31 December 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

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

You have seen this movie before, you have heard this song before.

Liverpool control possession and tempo, Liverpool take a reasonable amount of shots, but Liverpool create only a couple of good chances. Liverpool mostly struggle when throwing themselves against a deep-lying, physical side happy to defend and play for little more than keeping Liverpool out and maybe counter-attacking once in a great while.

But Benteke scores a second half goal, despite complaints about other parts of his performance, and Liverpool eke out a victory. It was more Leicester – a much better side, but a match played at Anfield – than Newcastle or Watford.

So be it. It's the festive season, and Liverpool's first-team injury list is almost in double digits. A win is a win is a win, even if it also featured similarities to past failures.

Sunderland tried to do to Liverpool what Newcastle did to Liverpool on Liverpool's last trip to the north east: unsettling the away side with a deep back line; a physical, narrow midfield; and a high work-rate in Liverpool's half. Six of Sunderland's 13 successful tackles came in their attacking half, pressing Liverpool as Liverpool usually want to press the opposition.

But Liverpool didn't make the mistakes they did against Newcastle, and Liverpool did better in taking the game to Sunderland, in attacking and creating in Sunderland's final third. And that makes all the difference between three points and no points.

Sunderland are Sunderland, but 17 shots are still the most that Liverpool have taken in an away league match this season, narrowly beating the 16 at Chelsea and 15 at Arsenal, both teams who gave Liverpool much more space to play in. As a reminder, Liverpool took just 10 at Newcastle and just 12 at Watford in the previous two away losses.

This was just the second time in the last six league matches where Liverpool created at least two clear-cut chances: Benteke scoring the first, hilariously (in retrospect, if not at the time) denied on the very late second. The other was against West Brom at Anfield: Henderson's opening goal, but also Lallana denied when through in the 80th minute, a chance that Liverpool very much needed to take.

Against Leicester? One, Benteke's very late (and very offside) chance saved. At Watford? None. At Newcastle? One, Benteke's miss from a corner in the 21st minute. Against Swansea? One, Milner's penalty.

Admittedly, Liverpool should be able to create more than two against Sunderland. But two is still better than we've seen lately, and only the Manchester City match had at least two clear-cut Liverpool chances away from home since Klopp became manager (five, scoring two of them, as well as two more).

Once again, it's a performance nearly defined by Liverpool's terrible shooting accuracy. Liverpool's six of 17 shots on-target, 35.3%, is actually better than the season-long average, and vastly better than Liverpool's previous five matches. Firmino (twice) and Benteke forced fine saves from Mannone, while Clyne and Coutinho also hit the target from distance. But Liverpool still put more of its shots off-target (seven), with four blocked.

Unsurprisingly, Philippe Coutinho remains Liverpool's worst offender. Six shots, again leading Liverpool: one on-target, four off-target, one blocked. Which follows up his four off-target, one blocked performance against Leicester.

As we saw in the matches Coutinho missed through injury – Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h) – Liverpool's total shots drop precipitously without Coutinho in the line-up, and bad shots are usually better than no shots. Coutinho remains Liverpool's second-top scorer, only passed by Benteke yesterday. But, for the most part, they have been bad shots: bad locations and bad accuracy. 59.2% of Coutinho's league shots have come from outside the box (42 of 71), leading to two of his five goals (at Stoke, at Chelsea). Just 22 of Coutinho's 71 shots (30.9%) have been on-target, which is almost exactly Liverpool's (pretty bad) overall shooting accuracy. One on-target, easily scooped up by Mannone, from his last 11 shots is an especially woeful stretch.

No one in the league has taken more shots than Coutinho. Kane has 67, Lukaku 66, Ighalo 64, and Vardy 60; those are the only players with 60 or more. Of course, those are all strikers, and Kane's scored 11, Lukaku 15, Ighalo 13, and Vardy 14. Coutinho, I reiterate, has scored five. His 4.8 shots-per-90 is Luis Suarez pace, who averaged 4.5 (in half a campaign), 4.5, 5.7, and 5.5 shots-per-90 in his four Premier League seasons.

Maybe take a couple fewer shots, Phil. But more importantly, please do better with the ones you take.

Meanwhile, yesterday saw Benteke's most creative game since Klopp became manager, with three key passes: a layoff for Can's blocked shot from distance in the first half, and inside-the-box cutbacks for Coutinho and Can in the second half, blocked and off-target respectively. Again, three isn't a lot, but it's better than he (and Liverpool) have done recently. Benteke created four chances in Liverpool's 1-0 win against Bournemouth back in August, but hasn't created more than two in a league match since, doing so against West Brom, Newcastle, Palace, Chelsea, and Arsenal.

Ten of Benteke's 20 passes went to Coutinho, with six in the return direction, Liverpool's joint-second highest pass combination (behind Can and Coutinho), and by far the most those two have combined for in a match this season.

Benteke scoring, Benteke creating, Benteke combining fairly often with at least one of Liverpool's other attackers (and, thankfully, not at his most involved from Mignolet passes) are all good things. Of course Klopp's right in that Benteke can play better, and Liverpool need Benteke to play better, but the last two matches have seen more positives than negatives.

As for the other end of the pitch. Again, Sunderland are Sunderland, but Liverpool remain very, very good at limiting opposition shots. Sunderland took just eight (they're averaging 11 per match), with only three inside the box.

Liverpool have allowed 10 or more shots in a league match under Klopp just twice: at Tottenham (13 shots, zero goals) and at Manchester City (11 shots, one goal). But Liverpool allowed 10 or more in five of Rodgers' eight: Bournemouth (h), Arsenal (a), West Ham (h), Villa (h), Everton (a).

Admittedly, Liverpool have conceded multiple goals while allowing few shots: two at Newcastle (from six shots), two against West Brom (four shots), three at Watford (six shots). But if the opposition has few chances to score, chances are that they'll score fewer goals. It went all a bit wobbly over the last month, but the improvement in defense – notably, the new Lovren-Sakho pairing – remains Klopp's greatest achievement so far.

Now, Liverpool just need to score more of their own.

29 December 2015

Liverpool at Sunderland 12.30.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 01.10.15
0-0 (h) 12.06.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.26.14
3-1 Liverpool (a) 09.29.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Leicester (h); 0-3 Watford (a); 2-2 West Brom (h)
Sunderland: 1-4 City (a); 1-3 Chelsea (a); 0-1 Watford (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Coutinho 5; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Sunderland: Defoe, Fletcher 4; Borini, Lens, Watmore 2; Johnson, Jones, M'Vila, van Aanholt 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can
Ibe Lallana Coutinho

A busy festive season, a squad still coping with injuries, a match four days before and another three days later.

You have to assume there will be changes to Liverpool's XI. How many and which are less certain.

Benteke's definitely coming in for Origi, who's out for at least this week. Sturridge remains in his "mini-preseason," ideally building up his fitness so these constantly injuries might, you know, actually abate. I suspect Ibe, back from illness, will replace Firmino, but it could also be in place of Lallana or Coutinho. Otherwise, *shrugs*.

Maybe we get one of the young fullbacks: Brad Smith for Moreno or Connor Randall for Clyne; Smith's crossing ability could pair well with Benteke up front. Maybe Lucas returns to the side, for either Henderson or Can, or for one of the attacking midfielders, switching the formation to a 4-3-2-1/4-3-3. Maybe we get Kolo Toure because … no, you're right, that's not going to happen.

Whatever the XI or formation, Liverpool will have to do what they did well against Leicester – the high work-rate, the pressing on the flanks and on the forwards, the elimination of individual errors, the denial of counter-attacking or set play opportunities – and ideally do much, much better in attack.

Sunderland are 19th and Sunderland have been fairly bad over the last month, but that's little matter when Liverpool are still Liverpool far too often, and given who Sunderland's manager is.

If he could choose just one opponent to beat for the rest of his days, I'm fairly certain Sam Allardyce would pick Liverpool. Because Benitez, or something. But no matter who he's managing (or who's managing Liverpool) – Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham – he's taken great joy in getting one over on Liverpool. And it's happened far too often for my liking.

Allardyce will Allardyce and Sunderland will Sunderland. Sit deep, deny space, maybe even try for a counter-attack once in a while. Sure, Sunderland have conceded the most goals in the division – 37 through 18 matches – but, knowing Liverpool, that probably makes it more of a challenge than an opportunity. And those most of those goals have come on the road: 28 in the 10 away matches, just nine in the eight home matches.

Sunderland have played both five at the back and 4-3-3/4-5-1 in recent matches. Neither's worked especially well – conceding six at Everton, three at Arsenal and Chelsea, and four at Manchester City over the last two months – but Sunderland have been marginally better at home, even if it's not shown up in the results, with narrow 0-1 defeats to Southampton and Watford, and a 2-0 victory over now-in-form Stoke.

And Sunderland aren't entirely awful up front – Defoe and Fletcher are good players, ex-players featuring against their former clubs are always terrifying (hi Fabio!) – having scored in 12 of their 18 league matches. Liverpool have only scored in one more match than that. Sure, there are just four teams who've scored the same amount or fewer league goals than Sunderland. Liverpool held Swansea scoreless, but conceded twice against Villa, Newcastle, and West Brom. Yikes.

Sunderland's injury issues in defense make five at the back a more difficult proposition: Kaboul's definitely out, while O'Shea's doubtful. Jones, Coates, and Wes Brown can play in a back three, but Brown's only made one appearance this season (the 2-6 loss at Everton), and the 5-4-1 has been used less over the last month due to both injuries and DeAndre Yedlin's form at right wing-back.

The midfielders will be Yann M'Vila and one other: Rodwell, Gomez, Cattermole, or Toivonen; Seb Larsson's also out through injury. The wide players – if it's not five at the back – will be two from Adam Johnson, Borini, Lens, Watmore. The forwards could be any of those wide players, as well as Defoe, Fletcher, or Graham.

Let's go with Pantilimon; Jones, Coates, Brown, van Aanholt; Rodwell, M'Vila, Gomez; Borini, Fletcher, Defoe, and almost certainly be wrong in a couple of places. Regardless of formation or players, you know what you're getting with Sam Allardyce – a deep-lying defense and combative midfield, special attention paid to set plays, and counter-attacking through two or three forwards and maaaaaaaaybe a midfielder.

It'll be up to Liverpool to both break them down, as Liverpool couldn't do at either Newcastle or Watford, and to deny their few goal-scoring opportunities, as Liverpool couldn't do at either Newcastle or Watford.

28 December 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Leicester

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Liverpool did some good things on Saturday. Finally. After three matches of mostly bad things. But what Liverpool did best was stopping Leicester from doing good things. Which is something that almost every other side to face Leicester can't say.

Liverpool are the first side to keep Leicester from scoring this season. Liverpool are the first side to deny Leicester a clear-cut goal-scoring chance. Only Bournemouth – in a match where Leicester took all of four shots to Bournemouth's five – allowed Leicester fewer shots or fewer key passes.

Liverpool held Leicester below its per-match average in every attacking metric.

Vardy and Mahrez? Three shots combined, zero chances created. Vardy's averaging 3.4 shots per match and 1.2 key passes per match; Mahrez's averaging 2.8 shots and 1.9 key passes per match. Vardy has 15 goals and three assists in the league, Mahrez 13 goals and seven assists. Liverpool – and Liverpool's 4-4-2 formation – focused on negating these players, as Anfield Index outstandingly highlighted, and Liverpool succeeded.

The only worry from the above chart is that while Liverpool allowed very few shots, they allowed fairly good shots: five in the Danger Zone – which is barely below Leicester's average – and three on-target. Which is the same problem Liverpool had against Newcastle, West Brom, and Watford.

Jürgen Klopp has reinvigorated Liverpool's defense – both the back four and midfield three (or two, or four) – and Liverpool are allowing fewer shots than they did at any time under Rodgers. But when the opposition gets chances, they tend to be fairly decent chances. Although, to Liverpool's credit, none of Leicester's Danger Zone chances were big chances, which is something Leicester are usually superb at creating, and only one of Leicester's Danger Zone chances was on-target.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's attack continues to have the opposite problem. Taking 26 shots is a positive, Liverpool's second-highest total of the season and the second-most that Leicester have allowed in a match this season (behind Arsenal's 27 in a 5-2 victory). But only half of those shots came from inside the box, only seven came in the Danger Zone, and only five were on-target. Those are not good things. And Liverpool's last shot on-target A) shouldn't have counted due to an uncalled offside and B) really should have been a goal.

The short version: shot volume good, shot quality bad, and not for the first time. And it was a trait that was amplified in the first 37 minutes of the match.

Liverpool took 19 shots with Divock Origi on the pitch, and just seven while Benteke led the line. Liverpool created a couple of decent opportunities in those first 37 minutes – Lallana into the side netting, Origi saved at the near post – but Liverpool's best two chances came in the final 53: Benteke's goal and Benteke's (offside) empty net chance saved by Morgan.

Of those 19 shots in the first 37 minutes: just four in the Danger Zone, three of them from set plays and Firmino from the edge of the area swiftly blocked. Just three on-target: Origi no-angle near post, Lovren's set play header, and Can from well outside the box. Eight off-target, eight blocked. 10 of the 19 came from outside the box.

Liverpool have to find a balance between shot quality and shot volume. Between how Liverpool play when Benteke's on the pitch versus how Liverpool play with Origi, or Firmino, or (lord willing) Sturridge. And, of course, Liverpool have to be more accurate no matter the shot quality or volume.

But neutralizing Leicester was Liverpool's priority, and Liverpool did it. Liverpool needed just enough in attack, and Liverpool got it.

26 December 2015

Liverpool 1-0 Leicester

Benteke 63'

Welcome back, Liverpool.

It wasn't a perfect performance, by any means, but you can't even hope for perfection after Liverpool's last month. It was a return to what had worked for Liverpool under Klopp: a team rather than a collection of individuals, a vicious work-rate, actual movement both with and without the ball in the opposition half, a surprisingly smothering defense, a confident performance, and just barely enough firepower up front to eke out a victory.

It was everything last week's loss at Watford wasn't. It was a success for both team and manager. So much for Klopp having been "found out" by the Premier League.

It began with the line-up named and formation selected. What initially looked to be a 4-2-3-1 turned out to be a 4-4-1-1, 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2, with Origi and Firmino both floating around up front, and a firmer midfield line of four in front of the defensive line of form. It matched Leicester's formation player for player, creating a series of individual battles rather than opportunities for one side to exploit flaws or holes in the opposition's system. And, for the most part, Liverpool won those individual battles: Henderson and Can equaled Kante and King's athleticism in midfield, Origi gave Wes Morgan fits, Lovren competently marshaled Vardy, and Coutinho and Moreno were able to double up on Mahrez, often with extra protection from one of the midfielders.

Aside from the overall work-rate, the biggest difference was Origi's (and, to a lesser extent, Firmino's) movement up front. He pulled center-backs, usually Morgan, wide looking capable of winning through pace or strength. He allowed Liverpool to play quick passes over the top, without getting caught offside, working against Leicester's defenders until other attackers could join in.

It led to Liverpool with all the best early chances: Origi saved at the near post, Lallana shooting into the side-netting, but also more patient moves that led to Can's effort from distance saved and a couple from Coutinho wide. And all it happened without any vulnerability on the counter: one burst along the byline from Mahrez the only moment of true fear.

But then, of course, because we just can't have nice things, Origi pulled up with an apparent hamstring injury in the 37th minute, replaced by Benteke.

And for a while, Liverpool regressed. Liverpool changed its style. Liverpool found chances harder to come by, Liverpool became more concerned with crossing to Benteke. Liverpool were still the better side, but it was also still a lot more of what we've complained about recently, at least in attack.

Until it wasn't. A some quick passing from a throw-in down Liverpool's left, one of those crosses finally found its target, and that target hit the target: Firmino's low lefty effort, Benteke's feet-first dive to get a toe-touch, giving Schmeichel no chance. Both Firmino and Benteke have been massively criticized lately, and neither blew the doors off prior, but they finally combined for a necessary goal.

Normally, going a goal behind is no concern for Leicester, and a fairly substantial concern for Liverpool. Liverpool have gone from 1-0 to 1-1 in seven matches in three different competitions this season, all seven finishing level. Leicester have conceded the opener in six matches this season: winning two and drawing four.

Mignolet did wonderfully to deny Dyer in the 74th minute, but Leicester created just three shots in the half-hour following Liverpool's goal; Dyer's was the only shot on-target. Liverpool had more chances to extend the lead on the counter - including one four-on-one empty net counter in injury time (that should have been offside) which Liverpool amazingly failed to take. Liverpool really could have done with the second to ease nerves. But Liverpool, thankfully, didn't end up needing that second.

I reiterate: Liverpool held the league leaders scoreless. Those league leaders had scored in every single match this season. Those league leaders attempted just seven shots today; they'd averaged almost double that per match this season. Both Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez - Leicester's best two players, the darlings of this league campaign, having scored a combined 28 league goals - were subbed off with Leicester in need of an equalizer. Leicester have a small squad who've all played a lot of minutes, and Leicester have Manchester City on Tuesday, but seeing those players off with neither doing much in the match is no small matter, and a massive credit to both Lovren and Moreno, among others.

Sure, Liverpool's attack remains worrisome. 25 shots against a side that's averaging 13 allowed per match is a very good thing, but one goal from 25 shots with just four of those shots on-target obviously isn't. Since scoring six at Southampton in the league cup, Liverpool have scored all of three goals through 450 minutes of football. Yet another striker has now suffered yet another muscle injury, and after such a promising 37 minutes of football.

But those can be concerns for tomorrow, not today.

Liverpool won. Liverpool won at Anfield for just the second time in Klopp's five league matches. Liverpool beat the side leading the league for the first time since 2013-14. Liverpool are five points off fourth.

Today we got the Liverpool we want to see, need to see. Not the Liverpool we dread to see.

24 December 2015

Liverpool v Leicester 12.26.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 01.01.15
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.02.14
0-0 (a) 03.28.04
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.20.03

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 Watford (a); 2-2 West Brom (h), 0-0 Sion (a)
Leicester: 3-2 Everton (a); 2-1 Chelsea (h); 3-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho 5; Benteke 4; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Leicester: Vardy 15; Mahrez 13; Okazaki 3; Albrighton, de Laet Dyer, Kante, Schlupp, Ulloa 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Lucas Can
Lallana Coutinho

Ugh, Liverpool.

Injuries remain a massive issue: Skrtel joins Milner, Rossiter, Sturridge, Flanagan, Ings, and Gomez on the sidelines, although Mignolet and Lovren should return to the side.

Liverpool still don't know what its best XI or best formation is. We're probably further away from figuring that out than we were a month ago.

Liverpool still struggle to create chances and still struggle to score, and Klopp's once-revived defense has devolved back to familiar individual errors and set play calamities.

Liverpool are winless in the last four matches. Liverpool are coming off a humiliating 0-3 loss at promoted Watford. Liverpool have won just one (1) of the four league matches at Anfield since Klopp became manager, against a woeful team that just fired its manager, and needed a fortuitous penalty to do so.

So it's a great time to play host to the league leaders.

Your guess at Liverpool's XI is probably as good as mine. Depending on Mignolet and Lovren's fitness, the defense is easy to predict. Clyne, Sakho, and Moreno have to start, and if Mignolet and Lovren aren't available, it'll be Bogdan and Toure. Maybe Can or Lucas is again used at center-back, but I very much doubt it.

The front six is much harder to gauge.

You'd think Lucas would be crucial, attacking extra protection in front of a vulnerable back line, needed to double up on one of Leicester's dangerous strikers, but that extra protection didn't help against Watford's two strikers, Lucas embarrassed by Troy Deeney before moving to center-back.

Henderson, Can, Coutinho, and probably Lallana will start, but in what arrangement? Henderson and Can at the base of a 4-2-3-1 or bracketing Lucas? Coutinho and Lallana ostensibly wide players behind Benteke or Origi in a 4-3-2-1 or in a line of three with Jordon Ibe? Coutinho deeper in midfield as part of a 4-3-3 with Lallana and Ibe flanking a lone striker? A 4-Diamond-2 formation with Lucas; Henderson, Can; Coutinho or Lallana behind Origi and Benteke?

I honestly do not know.

And then there's still the question of what to do with Benteke. He hasn't impressed, hasn't truly adapted, and leads Liverpool to often attempt too many crosses, which is something Liverpool simply do not thrive upon. But Liverpool somehow looked even worse up front without the Belgian last week. However, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are exactly the type of center-backs who are happy to play against Benteke, eagerly awaiting 90 minutes of jostling, wrestling, elbows, and aerial duels, happy to get muddy as long as you get muddier.

Maybe that means Liverpool will go with Origi, incredibly raw and probably not ready, but more of a total package when he's able to put it all together. Maybe that means Origi and Benteke, a 4-4-2 diamond at the start as against Southampton in the League Cup. It almost certainly doesn't mean Firmino, who was absolutely dire at Watford.

I honestly do not know, so the above guess is basically the most familiar XI given form and fitness. Not that the most familiar XI is a reassuring thing.

All I do know is that Liverpool can't be the Liverpool we've seen in the last four matches. There have been different formations and different personnel in the matches against Newcastle, Sion, West Brom, and Watford, but the pattern of play, especially up front, has been all too similar. And as against those four sides (especially Watford) Liverpool won't have much opportunity to press the opposition into turnovers in their half, because Leicester won't keep the ball in their half for any length of time.

Leicester have more than a bit of 2013-14 Liverpool about them. The surprising league leaders at Christmas. Led by firepower, merciless on the counter-attack, the work ethic of the strikers trickling down through the entire side. "You score first? Fine, we'll score two. We'll just score more than you." It's a style that leads to a lot of supporters and a lot of plaudits and a lot of fun. Unless you're facing it.

At the same time, most things that Watford do well, Leicester do better. A 4-4-2 formation: diligent, hard-working defensive and midfield lines to recover possession, quickly getting the ball up the flanks and to the strikers, disrupting the opposition and then attacking at pace. Leicester aren't as defensively secure as Watford – they've kept just three clean sheets this season – but they're also infinitely more dangerous going forward: faster, better dribblers, better crossers, more potent finishers.

Leicester haven't lost a league match since September 26, a 2-5 defeat to Arsenal, their lone loss of the campaign. Three months ago. 11 matches ago. Since then, eight wins and two draws. I doubt I need remind that over the same stretch, Liverpool have won three, drawn four, and lost three, and fired a manager.

After 17 matches, Leicester are 14 points ahead of Liverpool. Leicester, the division's top scorers, have scored 17 more league goals than Liverpool. Combined, Vardy and Mahrez have scored 28 of those goals. Liverpool have scored 20 in total. Mahrez against Moreno, exploiting acres of space in behind, with Sakho sprinting over to try to cover? Terrifying. Vardy against Lovren, in any situation? Terrifying.

Like Watford, Leicester's XI is usually easy to predict, their form helped by a mostly injury-free season. Danny Drinkwater and Jeff Schlupp are out with hamstring problems, while Vardy limped out of last week's match at Everton in the final few minutes, but Ranieri said it's not serious.

I'd be very surprised if the XI weren't Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, King, Kante, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy.

As long as Vardy's available, there are only two questions about Leicester's XI. In Drinkwater's absence, Ranieri could prefer the more defensive Gohkan Inler to the more versatile King. Neither have Drinkwater's quick passing, metronomic qualities, but King is closer to that style. Ulloa could start instead of Okazaki: a more aerial presence to unsettle Liverpool's defenders, leading to an even more direct style from Leicester. But Ozakazi is better at hassling the opposition midfield and defense, and Ozazaki's link-up play is better. You know, just like Troy Deeney did.

So, there's no hope for Liverpool, we all might as well just pack up and go home. Well, not quite. Make no mistake, this will be a very tough fixture, and would be even if Liverpool were firing at full capacity. Leicester's qualities are qualities which unsettle Liverpool at the best of times, and this certainly isn't the best of times.

But Liverpool have been better against better opposition – although, admittedly, most of those matches have taken place away from home – upping their game against Tottenham, Chelsea, City, and Southampton (in both the league and league cup, despite the result in the former). Liverpool's last match at Anfield erupted in celebration at the final whistle, despite the result, a cauldron of noise as the players somehow fought back to 2-2 in the dying seconds, a necessary step in rebuilding Fortress Anfield. This is another step, and could be a much-needed step.

Anyone can beat anyone in this season's Premier League. Why not little Liverpool against the mighty Leicester?

Unbeaten at home on Boxing Day since 1986 (6W-3D), Anfield will certainly be up for Saturday's match. Can Liverpool be?

21 December 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-3 Watford

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Honestly, you might as well just re-read the Newcastle and West Brom infographics. It was basically those all over again, but worse, most likely because Watford are a better side.

To some extent, these teams have done to Liverpool what Liverpool did to Manchester City. And Liverpool have not been able to cope, Liverpool have not been able to fix the continuing issues.

Liverpool took all of two shots in the first half, in the 9th and 11th minutes, both from outside the box. That hasn't happened in a half in a league match since the dismal 0-3 loss at Manchester United back in September, when held to a single off-target shot for the first 45 minutes. Similar happened at Southampton last season, but Liverpool scored from that lone shot, and simply focused on keeping Southampton out for the next 85 minutes. Similar happened in the 0-1 loss at Newcastle last season, a day where Liverpool were even worse than they were yesterday. Still, comparisons to last season's loss at Newcastle are not comparisons you want to see made.

Those are the only other league matches since the start of 2014-15 where Liverpool failed to take at least three shots in a half of football.

I doubt I need remind that Liverpool were two goals down for the majority of the first half yesterday. Two goals down within 15 minutes, and you can't manage a single shot – a blocked shot, an off-target shot, any kind of shot – for the rest of the first half.

That's a comprehensive failure, and deserving of a comprehensive beat-down.

Watford did well to recover possession and deny Liverpool space, especially in the middle third and especially in the first half; Capoue in the middle and Abdi on Liverpool's left were the most impressive. Watford's two open play goals came from Watford winning possession in midfield: Deeney stronger than Lucas, Capoue stronger than Coutinho when Liverpool looked to have initially stopped Watford's counter. Watford's early corner also came from a move which started when Watson intercepted Clyne's attempted clearance in Liverpool's half.

So, sure, Watford had a lot to do with it, but Liverpool's passing was also simply bad yesterday. Sakho, Clyne, Henderson, Lucas, and Can all struggled to find Liverpool's front players, to set up any potential attacks where Liverpool would, you know, actually find a way to shoot at Watford's goal.

Liverpool's 75% pass accuracy is the worst in a Liverpool loss since the 1-3 defeat at Southampton back in March 2013. Nearly three years ago. Liverpool have had worse a few times since, but it's been in matches where Liverpool shelled and tried to counter-attack, matches like the 4-1 victory at Manchester City last month, the 0-0 draw at Arsenal earlier this season, the 2-0 win at Southampton last season. None were matches where Liverpool so thoroughly dominated possession.

To put it another way: not since Rodgers took over (which is when I began tracking passing totals) has Liverpool attempted as many passes in a match and completed fewer.

Only in the Manchester City match – where Liverpool had just 41.6% possession and played for the counter-attack the entire time – did Lucas, Can, and Clyne complete a lower percentage of passes. For Henderson and Sakho, who didn't feature against City, yesterday's accuracy was their low for the season.

So while Firmino, Coutinho, and Lallana (and then Benteke and Ibe) were mostly invisible yesterday, it has a lot to do with how little service they were provided. None – except maybe Ibe, who only played 15 minutes and is still more potential than realized talent – are capable of the Suarez or the Sturridge, single-handedly creating chances by running at or in behind defenders. All need service. None got it.

And then there's the other end of the pitch.

Watford scored three goals from five shots on-target yesterday. Last week, West Brom scored two goals from two shots on-target. Newcastle somehow scored twice from just one shot on-target.

Three matches. Eight opposition shots on-target. Six goals conceded. One point earned. When Ighalo scored his first in the 15th minute yesterday, Liverpool had given up six goals from the last five opposition shots on-target. That's actually impressive. You almost have to try to concede that frequently.

And Liverpool have certainly tried. Watford's opener came from a Liverpool error: Bogdan dropping a routine corner into the path of Ake. West Brom's opener came from a Liverpool error: Mignolet unnecessarily flapping at a corner before Dawson poked in. Newcastle's opener pretty much came from a Liverpool error – even if it wasn't an Opta-defined error – when Skrtel conceded the first Liverpool own goal of the season.

Liverpool unsurprisingly lead the league in defensive errors with 18. Six have led to a goal conceded. Arsenal, in second, have 14, but only two of those errors have led to a goal. It could be worse: West Ham and Bournemouth with eight and six goals conceded respectively from 11 errors.

Mignolet's responsible for two (three in all competitions). Can's responsible for two (one while at center-back, one defending a corner), Bogdan and Lovren are each responsible for one.

An insipid attack. An inability to break down determined opposition, an inability to cope with more physical sides. An error-prone defense and set play failings. Those are all traits that Jürgen Klopp inherited, and it's admittedly an excuse for continuing issues despite some initial improvement.

Still, it's very much a concern that Liverpool have reverted to form after that initial improvement. And, over the last three league matches, it's actually getting worse.

20 December 2015

Liverpool 0-3 Watford

Ake 3'
Ighalo 15' 85'

Having good strikers and a well-organized defense makes all the difference. Watford have both. Liverpool currently have neither.

That was a comprehensive failure. And that's without a midweek game, with a full week of training for this match. A match that Liverpool very much needed to win. I do not want to underplay how well Watford played, how well Watford's plan worked, how clearly Watford deserved the emphatic win, but Liverpool were dire in every phase of play. It started badly, it ended badly, and in-between was bad too.

Aside from an unexpected injury for Mignolet – which, whatever, it's not as if he's torn down trees lately – this was the XI we wanted to see. Firmino up front, Coutinho back, Sakho back, Henderson and Can in midfield ahead of Lucas. And nothing worked, nothing went right, and no one played well (except maybe Henderson).

Sadly, it was the one unexpected change which led to Watford's opener. A routine corner, Bogdan dropping his attempted catch, Ake on hand to prod in. Sure, Clattenburg could have done Liverpool a favor by ruling that Ake kicked the ball out of Bogdan's hands, but it was a split-second decision. If you don't want that to happen, don't give the referee a decision to make. Don't drop an easy catch to began with. Watford's subsequent two goals and thorough victory made it a moot point anyway. You get what you deserve.

Liverpool had conceded within five minutes in three matches this season: they lost, pathetically, against West Ham under Rodgers but stormed back at both Chelsea and Southampton (in the League Cup) under Klopp.

Today, Liverpool never responded. It was when Liverpool conceded early under Rodgers rather than when Liverpool conceded early under Klopp, as bad as the worst performances of the last 18 months. And, as I suspect you're aware, there have been some bad ones.

Before Liverpool could even respond in anger, Watford were two up. And, again, well done by Watford, but it came through Liverpool's own making. Lucas had a clear opportunity to win possession and get rid, but was beaten all ends up by Troy Deeney. Skrtel was closely marking an isolated Ighalo, but was beaten all ends up, making the penultimate touch before Ighalo placed his shot beyond an out-of-position Bogdan. Two goals down, two touches-before-the-goal by Liverpool players. You get what you deserve.

2-0, game over, after just 15 minutes. There's little point going through the subsequent 75 minutes. You've seen it before: Liverpool had all the possession, Liverpool struggled to create chances, Liverpool never looked like scoring. Liverpool "went for it" when Skrtel pulled up with an injury just before halftime, sending on Origi with Lucas dropping into defense, and Liverpool were marginally better, but "marginally better" was nowhere near good enough and "went for it" is very much relative. Yet again, Liverpool simply aren't capable of "went for it" against a resolute opposition. Liverpool carved out few opportunities, none especially impressive, and then Benteke and Ibe came on with 15 minutes to play and did nothing. The game ended not with Liverpool pressure but another Watford goal on the counter, tearing through Liverpool's midfield, Behrami free to cross from the right, Ighalo wide open between Lucas and Sakho to head in.

Watford's unheralded defense – featuring four defenders you probably hadn't heard of until this season and usually-laugh-a-minute Heurelho Gomes – kept its sixth clean sheet in nine home matches. Etienne Capoue – last seen against Liverpool getting hilariously romped (and sent off once) in a 5-0 and 3-0 losses for Tottenham – dominated midfield. Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo – a combined transfer fee of, at most, £3m (Ighalo's deal was undisclosed, Deeney's was £500k in 2010) – showed Liverpool exactly what strikers are supposed to do: the former in work-rate, hold-up play, and set-up play; the latter in tormenting both center-backs with pace and dribbling, and in actually finishing his chances.

That's what a "team" can do. Liverpool aren't a team at the moment. They're a collection of well-known and high-paid players who might possibly come good, but certainly don't look like doing so at the moment.

Blame will mainly lie with Liverpool's defense, and it's a fair scapegoat. Liverpool have conceded seven goals in the last three league matches: two at Newcastle (currently 17th), two against West Brom (13th), and three at Watford (7th). At least the defense has excuses. Constant changes at center-back through injury, a goalkeeper making his league debut, Sakho clearly rushed back too soon, full-backs forced to play every match because Liverpool don't have alternatives.

Liverpool's again-insipid attack doesn't have those excuses. Unless Sturridge plays (and we know how rare that's been), Liverpool remain bad. Bad bad bad bad bad. For the majority of the match, Liverpool had been flagged for offside more often than they shot at Watford's goal, finishing with 12 shots (just four on-target, just two on-target inside the box) and 10 offsides. Since 2004 – when the statistic was first tracked – Liverpool have never been caught offsides so often in a single match.

Frighteningly, it could get even worse in six days. Everything Watford does well, did well, Leicester – Liverpool's next opponents, the league leaders – do better. The same system, but even more prolific strikers, a similarly well-organized defense and combative, hard-working midfield, and a side in even better form.

After the last three failures, Liverpool now sit 9th, where they'll stand at Christmas, the league campaign almost half over. Liverpool have been either 9th or 10th at Christmas just five times in the previous 23 Premier League campaigns: 1992-93, 1998-99, 2003-04, 2010-11, and 2014-15. Liverpool were better in the second half of the season in each of those campaigns, but only once did Liverpool improve enough to finish amongst the Champions League places, in 2003-04. Houllier still got fired at the end of the season.

Otherwise, Liverpool finished 6th, 7th, 6th, and 6th. Exactly where Liverpool were last season. Exactly where Liverpool don't want to be, exactly where Liverpool simply can't continue to be.

19 December 2015

Liverpool at Watford 12.20.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.13.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.23.06
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 01.25.05
1-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 01.11.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 West Brom (h), 0-0 Sion (a); 0-2 Newcastle (a)
Watford: 1-0 Sunderland (a), 2-0 Norwich (h), 3-2 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho 5; Benteke 4; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Watford: Igahlo 10; Deeney 5; Abdi, Layun 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Sakho Moreno
Henderson Lucas Can
Lallana Coutinho

Finally, a week between Liverpool matches. A time for players to rest, to recuperate, to return to action.

What? Crap. Sakho's back – which is no small matter – but Sturridge, Lovren, Rossiter, and Flanagan are still at least a match or two away, at best, while Milner has picked up a calf injury which'll rule him out tomorrow.

Liverpool don't have a ton of options, but Liverpool still have a few options. Unfortunately, none of those options have impressed of late.

Christian Benteke's come in for the most criticism this week – mainly from the likes of us on the internet, but even a bit from Klopp – and rightfully so. For the most part, he's still unable to adapt to Liverpool's preferred style of play, and Liverpool haven't done a great job – whether they even want to or should – adapting to his. I've said that I think he's better as a substitute for a while now and I've seen nothing in the last few matches to convince me otherwise.

Maybe my suspicion is fueled by my personal preference, but I suspect – read: hope – that Benteke's taken out of the firing line this weekend, Liverpool reverting to the front three which tore Manchester City apart a month ago, especially now that Coutinho's fit. Admittedly, Firmino's struggled as much as Benteke of late, but that's also been without Coutinho, and when used as a #10 or wide attacker. We haven't seen him as a central striker since that City match.

Watford, even at home, won't open up as Chelsea or City did, but there should be a bit more space than we saw when Liverpool traveled to Newcastle or hosted West Brom. And, to be bluntly honest, even if there isn't, Liverpool with Firmino up top can't be any worse than Liverpool with Benteke up top in the recent matches.

And no matter who plays up front, having Coutinho back should make a massive difference, ideally back to form after a substitute appearance against Sion, 70 minutes against West Brom, and a full week of training since Liverpool's last match.

So maybe's it's 4-2-3-1 with Benteke up front again, with three from Coutinho, Lallana, Ibe, and Firmino behind him. Maybe Klopp stays with that formation but with Origi up front, giving another chance to the youngster who scored a hat-trick in his last domestic start and a late, lucky equalizer in his last appearance. Maybe Liverpool revert to the 4-Diamond-2 from the Southampton league cup quarterfinal, although that seems most unlikely.

We're still not sure what Liverpool's best formation or best XI is. Which isn't surprising given the injuries, squad turnover, and mid-season managerial change, but it remains annoying.

Meanwhile, Watford have a best formation and best XI, one that's been relatively untroubled by injury. It's a big reason why they're currently seventh with 25 points, one point ahead of Liverpool.

Tomorrow's XI will almost certainly be Gomes; Nyom, Cathcart, Britos, Ake; Abdi, Capoue, Watson, Jurado; Ighalo, Deeney. Anya, Paredes (more often a full-back), and Behrami (who's a slight doubt through injury) are also options out wide. Prodl could also return from injury – he's been out for the last two months – in central defense, but I doubt that he'd start in his first game back.

It will be 4-4-2 and Watford will be reliant on their two strikers. If not Ighalo or Deeney, then no one. Four players have scored league goals for Watford, and one of those four is currently out on loan. Abdi has one. Ighalo and Deeney have the other 15.

Unlike Liverpool's last opponents, Watford don't often score from crosses: just once, in the last match at Sunderland. Watford don't often score from set plays: just once, Ighalo's 1-0 winner against Swansea three months ago, converting Deeney's knock-down of a free kick. Watford score from open play (with a few penalties), Watford score from clear-cut chances, Watford score from their two strikers linking together. Unsurprisingly, Deeney and Ighalo also lead the club in assists, as with goals, the only two players to have registered more than one.

Watford have been decent at home – with three wins, two draws, and three losses – but they've been much more impressive away. To be fair, they've faced a tougher slate of games at Vicarage Road, the losses coming against Arsenal, Palace, and United. They've conceded more than once at home against just Arsenal (three) and United (two). Otherwise: one 2-0 win, two 1-0 wins, two 0-0 draws, and one 0-1 loss. Five clean sheets in eight matches, holding West Brom, Southampton, Swansea, West Ham, and Norwich scoreless. As Bass Tuned to Red pointed out yesterday, only Old Trafford has seen fewer league goals this season than Vicarage Road.

There will be some similarities, most likely in how Liverpool will dominate possession and need to deal with counter attacks, but coping with a 4-4-2 and two in-form strikers presents a different challenge than either Newcastle or West Brom posed. But, once again, the biggest concern is how Liverpool will break down a stingy defense. You know, the same concern we've voiced for *checks watch* about 16 months now.

14 December 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

28 shots were Liverpool's most in a league match since 32 against West Ham on 7 December 2013. Two years ago. 77 league matches ago. Sure, Liverpool took 35 against Rubin Kazan and 47 v Carlisle (albeit with extra time) this season, but it's rarely happened in the last over the last season and a half.

It is a positive step, especially after Liverpool took just 10 against both Newcastle and Swansea in the previous two league matches.

Since that drumming of West Ham two years ago, Liverpool have taken more than 25 shots in a league match just five times: 27 against Cardiff, and 26 against Chelsea and at Crystal Palace in 2013-14; and 27 against Arsenal and 25 against QPR in 2014-15. Liverpool's previous highest shots total in a league match this season is 23, against Norwich.

Incidentally, Liverpool won just two of the aforementioned seven matches: 3-0 v Cardiff in 2013-14 and 2-1 v QPR in 2014-15. Otherwise, 0-2 vs Chelsea, 3-3 at Palace, 2-2 v Arsenal, 1-1 v Norwich, and 2-2 v West Brom.

Except the routine win over Cardiff, Liverpool were desperate in each of those matches. Liverpool needed goals, so Liverpool had to force matters and take chances, so Liverpool often resorted to low-value, speculate efforts.

28 shots but an Expected Goals total of 2.0 – which is exactly what Liverpool actually totaled – is fairly mundane. In Michael Caley's model, Liverpool had a higher xG total in four league and European matches this season: 2.8 v Sion (19 shots), 2.4 v Kazan (35 shots), 2.1 v Palace (22 shots), and 2.7 at City (14 shots). Liverpool only outperformed Expected Goals in one of those four matches: Liverpool's best win of the season.

But that's what happens when 16 of your 28 shots come from outside the box. When you put just eight of 28 shots on-target (11 off-target, nine blocked), with five of those eight on-target shots from outside the box. When you only create two clear-cut chances: Henderson's goal and Lallana's 80th-minute one-v-one saved.

Even with a better shot output and more chances created, Liverpool still struggled to create good chances and to break down a packed defense. And once again, you can't help but look at Liverpool's focal point striker.

There have been complains about Benteke's movement, Benteke's pressing. Complaints about his shots and shot accuracy – six yesterday, none on-target. They're fair complaints, even if some are probably overemphasized. I'm most concerned about how Liverpool has seemingly changed its attacking philosophy to suit him.

Liverpool attempted 29 crosses yesterday, the third highest total of the season behind 33 against Villa (Benteke didn't start) and 32 against Crystal Palace (Benteke did). Just seven of those 29 crosses found a Liverpool player, just three lead to a scoring chance: two off-target headers from Benteke, one blocked set play header from Lovren.

Liverpool are averaging 20 crosses per league game so far this season. Which is more than in recent seasons, but not dramatically so, averaging 17 in 2014-15 and 2013-14, 21 in 2012-13. Liverpool have scored just three league goals from crosses this season: Benteke v Bournemouth, Ings at Everton, and Benteke v Southampton.

The discrepancy's even more dramatic since Klopp became manager. Liverpool have played eight league matches under Klopp; Benteke has started four of them. In the four matches where Benteke's started – v Palace, v Swansea, at Newcastle, v West Brom – Liverpool are averaging 27.25 crosses per match. In the four where he hasn't started – at Spurs, v Southampton, at Chelsea, at City – Liverpool are averaging 16.25 per match. Liverpool have scored eight goals in the four matches Benteke didn't start, but just four in the four that he did.

The matches where Liverpool most deviated from the Cross To Benteke philosophy – 3-1 at Chelsea, 4-1 at City – were also Liverpool's best performances of the season. Liverpool's opponents and venue meant that Liverpool were allowed to play a certain way, which is a way that both suited Benteke's absence and was a way that most opponents won't allow, but Liverpool still had to take advantage. And Liverpool did. Liverpool haven't taken advantage with Benteke in the starting XI anywhere near as often or as proficiently.

Admittedly, Liverpool aren't overflowing with options: Sturridge is hurt again, Firmino's form is hardly better (although he has looked best as a #9 compared to a #10 or a wide attacker), Origi remains incredibly raw. Benteke will continue to play the majority of minutes up top, for the immediate future. But Benteke needs to better adapt to Liverpool rather than vice versa. The potential is there: in position to take six shots is a good thing, and Benteke created one of Liverpool's two best chances of the match with an excellent throughball. But he simply hasn't done enough.

Meanwhile, set plays. Again. Six of Liverpool's 19 league goals conceded have come from set plays: 0-1 United, 1-1 Norwich, 1-1 Southampton, 1-2 Palace, 1-1 West Brom, and 1-2 West Brom. Which doesn't seem like a lot (although it's higher than the league average and it's worth noting that just three of Liverpool's 20 league goals have come from set plays), but each of those goals dramatically changed the course of the match. United took an early second-half lead they'd never relinquish, Norwich and Southampton stole late equalizers, Palace scored a late winner, and West Brom scored twice in a match where they didn't remotely seem capable of scoring from open play. That's seven points; let's assume United still wins, however painful that may be. With seven more points, Liverpool would sit fourth, just two points behind the league leaders.

The match against Crystal Palace seems the best parallel to yesterday's proceedings. A defensive mistake leads to the opposition's opener, Liverpool comprehensively beaten on a set play leads to the opposition's second, failing behind 1-2 with time quickly running out. Liverpool again disappoint at Anfield, where they've now won three, lost two, and drawn three in the league.

But unlike against Palace, Liverpool came back. Liverpool had 10 more minutes than they did against Palace, and they used almost every second of it, and they needed a fortunate deflection from a shot that goes in maybe once every 50 attempts, but Liverpool came back. That's no small matter. When Liverpool have conceded in the first half, Liverpool have responded reasonably well: Chelsea and Southampton in the League Cup, but also Kazan and Bordeaux at Anfield to a lesser extent. But Liverpool had yet to respond to conceding in the second half: Southampton in the league, Crystal Palace, and Newcastle.

Liverpool simply have to be better at Anfield, Liverpool simply have to respond better to conceding in the second half. And Liverpool did so yesterday, even if not to the extent we'd like. Which is why it was heartening that Klopp and the team responded to Anfield's raucous volume at the final whistle. They weren't celebrating a point – no matter what the vaunted punditocracy wants to claim – they were rebuilding the much-needed atmosphere, which feeds into the much-needed self-belief, which leads to better performances on Liverpool's home ground.

Yes, once again, Liverpool simply weren't good enough: in attack, in defending set plays, in eliminating individual errors, the home form in general. Liverpool didn't really merit more than a point because of those flaws, Liverpool still deserve to be clumped in the middle of the league table. But at least there were a few signs of progress, of getting past these multiple, long-standing problems.

It's a start. It's only a start.

13 December 2015

Liverpool 2-2 West Brom

Henderson 21'
Dawson 30'
Olsson 73'
Origi 90+6'

A draw where you come back to get a point, especially when it happens deep into injury time, always feels better than a draw where you've lost the lead. But it's still a draw. At home, against West Brom. When Liverpool had 70% possession and scored an excellent opening goal and took 28 shots to West Brom's four.

I can't help being a killjoy sometimes.

To be fair, it was a reasonable performance, probably Liverpool's best in the league since thrashing City away, although that's not saying much. But Liverpool still weren't good enough in attack and Liverpool conceded twice from set plays: one individual mistake for the equalizer, one where for the attack was simply better than the defense for West Brom's lead.

It's Groundhog Day for Liverpool and Groundhog Day against Tony Pulis. At least Liverpool didn't give up, Anfield rocked for the final 20 minutes, and Liverpool finally found an equalizer, even if through a fortunate deflection. It's still two points dropped – at least it wasn't three – and Liverpool's eighth draw against a Tony Pulis side in 13 league meetings under five different managers.

Just as we feared, just as has happened no matter the manager and no matter Liverpool's form, Liverpool got Pulised. Everyone knows how they'll play, but they still get results: beating Arsenal and drawing with Tottenham, West Ham, and now Liverpool in the last four matches.

It's especially galling that Liverpool got Pulised despite taking the lead, after Liverpool broke through West Brom's defense exactly as you need to break through West Brom's defense: a patient 19-pass move where nine of 11 Liverpool players touched the ball and Liverpool probed until pulling defenders out of position, leading to Coutinho's lofted cross, Lallana's aerial knock-down in front of Brunt, and Henderson's lung-busting run from midfield for a tap-in.

It should have been a platform for dominance: keeping possession, staying secure, trying to add more. And for the most part, that happened, until West Brom earned a corner. But Liverpool still struggle to defend set plays and Liverpool can't stop making individual mistakes at the back.

The sad thing is that Liverpool actually defended the corner reasonably well. Or, at least, were in position to do so: Benteke or Clyne looked likely to head clear in front of Rondon, but Mignolet crashed into Benteke, missing his attempted punch, and Rondon touched to Dawson in the ensuing scramble, with Mignolet out of position to deny the shot. You could hear Yakety Sax as soon as Mignolet charged forward.

From there, the inevitable, undying struggle. Liverpool knocked back to square one, still dominating possession but unable to turn the screws. Liverpool laboring to create clear chances, Liverpool settling for long-range shots with 10 West Brom players behind the ball. And Liverpool were lucky to still be level at halftime: another set play just before the interval, Olsson with the ball in the net, but rightfully ruled offside as Liverpool's trap worked. Barely. Pawson initially gave the goal before consulting with his linesman, both benches erupting when the goal was finally chalked off.

Then the second verse, same as the first. Half-chances rather than clear-cut for Liverpool, the best of the bunch off-target with West Brom defenders doing just enough: Lovren's set play header deflected over, Benteke's header high and wide when challenged by Olsson, Benteke's half-volley wide under pressure from McAuley.

Because Liverpool, it was little surprise when that was followed by another set play stomach punch, from another corner, from the same side as the first. This time, there was little that Liverpool could do about it: a perfect delivery by Brunt, Olsson's run stronger than a standing Lovren. Sure, maybe Lovren should done better, but a running attacker is almost always going to beat a standing defender, especially when the ball in is that dangerous. See: Gestede trucking Sakho against Aston Villa a couple of months back. Sure, maybe Olsson gets called for a foul, a forearm into Lovren's head as he's jumping for the ball, but that's often ignored in similar situations.

With memories of Crystal Palace and Newcastle, the next 20 minutes seemed set. Liverpool would huff, Liverpool would puff, Liverpool would fail to blow the house down. A six-minute delay for Lovren's injury – at worst, a leg break or ligament damage, at least a nasty cut on the knee – swiftly followed by Lallana spurning a one-on-one opportunity, his low shot from Benteke's throughball kick-saved by Myhill, only emphasized that belief. Liverpool were increasingly limited to shots from distance: Henderson wide and straight at Myhill, Ibe wide. As Newcastle did, West Brom almost opening Liverpool up on the counter, Rondon off-target where Wijnaldum scored.

But then, that needed bit of luck. Origi's last-ditch shot, the deepest that Liverpool took in the match, a wicked deflection wrong-footing Myhill, an equalizer that the Kop's roar somehow sucked in. Phew. It was the latest goal that Liverpool have scored since Skrtel's equalizer against Arsenal almost exactly a year ago, another match where Liverpool scored first, conceded twice, but somehow saved face. Incidentally, that draw started Liverpool's 13-match unbeaten run in the league. It was just the second time that Liverpool have scored twice at Anfield in Klopp's seven home matches, the first time it's happened in the league.

It's a much-needed point gained, at least a bit of momentum and a massive step toward restoring the vaunted Anfield atmosphere, Klopp rightfully leading the team to the Kop in appreciative applause after the final whistle. It's a point more than United and Tottenham were able to get against arguably weaker opposition this weekend. It was a better performance than we've seen in the majority of Liverpool's recent matches, those against Palace, Swansea, Newcastle, and Sion at least.

But it's still two points dropped when Liverpool dominated and Liverpool shouldn't have dropped points.

12 December 2015

Liverpool v West Brom 12.13.15

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 04.25.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.04.14
1-1 (a) 02.02.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 10.26.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Sion (a); 0-2 Newcastle (a); 6-1 Southampton (a)
West Brom: 1-1 Tottenham (h); 1-1 West Ham (a); 2-1 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho 5; Benteke 4; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Skrtel 1
West Brom: Berahino, Morrison, Rondon 3; Dawson, Lambert, McClean 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Can
Lallana Coutinho Ibe

If both Henderson and Coutinho are available to start, this is as close to a full-strength XI as Klopp has been able to name. There's only the small matter of Sturridge's continued absence and Benteke's suitability for Klopp's preferred style.

If Henderson's unavailable – which wouldn't be a huge surprise given he played almost the entire match in Sion – it should be either Lucas or Milner in the same formation. If Coutinho's unavailable, it's a bit more worrisome, and could lead to another outing for Benteke, Firmino, and Ibe in attack. An attack that's come nowhere near firing, nowhere near impressing. Given his struggles in his last three appearances, I doubt Firmino will play unless Coutinho, Ibe, and Henderson are all unable to start, and rightfully so. At the moment, it seems he should be limited to substitute appearances and/or in a front three with Coutinho and Lallana, seemingly better suited to playing away from home, as against Manchester City.

Maybe Ibe's still ill; Milner would probably start instead, whether in a 4-3-2-1 or the above 4-2-3-1. Maybe Liverpool go with two up front, most likely with a diamond midfield, whether it's Benteke and Origi or Benteke and Firmino, in an attempt to better take the game to West Brom's inevitably deep defense.

Whatever formation, whatever lineup that Klopp chooses, we need to see much, much more from Liverpool's attack. And Liverpool will have the chance to attack, because Liverpool are facing a Tony Pulis side at Anfield. Liverpool will monopolize the ball, Liverpool will have to breakthrough 10 men in West Brom's defensive third, Liverpool will have to actually create chances against the fully-parked, on-cinder-blocks bus.

Tony Pulis is Tony Pulis is Tony Pulis. And West Brom have been quite Tony Pulis lately.

The Baggies are unbeaten in three, taking points off of sides ahead of them in the table: a 2-1 win over Arsenal and 1-1 draws against Tottenham and West Ham. They've scored at least once in six of the last seven games, the only exception at Manchester United, hardly anyone scores. Even Manchester United.

West Brom's equalizers against Tottenham and West Ham both came from quick moves down the right flank, crosses leading to McClean's header and Reid's own goal from Lambert's deflected shot. Against Arsenal, the equalizer came from a free kick, the winner from an own goal after a quick counter down the left. Counter-attacks, crosses, and set plays. So very Tony Pulis.

But West Brom have also kept only two clean sheets in the last 10 matches: 1-0 wins against Sunderland and Norwich. Which is not very Tony Pulis at all.

Sessegnon's hamstring injury will be a major concern; he's started West Brom's last seven matches after missing the first two months of the season. And I'm not quite sure how Pulis will replace him. My suspicion, because Tony Pulis, is they'll shift Gardner or Morrison out to the right, playing a deep, defensive 4-5-1 formation. Something like Myhill; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Brunt; Morrison, Gardner, Yacob, Fletcher, McClean; Rondon.

But it could be Brunt moving up from left-back, with McClean moved to the opposite flank, with a back four featuring four center-backs. Which is also very Tony Pulis. It could be the above 4-5-1 with Callum McManaman replacing Sessegnon in a straight swap, which is slightly less Tony Pulis. Or it could be 4-4-2, with either Berahino or Lambert partnering Rondon, which is the least Tony Pulis option. 4-4-2 away from home? Ha.

That Liverpool have gone two matches without scoring, have scored just one goal – from the penalty spot – in the last 200 or so minutes of league football, and (as you may have heard) are playing a Tony Pulis side remains incredibly worrying. That Liverpool continue to struggle to score, that Liverpool have especially struggled to score at Anfield and against sides that Liverpool *should* beat remains incredibly worrying.

With Coutinho and Henderson returning (in theory), with Liverpool actually having a week between games following this fixture, with Liverpool two weeks away from the perpetually busy and perpetually frightening festive schedule – a slate of games which will go a long way in deciding where Liverpool finish this season – there's no time like the present to dismiss these demons.

11 December 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Sion

Previous Match Infographics: Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

As always for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.

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

If I were someone in charge of investing match fixing, I'd be very tempted to investigate this match for fixing.

Maybe that's a little harsh. I certainly don't want to allege any illegality. But it was very Serie B; it's little surprise that when both teams need a 0-0 to qualify for the knockout stage, the end result is 0-0. Liverpool top the group, unbeaten in the stage, with two wins and four draws – the same record as when Roy Hodgson led the side in 2010-11. Sion, predicted by most to finish last, come second, celebrating the dire home draw as if it were a win.

So be it. Survive and advance. Forget and move on.

I'd feel an awful lot better about yesterday's dreary 0-0 had Liverpool's attack looked anywhere remotely near competent more than twice over the last month.

Liverpool took all of six shots; only once since the start of 2012-13 did Liverpool take fewer: five in a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in August 2013, when Liverpool took an early lead through Sturridge and defensively shelled for the rest of the contest. The first five Liverpool shots came from outside the box, all speculative at best, only Firmino's straight at the keeper even close to on-target. The last, the only Liverpool shot in the final hour of the match, almost didn't happen – Origi just barely got a touch on Smith's excellent cross, unable to steer it past Vanins. At least it took place inside the box.

So, out of context, whatever. Liverpool didn't need to attack, so Liverpool didn't attack – a glorified training session when Liverpool just played keep away and made sure Sion didn't score either. In the context of the last month, it's less encouraging.

Incredibly potent, incredibly impressive at both Manchester City and Southampton – bringing Liverpool's goals, shots on-target, and shot accuracy averages to a respectable level – but Liverpool haven't taken more than 14 shots since the 1-2 loss to Crystal Palace a month ago. That loss to Palace, as well as the two matches against Rubin Kazan, are the only matches where Liverpool took more than 16 shots since Klopp became manager. Three matches out of 13. That's not good. That's pretty much the opposite of good.

Yesterday was the first time Liverpool have been held scoreless in successive matches under Klopp. That happened once under Rodgers earlier this season, and four times last season. But, to be fair, it's only the third time Liverpool have been held scoreless in Klopp's 13 matches.

And, somehow, Sion were even worse in attack. Six shots, same as Liverpool. None on-target. Two inside the box: one swiftly blocked, the other a set play header not even close to Mignolet's goal.

That Liverpool once again prevented the opposition from getting easy chances – or, really, pretty much any chances at all – remains a massive positive. Liverpool are undeniably more secure against counter-attacks and set plays, two phases which consistently and constantly undermined Rodgers' sides.

It was cold. At least a third of the pitch appeared frozen. Liverpool didn't need to score, Liverpool only needed a draw. It was a much-changed Liverpool side, even if slightly stronger than expected. Henderson made his first start after injury, Brad Smith his first start for Liverpool, Coutinho his first substitute appearance after injury, 18-year-old Rossiter and 19-year-old Brannagan were Liverpool's two other substitutes. Liverpool have vastly more important matches, and quite a few of them, over the next month.

Those are all valid excuses. Especially the one about Liverpool not needing to score and already qualified for the knockout rounds. So it's hard to read too much into Liverpool's performance. But even accounting for all of those excuses, Liverpool's attack remains incredibly worrisome.

09 December 2015

Liverpool at FC Sion 12.10.15

1pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Newcastle (a); 6-1 Southampton (a); 1-0 Swansea
Sion: 0-1 Zurich (a); 1-2 Thun (h); 0-2 Kazan (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Sion: 0-2 Kazan (a); 1-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Bordeaux (a); 1-1 Liverpool (a); 2-1 Kazan (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 2, Benteke, Can, Ibe, Milner 1
Sion: Konate 2; Assifuah, Lacroix 1

Referee: Michael Koukoulakis (GRE)

Guess at a line-up:
Randall Toure Lovren Clyne
Rossiter Can Henderson
Lallana Firmino

So, who's available, and how much does Liverpool care?

Moreno, Lucas, Allen, Ibe, and Sturridge haven't traveled – the first three because of the amount of matches they've played lately, Ibe due to illness, and Sturridge because of a hamstring strain (siiiiiiiigh) picked up against Newcastle. Coutinho, finally fit after a hamstring injury, has, but it's hard to see him starting in his first match back.

It will, by necessity and by situation, be a very makeshift line-up. similar to the Bournemouth League Cup tie. That day, Liverpool's XI was Bogdan; Randall, Toure, Lovren, Clyne; Brannagan, Allen; Ibe, Firmino, Teixeira; Origi.

Somewhere between five and seven of those players will start: the back four and Origi, maybe Firmino and Bogdan as well. I suspect Rossiter will replace Brannagan, and Can will replace Allen, and Henderson and Lallana will come in for Teixeira and Ibe, switching Liverpool's formation to more of a 4-3-3. Rossiter's seemingly further along in his development than Brannagan, finally available for a first appearance under Klopp. Both Can and Lallana are fresh after not starting against Newcastle. After two substitute appearances and then available but unused at Newcastle, you'd have to think Henderson's ready to play from the start. It couldn't be a more welcomed return. Teixeira's ineligible for the Europa League – an incredibly stupid decision in retrospect.

Maybe Origi partners Benteke, a return to the 4-Diamond-2 which worked so well at Southampton. Maybe Coutinho's judged fully fit, and Liverpool revert to the 4-3-3 and front three which worked so well at Manchester City. But I doubt it. Liverpool will, and should, take as few risks as possible. Liverpool have qualified; it'd be nice to finish top of the group, ideally avoiding the best teams left in the competition, but finishing first didn't help in 2012-13 when Liverpool drew Zenit. This is Liverpool's last midweek match until the festive calendar starts; after Boxing Day, Liverpool will have two matches a week for more than a month. With qualification sealed, with key players either (again) injured or ill or just returning to fitness, this match is simply not a priority. This match is probably as low a priority as you can have for a non-friendly, mid-season match.

Meanwhile, Sion aren't in the best state either, having won just one of their last seven games since the start of November, drawing twice and losing four, including their last three fixtures. They've dropped to sixth in the Swiss Super League, 21 points behind first, 11 behind second, but only seven off of the bottom. They remain second in the group (after leading the group following the first four match days), but a loss in Kazan on the last match day means they could need something from this match depending on the other group fixture.

I suspect Sion's XI will look a lot like the one which played at Anfield two months ago. Vanins; Zverotic, Lacroix, Ziegler, Pa Modou; Kouassi, Salatic, Edimilson; Mujangi Bia, Assifuah, Carlitos. Moussa Konate, Sion's top scorer, hasn't played since fracturing his hand against Kazan two weeks ago; if he's unable to feature (it's your hand, it's not like you're using it…) it'll be Karlan, Follonier, or Mujangi Bia instead, the latter two more likely used on the wing with Assifuah up front. Ndoye, who came on as a sub at Anfield, is suspended. Otherwise, a surprisingly clean bill of health. Must be nice.

Liverpool really should have won the last meeting, handily. 19 shots to Sion's 10, six clear-cut chances created, just one goal scored. It was as wasteful as we've seen Liverpool; that was in the midst of the stretch against Norwich, Carlisle, Villa, and Sion at Anfield, where Liverpool scored just six goals from 111 shots while the opposition scored five from 33, and Liverpool drew three of the four matches 1-1. It was the streak which broke the camel's back, which marked the end of Brendan Rodgers' tenure.

However, when Liverpool have drawn or lost or even struggled to a win under Klopp, the problem hasn't been errant shooting. It's been chance creation, sadly evidenced by both the win over Swansea and loss at Newcastle. If Liverpool, with a similar lineup as in the last meeting (if a very different formation), create six clear-cut chances tomorrow, you'd expect Liverpool to win at a canter.

We need to see Liverpool under Klopp capable of creating those chances. That's much, much more important than the result tomorrow, no matter who plays.

Sion need a point to seal their place in the knockout stages, currently three points ahead of Kazan, but if Kazan beat Bordeaux and Sion lose, Kazan has the head-to-head tie-breaker. A draw suits Liverpool just fine as well. Klopp's side won't play for the draw – I don't think Jürgen Klopp's capable of sending out a side to "play for the draw" – but they won't, and shouldn't, kill themselves to avoid one either.

Were I a betting man, that's what I'd bet on.

07 December 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Yesterday saw Liverpool's worst shooting performance since Klopp became manager. 10 shots are the joint-fewest, along with last week's narrow 1-0 win over Swansea; 10% shooting accuracy is Liverpool's lowest since the 0-3 loss to West Ham back in September. Only Liverpool's match at Tottenham – the other match when Liverpool failed to score, and Klopp's first game in charge – saw fewer Danger Zone shots and a higher percentage of outside-the-box shots.

And it happened against a Newcastle side that averaged 16.93 shots allowed, 5.71 shots on-target allowed, and 2.14 goals conceded through its first 14 league matches. Only Sunderland and Stoke took fewer shots against Newcastle, nine each, but neither side conceded a Newcastle goal. No Premiership side allows more shots per match than Newcastle, no Premiership side concedes more goals than Newcastle (joint-worst along with Bournemouth).

Needless to say, the majority of blame will fall on Liverpool's £32.5m focal point.

• Liverpool Goals per 90 with Benteke as starter: 1.12 (403 minutes)
• Liverpool Goals per 90 with Benteke as a substitute: 3.24 (111 minutes)
• Liverpool Goals per 90 without Benteke: 1.91 (566 minutes)

Yesterday wasn't all Benteke's fault; with Firmino and Ibe in attack, and Milner and Allen in midfield, Benteke had few runners in behind to head on or pass to when Liverpool played it long to him. Which Liverpool did a fair amount. Ibe tries, but Ibe's 19 (for a couple more days) and Ibe's final ball is often not good. But Coutinho, and to a lesser extent, Lallana make those runs. Sturridge and Origi, had Klopp attempted to play Benteke with a strike partner, make those runs. And aside from Manchester City and Southampton (in the League Cup), Liverpool's attack hasn't been all that impressive without Benteke either. But still.

Benteke's passing yesterday:

Benteke's pass recipients yesterday:

• Ibe (6)
• Lucas (3)
• Milner (2)
• Allen (2)
• Clyne (2)
• Skrtel (1)

Ibe, unsurprisingly, was the only player who received forward passes from Benteke. Both of them. Otherwise, backwards or sideways passes to the three midfielders, a full-back, and a center-back.

These three videos from Simon Brundish highlight three moments when Benteke did very not good things, focusing on both his final third movement and (lack of) pressing. And I'm sure there are more examples.

If you're not going to shoot, not going to create, and not going to press, what are you playing for?

Again, Firmino wasn't any better, slightly more involved in the build-up and pressing, but with just one off-target shot and one chance created. Firmino found Benteke with just one (1) pass in 62 minutes of play. For comparison, in 28 minutes, Lallana passed to Sturridge six times, including Liverpool's best (and pretty much only) open play chance in the final half hour.

Both Benteke and Firmino often want to drop into midfield to receive possession; they do different things with the ball once in possession, but want to start from similar locations. Firmino can play differently, as we saw when he led the line against City, surrounded by Coutinho and Lallana, who both got forward and drifted inside from the flanks, who both pressed and hassled and harried City's defense into mistakes.

After this and after Swansea, it's one or the other. Not both. Please not both.

It was a comprehensive failure in attack, from all involved. Credit to Newcastle, who ran more, pressed more, and seemingly "wanted it" more. But this was still much, much more a Liverpool loss than it was a Newcastle win, mainly because of Liverpool's failings in Newcastle's half of the pitch. And it's not as if this is the first time Liverpool have comprehensively failed up front, especially when Benteke, Firmino, and Ibe all start.

All that complaining said...

On a different day, this ends 0-0 or 1-1, and we gripe – rightfully so – but move on. Shit happens in football, to everyone, even if it's seemingly more to Liverpool than others (except Chelsea this season, at least). You are not going to lose many matches when conceding just one shot on-target, even when you play that badly in attack.

Even if it's not the first time Liverpool have been bad in attack, it's one match. One very bad match, with a front six I'd rather not see again. One very bad match, which was all too similar to this fixture last season, which is about the biggest insult you can come up with.

Learn from it. It has, after all, only been 12 matches since Klopp took over, with only seven of them in the league.

After this, coupled with a similar performance from Benteke, Firmino, and Ibe against Swansea, I have to believe it'll be a while before we see an F.B.I. attack again. At least in the league. Liverpool desperately missed Coutinho, Lallana, and Sturridge, and those three (along with Henderson and Emre Can) will assuredly improve Liverpool up front.

That can't come soon enough.