31 December 2013

Liverpool v Hull 01.01.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Hull (a) 12.01.13
0-0 (a) 05.09.10
6-1 Liverpool (h) 09.26.09
3-1 Liverpool (a) 04.25.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Chelsea (a); 1-2 City (a); 3-1 Cardiff (h)
Hull: 6-0 Fulham (h); 2-3 United (h); 1-1 West Brom (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 19; Sturridge 9; Gerrard, Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Hull: Brady 3; Elmohamady, Koren, Livermore, Meyler, Sagbo 2; Aluko, Boyd, Chester, Davies, Fryatt, Graham, Huddlestone 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Pawson became a Select Group referee this season. He's never done a Liverpool match before.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Toure Agger Cissokho
Henderson Lucas
Sterling Coutinho L Alberto

So, who's left standing?

We can add Sakho and Allen to the already-too-extensive casualty list, joining Sturridge, Enrique, Flanagan, and maybe Gerrard. Now is the winter of my discontent. And Zaf Iqbal's by the looks of things. There's no rest for the weary.

But, yes, "maybe" Gerrard. He's been training this week, and his return would be incredibly timely given Allen's injury. But I still doubt Rodgers will bring him straight back into the lineup unless he and the medical staff felt certain there was almost no chance of reaggravation.

So that probably means Lucas and Henderson in midfield, with Coutinho playing ahead of them in his preferred #10 role. Sterling and Suarez will almost certainly take up two of the three attacking roles; I hoped we've learned enough from the Victor Moses experiment, especially given what we learned the last time these two sides met, allowing Luis Alberto to make his first Premiership start instead. There's also a small chance that Aspas could feature, either reverting to the 4-2-2-2 formation seen when both Suarez and Sturridge were available, or with Aspas on the right and Sterling on the left.

In addition to the aforementioned injuries, it'd be nice to give either Skrtel or Johnson a break. And by "break" I mean "make them go sit in the corner and think about what they've done over the last few matches." But thanks to those aforementioned injuries, sitting both of them doesn't seem an option. Johnson is the only right back available, as it doesn't appear that Martin Kelly counts anymore, so he pretty much has to play. However, there's a readymade replacement for Skrtel in Kolo Toure. Please use that readymade replacement. Did I mention that Liverpool haven't conceded a single goal when Toure and Agger were the center-back partnership, which happened in the first two matches of the season? I should probably mention that.

Hull, on the other hand, have an almost full squad to choose from. Robbie Brady's still struggling with a groin problem, Aluko's probably out for another month with a calf injury, but that's about it.

As has become usual this season, Steve Bruce seemingly has two options. Option A: the same system which frustrated Liverpool a month ago, using five at the back. Option B: keeping the faith with the 4-2-3-1 formation and XI which saw Hull put six past Fulham on Saturday. Option A would most likely be McGregor; Elmohamady, Chester, Davies, Figueroa, Boyd; Livermore, Huddlestone, Meyler; Koren, Sagbo. Maybe Figueroa at left wing-back, with Bruce as center-back. Option B would see either Meyler or Koren dropped for Rosenior, ostensibly coming in at right back, with Elmohamady and Boyd playing much further up the pitch.

I'd be very surprised if Bruce went with Option B, no matter the temptation to stick with a winning side. Hull have almost always lined up with three at the back against the top teams in the division, and that formation worked near-flawlessly against Liverpool last month.

Liverpool started December against Hull, and incurred a 1-3 loss in pathetic fashion. Liverpool now start 2014 against the same opposition, but this time at Anfield, needing to make amends for the horrific performance 31 days ago, and needing to put the last two matches as far from memory as possible.

It's a new year, after all.

30 December 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), 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.

Yesterday was the day where Liverpool finally ran out of gas. It'd been coming.

Liverpool completed and attempted fewer passes than expected, took fewer shots than expected, had less possession than expected, even considering the opposition and venue. But of course, the same 10 players started the last three matches over eight days – the only changes coming at left-back – with Gerrard, Sturridge, Enrique, and Flanagan all unavailable through injuries picked up over the last month.

Even Suarez was susceptible – okay, maybe he's not a cyborg (*sigh*) – taking just two shots (tied for his low in a match this season, against Crystal Palace, where he also scored) and creating just two chances (he created none against Sunderland, his first match back, but scored twice).

But the midfield seemed most vulnerable. Liverpool couldn't stem the tide as Chelsea responded to the opening goal, unable to get a foot on the ball, with Chelsea attempted and completed twice as many passes as Liverpool between the first and second goals.

Liverpool completed just eight passes in Chelsea's half during that 14 minute spell. Eight. And just two in the attacking third, both on the edge of the attacking third. In full flow, Chelsea are a very good side (even if Mourinho rarely releases those shackles), but they played through Liverpool with ease during the first half, attacking midfielders dicing through the center of pitch, prancing past all three of Liverpool's midfielders on both goals.

"Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson probably played at 70 per cent, they were both injured. Joe had an injection to try to quash the pain in his abductor. Eventually when that wore off, it went really. We'll see how long that will be. We'll obviously assess Jordan as well."

Well, that'd help explain it.

Liverpool completed just 49 passes in the attacking third, attempting just 80, the lowest since Rodgers became manager.

Liverpool were better in the second half, but not better enough.

The only match where Liverpool came close to that low was last season's 2-2 draw at Arsenal, where Liverpool completed 54. Every other "bad" attacking third performance has seen Liverpool complete at least 60 attacking third passes, as in this season's matches at Swansea and Everton, both matches that Liverpool drew. And at least in last season's match at Arsenal, Liverpool were trying to protect a two-goal lead, with Arsenal only turning the screws after Liverpool scored the second in the 60th minute. Chelsea began turning the screws in the 4th minute yesterday, pushed back in the second half, but with Liverpool almost totally unable to threaten an equalizer.

Another facet that stood out was how many of Chelsea's tackles and interceptions took place in Liverpool's half. Seven of 12 interceptions and nine of 19 tackles. At their best, Liverpool are usually the side who presses the opposition, Suarez and the rest of the front six hassling players into mistakes, preventing them from setting the tenor or tempo. That simply wasn't possible yesterday, whether due to Chelsea's style or the aforementioned fatigue. And I'm tempted to place the blame on the latter.

Just two of Liverpool's 11 interceptions and nine of 29 tackles took place in Chelsea's half. Below is the average line for each side's defensive actions: tackles, both successful and unsuccessful, as well as interceptions.

Chelsea also recovered the ball higher up the pitch than Liverpool.

Mourinho's side did well to put Liverpool's fatigued midfielders and attackers under pressure, preventing them from creating the intricate moves which led to the goal against City (and nearly led to more). Liverpool were forced massively deeper than usual, and deeper than Chelsea played, a trait reinforced by each side's average player position.

Still, for all the condemnation, for all we're ruing injuries and the fixture list, losing at Chelsea (and City) shouldn't be wholly unexpected, no matter how high hopes have been raised. Only two top-7 teams have won on another top-7 team's ground so far this season: Liverpool, when thrashing 7th place Tottenham 5-0, and Everton, beating 6th place Manchester United 1-0.

Arsenal lost at City and United, drew at Everton. City lost at Chelsea, by the same scoreline as Liverpool. Chelsea drew at Arsenal and United, lost at Everton. Everton drew at Arsenal, lost at City. United drew at Tottenham, lost at City and Liverpool. Tottenham lost at City and Arsenal, drew at Everton.

None of those sides played more than three top-7 away games in the first half of the season; City only played one. Liverpool played five, winning at Tottenham, drawing at Everton, and losing at Arsenal, City, and Chelsea. Arsenal, City, Chelsea, Everton, and Tottenham all still have to come to Anfield.

After 19 games, Liverpool sit one point off the Champions League places, six off of top spot. This season's not over by a long shot.

29 December 2013

Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Skrtel 4'
Hazard 17'
Eto'o 34'

That was familiar. Because it was a worse version of Thursday's match at Manchester City. Déjà vu all over again.

The last two matches have seen Liverpool ruthlessly punished for the small squad and injuries to crucial players. For the third consecutive fixture, all in the last eight days, Liverpool's only change came at left-back, with Agger replacing Cissokho. And Liverpool's midfield looked completely fatigued, the same players (read: Johnson, Skrtel, and, to a lesser extent, Mignolet) continued making mistakes, even Suarez showed signs of wear and tear. Chelsea have played more matches than Liverpool over the festive period, but their vastly deeper squad allowed for four changes from the last match – a nearly full-strength XI if not for Ramires' suspension – allowed for Chelsea to overcome an early injury to Ivanovic with no ill effects.

Early goals are usually good for Liverpool, the last two matches aside. But as stupid as it sounds, today's might have been too early. Skrtel's 4th minute goal raised hopes, capitalizing on Liverpool's first set play, as Suarez knocked down Coutinho's delivery and the Slovakian mopped up the rebound from close range, but Chelsea immediately penned Liverpool back.

Liverpool's midfield was immediately overrun as Chelsea dominated possession. It was obvious that the players suffered from the quick rebound from the last match, especially those in Liverpool's engine room, as Henderson, Allen, and Lucas could barely get a foot on the ball. Hazard and Willian provided constant threat from the flanks.

A minute after Liverpool's opener, Mignolet was called into action to deny Hazard, with Johnson needing to clear the rebound off the line. In the eighth minute, Cahill put a set play wide from the same position where Skrtel scored from. And in the 12th, Lampard's 30-yard rocket required a magnificent save from Mignolet. It looked like a matter of time before Chelsea leveled.

It was a matter of time. Another Chelsea break after Liverpool lost possession (Coutinho's attempted throughball to Suarez cut out), slicing and dicing passes through five static Liverpool players in the center circle. Oscar charges at Skrtel, Sakho makes the crucial interceptions, but the ball falls perfectly for Hazard, wonderfully curling a shot into the far corer from the top of the arc.

An equalizer provided little reprieve as Chelsea kept the foot on the gas. Liverpool nearly carved their way through Chelsea's defense for a second, Suarez, Henderson, and Allen combining beautifully after good work from Sterling and Johnson down the right, but Cahill's last ditch block prevented the Welshman from getting a shot off from eight yards out.

That was very much against the run of the play, though, and in the 34th minute, Chelsea took the lead. Again, Chelsea passed through Liverpool's midfield far too easily before finding Azpilicueta on the right, somehow finding space to cross around Agger. Oscar couldn't control, but the ricochet off Sakho somehow fell directly back to Oscar, dancing to byline before a pullback to Eto'o, who'd criminally gotten in front of Skrtel despite that literally being Oscar's only option. As against City, Mignolet really should have prevented the goal after getting a hand to the shot, but I just can't stop glaring at Skrtel for allowing the shot in the first place. Déjà vu all over again. And another goal set up because the ball bounced kindly for Chelsea. Damn you, football gods.

Liverpool's sole response before the interval again fell to Joe Allen in the box on the end of a good move, but this time, Cech saved the shot, with Suarez unable to collect the rebound. Unlike both of Chelsea's goals, this time, the ball bounced unkindly. Like against City, small margins and all that.

39.7% possession in the first half was the third-lowest in any half since Rodgers took over, behind just the second halves in this season's trip to Swansea and last season's trip to Arsenal, matches where Liverpool were trying to protect a result, any result. That's not good. In fact, it's the opposite of good.

Like against City, Liverpool started the second half the better side, finally taking the game to the opposition. And like against City, Liverpool had chances to equalize, chances that they should and could have taken: Sakho heading off the crossbar after a quick 52nd minute free kick, Suarez volleying straight at Cech in the 58th. a carbon copy of his opener against Cardiff except in the finish.

But by the 75th minute, those chances dried up. Like against City. And like against City, Liverpool simply didn't have the personnel to reclaim the edge. Allen's 60th minute injury required a shift in formation, bringing on 19-year-old Brad Smith for his debut, shifting to three at the back. The only other change made was bringing on Aspas for Johnson in the 84th, with Sterling going to wing-back, which was exactly as effective as it was against Manchester City. And like against City, the match ended not with a bang but a whimper. Fernando Torres, King of the Island of Misfit Toys, had the only chance of the last 10 minutes, a Chelsea break which ended with the striker (in name only) shooting straight at Mignolet after a dangerous run.

From first on Christmas Day to fifth to start the New Year. This month's fixtures have laid Liverpool's weaknesses wholly bare, from the utter failure at Hull to just-not-good-enough at both City and Chelsea, no matter the thrashing delivered to Tottenham and strolls past weaker sides at Anfield sandwiched in between. This is the first time that Liverpool have lost consecutive league matches under Rodgers.

Unlike against City, you can't say the loss wasn't deserved. Yes, Chelsea's goals had an element of fortune, yes, Liverpool had opportunities to equalize, but Chelsea were thoroughly the better side. Much of that was due to injuries combined with Liverpool's already small squad making it nigh impossible to rotate players during the festive period pile-up, some of it due to Liverpool and certain players making the same mistakes (especially in defense), less of it due to misfortune, and less of it due to some infuriating refereeing.

No matter. Liverpool are where they are, and that's in fifth, just the second time Liverpool have dropped out of the Champions League places this season, something that hasn't happened since the loss at Hull to start the month. It's been a long December.

Had you told me back in August that Liverpool would be a point off the Champions League places, six points off the top of the table, at the end of 2013, I'd have gladly taken it. That it's a massive disappointment now is an apt demonstration of just how far Liverpool has come over these last five months. This is most assuredly a set-back, but it doesn't seem a season-defining one. The 2013-14 campaign is exactly half over. Players will return from injury and Liverpool look likely to reinforce with at least one new player – and hopefully more – in the January transfer window.

It should get better. It can't be as hard, or as bad, as the last week has been. But Liverpool still have a long way to go before this season is anywhere near successful.

28 December 2013

Liverpool at Chelsea 12.29.13

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 02.03.13
1-1 (a) 08.26.12
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12
1-2 Chelsea (n; FA Cup) 05.05.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 City (a); 3-1 Cardiff (h); 5-0 Tottenham (a)
Chelsea: 1-0 Swansea (h); 0-0 Arsenal (a); 1-2 Sunderland aet (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 19; Sturridge 9; Gerrard, Sterling 3; Coutinho 2; Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho, Skrtel 1
Chelsea: Hazard 7; Oscar 5; Lampard 4; Schürrle 3; Eto'o, Terry, Torres 2; Ba, Cahill, Ivanovic, Mikel, Ramires, Willian 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Cissokho
Henderson Allen
Sterling Suarez Coutinho

This'll be Liverpool's third match in eight days, tomorrow's coming just three days after the last. There will be another, against Hull on New Year's Day, just three days after that. You'd think Liverpool's XI would see a fair amount of rotation.

You'd probably be wrong. Because Liverpool don't really have players to rotate.

That Moses and Aspas were the players chosen when chasing the game against Manchester City demonstrates just how tied Rodgers' hands are. And Moses can't play tomorrow because of his loan agreement. Coutinho, removed in the 68th minute on Thursday, looked especially fatigued, but Liverpool simply don't have many other options in the front six.

The one area where Liverpool could rotate is at center-back. At City, Skrtel did bad Skrtel things, Sakho also looked fatigued, Liverpool conceded two goals they probably shouldn't have conceded. Skrtel and Sakho have started the last four fixtures. Toure could come in for Skrtel, Agger for Sakho. The reverse probably won't happen though. The Toure/Skrtel combination was abhorrent against Hull; Rodgers has refused to use Sakho and Agger together in a center-back partnership, and I doubt he'll start at Chelsea.

And Jon Flanagan will still be injured, limiting Liverpool's choices at fullback. I've absolutely zero clue what Martin Kelly's deal is. If the options are Cissokho again or a center-back at left-back, I'm going with the center-back, especially if that center-back is Agger, the reverse of what Rodgers chose against Southampton. But that's assuming Kelly is still unavailable, and Rodgers won't replace Sakho with Agger. And, to be honest, Cissokho again seems a lot more likely.

Mourinho, on the other hand, will almost assuredly rotate his squad, at least more than Liverpool will. Because Mourinho has a much bigger squad than Liverpool. Cech will obviously start in goal. There are three choices for two spots at full-back – Ivanovic, Azpilicueta, and Cole – and three choices for two spots at center-back – Luiz, Terry, and Cahill. Midfield is the one area where Chelsea are limited for options: Ramires' suspension coupled with van Ginkel's season-long injury means that Lampard and Mikel are almost certain to start. Chelsea have the most options in the attacking line of three, but Hazard and Oscar almost always start the big matches, meaning that Mourinho will probably choose from Willian and Schürrle to take the third spot. And Chelsea have three options up front, but none have really stood out; Torres is probably the most likely, facing his former club, as Eto'o again failed to impress in the last match against Swansea and Demba Ba is very much the third choice.

Chelsea have been very Mourinho this season, if slightly less impressively Mourinho than expected upon the "Special One's" return. Jose's still unbeaten in the league at Stamford Bridge, if only because of a wholly undeserved injury time penalty last month. Despite the big name attackers, Chelsea have struggled in front of goals; they've chance creators galore with Hazard, Oscar, Mata, Schürrle, Willian, and De Bruyne (only City, Liverpool, and Spurs have created more), but the strikers haven't been able to take those chances. Regardless, any and all of those attacking midfielders are threatening on counter-attacks, and Liverpool's second goal conceded against Manchester City most assuredly demonstrated Liverpool's vulnerability on counters. And, as always, Mourinho's side remains one of the toughest to score on. Only Everton have conceded fewer goals than Chelsea – 17 to Chelsea's 18 (Arsenal and Southampton have also conceded 18).

Last season, these sides drew both meetings: 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, 2-2 at Anfield. But Liverpool drew both of last season's meetings with their last opponent, and subsequently lost 1-2 to Manchester City on Thursday. Also, Chelsea scored on a set play in both of last season's meetings as well. Maybe that's not comforting precedent. Let's try this again.

Liverpool haven't lost a league match to Chelsea since May 2010, Benitez's last season, a 0-2 home loss where Liverpool, at best, simply went through the motions and, at worst, allowed Chelsea to win to prevent United winning the title.

Even in 2010-11 or 2011-12, when Liverpool was clearly an inferior side, they performed to maximum capacity against this opponent. Tomorrow, clinging to a top four spot, Liverpool have even more to play for. We'll need to see Liverpool at maximum capacity, the lack of rest or rotation be damned, to pick up the needed one point tomorrow, let alone all three.

27 December 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), 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.

Small consolation, but no side has given City a tougher game on their ground so far this season.

Only United and Tottenham took more shots; they lost 4-1 and 6-0 respectively. Only Arsenal and Everton had a higher shot conversion rate than Liverpool did; they lost 6-3 and 3-1 respectively. Only Tottenham and Swansea completed more passes than Liverpool did; Swansea lost 3-0. Only Swansea had a higher pass accuracy. Tottenham, Swansea, and United all had more possession than Liverpool, but all three were allowed that possession after City had put the game out of reach.

City had converted 23.6% of their shots in the first eight home matches, scoring once every 4.22 shots. City scored on just two of 20 shots yesterday, a 10% conversion rate. Only Hull had limited City to "just" two goals at home so far this season.

Sure, it makes no difference in the standings – City has won all three points on offer in their nine home matches this season, no matter how well or poorly the opposition has played – but it is a sign that Liverpool really can be one of the better sides in the league, and are deservedly in the discussion for the top four places.

City and Liverpool's passing totals may have been fairly similar, but who made those passes seems telling. Liverpool's top two passers? Sakho and Lucas, a center-back and the defensive midfielder. City's top two passers? David Silva and Yaya Toure. Much more of City's passes came in the opposition half, most notably down Liverpool's left. All five of City's midfielders attempted at least 50 passes, including the two wide players. Compare how involved Nasri and Navas were to Coutinho and Sterling. It's not a pretty comparison, nor does it speak well to how Liverpool's fullbacks defended.

And credit to City for how well they defended Luis Suarez. The last side to hold Suarez to "just" five shots was Hull – that horrible, horrible match. Arsenal, Everton, and Palace are the only sides to hold up under that total, and he scored against both Everton and Palace regardless. He'd been averaging 6.4 shots per game before yesterday's match, 7.4 in the five matches following Sturridge's injury.

That's not to say they rendered Suarez's invisible. He was at the hub of all of Liverpool's best moves, providing the pass to release Sterling that set up Liverpool's goal, the pass which should have released Sterling if not for an incorrect offside flag, the cross which Sterling should have buried in the 73rd, and leading the intricate attack which led to a glorious chance in the 40th minute. His four chances created were above his season-long average of 3.2, if only slightly. He realized he'd have to be more creator than scorer because of City's attentions and adjusted his game, only slipping back into selfish mode in the 51st minute, blasting at Hart from an acute angle with three players in a better position.

But mistakes are costly, and mistakes led to both of Liverpool's goals yesterday – even if only Mignolet's failed save statistically counts as a "defensive error." No side has made more defensive errors than Liverpool this season (via Squawka), at least one in every match. Liverpool have been lucky that only two have been punished, both by Mignolet, in the 3-1 win against Sunderland and yesterday's loss. But that doesn't count Skrtel's mistakes, either when defending Kompany on yesterday's set play goal or in his positioning on City's breakaway goal, or Cissokho's gaffes in those dangerous first 10-15 minutes, or Sakho's errant passing giveaways. It has been a team-wide problem, no matter formation or personnel. Liverpool have coped better in some matches than others, but it's been a constant problem.

Given how well Liverpool have done in attack, even considering that Liverpool only scored once yesterday, fixing the defense – especially on set plays – seems to be the only thing holding Liverpool back from being a truly great team.

26 December 2013

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester City

Coutinho 24'
Kompany 31'
Negredo 45+1'

There's a bit to be angry about, a bit to be depressed over, and a bit to be encouraged by.

First, the good news. Liverpool played well, matched City step for step for the majority of the match, even looked better than City for spells. Everyone gets beaten by City at home – it's the first time that City have failed to win by at least two goals at home this season – and City will have to travel to every other top either team except Chelsea in the second half of the season. Arsenal, Everton, United, Tottenham, and Newcastle were bullied at the City of Manchester Stadium. Liverpool were assuredly not bullied today.

The bad news: Liverpool conceded two Charmin soft goals – a set play and a counter attack, both starring Martin Skrtel – and missed a couple of glorious opportunities to equalize in the second half. Bullied or not, Liverpool still lost. The thin margins between a deserved point and a painful defeat.

With Flanagan not fit and Martin Kelly not even in the squad, Aly Cissokho made his first appearance since the 4-0 win against Fulham in early November. And City tormented that weak spot early and often, doubling up on the stand-in left back with Zabaleta and Nasri as Coutinho provided little assistance. It seemed a matter of time before City took advantage.

But it didn't last. Liverpool increasingly, incrementally asserted themselves after a scary start, and probably should have opened the scoring in the 19th minute. Or, more accurately, should have been allowed the chance to open the scoring, with Suarez's throughball finding Sterling's dangerous run piercing City's back line, put one-on-one with a scrambling Joe Hart.

Everyone in the stadium but the linesman and Lee Mason saw that he was onside. Sigh. Four minutes later, Coutinho's glorious pass nearly put Allen in, but a heavy touch allowed Lescott in to block. Still, City couldn't stop the bum rush. Another Suarez throughball, this chipped over City's back line, falling perfectly for Sterling, rounding Hart before Coutinho took over, smashing in from a marginally better angle.

But just like that, the match seesawed back. City immediately burst back into life, burst into Liverpool's half. Skrtel's last ditch block denied Toure, requiring a last ditch block because three Liverpool defenders were initially caught flat-footed. And of course, because Liverpool remain Liverpool, City's inevitable equalizer came on a set play, the seventh goal Liverpool have conceded from a dead ball situation this season. Skrtel, again the scapegoat, more focused on wrestling with Kompany than out-jumping Kompany, beaten to a header which gave Mignolet no chance.

City kept up the pressure, but without control or result – despite periods of dominance, neither side ever seemed in control – Navas blasting well over and Nasri tamely shooting at Mignolet from the top of the box the best two chances. Then, a Liverpool break nearly resulted in the goal of the season, absolutely magnificent interplay between Suarez, Sterling, and Coutinho when Lee Mason played advantage ending with the Brazilian's shot from 12 yards out denied by Hart.

But just before halftime, Liverpool were caught with their pants down, aimlessly tripping over those downed pants as a laugh track played in the background. Cissokho's cross to no one led to a blitzkreig counter-attack, with just Skrtel and Sakho left in Liverpool's half. Skrtel couldn't decide which City attacker to mark, eventually charging way out of position to try to close down Navas, leaving Sakho scrambling and Negredo wide open. Mignolet could have, should have prevented the goal, getting fingertips to the toed shot from the top of the box, but as it trickled over the line, you couldn't help but be much more aggrieved with Skrtel's "defending".

The second half saw City revert to a defensive shell, a vastly more expensive version of what Liverpool did in its three 1-0 wins to start the season. Henderson toe-poked a shot high and wide from the top of the box, Kompany cut out Johnson's dangerous cross, Suarez blasted a no-angle shot directly at Hart with three players in the 18-yard-box to aim at, an offside Henderson unwittingly blocked a Suarez effort on goal, Johnson couldn't control a fortunate rebound that would have seen him with an eight-yard shot at an open near post. The worst was in the 73rd minute, when Sterling ballooned a close-range effort from Suarez's early whipped cross. It wasn't a sitter, trying to run onto and finish a fierce, bouncing cross, but it was a clear-cut opportunity.

You don't often get that many chances, even if most were half-chances, at Manchester City. Liverpool will obviously rue not being able to take at least one of them. Thin margins, and all that.

With a 2-1 lead, Manchester City brought on Milner, Dzeko, and Javi Garcia to try to protect the result. £70m+ worth of players, just waiting around to be used off the bench. Chasing the game, Liverpool brought on on-loan Victor Moses and £7m Iago Aspas. Neither Moses nor Aspas have played in a meaningful match since the former started in the loss at Hull, having been used as human victory cigars a couple of times this month. And that's after having to start on-loan Cissokho because three other fullbacks were unavailable. That's the difference between Manchester City and Liverpool at the moment, and it's a credit to both Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers that Liverpool were even in position to get something from today's match.

But the substitutions had little effect, Liverpool limited to a 35-yard Suarez free kick and three hopeful penalty shouts in an attempt to replicate the scoreline from both meetings last season. Lee Mason wholly unsurprisingly, ignored all three, as City did what Liverpool couldn't in the first half. Don't concede because you don't make mistakes. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

So yes, it's an annoying, if not entirely unexpected, result. Liverpool's charge towards finishing in the top four will most likely be decided by other matches, first and foremost Sunday's trip to Chelsea. But, even in defeat, Liverpool proved they belonged in the discussion, belonged in the battle. Despite the mistakes, despite disappointing performances from a few key players (*glares at Skrtel and Johnson*), despite the big names missing, despite the disparity in finances.

That's assuredly progress, even if it is small consolation.

25 December 2013

Liverpool at Manchester City 12.26.13

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (a) 02.03.13
2-2 (h) 08.26.12
2-2 (h; League Cup) 01.25.12
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 01.11.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Cardiff (h); 5-0 Tottenham (a); 4-1 West Ham (h)
City: 4-2 Fulham (a); 3-1 Leicester (a); 6-3 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 19; Sturridge 9; Gerrard, Sterling 3; Coutinho, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho, Skrtel 1
City: Agüero 13; Toure 9; Negredo 7; Nasri, Silva 4; Dzeko, Navas 3; Fernandinho 2; Kompany, Milner 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Sakho Johnson
Henderson Allen
Sterling Suarez Coutinho

Gerrard, Sturridge, Enrique, and most likely Flanagan are out for Liverpool. Agüero, Nastasic, Richards, and most likely Zabaleta and Jovetic are out for Manchester City.

The festive period. Match after match after match. Squads pushed to the limit. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Other than the probable absence of Jon Flanalahm thanks to a hamstring issue, I can't see any Liverpool changes. If it ain't broke, etc. There seems a small chance that Rodgers could rearrange things in an attempt to stifle City – change the center-back pairing or revert to three at the back – but he usually prefers to stick with a winning side, rotation and rest be damned. Given the way Liverpool have performed in the last two matches, I'd be surprised if it were otherwise.

And City will be difficult to stifle. They're the league's top scorers, the only club who've scored more than Liverpool, the only club with a better goal difference than Liverpool. They've won eight out of eight matches at home this season, scoring 35 while conceding just five. They've tallied six against Arsenal and Tottenham, four against United and Newcastle, and three against Everton at the City of Manchester Stadium. Yikes. To say the absolute least.

Pellegrini's side will line up in some variation of 4-2-3-1. Lately, it's been more of the 4-2-2-2 variety, with Negredo lurking off Dzeko or Agüero, Nasri and Silva wide, and Toure and Fernandinho taking turns bombing forward from midfield. And because of City's injuries, that set up seems likely tomorrow. Hart, returned to favor, in goal; Kompany and Demichelis at center-back, Toure and Fernandinho in midfield; Nasri, Negredo, and Silva in the attacking line of three; and Dzeko up top. With both Zabaleta and Richards missing, Clichy played at right-back, with Kolarov on the opposite flank, in the last match against Fulham. If the Argentinean is still unavailable, that'll probably be the case tomorrow as well.

Pellegrini could be slightly more conservative, playing either Negredo or Dzeko as the lone striker, bringing in Navas or Milner instead – Navas could pose a difficult challenge for whichever right-footed player lines up at left-back – with Silva lining up more centrally, or even pushing Toure further forward with Javi Garcia next to Fernandinho, but that seems the only potential change from last week's lineup.

It's been a Merry Christmas with Liverpool top of the league, something that hasn't happened in far too long, something that we should enjoy and celebrate after the torture and travails of the last few years. But it doesn't mean as much as we'd like given the next two matches to come. These two fixtures, starting with tomorrow's trip to Manchester, will go a long way towards deciding whether the league standing is a lie, whether Liverpool truly are contenders or pretenders.

23 December 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 3-1 Cardiff

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), 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.

Fairly standard fare. Liverpool dominated possession, tempo, and tenor, Liverpool made an early breakthrough thanks to Suarez's brilliance, Liverpool cruised. Fairly standard fare will suffice just fine at this point of the season.

Cardiff attempted and completed the fewest passes, with the lowest accuracy, of any Liverpool opponent so far this season. It's the second lowest passing total by a Liverpool opponent since Rodgers became manager, with Villa attempting just 211 passes, completing 146, in their 3-1 win at Anfield a year ago. That was also the only match where Liverpool had more possession in a single half than they did in the first half on Saturday, with 75.8% possession in the second half against Villa.

Wait. You're right. I shouldn't have mentioned that monstrosity of a match. I'm sorry.

Jordan Henderson tallied his fourth and fifth assists of the season, setting up both of Suarez's goals. Henderson has assisted at least one of Suarez's goals in three consecutive matches: Liverpool fourth against West Ham, the first goal at Tottenham, and the two goals on Saturday.

Liverpool's most frequent assist-scorer combination last season was Jose Enrique setting up Suarez. It happened four times. Henderson-to-Suarez has already surpassed that, in just 12 games.

It's been excellent to see the two increasingly on the same wavelength in the opposition half with Henderson playing a more influential, more attacking role in Gerrard's absence.

As hoped, the midfield performed almost as effectively as it did against Tottenham, with the difference most due to Cardiff's vastly improved organization. Henderson, Allen, and Lucas all know their roles, and mesh together excellently.

That Henderson's added a finishing touch – whether in his goal against Tottenham or the assists in both matches – has been the most important feature, or at least the feature that most worried me prior to these two matches, but all three midfielders continue to play the same harmonious tune.

Meanwhile, five of Cardiff's eight chances created came from set plays. It's good that Liverpool limited the opposition to just eight chances. It's quite good that they were limited to just three from open play. But it's bad that Cardiff created five chances from 10 set plays in Liverpool's defensive half, creating chances on three of the five corners and two of the five free kicks.

Six of the 19 goals that Liverpool have conceded so far this campaign have come from set plays. That's 31.6%. That's terrible. And that doesn't include goals by Everton and Hull which came after Liverpool failed to clear a free kick.

Saturday's consolation was especially abhorrent.

Where's Skrtel going? Why is Sakho left alone against two players at the back post? Liverpool conceded because of two mistakes: Skrtel broke the offside trap, someone forgot who he was marking. I assume the marking broke down because Kelly had just come on, changing the defensive assignments, but that's little excuse (if it's even correct). Regardless, these should be easily remedied mistakes. But we're still seeing far too many mistakes when defending set plays, and better sides will undoubtedly punish Liverpool for it.

Incidentally, after a 4-2 win over Fulham on Saturday where they scored from a corner and direct free kick, Manchester City now have 11 goals from set plays this season. Which is tied for the most in the league with Liverpool.

21 December 2013

Liverpool 3-1 Cardiff

Suarez 25' 45'
Sterling 42'
Mutch 58'

Another three points for Liverpool, a couple more records for Luis Suarez. It certainly wasn't all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, especially in the second half, but it was enough. And over the festive period, considering Liverpool's schedule over the festive period, enough is enough.

It took Liverpool a few minutes to get going, with Cardiff both pressing effectively and getting numbers behind the ball. And the away side were the first to threaten the opposition's goal, Noone dangerous on the counter, one-on-one with Sakho, but Mignolet denied his fierce left-footed shot. Thankfully, Suarez soon posted his "GENIUS AT WORK" sign atop Cardiff's penalty box, scoring twice and setting up one in a 20-minute span.

From the 18th minute until halftime, responding to Cardiff's counter-attacking chance, Liverpool were unbelievable. Three goals doesn't do that spell justice; Liverpool really were as good as they were against Tottenham over that period. And, once again, Suarez and Henderson were at the epicenter, linking up for all three goals. The first saw delightful interplay between Suarez, Henderson, and Allen: the two midfielders both getting forward, Allen's pass to Henderson at the top of Cardiff's penalty area, Henderson's delightful cross to Suarez posted just inside the box, volleyed into the ground and unsaveable.

Coutinho hit the foot of the post following Suarez's short corner, Skrtel skied a free header from a free kick, Flanagan was denied a goal in a second successive match by a goal-line clearance, two Liverpool throughballs in 30 seconds put Sterling and Johnson one-on-one with the keeper, but the former saw his shot saved, the latter's heavy touch allowed Marshall to come out and smother.

And with all those chances squandered and halftime imminent, you couldn't help but wonder how Liverpool would be punished after the interval. Ha. Five minutes left. Still time for two more goals. The first was a picture book blitzkrieg break: Henderson's toe poked long ball releasing Suarez, unselfishly squared for an apparently-just-onside-but-maybe-a-step-offside Sterling. Three minutes later, Suarez and Flanagan combined to charge down the left, Henderson's pressing ensured Liverpool kept possession despite Flanagan's off-target pass, and the midfielder's oh-lord-that's-clever back heel gave Suarez the bit of space to allow a science-defying curler from 20 yards. Two Henderson back heels leading to Liverpool goals in two consecutive games. That's so delicious it has to be fattening.

Also, Luis Suarez. 12 games, 19 goals, 5 assists. Wow. Just wow.

I have no words that'll suffice. None.

So, three-nil, game over. Much like the match at Palace, Liverpool seemed satisfied when hitting halftime up three. Which is somewhat understandable with City and Chelsea on the horizon, but still somewhat annoying, especially when Liverpool concede on a set play and Skrtel could have been called for two penalties.

Today's set play concession might have been a new low. To be fair, Liverpool had just made its first substitution, replacing Flanagan with Kelly and Johnson going to left-back, so defensive assignments may have gotten mucked up. But that's little excuse for absolutely no one marking Jordan Mutch, wide open at the back post, heading Whittingham's free kick past a helpless Mignolet. And Cardiff kept Liverpool on the back foot for the next 15 minutes, kept winning and threatening from free kicks and corners.

Mackay's halftime talk clearly raised Cardiff's game, Mackay's substitutions – Campbell and Kim for Odemwingie and Medel – made Cardiff more threatening. That he'll inevitably be fired before Cardiff's next match boggles the mind. But Liverpool did enough to prevent a second which would really get nerves jangling. And Liverpool finally got back on track by the 75th minute, denied a fourth when Suarez hit the post, fired wide, and had an effort saved by Marshall. No third hat-trick of the season for you. You'll have to settle for the 19 goals and five assists in 12 games, registering a goal or assist once every 45 minutes in the league this season. Which is more goals than 11 Premiership sides have scored in total.

As against Tottenham, Liverpool's midfield continued to impress with these players in this shape. And Henderson continued to be the standout, responsible for two assists in an advanced role, even though he's struggled in an advanced role against deep defenses in the past. Allen is a perfect foil, excellent at keeping possession and moving intelligently, smart with both passing and positioning. Sterling and Flanagan also stood out – surprise, surprise, young players get better and better with more, consistent match time. Skrtel frightened at times, Johnson remains underwhelming (to say the absolute least), Coutinho probably needs to stop shooting from distance, and Lucas has had better games, but Liverpool were still more than deserving of the win.

And Suarez remains first among equals. When he's in this form, few sides will stop Liverpool from running riot. Enjoy your new contract, Luis. It's worth every last cent.

20 December 2013

Liverpool v Cardiff 12.21.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 [3-2 on penalties] Liverpool (n; League Cup) 02.26.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.31.07
0-4 Cardiff (h) 12.19.59
2-3 Cardiff (a) 08.22.59

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Tottenham (a); 4-1 West Ham (h); 5-1 Norwich (h)
Cardiff: 1-0 West Brom (h); 0-2 Palace (a); 0-0 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Sturridge 9; Gerrard 3; Sterling 2; Coutinho, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho, Skrtel 1
Cardiff: Campbell 3; Caulker, Mutch, Whittingham 2; Kim, Gunnarsson, Odemwingie 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Henderson Allen
Sterling Suarez Coutinho

I'd be very surprised if Liverpool's XI looked any different than last Sunday's.

It worked to near-perfection, there have been six days since Liverpool's last match, and there will be four more before the Boxing Day trip to City. Gerrard, Sturridge, and Enrique are all still out injured, and will be for a few more weeks.

However, Liverpool will be facing a side completely different from Tottenham. There will be no high back line, no wide open spaces behind a broken offside trap. Caulker and Turner will sit far deeper, camped just outside their penalty box, supported by Medel nipping at Liverpool ankles across the length and breadth of Cardiff's half. Johnson will need to have a much more dynamic game getting forward from fullback, but the biggest test would be of Henderson. He's struggled in an attacking midfield role against deep defenses, and his runs almost certainly won't be as effective as they were on Sunday.

But Liverpool's performance against Tottenham merits another go-around – Rodgers often subscribes to the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' school of management – and will help prove whether it's a formation for the future or a one-off fluke.

Also, I will be incredibly disappointed in Suarez doesn't mark his new contract with at least one goal. Fair warning.

It seems a handy time to play Cardiff at Anfield, with the traveling side amidst self-inflicted turmoil. Malky Mackay is still the manager, for now, supposedly given an ultimatum by the owner to resign or be fired, but has been allowed to take charge of tomorrow's game. So either Cardiff implodes, or the players respond with a magnificent performance to support their embattled manager. Crap. It's probably going to be the latter, isn't it? Super. Maybe it's not a handy time to play Cardiff.

The "Dragons'" (read: Bluebirds') last two matches seem a decent guide as to how Cardiff will play tomorrow. Away to Palace, Cardiff lined up in a more defensive 4-4-1-1, packing the midfield with Medel, Kim, Whittingham, Cowie, and Mutch, with Campbell up front on his own. And Cardiff lost 0-2, conceding an early goal then unable to get back into the game.

In contrast, Mackey chose one of his most-attacking XIs in the next match against West Brom at home, and reaped a 1-0 win as a reward, a result which cost Steve Clarke his job. More a 4-1-3-2 formation, with Noone, Mutch, and Whittingham ahead of Medel, and both Campbell and Odemwingie up front.

Despite the poor result, I suspect Cardiff's XI will look more like the one which lost at Palace. More defensive, more compact, with the hopes of preventing the early goal which ruined the strategy at Palace. Especially since Liverpool thrives when Liverpool scores early. Which would make the XI something like: Marshall; Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Turner, John; Cowie, Medel, Whittingham, Kim; Mutch; Campbell. Craig Bellamy is Cardiff's only injury doubt, perpetually struggling with the knee problems that have plagued him over the last few seasons, but knowing Craig, he'll probably do all he can to at least make the bench.

Only Crystal Palace have scored fewer goals than Cardiff this season, 11 to Cardiff's 12 (Sunderland have also scored 12). But five of Cardiff's 12 goals – 41.7% – have come from set plays, tied for the highest proportion in the league along with Sunderland. Liverpool have scored the most set play goals this season, but they only account for 28.2% of all goals. Whittingham is excellent on dead ball situations, either taking direct free kicks or crossing into the box. And Liverpool remain vulnerable on set plays, no matter who plays in defense. Five of the 18 that Liverpool have conceded (27.8%) have come from set plays, and that doesn't include goals by Everton and Hull which came after Liverpool failed to clear a free kick.

I'll be honest. Even though Liverpool will be at Anfield, I can't get the Hull performance out of my head. The home side cannot cannot cannot be complacent. Liverpool can't turn up expecting to win, can't already be thinking about Christmas dinner and the next two matches at City and Chelsea. The last time Liverpool underestimated Cardiff was the last time Liverpool faced Cardiff, needing extra-time and penalties to lift Liverpool's first trophy in six seasons.

It should go without saying, but these matches are just as important as the next two. Three points are three points are three points. Hopefully, the side will have learned something from the Hull debacle.

18 December 2013

Timeline: Luis Suarez's Premier League Goals

Ben Pugsley of StatsBomb – a website you need to be reading and following on Twitter; this is not a suggestion, it's a requirement – published an excellent, excellent article on Suarez's scoring rate today. It (both the article and Suarez's scoring rate) is outstanding. There's little I can add to it.

However, being the visual learner that I am, I wanted another chart to emphasize just how much Suarez's scoring rate has improved during his Liverpool tenure. So I made one.

As usual, click to open larger version in new window

Holy wow.

After 44 league appearances, Suarez had 15 goals. After 88, he's got 55.

It goes without saying, but long may it continue.

(PS: If you haven't clicked on the link to that StatsBomb article yet, you're fired. Pack your desk and security will escort you out.)

16 December 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 5-0 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), 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.

I have no idea what Spurs' defense is doing here. Capoue's so far out of position he might as well be in the dressing room. Dawson's dropped behind every other defender, aware of Henderson's dangerous run, and makes the interception, but no one's in position to clear; everyone else was beaten all ends up by the throughball. And it leads to this.

Good luck with that, Kyle Walker.

Oh hey, 'sup, just taking out your entire unorganized defense with one long cross-field pass. Maybe someone thinks about marking Henderson? He keeps making all these runs from midfield. No?

And throughball. Oh look, there's Henderson again.

And throughball.

And throughball. Andre Villas-Boas, what do you think?

Yesterday's match was a story of a high line taken out by long passes over the top and throughballs, offside traps beaten like a red-headed step-mule who stole something. Enjoy the above infographic. Revel in the statistical dominance. But this biggest reason for this utter shellacking was Tottenham's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad defense. It is not a clever idea to play such a high line against the likes of Suarez and Liverpool, especially when missing your top three center-backs and top two left-backs, and using a defensive midfielder as a makeshift center-back. And now Villas-Boas is out of a job.

Believe me, that's not to downplay Liverpool's performance. Because that's the last thing I want to do. There's often too much "Liverpool only romped because the opposition was so bad" after the big wins over the last year. I'm guilty of it as well. It's one thing when demolishing a substandard Fulham or Palace, or when Suarez single-handedly disembowels Norwich. But yesterday was against a Tottenham side that's finished above Liverpool in each of the last four seasons, who's beaten Liverpool on this ground in each of the last six meetings. I don't care how much Villas-Boas side has struggled this season, how inane the defensive tactics were. That happened against Tottenham and that was marvelous.

No one outfield player dominated possession for Liverpool. Henderson attempted the most passes with 63, Sterling the fewest with 29, but every other outfield starter attempted between 35 and 55. It's evident in StatsZone's 'Player Influence' chart, where no name stands out. Compare that passing to, say, the big wins over Norwich, where the midfield troika monopolized the ball, or Fulham, where six players attempted at least 70 passes. Yesterday's win truly seemed much more of a team performance.

But, again, Suarez was the star of stars, primus inter pares. Two goals and two assists, as well as the shot which directly led to Henderson's rebound for Liverpool's second. Lost amongst the match's brilliance, lost amongst Flanagan's undeniably enjoyable first goal for the club, was just how good the finish for his second was. And he made it look routine, feel routine.

Liverpool have scored 34 goals since Suarez became available after missing the first five matches through suspension. 34 goals in 11 matches. He's been directly involved in 21 of them, with 17 goals and 4 assists, but there's another five goals he set up but doesn't get statistical credit for: his shot yesterday rebounding for Henderson's goal; deflected shots that led to Amorebieta and Demel's own goals and Coutinho's opener against Everton; winning the penalty against Newcastle. Add those five, and that's a direct, tangible contribution to 76.4% of Liverpool's goals in the matches he's played in. That's a staggering total.

There were 24 passes, over a little more than a minute, prior to Liverpool's fifth goal. Every Liverpool player touched the ball at least once, everyone aside from Johnson and Suarez got it back at least a second time. 21 of those passes came in Liverpool's half before Sterling's speedy dribble into the final third, a fortunate cross-field pass, Suarez's jink and throughball, Sterling wide open and able to pass it into the back of the net. Skrtel and Coutinho each received and played four passes in the build-up, Henderson and Flanagan three. Yes, Spurs were thoroughly, thoroughly beaten by this point, but that only makes it a little less enjoyable. It was a fitting capstone to the day's proceedings. Death by football spelled out to the last letter.

In addition to putting none of their nine shots on target – as written in yesterday's match review, for the first time at White Hart Lane since Opta starting collecting data in 2006-07 – Tottenham only created five chances, by far the lowest total of the season. They'd been averaging 13.7 per match prior to yesterday. Like Liverpool in 2011-12, creating chances hadn't been the problem, it's converting them. And yes, that's meant to be the damning comparison it seems. But they couldn't do either yesterday, thanks in large part to Liverpool's midfield and defense.

Meanwhile, none of Liverpool's 14 chances created came from out wide. All were clustered through the middle, most in front of the box, another indictment of Spurs' defending. But part of the reason was also Liverpool's woefulness from set plays. That looks to be the biggest thing Liverpool will miss during Gerrard's absence, and could well be very important against teams that defend better than Spurs did.

15 December 2013

Liverpool 5-0 Tottenham

Suarez 18' 84'
Henderson 40'
Flanagan 75'
Sterling 89'

That was unexpected. And it's one way to avenge all the woe at White Hart Lane over the last five years.

Considering the opposition, that's almost certainly the best Liverpool performance I've seen since Rodgers became manager, but I also might be a little biased at the moment. Because Liverpool deserved every inch of that.

Liverpool's formation and tactics wholly blunted Tottenham's threat on Tottenham's ground. Liverpool's midfield blunted the best part of Tottenham's team. Henderson, Allen, and Sterling each played their best match for the club. Suarez was Suarez, in all his bomb-throwing, mustache twirling glory. That was Liverpool's first clean sheet in five weeks and just the second away clean sheet this season, since beating Villa 1-0 in the second match of the season. Spurs registered zero shots on target today. Zero.

Well then.

What Liverpool lost on set plays with Gerrard absent was more than made up by the vastly improved work rate in the center of the park. Sure, Liverpool didn't create a single chance from a set piece, but Henderson, Allen, and Lucas' open play ability was fair compensation. The inverted triangle worked to perfection, with Henderson and Allen pressing Spurs into mistakes, keeping Sandro and Dembele from setting the tone, constantly testing Tottenham's unfathomably high back line. Spurs simply could not get a foothold in the match. At all. Those three will have to do it more than once before it's confirmation that Liverpool are a better team without Gerrard, but that was a hell of a start.

Liverpool took the game to Tottenham from the opening whistle, given a platform for dominance by the incredibly impressive midfield. Once again, an early goal set the tone. Once again, it came from Suarez, well-supported by Henderson and Sterling. But it was a back-to-front team goal. Skrtel won Spurs' hoofed ball from their own half in the air; Johnson, Allen, Sterling, and Suarez – especially Sterling – kept possession down Liverpool's right, continuing the constant torment of Tottenham's left-back Naughton before Suarez's attempted throughball for Henderson. Dawson intercepted, but Henderson kept up the pressure, winning the ball back before a clever lay-off to Suarez, charging into the box, stepping around Walker's rash diving tackle, coolly placing a left-footed shot past Lloris.

Tottenham then had a couple of chances when getting play out wide and crossing into the box, but Liverpool defended its area admirably; the only truly threatening moment was when Holtby – on in place of Sandro through injury – placed a shot wide just before Liverpool's second goal. Again, Henderson, Sterling, and Suarez were central to it: Suarez holding up play, Sterling's wonderful pass over the top destroying Spurs' high back line, laid off to Henderson by Coutinho. Lloris made two immaculate saves, denying Henderson and Suarez, but couldn't prevent the second rebound, well-placed just inside the post after Henderson refused to give up. Liverpool more than merited its 2-0 halftime lead, which could have been more had Coutinho's 28th minute strike not rebounded off the crossbar.

And Liverpool started the second half the same way they finished the first, denied another goal by the goal frame as Sakho headed a point blank shot onto the post from Sterling's cross. But from there, Tottenham grew into the game. Grew into the game without threat, but grew into the game nonetheless. And one of Villas-Boas' remedies did work to an extent, as bringing on Zeke Fryers for Naughton limited Liverpool down the dominant flank. Tottenham still failed to test Mignolet, Liverpool continued to do well to deny shots from dangerous positions, but the home side did boss possession for the first 18 minutes of the half.

But frustration continued to mount, in the stands and on the pitch. And it boiled over through Paulinho, karate kicking Suarez in the chest after the Uruguayan nipped the ball out of his reach. Jon Moss was perfectly placed and Jon Moss is not Howard Webb, so Paulinho walked, rightfully shown an immediate red card.

And that was the end of the game as a contest. Villas-Boas couldn't even shift into damage control having already made three substitutions. The next 30 minutes were sheer exhilarating enjoyment, highlighted by Flanagan's first goal for the club, a wonderful first time shot from Suarez's cross, again released by Henderson, with the woodwork making some amends by directing the blast down and over the line. But Suarez and Sterling also added further gloss: Suarez with a sumptuous chip over Lloris set up by Luis Alberto, Sterling breaking through Tottenham's offside trap yet again thanks to Suarez's throughball.

A 5-0 win seems fitting vengeance for the 0-4 shellacking Liverpool suffered on this ground in September 2011, an exhaustive exorcism of all White Hart Lane's demons. It's going to be incredibly hard for Liverpool to improve on today's performance, but I'd certainly settle for replicating it. That was the absolute best possible way that Liverpool could have started the festive period.

13 December 2013

Liverpool at Tottenham 12.15.13

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (h) 03.10.13
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.12
0-0 (h) 02.06.12
0-4 Tottenham (a) 09.18.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 West Ham (h); 5-1 Norwich (h); 1-3 Hull (a)
Tottenham: 4-1 Anzhi (h); 2-1 Sunderland (a); 2-1 Fulham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 15; Sturridge 9; Gerrard 3; Coutinho, Moses, Sakho, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Tottenham: Soldado 4; Sigurðsson 3; Paulinho 2; Chiriches, Holtby, Sandro, Townsend, Walker 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Lucas Allen
Sterling Coutinho Henderson

I doubt there will be much deviation from the side which beat West Ham last week, aside from Gerrard's obvious absence.

Missing Gerrard and Sturridge and Enrique is bad enough, but at least the rumors that Henderson was also injured turned out to be false. And I suspect we'll see Henderson on the left – as he was for spells against West Ham – to counteract Spurs' threat down that flank and protect Flanagan. That's the side where Spurs are most threatening, with Walker bombing forward from right back and one of Lennon, Townsend, or Lamela as a wide forward.

The other option seems to be packing the midfield, most likely with Henderson and Allen marginally ahead of Lucas, with Coutinho, Sterling, and Suarez as the lone attackers, set up for the counter, in more of a 4-3-3.

But there's also a small temptation to revert to three at the back. Mignolet; Skrtel, Sakho, Agger; Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Johnson; Coutinho; Aspas/Sterling, Suarez. It could be either 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3. Eight players who'll do far more defending, three attackers as release valves, but even more players packed in the central area of the middle and defensive thirds, the areas where Spurs will look to dominate.

15 matches into the campaign, and I've no idea what Tottenham's strongest XI is. I don't think Andre Villas-Boas does either. And that's probably a large reason why Spurs are still underperforming, still disjointed, and sat in sixth, albeit only three points behind Liverpool and Chelsea. Yes, yes, Suarez has scored as many league goals as Spurs in total in five fewer matches. But Spurs are unbeaten in the last five matches since losing 0-6 to City, with two Europa League wins and two wins and a draw in the Premiership.

Which of Sandro, Paulinho, and Dembele makes the best midfield pairing? Or do you try to play all three? And how does Capoue get shoe-horned back into that group? He's been needed in central defense recently, with Vertonghen injured, but you'd assume the Belgian will walk back into the XI once fit. And it doesn't help that Chiriches and Kaboul are also likely out, although the Romanian could be available after missing the last week with a swollen knee.

Is it possible to have too many wide players? Any of Holtby, Sigurðsson, Lennon, Townsend, Lamela, or Chadli could get the nod. Holtby and Sigurðsson are more patient on the ball, more like central attacking players that just happen to start out wide, helping Spurs keep possession in the opponent's half. Either can play in the middle of an attacking line of three or on the flank; Holtby can also play deeper in central midfield, as he did against Anzhi. Lennon and Townsend are speedy wingers; the former adds width and crosses, the latter cuts inside and shoots from distance with little conscience or thought to where anyone else is on the pitch. Chadli's height could add an extra dimension on set plays, especially given how much trouble Liverpool have had defending them. And Lamela, on paper, seems the most talented: an excellent dribbler, passer, and goal-scorer at Roma, but he's seen the least pitch time of the six, and there has been little indication as to why.

Is Jermain Defoe really a better fit than Roberto Soldado? Well, maybe. Soldado's struggled to make an impact – aside from his hat-trick against Anzhi on Thursday – and Defoe's pace might well do more to unsettle Liverpool's defense. However, Defoe underwhelmed and failed to score when starting both matches against Liverpool last season, and has just three goals in 20 (!!) appearances against Liverpool since 2001 (!!!!). The third option up front, Adebayor, is also out injured.

And what's the deal with Lamela and Eriksen? Two highly, highly, highly touted signings who haven't seen anywhere near the playing time we expected, although Eriksen's at least has the excuse of a month-long injury, which he's just returning from.

It's probably safe to assume that few of the players who started against Anzhi on Thursday will also start on Sunday. Spurs' Europa League lineup was: Friedel; Naughton, Capoue, Fryers, Rose; Dembele, Holtby; Lamela, Sigurðsson, Townsend; Soldado.

So my best guess at Tottenham's XI is Lloris; Walker, Capoue, Dawson, Rose; Sandro, Paulinho; Lennon, Holtby, Chadli; Defoe.

Liverpool haven't won, haven't even taken a point, at White Hart Lane since May 2008, a last-day-of-the-season 3-1 victory which meant little; Liverpool were locked in fourth, Tottenham had moved all the way up to 11th after Jol was sacked with Spurs in the relegation zone. It's Liverpool's longest drought on any ground, as long as they've played the opposition more than once during that stretch. Since that win? Six consecutive losses, including one in the League Cup, outscored by a 16 to 6 margin. Incidentally, four of the five league matches have finished 2-1 to Tottenham, in case you're in a mood to gamble on Sunday's scoreline.

Liverpool are deservedly ahead of Spurs in the table after 15 games. This is not last season's Tottenham, or 2011-12 Tottenham. Not yet, at least. But it will still be a tough test, probably Liverpool's toughest of the season aside from the 0-2 loss at Arsenal last month. And it will be a very good indicator how much Liverpool might struggle, or how much Liverpool could surprise and impress, in even tougher tests to come at City and Chelsea in the next couple of weeks.

The snowball will start rolling down the hill with this fixture. Either it picks up steam and mass and rolls over Liverpool's opponents, or it crushes Liverpool's hopes of a top four finish.

09 December 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), 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.

Liverpool have now scored three or more goals in its last five league matches at Anfield. That hasn't happened since 2008-09, when Liverpool did it in the last five of the season – 5-0 Villa, 4-0 Blackburn, 4-4 Arsenal, 3-0 Newcastle, 3-1 Tottenham – when Liverpool came oh so close to winning the title. And that streak includes a 1-3 Champions League loss to Chelsea. Last season, Liverpool scored three or more at Anfield in six of the 19 league matches. In 2011-12, Liverpool scored three or more in seven league matches in total, just four at home. This team is finally recreating Fortress Anfield, even if it's a slow process, one which still sees Liverpool concede too many goals. So it's a fortress with shoddy walls and a shallow moat, but it's armed to the teeth with archers, cannons, and trebuchets. You've got to start somewhere.

Liverpool's 32 shots came from 30 chances created; 93.8% of Liverpool's attempts were set up by a teammates' pass. There was very little one-man improvisation, very little 'Suarez wins possession, runs at defenders, scores all by himself.' Liverpool's attacked as a team, which seems a good thing considering how resiliently West Ham usually defend. And how well James Collins has marked Suarez in the past. In the previous 14 matches, Liverpool had averaged 72.3% of its shots from chances created, bettering 93.8% just once this season, when all five of its shots against Villa came from a teammate's pass.

Nine of those Liverpool shots came in the 10 minutes after Gerrard went off. Liverpool utterly dominated those ten minutes, completely camped in the opposition half, and were more than unlucky not to find a third goal before West Ham's very lucky goal of their own.

An average of just under a shot per minute, 7.3 completed passes per minute, seven chances created. Liverpool completed 95% of its passes during those 10 minutes. 95%! And just six of those 77 passes originated from Liverpool's defensive third. Hopefully, it was a sign of Liverpool's potential if Gerrard's out for any extended stretch of time (it's rumored to be a month, meaning he'd miss the three crucial away games against Tottenham, City, and Chelsea). Of course, none of those 73 completed passes, seven chances created, or nine shots led to the needed third goal. And that Liverpool (read: Lucas) was hassled out of possession in the center of the park, directly leading to the extended move to get West Ham back into the game, was as worrying as the previous 10 minutes were encouraging.

Saturday was just the sixth time where Liverpool's opponent has registered a single shot on target since Rodgers took over as manager. It's happened one other time this season, last month's 4-0 win against Fulham, and four times last season: the 1-0 win against QPR, 0-0 in this fixture last April, the 5-0 win over Norwich, and the 1-1 draw against Sunderland. Probably not coincidentally, all six matches took place at Anfield.

West Ham's shot on target yesterday was brilliantly saved by Mignolet while the game was still 0-0. Of course, West Ham still managed to score, thanks to an own goal, but it was still a vastly improved defensive performance. Going into this match, Liverpool had allowed 5.0 shots on target per match this season, well above last season's 3.7 on target per match. And, as we've learned in a few previous matches, allowing that many shots on target can be a recipe for disaster. Mignolet can only save Liverpool so often.

There were more similarities between Saturday's match and last April's 0-0 draw at Anfield besides West Ham's one shot on target. The passing and possession totals are incredibly alike, especially West Ham's totals.

Of course, there's one big, obvious difference – Liverpool scored four more goals than they did in the last meeting – and a couple of reasons for it. Liverpool took 12 more shots on Saturday, but it's not as if Liverpool peppered Jaaskelainen more frequently, putting eight shots on target in both matches. Still, you can't ride the carousel without buying a ticket, and Liverpool bought an awful lot of tickets this weekend.

Liverpool's attacking third passing was also drastically, dramatically better. They only attempted nine fewer passes in April, but completed 38 more on Saturday. 69.8% attacking third accuracy last season, 83.9% this season. 83.9% is also Liverpool's highest attacking third accuracy in any match under Rodgers. This season's previous high was 82.8% against 10-man Newcastle, last season's was 83.0% in the 5-0 home win against Norwich. Liverpool had averaged 72.1% attacking third accuracy this season prior to this match.

But, of course, you still need those intangible bits of luck: that ricochet off Demel for the opening own goal, that deflection off O'Brien for Liverpool's fourth. But, of course, there's also something to be said for making your own luck.

07 December 2013

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham

Demel OG 42'
Sakho 47'
Skrtel OG 67'
Suarez 81'
O'Brien OG 84'

Well that was one of the strangest 4-1s I've seen in a long time.

For 42 minutes, it was typical Liverpool v West Ham. Few chances thanks to West Ham's resilient defense, all wasted, with Collins continuing to mark Suarez as well as any defender in the league. It was a better team performance than Wednesday, even though the only change was Sakho for Agger due to the latter's illness, but without the single-minded single-handed brilliance which won Liverpool that match. And West Ham arguably had the two best chances until the the last five minutes of the half, as Maiga narrowly missed contact with Diame's 10th-minute throughball and Mignolet brilliantly denied the same striker's 22nd-minute header, what would have been a carbon copy of Norwich's consolation on Wednesday.

Then own goal happened. The impressive Joe Allen pressed Nolan into a mistake, Johnson and Suarez combined to create a shot for the Uruguayan, parried by Jaaskelainen directly into Demel and unluckily bundled into West Ham's net. Yes, yes, better to be lucky than good, but Allen, Johnson, and Suarez's good work directly contributed to that luck.

Going into halftime with the lead was utterly crucial. Liverpool's second half scoring struggles are widely known, Liverpool hadn't lost a match this season when leading after 45 minutes.

Liverpool could have been up by two going into the break, but somehow Suarez contrived to shoot wildly wide when released by Sterling on the break, when he seemingly had the time to take a touch and round Jaaskelainen. Quickly followed by West Ham demonstrating the perpetual threat that any Liverpool opponent provides with a set play clusterfuck just before intermission. Still, thankfully, we weren't made to wait long for a second, Gerrard's free kick scrambled in by Sakho at the back post, nearly another own goal rather than the Frenchman's first for the club.

From there, it seemed cruise control. Liverpool dominated – absolutely, completely, totally, wholly dominated – for a 15 minute spell, penning West Ham in its own half without a moment's reprieve. Gerrard's 56th minute injury, seemingly precautionary with a slight hamstring problem, didn't knock Liverpool off its stride at all; if anything, they were more threatening, rotating play at speed, refusing to let West Ham take a breath. Coutinho and Sakho could have scored, Sterling should have scored twice: the first skied, the second wonderfully saved. As against Norwich, West Brom, Fulham. It seemed a matter of how many.

And it was a matter of time, but for the wrong side, as Liverpool proceeded to shoot itself in the foot. Again. Specifically, sadly, the substitute Lucas, who mis-controlled and dallied in midfield, conceding possession with Liverpool completely out of its defensive shape. Liverpool wouldn't touch the ball again until Skrtel unfortunately redirected into his own net after Jarvis won a back-post header over Johnson from Nolan's right-wing cross, after 30 seconds of West Ham possession in Liverpool's defensive third.

From 2-0 up, comfortably strolling towards victory, to 2-1 with clenched butt cheeks and 15 minutes of West Ham possession. More set play disarray, with Maiga fortunately poking wide at the back post, then Diame given time and space to shoot from distance, thankfully well wide.

But then that man, finally scoring his first goal in 261 minutes against West Ham, by far his longest drought against any club he's faced. Liverpool's first sustained possession since conceding, coincidentally coming just after Kelly replaced Flanagan, Coutinho opening up West Ham's defense by spreading play wide to an open Johnson, a perfect cross from the full-back to Suarez at the far post, finally eluding Collins' constant surveillance and an unstoppable point-blank header past Jaaskelainen.

Finally, sweet relief, the coffin further nailed down by Nolan's immensely frustrated red card for studs into the back of Henderson's calf a minute later and the third own goal of the match two minutes after that. The dubious goals committee would do well to give it to Suarez, twisting and turning Noble out of his shoes and socks before a shot that appeared on target was heavily deflected by Joey O'Brien. More luck, but again deserved, deserved luck.

It really was a better team performance than on Wednesday, despite how much more terror the match inspired. Joe Allen was at the heart of it, by far Liverpool's most impressive performer, winning possession in midfield, passing crisply and accurately, playing a handful of through-balls that would have inspired fevered praise and a fair few erections had they come from Coutinho or Suarez. That's the Joe Allen we saw at the start of last season, the Joe Allen which cost £15m. And it comes at the best possible time if Gerrard's out for any length of time.

Sakho was the other standout: a handful of crucial interceptions, tackles, and blocks; winning six of his 12 aerial duels; scoring the very, very crucial, eventually game-winning second. But those two, combined with Mignolet's immaculate save and relatively decent distribution, Sterling's vast improvement with increased playing time, Suarez finally rising above the fray in the final ten minutes, and little to complain about from any Liverpool player, were a needed demonstration that Liverpool can do it as a team rather than relying on one or two stars. Especially when against a side and manager that's frequently frustrated Liverpool over the last few years.

Now, with trips to Tottenham, City, and Chelsea in the next three weeks, Liverpool will have to replicate that against even tougher opposition.