31 December 2014

Liverpool v Leicester 01.01.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.02.14
0-0 (a) 03.28.04
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.20.03
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.30.02

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Swansea (h); 1-0 Burnley (a); 2-2 Arsenal (h)
Leicester: 1-0 Hull (a); 1-2 Tottenham (h); 0-2 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Gerrard 3; Coutinho, Henderson, Moreno 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Leicester: Ulloa 7; Cambiasso, Mahrez, Schlupp 2; Nugent, Vardy, Wood 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Can Toure Sakho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Moreno
Coutinho Lallana

I'm afraid I've got some bad news.

That XI which was so much fun on Monday? It's gonna be a different XI tomorrow.

Skrtel's suspended, which means Lovren (if fit) or Toure's coming back into the side. That shouldn't preclude Liverpool playing three at the back, but it'll be interesting to see who the sweeper is with Skrtel missing. Not that Skrtel's a bastion of positional integrity, but neither Lovren nor Toure is known for their discipline, to say the least. Gerrard will also return after being rested, which means Henderson will either shift to wing-back or Lucas will be dropped. Moreno may keep his place, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Markovic back either.

I expect Liverpool to stick with the 3-4-3. With nine days until the next league match – albeit with the FA Cup trip to Wimbledon on Monday – I expect the front three to remain the same for at least one more match. I expect Liverpool to press and counter and be the better side, as they're at Anfield, but I don't expect as much fun as Monday was either. But maybe this season just has me even more jaded than usual.

Leicester remain at the bottom of the table, three points behind Burnley, Palace, and Hull, but they're coming off their first win since September 21, winning 1-0 at Hull on Sunday. A Hull side that Liverpool failed to beat at Anfield, I'll churlishly add.

Leicester have a fairly small squad, but there will be at least a couple of changes from the side which lost to Liverpool a month ago. Schmeichel is injured, Konchesky is suspended. Andy King, who didn't feature in the last meeting, is also out. Danny Simpson's been preferred to Ritchie de Laet at right-back in recent matches. Ulloa, Leicester's top scorer by some distances, actually seems the most likely candidate to be rested now that Vardy's back from suspension. But I still expect the XI to be familiar, a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation with something like Hamer; Simpson, Wasilewski, Morgan, Konchesky; Mahrez, James, Cambiasso, Schlupp; Ulloa, Vardy.

Leicester will sit even deeper than they did at home, with two solid banks of four, and dare Liverpool to carve them open. Swansea started similarly on Monday, but Liverpool's pressing and movement disjointed then broke those lines by the 33rd minute, and those lines were a moot point by the 51st. Can Liverpool do that again? Leicester blocked 45.5% of Liverpool's shots in the reverse fixture; only Chelsea, Sunderland, and Burnley have blocked a higher proportion of Liverpool's shots this season.

Simply put, Liverpool need to continue firing on all cylinders, and even with changes to the XI, need to put in a performance reminiscent of that on Monday. Prove that it wasn't a fluke. Prove that you weren't just playing up to the opposition's level, and the side's now better than the one which lost at Palace, drew against Hull and Sunderland, barely beat QPR, Burnley, and Stoke.

Begin to prove that the first half of 2015 will be more like the first half of 2014, even if Liverpool fail to hit those heady heights, and not like the second half of 2014.

30 December 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

I love it when a plan comes to fruition.

One swallow certainly doesn't make a summer, and Liverpool fans have more than a little experience with false dawns and turning points that weren't actually turning points, but I'd like to give Brendan Rodgers some credit after that.

People were rightfully questioning almost every move he made earlier this season. Liverpool were bad. Very bad. From early September through November, with few signs of positivity even when Liverpool won. But the switch to 3-4-2-1 was a surprise gamble that's slowly paying off. Not many managers would have the gumption to change formations, especially to that formation rarely seen in England, and especially when Liverpool are playing two matches a week, with much less training time than the side had last season.

Sure, some of Rodgers' choices have been forced. Do we see Can and Sakho at center-back if Johnson and Lovren don't get injured? Do we see Sterling up front if Balotelli isn't injured, then suspended (as was Borini)?

But that's football, I guess. Better to be lucky than good, even better to be lucky and good.

We'd already seen signs of progress. Liverpool had been better in pretty much every regard since the switch to 3-4-2-1, even if results didn't immediately follow. The only match where Liverpool didn't improve was the match at Burnley, which Liverpool still won. And I'll note that Burnley side came back from a 2-0 deficit to draw at Manchester City two days later, making Liverpool's result look a bit more impressive even if the performance certainly wasn't.

But yesterday was the first time that everything clicked. Yesterday was the first time since Sturridge's injury that this season's Liverpool actually resembled last season's Liverpool.

Despite conceding possession to Swansea, Liverpool never conceded the initiative. Swansea had the ball, but had few dangerous attacks.

Liverpool pressed, hassled, and harried Swansea. Liverpool's top four tacklers were the two wide attackers and the two wing-backs.

Liverpool successfully played a high defensive line, and Liverpool coped with Bony far better than they did in last season's 4-3. With Can and Sakho, Liverpool had two defenders capable of playing out from the back. Yes, Sakho made two mistakes in quick succession – one costly, one not – but the one which led to the goal wasn't a mistake like those hands-over-face ones we've seen earlier this season; he won a contentious aerial duel but couldn't direct the header out, with Sigurðsson smart enough to gamble by running into space and getting rewarded for it. And Sakho also started the opening goal with a perfect long pass to Moreno and did this. Capable of great and terrible, Mamadou Sakho is large, Mamadou Sakho contains multitudes. Which is better than being capable of just terrible (*glares at unnamed defender*).

And Liverpool were dangerous on the counter, for only the third or fourth time this season; Coutinho, Lallana, and Sterling linking up better than they ever had. Funny how that works with increased time together. All three attackers took at least four shots, all three put at least 40% of their shots on target, with two of Sterling's three off-target shots hitting the woodwork.

Two of Liverpool's goals came from quick attacks starting in their own half, one came from Lallana's pressing (albeit coupled with Fabianski's horrendous mistake), and one came from a set play. That sounds an awful lot like how last season's goals came. And Liverpool's best counter didn't even lead to a goal. Had that gone in, we could end the goal of the season contest now.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's highest shot accuracy of the season: 52.4%, 11 of 21. Liverpool scored four goals for the first time this season. I suspect those two stats are related. 10 of Liverpool's shots came in the Danger Zone, 16 of Liverpool's shots came down the center of the pitch. That's the result of good build-up play and good decisions from the attackers.

As against United and Arsenal, Liverpool still allowed Swansea too many Danger Zone shots, seven of their 11 in the six-yard box or center of the 18-yard box. But the only two on-target aside from Sigurðsson's too-easy goal were easily handled: tame headers from Dyer and Bony. Aside from that goal, none of Swansea's chances were especially high-value, even if the location was dangerous.

The goals are finally starting to come, the mistakes are lessening in defense, the team is actually starting to look like a team. Yes, it's just one match, but it bodes better than anything we've seen so far this season. Now Liverpool have to do the same at Anfield in three days time, against the bottom side in the division. Two swallows are a step closer to signifying the summer.

Goodbye and good riddance, 2014. Hello, 2015.

28 December 2014

Liverpool v Swansea 12.29.14

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.14
4-3 Liverpool (h) 02.23.14
2-2 (a) 09.16.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 02.17.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Burnley (a); 2-2 Arsenal (h); 3-1 Bournemouth (a)
Burnley: 1-0 Villa (h); 1-0 Hull (a); 1-2 Tottenham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 4; Gerrard, Own Goal 3; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Moreno, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Swansea: Bony 8; Dyer, Ki, Routledge, Sigurðsson 3; Gomis, Shelvey 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Moreno
Coutinho Lallana

Brad Jones' injury means that Mignolet will have to come back into the side, no matter how Rodgers wants to handle the goalkeeping situation (read: horror show). Regardless of how long Jones is out, Liverpool simply have to buy a keeper in the upcoming window, but that's neither here nor there tomorrow. Mignolet has a couple of matches to prove he was worth the transfer, to prove he has any sort of future at Liverpool, and has to take advantage.

Otherwise, I don't know how much Rodgers will rotate the side. You'd think there would have to be some, but Rodgers often subscribes to the 'if it ain't broke' theory, especially when the side's eking out positive results.

At least one of Gerrard or Lucas seem most in need of a rest, but Lucas has become crucial to this formation – despite his faults, no other midfielder is as good at protecting the space in front of the center-backs – and Gerrard remains Gerrard. Markovic was below par at Burnley compared to his performances in the previous two matches, so Moreno could come into the side. Can did well in the second half against Burnley, and could keep his place in defense, while Lovren should be fit again soon, possibly in time for tomorrow's match.

The one area where I'd be surprised to see changes is up front. Sterling, Coutinho, and Lallana are starting to click as a unit. Both Balotelli and Lambert would slow down the attack, which is the trio's greatest strength. That Liverpool are at home should mean more pressing up front, something neither striker is well equipped for, although both have "tried" to fill that role more than at their previous clubs. And I'd be very surprised if Liverpool switched away from the 3-4-2-1 formation.

Swansea will have revenge on their minds tomorrow. For the late League Cup loss, for last season's pulsating 4-3. It doesn't hurt that Swansea and Liverpool are next to each other in the table, with three points separating the two sides.

And there are also a few players with a point to prove against Liverpool. First and foremost, Jonjo Shelvey, but also Wilfred Bony – rumored to be a major target both last summer and in the future – and Gylfi Sigurðsson, who turned down Liverpool in the summer of 2012 to join Tottenham. And Swansea are still a side packed with players from Brendan Rodgers' tenure as manager.

As with Liverpool, I'm not sure how much Swansea will rotate. The first-choice XI would be Fabianski; Rangel, Fernandez, Williams, Taylor; Ki, Shelvey; Dyer, Sigurðsson, Routledge; Bony. But that's pretty much the same XI which played on Boxing Day save for Montero, who's out with a hamstring injury. But Richards could come in at right-back, Bartley in central defense, Tom Carroll in midfield (as could Britton, who'll have to pass a late fitness test), Emnes on the left or up front, or Gomis up front. But I suspect, as with Liverpool, it'll be as near to full-strength as possible.

Liverpool finally won a close away match while keeping a clean sheet on Boxing Day. Against Bournemouth and Arsenal, Liverpool demonstrated a bit of potency which had been sorely lacking too often this season. Now, Liverpool need to combine those facets, to put together a comprehensive performance. They'll be aided by being at Anfield, where they've been marginally better this season.

Because Liverpool will need a comprehensive performance to beat Swansea, a side much more potent than Burnley and slightly more secure at the back than Arsenal. This will be one of Liverpool's more difficult matches during this crucial festive schedule, and they simply have to rise to the occasion.

27 December 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Burnley

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

Aside from Liverpool's general insipidness and frequently awful play, that was just how Rodgers' drew it up. Somehow keep a clean sheet, then a sucker punch counter-attack featuring Coutinho's guile and Sterling's speed.

It was like Hull (h) and Sunderland (h), except that Liverpool actually scored from its solitary moment of class.

It was like Stoke (h), a narrow win thanks to a second half goal, with Liverpool disjointed, subpar, and second-best for long stretches, except Liverpool got that second half goal with 30 minutes left to play, not needing a late flurry and able to ride the match out fairly easily.

It was like Newcastle (a), except for that Liverpool goal, and also keeping the opposition from getting one of their own.

It was like QPR (a) and Leicester (a) in that Liverpool didn't impress in the slightest against not-very-good opponents, but still won because of the opposition's failings. Unlike in the QPR match, Liverpool didn't fall apart at the end, requiring the late flurry. Unlike Leicester, Burnley couldn't take advantage of Liverpool's worst defensive mistake, Ings' shot ricocheting off the post and away instead of in off the keeper's back, And at the same time, QPR and Leicester's defenses are much, much worse than Burnley's.

It was a bit like Palace (a), except Burnley couldn't put a single shot on target, let alone five. Which was incredibly helpful so thank you very much, Burnley.

Yes, we've seen this movie before. At least parts of it. And Liverpool played different styles and formations in each of those matches. 4-1-2-3 against Sunderland, Leicester, and Hull. 4-2-3-1 against Stoke, Newcastle, and QPR. 4-4-2 diamond at Palace.

So maybe it's not the formation that's the problem.

After seemingly turning the corner in regards to shot disparity in the last three matches (four if you count Bournemouth), Liverpool once again registered fewer shots than their opponents. Yesterday's 10 was the second-lowest total of the season, behind the six at Newcastle. Meanwhile, Burnley were allowed 16. But none were on target (thanks again, Burnley!), and unlike against United and Arsenal, only six of those 16 were in the box, just four of those 16 in the Danger Zone (six-yard box and center of the 18-yard box). If you're gonna allow too many shots, it's slightly better if they're not high value shots.

But at the same time, only four of Liverpool's ten came inside the box, only two in the Danger Zone. Yikes.

Liverpool's last eight goals – every goal since Can against Chelsea – have come in the Danger Zone. 42 of Liverpool's 110 shots in those six matches have come in the Danger Zone – 38%, which is the exact same proportion as last season. But last season Liverpool had Suarez and Sturridge, able to score from almost any position on the pitch. Without those players, Liverpool are much more reliant on high value shots, and Liverpool aren't getting enough high value shots.

But some of that seemed tactical. It helps explain why only four players registered shots: the three attackers and one of the two wing-backs. Away from home, Liverpool went back to playing for the counter, especially for the first hour, often with seven or eight or more players in their own half. That seems to be asking for trouble given that a) Liverpool have been pretty terrible on the counter this season and b) Liverpool frequently give away cheap goals when the opposition has the opportunity to attack at will. It's probably not coincidence that Liverpool have been pretty terrible away from home this season. I thought we were passed this since the switch to 3-4-2-1. Liverpool did not play this way in away matches at United or Bournemouth.

Yesterday also saw Liverpool's lowest passing percentage of the season – 77.8% – slightly behind Stoke (h) and QPR (a). For once, it wasn't because of inept passing in the final third. That wasn't great – 67%, a touch below average – but it wasn't West Ham (a), Newcastle (a), Palace (a), or Stoke (h) either. Liverpool's failures were primarily in midfield and defense. Lucas (-4.9%), Gerrard (-2.8%), Henderson (-11.5%), Markovic (-5.1%), Sakho (-7.3%), Skrtel (-5.4%), and Toure (-24%) were all well below their season-long passing accuracies. And it's no coincidence that the vast majority of Burnley's tackles and interceptions came in the middle third of the pitch.

It's news to no one that taking the game to Liverpool and that pressing Liverpool often leads to rewards. Liverpool survived yesterday, Liverpool survived against QPR and Leicester – primarily due to those teams' failings – but West Ham, Newcastle, and Palace (among others) still loom large in the memory. Again, that the majority of those aforementioned games came away from Anfield suggests that Liverpool's tactics on the road also have something to do with Liverpool's issues.

But that middle third pressure meant Burnley ran out of gas in the last half an hour, and Liverpool took advantage with a moment of brilliance from Sterling and Coutinho (notably, his first Premiership assist of the season, but to be fair, he only had one at this point last season and finished the season with seven).

To be honest, that's acceptable given where Liverpool are at the moment. The underlying stats still aren't great, the tactics have often disappointed, but the recent results have been even worse. This is the first time that Liverpool have won 1-0 away from home, a single goal and clean sheet, since beating Villa in August 2013. 55 league matches ago. It's more valuable that Liverpool are able to grind out a win, even if they were helped by the opposition's failings, rather than playing well in a draw (Arsenal) or loss (United).

But the majority of the division is better than Burnley is, and they'll be much more likely to take advantage if Liverpool play like this.

25 December 2014

Liverpool at Burnley 12.26.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (a) 04.25.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 09.12.09
0-1 Burnley (a, FA Cup) 01.18.05
1-0 Burnley (h, FA Cup) 01.04.97

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Arsenal (h); 3-1 Bournemouth (a); 0-3 United (a)
Burnley: 1-2 Tottenham (a); 1-0 Southampton (h); 0-2 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Own Goal, Sterling 3; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Moreno, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Burnley: Ings 4; Barnes 3; Boyd 2; Arfield, Kightly, Wallace 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Markovic
Coutinho Lallana

If it ain't (all that) broke, don't fix it.

Same formation, same XI seems the most likely outcome tomorrow. Because Liverpool's actually been decent, and slowly improving – slowly looking like the Liverpool we remember – when doing so. If Lovren's fit, maybe he comes in for Sakho. I'm still hopeful, but not expecting, that Mignolet will replace Jones. Balotelli's fit and back from suspension, but is more likely to appear as a substitute. There's always the option of replacing Lucas or Gerrard with Allen or Can, Markovic with Moreno or Enrique, as Liverpool have three matches in six days, but I suspect we'll see more rotation on Monday rather than tomorrow.

And Liverpool's 3-4-2-1 set-up matches up well against Burnley's usual 4-4-2. Sometimes it's 4-3-1-2, sometimes 4-4-1-1, but often an orthodox 4-4-2. And Burnley, with one of the smallest squads in the league, rotate infrequently, especially since they've few injuries at the moment. The best guess is the same XI which narrowly lost to Tottenham last weekend: Heaton; Trippier, Keane, Shackell, Mee; Boyd, Marney, Jones, Arfield; Barnes, Ings.

Burnley have been a better side since Ashley Barnes came into the starting XI, losing just two of their last seven matches after finally winning their first on November 8. Burnley remain goal-shy, yet to score more than twice in any match this season, but they've been held scoreless just once during the last seven matches, and both Ings and Barnes have notched recently, and are capable of creating their own opportunities or setting up others. And Burnley have also become more secure at the back, yet to allow more than two goals during this seven-match run.

Tomorrow is either the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end for Liverpool. With matches against Burnley (18th), Swansea (8th), Leicester (20th), Sunderland (14th), and Villa (12th) in the next three weeks, Liverpool have a chance to make up ground in the table, to make amends for the previous few months.

If it were only that easy. Liverpool have demonstrated an unwelcome ability to play down to the level of their opposition too often this season, especially when away from Anfield. Newcastle, West Ham, and Palace – three debilitating losses – all quickly come to mind.

Tomorrow is Liverpool's next chance to change that trend. They won't have many more.

22 December 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

It's a very small sample size, but there has been a noticeable difference in Liverpool's attacking output since the switch to 3-4-2-1.

I'm using the match at Villa as the beginning of the comparison, as that was Liverpool's first match without Sturridge.

Unfortunately, that improvement in attacking output hasn't translated into goals. Liverpool averaged slightly more than a goal per game between in the 12 matches between Villa (h) and Sunderland (h); Liverpool's averaging a goal per game in the last two matches, with two against Arsenal and none against United.

But, yes, there has been a vast improvement in the underlying shot statistics. Not only in total output, but location. In that earlier 12-match stretch, 50% of Liverpool's shots came inside the box, 28.4% in the Danger Zone (six-yard box and center of the 18-yard box). In the last two matches, it's 54.3% in the box and 43.5% in the Danger Zone. You'd have to believe that the goals will come if Liverpool can continue this output.

But then there are matters at the other end of the pitch.

Liverpool are allowing fewer shots, but more are on-target. And there are a lot more goals. In those 12 earlier matches, Liverpool's opponents averaged 9.33 shots per goal. In the last two matches, it's 3.6 shots per goal.

That's bad. That's very, very bad. United and Arsenal are better in attack that almost every opponent Liverpool faced during that 12-match stretch except for Chelsea, but that's still a damning indictment of both Liverpool and Brad Jones.

In Jones' defense, Liverpool are allowing those shots in more dangerous positions. During that 12-match stretch, 50.7% of the opposition's shots came inside the box, 31.4% in the Danger Zone. In the last two matches, it's 61.1% in both the 18-yard box and the Danger Zone; every single shot that United and Arsenal took inside the penalty box came in the Danger Zone. That's a recipe for disaster. Liverpool are not helping Brad Jones, but Jones also isn't helping himself.

Liverpool's 32 successful tackles were the most this season, the most since the 3-2 win over Norwich last April. Liverpool 64.7% possession was the third highest total of the season, behind Aston Villa (h) and Hull (h), two opponents nowhere near as capable as Arsenal are.

On the whole, Liverpool fared better than they usually do against Arsenal, last season's 5-1 home win not withstanding.

At home under Rodgers, Liverpool had won 5-1 and drawn 2-2. Liverpool lost both matches at the Emirates two goals to none. For the most part, yesterday's statistics were slightly better than we'd seen in previous against Arsenal, and the result wasn't out of the ordinary either. Which, again, is an improvement on Liverpool's recent form.

So yes, we saw some better from Liverpool. There are signs for optimism, signs this side can get its act together. The next five matches should be a lot easier than the previous two.

But we also saw the result ruined by the same problems that've have plagued the side all season: defensive issues on set plays and counters, and Liverpool's ability to convert its chances.

21 December 2014

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal

Coutinho 45'
Debuchy 45+2'
Giroud 64'
Skrtel 90+7'

Ridiculous Liverpool is more enjoyable than boring Liverpool but this team's still not good enough. Liverpool did a lot of good things, but Liverpool only drew 2-2 – and were lucky to do so – because Liverpool is still Liverpool.

Liverpool took 27 shots. Arsenal took seven. This match finished 2-2, and only because Liverpool finally scored from their 10th corner in the 97th minute, their first goal from a corner this season.

Brad Jones has faced nine shots on target in the last two matches. Brad Jones has allowed five goals. He wasn't the only Liverpool player at fault for either goal – as usual, we've a few scapegoats to choose from – but both of Arsenal's goals should have been saved: late to react to the first, the second scored between his legs.

That's the short version of this match. There's more to it, but that's enough of a summary as to why Liverpool's only taking one point instead of all three.

Some credit where it's due. Rodgers' change to 3-4-2-1 has made Liverpool a better side. The first half seemed as close to Rodgers' "death by football" ideal that we heard so much about when he became Liverpool manager as we've seen since he became Liverpool manager. Liverpool monopolized possession – I doubt Arsenal's been held to 34.6% possession in one half very often in the last decade or so – and Liverpool looked reasonably secure. Arsenal were bereft of opportunities, Alexis Sanchez rendered a non-factor. Liverpool passed the ball out of defense surprisingly well, nullifying any Arsenal pressing.

But until Coutinho struck in the 45th minute, Liverpool had few chances of their own. Eight first half shots prior to the goal, but only Gerrard's 22-yard free kick sailing wide and Szczesny's stop on Markovic in the 35th minute were memorable. Then, the breakthrough: Liverpool's pressure forcing a mistake from Arsenal, Henderson's quick pass to Coutinho – who often found acres of space – at the top of the box, stepping around Debuchy before hammering into the far corner. Liverpool deserved as much for their first half play, and it seemingly came at the perfect time.

But because Liverpool are still Liverpool, they gave Arsenal the goal right back. Arsenal attack from the kick-off, and Sanchez wins a free kick off Gerrard that was barely a foul. Liverpool had three chances to clear, but Mertesacker beat Toure and Sakho in the air, Flamini beat Lucas in the air, and Debuchy beat Skrtel in the air while Brad Jones remained rooted to his goal line and slow to react. Sigh.

The second half began in a similar manner as the first: good Liverpool possession and build-up but a dearth of Liverpool chances – the best from a ball over the top to Sterling, rounding the on-rushing Szczesny but pushed wide of goal, his cross to an open Gerrard headed narrowly over. And then Liverpool were ruthlessly punished on the break. A low percentage Hollywood pass by Gerrard easily picked off, Gibbs in acres of space down Liverpool's right with Henderson caught upfield, a centering pass to Giroud, a quick pass to Cazorla, a cutback back to Giroud, who'd somehow found space between Skrtel and Sakho. Still, Jones could and should have stopped the shot, sent straight at him, directly through his legs. Sigh.

And thus began Liverpool's "onslaught," with Arsenal happy to protect an undeserved lead. So many shots from distance. So many shots deflected or blocked, often falling tamely for Szczesny rather than a fortunate redirection into the net. Borini and Lambert on for Markovic and Toure, Liverpool first switching Sterling to wing-back, then shifting to 4-4-2 with Henderson and Sterling as the full-backs in-name-only. Until Liverpool finally Szczesny forced into a difficult save in the 85th minute, parrying Borini's header from Sterling's cross over the bar, Liverpool's best chance came from Lucas – of all people – a late run into the box ending with his left-footed shot whistling just wide of the post.

It appeared all over when Borini was sent off at the beginning of injury time. He deserved both yellows – the first for dissent, the second for a high boot that tore Cazorla's kit – but the first yellow only came about because of an incorrect decision from Oliver and his linesman. And that Flamini remained on the pitch after two yellow-card worthy fouls in the first half rubbed extra salt in the wound.

Still, Liverpool pressed, and Liverpool finally got the late equalizer, in the depths of an especially long extra time because of an earlier head injury to Skrtel. So it was fitting that Skrtel, wrapped in a black bandage just as he was in this fixture last season, scored the equalizer. Arsenal's marking on the corner was as terrible as Liverpool's on the equalizing free kick in first half injury time: Skrtel allowed a free run and free header to Coutinho's cross, bulleted into the net. I'm told that was Liverpool's 127th corner of the season. Not a bad time to finally score from one.

It's also fitting that a late equalizer parallels the result from 2010-11, another late Liverpool equalizer in extra-long injury time. This season's had a lot of similarities with 2010-11, especially Liverpool's points total, even though the overall play has been more reminiscent of 2011-12 and 2012-13.

With better finishing, Liverpool wins 4-1 or 4-2. With better defending and/or a better goalkeeper, Liverpool wins 2-0 or 2-1. And it's especially regrettable because Liverpool desperately needed all three points. One's obviously better than none – and feels much, much better than none – but one barely helps Liverpool's league position.

But a month ago, Liverpool loses this match 1-2 or 0-2. It has been a slow, painful process, but Liverpool are improving, especially in possession and in chance creation. As against Bournemouth, Markovic was impressive as a wing-back (he and Sakho did so well against Alexis that the Chilean went over to the opposite flank in the second half), Lallana and Coutinho were dangerous (this was Coutinho's best game in quite some time), and Lucas and Gerrard were actually okay in midfield.

But Liverpool are not improving enough, not improving fast enough, not enough to paper over the massive weaknesses still present at both ends of the pitch.

20 December 2014

Liverpool v Arsenal 12.21.14

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Arsenal (a; FA Cup) 02.16.14
5-1 Liverpool (h) 02.08.14
0-2 Arsenal (a) 11.02.13
2-2 (a) 01.30.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Bournemouth (a); 0-3 United (a); 1-1 Basel (h)
Arsenal: 4-1 Newcastle (h); 4-1 Galatasaray (a); 2-3 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Own Goal, Sterling 3; Henderson, Lallana 2; Can, Coutinho, Johnson, Lambert, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Arsenal: Alexis 9; Giroud 4; Cazorla, Ramsey, Welbeck 3; Chambers, Koscielny, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, WIlshere 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Markovic
Coutinho Lallana

I'd be fairly surprised if it's not the same formation and XI as against Bournemouth. Lovren's doubtful, so Sakho seems likely to start, but that seems the only alteration.

The biggest difference of late is that the 3-4-2-1 has actually been fun. Sure, Liverpool are still leaking goals – United scored three, Bournemouth could have easily scored three had they taken their chances – but Liverpool somehow look competent in attack, scoring three good goals on Wednesday, creating a hatful of good chances that they should have taken against United.

It's last season's philosophy rediscovered, if to a much lesser extent due to personnel. But it's a start. Quick attacks, clever interplay, and constant movement from the front players. Lallana and Markovic were both outstanding on Wednesday, Sterling looked increasingly comfortable (and took him chances) up front, and Henderson also did well as a right wing-back. Nonetheless, Arsenal will have chances.

While Markovic was excellent against Bournemouth, at least going forward, I worry about his defensive duties against Arsenal. More specifically, against Alexis Sanchez. Bournemouth's best chances came down Liverpool's left, Bournemouth's goal started down Liverpool's left, and that's where Alexis will be playing. Moreno's pretty much a defender in name only at this point as well, while Jose Enrique remains Jose Enrique, so maybe being as proactive as possibly and hoping to pin Alexis back, with Sakho and Lucas helping to cover when he gets forward, is the best option.

Also, Liverpool's midfield will continue to make me quite nervous. Gerrard and Lucas paired always makes me nervous, but Gerrard-Allen wasn't any better against United and Henderson's needed as the wing-back (especially with Johnson injured). Can seems an option in this formation due to his versatility, whether in midfield, at left wing-back, or left-sided center-back, but I suspect if he's used, it'll be off the bench.

Liverpool's aren't overflowing with other options. 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 4-Diamond-2 have all looked inferior, no matter personnel. Balotelli's suspended, which means that Sterling pretty much has to start up front, whether on his own or partnered with Lambert. Flanagan and Suso are back in training, but not yet fit enough to feature. Johnson will be out for a while, Sturridge is still a few weeks away at best.

I would suggest one other change. Please bring back Mignolet. I understand why Rodgers has dropped the Belgian for the last two games; Mignolet hadn't been anywhere near his best, and like City did with Joe Hart last season, Rodgers is trying to remove him from the firing line while he figures out what the hell's gone wrong. But Brad Jones is worse. Significantly worse. He was at fault for none of them, but Jones could and should have done better on all four goals Liverpool have conceded in the last two games.

Currently sixth in the league, five points ahead of Liverpool, Arsenal are once again very Arsenal. Dangerous up front, if sometimes unable to take advantage of excellent scoring moves and opportunities. Often held together with duct tape in midfield and defense, still lacking an out-and-out defensive midfielder, and frequently riddled with injuries.

And, as usual, Arsenal have even more injury concerns than Liverpool do. Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil, Koscielny, Rosicky, and Arteta will all miss out, while Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal, and Walcott are questionable.

Other than Chambers returning from suspension, tomorrow's XI will probably look the same as that which beat Newcastle 4-1. Szczesny; Debuchy, Chambers, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Flamini, Cazorla; Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck. That front three is incredibly threatening, especially the aforementioned Alexis, while both Giroud and Cazorla are in goal-scoring form.

But whether Chambers or Monreal partners Mertesacker, Arsenal will have to play at least one fullback at center-back, as they've done often this season. It'll be up to Liverpool to exploit it through pace and movement from the front three. And if Oxlade-Chamberlain's also unable to start, Arsenal's other injuries will require either Gideon Zelalem or Francis Coquelin to start in midfield.

You're going to hear an awful lot about Liverpool's 5-1 win in last season's fixture tomorrow. Arsenal will be thinking about it. Liverpool will be thinking about it. And tomorrow's match will probably be defined by Arsenal's reaction to it.

If they're tentative, with that match weighing heavily in the memory, Liverpool have the potential to take advantage thanks to the rediscovered attacking form and Arsenal's makeshift defense. But if Arsenal are determined to make amends, determined to take the game to Liverpool from the opening whistle, and have learned from last season's mistakes, the home side could be in for a very long match.

This is the first match in a very important festive schedule, the first of five in 15 days. If Liverpool win, they'll only be two points behind Arsenal, with winnable matches against Burnley, Swansea, Leicester, Sunderland, and Villa to come over the next month. The 5-1 win over Arsenal last season marked the start of Liverpool's long winning streak, a victory which nearly propelled them to an unlikely title.

But if Liverpool lose, that eight point gap will feel like 20, Liverpool will remain mired in the bottom half of the table for at least another week, and fourth place will seem an impossibility, even with 22 games still to play.

17 December 2014

Liverpool 3-1 Bournemouth

Sterling 20' 51'
Markovic 27'
Gosling 57'

Liverpool retained the same formation, and nearly the same personnel, that lost on Sunday. Liverpool built on that attacking display and actually finished their chances. And after scoring the second, Liverpool rarely looked as if they'd relinquish their lead, against tricky opposition on their own ground.

But it wasn't as easy as that makes it sounds. Bournemouth missed two first-half sitters, scored a regrettable consolation, and hit the woodwork. Liverpool only conceded once, but with better finishing from the home side, Liverpool could easily have conceded four.

Welcome back, wacky football. Fun times up front and a dumpster fire at the back. It's still a vast improvement on what we've been subjected to for the majority of the season.

The only two changes from Sunday's XI were Markovic for Moreno and Allen for Lucas: a wing-back who's even less of a defender and a slower midfielder. The same 3-4-2-1 formation, no rest for Gerrard and Sterling, no starts for the seemingly out-of-favor Sakho or Can. That was worrisome.

As was Bournemouth carving through Liverpool's defense before four minutes were off the clock: Gosling's cross chested down by Kermorgant to Wilson, Wilson somehow dancing around Skrtel, Gerrard, then Lovren before toe-poking wide from six yards out. It'd probably have been a very different match had that gone in.

But Liverpool settled. Liverpool actually started to look like a Brendan Rodgers side again: monopolizing possession, comfortably building from the back, poking, prodding, and passing until an opening appeared. That Bournemouth failed to press the center-backs or central midfielders certainly helped, but baby steps. We've seen Liverpool struggle to pass to open players without other opposition sides pressing this season.

And that comfortable possession led to the opening goal. A 51-pass move, the longest I can remember from Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers, a move which took two minutes and 26 seconds before Markovic crossed for Henderson's run to the back post, headed back to Sterling, who deftly flicked a header inside the far post. It was Sterling's first headed goal for Liverpool.

Seven minutes later, the crucial second. More patient build-up before Lallana, Markovic, and Coutinho worked the ball to the byline down the left flank. Coutinho's narrow angle shot was saved, but Markovic's rebound from the top of the box was perfect, placed through four defenders into the far corner from 18 yards out.

Bournemouth's second missed sitter came seconds later: a counter-attack down Liverpool's left, a byline cutback to Kermorgant ballooned well over the bar. It was similar to Rooney's opener on Sunday in all but the finish. But for the most part, Liverpool continued to control proceedings – albeit without threatening too often – for the duration of the half.

The second half was a different story. Sakho replaced Lovren due to the latter's injury, and Liverpool extended its lead soon after, but this time from a blazing counter: Lallana's throughball, Sterling twisting defenders' blood before slotting past Boruc. But rather than monopolizing possession, Liverpool shelled and played for the counter. Which, to be fair, was a tactic we frequently saw last season after going three or more goals ahead.

Of course, it was a tactic that also saw Liverpool concede a lot of goals last season. So it wasn't incredibly surprising when Liverpool conceded in the 57th: a long ball down Liverpool's left with Markovic caught upfield and Sakho unable to get out quick enough to block the cross, Gosling receiving the ball at the top of the box just in front of the retreating Lucas and running around Skrtel and Toure before slotting home. A shot that somehow went through Brad Jones, and will hopefully be the end of the Brad Jones Experience. It's probably not coincidence the goal was similar to the Bournemouth's second missed sitter. Or, again, Rooney's opener on Sunday.

From there, Bournemouth conspired to miss two more excellent chances: Fraser's back post header trickling just wide and too far ahead of Wilson, then Gosling hitting the post from outside the box. Liverpool also failed to take an excellent chance on the counter: wonderful interplay from Coutinho, Lallana, and Sterling, but the latter screwing his shot wide when open on the left side of the box.

And, to be fair, Bournemouth had few chances after hitting the post in the 69th minute, but still. The overriding narrative remained "fun up front, dumpster fire at the back."

Sakho, Can, and Borini came on as substitutes – proving that all three still exist – but Sterling played the full 90 and Gerrard exited just before injury time. Lallana, Markovic, and Sterling were quite good, Liverpool looked miles better in attack, and Liverpool actually finished its chances. But this was against Championship opposition (albeit very good Championship opposition who were unbeaten in 12 matches), and in the League Cup, not the league. And there's still that whole "defense" issue.

So be it. We got to enjoy ourselves for a few hours, Liverpool actually looked a force going forward at times, the 3-4-2-1 looks like it might be a reasonable solution for the time being, and we were treated to a victory. And not a death-warmed-over 1-0 or 2-1 stuttering victory, but an open 3-1 victory with chances at both ends.

That's progress. And given what we've seen since *checks watch* the beginning of September, I'll certainly take it.

16 December 2014

Liverpool at Bournemouth 12.17.14

2:45pm ET, live in the US on BeIN Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.25.14
4-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.30.68
0-0 (a; FA Cup) 01.27.68
4-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.12.27

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 United (a); 1-1 Basel (h); 0-0 Sunderland (h)
Bournemouth: 5-3 Cardiff (h); 2-1 Wolves (a); 2-2 Millwall (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Swansea (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h)
Bournemouth: 2-1 West Brom (h); 3-0 Cardiff (a); 3-0 Northampton (h); 2-0 Exeter (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Henderson, Sterling 3; Balotelli, Lallana, Lambert 2; Coutinho, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Moreno, Rossiter, Sturridge, Suso 1
Bournemouth: Wilson 12; Pitman, Pugh 6; Kermorgant 5; Gosling, Ritchie 4; Arter, Cook 3; Rantie, Surman 2; Daniels, Francis, Fraser O'Kane, Stanislas 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Toure Sakho Moreno
Markovic Henderson Can Lallana
Balotelli Lambert

Domestic cup XIs are difficult to predict at the best of times, and this most certainly is not the best of times, so I'm guessing what I'd prefer to see instead.

Rest Sterling, rest Gerrard.

If he's fit enough, give Balotelli another chance, ideally with a strike partner. And since we haven't yet found where Rodgers stashed Fabio Borini, that strike partner probably has to be Lambert.

Start Sakho. Start both Manquillo and Moreno, especially since the former will have to play a lot more in the near future due to Johnson's injury suffered at Manchester United.

After two decent cameos off the bench, start Markovic again. Emre Can was arguably Liverpool's best player against Chelsea, but has barely been seen since, so he should also be in line for an appearance. Lallana has been one of Liverpool's few bright spots in attack and came off at halftime on Sunday, so you'd have to think he'll be included as well.

Brad Jones is starting again because Simon Mignolet's been a bad, bad little boy, or something.

I realize that Liverpool haven't played an orthodox 4-4-2 at all this season, but it seems necessary if Sterling and Gerrard are rested, Liverpool play with two strikers, and Markovic, Lallana, and Can all start. Liverpool don't really have the personnel for the diamond with those two absent unless you're using Markovic at the tip of the diamond rather than on the flank, with Lucas at the base, two from Henderson-Can-Lallana as the shuttlers and Markovic at the apex. Three at the back, as against United, remains a possibility, but I suspect that formation was more to counter United's set-up rather than Liverpool's plan going forward.

But chances are we see a much "stronger" XI than the one guessed above. Something like Jones; Manquillo, Skrtel, Lovren, Enrique; Lucas; Gerrard, Henderson; Coutinho, Lambert, Sterling. To the detriment of young players and summer signings who'd normally get chances in this competition.

The majority of the Bournemouth side that Liverpool faced in the FA Cup last year remains at the club, supplemented by a few new faces. Top scorer Callum Wilson, with 12 goals so far this season, joined from Coventry; Artur Boruc, formerly of Southampton and Celtic, is now the starting keeper; ex-Evertonian Dan Gosling frequently features in midfield, often as a substitute. But tomorrow's XI will look a lot like the one which faced Liverpool 11 months ago.

Bournemouth will almost certainly name a full-strength XI – it's the first time the club has made it this far in the competition – something like Boruc; Francis, Elphick, Cook, Daniels; Arter, Surman; Ritchie, Pitman, Pugh; Wilson. Nine of those 11 played in last season's meeting. Meanwhile, four of Liverpool's starting XI from last season aren't even with the club anymore, while Sturridge also remains injured, and if Liverpool name the above guessed XI, only Henderson, Toure, and Jones will be holdovers from the previous meeting.

But last season, Bournemouth were 16th in the Championship, ultimately ending the season strongly and finishing 10th. Liverpool won 2-0 fairly easily, rarely threatened, thanks to goals from Moses and Sturridge. This season, Bournemouth lead the division, have scored six more goals than the next closest Championship side (averaging 2.1 per match), and haven't lost since September 30, winning nine and drawing three during that span.

Even if Liverpool were at full strength and were actually playing decent football, this would be a challenge. Liverpool aren't at full strength, Liverpool shouldn't name a full-strength XI, and Liverpool aren't playing decent football. So be it.

Advancing in this competition would be nice. As in 2011-12, cup progression can serve as a welcome distraction for league failings. But, as 2011-12 demonstrated, cup progression doesn't necessarily correct those failings. Nor can it save an under-fire manager's job.

What's more important is seeing what you have and setting yourself up for better in the future. Liverpool still need to see what they have with Balotelli, Liverpool need to see what they have with Sakho now that he's fit again. Markovic, Can, Manquillo, and Moreno are the future, and Sakho should be included in that group as well.

We're incredibly close to already waving goodbye to this season, at least a top 4 league position. Liverpool's best hope for Champions League qualification is probably winning the Europa League, something they have not looked capable of doing. The future is now.

15 December 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 0-3 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

There won't be many matches where Liverpool put at least 47% of its shots on-target and fails to score. That's happened just twice before under Rodgers: at Newcastle this season, with three of six shots on target, and against Southampton last season, with five of ten on target. Liverpool lost both matches 0-1. Liverpool took 19 shots yesterday, nearly double the output against Southampton last season and more than triple the output at Newcastle this season.

Prior to yesterday's match, Liverpool have had a shooting accuracy better than 45% in 17 of the 91 league games under Rodgers. They've scored 51 goals in those 17 matches, an average of three goals per game.

And eight of those nine shots on-target came inside United's penalty box. It's not as if Liverpool just let fly from distance and all De Gea had to do was scoop the ball up. Expected Goals certainly aren't the be-all, end-all, but Liverpool's ExpG tally yesterday was 3.1 (via Michael Caley), by far the high for the season.

There won't be many matches where Liverpool take at least nine shots in the Danger Zone (six-yard box + center of the 18-yard box) and fail to score. That hasn't happened since the start of last season (I don't have shot location data for 2012-13). Liverpool took at least nine Danger Zone shots in 10 of 38 league matches last season, scoring an average of 3.8 goals per game in those matches.

Yesterday was the first time this season that Liverpool took at least nine shots in the Danger Zone. The previous high was eight at Tottenham, where Liverpool scored three goals.

Despite failing to score, yesterday certainly was progress in an attacking sense. And it's probably not coincidence that output occurred, at least for the most part, with two players up front. Balotelli needs a strike partner to be effective, Sterling needs a strike partner to be effective. If Liverpool can replicate that performance in attack, they'll probably win more matches than they lose, as long as they're not facing David De Gea.

However, if Liverpool continue to defend like this (seriously, stop what you're doing and go read this from Mike Goodman, because I can't break down Liverpool's struggles in defense any better), they're going to lose a lot more matches than they win.

Liverpool put nine of 19 shots on target, but United put six of 11 on target (54.5%), and scored from three of those six *glares at Brad Jones*.

Liverpool's inability to find a balance between defense and attack has been a major narrative throughout Rodgers' tenure, in all three seasons, whether playing three at the back or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 diamond. The problems often start with Gerrard as a defensive midfielder, whether at the base of a diamond or 4-3-3, whether partnered with another in a 4-2-3-1, or in yesterday's 3-4-3, but there are multiple other issues: the positioning of the center-backs, the fullbacks' inability to get back, poor goalkeeping, constant random errors (like Lovren's failed interception setting up United's third, among many other examples), etc. And that's not even taking into account Liverpool's recurring issues when defending set plays.

We're nearly halfway through the campaign, and Rodgers has tried nearly every formation under the sun, and the repeated issues are still repeating.

That bodes exceptionally poorly for both the rest of the season and Rodgers' Liverpool tenure.

14 December 2014

Liverpool 0-3 Manchester United

Rooney 12'
Mata 40'
van Persie 72'

The differences between the two sides was perfectly encapsulated in the 12th minute. Liverpool had started with a completely different system featuring pace up front and Liverpool had started well, mainly thanks to the return of high pressing in United's half. That good play culminated in a 12th-minute break between Lallana and Sterling, ending with the latter one-on-one with De Gea from seven yards out. De Gea made the save.

40 seconds later, United tore down the pitch. Valencia, up against Joe Allen and Adam Lallana as Moreno failed to get back, nutmegged Allen to go clear down the right. Neither Gerrard nor Coutinho tracked Rooney's run from deep, his shot from the top of the box perfectly placed, with Brad Jones diving in the opposite direction just to add an extra level of haplessness to the situation.

Manchester United have natural goalscorers. Liverpool do not. Last season aptly demonstrated how having fearsome goalscorers can paper over other failings. Last season is long, long, long gone.

Over the course of the match, Liverpool had six outstanding chances to score, arguably better than anything they've created over the last month. Three for Sterling, three for Balotelli. All six from deep inside the box, four with the Liverpool player was one-on-one with the keeper, and that doesn't include a free header from Jordan Henderson from 10 yards out that was off-target. David De Gea saved all six. Sure, two of those chances came after United were already ahead by three. But Liverpool had an awful lot of excellent opportunities to score today, and Liverpool couldn't take a single one of them. And while De Gea was deservedly man of the match, it's not as if any of the six – aside from one on Balotelli – was an especially difficult stop.

Meanwhile, Brad Jones dove the wrong way on two of United's three goals. We've already covered the mistakes on United's opener, Mata was three yards offside on the second, and Liverpool were cut open on the break when piling men forward for the third, with the added bonus of a failed interception from Lovren who subsequently played van Persie onside.

You could make the argument that this was Liverpool's second-best performance of the season. I'm not necessarily sure that's the case – Liverpool wasn't bad in the 1-3 at City, Liverpool deserved all three points in the 1-1 draw against Everton (notice how Liverpool failed to win either of those matches too) – but it wasn't far off. Both Sterling and Balotelli got into good scoring positions; Sterling, Gerrard, Markovic, and Lallana all demonstrated more creativity than we've seen of late. Liverpool started quickly, Liverpool pressed well.

And Liverpool still lost 0-3 to their biggest rivals. Because Liverpool couldn't finish the excellent chances they created and Liverpool still does very dumb things in defense, not helped by a terrible decision from the linesman on the crucial second goal.

So even if Liverpool were better – and better is very much a relative term – Liverpool's strikers and Liverpool's defenders and Liverpool's goalkeepers are not very good, and certainly not as good as Manchester United. And that's why Liverpool lost. And it's why Liverpool will continue to lose matches until those issues are rectified, whether by continuing to tinker with personnel and formation, whether by bringing back currently exiled or injured players (*looks at Sakho, looks at Borini, looks at Sturridge*), or whether it's in the January transfer window.

But Liverpool really need to fix things soon.

Or else...

13 December 2014

Liverpool at Manchester United 12.14.14

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.14
1-0 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13
1-2 United (a) 01.13.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Basel (h); 0-0 Sunderland (h); 3-1 Leicester (a)
United: 2-1 Southampton (a); 2-1 Stoke (h); 3-0 Hull (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Own Goal, Sterling 3; Henderson, Lallana 2; Can, Coutinho, Johnson, Lambert, Moreno, Sturridge 1
United: van Persie 6; Rooney 5; Mata 4; di Maria 3; Fellaini, Herrera 2; Blind, Falcao, Smalling 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Toure Moreno
Henderson Gerrard
Lallana Balotelli Sterling

Did Liverpool learn anything from its disappointing Champions League exit?

My main takeaway was that pace and playing on the front foot remain more important than "experience" or "keeping it tight." Admittedly, Liverpool still lack firepower up front, but "keeping it tight" has rarely worked, and when it's worked, it's been at home against the likes of Stoke and Sunderland, neither side overflowing with attacking talent.

Even though we've had our differences this season, if he's anywhere near full fitness, I'd like to see Balotelli start.

The only time Balotelli has scored against United was when tallying a double in City's 6-1 win at United in 2011, but if there's any match Mario will be up for, it's a match at Manchester United. Which means he could score a hat-trick, the final goal coming through nothing but telekinesis, or get sent off within 90 seconds. Neither would surprise me, but I'm down for the ride. Also, I'm fairly sure Lambert's still wheeling around an oxygen tank after the last six matches, while no one's yet found Fabio Borini's almost certainly decaying remains.

Sterling will obviously be one of the two wide players flanking the striker, but, as usual, the other spot's up for grabs. I'm tempted to suggest Markovic after his short cameo against Basel, another who fits the "get at them with pace, take no prisoners" mantra, but it still seems more likely that he'd be used as a substitute. I do not want to see Henderson pushed out wide again. Which leaves Coutinho or Lallana, the former out of form and much better as a midfielder, the latter still recuperating from broken ribs suffered at Leicester. Maybe starting Markovic isn't such a bad idea.

As for the midfield. Gerrard will start, ideally as part of a more-advanced two rather than in the hole as a #10, partnered with Henderson, Coutinho, or Allen, with Lucas as the deeper lying midfielder.

I'd be tempted to suggest Toure and Lovren or Sakho and Lovren rather than Skrtel with one of the other three center backs, but that's extremely unlikely. Toure's fit again, so Toure will probably return, but Sakho's also fully fit and deserves a chance (if only by process of elimination), while – whisper it quietly – Lovren was actually Liverpool's best defender against Basel. The fullbacks are still a guessing game, but I think Tuesday rather concretely proved that Jose Enrique is not an option, and I doubt Rodgers will start both Manquillo and Moreno against United.

Manchester United are currently on a five-match winning streak, the longest in the division, beating Palace (h), Arsenal (a), Hull (h), Stoke (h), and Southampton (a). Sure, the home matches weren't against entirely impressive opposition, but Liverpool failed to beat two of those three, and Arsenal and Southampton are two very difficult away fixtures. Also worth noting: four of those five wins, aside from the 3-0 victory over Hull, were by a solitary goal. United haven't really overpowered anyone except Hull, but they're re-learning how to win those closely fought contests. Something that Liverpool could certainly stand to do.

Last week's win at Southampton was that to the extreme. United had 45% possession, took all of three shots to Southampton's 15 (all three by van Persie), and Southampton were in control for long stretches. But van Persie put two of those three shots on target and United won 2-1. Both goals were gifts: a terrible back pass for the first, Forster completely misplaying Rooney's free kick for the second. But Liverpool have been excellent at providing the opposition with unearned and unwarranted gifts this season.

United still have a lot of absentees to cope with: Smalling, Shaw, di Maria, and Blind are definitely out; Jones and Rafael are questionable, both close to fitness after a couple of months out.

Van Gaal continues to switch between three- and four-man back lines. 4-3-1-2 has been the more frequent formation during the last two months, but United shifted to 3-1-4-2 in difficult matches at both Arsenal and Southampton. I have no idea whether United's absences in defense make three-at-the-back more or less likely. If it's three at the back, it'll be De Gea; McNair/Jones, Evans, Rojo; Rafael/Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Young; Mata; Rooney, van Persie. If it's four at the back, De Gea; Rafael/Valencia, Evans, Rojo/Jones/McNair, Young/Rojo; Fellaini, Carrick, Herrara; Mata; Rooney, van Persie. My suspicion is the latter.

It's a good thing that form means next to nothing in this fixture given the two sides' respective form. This could be exactly the match that Liverpool need: a good performance and/or good result against your rivals on their ground could kickstart the second half of the season, especially with Balotelli and Sakho returning to fitness and Sturridge only a couple of weeks away (*crosses fingers*).

Liverpool have an opportunity to change the narrative tomorrow. And Liverpool have not taken any of those previous opportunities since the end of August.

10 December 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Basel

Previous Match Infographics: Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews)

Steven Gerrard – so nearly a hero yet again – said it best. Liverpool got exactly what they deserved, from yesterday's match and from this Champions League campaign.

We can complain about the underlying statistics, the same complaints that have been aired here over the last few weeks and months. Especially the shooting statistics: the slow start, the poor accuracy, etc. But you've heard those complaints before.

I'm far more concerned with Liverpool's – read: Brendan Rodgers' – philosophy and tactics yesterday.

Because I don't see Brendan Rodgers' philosophy anymore. But I do see Rodgers abandoning both the tactics which nearly saw Liverpool win the league last season and the players bought over the summer.

Liverpool's Starting XI
• Mignolet (Rodgers)
• Johnson (Benitez)
• Skrtel (Benitez)
• Lovren (Rodgers)
• Enrique (Dalglish)
• Lucas (Benitez)
• Allen (Rodgers)
• Sterling (Benitez, but debuted under Dalglish)
• Gerrard (Academy, debuted under Houllier)
• Henderson (Dalglish)
• Lambert (Rodgers)

There were as many players in the starting XI bought by a manager who was fired more than four years ago as were signed by the current manager. That's the most damning indictment of the recent transfer strategy I've seen, and I've seen a few. Meanwhile…

Liverpool's Bench
• Jones (Hodgson)
• Sakho (Rodgers)
• Moreno (Rodgers)
• Can (Rodgers)
• Lallana (Rodgers)
• Coutinho (Rodgers)
• Markovic (Rodgers)

Sigh. That's an awful lot of talent left on the bench. And an awful lot of transfer fees. And six of seven players who were bought by the current manager.

The starting XI was, for lack of a better word, embarrassing. It was overly cautious, overly ponderous, and seemingly failed to take into account Basel's (and Liverpool's) strengths.

- A return to the defense which led to the abomination at QPR. Sure, Toure was injured and Sakho's just back from injury (and who knows how match fit he is), but there's absolutely no argument for Enrique over Moreno or Manquillo except for that intangible "experience." Manquillo is stronger in the tackle, better at blocking crosses, and usually smarter in his positioning. Moreno has the much-needed pace that Liverpool's XI so sorely lacked. At least that was rectified at halftime.

- Lambert, clearly fatigued in the last two league matches, started for the sixth time in 16 days. Again, Liverpool's aren't overflowing with options (that Liverpool thought it a good idea to begin a campaign with Lambert and Borini as third- and fourth-choice strikers when the first choice is often injured and you've no idea what you're getting from the second is a valid, but different, discussion) but everyone – everyone! – had seen that was a recipe for disaster. If I saw it, and I'm an idiot, I've no idea how Rodgers didn't. Or, he still thought that a fatigued Lambert was still a better option than Borini or Sterling or Markovic or even Gerrard up front. Which is a damning indictment of the first player he signed for Liverpool, a player who hasn't made an appearance since the loss at Palace, among other things. At least that was rectified at halftime.

- Lucas had looked better as the sole defensive midfielder with two players ahead of him, but yesterday's he partnered with Allen, seemingly reacting to Basel's shape with Zuffi and Elneny ahead of Frei. And it led to multiple moments like this one, with Liverpool's midfield out of position because one midfielder's not sure if it's time to go forward but yep it's time to go forward oh shit wait we're both going forward and Liverpool have lost possession and yikes. And moments like the goal – starting from a Liverpool giveaway in its own half, because Liverpool are not good at passing from the back when pressured – with Frei and Zuffi passing around Lucas and Frei dancing past Allen, although Skrtel's backing off of those two was just as culpable.

- Henderson on the left, because Xhaka is a more attacking fullback than Safari, I guess. A position he's started in once (at Newcastle this season, with Sterling again on the right, which went well) since the beginning of 2013-14.

Hindsight's 20/20 etc., but Liverpool needed pace against Basel's press and counter, not a ponderous midfield, a fatigued striker, a central midfielder on the flank, and defenders who look utterly terrified every time the ball's at their feet. It's no coincidence that Liverpool improved after halftime, bringing on the speedy Markovic and Moreno for the hapless Lambert and Enrique, beginning to take the game to Basel rather than vice versa.

Liverpool weren't vastly better, but Liverpool were better. Liverpool were proactive rather than reactive. Liverpool were actually almost threatening. In just 15 minutes, Markovic completed more successful dribbles than any player except Sterling and Safari.

Yes, that strategy was doomed by a hilariously bad red card to Markovic. But Liverpool still kept pushing, still played on the front foot, and, yes, were obviously helped by Basel happy to defend a one-goal lead rather than seeking out more. Once Gerrard conjured a moment of magic – and no matter the (often valid) complaints about him and how he's used these days, no other Liverpool player is capable of that magic – Liverpool went for it, and Liverpool nearly succeeded. But it's funny that occurred with Skrtel left up front. Resorting to a center-back up front is something you'd expect from Mourinho, or Hodgson, or most managers, but not Rodgers. But in the 90th minute, Skrtel almost scored the winner by making a near post run, the type of run that Liverpool strikers have failed (or been unable) to make since Sturridge was injured.

I still have more time for Brendan Rodgers than most, but this cannot keep happening. For once, Rodgers' in-game changes improved the side, but his starting XI was chosen in the hopes of not losing rather than winning, despite Liverpool needing to win. I can't help but remember Rafa Benitez's final, horrible season. Needing to overhaul a deficit in the Europa League knockout rounds, he went guns blazing – despite his usual inclination to do nothing of the sort, especially in European competition – and hammered Lille and Benfica, both sides vastly better than this Basel side.

It's easy to say from behind a computer, but Rodgers has to have more faith in his team, his transfers, and his tactics. He's got to dance with the one that brought him here. Or it's going to be a very long and very uncomfortable six months before a probable summer exit.

08 December 2014

Liverpool v Basel 12.09.14

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Sunderland (h); 3-1 Leicester (a); 1-0 Stoke (h)
Basel: 3-0 Luzern (h); 2-1 Zürich (a); 0-1 Madrid (h)

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Basel: 0-1 Madrid (h); 4-0 Ludogorets (h); 0-1 Ludogorets (a); 1-0 Liverpool (h); 1-5 Madrid (a)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard, Henderson, Lambert 1
Basel: Gonzalez 2; Embolo, Gashi, Streller, Suchy 1

Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED)

Kuipers has actually been in charge of three previous Liverpool matches, all three ending in Liverpool wins.

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Toure Johnson
Henderson Gerrard
Lallana Lambert Sterling

Once again, I worry about players' fatigue – especially Lambert, Sterling, Lucas, Johnson, Toure, and Henderson – but I doubt we'll see much change from the last few starting XIs. Other than (finally) resting Gerrard on occasion, there hasn't been much rotation in the last few lineups. Any port in a storm, and even if Liverpool have been unconvincing at best, they're still unbeaten in the last four matches.

Only two spots seem up for grabs: the right-sided attacker, whether Lallana, Coutinho, or Markovic, and the fullback opposite Johnson.

Both Lallana and Markovic seem more likely than Coutinho, still struggling and also used centrally in his last two appearances. I'd prefer Markovic's pace opposite Sterling's, for two quick players buzzing around Lambert rather than just one, but I suspect Lallana will be preferred, with Markovic used off the bench if needed, as he was against Sunderland.

As for the fullback, your guess is as good as mine. Manquillo's started four of the five Champions League matches so far and is the best defensive fullback available, but Johnson could stay on the right with either Enrique or Moreno on the other side. We've seen all of those combinations in the last four matches.

Since Gerrard will assuredly come back into the side and since Lucas has become crucial to Liverpool's defensive security, if Rodgers wants to change the midfield, Henderson seems the most likely change, but I still doubt that the vice-captain will be left out.

There's no point in continuing to guess Borini will start, despite my fervent wish to see something different up front, because Rodgers has shown absolutely zero signs of considering him as an alternative. He hasn't even made the squad since the 2-2 draw at Ludogorets, hasn't made an appearance since getting 20 minutes at Crystal Palace. And with Balotelli still injured, it has to be Lambert, for his sixth start in 13 days, playing the full 90 minutes in the previous five matches. That seems a recipe for disaster.

Basel are currently dominating the Swiss League, eight points clear of second place and with five consecutive league wins, outscoring the opposition by a 14-1 margin during than span.

As in the reverse fixture, Basel have the option of playing three or four at the back. They're equally comfortable in both formations, but were better against Liverpool after switching to back three, a change necessitated by an early injury. But they've used a back four far more often of late, in both in the league and Champions League. If that's the case, the XI seems likely to be Vaclik; Degen, Schär, Suchy, Safari; El Nenny, Serey Die, Frei; Gonzalez, Streller, Embolo. Which is pretty much the same XI that started when these sides met in Basel.

But, only needing a draw to progress, Basel may play more defensively, with three center-backs and restrained wing-backs, Xhaka or the experienced Walter Samuel coming in as a third CB. Given how Liverpool have tried, struggled, and usually failed to break down deep defenses who pack the middle of the pitch, it makes a certain amount of sense.

Basel's only absentee is Ivan Ivanov, who also missed the reverse fixture. Philipp Degen, who missed the last meeting through injury (surprise!), is available, having started the last five matches. Which is exciting.

Despite five less-than-convincing performances, despite scoring all of four goals in those five matches (all four coming against Ludogorets), if Liverpool win tomorrow, Liverpool progress to the knockout rounds. Considering how bad Liverpool have looked in this competition, that's an indictment of the rest of the group (Real Madrid excluded, obviously). But if Liverpool fail to win, they'll drop into the European competition no one wants to be in, because Ludogorets aren't taking points off of an already-qualified Real Madrid in Madrid. That's less than ideal given where Liverpool (and Liverpool's squad) are at the moment.

Unfortunately, Liverpool will need actually need to attack to win, and that's where things get tricky.

This has the potential to be one of those special European nights at Anfield, the type of nights Liverpool have dreamed about during this five-year exile from the Champions League. But Liverpool will have to be better than we've seen of late to reach that potential.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

There's little more to say that hasn't been said in previous match infographic posts.

With Lucas and Toure back in the side, Liverpool have thankfully gotten better in defense. As against Stoke, Liverpool didn't make a single defensive error, for only the sixth time in 15 matches. Sunderland rarely had a threatening attack that didn't end with Wickham throwing himself to the ground and gesticulating for a penalty he didn't deserve. Liverpool only allowed seven Sunderland shots, with just one on target. Lucas made seven tackles and five interceptions, leading the team in both categories, while Toure and Skrtel also had high tackle and interceptions totals respectively.

But Liverpool are still terrible in attack. Absolutely terrible.

The home side took 15 shots, which isn't an awful total, but had an Expected Goal total of just 0.9 from those 15 (via Michael Caley).

Just two of those 15 actually forced Costel Pantilimon into a save, and neither was an especially difficult save. Liverpool's shooting accuracy in the last four games? 8.33% (at Palace), 18.75% (v Stoke), 27.27% (at Leicester), 13.33% (v Sunderland). That's beyond horrific. As a reminder, Liverpool's shooting accuracy was 39.63% last season, an average they've surpassed just twice since Sturridge's (first) injury, at West Ham and at Newcastle, matches where Liverpool took 11 and six shots respectively. And yes, matches that still Liverpool lost.

Against Stoke, Liverpool's first shot on-target came in the 64th minute. Against Sunderland, it was in the 63rd. Two matches at Anfield against bottom-half sides, and Liverpool needed more than an hour to hit the target.

Only one Premier League match this season has produced fewer shots on-target than Liverpool (2) and Sunderland (1) did on Saturday. That was Liverpool v Aston Villa in early September, where each side managed to hit the target only once. I doubt I need to remind that Villa scored from their one, though.

Liverpool are ponderous, unable to create chances on the counter despite playing for it in the first half – with just two shots to show for their troubles, both at least inside the box but both off-target – and unable to create good chances despite monopolizing possession in the second half because the slow play allowed Sunderland to get into position and Liverpool simply could not break them down.

The Liverpool Echo, among others, highlighted how the front players failed to link up, using Coutinho and Lambert exchanging all of three passes as the primary example (all three from Lambert to Coutinho), but the entire attack except Coutinho and Sterling were guilty of it. Just one pass from Sterling to Lambert. Just five passes between Coutinho and Lallana. Just five passes between Henderson and Lambert, all five from Lambert to Henderson. The players who played the most passes to Rickie Lambert? Mignolet and Johnson, each finding the striker four times.

And once again, Coutinho failed to create a single chance, despite his 14 passes to Raheem Sterling. Sterling was Liverpool's primary creator, while Coutinho took more shots than any other Liverpool player. That seems backward. Coutinho's last key pass came against Chelsea, on November 8th. He's played 273 minutes since. And that's the only chance he's created in the league since Liverpool beat West Brom on October 4th. He's played 500 minutes since. Coutinho is yet to register an assist this season in any competition, after tallying eight last season. I realize that Coutinho hasn't had much help from the players in front of him – and neither Lambert nor Balotelli make the runs that Coutinho thrives off of, the movement that Sturridge and Suarez constantly demonstrated – but that's still really, really bad and really, really, really unhelpful.

Last season's goalscoring, aside from Suarez and Sturridge's individual brilliance, was defined by two traits: hammering the opposition from the opening whistle and the ability to convert set plays.

Well, since beating Tottenham on August 30th, Liverpool have scored in the first 20 minutes in three matches: a draw versus Ludogorets, a loss to Chelsea, and a loss at Crystal Palace, equalizing against Ludogorets and maintaining a lead for just five minutes against Chelsea and 15 minutes at Palace. And Liverpool have scored on just three set plays in the league this season (if we're being generous and counting Lallana's opener at Leicester), with none of those coming from a corner. Liverpool have had 77 corners this season.

Yes, at least the defense has improved, even if neither Stoke nor Sunderland are the most dangerous of opponents. That's at least a little progress, and even if neither seem a long-term solution, both Lucas and Toure have made Liverpool a more resilient side.

But the attack still has a very, very long way to go.