29 November 2013

Liverpool at Hull City 12.01.13

9:05am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 05.09.10
6-1 Liverpool (h) 09.26.09
3-1 Liverpool (a) 04.25.09
2-2 (h) 12.13.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-3 Everton (a); 4-0 Fulham (h); 0-2 Arsenal (a)
Hull: 0-1 Palace (h); 1-4 Southampton (a); 1-0 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge, Suarez 9; Gerrard 2; Coutinho, Moses, Skrtel 1
Hull: Brady 3; Sagbo 2; Aluko, Davies, Elmohamady 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Flanagan
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Coutinho
Sturridge Suarez

There might be a few changes with the busy December schedule to come, the next match against Norwich taking place three days after this one, but I doubt it. Rodgers is often reticent to rotate unless his hand is forced, and Liverpool's front six have done more than well enough recently despite coming away with just a point from last weekend's derby. Sturridge should come back into the starting XI, but that should be the extent of the changes in attack.

Defense seems less certain, though.

Flanagan deserves a reward for his efforts against Everton, and deserves to keep his place. But Liverpool are facing Hull City, even if it's away from home. Liverpool will dominate possession, Liverpool's fullbacks will spend far more time in the opposition half than their own. And, no offense meant, that's not one of Flanagan's strong points.

Rodgers seemingly has a couple of options. Johnson could switch to left back, with Henderson at right back and Allen keeping his place for more attacking prowess, something of a 4-3-1-2. Or Cissokho might just get one last chance against weaker opposition in the hopes he finally gets his act together. But I still think Flanagan will get the nod, especially since Hull is far stronger on its right flank, attacking with width through Elmohamady whether he plays in midfield or at fullback.

We also might be in for some rotation at center-back. Liverpool have four outstanding choices at the position: Skrtel and Agger have started the last two and done little wrong – aside from set play defending, obviously – but both Sakho and Toure did little wrong before losing their places as well. Tomorrow might be a good opportunity to use both Sakho and Agger in the same side since Hull will attack infrequently at best. But, as usual under Rodgers, I'll continue to guess those who've been preferred until proven wrong.

Hull are the archetypal promoted side. A rigid, deep defense; a reliance on long balls, set plays, and shots from distance. Only Palace and Sunderland have scored fewer goals than Hull's nine, and three of those nine came in one match against Newcastle. Hull haven't scored more than once in any other fixture.

With an already shallow squad, Hull are also dealing with a fair few injuries at the moment. Brady and Davies are doubtful; McShane, Quinn, and Aluko are assuredly out. That's two of Hull's top scorers and both starting central defenders that could be absent. Davies, Hull's captain, appears the more likely to be available. If he is, Hull's XI will most likely be McGregor; Rosenior, Davies, Bruce, Figueroa; Elmohamady, Koren, Huddlestone, Livermore, Boyd; Sagbo. The two center-backs in contention to replace McShane and Davies are Alex Bruce and Abdoulaye Faye. If available, Brady would most likely start on the left in place of Boyd.

But Hull have played with five at the back in a few matches this season. It should have gotten them a 0-0 against Spurs if not for a trademark dubious Spurs penalty, but then the formation was absolutely walloped by Southampton in a 1-4 loss, conceding three in the first half. That's probably fresher in Bruce's mind – and arguably more relevant than its "success" against Tottenham – but if Bruce decides to just pack his own half with as many defenders as possible, the most likely XI is McGregor; Elmohamady, Davies, Faye, Figueroa, Rosenior; Koren, Huddlestone, Livermore, Boyd; Sagbo.

Either way, Liverpool will have to have the patience and guile to carve through a parked bus defense. Thankfully, that's something that Suarez, Sturridge, et al have done well in 2013. However, defending against counter attacks and set plays – which will be Hull's main and probably only forms of attack – has been a bit more of a struggle.

25 November 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), 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.

This was just the second time that Liverpool completed fewer than 280 passes under Brendan Rodgers. The other? Last year's 2-2 draw at Everton, where Liverpool attempted just 314 passes, completing 241. There are more than a few statistical similarities in these fixtures: comparable passing totals and accuracy, almost exactly the same attacking third totals. An early Liverpool opener, pegged back quickly by the home side. Liverpool's second goal last year was very, very much like Liverpool's third this year.

The differences? Liverpool created a few more chances, took a few more shots last year, but were far more efficient this season, especially on set plays. Which has been the case for the majority of this campaign so far. Baines was far more influential in last season's derby, which speaks more to Moyes' tactics (and Liverpool missing Glen Johnson in that match) than it did Baines' performance yesterday. Most importantly, just four of Everton's 16 shots were on-target, but Everton beat Brad Jones with two of them.

This season? Two-thirds of Everton's 18 shots were on-target, a higher percentage than Liverpool's achieved in any match this season, equaling Everton's highest in any match this season – when they put four of just six shots on target in a 1-3 loss at Manchester City. Everton hadn't put more than eight shots on target in a single match this season until Saturday, averaging five shots on target and 13.5 shots in total through the first 11 matches. Simon Mignolet saved nine of those 12 on Saturday.

On face value, a 75% save average isn't mind-blowing. It's below Mignolet's season-long average of 78.3% (second-highest in the division behind Szczesny, who's faced 11 fewer shots on target) but above the division-wide average of 71%. Nonetheless, some of Mignolet's saves were mind-blowing. This compilation shows the full range of his talents: the agility and reflexes to overcome a late start and get low to deny Barkley's whipped shot/cross, the intelligence and quickness to charge out to deny Lukaku twice and Deulofeu once. This one's probably my favorite: both Mignolet and Lukaku do all the right things, but the keeper comes out on top because of his long arms, ability to make himself big, and his speed in closing the angle. Lukaku's shot is seemingly at the right height to avoid Mignolet's sprawling legs, which had denied both he and Deufelou earlier, but somehow the keeper gets his left arm in the way. A little bit of luck, but still a tremendous, tremendous stop. It's not often that the keeper is man of the match despite conceding three.

So what if his season-long pass completion average is 57%? If he keeps saving all those shots on target – and Liverpool are still allowing far, far too many shots on target – his pass completion average could be a negative number for all I care.

Also unlike last season was Liverpool's improvement as the match went on. Which was heavily aided by Leighton Baines' injury and departure early in the second half. Baines wasn't especially brilliant in his 50 minutes, well-marshaled by Henderson and Johnson, creating one chance and taking one off-target shot, errant with all seven of his crosses. But Gareth Barry had been brilliant in midfield, and a large reason why Liverpool had struggled to make any open play headway in Everton's half.

Liverpool's attacking third passes before and after the change demonstrate the difference made.

Deufelou's entrance made Everton more potent on the counter-attack, needing Mignolet to make many of those aforementioned saves, but Liverpool finally settled into an attacking groove of their own, better able to keep possession, better able to create chances, and should have settled the tie through Allen before Everton scored their second or through Suarez before Everton scored their third.

Liverpool took more shots and created more chances in the final 15 minutes than they did in the preceding 75. Yes, that was the only point of the match where they were behind, finally needing to chase the match to get back on terms. But it was still impressive to see the side's reaction to going behind, and that the side had the physical reserves and fitness to do so. The last time Liverpool scored a game-winning or game-tying goal after the 85th minute in the league was in last season's 2-2 draw against Chelsea, and that was the only other time it's happened under Rodgers.

As the manager's said, this Liverpool's become far more resilient, far more confident than last season's version, and that trait's a big part of why Liverpool currently sits second in the division.

Finally, special mention for Liverpool's stand-in left back, Jon Flanagan, Liverpool's leader in both tackles and interceptions. It was only the third time he's played at left back for the senior side in his 19 appearances – starting there in the 5-2 win at Fulham and playing the second half there in the 3-0 win against Newcastle in 2011-12 – and his first Merseyside derby. And he looked like he'd been doing it for years. Gerrard made the comparison to Carragher, which – while forgiving the slight hyperbole – seems fitting. He'll rarely impress going forward, but never hides. And in matches like this, that can and did make a massive difference.

23 November 2013

Liverpool 3-3 Everton

Coutinho 5'
Mirallas 8'
Suarez 19'
Lukaku 72' 82'
Sturridge 89'

Two managers who value style, sometimes at the expense of substance, with progressive passing philosophies. Surely this won't be just another blood and thunder Merseyside derby?

Ha. Hahaha. Yeah, right.

There's no escape from the crushing weight of inevitability and there's no escape from chaos in this fixture. Uncontrollable chaos and disorder and anarchy and insanity and my heart, my heart, I think I'm having a coronary.

Six set plays goals, missed sitters and miraculous saves, mental defensive mistakes and marvelous last-ditch stops, obvious red cards ignored, Phil Dowd being Phil Dowd. The opening goal within five minutes, the final goal in the 89th, the highest scoring Merseyside derby in league history.

Phew. I'm exhausted. Just spent. Utterly, utterly spent.

Everton as expected, 4-2-3-1 with Barkley preferred to Osman for more attacking impetus. Liverpool without Sturridge thanks to Roy Hodgson's brilliance, bringing in Joe Allen to pack the midfield, with both Allen and Gerard ahead of Lucas in something of a 4-1-4-1.

Last week's first two goals against Fulham proved the importance of set plays. Liverpool's become surprisingly good at them. That remained the case today. A corner won from Liverpool's first attack, Gerrard's defense-destroying long ball awkwardly headed behind by Coleman, Gerrard's corner to Suarez leading to a blocked shot but Coutinho wide, wide, wide open at the back post to flick into the net. Unbridled ecstasy, but a clear memory of when Liverpool took an early lead on this ground last season.

Which would prove appropriate within three minutes, when Everton took advantage of their first set play: Baines' free kick following Coutinho's foul, Henderson out of position and Skrtel caught on the back foot, out-muscled by Barkley and only able to head directly into Mirallas' path for another back post tap-in.

Liverpool should have conceded a second thanks to a giveaway in midfield but were saved by Mignolet – both of these would happen a few more times – then Liverpool scored a second, again from a set play. Suarez's swirling, unerring free kick, bent around the wall in defiance of Newtonian physics, as he's done time and time again for Liverpool.

But that'd be Liverpool's last shot of the half. Everton dominance, roared on by the Goodison crowd, pinning Liverpool back as they did on this ground last season, but failing to make the most of the possession, with Mignolet called in to action just once, reacting late but outstandingly to push Barkley's half-shot, half-cross past the post, with three other chances well wide of the target.

Then, controversy, as only Everton and Liverpool and Phil Dowd can provide.

That's a red card. That's a red card every day of the week. Two red cards on Sundays, in fact. This fixture's seen more red cards than any other in the Premier League, but this is the same fixture where this wasn't a red card. I wish I were surprised but I'm not surprised I've seen this movie before. Also, it was probably Luis Suarez's fault anyway.

Between Liverpool's second and Everton's second, Mignolet made three outstanding saves: the aforementioned first on Barkley, denying Defoleu and Lukaku twice, three of those chances coming on the break, all three starting with Liverpool giveaways.

Amongst those chances came Liverpool's first open play shot, directly on the hour mark. A trademark Suarez dribble somehow someway breaking through a wall of three defenders, falling perfectly for Joe Allen, somehow someway placed wide on the near post when unhindered from 10 yards out. Head in hands, heart in stomach.

Having failed to seize the moment, it was little surprise when Everton finally equalized for the second time. Mignolet called into action yet again, palming away Lukaku's deflected free kick from the same position where Suarez scored his, but Liverpool unable to clear, the set-play taker finding the net from 12 yards out, unforgivably in acres of space to fortunately receive a re-directed pullback.

Another chance for a Liverpool third, conjured from nothing, Gerrard's outstanding cross sent straight to Suarez at the back-post but headed straight at the sprawling Tim Howard. Another Everton break, again foiled by Mignolet, but followed but another Everton set play and another punch to the midsection, again from Romelu Lukaku. I don't know why the burly Belgian man child was being marked by Johnson and aided by Flanagan, but needless to say, it didn't work well. Mushroom cloud atom bomb, yet another seemingly undeserved setback despite so much that's gone Liverpool's way this season.

But maybe there's some justice in this universe because there was still time for one more Liverpool set play. And one more goal from a Liverpool set play. Moses, on as a substitute 20 minutes earlier, fouled by Distin on the right flank. Gerrard lines up, takes the lob wedge out of the golf bag, asks his caddy for the distance to the pin, and sends in a perfect cross for Sturridge between three defenders, flicked in from the near post. If only Liverpool could just bring the captain on for set plays. I've said it before, and I'll hopefully get to say it again. For all the holes in Liverpool's midfield, partly of Gerrard's making, his delivery's better than it's ever been.

And that's not all folks. It nearly ended 4-3 for the good guys, but Moses could only head over from Suarez's cross, Suarez's snap shot was well parried by Howard, and Sturridge was well, well offside when ramming the subsequent corner into the back of the net. It'd have been fitting were it given after what happened with last season's late offside decision on this ground, but there isn't that much justice in this universe.

There's little point in tactical analysis for this fixture. It was interesting to see Allen preferred in Sturridge's absence, leading to two midfielders ahead of Lucas as holder, but Liverpool's midfield still went missing at inopportune times. Maybe it's a different match if Sturridge is fit enough to start (thanks again, Roy!) but maybe Everton are even more dominant in possession without the third midfielder. Liverpool's good on set plays, but sometimes not so good at defending them. Mignolet's been a revelation, better than the most optimistic could expect, but he shouldn't have been put in most of those positions by his midfield or defense. Suarez and Sturridge continue to carry Liverpool. Flanagan, despite a couple of frights, made the most of his chance, and will probably continue to feature in Enrique's absence.

A draw's probably a fair result, but there's a lot to rue from Liverpool's point of view.

Just another Merseyside derby after all.

22 November 2013

Liverpool at Everton 11.23.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 05.05.13
2-2 (a) 10.28.12
2-1 Liverpool (n; FA Cup) 04.14.12
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.13.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Fulham (h); 0-2 Arsenal (a); 4-1 West Brom (h)
Everton: 0-0 Palace (a); 0-0 Tottenham (h); 2-0 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge, Suarez 8; Gerrard 2; Moses, Skrtel 1
Everton: Lukaku 5; Baines, Barkley 2; Barry, Coleman, Naismith, Osman, Pienaar 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Flanagan
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Coutinho
Sturridge Suarez

Midfield has usually been Liverpool's most worrying component so far this season, but thanks to Enrique's ongoing knee injury – which now looks like it'll require surgery – Liverpool's defense might well be the greater concern tomorrow. Because it's not as if Liverpool are spoiled for options at full-back.

Aly Cissokho has been – to put it mildly – not good, not good at all, in his four starts this season.

Personally, I'd start Agger on the left with Skrtel and Sakho in the middle. Sakho at left-back didn't work against Southampton, but Agger would seemingly be more comfortable in the position. The full-back opposite Johnson has almost always been the more restrained, more defensive so far this season, and Agger could certainly do a job doing that. It'd also allow Sakho to come back into the XI without removing Liverpool's vice captain, and he's almost certainly on a high after his starring role in France's World Cup qualifier on Tuesday. Plus, Agger's long throws. Long throws are always fun.

But Rodgers sees it differently, with today's quotes making Flanagan at left-back look the most likely option if Rodgers has also completely lost faith with Cissokho. You'd think the opposite would be the case: Flanagan on the right, Johnson on the left – which we've seen in the past – but keeping Johnson on his preferred side makes a certain amount of sense. Liverpool's attack tilted heavily toward that flank against Fulham, and doing the same against Everton should help restrain Baines' forays forward. As Liverpool heavily favor its right flank, Everton heavily favor its left. Flanagan did adequately against Arsenal before being replaced with Liverpool needing more in attack, and his discipline should also help to restrain Kevin Mirallas, Everton's leader in assists so far this season and a player frequently looking to cut inside, which would put him against Flanagan's stronger foot.

Both Skrtel and Agger struggled against Lukaku last season, used as a substitute and scoring the final goal in both of West Brom's wins against Liverpool. But those two defenders still make the most sense if Liverpool continue with four at the back. Skrtel has been Liverpool's best center-back this season, back on the peak these season after wandering through the valley last season. Rodgers should and almost certainly will ride this form while it lasts. Agger, despite a handful of errors, remains Liverpool's best defender when in possession, crucial to building from the back. Both Sakho and Toure are excellent stand-ins, and I'm tempted to suggest that Sakho may return given his prowess in the air against Lukaku and his international break form, but, as usual, I'll almost always stick with the devil you know in Merseyside derbies. I highly, highly doubt that Liverpool will revert to the three-at-the-back with wing-backs system with Everton so dangerous on the flanks.

There are also concerns about Sturridge's fitness, hampered by a dead leg over the last month yet featuring for the full 90 minutes in England's meaningless friendly against Germany on Tuesday. If he's unable to start, Liverpool will almost certainly shift to the 4-2-3-1 formation, most likely with Lucas, Gerrard; Henderson, Coutinho, Moses; Suarez as the front six. Still, you have to assume that Sturridge will start if at all possible. He and Suarez are the biggest reasons why Liverpool are currently second in the table.

It didn't take long for Everton to become an entirely different team under Roberto Martinez. The formation is the same, the back four and goalkeeper are the same, but the style is very different. Everton are averaging more than 7% possession per match and 100 more passes per match than they did in Moyes' last four seasons.

Upgrading Everton's midfield has been the biggest boon. Both McCarthy and Barry have been excellent signings so far: more comfortable recycling play and keeping possession, less likely to punt the ball upfield and hope for the best or just push it sideways so Baines can create something, anything. Gibson and Osman, last season's most-frequent midfield combination, averaged just under 100 passes per match, successful with 84.3% of them. McCarthy and Barry are averaging just under 125 at 86.6% accuracy. They're also averaging around two more tackles per match than Osman and Gibson did last season.

But Everton are still goal-shy at times. The Blues have already played four 0-0 draws through 11 league matches, including two in their last two games, equalling their total through all of last season. Sam Allardyce's West Ham – a manager renowned for smothering absolutely all the joy out of football matches – are the only other side with that many scoreless draws. No other side has three, only four other sides have played two. Liverpool, along with Arsenal, Fulham, and Sunderland, have yet to play one. Not coincidentally, Liverpool and Everton fumbled their way to a 0-0 draw in the last meeting, with both sides eminently poor in attack.

I'd be surprised if Everton's XI wasn't Howard; Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; Mirallas, Osman, Pienaar; Lukaku. Martinez may prefer Barkley to Osman, as he did earlier in the season, but otherwise, he's stayed fairly consistent with his selection.

Away from home, against a side comfortable in possession, Liverpool will need to replicate the potent heavy pressing deployed against Fulham, preventing Barry and McCarthy from dominating the ball and allowing Everton to build a head of steam before bringing in its dangerous attackers. Reclaim possession, then quick transitions to Coutinho, Suarez, and Sturridge, perpetually dangerous on the counter, especially away from home. Three of Everton's most important players – Barry, McCarthy, Lukaku – have never featured in a Merseyside derby, and two of those players will be relied upon to set Everton's tempo.

That said, no matter the personnel involved, Merseyside derbies remain unpredictable animals, rarely fitting into the easy, expected narratives. War metaphors are often embarrassingly, unnecessarily used in sports, but they usually feel appropriate when describing these fixtures. Even considering Rodgers and Martinez's respective progressive philosophies, I doubt that'll change much tomorrow.

11 November 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Fulham

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), 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.

As mentioned in the match review, it was a match for high-water marks. The most passes attempted and completed, both in total and in the attacking third, under Rodgers. The third highest passing accuracy – 89.6% – bettered in just the two matches against Norwich (90.1% and 90.3%), and the second highest possession average, behind the 1-3 loss against Villa. The second-most shots Liverpool have taken, behind only 35 in the 5-0 win against Swansea. The second-fewest shots allowed, again behind the 5-0 win against Swansea, but it was also the only match where Liverpool's allowed just one shot on target. And it was from outside the box, easily saved by Mignolet with the Belgian barely having to put down his martini and get out of his lawn chair.

Oof. Liverpool are responsible for two of those six: Saturday against Fulham, and last season against Swansea.

Pretty much everything went Liverpool's way, but two facets stood out. First, the importance of an early goal. Liverpool have played 49 league matches since Rodgers took over. When Liverpool score first, Liverpool's record is 21W-3D-2L. It's 2W-12D-9L when Liverpool don't score first, whether conceding an opener or playing out a 0-0 draw (there have been five of those). And if Liverpool's opener comes in the first half, their record is 20W-3D-1L, with the lone loss at Stoke after Gerrard's 2nd minute penalty.

All four of Liverpool's open play shots before the first goal came from outside the box, demonstrating that Fulham's game plan at least kinda sorta worked, for a little while. That deep defense at least forced Liverpool into shooting from marginal positions; after all, only one of Liverpool's 32 shots came from inside the six-yard box. Too bad Fulham's set play defense foiled that strategy. Agger's 1st-minute chance came from a corner, then came Liverpool's opener from a free kick, swiftly followed by a second from a corner. Those goals opened up the game, opened up just enough space for Suarez to conjure a third ten minutes later and a fourth soon after halftime. From 4.4 minutes per shot before the opener to 1.63 shots per minute between Liverpool's first goal and Liverpool's fourth.

Set plays broke the dam wide open. Compare Saturday with Liverpool's 2-2 draw at Newcastle. Liverpool wasted four free headers on set plays – Suarez, Skrtel, Sakho and Toure – between the 20th and 33rd minutes. Had Liverpool taken one of those four chances, especially if it was one of the two which occurred before Cabaye's opener, that match would have played out in a very different manner, a manner which probably wouldn't have led to two points dropped.

The second stand-out was Liverpool's right flank. Johnson and Henderson overwhelmed Richardson and Kacaniklic (then Kasami after halftime). Liverpool heavily targeted that flank, with 47% of its attacks on that third of the pitch, compared to 30% centrally and 23% down the left (via Who Scored). Liverpool often tilt to that side, whether Johnson's playing or not, but Saturday saw the highest discrepancy of the season so far. Johnson to Henderson and Henderson to Johnson were Liverpool's most-frequent pass combinations by some distance; Johnson attempted and completed more passes than any fullback in a single match under Rodgers. 10 of Fulham's 14 unsuccessful tackles were on the right half of the attacking third, and 16 of Liverpool's 24 created chances were from that side of the pitch, although that total includes three corners and the free kick leading to Fulham's own goal.

Cissokho's anonymity widened that gap, but it's comforting to see Enrique complete more passes in 30 minutes than the Frenchman did in 60. For all his faults, he'll ensure that Liverpool aren't always so one-sided. Not that it matters much when Liverpool's one side is so potent, against a side that's almost wholly impotent.

Johnson makes a massive difference to Liverpool's attacking prowess, especially in matches where Liverpool pour forward at will, but credit to Henderson as well, arguably the man of the match while playing on the right of a 4-2-2-2, with his second-highest passing total under Rodgers despite starting out wide, creating more chances than any player but Suarez, tallying a wonderful assist for Liverpool's third, and pressing Richardson into the mistake that led to Liverpool's fourth.

Liverpool's formation was most easily described as 4-2-2-2, but Henderson and Coutinho are hardly wide players. Both cut inside early and often, allowing Liverpool to overwhelm Fulham's midfield, retain near-constant possession, and make space for the fullback(s) bombing forward. They dragged defenders out of position, creating room for the more-than-mobile Suarez and Sturridge to operate. It might not be the formation of choice when Liverpool faces stronger opposition, but it worked incredibly well against Saturday's opposition.

But yes, Fulham made it fairly easy for Liverpool, barely attacking when the score was level, easily breached on two set plays, then sitting back in half-hearted damage control once Liverpool assumed an unassailable lead. None of Fulham's tackles and just one of their interceptions – barely – came in Liverpool's half, allowing Mignolet to complete 16 of 18 passes. Not every side can press like Southampton, Swansea, or Arsenal, but Fulham didn't even try. Liverpool still have a fair few flaws, but cutting open a packed parked bus defense usually hasn't been one of them since Sturridge and Coutinho signed.

Meanwhile, eight of Liverpool's 25 tackles – including one from Henderson which led to the fourth goal – and four of Liverpool's 13 interceptions came in Fulham's half, many of them on that crucial right flank. Pressing makes a massive difference, whether it's early in the match when the scores are level or when you're already three up in the 54th minute. This Liverpool front six, to a man, can be very, very good at it.

09 November 2013

Liverpool 4-0 Fulham

Amorebieta OG 23'
Skrtel 26'
Suarez 36' 54'

Liverpool are really good at really beating really bad teams. But that's not been a problem for nearly a year now.

Rodgers retained the formation that finished the match at Arsenal while restoring Daniel Agger to the side. And Liverpool dominated from the opening whistle; Johnson, fit again after missing last week's match, was especially dominant down the right flank. But despite comprehensive Liverpool possession, Fulham did well to limit Liverpool's chances from open play, parked deep and determined in its defensive third. Too bad that resilience didn't extend to set plays.

Liverpool nearly scored with its first corner, with Agger volleying over from six yards within a minute. Then, Liverpool opened the scoring with its first free kick in the attacking third, as Amorebieta redirected Suarez's header from Gerrard's delivery. Three minutes after that, Liverpool scored with its second corner, as Skrtel easily avoided Amorebieta's "defending" for a bullet free header. Set plays are important. Being good at set plays is really important, and for all the complaints we've had about Gerrard when Liverpool has disappointed this season, his deliveries from set plays are as good as ever, if not the best they've ever been.

And that's all folks. Liverpool weren't throwing away an early two-goal lead, not against this opposition. Cue fat lady, drop curtain, pick your scoreline. Suarez added a third in the 36th, finishing Henderson's wonderful throughball with aplomb, then the fourth after pressing in Fulham's half led to a turnover and Gerrard's throughball in the 54th, his seventh and eighth goals this season. I shouldn't be amazed by Luis Suarez anymore, but I'm amazed that he's joint-top scorer despite missing the first five league matches. If there's any justice in the world, the dubious goals panel will give him consecutive hat-tricks at Anfield whenever they next meet.

From there, Liverpool simply smothered the match into oblivion, retaining possession until an opportunity presented itself, but annoyingly spurning those opportunities for a fifth, sixth, or seventh. Liverpool's comfort allowed Rodgers to make encouraging substitutions, finding 30 minutes for the much-missed Enrique, bringing on Allen for Gerrard with more than 10 minutes to play, and resting Sturridge for Moses with the striker likely to start both of England friendlies over the next two weeks.

There really is no exaggerating how bad Fulham were.

32 shots is Liverpool's second-highest total under Rodgers, behind the 35 taken in the 5-0 against Swansea last season, and the most taken in a Premier League match this season. Only Liverpool's errant shooting (as well as Mike Jones ignoring three potential penalties) prevented a larger scoreline, putting just 31% of its shots on target after averaging 40% through its first 10 matches. Coutinho was especially profligate, taking nine shots – another high for the season – but only putting four efforts on target, three of which were easy saves. Which is marginally understandable for a player making his first start in nearly two months. Like against Arsenal, he's clearly a bit off match sharpness, but still able to demonstrate the threat in those boots.

Today also saw the most passes Liverpool have attempted or completed under Rodgers, both in total and in the attacking third. Only both matches against Norwich last season came close, the only two matches where Liverpool have had a higher pass accuracy. 68.5% possession is the second-highest under Rodgers, behind 72.1% against Aston Villa last season – a match, I hesitate to remind, that Liverpool lost 1-3.

Liverpool looked impressive reverting to four at the back. The midfield was untroubled, while Johnson's return made a massive difference to Liverpool's effectiveness out wide, combining excellently with Henderson. Agger's ability on the ball improved Liverpool's ability to play out from the back, although Fulham barely bothered to stop Liverpool from building attacks in its own half. Conversely, Liverpool's pressing, especially from Henderson and Coutinho but often joined by Lucas and Gerrard, disjointed Fulham both in the first half and when Liverpool were supremely comfortable after scoring the fourth, most notably on Liverpool's fourth goal. But Liverpool's midfield was never remotely threatened by the Sidwell/Parker duo, exacerbated by playing Kacaniklic – usually a winger – in the hole behind Berbatov, then bringing on the wholly invisible Bryan Ruiz for him at halftime.

Yeah, Fulham were indescribably ineffective, indescribably awful. This was the sort of match that gets a manager fired.

So it's hard to gauge just how good this XI or this formation will look against even marginally competent opposition, let alone Liverpool's competition for Champions League places. But that's a worry for the future. You can only beat what's in front of you, and Liverpool certainly did that today, ensuring they'll go into yet another international break in second place.

08 November 2013

Liverpool v Fulham 11.07.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.12.13
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.22.12
0-1 Fulham (h) 05.01.12
0-1 Fulham (a) 12.05.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Arsenal (a); 4-1 West Brom (h); 2-2 Newcastle (a)
Fulham: 1-3 United (h); 3-4 Leicester (a); 0-2 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge 8; Suarez 6; Gerrard 2; Moses 1
Fulham: Bent, Kasami, Sidwell 2; Berbatov, Kacaniklic, Ruiz, Senderos 1

Referee: Mike "Beachball" Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Cissokho
Gerrard Lucas Henderson
Sturridge Suarez

So, now that Coutinho's fit enough to start, how will Liverpool line up?

The goal seems simple: get the best out of Liverpool's best players. That's why the 3-5-2 made sense, even if Liverpool's midfield often looked less stable than a towering house of cards. Whatever formation is chosen, Suarez and Sturridge seemingly have to stay partnered up top. Which means that there are two probable options. Either Coutinho slots in where Moses played when Liverpool were more a 3-4-1-2 than 3-1-4-2, or one of the three center-backs makes way for a 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 diamond.

At the least, it'll be nice to see Liverpool with one, maybe even two of its first-choice fullbacks. Johnson is available after missing last week with an infection, while Enrique is back in training and may be available after missing the last three league matches with a knee injury. It's no exaggeration to suggest that Liverpool's first-choice fullbacks are often essential to Liverpool playing well. Last week's match at Arsenal, despite the strength of the opposition, demonstrated that fairly well. Since Rodgers took over, Liverpool have averaged 1.87 points per match when Enrique starts and 1.76 points per match when Johnson starts. When Johnson doesn't start, it's 1.29 points per match; when Enrique doesn't start, it's 1.35 points per match.

Despite all the clamor earlier in the week, it appears Gerrard will also start despite picking up a hip knock against Arsenal. Which means that Liverpool's midfield – much to the chagrin of many – will most likely remain unchanged. There are obviously valid arguments for leaving out one of Gerrard or Lucas. Would I like to see Gerrard rested for some combination of Henderson-Allen-Lucas? Sure. But I doubt it'll happen, and, to be fair, the system's worked fairly well against sides that Liverpool's expected to beat: Sunderland, Palace, West Brom. Fulham should fall into the same category.

And for all the 3-5-2's faults, the system has gotten the best out of Suarez and Sturridge, last week's loss at Arsenal exempted. That's no small matter. If Rodgers wants to retain that system, there's seemingly an easy way to do so, especially if Enrique's still absent. Henderson on the right, Johnson on the left, Lucas and Gerrard as central midfielders, and Coutinho in the hole. The Brazilian should be much better after a week of training than he was against Arsenal: incisive and dangerous, but often over-hitting the crucial pass due to a lack of sharpness.

For the most part, Fulham have been dire away from home this season. Yes, they've won two of five matches, handily beating last-place Palace and squeaking past Sunderland and yes, their three losses came against Newcastle, Chelsea, and Southampton, none of which are easy fixtures. But aside from the 4-1 win at Palace, they've struggled to create chances – good chances, bad chances, any chances – on the road, held scoreless in the three away losses and failing to create a single chance in the most recent at Southampton. They've created the fewest chances of any side in the league so far this season.

Sascha Reither, a very good right back, is suspended for stamping on Januzaj in Fulham's last match, while Hangeland, Rodallega, and Briggs will miss out through injury. Their expected XI is most likely Stekelenberg; Hughes, Senderos, Amorebieta, Richardson; Sidwell, Parker; Dejagah, Ruiz, Kasami; Berbatov.

Fulham could start with both Bent and Berbatov up front, shifting Ruiz to the flank with one of Kasami/Dejagah/Kacaniklic on the other side, but I expect Jol will be more conservative away from Craven Cottage. As per usual, Liverpool will be most threatened by the opposition's counter-attacks, with the wingers and Ruiz capable of breaking quickly and carrying the ball at their feet, while Berbatov's perpetually capable of languidly conjuring rabbits from his hat.

But both Sidwell and Parker can be drawn out of position, typically charging around the middle third in search of the ball. You know, quintessential English midfielders. Both Senderos and Richardson are guilty of switching off and committing errors. Berbatov and Bent go missing; Dejagah, Kacaniklic, Taarabt, and Kasami are only inconsistently brilliant. Fulham frustratingly foiled Dalglish's 2011-12 side, but Rodgers' Liverpool outgunned them in both meetings last season thanks to Suarez in the first meeting and Sturridge in the second.

This is a match that Liverpool should win, no matter the formation, no matter the personnel. Liverpool have earned their deserved reputation as flat-track bullies over the last year or so. And coming off a loss to Arsenal and with trips to Everton, Tottenham, City, and Chelsea in the next six weeks (after yet another international break), it's a match that Liverpool very much need to win.

No pressure, then.

04 November 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (h), 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.

This chart seems a pretty good starting point:

Arsenal were responsible for 15 of the 18 highest pass combinations in Saturday's match. Liverpool's three all involved Gerrard, but all three went to players who ostensibly played 'behind' Liverpool's captain: the deeper midfielder, a center-back, and a young, defense-minded wing back. Arsenal monopolized the ball, and – especially in the first half, when Liverpool played 3-1-4-2 – cut off the supply line between midfield and attack.

It's not as if this is the first time this has happened. Since I started these match infographics at the beginning of last season, just two players have completed more than 100 passes against Liverpool: Arteta at the Emirates this season and Ramsey at the Emirates last season. Arteta came damned close in the 0-2 loss to Arsenal at Anfield last season as well. It should be no surprise to see Arsenal pass any opposition off the park, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

Still, there have been other matches where Liverpool have lost the possession and passing battles – more this season than last – but still come away with at least one point if not all three, usually thanks to Liverpool's ability on the break and/or Suarez and Sturridge's individual brilliance. But Arsenal effectively shut off those routes as well.

Liverpool were wholly reliant on Suarez and Sturridge's one-on-one ability against Arsenal's defenders in the first half, attempting 21 take-ons. Which is more than all but three teams' league average this season: Liverpool, Everton, and Tottenham. That, along with two or three times where Henderson broke forward from midfield, was the alpha and omega of Liverpool's attack in the first half – the other eight players simply weren't involved in that phase of the game. And it was routinely snuffed out by prepared defenders. Of course, the one time in the first half where Liverpool played bombed forward, with Sakho, Cissokho, and Flanagan in Arsenal's half, Arsenal tore Liverpool open on the counter-attack to take the lead.

Arsenal made more tackles than every Liverpool opponent except Southampton so far this season. And Arsenal's two deeper midfielders made 13 of the 31: Arteta seven, Ramsey six. Liverpool's three midfielders made 10: Lucas four, Gerrard three, Henderson three. Neither Ramsey nor Arteta is an out-and-out defensive midfielder (which may well demonstrate the value of out-and-out defensive midfielders, but that's a different discussion), but both more than adequately shut down Liverpool's attacks before they became threatening.

At least Liverpool marginally improved after halftime.

Which is probably an answer to "what are we gonna see now that Coutinho's back?" Liverpool looked vastly more effective in a 4-2-2-2 formation compared to the 3-1-4-2, although "vastly" is very much a relative term.

A couple of chalkboard comparisons:

Liverpool actually retained some semblance of possession, got into Arsenal's final third, created a few chances, and stopped getting criminally abused down its left flank (thanks Aly!). Even though Liverpool had one less defender and Arsenal had less possession, Liverpool's defensive statistics were almost exactly equal in tackles, interceptions, clearances, shots allowed, etc.

However, there are caveats: Arsenal had the lead, Liverpool had to go in search of an equalizer. Then, less than 15 minutes into the second half, Liverpool had to go in search of two equalizers. Of course Arsenal would attempt fewer passes, average less possession, allow more Liverpool shots. Despite Liverpool's improvement, Arsenal rarely looked like conceding even a consolation until the final 15 minutes, with Szczesny coming to the rescue when called upon.

And there are two relevant statistics not on the above table. Goals for each Liverpool formation: Zero. Arsenal goals against each formation: 1.

From Friday's match preview:
One swallow rarely makes a summer and all, but tomorrow's match will be an excellent barometer for how far each team has truly come this season, and how far each still has to go.
Yep. Much to our dismay.

02 November 2013

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal

Cazorla 19'
Ramsey 59'

The better team won. And deserved every inch of that result. Sometimes football really is that simple.

So much for fixing Liverpool's midfield. Facing Arsenal at Arsenal is a vastly different proposition than facing West Brom at Anfield. Arsenal utterly dominated possession in the crucial first half, and both of Arsenal goals came from space where Liverpool's midfielders could and probably should have prevented the strike.

For all the individual condemnation that's going to follow, none of Liverpool's players played well except maybe Mignolet. Some credit to that goes to Arsenal, whose game plan effectively nullified Suarez and Sturridge and took advantage of gaps that Liverpool left in their own half, but it was also just one of those days.

Henderson scuffing a shot in the first 10 minutes after winning possession and running into the box set the tone. Even when something went right, the finish ultimately didn't. And at the other end of the pitch, Arsenal seized their opportunities, whether through Liverpool's failings or the breaks of the ball or both. Cazorla's opening goal started because Liverpool were caught with too many men up the pitch – as if Arsenal's ability on the counter comes as a surprise – with Cissokho beaten down the flank by Sagna and either Gerrard or Flanagan unwilling or unable to track Cazorla's run into the box. The shortest player on the pitch, but in acres of space, Cazorla saw his header cannon off the post but rebound perfectly for a second shot, making no mistake from 10 yards.

Liverpool desperately missed both its starting fullbacks: Enrique still out through injury, Johnson ruled out this morning thanks to an illness. Flanagan went missing on the counter-attack for Arsenal's opener, but was otherwise decent, which is better than most can say after 90 minutes. Cissokho was a liability: caught on the back foot and beaten for pace by Sagna was the biggest contribution to Cazorla's goal, with the added bonus of being wasteful when in possession and picking up an early yellow. It was no surprise to see him hauled off at half-time with Liverpool still trailing.

But, in a different universe, Liverpool could have leveled matters within six minutes. It'd have to be a universe which doesn't include Martin Atkinson, though. Suarez was pulled down by Sagna on the break, and rather than allowing a quick free kick which could have seen Liverpool take advantage of their numbers forward, Marriner decided it was more important to show the crowd just how big his yellow card is. Suarez tried to take it quickly, Sturridge centered for a open Henderson to tap into the net, but Atkinson had stopped play, soaking in all the attention due to the man everyone came to see. Or something like that.

And that was pretty much the alpha and omega of Liverpool's first half chances. The other two remotely frightening moments for Arsenal fans saw Liverpool flagged offside both times. Not that the flag mattered; Szczesny saved Toure's header the first time – which came on the free kick that Liverpool had to take when Atkinson disallowed the quick one – and Sturridge missed wide on the second.

To his credit, Rodgers realized this system simply wasn't going to work today. Off went Cissokho, on came the returning Coutinho, and Liverpool shifted to something like a 4-2-2-2 with Sakho at left-back and Henderson on the right. And it actually led to a 10-minute spell of Liverpool pressure. But Liverpool missed both its half-chances, with Suarez and Henderson unable to find the target with close-range but narrow-angle efforts.

And that brief optimism made Arsenal's second goal all the more soul-killing. A second which should have come four minutes sooner, when Toure's hospital pass put Giroud through on goal, only to too-cleverly chip into the side netting. But the game-assuring second was inevitable. As with Newcastle's first two weeks ago, a free-scoring midfielder was given far, far, far too much space just outside Liverpool's box, allowed to hammer an unstoppable strike past Mignolet. Both Gerrard and Lucas had come out to close down Özil, who easily eluded both, chipping a pass into space – the space Lucas had vacated when trying to cover for a static Gerrard – for an on-rushing Ramsey. The goal was gorgeous, worthy of the player's performance so far this season, but he should have never been given that chance.

From there, Liverpool could do nothing but ineffectively toss the kitchen sink at Arsenal, while Arsenal did nothing but soak it up and ask for more. Moses replaced Flanagan, shifting Henderson to right back, but the same problems remained. When Liverpool actually got into the box, they usually wasted the opportunity: Sturridge getting under Henderson's cross and ballooning his header, Suarez's shot angled just wide and ricocheting off the outside the post. When they didn't waste the opportunities, Szczesny was there.

Both keepers did admirably today. Mignolet made sure the scoreline was only marginally humiliating, Szczesny denied Liverpool a couple of chances at a consolation in the final 10 minutes, making two excellent saves in the 83rd minutes, quickly followed by another Suarez shot wide, with Sturridge screaming in frustration for the pass. Which seemed a fitting capstone to today's proceedings.

At the end of the day, Arsenal are simply a better team than Liverpool at this point. They should be beating Liverpool at home. Liverpool arguably made it easier than it should have been for the home side, with a couple of players especially guilty of underperforming, but this is where we are at the moment. Which is still third in the table, still with 20 points from the first 10 matches, still four points better than from the same fixtures last season, still having taken 70 points from the last 38 games.

More frustrating than the result is that the same problems with Liverpool's midfield keep leading to Liverpool's setbacks. That has to change, and quickly.

01 November 2013

Liverpool at Arsenal 11.02.13

1:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (a) 01.30.13
0-2 Arsenal (h) 09.02.12
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 West Brom (h); 2-2 Newcastle (a); 3-1 Palace (h)
Arsenal: 0-2 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Palace (a); 1-2 Dortmund (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge 8; Suarez 6; Gerrard 2; Moses 1
Arsenal: Giroud, Ramsey 5; Özil, Podolski, Wilshere 2; Arteta, Gnabry, Mertesacker, Sagna 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Johnson Gerrard Henderson Cissokho
Sturridge Suarez

With Coutinho returning to fitness, we'll soon have a renewed debate over Liverpool's best XI and the appropriate formation. Sure, he's certain to come back into the side, but should it be at the expense of Henderson or one of the three center-backs? Is 3-1-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 the way forward?

But that debate's not happening this week. Or, probably more accurately, shouldn't happen this week. Coutinho won't be, can't be 100% fit. An away match at the league leaders is not the time nor place to toss him into the deep end. It's the time to dance with the one who brung you.

Enrique is still absent, so Cissokho will start for the third consecutive match. And I still think Agger should be starting, but I'll stop predicting it in the above guess at a lineup until Rodgers seems remotely likely to put him in. Skrtel's aerial ability is probably better against Giroud anyway. And, again, this hardly seems a match to fiddle with a structure that's worked reasonably well.

Gerrard, and Henderson to a lesser extent, will necessarily play deeper at Arsenal than against West Brom, but inverting the midfield triangle was crucial to Liverpool's improved play. There will be less emphasis on pressing and much more emphasis on the counter-attack, but it's still very important to see both Gerrard and Henderson ahead of Lucas, linking Liverpool's midfield and attack and putting bodies between Arsenal's lines, cutting off the supply line from Arteta and WIlshere to Özil, Ramsey, and Cazorla. Arsenal passed around and through Liverpool with ease in both meetings last season, with Liverpool playing 4-2-3-1 in both (a 4-2-3-1 that settled into a 4-5-1 when under the inevitable pressure), first with a midfield of Arteta-Diaby-Cazorla, then with Ramsey-Wilshere-Cazorla. Wilshere, in particular, utterly dominated the last meeting at the Emirates. Liverpool will need Gerrard and Henderson to press the two deeper midfielders, and Lucas to keep very close watch over the incredibly dangerous Mesut Özil.

With the form they're in, Arsenal deserve to be the league leaders, with seven wins and one draw in the last eight league matches, unbeaten in the league since opening day. Giroud and Ramsey have been the standouts in front of goal, but Arsenal have been far less reliant on one or two for goals, especially compared to Liverpool's reliance on Sturridge and Suarez. Nine different Arsenal players have found the net this season, and only Manchester City has scored more goals this season, with 21 to Arsenal's 20.

Arsenal's midweek loss in the League Cup saw seven changes from their usual XI. Nearly a decade without a trophy be damned, it's fairly clear where Wenger's priorities lie this season. Only Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Cazorla should keep their place from Tuesday's side. Flamini, Walcott, Podolski, Gnabry, Diaby, Sanogo, and Oxlade-Chamberlain are injured. Arteta will return after serving a one-match suspension against Chelsea.

Which means Arsenal's XI will most likely be: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Wilshere; Ramsey, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud. The attacking line of three will switch constantly, as Özil roams the width and breadth of Liverpool's half while Cazorla and Ramsey cut inside. While permanently dangerous, requiring Liverpool to always be aware of each's rapidly changing position, it often makes Arsenal rely on the fullbacks for width, giving Liverpool the chance to snuff out Arsenal's attacks by overloading the middle of the pitch then counter-attacking at pace through Johnson and Cissokho, as well as Suarez and Sturridge's ability to work the channels. This, from Zonal Marking, highlights how the Suarez/Sturridge partnership could trouble Mertesacker and Koscielny, although both have done better than expected against Suarez in the last couple of seasons; Liverpool's first goal at the Emirates last January has been the exception rather than the rule.

Liverpool actually have a better record at the Emirates in recent years compared to the league meetings at Anfield. They've won one, drawn three, and lost one – back in 2009/10 – in the last five matches there. At home during the same span, Liverpool have drawn three and lost two. And all three of Arsenal's losses this season have come at home: the first match against Villa and in the last two matches against Dortmund and Chelsea, albeit both in cup competition and fielding a much weaker lineup in Tuesday's defeat.

One swallow rarely makes a summer and all, but tomorrow's match will be an excellent barometer for how far each team has truly come this season, and how far each still has to go.