23 March 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), 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.

Don't take your chance(s), get punished. Do something stupid, get punished. I feel like I've written this before.

The stupidity need not be dwelt upon – congratulations on picking up what's almost certainly Liverpool's fastest red card, Stevie – but Liverpool's attack remains problematic.

Playing with ten men for the entire second half obviously exaggerated the issues, but yesterday was a low-water mark in a lot of areas.

Liverpool's seven shots were the fewest taken at Anfield since Rodgers became manager. The previous low was 10, set against Southampton (0-1 loss) and City (3-2 win) last season.

It was just the fourth time under Rodgers where Liverpool has only put a single shot on-target. The others were a 1-0 win at Villa last season, the 0-1 loss at home against Villa in September, and the 1-3 loss at Palace in November.

Liverpool have never been so thoroughly out-possessed at home under Rodgers. The previous low was 42.7% against Arsenal last season. where Liverpool scored early and often then sat back and waited for counter-attacks. The only other match that comes close was last season's win over United, another which featured an early Liverpool goal and then a defensive shell.

Manchester United won the tactical battle yesterday, at least in the all-important first half. United's pressing was fantastic, with 11 tackles and four interceptions in Liverpool's half, and Skrtel and Can well below their season average in both total passes and pass accuracy. Henderson completely nullified by Fellaini; Fellaini and Herrera's pressing on Allen and Henderson utterly disjointing Liverpool's midfield until the switch to the diamond, bringing Lallana deeper to add another outlet. Moreno, Coutinho, and Allen overwhelmed by Mata and Valencia early on, United's top two passers, Mata's runs inside and in behind baffling Liverpool's left back.

Compare Liverpool's defensive actions on the left and right flanks. Liverpool's left is almost bare. That's a bad thing, and it's not coincidence that both of United's goals came from that side, even if the build-up came from elsewhere. Both of United's goals (and the tackles/interceptions chalkboard) highlighted one thing van Gaal's side did very well: overload Liverpool's right, then quickly switch flanks to an open Mata, having gotten away from one or more of Liverpool's defenders through clever and varied movement.

Where Liverpool and United attacked from, via WhoScored

Considering United's set-up and strengths, I'm surprised that Liverpool didn't stick with the diamond midfield which changed the game against Swansea.

I'm also not sure what the fix is in attack. Sturridge remains far from his best, but in creating that chance for Lallana and scoring a difficult goal, it's hard to complain too much about his performance. He's often better when playing with a second striker, but Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini simply haven't proven to be useful partners.

Sterling's inability to influence the game from wing-back was one of Liverpool's biggest attacking issues against both United and Swansea. Yesterday was the first time that Sterling failed to take a shot or create a chance when starting since last season's 3-0 win at Old Trafford a year ago, where he played 72 minutes at the point of the diamond before going off. The only other match that happened was last season's 1-2 loss at Chelsea, and yesterday was the first time it'd happened when Sterling played the full 90 minutes. Sure, we can expect more from him, especially considering his very public contract negotiations, but Sterling's also become a victim of his own versatility, Liverpool's weakness at wing-back (especially with both Markovic and Ibe out), and Liverpool's relative surplus of attacking midfielders.

Yes, it's probably a different match if Lallana takes his chance in the 35th. It's certainly a different match if Gerrard manages to stay on the pitch for more than 48 seconds. But Liverpool weren't good enough regardless, especially in the first half. That Liverpool played so poorly, had a man sent off, and still were in contention for a draw until the final whistle is the slightest of silver linings. Managing just six shots, it's not as if United put Liverpool to the sword, but Manchester United had a better game plan, Manchester United were better organized, and Manchester United were all-around better.

And that's not an easy sentence to write.

22 March 2015

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Mata 14' 59'
Sturridge 69'

There's a bit more nuance (and insanity) to it, but the short version is a version we've heard before. Liverpool lost the match in the first half and it's because United took their one chance and Liverpool put theirs wide.

It did not help that Manchester United's formation overwhelmed Liverpool's formation in midfield, allowing United to control proceedings, penning Liverpool back, and subsequently dragging the wing-backs out of position through Mata and Young's movement. And United pressed the way that Liverpool usually hope to press, ensuring Liverpool had no coherency in their own half and subsequently no coordination going forward. It was the first half at Swansea all over again except that United are just a bit stronger up front than last Monday's opponents. Credit to van Gaal for the game plan – I really wish United had waited a bit longer to get their act together and to remember that Juan Mata really is a quality footballer – and blame to Rodgers for not recognizing Liverpool's weaknesses against United's likely set-up, especially considering last week's match.

So it was little surprise that Liverpool's improvement coincided with a change a midfield, just as at Swansea: shifting to the diamond formation with Allen at the base, Lallana and Henderson as the shuttlers, and Coutinho at the apex. And it ultimately led to Liverpool's one first-half chance: pressing, winning possession, Henderson's early cross to Sturridge, Sturridge centering for Lallana's late run into the box. And Lallana, unmarked, side-footing wide from 15 yards. Sigh.

Then the second half happened. Well, Steven Gerrard happened, as Steven Gerrard rolled back the years. And not to the Gerrard who scored wonder goals and single-handedly dragged Liverpool to victory. The Steven Gerrard who was sent off in his second Merseyside Derby way back in 1999 due to sheer frustration and stupidity when Liverpool were losing, unable to control the emotion and aggression that often went on to serve him so well.

There's no excuse for his 48 seconds on the field: a rash challenge that could have been yellow followed by deliberate stamp directly on Herrera's ankle after the Spaniard's yellow card tackle on Gerrard. Liverpool's tactics completely thrown out the window, Liverpool's captain sent off, Liverpool forced to scramble when down a man and behind by a goal in a match they simply had to win.

So when United scored a second in the 59th minute, a wonderful second from Mata, an acrobatic scissor kick when running behind Moreno for the second time, it seemed game over. It would not have been surprising to see Liverpool's heads drop and more goals imminent, at least replicating the scoreline from Old Trafford as Liverpool chased the game. Thankfully, that didn't happen, a small ray of unwarranted hope coming when Sturridge pulled one back in the 69th minute thanks to Coutinho's pressing and key pass coupled with a fortunate deflection off Phil Jones.

But Liverpool's simply couldn't threaten the most unlikely of equalizers, chances in the final 25 minutes limited to two easily cleared set plays and a cross headed behind with Balotelli lurking in the six-yard box. United should have added a third was Can brought down Blind in the box in the last minute of injury time, but Mignolet saved Rooney's spot kick to complete the unbelievable, absurd, completely-lacking-in-quality madness which was the second half.

That second half? Gerrard's red card. Jones getting yellow for what was a red card-worthy tackle on Henderson. Balotelli (on a substitute in the 65th) needing to be held back by Liverpool fans to keep from picking up a second yellow when confronting Smalling. Mignolet rolling around when kicked by Rooney in an attempt to get him sent off. Mignolet and Can nutmegging two pressing United players when trying to pass out from the back, both attempting their best Messi impression in their own penalty box. Skrtel apparently stamping on De Gea in the final seconds of the match (I would not be surprised to see retrospective action on that). Rooney's missed penalty. And other than that penalty and the two goals, there were literally zero chances to speak of in the second half, with the two sides combining for just six second-half shots, leading to the joint-fewest shots in a Premiership match this season. Both sides completely lacking in quality.

It was bonkers and bad and it was very much a Liverpool-United match.

And thus, Liverpool are seemingly knocked out of Champions League contention the same way they've been knocked out of Rodgers' two European campaigns: a horrific start overflowing with idiocy followed by a valiant but futile final effort. It happened against Zenit, against Basel, against Besiktas, and now it's happened against United.

Five points behind United, six behind Arsenal, and seven behind City with eight games to play. It's Liverpool's first league loss since December – you may remember who that loss came against – but Liverpool's league position prior to that means there's probably too much ground to make up. Sure, stranger things have happened, but this was a match that Liverpool needed to win and now it's completely out of Liverpool's hands.

And all Liverpool can do is try to pick themselves up for an on-fire Arsenal after a very unwelcome international break.

21 March 2015

Liverpool v Manchester United 03.22.15

9:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 United (a) 12.14.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.14
1-0 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: -1-0 Swansea (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-0 Burnley (h)
United: 3-0 Tottenham (h); 1-2 Arsenal (h); 1-0 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Henderson 5; Coutinho, Lallana, Own Goal 4; Sturridge 3; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
United: Rooney 11; van Persie 10; Mata 5; Falcao, Fellaini 4; Di Maria, Herrera, Smalling 3; Blind 2; Carrick, Wilson, Young 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Sterling Henderson Allen Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho

It's probably not possible to exaggerate tomorrow's importance.

At its "least" significant, Liverpool versus Manchester United is a gut-churning, nail-biting, 90-minute aneurysm, la petite mort in every sense of the phrase.

For extra incentive, tomorrow's winners will be odds-on favorites for the fourth Champions League place: Liverpool looking to get into the competition for the second-straight season despite their horrific start to the campaign; Manchester United looking to get back into the competition after failing to qualify for the first time since 1995-96.

Liverpool, unbeaten in 90 minutes since the last time these sides played, more than three months ago. Manchester United, with just two league losses since the start of November (at Southampton and at Swansea), coming off their most impressive victory of the season a week ago.

Liverpool, still far removed from the peak of their powers up front but startlingly secure at the back, the form side in the league and diametrically opposite from the first three months of the season. Manchester United, overflowing with expense talent but often uncommonly lucky before last week's victory, and now we're seemingly far too close to witnessing the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.


Liverpool's lineup questions basically begin and end with Steven Gerrard's participation. Will he replace Henderson or Allen? Unlikely. But starting in the front three seems likely, replacing either Sterling or Lallana with the other at right wing-back. Or maybe both Sterling and Lallana are the wing-backs, with Moreno left out. Or with Sterling up front and Sturridge – still finding his form, to put it nicely – in a break-glass-if-needed case on the bench. No matter how well Liverpool are humming along, it's hard to imagine Gerrard left out of his last M62 Derby.

Otherwise, the lineup writes itself given the state of team and squad. Mignolet in goal; Can, Skrtel, and Sakho in defense; Henderson and Allen in midfield; Coutinho as one of the two attacking midfielders. Balotelli is back from illness, Lucas is back in training, but you'd assume either would be options off the bench, at most.

Meanwhile, Manchester United. Van Gaal seems to have settled on a four-man defense of late, after attempting to shoehorn the United side into a 3-5-2. With van Persie and Wilson absent through injury, United will probably line up in the 4-1-4-1 which saw them at the peak of their powers against Tottenham last week rather than the more frequent 4-4-2 diamond.

That XI was De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Blind; Carrick; Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young; Rooney. And given how well they played against Spurs, I'd be surprised if it were much different than that tomorrow. But it's not as if United are lacking in options. In addition to Wilson and van Persie, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo are doubtful, but Di Maria is back from suspension, and could replace either Herrara or Mata. If Shaw (or Rojo) is available, Blind could move into midfield, a 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-1-4-1. Maybe Van Gaal finds faith in Falcao, reverting to 4-4-2 diamond, wanting to start with two strikers against Liverpool's three-man defense. Regardless, Rooney's in excellent form, Van Gaal's figured how to put Fellaini's height and elbows to full use, and United have kept a clean sheet in its last three league fixtures.

The reverse fixture was both Liverpool's turning point and emblematic of each side. Liverpool, its in first match as a 3-4-2-1, out-shooting and out-playing the opposition but let down by poor finishing and exceptional goalkeeping. United, both potent and lucky. Liverpool haven't conceded three goals in a match since then. Liverpool have conceded just three goals in its last nine league matches. In total. But United have scored at least once in its last eight league matches, have only failed to tally just once in 2015 (at Southampton, still the league's best defense).

It's something of an irresistible force against an immovable object, which remains slightly unbelievable. But someone will be moving a lot further away from Champions League qualification tomorrow.

17 March 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), 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.

Yes, Liverpool were lucky to finish the first half level. Swansea dominated possession, dictated the tenor and tempo, and their four-man diamond midfield utterly outclassed Liverpool's box setup, forcing Coutinho and Sterling (then Lallana) to help cover, thoroughly isolating a still-finding-his-form Sturridge. They were pretty much the first side to do so since the switch to 3-4-2-1 – a stretch that includes matches at Manchester United, against City, against Arsenal, and the two legs against Chelsea in the League Cup – although a case could be made for Southampton and Besiktas (a).

Liverpool had Mignolet's saves, Skrtel's (and Allen's, to a lesser extent) clearances, a fortunate Moreno deflection, and Swansea's lack of a potent attack since selling Wilfred Bony to thank for the score being level. Two outstanding saves from distance, one close-range block on Sigurðsson, two vital clearances, one incredible tackle, and Shelvey's set-piece effort ricocheting off Moreno across the face of goal.

I've written it before during this unbeaten streak – this 13-match unbeaten streak with 10 wins and three draws. It's better to be lucky than good, but it's best to be lucky and good.

The last time Liverpool matched a diamond midfield with a diamond midfield, Liverpool were absolutely overrun, switching formations after 30 minutes, already behind 0-2, to try to rescue the game.

Admittedly, that was a very different Liverpool than the current Liverpool, but when Liverpool matched a diamond with a diamond yesterday, Liverpool seized control of proceedings. Any advantage Swansea had was nullified, and the second half was a very different animal than the first.

That's a fairly radical difference. Especially in the final third (First Half) (Second Half). And full credit to Rodgers for both recognizing the failing and subsequently fixing it.

All told, only three Swansea players attempted a shot. No Swansea player created more than one chance. So while, yes, Swansea could easily have had a first-half lead, Swansea's attack remained fairly unimpressive. You can't be unimpressive when facing a defense that's now kept six consecutive clean sheets away from home in the league, the first time that's happened since 1972.

Swansea's league goal-scorers since Bony left (9 matches): Ki 3; Own Goal 2; Gomis, Shelvey, Sigurðsson 1. Yikes. And it didn't help that Swansea's most "prolific" scorer in 2015 didn't even attempt a shot yesterday.

Liverpool had one of Liverpool's all-too-frequent disappointing shooting performances – only five of 16 on-target, 10 of 16 from outside the box, two clear-cut chances missed (one off the woodwork), one very fortunate goal – but it was still vastly better than Swansea's. Combine that with the continued resolute defense and clever in-game alterations, and it's a deserved win. At a ground where Liverpool haven't won since Swansea were promoted, a ground where both Manchester United and Arsenal have lost this season.

Three points is three points, vital three points given the amazingly narrow gap between second and fifth. Even if it was much more difficult than we'd have liked.

15 March 2015

Liverpool at Swansea 03.16.15

4pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.29.14
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.14
4-3 Liverpool (h) 02.23.14
2-2 (a) 09.16.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: -0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-0 Burnley (h); 2-1 City (h)
Swansea: 2-3 Tottenham (a); 1-0 Burnley (a); 2-1 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana, Own Goal 4; Sturridge 3; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Swansea: Bony 9; Ki 6; Siguðsson 5; Dyer, Routledge 3; Gomis, Shelvey 2

Referee: Roger East

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Sterling Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

Gerrard's fit, Allen's fit, Sakho's fit, Skrtel's fit, and even Jon Flanagan's fit, or at least close enough to be training. Liverpool have a few more options than they did a week ago. And Liverpool have had eight days since their last match, much needed time for physical and mental recuperation.

Ideally, that means we'll see both Can and Sakho return to the defense. Liverpool have defended well enough with Sakho injured, with Can needed in midfield, with Lovren and Toure and Johnson, at the back, but Liverpool have desperately missed Can and Sakho when building attacks. Both are light years better in that regard than anyone else in Liverpool's squad, and that absence was, by far, the most noticeable failing in last week's 0-0 draw against Blackburn.

Allen's absence in midfield, replaced by Can, wasn't far behind. Back in form, he balances Henderson's talents and flaws: calm and cool in possession, intelligent in positioning and pressing, busy in defense.

So I'm not necessarily sure that Gerrard will go straight into the starting XI. Maybe that's overly optimistic – this is Gerrard we're talking about, after all. He could start in place of Allen, he could push Henderson to wingback (as happened at Burnley and against Leicester soon after the switch to 3-4-2-1), or he could start in as one of the advanced attacking midfielders – most likely Lallana, given how crucial Coutinho has been. But, and I've written this before, I'd prefer him as a substitute, break-glass-if-needed in the final 30 minutes, all out rampaging running at the opposition for half-an-hour if Liverpool need to change the tenor of proceedings. I still question whether he has the legs for 90 minutes. I definitely question whether he has the legs to press as Liverpool needs its attackers to press from the opening whistle.

It's not easy to break into Liverpool's front three at the moment. Sterling has been relegated to wing-back with everyone fit, making further use of his mind-blowing versatility, with Sturridge, Coutinho, and Lallana up front. And I suspect (or, possibly, "hope") that'll remain the case tomorrow. Lallana and Markovic are also options at wing-back, but Sterling provides better and more useful running from the position, even if he's not as influential further from goal.

Long story short: if it ain't broke…

As for Swansea. Since losing to Liverpool at the end of December, they've beaten United and Southampton, but were utterly torn asunder by Chelsea, lost to West Brom, and drew with Sunderland and QPR. They're stacked in central midfield, decent in defense (although keeping just two clean sheets in the last 12 matches), and threadbare up front. Swansea's four best players have been midfielders: Sigurðsson, Ki, Shelvey, and Cork. And Monk's had to fit his team around them.

Their XI against Tottenham has been typical of the recent line-ups: Fabianski; Naughton, Fernandez, Williams, Taylor; Cork, Ki; Sigurðsson, Shelvey, Routledge; Gomis.

Swansea have started those four central midfielders since signing Jack Cork in January, with one of Siguðsson, Shelvey, or Ki on "the right." Britton is also an option in midfield, arguably the best at keeping possession. Tom Carroll, on loan from Tottenham, ain't bad either. Maybe one of those four is left out, with Montero or Dyer joining Routledge on the flanks – a quicker, more counter-attacking side – or with one of those two instead of Routledge. There's also a chance that Oliviera or Emnes start up top, as I'm not sure if Gomis will be available after fainting last week. Gomis and long-term casualty Kyle Bartley are Swansea's only injury concerns.

Regardless, this won't be like the last match against Swansea. Swansea cannot be as bad or as unlucky as they were at Anfield in December. Sure, Swansea are worse off just having lost Wilfred Bony – they took 1.56 points per game prior to the match at Liverpool, have taken 1.2 per game since – but that match had a fair few fluky elements. There was Fabianski's insane ricochet off Lallana. Shelvey's own goal. Liverpool deserved its win, but Liverpool's didn't necessarily deserve such a resounding win.

But Liverpool are in a far better state than they were on December 29. Unbeaten in 90 minutes in more than three months. Seven wins and one draw in their last eight league matches. Finally featuring an almost full complement of players, rested and refreshed after a week off. Currently two points from fourth (prior to United's match against Tottenham in a few hours), and if they win tomorrow, three points from third and four from second.

So, you know, just win tomorrow.

08 March 2015

Liverpool 0-0 Blackburn

Blackburn came to Anfield to do exactly what Bolton did in the fourth round. And Blackburn got the same result that Bolton got.

If you can't play out from the back, you can't play. Not in this system, and not against a team that sits as deep as Blackburn did.

With Can and Sakho, Liverpool have two excellent passers of the ball, especially in close quarters. Lovren is hit and miss; sometimes it works, usually it doesn't, and he has an Enrique-esque propensity for the long ball even when it's not on. With Lovren and Johnson, as Can was needed in midfield, and with Skrtel going off after a very early head/neck injury, Liverpool's back line was a mess, at least at building from the back. And, subsequently, Liverpool were a mess.

Liverpool missed Joe Allen and Moreno, ostensibly rested. Liverpool missed Sakho, only fit enough for the bench. Liverpool even missed Gerrard, not yet fit enough for the squad. And then Skrtel's frightening third-minute injury completely threw off the side, resulting in an eight-minute stop and requiring Toure to come on. And Liverpool were off balance for the next 20 minutes, if not the next 80 minutes.

Still, Liverpool had chances to win. Liverpool had almost 70% possession. Liverpool took 21 shots to Blackburn's four. Liverpool had two, possibly three penalty shots ignored. Liverpool hit the woodwork. Liverpool had a goal correctly ruled out for offside. After 80 minutes of dross, Liverpool managed a late flurry, the sort which resulted in winner at Bolton and against Besiktas after disappointing performances, but without reward. Liverpool should have won that match but didn't and now Liverpool have to deal with a replay.

Of course, if Liverpool don't win, we're complaining about Liverpool's shooting. And we're complaining about Liverpool's shooting. 21 shots, but just four on target. 10 off-target (including Toure's header off the post), 7 blocked. 19% shooting accuracy. And it's not as if Liverpool were just speculatively letting fly from distance (although that also happened); 13 of those 21 were in the penalty box, two from point blank range in the six-yard box.

At least Liverpool didn't do anything stupid at the back, which always seems likely – despite Liverpool's recent defensive record – and feels especially likely when the back three is Johnson, Toure, and Lovren. Blackburn's one memorable chance, from a corner when Baptiste found space behind Can, was impeccably saved by Mignolet.

Mignolet's probably the only player who escapes with any credit. We've already mentioned Toure, Lovren, and Johnson, who did some good in defense but a lot bad with the ball. Henderson and Can weren't especially poor, but didn't have the composure that Henderson and Allen do; both tried too hard to push the play, Liverpool missed the metronomic passing that Allen (or Lucas) can provide. Lallana and Coutinho were especially disappointing. Sturridge and Balotelli (on as a substitute after an hour) were fairly well smothered, neither able to conjure something from nothing with the supply erratic at best (although Sturridge should have won at least one penalty, if not two, while Lallana also should have gotten one). Liverpool clearly need the rest – both physically and mentally – that the next eight days will provide.

But, as with Bolton, credit where it's due. Evans and Williamson did very well to nullify Lallana, Coutinho, and Henderson/Can. Baptiste and Kilgallon were perpetually in the way. Blackburn's wingers tracked back wonderfully to make sure Sterling, Markovic, and Lallana (after substitutions) were almost always doubled up. Blackburn – keeping a clean sheet for just the second time in 2015, for just the third time away from home in all competitions – defended really well.

It's just that Liverpool helped them do so. And it's not for the first time this season. And now, Liverpool will have to cope with a replay, whenever the FA can find the time to schedule it.

07 March 2015

Liverpool v Blackburn 03.08.15

12pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 04.10.12
1-1 (h) 12.26.11
1-3 Blackburn (a) 01.05.11
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.24.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Burnley (h); 2-1 City (h); 0-1 Besiktas aet (a)
Blackburn: 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday (a); 0-0 Bournemouth (a); 1-2 Norwich (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Palace (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Blackburn: 4-1 Stoke (h); 3-1 Swansea (h); 2-1 Charlton (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 10; Coutinho, Henderson, Lallana 5; Sturridge 4; Balotelli, Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Blackburn: Gestede 15; Rhodes 13; Marshall 6; King 4; Baptiste, Taylor 3; Cairney, Conway 2; Duffy, Evans, Hanley, Henley, Tunnicliffe 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Sterling Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

Cup line-ups, whether it's the FA Cup, League Cup, or Europe, always seem stronger than expected, there's often less rotation than expected. Liverpool have eight days until the subsequent match, and for the most part – unless Liverpool progress further in this competition – Liverpool have just one match a week for the rest of the season.

So other than Sakho's probable return, Liverpool's XI will probably look a lot like Wednesday's XI, which looked a lot like last Sunday's XI. Maybe Markovic replaces either Sterling or Moreno at wing-back. Maybe Balotelli starts up front after his excellent performance in the previous round, or maybe it's Sterling with Sturridge left on the bench for protection. Maybe Gerrard's back earlier than expected, starting immediately after returning to training earlier this week.

Liverpool have some options, but the safe bet is guessing the usual.

Liverpool will be Liverpool, and it's up to Blackburn to cope.

Rovers are currently 10th in the Championship, and have become a side rebuilt in Sam Allardyce's template from seven or so years ago. 4-4-2: compact, combative, and reliant upon the strikers for goals. And those strikers are pretty decent. Rudy Gestede has 15 goals in all competitions, Jordan Rhodes has 13, the two players responsible for more than 50% of Blackburn's goals. There are few sides who play 4-4-2 in the Premier League, but this will be the third straight game that Liverpool have faced a strike partnership, after Agüero and Dzeko then Barnes and Ings. While Liverpool are unsurprisingly more comfortable facing a lone striker, the three-at-the-back formation is set up to cope with this type of opposition.

However, last round's hat-trick hero Josh King is out injured, as are defenders Duffy, Lowe, and Baptiste, while Grant Hanley is doubtful and Jay Spearing cup-tied after facing Liverpool in the fourth round. Blackburn's XI on Wednesday against Sheffield Wednesday was Steele; Henley, Henry, Kilgallon, Spurr; Taylor, Williamson, Spearing, Marshall; Brown, Rhodes. There has to be at least one change – most likely Tom Cairney or Corry Evans for Spearing – but I also expect Gestede to come into the side, probably replacing Chris Brown, while Marcus Olsson could come in at left back or left midfield.

Blackburn will try to do exactly what Bolton did at Anfield two rounds earlier: frustrate Liverpool and maybe kind of hope to threaten on the counter and set plays. Bolton were 3-5-2 and Blackburn will play 4-4-2, but otherwise, the thought processes will be similar. The differences, hopefully, will be the defenses. One side kept at least five defenders (and a few midfielders) behind the ball. Tomorrow's opponents will probably start a mostly unfamiliar back four with all the aforementioned defenders out injured.

Blackburn have kept just one clean sheet since the New Year, a 0-0 draw at Bournemouth at week ago (a side, it's worth noting, that Liverpool comfortably beat 3-1 on their ground in the League Cup). They often only concede once, but they almost always concede once. It'll be up to Liverpool to continue that trend. And better it.

05 March 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Burnley

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), 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.

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

A professional, comprehensive, industrious performance. And only three or four top-class saves prevented it from being a resounding result.

It's the second consecutive match where Liverpool allowed just one shot on-target. In both matches against Burnley, the Clarets put just the one shot on-target, out of 25 in total. And that one shot on-target was Barnes' attempted header across goal to Ings just before halftime yesterday. So, yes, Liverpool have defended well in both fixtures, but 4% shooting accuracy isn't conducive to earning points against Liverpool.

It was Liverpool's sixth clean sheet in the last eight league matches: at Sunderland, at Villa, v West Ham, at Everton, at Southampton, and v Burnley. Sure, it's not the most difficult stretch of fixtures, but four of those clean sheets came away from Anfield, which is no small matter. Liverpool have allowed 55 shots in those six matches – an average of 9.2 per match – with just 14 on-target. Just 2.3 per match, just 25% accuracy. You're not gonna concede many goals when you limit the opposition to that.

Liverpool's 580 completed passes (674 attempted) were the second-most in a match this season, behind the 653 in the 0-1 loss to Villa in September. There have been just three other matches where Liverpool completed more than 500 passes this season: the aforementioned loss to Villa, the first match against Southampton, and the 2-2 draw against Arsenal. It happened 11 times last season and six times in 2012-13.

There were simply no weaknesses in the side, in the performance. Okay, the opposition wasn't great and the finishing could have been better, but the defense, midfield, and attack were all above par. Limiting Burnley's chances with no errors from defense, and with both Lovren and Can comfortable in possession. Henderson and Allen again a fairly flawless pairing: knowing when to go and when to sit, pressing in tandem, both adding to Liverpool's attack (although Henderson obviously did more going forward). Some lovely interplay and movement in attack, with Sturridge getting closer to finding his form. You'd hope for more involvement from Sterling, relegated to wing-back, but he still had some outstanding moments, and it's worth noting that the 20-year-old played three different positions – right wing-back, left wing-back, and central striker – none of them his preferred position.

Along with Henderson, Coutinho was the star: dominating the ball, singlehandedly creating more chances than Burnley did, the most successful dribbles in the match (five; Burnley had seven in total), inches away from scoring a third wonder goal in as many matches. We worried he wouldn't be able to find the space that Manchester City's midfield allowed, with Burnley deep and tight and resilient, but that wasn't an issue at all. What a wonderful footballer he's becoming. A wonderful all-around footballer, now that he's improved his shooting over the last few matches.

Once again, Liverpool's shooting was above average shooting from distance, with four of 12 shots from outside the box on-target (including Henderson's opener). And that's a decline from the previous two matches. Three of Liverpool's last five goals have come from outside the box (after scoring three in the first 25 league matches), and Liverpool's shooting accuracy from outside the box was 50% (nine of 18) in those three matches. That's insane.

With Liverpool's goals from distance improving, hopefully goals from headers will follow. Sturridge's goal was Liverpool's first headed goal in the league since Skrtel's 97th-minute equalizer against Arsenal on December 21. 12 matches ago. 951 minutes ago. 22 goals ago. In the meantime, Gerrard did score with a header at Wimbledon, and Shelvey headed in an own goal against Swansea, but it speaks to a weakness in the side, both from open play and set plays. Liverpool now have three headed goals in the league: those two and Johnson's winner against Stoke in December (although they've scored four more in cup competition). At this point last season, Liverpool had scored 12 headed goals in the league, from Sturridge (5), Suarez (3), Skrtel (2), Agger (1), and Gerrard (1). It's a weakness that should be remedied as Sturridge returns to full fitness.

03 March 2015

Liverpool v Burnley 03.04.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.26.14
4-0 Liverpool (a) 04.25.10
4-0 Liverpool (h) 09.12.09
0-1 Burnley (a, FA Cup) 01.18.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 City (h); 0-1 Besiktas aet (a); 2-0 Southampton (a)
Burnley: 0-1 Swansea (h); 1-1 Chelsea (a); 1-3 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Coutinho, Lallana, Own Goal 4; Henderson 3; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Burnley: Ings 9; Barnes 5; Boyd 4; Arfield, Mee 2; Kightly, Wallace 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

Hopefully Sakho will be fit enough to return, hopefully Sturridge will be fit enough to start. Otherwise, it's tough to see many changes to Liverpool's XI.

If Sturridge starts, it's likely that one of Lallana, Sterling, or Coutinho begins on the bench. Coutinho, considering the form he's in, certainly won't be left out. I'd suggest a rest for Sterling, simply because he's played almost every minute of every match since returning from his personal winter break, and is most likely to change the game as a substitute: the fastest of the four, able to alter proceedings from multiple positions. With Ibe out for the next month, Rodgers may want to give Lallana (or, less likely, Sterling) a run at wing-back, but I suspect that'll remain more of a mid-game, post-substitutions occurrence.

Otherwise, the team writes itself. Henderson and Allen in midfield. Moreno at left wing-back, either Can/Skrtel/Sakho or Can/Skrtel/Lovren in defense. Plus ça change...

Liverpool's home matches against bottom-half sides have been nothing short of disastrous this season. 2-1 over West Brom in early October remains the only victory, with draws against Everton, Hull, Sunderland, and Leicester, and a loss to Aston Villa. Granted, only one of those matches came after the switch to 3-4-2-1, and can be "justified" by the two crazy minutes which gave Leicester their point, but it's still a worrisome statistic. And one which demonstrates the difficulty that these team has had breaking down deep, resilient defenses. After beating Tottenham, Southampton, and Manchester City, Liverpool simply cannot fall at this hurdle.

Meanwhile, Burnley have been reasonably competent on the road. Well, that might be pushing, but they're at least better than 18th place with just 22 points suggests, especially against the bigger sides. They've earned draws at City and Chelsea since the turn of the New Year, and played a 1-3 loss at United that was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests. Yes, Burnley have won just once in the last 11 league matches, a 1-0 home victory over QPR, but not a single one of those matches has been easy for the opposition.

Dean Marney's the only Burnley player who'd feature if fit, but will miss tomorrow's match through injury. Burnley rotate less often than any other side in the division, despite their minuscule squad, and I'd be surprised if tomorrow's XI deviated from Heaton; Trippier, Shackell, Keane, Mee; Kightly, Jones, Boyd, Arfield; Ings, Barnes. That's been the XI for the last three matches, ever since Marney's injury. But Burnley's 4-4-2 will be very different from City's. More specifically, Burnley's midfielders can't, won't allow Coutinho and Lallana/Sterling the space between the lines that City provided. Burnley will sit deep, deny space, and live and die by the counter-attack and set plays. Which might well be an argument for Lallana at wing-back and Sturridge, Sterling, and Coutinho in attack. Get as many tricky, fluid players on the pitch as possible.

You know who to watch. Danny Ings, Burnley's top scorer, heavily rumored for a Liverpool transfer this summer. Ashley Barnes, Burnley's second-top scorer, locus of controversy in the draw at Chelsea. Combined, Barnes and Ings are responsible for 14 of Burnley's 25 goals this campaign.

Burnley gave Liverpool an incredibly difficult match on Boxing Day, the beginning stages of Liverpool's 3-4-2-1 revolution. They pinned Liverpool back, heavily out-shot Liverpool – 16 to 10, the third largest disparity in the opposition's favor this season – but failed to put any of those 16 shots on target before failing to Sterling's goal from Coutinho's so-delicious-it-had-to-be-fattening assist. Liverpool fans are well aware that bad things happen when you don't take your chances. Burnley are combative, Burnley are physically fit, and Burnley go down swinging.

After tomorrow, Liverpool will have just one game a week for the rest of the season (barring any FA Cup replays or rearrangements, of course). Liverpool are unbeaten in 11 league matches. Liverpool just took nine points out of nine from teams that were ahead of them in the table. Liverpool's squad is filling out: Sturridge returning to fitness, Sakho returning tomorrow or on the weekend, Gerrard just a week or so away, Lucas and Flanagan supposedly not far behind. Liverpool are two points from fourth, three points from third, with 11 games to play (including matches against both of the sides directly ahead of them in the table). Liverpool are damn close to where they want to be.

Just keep the momentum going.

02 March 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: Besiktas (a), Southampton (a), 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.

When looking at the stats, two things stood out in yesterday's match: Manchester City's inability to get shots (or put them on target) and Liverpool's sudden proficiency from outside the box shots.

As said in yesterday's match review, City's eight shots were their lowest total in a league match this season. But more than that, City suffered from Liverpool's frequent problem: there may have been fewer chances than usual, but City simply didn't take the ones they had. Agüero hitting the post in the 13th minute. The same player's clear-cut chance header just after halftime. Silva and Agüero's mishit efforts at the end of the match. Take just one of those opportunities, and we're left with a very different feeling about yesterday's contest.

Still, limiting the defending champions to just eight shots, just three in the Danger Zone, just three after Liverpool took the lead for a second time in a match that City desperately needed points from, is impressive. Manchester City are the division's top scorers, and average 16.6 shots per game, nearly a full shot more than the next-closest side.

Liverpool are averaging fewer shots conceded since switching to three-at-the-back, but it's not a drastic amount. 11.3 before the switch, 10.75 after. And similar goes for inside the box shots and Danger Zone shots. 5.9 shots allowed inside the box per match before, 5.6 since. 3.7 Danger Zone allowed before, 3.9 since. Incidentally, all of those numbers are higher than what Manchester City were allowed yesterday.

My suspicion is shots against the 3-4-2-1 are more difficult shots because they're more contested shots with more defenders in the area, which is borne out by the fact that Liverpool are blocking a higher percentage of opposition shots (25.9% before, 27.1% since), and that the opposition's shot accuracy is drastically lower since the switch. It was 34.1% before Liverpool switched to three at the back. It's 27.1% since.

Regardless, there's only one stat that matters here. Liverpool allowed 1.27 goals per game before the switch to three-at-the-back, and are allowing 0.92 since. And, I guess, that Liverpool took 1.4 points per game before the switch, and have averaged 2.25 points per game since.

As for Liverpool's goals yesterday. Since Rodgers became manager, Liverpool have scored more than one open play goal from outside the box in just three other league matches, all in 2012-13. Suarez's hat-trick at Norwich, Henderson and Gerrard against Norwich, and Sturridge and Gerrard at Manchester City. If you also include set play goals, there are two more matches from last season: two from Suarez at Norwich, and Coutinho and Henderson against Tottenham.

That's either four or six matches, depending on your definition, out of 103 matches in total.

It doesn't happen often.

Before yesterday, Liverpool had scored just four league goals from outside the box this season: open play strikes from Can, Lallana (the ricochet from Fabianski's attempted clearance), and Coutinho, plus a direct free kick from Gerrard. By themselves, Suarez and Sturridge accounted for 11 outside-the-box goals last season, with Gerrard (2), Coutinho (2), Henderson (2), Moses, and Sterling chipping in eight more.

So it's about time that happened.

Without those unlikely goals from Coutinho and Henderson, without Manchester City's wastefulness at the other end, this is a very different result, no matter how influential Coutinho was (very), no matter how impressive Allen was (very), no matter how hard Liverpool worked in the second half (very). But those are the fine margins you operate with in the Premier League, especially when you're facing the defending champions. Given the improvement we've seen over the last few months, Liverpool were due to profit from those fine margins, that sort of luck having deserted them in contests against United, Arsenal, Chelsea (League Cup), among others.

Take your chances, however unlikely they may be, and – by hook or by crook – stop the opposition from taking theirs. It's a simple game, football.

01 March 2015

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester City

Henderson 11'
Dzeko 25'
Coutinho 75'

Wow. That was really, really good.

When we've usually lauded Liverpool performances this season, the opposition's helped Liverpool out. Liverpool did well against Tottenham (twice), Southampton, Arsenal, and a few others, but they had help in each of those fixtures. Not today. City weren't at their best – looking more like a team who played 120 minutes on Thursday – but didn't play badly either. But aside from finishing – which, two jaw-dropping goals notwithstanding, should have been better, and not for the first time this season – Liverpool were at their best.

That Liverpool could do so after Thursday's match in Turkey is amazing. There were just four changes in the side: Markovic for Ibe, Henderson for Toure, Coutinho for Sturridge, and Lallana for Balotelli. And it's probably not coincidence that Henderson and Coutinho – rested for the Europa League match – were Liverpool's two best players and Liverpool's two goalscorers.

There won't be many matches where Liverpool get two goals of that quality. And there haven't been. Today was the first time that Liverpool scored twice from outside the box this season. After all, Liverpool have scored just three open play league goals from outside the box: Can's deflected effort at Chelsea, Lallana's fluke against Swansea, and Coutinho's world-beater at Southampton a week ago. That Liverpool got two in one match is finally regression to the mean, I guess. And hopefully a propitious sign.

To be fair, Liverpool should have opened the scoring before Henderson sent everyone's jaws careening off the floor, when Coutinho's delicious throughball put Lallana in, his shot too close to Hart with both Mangala and Kolarov trying to close down. That was the first sign that this was going to be a special Philippe Coutinho performance. A minute later, Lallana did have the ball in the net, but offside when receiving Sterling's cross. And just when you thought Liverpool's spell was gone, Kompany turned the ball over to Coutinho, who found Sterling, who found Henderson before City's defense could get into position, who lashed in a replica of Coutinho's belter at Southampton a week ago.

And to be fair, Manchester City should have been level less than two minutes later: Nasri's long ball over the top finding Agüero between Skrtel and Can, his shot cannoning off the inside of the far post. That was the beginning rather than the end of City's response, taking the game to Liverpool, not only monopolizing possession but disrupting Liverpool's defense when trying to play out from the back, Lovren particularly unable to find any forward teammates with his passing.

So it was little surprise when City leveled matters. Simply wonderful interplay between Silva, Agüero, and Dzeko after Toure's sharp pass found Silva just behind Henderson, Agüero cutting in from Liverpool's left before a blind pass between three Liverpool players to Dzeko, finished around Mignolet from 12 yards. Lovren had a chance to close down Agüero. As did Allen, who was on the wrong side of the striker. Can should have stepped forward when everyone else did, playing Dzeko onside. Still, you've got to credit City for such a well-worked goal.

But Liverpool regrouped, and Liverpool finished the half with the better chances. Another Lallana opportunity spurned, a smart run behind City's defense to get on the end of Can's chip, a mishit over-the-shoulder finish wide. Coutinho again winning possession in City's half, finding Lallana, finding Sterling with a sumptuous backheel, but he delayed the shot, finally sending a tame effort at Hart.

We've seen this movie before. Spurned chances, sucker punch. So you'd expect City to start the second half stronger, to take advantage of Liverpool's tired legs. And that looked like happening when Agüero headed just over from Zabeleta's cross just 30 seconds after the restart.

Turns out it was actually a different movie.

From 42% possession in the first half to 54% in the second half. Sterling redirecting Lallana's cross just wide in the 52nd minute. Another Lallana goal ruled out for offside in the 54th. City replacing Dzeko with Milner to try to shore up the midfield and reassert control, but wholly failing to do so.

And in the 75th minute, with Liverpool finally readying Sturridge to find a winner, Coutinho struck. A replica of Henderson's replica of his goal against Southampton: sustained possession before he and Sterling found space between the lines, cutting inside around Nasri before an armor-piercing bullet from the inside left-channel, pretty much the same spot as Liverpool's last two league goals.

The goal didn't change Liverpool's thinking in regards to substitutes. And while Agüero sent a shot spinning across the six-yard box in the 79th, Liverpool remained the more threatening: a goal-bound Coutinho shot from the top of the box deflected over, Sturridge's galling miss in the 87th after after another City giveaway in their defensive third. Silva and Agüero missed frightening chances in added time, but Liverpool saw out the victory surprisingly securely. Bony did nothing after replacing Fernandinho, Lampard did nothing after replacing Nasri.

Manchester City took just eight shots, their lowest total of the season. Manchester City put just one shot on-target, their second-lowest shooting accuracy of the season. Lovren frightened when in possession, as did Mignolet, but Liverpool's defense still defended excellently, absolutely aided by Henderson and Allen in midfield. And it's impossible to overrate Coutinho, the hub of everything good in attack, his performance putting the more-expensive and more highly-rated Silva and Nasri to utter shame.

Again, this was a Liverpool who played 120 difficult minutes on the other side of the continent (and lost in the most depressing way possible) less than 72 hours before. It wasn't perfect – the passing from the back and in the final third could be better, the finishing still needs to be better – but it was very, very impressive, and far beyond what I thought possible.

So now, Liverpool sit fifth, level on points with Arsenal (who are currently leading Everton, and would move into third), two points behind United. Liverpool have gotten through the difficult Everton, Tottenham, Southampton, City stretch with 10 points from 12, a total that the most optimistic supporter would hesitate to predict. Liverpool are now unbeaten in the league in 11 matches.

Liverpool have 11 games to bring this unlikely charge into the Champions League places to fruition.