31 October 2015

Liverpool 3-1 Chelsea

Ramires 4'
Coutinho 45+3' 74'
Benteke 83'

I think we can now say that this is a different Liverpool side.

Not necessarily tactically. Not even necessarily in performance; Liverpool played well, but had familiar issues with shot creation and in midfield, at least for the first 70 minutes or so.

The difference was in mentality. Liverpool hadn't won a league match after conceding first since a 3-1 win at Leicester in December 2014, hadn't won any match after conceding first since the FA Cup victory at Palace in February. Liverpool hadn't won any match after conceding in the first 10 minutes since a 6-3 win at Cardiff in March 2014. Since the beginning of last season, when Liverpool have conceded, Liverpool have often fallen apart, especially when needing to break down a deep defense after conceding early.

And a struggling Chelsea, at home, scored within four minutes: a breakdown against Azpilicueta and Hazard on Liverpool's right, neither Milner nor Clyne able to stop Azpilicueta getting in behind, then Moreno falling asleep on Ramires' run into the box, a free header bulleted past Mignolet.

It was exactly what didn't need to happen. Not only did it give Chelsea an unwanted lift, but Mourinho's teams are usually the absolute worst to play against with a lead: happy to defend as deep as humanely possible, but still capable of getting more on counters and set plays. And Liverpool have struggled to break down deep defenses for *checks watch* about 15 months now. And have been susceptible to counters and set plays for the same amount of time.

It's no coincidence Klopp said the following after last week's 1-1 draw against Southampton:

“There was still 10 minutes to go. We didn’t give up physically, it’s not that we stopped our game physically, but we didn’t believe anymore that we could turn the game around. That’s a problem, that’s why we’re not calm enough in the moments when we have the chances, the last pass and so on.

“I don’t understand this pressure at the moment, but the guys feel it. You can see that. They work so hard, they are full of concentration, full of readiness, full of passion, everything is there.

“And we conceded one goal and it felt like the end of the world – and it’s not the end of the world. It’s only a goal, you can always come back and that’s what we have to understand.”

And it actually happened.

All told, it was a very Premier League game. Liverpool continued with the few personnel changes and the high press, more a 4-2-3-1 than the 4-3-2-1 we've seen, but the same general pattern of play. The press – with Firmino up top – better than in the last two matches, the majority of players fresher after being rested midweek.

But it was more blood and thunder than individual flair, chances few and far between for more sides, excellent tackles and brutal fouls. Liverpool on top in possession – unsurprising, given Chelsea's early lead – and with more shots, but few of those shots threatening Begovic.

Then, just before halftime – 30 seconds past the added time, in fact – Philippe Coutinho's broken clock struck the correct time. Sustained Liverpool possession, Lucas spreading play wide to Milner after a failed Chelsea clearance, Firmino found in the box and a layoff to Coutinho, dancing around Ramires before a left-footed shot from the penalty arc found the far corner. I told you he should shoot more.

Honors even at the interval, and probably rightly so. Unsurprisingly, it lead to a more even second half, and an even more Premier League second half. Diego Costa could have been sent off for being Diego Costa, kicking Skrtel in the midsection as the two wrestled to the floor. Lucas could have been sent off for a second yellow, a clear foul on Ramires after he'd already been booked for persistent fouling. Tackles, tackles, and more tackles. Each side had spells of dominance, each side could have taken the lead – Milner and Lallana with decent opportunities off-target, Oscar nearly chipping Mignolet from 45 yards but the keeper just getting back – but real, honest-to-good chances remained few and far between.

Then, Coutinho again. Sakho's long cross-field pass to Benteke – on as a substitute for Milner in the 63rd – an aerial win knockdown helped on by Lallana, controlled, shifted onto his right foot just inside the box, a slight deflection off Terry taking it past Begovic. Regression to the mean. It seems Coutinho will keep shooting, no matter what. Every now and then, they'll go in: sometimes in bursts, sometimes after droughts. Today was a good day for them to go in.

And then Chelsea had to press. Liverpool shelled brilliantly, Liverpool nearly, then did, scored more on the counter. A huge save from Begovic on Moreno. Ibe's effort deflected narrowly wide. Then, Benteke, first winning Mignolet's long goal kick, then getting on Ibe's centered pass after Lallana's dummy, faking Terry and Cahill out of position before the finish. Goodnight, nurse. Goodnight, Jose.

Meanwhile, Chelsea's shots after going behind? Three swiftly blocked: from Kenedy, Oscar, and Oscar, and a Falcao header from a failed clearance that wasn't even close to the target. Three of those four shots came after Liverpool's game-sealing third.

Maybe we can add defensive resiliency to the aforementioned self-belief.

You want turning points? If Liverpool push on from here – and, admittedly, that remains a big if – this is about as turning point as you can get. A comeback win against the defending champions on their own ground, no matter their form. Three goals away from home for the first time in 10 months. The first win against Chelsea in the last nine meetings, beating a side that Liverpool's previous manager never won against.

I had forgotten what a fun football match felt like.

30 October 2015

Liverpool at Chelsea 10.31.15

8:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 05.10.15
0-1 (a; League Cup) 01.27.15
1-1 (h; League Cup) 11.08.14
1-2 (h) 04.27.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Bournemouth (h); 1-1 Southampton (h); 1-1 Kazan (h)
Chelsea: 1-1 Stoke aet [4-5 pens] (a); 1-2 West Ham (a); 0-0 Dynamo Kiev (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 3; Ings, Sturridge 2; Coutinho, Milner 1
Chelsea: Costa, Willian 2; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Falcao, Matic, Oscar, Pedro, Ramires, Zouma 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

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

Benteke's available, so I'd be surprised if Liverpool deviated from what's become the "usual" XI. 4-3-2-1, the settled back four; Milner, Lucas, and Can in midfield; Coutinho and Lallana behind the lone striker.

I guess there are a couple other options. Maybe Benteke's available, but not fit enough to start. If that's the case, I suspect it'll be Firmino up front rather than Origi, even though the former played almost 90 minutes on Wednesday, his first start since an injury against Carlisle five weeks ago. He still provides more experience, more guile, and, most likely, a better chance of goals than the young Belgian, especially if Liverpool are forced to play on the counter.

Or maybe Liverpool stick with the 4-2-3-1-ish formation we saw against Bournemouth: Firmino (central) or Milner (on the right) in the line of three behind Benteke, with Lucas and Can as a deeper midfield pair, matching what'll almost certainly be Chelsea's starting formation.

Regardless of formation, we should see a more emphatic press than against Southampton or Bournemouth, with a strong XI that have had at least a bit of rest. Liverpool will be compact, but Liverpool – away from home against a team, regardless of record or form, that's still quite dangerous – will also look to counter more and will have less possession than we've seen in Klopp's previous matches.

Tottenham is probably the template. A quick, furious start away from home, fueled by the counter-press, but settling into a deeper routine as the match goes on, whether or not Liverpool take advantage of any prospective good start.

And a good start remains vital. Right now, Chelsea are a wounded animal. And you really don't want to give a wounded animal a respite.

Chelsea, to put it mildly, have not had the best of times lately. They've won just once in the last seven matches, a 2-0 home win over a dismal Aston Villa. They're 15th in the league. They've three points less than Liverpool, a Liverpool that fired its manager few weeks ago. Their top scorer – well, joint, both Costa and Willian – has just two goals. They've conceded 19 goals through 10 matches; only Bournemouth, Newcastle, and Norwich have let it more. It took 22 matches for Chelsea to concede 19 goals last season, not happening until mid-January.

They have been, to put it bluntly, a bad football side. Of course, that doesn't usually matter when facing Liverpool.

I will readily admit that I have thoroughly enjoyed all the karmic justice dished out to Mourinho et al since August. And I am fully expecting to pay for that gloating tomorrow.

Costa and Pedro will undergo late fitness tests, while Courtois and Ivanovic definitely out injured. Assuming both that are questionable start, Chelsea will be Begovic; Zouma, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Matic, Fabregas; Pedro, Willian, Hazard; Costa. If Pedro's out, Fabregas higher up the pitch with Ramires or Mikel in midfield, or Oscar in a central attacking role with Willian on the right, or Ramires on the right. If Costa's out, Remy or, less likely, Falcao in a straight swap. Maybe it'll be Azpilicueta at right-back with new signing Baba Rahman at left-back. Maybe, with Matic clearly off form, it'll be Fabregas and Mikel or Ramires and Mikel in midfield.

Chelsea, unsurprisingly, still have options. It's just that few of those options have worked out this season. As per usual, their biggest threats will come from set plays and counter-attacks.

Brendan Rodgers never beat Chelsea as Liverpool manager, with four draws and four losses in league and League Cup matches. Jürgen Klopp has a reasonable opportunity to do so in his first match. It seems to be an ideal time to face Chelsea. Or, as ideal a time as there is to face Chelsea.

Of course, it's much easier said than done.

27 October 2015

Liverpool v Bournemouth 10.28.15

3:45pm ET, delayed coverage at 6pm ET on BeIN Sports USA (technically, it's available live at online-only BeIN Sports Connect, but that program works approximately never for me)

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.15
3-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 12.17.14
2-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.25.14
4-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.30.68

Last round(s):
Liverpool: 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h)
Bournemouth: 2-2 Preston aet [3-2 pens] (a); 4-0 Hartlepool (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Southampton (h); 1-1 Kazan (h); 0-0 Tottenham (a)
Bournemouth: 1-5 Tottenham (h); 1-5 City (a); 1-1 Watford (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Benteke, Ings 3; Lallana, Sturridge 2; Can, Coutinho, Milner 1
Bournemouth: Wilson 5; Gosling, Murray, Pugh, Ritchie, Stanislas 2; Cook, Kermorgant, MacDonald 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Toure Moreno
Allen Can
Brannagan Firmino Ibe

You'd assume there'd be a plethora of changes: three matches in eight days prior, Chelsea to come three days after. But I still have no idea what to expect under this manager, and Liverpool's squad remains hamstrung by injuries, with the added bonus of Milner's suspension after his fifth yellow card.

There are a few under-21s in contention, I guess, although I'll readily admit I know little about them. Chirivella and Brannagan – who just signed a new long-term contract – both appeared at Bordeaux a month ago, Conor Randall's been on the bench in all three of Klopp's matches, Teixeira and Sinclair were on the bench in Klopp's first at Tottenham.

Coutinho, Lallana, and Lucas seemingly have to be rested. I'd suggest similar for at least three of Liverpool's four defenders, but Liverpool don't really have any other defenders. Even though Randall's made the bench in the last three matches, he's never played a first team minute. Jose Enrique? Still not a thing that exists. Is Lovren injured or just out of favor? So let's just say Toure for Sakho – as we'll forever remain worried about Sakho's ability to stay fit – and just hope the legs of other three don't fall off.

Allen will almost certainly come back into the side, one of the few players I'd guarantee to start. Were Rossiter available, he'd certainly start as well, but without, Liverpool's choices are Can again – the only player to feature in every match so far this season – or Chirivella.

Finally, the above also assumes starts for both Benteke and Firmino, ready from the beginning after substitute appearances against Kazan and Southampton. Maybe they're still not ready, maybe they'll be protected for Saturday. If not, well, Teixeira or Brannagan or (sigh) Coutinho or Lallana instead of Firmino; Origi or Sinclair instead of Benteke. Like Allen, Ibe's almost guaranteed to play, taking up one of the two or three attacking midfield berths, one of Liverpool's few second-choice options available and very much in need of game time.

We'll see a different Bournemouth side than Liverpool faced two months ago. Three starters – Callum Wilson, Tommy Elphick, and Max Gradel – are out injured, as is Mings and Arter, Bournemouth with as many injury problems as Liverpool have. At the same time, Eddie Howe rotated his side almost completely for both previous rounds.

If Howe sticks with the XI we've seen recently, it'll be something like Boruc; Francis, Cook, Distin, Daniels; Ritchie, Gosling, Surman, Pugh; Murray, King. If he rotates, Federici's an option in goal, Adam Smith at either fullback spot, O'Kane or MacDonald in midfield, Stanislas or Atsu on the flanks, Kermorgant or Rantie up front. Regardless, they'll line up as a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2, the formation seen in almost every fixture this season.

This is a Bournemouth side that's conceded ten goals in its last two matches: 5-1 losses at Manchester City and against Tottenham. It's tempting to say that it might finally be time for Liverpool to remember where the goal is, to score more than once for just the second time this season.

But we know better. Sure, it's a different Liverpool side and manager, but I can't help remembering the previous round, when Liverpool faced League Two opposition at home, a team which had conceded the most goals in all four English divisions, and proceeded to score just once from 50 or so shots, needing extra time and penalties to advance. And we'll continue to remember that, and all the other 1-1s, until shown different.

This fixture's become habit, the third consecutive season these sides have met in a cup match. Unfortunately for Liverpool, draws have also become habit, as we've loudly lamented over the last few weeks. Thankfully, Liverpool can't draw tomorrow, at least not at the end of the day, although we're still calling Carlisle one of the many 1-1s.

After Sunday, it feels like Liverpool need just one break for the dam to burst. Well, there's no time like the present.

26 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Southampton

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

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

Shot accuracy? Shot location? Speed of Liverpool attacks? Yep, yep, yep. We've covered those before, in minute detail. They're still issues.

To sing a slightly different song, two of the above sections stood out: Liverpool's passing network and each side's tackles and interceptions.

The former clearly shows Liverpool's slow build-up and disconnect in attack. The latter shows how Southampton pressed more frequently and more effectively, and shut down Liverpool on the left – where Coutinho, Can, and Moreno attacked much more often than the players on the opposite flank.

Origi, his average position deeper than both Lallana and Coutinho, neither creating a chance nor taking a shot. Coutinho was on the pitch at the same time as Benteke and Firmino for 32 and 16 minutes respectively, but combined for just two passes with those two players: one to Benteke, one to Firmino, none in return. That's a terrifying lack of interplay from Liverpool's three best attackers. Also annoying: Coutinho once again led Liverpool in shots but created just one chance. Which was actually one of Liverpool's better chances: an excellent pass over the top to Lallana breaking into the Danger Zone, controlled but shot wide. Liverpool need more of that, and fewer speculative blasts from distance.

It was direct, it was quick, it was the type of pass that took multiple Southampton defenders out of the play. It was the type of pass that Liverpool didn't play nearly enough, far more comfortable poking and prodding and getting nowhere and then either losing possession or shooting from distance. Similarly, there was a lot of poking and prodding in the run-up to Liverpool's goal – a goal which also admittedly featured a fortunate poor touch from Mane to set up Milner – but it was Can's long cross-field pass to switch play, followed by a quick deep cross from Milner, which got Southampton's defense moving and created the space for Benteke to Benteke.

Yesterday's match actually saw Liverpool with more possession than in all but one fixture against Southampton since their promotion in 2012-13, with the 1-0 win over the Saints in December 2012 the only aberration, back in Rodgers' first season when Liverpool were still pretending at the "death by football" mantra.

After two difficult games this week, we saw an awful lot of Liverpool resting on the ball. We saw a distinct lack of counter-press, shown only by the away side, who had a full week between games. The only league matches where Liverpool had more possession than yesterday were the 3-2 win over Villa and 0-3 loss to West Ham, both at Anfield, and both against sides – West Ham's away form notwithstanding – worse than Southampton, at least at keeping the ball. Which allowed Southampton time to get settle and secure the defense, close down passing lanes in the final third, and block attempted shots.

Both Wanyama and Soares were outstanding defensively, combining for 12 tackles (all successful), the vast majority on Liverpool's left. 46% of Liverpool's attacks came down the left flank (21% central, 34% on the right), but Lallana and Milner – stationed on the opposite flank – created eight of Liverpool's 13 chances, including Milner's assist for Liverpool's lone goal.

Yet the following is arguably more important than any of the above statistics.

“What I saw after the draw (the equaliser), maybe this is the problem, when they made their goal, they were all so disappointed but it's football - you can receive goals, it's normal. But after this I think we had nine, ten, minutes to play so there is another chance, but there was no belief any more in the eyes and I told them – no contact between the players in this moment, nobody was able to push to say something positive in this moment.”
-- Jürgen Klopp

Which, I guess, is understandable after seven draws in the previous eight matches, six of those 1-1, five of those six finishing 1-1 after Liverpool scored first.

This, more than the impotence in attack, more than any errors or set play weaknesses in defense, is what needs fixing, is Klopp's biggest challenge. Both attack and defense will improve with more training time (the defense already has, to a certain extent, especially Sakho and Moreno), as the squad and manager become acclimatized to each other, as key players – Benteke, Firmino, Sturridge, Henderson – return to the side and to full fitness.

Liverpool needs to rediscover its self-belief. Good thing they now have a manager who specializes in that.

25 October 2015

Liverpool 1-1 Southampton

Benteke 77'
Mane 86'

For the eighth time in the last nine matches in all competitions, Liverpool have finished level. Seven ended 1-1. Six of those seven saw Liverpool score first and concede an equalizer within 16 minutes.

Sigh. The more things change...

There are all sorts of valid excuses as to why this happened and why it's not the end of the world. It's only Klopp's third match. Three matches in eight days limited Liverpool's ability to adapt to his system, especially the counter-press, while injuries limited Liverpool's ability to make changes to the XI.

And this was about as clear cut a case for post-Europa League rotation as you'll ever see.

There was little to mention from the first half. A match full of artisans, lacking in artists. Liverpool did well to control possession, to escape Southampton's intermittent high press, and to limit Southampton opportunities from open play. But Liverpool fatigue meant that there was little pressing from the home side, and Liverpool's lack of direct, pacey attackers meant Southampton had all the time in the world to get behind the ball when Liverpool entered their half.

Liverpool out-shot Southampton 9-4 in the first half, Liverpool had 60% possession. Only four of Liverpool's shots came inside the box: two off-target, two blocked. The lone shot on-target was a supremely tame left-footed effort from Lallana. Meanwhile, three of Southampton's four shots came inside the Danger Zone, including two on-target, and including a clear cut chance from a set play: Mignolet doing well to deny van Dijk after a defensive breakdown on a free kick. You may want to remember that moment.

Things got a little bit better in the second half, mainly because Benteke's introduction for Origi finally gave Liverpool a focal point, an actual, honest-to-goodness goal scoring threat. But for the most part, trends continued. Liverpool controlled tenor and tempo but Liverpool didn't do enough with it. Liverpool did well to limit Southampton's chances on the break, but Southampton did have a couple of chances to break. When Southampton took shots – again, just four in the half – they came from dangerous areas. Liverpool's build-up play was a little better, a bit more varied, but still too deliberate, and Liverpool continued to put the vast majority of its shots off target.

But then, Benteke. Milner's very deep cross, and Benteke absolutely trucking Jose Fonte, bursting to the perfectly placed ball and cannoning a 12-yard header past a hapless Steklenburg. It was more than reminiscent of Gestede's second goal for Villa last month – not the defender's fault, just basically unstoppable when the cross and finish are so good – and an excellent demonstration of why early crosses to Christian Benteke are so dangerous. Anfield erupted, Klopp charged down the sideline with a leaping fist punch. It was the first time Liverpool have scored a meaningful goal in the final 15 minutes of a match since Coutinho at Stoke on Opening Day. Finally, the turning point.

Ha. Hahahahahaha. Nope. We still can't have nice things.

We clearly saw the aforementioned fatigue, both physical and mental, in Southampton's equalizer. Liverpool's entire midfield gassed; Milner, Lucas, and Can struggling to keep up. None could be substituted, with Origi deservedly hauled off at halftime for Benteke and both Lallana and Coutinho even more exhausted, replaced by Firmino and Ibe.

And then Milner, not for the first time, was caught out by Mane's pace, forced to pull him down for a deserved yellow card (somehow, already his fifth of the season, now suspended for Wednesday's League Cup match). And then both Lucas (on Ramirez) and Milner (on Mane) were caught ball-watching as Southampton won multiple flick-ons from Ward-Prowse's free kick, experienced players who should both know better. And then Mane tapped in from less than a yard away, with just four minutes of normal time left, Liverpool and Anfield demonstrably drained.

Neither side even attempted a shot in the final seven minutes, highlighted only by Mane's sending off in the last minute of added time after picking up two yellows in 137 seconds. Somehow, it's even more fitting that when Liverpool conceded a late equalizer, the goal-scorer gets sent off soon after. It was too late to matter, only serving to waste precious seconds and only helping Southampton's next opponents.

It may well be lingering post-Klopp euphoria, but this still felt better than what we'd seen in the months before, in all those previous draws. Southampton are a better side than all but Tottenham, and unlike Liverpool, Southampton had eight days to prepare and an almost full squad to choose from. Benteke demonstrated the difference a real, experienced striker can make; Can remains remarkably busy and a vastly different player under this manager; Sakho and Moreno were quite good in defense. Liverpool's build-up remains too slow, Liverpool's squad remains too small thanks to injuries, Coutinho's form remains a concern. Liverpool (and Anfield) are still waiting for the other shoe to drop when something good actually happens. But these still seem remediable problems.

And unlike Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, Sion, Everton, and Kazan (sigh), 1-1 seems a fair result on the pattern of play. Liverpool had a bit more control of proceedings, Southampton had the better chances. So be it. Little by little, this team will get better, and maybe Liverpool might even win a game or two.

24 October 2015

Liverpool v Southampton 10.25.15

12:15pm ET, live in the US on NBC (stupid UK Daylight Saving Time)

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 02.22.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.17.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.01.14
0-1 Southampton (h) 09.21.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Kazan (h); 0-0 Tottenham (a); 1-1 Everton (a)
Southampton: 2-2 Leicester (h); 3-1 Chelsea (a); 3-1 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Ings, Sturridge 2; Coutinho, Milner 1
Southampton: Pelle 5; Tadic 3; Mane, van Dijk 2; S Davis, Fonte, Long 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

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

Is Benteke or Firmino fit enough to start up front, as Sturridge almost certainly isn't even fit enough to be in the squad? And will Liverpool make any other alterations to the XI we've seen in the last two matches?

Playing a pretty much unchanged team against Southampton a week after draining contests versus Tottenham and Kazan is admittedly asking for trouble. But Liverpool still don't have a lot of options. Chances are, we see the same XI which faced Tottenham but with Benteke in place of Origi, and a bit less full-throttle pressing.

With both Benteke and Firmino available, Klopp's "preferred" 4-2-3-1 seems more of an option. Two from Can, Milner, Lucas, and Allen in midfield; three from Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino, and Milner in attack; Benteke or Origi up front. Or maybe Klopp starts two up front: Benteke and Firmino or Benteke and Origi. The latter option seems far less likely; one of those players will be needed as break-glass-in-case-of-emergency on the bench and two of the three are just back from injury.

I suspect that, ideally, Liverpool will try to play this match similarly to the 2-0 win at Southampton last March. It'll be a different formation and a fairly different XI, but the ideas will be the same. Guns blazing from the opening whistle, look for an early goal to upset Southampton's plans, then shell shell shell. And Liverpool will very much have to shell – at times at best, for long stretches at worst – hoping that the defense continues to improve as it did against Tottenham and Kazan.

Last season, Southampton was built upon defense. Only Chelsea allowed fewer goals than Southampton's 33, which was 15 fewer than the Liverpool side which finished one place above them.

It's been a little bit different so far this season. Southampton have already conceded 12, two more than Liverpool. But they've been just a wee bit better up front.

In all competitions, Southampton have scored more goals in the last four matches (14) than Liverpool have scored all season (12). A 6-0 league cup win at MK Dons, 3-1 wins against Chelsea and Swansea, and a 2-2 draw against Leicester. I doubt I need remind that Liverpool have scored more than one goal in just one match this season. Southampton's top two scorers – Pelle and Tadic – have the same number of league goals as Liverpool in total. Only City, West Ham, Leicester, and Arsenal have scored more in the league than Southampton this season.

Stekelenburg and Jay Rodriguez are questionable – the former likely to return, the latter probably protected and on the bench due to his long-standing battle with injuries – while Long, Gardos, and Forster are definitely out. Which means a likely XI of Stekelenburg; Soares, Fonte, van Dijk, Bertrand; Wanyama, S Davis; Mane, Ward-Prowse, Tadic; Pelle. The same side, except for the returning Stekelenburg, which drew Leicester six days ago, with Southampton allowed a full recovery without a midweek match in the meantime.

Clasie and Romeu are options in midfield if Koeman wants a bit more solidity, with Davis capable of playing in the line of three or off the bench, while there's a reasonable chance we see Juanmi up front off the bench, but those seem the only other options.

Southampton have a settled side, a settled style, and a settled formation. Unlike their opponents, at least so far. And it'll look a lot like the style that Liverpool faced six days ago.

Immediately after promotion, Southampton became one of Liverpool's most difficult opponents, winning three consecutive meetings. Since then – since Liverpool began pillaging Southampton's squad – Liverpool have won three straight, by a 7-1 margin, the lone goal scored by now-Liverpool-player Nat Clyne.

But all of those matches have been closer than the score suggests, overmatched for long stretches both times at Southampton but resilient in defense and potent when given the chance. Those two traits have often eluded Liverpool over the last 16 months, and the inability to consistently demonstrate those traits eventually cost Brendan Rodgers his job.

Liverpool will assuredly need to be both of those things tomorrow.

23 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Rubin Kazan

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

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

What, you mean Klopp hasn't fixed all of Liverpool's problems in a week? JÜRGEN OUT, etc etc.

On the surface, that was a very Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool performance and there were an awful lot of uncomfortable familiarities.

• The result: Liverpool's sixth 1-1 draw in the last eight matches.

• Conceding a goal that Liverpool probably shouldn't have conceded, with the defense beaten by a long cross-field pass over the top and Devic in behind Clyne and Skrtel far too easily, although not many players will take a first touch as lovely as that.

• Liverpool's shooting: reasonably prolific – Carlisle aside, Liverpool's 35 shots were a high for both this season and last – but horribly inaccurate, with far too many efforts off-target or blocked, and far too many from outside the box. Just six shots on-target, with 19 off (including one off the woodwork) and 11 blocked.

• Liverpool scored just one goal from all those shots. Kazan scored one goal from just five. And four of those five shots came from inside the box, compared to just 14 of Liverpool's 35.

You have heard this song before. But there were a few important differences as well.

35 shots vastly outnumbered any total that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool accumulated in Europe. The previous high under the previous manager was 23 shots against Ludogorets last season. That was the only time a Rodgers side took more than 20 shots in a European match. Liverpool averaged 13.8 shots per match in Rodgers' 18 European contests (not counting qualifiers against Hearts and Gomel, which I don't have stats for).

Unlike against Sion, only two of Liverpool's 35 shots were clear-cut chances: Can scoring once, Benteke missing the other in the 74th. Liverpool had six against Sion: the first scored by Lallana, the subsequent five either saved (4) or blocked (1). Liverpool weren't quite as wasteful as they were in the last 1-1 European home draw, their opponents were (necessarily) more focused on defense.

It's not easy to break down a 10-man side, especially one that has no need to come out. Liverpool at least did well to create chances and get into some decent positions against a team that, down a man, desired to do nothing but defend. They varied their build-up, attempting both crosses and playing through the middle, trying one-two one-touch passes and running at defenders, rather than the often staid stuff we saw earlier this season and last. Benteke and Firmino were clearly rusty, Origi's only 20, Coutinho's poor form continues (although he was at least creating chances in addition to taking speculative shots), almost every player showed the effects of tiredness after a difficult match at Tottenham four days earlier.

If Liverpool continue to create that volume of shots – especially when they out-shoot their opponents by 30 – I'm fairly confident Liverpool will usually score more than one goal and Liverpool will win more matches than they lose or draw.

And Liverpool had lost six of the last seven matches when conceding first, going back to the last time they won after conceding first: at Palace last February in the FA Cup. At United, against West Ham, at Hull, at Arsenal, against United, at Besiktas. The only exception was a draw at Chelsea last May – a Chelsea who'd already clinched the league – Gerrard's headed equalizer after Terry gave Chelsea the lead.

It is a good thing that Liverpool rarely conceded first, in just seven out of the previous 30 matches. It is a bad thing that Liverpool almost never got back into the game if they did concede first. At least that wasn't the case yesterday, keeping unrelenting pressure on Kazan's defense for the final hour.

Can, Lallana, and Sakho – players who were misused and/or underused under Rodgers – were all excellent, for the second successive match. That's no small matter either.

So, yes, there's still quite a bit of progress that needs to be made. And the majority of it is at the sharp end of the pitch. We knew (or should have known) that'd be the case. But, despite a disappointing draw, the second consecutive draw under Klopp, there are some good signs.

21 October 2015

Liverpool v Rubin Kazan 10.22.15

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Tottenham (a); 1-1 Everton (a); 1-1 Sion (h)
Kazan: 3-1 Ufa (h); 1-2 Terek Grozny (a); 0-0 Bordeaux (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Kazan: 0-0 Bordeaux (h); 1-2 Sion (a); 1-0 Rabotnicki (h), 1-1 Rabotnicki (a); 1-1 Sturm Graz (h), 3-2 Sturm Graz (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 2
Kazan: Kanunnikov, Karadeniz 2; Carlos Eduardo, Kuzmin, Portnyagin 1

Referee: Robert Schörgenhofer (AUT)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Sakho Moreno
Allen Can
Milner Coutinho Ibe

An entirely different manager, an entirely new attempt to gauge how seriously that manager will take this competition. If Klopp puts out a full-strength XI – and that's a fairly big if – I can only see a couple of changes: Ibe for Lallana or Coutinho, and Allen for Lucas or Can.

Even if Klopp wanted to, there are few options for alterations. Ings, Gomez, and Flanagan are out for months; Henderson and Rossiter for a little while longer. Sturridge, Benteke, Lovren, and Firmino are back in training, but none will start – or probably even play – until Sunday at the earliest.

I remind: Liverpool's bench on Saturday was Bogdan, Toure, Allen, Ibe, Randall, Teixeira, and Sinclair. Other than Ibe, Allen, and possibly Toure, if there are changes, it'll be youth players getting a chance. There were the three on the bench on Saturday – a right back, attacking midfielder, and striker – but Chirivella, Brannagan, and Maguire are also remote possibilities. Maybe, under a new manager, Jose Enrique is once again a thing that exists, but I doubt it. (Whoops. Derped that. Neither Enrique nor Teixeira are registered for the EL. Thanks to wides in the comments).

So you balance who's actually available with the regular starters you're most concerned about. Lucas rarely played three matches in a week under Rodgers. Lallana rarely plays 80+ minutes, rarely starts multiple matches in a matter of days, and ran an awful lot on Saturday. We're always concerned about Sakho's number of matches and ability to stay fit. Emre Can has still featured in every match this season.

In addition, Sunday's clearly the more important, tougher fixture, but if Liverpool want to qualify for the knockout rounds, Liverpool probably need to win this match. Sion have four points, Bordeaux and Liverpool two, Kazan one. Liverpool will only have one more home match after this. Advancement isn't impossible with a draw or even a loss tomorrow, but it makes doing so infinitely harder.

At the same time, it's not as if Liverpool's opponents are in sparkling form. Kazan's home win against second-to-bottom Ufa last weekend was Kazan's first win in any competition since September 12. After 12 matches, they sit 12 in the 16-team Russian League, with three wins, a draw, and eight losses.

Midfielder Kislyak is suspended after two yellows against Bordeaux, with Georgiev the most likely replacement – although he's also questionable after missing the weekend match through injury – but otherwise, my best guess at an XI is the same which Kazan started in both their last league match. Ryzhikov; Kuzmin, Kverkvelia, Kambolov, Nabiullin; Ozdoev, Georgiev; Kanunnikov, Carlos Eduardo, Karadeniz; Portnyagin.

Maybe ex-Evertonian Diniyar Bilyaletdinov – who has received fewer opportunities since his father was fired in September, replaced by Valeri Chaly – comes into the side. Maybe Marko Devic, a former Ukrainian international, starts up front in place of the struggling Portnyagin or alongside him. Kanunnikov can start up front or on the flanks; Carlos Eduardo as the #10 or out wide. Rubin Kazan, unlike Liverpool, seemingly have options. It's just that I'm not entirely sure what those options entail or which will be preferred.

It'll be interesting to see how Liverpool under Klopp respond to the pressure of expectations. Everyone was on a high following Klopp's appointment at Tottenham – and, to be fair, still are – and considering each side's respective forms and venue, anything earned at White Hart Lane, any progress, even marginal, made would be a bonus.

That's not the case tomorrow. Liverpool are at home, for Klopp's Anfield debut. Liverpool are deservedly favored. Liverpool are the better side. Liverpool need to win. How will Liverpool react?

20 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

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

"I’m satisfied with the start and it was not the worst sign. … The problem was that when we had the ball, we were not cool enough and we didn’t use our skills. We were a little bit too hectic. … A nought on the right side [of the scoreline] is okay, for sure, but on the other side it doesn’t give you the same feeling."

"For the moment, it’s more important for development to become stable. We needed Mignolet and a very strong game from him [today], but we can make it better when we play better football. We are able to play better football but today, after three days [training], it is okay."

-- Jürgen Klopp

And that's pretty much the alpha and omega of Saturday's match, especially the first of the quoted paragraphs.

It's news to no one that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool struggled in attack from the beginning of last season. That wasn't going to change in a week, especially after an international break, and especially with Sturridge, Benteke, Ings, Henderson, and Firmino absent.

Liverpool's shot selection was limited and fairly wayward, the best and only true chance when Origi hit the crossbar from a corner. Only four shots came from inside the box, only two inside the Danger Zone, from just 12 in total.

Liverpool were stifled in the opposition half, with Tottenham completing 41 successful tackles, by far the most I've seen in the three-plus seasons of these infographics.

Origi's inexperience, a new and different formation with new and different tactics from Liverpool, and a surprisingly unassuming performance from Coutinho all contributed, but Dembele and Alli did a masterful job in Tottenham's midfield, while Rose also defended well against Milner and Lallana on Liverpool's right. Four of Dembele's nine tackles came against Origi (Coutinho 2; Ibe, Lallana, Milner 1). The experienced Belgian gave the inexperienced Belgian little time to find space or turn towards goal, with Origi limited to trying to hold up play to involve midfielders behind the ball, a tactic which saw Liverpool retain possession adequately but threaten little and less.

Liverpool pressed fairly well in Tottenham's half, and did very well to compress the space on the flanks, aided by Can and Milner's work-rate and the 4-3-2-1 system. Tottenham compressed the space in their own half, both centrally and out wide, to excellent effect, almost wholly nullifying Liverpool's play in the opposition half.

Everyone's gleefully noted the "just ******* run around a bit" stat – that Liverpool's players totaled 116 kilometers on Saturday, that Liverpool were the first side to run farther than Tottenham in a match this season – but statistics like that, in isolation, are why there's a vast section of the football-watching population who hate statistics. 'Sprints don't score you goals' etc etc.

Well, yeah. There are few, if any, statistics you can take in isolation. But the underlying point still stands. That Liverpool were immediately more diligent in pursuing the ball and running hard, longer, and faster is a good sign – as Carragher pointed out on Monday Night Football, that Klopp's ideas are taking hold – even if much more work's going to be needed to make those kilometers effective. What's more meaningful than the total kilometers run is that it's Liverpool who ran those kilometers. A Liverpool side that's looked jaded, weak, and ineffectual for months, if not a full year, immediately put in the hard work to match one of the hardest-working sides in the Premier League.

There were also some continued Liverpool mistakes in defense, but – unusually – they went unpunished. Lallana's 28th minute weak pass was the only Opta-defined error, requiring a brilliant save from Mignolet, but it's not as if Liverpool were immediately flawless at the back, both lucky in Tottenham finishing and thankful for Mignolet's efforts.

Nine of Tottenham's 13 shots came in a 20-minute spell before halftime, including all five of Tottenham's shots in the box. That was when Liverpool began to tire after the initial flurry, when you saw the need for higher fitness levels, when you saw the problems with instituting such a fevered style after only three days training.

Six of those nine shots came at least partly because of what Liverpool did, lesser degrees of error than Lallana's, but misplays all the same. N'Jie's 28th minute shot wonderfully saved; a wayward, failed clearance from Sakho leading to Eriksen's blocked effort from distance and the subsequent off-target header from the corner by Vertonghen; missed tackles from Lucas and Skrtel and a missed interception from Clyne leading to Kane's saved shot and Alli's effort artfully blocked by Skrtel in the 37th; a mix-up between Skrtel and Clyne allowing N'Jie's off-target blast in the 41st.

Sure, these things happen in every match, and aside from Lallana's, none was a near-fatal gaffe. But there are still blunders in that back line. But they seem remediable blunders.

And as Tottenham did for the first 20 minutes, Liverpool weathered that storm, took the counter-punches, with much of the credit going to Mignolet and Sakho. Liverpool only took five shots after the interval, but Tottenham only took four. Liverpool, despite fading, despite pressing less often, remained secure at the back and marginally more comfortable in possession, even if it was almost all non-threatening possession.

Even considering Tottenham's 20-minute flurry, even considering Liverpool's still-occurring gaffes, Liverpool were more cohesive defensively, especially on set plays (which is no small matter). By hook, by crook, by talent or by luck, Liverpool kept its first clean sheet in any competition since August 24, nine matches ago. Klopp was not kidding when he said that defense needed to be fixed first. Benitez, Dalglish, and Rodgers all began similarly, even if Rodgers veered well away from that strategy by his second season. It's almost always a manager's first task.

These were two fairly similar teams: part of the Premiership's upper-middle class, hard-working, full of running, not quite talented enough individually or collectively to break into the top four (at least yet). Both sides were held below their usual total shots, chances created, and passes attempted and completed; both sides completed around 75% of their passes, far below their usual average and the league average. Each side had dominant spells and chances in the first half, both sides sputtered and struggled in the second.

But Liverpool had a new manager, new system, and a 20-year-old making his full debut in a new league up front. Tottenham were at home, Tottenham have a more settled and more cohesive attack, and Tottenham haven't lost a league match since opening day: a narrow 0-1 defeat due to an own goal.

So, honors even, and probably rightly so. Liverpool are still 10th, but still only four points outside of fourth. As Liverpool's new manager explicitly said, it's a start that should satisfy, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

08 October 2015

On Jürgen Klopp

I still can't believe Jürgen Klopp is about to become Liverpool's manager, with a press conference scheduled for 10AM BST on Friday.

This feels different. And not just because it's the first time that we've seen overwhelming optimism from the fan base for the first time since 2013-14 ended. The last year has been dreary and dire. Jürgen Klopp does not do dreary nor dire.

Jürgen Klopp comes with a reputation. He is a winner. His teams are fun to watch. He is iconoclastic and idiosyncratic: an oversized, outgoing, quote machine personality who should immediately mesh with Liverpool's base.

In retrospect, the thought process which led to Brendan Rodgers named manager was similar to that which led to the signings of Origi, Luis Alberto, Ilori, Can, Markovic, etc. All those "committee" signings. A high-risk, high-reward youngster. They've never proven it at the highest level, they're comparatively inexperienced, but there's room for growth. If it works out, Liverpool exploited an inefficiency in the market. If it doesn't, well, at least they didn't waste an egregious amount of resources, I guess.

Jürgen Klopp is an actual proven commodity, an innovator, one of the top 10 managers in the world. Two-time Bundesliga winner, three-time German Supercup winner, Pokal Cup winner, Champions League runner-up. And those trophies came at a club that had underwhelmed and underperformed prior to his arrival, winning despite a rival with much, much deeper pockets. It's a résumé that reminds of Rafa Benitez.

Let's be honest: Liverpool are incredibly lucky to get him. It took a series of unlikely circumstances for this to fall in place. It took Dortmund falling apart at the exact time that Liverpool did, a necessary end for Klopp's seven-year run. It took Liverpool unable to progress from last season's nadir, made worse by the difficult start to the season. It took a dearth of other attractive jobs, at least for the moment, at least to an "incurable romantic" such as Klopp. It took Klopp wanting a sabbatical over the summer, wanting to manage in the Premier League, and wanting a "project" rather than waltzing into an already set situation. It's a similar series of circumstances which led to the signing of Luis Suarez: the kind of talent Liverpool would love to deal in on a regular basis, but one not possible the majority of the time.

He's never done it in the Premier League? Neither did Benitez or Houllier. But they came with renown, with honest-to-goodness European pedigree. You know who had managed in the Premier League? Hodgson and Rodgers. I apologize for putting Brendan in the same sentence as Roy, but experience in England is obviously not a guarantee for success, with managers or transfer deals.

There's no guarantee of success here either – if you can ever guarantee success, please immediately call Ian Ayre or John Henry – but still, it's seemingly Suarez or Torres rather than Carroll or Benteke. It's Benitez, it's Houllier; it's not Hodgson or Rodgers. Liverpool, by hook or by crook, are shopping in a store they can't usually afford.

In their heyday, Klopp's Dortmund were the football hipster's darlings. Gegenpressing – literally, "counter pressing" – became a word that English speakers actually know, and not just because compound German words are more fun. You'll want to read this, from Spielverlagerung. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of outstanding articles about Klopp's Dortmund, articulating his tactics far better than I can. Just searching Klopp's name on Spielverlagerung is a good start. So are these:

• Two interviews in The Guardian, from May 2013 and November 2013
This video from BBC Football Focus
Searching Zonal Marking for old Dortmund match reviews
We Are Hooligans: Analyzing Jurgen Klopp's Tactics At Borussia Dortmund
Michael Caley on how gegenpressing made the Bundesliga the fastest league in the world

Curiously, Klopp's preferred formation while at Dortmund – at least for the majority of his tenure, at least with his best sides – was 4-2-3-1. Otherwise known as the formation that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool struggled the most with.

What's most important isn't the formation. It's the ability to counter-press; it's quick, vertical attacking transitions; it's getting the best players on the field. Klopp isn't dogmatic about the 4-2-3-1 – Spielverlagerung's tactical analysis of last season's Pokal semifinal against Bayern highlights Dortmund's use of a 4-3-3/4-Diamond-2 hybrid, a formation seen a fair amount last season because of the respective talents of Reus, Aubamenyang, and Kagawa – but it's still his favored deployment.

I have two questions. Well, more than two, but two big ones: the striker situation and the composition of the midfield.

When everyone's available, Liverpool's squad seemingly demands two strikers, whether it's Sturridge, Benteke, or Ings. Does that mean one of Sturridge or Ings will play from the flank? In the hole? Will Benteke be the odd man out in a heavy pressing system? Or will Klopp change: 4-4-2. 4-2-2-2, 4-Diamond-2? Klopp's Dortmund used those formations at times, mostly in his last two seasons, albeit not on a regular basis.

And who's going to be the central midfield pairing? This, admittedly, is a question that dogged Rodgers since the beginning of last season, because no two-man pairing as stood out. Liverpool pretty much had to play two midfielders ahead of a single holder, or a diamond, or three at the back to function. And even then, it was a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. I suspect Henderson and Allen will eventually win out. Jordan Henderson is, hands down, Liverpool's best midfielder, and almost certainly will remain captain. Joe Allen, perpetually underrated by Liverpool fans, seems to fit Klopp's style. Sure, he doesn't stand out in any area, but he can press, pass, run, and hold to decent effect; after Henderson, he's Liverpool's most well-rounded midfielder. But Emre Can should see much more time in the middle. Lucas remains Liverpool's best defensive midfielder. Your guess is as good as mine.

Also, spare a thought for James Milner, signed this summer because of Brendan Rodgers, because he wanted to play more as an orthodox central midfielder. Welp. I wouldn't be surprised if he's back to being a versatile jack-of-all-trades, mainly used as a right winger, especially once Henderson returns. Can, Allen, and Lucas all seem better suited to playing in the midfield base in whatever formation Klopp chooses, while Milner's work-rate, pressing, and crossing ability would fit on the flank opposite Coutinho, Lallana, or Firmino. Sorry about that, Jimmy.

Regardless, it'll be awhile before we see Klopp's preferred XI, with Henderson out for another six weeks, Firmino and Lovren out for another couple, and questions over Benteke and Coutinho's availability immediately after the international break.

I really wish we'd be able to see it sooner. Because Klopp's first six weeks will be a baptism by fire.

• October 17 - Tottenham (a)
• October 22 - Rubin Kazan (h)
• October 25 - Southampton (h)
• October 28 - Bournemouth (h) [League Cup]
• October 31 - Chelsea (a)
• November 5 - Rubin Kazan (a)
• November 8 - Crystal Palace (h)
• November 21 - Manchester City (a)

Eight matches in little more than a month; two matches a week until the next international break. Matches in three different competitions. Three of Klopp's first four league matches all away, against last season's 5th, 1st, and 2nd place sides, with a dangerous Southampton at home the fourth.

No one said it was gonna be easy.

Of course, Klopp's not here for six weeks. He's here for the next three years – we hope, at least. Klopp's methods, especially synchronized pressing and quick attacking transitions, take time on the training pitch, and Liverpool is not going to have a lot of training time over the next couple of months. Dortmund improved in Klopp's first season – one with a full preseason – but it was a 13th-to-6th improvement. Then fifth. Then the two consecutive Bundesliga titles.

Top 4 remains the goal this season, and this change was made early enough to ensure it's a still possible goal, but after a managerial change, anything tangible reward this season seems a bonus. And yes, Liverpool's fixture list looks a lot better starting in December, giving Liverpool more than enough time to push towards fourth in this goofy, messed up league as long as they at least survive the next month.

It's going to be an interesting ride. Buckle up, sports fans, it's about to get fun. We've been missing fun for far too long.

05 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Unfortunately, this was a fitting capstone to Rodgers' Liverpool tenure.

Some ways, it was a typical Merseyside derby: both sides well below their usual output in both passes and shots, a potential sending-off or two ignored by a referee who wanted to "let them play," a match without a plethora of individual brilliance, a slog rather than a showpiece.

Liverpool weren't bad, considering form, fixture, opponent, and venue. Liverpool started well enough, not great in open play, but at least a little dangerous from set plays, finally converting through Ings from a Milner corner in the 41st minute. But, admittedly, it was as much Everton as it was Liverpool; we'd all be screaming had Liverpool's set play defense broken down in such a manner: Barkley not close enough to Ings, Howard failing to come just two yards off his goal-line.

Incidentally, it was Liverpool's first goal directly from a corner since Gerrard's winner against QPR last May.

Liverpool took decent enough shots, if not enough of them, even if the best of the bunch were from set plays. Nine in the Danger Zone. 11 of 13 from inside the box. Three shots in the six-yard box, which is the most that Liverpool's had in that zone in a league match since the 3-0 win at Tottenham in August 2014. 44 league matches ago.

And once again, Liverpool underperformed their Expected Goals total, converting their best chance, but only their best chance. Liverpool underperformed Expected Goals in three of Rodgers' four full seasons, 2013-14 the only exception. Meanwhile, Everton had the best three chances of the match, but little more.

And then, not long after scoring, Liverpool conceded, through both a mistake and an unfortunate ricochet. And then Liverpool fall apart. And Liverpool were subsequently under pressure for the majority of the second half, and Liverpool were unable to change proceedings through substitutions. And that's basically the story of the last 16 months. It's the same process and same result we've seen in five of the last six matches.

Aside from the same old, same old, there were two features of Liverpool's play which disappointed: Sturridge and Coutinho unable to get into the game and Liverpool's midfield once again unbalanced and unable to control proceedings.

For the most part, Everton marked Coutinho with McCarthy and Sturridge with Funes Mori. And both players did an excellent job on their respective opponents. McCarthy made seven successful tackles, of eight attempted; three were on Coutinho, two on Sturridge. Three of Funes Mori's four successful tackles came against Sturridge. The two were held to six shots, five off-target or blocked, with only Coutinho creating a single chance. Neither player did much with the ball at their feet.

That Coutinho pulled out of the Brazil squad today suggests he was carrying an injury yesterday, something his limited involvement also suggests.

As for Liverpool's midfield. Coutinho's limited involvement is part of the explanation. Average position is always somewhat of a lie, an average position based on where players touched the ball rather than where they were throughout the match, but it was still odd to see Milner as Liverpool's most-advanced player, even ahead of Sturridge and Ings in the above passing network chalkboard. Yes, Liverpool need its midfielders to get beyond the strikers on occasion, to make meaningful runs into the box, but Milner so far forward meant that there were few options available when Lucas or the center-backs wanted to make a short pass out from the back. And so, Liverpool looked long.

Everton unsurprisingly attempted more long passes – that is one of Lukaku's great strengths, after all, especially when he's working against Skrtel and Can – but Liverpool also attempted a surprisingly large amount, bypassing the midfield, looking for Ings to play like Liverpool seemingly wants Benteke to play. Danny Ings is not Christian Benteke.

And it left Lucas with a lot of work to do in defense. That he successful completed eight of nine tackles, spread across the width of the pitch, demonstrates how much work he put it, and that he was fairly successful at doing so. That he committed seven fouls, breaking up Everton attacks, while also only picking up a single yellow card, shows some veteran guile (in addition to demonstrating that Martin Atkinson, thankfully, didn't want to "ruin the game"). Along with Mignolet, for his two outstanding first-half saves, and Ings, if only for his goal and work-rate, Lucas was Liverpool's main contender for man of the match.

Thus marks the end of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool tenure. Not with a bang, but a whimper. With Liverpool not especially good, but not especially bad. With Liverpool scoring first, then conceding, then unable to change the tenor or tempo of proceedings through substitutions or tactical tweaks. It was all rather mundane, only lightened by handbags at ten paces from Can and Barkley, than Sakho and Lukaku. That seemed the sum of Liverpool's fight. Sure, there are excuses for the performance: new players, key absentees, away from home, etc. etc. It's not as if Everton didn't have similar handicaps. Ennui and mediocrity, in a Merseyside Derby.

It wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back. It wasn't the worst we've been subjected to, but it wasn't the best. And, after more than a season of similar, it just wasn't good enough anymore.

04 October 2015

On Brendan Rodgers

Can something be completely expected and wholly unexpected at the same time? Decisive and indecisive?

Brendan Rodgers has felt like a dead man walking since Liverpool hit its first stutter in August. Brendan Rodgers probably should have been fired last May, after that abysmal season hit it lowest low at Stoke. But FSG gave him a chance to make amends, for whatever reason, and when amends didn't seem like coming, FSG pulled the rug out. Feel free to pick your narrative: whether it shows FSG acting at long last or whether it's FSG scrambling for answers. I honestly don't know.

You all suffered through the last 16 months, same as I. The dire, depressing football. Repeated mistakes regardless of opposition or tactics. Little evidence of improvement, little evidence of any grand tactical plan to fix the failings. The transfer debacles, even if it's still unclear who's to blame for each purchase.

I have a theory why Brendan Rodgers was fired.

The short version: Suarez left, Sturridge got injured, Liverpool stopped scoring. I know, it's radical.

Every now and then, Liverpool would put a decent defensive run together. The end of 2012-13 through the start of 2013-14. Midway through last season. The first three matches this season, even if they were bracketed by 1-3 Palace, 1-6 Stoke and then 0-3 West Ham, 1-3 United. But Liverpool consistently let in at least one goal, if not more, throughout the course of Rodgers' tenure.

No matter who Liverpool signed, no matter who Liverpool played, no matter what formation Rodgers tried. Liverpool have not been able to score for more than a season, let alone come anywhere near the free-scoring tumult which nearly led to the title two seasons ago.

2012-13 showed promise, a plan. 2013-14 was unbelievable. 2014-15 was an abomination. And 2015-16 was cut short because it looked far too much like the previous season rather than the first or second.

It was only 16 short or long months ago that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool nearly won the title, the only good season in five years, scoring a record 101 goals in the process.

I suspect you remember the issues. That lack of goals. Consistent failings in big games, in the league, cups, and Europe, especially away from home. A scattershot approach to tactics and formations over the last calendar year, sometimes deploying three in the same match, which Liverpool inevitably drew or lost. Since the beginning of last season, Liverpool won just one (1) league match after going behind: 3-1 at Leicester in December. Since the beginning of last season, Liverpool lost or drew eight league matches after taking a lead, including this most recent.

This had to happen. And since it didn't happen last May, that it's happening before an international break, giving Liverpool time to make the hire before fast and furious league, Europe, and cup campaigns resume is at least small consolation. It wasn't the right time, but it's a right time.

It is hard to reconcile 2013-14 with what followed, especially now, at the end. I've been following Liverpool for nearly 15 years. I've been doing this blog for nine. There were seasons with better reward – 2001, 2005, even 2006 – but the 2013-14 version of Liverpool was the most fun I've ever had watching football. It was exhilarating, it was non-stop, it was a Tasmanian Devil wrecking machine, until it came up against Chelsea's anti-football, and the slip, and the decline, and the descent into madness. This, by The Anfield Wrap's Neil Atkinson, is absolutely required reading, probably the best Rodgers eulogy you'll see.

Sure, a lot of credit for that season goes to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, especially considering what came after, but Rodgers at least put Liverpool in the position for them to succeed, for Liverpool to succeed. You could say similar about 2008-09, that Gerrard and Torres carried Liverpool to that almost. But, like with Benitez, that success gets you approximately one season. You're only as good as your best players, and only as good as your manager gets out of those players. And you're only as good as your last season.

At the end, you remember the good times. And you expect the next man up to be better.

Good luck with whatever follows, Brendan. It's sad that won't be at Liverpool, but it had to happen.

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Ings 42'
Lukaku 45+2'

In isolation, a draw at Everton isn't the worst result. It's the same result Liverpool have gotten at Goodison in the previous three seasons. It's the sixth Merseyside Derby draw in the last seven meetings. Everton were the more dangerous side throughout the second half, if not the entire match; Everton have played better than Liverpool since the start of the season.

In context, it's supremely depressing. Because it's the fifth 1-1 in the last six matches. Because it's the fifth time in six matches that Liverpool have scored first only to concede a quick equalizer. Because it's the fifth goal – from 13 in all competitions – that Liverpool have conceded when a Liverpool player made the penultimate touch before the opposition scored, setting up the opposition goal through either ricochet or error or both. Because, once again, the opposition only equalized because of an individual mistake and unfortunate bounce of the ball.

Once again, Liverpool were mediocre in open play: mostly decent at the back, if needing a couple of wonderful saves from Mignolet, but outmuscled in midfield and isolated in attack. After 40 minutes of meh, with Liverpool marginally on top in possession and territory but Mignolet saving the best two chances, from Lukaku and McCarthy, it's no surprise that Liverpool's goal came from a set play, as Liverpool at least kept racking up corners and a goal didn't look like coming from open play. And it a very Dirk Kuyt goal against a side that Dirk Kuyt loved to score against from Liverpool's new Dirk Kuyt: Milner's corner, Ings in the six-yard box, beating Barkley and Howard failing to come off his line.

But – unlike Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, and Sion – Everton didn't need 15 or so minutes to find the equalizer. Just five. Everton possession, Deulofeu's cross, Can's mis-hit clearance deflecting off Skrtel straight to Lukaku, easily hammered in from seven yards. It was the exact mistake which should have cost Liverpool against Aston Villa. But Romelu Lukaku is not Rudy Gestede, especially when he's about 10 yards closer to goal. And it happened a minute before the halftime whistle, when – you'd assume, maybe incorrectly – that Liverpool would be able to regroup and solidify for the second half onslaught. Sigh.

And then came the second half, where only one team looked like winning. Where only one team appears to want to win. Nine Liverpool shots in the first half, just four in the second (just one on-target, from Coutinho, straight at Howard). Five Everton shots in the first half, nine in the second.

At least Liverpool didn't concede? At least neither Can nor Lucas picked up a second yellow; Emre Can especially regrouped well after a first-half yellow and at fault for the equalizer. Browning's header from a corner was luckily deflected just over thanks to Sakho, Mignolet denied Lukaku on a second clear-cut chance. For all of Everton's possession and better play, Liverpool actually defended well. In the previous five 1-1s, Liverpool hadn't been put under much pressure after conceding, the "better" side, at home, in all five. Not this time, but they still held on. That's at least a bit of progress, I think.

The story of the match – other than the sloppy concession, of course – is that Liverpool got nothing from its two most important players: both Coutinho and Sturridge were marked into isolation by Everton's makeshift back-line, neither given space to create something from nothing, neither supported by the teammates who need to create chances for them. Everton are not Aston Villa; it was going to take a lot more work to pass and dance through the back-line, while any attempted pressing wasn't anywhere near as effective because of Everton's ability to quickly pass over the midfield to Lukaku.

Even though he was a big reason why Liverpool had little control in midfield, Milner played well, Liverpool's most creative player, full of running and contributing more from set plays than in any previous match. Even though he picked up a stupid yellow and was at fault for the goal, Emre Can regrouped well in the second half. Even though he's not Christian Benteke, Ings worked hard to be an outlet for Liverpool's hoofs from the back, and scored the needed goal on a set play, his third in the last five matches. Even though he's been mostly terrible all season long, featuring a disturbing low save percentage, Mignolet kept Liverpool in the match.

But that's not good enough, not after what we've seen over the last month, over the course of the season so far, not with Liverpool's horrific record away from home against the Top 4 and Everton throughout Rodgers' tenure. That's not good enough when Liverpool have won just once since August 17. The 3-1-4-2 wasn't good enough in providing Liverpool a platform to attack, nor the 3-4-2-1 after Lallana replaced Ings. Liverpool should have been good enough to pose more of a threat against a back line that featured a new signing at center-back and two inexperienced under-21 full-backs. Liverpool "should be good enough" to have gotten much better results than they have all season long. But it hasn't happened, for a plethora of reasons that we've discussed time and time again: impotence in attack, little pattern to the play – mainly due to questionable tactics and an unbalanced midfield – and mistakes in defense.

So, yeah, a draw's both disappointing for all we've seen before and acceptable based on the run of play in the match. Will that be good enough to save Rodgers' job through the upcoming international break?

03 October 2015

Liverpool at Everton 10.04.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 02.07.15
1-1 (h) 09.27.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 01.28.14
3-3 (a) 11.23.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Sion (h); 3-2 Villa (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet (h) [3-2 pens]
Everton: 3-2 West Brom (a); 2-1 Reading (a); 0-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Sturridge 2; Coutinho, Ings, Milner 1
Everton: Lukaku 4; Naismith 3; Barkley, Kone 2

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Clyne Coutinho Milner Moreno
Sturridge Ings

So, are we going to get 3-2 against Aston Villa Liverpool (*waves at Daniel Sturridge*) or 1-1 against Norwich, Carlisle, and Sion Liverpool?

I'll be very surprised if it's not the same XI we saw at Villa: 3-1-4-2, Ings and Sturridge up front, Milner and Lucas returning to midfield, Sakho and Can returning to defense. Maybe it's a slight formation change, a 3-4-1-2 instead, with both Milner and Lucas behind Coutinho, as we saw against Norwich, the same formation we saw against Sion.

It's not as if Liverpool have been awful during this 1W-3D stretch. As written over and over and over and over, they've been reasonably in control in all four games, they're creating chances. Liverpool just cannot score. And when they do, they then concede against the run of play, and then they can't get the lead back. Sturridge's inclusion obviously helps this failing, playing Coutinho and Milner ahead of Lucas helps this failing, getting more players forward for both combination play with the strikers and runs into the box. Coutinho and Milner ahead of Lucas makes pressing more possible, unsettling Everton's McCarthy-Barry base, allowing for the quick transitions against an out-of-position defense so crucial to Liverpool actually getting goals. Liverpool will need the added impetus from midfield because chances are that the wingbacks will need to defend more than they've had to in this system. Which Nathaniel Clyne is not opposed to.

But whether we see "impotent Liverpool" or "almost reasonably competent Liverpool" might not be up to Liverpool. Everton are clearly a better side than the last four that Liverpool have faced. A less impressive Everton held Liverpool to draws in both meetings last season: a fairly turgid, watching-paint-dry 0-0 at Goodison, while Liverpool wasted multiple chances and conceded a late, unlikely equalizer (sound familiar?) at Anfield.

Through seven league matches, Everton have been much better this season, looking more like the 2013-14 version which competed for a Champions League place. They're unbeaten since August 23rd, a 2-0 loss to Manchester City. Since then, victories over Chelsea, West Brom, and Reading; 0-0 draws against Tottenham and Swansea; and an extra time cup win over Barnsley.

If there's any weakness, it's injuries, mainly in defense. Stones and Coleman are doubtful, while Baines, Cleverley, Besic, Pienaar, and Hibbert are out. Kevin Mirallas is also suspended. If neither Stones nor Coleman are available, it'll be another makeshift defense, similar to the one which allowed two goals at West Brom last week: a West Brom side that had scored two goals combined in the previous five matches in league and cup. But then Everton scored three, coming back from 0-2 down in the second half. Must be nice when a team's able to come back after conceding.

Lukaku scored two of those three goals and set up the other. Lukaku's four goals through seven games is joint-fourth best in the league. I'm terrified of Lukaku against Skrtel and Can, especially since the striker likes to pull towards the inside left channel, exactly where he can exploit the space between Can and Skrtel, and each's respective weaknesses. Not only is he a powerful header, just as Gestede trucked Liverpool last week, he can be brutal on the counter with the ball at his feet. The key will be cutting off supply, whether through Liverpool's pressing, whether through Lucas, whether through defense on the flanks to ensure crosses aren't coming.

Without Stones and Coleman, the XI will probably be the similar to the one which beat West Brom: Howard; Browning, Funes Mori, Jagielka, Galloway; McCarthy, Barry; Deulofeu, Barkley, Naismith; Lukaku. Maybe Kone or Lennon replaces Deulofeu, maybe Gibson plays as a makeshift right-back. Given the length of their respective injuries, I suspect Stones is more likely to return than Coleman.

Either way, it's a fairly settled and confident Everton, at home, looking for its first win over Liverpool since Roy Hodgson was Liverpool's manager. Liverpool, for once, are the underdogs. Liverpool are the out-of-form, struggling, underperforming side. Liverpool's manager is constantly rumored to be edging closer to being fired.

Liverpool need a result much, much more than their opponents, opponents who often treat this fixture as their cup final. Or else.

02 October 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 FC Sion

Previous Match Infographics: Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

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

From two weeks ago:

Liverpool's next four matches are at home. Liverpool's next four matches are against Norwich, Carlisle, Aston Villa, and FC Sion. We're all aware that Liverpool have the potential to lose any match against any opponent on any day, and usually in the most comical fashion possible, but those are four winnable matches, especially considering what Liverpool's fixture list has looked like so far.

Welp. At least Liverpool didn't lose any of them?

I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that more-than-tripling your opponents' shot total but only scoring one more goal is a bad thing.

23 shots against Villa. 47 against Carlisle. 21 against Villa. 19 against Sion. Six goals from 111 shots. Six goals from 43 shots on-target. Meanwhile, that murderers' row slate of opponents scored five goals from 33 shots, five goals from 12 shots on-target. I'm not sure which is worse.

Every outfield Liverpool player, including all three subs, created at least one chance. Nine of the 13 took at least one shot.

Liverpool had six Opta-defined clear-cut chances: "A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range." Six! Liverpool only created nine combined through its first seven league matches, with no more than three in any of the matches (against Bournemouth and Norwich, one of the three scored in each).

• 4' - Lallana Goal
• 16' - Ings blocked
• 39' - Can saved
• 64' - Origi saved
• 69' - Origi saved
• 74' - Lallana saved

One goal, one blocked, and four saved. Goal, Ings' touch allowing Pa Modou to recover, free header straight at the keeper, shot straight at the keeper, shot straight at the keeper, shot straight at the keeper. I reiterate: 'Reasonably expected to score.' That's not good.

It wasn't as if Liverpool took bad shots yesterday, which we've seen in more than a few disappointing performances since the beginning of last season. Those six clear-cut chances. 15 of 19 shots inside the box, with eight in the Danger Zone. Only five of 19 shots blocked. An overall shot accuracy of 42.1%.

Unlike in the first six matches of the season, creativity wasn't the problem. Which, I guess, is a modicum of progress. Liverpool. Simply. Could. Not. Finish. And not for the first time.

We worried about whether the Villa result was a Sturridge-inspired fluke, and yesterday did nothing to dispel that notion. If you can't consistently finish your chances, you're not going to win many matches, especially when you concede at least one regrettable goal per game. Yesterday's equalizer looked a bit like Carlisle's: Liverpool concede possession, Liverpool get caught out by pass in behind the defense (against Carlisle, a throughball; against Sion, a long cross-field over a failed offside trap), Liverpool's keeper fails to save a savable shot. It wasn't the insanity we saw against Norwich or the misfortune against Bordeaux, but it was disappointing all the same.

Brendan Rodgers didn't miss all those chances. Brendan Rodgers didn't pass directly to Kouassi when Liverpool were quickly pushing forward in transition. But those misses and errors could well end up costing him his job. For the fourth consecutive match, admittedly against less-than-impressive opposition, he set his team up in a way that should have led to a Liverpool victory had players done what they're supposed to do. But Rodgers picked those players, Rodgers signed those players (endless transfer committee debates notwithstanding). Once again, Rodgers' side is incapable, whether due to morale, talent, or tactics, to come back after conceding. Insert your very original *character* joke here.

In Liverpool's last four draws, beginning at Bordeaux, Liverpool conceded 16, 13, 11, and 14 minutes after scoring the opener. It's followed the same script, whether Liverpool score in the 4th, 23rd, 48th, or 65th minute: a brief flurry where Liverpool could maybe almost get a second but unsurprisingly don't, and then an opposition stomach punch. Rather than put supposedly weaker opponents to the sword, Liverpool let them get back in the game not long after. And this all happened at Fortress Anfield. Aside from the match at Bordeaux, where Liverpool scored the latest and were away from home, Liverpool had a long time and multiple chances to retake the lead. Yet couldn't, yet didn't.

And it's not as if this is a new phenomenon.

The Merseyside Derby in two days' time somehow became even more important.