31 January 2015

Liverpool 2-0 West Ham

Sterling 51'
Sturridge 80'

What a difference a striker makes.

Liverpool played fairly well before Sturridge came on: controlling the tempo, dominating possession, limiting West Ham's chances. As they've done in most of their matches since switching to 3-4-2-1. But, as has happened in most of the matches this season, Liverpool truly struggled to put the ball in the net. Just three shots on-target from 11 in total, and two of those three were simple saves from distance; only Coutinho's narrow-angle shot required a marginally difficult save from Adrian. Markovic missed a clear-cut chance just before the interval, while Marriner ignored a fairly clear penalty in the build-up (and two elbows from Andy Carroll earlier in the half). Promising but frustrating, par for the course.

Liverpool did finally score before Sturridge came on. And it was a wonderful goal: Sakho to Moreno, bursting down West Ham's right; Moreno's cross met by Sterling with his back to goal, perfectly chested down for Coutinho before turning on goal; a wonderful clipped throughball into Sterling, finished from close range under the diving Adrian. It was some of Sterling's best lone-striker play ever, and it was Coutinho's fifth assist of the season.

But Liverpool with Daniel Sturridge were an entirely different proposition. That Lallana switched to right wing-back helped as well, much more creative and dangerous where he was invisible earlier in the match, but Liverpool finally had a player who unsettled the defense: capable of doing all the things Sterling can do but even better: speed, touch, link-up play; capable on the counter or in intricate build-up. Sterling set him up on the break, a no-angle byline shot saved. Lallana set him up via a lofted cross, but Sturridge could only head down rather than on goal, then nearly set him up with a low cross across the six-yard box, just too far in front of the striker.

And then he struck, with aplomb. Interplay between Sturridge and Sterling in midfield, Coutinho finding space after Marriner played advantage when Sterling was fouled, Coutinho dancing around Mark Noble before finding Sturridge in the box. A jaw-dropping left-footed touch that belied his five-month absence to set himself up and find space away from Winston Reid, a flawless right-footed finish inside the near post. Today was Sturridge's seventh substitute appearance for Liverpool in the league. That was his fifth goal as a substitute. And it was another assist for Coutinho, the first time he's had two in a match since the 6-3 victory over Cardiff last March.

It was just 25 minutes, but that was a wonderful glimpse of Liverpool's potential future.

Liverpool retained its newly-found resilience in defense – even though Can had some frightening moments (and strangely switched to sweeper in the second half) – led by the imperious Mamadou Sakho, who was probably Liverpool's man of the match. Liverpool coped well with Carroll, Valencia, and set plays; Mignolet mostly did well in coming to claim crosses from open play and set plays. And it was Liverpool's third consecutive league clean sheet.

And Liverpool combined it with the cutting edge provided by Sturridge. Not only from Sturridge, but also in how he creates space for others because he requires such close attention from opposition defenders. Which was demonstrated by Jordon Ibe's late chance: West Ham defenders all watching Sturridge as Ibe combined with Lallana, picked up possession on the right, and cut into the box, his close-range shot well saved by Adrian with Sturridge putting the rebound wide.

I've had to write it often this season, but one swallow still doesn't make a summer. Especially since Liverpool's next four league matches are against Everton, Spurs, Southampton, and City. Still, based on that performance, it seems summer might not be long in coming.

30 January 2015

Liverpool v West Ham 01.31.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 West Ham (a) 09.20.14
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.06.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.07.13
0-0 (h) 04.07.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Chelsea aet (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
West Ham: 1-0 Bristol (a); 3-0 Hull (h); 2-2 Everton aet [9-8 on penalties] (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Markovic, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
West Ham: Sakho 8; Carroll, Downing 5; Amalfitano 3; Cole, Zarate 2; Cresswell, Kouyate, Noble, Nolan, Reid, Tomkins 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Lovren
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

Sturridge is finally – FINALLY – back in training, but I still don't expect him to start, at least for another match. I've obviously been wrong before but chances are he's eased in slowly, used off the bench if at all. As he was when he returned from injury against Stoke last season or West Ham in his first season.

There are also concerns about Mamadou Sakho, subbed off against Chelsea with a back injury but declaring himself fit on Twitter soon after. Once again, I suspect Liverpool will err on the side of caution. However, Sakho's absence would probably mean a start for Lovren (or Johnson, but probably Lovren), so the words "err" and "caution" may not be appropriate.

Finally, the only other lineup decision seems to be the usual: will it be Gerrard or Lallana opposite Coutinho up front. It's a moot decision if Sturridge starts, because Sterling will take that spot, but again, that seems unlikely. And given that Gerrard played 120 minutes on Tuesday, clearly fatigued for the last hour, Lallana will probably be the choice. Maybe there are other fatigue concerns after Tuesday's match – Allen for Lucas, Manquillo (or maybe even Johnson) or Enrique for Markovic or Moreno – but, as usual, I suspect Rodgers will dance with the ones that brung him unless it's really not feasible.

West Ham remain Liverpool's closest competitor in the league table, one point ahead of the Reds. And that's despite four consecutive draws in all competitions before beating Hull 3-0 – a match that was closer than the scoreline suggests – and squeaking past Bristol City in the FA Cup.

This team is Maximum Allardyce, a team built around direct football, counter-attacks, and set plays. And it's only become more emphatic since Andy Carroll returned to the side. The second and third goals against Hull came from quick counters after regaining possession. Only Chelsea have scored more set play goals than West Ham so far this season. You remember, the same Chelsea which beat Liverpool on Tuesday thanks to a set play.

West Ham will again use the diamond which gave Liverpool so many problems in the reverse fixture. As in September, their plays thrives on direct football, counter-attacks, and set plays. The probable XI is Adrian; Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell; Song; Noble, Nolan; Downing; Carroll, Sakho. Jenkinson, Song, Tomkins, and Collins – who could feature in defense in place of either Tomkins or Reid – are all questionable with minor knocks, but likely to play. Kouyate could feature in place of Nolan after returning from the African Cup of Nations this week. There's also controversy over Diafre Sakho's exit from the African Cup of Nations, leaving the Senegal squad because of a back injury but immediately playing for West Ham in last weekend's FA Cup match. But that shouldn't preclude him from starting tomorrow.

Sakho, like Carroll, is excellent in air – five of his eight league goals have been from headers – but is even more dangerous with the ball at his feet. After Sakho, West Ham's joint-second top scorers are Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, two players you may be familiar with. Downing also has the fourth-most assists in the Premier League: seven, which is the same total he managed in two seasons with Liverpool.

Liverpool are not the same side which lost 1-3 at Upton Park five months ago. After going two-down very early on, Liverpool switched to three-at-the-back, the first time we saw three-at-the-back this season, but the current 3-4-1-2 is a very different animal. Liverpool are vastly more secure at the back and vastly more cohesive in the middle third. There are however, still significant problems up front, still problems scoring goals. But West Ham have kept just two clean sheets since the start of December: at home against Leicester and Hull. That, combined with the imminent return of Daniel Sturridge, even if it's only as a substitute, is a cause for a bit of optimism.

And Liverpool need all the causes for optimism they can get tomorrow, needing to respond to Tuesday's setback and needing all three points against the side just ahead of them in the table. The best chance at a trophy's now gone – a replay in the fourth round of the FA Cup notwithstanding – but there are still 16 league matches left to play, and Liverpool are only five points off of fourth.

28 January 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Chelsea aet (League Cup)

Previous Matches against Chelsea:
2014-15: 1-1 Chelsea (h; League Cup), 1-2 Chelsea (h)
2013-14: 0-2 Chelsea (h), 1-2 Chelsea (a)
2012-13: 2-2 Chelsea (h), 1-1 Chelsea (a)

All Statistics via WhoScored.

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

So close, yet so far. Again.

And it's because of Liverpool's set play defense, something we thankfully haven't mentioned in a while (*waves at Balotelli*), and Liverpool's inability to put its shots on-target, something we've mentioned far, far too often.

Through 210 minutes, the league's dominant team and top scorers couldn't conjure a single open play goal. They needed a penalty in the first leg and an extra-time set play header to beat Liverpool. Liverpool's much-maligned defense, much-maligned goal keeper kept them at bay throughout. Lucas, Skrtel, and Can were outstanding, Mignolet made three marvelous saves, Sakho defended well before going off through injury (although passed sloppily at times), and even Glen Johnson resembled a professional footballer.

But it wasn't enough. Because Liverpool struggle to score at the best of times, and really, really struggled to score against the league's second-best defense and best goalkeeper.

Unlike in the previous leg, Liverpool weren't foiled by a deep defense blocking shots and an in-form goalkeeper. Chelsea blocked just two of Liverpool's 16 shots; they blocked six of 19 a week ago. Courtois had to make two excellent saves yesterday, but both were in the first 30 minutes: on Moreno and Coutinho.

Liverpool simply could not hit the target. Liverpool's last eight shots, from the 82nd minute onward, were all off-target. Every single one, whether Balotelli or Lambert's worse-than-speculative efforts or Henderson's clear-cut headed chance. Liverpool have been erratic in front of goal all season long, but yesterday was the worst possible time to be erratic. Chelsea aren't going to give you many chances at Stamford Bridge. You've got to take them. Like Bradford City did on Saturday. But Liverpool simply couldn't.

That's the alpha and omega of yesterday's match, despite the Diego Costa talking points, the should-have-been penalty on Skrtel talking point, potential red cards for Henderson and Lucas talking point. And that's the alpha and omega of Liverpool's season to date.

It's beating a dead horse into the ground and setting the horse's corpse on fire at this point, but blame for this season lies squarely at this summer's transfer business and the enigmatic and inscrutable transfer committee. Sturridge's injury couldn't be predicted but should have been planned for, and Suarez was replaced by Balotelli, Borini, and Lambert.

Balotelli was Balotelli yesterday: some decent tricks and passes, questionable and wayward shots, a dire lack of movement and understanding of the players around him, and switching off while man-marking Chelsea's most dangerous header of the ball on the game-winning set play. Of course, I'm also not sure why Balotelli was marking Ivanovic, but he was. Kind of.

Lambert was Lambert: the last throw of the dice and unable to make an impact.

Borini was Borini: not even included in the squad.

That Raheem Sterling – barely 20 years old, playing out of position – has been Liverpool's most effective striker this season says everything.

I blame the players, but I don't blame the players. They are what they are, and we've seen it all season long. So I blame whomever bought them, and the manager for how he uses them. It's not as if Rodgers had options upon options but none of Liverpool's subs helped the side. The first was enforced, but the latter two were just throwing on strikers in the hope something would happen, at the expense of the midfield and the flanks. But, to be fair, it's also the manager who fixed many of this side's problems from earlier in the season.

Meanwhile, Mourinho's first substitution made a massive impact: Ramires helped solidify the midfield, mitigating Coutinho's impact – by far the most dangerous player in the first half – and gave Chelsea more impetus going forward.

The litany of complaints make the performance sound worse than it was. Liverpool went toe-to-toe with a far better team, a far better squad, a far more expensive squad. It was just Liverpool's second loss – a loss that came in extra time, no less – in the last 17 matches in all competitions. It honestly wasn't bad, and it was certainly better than we'd seen against Chelsea when these sides met in the league earlier this season, and better than the league match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season.

But it wasn't good enough. It really wasn't good enough in front of goal. And that's what everyone will remember.

26 January 2015

Liverpool at Chelsea 01.27.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h; League Cup) 01.20.14
1-2 Chelsea (h) 11.08.14
0-2 Chelsea (h) 04.27.14
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Villa (a)
Chelsea: 2-4 Bradford (h); 1-1 Liverpool (a); 5-0 Swansea (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 3-1 Bournemouth (a); 2-1 Swansea (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h)
Chelsea: 1-1 Liverpool (a); 3-1 Derby (a); 2-1 Shrewsbury (a); 2-1 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Sterling 7; Lallana 4; Henderson, Lambert 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Markovic, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Chelsea: Costa 17; Hazard 12; Oscar 7; Drogba 6; Schürrle, Terry 5; Fabregas, Remy 4; Matic, Ramires, Willian 3; Cahill, Ivanovic, Zouma 2; Mikel 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho

There's honestly not very much to preview here.

We all know what Liverpool's XI will be. Maybe Lallana comes in for Gerrard, if he's not fully fit, or Coutinho, who disappointed (along with a fair few others) on Saturday, but that's about it. Rodgers is threatening to have Sturridge on the bench, but Tuesday seems too soon considering how long he was out. But Liverpool's medical staff obviously knows far, far more about that situation than I do.

Otherwise, the defense is settled, the midfield is settled. If Liverpool's more defensive wing-back back-ups were any better, one of them could be included – because Liverpool will have to defend far more than they did last week – but both Manquillo and Enrique were fairly terrible against Bolton.

First and foremost, Liverpool will have to be defensively solid; it will be a massive, massive game for Markovic and Can, again. But Liverpool will also have to score to advance, and chances will most likely come on the counter. Liverpool will need to press effectively – despite many players involved having played three matches in a week – Liverpool's build-up play will need to be quick and clever, Liverpool's finishing will need to be better than it's been for the majority of the season. Simple, right?

Similar goes for Chelsea. If the home side makes any changes from last Tuesday, it'll be Oscar for Mikel, dropping Fabregas into midfield. Mikel's already doubtful because of a head injury suffered against Bradford, but I expect he'd have been left out regardless. And that's about it. Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis; Matic, Fabregas; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa. From that XI, only Oscar and Cahill started in Saturday's surprising loss to Bradford, although Hazard, Fabregas, and Willian all came off the bench. And Bradford scored three of their four goals after those substitutions.

As if Chelsea needed any more motivation, they're coming off that 2-4 loss to League One Bradford City in the FA Cup. That was Chelsea's first home loss this season. That was the first time that Chelsea lost at home to lower league opposition since October 1995. As a reference point, Raheem Sterling was only 10 months old when that happened.

But both Bradford and Tottenham demonstrated that Chelsea can be beaten with swift counter-attacks: speedy runners on the flanks – which Liverpool have in Markovic and Moreno – and overloading the middle (especially the vulnerable Fabregas), which Liverpool can do with Sterling, Gerrard, Coutinho, and Henderson. And taking advantage of set plays – which Bradford did, which Liverpool often did last season – would be fairly helpful as well.

So here we are. 90 minutes – maybe 120, if extra time is needed, but let's go with 90 – for a trip to Wembley, a chance at a trophy. 90 minutes against the best side in England, a wounded animal, on their own ground. 90 minutes to demonstrate just how far Liverpool have come over the last few months. 90 minutes from greatness.

24 January 2015

Liverpool 0-0 Bolton

Maybe this is why Rodgers is often hesitant to rotate his team in cup competition. Because a Liverpool side with five changes from the side which drew Chelsea – even if they were expected changes – thoroughly disappointed. It was Manquillo's first start since January 5, Allen's and Johnson's first start since December 14, and Enrique's first start since December 9.

Liverpool weathered a spell of Bolton pressure early on, even if the only dangerous moment was a scramble in the box that was eventually cleared, then spent 80 frustrating minutes frustrated in the final third.

Liverpool were admittedly disjointed, but some of the main culprits were Liverpool's regulars, especially in attack. Neither Coutinho, Lallana, nor Sterling fired to anywhere near their full potential. And that's the main reason Liverpool failed to score, failed to win, and now Liverpool have to cope with a midweek replay in 11 days. Sometimes, it's just one of those days, although it'd be easier to blame that if Liverpool's attack hadn't misfired early and often this season.

Of course, Liverpool weren't helped by an opposition keeper having his best game of the season. When making his first start since August 30th. Adam Bogdan made four massive saves: on Henderson in the 12th, on Sterling in the 54th, on Coutinho in the 58th, and on Borini in the 71st. Bodgan made nine saves in total, tying the most any opposition keeper's made against Liverpool (De Gea also stopped nine).

Well, that doesn't look too bad. 23 of 24 shots coming in the center of the pitch. 14 inside the box, and 13 in the Danger Zone. Overall, nine shots on-target, five off-target, and 10 blocked.

Nine on-target isn't great, but nine of 24 is 37.5% accuracy, which is better than Liverpool's usual shot accuracy this season.

Oh. That makes it worse.

Just two of Liverpool's nine on-target shots coming inside the box. Eight of the 14 shots inside the box blocked. Liverpool's three closest shots to goal all off-target: Borini's header, Lallana's header, and Manquillo's 58th-minute effort, defined by Opta as a "big chance."

Today also highlighted the importance of wing-backs in this system, especially in attack, and especially when the opposition's happy to pack seven defenders in their own penalty box. Enrique was rightfully hauled off at halftime. Manquillo lasted just 20 minutes longer, taken off for Borini at the same time Lucas replaced Allen, with Sterling shifting to right wing-back. Neither Enrique nor Manquillo created a chance, while Manquillo added the aforementioned off-target big chance shot. Enrique's replacement, Markovic, created two chances, twice dribbled past a Bolton defender, and made the run which should have seen Bolton's best defender, Matt Mills, sent off in the 50th minute: a decision which would have changed the game. Borini had two outstanding chances to find the winner, one brilliantly saved, one depressingly off-target.

Mills was crucial to Bolton's game plan, the man of the match along with Adam Bogdan. Four tackles, five interceptions, five shots blocked, and eight clearances, leading the match in both interceptions and blocks. Which makes it worse that he was able to stay on the pitch after his uncalled foul in the 50th minute, before being subbed off for his own protection in the 73rd.

Bolton came to defend, and Bolton defended excellently. So be it. At least Liverpool didn't do anything stupid at the other end of the pitch – which is something I've been able to write a fair amount lately – keeping their fourth clean sheet in the eight matches since Boxing Day. Liverpool kept four clean sheets in the 26 matches before Boxing Day this season.

It could have been worse. Ask Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton, and Tottenham. Or Manchester United. Seven of the top 10 sides in the Premier League have played their fourth round FA Cup tie. None of those seven advanced: losses for Chelsea, City, Southampton, Tottenham, and Swansea, replays for United and Liverpool. Arsenal and West Ham play tomorrow, Stoke on Monday.

The magic of the cup, and all that nonsense. At least Liverpool's still in the competition. For now.

All stats from WhoScored

23 January 2015

Liverpool v Bolton 01.24.15

12:30pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Bolton (a) 01.21.12
3-1 Liverpool (h) 08.27.11
2-1 Liverpool (h) 01.01.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.31.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Sunderland (a)
Bolton: 2-1 Sheffield Wed (a); 1-1 Leeds (h); 1-0 Wigan (h)

Previous round:
Liverpool: 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Bolton: 1-0 Wigan (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Sterling 7; Lallana 4; Henderson, Lambert 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Markovic, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Bolton: C Davies, Pratley 5; Mason, Mills 4; Danns, Feeney, C.Y. Lee 3; Beckford 2; Clayton, Clough, M Davies, Guðjohnsen, Heskey, Moxey, Spearing, Wheater 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Lovren Skrtel Sakho
Manquillo Rossiter Henderson Enrique
Lallana Sterling

I'd prefer wholesale changes, because last Tuesday's match was draining and next Tuesday's match will be as well, but Rodgers rarely operates like that. But there seemingly have to be at least a handful of changes.

One of Lovren or Johnson seem likely to come back into the side. Possibly both, if Rodgers prefers Johnson at wing-back. But rotation is much less important in defense, and Liverpool's defense is settled and has been playing well. Still, I suspect Lovren will get another chance, whether in place of Can or Sakho.

The wing-backs, who probably ran more than any other player against Chelsea, will probably be swapped out, with Johnson or Manquillo on the right, and Enrique on the left.

Lucas is another seemingly in need of a rest. He plays much better when fresh, and Liverpool will desperately need him on Tuesday. At the same time, Rodgers clearly stated that Rossiter would be involved against Bolton. Maybe this means an appearance off the bench instead, but the quotes suggest a definite appearance, and the only definite appearance is an appearance from the start. Maybe Liverpool completely change the midfield, with both Rossiter and Allen coming in, but Henderson, the Energizer Bunny that he is, could keep his place for continuity and to captain the side.

And I have no idea what Liverpool will do up front. Lallana seems certain to be included. Coutinho probably needs a rest. If Gerrard's going to start on Tuesday, he's unlikely to start tomorrow, because he also started last Tuesday and Liverpool's finally realized he can't start three matches in a week, even if you bring him off at the hour mark. Sterling is coming off his winter break, and should be fresh enough to start three matches in a week, even if I still worry about his fitness. Markovic's a possibility in one of the two attacking midfielder spots, but I expect he'll be left on the bench for the same reason mentioned in the part about wing-backs. It's a pity that Jordon Ibe is cup-tied, as he'd be certain to start otherwise.

So, by process of elimination, Lallana and Sterling seem likely to be the attacking midfielders, with one of Borini, Balotelli, and Lambert up front. And Borini remains the most suited to Liverpool's preferred formation and style.

As frequently happens in cup matches, I won't embarrass us both by pretending to know much about Bolton. 15th in the league but 10 points outside the relegation zone, a slightly negative goal difference, consistently inconsistent but better since Neil Lennon because manager in mid-October.

Lennon's side have been alternated between 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond recently. Former Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing is wholly out-of-favor, but 37-year-old Emile Heskey is likely to start up front, whether on his own or paired with Eidur Guðjohnsen. If it's 4-2-3-1, which seems slightly more likely, Bolton's XI will be something like Lonergan; Vela, Mills, Dervite, Ream; Danns, Trotter; Feeney, Guðjohnsen, Pratley; Heskey. If it's the diamond, it'll probably be the same XI which beat Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday: Lonergan; Dervite, Mills, Wheater, Ream; Danns, Feeney, Vela, Pratley; Heskey, Guðjohnsen. Bolton will be without both Chung-Yong Lee and joint-top scorer Craig Davies in attack, but youngster Zach Clough – who scored the winner against Wigan in the last round – could partner Heskey or Guðjohnsen, with the other available off the bench.

I can't help but remember Bolton's time in the Premier League, a side that often gave Liverpool problems whether managed by Allardyce, Sammy Lee, or Owen Coyle. Even in Bolton's last top-flight season, they beat Liverpool handily, a 3-1 home win with former Liverpool striker David Ngog imperious. At most, five Liverpool players from that day are likely to feature (Skrtel, Henderson, Enrique, Johnson, Gerrard) while only three Bolton players are still with the club (Mark Davies, Wheater, Bodgan). But Bolton fans will remember it well, Liverpool fans remember it well.

Bolton hasn't had many days like this, many matches like this, since relegation. And they'll want to take full advantage. And if Liverpool aren't up for the match, are focused on Tuesday's semi-final, Bolton have the potential to take full advantage.

21 January 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea (League Cup)

Previous Matches against Chelsea:
2014-15: 1-2 Chelsea (h)
2013-14: 0-2 Chelsea (h), 1-2 Chelsea (a)
2012-13: 2-2 Chelsea (h), 1-1 Chelsea (a)

All Statistics via WhoScored.

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

I decided to do a slightly abbreviated version of the usual match infographic rather than a day-late match review for two reasons. First, WhoScored actually has full League Cup statistics now, which is a wonderful boon. Second, there was a surprising statistical disparity, even considering Liverpool were facing a Mourinho side at home in the first leg of knockout competition.

It wasn't quite the 0-2 match at Anfield last April, but it was a lot closer to that than I expected. Except, thankfully, in the final score.

I have never seen a side fail to create a single chance since I started doing these infographics in 2012-13. I have never seen a side take just two shots; the previous low for a Liverpool opponent was Swansea's three in Liverpool's 5-0 win in 2013.

Sure, a good deal of that had to do with game state. Chelsea didn't have to attack thanks to Hazard's 18th minute penalty. But Chelsea also couldn't attack after the penalty, and that had a lot to do with how good Liverpool were going forward and how well the back three and Liverpool's midfield set up and defended.

Penalty notwithstanding, it was the best defensive performance of the season considering the opposition. I reiterate: Chelsea took just two shots, and one was a penalty. Game state be damned; Chelsea are an outstanding counter-attacking team, and Liverpool gave them next to no opportunity to do so. Skrtel and Sakho kept Costa quiet all match. Can and Markovic – again, aside from the penalty – did reasonably decent again one of the most dangerous and versatile attackers in the league, especially considering that 50% of Chelsea's attacks came down Liverpool's right. Can and Markovic are both playing out of position and are 21 and 20 years old respectively.

What was most impressive doesn't show up in the stats: when Can was caught up field, Skrtel slid over, with one of the midfielders dropping into coverage. Similar happened with Sakho, to a lesser extent, on the the opposite flank. Similar happened with Liverpool's two deeper midfielders. There seemed a vastly better understanding of what a teammate was going to do, and what the Liverpool player had to do to compensate.

Also, mention need be made of Sterling's performance, by far the most comprehensive he's delivered as an out-and-out striker. Leading the side in both shots and key passes, drifting into space between the lines and into the channels. He terrified both Cahill and Terry all match long. And his goal was a thing of beauty for both his road runner pace and his intelligence; seeing that Matic was marking Gerrard, Mikel was marking Coutinho, and neither center-back wanted to come that deep to man-mark him, he drifted into space just past the center circle, deftly turned away from the too-late-to-recover Matic, and blazed past Cahill and Terry, finishing with his quote-unquote weaker left foot. Even last season's Luis Suarez would be proud of that goal, and that's the highest praise I can conjure.

It was, on the whole and considering the opposition, an outstanding team-wide performance. But an outstanding team-wide performance that ended in a draw rather than a win because of a moment of brilliance from Fabregas and Hazard combined with a moment of weakness from Can (and, to a much lesser extent, Markovic).

It's the third consecutive match against Chelsea – although all were at Anfield – that Liverpool out-passed and out-possessed Mourinho's Chelsea, also out-shooting Chelsea in two of those three. And it's the first of those three that Liverpool didn't lose.

If not for Courtois, Liverpool could have won. Had Atkinson given a fairly clear penalty for Costa's handball in first half injury time or sent off Filipe Luis for doing the same thing that got Markovic sent off against Basel, Liverpool could have won. Had Gerrard's 67th minute shot been a foot to the right. Etc, etc. Regrets piled upon regrets.

It's hard to fault Can for the penalty considering how well he played for the rest of the match, especially the second half. It's hard to be angry at an impressive draw when it's a draw against the best team in England and one of the best teams in Europe. Chelsea had scored at least two goals in their last four matches (it was just the second time Chelsea were held to a single goal since the start of December) and had kept a clean sheet in their last three matches.

But it's hard to swallow that Liverpool could play so well and only get a draw. And while it's not the worst position in the world (honestly, I expected worse), it makes next week's match at Stamford Bridge that much more difficult.

Matches against Chelsea have been eminently frustrating for the last three seasons – no matter how well Liverpool play, no matter Liverpool's form going into the fixture – and it shows little sign of abating. And that's what's so skin-crawlingly irritating about yesterday's result, no matter the plethora of positives.

19 January 2015

Liverpool v Chelsea 01.20.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Chelsea (h) 11.08.14
0-2 Chelsea (h) 04.27.14
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13
2-2 (h) 04.21.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Sunderland (a); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Chelsea: 5-0 Swansea (a); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 3-0 Watford (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 3-1 Bournemouth (a); 2-1 Swansea (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h)
Chelsea: 3-1 Derby (a); 2-1 Shrewsbury (a); 2-1 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 9; Sterling 6; Lallana 4; Henderson, Lambert 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Markovic, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Chelsea: Costa 17; Hazard 11; Oscar 7; Drogba 6; Schürrle, Terry 5; Fabregas, Remy 4; Matic, Willian 3; Ivanovic, Ramires, Zouma 2; Cahill, Mikel 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho

There only seems one question in regards to Liverpool's XI. Will Gerrard or Lallana replace Borini? Both should be available after injuries, and even though Lallana made the bench on Saturday while Gerrard was left out entirely, it'll probably be Gerrard. It's Gerrard, it's Chelsea, it's a semifinal.

Maybe Enrique, who was better in defense than Moreno against Villa, comes into the side. Maybe Manquillo or the supposedly-fit-again Johnson, with Markovic switching to the left. Maybe Borini, with a goal and assist in his last two starts, retains his place. Liverpool will be less open and less attacking, even though tomorrow's match is at Anfield, because it's also the first leg. The last thing Liverpool need will be to chase the game at Stamford Bridge. But if it ain't broke, etc.

And this will be the toughest test since Liverpool's switch to 3-4-2-1. Liverpool haven't beaten Chelsea since a 4-1 win against understrength opposition in May 2012, with two draws and three losses against the Blues since Rodgers became manager. Chelsea remain, by far, the best team in England, with the most goals scored and the fewest conceded in the division. And they haven't conceded a single goal in the three matches since a surprising 3-5 loss at Tottenham on New Year's Day. Which was one of Chelsea's two losses all season.

I have no idea how much Chelsea will rotate, if at all. I suspect Mourinho will pick his strongest line-up – it is a semi-final, it is against Liverpool – but Costa, Courtois, and Ivanovic are yet to start a League Cup match, while Schürrle, Cech, Filipe Luis, Mikel, and Zouma have started all three. And it's not as if Chelsea are lacking in options.

But let's assume it's a full strength XI. Two players are doubtful: Azpilicueta, who missed the Swansea match with a groin injury, and Courtois, who missed the last three matches with a finger injury but should be available. It'd be Courtois/Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis; Fabregas, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa. Which, aside from Courtois, is the same XI which romped over Swansea on Saturday. And, aside from Filipe Luis for Azpilicueta, the same XI which beat Liverpool 1-2 at Anfield in November.

So Liverpool have their work cut out for them, to say the absolute least. Both sides will be cagey, because that's how Chelsea play and because Liverpool will want to be in a reasonable position for the second, even more difficult leg. And that sort of match will favor the away side. But if Liverpool can build on the resilience shown in the last few away matches, build on the link-up play improvement since the switch to 3-4-2-1, and repeat the ability to get Danger Zone shots and convert their opportunities as they did against Villa, Liverpool absolutely have a chance.

Nota Bene: As per usual with weekday matches, there won't be an immediate match review. But because it's a semifinal and because there aren't enough statistics to do a match infographic for League Cup matches, I'll probably eventually write a review. But it'll be very late on Tuesday, if not Wednesday morning.

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), 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.

Compare Liverpool's basic statistics from Saturday's match to the reverse fixture at Anfield in September.

From that, it's hard to tell which one Liverpool won 2-0 and which one Liverpool lost 0-1. That's what's possible when you don't concede a stupid early goal. Or any stupid goal, for that matter.

Yes, it's yet another example that passing and possession aren't worth a bucket of warm spit if you can't put the ball in the net. But Liverpool's newfound resilience at the other end – clearly aided by Villa's profligacy – is just as important.

Take your chances and don't do anything dumb in defense. Football really is a simple game.

Liverpool limited Villa's chances on the counter, despite the majority of Villa's tackles and interceptions taking place in the middle third of the pitch. Most impressive was how quiet Agbonlahor was, up against Can and Markovic: two players "out of position," new to the Premier League, and 21 and 20 years old respectively. In Agbonlahor's previous four matches against Rodgers' Liverpool, he'd tallied a goal and three assists, averaging 2.25 shots and 1.25 key passes per game. No shots, no key passes yesterday.

There was absolutely no messing about in Liverpool's defense. I don't have all the stats (partly because I'm too lazy to collect them all, partly because they don't go back that far) but I suspect 20 passes is the fewest Skrtel's ever attempted for Liverpool when completing 90 minutes. Rather than passing amongst themselves (or heaven forbid, to Mignolet), Liverpool's defenders immediately got the ball to Lucas, Henderson or Markovic.

Liverpool survived nine corners and seven free kicks in their own half (although only one of those free kicks was in Liverpool's defensive third). I'm knocking on wood as hard as I can while writing this, but Liverpool have conceded just one set play goal in the league since the 1-3 loss at Palace in late November, when Debuchy scored from a free kick on December 21 (although, yes, Liverpool conceded a set play goal in both the Champions League and FA Cup since then).

Liverpool took eight of 12 shots – 66.7% – in the danger zone. Four of those eight Danger Zone shots were on-target, two resulted in goals. And Liverpool didn't take a single shot from outside the box until Lucas' in the 78th: the shot which earned Liverpool the corner that led to the second goal. They may not have created a lot of chances, but the ones they did were good chances.

Both of Liverpool's goals came from quick moves starting in Villa's half: nice interplay and a perfect cross following a throw-in, a short burst after winning possession thanks to Delph's sloppy pass. Unlike in the reverse fixture, Liverpool did not allow Villa the chance to organize their defense on both occasions, and twice took advantage of that disorganization.

Aside from Villa's response between the 60th and 75th minutes, where only Mignolet, Skrtel, Sakho, Henderson, and Villa's wastefulness prevented an equalizer, it was a textbook away performance. Control the tempo, contain the home side, counter when possible, convert your chances.

Yes, it came against a very bad team and could have easily finished 2-1 or 1-1, but it came all the same. It came against a side Liverpool's struggled against in previous meetings, and it's the first time Liverpool's beaten Villa by more than a goal since December 2011 (2W-2D-2L during that stretch prior to Saturday's win). And it came away from Anfield, just the third time this season that Liverpool's won by more than a goal on the road this season (3-0 at Tottenham, 3-1 at Leicester).

Once again – as said after matches against Arsenal, Burnley, Swansea, and Sunderland – that's progress. Now, with Chelsea (twice), West Ham, Everton, and Tottenham to come over the next month, we'll get to see just how much progress Liverpool have actually made.

17 January 2015

Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa

Borini 24'
Lambert 79'

That was the first time Liverpool have kept three consecutive league clean sheets away from Anfield since the first three away matches of 2008-09.

That was the first time Aston Villa have conceded twice in a match since November 2nd.

That was the first time this season that Liverpool have gotten goals from two different strikers in the same match.

That was the first time that a Liverpool substitute scored in the league since Coutinho's goal at QPR on October 19, 15 matches ago. It was only the second league goal scored by a substitute this season.

So even though Aston Villa threatened more than they probably should have, and teams that aren't Aston Villa – scoreless in their last 522 minutes of league football – probably would have scored at least once, it's hard to complain about that performance.

Liverpool started well, and took advantage of their good start through Borini, his first Liverpool goal since April 2013. Quick passes following a quick throw-in deep in Villa's half, an indescribably perfect cross from Henderson, a smart run from a just-onside Borini for a tap-in. Sterling should have added a second, chipping straight at Guzan when one-on-one with the keeper, but Liverpool did well to nullify any potential response until the last five minutes of the first half, when Mignolet eventually held Sanchez's shot from nowhere and Cleverley ballooned an effort from the left side of the box.

Unlike against Sunderland, Liverpool didn't completely sit back to start the second half, and again should have extended their lead, fingertips from Guzan enough to deny Borini following Skrtel's knockdown of a corner.

But the inevitable Villa response finally came after a double substitution from Paul Lambert on the hour mark, replacing Westwood and Cleverley with Weimann and Carlos Gil, and the subsequent 10-15 minutes were utterly terrifying. A brilliant Mignolet save on Benteke, a Baker free header from a corner narrowly over, Skrtel's outstanding tackle to block Benteke following Delph's run and throughball, Baker whiffing on an open eight-yard effort after Can misjudged a clearing header which fell to Benteke.

I'm still not quite sure how Liverpool survived. But Liverpool somehow survived. I suspect it had something to do with Villa's overall terribleness, but so be it. And Rodgers' double substitution – Lambert and Enrique for Borini and Moreno – solidified the side, helped Liverpool gain some semblance of control, and eventually led to the game-killing second goal.

Aston Villa had apparently cleared the corner that came from Lucas' excellent shot, again saved by Guzan, but Sterling intercepted Delph's sloppy pass and played it quickly for Lambert, who jinked into space and sent a shot from the top of the box into the far corner. Game, set, match. Everything else after that was a formality, highlighted by Ibe's cameo appearance.

So, yeah. Liverpool were helped by the opposition's form, especially impotence in front of goal, as we've said more than a few times this season. But Liverpool still had to be good enough to take advantage of it. They hadn't been able to do so against similarly poor opponents earlier this season. And I'm sure I don't have to remind how awful some of Liverpool's recent matches against Villa have been.

Three consecutive away clean sheets. Five consecutive away wins in all competitions. Since the horrific loss at Crystal Palace, Liverpool have won six, drawn three, and lost just once, an average of 2.1 points per game, keeping five clean sheets in the process. Henderson and Lucas were again outstanding in midfield, as were Can, Sakho, and Skrtel in defense, and Markovic and Moreno going forward. Even Mignolet looked better, no hesitation to come out to claim crosses, and making two very important saves. Rodgers' substitutions, if surprising choices, clearly improved the side.

Liverpool are getting there. It's been a slow, sometimes painful process, and they're not there yet, but at least there's finally some there there.

16 January 2015

Liverpool at Aston Villa 01.17.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sunderland (a); 2-1 Wimbledon (a); 2-2 Leicester (h)
Villa: 0-1 Leicester (a); 1-0 Blackpool (h); 0-0 Palace (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Moreno 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Markovic, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Villa: Agbonlahor, Weimann 3; Benteke 2; Clark, Cole, Hutton 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Coutinho Sterling

With Sterling back from his winter break and with Gerrard and Lallana injured (even though both are training, the latter much sooner than expected), Liverpool's line-up seems easy to predict. The same XI as against Sunderland, but with Sterling in place of Gerrard.

Liverpool's injury woes are finally easing. Gerrard and Lallana shouldn't be out for long. Sturridge is also back in training, if seemingly still a couple of weeks away. Even Johnson and Lovren are back, although I'd much rather prefer than Liverpool stick with the defense they've deployed recently.

The only other alternative is to bring Manquillo or Johnson (now that he's fit as well) in at right wing-back, shifting Markovic into one of the attacking midfielder slots, and using Sterling as the main striker rather than Borini. Maybe Balotelli or Lambert start up top rather than Borini, but I doubt it. Even if Borini was disappointing in front of goal, he was vastly more creative than the other two had been, is more mobile, and pressed better as well.

And that above XI, aside from the one change, played reasonably well at Sunderland. Sure, Liverpool's shooting was terrible and Sunderland gave Liverpool a few too many frights despite a man-disadvantage in the second half, but Liverpool were at least reasonably creative in the first half and reasonably secure in the second, and that remains progress for this Liverpool.

Tomorrow, they'll be facing a side that plays similarly – happy to concede possession, resilient in defense, low-shooting and low-scoring but still dangerous on the counter – but has given Liverpool loads more problems in the past.

Aston Villa are winless in the league since December 7, drawing three and losing three since, scoring just one goal (in a 1-1 draw against United) in those six matches. Three 0-1 losses, two 0-0 draws, one 1-1 draw. There aren't many goals in Aston Villa matches, for either side.

Since a 1-2 loss to Tottenham on November 2, Villa haven't conceded more than once in a single match. 11 league matches: seven matches where they conceded one goal, four clean sheets. That's terrifying when Liverpool are involved, a side who usually struggle to score on good days against bad defenses and always have the potential to stupidly concede.

No side has scored fewer goals than Villa, 11, and the second-worst, Sunderland, has seven more goals. Only Hull has taken fewer shots and created fewer chances, only Stoke has a worst shooting accuracy. But similar was true prior to the 1-3 loss to Villa in December 2012, a match where Liverpool had its third-highest possession totals since Rodgers became manager, played the most attacking third passes since Rodgers became manger, and took the third-most shots in a match since Rodgers became manager. And conceded three goals on counter-attacks. And only scored because of a fortunate deflection in the 87th minute with the game long since lost.

No matter Villa's scoring woes, no matter Villa's dire league form, they're still the same Aston Villa which have frustrated Liverpool in every match since Rodgers became manager. 1-3 loss, 2-1 win, 1-0 win, 2-2 draw, 0-1 loss. A deep, resilient defense and Agbonlahor, Weimann, and Benteke on the counter, although recently signed Carlos Gil could make his first appearance in place of Weimann in attack.

That set-up will assuredly be the case tomorrow, with a probable XI of Guzan; Hutton, Okore, Baker, Cissokho; Cleverley, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. Gil could replace Weimann, Carlos Sanchez could replace Cleverley, but the tactics will remain the same. This will be Delph's first match back after a three-match ban. Villa will be missing three important central defenders – Vlaar and Senderos through injury, Clark through suspension – which could work in Liverpool's favor, but probably won't, because Liverpool. As usual, I'm terrified of Agbonlahor, who seemingly lives for punishing Liverpool, but at least the majority of his punishing usually comes at Anfield.

If Liverpool can replicate and improve on its performance against Sunderland, Liverpool should win tomorrow. If only it were that simple. But Liverpool need to perform tomorrow. Not only do Liverpool desperately need results, any results, but tomorrow marks the end of Liverpool's "easy" festive season. The previous four matches were against the 17th, 9th, 20th, and 16th-placed sides. The next four in the league will be against the 7th, 12th (but still a Merseyside Derby), 6th, and 3rd, with League Cup semifinals against Chelsea and an FA Cup match against Bolton thrown in for good measure. Yikes.

Starting tomorrow, the next six weeks will decide whether the few positives of the last few weeks were a fluke or the beginning of something better.

15 January 2015

Goals Scored, Conceded, and Points per Game under Rodgers

Since I was curious, thought I'd put together a chart showing Liverpool's goals scored, goals conceded, and points per match since Rodgers became manager. I'm using a rolling six-match average to help weed out freak results.

I wish I hadn't.

Click on the image to open full-size in a new window. *spooky voice* If you dare…

Liverpool have rarely been consistently secure at the back; aside from the stretch to finish 2012-13 and to begin 2013-14, Liverpool's goals conceded totals are fairly static. Throughout Rodgers' tenure, it's all about the goals Liverpool score.

There's not much else to be said. Liverpool have slightly improved over the last few matches, evident in both style of play and results, but the first half of the season was the worst stretch during Rodgers' tenure. To be fair, the decline started with the loss to Chelsea last season, a loss which cost Liverpool the title, but – as I'm sure you remember – things continued to get worse from the beginning of this campaign.

If you're curious, here's a quick season total comparison:

And here's a Google spreadsheet with all the data.

12 January 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), 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.

Liverpool have held its opponents to five or fewer shots six times since Rodgers became manager: three times in 2012-13 (5-0 Norwich, 0-2 West Brom, 5-0 Swansea), once in 2013-14 (4-0 Fulham), and now twice in 2014-15 (the other was 0-1 Villa). Previously, Liverpool had either won at a canter or lost pathetically.

But yesterday was different. Yesterday, Liverpool scored early and kept shooting (except for that embarrassing 15-minute spell just after Bridcutt's red card), but never found the needed second to blow the game open.

Liverpool at least continued to shut down Sunderland. Admittedly, Sunderland are not good up front – they only took seven shots in the reserve fixture – but this Liverpool side hasn't been good at limiting shots or goals very often either, allowing 16, 11, and 16 in the previous three games against Burnley, Swansea, and Leicester. Saturday saw a second successive clean sheet away from home – the first time that's happened since Southampton and United last March. Liverpool have committed just one Opta-defined defensive error in the last five matches: Sakho's giveaway leading to Bony's chance against Swansea. By hook, by crook, and by crossbar, Liverpool held on when Sunderland's threatening spell finally happened.

But there are still obvious issues at the other end of the pitch. Yet again, I can't help but talk about Liverpool's shooting. 21 shots, but just four on-target. 19%. No player with more than one shot on-target. And 19% is only the fifth-worst of the season, behind Villa (5.6%), Palace (8.3%), Sunderland at home (13.3%), and Stoke (18.8%).

Liverpool's lowest shot accuracy in a match last season? 20%, at Aston Villa, when Liverpool took just five shots. Liverpool were only under 30% three other times: the 4-1 win over West Ham, the 3-1 win over Cardiff, and the 1-1 draw at West Brom, which was arguably Liverpool's worst performance of the season.

It's even worse than 2012-13, when Liverpool shot worse than 20% in just three matches: 0-3 at West Brom, 2-2 against City, and 1-0 against Stoke – three of the first seven matches of the campaign.

Shot accuracy obviously isn't the end-all, be-all – Liverpool shot better than 45% in losses at West Ham, Newcastle, and United this season – but it is, by far, the biggest difference between this season and last. But that's what happens when you go from Suarez and Sturridge to Sterling, Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini.

At least Liverpool were in position to take 21 shots, just the fourth time that's happened this season, and the first time it's happened away from home (24 v Everton, 27 v Arsenal, and 21 v Swansea).

Liverpool's striker created the most chances in the side, for only the third time this season (Sterling was joint-top with three against Leicester, and led the side with four at United), and that's despite going off in the 67th minute. Borini did not do anywhere near enough in front of goal, spurning his one opportunity when put through by Can, but at least he was creative. And his assist for Markovic's goal was his first assist for Liverpool.

As against Swansea, Lucas and Henderson looked a much more viable (and mobile!) midfield than any other pairing we've seen this season.

Sunderland saw a lot of the ball, but their possession was mainly limited to the four defenders; Vergini, O'Shea, Brown, and van Aanholt were responsible for 55% of Sunderland's completed passes. Nine of Liverpool's 26 successful tackles came in Sunderland's half, which is both the most and highest percentage away from home this season.

Six corners and five free kicks in Liverpool's half led to just two Sunderland shots: Larsson's easy long-range effort held by Mignolet (Sunderland's only shot on-target), and Gomez's swiftly blocked effort in second half injury time.

Despite the narrow scoreline, Liverpool did a lot of good things. No mistakes, clean sheet, an above average amount of shots. Limiting the amount of opposition opportunities and, aside from that 15-minute stretch after the red card, dictating play and setting the tempo. And all of that happened away from home, probably the best away performance since the 3-0 win at Tottenham. Of course, the only other alternatives are the 3-1 win at Leicester, where Leicester were simply terrible, and the 0-3 loss at United. Yeah, it hasn't been a good season away from Anfield.

So that's progress. But until Liverpool are able to consistently convert opportunities when they actually create opportunities, the matches will remain frustrating and frightening at best, and infuriating, regrettable and costly at worst.

10 January 2015

Liverpool 1-0 Sunderland

Markovic 8'

Liverpool can never do things the easy way.

Liverpool were very good in the first half, and it was unfathomable that the half ended 1-0. Well, unfathomable if Liverpool weren't Liverpool and we weren't used to this Liverpool.

Markovic should have won a clear-cut penalty in the 3rd minute. Gerrard had a wicked wide free kick tipped over in the 29th minute. From the resulting corner, Markovic's half-volley rebound cannoned off the woodwork and goalkeeper. Borini rounded the keeper following Can's long ball in the 44th but could only shoot into the side-netting from a narrow angle. Coutinho and Gerrard had half-chances but either mis-kicked or tamely shot wide.

Meanwhile, Sunderland took just one first half shot: a 30-yard free kick from Larsson sent straight at Mignolet.

But no matter how well Liverpool had played, you just knew the second half would be different. It'd see Sunderland attack, it'd see Liverpool sit deeper, and it'd see Liverpool come under threat. It'd evoke memories of the 1-1 horror show which started the 2011-12 campaign. And even though Bridcutt picked up a second yellow in the 49th minute, that's exactly what happened.

It did not help that Lovren replaced Gerrard at halftime, withdrawn as a precaution because of a tight hamstring, Can first switching to attacking midfielder, then right wing-back a few minutes later. I do not know why it wasn't Manquillo, with Markovic shifting to attacking midfielder (as he eventually did). My only guess is that Rodgers hasn't given up on Lovren, even though everyone else has, and is looking for any way to return him to the side. All I know is that it went about as well as you could expect.

Sunderland should have been level five minutes after the sending off, when Johnson, in acres of space, pinged a speculative shot from distance off the crossbar — just like Markovic's in the first half — hit Mignolet, and was somehow cleared behind. I'll churlishly note that the shot came from Liverpool's inside right channel. You know, where Dejan Lovren was playing.

To be fair, that was Sunderland's only threatening opportunity until late. They took just five shots all match, and three came well after the 80th minute. The away side were mostly untroubled in the final 20 minutes, after Balotelli replaced Borini, until injury time. But Sunderland had too much possession, too many set plays, for a side a man down, after Liverpool had been so impressive in the first half. We'd seen Liverpool stupidly relinquish a lead despite being "dominant" far too often this season. It only takes one moment, a moment like Johnson's 54th minute shot.

But Liverpool didn't give them many moments after the 54th-minute fright, and Sunderland couldn't take the few they did.

As influential as Coutinho and Markovic were in the first half, Lucas was in the second half. More of his tackles and clearances came in the opening 45 minutes, but his protection of the back three, work rate, and positioning were vastly more needed with Liverpool under pressure. It's amazing what he can do with a) fresh legs after five days off and b) Henderson as protection. It's utterly insane that we're seeing rumors of a January departure given the state and balance of Liverpool's squad.

But even though it should have been better, it could have been worse. Liverpool got all three points, Liverpool kept a clean sheet. By hook or by crook, by luck or talent.

Liverpool's +16 shot differential was the second-best of the season (behind +20 in the 2-2 draw against Arsenal), and only the second time Liverpool reached that margin away from home under Brendan Rodgers (outshooting Palace 26-10 in last season's 3-3). Liverpool just, you know, still need to get more of those shots on target.

And it's consecutive 1-0 away wins in the league for the first time since 1976 (beating Leicester and Sunderland, coincidentally). Sure, Liverpool have won consecutive away matches an awful lot since then, even kept consecutive away clean sheets an awful lot since then (the last being 3-0 wins at Southampton and United last spring), but the ability to see out close, contentious, frightening games is a good ability to have. And it's an ability that Liverpool need to demonstrate on a consistent basis.

09 January 2015

Liverpool at Sunderland 01.10.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 12.06.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.26.14
3-1 Liverpool (a) 09.29.13
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.02.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Wimbledon (a); 2-2 Leicester (h); 4-1 Swansea (h)
Sunderland: 1-0 Leeds (h); 2-3 City (a); 0-0 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Moreno 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Sunderland: Fletcher, Johnson 4; Gomez, Larsson, Rodwell, Wickham 2; Cattermole 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Manquillo Henderson Lucas Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho

For once, Liverpool's lineup seems to write itself.

Sterling will undoubtedly return to the lineup as the striker.

Toure's now at the African Cup of Nations while Johnson's still injured and Lovren's still Lovren, so the back three has to be Can, Skrtel, and Sakho.

Lallana's calf injury seemingly ensures Gerrard will start further forward, as against Wimbledon. Which ensures Henderson will partner Lucas. Which ensures Manquillo will be needed at wing-back.

The one spot up for grabs is left wing-back, either Moreno or Markovic. Markovic is seemingly more useful against a packed defense, but Markovic could also be crucial as a game-changing sub off the bench, able to add pace at either wing-back or in attack when sides begin to tire.

There are a couple of alternatives. Bring in Balotelli or Lambert, use Sterling as an attacking midfielder, and either drop Gerrard into midfield or drop Gerrard entirely. Or maybe Rodgers changes the formation, reverting to a diamond or a 3-4-1-2 rather than a 3-4-2-1. But both of those alternatives seem very unlikely.

Over the last couple of months, Sunderland have become draw specialists. Six of their last 10 league matches have ended with honors even, four of those at 0-0, including the last time these two sides met. Sunderland have kept six clean sheets since the beginning of November, which is one more than Liverpool have kept all season (all competitions).

Rodwell, Cattermole, Reveillere, Mannone, and Ricky Alvarez are all doubtful, while Seba Coates is ineligible due to the terms of his loan. If all those players don't feature, Sunderland's XI should be Pantilimon; Vergini, O'Shea, Brown, Jones; Bridcutt; Buckley, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson; Wickham. Which is nearly the exact lineup as in the reverse fixture, except for Buckley in place of Altidore and Jones in place of Reveillere. Cattermole and/or Rodwell are the only ones who'd seem certain to start if available. Both usually play as the deepest midfielder in Sunderland's 4-1-4-1, but both are capable of playing in either Gomez or Larsson's spot further forward as well.

Sunderland's primary philosophy is to keep it tight at the back and be difficult to beat. Any goals scored are a bonus. That's not the best way to face Liverpool. As Leicester demonstrated, as Wimbledon demonstrated, as many, many others have demonstrated, the best way to face Liverpool is to attack Liverpool.

Sunderland, at home, will probably do some attacking. More than in the last meeting, at least, where their entire attack consisted of Wickham throwing himself to the ground in the box and looking hopefully at the referee. And Sunderland demonstrated they're capable of attacking if given the chance, coming back from a two-goal deficit at City before losing 2-3. Still, I expect that this will look more like Liverpool's previous matches against Burnley, Stoke, and, yes, Sunderland.

Which presents a different, if nearly equally difficult challenge: cutting through a packed defense determined to deny space and block shots, a tactic which has often frustrated Liverpool this season. The template for that remains Liverpool's 4-1 win over Swansea, where clever movement, pace, and ball retention eventually led to broken lines, defensive mistakes, and four Liverpool goals.

But, for now, that match remains the exception rather than the rule.

04 January 2015

Liverpool at AFC Wimbledon 01.05.15

3pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: n/a
Wimbledon: 1-0 Wycombe (a); 3-1 York (h); 1-1 York (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Leicester (h); 4-1 Swansea (h); 1-0 Burnley (a)
Wimbledon: 4-1 Exeter (h); 2-0 Portsmouth (a); 0-1 Mansfield (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 7; Sterling 6; Lallana 4; Henderson 3; Balotelli, Coutinho, Lambert, Moreno 2; Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Sturridge, Suso 1
Wimbledon: Tubbs 15; Akinfenwa 9; Azeez, Rigg 5; Barrett, Francomb, Smith 2; Frampton, Fuller, Goodman, Sainte-Luce, Sutherland 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Rossiter Allen
Suso Markovic Borini

I have absolutely no idea how Liverpool will line up or who Liverpool will line up with.

Rodgers rarely takes cup competitions lightly. The FA Cup is a meaningful competition and – not to get overly and wrongly sentimental – one that Gerrard will want to win in his final season.

But Liverpool have to rest players. A lot of first team players. The league schedule demands it, the semifinals of the League Cup demands it, the state of the squad demands it.

And if Liverpool rest the likes of Sterling, Lallana, Coutinho, and Henderson – among others – I doubt that Liverpool will be able to stick with the 3-4-2-1 we've seen of late. They don't have the bodies up front, they don't have the bodies at the back.

So I'm shoe-horning an almost entirely new XI into the formation which seems most suitable for those players.

Make no mistake. I'm very much guessing in regards to both XI and formation and I'm probably wrong. Rodgers could well start in the 3-4-2-1, start a majority of first-teamers with only one or two rested (*looks hopefully at Sterling*), and I wouldn't be surprised. Or Rodgers could start the majority of the above XI, but replace Borini or Suso with Can and revert to the 3-4-2-1. Although I don't think that front three – specifically Balotelli and Borini – are suited to the 3-4-2-1 we've seen.

Long story short, I assuming Lallana's still injured and please rest Sterling. The rest? *Shrugs* Sterling's only 148 minutes from already reaching last season's total. He's a month removed from turning 20. You're going to burn him out. It's a question of when, not if. Otherwise, the staff knows much more than we do.

There's no "Previous head-to-head meetings" blurb in the above lists because AFC Wimbledon is not the old Wimbledon FC. AFC Wimbledon doesn't have Wimbledon FC's history, MK Dons doesn't have Wimbledon FC's history. That club – the club which memorably upset Liverpool in the final of this competition in 1988 – doesn't exist anymore.

That said, AFC Wimbledon is still Wimbledon FC. The club which shocked Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final. They'll know it. Liverpool will know it. And they'll want to do it again.

I can't tell you anything about AFC Wimbledon's style or players. If they line up as they've lined up in recent matches, it'll be 4-4-2, it'll be Shea; Fuller, Goodman, Barrett, Kennedy; Francomb, Bulman, Pell, Rigg; Azeez, Tubbs. Given all the pre-match press (for example, this), I suspect Adebayp Akinfenwa will start with Tubbs up front, having missed the last two games (well, missing one and used as a late substitute in the most recent) through injury.

They're currently 12th in League Two, having won promotion from the Conference last season, but having also won four of their last five games, including three of four in the league. They're right in the middle of the division in both goals scored and conceded. They are a mid-table League Two side in every sense of the word, and Liverpool should be able to beat them, no matter XI, no matter form, no matter that the match is at Wimbledon rather than Anfield.

But we said similar before Northampton in 2010-11. Similar before Oldham in 2012-13. It's the FA Cup and Anything Can Happen™. And it's up to Liverpool, whether staffed by out-of-favor players or the first-choice XI, to ensure it doesn't.

02 January 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Leicester

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), 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.

In isolation, I'd like to think that was just "one of those days."

A fatigued side at the end of the festive period, just as Chelsea, Arsenal, United, West Ham, and Swansea were yesterday. Fatigue which saw the side struggle to create concrete chances or hit the target with their few decent efforts. Fatigue which saw the side unable to press as they did against Swansea. Fatigue which saw the side able to keep possession fairly easy once gaining a foothold but unable to do much with it, lucky to get two penalties to establish a lead. Fatigue which let the opposition take the early initiative, even if Liverpool went unpunished for it, and fatigue which saw the side take its foot off the gas with a 2-0 lead in the second half, leading to those two goals conceded in quick succession. It wasn't individual mistakes or systemic failings which led to Leicester's goals, but defensive malaise out wide, in central midfield, and from the center-backs. That's still bad, but easier to fix than the usual issues.

Which still doesn't make it any easier to swallow. Two points dropped against the bottom side are still two points dropped against the bottom side, points which Liverpool very much need. But these things happen.

Unfortunately, a lot of those failings are traits we've seen before. Which makes it harder to write off as a one-off following Monday's excellent performance. It makes Monday look like the fluke rather than yesterday.

Everyone's focused on the news of Gerrard's departure at the end of the season, and it feels callous to pile on by criticizing yesterday's performance. But Liverpool's midfield was at the heart of Liverpool's failings. Pass accuracy below both's usual average (84.3% for Gerrard, 82.6% for Lucas). Gerrard and Lucas combining for just three tackles, successful with just 33% of their attempted tackles (2/5 for Lucas, 1/4 for Gerrard). 2 interceptions for Lucas, none for Gerrard. Both missing from both of Leicester's goals. Just two chances created by Gerrard (and none from Lucas): one from open play, one from a set play. Henderson created four by himself on Monday, while Lucas also created two.

It was a far cry from what we saw out of the Henderson-Lucas pairing against Swansea, made worse because moving Henderson from midfield made him vastly less effective as well.

But Liverpool had other issues, as is usual for Liverpool.

Liverpool couldn't put an open play shot on target until the 66th minute. From 52.3% shot accuracy against Swansea to 33.3% yesterday (and without the two penalties, it's 25%). And Liverpool had the same issues in the reverse fixture. Just 11 shots taken, and the only three on-target were the three goals.

Skrtel's nowhere near the quickest, but Toure's even slower, with Liverpool's defensive line deeper than it's been in the last few home games. And that deeper line contributed to the acres of space that Leicester exploited with their goals, obviously not helped by the midfield's lack of pace.

Liverpool's substitutions were the opposite of helpful, especially the first one, the enforced one. Lallana going off was a blow in an of itself – he remains one of Liverpool's only consistent performers this season – but it was also incredibly surprising to see Borini preferred to Markovic, especially considering Borini's performance against Arsenal. But it's not as if Markovic did much after entering 17 minutes later. And I honestly forgot Lambert came on until collecting the stats.

Liverpool need to ensure that we look back and think it, "yep, just one of those days." There are nine days until the next league match, plenty of time for the side to recover and rebound. Yes, there's an FA Cup tie on Monday, but that XI should be radically different than we've seen in the league of late.

This is certainly a setback, but Arsenal, West Ham, and United's results means that Liverpool didn't lose much ground in their attempt to get back in the European places (even if Tottenham's certainly didn't help). And Liverpool's schedule for the next month, at least in the league, remains conducive to picking up points.

But that opportunity to climb up the table won't last long. Especially if yesterday's performance remains par for the course.

01 January 2015

Liverpool 2-2 Leicester

Gerrard 17' (pen) 40' (pen)
Nugent 58'
Schlupp 60'

Embarrassing. Meet the new Liverpool, the same as the old Liverpool. Welcome to 2015.

I cannot believe Liverpool followed up Monday's performance with that.

Liverpool weren't good, but Leicester and Mike Jones had contrived to hand Liverpool the win. Liverpool handed it right back. The worst part of it all is that Leicester fully deserve the point.

A 2-0 halftime lead at home against the bottom club should finish an easy win, no matter how bad Liverpool have been this season. Leicester frightened early, taking the game to Liverpool – as every opponent should – with Mahrez hitting the post and firing over from 12 yards. But two first half handball penalties – the first clearly not a penalty, the second deserved – put Liverpool in control.

There was none of the penetration we saw against Swansea, there was little of the pressing which disjointed Swansea and forced mistakes, but Liverpool were in control. Liverpool kept the ball, Liverpool kept Leicester from threatening after those two early efforts. That's one of the main benefits of the 3-4-2-1 formation. That should have been enough.

It's hard to look past the changes from Monday's XI. Gerrard and Lucas were decent against Arsenal, less so but at least acceptable against Bournemouth and Burnley. Gerrard and Lucas were bad today. Both a step slow; that's just where Gerrard is at this stage of his career, and Lucas was never the quickest, especially when starting his fifth match in 15 days.

Both Leicester goals were excellently taken, but blame for both lies primarily in midfield: Leicester allowed way too much time and space to pass around and through Liverpool before a ball over the top found Vardy, chested down for Nugent, hammered into the net. Two minutes later, Mahrez running through the middle, with neither Gerrard nor Lucas getting near, before setting up an open Schlupp just outside the box, with all the time and space to arrow past Mignolet.

Both incidents stemmed from Liverpool's complete lack of control in the second half. They'd had the control in the first half. But, with a two-goal lead, Liverpool attempted to sit deeper, giving Leicester the opportunity to take full advantages of Liverpool's weaknesses. This is not last season's Liverpool; this season's Liverpool often fail when trying to shell and counter, and it happened yet again.

So the problem is two-fold. Liverpool's need to bring Gerrard back into what was a much better performing side and Rodgers' desire to play for the counter despite Liverpool's problems in defense.

And Liverpool certainly weren't helped by an injury to Lallana just before Leicester's goals, the tricky midfielder replaced by Borini, with Sterling shifting into Lallana's position. Lallana's both more creative and better able to track back and, unlike Sterling, Borini's not running in behind anyone despite Liverpool often playing long passes.

Liverpool tried to come back, tried to reclaim the advantage. Markovic replaced Lucas, switching the side to 4-2-3-1, then Lambert replaced Moreno. But from Leicester's second goal until the 86th minute, Liverpool's best two chances were blocked by Liverpool players: Markovic in the way of Borini's effort, Borini in the way of Coutinho's. As demonstrated in the reverse fixture, Leicester are more than capable of blocking shots, Liverpool didn't need to help them. The final flurry saw a third possible penalty ignored (Morgan's shove on Borini), Henderson one-on-one with Hamer but denied, Markovic heading wide from 12 yards, and Gerrard skying an effort following a corner. All decent chances, all spoiled by terrible finishing.

Unlike Monday, Liverpool's shooting simply wasn't good enough. That it took 66 minutes for Liverpool to register an open play shot on-target summarizes just how impotent they were, both before and after Leicester's goals.

So maybe Monday was a fluke. Liverpool won't be that cohesive in every match, Liverpool won't put more than 50% of its shots on-target in every match, Liverpool's fragility and intermittent mistakes won't go unpunished in every match.

Or maybe the festive schedule finally caught up with Liverpool, and they'll be better with more rest and more players available. That the bench featured seven players who either weren't with Liverpool or didn't make a first team appearance for the club last season shows how shallow today's squad was.

Or maybe Monday demonstrated that it's finally time to stop hoping a Gerrard-Lucas midfield will finally come good.