

However, that best case scenario predicts wins in Liverpool's next four matches: at Southampton, at Villa, against West Ham, and at Reading. Yes, all are winnable games and Liverpool won three of the four comparable fixtures last season, but that would give Liverpool a seven-match winning streak in the league. Something that hasn't been done since Liverpool won 10 in a row in 2005-06. Liverpool's longest winning streak during that heady 2008-09 season was five consecutive league matches, a feat which happened three times. Chances are, Liverpool will disappoint at least once in the coming weeks.

After those four matches, Liverpool's final five are Chelsea (h), Newcastle (a), Everton (h), Fulham (a), and QPR (h). Harder than the previous four, but in theory, each is winnable, with the two toughest at Anfield.

For comparison, here are the remaining fixtures for the three teams directly ahead of Liverpool, as well as Everton, now behind Liverpool on goal difference but with a game in hand.

Chelsea and Everton's trips to Anfield will determine an awful lot. And three of those four sides play each other at least twice. Everton has, by far, the worst run-in, but Chelsea and Tottenham's aren't especially easy either.

If each side got the same results from last season's fixtures, Chelsea would earn 20 more points, Tottenham 17 more, and both Everton and Arsenal 10 more. Which would give Chelsea 72 points, Tottenham 71, Arsenal 57, and Everton 55. I find it hard to believe that Chelsea, with the form they're in this season, will run riot through its last 10 games. And Arsenal, no matter their form, probably won't lose to Swansea, Norwich, Fulham, QPR, and Wigan again. But that should at least give you an idea of the total those four might finish with.

And what miracles Liverpool would have to conjure to pass two of the three teams ahead of them in the table.

12 March 2013

Luis Suarez – The First 50 Goals [Infographic]

• According to club statistician Ged Rea, only eight Liverpool players reached this total in fewer games. I did a quick chart of the big names when Torres hit the mark a few years back, but didn't know to include the fastest to 50: Albert Stubbins, who did it in 77 matches. Suarez was also outpaced by Roger Hunt, Torres, Rush, and Aldridge, but scored 50 goals faster than Owen, Fowler, and Dalglish, among others.

• Suarez has faced 19 clubs at least twice. He's only failed to score against one of those 19 – West Brom. Damned West Brom. Those two losses are going to haunt me for a while, no matter where Liverpool finish in the table.

• The longest Suarez went without scoring was six matches, between goals against Wigan on November 17 and Fulham on December 22 this season. Yes, his longest scoring drought – at least in matches where he played; not counting those during his lengthy suspension – came this season. And right before that six-match drought was his longest consecutive scoring streak, five matches, against Everton, Swansea (League Cup), Newcastle, Chelsea, and Wigan. He'd tie that mark with a goal against Southampton on Saturday.

• Suarez has scored in 21 of the 39 matches he's played this season. With 29 goals in all competitions, he's averaging a goal every 1.34 matches.

• Liverpool have earned 1.66 points per game since Suarez joined the club at the end of January – 114 matches: 54 wins, 27 draws, 33 losses. But when Suarez scores, Liverpool averages 2.15 points per game: 25 wins, nine draws, five losses.

• However, only seven of his goals were "game winners" – against Wolves, Stoke (FA Cup), QPR (twice), Norwich, Wigan, and Mansfield Town. 25 of his goals were scored when Liverpool were already ahead, 12 gave Liverpool the lead, 10 were equalizers, and only three were consolations.

• And there's a flip side to the points-per-game when Suarez scores statistic. Suarez hasn't featured in 23 of those 114 matches, and Liverpool's record in those games is 14W-4D-5L – an average of 2.00 points per game – although the caveat is that 12 of those games were cup matches, often against inferior opposition where Liverpool felt safe leaving him out. You may remember that he was suspended for almost all of those other absences.

More meaningfully, in the 52 matches Suarez has played but hasn't scored, Liverpool's record is 15W-14D-23L. Which is an average of 1.13 points per game. That's not good.

Given how the first half of the season went, that shouldn't be very surprising. Frightening, yes, but not surprising. All too often, Liverpool were desperately reliant on Suarez's goals. That seems to have eased with the additions of Sturridge and Coutinho and Liverpool's improvement as Rodgers' style becomes more familiar, but the last match Liverpool won without a goal from Suarez was the 3-2 win at West Ham. On December 9. When he was suspended.

Chances are, Suarez will continue to score goals. Probably not at the superlative rate we've seen this season, but he will produce. He is an exemplary footballer, one of the best in the league and the world. As we've incrementally seen as the season's gone on, Liverpool need to continue building a quality side around him.

If you want to see the full list of his goals, here's a Google Docs version of my spreadsheet.

11 March 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Tottenham

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), Swansea (h), Wigan (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

From last week:
Same old, same old.

More shots, more shots on-target, more passes, more possession, and more chances created, but a demoralizing loss with a handful of defensive errors. Time after time after time.

Oh, wait. This time it happened to Liverpool's opponent. Well then.

I could get used to this.

Also like last week, Liverpool's early opener came from an accurate long pass out of defense, excellent work down Liverpool's left featuring Coutinho, and a sumptuous Suarez finish. And like last week, Suarez's converted at least 50% of his shots. Admittedly, he only took two, which tied his low for the season, set against Chelsea (where he scored Liverpool's lone goal). His increasing ruthlessness has been one of the biggest reasons for Liverpool's improvement – over the last 10 matches, his shooting accuracy is up to 65% and he's converted seven of his last eight clear cut chances. That, more than any other, I could get used to.

This was just the second match of the season where neither Suarez nor Gerrard created a chance. The other? The reverse fixture at White Hart Lane. And Suarez hadn't scored in his four previous matches against Tottenham. Incidentally, I agree that winning a penalty should count as a chance created, and an assist if it's converted. But Opta doesn't do that.

Liverpool's pass accuracy was its low for the season, by some distance, completing just 75.1% of its passes. The only other match where Liverpool failed to complete at least 80% was the 2-2 draw at Everton, with 76.8% accuracy. That match saw Liverpool's low for completed and attempted passes, the only other game where Liverpool failed to make at least 300 successful passes. The only starters to complete more than 80% of their passes were Downing, Gerrard, and Carragher. Insert something about England's inability to develop technical players here.

Spurs had the edge in passing, but the two sides were almost equal in the attacking third; Tottenham's advantage came in passing along the back, often denied easy outs by Liverpool's pressing. And Stewart Downing was perfect in the attacking third, with more passes than any other player while also creating two chances from crosses (of three crosses in total).

Dembele was still Tottenham's most prolific passer despite playing on the right, and also won six of nine dribbles, more than any other player (even more than Saint Gareth of Cardiff). He was heavily involved in the buildup to Tottenham's first, giving Enrique fits before Bale came on to deliver an inch-perfect cross. But almost 80% of his passes came in the first hour, before Joe Allen's entrance added an extra man in midfield and blunted Tottenham's control.

Much has been made of Villas-Boas' preference for high line defending, and while Tottenham caught Liverpool offside six times – double Liverpool's usual average for offsides – Liverpool's tackles and interceptions actually came higher up the pitch. Despite Tottenham's speed, Liverpool pressed effectively throughout the match, and that pressure was what forced Walker and Lloris into the mistakes for Liverpool's crucial equalizer.

 photo spurspressing1_zpsdd1d732f.png

Agger and Allen's pressing forced Dembele backwards rather than allowing him to turn and continue Tottenham's attack. Allen continued charging forward to close down, cutting off Livermore as an outlet, while Suarez and Sturridge pressed the ball, intelligently blocking the angles to Dembele and Vertonghen.

 photo spurspressing2_zpsab2b7457.png

Which led Walker to choose what he believed was the safest option, or at least, the easiest. And he was wrong, because Downing recognized it immediately, sprinting full speed to put Lloris under pressure, forcing the second mistake to give him the opportunity at an equalizer.

Yes, Tottenham had to make two questionable decisions, two mistakes, for Liverpool to score from that position, a move that began in Liverpool's defensive third. But Rodgers will be immensely pleased with the decision-making, pressing, and group effort which led to those mistakes, especially from his substitute's work in blunting the dangerous Dembele, who had been the hub of much of Tottenham's good play.

10 March 2013

Liverpool 3-2 Tottenham

Goals: photo spursformation3-10_zps58ebc580.png
Suarez 21'
Vertonghen 45' 53'
Downing 66'
Gerrard 82' (pen)

I'll readily admit it. I lost faith after Vertonghen's second, with Tottenham all too easily overhauling an early deficit after Liverpool's strong opening 30 minutes. Two soft free kicks leading to two cheaply conceded goals. We'd seen this movie before. I hadn't liked the ending.

But not this time. A Liverpool substitution that initially baffled but worked perfectly. Mistakes from Walker and Lloris allowing a fortuitous equalizer. And then the required Liverpool onslaught culminating in a deserved penalty given by a referee who'd given Liverpool little joy up to that point, wonderfully taken by Liverpool's captain.

And all against a side that's tormented Liverpool over the last few seasons, winning four and drawing one of the last five meetings, a side playing some of the best football in the division. We've been fooled by so many false dawns and turning points in the last four seasons. Once, twice, thrice burned, forever shy. But this truly feels like a turning point.

Three of those four losses came with Spurs scoring in the first ten minutes. Which made Liverpool's start even more impressive, an attacking lineup taking the game to the opposition. Bale forced an awkward save from Jones – starting in place of Reina due to a calf injury – with a serpentine free kick in the 12th minute, but Liverpool were asking more questions of Tottenham, attacking directly, bypassing the midfield but involving everyone in the front four, supplemented by Enrique's forays forward.

And it was a quick transition from defense to attack followed by gorgeous interplay between Coutinho, Enrique, and Suarez which led to Liverpool's outstanding opener. Johnson won the ball deep in Liverpool's defensive third, charged past two Spurs players, and hammered a 50-yard pass to Coutinho with his weaker foot. Closely marked by Walker, the Brazilian deftly controlled then back-heeled to the onrushing Enrique, who retained possession despite Dembele's attention, passed back to Coutinho, and immediately made an intelligent run between two defenders. Coutinho, to his credit, recognized it straight away, threading the throughball in behind. Enrique controlled, shrugged off Walker, and passed it on for Suarez's run, the finish cheekily toe-poked under Lloris. Liverpool have seen some incredible team goals in the last few weeks – Downing's opener against Wigan and Enrique's against Swansea among others – and this was in the same category. Direct football, clever footwork, cleverer passes, and a remarkable finish. It seemed a nice precedent.

But it didn't last. To their credit, Spurs quickly regrouped, its stronger midfield increasingly exerting control. Bale twice missed the target, Sigurðsson shot into the side netting, and Assou-Ekotto shot directly at Jones. And then came the stomach punch. Gerrard collided with Bale, winning the header, albeit with a forearm in Bale's back but with Bale dropping like a stone holding his head. He dives when he wants. And when Liverpool couldn't fully clear the set play, Liverpool were punished. Bale, amazingly recovered, popped up on the right to deliver an immaculate cross for Vertonghen, still forward following the free kick and beating a static Johnson with a strong run.

The equalizer on the stroke of halftime soon looked a blow Liverpool wouldn't recover from. The second half was all Tottenham from the whistle, a flurry reminiscent of those first half onslaughts we're all too familiar with. And it culminated with another set play goal after another soft free kick won by Bale, this time for a Lucas foul despite barely making contact with Bale's shoulder. Sigurðsson arguably fouled Carragher as well, preventing the vice-captain from heading away, but two other Liverpool defenders (Agger and Johnson) still failed to clear, allowing Vertonghen to ram in his and Tottenham's second. Oh no. Not again.

Spurs should have stretched the lead before the hour mark. The best opportunity came on when countering from a Liverpool set play, Bale's storming run setting up an open Sigurðsson at the back post, his shot somehow saved onto the post, but Jones also did well to deny Dembele while Defoe fired wide when allowed to turn in the box.

Allen replacing Coutinho just before the hour seemed a desperate gambit. Yes, Liverpool needed to regain the midfield, but it was surprising given that Rodgers had announced Allen would need shoulder surgery and with Jordan Henderson in good form. But I guess that's why we're sitting in front of computers and Rodgers is in the bootroom.

Allen did exactly as hoped; Tottenham had 57.6% possession at halftime and dominated the 15 minutes after the restart, but Liverpool still out-possessed Tottenham 51.8-48.2% in the second half. And while the change settled Liverpool, the equalizer came because of dreadful decisions by Walker and Lloris. Walker, trapped on the right touchline near midfield, hammered a hopeful back pass in the direction of his keeper. Lloris, rather than hoofing clear, tried to control, allowing Downing to sneak in, charge into the box, and coolly finish with his right foot between Vertonghen's legs. Given how often we've criticized Downing for taking the easy option, it was a heartening display of confidence from the winger.

Liverpool were in the ascendancy, but each side had chances to take the lead before Gerrard finally struck. Sturridge headed narrowly wide at the back post from Downing's excellent cross, quickly followed by Bale heading wide from Walker's excellent cross, put under just enough pressure by Carragher.

Then, in the 81st minute, Tottenham only half-cleared a Liverpool free kick, crazily sent back into his own box by Defoe, leading to Assou-Ekotto barging over Suarez in front of the baying Kop. Oliver immediately pointed to the spot – even he couldn't ignore the challenge – and Gerrard stepped up, most certainly with memories of West Brom still fresh in the memory, sending Lloris the wrong way.

The final ten minutes felt like decades, but Liverpool restricted Tottenham to a single chance at an equalizer, from yet another free kick, this one just outside Bale's range. The nearly-40-yard effort landed on the roof of Jones' net, and Tottenham's inability to otherwise trouble Liverpool after going behind again was highlighted by Bale's more-than-speculative shot/cross (I'm not sure he knows which is was) sailing well wide of Liverpool's goal in the last minute of injury time.

Then relief. Blessed, blessed relief.

Liverpool's passing accuracy – 75% – was abysmal. Liverpool's control of the match was nonexistent for far too long, at least until Allen's entrance. Spurs took more shots, had more on-target, had 10 more successful dribbles, and made more tackles and interceptions. I expect tomorrow's infographic will highlight the statistical disparity, which was the opposite of how these fixtures have often played out.

Downing deservedly won man of the match from the official site, finally playing to the form we'd hoped to see 18 months ago. Allen truly changed the game, adding much-needed composure and control. Suarez's finish was one from the league's top scorer, and a fitting 50th goal for the club. Coutinho and Enrique were outstanding in attack during the opening 30 minutes, although both faded going forward. Lucas, despite conceding far too many free kicks, kept Bale quiet for long stretches, limiting him to opportunities from set plays and that one cross from out wide. Sturridge disappointed but still frightened Spurs' defense into retreating, while Gerrard fittingly scored the winner after bombing from box to box. As is needed when facing a side like Tottenham, it truly was a team performance.

It's just the second league match Liverpool have won by overhauling a deficit and scoring the winner in the last 15 minutes, as they did at West Ham three months ago. And yes, it's finally a victory against a side in the top four, a side with an awful lot to play for to secure a Champions League berth. And, again, a side that's taken Liverpool to the woodshed all too often in recent seasons.

But today was different. And that difference, that resolve from Liverpool, highlights the growth we've seen over the past few weeks. It wasn't domination, as against Wigan, Swansea, or Norwich, and the two goals conceded demonstrate that there's still some ways to go to get to where Liverpool should be, need to be. But this win, against this opposition and won in this manner, is even more impressive than those dominations.

08 March 2013

Liverpool v Tottenham 03.10.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.12
0-0 (h) 02.06.12
0-4 Tottenham (a) 09.18.11
0-2 Tottenham (h) 05.15.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Wigan (a); 3-1 Zenit (h); 5-0 Swansea (h)
Tottenham: 3-0 Inter Milan (h); 2-1 Arsenal (h); 3-2 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 21; Gerrard 7; Sturridge 4; Agger, Downing, Enrique, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Coutinho, Johnson, Şahin 1
Tottenham: Bale 16; Defoe 10; Dempsey 5; Lennon 4; Adebayor, Caulker 2; Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Dembele, Gallas, Sandro, Sigurðsson, Vertonghen 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

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

Spurs have given Liverpool more problems than any other side in the last three or four seasons. Liverpool are without a win against Tottenham in the last five meetings, losing four of those five, and have won just one of the last seven. And many of those losses have come in a similar manner: Tottenham demolish Liverpool by starting at a faster pace, often winning the game before Liverpool realize it's kicked off. You know, exactly how they beat Inter Milan on Thursday.

Three of those Liverpool losses, one in each of the last three seasons, have come after conceding in the first ten minutes. Spurs start quickly and score early, and Liverpool either a) fall apart (the 0-4 loss last season) or b) regroup but still fall short (the reverse fixture in November).

The one match since Benitez's sacking that hasn't followed that trend was last season's 0-0 at Anfield, a match that Liverpool "dominated" but still only drew because of determined opposition defending and its own wastefulness. Like so many others that season. Liverpool negated any early headway by keeping possession and setting the tempo, not even getting a shot on target until first half stoppage time. And other than Liverpool's finishing, it worked wholly as planned; had Liverpool been able to convert just one of their subsequent 13 shots in the second half, they'd have taken all three points.

But this will also be a very different Tottenham to the one faced last February. That Tottenham defended exceptionally deep, making 25 interceptions in its own half and blocking 40% of Liverpool's shots, comfortably ahead of Liverpool in the table and content to play for the scoreless draw. Andre Villas-Boas' Tottenham will do no such thing. Praising Gary Neville's punditry has become passé, but this 13-minute clip analyzing the Arsenal match is required viewing, wonderfully demonstrating Tottenham's high line defense – both the good and bad features – and the dangers trying to use the same tactic against Spurs. But, as the opening graphic shows, Liverpool frequently do the exact opposite; only United have caught fewer opponents offside. Too much space behind the back four isn't usually a problem with Carragher in the XI.

Liverpool beat Villas-Boas' Chelsea twice last season by exploiting that high line and the defense's determination to play out from the back, and pressing from the front. And had Liverpool finished better in November's meeting, they should have at least overhauled the two-goal deficit to leave White Hart Lane with a point after overcoming Tottenham's onslaught in the first 20 minutes. Again, finishing blah blah blah blah. Thankfully, that's been a slightly smaller problem over the last few weeks, and Suarez, Sturridge, and Coutinho seemingly have the talents to expose a high line defense with their pace and vision.

Like those Tottenham victories over Liverpool, the Reds' recent big wins – specifically against Wigan, Swansea, and Norwich – have come because of their fast starts. And there's the quandary. If Liverpool start fast and get the early goal, confidence will sky-rocket, possibly setting the tone for the rest of the match. But if Liverpool start too fast, too exposed, Tottenham can and probably will counter, and Sunday could go the way of last November, September 2011, May 2011, etc.

As usual, there won't be many changes to Liverpool's XI. It won't be the same side which demolished Wigan because Sturridge will return, but how will Liverpool rejig its attack?

There seems to be three options.

My hope is that with Sturridge coming in for Allen, Henderson also replaces Downing. Prior to Coutinho's starts against Swansea and Wigan, Henderson spent a few games on the left, ostensibly a winger but frequently adding a third body in midfield, the link between the two lines with Sturridge and Suarez attacking centrally and Downing offering width on the right. However, Coutinho's been excellent at providing width as well as a goal threat from the left in Liverpool's last two league matches, and has done his fair share of tracking back. Starting Henderson on the right rather than Downing would add that third body in midfield for additional solidity, while keeping the threat that Suarez, Sturridge, and Coutinho can provide. That Henderson's likely to cut inside would also provide more space for Johnson to overlap. Finally, it could be extra protection against Bale; Welsh Jesus has been spending much more time in the middle these days, but still prefers to pull to the left more than the right when going wide. It's also, incidentally, somewhat similar to how Dalglish used Henderson last season. Take that as you will.

There are two other alternatives. The first is keeping Coutinho on the bench, ideally a super sub to unlock a tiring opposition, returning to the formation which saw Liverpool demolish Norwich and nearly beat Manchester City. The second is to replicate the tactics used at Arsenal with Suarez as a wide forward, although most likely on the right because Coutinho would probably be preferred to Downing.

I dislike the third option; it negates the best parts of Suarez's game, could lead to disconnect between midfield and attack, and invite Spurs pressure, conceding too much control to a dangerous opponent. I prefer the first option, and wouldn't necessarily mind if it's that formation but with Downing rather than Henderson; the much-maligned winger truly has been better since December. But I think the second option's probably the most likely. Otherwise, same old, same old. Lucas and Gerrard as something of a double pivot, Johnson and Enrique at fullback, Carragher and Agger at center-back, and Reina in goal. Skrtel's also available again, but I'd be amazed if he reclaimed a place at Carra's expense.

Not only are Liverpool seemingly cursed when facing Tottenham, Spurs are in immaculate form, unbeaten in the league since losing at Everton on December 9 and coming off a dominating 3-0 victory against Inter Milan on Thursday. While Liverpool have memorably struggled in matches following Europa League ties, Spurs have won five of seven following European fixtures this season, albeit also losing to City and Everton. Fatigue hasn't been an issue for Villas-Boas' side, but unlike Liverpool, squad depth hasn't been an issue. Also, something something about Bale scoring in 10 goals in the last eight games. Sigh.

I can't help but wonder if Chelsea fans watch Spurs and wonder what could have been. Tottenham started the season almost as slowly as Liverpool, winless in its first three, in the bottom half of the table until late September and with the British press corps at the ready to stick knives into Villas-Boas' midsection in defense of their beloved 'Arry. Since then, Tottenham have lost just five and drawn just four of 25 league matches, and are odds-on favorite for third place – which would be its highest finish since 1989-90 (also known as the last time Liverpool won the league). So much for that narrative.

Clint Dempsey is still doubtful with a calf injury, while Sandro will miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear, but both Adebayor and Dembele will be available after going off with knocks against Arsenal. Dembele, fit enough to start against Inter, is utterly crucial to Tottenham – Spurs average 2.38 points per game in the 21 league matches he's played and 0.57 in the seven he didn't – but regardless of fitness, Tottenham would probably be better served by starting Defoe rather than Adebayor because of his pace and ability on the counter.

Had Lennon not picked up a hamstring injury against Inter, Sunday's XI would probably look an awful lot like the one which dispatched Arsenal and Inter. But Lennon's absence would force some sort of reshuffle, especially with Dempsey also unavailable. Like Liverpool, Villas-Boas also seemingly has three options. The first two would keep the usual 4-2-3-1 formation with either Sigurðsson-Holtby-Bale in the line of three or bringing in Kyle Naughton and pushing Kyle Walker forward from right back. The third is to switch to 4-4-2, starting both Defoe and Adebayor, with Bale and Sigurðsson on the flanks. Or maybe either Lennon or Dempsey will make a miraculous recovery; it's not totally out of the question because players magically finding fitness is never out of the question prior to facing Liverpool.

Finally, we can't ignore Liverpool's past disappointments against the top sides. They finally beat a top 10 team with the 5-0 win against Swansea, but have a record of 0W-5D-4L against the six sides above them in the table, with home matches against Chelsea and Everton also to come.

In theory, Sunday's match is the most difficult left this season. I mean no offense to the upcoming Merseyside derby, but those fixtures need to be taken in isolation, and Liverpool have become miles better than the side which would have won at Goodison in October if not for an errant offside call. But Tottenham are the highest placed opponent remaining on the schedule, and other than United, playing the best football in the division. They, unlike Liverpool, have demonstrated that they can do it against the strongest opposition.

I've written it so often that it's lost all meaning, but if Liverpool can play to its potential and take all three points, finally roll that boulder over Sisyphus' hill, it will not only bode well for the next nine weeks, but next season as well. Until then, there's a large, Gareth Bale-sized monkey that Liverpool need to get off its back.

04 March 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Wigan

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), Swansea (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Same old, same old.

More shots, more shots on-target, more passes, more possession, and more chances created, but a demoralizing loss with a handful of defensive errors. Time after time after time.

Oh, wait. This time it happened to Liverpool's opponent. Well then.

Granted, much of Wigan's advantage in passing and possession was down to Liverpool's three-goal halftime lead, adding the fourth soon after the interval. Liverpool had no need to stay on the front foot; they intermittently pressed to ensure Wigan never built up sustained, threatening attacks, but rarely strung passes together in attack, looking to quickly release Suarez on the counter when reclaiming possession and see out the victory with a minimum of fuss.

When the game was still in the balance, Liverpool had more of the ball than Wigan, controlling the tempo and tenor in the first half, with slightly more passes and possession than their opponents, especially in the attacking third. The discrepancy in the second half makes the game as a whole look more unbalanced, but it's worth noting that Wigan similarly out-passed and out-passed Liverpool in the reverse fixture, a match that Liverpool didn't seal until scoring three in the second half.

Nonetheless, Saturday saw Liverpool take its fewest shots of the season. The only other match where Liverpool had fewer than 13 was when the side attempted nine at Chelsea. The side had been averaging just under 20 per match prior to Saturday's game.

Liverpool needed just six shots to score four goals against Wigan, adding two more attempts in the final ten minutes, one by Gerrard volleyed well over, the other by Henderson blocked on the line. Compare that to the last league match. Sure, Liverpool scored five against a thoroughly beaten opponent and everyone went home happy, but Liverpool needed 33 to get those five, taking 16 before scoring the opening goal. Otherwise known as twice as many shots as Liverpool took in the entire match on Saturday.

The quality of the chances created admittedly has something to do with it. Three of the four goals came from clear-cut chances, set up by phenomenal play from the chance creator. Still, Liverpool have created three or more clear-cut chances in 11 previous matches this season (via @DanKennett), yet still found a way to lose three and draw two of those matches, held scoreless despite those clear-cut chances in both matches against West Brom as well as Swansea away.

Regardless of the quality of chances, it's safe to assume that matches where Liverpool score on 50% of its shots won't come around very often. Liverpool's previous best was five goals on 16 shots at Norwich; the average number of shots needed to score a goal through the first 27 league matches was 11 shots per goal. It's just as safe to assume that matches where all of Suarez's shots are on target will be almost as infrequent. The only other time it happened this season was in the match at Chelsea, scoring once and putting one other shot on target, and that was also the only match this season where he's taken just two shots.

Three of Liverpool's four goals started in their own defensive third, while the build-up leading to Suarez's direct free kick began with a Gerrard free kick just inside Liverpool's half. All three from open play featured mazy dribbles past Wigan defenders, the first two from Coutinho, the final from Johnson. Each of the three, from start to finish, took no more than 30 seconds.

Coutinho was a revelation, especially in the first 30 minutes. This post on RAWK excellently highlights how he has improved Liverpool's shape in attack. And his threat was also shown in where the majority of Wigan's tackles and interceptions took place. According to WhoScored, 38% of Liverpool's attacks came down the left flank, compared to 35% in the middle and 27% down the right. It's also evident in the goal events: the two that Coutinho assisted down Liverpool's left, one from a central free kick (which came from build-up down the left between Coutinho, Enrique, Lucas, and Gerrard prior to Suarez being fouled), and one from the right created by Johnson.

Meanwhile, Reina was just as crucial at the other end of the pitch with his six saves, which tied his previous high for the season. But that previous high was in the 3-0 win at QPR, with all six fairly routine saves on shots from outside the box. Just two, maybe three of his saves on Saturday were routine, while stops on Boyce and Di Santo were out-and-out remarkable. Not to mention his distribution – often one of his key attributes – leading to the "second assist" for Downing's opener, a perfectly placed long pass to Coutinho to catch Wigan completely off-guard after Liverpool seemingly passed back and forth harmlessly in its own half. That's the Pepe Reina we know and love.

Reina's heroics may have been the main reason Liverpool kept a clean sheet, but the Reds also did well to negate Wigan's most potent threats. Shaun Maloney, ostensibly a forward, attempted 50 passes, but only ten came in the attacking third. Beausejour is frequently key to the Latics' attacks, their top chance creator by some distance. He created three yesterday, but all were within an eight-minute span from the 28th to 36th, that crucial time where Reina kept it at 2-0 before Liverpool scored the game-killing third. Otherwise, Liverpool denied the Chilean time and space in open play, holding him well below his usual number of passes and seeing him withdrawn just after the hour. In fact, Wigan had such little joy down the left that both Di Santo and Beausejour were replaced by the 62nd minute, with Maloney shifting over to that flank (which is where both of his shots came from). In related news, Glen Johnson led Liverpool in interceptions with four, two more than the next closest Liverpool player.

02 March 2013

Liverpool 4-0 Wigan

Downing 2'
Suarez 18' 34' 49'

Despite what you'd infer from the scoreline, Wigan actually out-shot Liverpool today. They out-passed and out-possessed Liverpool too, but more meaningful were the shots: the home side had 14 attempts to Liverpool's eight. Seven of Wigan's shots came in the penalty box; Reina saved five, two were blocked. Liverpool took six in the box, scoring with all three that were on target. That's it. That's the alpha and omega of this match. Recap over.

What? You want more? Fine.

Breaking news: when Suarez is good, Liverpool are good; when Suarez is ruthless, Liverpool score early and often. And Suarez was very good and very ruthless today, made even better because Liverpool had the second threatening attacker that Liverpool often need.

The addition of Sturridge and Coutinho has made more difference than we dared dream. The January window's been good to Liverpool over the last seven years: Agger, Mascherano, Skrtel, Suarez, and now those two. With Sturridge absent, there was a lot of pressure on Coutinho. And, as against Swansea, he didn't disappoint, creating the goals which killed the game before the 20th minute.

The first was remarkable control on a remarkably direct move: Reina's kick, Coutinho taking possession and dribbling around and past Boyce before chipping the perfect cross for a point-blank Downing header. 15 minutes later, it was his through-ball for Suarez after lovely work breaking out of Liverpool's half with Gerrard, followed by the Uruguayan feinting to force Al Habsi to the floor then slotting into the near corner.

From there, it was the Suarez show, adding yet another direct free kick in the 34th – his fifth of the season – then completing the hat-trick soon after the restart, toe-poking through Al Habsi's legs after a storming run from Johnson. It was the third hat-trick of his Liverpool career, all three away from Anfield. He's now top scorer in the league with 21 goals; Michael Owen never scored 20 in a league campaign, while Torres did it just once – his first season. I've long since run out of superlatives to describe just how special he is.

The last 40 minutes were a formality, with Liverpool content to soak up Wigan possession, with Reina twice there to prevent a consolation through Maloney. It was no surprise to see Liverpool strangle the life out of the match when so comfortable; the only surprise was that Rodgers made just one substitution – Henderson for Coutinho in the 71st – especially with both Allen and Lucas on a yellow. But it worked. I guess that's all that matters, although it also suggests that Rodgers' isn't especially happy with those currently on the bench.

Aside from Suarez and Coutinho, Reina was the other star of the show. He denied Kone in the first minute, not long before the long pass to Coutinho to set up Liverpool's first. He made a brilliant save to prevent Boyce from pulling one back at 2-0, as well as a slightly easier save on Caldwell, then made an even better stop on di Santo's header just after Liverpool scored its third. Again, Wigan had six shots on target, the same number as Liverpool, but Reina repulsed each and every one. We'd seen some flashes of brilliance, even in matches where he's been error-prone, but this was Reina's most complete match since 2008-09.

Gerrard and Lucas made more tackles than any other player, Allen was diligent and clever if subdued, Johnson and Enrique bombed up and down the flanks, and Carragher did well against the dangerous Kone. But the key to the game, the key to Liverpool's success, was converting its chances. With almost three quarters of the season gone, this should be news to no one.

With ten games left to play, Liverpool already have six more goals than they scored through the entire league campaign last season. As Opta's head of content pointed out, the last six league wins have been by a combined scoreline of 24-0: 4-0, 3-0, 3-0, 5-0, 5-0, and 4-0. Unfortunately, in between has been a 1-3 loss, a 1-2 loss, two 2-2 draws, and an 0-2 loss.

Progress continues, and continues to be evident. There was little fear of Wigan again proving to be a bogey side, with Liverpool winning at the DW Stadium for the first time since September 2007, and little fear of Liverpool going through the motions after its Europa League exit.

There's obviously still some distance to go, but that distance has been drastically shortened by the addition of Sturridge and Coutinho. And we – you, me, Rodgers – know where Liverpool's problems lie. When Liverpool score early, Liverpool usually score often. When Liverpool keep a clean sheet, Liverpool usually win; there have been just two 0-0 draws all season, the last in November. But when Liverpool concede…

01 March 2013

Liverpool at Wigan 03.02.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.17.12
1-2 Wigan (h) 03.24.12
0-0 (a) 12.21.11
1-1 (a) 02.12.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Zenit (h); 5-0 Swansea (h); 0-2 Zenit (a)
Wigan: 3-0 Reading (a); 4-1 Huddersfield (a); 1-4 Chelsea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 18; Gerrard 7; Sturridge 4; Agger, Enrique, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Coutinho, Downing, Johnson, Şahin 1
Wigan: Kone 8; Di Santo 5; Maloney 4; Gomez 3; Boyce, McArthur, McCarthy, Ramis 2; Caldwell, Figueroa, Henriquez, Watson 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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

Have you had a pleasant week without Liverpool? A little nice to be spared the agitation, but kinda boring, right?

Not much has changed since we last spoke. Sturridge's fitness is again an issue, requiring a late check to see if he'll be available for tomorrow's match. I'm sure we remember what happened the last time Liverpool were without Sturridge in the league, the soul-killing 0-2 loss against West Brom.

The failings in that match mean it's unlikely that we'll see similar half measures used if Sturridge is unavailable. Henderson had been excellent on the left with Sturridge in the line-up, but suffered in against West Brom, with Shelvey unable to make any difference as the attacking midfielder. If Sturridge can't play, it seems almost certain that Coutinho will start on the left with Henderson as the most advanced midfielder. The Brazilian's ability to cause havoc in the attacking third will be crucial, hopefully adding the second goal threat that Liverpool often desperately needs.

However, if Sturridge is fit enough to start, I suspect we may see Henderson on left rather than Coutinho, unlike in the 5-0 win over Swansea. It's worth remembering that Henderson, coming on for Suso in the 36th minute, played a crucial role in the 3-0 win when these sides met in November. Wigan will aim to control possession – they actually out-passed and out-possessed Liverpool at Anfield – and Henderson's constant running, as well as his ability to track back and add a third body in midfield, could be important in breaking down Wigan's potential advantage in the middle of the park.

Otherwise, the starting XI still writes itself. Reina in goal; Carragher preferred to Skrtel, joining Johnson, Agger, and Enrique in defense; Lucas and Gerrard as the double pivot in midfield; and Downing on the right flank.

As usual, for all the praise Roberto Martinez receives, Wigan are clinging to Premiership status by its fingernails, only outside the relegation zone on goal difference. Again. They've won just one league match in 2013, last week's 3-0 victory at Reading, where they scored all three goals in the space of four minutes bracketing halftime, prior to Pogrebnyak receiving a straight red for a challenge which injured Figueroa.

This season, Martinez has almost always used the 3-4-3 formation he settled on during last season's run-in. The most likely line-up tomorrow is Al Habsi; Scharner, Caldwell, Figueroa; Boyce, McCarthy, McArthur, Beausejour; Maloney, Kone, Di Santo. Figueroa, however, is questionable with an ankle problem, while Ramis and Watson remain long-term casualties.

Roger Espinoza or Jordi Gomez could come in if Martinez wants to use a more defensive shape, closer to 3-5-2, replacing one of the three forwards. If Figueroa's unable to play, Alcaraz (finally recovering from a six-month groin injury), Ronnie Stam, or January signing Roman Golobart are likely to replace him, with Scharner switching to the left.

Wigan have won just twice at the DW Stadium this season: 2-1 over West Ham in October and 3-2 over Reading in November. All four of their clean sheets came away from home, including last week's 3-0 win.

Liverpool's last match against Wigan may have ended with a 3-0 win, but that scoreline certainly doesn't reflect how difficult the Latics made it for Liverpool, especially in the first half. Had Beausejour not made a mistake to allow Sterling and Suarez to counter for the first goal, it could have easily ended 0-0, as last season's away fixture did. And if Wigan to score first, it could easily be last season's home fixture all over again: an undeserved 1-2 loss which ended up being the final nail in the coffin for Liverpool's hopes of fourth.

November's 3-0 win over Wigan was Liverpool's first against this opponent in six matches, the last coming in Benitez's final season. And Liverpool's haven't won at the DW Stadium since September 2007. Wigan may be struggling in the league, but Wigan often struggles in league. And, somehow, Wigan stay up. And Wigan's struggles in the league often have no bearing on how they play against Liverpool.

Tomorrow will see the first match since Liverpool were knocked out of contention for its last possible trophy, leaving all hopes for the rest of the season concentrated on improvement in the league. The carrot's gone and all that's left is the stick, and Liverpool will be facing what's, by definition, a "bogey side."

Whether we see a determined Liverpool focused on finishing in the best possible manner or a dismal Liverpool simply going through the motions will tell us an awful lot about how the next 12 weeks will go.