28 July 2013

Liverpool 3-0 Thailand XI

Coutinho 17'
Aspas 49'
Gerrard 59'

Fun with formations (yes, again)
This truly is the point of preseason: different styles, different personnel. Today's XI was incredibly close to Liverpool's strongest, except with Sturridge still injured and Suarez still on the bench after joining the tour late. And Rodgers shifted things around again. Both Allen and Gerrard played ahead of the holding Lucas – to fairly good effect, although Thailand's increased chances (at least compared to Liverpool's earlier opposition) demonstrates some of the concern about a single holding midfielder. Coutinho played on the left, still to excellent effect, while Aspas had his best preseason match so far when starting on the right, in the position we all hope he'll normally play.

Both Allen and Gerrard got forward well; Coutinho remained Liverpool's attacking hub, cutting in at will; and Aspas' movement was outstanding, more than deserving of his well-taken goal. If Rodgers' plan is to utilize both Coutinho and Aspas on the flanks, Liverpool's fullbacks will have to play better than they have during preseason – especially Johnson – considering how often both "wingers" like to cut inside. And I'll still have fears about Liverpool's vulnerability through the middle, especially when Lucas is also dragged wide to cover down the flanks, but Liverpool's movement and versatility going forward remains promising.

And, as against Melbourne, Rodgers continues to push the players' fitness, using far fewer subs. Eight players made the full 90 minutes, including Gerrard, Lucas, and Agger – three players whose fitness we constantly fear for. Rodgers is not messing about; he seems to be doing all he can to ensure Liverpool starts the season as strongly as possible.

You cannot stop Phil, you can only hope to contain him
Another game, another goal, opening the scoring yet again, with his third of preseason (joint-top scorer with Aspas). Today's was a slalom run after intercepting possession, destroying two Thai defenders before beating the keeper. All three of Coutinho's goals in preseason have come when he's won the ball back in the opponent's half (well, it led to his penalty against Preston), winning the ball and running at the defense before slotting home. That seemingly bodes well.

It was also Coutinho's throughball which released Aspas for Liverpool's second, the striker splitting the center-backs and turning well to go through one-on-one with the keeper. Great movement, even better control, and the guile to do exactly was what needed to finish the move. And then it was Aspas who set up Liverpool's third, laying off for Gerrard, knowing exactly where the captain had charged into the box without looking up, finished wonderfully with a delightful chip over the keeper.

Goal-scorers through the four preseason matches: Coutinho, Aspas 3; Gerrard, Sterling 2; Ibe 1. Liverpool are spreading the wealth.

Seriously, stop it woodwork
The hour mark saw the last of Liverpool's goals, but not the last of Liverpool's dangerous attacks. But, yet again – as against Indonesia – Liverpool were denied a bigger margin of victory by the goal frame, with both Suarez and Gerrard pinging efforts off the crossbar in the final 30 minutes. Deja vu all over again. Four preseason matches, four strikes off the woodwork.

No more crossbar challenges in training. It's obviously not helping.

Mignolet did things!
It's not as if Waffles (yes, we're calling him Waffles because he's Belgian, deal with it) had a ton to do, but at least we saw some of his much-heralded shot-stopping and cross-punching. One first half save on Dangda was marvelous, the rest were more routine, but he still was tested more often than he had been in the other three preseason matches combined.

That's now four preseason matches and four clean sheets. More good signs for a side which conceded goals far too often last season, at least in the first half of the campaign.

The last time Liverpool held the opposition scoreless through its first four preseason matches was 1999. 14 seasons ago. Incidentally, Liverpool finished 4th that season – Houllier's first full season – after finishing 7th the season before.

Let's hope history continues to be cyclical.

26 July 2013

On Pepe Reina

Gulp. Deep breaths. We can do this. We can do this. We can do this.


In news that surprises no one, as it's been rumored, discussed, and debated for a week now, Pepe Reina is on his way to Napoli on a season-long loan, 'confirmed' by Rodgers in this morning's press conference. And the move makes sense, from pretty much from every point of view. And I can't remember the last time I was so conflicted about transfer news. The head says "well, yeah, this is completely logical." The heart says "no no no no NO STOP THIS NOW." Stupid heart.

All the key players get what they want: Reina, Liverpool, Napoli. It's rare that happens in football. Or life for that matter, but now's not the time to get existential.

Deep breaths.

Reina makes somewhere between £4-5m per year in wages (£80-100k per week). Some, maybe even all, of that's now off the books. He gets a year at Napoli, back with Rafa Benitez and goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero, a team involved in the Champions League, before a seemingly inevitable move to Barcelona when Victor Valdes' contract expires. He'll get to play regularly prior to the upcoming World Cup, something Liverpool couldn't guarantee. That's the sort of respect that a club legend – and I don't use the term lightly – deserves. But if somehow Mignolet doesn't settle, doesn't fit (which I absolutely do not see happening), Liverpool can always refuse to sell come next summer; Reina's contract runs until the end of the 2015-16 season.

Liverpool aren't flogging him to the first suitor to blink flirtatiously and whip out the checkbook now that Barca are ostensibly making him wait a year. And, as suspected at the time and despite what was said to the media, Liverpool aren't going to have a two-men-enter-one-man-leaves goalkeeper competition for a season. Thankfully, as it almost never, ever works (see Dudek v Kirkland, among many, many others).

We covered a lot of this in the 'Welcome Simon Mignolet' post last month, but it's obviously worth reiterating that by almost every statistical measure, Mignolet has been the better keeper over the last few seasons. The Belgian has a higher save percentage, has been better at punching and claiming of crosses and corners, and made fewer errors.

Reina's save percentage has dropped precipitously since his first few seasons, hovering right around 69% (the league average) for the last three campaigns. Reina's errors have also risen each season: four in 2010-11, five in 2011-12, and six in 2012-13. Mignolet's statistics compare favorably to Reina's in almost every regard over the last couple of campaigns, as the Belgian has improved in each successive season while Reina's regressed. In one very in-depth statistical analysis, Mignolet was rated the second-best keeper in the league last season, just barely behind Julio Cesar. As said in the Mignolet post three weeks ago, the ex-Sunderland man topped last season's WhoScored performance rating for Premier League keepers, and was fourth – behind Cech, Begovic, and Reina – in Squawka's.

Pepe Reina is a three-time Golden Glove winner, but those three seasons were 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08. He's kept 134 clean sheets in his 285 Premier League matches over eight seasons (only Cech has more of keepers who've made more than 50 league appearances), but only 40 in the last three seasons. In the five seasons under Rafa Benitez, Reina averaged 18.8 clean sheets per campaign. In the three seasons since, that's dropped to 13.3.

There is one statistic that remains heavily in Reina's favor. For all his increasing "faults," Pepe Reina's passing remains superlative. Both short and long. Few keepers are more accurate, few keepers are more involved, few keepers sweep as well as Reina does. Meanwhile, Mignolet's somewhat frightening passing statistics are what caused him to be ranked fourth by Squawka last season, completing just 41.4% of his passes last season (309 of 746) against Reina's 70.8% (490 of 692). And passing from the back is marginally important in Brendan Rodgers' system.

But sometimes you just have to damn statistics, because despite all the words and numbers and logical arguments, they aren't helping you cope.

Now that Jamie Carragher has retired, only one player has been at Liverpool for a longer period of time than Pepe Reina. You may have heard of him. He's only, at worst, Liverpool's second-best player ever.

Otherwise, every single player in Liverpool's first-team squad – all 25 to 30 of them – have been with the club for a shorter amount of time. Agger was signed in January 2006, Lucas in May 2007, Skrtel in January 2008. Every other player was either signed or promoted from the academy in the last five years.

That is a startling, terrifying lack of institutional memory. Not counting academy players promoted during his tenure (or before, in Gerrard's case), just four players on Liverpool's books were signed by Rafael Benitez: Agger, Lucas, Skrtel, and Glen Johnson. Only those four, plus Gerrard, Kelly and Spearing, have seen Liverpool finish higher than sixth. Only those players have experienced Liverpool in the Champions League.

Put it another way. Only 26 players in Liverpool history have made more appearances for the club than Pepe Reina, who has made 394. Just 26! In the 121-year history of the club! Reina has been a permanent fixture for eight seasons, and it will be incredibly strange to not see him guarding Liverpool's goal come August 17.

We knew that both Rodgers and FSG wanted to lower Liverpool's average age, for both wage and statistical reasons, but it's happened faster than I ever expected. And there will undoubtedly be consequences.

Almost as importantly, how are Liverpool going to replace this?

You need characters in the dressing room; they're ties that bind. Players to lead, players to bring others together. Carragher did that, Reina did that. And now both are gone.

We needed to see Pepe Reina emcee one of those celebrations at Liverpool. That we never did is further proof – as if we needed more – that life is not fair.

Good luck at Napoli, Pepe. Replacing you will be a hell of a hard task.

24 July 2013

Liverpool 2-0 Melbourne Victory

Gerrard 32'
Aspas 90+3'

Another friendly, another formation:
Today's starting XI featured exactly zero new signings – Liverpool could have (but probably shouldn't have) deployed this line-up last season – but was very much an orthodox 4-3-3. Borini, Sterling, and Ibe were all forwards, with the "wingers" often closer to goal than the "striker." Henderson, Allen, and Gerrard were a rotating midfield trio, with Henderson usually closer to Borini, but all with complete license to get forward at will. That's now 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and 4-4-1-1 that we've seen through three matches, with different midfield setups in each as well. Preseason is the time to experiment, after all.

More and more minutes:
There's also a clearly determined fitness program going on, one even idiotic laymen like me can gauge. Liverpool's starters played 45 minutes in the first friendly, an hour or so in the second friendly, and 73 minutes today. It seems designed to ensure everyone's in peak condition once the real season starts; Liverpool certainly can't afford to start in the same form as last season. And in the previous preseason, Liverpool changed almost the entire team (if not the entire team) at halftime in all four fixtures. Yes, Liverpool had early Europa League qualifiers to deal with, and were coming off both the Euros and Olympics, but it's still heartening to see the starters pushed this hard this early.

1st half standouts:
Allen, Ibe, Wisdom, and Skrtel. And, unsurprisingly, Gerrard.

Allen was excellent in a shuttling role: setting the tempo, linking with Gerrard, and reclaiming possession, demonstrating intelligent positioning both with and without the ball. The goal was a thing of beauty: cleverly dummied by the captain, knowing Allen would make the run, followed by a trademark Gerrard charge into the box, with Allen perfectly finding his run. Ibe, like Sterling, was an flat-track speed racer, confidently looking to burst past the fullback and set up someone in the box. Both Wisdom and Skrtel bullied their opposing numbers, while the former also strode into midfield to cut off a potential attack multiple times and the latter showed an excellent range of passing from the back. Wisdom's obviously jumped Coates on Rodgers' depth chart, and – fair warning: I'm speculating – his improvement may well be a big reason why Liverpool's gone quite on the center-back front since signing Kolo Toure.

But still too blunt, again:
As against Indonesia, Liverpool looked wholly lacking in front of goal at times. Last Saturday, the conditions and terrible pitch were at least some consolation. Today, most of that bluntness seemed down to Liverpool's personnel.

Henderson is a darling around many corners of the internet (and rightfully so), but he's nowhere near able to replicate Coutinho's flair in the final third. Borini, is well, out of sorts, to put it nicely. So it was little surprise to see Liverpool limited to one flowing move (set up and scored by the "deeper" midfielders, I'll remind) and blasts from distance from Sterling, Gerrard, and Allen. And while neither Borini nor Henderson will probably be first-choice attackers once the real football starts, it's still a bit worrisome. Especially given the continuing uncertainty surrounding one Luis Suarez.

We're all body language experts:
'Suarez looks unhappy!' 'He's not trying!' You know what? He's still a Liverpool player. He still set up a goal, doing typical Suarez things along the byline. He just re-joined the team a couple of days ago. And it's still July. There's nothing any of us can do to decide his future sooner. Let's all wait until something happens one way or the other before jumping off the cliff.

Did he look unhappy? Yeah, kinda. Does he frequently look unhappy, frustrated and snarling his way around the pitch? Yeah, kinda. Does it makes sense to play him for 20 minutes in a friendly, not long after flying halfway around the world, with his future still undecided and uncertain? Not especially. It admittedly seems a statement of hopeful intent more than anything else. Nonetheless, it's safe to assume Rodgers knows more about his situation than we do.

Incidentally, it was interesting to see how he and Aspas lined up after coming on with 20 minutes to play. It was basically the reverse of how Suarez and Sturridge paired in certain matches last season, something of a 4-4-1-1, with Suarez as the spearhead and Aspas lurking in and around behind him. I find it hard to believe that'll be the case next season. If, of course, Suarez stays.

We all thought that Aspas was signed to "replace" Downing, but he's been used as a central striker in all three preseason matches so far, also on the pitch at the same time as Downing in all three.

Agger's the new vice-captain:
This is the most important thing we learned today. Lucas took the arm-band from Gerrard when he came on for the captain. But 10 minutes later, Lucas handed the armband over to Agger when the latter came up during the bulk of the substitutions. This information deserves all the BREAKING NEWS sirens, klaxons, and flashing lights. Go Team Agger.

20 July 2013

Liverpool 2-0 Indonesian XI

Coutinho 10'
Sterling 87'

Arsenal scored seven against this opposition! Pitchforks! Torches! The sky is falling!

Yawn. Whatever.

Preseason is preseason is preseason is preseason. Especially a preseason match on a shit pitch in 80º heat and nearly 95% humidity.

2011-12 versus 2012-13:
This was Liverpool's starting XI in the second friendly last season. Gulasci; McLaughlin, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique; Shelvey, Spearing, Aquilani; Sterling, Eccelston, Cole. A bit different than the one we saw today. Sure, Liverpool were missing even more than usual last year because of both the Euros and Olympics, but the difference is still night and day. This is a much deeper and much stronger squad, and Brendan Rodgers is taking preseason very seriously.

Gerrard ahead of Lucas:
Last season, whenever Gerrard and Lucas played together, both were "sitting" midfielders. Sure, Gerrard bombed forward on occasion, while it was Lucas' primary job to mop up in front of the back four, but both were deep-lying midfielders. In contrast, Gerrard was definitely ahead of Lucas today, nearly on the same line as Luis Alberto, getting forward more consistently while Lucas was an out-and-out defensive shield.

Incidentally, Gerrard played like a man who's missed the last few months due to surgery, his passing rusty almost beyond belief, but kicking out those jams is truly is the point of preseason.

Luis Alberto and Philippe Coutinho:
It was somewhat surprising to see Luis Alberto in the "number 10" role with Liverpool's actual #10, Philippe Coutinho, playing mostly on the left. Sure, they switched positions at times, although less frequently than I expected. Sure, Coutinho still spent a lot of time on the ball, drifting infield whenever it suited him. He played there in more than a few appearances last season, and that positioning makes a certain amount of sense given Liverpool's dogged, if unsuccessful, pursuit of Henrikh of House Mkhitaryan. And Luis Alberto played on the left, as the #10, and as a false nine for Barca B last season. Nonetheless, Coutinho was also much less influential, despite his goal, than he was in the first half against Preston. Make of that what you will.

Goals make me happy:
Both of Liverpool's goals came from situations that fill my heart with joy. The first was admittedly a bit lucky, but – as in winning the penalty last week – came because Coutinho refused to give up after conceding possession, pressing an Indonesian into a mistake, profiting from a kind bounce of the ball, and bursting through to slot under the keeper. I expected more pressing in the attacking third last season from Liverpool. From the first two preseason matches, it looks like we'll see a lot more of it this season.

The second was a blistering – and I mean blistering – counter-attack from an Indonesia corner. Wisdom's fine clearance, Ibe's speed taking him past two defenders followed by a throughball for Assaidi, unselfishly handed off to Sterling for an easy tap in. Liverpool were often potent, at least in the second half of last season, when playing direct football, and that was direct, breakneck football. Rodgers clearly prioritizes speed from his attackers, and both Ibe and Sterling have speed to burn. I expect big things from Liverpool's counter-attack next season; last season showed how other teams can profit from Liverpool's failed set plays or conceding possession in the attacking third. Liverpool need to do that to other teams, and have the ability to do so.

But still blunt up front:
But despite those two encouraging goals, I'd hoped to see more for Liverpool's strikers. Both Borini and Aspas suffered from the rutted pitch more than most, with bobbles of the ball spoiling outstanding chances for both. But neither impressed up front; at the least, neither showed the ruthlessness needed from the spearhead. Both linked up with others decently well, Aspas more than Borini, but both assuredly need to improve that ruthlessness in front of goal. That, or Sturridge needs to get fit very soon.

Go away, woodwork:
It is really never ending. The frame of the goal has been one of Liverpool's biggest enemies for two full years now. And Liverpool's woes with the woodwork look to continue apace, with both Luis Alberto and Sterling cannoning strikes off the crossbar. Please stop. It's not funny anymore. Get it out of your systems now.

14 July 2013

Liverpool 4-0 Preston

Coutinho 14' (pen)
Ibe 36'
Sterling 64'
Aspas 75'

We're back!

And it's almost a full day after the fact by now, but here are a few notes on facets I found interesting. Remember the usual caveats that it's preseason, can't always divine omens from these entrails, etc.

Formation/first half v second half:
The formations may have been different in the first and second halves – more a 4-2-3-1 in the first, a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 in the second – but the style remained the same. Both XIs featured excellent ball retention, controlled the tenor and tempo of the match, varied well between long and short passes, and pressed from the front.

Aside from a few experiments with three defenders and a couple of matches with both Suarez and Sturridge up top, Liverpool were rigidly 4-2-3-1 for almost all of last season. And even in those different formations, Liverpool's midfield shape usually remained the same: two holding midfielders with an attacker further forward, whether Coutinho, Henderson, Shelvey, Suarez, etc. Almost every time. Seeing a different midfield shape – Lucas as the sole holding midfielder and two slight attacking midfielders in Luis Alberto and Pacheco – but the same control and same "Rodgers style" was quite encouraging.

The hub, the epicenter, the focal point, the polestar. Coutinho was absolutely central to everything in the attacking third – highlighted during Liverpool's first goal: winning the ball back then winning a penalty, then subsequently scoring said penalty as casually as possible – and it seems clear that most players' first thought was "where is Coutinho can I pass it to Coutinho" when building the attack. Which is both a very promising thing and a slightly worrying thing.

We've seen before *cough Suarez cough* that Liverpool can suffer when relying on a single player for its attack, but I don't necessarily think that was or will be the case here. It's more that Rodgers sees the Brazilian as an extremely important piece, and is more than happy to assemble his side around him, despite what Liverpool's pursuit of Mkhitaryan implies. That should do wonders for Coutinho's confidence and form, especially after his travails and set-backs at Inter.

Spearing at full-back:
Made very little sense. Yes, the fitness staff didn't seem comfortable playing Kelly for more than a few minutes. Without Coates, Wisdom was needed at center-back. Without Enrique, Flanagan was needed at left-back. It was still strange to see Liverpool's very own hobbit bombing up and down the touchline in the first half.

He didn't do badly, by any stretch, and set up a couple of good chances for Borini. But he's not a full-back: not at his height and not considering his usual troubles with positioning. And that he was played out of position in the first friendly of the season, with Liverpool slightly lacking bodies in central midfield anyway, bodes poorly for his Liverpool future.

The New Boys:
Both Mignolet and Toure had next to nothing to do; the Belgian made one good save on a shot from distance and commanded his box well the few times Preston managed to get the ball in the attacking third, while Toure won all of his few duels and had a crucial header to clear Humphrey's dangerous cross early on. And that was about it.

Luis Alberto and Aspas, on the other hand, were quite involved, and both played quite well. Alberto seemed slightly more restrained in this central role, but his head was always up, his ball control brilliant, his passing crisp and clever. He oozed potential. And Aspas was as advertised, constant running from a central position, capped off with a bamboozling goal from the top of the box that completely fooled Preston's keeper. More of both of those, please.

The Kids Are Still Alright:
That Liverpool's two other goals came from Ibe and Sterling might be the most heartening facet, outside of the obvious fascination with Liverpool's new toys: Ibe's was a typical cut-inside, roll it past the keeper strike, while Sterling beat the offside trap then rounded the keeper. The competition between those two teenagers is going to be amazing, and the two are going to keep pushing each other to make the squad/starting XI. Each should be excellent for the other's development, neither one will be able to take a day/week/match off with the other breathing down his neck. Survival of the fittest. And they both look pretty fit.

Welcome back, football. We missed you.

11 July 2013

Luis Suarez and Goals Scored by a Club's Top Scorer

The transfer furor surrounding Luis Suarez hasn't even come close to a deafening crescendo, but it's already infuriating.

An awful lot of Liverpool fans seem almost resigned to his exit. At the least, it doesn't seem to carrying the wrist-slitting woe-is-me torpor which followed Torres' ignominious departure.

But make no mistake. No matter how he may have statistically over-performed in front of goal (especially compared to his 2011-12 totals), how much controversy permanently surrounds the player, or how less reliant Liverpool were on his goals as the season went on, his departure would leave a gaping hole in Liverpool's attack.

There have been just three seasons where Liverpool were more reliant on a single goalscorer since the Premier League's inception 21 seasons ago.

Robbie Fowler's second and third seasons for the club – 1994-95 and 1995-96, also Roy Evans' first two full seasons as manager – are the far-and-away leaders, when God scored 28 and 25 goals in consecutive campaigns. Torres' debut season is third, tallying 24 of Liverpool's 67 goals, 30% of the league goals he scored in his three and a half seasons with the club.

But whether or not Liverpool were reliant on a single goalscorer seemingly had little impact on Liverpool's final league place. Liverpool spread the goals outstandingly when finishing second in 2008-09, but Liverpool also finished in the Champions League places when Fowler and Torres monopolized the scoring.

The average percentage of goals scored by Liverpool's top scorer over those 21 seasons was 26.63%. Liverpool's average league position in the nine seasons above that mark was 4.44. It was 5.25 in the 12 seasons below that mark. Slightly better when there was a dominant scorer, but not meaningfully so.

It was, however, amusing to see that the four Premiership seasons where Liverpool were least reliant on a single goalscorer were four of Rafa Benitez's first five seasons, with Torres' debut season the exception. Because of course they were.

Which segues nicely into an update on this graphic from much earlier in the season, looking at how reliant each Premier League club was on a single scorer.

And the subsequent chart…

Unsurprisingly, it's vastly different to the version made after just 11 league matches. Only Liverpool, third-most reliant on one player, and Arsenal, the least reliant on one player, are in the same positions.

Just Aston Villa and Swansea got a larger proportion of goals from their top scorer than Liverpool, Benteke and Michu respectively.

The league-wide average for goals scored by the club's top scorer was 26.94% (unsurprisingly quite similar to Liverpool's average over the 21 Premiership seasons). 10 clubs were above that, 10 were below, and the average league position of the 10 clubs both above and below that mark was just about 10th.

To be fair, yes, Liverpool became much less reliant on Suarez as the season went on – more specifically, after Sturridge and Coutinho signed. Only two of his 23 league goals came in the final 10 matches, the last four of which he sat out due to suspension. Liverpool still scored 18 times during those ten matches, an average of 1.8 per game, which was just slightly less than the season-long 1.87 goals per league game average. Liverpool's record was five wins, four draws, and one loss, an average of 1.9 points per game, vastly better than the season-long 1.61 points per game average.

On March 2, Suarez was responsible for 39.6% of Liverpool's league goals. By the end of the season, that number had dropped to 32.4%. During the first half of the season, especially during the first 12 games, Suarez was single-handedly keeping Liverpool afloat in attack; he scored 64.7% of Liverpool's goals through those first 12 matches. Where, I hesitate to remind, Liverpool averaged just 1.25 points per game and were sat in the bottom half of the table.

As Liverpool grew as a team and added more key attackers, Liverpool did a much better job spreading the wealth. In those last ten league matches, Sturridge scored six; Henderson three; Coutinho, Gerrard, and Suarez two; and Agger, Borini, and Downing once. Which bodes well for next season, whether or not Luis Suarez remains with the club.

Still, let's not pretend that Suarez's exit would be anything other than a monumental change.