28 October 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Every outfield West Brom player – starter or sub – either created a chance or took a shot, something Liverpool did last week against 10-man Newcastle. Meanwhile, Luis Suarez took 44% of Liverpool's shots (71% of the shots on target) and created 23% of Liverpool's chances. Sometimes a one-man team will suffice, especially when that one man is in that form, but you still need the platform to build from.

Liverpool's revamped midfield provided that platform on Saturday. Henderson, Gerrard, and Lucas combined brilliantly; the first two pressing and hassling well to deny Mulumbu and Yacob a base to create from, the latter giving an archetypal holding performance. Lucas' most-frequent pass recipient was Gerrard (tied with Sturridge), Gerrard's most-frequent pass recipient was Henderson (tied with Sturridge), and Henderson's most-frequent pass recipient was Suarez (tied with Cissokho). Liverpool effectively moved the ball from back to front, but also made full use of the out-ball to Sturridge. Lucas was especially impressive as both defensive destroyer and the metronome at the base, responsible for eight of Liverpool's 21 tackles and three of the 15 interceptions, completing more passes with a higher accuracy than any other player.

The heat maps for each midfielder (via Squawka) demonstrate just how well each knew, and performed, his role. Especially Lucas, almost wholly covering the length and width of Liverpool's defensive half.

From start to finish, Liverpool's second goal was a thing of beauty. And an excellent example of Liverpool's team performance melded with Suarez's sorcery. There were 15 passes in the move, which started in Liverpool's half when Gerrard, Lucas, and Skrtel hassled West Brom into losing possession. Every outfield player except Henderson and Gerrard touched the ball at least once; Gerrard's pressing helped win possession, Henderson's movement in West Brom's half gave Sturridge and Suarez space at the sharp end by drawing Yacob out of position. But for all of Liverpool's good work, it still required that finish. Oh, that finish.

And Liverpool needed the full range of Suarez's witchcraft on Saturday. It's not as if West Brom allowed easy goals, aside from Liverpool's third from the free kick. 10 of Liverpool's 18 shots came from outside the box, 56%, a higher percentage than any match except the lone loss to Southampton, where six of Liverpool's 10 shots came from outside the area. West Brom's defense sat deep and forced shots from marginal positions. But Suarez – and Sturridge, with his wonderful, wonderful fourth – just wouldn't be denied, marginal positions be damned.

Liverpool were similarly effective, if not more so, in denying their opponents good opportunities. Sure, West Brom took 16 shots, only two fewer than Liverpool, which looks odd given the balance of the match and the final score, but only four of those were on target, only scoring from an egregiously absurd penalty.

That's been the case for most of the season. Liverpool are still conceding an awful lot of shots: only Cardiff, Fulham, Hull, and Norwich allow more shots per game than Liverpool, only David Marshall of Cardiff has made more saves than Mignolet. But through nine games, Liverpool's opponents have put an average of just 34.4% of their shots on target. And since the switch to three at the back – which, admittedly, has been against the murderer's row that is Sunderland, Palace, 10-man Newcastle, and West Brom – that average drops to just 23.3% shooting accuracy.

26 October 2013

Liverpool 4-1 West Brom

Suarez 12' 18' 55'
Morrison 66' pen
Sturridge 77'

Liverpool with a midfield is better than Liverpool without a midfield and Luis Suarez is pretty good at football.

There are some days where Luis Suarez is simply unstoppable, wholly irrepressible, and Liverpool will never lose on those days. This one was of those days. But it can't be coincidence that Liverpool's best performance, most cohesive performance, the first time Liverpool strung two good halves of football together, came with a different midfield in both shape and personnel. Lucas replaced Moses, and Rodgers retained three at the back, but inverted the midfield triangle, with both Henderson and Gerrard ahead of the returning Brazilian, more a 3-1-4-2 than the 3-4-1-2 we've seen.

This never looked like last season's Liverpool-West Brom contests. But that had as much to do, if not more, with Suarez's mercilessness than Liverpool's shape. Liverpool wasted chances in both matches against Albion last season, and paid dearly for it. Suarez made certain that wouldn't be the case today with a superb individual goal within 12 minutes, tearing past Ridgewell before hilariously nutmegging Olsson, placing his shot past Myhill before Olsson even recovered his balance and realized Suarez was past him.

Six minutes later, it was that man again, with an even better strike. Quick Liverpool build-up, Cissokho's deflected cross, and an unconscionable bullet header from 18 yards out. The best header I've seen since Luis Garcia's heyday; I still have no idea how he got that power and placement when that far from goal. 2-0 is rarely game over, but with how dominant Liverpool were, it seemed pretty much was game over, and like in last season's heartening routs, a matter of how many Liverpool would tally. West Brom didn't threaten until first half injury time, when a long ball over the top to Anelka caught Skrtel out of position, but the Slovakian quickly recovered to clear off the line after Anelka had gotten around Mignolet.

And 10 minutes after the interval, the magician got his hat-trick, his fourth hat-trick in the last 18 months and first at Anfield. There have been 16 Premier League hat-tricks since Suarez's first against Norwich. Only van Persie has two, everyone else one. Luis Suarez has four. Tell me again that there's a better striker in the Premier League.

Today's came from a sumptuous Gerrard free kick, and free header conceded by a usually diligent West Brom defense. Had you told me before the match that Suarez would have a hat-trick, I'd have gleefully believed you. But had you added that two of those goals came from headers, I'd have called you a liar and probably kicked you in the shins. Those two headed goals are only the ninth and tenth headers he's scored of his 54 goals since coming to Liverpool.

Not long after, Sturridge had two excellent opportunities to extend the lead, first ballooning Johnson's well-placed low cross, then cannoning a shot off the crossbar with West Brom's defense terrified and retreating. But 10 minutes after Suarez's third came West Brom's nonsensical, baffling consolation. As has become usual, Liverpool were content to sit deeper with an unassailable lead, ready to counter at any opportunity. Sakho allowed right-back Jones to run at Liverpool's defense after a throw-in, and it appeared that Lucas and Cissokho combined to muscle him off the ball after entering the box. I'm still not sure whether Lucas or Cissokho committed the penalty, and I doubt Jon Moss is either. Moss took an egregious amount of time to give the decision, seemingly unsure whether to overrule his wildly flagging assistant because he was in a better position before finally going with the flow. That penalty's not given if it's a close game. But that penalty's not given by competent officials no matter the scoreless.

Regardless, substitute Morrison stepped to the spot, sending Mignolet the wrong way. And, knocked back, West Brom took the game to Liverpool for the first time in the match, aided by bringing on Brunt and Long for Yacob and Anelka, with Brunt spurning two quasi-decent chances in the subsequent minutes.

Thankfully, it didn't take long for Liverpool to reassert themselves, with Sturridge finally grabbing a deserved goal, a strike worthy of the previous terrific three: picking up possession after effective Liverpool pressure in the middle of the pitch, charging at the retreating back line, then unbelievably chipping Myhill from 20 yards out when everyone else expected a pass. Marvelous. And a continuation of his amazing season-long streak. For the tenth straight match, when Liverpool score, Sturridge scores.

Back to game over, the final 15 minutes highlighted by what would have been the goal of the match filled with amazing goals, when Myhill somehow denied Suarez bicycle kick, tipping the close-range acrobatics onto the bar after the striker somehow controlled the second ball from Gerrard's deep cross. Allen and Luis Alberto subsequently replaced Gerrard and Suarez as Liverpool coasted home.

That's what we needed to see. Suarez at his world-conquering best, coupled with a vastly improved team performance. Liverpool finally impressed for the full 90 minutes rather than retreating into its shell after taking the lead. Henderson and Gerrard ahead of Lucas made Liverpool a much better side, and Liverpool subsequently had its highest pass accuracy of the season. Sturridge and Suarez are currently the top-scorers in the league, although Suarez is tied for second with Agüero, with eight and six goals respectively.

The only lowlights were Johnson's knock, although he played on before being replaced by Kelly in the 62nd minute, and Cissokho slightly below par. Skrtel also Skrtel-ed at times; the chance in first half injury time summed him up perfectly: out of position to allow Anelka in but recovering to excellently clear off the line, then nearly committing a penalty on the subsequent corner. He's played well this season, but there are always mistakes in his game; it's why I've been so vehement in calling for Agger's return. Kelly also looked a weak link, although that shouldn't be surprising when he's making his first league start in nearly a year. And Cissokho gets a reprieve for similar reasons; for all Enrique's faults, we can't expect Cissokho to equal or better his performances immediately. As much as Liverpool needed a clean sheet for confidence, I can hardly fault today's unfathomable concession.

Otherwise, this was exactly what was needed: cohesive and dominant in the middle of the pitch, ruthless at the pointy end of it. It comes at exactly the right time too, before the trip to league leaders Arsenal in a week's time.

25 October 2013

Liverpool v West Brom 10.26.13

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 West Brom (h) 02.11.13
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.26.12
0-3 West Brom (a) 08.18.12
0-1 West Brom (h) 04.22.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Newcastle (a); 3-1 Palace (h); 3-1 Sunderland (a)
West Brom: 0-0 Stoke (a); 1-1 Arsenal (h); 2-1 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge 7; Suarez 3; Gerrard 2; Moses 1
West Brom: Amalfitano 2; Berahino, McAuley, Ridgewell, Sessegnon, Yacob 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Sakho Agger
Johnson Gerrard Lucas Cissokho
Luis Alberto
Sturridge Suarez

Coutinho and Enrique are still out, but Lucas should return, most likely at the expense of Henderson.

I also assume that Liverpool will persist with three at the back. Which seems understandable; it's helped at both ends of the pitch, even if there have been huge, terrifying gaps between midfield and attack and midfield and defense. That West Brom will almost certainly play with a lone striker, a deep-sitting 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 formation, is another argument against the 3-4-1-2, but this formation has been the best way to highlight Liverpool's strengths: Sturridge and Suarez up top, four capable center-backs, Johnson and Enrique/Cissokho as shuttling wing-backs.

I have two requests, though.

1) Can we please have Agger? This is no slight on Skrtel, who's done quite well this season – Liverpool's goals conceded last weekend not withstanding. But Liverpool desperately need the ball-playing skills that Agger can provide, especially against a side that's going to sit deep, and Skrtel seems the most likely to make way.

2) Please no Moses again. I'd be happy with either Henderson or Luis Alberto in the hole instead, the former more able to drop into midfield and press from the front, the latter a clever attacker, far more patient, cool, and composed on the ball. Luis Alberto seems the most promising, especially after his cameo against Newcastle: another passer hopefully making Liverpool better able to carve open a sardine-packed defense. Allen's return is also welcomed, although I highly doubt he'll start, as he's another who can pass around and through the inevitable tight spaces.

It's also possible that we see Johnson at left-back with Henderson on the right – Johnson filled that role well last season, Henderson filled it well in Johnson's absence over the last few weeks – but I expect Rodgers will give the on-loan Cissokho another chance.

If Liverpool have scored in a match this season, then Sturridge has scored in a match this season, with seven goals from the first eight league games, nine goals from the ten in all competitions. With Suarez back, Liverpool aren't wholly reliant on Sturridge's strikes, but they're still fairly reliant. And if the past is any precedent, he'll be much needed tomorrow, with Jonas Olsson frequently coming out on top of his battles with Luis Suarez in recent seasons.

Steve Clarke's stingy, resilient West Brom are unbeaten in five, with wins over United and Sunderland, and draws against Stoke, Arsenal, and Fulham. You may also remember West Brom doing the double over Liverpool last season, by a combined 5-0 scoreline. Two dismissals, a ludicrous set play volley after Liverpool failed to clear the initial danger, a penalty, and a nail-in-the-coffin on the counter at the Hawthorns. A header from a corner and counter-attack second in the final ten minutes at Anfield after Liverpool spent 80 minutes spurning chances. A microcosm of everything bad that's happened under Brendan Rodgers.

Clarke's used a settled XI, with only one or two changes possible from last week's starters. It'll be Myhill in goal; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell in defense; Mulumbu and Yacob as the holding midfielders; Amalfitano on the right flank; and Sessegnon in the hole. Berahino has started on the left in Scott Sinclair's absence, but the latter may finally be fit from a hamstring injury tomorrow. The main striker could be Anelka, Long, or Anichebe. All three are proficient in the spearhead role: holding up play, aerially capable, working the channels to pull defenders out of position.

West Brom are built for counters and set plays. Liverpool are often negligent on counters and set plays, no matter personnel or formation.

Southampton have become Liverpool's bogey side with high pressing and quick passing. West Brom were, at least last season, with deep, physical defense and a brutally quick counter-attack. Without both Odemwingie and Lukaku, two who tormented Liverpool last season, that counter-attack may be less brutal, but Liverpool will still need to rectify some of this season and last's wrongs if they're to take all three much-needed points tomorrow.

21 October 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Liverpool put 30.4% of its shots on target against Newcastle, its second-worst accuracy of the season behind only the 1-0 win at Aston Villa, when Liverpool scored with its lone shot on target from just five in total. Prior to yesterday's match, Liverpool had averaged 44% shooting accuracy this season, and one goal for every 8.3 shots. After Newcastle, those numbers have now dropped to 41.2% shooting accuracy – still better than last season's total, mind – and one goal for every 8.8 shots.

And it wasn't for lack of trying. Liverpool took more shots than in any match save the first, at home against Stoke. For the first time this season, every single outfield Liverpool player, including the substitutes, either took a shot or created a chance.

But from Gerrard's penalty until six minutes after Luis Alberto came on for Sakho, every single one of Liverpool's five shots came from outside the box. One was on-target, four off-target. That was the time where Liverpool needed to pull away from the opposition, to kill off the hopes of their depleted opposition. Instead, they conceded a second, and summarily spent the rest of the match chasing a result.

Liverpool finally began working better opportunities after the change in formation and personnel – Sturridge's goal, Suarez's rocket off the crossbar, Sturridge's mishit shot from 10 yards out – but reverted to disappointing speculative efforts in the frantic final 10 minutes. Six shots, with only Suarez's free kick at the death on target, with five of six from outside the box, including the only two shots Newcastle managed to block all match.

Shooting from better positions doesn't guarantee goals, as the missed set play chances for Suarez, Skrtel, Sakho, and Toure in the first half sadly demonstrated. But it gives you a far, far better chances to score than hoping to pull a rabbit from a hat.

Still, it's not as if shooting from good positions was necessarily Liverpool's problem, at least until those final ten minutes. Nine of Liverpool's 23 shots came in the center of the 18-yard box, "Box Central" in the above shot location diagram. Eight of those nine were off-target, including those set play chances from Suarez, Skrtel, Sakho, and Toure, as well as Suarez's volley off the crossbar. Only Gerrard's penalty was on target from that zone. Had Liverpool taken one – just one! – of those eight excellent chances, Liverpool would have deservedly won despite underperforming for long stretches, despite the lingering questions about Liverpool's midfield and the 3-4-1-2 formation. Meanwhile, Liverpool took just one shot in the six-yard box. And scored from that one shot. If there's one thing a 10-man side needs to do, it's defend resiliently, defend deep. And despite allowing those aforementioned chances, despite the two magnificent moves which led to Liverpool's goals, Newcastle did that fairly well on Saturday.

It's these fine margins that often decide matches. Just like at the other end of the pitch. Only four of Newcastle's 14 shots were on target, only two of the 14 came from inside the box. Which, normally, is a recipe for success, will normally win you more matches than you lose or draw. But Cabaye hit a unstoppable, brilliant blast to score the first, aided by Liverpool's inability to close down Newcastle players in the middle of the pitch. Then, the seemingly unavoidable set-play malfunction: both Toure and Skrtel mistiming their leaps, both Sakho and Cissokho caught ball-watching at the back post. Soul killing.

Liverpool profited from these fine margins in its first four matches: Mignolet's saves against Stoke, Villa, and United, Sturridge's ability to take at least one of his few chances, Shelvey gifting Liverpool two goals in the draw at Swansea.

Liverpool weren't great by any means on Saturday, but Liverpool weren't terrible either. Yes, it was against 10 men for more than half of the match, but Liverpool created more chances, played more attacking third passes, and had a higher attacking third pass accuracy than in any other match this season. Two goals will defeat Newcastle in more matches than not this season, two goals will win Liverpool more matches than they'll lose or draw this season.

It was inevitable that those fine margins would eventually swing in the other direction.

19 October 2013

Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle

Cabaye 23'
Gerrard 42' (pen)
Dummett 57'
Sturridge 72'

Should have been better, could have been worse. Which, if I'm not mistaken, was the mantra of the 2011-12 season. That's not a pleasant memory.

On the whole, Liverpool were not good. Disjointed in attack, again broken in midfield, and sloppily, unforgivably beaten twice at the back. An international break hangover coupled with an early kickoff bears a fair bit of blame, but it's not as if Liverpool have been wholly fluent in any match this season.

Rodgers maintained the same formation, but with Johnson and Cissokho replacing Sterling and Enrique, the latter ostensibly injured. Lucas remained absent due to the birth of his second child.

Liverpool were reliant on set plays until Yanga-Mbiwa's 40th minute red card, spurning four free headers from Suarez, Skrtel, Sakho, and Toure. Which made it no surprise when Newcastle scored from its first opening, as Cissokho and Sakho let Cabaye waltz into the attacking third without closing him down, hammering in a perfect shot from 30 yards. I will probably never forgive Lucas' wife for not giving birth during the international break. Cabaye scored from exactly the zone where Lucas would have been, where either Gerrard or Henderson should have been but weren't, with both Sakho and Cissokho also guilty of not closing down the dangerous midfielder with a reputation from scoring from distance.

It took 17 more minutes before Liverpool finally created something from open play, a move which led to a penalty and dismissal. Finally, the Liverpool we're used to seeing: a quick transition from defense to attack, a sumptuous pass over the top from Sturridge to Suarez, the Uruguayan's trickery requiring Yanga-Mbiwa to pull him down rather than let him score a similar goal to last season's strike of the campaign in the 1-1 at Anfield. After two minutes of fruitless arguing from the home side, Gerrard stepped to the spot, tallying his 100th Premier League goal even though Krul guessed correctly.

But despite a man-advantage for nearly 50 minutes, despite dominating possession, Liverpool created exactly three good openings against a side they beat 6-0 in this fixture last season, needing half a hour and a substitution. The first led to a goal, the second saw Suarez hit the bar, quickly followed by Sturridge pushing the third wide.

But by that point, Newcastle had retaken the lead. No points for guessing that it came from a set play: a deep free kick, Toure and Skrtel both misjudging the delivery in while Cissokho ball-watched, allowing Dummett – on as a defensive substitute in place of Sissoko – to ghost in unmarked at the back post. That's so Liverpool. So unforgivably Liverpool.

And that it took Liverpool 30 minutes to create that first good opening after the dismissal was almost as infuriating as conceding a second. Almost. Rodgers, persisting with three at the back despite the man-advantage, bears almost as much blame for Liverpool's struggles as the players. Less than 10 minutes after Luis Alberto finally replaced Sakho, shifting to 4-4-2, Liverpool leveled matters. And again, it was lovely build-up starting in the defensive third and ending with the ball in the goal: six quick passes up the pitch, Moses taking on Williamson before feeding Suarez with an excellently weighted throughball, Suarez getting behind Debuchy before a byline cross to Sturridge between two defenders and a diving header that Krul had no chance at. That's what Liverpool are capable of. That's what we haven't seen enough of.

Newcastle were on tilt for the next five minutes, with Liverpool inches away from being able to take advantage. A narrowly offside Sturridge toe-poked Luis Alberto's low cross just past the post. Suarez blasted a half volley off the crossbar. Moses, somehow open at the back post for another Luis Alberto cross, cut the ball back for Sturridge, who could only push his shot wide, hitting Henderson rather than the back of the net. A game of inches, and Liverpool came up short each time.

From there, the final 15 minutes had just two half chances as Liverpool mostly failed to penetrate Newcastle's deep, determined 10 men. The first saw Gerrard's deep cross accurately finding Sturridge but the striker unable to hit the target, choosing to center with no Liverpool runners in the six-yard box instead. The second was Suarez's free kick at the death, saved by Krul, the rebound just eluding Sturridge just before Marriner blew the final whistle. The predominant theme was Liverpool giving the ball away in the attacking third countless times. The lone substitution, Sterling for Johnson, accomplished little and less. Liverpool were lucky they weren't exposed on the break, needing a wonderful tackle from Cissokho to stop Remy after yet another failed corner.

So, that Liverpool got at least a point when mostly not good is some small consolation. Against Villa and United, Liverpool got three points when being mostly not good, a point against Swansea when mostly not good. Sadly, mostly not good has been the dominant motif, even against the dregs of the league, winning easily but not fluently against Sunderland and Palace. Liverpool still haven't strung together an impressive full 90 minutes.

We're getting to the point of the season where results don't lie, where the table doesn't lie. Liverpool are still fairly high up that table, top in fact – at least for a couple of hours. But some credit for that goes to Liverpool schedule so far, six of eight matches against sides currently 10th or worse.

If Liverpool keep playing as they did today, we're going to see a lot more one points against Newcastle than three points against Villa and United.

18 October 2013

Liverpool at Newcastle 10.19.13

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
6-0 Liverpool (a) 04.27.13
1-1 (h) 11.04.12
0-2 Newcastle (a) 04.01.12
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Palace (h); 3-1 Sunderland (a); 0-1 United (a)
Newcastle: 2-1 Cardiff (a); 2-3 Everton (a); 2-0 Leeds (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sturridge 5; Suarez 3; Gerrard, Moses 1
Newcastle: Remy 5; Ben Arfa 2; Cabaye, Gouffran 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Sakho Agger
Johnson Gerrard Lucas Enrique
Sturridge Suarez

Every now and then, international breaks are good for something.

This one's allowed Liverpool to get healthy: Coutinho's still out for another couple of weeks, but Johnson, Allen, and Cissokho are all available. I've made no secret that I think Johnson will improve Liverpool immeasurably at wingback in the 3-4-1-2, far more suited to that position than Henderson or Sterling. Neither did poorly in that role, but it's a role tailor-made for Johnson's talents.

But as one hand giveth, the other takes away. We learned today that Iago Aspas has torn his thigh in training, supposedly out for the next five-six weeks. Aspas has struggled – to phrase it nicely – when used this season, but it's an injury that puts even more pressure on Suarez and Sturridge. As if they needed any more.

And at the same time, Liverpool's players returned unscathed from their international duties, which is no small feat. However, those matches and subsequent travel may have taken a toll. Suarez, Gerrard, Sturridge, Agger, and Skrtel all started both matches their countries played over the break. Lucas came off the bench in Brazil's first friendly, and played 90 minutes in the second, which took place in South Korea and China respectively. Moses plated the full match in Nigeria's lone contest, Kolo Toure didn't get off the bench in Cote d'Ivoire's match against Senegal, Sakho played just one half of France's friendly against Australia, unused in the final qualifier against Finland.

We could see an awful lot of tired legs on Saturday. Benitez used to rotate fairly heavily in situations such as these. Rodgers rotates far less frequently regardless of situation, and seems fairly happy with his preferred formation and personnel. Which is why I expect Rodgers will dance with what brought him here, with only a couple of changes from Liverpool's last XIs.

There are two obvious changes from the side which beat Palace: Johnson's return from injury and Lucas' return from suspension. Henderson and Sterling seem most likely to make way, but I'm tempted to think it'll be Moses left on the bench, with Henderson as the #10 behind the frontmen. He was outstanding in Liverpool's last match against Newcastle, starting on the left flank, and – in theory – could better knit midfield and attack than Moses has, with the Nigerian available as a substitute in case Liverpool need a potential game changer.

This might also be the match that Agger finally takes over for Skrtel. Which is meant as no slight to the Slovakian; Skrtel has done very, very well – better than expected, to make it even more a back-handed compliment – in Agger's absence, but the Dane is vice-captain for a reason. Sakho has the mobility and aerial presence to play in the middle of the three-man defense, while Agger is better with the ball at his feet than any of Liverpool's other defenders. On paper, Toure-Sakho-Agger looks like Liverpool's best trio. But Rodgers may well continue to go with the men in form.

Newcastle will continue with the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation they've used all season long, where they've been as reliant on Remy's goals as Liverpool have been on Sturridge's.

Coloccini will miss out after incurring a muscle strain while away with Argentina, while defenders Steven Taylor and Haidara are questionable. If all three are still unavailable, Williamson will partner Yanga-Mbiwa in defense, but Taylor seems likely to return after missing the last month with a hamstring injury. Jonas Gutierrez is also absent, in Argentina because of what's being called a "personal issue." Which makes Newcastle's probable XI: Krul; Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Taylor, Santon; Sissoko, Cabaye, Anita; Ben Arfa, Cisse, Remy.

As usual, Newcastle's strength comes from out wide. Remy and Ben Arfa are responsible for 78% of the side's goals, and both Debuchy and Santon are primarily attacking fullbacks. Which is a main reason why I expect Liverpool will persist with three at the back, able to put Toure on Remy and Agger/Sakho on Ben Arfa, provided support by the retreating wing-backs. Both players like the ball at their feet, both frequently cut inside onto their stronger foot to shoot. Lucas and Gerrard will also need to track Cabaye and Sissoko's runs from deep, with both capable of bursting into the box and scoring from long range.

There will be goals to be had tomorrow. Newcastle haven't kept a clean sheet in the league since August. Liverpool have scored in every league match but one and, at the other end of the pitch, have conceded more shots per game than everyone except Fulham, Cardiff, Hull, and Norwich. And then there's this fixture's history: 6-0 at St. James' Park last season, the memorable 4-3s in 1996 and 1997, just to name the first that come to mind. The last time Liverpool-Newcastle finished 0-0 was in February 1974, 57 league meetings ago.

Liverpool need to ensure they're the ones getting those goals, and Suarez and Sturridge seem the men to do it. A more coherent midfield performance from Lucas and Gerrard, a side better able to retain possession, and fewer opposition shots conceded would also be nice.

07 October 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 3-1 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

In the two league matches since changing to 3-4-1-2, 12 of Liverpool's 28 shots (42.9%) have come from either the six-yard box or the middle of the penalty box, resulting in 5 goals – a 41.7% conversion rate in that zone. Eight shots (28.6%) came from the wider areas of the box and the D, seven (25%) from outside the box, and just one (3.6%) from what Dan Kennett – in his outstanding season preview for Statsbomb – labeled "crazy" zones: Sturridge's goal against Palace from an incredibly narrow angle.

Two swallows don't make a summer, but compare that to last season's totals, via that same article. 35% of all shots came from the center of the box, 23% from the wide areas of the box and D, 28% from outside the box, and 9% from crazy positions.

At the same time, five of Liverpool's 18 chances created in these two matches have come inside the box, including three of Liverpool's four assists – and one won penalty inside the box which, statistically, probably should also count as an assist (besides in fantasy football).

So far, whether it's because of the formation or tactics or just how well Suarez and Sturridge are linking up, Liverpool are creating fewer chances and taking fewer shots than they did last season, but they're creating and taking them from far, far better positions. Since Suarez's return, he's put four of nine total shots on target (44.4%), scoring with three of the four shots on target. His average was 38.5% last season, 37.5% the season before. Sturridge has put five of six on target (83.3%). Liverpool's improved shooting (and shooting from improved positions) has led to six goals in the last two matches, even if those two matches have been against the two worst teams in the division.

At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool have allowed 34 shots in these two matches, which break down as follows:

So while Liverpool are allowing far too many shots – heavily skewed by Sunderland's 23 (15 from outside the box) – they're not allowing many from high percentage locations. Again, it's just two matches, two matches against two of the worst teams in the league, but that bodes well, both for Liverpool and for the 3-4-1-2 formation.

Sterling was Liverpool's most creative player on Saturday, responsible for four of Liverpool's ten chances. In the same role last week, Henderson was Liverpool's most creative player, responsible for four of Liverpool's eight chances. Sterling won a penalty against Palace, but neither he nor Henderson provided an assist despite creating a combined eight chances in the last two matches. This is the main reason why I think Johnson's absence has been more detrimental to Liverpool than any other. That's not to downplay what Coutinho brings to the side, by any means, but Johnson has been one of Liverpool's most prolific chance creators over the last few seasons, far more comfortable in what the role needs both in attack and defense.

Finally, it was nice to see what Mignolet's capable of when the opposition doesn't press relentlessly in Liverpool's half.

16 of 18 passes completed, compared to 8/13 at Sunderland, 17/34 against Southampton, 17/32 at Swansea, 7/24 against United, 5/15 at Villa, and 7/13 against Stoke. Almost all went to Sakho, Skrtel, and Toure, and each of those players had their highest passing totals of the season (even Sakho, despite going off in the 67th minute). Palace allowed Liverpool to set up at the back – it was just the third match this season where Liverpool's opponent didn't register at least one tackle in the attacking third (United and Sunderland were the others) – and I doubt it's coincidence that Liverpool subsequently achieved its highest passing totals, highest passing accuracy, and highest possession of the season.

05 October 2013

Liverpool 3-1 Crystal Palace

Suarez 13'
Sturridge 17'
Gerrard 38' (pen)
Gayle 77'

Back to "normal," but with some continuing concerns.

That Liverpool were out of sight by the 17th minute and on cruise control by the start of the second half makes it hard to draw any conclusions. It's no surprise to see Liverpool subpar in the second half when already three goals to the good, it's no surprise to see Liverpool concede a sloppy set play consolation when they've been playing as if the game's already been won for more than half an hour.

More possession than any other match this season, more attempted and completed passes than any other match this season, a higher overall pass accuracy than any other match this season, a higher attacking third pass accuracy than any other match this season. Just 13 shots – still fewer than last season's average, let alone last season's most dominating performances – but seven of them on target, along with two strikes off the woodwork.

Make no mistake, Crystal Palace's set-up assuredly helped. Holloway named a very attacking side, in a 4-3-3 with two out-and-out strikers and two midfielders ahead of a holder. No matter that a similar set-up led to two Blackpool wins over Liverpool the last time that Holloway was in the Premier League, it bordered on suicidal. This is not 2011-12 Liverpool, and Suarez and Sturridge definitively proved that before a quarter of the match was over, each scoring a goal mainly due to each's individual brilliance.

Suarez's came from a back-to-front, left-to-right-to-left team-wide move, 12 passes involving seven players, starting at the corner flag in Liverpool's half and ending with the ball in the back of the net, broken open by Moses' strong run across the width of Palace's defensive third. But Suarez's tenaciousness is what made the goal, seemingly muscled out after receiving Enrique's pullback but somehow scoring after he'd slipped, wholly unwilling to let the chance escape.

Four minutes later, it was a long pass from defense that exposed Palace's tender underbelly: Enrique's bomb accidentally headed on by Ward, then Sturridge utterly terrorizing and bamboozling Delaney before Palace could get back, slamming a shot from no angle past Speroni. The goals were those two strikers in a nutshell: a never-say-die Tasmanian Devil, and unstoppable direct pace and footwork from a player who's now scored 14 goals in the last 14 games.

Palace inspired five minutes of terror just before the half hour – Sakho making a crucial block, Toure clearing off the line, a magnificent save from Mignolet – but otherwise, Liverpool were rampant. Gerrard added a soft third, Palace conceding a penalty when Moxey pulled back Sterling just inside the box, given by the linesman after Taylor initially looked uninterested. Moses hit the bar after a lovely run and low cross from Suarez, both Suarez and Sturridge had shots saved by Speroni. At that point, it seemed a matter of how many.

It didn't seem that way for most of the second half, though. To be fair, Palace were far better for two halftime changes, bringing on Campaña and Gayle for Kebe and Jerome, but Liverpool coasted, happy to soak up pressure and maybe add another on the counter. You know, if it's there and we don't have to try too hard. Which, in isolation, is understandable. Liverpool had already accomplished what they set out to accomplish, and Liverpool are still getting used to this formation and this personnel, with a couple of crucial players absent through both injury and suspension. A fair few were probably thinking about the upcoming international break, which will define most countries' World Cup qualification. In context, though, it all-too-easily fits into the annoying "what's the matter with Liverpool in the second half" narrative.

And Palace's consolation was infuriating, because it was a goal we've seen conceded all too often. An unnecessary foul from Sterling, a Palace player wide open to convert the resulting set play. This time Gayle lost Gerrard. Well, more accurately, Gayle ambled away from a static Gerrard, free to flick on at the near post, a deft header that gave Mignolet no chance. In the greater scheme of things, it meant next to nothing. Given what gone before, it's a goal that took far too much gloss off what was otherwise a routine victory.

Sturridge and Suarez's individual performances and interplay were again the highlight, but special mention goes out to Jordan Henderson.

75 attempted passes, 69 complete, for 92% accuracy. Seven tackles, 12 ball recoveries, two interceptions, two blocks, four clearances, and winning his only contested aerial duel. Henderson was outstanding, outstanding, as a central midfielder. Liverpool very much benefited from his dynamism in the middle, especially against vulnerable, open opposition.

Rodgers has some tough decisions to make. Lucas still makes Liverpool better against most opponents, his defensive ability superior to any other midfielder. Gerrard, for better or worse, remains undroppable in many people's eyes, still Liverpool's talisman and busy in attack when Liverpool were at their best today, even if he's demonstrably tired by the 70th minute in almost every match this season. Joe Allen will return from injury sooner rather than later. Today's match, today's midfield performance, should very much be food for thought for Rodgers this week.

Otherwise, Liverpool's defense was excellent: Toure, Sakho, and Skrtel, with special mention for Le Monstre, who has been better and better in each match he's played for Liverpool, keeping personal favorite Daniel Agger out of the line-up on pure merit. Moses was far better as the #10 compared to six days ago, unlucky not to get on the scoresheet against his old club. Enrique was Enrique: combining wonderfully with Suarez at times, moments of genius swiftly followed by moments of madness. Sterling, unsurprisingly, was hit and miss at wing-back; he created four of Liverpool's 10 chances, won the game-killing penalty, and made some nice tackles when getting back in defense. But he also made some poor passes in both defense and attack, was caught out of position on a few occasions. Which, honestly, should be expected from an 18-year-old playing this role for only the second time in his career after coming off the bench for a few minutes against Sunderland. At least he did enough to demonstrate that he can do it, and more, in the future.

Long story short, job done, back to the top of the league, even if only until Arsenal play tomorrow. It's still early, and questions and worries remain, but Liverpool are still in a far better position than we could have reasonably hoped before the season kicked off, still with key players – especially Johnson and Coutinho – to return to this new, mostly impressive formation.

04 October 2013

Liverpool v Crystal Palace 10.05.13

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Palace (a; League Cup) 10.25.05
0-1 Palace (a) 04.23.05
3-2 Liverpool (h) 11.13.04
0-2 Palace (h; FA Cup) 02.05.03

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Sunderland (a); 0-1 United (a); 0-1 Southampton (h)
Palace: 0-2 Southampton (a); 0-2 Swansea (h); 0-2 United (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sturridge 5; Suarez 2; Moses 1
Palace: Chamakh, Gabbidon, Gayle, O'Keefe 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Sakho Agger
Sterling Henderson Gerrard Enrique
Sturridge Suarez

Lucas' one-match suspension, for incurring five yellow cards in just seven matches (a new record; it took him nine matches in 2011-12), throws another wrench in the machine, with Coutinho, Allen, Johnson, and Cissokho all still absent through injury.

Henderson will almost certainly replace Lucas in midfield. But, with Henderson fairly important in a wide right role, that change will necessitate other changes across the pitch.

Will it be a straight swap, with either Sterling – as he did against off the bench at Sunderland – or Kelly/Wisdom replacing Henderson at wing-back? Or maybe even Iago Aspas, who hasn't been seen since he was hauled off at halftime against Southampton? Or does Rodgers change the formation to something more like a 4-4-2, despite his usual disdain for the formation: a back four – most likely Toure, Skrtel, Sakho/Agger, Enrique – Sterling and Moses on the flanks, Henderson and Gerrard in the middle, and Sturridge and Suarez up front? If last season provides any precedent, that formation would be just as much as 4-2-3-1, with one of the strikers – most likely Suarez – dropping into the hole more often than not.

The main benefit of the 3-4-1-2 formation has been Liverpool's improvement in both boxes. Yes, there was often, still, a massive gap in the middle of the pitch – the area of the pitch Rodgers supposedly considers most important – but Liverpool looked more defensively solid, and, most importantly, got the best out of both Suarez and Sturridge. Even if three-at-the-back isn't Rodgers' preferred system, those two benefits seem to massively outweigh any others at the moment, especially with crucial players currently unavailable. This post-press conference article with quotes from Rodgers explains the thought process behind the system fairly well.

Agger's return to fitness prompts questions in defense as well. Does Sakho's form (and Skrtel's, to a lesser extent) keep him out of the team? Does Skrtel make way, with Sakho moving to the center of the three-man back line? No matter how well Skrtel's done lately, Agger – Liverpool's vice captain, often Liverpool's best center-back, especially with the ball at his feet – seems likely to come back into the side, especially in a match where Liverpool should dominate possession. I do think he has a better chance if Liverpool keep three at the back; as both Sakho and Agger are left-footed, if it's a back four, Skrtel seems slightly more likely to keep his place at right center-back.

Holloway's Blackpool side played a fairly orthodox 4-3-3, but Palace have used the more familiar 4-2-3-1 system more often this season. Except in the last match, an 0-2 loss at Southampton, where Palace delpoyed Kebe, Chamakh, and Gayle up front. But I suspect Holloway will be more compact, more content to keep a tight defense, more reliant on the counter attack at Anfield, and revert to a 4-2-3-1. Something like Speroni; Ward, Mariappa, Gabbidon, Moxey; Dikgacoi, Jedinak; Puncheon, Campaña, Gayle; Chamakh. Palace should rely on Gayle's pace and Chamakh's aerial ability on the counter, hoping their talents will force mistakes from Liverpool's defense while pretty much keeping the other nine men behind the ball. As always, set plays will be a concern, even if Palace have scored just one of their four league goals from a corner scramble.

Holloway's side have won just once all season: 3-1 against Liverpool last opponents, Sunderland, the same scoreline as Liverpool earned. Those two sides have, without question, been the two worst teams in the division through this young season. Palace haven't scored in 270 minutes of football, not since adding an injury-time nail-in-the-coffin third against the 10-man Mackems.

Yes, that's been a recipe for disaster before, with Liverpool either underestimating or underperforming against beatable opposition. But that's been less of an issue this season than last (or the season before that, or the season before than, or...); the focus has been better, the professionalism better, and the team's cohesiveness and camaraderie better.

Liverpool saw the benefits of a strong performance prior to the last international break, even if it didn't carry over into the subsequent fixture. They'll look to do the same against Palace. There's a heavy potential to jinx the side with this statement, but tomorrow's match should be the perfect opportunity to return to the possession-dominating flat-track bully that we saw against weaker opponents last season.

02 October 2013

Liverpool Shots Conceded 2013-14

From Monday's match infographic:
Liverpool's opponents averaged 11.4 shots per match last season; it's up to 15.3 shots per match this season. However, Liverpool also allowed 1.13 goals per game last season. That's down 0.67 goals per game this season. I'll probably do a bit more research on this later this week, but my initial assumption is that more opposition shots are coming from outside the box. Also, a fair bit of credit probably goes to Simon Mignolet.

The short version is that my assumptions were at least partly correct. Kind of. For a change.

Here are the locations of all 92 shots that Liverpool have allowed so far this season:

4 goals, 30 other shots on-target, 38 off-target, and 20 blocked. 42 from inside the box, 50 from outside the box.

Breaking those down into percentages so we can compare them to last season's totals: 4.4% of shots have resulted in goals, 32.6% in shots on-target saved, 41.3% in shots off-target, and 21.7% in shots blocked. 45.7% from inside the box, 54.3% from outside the box.

Last season, 9.7% of shots resulted in goals, 23.1% were shots on-target saved, 42.5% were off-target, and 24.7% were blocked. 47.3% came inside the box, 52.7% outside the box.

The table version for easy comparison:

So, an admittedly very small sample size, but Liverpool are forcing a slightly higher percentage of shots from outside the box, and Liverpool are blocking a slightly lower percentage of shots. More importantly, while more opposition shots have been on-target, Mignolet has saved a much greater percentage of them.

Great. Well, not great, because Liverpool are still allowing way too many shots. If these statistics hold for the rest of the season, Liverpool will concede around 582 shots, which is a mindbogglingly egregious amount. Only Villa, Reading, West Ham, Sunderland, and Fulham either surpassed or were near that total last season, which, yikes. But if Liverpool continue along this line, a slightly greater percentage of shots will take place from lower percentage situations, and Mignolet will save a much higher percentage than Reina (and Brad Jones, in seven matches) did. Which, hey, thank heaven for small favors.



In the same six fixtures last season, Liverpool allowed just 58 shots. 34 fewer than through these six fixtures this season. And, yes, conceded the exact same number of goals while taking four fewer points.

Four goals (6.9%), 10 other shots on-target (17.2%), 27 shots off-target (46.6%), and 17 shots blocked (29.3%). Just 24 shots came from inside the box (41.4%), while 34 came from outside the box (58.6%). So much for the "more shots from outside the box" theory.

Reina saved 10 of 14 shots on target – 71.4% – in these six fixtures, just six of nine (66.7%) from inside the box. Mignolet has saved 30 of 34 shots on target in these six fixtures – 88.2% – and 13 of 17 (76.4%) from inside the box.

That's the difference. That's the biggest reason why Liverpool are sitting in second, and why Liverpool have four more points than they did from these six fixtures last season. Because Liverpool could have easily dropped two points against both Stoke and Villa if not for the Belgian keeper.

Be concerned that Liverpool are allowing so many shots, especially from inside the box and good positions just outside the box. Be very concerned. It does not speak well of either Liverpool's defense or holding midfielders, even if Liverpool have been leading for long stretches during these six fixtures and inviting opponents onto them in order to open up more space for the counter-attack. And it's not as if Liverpool have faced a murderer's row of opponents during this stretch. But this has been a common complaint in this young season, and more shots are to be expected when Liverpool have had so much less of the ball than we're used to. Last season, Liverpool had an average of 58.2% possession in these six fixtures. It's down to 50.2% this season.

And to be fair, the opposition's shot location, if not the shots allowed in total, marginally improved with the change in formation in Liverpool's last match. Sunderland took 23 shots, but only eight came in the penalty box, many of those along the edges of the box.

Be concerned, but more importantly, be very appreciative of what Simon Mignolet's done so far.

Update: From the comments section:
The only thing I'd probe further is to see a first half comparison to address our parking buses protecting leads in some of the matches.

Okay then.

In these six fixtures, Liverpool's opponents actually averaged a greater proportion of shots in the second half than they have this season. But, to go deeper, what about game states, depending on whether Liverpool are ahead, level, or behind?



Liverpool were level for almost 75% of these six matches in 2012-13, compared to just 37.5% so far this season. Liverpool have trailed in just 39 minutes this season, almost all against Southampton. Which skews the comparison more than a little bit.

That said, the point which prompted this update is still valid. It's not surprising that an opponent will take more shots when behind, and Liverpool's opponents have been behind more than they've been level and ahead through these six games. But Liverpool's opponents are averaging fewer minutes per shot when Liverpool lead compared to the other two game states this season, and compared to all three game states in these six fixtures last season.