28 February 2014

Liverpool at Southampton 03.01.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Southampton (h) 09.21.13
1-3 Southampton (a) 03.16.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.01.12
0-2 Southampton (a) 01.22.05

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

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 18; Gerrard 7; Sterling 6; Skrtel 4; Coutinho, Henderson 3; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Southampton: Rodriguez 10; Lambert 8; Lallana 7; Fonte, Osvaldo 3; Davis, Lovren 2; Ramirez, Schneiderlin, Yoshida 1

Referee: Lee Probert

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

If at first it doesn't succeed...? How about if it kind of succeeds?

Once again, it's hard to foresee any changes to Liverpool's XI. Maybe in where they line up, but not who lines up; either fullback can play on either side, the front three could play in almost any of the three positions. Allen was brilliant as a substitute against Swansea, but I still can't see him replacing Henderson, Coutinho, or Sterling in the starting XI.

The question, as it's been for the last month, is how Liverpool's tactics (read: Liverpool's midfield) fare against the opposition. And, of course, whether or not Liverpool's defense will do something stupid. But more so the first question.

Away from home, against a side with the ability to dominate possession, you'd think that Liverpool's midfield would be better, would be less exposed, than against the likes of Stoke, Villa, West Brom, or Swansea. The front three can press, along with either Henderson or Coutinho, the rest of the midfield and defense can play compact and soak up pressure, looking to spring the ever-potent counter-attack rather than feeling the need to take the game to their opponents. However, Southampton's ability to press could throw this off-balance. Gerrard, Coutinho, and (to a lesser extent) Henderson probably won't have the time and space to pick apart the opposition during quick transitions, not like they did against Arsenal or Everton. Southampton's pressing has unbalanced Liverpool's in the last two meetings, which have both ended in two Liverpool losses.

Liverpool have scored 13 goals in the last four league matches, and none of them have come from Luis Suarez, who's currently going through his longest "drought" of the season. Southampton is the only team in the Premier League that Luis Suarez has never scored against. This seems relevant. Someone make sure Luis is aware of this prior to kick-off.

Southampton are currently ninth, locked with Newcastle in a nearly meaningless battle for eighth. Neither will drop enough points to fall into the bottom half of the table, and it seems almost certain that neither will gain enough points to challenge Everton or United for seventh. And Southampton's last three results somewhat support the notion of cruise control: a narrow victory over Hull, a narrow loss at Sunderland in the FA Cup, and a 1-3 loss at West Ham last weekend, demolished by Kevin Nolan et al after Yoshida opened the scoring from a set play. But that certainly doesn't mean Southampton don't have anything to play for. Especially when facing Liverpool, a side they've beaten in the last two meetings.

With Lovren and Ramirez back from extended absences, Southampton's only injury concern is Victor Wanyama, who'll be subject to a late fitness test. But there's a fairly good chance he wouldn't be playing anyway. Like Brendan Rodgers, Pochettino has had a settled XI over the last month, with Lovren likely to be the only player to alter the squad. Boruc; Chambers, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw; Cork, Schneiderlin; Davis, Lallana, Rodriguez; Lambert. Clyne could start instead of Chambers, Ward-Prowse or Ramirez instead of Davis, but those (along with Wanyama) seem the only possible variations.

Liverpool have been held scoreless in just two league matches this season: an 0-2 loss at Arsenal, and the 0-1 loss to tomorrow's opponent at Anfield in September. Only West Ham, Chelsea, and Arsenal have kept more clean sheets than Southampton this season.

Southampton have handled Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool better than any other side, limiting them to two goals in the last three matches, winning twice under Pochettino and narrowly losing once under Adkins. At times, the two appear mirror images: heavy pressing; intelligent, ball-controlling passing; counter-attack and set play goals. Southampton have done it better than Liverpool the last two times they've faced off.

For the last few months, we've said that this is a different Liverpool. A more resilient Liverpool, a more potent Liverpool. Tomorrow would be a good time to again demonstrate that.

24 February 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 4-3 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), 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 14th time Liverpool have scored three or more goals in a league match this season. That happened 12 times last season, and just seven in 2011-12. And there are still 11 matches to go. Liverpool's record when they scored three or more? 13 wins, one draw.

Liverpool have taken an awful lot of points because of their goal-scoring prowess. They've already tallied 70 goals this season, more than any other club in the league. They're one shy of last season's total, and have already surpassed 2011-12's tally by 23 goals. Averaging 2.59 goals per game, they're on pace for 98 or 99 this season.

Liverpool could score just eight goals over the rest of the season (note: I highly recommend not doing this), and it'd still be Liverpool's highest-scoring campaign in the last 26 seasons, going all the way back to 1987-88, where Liverpool under Dalglish scored 87 and won the league by nine points. And that was a 40-game season. You have to go back to 1963-64, when Liverpool won its first league title under Bill Shankly, for the last time the side scored 90 or more in the league. And that was a 42-game season.

Chelsea holds the record for most goals in a Premier League season with 103, set in 2009-10. When they won the league with 86 points. Of course, they only conceded 32 goals that campaign. Liverpool have already let in 35.

Yesterday was the 11th time Liverpool have conceded at least two in a league match. Liverpool's record when they concede at least two? Three wins, four draws, four losses. The wins came at Stoke, at Fulham, and yesterday against Swansea. The draws were the 2-2 at Swansea, 2-2 at Newcastle, 3-3 at Everton, and 2-2 against Villa. And the losses were 0-2 at Arsenal, 1-3 at Hull, 1-2 at City, and 1-2 at Chelsea.

It's a lot easier to overcome conceding two or more goals against the Swanseas and Stokes of the world. For every 5-1 against Arsenal, 5-0 at Tottenham, 4-0 against Everton, there are those 0-2, 1-2, 1-2 setbacks.

Nine of the 11 matches where Liverpool conceded two or more were away from Anfield. Liverpool's remaining away matches? Southampton, United, Cardiff, West Ham, Norwich, and Palace. There are a lot of sides Liverpool will expect to beat in there, but there are more than a few opportunities to drop points if Liverpool continue conceding avoidable goals.

But back to yesterday's match. Which followed the pattern of a fair few Liverpool matches already this season. Liverpool are very good going forward, but Liverpool also have problems in midfield when they're too open – especially against sides that they're expected to take the game to – and Liverpool have an unsettled and mistake-prone defense.

Swansea's three goals highlighted both problems. The first saw Liverpool's missing midfield: Swansea allowed to pass and run through the center before pushing the ball out wide, both Henderson and Gerrard failing to mark Shelvey, allowing a dangerous player the time and space to kill them. But, to be fair, Liverpool did almost the exact same thing to Swansea just three minutes earlier.

Both the second and third goals aptly demonstrated Liverpool's flaws in defense, especially on set plays, and just how unlucky that defense has been at times this season. On other days, Skrtel isn't whistled for a petulant little kick at Shelvey after winning the tackle. On other days, Skrtel's deflection off of Bony's header doesn't end up in the back of the net. On other days, Sterling doesn't slip when offered the opportunity to transition to attack, allowing Dyer free range to cross. And on other days, Skrtel's desire to give opposition strikers a hug isn't punished.

Yesterday's Match of the Day had a Liverpool 'lowlights' reel, which was amusing, but seemed to need a different soundtrack.

Luck and errors, luck and errors. If it seems like I'm writing about that every week, it's because I pretty much am.

The second and third goals conceded yesterday also demonstrate the dangers of bringing back players from long-term injuries, with Johnson losing Bony on the set play, and out-of-position on the third, unable to defend Dyer because he wasn't expecting Sterling to stumble. Neither was necessarily responsible for Liverpool's concession, but neither helped. Still, you'd expect – or, more accurately, you'd hope – those errors are erased with match practice.

But Liverpool fixed itself around the hour mark. More accurately, Rodgers fixed Liverpool by bringing on Joe Allen.

I highlighted his performance in yesterday's match review, but it bears repeating. In 32 minutes, Allen completed 18 of 19 passes, made five tackles (of six attempted), seven ball recoveries, one interception, two successful dribbles, and created one chance. It was pretty impressive.

Liverpool, finally with some shape in midfield, defended far better, and the majority of that time was with Swansea chasing yet another equalizer.

Allen won five of those 16 tackles after coming on, nearly a full third. And while he only made one of the eight interceptions after the 58th minute, Liverpool's interceptions mostly were higher up the pitch rather than just outside their own box, preventing Swansea from getting into more dangerous positions.

Despite playing more attacking third passes in the final 32 minutes compared to the 58 before, Swansea created just two chances, compared to the eight which came before Allen's entrance.

But that seemed more a Band-Aid than a solution. Liverpool still have problems, are still trying to find a balance, in both defense and midfield. The goal-scoring pace is keeping Liverpool amongst the Champions League places and near the top of the table, but until the other two areas are improved, Liverpool won't come close to its full potential. As has been written for more than a few weeks now.

23 February 2014

Liverpool 4-3 Swansea

Sturridge 3' 36'
Henderson 20' 74'
Shelvey 23'
Bony 27' 48' (pen)

So many of Liverpool's matches this season have taken your breath away. Some of them – 5-0 Tottenham, 4-0 Everton, 5-1 Arsenal – delightfully so. But some of them – 3-3 Everton, 5-3 Stoke, 3-2 Fulham, and today's – have been nerve-wracking, vomit-inducing hot messes.

Evidently, Swansea didn't get the memo. When Liverpool go up 2-0 in the first 20 minutes at Anfield, you're supposed to fall to pieces, roll over and let Liverpool have its way with you. Liverpool had the lead within three minutes, Sterling's Coutinho-like throughball perfectly placed for Sturridge's run, rounding the keeper before the finish into the open net. He's now scored in eight consecutive league matches, for his 17th goal of the season. He's pretty good at this football thing.

Swansea's response should have demonstrated that this wouldn't be as easy as Everton or Arsenal, finding space in Liverpool's midfield and down Liverpool's left, Dyer against the returning Glen Johnson, but Liverpool soon had a second. This time, Sturridge turned provider, creating space on the right flank before cutting inside and setting up a wide open Henderson, the shot hit with aplomb. You'd expect that'd be game over, given the majority of what we've seen at Anfield this season. You'd be wrong.

Of course, Shelvey was the epicenter of Swansea's first two goals, scored within four minutes. The first was a brilliant strike, nearly a carbon copy of the Henderson one which preceded it: Dyer finding space down Liverpool's left, cutting in, and teeing up the midfielder at the top of the box, the shot unstoppably placed. And then Shelvey won the debatable free kick for the second, unsurprisingly conceded by Skrtel, evidently for kicking out after the center-back won the ball. Bony easily eluded Johnson's marking, but his header was either going off-target or was going to be saved by Mignolet before deflecting off Skrtel. The striker was given credit, but it might well go down as Skrtel's third own goal of the season. Yes, third. That's depressingly impressive.

Like against Villa, West Brom, and Fulham, this midfield didn't quite work in matchess where Liverpool expect to see a lot of the ball. It's been fantastic against Everton and Arsenal, compact but ready to press, keeping its shape in Liverpool half, smartly picking and choosing when to take its opportunities to attack. It's been less so in those aforementioned games, with Coutinho, Henderson, and Gerrard all trying to join the attack, leaving far too many gaps at the back. Gaps which further expose Liverpool's already earthquake-shaky defense.

But, because Liverpool often just won't be denied in front of goal, they were soon back in front. Suarez, still unable to find his shooting boots, demonstrated just how important he can be even when he isn't scoring, working space down the left before delivering an indescribably perfect cross for Sturridge, in between Williams and Taylor, to head home. It was a cross sent in to the exact centimeter, hit just hard enough to rise over Williams and still find Sturridge without giving Taylor even a chance at stopping it.

Of course, Swansea continued to threaten Liverpool's negligible, negligent defense for the rest of the half: Bony denied by Mignolet's fingertips, Rangel's free header from a corner wide, Dyer dragging his shot off-target, Agger's brilliant last-ditch block after Coutinho was dispossessed. But Liverpool made it to halftime without conceding again. Okay. Deep breaths. Regroup. Solidify. Get an early fourth, kill the game.

Ha. Hahahahahaha.

Swansea were level within three minutes of the restart, scoring with its first attack. It appeared Liverpool had the situation under control. Sterling had swept up, Johnson was there to cover. Nope. The Invisible Anfield Turf Monster rose up and grabbed Sterling's ankles, after Johnson had already started to go forward. Dyer snuck in, picked up possession, and crossed towards Bony, marked by both Agger and Skrtel. But Agger was there to make the clearing header. In position and everything, with the header sent clear of the box. Pity that Skrtel decided to bear hug Bony, and Mike Jones decided that he's gotten away with enough of that nonsense this season. Penalty. Bony steps up. Goal.

And back to square one all over again. A couple of chances for Suarez, but still not taken, still struggling with his shooting, as he has since scoring the fourth against Everton. And it's getting worse. Swansea continuing to threaten when given the chance: a de Guzman free kick just wide, then the same player denied by Mignolet four minutes later.

Thankfully, Rodgers had seen enough, bringing on Allen for Sterling, a move which shifted Coutinho out wide. Liverpool's midfield was immediately, noticeably better. Swansea stopped getting so many chances. Liverpool started having a lot more possession. And it seemed a matter of time before the fourth, as long as Suarez could find the target. First, Sturridge chipped just high and wide, then had a shot fantastically blocked by Williams, but the next four openings fell to the Uruguayan. Off-target, no penalty, off-target, blocked.

But on that last opening, the block fell perfectly for Henderson's run forward, taking it in stride, his first effort saved by Vorm but the second chance unstoppable from a yard out. Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good, and even better to be lucky and good. It was Henderson's second brace for the club, following his domineering performance at Newcastle last season, and you could see what it meant to him, screaming in euphoric relief.

Okay. You've got 15 or so minutes. Just don't do anything stupid. And for the most part, Liverpool didn't, aside from one frightening moment where were nearly got yet another Skrtel own goal, as Johnson's attempted, wayward clearance hit him in the chest, but fortunately ricocheted straight to Mignolet. It's wasn't the best defensive shell. It was, because it's Liverpool, incredibly stressful. But it was good enough, as the best chance of the final 10 minutes fell to Gerrard, hammered and deflected onto the post. Because it's not a Liverpool game if Liverpool don't hit the woodwork, evidently.

Jordan Henderson will get the plaudits for his two goals, and rightfully so, as will Sturridge for his brace. Sturridge's scoring run is beyond words, especially since it's come when Suarez can't score for love or money or love and money. Suarez and Sterling's assists were pretty damn gorgeous. But Joe Allen's man of the match. He completely changed proceedings. 18 of 19 passes, 5/6 tackles, 2/2 dribbles, 7 ball recoveries, 1 chance created, 1 interception. Before Allen, Liverpool's midfield was more open than a pervert's trenchcoat. After Allen, it was thankfully tied shut. Before Allen, Swansea took 11 shots and created eight chances in 56 minutes. After Allen, they took three shots and created two chances.

Liverpool's defense, on the other hand, was the opposite of man of the match. Agger and Johnson, to be fair, played like they're both returning from injury because both were returning from injury. Flanagan was mostly okay. Toure, replacing Agger in the 63rd minute, did enough, even if he causes similar pangs of fear as Martin Skrtel. And Skrtel was a walking catastrophe, to blame for some of it, deeply unlucky for some of it. Regardless – and I think we've said this before – Liverpool's defense really needs to get better. Soon would be nice.

Because Liverpool can't keep winning games 5-3, 3-2, 4-3. As much fun as Liverpool's attack is, as much fun as these games are for the neutral, it really doesn't seem sustainable. And my heart can't take Liverpool continuing to win 5-3. 3-2, and 4-3 games.

22 February 2014

Liverpool v Swansea 02.23.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (a) 09.16.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 02.17.13
0-0 (a) 11.25.12
1-3 Swansea (a; League Cup) 10.31.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Arsenal (a); 3-2 Fulham (a); 5-1 Arsenal (h)
Swansea: 0-0 Napoli (h); 1-3 Everton (a); 1-1 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 16; Gerrard 7; Sterling 6; Skrtel 4; Coutinho 3; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Swansea: Bony 8; Dyer 5; Shelvey 4; Chico 3; B Davies, Michu 2; de Guzman, Hernandez, Lamah, Routledge 1

Referee: Mike "Beachball" Jones

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

Liverpool have a defense again! I think. I hope. This is still Liverpool and defense we're talking about.

But yes, Agger's back, Johnson back. Sakho and Lucas aren't far off, Enrique's had further complications, but those two's return to the starting XI should make a massive difference, especially if we get pre-injury Glen Johnson, not struggling-with-injury Glen Johnson.

And, as usual, those will probably be the only chances to Liverpool's XI. Henderson should reclaim his place from Allen after the FA Cup loss, in midfield with Gerrard and Coutinho, and with Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling in some alignment up front. And those forwards will most likely be rather cranky after being shut out at Arsenal.

Swansea haven't won away from home in the league since November 23, at Fulham, with four losses and three draws on their travels since. They've scored just nine goals away from home in 13 matches; only Palace, Cardiff, and Norwich have tallied fewer. Which fits into the narrative of their four previous matches against Liverpool. Last season, Swansea exposed Liverpool 1-3 in the League Cup meeting at the Britannia and stifled Liverpool 0-0 in the league. Earlier this season, Swansea dominated Liverpool, one of the best opposition performances against Rodgers' side this season, and would have won if not for Jonjo Shelvey's charity. But when Swansea came to Anfield last season, Swansea were throttled – utterly, utterly throttled – lucky to lose 0-5, even though, yes, they were almost wholly focused on their upcoming League Cup final.

Jonjo Shelvey, for better and worse, was the star of the previous meeting. Everything was so very Jonjo, for both Swansea and Liverpool, playing a key part in all four goals. All that was missing to make it a flawless Jonjo match was a red card. Of course, I'd rather he didn't play, despite his fondness for foolishness, as I'm always terrified of what former Liverpool players will do. So it also seems worth pointing out that David Ngog will be on the bench, his lone appearance for Swansea a substitute cameo in Laudrup's last match.

Michu looks doubtful to return from his extended ankle injury, as does Pozuelo, while Dyer and Hernandez are questionable after picking up knocks in the Europa League. Which means Swansea's XI will be something like Vorm; Rangel, Chico, Williams, Davies; Britton, Shelvey; Dyer, Hernandez, Routledge; Bony. If Hernandez is unavailable, Shelvey will play ahead of Britton and Cañas in midfield. If Dyer's unavailable, Lamah will probably start on the flank, or Hernandez with the aforementioned midfield.

Swansea were impressive against Napoli on Thursday, grinding out a 0-0 draw against Benitez's full-strength XI. But that's also Benitez in an away European match, happy to wear out and stifle the opposition on their ground, and win the tie on his own. Ideally, that performance will have drained Swansea, while Liverpool have had a week to recover since facing Arsenal. And that Europa League performance was Swansea in a nutshell: strong in possession, able to battle with almost any opponent, but all-too-blunt in from of goal. 69% possession, 21 shots, but zero goals.

Not only is Liverpool's home form superb, but Swansea's style of play should help Liverpool, allowing the away side a modicum of unthreatening possession before slicing them open through quick transitions. And this is very much a match that Liverpool need to win, not only to keep pace with the three sides ahead of them in the table, but to maintain the distance between the two sides chasing them for a Champions League place.

19 February 2014

Coutinho v Arsenal [Animated Chalkboard]

Consider this an experiment. I wanted to A) see what chalkboards looked like when animated step-by-step and B) remind myself how to make animated GIFs in Photoshop. So, a couple of days back, I asked "Coutinho v Arsenal or Suarez at Tottenham?" on Twitter, without context. Off the top of my head, those seemed to be the most worthwhile to animate: two of Liverpool's best individual performances, against two very good sides, and more complete all-around performances: something more than just 80 different passes (no offense to Liverpool's central midfielders). Coutinho v Arsenal won by a handful of votes.

So here we are. I'm not fully convinced of its usefulness – at least, its usefulness compared to the time it took to create, although any in the future won't be as arduous given that I now know how to create these – but I hope you enjoy.

If you'd prefer, here's the file as a YouTube video. The aspect ratio is a bit nutty, but it's legible at both regular size and in full-screen. If you'd like to pause at certain moments, etc.

Also, for thoroughness' sake, here's a table of all the incidents included, linked rather than embedded because it's massively long.

As with the match infographics, this would have been next to impossible if not for Squawka and StatsZone's chalkboards.

16 February 2014

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal

Oxlade-Chamberlain 16'
Podolski 47'
Gerrard 59' (pen)

If Liverpool score on one, if not both, of its early chances, this ends very differently. But Daniel Sturridge did not score in either the 2nd or 5th minute, both times needing to take the shot with his weaker right foot, the first saved by Fabianski, the second hit into the side-netting.

For the next hour or so, Arsenal mostly did to Liverpool what Liverpool did to Arsenal eight days ago. Obviously, without the sadistic ruthlessness in front of goal, partly due to Liverpool's defending, partly due to Arsenal's weaknesses up front. But after getting a goal of their own, a slightly fortunate rebound falling to Oxlade-Chamberlain after Liverpool failed to clear a free kick, they were able to sit deeper, absorb and stifle Liverpool's attack, and attempt to expose the away side on the break.

Liverpool failed to test Fabianski between the 5th and 43rd minutes, smothered by Arsenal after entering Arsenal's half, pressed well by Arsenal's front four players. Liverpool desperately missed its own high pressing, a big feature of the last meeting, and yes, Liverpool desperately missed Jordan Henderson. And yes, Howard Webb was his very own sideshow in the first half, handing out yellows with little rhyme or reason, and only giving yellow for what was a red card-worthy tackle by Monreal. But England's Best Referee™ wasn't the reason Liverpool lost. At least not until the second half.

And the second half started in almost the exact same manner. Suarez denied by a wonderful Fabianski save, then Arsenal immediately storm down the field, a lightning attack through Oxlade-Chambelain's speed, Podolski hammering in the winger's cutback.

Instead of cementing the result, Arsenal's second only catalyzed Liverpool, exacerbated by bringing on Henderson for Cissokho, shifting Flanagan to left-back and Sterling to right-back. But Liverpool had gotten themselves back into the game before the substitution. Suarez fired a blistering warning shot just over Fabianski's goal, then won a deserved penalty when tripped by Podolski in the box. I know, right? Howard Webb, Liverpool penalty. We should have known to enjoy it while it lasted.

Gerrard stepped up, sending Fabianski the wrong way. It was probably Fabianski's only mistake of the game, as three minutes later, Arsenal's keeper saved the match. Sturridge put through by Coutinho's delicious throughball, finally on his preferred left foot, but somehow denied by the Pole's sprawling right leg.

At that point, it looked a matter of time before Liverpool leveled matters. And they should have had the chance in the 65th minute when Suarez was blatantly felled by Oxlade-Chamberlain after seeing his free kick cannon off the wall. You could see Webb's thought process from a mile away. "Shit, I've just given him a penalty. I can't give him another one just three minutes later. I'll just pretend it didn't happen. You're the best, Howard."

Sigh. To be fair, Webb was atrocious for both sides. He should have sent Gerrard off for a second yellow in the 75th. I'm sure he thought that it all worked out brilliantly. I have banged this drum time and time again, and I detest devoting this much space in a match review to the referee, but it's unavoidable. Referees need to call the incident, not the situation. Liverpool should have had a second penalty. Liverpool should have spent the last 15 minutes down to 10 men, with Gerrard suspended for next weekend's match against Swansea. Howard Webb is almost always the worst offender in this regard. And somehow he's considered the country's best referee. The mind boggles.

After the non-penalty, the game became stretched, with chances increasingly fewer and farther between. Liverpool had three shots on target, two from Suarez, one from Coutinho, but all three were straight at Fabianski. Cazorla, on as a substitute, could have settled the match, but airmailed his shot from the top of the box. Liverpool's best opportunity, unsurprisingly, came from an 86th minute set play, but Agger headed Gerrard's free kick narrowly wide. And yes, Webb could have given yet another penalty as Fabianski punched Agger straight in the head after the Dane got to the ball first. He didn't even contemplate doing so, with the final seven minutes all sound and fury signifying nothing until Webb's whistle finally blew.

Surprisingly enough, most of today's complaints (besides those about the referee, obviously) are about Liverpool's attack. It had to happen sometime; just 'one of those days' for both Sturridge and Suarez. It hasn't happened often. Liverpool's midfield was decent in the first half, and very good in the second half after Henderson came on. Gerrard, along with Sterling, was one of Liverpool's best players: his movement and positioning good, his range of passing in open play spectacular. And it was more than encouraging to see Sterling just as impressive at right-back as he's been as a wide attacker. Liverpool's defense was unlucky on the first goal, and ripped asunder by an excellent counter on the second. No defense was stopping that goal. Agger's return clearly improved the side despite two goals conceded, with everyone seemingly far calmer at the back. Yes, Arsenal's starting XI was weaker, but there was a vast difference between today's performance and Liverpool's last visit to the Emirates.

Liverpool can feel aggrieved, and take heart from how they played in the second half. Arsenal can have the extra match, hopefully matches. I wouldn't trade today for last Saturday in a million years.

On another day, on most days, Sturridge finishes one, if not more, of his three excellent chances. On another day, that rebound doesn't fall straight to Oxlade-Chamberlain, giving Arsenal a lucky lead they'd never relent. On another day, this match has another referee. So be it.

All focus returns to the league. Where it should be. Liverpool have 12 matches to seal the needed fourth place finish, if not improving on it.

15 February 2014

Liverpool at Arsenal 02.16.14

11am ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last four head-to-head:
5-1 Arsenal (h) 02.08.14
0-2 Arsenal (a) 11.02.13
2-2 (a) 01.30.13
0-2 Arsenal (h) 09.02.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Fulham (a); 5-1 Arsenal (h); 1-1 West Brom (a)
Arsenal: 0-0 United (h); 1-5 Liverpool (a); 2-0 Palace (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 19; Gerrard 7; Sterling 6; Skrtel 4; Coutinho 3; Henderson, Moses 2; Agger, Aspas, Flanagan, Sakho 1
Arsenal: Giroud 14; Ramsey 13; Cazorla, Walcott 6; Özil, Podolski, Wilshere 5; Arteta, Bendtner, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain 2; Eisfeld, Flamini, Gibbs, Gnabry, Rosicky, Sagna 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Agger Cissokho
Coutinho Allen
Sterling Suarez Sturridge

Oh, hey, I remember Arsenal.

Rodgers remembers Arsenal, declaring that he'll start a full-strength squad. With a week until Liverpool's next match, I guess that makes sense.

This seemingly means that Liverpool will change three players at most from the XI which has started the last four matches. It's too soon for Glen Johnson, but Agger will come in for Kolo Toure. Brad Jones has started both previous FA Cup ties. And Allen, healthy again, could replace either Henderson or Coutinho, the former seemingly more likely as he's dealing with a fractured wrist. Otherwise, Suarez, Sturridge, Gerrard, Sterling, Skrtel. All again. Almost certainly.

I'm sure Arsenal remembers Liverpool as well. And Arsenal at the Emirates are a much different prospect than Arsenal at Anfield, at least this season. But most of this is due to Liverpool's home form, a vastly superior side in front of its own fans. In theory, Liverpool's desire to press and play on the counter-attack fits into facing a top side away from home. As it did against Tottenham. But not so much against Chelsea or City. And kind of, sort at Everton, scoring three, but also conceding three. As usual, it'll depend on both Liverpool's ability to take an early lead and finish its chances, and then not making any soul-killing mistakes at the back.

Arsenal seem more likely to make changes than Liverpool, due to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League midweek, but like Liverpool, there probably won't be all that many. At the least, Fabianski's started both FA Cup ties so far, while I suspect Özil will be dropped after his last experience against Liverpool. Giroud and Wilshere also both seem candidates for rest with the midweek tie looming. Flamini is now back from suspension, but Cazorla has picked up an injury, and Walcott, Ramsey, Vermaelen, Källström, and Diaby are still out. Which means their XI will probably look something like Fabianski; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Arteta; Gnabry, Rosicky, Podolski; Bendtner. Which is still quite a decent side, a side that's assuredly capable of punishing Liverpool.

I'll be honest. I couldn't give a toss about the FA Cup. All that matters this season is the league; the domestic cups seem an unwanted distraction. But Rodgers apparently doesn't feel that way, and the players probably don't feel that way. Momentum and confidence may be intangible, unprovable concepts, but Liverpool will want to ensure that they maintain both.

Liverpool will want to prove that last weekend wasn't an aberration. Arsenal will want to prove that it was.

13 February 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Fulham

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), 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.

FYI: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews, for thoroughness' sake.

The last time Liverpool scored an injury time winner? April 10, 2012: Andy Carroll at Blackburn. Yesterday's was the first of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool tenure. Yes, Gerrard tallied a penalty to win 3-2 against Tottenham last March, but that was in the 82nd minute. Yes, Liverpool scored in the dying seconds against Chelsea last season and Everton this season to earn draws. But this was the first injury time winner in a very, very long time. And it could hardly have come at a better time.

It was in this fixture last season that Liverpool last came back from a deficit to win, going down 1-0 to Berbatov's 33rd minute strike before Sturridge's hat-trick. The last time Liverpool came back from two separate deficits to win? A 3-2 win at Bolton in August 2009, again overhauling an 0-1 and 1-2 deficit to get all three points thanks to Gerrard's late goal. That was 54 months ago. That was 175 league matches ago. That was a lifetime ago.

Luis Suarez is human after all. He put his first two shots on target yesterday, then failed to do so with the next six. He hasn't scored since his nail-in-the-coffin goal against Everton, 310 minutes ago. That's an epoch for Suarez. It's only his second-longest league drought since Rodgers became manager, failing to score in 479 minutes of league football between November 17 and December 22nd last season. And it's not for lack of trying.

Suarez has taken 16 shots since his last goal. Only 4 have been on-target: two yesterday, one against both Arsenal and West Brom. 25% shooting accuracy. After the Everton match, his accuracy for the season was 51.0%. I guess some regression was inevitable. Still, his range hasn't been far off: woodwork blasts against both Arsenal and Fulham, a handful of shots only narrowly off-target. And he's tallied assists against both West Brom and Arsenal, for Sturridge and Sterling, unselfish when his own shooting wasn't coming off. Yesterday saw Suarez as selfishly wasteful and frustrated as we've seen in a while, trying to single-handedly force something, with at least two shots coming when other players were in better positions.

But then there's Daniel Sturridge to pick up the slack. Sturridge has scored in all eight matches since returning from injury.

John Aldridge scored in 10 consecutive league matches between May and October 1987, spanning the two seasons, but Sturridge's eight in all competitions ties Aldridge in 1988-89 and Dick Forshaw, who did it in 1924. That's some heady company. Since joining the club, Sturridge has scored 30 goals and tallied seven assists in 37 matches. His record is 26 goals and six assists in 32 league matches. He's 24. Liverpool paid Chelsea £12m for him. Over the same span, Chelsea's strike force – Torres, Ba, and Eto'o – have scored 28 goals in all competitions, and just 10 in the league. It might be Liverpool's best transfer business in decades, and yes, I'm well aware than Suarez is now worth 3-5 times what Liverpool paid for him.

One disconcerting feature yesterday was that Liverpool failed to create a single chance from set plays. The only marginally threatening dead ball situation came from Suarez's direct free kick in the 51st minute, whistling wide of the far post – a shot from a speculative position at best – despite five corners and three free kicks in the attacking third. Liverpool have created 42 set play chances this season, and that doesn't include the direct free kicks that have ended in the back of the net. The only other matches where Liverpool failed to create a set play chance were at Stoke (scored five anyway), at Tottenham (scored five anyway), at Hull (Gerrard scored from a direct free kick), at Arsenal (Arsenal controlled all facets of the game), and at Villa (where Liverpool took just five shots). Funny how those were all away from Anfield. Set plays have often either sent Liverpool on their way (see: 5-1 Arsenal), or rescued Liverpool from what might have been a bad situation (see: 3-3 Everton). They certainly could have used them yesterday, as Liverpool still displayed the frightening tendencies we've seen away from Anfield with this XI, especially in the first 30 minutes.

Yes, Liverpool completed 399 more passes than Fulham. That's the biggest gap since beating Norwich 5-0 13 months ago, the second-biggest gap of Rodgers' tenure. Only 3-1 v Cardiff and 4-0 v Fulham (this season, and 5-2 at Norwich last season come close. Lewis Holtby completed more passes than any other Fulham player: 32. Every Liverpool outfield starter completed more than that. That hasn't happened under Rodgers' tenure either. But we've long since learned that passing and possession frequently don't necessarily lead to Liverpool best performances or results. See: Everton (h) and Arsenal (h), as you may remember, among others.

175 completed passes, 227 attempted, came in the attacking third. Liverpool have surpassed that total just three times under Rodgers: in the reverse fixture, utterly demolishing Fulham at Anfield; this season's 2-2 draw at Newcastle, with Newcastle down a man for more than half the match; and in the 1-3 loss to Aston Villa last season. Yesterday's match reminded me much more of the latter two rather than the first. It's absolutely progress that those two matches ended 1-3 and 2-2, while yesterday's ended 3-2.

But the pattern of play wasn't surprising, especially after Fulham got an early goal. Fulham were always going to defend deep – even if it wasn't as deep as against United, when they were away from home – and Liverpool were always going to monopolize possession. And the pattern was made even more dramatic by needing to chase the game. Needlessly needing to chase the game.

Yet again, I can't avoid mentioning, defensive errors. Yes, again. Liverpool have now committed 31 defensive errors this season – an average of 1.15 per match – with eight errors leading to goals. Arsenal have committed 26 defensive errors, Norwich 22; no other side has more than 20. 14 different players have committed at least one error: Mignolet (5); Gerrard (4); Toure, Skrtel, Henderson (3); Agger, Enrique, Sakho, Sturridge (2); Luis Alberto, Johnson, Suarez, Moses, and Lucas (1). Flanagan and Cissokho are the only defenders yet to commit at least one.

Those errors have cost Liverpool five points. From a draw to a loss at City, and leading to draws rather than wins against Villa and West Brom. Five points. I hesitate to remind that Liverpool are currently four points behind the league leaders. And it's "just" five points; errors against Sunderland, Stoke, and Fulham didn't ultimately change the result thanks to Liverpool's firepower in attack.

Almost regardless of where Liverpool finish this season – hate to be the bearer of bad news, guys, but I still don't think the title's happening – I'm fairly certain we're going to look back and rue those mistakes, wondering what might have been if not for injuries, idiocy, and a lack of defensive depth.

11 February 2014

Liverpool at Fulham 02.12.14

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 11.09.13
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.12.13
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.22.12
0-1 Fulham (h) 05.01.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Arsenal (h); 1-1 West Brom (a); 4-0 Everton (h)
Fulham: 2-2 United (a); 0-1 Sheffield Utd aet (h); 0-3 Southampton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 15; Gerrard 6; Sterling 6; Skrtel 4; Coutinho 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Fulham: Sidwell 6; Berbatov 4; Bent, Kasami 3; Parker 2; Dejagah, Kacaniklic, Richardson, Ruiz, Senderos 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Henderson Coutinho
Sterling Suarez Sturridge

Aside from an unlikely return for either Agger or Johnson, both finally back in training, it's again hard to see any changes to the Liverpool XI. Joe Allen could come in for Coutinho, or even Henderson – who fractured his wrist against Arsenal – as suggested prior to Arsenal, but neither of those players deserve to be dropped on form.

Which means we're back to the "home v away form" concern for this XI and formation. What worked so well against Arsenal and Everton – conceding possession, pressing, counter-attacking – didn't work very well agains the likes of West Brom. Or Villa, for that matter, even after Liverpool altered the overly attacking first half formation.

Fulham doesn't have the midfield behemoths that West Brom had; Mulumbu and Yacob were at their club-swinging Neanderthalic best against Liverpool nine days ago. But against lesser opposition, this XI seemed caught in two minds: between pressing its attacking advantage and playing the counter-attack game that's suited them so well of late.

As Noel from Liverpool Offside wrote yesterday, Gerrard's at the center of it, outstanding against Arsenal and Everton, but not so much against Stoke, Villa, Bournemouth, or West Brom. He's been a microcosm of the team performance, trying to live in both worlds: initially sticking to the role required against Arsenal and Everton, but increasingly trying the glorious, trying to dictate play, when Liverpool have struggled to put them to the sword. Similar has been the case for Coutinho. The opposition drops back and defends deep, so Suarez and Sturridge push forward more, Gerrard and Coutinho push forward more, Henderson continues to run around because Henderson runs around, and then gaps open up, and then Liverpool does something stupid.

Needless to say, solving this issue will be the biggest concern. It's an issue that'll reoccur in the future, with trips to Cardiff, West Ham, and Palace, among others, to come. Liverpool are still trying to find that balance, a balance they've been looking for all season long. Injuries have dictated both tactics and formation for long stretches this season, and will continue to do so, but we still don't know Liverpool's best XI or best formation, no matter the opposition.

But let's not mince words. Fulham have been terrible this season, and are propping up the table for good reason. The most losses in the division. The worst goal difference in the division. The fourth fewest goals scored, with a couple more than Palace, Norwich, and Cardiff. They've conceded 55 goals in 25 matches – an average of 2.2 per game – which is 11 more than any other side.

Fulham were also one of the busiest over the January transfer window, allowing Berbatov, Brian Ruiz, Hughes, Taarabt, and Senderos to leave, bringing in Holtby (on loan), Mitroglou, Heitinga, Kvist, Dempsey, and two ex-United youngsters in Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole.

Mitroglou didn't play against United – he *should* be fit enough to start tomorrow – but Heitinga, Kvist, and Tunnicliffe started, with Cole coming off the bench for the final 10 minutes. There's been a lot of turnover lately, and Meulensteen is unsurprisingly experimenting in the hopes of turning Fulham's season around. So, your guess is as good as mine for the Cottagers' XI tomorrow.

It'll almost certainly be some version of 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, as that's the formation both Meulensteen and Jol have used all season long. The back five at least seems likely to stay the same: Stekelenberg, Riether, Heitinga, Burn, Riise. Maybe Richardson drops into Riise's position, while it'd be strange to see Hangeland left out in consecutive matches, but Dan Burn was excellent against United and starting two tall, slow-ish players against Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling seems a bad idea. Sidwell and Holtby will start in midfield, joined by either Parker or Kvist. The flanks? It could be any from Richardson, Tunnicliffe, Duff, Kasami, Kacaniklic, Dejagah, Dempsey, and Cole. Up front? Mitroglou if fit; if not, probably Bent but maybe Tankovic again.

This seems the archetypal trap game. Just as the trip to West Brom was. Just as the trip to Hull was after the encouraging 3-3 draw at Everton, just as hosting Villa was after scoring five at Stoke.

Liverpool sent out a warning to the rest of the league in those first 20 minutes against Arsenal on Saturday. But those performances don't happen often, even from the best sides in history. However, when this Liverpool becomes consistent – not hitting Saturday's heights, just able to perform week in and week out – then the rest of league will actually heed that warning.

Meta: As with Norwich (and a couple other matches this season), I'll be working during the match. So, as with Norwich, most likely no match review. It'll be combined with Thursday's match infographic. Stupid weekday fixtures.

10 February 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), 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.

This is news to no one, but Saturday's match was the Merseyside Derby played out again, even more viciously in the opening stages, with Liverpool able to kill the match as a contest 15 minutes earlier.

As against Everton, Liverpool won by scoring from early set play(s), pressing in midfield, and exploiting space on the counter with excellent long passing and blazing speed.

Unsurprisingly, Arsenal completed more passes over those first 20 minutes, but most were bogged down in midfield, unable to get past the Gerrard-Henderson-Coutinho triumvirate. The attacking third passes were nearly equal in number, but Arsenal's were in unthreatening positions. Liverpool took nine shots (an average of a shot every 2.22 minutes, which is insane), Arsenal took none. Arsenal created no chances in those first 20 minutes, Liverpool created eight: five from open play, and three from set plays. As you may remember, they scored from two of those set plays, and would have scored from the third if not for the width of the post.

Martin Skrtel's two goals were Liverpool's 7th and 8th set play goals against one of the other top seven clubs. Liverpool scored on corners against United (Sturridge), Everton (Coutinho), Everton (Gerrard), and Arsenal (Skrtel). Liverpool scored from free kicks against Everton (Sturridge), Chelsea (Skrtel), and Arsenal (Skrtel). And Liverpool (read: Suarez) also scored from a direct free kick against Everton. That's eight of 20 goals in total – 40% – in the eight matches against those six opponents. That's an egregious amount. For comparison, Liverpool scored just five set play goals against those same six opponents last season: two Suarez direct free kicks, and corners against City (Skrtel), Chelsea (Suarez), and Tottenham (Bale OG).

Of course, Liverpool only scored 17 goals in total against those six opponents last season. Otherwise known as 1.42 goals per game, taking just 0.83 points per game. It was one of last season's Liverpool's biggest failings. The scoring mark is up to 2.5 goals per game this season. And Liverpool are averaging 1.63 points per game. Twice as many points per game, and not far off twice as many goals per game.

By my count, Liverpool have now scored 18 goals from set plays, a total which doesn't include the five penalties. This differs from WhoScored as they count Liverpool's first against Fulham solely as an own goal, not an own goal and a goal from a corner. The most in a single season since 2009-10 (which is as far back as WhoScored's statistics go) was last season's Manchester United, who scored 22. With 13 games to play, Liverpool are well on their way to beating that mark.

Six of Liverpool's 13 open play chances created came from passes in their own half, by far the most this season. Two led to goals: Coutinho's indescribably perfect throughball for Sturridge, and Toure's long pass to Sterling, not counted as an assist because the winger needed two attempts to finish it off. As a remember, a Toure long pass led to Liverpool's penultimate goal against Everton as well. Another two probably should have: Coutinho to Henderson in the 67th, and Cissokho to Sterling in the 86th.

Shot quality? 12 of Liverpool's 22 shots came from prime shooting locations: the six-yard box and the center of the 18-yard box. 7 were on-target, four resulted in goals. Two more shots came from the D just outside the box, another relatively high percentage area. One goal, another shot on-target saved. Comparatively, just four of Arsenal's 11 shots came from the same prime area: three on-target, one off, and that includes a penalty. Getting a penalty was the only way Arsenal were scoring.

Incidentally, all five of Raheem Sterling's shots came from prime shooting locations, and all five were on-target. He's the first Liverpool player this season to take more than two shots and put all of them on-target in a single match. Suarez has had a handful of games where he's missed the target with just one of his three or more shots (at Tottenham, v Norwich, at Everton), while Sturridge did similar against Crystal Palace, but Sterling's the first to put every single one on goal. That bodes very well for adding the finishing touch to his quickly improving all-around game.

All of this was set up by Liverpool's ability to win possession off Arsenal through tackles and ball recoveries. Liverpool's pressing earned the headlines, leading to the third and fourth goals, but Liverpool's defending inside its own half was brilliant. 35 tackles is the most Liverpool have completed this season. And the two players who made the most – Gerrard and Coutinho – are two players you wouldn't expect to see topping the list.

A lot of credit also goes to the two fullbacks. Look at how many of Arsenal's attacking third passes went out of the flanks, and then no further. At how many take-ons died in the attacking third. It's almost as if there's a forcefield around the 18-yard box. All four defenders, all three central midfielders, and even Sterling and Suarez tracking back played their part in that. But Liverpool's fullbacks have been focused on as a weak point for some time now. Flanagan's been rightly lauded for his growth this season, but Cissokho's also improved with time. Which, I guess, shouldn't be surprising. Heavily criticized new player in unfamiliar league struggles at first, but slowly adjusts. Breaking news, quelle surprise, etc. It's still the area where Liverpool can most improve, but credit where due.

08 February 2014

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

Skrtel 1' 10'
Sterling 17' 52'
Sturridge 20'
Arteta 69' (pen)

5-0 Tottenham, 4-0 Everton, 5-1 Arsenal. Hey, remember when Liverpool won just once in 12 matches against the sides that finished ahead of them in the table last season? Right. Me neither.

This was Everton all over again, even more emphatically. 5-1 flatters Arsenal. The same starting XI, if slightly different in set-up, with Sterling on the left, Suarez on the right, and Sturridge as spearhead. The same blitzkrieg start, out of sight before the opposition even settled. The same compact midfield, the same high pressing and refusal to let Arsenal settle on the ball, the same utter ruthlessness on the counter, coupled with Liverpool's continued potency on set plays.

That seems the perfect comparison. A frightening opponent, who unexpectedly got their doors fully blown off. Except, of course, Liverpool scored just once in the first 20 minutes against Madrid, swaggeringly imperious but unable to put the game out of reach until just after halftime. By the 20th minute today, Liverpool had four: a set play brace for Skrtel, and two breakneck counters finished by Sterling and Sturridge. And probably should have had six.

When Skrtel scored within 40 seconds, arguably offside when kneeing Gerrard's free kick into the net, you couldn't help but think back to Chelsea, the eerie similarity to an early set play goal against that London lot. But Liverpool didn't let you worry for long, scoring again from its second set play, a glorious free header from the same Slovakian on Gerrard's corner, arrowed into the top corner from nine yards out. 10 minutes in, and Skrtel's on a hat-trick. Is this the real life or is this just fantasy?

And that wasn't all. Szczesny denied Flanagan, Sturridge chipped wide, Suarez cannoned a brilliant half-volley off the post, and Toure somehow fouled up the ricochet rebound. At this point, last season's trip to the Emirates crept back into the memory, two goals up but succumbing to Arsenal's irrepressible final half an hour, lucky to hold on for the draw. Easy come, easy go.

But again, not today, as Liverpool's high pressing, even better than that against Everton, swiftly led to two more. Henderson stole the first from Özil, drove at Arsenal's defense before feeding Suarez, whose low cross through the six-yard box was perfectly placed for either Sterling or Sturridge to tap in; Sterling just got there first. Coutinho stepped in front of Wilshere to intercept the second and somehow split two defenders with a 40-yard throughball to put Sturridge in on goal, coolly finished around a helpless Szczesny.

That complete thrashing allowed Liverpool to cruise for the next 70 minutes, soaking up all of Arsenal's pressure and not really testing Szczesny for the rest of the first half. Liverpool had 10 shots in the opening 45 minutes, six of them on target, four of them finding the back of the net. Arsenal had one, which went out for a throw-in. That's even more impressive when you remember how Arsenal's cut Liverpool open in the last three meetings, scoring twice in all three.

And like against Everton, Liverpool added the gloss soon after halftime: another blazing transition, Toure's ball over the top releasing an onside Sterling ahead of Arsenal's broken high line, the first effort saved by Szczesny but the second easily put past the prone goalkeeper.

Despite Liverpool's contentment with the scoreline and despite Arsenal's unnecessary consolation, through Gerrard's rash tackle on Oxlade-Chamberlain – no matter the captain's maturation, he still sometimes can't help the big game adrenaline rush – Liverpool remained the more threatening. Sterling denied at the back post on yet another set play; Szczesny preventing shots from Suarez, Coutinho, and Sterling; Henderson chipping wide on yet another counter. Arteta's free kick saved by Mignolet was the only other time the Belgian was called into action, and Liverpool had the luxury of removing Sturridge, Gerrard, and Suarez for Allen, Ibe, and Aspas over the final 25 minutes.

Starting Sterling on the left, better able to track back, better able to limit the damage Sagna's capable of, worked a treat. Suarez equally put in a shift on the right, up against the less-attacking Monreal. Coutinho and Henderson's pressing, combined with the three attackers, couldn't have been better. But sometimes it's as simple as Liverpool getting the early goal thanks to their set play prowess and then not taking their foot off Arsenal's neck until they got three more. Sterling and Henderson were the standouts, Coutinho not far behind, but every Liverpool player was outstanding today. As if you can say anything else after that result.

All this, of course, begs the question as to why Liverpool couldn't do it against Hull, Villa, West Brom, etc. I'm sorry; I can't help being a pessimist and/or a jerk. But it is evidence that this team's still very much in its formative stage, despite these shellackings delivered to three opponents who've tormented Liverpool in recent years.

That shouldn't dull any of today's good feelings. Liverpool, and its fans, deserve to bask in this scoreline, especially given the voodoo Arsenal's had over Liverpool over the last seven or so years. But it should be a warning that a result on Wednesday at Fulham isn't guaranteed, no matter how well Liverpool played today or how bad Fulham's been all season long.

07 February 2014

Liverpool v Arsenal 02.08.14

7:45am ET, live in the US on USA Network and NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Arsenal (a) 11.02.13
2-2 (a) 01.30.13
0-2 Arsenal (h) 09.02.12
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 West Brom (a); 4-0 Everton (h); 2-0 Bournemouth (a)
Arsenal: 2-0 Palace (h); 2-2 Southampton (a); 4-0 Coventry (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 14; Gerrard 6; Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Arsenal: Giroud 10; Ramsey 8; Walcott 5; Cazorla, Özil 4; Podolski, WIlshere 3; Bendtner, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain 2; Arteta, Flamini, Gnabry, Sagna 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Henderson Allen
Sterling Suarez Sturridge

This match comes about a week too early.

Agger and Johnson will be back soon, maybe even by Fulham on Wednesday, but not soon enough for this fixture.

Which means there's only one potential change from the side that's started the last three league matches. Allen for Coutinho, to further solidify the midfield against one of the league's most difficult opponents.

In each of the three previous meetings between Rodgers' Liverpool and Arsenal, Arsenal have utterly dominated the center of the pitch. Bossed, controlled, commanded, dictated. Dominated. Since Rodgers became manager, two opposition players have completed more than 100 passes in a single match: Arteta in the reverse fixture this season, and Aaron Ramsey at the Emirates last season. Arteta, completing 87 of 92 in last season's Anfield meeting, is fourth-highest on the list of most opposition passes by a single player against Rodgers' Liverpool. And that's been the key factor in two 2-0 Arsenal victories, and one 2-2 draw at the Emirates, where Liverpool were at least potent enough to score twice on the counter (and were helped by a couple of Arsenal mistakes).

I expect Liverpool's plan will be very much like that which led to the 4-0 victory over Everton 10 days ago. The draws against Villa and West Brom with the same XI saw Liverpool stuck between two worlds: not defensive enough (or clever enough in defense) to prevent the opposition from nicking at least one, not attacking enough to put the game out of reach regardless of defensive solidity. However, Everton, sandwiched in between those draws, got the most out of the XI because Liverpool had a discernible strategy: defend, defend, defend, then destroy on the break through Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling. Swamp the midfield and force the opposition to attack from out wide, where Everton weren't comfortable and Arsenal aren't quite as comfortable, let Skrtel and Toure do what they're good at: defending the six-yard box, heading away crosses and blocking long-range shots. That seems the ideal strategy tomorrow.

Maybe Coutinho will still be preferred to Allen; his work rate was brilliant in the Merseyside Derby, coupled with the eye for the killer pass so evident in Liverpool's second goal. But I suspect that Allen will get the nod, for further midfield protection, and to keep Coutinho in reserve if Liverpool need a game-changing substitution. Which, I doubt I need to remind, is something that Liverpool has lacked all season.

So much for Arsenal falling back to earth over the course of the season. They've eight wins and two draws in their last ten matches, unbeaten since December 14. But this isn't the Arsenal we've become accustomed to, having married their typical team-wide attacking nous – 14 different players have scored in the league, the most in the division – to a remarkably parsimonious defense. Only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals, 20 to Arsenal's 21, while Arsenal have more clean sheets than any other side.

Arteta and Wilshere are questionable, but most likely available; Vermaelen's doubtful, but unlikely to start even if fit; Walcott, Ramsey, and Källström are all out injured, while Flamini's suspended.

So Arsenal's most likely XI is Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Oxlade-Chambelain, Arteta; Cazorla, Özil, Podolski; Giroud. Gibbs is back from injury, but Monreal's played well in the last two matches, and seems better equipped to deal with Sterling's threat. Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably keep his place ahead of the returning Wilshere or move into the attacking line of three in place of Podolski, on the right with Cazorla switching to the left. If Oxlade-Chamberlain stays in midfield, Wenger might also go with Rosicky, adding another clever midfielder rather than the more out-and-out forward in Podolski. Podolski provides more diversity in attack, but Flanagan's game matches up well against the German's, as the young Scouser will sit deep and mark tightly, with Arsenal's fullback less likely to overlap on that side. Liverpool remain much more vulnerable on the opposite flank, where Cissokho and Toure could come up against Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Cazorla, Sagna, and Giroud if he drifts in that direction. Either Sturridge or Suarez will have to do a lot of tracking back, which will further isolate the other who stays forward. And whoever the midfield help is on that side, whether Henderson or Allen, is in for a long, difficult match.

Regardless of who starts in Arsenal's attacking line of three, all three will switch positions frequently, especially Cazorla and Özil, which is something Liverpool will have to watch carefully, especially since Giroud's natural game is to drop deep to receive the ball, further congesting and confusing that section of the pitch.

There's no underestimating the importance of this fixture, for either side. Arsenal are deservedly first, eight points ahead of Liverpool in fourth, about to start a hell month of fixtures that'll see them face Liverpool twice, United, and Bayern Munich over 11 days. This is the second of Liverpool's five matches against the other top six sides over the second half of the campaign, all at Anfield, a venue where Liverpool have won 10, drawn once, and lost once this season. The first, you may remember was the 4-0 destruction of the derby rivals. Only City and Chelsea have a better home record this season, but no side has a better away record than Arsenal.

And Liverpool haven't beaten Arsenal since August 2011, haven't beaten Arsenal at Anfield since a 4-2 Champions League win in April 2008. The last league win against Arsenal at Anfield? March 2007, one month shy of seven years ago, when Crouch scored a perfect hat-trick to lead Liverpool to a 4-1 victory, crucial in pipping Arsenal to 3rd place on goal difference that season.

Whoever wins this fixture – and Arsenal have to be favorites, no matter Liverpool's home record this season – will go a long way in cementing their current league position. If either of these sides actually win this fixture. Liverpool and Arsenal have drawn eight of the 16 matches played in all competitions over the last seven seasons, which is more draws than any other fixture over than span.

03 February 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (h), Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), 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.

It's just the second time that Liverpool's pass accuracy has been below 80% in consecutive matches under Rodgers, after also happening against Tottenham and at Southampton last spring. An encouraging result against one of Liverpool's direct competitors swiftly followed by an away setback. To be fair, Liverpool's results in these consecutive matches were better than last season's: 4-0 over Everton compared to a fortunate 3-2 against Tottenham; a 1-1 draw at West Brom compared to a 1-3 loss at Southampton. Liverpool have had less than 80% pass accuracy in just six matches this season and five matches last season. The only two matches where Liverpool were less accurate this season were against United (76.25%) and at Everton (75.66%)

Liverpool were especially profligate in the attacking third, completing just 57 of 101 passes, 56.4% accuracy. Which is, by far, the worst final third accuracy this season, and the second worst since Rodgers became manager; the only match where Liverpool were less accurate was that 1-3 loss at Southampton last season, completing just 53.3%. Jordan Henderson completed the most Liverpool attacking third passes. He completed 10. 10. Ten. Out of 12 in total. Six West Brom players attempted more attacking third passes than any Liverpool player. Suarez and Sturridge, so often Liverpool's saviors, completed and attempted a combined 10 of 18, which was fewer than Zoltan Gera alone.

And Liverpool subsequently put just three of their 12 shots on target, which is Liverpool's second-worst shooting accuracy of the season, after putting just one of five shots at Villa on-target in a 1-0 win. Liverpool only created five chances – another low for the season, tied with the matches at Chelsea and Villa – four in open play, and no player created more than one. Are you seeing a trend here?

Regardless of all that attacking futility (and there sure was a lot), Liverpool still should have won if not for an egregious, mind-boggling blunder from Kolo Toure.

No side has committed more defensive errors than Liverpool this season. 28 in total, and six have led to goals: four from Mignolet (against Sunderland, City, Stoke, and Villa), one from Henderson (also at Stoke), and now one from Toure. Liverpool have been "lucky" that they've only been punished for six of them; City, Tottenham, Norwich, Stoke, and United have committed fewer defensive errors than Liverpool, but have more errors leading to goals. Only 21.4% of Liverpool's errors have led to goals. 60% of Tottenham's errors have.

Liverpool have now dropped 12 points from winning positions this season: drawing 2-2 at Swansea despite a 2-1 lead, drawing 3-3 at Everton despite a 1-0 and 2-1 lead, losing 1-2 at both City and Chelsea despite a 1-0 lead, and yesterday's 1-1 draw after Sturridge's 24th minute opener. Only West Ham, with 14 pointed dropped from winning positions, have been worse in this regard. Incidentally, Liverpool started a different back four in all five of those matches. I wonder if that has anything to do with the dropped points.

We won't pretend that Liverpool could have kept the lead in all five. But had Liverpool gotten a better result in just, say, two of those five matches, fourth place could be sewn up, and Liverpool might actually be title contenders. I truly hope this season doesn't end with Liverpool looking back on these matches in regret. I'm very much afraid that it will.

12 points is the exact same amount that Liverpool had dropped from winning positions after 24 games last season, with draws against City, Everton, and Arsenal, and losses against United and Stoke. For all Liverpool's improvement in other areas, that's a depressing familiar statistic. Last season, Liverpool went on to drop just two points from winning positions in the subsequent 14 matches, in the other 2-2 draw at City.

Conversely, Liverpool have taken just four points from losing positions this season: coming back from a deficit to draw against Swansea, Newcastle, Everton, and Aston Villa. Liverpool haven't yet won a match that they've been losing in. They did that four times in the league last season: at West Ham, v Tottenham, at Villa, and at Fulham. We've suggested that Liverpool have become a more resilient side this season, but that statistic suggests otherwise.

But let's be fair to West Brom. They've taken points off of every top-seven side except City, both home and away, under both Steve Clarke and Pepe Mel. They drew at home against Arsenal, at both Chelsea and Tottenham, and in both matches against Everton, while also beating United at Old Trafford. So far, Liverpool's 4-1 home win in October is the only one of nine matches against the top seven sides decided by more than a single goal. For all of West Brom's struggles against their fellow bottom-half competitors, they've consistently upped their game against better opposition.

Yesterday, they did that with defense. Tackles, interceptions, and blocked shots. No Liverpool opponent made more interceptions than West Brom's 28 this season. No Liverpool opponent has blocked a larger proportion of shots this season than West Brom did, getting in the way of six of Liverpool's 12. The next closest games were the 4-1 win against West Ham and 1-0 win over Villa, where each side blocked 40% of Liverpool's shots. And that defensive solidity was despite an enforced change in the 41st minute thanks to Olsson's injury, with Lugano holding the back line just as firmly except for one moment where he was finally beaten by Suarez, but spectacularly saved by Foster.

02 February 2014

Liverpool 1-1 West Brom

Sturridge 24'
Anichebe 67'

Well, that was the inevitable derby hangover.

It honestly shouldn't have mattered. Liverpool, in control even if massively unconvincing, should have earned an insipid, uninspiring 1-0 victory after a first half moment of genius from Suarez and Sturridge at the very least. West Brom successfully swamping the middle of the pitch prevented Liverpool from threatening more, and Liverpool reverted to the second half defensive shell we saw early in the season after taking a narrow lead, unable to get a second goal when Foster brilliantly denied Suarez on the hour mark. And it looked like working, as West Brom created next to nothing from open play and Mignolet made two impressive saves on set play chances from McAuley's header and Brunt's free kick.

But no. Because this.

Sigh. As if we should be surprised that Liverpool failed to take advantage of both Tottenham and United dropping points yesterday. At least it wasn't what happened at West Brom last season, right? Or what happened against West Brom at Anfield last season for that matter.

The same Liverpool lineup as in the two previous matches, the same formation as in the Merseyside Derby. But the play, and the final result, was much more Villa than Everton. Yep, Liverpool went above and beyond in all areas of the pitch and of play because it was against their city rivals, not because the formation or tactics had finally clicked. Again, quelle surprise.

The first half was all-around ennui aside from the lone goal, starved of chances, the ball trapped in midfield. Gerrard and Skrtel defended well, Sterling was a threatening outlet out wide, but that was pretty much it.

Except for the one moment of brilliance that we've come to expect from Liverpool's strikers. It again started with Sterling, released down the right by Coutinho, charging into the box and keeping possession until Suarez overlapped, with the Uruguayan brilliantly carving out space to cross to Sturridge at the back post, somehow finding room for the left-footed pass despite five defenders between him and his strike partner. Sturridge cleverly held his run until the perfect moment, clearly just onside despite the announcers attempting to make it debatable, tapping in past a stranded Foster.

That was Liverpool's lone shot from inside the box in the first half. Liverpool, who are averaging 8.5 shots inside the box per match. That was the first sign of trouble, but until halftime, it didn't look to be an issue, with West Brom's only frightening moment a Gera shot whistling both high and wide after a giveaway in Liverpool's half. Funny how that works.

But, credit where due, West Brom were a vastly improved side after the break, pushing more men into Liverpool's half, pressing higher up the pitch, preventing Liverpool from getting the early second half goal that'd make the win certain and most likely lead to even more. And that led to the aforementioned set play chances saved by Mignolet, even if little came from open play. Those saves sandwiched the moment where Suarez should have sealed the match, released with an over the top pass, controlling around a helpless Lugano, but denied by an excellent last-ditch Foster kick save.

And then the unthinkable. Liverpool attempting to play out from the back, Mignolet passing to a marginally marked Toure. Toure, under marginal pressure, passing directly to Anichebe rather than a) Mignolet b) Gerrard c) Skrtel or d) hoofing it upfield. Anichebe couldn't have been more open, hammering in a shot from the top of the box with Mignolet scrambling to get back into position. Liverpool have made some incredibly dumb mistakes at the back since Rodgers became manager, most notably two in the two games against Manchester City last season, mistakes which also cost them two points. But today's was almost certainly the dumbest. That's some achievement. Well done, Liverpool.

And then Liverpool were on tilt. There was next to no response, only panic and damage control. Liverpool had exactly one good minute in the 25 following the equalizer, after Allen and Kelly had come on for Coutinho and Flanagan, which shifted the side into a 3-5-2. But Allen's low, off-balance shot went straight at Foster, Toure headed high and wide from a corner, and Kevin Friend ignored two potential penalties: Foster's two-footed block/tackle on Sterling – I don't know why that's legal for keepers when it'd be a red card from any other player – and a debatable handball right afterwards.

And that was about it. Otherwise, haphazard hopeful punts toward Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling, fouls galore from both sides, a clearly tired Liverpool midfield unable to take any semblance of control. Ugh.

Liverpool remain in pole position for the final Champions League spot despite this setback. It's a better result than either earned against this opposition last season, and not very dissimilar to what West Brom earned against Everton two weeks ago. But both Liverpool's performance and result simply weren't good enough. One step forward swiftly followed by another backward. Liverpool seemingly remain in that pole position for fourth more because of others' failings than their own successes, even if there have been more than a few successes this season.

Let's just hope this provokes the sort of response which led to matches like Tuesday's derby or the other 4-0, 5-0, 4-1 humiliations dealt out earlier this season. Unfortunately, Liverpool's next match isn't against one of the minnows, but an Arsenal side that they haven't beaten since August 2011.

01 February 2014

Liverpool at West Brom 02.02.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 10.26.13
0-2 West Brom (h) 02.11.13
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.26.12
0-3 West Brom (a) 08.18.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h); 2-0 Bournemouth (a); 2-2 Villa (h)
West Brom: 3-4 Villa (a); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-1 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 13; Gerrard 6; Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
West Brom: Berahino 4; Long 3; Amalfitano, Anelka, Brunt, McAuley, Sessegnon 2; Anichebe, Lugano, Morrison, Mulumbu, Olsson. Ridgewell, Vydra, Yacob 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Coutinho Henderson
Sterling Suarez Sturridge

Allen's fit, but I'm not sure that means he'll come straight back into the XI after Tuesday's emphatic derby victory.

However, tomorrow's match will require very different tactics. Liverpool, even away from home, will find counter-attacking transition opportunities limited, will see the majority of the ball, will have to break down a determined, deep defense. That might argue for a steadier, more controlled passer of the ball, but I honestly don't know who Allen replaces if he comes back into the side. Liverpool's whirling dervish, speed racer front three seems set. Coutinho's guile and killer throughballs, married with the defensive effort shown against Everton, will be key in breaking down a rigid rearguard. When Gerrard's fit, Gerrard starts. Henderson remains the only outfield player to feature in every league match this season.

The last time these two teams met, Suarez was at his most masochistic: a 55-minute hat-trick punctuated by a tasmanian devil dribble and nutmeg, then an 18-yard header. That's one way to win. That's a good way to win, actually, against any type of defense. Let's do that again.

One thing West Brom won't do is play the high line which led to Everton's destruction with Liverpool's second, third, and fourth goals on Tuesday. Lugano and Olsson will do pretty much the opposite, playing as deep as possible, protected by both Yacob and Mulumbu. I worry about West Brom's set-up, knowing they kept a clean sheet in both wins over Liverpool last season, but the Baggies have held just one opponent scoreless since the beginning of November, with a single clean sheet in the last 14 matches. Incidentally, that was also West Brom's only victory in the last 14 matches. That they gave up four goals in a helter skelter midweek loss to Aston Villa should provoke a response, should emphasize the need to be much, much more solid at the back, and should make life more difficult for Liverpool's attackers.

Pepe Mel has played 4-4-2 in both matches since becoming West Brom manager. That may change due to Anelka's injury; he was replaced by Amalfitano against Villa. But if West Brom stick with 4-4-2, it'll most likely be Foster; Reid, Lugano, Olsson, Ridgewell; Morrison, Mulumbu, Yacob, Brunt; Vydra, Anichebe, with Vydra, or possibly Berahino, as a direct replacement for Anelka. In contrast to Liverpool's ongoing casualties, Anelka and Sessegnon are West Brom's only absentees.

It's been a strange week: from the euphoric highs of the Merseyside derby to wrist-slitting when the transfer window slammed shut. Back to on-field business. Rodgers suggested that he was content with Liverpool's squad as is, that no incoming players would galvanize the current squad. We got that reaction on Tuesday, but that was a derby. This is West Brom, at West Brom: the kind of fixture that Liverpool's struggled in before, a fixture where Liverpool shit the bed last season. Tomorrow would be a good time to see more of that promised reaction.