22 September 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

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

That may have looked familiar. You may have remembered similar from the previous weekend. But while Liverpool's impotence and general ineptitude was similar, there were some crucial differences from the loss to Aston Villa.

No matter the formation, Liverpool remained broken. Mainly 4-3-3 against Villa (4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3), both 4-4-2 diamond and 3-5-2 against West Ham, but not good in any shape. Which was depressing, as Liverpool had at least looked competent in the diamond's other appearances this season. West Ham's similar formation and fast start rendered that moot, though.

The biggest similarity between the two losses was conceding an early goal, coincidentally, both from set plays. Last season, it was Liverpool who did this to the opposition. Increasingly, that's looking a function of having Luis Suarez in your side, scaring defenders backwards before the whistle even blows. This season, sides have learned that you can get at Liverpool, the quicker the better, and it's fairly safe to assume you won't be punished for it (unless you're Tottenham). I've no idea how to remedy this except for not conceding preventable goals. The only way Liverpool's attack is pushing anyone back at the moment is when Sturridge gets back into the side.

The main difference in the last two losses was in Liverpool's shooting. During Saturday's match, it felt as if Liverpool had better chances, but that might solely be because of Sterling's goal. Or maybe because Liverpool's shot accuracy was better; it could hardly be worse. But both the location and volume were vastly worse. Liverpool took 18 shots against Villa; they could only manage 11 against West Ham. Seven of those 18 shots against Villa came from the danger zone; Liverpool took just one against West Ham. Aside from Sterling's goal, those accurate shots were fairly easy for Adrian, in large part because they came from the wide areas of the box and outside the box – shots with a very low expectation of a goal.

Also, Liverpool struggled to get the ball into the box against Villa. Liverpool struggled to get the ball into the attacking third against West Ham.

60% attacking third accuracy is abhorrent, and both the completion and accuracy statistics are similar to matches at Everton and Spurs last season – matches where Liverpool took an early lead and were able to sit back and blitz the opposition on the counter, not when they were chasing a match after going behind early. And, Liverpool often completely bypassed the midfield against West Ham, which is a big reason why the attacking third totals and accuracy is so low.

A lot of it has to do with Liverpool's personnel. Balotelli – who, again, played okay on Saturday – is a wholly different striker than Daniel Sturridge or Luis Suarez. Liverpool haven't been able to play to his strengths, haven't been able to alter its style to play to his strengths, seemingly because of both tactics and personnel.

Compare where Balotelli received the ball at West Ham to where Sturridge received it against Southampton, another match where Liverpool assuredly weren't at their best, but still found a way to win.

It's no coincidence that Balotelli's best match (and Liverpool's best match, for that matter) was when he played with Sturridge against Tottenham.

Balotelli could drop deep and pull wide while Sturridge made runs in behind, or get into the box to receive crosses when Sturridge dragged defenders into the channels. Neither of those things happened when partnered with Borini or Lambert up front (Balotelli did link better with Borini, "better" being very much a relative term), and a large part of Liverpool's solitary goal came from Balotelli's excellent control when receiving one of Liverpool's 20 crosses into the box (not to take away from Sterling's awareness or excellent finish). That was one of the two successful Liverpool crosses.

Finally, yes, we have to talk about Steven Gerrard. For the second league match in a row, an opposition player both cancelled out his strengths and exploited his weaknesses. First, Agbonlahor, at least while Villa were in the ascendancy in the first half. On Saturday, Downing to an even greater degree.

Using an intelligent winger (for all Downing's faults, so evident when at Liverpool, he is an intelligent footballer) as a #10 was something of a masterstroke by Allardyce, and it's probably something Liverpool will see again. Each side Liverpool's faced this season has added something to the template for disrupting Liverpool (except Tottenham). Downing likes to play wide, is two-footed, and willing to run. He both covered Gerrard when Liverpool were in possession and dragged Gerrard out of position when Liverpool weren't, taking away one of the few layers of protection in front of an already shaky defense which already had to cope with two strikers.

Liverpool, known for being an at-least-competent pressing team, had two tackles and four interceptions in West Ham's half, most clustered on the right flank near the halfway line. Meanwhile, West Ham made five tackles and four interceptions across the width of midfield, which helped force that long passing to bypass midfield. Gerrard and Henderson exchanged 16 passes (most in the second half when Henderson moved deeper with Lallana in the hole), but Lucas and Gerrard exchanged just three (including none from Gerrard to Lucas), while Henderson and Lucas exchanged just three. It was incredibly different than the midfield triangle's passing against Villa, and it's not coincidence that the only match where Gerrard attempted fewer passes was in the win over Tottenham, with Liverpool conceding possession and relying on the counter attack after its early goal.

The inference, which we have a decent amount of evidence for, is that Gerrard has to play with two mobile, high-intensity midfielders who'll both support in defense and link with the attack. Otherwise, he's dragged out of position by players like Downing while Henderson and Lallana try to get forward, or Lucas struggles to track back when asked to fill a shuttling support role. Which puts pressure on the center-backs, which helps lead to all those mistakes we're perpetually ruing.

Ideally, it's Henderson and Allen, but Henderson and Coutinho also worked when the Brazilian was in-form last season, and, in theory, Can should be able to fill the role when fit. But not Lucas, and not Lallana (at least not yet).

And it's probably safe to assume that the captain can't play three matches in a week anymore, not three full 90 minutes at the least. One of this week's matches probably should have seen Lucas take over Gerrard's role, both to see if it's any improvement and to rest the captain. Tomorrow's League Cup at Middlesbrough had better see that change happen.

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