17 August 2013

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke

Sturridge 37'

Holy wow.

It goes without saying that Liverpool don't win that match last season. Or in any season since 2008-09. I honestly still don't understand how Liverpool won that match.

We've seen this script before, countless times before. Liverpool looked incredibly potent, but were denied again and again and again. Sturridge made the breakthrough in the 37th minute, a fierce, perfectly-placed shot from the top of the box through Huth's legs and around Begovic, but we've seen a one-goal lead spoiled by accident/ineptness/karma all too often over the last couple of campaigns. Unable to get the needed second, Stoke retained a constant threat, especially, unsurprisingly, on counter-attacks and set plays.

The lack of Liverpool goals wasn't down to a too-frequent wastefulness in the final third, whether in the pass or shot, but Begovic playing wholly out of his mind. By full time, the Stoke keeper had made 10 saves. 10! Meanwhile, Liverpool hit the woodwork twice, and had a goal (rightfully) ruled out for offside. The more things change...

It was all set up for the inevitable stomach punch. It nearly happened in the 8th minute, before Liverpool even got going, when Mignolet flapped at Stoke's first corner, ending with a Huth cannonball off the crossbar. That Liverpool's opponent actually hit the woodwork, instead of just Liverpool hitting the woodwork, should have been the first sign that this might well be a different season to seasons past.

Five minutes after that came the goal chalked off and Liverpool's first woodwork strike: Sturridge went a second too early before heading in Gerrard's free kick, swiftly followed by Toure's header off the bar from Gerrard's corner.

Liverpool's first two chances may have surprisingly came from set plays, but after that, Liverpool were unsurprisingly most threatening in open play. The movement from the front four was outstanding: Sturridge dropping deep and playing off the last shoulder, Henderson and Coutinho cutting inside, Aspas constantly drifting across the width and breadth of Stoke's half. Players rotated, players kept moving, players kept showing for the pass to relieve pressure. With Stoke pinned inside their own half, all the width came from Liverpool's fullbacks, while even Lucas and Gerrard both felt comfortable enough to join the attack. That Aspas played centrally, sometimes switching positions with Henderson, but drifting behind and around Sturridge more often than not, is most likely a hint as to how Suarez will be used when the Uruguayan returns from suspension.

But Begovic kept getting in the way, saving excellent chances from Aspas, Enrique, Henderson, and Sturridge before Liverpool's striker finally struck, set up by sustained pressure and a touch from almost everyone in red before Aspas's layoff just outside the area. But despite the breakthrough, it was Stoke who threatened in the final minutes of the half, Mignolet excellently denying Walters's blast, and then Lucas clearing off the line following a scrambled, shambling corner. Deep breaths.

The opening stages of the second half resumed the seesaw in Liverpool's direction, with only Begovic and a couple of narrowly errant shots preventing a second. Coutinho fired wide, Henderson and Sturridge were unbelievably denied, and Aspas headed just past the far post on a corner before Begovic made his best save of the match, somehow getting the narrowest of touches on Henderson's shot, ever so slightly redirecting it onto the post.

Two more saves by Begovic, on Gerrard's free kick and Johnson at the near post, inevitably gave away to Stoke pressure and Liverpool heart attacks in the final ten minutes. Unable to get the needed second, Liverpool were pushed deeper and deeper, desperately holding onto the lead, similar to the first home win last season against Reading, highlighted by Adam, on as a substitute, cheekily shooting from the halfway line, requiring Mignolet to tip over. But the real Stoke chances, the real heart-stoppers, continued to come from set plays.

And it was on a set play that Liverpool gave up a penalty, with Agger brainlessly – yes, I'm sorry Daniel, I still love you, but brainlessly is an apt adjective – handling Adam's free kick. Walters, who had a brace the last time Stoke faced Liverpool, including one from the spot, stepped up. And was ruthlessly denied by Liverpool's debutant keeper. All the feelings. So many feelings.

I still can't believe Walters didn't score. Judging by the celebrations from everyone but Mignolet, neither could the Liverpool players.

That was Liverpool's first win in opening game of the league campaign since beating Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light in that 2008-09 season, the first win in a league opener at Anfield since beating West Ham 2-1 in 2001-02. Yes, 13 seasons ago.

Mignolet gets the headlines, increasingly excellent after some shaky moments on set plays and crosses in the first half. Sturridge, still probably not 100% fit, continued last season's goal-scoring pace, the difference in this tight match. Liverpool's front four looked more than fluid, and it'll be even better with more experience; Coutinho and Aspas were the most creative, with five chances apiece, while neither the Brazilian nor Henderson looked out of place on the flank. But aside from the overwhelming love for Mignolet's save, my focus was on Lucas.

We'll undoubtedly cover this in further detail in Monday's match infographic (with links to some chalkboards, as StatsZone isn't working for me at the moment) but 64/76 passes, six tackles, two interceptions, winning 60% of his aerial duels (against Stoke!), and – most surprisingly – creating two chances. He wasn't limited to a holding role either, getting forward to support the attack even more often than Gerrard, although undoubtedly allowed to do so because of Stoke's tactics more than a determined plan for the future. This is the first time since his extended injury where he's looked back to his absolute best for the full 90 minutes. That continuing will make as much difference to Liverpool's form as improvement in defense or more fluidity and potency in attack.

Yes, Liverpool should have scored more. Yes, Liverpool are still all-too-often terrifying on opposition counter-attacks and set plays. Yes, those are not new facets.

But Liverpool won. Somehow, Liverpool won. Liverpool will learn from the experience, and more importantly, Liverpool will gain confidence from the experience. In the first match of the new campaign, that's really all that matters.


Biggestfandownunder said...

So good to be back! Thanks Nate!

Anonymous said...

"It goes without saying that Liverpool don't win that match last season. Or in any season since 2008-09. I honestly still don't understand how Liverpool won that match."

It seems that you've written a variant of this before. All too often we think Liverpool have woken up when they've just sort of rolled over groggily. Football, bah.!

Betterthandirt said...

enjoyed the breakdown, looking forward to seeing it with the chalkboards added in. I feel like there are always interesting ones I miss out on when I flip through reviewing the game because there is simply so much information on that app. It's a soccer fans goldmine.

good stuff