29 November 2014

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke

Johnson 85'

Liverpool were still a bit crap, Liverpool were definitely a bit lucky, but it's three points, a clean sheet, and no defensive errors, playing a side that Liverpool historically struggle against, so it's also definite improvement.

Winning ugly is better than drawing ugly or losing ugly, and "not ugly" hasn't been an option since, say, August.

The less said about the first half, the better. Liverpool retained the shape and most of the personnel from Wednesday's match against Ludogorets: Coutinho for Gerrard and Enrique for Manquillo the only changes. Stoke's doubtful players were available, a full-strength XI that was typically compact, defensive, and looking to counter but mostly unable to. The familiar set-up against a Liverpool side that often falls to pieces in the attacking third.

And both sides were lukewarm, fetid garbage in that first half. Neither side were able to keep possession and neither side threatened (which I guess is progress for Liverpool's defense). Stoke's first shot on target came in the 55th minute, Liverpool's in the 65th.

Liverpool started the second half brighter, but Stoke – who had to make two substitutions by that point: Whelan replacing the injured Sidwell, Adam replacing the injured Whelan – had two frightening chances. Mignolet blocked Diouf's attempt from Bojan's counter in the 55th, Bojan beat Lucas all ends up before hitting the post on the hour.

But then Liverpool began to put things together. Cohesion was always going to be a struggle given how dire Liverpool have been of late, but at least things came together before Liverpool were behind. In 10 minutes, Sterling shot narrowly wide, Lucas and Lambert shot straight at Begovic, and Allen ballooned a 10-yard chance in front of goal. It was Liverpool's best spell in quite some time.

So when Liverpool seemingly ran out of steam after that burst, just before Gerrard replaced Lucas, it looked as if they'd again rue an inability to score. Especially when Stoke had two more heart-in-mouth moments, with Mignolet palming away Adam's cross-slash-shot and Sterling somehow blocking Diouf's effort on the line from a corner.

But then Liverpool finally scored, through one of the least likely goalscorers: Henderson's deep cross after sustained possession headed onto the crossbar by Lambert, Glen Johnson – off all people – first to react, quickest to react, and courageous in his diving header, kicked in the head for his trouble but scoring regardless. The scapegoat comes good. One of the scapegoats, anyway.

The final 12 minutes, including seven minutes of added time, were indescribably frightening, but Liverpool held out. Just as they had to do in this match last season. And while it was constantly panic-inducing, there was never a moment like last season's penalty save. Mignolet tipped over an unbelievable Bojan volley that might not have been going in anyway. Stoke had three corners: two claimed by Mignolet, one missed by Mignolet but somehow traveling through the box untouched. Terrifying, but not needing heroics to hang on either.

So, yeah, baby steps. It wasn't pretty, but it somehow worked. Barely, but it worked. That's pretty much all that matters at the moment.

There were signs of progress: the "flurry" just after the hour mark and prior to scoring, a clean sheet and no defensive errors, that Lucas and Toure kept their places after decent performances against Ludogorets, that Gerrard was actually rested when he needed to be rested. Allen and Lucas were probably Liverpool's best players, and it probably shouldn't be surprising that they looked a better pairing after playing together for more time.

There were still things to complain about: Liverpool's early impotence, the chances allowed but thankfully untaken, the lack of game-altering substitutions, Borini not even included on the bench despite Lambert huffing and puffing by the 70th minute after playing three games in six days. Liverpool still have a lot of things to fix.

But stopping this rot was never going to be easy. Coupled with the draw against Ludogorets, an acceptable result with signs of positivity but some continuing complaints, it might well be the very, very early start of the turnaround Liverpool so desperately need.

At this point, all that matters is the result, and Liverpool finally got a result.

28 November 2014

Liverpool v Stoke 11.29.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
5-3 Liverpool (a) 01.12.14
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.13
1-3 Stoke (a) 12.26.13
0-0 (h) 10.07.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 1-3 Palace (a); 1-2 Chelsea (h)
Stoke: 1-2 Burnley (h); 2-1 Tottenham (a); 2-2 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Own Goal, Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Can, Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Lambert, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Stoke: Diouf, Walters 3; Adam, Crouch 2; Bojan, Moses, Shawcross 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Lallana Lambert Sterling

What changes from Wednesday's match at Ludogorets will Rodgers' retain?

Balotelli still won't be fit, so Lambert will probably start up front for the third consecutive match. There's a slight chance three games in six days is a bridge too far and Borini's preferred, but Rodgers' treatment of Gerrard suggests he's more than willing to do similar with Lambert. Both the diamond, with either Sterling or Borini, or the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, are possibilities.

Will Gerrard start again? My default answer is "probably," because we've seen no evidence to the contrary. And if he does, will he go back to playing as deepest midfielder? Also probably, although I hope not. But I'll continue to guess as such until Rodgers demonstrates otherwise.

Will Johnson keep his place, preferred to either Moreno or Manquillo? Again, I hope not. Moreno's seemingly fit – we haven't heard otherwise and he came on as the lone sub at Ludogorets – but he's been left out of the starting XI for the last two matches. Manquillo, 20 years old, new to English football and to starting regularly, seemingly has a better chance of being rested than either Gerrard or Lambert. But, of course, I'd still rather both than Johnson.

Will Lovren come back into the side? Sakho's also still injured, and Toure wasn't awe-inspiring against Ludogorets, but I'd think I'd still rather an extended run for Toure and for Lovren to remain on the bench, in the corner, to think about what he's done.

Lallana, Coutinho, and Can are fresh, and could all start if Rodgers truly rotates. Neither Lallana nor Coutinho played especially well when both used at Palace, but I'm still not sure it's an either/or situation, especially if Sterling's still plagued by the stomach virus that saw him substituted against Ludogorets. Markovic's also an option out wide if Sterling's absent, although he wasn't even in the squad on Wednesday. If Sterling, Lallana, and Coutinho are all available and involved, Henderson and Can are competing for the same spot, and we know who's winning that argument.

Long story short, as usual, your guess is as good as mine. Liverpool will keep throwing different things at the wall in the hopes something sticks.

Stoke still frighten, Stoke still provoke the PTSD from Pulls' time in charge, but Stoke are not the same side anymore. Their clean sheet drought is even longer than Liverpool's, their only win since October 19 was against Tottenham, with three losses and two draws during the stretch, including a 1-2 defeat against Burnley. Which was just Burnley's second win of the campaign and first away from home.

Mark Hughes' side plays the same 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid they did last season, but with Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf as the main attackers, relegating Crouch to the substitutes' bench. Incidentally, both are very good on the counter, which Diouf proved to excellent effect in the 1-0 win at Manchester City early in the campaign. I'm sure Liverpool fans will have fond memories of Victor Moses, Charlie Adam, and Oussama Assaidi, but Moses has a thigh problem and Adam and Assiaidi haven't started since October 25th and September 23th respectively.

Besides Moses, Huth and Odemwingie will be out injured, while Begovic, Cameron, Bardsley, Pieters, and Wilson are all be subject to late decisions. The first three are reportedly ill, the last two back in training, so I suspect all will be available to start. Which would make Stoke's likely XI: Begovic; Bardsley, Shawcross, Cameron, Pieters; N'Zonzi, Sidwell; Walters, Bojan, Arnautovic; Diouf. If Begovic's out, Sorenson. If Cameron's out, Muniesa, who'd also be Pieters' replacement, or Wilson. Cameron could also play at right-back if needed. Stoke could be missing a lot of players, especially in defense, and subsequently struggle to cope, or they could deploy a near-strength XI.

Either way, knowing where Liverpool are at the moment, I'm certain it won't be easy. Nothing (except for Tottenham) has been easy this season.

Tomorrow is Liverpool's last chance to win in November, without a victory since beating Swansea in the League Cup on October 28. It's a less effective statistic now that Liverpool actually took a point in the Champions League on Wednesday, but the "haven't lost five consecutive matches since 1953" stat is still valid if you only consider the league.

There were a few and far between signs of optimism on Wednesday, despite the complaints, despite only taking one point, and despite the late goal conceded. Now, back at Anfield and back to league play – where they're still slowly slipping down the table – Liverpool need to build on those few positives. And it has to happen quickly.

27 November 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Ludogorets

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

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

As it's a holiday here in the US – and I've got a mountain of cooking to do – and I'm all out of rants after yesterday's match review, this will be shorter than usual. Unsurprisingly, in the cold light of a new day, I'm far less angry than I was at full time, but there are still a few things that merit mentioning. And, unsurprisingly, they're things we've mentioned before.

Rodgers took a lot of heat for his post-match comments, including from me, but he had a point. A draw is little different from a win for Liverpool's chances of qualification. Despite conceding twice, Liverpool were more resilient than we've seen in the four previous losses. Playing for the counter-attack in a difficult away venue makes sense; Ludogorets had already beaten Basel at home, and gave Madrid a fright after scoring first. If you're playing for the counter, starting Gerrard further forward makes sense, especially given how he's played in a deeper role this season and regardless of how baffling it was that he stayed on for the full 90 minutes. I'm still very angry about the lack of in-game changes, but that's been a constant critique of Rodgers since he became Liverpool manager.

Liverpool were out-shot 11 times in the league last season, which is actually more than I expected before looking up the numbers. Liverpool have already been out-shot in seven of the 17 matches in the Premier League and Champions League this season. And five of those seven matches were the last five matches Liverpool have played. Four losses, one draw, and zero wins. That's probably not coincidence.

The amount of opposition shots is similar in the two seasons – 12.6 allowed last season, 12.4 allowed this season – but Liverpool are averaging nearly four fewer shots per match. That's four fewer opportunities for a side that's already weakened up front.

I understand that Liverpool weren't going to get a ton of shots when sitting deep and playing for the counter-attack after scoring the second. And given where Liverpool are at this moment in time, playing for the counter-attack and shelling is understandable, even if Liverpool are fairly awful at shelling. Liverpool played for the counter and were out-shot but still won in matches against Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), and City (h) last season. But it's symptomatic of an ongoing problem, most noticeably during this recent winless streak. Liverpool do not shoot enough to score enough to compensate for an error-prone defense that's bad at defending set plays.

So what did Liverpool do well? Liverpool actually took three whole shots inside the six-yard box, resulting in two goals. That's more six-yard box shots than Liverpool took in the previous six matches in the Premiership and Champions League combined (one against Palace and one against Hull, none in the two matches against Real or against Chelsea and Newcastle). Six matches, you may remember, that Liverpool failed to win. For the first 60 minutes, Liverpool pressed well, making seven of their nine tackles in Ludogorets' half during that span (Gerrard and Sterling two; Lucas, Allen, and Lambert one). Lambert scored for the second-straight game – the first time any Liverpool player has done so this season – and did well as a target-man, evidenced by the amount of passes attempted and completed despite Liverpool playing for the counter-attack for long stretches and his involvement in the above passing network. Kolo Toure was better than Lovren has been (quelle surprise), and even though Lucas committed too many fouls (the referee did not help) and remains worse in a two-man midfield than when he's the sole defensive midfielder, Liverpool seemed more secure than when Gerrard's played there. Despite the shot disparity and despite the horrific two goals conceded, Liverpool did fairly well limiting dangerous chances from open play. Six of Ludogorets' 18 shots came in the dangerous zone, but only the opening goal – from yet another Mignolet error – and Dani Abalo's wild, not-even-close volley came from open play.

But, yet again, both of the opposition goals came from clear-cut chances: one from an individual error, one from a set play. Liverpool's opponents averaged 1.37 clear-cut chances in the league last season; it's up to 1.91 this season. Even worse, Liverpool averaged just over three of their own clear-cut chances last season, and are averaging just 1.08 this season – although both of Liverpool's goals also came from clear-cut chances, another marginal improvement.

But, yet again, there's still too much "same shit, different day" despite the marginal improvement in performance and result. Because of set play failures, because of individual errors, because of the inability to create clear chances or take a reasonable amount of shots. Improvement will only come incrementally, and this may well be a start, but I'm getting really sick of "same shit, different day."

26 November 2014

Liverpool 2-2 Ludogorets

Dani Abalo 3'
Lambert 8'
Henderson 37'
Terziev 88'

I am running out of ways to write "you are an embarrassment and you are awful, Liverpool, and I hate you."

That was an absolute shambles from start to finish.

The start? Ludogorets ahead within three minutes when they countered straight through Allen and Lucas, and Mignolet spilled a speculative shot straight to Dani Abalo.

The finish? Liverpool unable to hold onto its tenuous one-goal lead, conceding from yet another set play – the ninth out of the 29 goals Liverpool conceded (yeah, I thought it'd be more) – when Moreno, on as a substitute, lost his man for the initial cross and Glen Johnson lost his man for the second ball. It might have been the most Liverpool goal ever conceded, and it was this season perfectly encapsulated.

In between, Liverpool were gifted an equalizer and had a couple moments of competence. Liverpool's first was as bad as Ludogorets' first: Moti dawdling in defense, allowing Lambert to sneak in for a ball that should have been cleared long before. Liverpool's second actually made me remember last season, a quick counter from Lambert to Sterling to Henderson: a striker winning possession in the opposition half, a speedy run and perfect cross from the flanks, a late dash into the box for a tap-in.

But on the whole, Liverpool simply weren't good enough against mediocre opposition. As against Aston Villa, West Ham, Basel, Hull, Newcastle, and Crystal Palace.

At least Rodgers tried something different with the starting formation? Lovren finally dropped, Gerrard moved further forward, Lucas and Toure brought back into the side, and a switch to the lopsided 4-2-3-1 formation with Henderson and Sterling wide that we saw at times in 2012-13.

But we still had Glen Johnson. We still had a team devoid of confidence, demonstrated early on with Mignolet's baffling error. We had Gerrard huffing and puffing his way through the full 90 minutes, despite being used in a more advanced role.

More infuriating than the result, performance, or starting XI was Brendan Rodgers' inability or unwillingness to change things in the second half.

It is insane to try to sit deep and hold onto a one-goal lead with 32-year-old Lambert and 34-year-old Gerrard up front, especially sitting deep with this defense. It is insane to make no substitutions until the 81st minute in a midweek match with players obviously tired, especially with the two aforementioned players as your main outlets. You had Coutinho and Lallana and Borini and Can on the bench – all rested, all mobile, all decent on the counter – and you went with what you had. And my only explanation for that is because you were seemingly scared of the alternative.

Brendan Rodgers is managing like a man terrified: afraid to remove Gerrard, afraid to drop Johnson, afraid to make any substitutions until the last 10 minutes, when he replaced Liverpool's one speedy attacker (who, to be fair, reportedly had a stomach problem) with a defender, which helped push Liverpool even deeper. Moreno is probably the fastest player that Liverpool had on the bench, but he's still a defender.

The Gerrard decision is the most baffling. I completely understand trying to use him further forward. It's obvious he wasn't working as the deepest midfielder in this team in this system with this defense, and Liverpool had to experiment with something different to try to escape from the current rot. But I do not understand leaving him on for the final 10, 15, 30 minutes, when it's clear he wasn't linking up well with Lambert as the rest of the side retreated, with Gerrard unable to press Ludogorets' midfielders and defense, with players like Coutinho and Lallana clearly better alternatives for the situation Liverpool was in. And playing 90 minutes today after 90 minutes on Sunday will almost certainly affect his performance this weekend, when he'll almost certainly start again.

Meritocracy may well be dead. I eagerly await Gerrard playing for 90 minutes against Stoke like a man with cinder blocks tied to his ankles.

I'll continue to argue against firing Rodgers, because Liverpool's summer signings suggest a long-term plan, because Sturridge's absence really has been one of Liverpool's biggest issues, because I still think it would cause more damage than it'll fix, and, yes, because of last season. But Brendan's making it harder and harder.

There are just two positives from today.

One, Rickie Lambert actually did okay as a target-man, winning most of the long balls forward from defense and holding play up well. Unfortunately, he had Steven Gerrard and little else to aim for, with Sterling progressively deeper as Ludogorets pushed Liverpool back in the second half.

Two, somehow, someway, Liverpool can still qualify for the knockout rounds with a home win over Basel in two weeks. I guess sometimes a point away from home in the Champions League is good enough, even if today's draw feels like yet another loss.

Neither Liverpool nor Basel nor Ludogorets, who were eliminated with today's draw, deserve to qualify for the next round. But one of them will, and Liverpool, because they're at Anfield, are arguably best placed to do so.

You know, if they can actually win a match. For a change.

25 November 2014

Liverpool at Ludogorets 11.26.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Crystal Palace (a); 1-2 Chelsea (h); 0-1 Real (a)
Ludogorets: 1-1 CSKA Sofia (a); 2-0 Lokomotiv Plodiv (h); 0-4 Basel (a)

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Ludogorets: 0-4 Basel (a); 1-0 Basel (h); 1-2 Real (h); 1-2 Liverpool (a); 1-0 Steaua (h); 0-1 Steaua (a); 2-2 Partizan (a); 0-0 Partizan (h); 1-1 F91 (a); 4-0 F91 (h)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 1
Ludogorets: Marcelino 3; Dani Abalo, Bezjak 2; Anicet Abel, Espinho, Minev, Wanderson 1

Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz  (ESP)

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Toure Moreno
Henderson Allen
Markovic Balotelli Sterling

As has become usual, the above XI is more what I'd hope than what I expect. It's obviously not ideal, especially since it predicts Liverpool would start with Balotelli as a lone striker. But it's not as if Liverpool are overflowing with options.

That above XI hopes that Toure starts instead of either Lovren or Skrtel, most likely Lovren if the Real Madrid away match is any indication. It hopes that Gerrard will be rested, which doesn't seem likely for the second consecutive Champions League match, but Liverpool cannot keep playing him as the deepest midfielder considering Liverpool's other issues and up against a side that'll probably spend most of the match counter-attacking. Using both Sterling and Markovic with Balotelli hopes that each's pace and ability to both play wide and cut inside will provide the Italian with more support.

Maybe Balotelli's still injured, in which case it'll probably be Borini up front, as I doubt Lambert's able to start twice in four days. Maybe Henderson's still ill, in which case Can takes his place in a straight swap or Liverpool re-jig the midfield around Gerrard's inclusion. Maybe Rodgers reverts to the 4-2-3-1, with Coutinho or Lallana ahead of two from Gerrard/Henderson/Allen/Can/Lucas. Maybe Lovren and Johnson keep their places, for reasons unknown to anyone but Brendan Rodgers.

We're running out of opportunities to say that "maybe this time will be different from all those other times" and actually mean it, given the plethora of evidence otherwise.

Ludogorets are currently second in the Bulgarian league, five points behind CSKA Sofia, who they drew last weekend. Ludogorets are level on points with Liverpool in Group B, with Liverpool only in third on goal difference and head-to-head result. Ludogorets have scored more goals than Liverpool in this group – three to two – and are averaging two goals per match in the league. At home, Ludogorets beat Basel and gave Real Madrid a fright before succumbing 1-2. They're also unbeaten at home in the league, albeit at a different ground than the one needed for Champions League competition.

Roman Bezjak is Ludogorets' only reported absentee, out with a groin injury. He started as Ludogorets' lone striker in the previous meeting; if he's the only change from that XI (aside from Ludogorets' starting keeper also returning), the lineup will be Stoyanov; Junior Caicera, A Alexandrov, Moti, Minev; Anicet, Dyakov; Misidjan, Marcelinho, M Alexandrov; Younes. However, Espinho started in place of Anicet, Terziev in place of A Alexandrov, and Dani Abalo in place of M Alexandrov in Ludogorets' last match. Which means, unsurprisingly, your guess is as good as mine.

However, they'll almost certainly play 4-2-3-1, they'll look to soak up Liverpool pressure with a deep, well-organized defense and two holding midfielders to congest space in the middle, and they'll look to counter at pace when Liverpool lose possession. It's a template that Liverpool have seen fairly often this season and haven't yet solved, especially when they're away from Anfield.

Liverpool haven't scored in this competition in 270 minutes, since Gerrard's last minute penalty against tomorrow's opposition on Matchday 1, shut out at Basel and in both games against Real Madrid.

Liverpool haven't won in any competition in nearly a month, narrowly beating Swansea in the League Cup in a match that was fairly similar to that against Ludogorets in September. Liverpool haven't lost five consecutive matches in more than 50 years, and that fateful season was the last time Liverpool were relegated from the first division.

And if Liverpool lose tomorrow, they'll be eliminated from this competition, at best finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League (which, given Liverpool's squad, is most likely a bad thing), but more likely finishing bottom of the group.

Liverpool have never finished bottom of its group since the Champions League switched to the current group stage format.

24 November 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Crystal Palace

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

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

Once again, a midfield gone missing, an error-prone defense, and an impotent attack, and all three are at fault for Liverpool's result.

There have been times in each of Rodgers' three seasons where one or two of those occurred. It happened more in Rodgers' first season (today's infographic looks very similar to this with the same scoreline), but there were multiple matches last season where either the defense or midfield were terrible but the attack saved the day. Or, when Suarez was suspended, where the defense shelled and prevented damage when Liverpool only scored once.

This season, we've seen all three phrases broken at the same time all too often. Against Villa, at West Ham, at Newcastle, and now at Palace. The only reason Hull isn't on that list is because Hull didn't spend a single second attacking.

So it's hard to point out a single problem or solution. Liverpool have Laurel and Hardy at center-back, but Sakho's still injured and Kolo Toure's still Kolo Toure. Liverpool have the player that once was Glen Johnson at full-back, but it's not as if Moreno and Manquillo have been faultless. Liverpool are blunt up front whether Balotelli or Lambert or Borini starts, whether Liverpool plays 4-3-3 (as in the second half yesterday) or the diamond (as in the first half yesterday).

And Liverpool have Steven Gerrard as its defensive midfielder, a midfield who doesn't do any defending.

Gerrard's movement, or lack thereof, on Palace's first two goals yesterday is painful, whether he was watching Bolasie steam through the middle towards Skrtel and Lovren on the first or not marking Ledley's run into the box on the second. And not only did Gerrard not make a successful tackle yesterday, he didn't even attempt one.

And, similar to last season's demoralizing loss to Chelsea, he seemingly put the attack on his shoulders yesterday with Liverpool unable to conjure much else from open play against a deep, well-organized defense, attempting five non-penalty shots – more than in any other match since the start of last season except (you guessed it) that loss to Chelsea. All five were from outside the box, which were all five of Liverpool's shots from outside the box. Four were off-target, one was blocked.

If Liverpool wanted to go guns-blazing (or as blazing as Liverpool's guns get this season), with Sterling, Lallana, and Coutinho all involved, hindsight suggests that Liverpool probably should have used Lucas to protect against the counter. But, again, yesterday wasn't all on Gerrard's shoulders. Lovren and Skrtel combined to make all of one tackle and three interceptions as well. Lovren and Skrtel were just as responsible for Liverpool's goals conceded: both backing off Bolasie on the first then Skrtel unable to beat Gayle to the rebound; Lovren beaten left, right, and center by Bolasie on the second; Skrtel's unnecessary foul to set up the brilliant third.

Yesterday was just the third time since the start of 2013-14 that Liverpool put just one shot on-target: at Villa last season and against Villa this season the other two. But there were excuses for both of those performances. Last season, Liverpool scored an early goal, attempting just four more shots for the rest of the match as they soaked up Villa's pressure, hanging on for a 1-0 win. This season, Villa blocked seven of Liverpool's 18 shots, and more than a few of those would have ended up on target.

Palace blocked just two of Liverpool's shots yesterday. Liverpool put nine off target, an 8.33% shot accuracy; that and the 5.6% accuracy against Aston Villa are by far the worst of Rodgers' tenure, the only times that Liverpool have been below 20% accuracy. Four of Liverpool's nine off-target shots were in the danger zone: two Lambert headers off-target, Skrtel's wild set play chance, and Borini's errant stab from a corner. Manquillo's excellent opportunity in the 71st minute, which nearly hit the corner flag, was just to the right of the danger zone. Seven shots inside the box, but only four from open play. Palace had just two danger zone shots, but both ended up in the back of Liverpool's net.

12 shots is well below Liverpool's average last season, where they attempted slightly more than 17 per match, putting 39.6% on-target. And it's below this season's mark, where Liverpool are averaging 14.5 per match this season, but putting just 31% on-target.

But the attacking failures aren't all on the strikers or this summer's signings. For all of Coutinho's involvement – 50 passes attempted, 51 passes received – he didn't create a single chance or attempt a single shot. Sterling was similarly shut down, one blocked effort and two key pass layoffs for Manquillo and Gerrard the sum of his shot involvement.

Once again, credit were due. Palace had a plan, and Palace defended excellently, keeping Liverpool's "dangerous" attackers quiet; interceptions clustered in the middle of the pitch outside the penalty area, tackles on the flanks. And then Palace broke at pace through Bolasie and Gayle.

But it's easy to plan against Liverpool at the moment. Villa did similar, West Ham did similar, Newcastle did similar, Hull (sans the attacking at pace) did similar.

It's gotten to the point where Liverpool have to make radical changes: whether it's Gerrard pushed further forward, Lucas as defensive midfielder, three at the back and a more counter-attacking style, dropping Lovren and Gerrard and Johnson no matter the alternatives (or lack thereof). I honestly don't know. I'm not the defending Manager of the Year.

But Brendan Rodgers is, and now he has to earn it.

23 November 2014

Liverpool 1-3 Crystal Palace

Lambert 2'
Gayle 17'
Ledley 78'
Jedinak 87'

This is why we can't have nice things.

Liverpool's attack actually did something early and something good and. A striker other than Daniel Sturridge actually scored a goal, within the first 90 seconds: an accurate long cross-field pass from Lallana, a striker making a clever run into the behind the back four, Lambert's control and finish past Speroni. That's exactly what Liverpool had been missing.

That was Liverpool's only shot on target today.

After the opener, Liverpool didn't even touch the ball in the opposition penalty box until the 28th minute. By which point, Crystal Palace were level.

It's not coincidence that Allen was off the pitch, receiving treatment for a head wound, when Palace broke away for the equalizer. But it's not the sole explanation either. Once again, Liverpool's cut open on the break, cut open through the middle. Palace win possession after Skrtel's aimless long ball forward, pass around Sterling and Lallana trying to press, then pass past a completely static, ball-watching Gerrard. The speedy Bolasie runs at the retreating, out-of-position Lovren, and Gayle is first to the rebound in front of Skrtel when his shot cannons off the post. Point at Skrtel, point at Gerrard, point at Lovren. The trilogy of error.

It was Palace's first first half goal at home since February.

And it's the same story we all know by heart. The same damned story. Palace play an organized low block, denying space in its own half, then break out at pace when Liverpool's slow attack eventually loses possession. We saw nothing like the opening goal after the 2nd minute. And once Palace counter through Bolasie and Gayle's speed, panic panic PANIC!

The only reason Palace didn't take the lead in the first half was because Mignolet saved a Bolasie shot from distance and Manquillo blocked another from the Congolese winger after a nice one-two. And yes, both attacks came from counters, including one that started from a Liverpool corner.

Liverpool switched to 4-3-3 at halftime, ostensibly to allow Sterling more opportunity to run at Martin Kelly, denied space in the congested middle by Jedinak, Dann, and Delaney, but it made little difference. Both Liverpool and Palace had a couple of marginal chances, but the pattern of play remained the same. Liverpool's best opportunity came after a lone moment of clever buildup through Coutinho and Sterling, but ended with an open Manquillo nearly hitting the corner flag with his shot. Palace's best opportunities required a crucial block from Joe Allen and saw Manquillo do just enough to keep Bolasie from reaching Puncheon's deep cross at the back post.

And then Rodgers made his substitutions. First, Borini for Lallana – fine, understandable, even though Lallana had done reasonably well, but he was playing on the right at the time, hadn't done much in the second half, and Borini (in theory) provides more attacking threat, even if it didn't play out that way. Then, Can for Allen.

That was less fine.

Liverpool didn't concede twice more because Joe Allen wasn't on the pitch, although that all three of Liverpool's goals conceded came when the Welshman off is an interesting coincidence.

Liverpool conceded a second because Mignolet's goal kick went directly out of play, Liverpool didn't get back into position, and Bolasie beat Lovren like a rented mule who owed him money down Liverpool's left before centering for a wide-open Ledley because Gerrard didn't track his run.

Liverpool conceded a third because Skrtel couldn't deal with Gayle on a hopeful ball over the top and fouled him, and Jedinak's direct free kick was flawless. And yes, it's fitting that Palace's third came from a set play after scoring the first two on counters.

But that Can replaced Allen rather than the struggling, ineffective, woeful, etc Gerrard – who's basically turned into late-era MLS David Beckham; he's here for the set plays and nothing else – is symptomatic of Liverpool's current problems.

The usual suspects cost Liverpool either one or all three points yet again. Gerrard, Lovren, Skrtel, Johnson. At least one of them, if not more, if not all three, bears some responsibility for at least one of the goals Liverpool's conceded, as has been the case for most of the season. And they keep their place every match, except when Liverpool "rotate" in cup matches. You know, matches where Liverpool almost, kinda, at-least-more-than-usual look marginally competent.

Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were responsible for last season's brilliance, but Brendan Rodgers' chutzpah gets a little bit of credit. Now? He has to find that chutzpah again, and drop players who are hurting this team's chances of stopping the rot: the chutzpah to drop a full-back who's less than a shadow of himself, to drop Liverpool's most expensive defensive signing, to drop the man who's arguably Liverpool's great player ever.

Rafael Benitez's 2009-10 Liverpool after 12 games? 19 points. Brendan Rodgers' 2012-13 Liverpool after 12 games? 15 points. Roy Hodgson's 2010-11 Liverpool after 12 games? 16 points.

This Liverpool? 14 points. And rightfully so; this Liverpool is worse than any of those incarnations at the moment, despite the money spent, despite having an on-paper stronger squad.

It's still far to early to even whisper about sacking Rodgers: because of last season, because Liverpool were seemingly building for the future with this summer's signings, because you've got some excuses due to injuries and bad luck, because you're probably not getting a better replacement at this point of the season.

But things have to change, and soon, or else we will be having that conversation.

22 November 2014

Liverpool at Crystal Palace 11.23.14

8:30am ET, live in the US on CNBC

Last four head-to-head:
3-3 (a) 05.05.14
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.05.13
1-2 Palace (a; League Cup) 10.25.05
0-1 Palace (a) 04.23.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Chelsea (h); 0-1 Real (a); 0-1 Newcastle (a)
Palace: 0-1 United (a); 1-3 Sunderland (h); 2-2 West Brom (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Own Goal, Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Can, Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Palace: Campbell, Jedinak 3; Hangeland 2; Bolasie, Chamakh, Gayle, Puncheon, Zaha 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Lallana Lambert Sterling

Evidently, time doesn't heal all wounds. Once again, Sturridge picks up another muscle strain during an international break, even when he's not away with England, and is out for another four-to-six weeks just when we thought he'd be coming back. Meanwhile, Liverpool remain in the midst of a three-match losing streak, unable to score goals while as weak at the back as they were last season.

So Brendan Rodgers will have to attempt to fix Liverpool's multiple failings with what he's already had.

To compound matters (maybe), Balotelli might miss out as well, suffering a groin problem while away with Italy. So while the diamond remains a possibility, whether it's Balotelli or Lambert paired with Borini or Sterling, I suspect we'll see similar to the lineup against Chelsea but with Lambert instead of Balotelli. Keep Sterling on the left. Play Lallana or Coutinho on the right, ideally the former, because the latter's capable of also playing the #8 role in midfield opposite Henderson.

Just please don't be Balotelli central, Sterling right, Lallana/Coutinho left. Again.

Henderson also had a slight hamstring issue while with England, but should be available. Which makes Henderson + Allen or Can ahead of Gerrard the likely midfield. But as said above, I'd like to see Coutinho there with both Sterling and Lallana ahead of him. If you're going to stockpile smaller attacking midfielders, you might as well try to use them. And if Henderson's unavailable, it'll be Can in his stead, partnered with either Allen or Coutinho.

With Sakho still injured – we're going on eight weeks for what was supposedly a two-to-three week injury – we're stuck with the same options in defense. Maybe Toure comes in for Lovren, as against Real Madrid, but I doubt it, given that Rodgers went right back to the misfiring Croatian against Chelsea despite Toure's performance against Madrid. And there's the usual Manquillo v Johnson debate, with everyone buy Rodgers seemingly on the side of Manquillo. I'm really not looking forward to Bolasie or Gayle running at Johnson on the counter (if Johnson's even back in position).

The faces may be similar, but this is not the same Crystal Palace that came back from three down against Liverpool, that won five of the final eight games and finished 11th under Tony Pulis last season. Liverpool are winless in their last three league games, but Palace are winless in their last five. Only QPR have conceded more goals through 11 matches.

Still, Liverpool haven't won at Crystal Palace since December 1997, drawing two and losing three in two Premier League and three FA and League Cup matches.

Palace's XI will most likely be Speroni; Kelly, Dann, Delaney, Wared; Jedinak, Ledley; Puncheon, Chamakh, Bolasie; Campbell. McArthur late fitness test. Zaha and Gayle other options out wide rather than Bolasie or Puncheon; McArthur in midfield rather than Ledley if he's fit after picking up a knock during the international break.

Campbell, Bolasie, and Zaha are threats on the counter, Hangeland, Jedinak, and Kelly (you may remember him) are threats from set plays. You know, Liverpool's usual areas of weakness. This may be away from Anfield, but chances are that Palace plays the cagier style, hoping to frustrate Liverpool's turtle-slow attack before going in the opposite direction at pace. And Neil Warnock loves playing Liverpool, still holding a grudge against Benitez for deploying a weakened side seven years ago, which contributed to Sheffield United's relegation.

They may not be as disciplined, as strong as Pulis' Palace, but they'll still be more than up for tomorrow's game. Will Liverpool?

19 November 2014

On Mario Balotelli (again)

Yes, we need to talk about Mario Balotelli.

We needed to talk about Mario Balotelli before Sturridge picked up his third injury of the season. We needed to talk about Mario Balotelli before Liverpool picked up just eight points from their last eight matches.

I've undoubtedly missed a couple, but this is extensive enough. Also not included? Players more expensive than Balotelli and players who weren't coming to Liverpool even if Liverpool tried: for example, Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and Danny Welbeck, with nine, eight, four, and two goals respectively.

This seems a fairly large indictment of Liverpool's vaunted transfer committee.

Balotelli's Premier League scoreless streak is nearing historic lengths, memorably Peter Crouch's from 2005-06. Crouch went 18 matches, 1229 minutes, before scoring his first for Liverpool. But his drought in the league lasted 706 minutes. Balotelli, although with two goals in cup competitions, is without a league goal through 685 minutes for Liverpool. He's got 22 minutes against Crystal Palace on Saturday before reaching Crouch's ignominious mark. Notably, Crouch's streak might have been even longer had Rafa Benitez not removed him from the firing line, increasingly using him as a substitute with Cisse and Morientes starting, because of Crouch's struggles.

So, is it a failure of Liverpool's scouting, opting for a player who didn't fit the system when there were cheaper and better available? Is it a failure of Brendan Rodgers, unable or unwilling to make alterations or set up the side to maximize Balotelli's strengths? Is it a failure of Balotelli's, devoid of confidence and disappointing in the extreme?

Yes. To all of the above.

A comparison of this season's Balotelli to last season's Balotelli, via the handy radar graphic created by Ted Knutson.

Sigh. We worried about, but tried to talk ourselves into, his statistical profile from last season when he signed a few months back, and he hasn't even reached those marks. Sure, he's done a few things better: most notably in his defensive workrate and in retaining possession, but also a slightly better shooting and passing accuracy. Unsurprisingly, his key attacking statistics – goals, total shots, key passes, and dribbles – range from "a bit lower" to "what the $#!% happened?"

My suspicion is two-fold, and fairly obvious. He's not only vastly different to Suarez and Sturridge, who last season's team and successes were built around, but Liverpool aren't being set up to take advantage of his talents either.

I doubt it's coincidence that Balotelli has looked more effective in matches at Tottenham and against Real Madrid, partnered with Sturridge in a diamond in the first, partnered with Sterling in a diamond in the second and actually taking the game to Madrid before their superior talent blew Liverpool away.

The only other time we've seen the diamond since Sturridge's injury was at West Ham, where Liverpool's horrific defending saw them concede twice in the first seven minutes, ultimately abandoning the formation for a marginally more secure 3-5-2.

I obviously don't watch enough Serie A to argue about the merits of Balotelli as a lone striker in that league, but it's become fairly clear it's not working in this league, with this squad.

Nor is it coincidence that Balotelli's two cup goals have come from deep inside the opposition's penalty area, making strong runs into the box to get on the end of crosses from Moreno and Borini.

Mario Balotelli has received 220 passes in his nine Liverpool appearances (not counting passes received when offside). Just 23 have been inside the penalty box, including just one in each of Liverpool's last two losses against Newcastle and Chelsea.

As he's increasingly isolated, as Liverpool struggles, Balotelli drops deeper in search of the ball, leaving Liverpool even more bereft of power up front and removing the one guy who's supposed to be scoring the goals from the area where you score those goals.

For comparison, here is Daniel Sturridge's average position in the last eight league matches that he played without Luis Suarez: the five to start last season and the three before his injury this season.

Except for two matches – at Villa and against United last season, where Liverpool notably shelled after Sturridge's early goal – Sturridge's average position is much higher up the pitch, whether the other attackers are Coutinho or Sterling or Henderson or Aspas or Moses or Balotelli. Here are some of Sturridge's stats from those eight matches compared to Balotelli's nine matches for Liverpool this season.

There are actually a couple of similarities, primarily in chances created (and the subsequent lack of assists), but also number of shots on-target and amount of successful passes. The differences? Well, obviously, goals. Also, shot accuracy, successful dribbles, and throughballs. You know, those dangerous attacking metrics, the things that Sturridge and Suarez and Liverpool thrived upon last season. And, Daniel Sturridge's proportion of shots from inside the box.

Three of Sturridge's five goals in the above eight games came inside the six-yard box (the one at Swansea was in the center of the 18-yard box, the one against Stoke was from just outside the box). Mario Balotelli has taken all of four shots from inside the six-yard box in the league since he joined Liverpool: one on-target, three off-target (including that amazing woodwork blast against Everton).

And in match-by-match GIF form…

Yikes. Especially that massive gap in the left side of the penalty box, which is unbelievable for a right-footed player who often drifts to the left channel. I'll also remind that's the area where his first goal, against Ludogorets, came from. And while that shot chart is terrifying, Balotelli actually took a higher percentage of his shots with Milan last season from outside the box. It could be worse?

But has Liverpool really been that much worse than in the same fixtures last season?

Liverpool created 23 more chances in these 11 fixtures last season, but that disparity is explained by two matches: at Newcastle and against Chelsea. Liverpool created 19 chances in each of those matches last season, with Newcastle reduced to 10 men for the majority of the match and Chelsea happy to play with 10 or 11 men in their defensive third. Liverpool created 12, combined, in those two matches this season. Otherwise, the totals are fairly similar.

Similar goes for Liverpool's total shots in these 11 fixtures. 197 last season, 162 this season – a difference of 35 – but the discrepancy came against Newcastle and Chelsea, against those two deep defenses. Combined, Liverpool took 31 more shots in those two fixtures last season.

Neither statistic explains why Liverpool scored 14 more goals in these 11 fixtures last season. Maybe the fact that Suarez and Sturridge were responsible for 16 of those 28 goals last season, and that Sturridge has just one goal this season, does though.

You've probably seen this graphic before, either here or on Twitter.

Yes, Liverpool are shaky in defense, and it has cost them points during this turgid season. Similar goes for Liverpool's at-times-unbalanced midfield anchored by Gerrard. But those things happened in matches last season too.

The difference is up front. Balotelli is not the only failure so far this season (*glares at Liverpool's other two "strikers"* *glares at Rodgers*), but he's been the most egregious. I'm not smart enough to know what the solution is: whether it's using the diamond or 4-2-2-2 more often, Balotelli partnered with Borini or even Sterling or Markovic, or a more extended run for the also-struggling Rickie Lambert. Using Sterling on the left or centrally, another drum I've repeatedly beaten, would probably help as well.

But I know that this isn't working.

10 November 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

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

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

Same shit, different day, huh?

Well, let's talk about the few positives first. The positives besides the fact that Liverpool played fairly badly and still should have taken a point if not for Anthony Taylor swallowing his whistle in the 88th minute.

Liverpool played 24 passes prior to goal, over the space of 65 seconds. Every player except Balotelli touched the ball at least once. For 55 of those seconds, Liverpool had possession in unthreatening positions, forced to pass and poke and prod, mainly in their own half, trying to find a hole in Chelsea's organization, or to create one by pulling players out of position.

And Liverpool succeeded before Liverpool could do something stupid. Fabregas came to join Oscar and Costa in pressing Lovren, Gerrard, and Henderson, and Gerrard and Henderson exploited the space that Fabregas left: a quick pass to Henderson on the flank before Fabregas could recover, quickly to Sterling in the space Fabregas had vacated to press, quickly to Can who was in space when Matic chased over toward Sterling. Sure, Can was lucky that his shot deflected off of Terry, but this seems one of those times where you make your own luck.

Liverpool's longest passing move leading to a goal prior to that was the first against West Brom, with 12 passes before scoring. The second against West Brom and consolation against West Ham both had 11 passes in the sequence. But the majority of Liverpool's goals this season – not that there have been very many – have seen five or fewer passes, a remnant of last season's quick-strike attack but without last season's prolific scorers. The goal was proof that Liverpool actually can play out from the back at times, even with Lovren, Mignolet, and Skrtel heavily involved. Of course, subsequent turnovers leading to dangerous Chelsea chances in similar situations proves that they can't do it often enough.

Raheem Sterling was more influential when deployed on the left, finally, more involved in Liverpool's overall passing game (compare Saturday's output to his 25 passes attempted, 16 completed, supremely isolated performance at Newcastle) and able to assist Liverpool's goal by cutting inside into space on his stronger foot before finding a charging-forward Emre Can. That he only created the one chance and only took two shots disappoints, but also demonstrates how strong Ivanovic et al were in marking him and Liverpool in general. Both Coutinho and Lallana are more two-footed than Sterling, so hopefully Sterling will continue to be deployed on that flank with one of the aforementioned two on the right if Liverpool continue with some variant of the 4-3-3.

Liverpool also at least did well against Fabregas, who, along with Costa and Agüero, are on the early shortlist for player of the season. Fabregas has nine assists so far this season, had averaged 3.13 key passes per match, but had no assists and no key passes yesterday. Fabregas had averaged 75 successful passes per match, but completed 36 passes yesterday; 74 passes received per match, but 25 passes received yesterday. Yes, part of that was due to the way Chelsea played – only the 6-3 win at Everton saw them with less possession, attempting fewer passes – and yes, Liverpool still lost, but that was at least one thing that Liverpool's midfield – specifically Henderson and Can; Allen and Coutinho to a lesser extent – did well on Saturday.

Of course, there are those pesky negatives.

• Liverpool still concede sloppy goals, both from open play and from set plays.

Liverpool hadn't actually conceded a set play goal since Real Madrid's third at Anfield two and a half weeks ago. From Madrid's third to Chelsea's opener, slightly more than three and a half matches, Liverpool had successfully defended 12 free kicks in their own half and 18 corners, allowing just three chances directly from those set plays (in addition to the four shots that Madrid took from direct free kicks at the Bernabeu).

But then Saturday happened: Costa won the first header over Lovren, and Liverpool's quasi-zonal marking failed to win the second ball, allowing Terry, Matic, and Cahill touches inside their own six-yard box. Mignolet made the first save but couldn't stop the second.

The open play goal was almost as frustrating. Chelsea have what appears to be harmless possession inside their own half, but Liverpool are rent asunder by Willian's long cross-field pass to Azpilicueta, with Glen Johnson very out-of-position, leaving Coutinho one-on-one against Chelsea's left back. Touches from Mignolet and Moreno, the latter caught ball-watching rather than marking either Oscar or Costa at the back post (preferably Costa, as Lovren had decided to kind-of-but-not-quite follow Oscar), and the ball falls perfectly for an open Costa, one of the two most-potent strikers in the league.

But Liverpool had other problems than those two sequences. 12 of Chelsea 15 shots came from inside the box, an egregious proportion (for comparison, just five of Liverpool's 12 were inside the area). Nine of Chelsea's 11 key passes came from inside Liverpool's penalty box or just outside it centrally – high value chances – highlighting the need for an out-and-out defensive midfielder, at least in matches such as this. This video of Gerrard as "defensive midfielder" makes for difficult viewing. Liverpool added four more defensive errors leading to opposition shots to the season's tally – we're up to 16 for the season – this time from Lovren (twice), Gerrard, and Coutinho. Thankfully, none actually led to a goal. It could actually be worse; only four of Liverpool's 16 errors have led to a goal. Compare that to Everton, who have the second-most defensive errors with 13. Six of those errors have resulted in an opposition goal.

• And at the same time, Liverpool are still fairly impotent in attack.

Liverpool's strikers remain responsible for just one league goal this season: Sturridge's winner at Southampton in the first match. This chart remains terrifying:

I think I'll have to stretch a digression on Mario Balotelli into a longer post later this week, but here's a quick preview. He's getting worse, it's getting worse.

That GIF starts with Liverpool's last win, at QPR. He had seven shots in that match. Since then, he's taken two, two, two, and one in his subsequent four starts. So much for Mario Balotelli, Shot Monster. Admittedly, Madrid and Chelsea are difficult opponents and it's not as if Liverpool are creating enough for him, but repeatedly held to those low margins and playing that deep against the likes of Hull and Newcastle astounds.

Liverpool are also still having an amazing proportion of their shots blocked. Chelsea blocked seven of Liverpool's 12 on Saturday, including four of Liverpool's five after they took the lead. Through 11 league matches, Liverpool have had 51 of 162 shots blocked, 31.5%. Last season, only 19.8% of Liverpool's shots were blocked. But that's what happens when the opposition knows how impotent you are and is willing to have well-organized defenders sit deep. Only Sterling, Coutinho, and Lallana have shown any capability of creating space to shoot, with the latter two not doing it often (or not getting the chance to). Balotelli, Borini, and Lambert simply cannot create the space that Suarez and Sturridge reveled in last season.

The passing network shows just how deep all of Liverpool's starting attackers were forced despite Liverpool's near monopoly on possession, and how isolated Liverpool's three attacking substitutes were.

• Liverpool's supposedly deeper squad hasn't led to substitutes having any sort of impact on the game. Allen created two chances – the only Liverpool player to create more than one – but Borini was limited to one off-target shot in injury time, a ballooned header from Moreno's cross, while Lambert created a single chance, a layoff for Gerrard's shot from distance in the 88th minute. You may remember that was the shot which should have given Liverpool the chance for a draw, clearly blocked by Cahill's arm.

08 November 2014

Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Can 9'
Cahill 14'
Costa 67'

"Better" hardly feels better when you still lose and it's Chelsea and you're denied a clear penalty in the 88th minute.

But "better" remains very much a relative term. It's hard to be worse than Liverpool's performances against Hull and Newcastle.

And Chelsea were better than Liverpool, Chelsea are better than Liverpool, and that was Liverpool's third loss in a row. Liverpool remain broken in attack, even though they took more shots than against Newcastle and Madrid combined, and Liverpool again conceded regrettable goals from set plays and counter-attacks, even if both were well-designed and well-taken by Chelsea.

Liverpool did and didn't learn from the almost-adequate performance at Real Madrid. Emre Can kept his place, but Lovren and Johnson returned to the side, and Toure, Lucas, and Manquillo returned to the sidelines (Manquillo wasn't even in the squad). Liverpool finally switched Sterling to the left, with Coutinho on the right, but remained 4-3-3. At least it was 4-1-2-3 rather than 4-2-3-1.

And Liverpool started well, as they did at City and against Madrid at Anfield. And this time, Liverpool actually reaped an early goal reward. Lovren and Mignolet passed the ball out from the back surprisingly well, Henderson and Sterling found space in midfield, and Can's deflected shot left Courtois flat-footed. It's probably not coincidence that Sterling started on the left, where he's much better than on the right, and cutting inside into space and running at defenders led to an assist.

But Liverpool couldn't maintain the lead for very long, with Chelsea's clever set play exploiting the mostly zonal marking instituted against Hull. Lovren was beaten to the first header, Chelsea's numbers overwhelmed Liverpool's set-up to the rebound from Mignolet's first save, the second effort just crept over the line and was confirmed by goal-line technology. Hard to come by but easy to go for this Liverpool.

The home side had a couple of chances to retake the lead – Henderson misplaying a clever corner routine, Coutinho's strong run ending in a shot saved and Cahill first to the rebound – but Chelsea were the stronger side by the 30th minute. Liverpool suddenly became unable to play out from the back, with turnovers leading to excellent chances twice blocked by Johnson, and Hazard shooting straight at Mignolet.

And the second half began in the same vein until Chelsea finally went ahead, even if it was slightly against the run of play: Willian's cross-field ball finding Azpilicueta just onside one-on-one against Coutinho with Johnson caught upfield and barely bothering to amble back, the left-back beating Coutinho, his deflected cross falling perfectly for an open Costa, with Moreno not marking either Chelsea player at the back post.

Once again, it never felt as if Liverpool were going to get back into the game after going behind. The substitutes – Allen for Can, Borini for Coutinho, Lambert for Balotelli, with Liverpool switching to a 4-Diamond-2 – did nothing to help the side. Liverpool had more possession, because Chelsea were happy to defend its lead knowing Liverpool's impotence, but the team was reliant on ineffective crosses and Liverpool's "best" two chances from those crosses came almost by accident: Moreno's cross, Borini's flick-on, Henderson's wild shot deflected wide; a cleared cross falling to Gerrard, his shot from distance blocked by Cahill's arm with no penalty given.

You could see Rodgers' logic behind the changes: he wanted to switch to two strikers, so Coutinho was always going to come off rather than Sterling for Borini, with neither Lallana nor Coutinho trusted to fill the shuttling role that Allen filled. Allen mostly played well (and was the only Liverpool player to create more than one chance), but the two substitute strikers remained just as ineffective as the starting striker. Chelsea are very good defensively, especially in the air, and well-organized. Liverpool are poorly organized in attack and, devoid of the ability to play through Chelsea's defense, resorted to crosses not likely to succeed.

And yet Liverpool still could have gotten a point if Anthony Taylor hadn't swallowed his whistle. Life is not fair.

So, yeah, even though Can played well and Liverpool actually scored and Liverpool were a bit better in defense, midfield, and attack, Liverpool still weren't good enough in defense, midfield, and attack, and this still looks a mediocre side at best. A mediocre side isn't beating this Chelsea. Liverpool still conceded on a set play and a counter-attack. There is no meritocracy if Lovren and Johnson start over Toure and Manquillo after Tuesday's match; Lovren (2/4), Johnson (2/4), Moreno (2/4), and Gerrard (1/2) were successful with just 50% of their attempted tackles. Liverpool are inconsistent playing out from the back, ineffective when pressing in the opposition half, and unable to create good chances in attack. "Shot monster" Mario Balotelli – who again at least worked hard – took just a single shot, after getting just two against both Newcastle and Hull.

That said, at least Liverpool scored, at least Liverpool took 12 shots, at least Liverpool looked marginally, barely more competent. Obviously not competent enough, but at least it wasn't Hull or Newcastle again. A vastly better Liverpool "earned" the same result last season. Now, Liverpool have yet another international break – and maybe even Sturridge will return after this one! – to try to remedy the remaining, on-going problems and maybe put today's few bright spots to better use.

The fixes need to happen fast. This season's quickly getting out of hand, if it's not already gone.

07 November 2014

Liverpool v Chelsea 11.08.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Chelsea (h) 04.27.14
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13
2-2 (h) 04.21.13
1-1 (a) 11.11.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Real (a); 0-1 Newcastle (a); 2-1 Swansea (h)
Chelsea: 1-1 Maribor (a); 2-1 QPR (h); 2-1 Shrewsbury (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Chelsea: Costa 9; Hazard, Oscar 3; Ivanovic, Schürrle 2; Drogba, Fabregas, Matic, Ramires, Remy, WIllian 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Liverpool are unbeaten in the eight matches Anthony Taylor has been the referee for since Brendan Rodgers became manager (5W-3D). There's a first time for everything.

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Toure Moreno
Henderson Can
Borini Balotelli

Did we learn anything after Tuesday's loss to Real Madrid?

Yes, Kolo Toure can be a comedic figure. Yes, I very much remember massive mistakes against West Brom and Fulham, among others. Yes, I know that the Toure-Skrtel pairing kept just one clean sheet in 10 matches last season. Yes, I worry about Toure and Skrtel's lack of speed against Chelsea's attack. But I don't really care. The Toure-Skrtel pairing looked far, far better against Real Madrid than Skrtel-Lovren has looked at any time this season.

Emre Can was the other player to make a strong case for continued inclusion. Pairing Henderson and Can would give Liverpool two willing runners in midfield able to press Chelsea's midfielders relentlessly – specifically Fabregas – and both have the ability to break the opposition's lines with strong runs from deep, even if neither is an especially strong finisher.

Could we see the return of the 4-Diamond-2? Chelsea's attacking line of three interchanges early and often, but whether it's Hazard, Oscar, or Willian out wide, they often come into the center. Liverpool shouldn't be as reliant upon wingers tracking back, and both Henderson and Can are mobile shuttling midfielders capable of covering a lot of ground. In addition, Borini was another who played well against Real despite Liverpool's overwhelming lack of an attack. I'd still like to see what he and Balotelli are capable of in a front pairing.

The other diamond alternative is Sterling up front with Balotelli and Coutinho as the #10, a formation that allows both Sterling and Coutinho to play without relegating them out wide. More specifically, without relegating Sterling to the right. Once again, please don't play Sterling on the right.

Do I think any of this – Toure, Can, diamond – is likely to happen? Probably not. 4-3-3 (whether 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3) with Henderson, Allen, Gerrard in midfield, Coutinho, Balotelli, Sterling up front, and Johnson and Lovren back in defense still feels like it's the "preferred" formation, for reasons beyond my explanation. Maybe this time will be different than all the other times.

Regardless, Liverpool will have to be their best, up against the Premier League Champions-in-waiting.

As much as it pains me to say, Chelsea are good. Really, really good. After adding Diego Costa and Fabregas, they've no weaknesses. They were already defensively sound and well-organized, as Mourinho teams always are, and now they've got the firepower that's been lacking. Courtois is also an upgrade on Petr Cech. The starting XI is the strongest in the league, and the bench is usually made up of players such as Schürrle, Ramires, Drogba, Remy, and Salah.

The Chelsea XI seems simple to predict. Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Fabregas, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa. The only question is at left-back, where Mourinho could pick either Azpilicueta or Filipe Luis. Loic Remy and Mikel, two players who usually come off the bench if they feature, are Chelsea's only injury doubts.

It's safe to assume that Chelsea won't play as they played in their last visit to Anfield. They've no need for that style, in outstanding form with the weapons to play on the front foot on any ground. And Liverpool obviously don't have the weapons they did last season. If anything, Liverpool will be the more defensive side, first attempting to be secure at the back before launching potential counter-attacks.

Liverpool are unfavored, unfancied, out of form, and up against the wall. There's an excellent chance they'll be completely outclassed once again tomorrow. But we've seen backs-against-the-wall deliver brilliant performances before, even if we're yet to see it this season. There's no time like the present.

05 November 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Real Madrid

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

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

(As usual when there's no match review, here's the formation diagram for thoroughness' sake.)

The Great Selection Debate of 2014.

Yes, statistically, that was about as severe a 1-0 whipping as it gets. But you may have noticed that Liverpool aren't in a very good place right now. Which is why a 1-0 loss at Real Madrid doesn't feel especially bad, especially given the starting XI that Brendan Rodgers decided to name.

Aside from the 1-1 draw against Everton, Liverpool have been bad, simply bad, since Sturridge was injured. The systems haven't worked, key players have underperformed, and Liverpool's defense has been leakier than a roof made of swiss cheese.

The so-called first XI lost at home to the same side 0-3, and were down by that scoreline after 41 minutes. Real did little more than show up in the second half, and Liverpool still couldn't score a lone consolation.

Credit where due. For all of Rodgers' perceived inflexibility, rightly and wrongly, he was pragmatic enough to make dramatic alterations yesterday, alternations which almost (but obviously still didn't) earned a point.

I very much remember Sam Allardyce gloating after West Ham's victory over Liverpool six weeks ago.

Rodgers has been resilient to change this season, to put it nicely. A continued insistence on a lone striker, usually in a 4-2-3-1, a continued reliance on Gerrard and Sterling despite underwhelming performances from both, a baffling faith in Dejan Lovren despite woeful form, Glen Johnson still getting games, etc. Yes, Liverpool don't have a plethora of options with injuries to Sturridge and Sakho, in addition to the other absentees earlier in the campaign, but attempting to cram square pegs into round holes again and again and again has been frustrating to say the least.

All that changed yesterday. An away match against Real Madrid is a hell of a time to do so, but Rodgers had little to lose given Liverpool's form and Real's strength, especially considering the massive fixture on the weekend. Yesterday's match had little bearing on Liverpool's ability to qualify from the group; that'll be decided against Basel and Ludogorets.

We'll see if it was a one-off. I'd expect most of those left on the bench to come back into the side against Chelsea, but Toure and Can, at the very least, made strong cases for their continued involvement.

That said, despite Liverpool's improvement in defense, Liverpool could again have lost by multiple goals if not for Simon Mignolet. Mignolet's eight saves yesterday tied the most he's made in a match for Liverpool, set in the 3-3 draw at Everton almost a year ago. His previous high for the season was four, in six matches this season. Incidentally, Liverpool kept a clean sheet in none.

The previous four sides to visit to Bernabeu lost 5-1, 5-1, 5-0, and 3-1, and the 3-1 was the mighty Barcelona. Yesterday was always going to be some form of damage limitation. And it nearly worked, if not for a moment of brilliance from Marcelo and Benzema. Toure bears little blame for the goal; he had a split second to guess whether Benzema would try to run across him or veer to the far post, and chose wrong, with Marcelo's cross pin-point perfect. It happens.

The 27 shots that Real Madrid took were the most Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have allowed in a single match. Only twice has Liverpool's opponent taken 20 shots or more against Rodgers' Liverpool: Sunderland's 23 last season, when Liverpool went 2-0 up in the first half then defensively shelled, and City's 20 last season, where they comprehensively outplayed Liverpool in a 2-1 win after Liverpool took an early lead. But this is a very different Liverpool than last season's Liverpool. Or even 2012-13 Liverpool. And Real Madrid are the best side that Liverpool has faced since Rodgers became manager.

27 shots. And they scored just once. There's no such thing as a moral victory, but that's almost a moral victory.

Sure, it would have been nice had Liverpool been able to go toe-to-toe with Real on their own ground, to take no prisoners. It would have been nice had Liverpool been able to create more than four shots when playing such a deep, defensive performance.

But that's not where Liverpool are at the moment.

Borini held play up well but can't create chances on his own; Lallana and Markovic had flashes in attack but rarely troubled Real on the counter. That Alberto Moreno was the only player to take multiple shots and to both take a shot and create a chance says a lot. Liverpool's attack probably would have been slightly more threatening in the same system with Coutinho and Sterling instead of Lallana and Markovic, and maybe even Balotelli instead of Borini. But then again, they've not set the world afire lately, and there is the small matter of Chelsea on Saturday. And it's worth noting that Liverpool failed to create a chance or even take a shot after Sterling, Gerrard, and Coutinho came on, although Real did sit a bit deeper when Liverpool kinda sorta tried to find an equalizer in the final 20-25 minutes.

Liverpool played a similar style in those famous 0-0 draws at Juventus and Chelsea in the quarter- and semi-finals of the 2004-05 Champions League. Except Liverpool's center-back pairing then was Hyypia and Carragher, and now it's Toure and Skrtel (or Lovren). This is not a new phenomenon, even if Liverpool attempted to do similar yesterday with a surprising XI.

Through Mignolet and Toure, through Lucas and Can, through Manquillo and Moreno, through the crossbar and Real Madrid's below-average-for-them 33.3% shot accuracy, Liverpool's defense looked better than it has since drawing Everton. Finally.

Now, Liverpool have to build upon that, whether it's with the same personnel or some regular starters coming back into the side, whether it remains a more-defensive-but-not-that-defensive system. Chelsea, even at Anfield, are likely to come at Liverpool with a similar fury. Unlike last season, this side has to become more secure before figuring out the goal-scoring woes. But, yes, Liverpool assuredly still have to figure out the goal-scoring woes.

03 November 2014

Liverpool at Real Madrid 11.04.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Newcastle (a); 2-1 Swansea (h); 0-0 Hull (h)
Real: 4-0 Granada (a); 4-1 Cornelia (a); 3-1 Barcelona (h)

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

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 1
Real: Benzema 4; Ronaldo 3; Bale, James 1

Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Allen
Lallana Sterling Coutinho

Screw it. You're going to the Santiago Bernabeu to face the best side in the world. You're going to be penned back. You're going to play for the counter-attack, at best, and hope that your defense doesn't do anything stupid for a change. Your attack has been beyond insipid, especially when starting Balotelli (or Lambert, for that matter) as a lone striker, and your defense hasn't been that much better.

So why not try that "Sterling-as-false-nine" strategy mooted by This is Anfield and others in the run-up to the reverse fixture? What do you have to lose?

There's no possible way Liverpool's attack could be worse than against Hull or Newcastle. That was about as bad as it gets. Liverpool tried the diamond in the reverse fixture, with Balotelli and Sterling up front, and it looked like it might work for about 20 minutes until Real blew Liverpool out of the water. I doubt Liverpool would have that much joy – which wasn't even that much joy – in Madrid, where they'll be even more susceptible to Real Madrid's fire power.

I'd also suggest using Markovic rather than Lallana or maybe Coutinho, simply because he's supposed to be a more direct, faster player better suited for this style, but he hasn't shown that yet for Liverpool, probably more because of Liverpool's team-wide failings rather than his own flaws. Also, maybe bring Lucas – who played well against Swansea, even if it was in the league cup – back into the side, most likely for Allen.

Aside from replacing Johnson with Manquillo (please!), there aren't many possible changes in defense. Sakho's still injured, and Toure's not seen as an alternative to Lovren or Skrtel, even if Toure-Lovren (like Lucas) did fairly well against Swansea.

Three at the back, which we kind of sort of saw at Newcastle, might not be the worst idea in the world, as long as the midfield isn't in the same staid shape, Balotelli has some support up top, and Glen Johnson's not involved. Maybe something like Manquillo/Toure, Skrtel, Lovren; Henderson, Allen/Lucas, Gerrard, Moreno; Coutinho, Sterling; Balotelli. Henderson seems a better option than Sterling as wing back, both defensively and to get Sterling closer to goal, while Balotelli would need as much support as you feel comfortable providing when at Real Madrid. But Balotelli's still not suited for a counter-attacking style, which Liverpool will have to play, and Liverpool didn't exactly set the world afire playing a similar-ish style at Newcastle, even if Newcastle and Real Madrid are entirely different propositions.

And Real Madrid should be even stronger than they were at Anfield, both because they'll be at home and because Ramos and possibly Bale will be available. If AS – pretty much Real Madrid's in-house media – is to be believed, Ramos for Pepe will be the only change, with Bale to be used off the bench if he's fit. Jese, Coentrão, and Carvajal are still injured, while Khedira and Illaramendi – who both featured as substitutes two weeks ago – are doubtful.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see Liverpool attempt to cram square pegs into round holes again, because that's what's happened since Sturridge was injured. I'm still pretty sure Rodgers is smarter than we are, but it's been baffling to see Liverpool stick with the "if at first you don't succeed, keep doing similar things" method.

I don't expect much from tomorrow's match – and you shouldn't as well – no matter how depressing that state of affairs is. You know what we've seen from Liverpool so far this season, you know what Real Madrid's capable of. But Liverpool still can't repeat this season's numerous mistakes while hoping to get some sort of result tomorrow, because Real Madrid will punish them in ways that Newcastle, Hull, Basel, etc can only dream of.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Newcastle

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

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

You could also add "fewest chances created" and "second fewest shots in total" to that ignominious list.

It was simply the most insipid attacking performance we've ever seen during Brendan Rodgers' tenure.

This from Anfield Index is a thorough review of the tactical changes: how Liverpool's formation was both a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-2-4-1, why Rodgers made that alteration (expecting Newcastle to press from the front, as they did at Tottenham, rather than sit in middle and low blocks), and how Newcastle nullified Liverpool's strategy by cutting off the avenues to Coutinho and Henderson. It's not especially difficult to stop Liverpool at the moment, but Pardew cleverly understood what Liverpool would try to do and made sure they weren't able to do so.

But that's no excuse for some of Rodgers' decisions, nor is it an excuse for not changing things mid-game.

There's a lot to complain about. Not altering the midfield when it became clear that Newcastle where able to cut off passes to Henderson and Coutinho. Not bringing on a second striker earlier, and using Borini on the left, in basically the same formation, after he replaced Allen, simply shifting Henderson into Allen's role and Borini into Henderson's. Balotelli's dropping so deep his average position is behind Coutinho, more because of Liverpool resorting to long balls to him rather than how he saw his role.

But I'm angriest about how Sterling has been used of late. To say he was isolated and ineffective as a very advanced wing-back/wide forward is to put it far too mildly.

Admittedly, it's a much smaller sample size for Sterling on the left flank and when played centrally compared to when he plays on the right. This makes it a little closer.

Including Liverpool's points-per-game average isn't quite fair, as so much more is involved besides where Sterling plays, but it seemed enough of a discrepancy to make it worth mentioning.

And there's a vast discrepancy in pretty much every other attacking statistic as well.

Raheem Sterling *can* be effective on the right. He did well there at Spurs, against Cardiff, against Everton, at Fulham, and at West Ham, among others, last season. He can create chances running at the opposition left back and either crossing or passing from the byline, and every now and then, he'll pop up with a goal: like at West Ham this season after shifting to right wing-back or on the counter against Spurs or Cardiff last season. But almost all of his good performances when used on that flank came with Suarez or Sturridge or both in the line-up. When Liverpool had other attacking options.

Liverpool are vastly more reliant on Sterling's attacking output now, and even more so when Balotelli plays, especially in shooting. And Sterling is nowhere near effective enough when deployed on the right with Liverpool's current players. The smallest discrepancy is in chance creation, but Liverpool need his shooting far more than chance creation at the moment.

While we're complaining about the attack. You may have noticed that Lambert isn't included in the passing network. That'd because he made zero contribution after coming on in the 80th minute. No passes attempted, no passes received, no tackles, no interceptions, no touches at all. The only statistic he registered was one failed aerial duel. No matter how much Liverpool are struggling as a team and Lambert as an individual, that's bad. Very very bad. Especially when Liverpool are a goal down, and could have used help from one of their strikers-in-name-only. But it's also symptomatic of how little Liverpool offered in total after going a goal down.

To be a little fair to Rodgers, the set-up would have at least kept Liverpool secure if not for individual errors. Newcastle took nine shots before scoring, but its only excellent chance came from Mignolet's mistake on Colback's free kick, a missed punch leading to Cisse's close range effort, which would have been a goal if not for Johnson heading off the line. Lovren's three failed clearances leading to Colback's shot in first half injury time also went down as an error, but at least the shot was quickly blocked.

Then Moreno happened. And he'd been Liverpool's best defender – relatively speaking, of course – to that point, even if he was as much an attacking wing-back as a defender (he still made six tackles, all successful, and four interceptions, Liverpool's leader in both). Johnson conceding possession cheaply with an ill-advised shot, then failing to close down as Newcastle attacked down that flank, as well as Lovren chasing the ball across the box like a terrier who'd been locked inside all day, didn't help but Moreno's failed interception put the ball on a plate for Perez. Two minutes later, he failed to clear Henderson's back pass from a corner, leading to a two-on-Mignolet which the Belgian keeper somehow saved.

You can't legislate for those type of individual errors. Yes, Liverpool's defensive system has been flawed for a while, has broken down before, but that wasn't really the case on Saturday. Liverpool defended set plays well, except for Mignolet's error, for the third consecutive match if you count the league cup tie. Seven of Newcastle's 14 shots came inside the box, but four of those seven were from those individual errors; the other three were either well off-target (twice) or blocked (once).

Liverpool have been better defensively since getting mauled by Real Madrid, both in open play and on set plays. Had Liverpool's defensive set-up actually worked on Saturday, we'd still be furious about the attack, annoyed with Rodgers' in-game strategy, and disappointed in the result, but it would have at least been a point.

But because of continued individual errors, we don't even have that consolation. We don't have any consolation at all.