31 March 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), 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.

It's another game whether we question how good Liverpool were versus how bad the opposition was.

That's not to take anything away from Liverpool; it was an emphatic result with some excellent individual performances, the team once again set up perfectly by Rodgers, but Tottenham were really really really really really really really *gasps for air* really really really really bad.

It starts with Tactics Tim. There's the usual "why play a high line without midfield pressing" question. You know, the exact same problem that doomed Tottenham in the reverse fixture. That was exacerbated by using Eriksen on the wing and Chadli as the #10, even though they're best in the opposite positions, and with starting Sigurðsson and Bentaleb in central midfield, leaving both Sandro and Dembele on the bench. All three decisions were wholly baffling, and partly led to Liverpool's first three goals.

For the first, Liverpool passed and passed and passed, with all the time in the world, with neither Sigurðsson nor Bentaleb closing down players in the center of the pitch. Then, after Liverpool found the weak spot (hint: never give Coutinho that much time and space), Eriksen wholly failed to track Johnson's obvious run. 1-0, within two minutes, and well on the way to game over. Unlike in other matches – say, midweek against Sunderland – it never felt as if Tottenham could come back from that stomach punch.

For the second, Tottenham's high line succumbed following individual mistakes; there was no covering defender once Suarez outmuscled Kaboul following Dawson's silly back pass, but to be fair, Dawson should have never, ever played that back pass. Ever.

And for the third, Liverpool aptly demonstrated that pressing from the front matters little if you've no control in midfield or defense. The front four pushed Henderson backwards, and challenged Mignolet, Skrtel, Agger, and Flanagan, but when Flanagan spun upfield, Liverpool swiftly took advantage of Spurs' flawed shape, charging straight through Tottenham's tender underbelly with defenders retreating haphazardly.

The malaise continued with individual performances. None of Tottenham's players, save Lloris, looked like they wanted to be anywhere near Anfield. That admittedly had something to do with the early goal, a reminder of just how bad December 15 was, and how that very much could and probably would happen again. That Rose decided to milk an injury to waste time with Tottenham down four goals in the final minutes summed up his, and for the most part, Tottenham's, attitude by the end of the match. 'Just don't let them score five. Just get me out of here.'

You couldn't tell Liverpool's dominance or Tottenham's ineptitude from most of the statistics. Yes, Liverpool monopolized control of the ball, evident in the passing and possession totals, but last season aptly demonstrated that winning passing and possession battles doesn't win you the war. It wasn't the authoritative attacking display we've become accustomed to in the big wins; just 11 shots in totals, only four shots (and none of the goals that came from Liverpool shots) from DANGER ZONE! positions. Tottenham took more shots, had more shots in prime positions, created more chances, won more corners, attempted more crosses, and had almost the exact same number of attacking third passes as Liverpool. That's what an early goal, soon followed by a second goal, can do. After the second, then the third, Liverpool could just sit back and not do anything stupid, which is why Liverpool took just two shots in the final 35 minutes. Cruise control.

The 24 passes in the buildup to Liverpool's first goal, not counting Johnson's unsuccessful low cross, equalled the most in a scoring move so far this season. The last time Liverpool played 24 passes before scoring? The fifth goal at White Hart Lane back in December. Lots and lots of passes in Liverpool's half and the middle third, patiently probing for an opening, then whoops, defense torn asunder. There's just something about Tottenham. It probably has something to do with Tottenham's high line coupled with a refusal to press in midfield. As has been written time and time and time again, that's not a good combination.

Liverpool set multiple records yesterday. Suarez, with 29 goals, is Liverpool's top scorer in a Premiership season, ahead of Fowler's 28 in 1995-96. And yes, it's worth reminding that he missed the first five games, and there are still six matches left. In scoring four for the 11th time this campaign, Liverpool now have the most 4+ goal games in a Premiership season. Liverpool's 47 goals at Anfield are also a new club record in the Premier League era. Liverpool have long surpassed their most goals in a Premier League – which were the 77 in 2008-09 – and are still on pace to catch Chelsea's record 103 in 2009-10.

Finally, I was asked in the comments yesterday why I thought that Sterling was Liverpool's man of the match. That's another thing that won't show up in the statistics. If you have a subscription to LFC.tv, I highly recommend watching this, but if not, this video from Mostar will also suffice. Don't forget to hit mute.

30 March 2014

Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham

Kaboul OG 2'
Suarez 25'
Coutinho 55'
Henderson 75'

So, December's 5-0 win at White Hart Lane wasn't a fluke. But, then again, after 4-0 Everton, 5-1 Arsenal, and 3-0 United, maybe that shouldn't have been a concern.

Once again, Liverpool reverted to the 4-3-3, with Sterling in place of Allen, a fluid front three looking to annihilate Spurs' high line, mistake prone defense. And once again, Liverpool ruthlessly demolished an opponent at Anfield straight from the opening whistle. Yes, a bit of good fortune, and a bit of help from the opposition's tactics, but Liverpool taking full advantage, and not for the first time.

They were ahead within two minutes thanks to patient buildup to draw Spurs out of position, a brilliant cross-field ball from Coutinho to Sterling into open space, Johnson on the overlap crossing into the six-yard box, the pass haplessly fumbled by Kaboul into his own net with Sturridge threatening to cause havoc behind him.

All those memories of December's mauling rekindled within 100 seconds, for both sides. Liverpool heartened, Tottenham crushed. 100 seconds played, and it looked as if it'd finish with whatever scoreline Liverpool desired. Now you're gonna believe us.

It took Liverpool 15 fewer minutes to get the second than it did in the reverse fixture, Suarez mercilessly seizing on yet another Tottenham mistake. Dawson had just come on for Vertonghen, Spurs' best defender laid low through injury, and it was Dawson's inane back pass that released Suarez on goal, out-muscling the massive Kaboul, racing onto Lloris, and finishing from a narrow angle with his supposedly weaker foot.

Today's first two goals of the season were Tottenham's 16 and 17 errors leading to a goal this season. Liverpool had to take advantage, Liverpool are more than good enough to take advantage, but Tottenham certainly helped.

Despite their bumbling, Tottenham had a chance to close the gap, as any remotely decent side will. Even United had a chance before halftime at Old Trafford, Rooney denied by Mignolet. Today's heart-stopping moment came through Eriksen, just after Suarez struck, fed by Naughton's center, but Skrtel somehow recovered to block his goal-bound shot. The commentators yelped that the block was a good as a goal, and that was no exaggeration.

Last week against Sunderland swung back into the memories. 2-0 is great and all, but just one from the opposition, no matter how poor they'd been, can change everything. Liverpool needed the third. And it appeared Liverpool had that third just before halftime: pressing Tottenham into yet another mistake, Sterling's cross finding a wide open Suarez at the back post, a bullet header from the league's top scorer. Somehow, Lloris pushed the effort onto the crossbar, bouncing just in front of the goal line rather than beyond it. Cue woodwork complaints. But this isn't last season, or the season before. Liverpool won't be stopped by an unforgiving goal frame.

But Liverpool still had work to do after the interval. And, in this season's fashion, they went about doing so, despite Spurs making two minor, but needed changes: putting Eriksen in the center and Chadli wide (why Sherwood started with the opposite is beyond me), and much more furious, if out-of-shape, pressing from the front four. In previous matches, we'd seen Liverpool play their way into trouble when building from the back despite opposition pressure, some breakdown between the four defenders or Mignolet. Not today. Passes between Agger, Skrtel, and Mignolet despite forwards closing down, an indescribably sumptuous turn from Flanagan to shift to attack, then a blistering run and center for Coutinho, charging at the defense before unleashing a worm-burning shot from the top of the box. I'm still not sure whether the play out of defense or Coutinho's shooting accuracy made me happier.

At 2-0, despite all that'd come before it, Spurs still had a chance. At 3-0, it's game over. Liverpool settled into the usual routine of soaking up pressure then countering at pace, bringing on Allen and Lucas for Coutinho and Gerrard, with both Suarez and Sturridge threatening a fourth. Which finally came from a free kick, a carbon copy of Henderson's goal in the 6-0 win over Newcastle last season: a dangerous set play from the left channel, whipped in for someone to get a touch, but on frame in case no one got that touch. No one got that touch. That Suarez, rather than trying to claim it, immediately pointed and ran to Henderson, aptly demonstrates how much of a team this is.

Liverpool sat back for the final 15 minutes, conserving energy, killing the game, still keeping half an eye on potential counter-attacks. Tottenham took eight shots in those final 15 minutes, more than half of their total. Liverpool continued to defend well – three more crucial blocks, one outstanding save from Mignolet – but the story remained as much about Tottenham's continuing ineptitude, off-target with four of those efforts. It ended as Liverpool's third clean sheet in the last five games. They had just eight in the first 27 of the season. I'm sure it's only coincidence that Liverpool's had the same back four in all five of those matches.

Liverpool's front three were a swarm of bees: Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling constantly switching position, causing confusion, drawing defenders out of position, pressing furiously. Liverpool's midfield, as in the best performances this season, was perfectly balanced: aiding the pressing but keeping the shape, supporting the attack and bolstering the defense. Johnson and Flanagan both got involved in attacks but got back to defend, Agger and Skrtel imperiously cleared or blocked everything.

Sterling wasn't especially involved in Liverpool's goals – although he made an intelligent move into space in the buildup for the first – but was, by far, today's man of the match. It's amazing to think he's still only 19. Enough of "he'll be a hell of a player in a few years." He's already a hell of player: strong, speedy, and smart. We saw it when he ran at Tottenham defenders, we saw it in his pressing and off-the-ball movement, we saw it when he held off the much-bigger Dembele when defending near his own corner flag, we saw it when he shifted to the point of the diamond after Allen replaced Coutinho. Sterling's potential has no ceiling, and we're already seeing the fruits of it.

But, as in the previously mentioned best matches of the season, every player did his part, as did the manager, as did the fans. Liverpool entered the pitch to a cacophony of noise. In recent seasons, that'd unsettle the team, the pressure crushing rather than encouraging. In recent seasons, Liverpool would drop points when their rivals dropped points, unable to fully perform with all eyes on them. Not today. Not this team.

And so, after 90 minutes, Liverpool left the pitch to a cacophony of noise, a cacophony of hopeful cheers, with six games remaining in this unbelievable season.

29 March 2014

Liverpool v Tottenham 03.30.14

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
5-0 Liverpool (a) 12.14.13
3-2 Liverpool (h) 03.10.13
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.12
0-0 (h) 02.06.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Sunderland (h); 6-3 Cardiff (a); 3-0 United (a)
Tottenham: 3-2 Southampton (h); 2-2 Benfica (a); 0-1 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 28; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 11; Sterling 7; Skrtel 6; Coutinho, Henderson 3; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Tottenham: Adebayor 8; Soldado 6; Eriksen 5; Paulinho, Sigurðsson 4; Capoue, Chadli, Chiriches, Defoe, Dembele, Holtby, Lennon, Sandro, Townsend, Walker 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

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

This won't be like Liverpool's last two matches. Tottenham will not try to defend like either Cardiff or Sunderland. There will be no five-man defense, no bus parking. I don't think Tim Sherwood knows what bus parking is.

No matter which formation Tottenham deploys, no matter Tottenham's attacking personnel, they will use the width of the pitch, and try to get at either or both of Liverpool's fullbacks. Which means that it seems a good time to revert to the 4-3-3, the formation which allowed Liverpool to hand Tottenham its own ass back in December.

Sterling has the ability to both protect Flanagan and hurt Tottenham; Henderson can similarly do a defense job when needed to shift out to the right, as it won't be Suarez or Sturridge tracking back that often. In this formation and with this XI, Liverpool could both break at pace and play incisive passes. Although, yes, they've the potential to do that in any formation. The other possible change, which was also mooted for Wednesday, would be Sakho for Agger, in theory, better in the air against Adebayor or Soldado, and on set plays. And there remains the worry about Agger's ability to play three matches in a week.

That said, Rodgers does have a tendency to stick with what's working, rotation or opposition be damned. So don't be surprised if it's an unchanged XI tomorrow for the third consecutive game, no matter how leggy Liverpool looked late in the match against Sunderland. Or, still the diamond, but with Sterling in place of Coutinho, given the former's pace and the fact that the latter played a full 90 minutes on Wednesday.

At the same time, predicting what Sherwood will do seems a fool's errand. I don't think TIm Sherwood knows what Tim Sherwood's gonna do, and that applies for more than just Tottenham's XI or tactics. Spurs do have options: in midfield and attack, even if Sherwood's hands are slightly tied in defense.

It could be 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2; we've seen both formations against "big clubs" this season, both home and away. It could be either Adebayor or Soldado up front, or both. Any two from Dembele, Bentaleb, Sandro, Paulinho could start in midfield. Eriksen, Lennon, Chadli, Townsend, and Sigurðsson are options on the flanks; Eriksen and Sigurðsson, or one of the central midfielders, can also play as the #10. There will be late fitness tests for Dembele and Adebayor, although I suspect both will be available. Michael Dawson is back from injury, and could replace Kaboul in defense. However, Walker, Capoue, Lamela, and Chiriches will remain absent.

So your guess is as good as mine, and probably as good as Tactics Tim's. That said, my shot in the dark is: Lloris; Naughton, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Rose; Bentaleb, Dembele; Lennon, Eriksen, Chadli; Adebayor.

Tottenham's responded well to adversity in both of their last two matches: Spurs scored twice in a minute (both from Chadli) to nearly get back into a Europa League tie against Benfica that looked far out of hand. Last weekend, Tottenham overhauled a two-goal deficit to beat Southampton 3-2, after looking haplessly insipid for the first 30. Unlike against Liverpool, the second goal didn't kill the match, and Christian Eriksen was the epicenter, scoring Tottenham's first two before setting up Sigurðsson's late winner. And he's almost certainly tomorrow's danger man, whether as the #10 up against Gerrard, or on the left up against Glen Johnson.

But the first two goals that Tottenham conceded a week ago aptly demonstrate how error prone they can be, often deploying a high line defense that can be ripped asunder. And Liverpool is a side that can take full advantage of those facets, as we saw when these sides last met.

Put the foot straight onto the neck, as Southampton did. But then don't let up. If you want a vision of tomorrow's ideal future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face. Forever.

27 March 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), 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.

FYI: For formality's sake, here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.

Just enough firepower to avoid what happened at West Brom, just enough defense and decent tactics to avoid what happened at Hull. It wasn't comfortable by any means, but it's a win, and yes, that's all that matters.

Last week, against a five-man defense, we lauded Liverpool's attack, and – more specifically – Liverpool's shot selection. Nine of Liverpool's 19 efforts, including all six goals, came from prime positions. Yesterday? Just four of Liverpool's 21 shots, with none of them ending up in the net. That's 19%. The only match with a smaller percentage? Liverpool's 1-3 loss at Hull, with just one of nine shots coming from either the six-yard box or the middle of the 18-yard box. Coincidentally, Hull also played five at the back, and Liverpool's only goal that day came from a Gerrard free kick. But even though Liverpool conceded one unnecessary goal yesterday, they didn't make the copious mistakes which plagued that 1-3 loss back in December.

In the six previous matches during this winning streak, Liverpool's percentage of shots from prime positions was 54.5%, 38.1%, 38.1%, 42.7%, 47.1%, and 47.4%. The season-long average prior to yesterday's match was 39.8% of all shots from either the six-yard box or the middle of 18-yard box. Sunderland's defense gave Liverpool very little, but it was also disappointing to see players settle for long-range efforts rather than patiently wait for the gaps to appear, which is what led to Liverpool's first and fourth goals last Saturday.

Liverpool didn't take a shot from inside the box until the second half, Liverpool's ninth attempt of the match. Those first eight in the first half? Six off-target, one blocked, and Gerrard's wonderful free kick. One of eight attempts on-target. Yikes. And Rodgers clearly wasn't happy with it, as Liverpool made much more effort to get into the box in the second half, with nine of 13 second-half shots coming from inside the area.

To a certain extent, it was just 'one those matches.' Both Suarez and Sturridge had multiple efforts that they'd usually put on frame, if not score from. But it also aptly demonstrates the differences between Sunderland's five at the back and Cardiff's.

For all intents and purposes, Sunderland were a "broken team," with eight defenders and three attackers. Cardiff's midfield, with just one holding midfielder, linked play far better; Mutch, getting forward from midfield, was involved in all three goals. Neither Bridcutt nor Cattermole, regardless of the latter's awkwardly shinned strike off the woodwork in the 71st minute, will ever play that way. Sunderland, away from home, were much more determined to park the bus.

And it worked, for a while, to a certain extent. Liverpool had acres of space and hours of time to build play through midfield, but struggled to make any headway at all in the final third – compare the attacking third passes in the last two matches – and all too often settled for shots from distance. The "easier" option. Thanks to Gerrard's free kick and Sturridge's deflected effort – a bit of quality and a bit of luck – it didn't work well enough, but still worked better than most have fared against Liverpool's attack, especially at Anfield. Credit to Poyet, as that's the first time Sunderland had ever played with five at the back under his tenure, and in doing so, defended far better than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side on Saturday. And gave his team a much better chance of getting something from the game in the dying stages.

Not for the first time this season, Liverpool are in debt to their ability on attacking set plays. Gerrard's free kick was the fifth direct free kick scored this season: three for Suarez, two for Gerrard. Liverpool have now scored 21 goals from set plays this season: exactly a quarter of Liverpool's goals in total.

That's a fairly large amount, and they've often come at crucial times: three set play goals in the 3-3 draw at Everton, the opening goal against Chelsea (even if Liverpool went on to lose that match), the first goal in the mauling against Everton, the first two goals in the mauling against Arsenal. Nine of the 21 set play goals were the first goal scored in the match. 11 of them gave Liverpool a lead, while three were equalizers.

But what set plays giveth, set plays taketh away. Defending them remains a bit of a fright, with Flanagan caught ball-watching for Ki's consolation, and O'Shea with a free header in the 86th minute after evading Skrtel, fortunately steering it off-target. 10 of Liverpool's 39 goals conceded have been from set plays, almost exactly the same percentage as Liverpool have scored from set plays. And once again, we're pointing out individual defensive errors rather than looking at team-wide failure or lauding the opposition's play, even if Flanagan losing Ki doesn't go down as an official 'error leading to a goal' in Opta's statistics.

Finally, it was baffling to see Rodgers use only one substitution, even though Liverpool played four days earlier and have another match in four days' time. Rodgers and the technical staff are far, far, far, far, far more aware of the players' condition than we are, but it was still baffling, with everyone bar Suarez, Henderson, and Sterling (who came on in the 77th minute) seemingly fatigued over the final 15 minutes. Coutinho, Liverpool's man of the match yesterday, completed 90 minutes for just the 13th time in 23 starts this season. And that would explain both Liverpool's drop in tempo in final 30 minutes and Sunderland having the chance to get back into the game.

I'm both curious and nervous to see how the side copes and reacts against Tottenham.

25 March 2014

Liverpool v Sunderland 03.26.14

4pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 09.29.13
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.02.13
1-1 (h) 09.15.12
0-1 Sunderland (a) 03.10.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 6-3 Cardiff (a); 3-0 United (a); 3-0 Southampton (a)
Sunderland: 0-2 Norwich (a); 0-0 Palace (h); 0-3 Hull (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 28; Sturridge 19; Gerrard 10; Sterling 7; Skrtel 6; Coutinho, Henderson 3; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Sunderland: A Johnson 7; Borini, Fletcher, Giaccherini 3; Bardsley, Colback, Gardner, Ki 2; Altidore, O'Shea 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

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

Two questions.

1) Now that Liverpool are back at Anfield, will Rodgers persist with the 4-4-2 diamond or revert to the 4-3-3?

2) How much will the manager rotate with this being Liverpool's first midweek match in more than a month?

As for the first: I've no idea. I suspect that it'll be the same formation as in the last three matches, despite the issues against Cardiff (and, to a lesser extent Southampton), but I wouldn't be surprised to see the opposite either. Rodgers, like most managers, has a tendency to stick with the devil he knows, but Liverpool will also want to go straight for Sunderland's jugular the moment the whistle blows, and including Sterling and playing with three up top may be a better way to do so.

As for the second: I suspect there will be some. As usual, we just don't know how many. Lucas, Sakho, and maybe Cissokho are the contenders. Agger, Allen, and Flanagan all had issues on Saturday, at least partly responsible for Cardiff scoring three. Permanent concerns about Agger's fitness, about Agger's ability to play three games in a week, means that Sakho is the most likely change. That Cissokho came on for Flanagan against Cardiff may also be telling. Finally, I'm not sure how Lucas fits into the diamond, with Gerrard unquestionably playing at the base, but I'm beginning to go through the first phase of Lucas withdrawal so let's find out.

Otherwise, Sterling seems the only other potential change, either for Coutinho in the 4-4-2 diamond or Allen if it's 4-3-3. Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Gerrard, Henderson, Sturridge, and Suarez are as nailed-on as possible. And – as I always do when the shoe's on the other foot – it's worth nothing that both Henderson and Mignolet will be facing their former club.

And that former club's not had the best of seasons, at least in the league.

Sunderland's last league win came on February 1, in the Tyne-Wear Derby. Since then, three losses and a draw, while also going out of both the League and FA Cups (albeit in the final of the former). Prior to this ignominious streak, Poyet's side was unbeaten in eight in all competitions, but the current slide has seen them slip back into the relegation zone, level on points with Liverpool's last opponent although with a better goal difference, and still three points from safety.

Sunderland will also have to cope with an entirely new left flank. Borini can't play due to the terms of his loan, while Marcos Alonso is suspended after being sent off on Saturday. Giaccherini or Scocco would be like-for-like replacements for Borini, although Poyet could also shift Johnson to the left and play Larsson on the right. Sunderland have three options at left-back: Colback, who's primarily a midfielder but has deputized at full-back before; Celutska, primarily a right-back but capable on the left; or Dossena, who you may remember, but hasn't played in a league match since December.

Which makes the most likely XI something like: Mannone; Bardsley, O'Shea, Brown, Colback; Bridcutt, Ki; Johnson, Larsson, Giaccherini; Altidore. The USMNT striker's not had the best of times at Sunderland, but the Mackems have little choice with Borini ineligible and Fletcher likely to miss out with an ankle injury. The only other option is Connor Wickham, recently recalled from his loan at Leeds (where he registered zero goals in five games) because of Sunderland's lack of firepower. No matter the personnel, Poyet will play 4-2-3-1.

Take absolutely nothing for granted. No matter Liverpool's record at home, no matter Sunderland's record of late. The Mackems are fighting for their Premier League lives, and desperately need to wipe away the pervasive stink of failure at Norwich. Even considering how the final hour played out, you can't forget Liverpool's first 30 minutes at Cardiff.

Eight cup finals remain, and Liverpool can't be complacent in any of them.

Meta: Like Swansea, Norwich, and Fulham, there probably won't be a match review because damn you work. If the match does seem to require a write-up, it won't be until very late at night, but most likely, it'll be combined with the usual post-match infographic the next day.

24 March 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 6-3 Cardiff City

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), 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.

Once again, it's all about Liverpool's attack. Six more goals, for 82 on the season, by far the most they've scored in the Premier League era, and there are still eight games left to play. Right now, Liverpool are on pace to beat Chelsea's record total in 2009-10; they scored 103 that season, an average of 2.71 goals per game. Right now, Liverpool are averaging 2.73 goals per game.

Liverpool scored those six goals from just nine shots on target, just 19 shots in total. Because Liverpool have two of the best strikers in the world, and because Liverpool are taking the vast majority of their shots from prime shooting positions.

Breaking down a packed defense can be troublesome, as we've seen time and time again in previous seasons (and, at times, earlier this season). But despite playing against a five-man defense for the majority of the match, Liverpool still got into fabulous shooting positions. And took ruthless advantage.

That's been the case in almost every match during this six-game win streak.


16 of those 20 goals, including all six of yesterday's, came from either the six-yard box or the middle of the 18-yard box. 15 of those 16 were less than 12 yards from goal. But it's not as if this is a new habit; 40% of Liverpool's shots all season have come from those two areas (204 of 512), and it's led to 59 of Liverpool's 82 goals. When you get into those positions – either because Suarez and Sturridge are magicians (see: goals five and six on Saturday) or because you can pass the opposition to death (see: goals one and four on Saturday) – you're going to score fairly often.

And Luis Suarez scores more than fairly often. In the last two years, Suarez has six Premier League hat-tricks: his first came at Norwich in April 2012, two last season, and three this season. During that span, no other player has more than two: Robin van Persie, who notched them in September and April last season. 15 players have one. Luis Suarez has six. That's incomprehensible.

But for all that attacking prowess, there's something to complain about in each of Liverpool's goals conceded. The first two were especially troublesome as Cardiff had started the better side, exploiting the gaps Liverpool left in both midfield and defense.

Despite those gaps, the first goal was almost solely down to an individual error. Allen had stopped the move, tackling Fabio and recovering possession. But under only a modicum of pressure, he passed straight to Campbell rather than the open Flanagan, catching the left back on the back foot. Now, Flanagan, Allen, Agger, Skrtel, and Gerrard were out of position. And both Campbell then Mutch took advantage. Liverpool remain the most error-prone team in the division, with 34 errors leading to a shot; Arsenal are catching up, with 32, while Norwich and Fulham are tied for third with 25. Liverpool are 'lucky' that they've only been punished for nine of them. Tottenham have committed 22 errors, but 15 have led to goals, while Arsenal and Norwich's errors have led to ten goals each.

The second, however, was all about those gaps, as Liverpool Offside thoroughly covered yesterday. There's little to add to that, except that it's worth pointing out just how far Agger's out of position, marking the same man that Skrtel's marking, ignoring Campbell just as much as Gerrard did, and recovering too late to meaningfully hinder Campbell's effort.

Both the first and second goals exploited Liverpool's left flank. For all the deserved praise of Flanagan and Allen after the last two matches, that demonstrates they've still some way to go before being as consistent as Liverpool need. Yes, Flanagan's still quite young. Yes, Allen's not long back from an extended injury. Yes, both have been better more often than they've been worse. But I wouldn't be surprised to see either or both rotated against Sunderland on Wednesday.

And Cardiff's third goal demonstrated that even a bound-for-relegation side which had scored just 23 goals in the 29 previous matches can cut you open if you grant them the opportunity. 7% of Cardiff successful passes in the entire match came in the move leading up to their final goal. 16 completed passes, in the space of about one minute. Yes, Liverpool were comfortably ahead. Yes, they'd spent a fair amount of energy in the previous 87 minutes to be in that position. But allowing the opposition that much time and space, with only Sterling attempting to tackle a player in possession, remains annoying. And very much preventable. Even at that point in the match, goal difference matters.

It was yet another example of "Score three? Fine, we'll just score more than you." We've said over and over that can't keep happening, that Liverpool can't remain this potent, can't remain this resilient. But it has. Just make sure it keeps happening for eight more matches.

22 March 2014

Liverpool 6-3 Cardiff City

Mutch 9' 88'
Suarez 16' 60' 90+6'
Campbell 25'
Skrtel 41' 54'
Sturridge 75'

You can see the progression over the last few months ago. In January, a very similar match ended 2-2 against Aston Villa. In February, it ends 3-2 at Fulham, thanks to a fortuitous late penalty. In March, it ends with an absolutely mad 6-3 at Cardiff.

Liverpool's resiliency, Suarez and Sturridge's potency, and a helpful dose of Skrtel on set plays. In spite of recurring midfield messes and defensive mistakes.

Like against Villa and Fulham (and at Stoke, at West Brom, and v Swansea), Liverpool started off terribly, pushed back by errant passing and a wide open midfield. Liverpool's most impressive performances – against Arsenal and Everton, in the last two away matches – have seen a compact, disciplined midfield, keeping the shape before launching its attacks, leaving enough players behind to prevent opposition attacks but also pressing the ball both in the attacking third and the middle of the pitch.

But today, like those aforementioned five matches, Liverpool's midfielders left insanely large gaps. Unlike against Fulham, this was more due to Liverpool dropping too deep, seemingly afraid of Cardiff after allowing three chances in the first five minutes. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But when you drop deep, you have to keep the shape; you can't just charge around the defensive third chasing the ball and hoping for the best.

The first goal started with a quick Cardiff transition, but Allen should have seen it off when dispossessing Fabio. However, the midfielder missed Flanagan with his pass, instead finding Frazier Campbell. The striker strolled to the flank and fed Mutch, who'd ambled away from an out-of-position Gerrard and with the captain unable to close down, smashing a perfectly placed shot from the top of the box that Mignolet had no chance at.

The second came with Mutch passing through Liverpool's static midfield, Campbell having pulled into space behind an unaware Gerrard, with both Agger and Skrtel marking Bellamy and Flanagan caught upfield marking Fabio. Either press the ball in midfield or drop deep enough to mark the striker. You have to do one of those two things. But no. And maybe both center-backs don't try to mark the same player. So Campbell ran at a recovering Agger, cut around him, and again placed a shot into the far corner. Both goals were well-taken, but both came far too easily.

Sandwiched between Cardiff's goals was Suarez's first, set up by Henderson's excellent ball to an overlapping Johnson, and Johnson's low centered cross for a Suarez tap-in. A first equalizer should have been enough, but how would Liverpool respond to needing a second?

Fairly well, thank you. "Even when we're not good, we're still going to score more than you." And so they did. Two set play goals; a pass-pass-pass-pass oops-we've-broken-your-defense fourth, and then two blitzkrieg counters. And a regrettable, but ultimately meaningless, consolation conceded.

Liverpool's second, Skrtel's first, wasn't wholly a set play goal, but it might as well go down as one. Cardiff cleared Coutinho's corner, but cleared it straight to the Brazilian, who immediately crossed back into the box. Skrtel's run was immaculate, intuitively breaking between three defenders to reach the ball first, just outside the six-yard box.

The second was a more orthodox set play goal, albeit with a fair amount of controversy, with both Mutch and Theophile-Caterine off the pitch, having been treated for injuries in the build-up. And Liverpool took advantage, with Skrtel beating his marker to Coutinho's corner and directing the header well past Marshall.

That was that. Liverpool wouldn't give Cardiff a chance to get a third until the result was well out of sight. Six minutes after taking the lead, Liverpool had a fourth: patient build-up, Henderson and Johnson again combining just before the goal, Johnson's low cross deflected but fortunately falling to Sturridge, whose first-touch back-heel into space was indescribably brilliant, somehow telepathically knowing that Suarez would find it. Sometimes, there are just no words to do those two justice.

And they reversed roles 15 minutes later, as Suarez's tasmanian devil work rate forced Caulker into misplaying Johnson's ball over the top, charging into the box before centering between two defenders to meet Sturridge in stride, yet another Liverpool goal scored from six yards out.

The last 15 minutes seemed a formality, with Liverpool threatening on a couple of quick attacks but somehow contriving to foul them up, until Cardiff found a consolation. The build-up should embarrass Liverpool's defense: Theophile-Caterine allowed to cross to an open Jones, who headed across to an open Mutch. But Liverpool responded just before full-time, similar to their last goal, with Suarez terrorizing Cala into misplaying a hopeful long ball, then tearing at Marshall, villainously teasing him into committing (and ignoring Sterling) before poking home.

These games aren't doing my heart any good. Liverpool may be mistake-prone in midfield and defense, but Liverpool remain very good in attack, and fairly decent on set plays as well. It's the 17th time (in 30 matches) where Liverpool have scored at least three, the 10th time they've scored at least four, and the 5th time they've scored at least five. That's unfathomable.

More importantly, Liverpool believe. Liverpool know they're capable of something truly special. And even when Liverpool disappoint, when Liverpool start badly, when Liverpool suffer setbacks, Liverpool somehow respond.

21 March 2014

Liverpool at Cardiff 03.22.14

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.21.13
2-2 [3-2 on penalties] Liverpool (n; League Cup) 02.26.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.31.07
0-4 Cardiff (h) 12.19.59

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 United (a); 3-0 Southampton (a); 4-3 Swansea (h)
Cardiff: 1-2 Everton (a); 3-1 Fulham (h); 0-1 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 24; Sturridge 18; Gerrard 10; Sterling 7; Skrtel 4; Coutinho, Henderson 3; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Cardiff: Campbell 5; Caulker, Mutch 4; Whittingham 2; Bellamy, Kim, Cala, Gunnarsson, Jones, Noone, Odemwingie 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Liverpool have lost all three Premier League matches that Neil Swarbrick has refereed.

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

Will Rodgers stick with the 4-4-2 diamond after consecutive 3-0 away victories, or revert to a 4-3-3 formation?

If it's the diamond – which seems slightly more likely, solely because Rodgers is often hesitant to change a winning formula – then the only lineup question seems Sterling or Coutinho. That Liverpool will most likely monopolize the ball, pinning Cardiff deep and needing to cut through a packed defense, makes me think Coutinho is more likely, with Sterling's pace available off the bench if needed when legs begin to tired. More the thought process against Southampton rather than the thought process against Manchester United.

If it's 4-3-3, then the question is over the third midfielder. The front three would be some blend of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Henderson and Gerrard appear certain starters regardless of formation. So the choice would be Coutinho or Allen, and as in the 4-4-2 diamond, I expect Coutinho would get the nod for his throughballs and general creativity. Although it is worth noting that's the exact front six which struggled so mightily at West Brom, the last time Liverpool failed to win a league match. And also the same front six which scored five against Arsenal. So, yeah.

I still don't expect either Lucas or Sakho to come back into the side just yet. Not with the midfield and defense playing the way that they have. Liverpool have three games in the next 10 days. We'll most likely see both of them start at least one of those matches, but I doubt it'll be tomorrow with the way the team's worked of late. No one changes a defense that's kept successive clean sheets away from home unless they have to.

According to most models, Cardiff have an 80-90% chance of being relegated, even though they're just three points and goal difference from safety. They've won only one of their last seven matches, at home against 20th-placed Fulham two weeks ago. Which, of course – given my propensity for pessimism – makes me think this is more of a Hull City/West Brom-style trap game than a nailed-on hammering.

Cardiff have used five at the back in two of the last three matches: at Tottenham and Everton, although Solskjaer switched to the more familiar 4-1-4-1 after 20 or so minutes against Everton. And it's understandable why. Try like hell to prevent an opposition goal, hope to nick one or two against better opposition on either a counter-attack or set play. More defenders maybe, hopefully, mean better defending, etc etc. Cardiff have allowed more shots on target than any other side this season, a large reason why they're currently in the relegation zone, despite the frequent heroics of David Marshall.

If it's 4-1-4-1, the XI will most likely be Marshall; Theophile-Caterine, Caulker, Cala, John; Medel; Noone, Kim, Whittingham, Mutch; Campbell. If it's five at the back, Fabio probably comes in for Noone, with Theophile-Caterine at center-back and Mutch playing centrally off Campbell. Ben Turner will be subject to a late fitness test, and could replace Juan Cala in the 4-1-4-1 or Theophile-Caterine in the 5-3-2 if available.

Marshall has been Cardiff's best player; without their keeper, Cardiff would have even fewer points. No keeper has made more saves this season, but, again, no keeper has faced more shots on target either. Craig Noone always gets a bit of press prior to Liverpool matches, born on Merseyside, and you may have heard that he once worked on Gerrard's roof. You'll probably hear it six or seven more times tomorrow. And then there's Craig Bellamy. If he plays, he'll provoke the usual ex-Liverpool player fear, but he's more likely to appear off the bench.

Thanks to a scheduling quirk, this will be Liverpool's third successive away match. They've ostensibly done the hard part by beating Southampton and United, but the cliche holds true. There are no easy matches, not at this stage of the season. You can point to Liverpool's away failings earlier in the campaign, or the recent Chelsea v Aston Villa example. Thankfully, Liverpool – at least from their public quotes, not to mention their form since the New Year – seem well aware of just how crucial every game is. Nine more cup finals…

17 March 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (a), Swansea (h), 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.

To head off any comments: yes, I agree that Sturridge should have gotten an assist, even if it was (rightly) classified was a off-target shot rather than a pass, but neither StatsZone nor Squawka counted it as such (although WhoScored did) so it's not included on the above graphic.

The last time Liverpool kept consecutive clean sheets away from home was last May: a 0-0 at Reading followed by the 6-0 demolition at Newcastle. That was the only time it happened last season. You have to go back to 2006-07 to find the last time Liverpool both scored at least three and conceded none in consecutive away matches: 4-0 at Wigan and 3-0 at Charlton in December 2006. Doing it at Southampton and Manchester United seems a bit more impressive.

Aside from the hahaha-let's-point-at-United narratives, the primary plot line seems Rodgers' persistence with the diamond formation which led to a 3-0 win two weeks ago at Southampton. There, Southampton saw much, much more of the ball, and Liverpool rode its luck to a certain extent, but cluttering the middle of the pitch nullified Lambert, Lallana, and Rodriguez for long stretches – players, like Suarez and Sturridge, who interchange at will but often do their best work when either deployed through the middle or cutting inside from the flanks.

Yesterday, the diamond was vastly more effective. There seems two reasons for that. First, and probably foremost, United were not good. Yes, Moyes' tactics are prehistoric and its become a team of individuals rather than a cohesive unit. However, some credit where due: Liverpool were excellent inside its own half, especially those who could be exposed by the diamond: the two wide midfielders, and the two fullbacks.

Conceding space out wide at the expense of midfield solidity seemed dangerous with Rafael and Evra bombing forward and Mata and Januzaj one-on-one against Liverpool's fullbacks. But aside from a couple of chances from Rafael, none of those players were threats.

Zonal Marking covered this well in his match analysis. At times with Liverpool in possession, Henderson and Allen were basically free players, with neither Mata nor Januzaj particularly interested in tracking back, and neither Fellaini nor Carrick particularly comfortable leaving the middle of the pitch, especially considering the damage that Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling can cause if given space in that area.

And when Liverpool were without possession, each dropped back to defend, whether adding cover on the flanks or coming inside to support Gerrard (who was also excellent). Allen's contribution was especially impressive in his own half. With Flanagan on a yellow card from the 30th minute, the fullback needed protection. And Allen was often there to supply it. He and Flanagan made the most tackles in yesterday's match.

But Allen also cleverly picked his spots going forward, his late burst into the box responsible for Liverpool's second penalty, also contributing a shot on target and creating a chance. Meanwhile, Henderson created more chances than any other Liverpool player, played more passes than any other Liverpool player, and had more touches of the ball than any other Liverpool player. His effort going forward meant Evra often couldn't, also dragging Carrick out of possession when shifting about in United's half.

Moyes' tactics – if there were tactics (*rimshot*) – couldn't take advantage of the diamond's aforementioned weaknesses. Liverpool's wide midfielders and fullbacks marshaled the flanks well. United, averaging 28 crosses per match (by far the most in the division), attempted just 20, and completed just five. Liverpool had to contest just one aerial duel in its own box: van Persie's 75th minute off-balance header, awkwardly put wide. Liverpool's pressing, not for the first time, disjointed opposition attacks at the base, winning 12 tackles in United's half (Suarez and Flanagan 3; Allen 2; Henderson, Johnson, Skrtel, Sterling 1).

And while neither Sturridge nor Suarez were at the peak of their powers, marking them was again akin to marking fog. Both can show up anywhere, everywhere in the final third.

Compare that to United's broken strike "partnership": Rooney forced to come deep to receive the ball, van Persie scattershot and often nonexistent. Liverpool prioritizing possession at the expense of counter-attacking opportunities somewhat limited each's preferred playing style – although Sturridge failed to hit the target with two early chances from quick trademark throughballs – but each still had the required impact: both winning a penalty (and Sturridge providing the cross for the penalty Suarez won), Suarez tallying the final goal with United stretched and Liverpool rampant thanks to the man advantage.

16 March 2014

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester United

Gerrard 34' (pen) 47' (pen)
Suarez 84'

The funny thing (and after a comfortable 3-0 win, we can call it "funny") is that Liverpool weren't even anywhere near their best. Liverpool's midfield – again in a diamond formation, with Sterling starting in place of Coutinho – was superlative, but both Sturridge and Suarez were slightly off-form, with Liverpool a bit disjointed in the final third, while both of Liverpool's fullbacks frightened at times. And yet they still cruised to a 3-0 win at Old Trafford, a venue where they've won twice in the last 10 league meetings.

United registered a solitary shot on target, one moment of threat amidst 90 minutes of utter mediocrity. Liverpool won three penalties, and could have had three more. United had a man sent off, and probably should have seen two dismissed. This was humiliation, as humiliating as Liverpool's last Old Trafford victory in March to further revitalize a title race, but humiliating in a different way.

It goes without saying after 29 matches, but this isn't anywhere close to the Manchester United we've known and hated for innumerable years. Liverpool played like the home side for 90 minutes, but needed 34 to take the lead, having spurned chances from Sturridge (twice) and Allen prior to breaking the deadlock.

Which deservedly happened on Liverpool's best build-up to that point, with Sterling playmaking from the top of the diamond and Liverpool cutting through United's midfield before spreading the ball out wide to Sturridge. An excellent cross, sumptuous control from Suarez's knitted boots, and an egregiously stupid handball from Rafael – which should have been his second booking in 90 seconds after scything down Gerrard to start Liverpool's possession. But Clattenburg pulled a Howard Webb, splitting the baby, giving the penalty but refusing the second yellow mandated by the rules of the game. To be fair, Howard Webb probably wouldn't have even given the penalty. Gerrard at the spot, De Gea diving the wrong way, 1-0.

As has become common, Liverpool's ultimate goal for the final 10 minutes of the half was to manage the game. Don't do anything stupid, get into the locker room with the lead, then kill the game in the second half. Which they just about managed, requiring a marvelous save from Mignolet followed by a crucial block from Skrtel to twice deny Rooney in the 44th.

Other Manchester United sides would have regrouped during the interval. You'd expect any competent side to do so. But not David Moyes' Manchester United. Within two minutes of the restart, Liverpool had the second. They started the second half like they were the side behind. They immediately stormed down to the opponent's defensive third. And they immediately won a second penalty: Phil Jones clumsily (and most likely making a stupid face while doing so) barging over Joe Allen after Henderson's chipped ball into the box. Gerrard at the spot, De Gea diving the right way but no matter, 2-0.

Liverpool's first penalty was the first given to an opponent at Old Trafford since December 2011. The second penalty was the first time two have been given to a United opponent at Old Trafford in Premier League history.

From there, kill the game. Smother it with a pillow rather than kill it with fire. Coutinho replaced Sterling, keeping the same formation but with fresh legs in the crucial middle of the pitch. There were a couple of United half-chances, but determined Liverpool blocked shots rather than Mignolet saves, and a couple of wayward shots. Liverpool looked, but weren't quite able, to counter when given the chance, the best opportunity from a Gerrard shot from distance deflected just wide. Clattenburg also had yet another opportunity to send off Rafael for a bookable offense, as the Brazilian did everything but wear a "PLEASE SEND ME OFF, MARK" sign around his neck.

And then one of those few counters came to fruition. Fortunately so. Sturridge released into space, one-on-one with Vidic, the Serbian diving into the tackle but not making contact with either Sturridge or the ball, but Sturridge plummeting like a sack of bricks. I just feel so terrible for United's bad luck. Unlike Rafael, it's acceptable to give Vidic a second yellow, the fourth time he's been sent off against Liverpool, and the best possible way to mark his last United match against Liverpool. Gerrard at the spot, De Gea diving the wrong way, but the ball cannoning off the foot of the post rather than nestling in the back of the net. Drat. A penalty hat-trick would have been one hell of a memory, but it's not as if it mattered to the final result, especially with United down to 10 men.

And Liverpool put the man advantage to full use. Sturridge could have won two more penalties, both better shouts than the one he got, but Clattenburg couldn't and wouldn't give a fourth spot kick. De Gea made a miraculous save on Suarez, but was then beaten from the same position a minute later by the same player: Sturridge's throughball, Evra playing Suarez onside, an unstoppable close range blast for Liverpool's third. To see out the match, both Coutinho and Henderson spurned chances for The Dossena Fourth™.

That's consecutive 3-0 victories away from Anfield, and consecutive clean sheets away from Anfield.

I can't write enough plaudits for Liverpool's midfield. Both Gerrard and Allen were outstanding – either could be man of the match; I honestly can't decide. Allen's movement was outstanding, both with the ball and when defending and pressing without it. Gerrard kept Rooney quiet for long stretches and contributed the two goals. Henderson Honey-Badgered up, down, and across the pitch, while Sterling reveled in the unfamiliar role as playmaker. That's three positions – winger, right back, and #10 – where he's impressed this season. Again, I'll remind that he's just 19 years old.

But just as much credit (or blame, depending on your persuasion) goes to just how terrible United were. Medieval tactics compared to Liverpool's, awkward and dispassionate performances from United's stars, a rickety defense (both aging and rash) exposed, Fellaini and Carrick completely losing the midfield battle.

The one pre-match worry, especially if Liverpool persisted with the midfield diamond, was United's comparative strength and depth attacking down the flanks. But United couldn't even cross adequately – the one and often only thing they've done competently this season. Attempting 20, completing five, leading to three chances. Two of those chances came from corners, and none felt truly threatening. Allen and Henderson spread wide to support their fullbacks without fail, and both did so impressively, while Johnson and Flanagan did enough: the former still finding his feet after an extended injury, the latter restricted by an early yellow card which he dealt with admirably.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. And with nine games left, Liverpool are staring a chance at greatness straight in the face.

14 March 2014

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.16.14

9:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13
1-2 United (a) 01.13.12
1-2 United (h) 09.23.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Southampton (a); 4-3 Swansea (h); 1-2 Arsenal (a)
United: 3-0 West Brom (a); 0-2 Olympiakos (a); 2-0 Palace (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 24; Sturridge 18; Gerrard 8; Sterling 7; Skrtel 4; Coutinho, Henderson 3; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
United: Rooney, van Persie 11; Welbeck 9; Januzaj 3; Chicharito, Valencia, Young 2; Carrick, Cleverley, Evra, Jones, Smalling 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

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

United's hilarious foibles have seemingly made many people more confident of a result at Old Trafford. As pessimism comes as naturally to me as breathing, it's just made me more wary of Sunday's fixture. There's further to fall. And it's still Liverpool at Manchester United.

It'll have been 15 days since Liverpool's last match. I've no idea whether that means the side will be rusty or raring to go. Or, somehow, a bit of both. Will two weeks' preparation give Brendan Rodgers even more time to hand Moyes' own ass to him, or will the layoff knock Liverpool off its eight-wins-and-two-draws-since-January stride?

Does Rodgers bring Sakho or Lucas – or both – back into the side after their respective extended absences? The conservative approach would see Liverpool dance with the ones what brung them, keeping faith with either the 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond we've seen in their absences. Liverpool is, after all, still unbeaten since Lucas or Sakho were injured.

Sakho seems the more likely, given how Liverpool's midfield has functioned without Lucas compared to how the defense has functioned without Sakho. It's hard to find a place for the holding midfielder with Gerrard, Allen, and Henderson in the form they've demonstrated over the last month, especially in Liverpool's last match. Yes, that makes me sad too.

Sakho's return would most likely mean Agger's absence, as I'm fairly sure Rodgers won't try a Sakho-Agger pairing for the first time when at Old Trafford. Considering United's fondness for crosses, each's aerial duels seems a good place to start. Sakho's won more aerial duels per match than Agger, but Agger's won a higher percentage of his duels. Skrtel's won more than both, but has a marginally worse win percentage than Agger. Okay. That didn't help much. So I'm reverting to my default position: keeping the faith with those who did well in the previous fixture, which is also a trait Rodgers has demonstrated in the past.

However, Sterling could come back in for Coutinho, whether in the shape we saw in the final 30 minutes at Southampton or with Liverpool reverting to 4-3-3, with Allen most likely making way. Which is the same set-up which so exposed Arsenal and Everton, a compact midfield and defense before springing into life on the counter-attack. Given how reliant United are on crosses, it seems dangerous to concede the flanks without a fight, as Liverpool did with the 4-4-2 diamond at Southampton.

It seems fairly obvious, but whoever scores first will almost certainly win. When Liverpool score first, they've won 17, drawn two, and lost two. When Liverpool's opponent scores first, Liverpool have won one, drawn three, and lost three. United have been held scoreless in five matches this season, Liverpool in just two. Only at Everton, City, Chelsea, and West Brom has an early Liverpool goal not led to all three points. Incidentally, those four matches were all away from Anfield. Liverpool will almost certainly storm out of the gate, as against Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, etc etc, but if United weather that opening storm, anything can happen. And Moyes, even being Moyes, knows that and will plan accordingly.

Because Moyes' United will be Moyes' United. They've options, especially in attack, but they'll play the way they always play. 4-2-3-1, looking to spread the ball wide, looking to cross, hoping Rooney and van Persie and maybe even Mata can conjure something. Soak up pressure then quick quick quick bypass the midfield, get the ball down the flanks, and cross cross cross.

The XI will most likely be De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Fellaini, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Mata; van Persie. Rafael might be fit, replacing either Smalling or Vidic, while Evans, Chicharito, and Nani remain injured. Aside from Rafael's availability, the flanks seem the only places in doubt. Mata's got one spot, but the other could be filled by Januzaj, Valencia, Young, Welbeck, or Kagawa. Kagawa's still alive, right?

Januzaj has been United's best winger this season, and United desperately need a win, but Moyes has a history of defensiveness in fixtures against Liverpool. Fixtures against any of the "big clubs" really. United have just one win – 1-0 against Arsenal – in the seven fixtures against sides currently above them in the table; they drew against Chelsea and at Tottenham and Arsenal, lost at Liverpool, City, Chelsea, and to Tottenham. Which makes me think Valencia (or Young or Welbeck) will start in place of Januzaj, as happened in the 0-0 draw at Arsenal a month ago.

In theory, this is Liverpool's hardest away match of the final 10 fixtures; the other trips are to Cardiff, West Ham, Norwich, and Palace. Despite United's form against decent sides, despite United's home form, despite David Moyes. In practice, every match against Manchester United is brutal, no matter either side's form going into the fixture.

05 March 2014

Forecasting the Finish 2013-14 [Infographic]

I was asked to reprise a post from last season, where I tried to divine Liverpool's finish with both 13 and nine matches left based on points-per-game averages and the comparable results from the season before.

The 'nine games left' update was surprisingly close to where Liverpool finished, aside from the 'best case scenario' option which was further proof that I shouldn't be allowed to guess the results of Liverpool matches, even if they weren't actual predictions. But using the previous season's comparable results, as well as Liverpool's points-per-game over the last six matches, after the first five matches, and over the course of the season gave us a range from 59 to 63 points, with two of the points-per-game averages forecasting a 61-point finish. And Liverpool finished with 61 points.

So let's do that again.

As usual, click to open larger version in new window

The 4th place average since 1999-2000 is 68.357 points. The 1st place average over the same time frame is 87.643. I used that season as the cut-off because points totals were noticeably lower from 1995-96 through 1998-99, especially for the league winners, while the Premier League had a 42-match schedule in the three seasons prior to that.

This season's fourth place total will almost certainly be higher than that average. Liverpool and Arsenal need just 10 points from their final 10 games to surpass it; Tottenham and Everton need to average 1.6 and 1.9 points per game respectively to do so. Tottenham have averaged 1.9 points per game so far this season, Everton 1.78. United would need at least eight wins from its last from matches to get to 69 points, so we'll just assume that ship has sailed. Wave goodbye to it. Bon voyage, jerks.

There's also a decent chance that first place will be lower than the above average, but Chelsea's points per game this season isn't far behind that mark. The league winners have failed to reach 87 points just four times since in the last 14 seasons: United with 80 in 2010-11, Chelsea with 86 in 2009-10, United with 83 in 2002-03, and United with 80 in 2000-01.

So we've got a range from 77 to 85 points, a larger range than Liverpool had with nine games left last season, made that large because of Liverpool's incredibly impressive (and unbeaten) form since the New Year.

To reach 85 points – Liverpool's PPG since January 1 – Liverpool would need eight wins and two draws over the final ten matches. To reach 80 points, Liverpool would need either 7W-0D-3L or 6W-3D-1L. And to reach 77 points, Liverpool would need 5W-3D-2L or 6W-0D-4L or 4W-6D-0L.

Assuming Liverpool earn the same amount of points from this season's matches as they did in last season's fixtures will give this season's side 78 points. Five wins, four draws, one loss. 2012-13 Liverpool beat Sunderland (h), Tottenham (h), West Ham (a), Norwich (a), and the 3rd Promoted Side (a) [also West Ham, this season it's Palace]. They drew with City (h), Chelsea (h), the 1st Promoted Side (a) [last year Reading, this year Cardiff], and Newcastle (h). And they lost at Manchester United.

For thoroughness' sake, here are the remaining fixtures for the four sides nearest Liverpool in the table.

Nota Bene: City's games against Sunderland and Villa had to be postponed because of cup runs, and still haven't been rescheduled.

Unlike last season, it's not as if we're wanting for fourth-place models. Or maybe I've just noticed more of them. There is some absolutely brilliant statistical work being done this season, and a few excellent writers have been keeping track of each team's chances for first, fourth, etc. over the course of the season.

Bass Tuned to Red
Michael Caley of Cartilage Free Captain (@MC_of_A on Twitter)
• Constantinos Chappas (see here, here, and here)
• 11tegen11
Colin Trainor

And most assuredly a few others I've regretfully left out. Seriously, go read all of them. They're outstanding.

03 March 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (h), 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.

• 1-0 v Stoke
• 1-0 at Villa
• 4-0 v Fulham
• 2-2 v Villa

• 1-0 v United
• 2-2 at Swansea
• 0-1 v Southampton
• 5-1 v Norwich
• 4-1 v West Ham

• 3-1 at Sunderland
• 3-1 v Crystal Palace
• 2-2 at Newcastle

• 4-1 v West Brom
• 0-2 at Arsenal

• 3-3 at Everton

• 1-3 at Hull City
• 5-0 at Tottenham
• 3-1 v Cardiff
• 1-2 at Man City
• 1-2 at Chelsea
• 2-0 v Hull City
• 5-3 at Stoke
• 4-0 v Everton
• 1-1 at West Brom
• 5-1 v Arsenal
• 3-2 at Fulham
• 4-3 v Swansea

4-4-2 diamond
• 3-0 at Southampton

By my count, Saturday saw the seventh different starting formation that Brendan Rodgers has used in the 28 league matches so far. We can quibble over the differences between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 4-1-4-1, whether or not Aspas playing behind Sturridge in the first two matches was more 4-2-3-1 than 4-4-2, but the point still stands. For better or worse, better and worse, Rodgers has become one of the more tactically versatile managers in recent years. Not just at Liverpool, but in the entire league.

"For me the system is irrelevant. You look at each game and it's about getting the best out of what we have available against the opponents we're playing. The style is always the same: to control and dominate the game, be tactically strong and be very good in transition and we saw all of those aspects." – Brendan Rodgers

Over the past few seasons, "control and dominate" have become synonyms for 'passing and possession statistics.' Not only are those easy metrics to understand, that was how Brendan Rodgers' Swansea played, and that was usually how Rafa Benitez's Liverpool played. Well, that often isn't the case with this season's side. On Saturday, Liverpool's opponent had more possession for the 10th time this season; it happened just seven times last season. Liverpool didn't out-pass or out-possess Arsenal or Everton in two of this season's three most notable victories. But they did control and dominate those games, very much so, forcing both of those sides to play the way that Liverpool wanted them to play, propelled by early goals thanks to the potency of Liverpool's attack and ability on set plays.

But Liverpool didn't really control or dominate Saturday's match, in any sense of the words, until getting the second goal in the 58th minute. Liverpool were fortunate to get their first goal thanks to Lallana's wayward tackle-cum-pass and Fonte's deflection, having fouled up the best chance of the opening half-hour nine minutes earlier, a trademark counter-attack cut out when Fonte nipped in front of Sturridge's attempted center.

Otherwise, it was all Southampton pretty much all of the time. In passing and possession, in shots and chances created, in where the action took place. And with Liverpool's usually potent counter-attack unable to get going, as Southampton's typical high pressing very much unsettled the away side, with 13 of 33 successful tackles (17 of 44 in total) in Liverpool's half.

But despite that "dominance," Southampton's first shot on target was Mignolet's terrific save in the 43rd minute; its only other shot on target was Lallana's easily saved effort in the 49th. Yes, Liverpool were fortunate when Lallana hit the post in the 33rd, but eight of Southampton's 13 shots were off-target. You're not going to beat many sides when that profligate in front of goal.

And Liverpool did force Southampton to play a certain way, one somewhat outside of their comfort zone.

Liverpool with ball recoveries in the clogged center of the pitch and tackles out wide, where the congested midfield forced them to play. Southampton reliant on crosses, and almost totally unable to complete take-ons in the attacking third. Only Liverpool, Arsenal, City, and Newcastle average more throughballs per match than Southampton this season; Southampton attempted just one on Saturday, and it didn't even find its intended recipient. Despite their possession dominance, Southampton still had to make four tackles and four interceptions in their own box. Liverpool required just the one interception to keep its clean sheet.

And Liverpool were both tactically strong and, despite the first half's hiccups, good enough in transition. Here we are, talking about how Liverpool's attack was both below par and up against a very good defense which has made Liverpool suffer in each of the three meetings since promotion, and Liverpool still scored three goals. Once Liverpool got its second – an excellent pass, pass, pass, pass BOOM killer ball, there goes Suarez, there goes Southampton's defense move – the match was over. Liverpool were ascendant, in search of a third (and unlucky not to score it within 15 minutes of their second, registering five shots in almost as many minutes), then content to smother the life out of the game, finally getting that third in the dying throes of injury time. But that can happen if the opposition press like madmen for an hour, then find themselves two goals down and tiring.

Make no mistake, Southampton are a very good side. As Liverpool have found out twice in the last year. Which makes both this display and result that much more impressive.

That Rodgers has used seven different starting formations is fairly clear evidence that this is still a developing side, no matter his desire for versatility. That this was just Liverpool's eighth clean sheet of the season is fairly clear evidence that this is still a developing side, and that Agger and Johnson's return will improve the defense as both return to match fitness, both playing much better than they did a week before.

That Liverpool currently sit second in the league, despite being a still-developing side, speaks to just how much improvement they've made on last season's form, how good Liverpool's attack is, and the league's surprising amount of parity, at least compared to recent campaigns.

And that a little bit of luck – whether it's the ball falling to Suarez or Lallana hitting the post – goes a long way when combined with a little bit of skill – Suarez's finish, Mignolet's save, Gerrard's pass and Suarez's run on the second goal – and a good game plan.

01 March 2014

Liverpool 3-0 Southampton

Suarez 16'
Sterling 58'
Gerrard 90+5' (pen)

Liverpool got a couple of moments of much-needed luck, but on the whole, it was a tactically awesome display, well deserving of all three points and probably Liverpool's best away performance of the season outside of Tottenham's utterly inept hilarity. And it was against a side that's won the last two meetings, beating Liverpool at its own game in both matches.

Rodgers went with a 4-4-2 diamond formation for the first time in the last two seasons. Given how Southampton's dominated the middle in previous meetings, how Liverpool's midfield has ultimately led to many of its defensive failings in the last few months, it was an inspired decision. Sterling, who's been excellent lately, made way for Allen, with the Welshman and Henderson either side of Gerrard and Coutinho as the link between midfield and attack.

It's not a strategy that'll necessarily work against the West Ham's and Stoke's of the world – or David Moyes' United for that matter – but against a side that can dominate possession, that can hurt you by overloading the center of the park, it worked quite well. Liverpool were happy to concede possession, but for the most part, it was in less-threatening areas.

And Liverpool were able to defensively shell in such a manner thanks to another early goal, one that needed a fortunate deflection from Jose Fonte but was finished with flair by Luis Suarez: Suarez and Sturridge linking up in the attacking third, but the move apparently breaking down with both players crowded out at the top of the box by Southampton's resilient defense. But Lallana's attempted tackle ricocheted off Fonte, falling perfectly for an onside Suarez. So much for Suarez's goal drought. So much for Southampton's hex. Suarez has now scored against every other Premier League side.

From there, it was an admittedly frightening rest of the first half. Southampton controlled proceedings, controlled the ball, with Liverpool unable to threaten on the counter mostly because Coutinho's poor display. But poor finishing and two fortuitous game-changing moments prevented Southampton's equalizer. The first saw Lallana strike the foot of the post, set up by Lambert following Rodriguez's cross; lucky, yes, but the woodwork still owes Liverpool approximately seven more of those given how often the Reds have struck the frame of the goal this season. The second, ten minutes later, saw a miraculous save from Mignolet, nanosecond reactions to deny Rodriguez from close range after Luke Shaw's low cross.

It's no coincidence both of Southampton's excellent chances came from crosses. But Southampton's also not a team set up to cross, attempting 25 in total today – which probably isn't far off their high for the season. And the above does Liverpool's defense a bit of an injustice. They were much better today, compared to yesterday, compared to recent months, compared to almost every other away performance. But Southampton could and probably should have scored on one of those two moments.

And Liverpool regrouped during the interval – despite Southampton continue to press matters, bringing on the more-attacking Gaston Ramirez for Steven Davis – and sealed the match within 15 minutes of the restart, with its first good chance after the restart, thanks to Rodgers' first substitution. Sterling replaced Coutinho in the 57th minute, but Liverpool didn't change formation, didn't switch to the more familiar 4-3-3 with Sterling and one of Sturridge or Suarez out wide. Sterling went central, behind the two strikers, and scored with his first touch: Gerrard's throughball releasing an onside Suarez drifting out wide, Suarez's centered pass finding Sterling's late run into the box, wide open for a side-footed finish between Chambers and Boruc.

That assist means Suarez now leads the league in both goals and assists. And that goal ended the match as a contest, despite Pochettino's attempted changes, bringing on Gallagher and Wanyama for Lambert and Cork. Southampton threatened Liverpool exactly twice more despite continued dominance of possession: Rodriguez's very, very wayward shot in the 78th minute and Agger's block on Schneiderlin's effort at the beginning of injury time.

And Liverpool had more than a few chances to add their third: Sturridge shooting wide from absolutely no angle, Suarez narrowly chipping a cross over an open Sturridge, Gerrard's blast from distance finger-tipped wide, Suarez's blast from the right side of the box whistling wide. They finally got that third with almost the last kick of the game: a somewhat-limping Suarez – after Wanyama's stupid, stupid yellow card tackle ten minutes earlier – beating Fonte left and right before getting taken down in the box, Probert ignoring the scoreline and time of the game to award the spot kick. Gerrard steps up, Gerrard scores.

It could have ended very different had Lallana's shot been six inches to the right in the 32nd minute. But it wasn't. Those moments change games, those moments change seasons. And it ultimately led to a thoroughly impressive, making-me-too-optimistic Liverpool performance. I can't remember the last time Liverpool's midfield looked so secure against good opposition, at least away from Anfield, but it probably had a player named Lucas involved and was most likely a season ago. And, again, it happened against a Southampton side that's been more than a bogeyman for the last year.

Liverpool have won an awful lot of games thanks to its attack. Yes, they scored three goals today – Suarez the epicenter of all three – but today's match was won in the center of the park. One swallow doesn't make a summer, etc etc, but combine that with a blistering, best-in-the-league attack and an slowly-but-surely settling defense, and you've the making of one hell of a side.