Previous Match Infographics: Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), 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.
For the first time in a long time, this Liverpool almost kinda sorta reminded you of last year's Liverpool.
Score early, soak up pressure, extend the lead with direct counter-attacks. Liverpool remain nowhere near as potent as last year's side, so Liverpool have to be much, much better at soaking up pressure. And, somehow, they did so, by hook and by crook, before finally getting the game-killing second – admittedly, thanks to Targett's mistake – on one of those counter-attacks.
Liverpool have taken fewer than 10 shots in seven of Brendan Rodgers' 102 league matches. Twice in his first season, three times last season, and twice so far this season. Yesterday was only the second time that's happened and Liverpool still scored two or more goals, only the third time that's happened and Liverpool still won the match.
In case you're curious, here are the match infographics for Villa, Newcastle, Wigan, 1-2 Chelsea, 1-1 Chelsea, and Hull.
I guess it's surprising that Liverpool actually won three of the seven. Yesterday's performance was probably closest to the 1-0 win over Villa at the beginning of last season, a defensive shell reliant on a basically non-existent counter-attack after an early goal. This Southampton side is vastly better than that Villa side. There are similarities in each of the results, except the 4-0 win at Wigan – which was, however, the only result with both similar shot accuracy and goal conversion – which was something of a Luis Suarez-led fluke. Because every now and then, Suarez did things like single-handedly score a hat-trick from just four shots.
I'd also like to point out that 33.3% is, by some distance, Liverpool's best goal conversion in a match this season, even if it's an admittedly small sample size. The next best, the only other match over 20%, was Liverpool's 3-1 win at Leicester, a win that was very much aided by Leicester's defense. Southampton's defense, even considering Targett's mistake, is light-years better than Leicester's.
Another key similarity to those other matches? The three times Liverpool have won, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet.
Liverpool were admittedly very lucky to keep a clean sheet yesterday. Somehow, Liverpool made it through the match without an Opta-defined error, but three mistakes nearly led to two goals and a sending-off in the first half, one from each of Liverpool's three center-backs. Can, caught infield and ball-watching when playing on an unfamiliar side, let Djuricic in behind from a ball over the top, lucky to get away unscathed when Djuricic threw himself to the ground under little contact. The second penalty claim came because Skrtel unnecessarily charged out to try to head a ball that Can had covered, putting Elia through on goal in the space that Skrtel had vacated. And Lovren did the same thing that Can did on the long ball which Mignolet handled inches outside his area.
Most days, Liverpool are punished for at least one of those. Every now and then, like the aforementioned 1-3 loss at Hull last season, Liverpool would be punished for all three. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.
It's probably not coincidence those three mistakes all happened in the first half, and it's a good example of why managers really dislike making changes in defense. One center-back started his first match since mid-December, another started on the opposite side for the first time since he joined the club. But the defense improved after that frightening start, with Southampton opportunities few and far between in the second half until a final late flurry when Liverpool were two-up, a flurry which was all sound and little fury. Credit goes to both the individual defenders, who eventually figured out their roles, and Rodgers, whose halftime changes – the defensive line, especially Lovren, playing deeper, coupled with Moreno replacing Markovic – made a difference.
And credit also goes to Mignolet, who made four excellent saves: on Elia just after the second penalty shout, the accidental handball just outside the box with Elia through on goal, Djuricic's deflected effort just before halftime, and Tadic's tricky free kick in the 78th. Even if there's an argument that Mignolet should have been sent off in the 44th minute (I'll again remind that the PGMOL said Friend made the right decision by not calling handball), I'm still most impressed by that moment, simply because he was quick and decisive off his line to get into position to deny Elia, to make up for Lovren's mistake. Mignolet playing sweeper-keeper is not something we've often seen.
So yes, Liverpool were lucky. But the fact that Liverpool have now kept five consecutive clean sheets away from home in the league is not solely down to luck. Liverpool are allowing about the same amount of shots per match since the switch to three at the back (11.2 before, 11.0 since), but have dramatically cut their goals conceded per match (1.27 before, 0.9 since, a stat that'd look even better without the fluky 0-3 loss at United). And it's been accompanied by an almost exactly similar rise in goals scored per match before and since (1.27 before, 1,73 since).
So yes, Liverpool were lucky. But Liverpool have also been demonstrably better in almost every area of the pitch.