21 March 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-3 Southampton

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

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

Well, at least we're not going to see something like this happen very often.

This was the first time that Liverpool lost despite a two-goal lead in almost exactly four years: 2-3 QPR on March 21, 2012.

We've seen Liverpool draw after going 2-0 up, most recently against Sunderland last month, but I also remember both Everton and Arsenal in 2012-13: 2-0 up after 20 minutes, 2-2 after 35 minutes in the former; 2-0 after 60 minutes, 2-2 after 67 minutes in the latter. I'm sure there are a few other examples as well, whether Liverpool went on to draw or went on to find a winner despite initially throwing away a lead.

But despite how rare losing a two-goal lead is, Liverpool have seen similar carelessness this season.


Liverpool have done well to gain points from losing positions this season, with Liverpool coming back from a deficit in 11 of Klopp's 38 matches, but Liverpool have also dropped far too many points from winning positions.

Eight points gained from losing positions in the final 10 minutes of Premier League matches this season (as well as the goal which got Liverpool to penalties in the League Cup Final), but 10 points lost in the Premier League and Europa League combined (eight PL, two EL), as well as the FA Cup loss to West Ham.

At least the games are interesting, I guess, rather than last season's Bataan Death March of disappointing mediocrity.

Incidentally, Liverpool were winning with less than ten minutes to play in both league matches against Southampton this season. 1-0 at home, 2-1 away. Liverpool earned all of one point from those two matches. With the five more points that Liverpool should have taken from those two games, Liverpool would be just two points off fourth with a game in hand. Sigh.

As all but said in yesterday's match review, failure has many fathers.

We had Martin Skrtel's everything. Flanagan's positioning and losses of possession. Mignolet's kicking. Liverpool's attack-minded central midfield. Klopp's inability to make changes, either due to game plan or Liverpool's lack of midfield options on the bench. Two defensive errors leading to goals: Flanagan for the first, Skrtel for the third. Liverpool have committed two or more errors in a couple of matches this season, but hadn't had two lead to a goal until yesterday. Liverpool simply doing far too many Liverpool things in general. It's tempting to assume Liverpool both tired and became complacent with the two-goal lead, especially after last Thursday's exertions and adrenaline rush.

But you also have to credit Southampton, specifically Koeman's halftime changes.

I just want to highlight one moment, not necessarily indicative of the entire second half, but helpful to illustrate one of the crucial changes.

We saw Liverpool routinely expose Southampton on the counter-attack in the first half. Liverpool forced Southampton turnovers, Liverpool attacked at pace, Southampton had huge gaps at the back: two-v-two for Sturridge's goal, three-v-three for Allen's missed clear-cut chance, three-v-two for Sturridge's easily saved shot a minute after Allen's. After going two-down, Romeu and Clasie felt required to join the attack, leaving acres of space for Liverpool to attack when winning possession.

Now, it's the 51st minute. It's Liverpool's first attack after Mané's missed penalty. Liverpool look to attack quickly down the left after gathering possession on the halfway line.

Where's Wanyama? Barely ahead of the center-backs, closely marking anyone who comes into the middle of the attacking third (this time Coutinho, but also Lallana, Sturridge, Origi, etc at others).

And this is how the play ends: a decent, but well defended wide-box shot from Origi, encircled by four opponents, with Wanyama closing off passing lanes to Coutinho and Sturridge. All four Southampton defenders as well as Wanyama have gotten back into the box, with Romeu, Mané, and Davis (just out of picture) not far off.

It's not just Wanyama – all of Southampton's players made the effort to get back in position far quicker than in the first half, something clearly emphasized by Koeman at halftime – but he's the linchpin, here and throughout the half.

In 45 minutes, Wanyama attempted more passes than all but three other Southampton players – Davis, Bertrand, and Long, all on the pitch for 90 minutes – made two tackles, one interception, and blocked three passes. Mané and Pelle did the damage – it's no coincidence that Pelle won all three of his aerial duels after halftime, up against Skrtel for each – but, again, Wanyama was the base, responsible for both starting play and ensuring Liverpool didn't score more. And he did the job with aplomb.

I really, really want to write this off as a fluke. It's the sort of result which hasn't happened in four years. I highly doubt we'll see much of Martin Skrtel from here on out. Liverpool shot well, with 50% of its efforts on-target, Liverpool created good chances, Liverpool scored two good goals. Liverpool counter-attacked exceptionally well for the first 30 minutes. If Allen in the first half or Benteke in the second finish their respective chances, Liverpool almost certainly hold on for at least a draw, and more likely a win. Liverpool conceded the same number of goals in 45 minutes as they had in the eight previous matches combined. 45 minutes of bad can't and doesn't wipe away the eight matches of mostly good.

Shit happens, as we've well learned. But it's still another demonstration of Liverpool's inconsistency and Liverpool's failings. That inconsistency and those failings have become fewer and farther between, but they're still present. Liverpool have gotten better under Klopp – we've all seen it, regardless of PL points-per-game stats floating around the internet today – but that inconsistency and those failings are remain evidence of how much further Liverpool still have to go.

20 March 2016

Liverpool 2-3 Southampton

Coutinho 17'
Sturridge 22'
Mane 64' 86'
Pelle 83'

Liverpool had no right losing that match, and there are multiple scapegoats for it. But there's one very, very, very big scapegoat.

Does it make it better than Liverpool should have conceded a penalty and had Lovren sent off in the eighth minute? Not really. But, admittedly, Liverpool should have: beaten by a long ball over the top, Lovren grappling with Long before the striker went down easily. It should have been given, but wasn't.

And from there, it looked like Liverpool would profit. Liverpool began the counter-attack we saw when these sides met in the League Cup: another brilliant Coutinho strike from distance, quickly followed by Origi and Sturridge tearing Southampton a new orifice when up against Southampton's two center-backs.

Liverpool should have extended its lead – Forster wonderfully denying Allen on a textbook fast break, Allen's set play goal chalked off because Sakho was marginally offside in front of the keeper – but it seemed only a matter of time. Liverpool were rolling and Southampton had no response, failing to put a single shot anywhere near Mignolet's goal in the first 45 minutes. But then halftime happened.

Southampton's halftime changes completely changed the game. Wanyama solidified Southampton's midfield, helping to close off and prevent Liverpool counter-attacks, while Mané presented much more of an attacking threat that the irrelevant Tadic. Mané will get the headlines, scoring twice – his first goals since his last against Liverpool, now scoring in three consecutive matches against Liverpool – and a missed penalty, but Wanyama was just as important. Liverpool rarely had the opportunities they saw in the first half – really, just one, unsurprisingly missed by Christian Benteke.

And Liverpool's halftime change ruined Liverpool. After the match, Klopp claimed he removed Lovren because of "the emotion" of the situation. Southampton's fans booed Lovren at every touch. He should have given away a penalty, he should have had a red card, he was on a yellow. I guess I see it. But still. Because Martin Skrtel.

Martin Skrtel is the main reason that Liverpool lost this match. It took four minutes for him to concede a penalty – which, to be fair, was a make-up call for the earlier one ignored. That Mignolet saved it, his fourth penalty save in the last three seasons, seemed a reprieve. Little did we know.

Skrtel wasn't completely or solely at fault for all three goals, but he was involved in each. Let's count the errors. Out of position for Mané's first, although he couldn't have planned on Flanagan cheaply conceding possession. Losing an aerial duel with Pelle, then losing his balance and out of the play, prior to Southampton's second. And then completely misjudging his clearing header to set up Southampton's third, although Mignolet's terrible goal kick put him in that position.

Skrtel played very, very badly, and Skrtel made everyone around him worse. Double whammy. Liverpool had conceded just three goals in the previous 795 minutes of football, then Skrtel comes on and Liverpool concede three in 45 minutes. Quite the coincidence. But, yeah, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Klopp's substitutions – rightfully lauded all season – were not good. He had no response to Southampton seizing the initiative. Skrtel made Liverpool's defense worse; Benteke made Liverpool's attack worse – and, of course, he missed Liverpool's one good second half chance, shooting wide from a marginally difficult angle on Liverpool's lone counter-attack. Too late, Klopp realized the midfield needed help, but Southampton equalized as Henderson was getting ready. Firmino, Lucas and Stewart injured; Milner suspended; Henderson still ill and only fit enough for the bench all hindered Klopp's ability to make changes. That's not enough of an excuse.

Flanagan, captaining the side, was poor throughout the second half, undeniably not helped by Skrtel being Skrtel, but giving the ball away cheaply in both the attacking and defensive halves, posed many more problems by Davis cutting inside than Tadic in the first half. Benteke again disjointed the attack and (I'll keep repeating) missed his one good chance. And while Mignolet saved Mané's penalty as well as a a difficult Romeu shot from distance, it was his awful kick which directly led to Southampton's third. Coutinho and Lallana weren't effective enough in the second half, Can and Allen looked good going forward but left far too much space between the lines in defense. Clyne contributed little from left-back, less than Flanagan did when playing there in 2014-15.

When you lose 2-3 after leading 2-0, there's more than enough blame to go around.

Liverpool hadn't lost after going 2-0 up since March 2012, a 2-3 loss at QPR when QPR scored three in the final 15 minutes once Coates' bicycle kick gave Liverpool what appeared an unassailable lead. That was 216 matches ago. At least Southampton are better than QPR?

Once again, any time there's a modicum of optimism around the club, Liverpool defecate all over the entire bedspread. Liverpool respond to the euphoria of beating United in Europe with this. We've another example of the still-present problems in attack, in defense, and with the squad in general.

And now, Liverpool have a two-week international break to think about what they've done.

19 March 2016

Liverpool at Southampton 03.20.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
6-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 12.02.15
1-1 (h) 10.25.15
2-0 Liverpool (a) 02.22.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.17.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 United (a); 2-0 United (h); 2-1 Palace (a)
Southampton: 2-1 Stoke (a); 1-1 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Bournemouth (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 8; Benteke 7; Coutinho, Milner 5; Lallana, Sturridge 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana, Origi 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Skrtel, Toure 1
Southampton: Pelle 8; Long 7; Tadic 5; Mane, van Dijk 3; S Davis, Fonte, Ward-Prose 2; Austin, Martina, Romeu, Yoshida 1

Referee: Roger East

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Lovren Sakho Clyne
Henderson Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

Moreno's injured and Milner suspended after his red card against Crystal Palace. Is Henderson still ill? Does Sturridge, despite only playing for 67 minutes on Thursday and with a week between games before that, need to be rested?

The last time that Liverpool faced Southampton, Liverpool played 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. It's was the only time we've seen a diamond midfield in the starting XI under Klopp. Both Sturridge and Origi played up front, and Liverpool won 6-1. The final scoreline – in cup competition and with three of the six goals coming on the counter in the final 25 minutes with the game long out of Southampton's reach – is a bit misleading, but it still begs the question. Does Liverpool start with the diamond again? Can at the base, Henderson or Allen and Lallana or Coutinho on the sides, Firmino or Coutinho at the apex, Sturridge and Origi up front?

Maybe. But I doubt it. That Liverpool stick with the same 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid we've seen in almost every match over the last month seems more likely. Either Origi or Sturridge up front, the same attacking line of three we saw in both legs against United, Can with either Henderson or Allen in midfield, and the back four that Liverpool pretty much have to use with both Moreno and Milner absent. My suspicion is that Sturridge starts – because he's still that important to Liverpool, he's still Liverpool's best striker (and arguably best player) when on form, and because Origi's pace seems far more useful off the bench – but it's only a suspicion.

What matters, as per usual, is whether Liverpool can create chances and convert said chances, without doing anything stupid in defense. Thankfully, Southampton won't play like the opponents who often frustrate Liverpool – there's no all-hands-on-deck deep defense in that side – but what Southampton does well poses different problems for Liverpool.

They've few injuries to worry about – Charlie Austin's out, along with long-term casualties Rodriguez and Gardos – and both Wanyama and Fonte will return after suspensions. Which means we'll see what's basically Southampton's strongest XI. What's unclear is whether Koeman will decide that's 4-4-2 with both Pelle and Long up front or 4-2-3-1 remains in doubt.

Regardless of formation, Forster will be in goal; Soares, Fonte, van Dijk, Bertrand will be in defense; and Wanyama and either Clasie or Romeu will be in central midfield. If it's 4-4-2, it's two from Tadic, Mane, Steven Davis, and Ward-Prowse on the flanks with those two strikers; if it's 4-2-3-1, it's three from the aforementioned attacking midfielders with one of the strikers. In the last month, Southampton played 4-4-2 in losses at Chelsea and Stoke, and 4-2-3-1 in the draw against Sunderland; and, surprisingly, 3-4-1-2, in the loss at Bournemouth. I doubt we'll see the latter again.

Either way, Southampton will press feverishly, look to deny Liverpool space in every phase, try to get Mane and Tadic on the ball to dribble and create, try to push play wide in order to cross to Pelle and/or Long. Liverpool – despite the massive defensive improvement we've seen in the last eight matches, where Liverpool have conceded just three goals in those eight matches – Liverpool remain vulnerable to pacy attackers on the counter, crosses, and set plays.

Only two sides have scored more set play goals than Southampton this season, only four sides have scored a higher percentage of goals from set plays than Southampton this season. Liverpool conceded at least one set play goal against three of those four sides: Palace, West Brom, and Norwich. And, of course, Liverpool conceded Southampton's equalizer from a set play in the previous league meeting. And conceded from a cross in the League Cup meeting. With the same player – Sadio Mane – scoring in both matches.

Southampton are currently level on points with Liverpool, albeit having played two more matches. We won't do anything silly like mentioning almost certainly unreachable targets in the league; Liverpool simply need to pick up points. First challenge: pass Southampton. This is just (Just! As if.) another chance – one of only 10 remaining – to improve on Liverpool's sometimes woeful league performances, to pick up necessary points to improve on an embarrassing eighth place.

It certainly doesn't help that this comes before yet another unnecessary international break, where the majority of players will travel around the world to join up with their national teams. You never want to players to leave for an international break with a disappointing performance fresh in the memory. Not when there's still so much to do, and a fair bit to achieve, in the last two months of the season.

18 March 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester Utd

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

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

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

Draws don't get much better than that.

Once again, Liverpool are able to equalize after going behind, getting back to level (or winning) despite conceding first. Liverpool have now come back from a deficit in 11 of Klopp's 37 matches (if you include the League Cup final "draw" before penalties), with five wins and six draws, the majority of those with Liverpool conceding the opening goal. That's already more comebacks than Liverpool had in either 2014-15 (nine; 4W-5D) or 2013-14 (seven; 3W-4D).

Sure, it'd be a lot better if Liverpool didn't concede at all. Or Liverpool simply scored more, scored earlier – as they did in 2013-14. But I'll absolutely take this as a consolation.

It'd have been very easy for Liverpool to go on tilt after conceding an eminently preventable spot kick opener in front of a roaring Old Trafford, for Liverpool to curl up into a ball and plaintively scream "not the face, not the face!" at assertive opposition. It's probably what Liverpool would have done last season, had last season's Liverpool even gotten to this point. But not this season's Liverpool. Had Rojo converted a clear-cut chance in the 43rd minute, less than two minutes before Coutinho's equalizer, another set play breakdown after an initial half-clearance, it's probably a much different post-match write-up. But that's football and that's sport, and Liverpool were the "better side" after going behind: Sturridge's free kick off the woodwork, Henderson's ballooned clear-cut chance, Firmino's deft flick rising over the bar.

Liverpool responded. Again, and this time against the Evil Empire. That's no small matter.

United were always going to come out with guns blazing. They had little to lose, in front of their own fans facing a deficit, to "save their season" against the hated rivals. Meanwhile, Liverpool had everything to lose, a chance to make the last eight of European competition for the first time in six years, the first time ever for the majority of these players. Liverpool were tentative, Liverpool were reactive, and Liverpool were sloppy, especially Coutinho's giveaway which directly led to United's penalty.

But Liverpool recovered, and not for the first time this season. They recovered impressively, the scapegoat for United's goal the star of Liverpool's, with a wonderful run past a young right-back and an even better finish past the second- or third-best goalkeeper in the world. A feint inside, a dip of the shoulders, a burst of speed, an immaculate chip. An absolute moment of brilliance from a player more than capable of it, who just needs to demonstrate such more often. A player who, it's worth remembering, remains only 23-years-old.

And from there, United were done, with a capital D, and capital O, N, E. United controlled possession, but Liverpool controlled the game, with only four mediocre United chances of note: Rashford wide, Fellaini's soft header straight at Mignolet, Martial well over, Fellaini well over. All before the 75th minute; by that time, United fans had started streaming out of the ground. That's always a welcomed sight.

It's partly due to United's weaknesses, and the United manager's decisions, but even more due to how Liverpool played after equalizing. How Liverpool defended after equalizing. It was shaky for the first 30-35 minutes, but the second half couldn't have been better. The defense was a team effort, including a midfielder at left-back and a center-back who's been lambasted for more than a year, but special mention need be made of Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can.

Woof. Thanks for nothing, transfer committee. It's clear one doesn't have a best position and isn't a proper central midfielder, and the other's just too awkward to be reliable.

But once again – and it's easy to write from the comfort of computer and desk chair – many of Louis van Gaal's decisions baffled. Fellaini starting again, seen as the best chance of upsetting Liverpool's defense. Which, once again, he didn't. Mata used as a right-winger with right-winger Lingard used centrally, despite Liverpool needing to play Milner at left-back. And then the substitutions; with United needing three goals, van Gaal replaced his starting full-backs with two marginally more attacking full-backs, then made a like-for-like defensive midfielder substitution. United's top scorer in Europe, despite his massively disappointing season, stayed on the bench throughout. United kept the same formation, and same attackers in the same positions, throughout.

Manchester United are almost as injury-plagued as Liverpool were at their worst over the winter, but that still seems little excuse. After four consecutive wins over Liverpool, this last week has been quite the plummet back to Earth for van Gaal.

Regardless, Liverpool deserved to win the tie. When you put 15 shots on-target over two legs compared to the opposition's four (Four. In 180 minutes.), you should win the tie. When you create five clear-cut chances to the opposition's three over two legs, scoring two to the opposition's one, you should win the tie. When the two-legged Expected Goals looks like this, you should win the tie.

In the last leg, Liverpool won when they dominated the ball, and should have won by more. In this leg, Liverpool drew, but Liverpool only needed a draw, and drew despite United's overwhelming control of the ball. Over 180 minutes, Liverpool were better in attack, better in midfield, and better in defense. The only position where United were better was goalkeeper, and that's no fault of Simon Mignolet's.

Liverpool are still yet to lose a Europa League game this season. They've drawn more than we'd like – six draws, four wins – but remain unbeaten and in the final eight. And since Klopp became manager, Liverpool have conceded just three Europa League goals in eight Europa League matches. Martial's penalty was the first that Liverpool conceded in 458 minutes of Europa League football, since Bordeaux's opener back in November (a match that Liverpool still won). Liverpool have yet to concede an open play goal since 15 minutes into Klopp's first Europa League match, Kazan's opener at Anfield. That was 705 minutes of play ago. Almost eight full matches. Almost 12 hours.

Liverpool have been surprisingly competent in this competition. As always, you want and expect more going forward, but the defense has become both consistent and superb.

They'll have to be even better – vastly better – if that statistic, and Liverpool, is to survive the next round.

16 March 2016

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.17.16

4:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Liverpool lead 2-0 on aggregate

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 United (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 3-0 City (h)
United: 1-1 West Ham (h); 0-2 Liverpool (a); 0-1 West Brom (a)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 2-0 United (h); 1-0 Augsburg (h), 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a), 2-1 Bordeaux (h), 1-0 Kazan (a), 1-1 Kazan (h), 1-1 Sion (h), 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
United: 0-2 Liverpool (a); 5-1 Midtjylland (h), 1-2 Midtjylland (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana, Milner 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Sturridge 1
United: Memphis 5; Rooney 4; Herrera, Martial, Rashford 2; Fellaini, Mata, Smalling 1

Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB)

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

If it ain't broke...

Seemingly, the only potential alteration is Milner for Lallana. United won't be exactly the same as a week ago, either in personnel or tactics, but Liverpool's XI should be able to cope with the changes. Last week, Liverpool lost nothing in defense with Lallana tracking back instead of Milner, and gained an awful lot in attack. Lallana has been excellent lately, especially in Liverpool's last three matches. Milner has been simply been Milner, for better and for worse. Milner's best attributes are his work rate, which Lallana has pretty much matched; his crossing, which Liverpool don't really need; and his set plays, which haven't even been very good. There's a more than reasonable chance that the vice-captain comes back into the side, but I'd rather he not.

Otherwise, Lucas and Kevin Stewart are out for a couple more weeks, Skrtel remains with the u21 squad in an attempt to rebuild his match fitness, Flanagan's ineligible for the Europa League. There aren't many other changes Liverpool can make, but there aren't many other changes Liverpool should make.

Meanwhile, the same United players who were absent through injury last week are still absent this week: Rooney, Valencia, Young, Shaw, Jones, and Borthwick-Jackson. However, Lingard will return from suspension, which should help United's problems on the right flank immensely.

But United have to make changes, more than just Lingard for (most likely) Rashford. I don't know if van Gaal will give up on the Marouane Fellaini Experiment, but I sure would. His height made no difference on set plays, Liverpool matched his physicality, and he remains a liability, insanely lucky not to have been sent off or suspended for this leg. And he was equally awful in United's draw against West Ham on Sunday, with United recovering and equalizing only after substituting the Belgian. Fellaini is and was a reactive choice. United are better when United are proactive, and United will need to be proactive to overturn the 0-2 deficit.

There are a couple of things that United could do in midfield, depending on whether United want to play 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3. The former would be two from Carrick, Schweinsteiger, and Schneiderlin behind either Herrera or Mata. Herrera's also capable of playing a box-to-box next to one of those three players, behind the line of three attacking midfielders. The "all-out attack" version would see both Mata and Herrara (or, yes, maybe Fellaini) ahead of a single holder: probably Carrick, but maybe Schweinsteiger or Schneiderlin.

There's also a small doubt over what United's front three will be. It's probably Memphis on the left, Lingard on the right, and Martial up front. But Memphis, rather than Rashford, could be the one left out, with Martial cutting in from the left to supplement Rashford as the lone striker – which is how United lined up on Sunday. But, as with Fellaini, United improved and United equalized, through Martial, once Memphis replaced Rashford.

So, my guess is the XI that leveled the score at Old Trafford on Sunday. De Gea; Varela, Smalling, Blind, Rojo; Schweinsteiger, Carrick; Lingard, Herrera, Memphis; Martial. There remain weaknesses in this United side, but that's a cleverer and more controlling midfield than last week's, and a more cohesive front three than last week's.

For all their struggles away from Old Trafford, United are unbeaten in their last 10 home European matches (8W-2D), a record stretching back to Ferguson's last European game, which was a 1-2 loss to Real Madrid in the Round of 16. This season, they're won four and drawn one at home; away, they've won one, drawn one, and lost four.

And United have lost just one of their 2016 home matches in all competitions, 0-1 against Southampton back on January 23. Otherwise, six wins and one draw: the lone draw against West Ham on Sunday, the six wins against Swansea, Sheffield United, Stoke, Midtjylland, Arsenal, and Watford. But only two of those wins – 3-0 v Stoke, 5-1 v Midtjylland – have been by two or more goals. United kept a clean sheet in just three of the eight: 1-0 v Sheffield United, the aforementioned 3-0 v Stoke, and 1-0 v Watford.

An away goal could make all the difference: from United needing two just for extra time to United needing four to advance. Liverpool cannot simply sit deep and look to soak up pressure and look to counter-attack; Liverpool will probably press early on, attack early on, go in search of the tie-killing third. That's not to say Liverpool can't defend; they've conceded just twice in Klopp's seven European matches – a long ball over the top against Kazan, an insane error leading to an in-the-box indirect free kick against Bordeaux, and both of those goals came at Anfield – and have kept clean sheets in the last four.

But the rewards of an away goal – especially an early one, with Liverpool starting at a frenetic pace – seemingly outweigh the risks. Still, Liverpool will have to find a balance between goal-hunting and staying secure; one goal and United are right back in the tie.

It's all set up for a incredible fixture. Liverpool, the better side in the last leg with a lead going into the away leg. Manchester United, not out of it by any means, in front of their own crowd. Both sides needing to "save" their seasons. Undying rivals separated by little more than 30 miles.

It's a fixture which, no matter which way it goes, might well kill us all.

11 March 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Manchester Utd

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

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

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

There were a few key differences between yesterday's Europa League match and the 0-1 Premier League loss to the same opponents on the same ground. The result's obviously the biggest. A close second place: 61.5% versus 21.1%.

That's Liverpool's shot accuracy yesterday versus two months ago. And there are multiple reasons for that: Liverpool's shot location (only four Danger Zone shots and 52.6% from outside the box in the league; seven Danger Zone shots and only 38.5% from outside the box yesterday), Liverpool's attacking options (no Sturridge or Coutinho in the league meeting), a more improved and settled Liverpool side in general, less effective United fullbacks (Darmian and Young/Borthwick-Jackson versus Rojo and Varela).

Once again, it's facile, but if Liverpool shoot well, Liverpool tend to win. This football's thing is easy.

Despite the comprehensive drumming, United has slight reason to be furious. Liverpool's penalty – while nowhere near contentious as last weekend's at Palace – was barely on the line and without a ton of contact. Henderson could have been ruled offside in the build-up to the second, also aided by a completely unnecessary defensive error from Carrick. Too bad, so sad. That's not to diminish the quality in each goal either: the delicious Firmino throughball for the first, Lallana's initial run, then sucking in Carrick before putting the assist on a plate for Firmino. Or Liverpool's quality in general, from start to finish. But Liverpool weren't super far off being held scoreless despite dominating United, either, as in the last meeting. Even in impressive performances, there are usually still very fine margins.

It's better to be good and lucky, etc.

In the four previous matches against United, Liverpool created six clear-cut chances: one each in this season's matches, one at Anfield last season, three at Old Trafford last season. Liverpool scored none of them, missed by Sterling, Sterling, Balotelli, Lallana, Ings, and Lallana.

Liverpool had four clear-cut chances yesterday, the third-most of the season (six v Sion, five at Manchester City), and scored twice, with Sturridge and Coutinho wonderfully denied by De Gea. David De Gea is the only reason there's still some doubt in this tie.

Meanwhile, United had eight clear-cut chances in their four wins, and scored six of them. They created none yesterday.

A little bit of a difference, then.

As for the managerial battle: Louis van Gaal tried to be clever, was too clever for his own good, got cleverer during half-time, then was out-clevered by Jürgen Klopp.

Marouane Fellaini has played a key part in all four of United's wins over Liverpool under van Gaal: as a holding midfielder, a more advanced midfielder, and even a very false "false nine." Which is little surprise given his height, aerial ability, and physicality – all facets that Liverpool struggle to deal, and especially struggled to deal with under Brendan Rodgers.

Fellaini hasn't played in a month, last appearing in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea in early February. And he absolutely looked it yesterday: unable or unwilling to provide protection for the back four, keep up with Liverpool's quick midfielders, or influence the game in any way except for fouling. I've no idea how he stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. It certainly helped that Liverpool defended well enough (and United offered so little in attack) that United didn't have a single corner yesterday. I suspect you remember that United's lone shot on-target, and winner, in January's meeting came from a corner. I suspect you remember all the goals Liverpool have conceded from corners.

Slight credit where it's due though. David De Gea kept United in the game long enough for van Gaal to positively change things, switching from 4-5-1 at halftime to something like a 3-4-1-2. And it worked for a while, at least to slow Liverpool slow and give United a bit of impetus going forward. They dramatically improved possession totals. They limited Liverpool changes, with Liverpool allowed just two shots (both from outside the box, both in the same minute) during that 20-minute spell. They registered their only shot on-target, even if it was an easily saved and from distance.

But Klopp replied, in surprising and surprisingly effective manner, bringing on Allen for Sturridge and switching Liverpool to a 4-1-4-1 formation. The 4-1-4-1 matched United in midfield and continued to limit United on the flanks, with neither Varela nor Blind able to make a difference going forward despite playing higher up the pitch. And Liverpool's attack didn't suffer because of the work rate of the front three plus Allen (and, to a lesser extent, Henderson). Liverpool countered quickly and pressed furiously, both traits leading to Liverpool's second goal, with Liverpool also exploiting the space behind the advanced wing-backs to excellent effect.

Van Gaal's final switch, Herrara for Mata and Schweinsteiger for Schneiderlin, had no impact, barely a change in formation and no change in proceedings, with Liverpool comfortably seeing out the contest. Comfortable. Against Manchester United. In Europe.

Special mention must be made for Roberto Firmino: the perfectly placed throughball to win the penalty, in position to stab home the crucial second, terrorizing United's midfield and defense for 84 minutes. He's been absolutely on fire since Klopp became manager, especially since the beginning of the new year, with eight goals and four assists in the last two months.

In fact, it's more than reminiscent of a certain someone.

There are caveats galore here. Sample size. It's league-only for Suarez, ineligible for the Europa League that season and with Liverpool out of both domestic cups; it's all competitions for Firmino (although his stats are better when it's just League and Europa League and even better when it's league-only). Firmino had a few months to adapt to the league; Suarez was thrown into the deep end after his January transfer.

Still. It's a reassuring comparison, especially given the similarities in age. And neither blew the doors off with seemingly unsustainable form. Both Suarez and Firmino made a clear difference to their sides but also have/had room for growth. Suarez got better. A lot better. Firmino, for all he's done over the last two months, seems as if he can still get a lot better.

And as Firmino's gotten better, Liverpool have gotten better. Liverpool have gotten healthier. Liverpool were able, for pretty much the first time, play what's probably the strongest XI with Lallana replacing the ill Milner.

And Liverpool succeeded, against the old enemy, the Evil Empire, for the first time in the last five meetings.

But we're only halfway done. All of yesterday's impressiveness and accomplishments are all for naught if Liverpool can't replicate their form at Old Trafford next week.

09 March 2016

Liverpool v Manchester United 03.10.16

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2 and ESPN 3

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Palace (a); 3-0 City (h); 1-1 City aet [1-3 pens] (n)
United: 0-1 West Brom (a); 1-0 Watford (h); 3-2 Arsenal (h)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 1-0 Augsburg (h), 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a); 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
United: 5-1 Midtjylland (h), 1-2 Midtjylland (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana, Milner 2, Benteke, Can, Ibe 1
United: Memphis 5; Rooney 4; Herrera, Martial, Rashford 2; Fellaini, Mata, Smalling 1

Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can
Milner Firmino Coutinho

Deep breaths. It's just another European Round of 16 match. It's just another European Round of 16 match. It's just another...

Screw it, that's not working.

Liverpool versus Manchester United. In Europe. For the first time. Sigh. Doesn't matter that this is the younger brother of European competitions, it's still European competition. And still against the Evil Empire. Who Liverpool hasn't beaten since David Moyes was manager.

One team's coming off a massive, unexpected, confidence-boosting win. The other's coming off an annoying, unexpected, unnecessary loss. But regardless of United's form – or Liverpool's, for that matter – this fixture has gone badly in recent seasons. Van Gaal's beaten Liverpool at each time of asking: twice last season, twice this season. Liverpool's last loss was especially dispiriting: an 0-1 defeat at Anfield where Liverpool dominated, took 20 shots to United's eight. Liverpool only put four shots on-target, but United only had one, and not until the 78th minute. Of course, United scored from that one. Of course, it came from a corner.

Yikes. Plus 20 on shots, minus seven on goals. Six clear-cut chances missed by Liverpool, six of eight scored by United.

To be fair, three of those four matches happened under Liverpool's previous manager, but Liverpool's lone loss under Klopp was as infuriating as the others, even if in a slightly different way. Will tomorrow be any different?

I suspect Liverpool will revert to the XI we saw in the League Cup final, except with Lovren keeping his place in defense. Sturridge returns in place of Origi, Coutinho returns in place of either Lallana or Milner, most likely the former. There remains the possibility of a curveball: two strikers up front with a diamond midfield – something like Coutinho at the apex; Henderson and Milner/Lallana on the sides; Can at the base – or maybe a more orthodox 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 with Sturridge and Origi up front, and Coutinho and Firmino "on the flanks" but we've rarely, if ever, seen either, with the diamond midfield most often used as a mid-match tactical change.

With almost everyone fit, Liverpool's line-up has become fairly settled. It all depends on whether Liverpool can create and take chances, as well as how the opposition line up to deny Liverpool said chances.

United's form, last Sunday notwithstanding, actually isn't bad. Four consecutive wins prior to the loss at West Brom, which is easily explained by Juan Mata's early red card and Tony Pulis still being Tony Pulis. But prior, a routine win over Shrewsbury, an impressive second-half comeback against Midtjylland, a surprise victory over Arsenal, and a very United eked-out win over Watford. The loss to West Brom dropped them to sixth, three points off fourth, but still three points ahead of Liverpool.

United are still missing multiple players, dealing with an injury list similar to Liverpool's during those winter doldrums. Valencia, Jones, Rooney, Schweinsteiger, Shaw, and Young will be absent. Jesse Lingard's also suspended.

Now that Martial's fit again, what will van Gaal do with Marcus Rashford? The hero of Midtjylland and Arsenal, another United striker from seemingly nowhere, the new Federico Macheda. Does Martial play from the left with Rashford up front, as against West Brom? That'd seemingly mean Memphis Depay – United's best player in Europe this season – gets left out. My suspicion is that Rashford is on the bench, to be used as substitute if and when needed, but it's only a suspicion.

Otherwise, the aforementioned injuries make United's XI somewhat easier to predict. De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Rojo; Schneiderlin, Carrick; Mata, Herrara, Memphis; Martial. That same XI could be 4-3-3/4-5-1 rather than 4-2-3-1. Mata could play in midfield with both Memphis and Martial on the flanks, although neither of those players often feature on the right. Fellaini is also an option in the middle, I guess, given how susceptible Liverpool are to height and strength, especially on set plays.

I can't help but think back to 2005-06, exactly 10 seasons ago. Liverpool hadn't beaten United in the last four league matches. Liverpool then drew Manchester United in the Round of 16 in the FA Cup, to much consternation. But Liverpool won, 1-0 thanks to Peter Crouch's goal, at Anfield. And then Liverpool won the competition – the Steven Gerrard Final against West Ham.

I wouldn't mind a little bit of history repeating. Because beating United is the most glorious of feelings. And losing is the absolute worst of them.

07 March 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Crystal Palace

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

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

It's hard to overemphasize just how unlikely yesterday's result was.

Liverpool have had 55 players sent off in 51 different league games since the beginning of the Premier League in 1992-93. Liverpool won 16, lost 27, and drew eight of those games. But the vast majority – 37 of 51 – saw no difference to the result. If Liverpool were winning when the player was sent off, Liverpool usually won; they drew when drawing, they lost when losing, etc.

Liverpool were already losing in 24 of those 51 matches. Liverpool went on to lose 21 of the 23 before yesterday, drawing twice – Nottingham Forest in 1994-95 and Arsenal last season, both featuring injury time equalizers – before yesterday's win.

Even despite Liverpool's performance after the red, despite Liverpool's tactical adjustments, despite Liverpool's overall improvement in pretty much every aspect you can think of, yesterday was very much a freak occurrence, and that's not even considering what needed to happen for Liverpool to score their goals.

But, yes, Klopp's response to the red card was clever, and very much worth highlighting. The back three defended wonderfully: getting back despite needing to go forward, holding the offside line against long ball counters, blocking shots and making strong tackles, and with Can still able to stride into midfield when Liverpool were in possession. Moreno and Lovren were especially impressive in this formation, as was Emre Can.

Liverpool remained defensively secure despite the disadvantage, but still had six or seven players getting forward in attack, with more space for Coutinho and Firmino to operate after Milner's dismissal. The first hour saw the opposite effect of the same style as used at Manchester City: Liverpool congested by Milner, Lallana, and Firmino's constant movement, with Dann and Delaney refusing to be pulled out of position as Otamendi was, with Palace's midfield providing far more protection than Fernando and Fernandinho did.

Never underestimate how important space – and the use of said space – is to Liverpool's attack. Philippe Coutinho used it especially well; he played for just half an hour, yet only Lallana created more chances yesterday, and he completed 25 of his 27 attempted passes, a vastly higher pass accuracy than usual.

Palace's replies – first switching to 4-2-3-1 when Mutch replaced Cabaye just before Firmino scored, then reverting to 4-4-2 in the 80th minute – changed nothing. If anything, they made Palace worse: increasingly more open in midfield after Mutch replaced Cabaye, and even more so after Sako replaced Ledley. But more than anything else, Crystal Palace shot themselves in both feet – the mistake for the equalizer and subsequent scrambling and subsequent penalty; wasteful passes in attack, from open play and set plays and especially from Bolasie and Sako, and an inability to understand how to attack Liverpool's new formation – and then proceeded to collapse, as befitting a side that's fallen from joint-fourth to 15th since Christmas.

But that can't obfuscate the fact that Liverpool weren't good for an hour, for similar reasons as we've seen before, against opposition that Liverpool haven't been good at for the last couple of seasons. Too many blocked shots, too many shots from distance, mediocre chances created, an inability to even test the opposition goalkeeper, and conceding the 16th goal from a set play this season (13, of 37 total goals conceded, in the league).

Liverpool replied well to the red card – in tactics, in performance, in that ubiquitous "passion," "character," etc. – but Liverpool needed a goalkeeper error (something they're more than familiar with) and a contentious (if deserved!) penalty to get their goals. Liverpool needed to do something they've probably never done before, at least in Premier League history.

Somehow, Liverpool did.

06 March 2016

Liverpool 2-1 Crystal Palace

Ledley 48'
Firmino 72'
Benteke 90+6' [pen]

That was unexpected.

After 71 minutes, it was all set up for another Liverpool v Palace match perfectly in line with recent meetings, and perfectly in line with what we've seen from Liverpool in matches such as these.

• Liverpool fail against Crystal Palace, for what would have been the fourth consecutive league loss since the soul-crushing 3-3 draw that made Luis Suarez cry.
• Liverpool fail after an impressive win, yet again unable to string together good performances.
• Liverpool fail against a side happy to sit deep and concede possession, daring Liverpool to break them down, which Liverpool inevitably fail to do.
• Liverpool fail after we spend a few days discussing the unlikely possibility of fourth place.
• Liverpool fail because Liverpool concede from a set play.

Liverpool dominate possession, but stutter and stumble in the final third. Liverpool fail to put a single shot on-target until the 65th minute; coupled with last season's 1-3 loss on this ground, Liverpool went 152 minutes with challenging Crystal Palace's goalkeeper in the league.

Despite (or because of) Liverpool's possession, Crystal Palace have all the best chances – Bolasie denied by Mignolet on a seventh-minute counter, Adebayor heading off the crossbar in the 11th, Cabaye into the side netting after a giveaway in the 25th, Flanagan's wonderful clearance on the back post against Adebayor from Bolasie's box cross in the 34th – before scoring, from a set play, just after halftime. Two shots from said corner blocked before Ledley got his chance at the top of the box, someone squirming his shot between Firmino's paltry attempt to block and the post. Palace had scored the second-most set plays in the league this season, Liverpool can't seem to stop conceding from them.

And then, in an attempt to change proceedings, Klopp brings on Coutinho in the 62nd minute for Flanagan, ostensibly switching Milner to right-back. "Ostensibly" because we never actually saw it; seconds later, Milner picked up his second deserved yellow, making a challenge that no sane player should make when already booked. It seemed a perfect summation to proceedings, and would lead to a result similar to 0-3 v West Ham after Coutinho's dismissal, the opposition continuing to soak up marginal Liverpool pressure before extending their lead on the counter, even if that happened under a different Liverpool manager.

All against a Crystal Palace side that hadn't won a league match in 2016. Par for the eminently frustrating course.

Except that didn't happen. The exact opposite happened.

Sure, Liverpool needed help: a horrific mistake from stand-in keeper McCarthy, slipping when trying to clear, only setting up Firmino for an easy equalizer; and a contentious penalty for a winner in the dying seconds, Delaney's knee just clipping Benteke's heel when trying to pull out of the challenge. Crystal Palace will fume at the decision, and understandably so. Andre Marriner wasn't going to give the penalty until seeing his linesman flag furiously. But there was contact, even if exaggerated, and it was a penalty. And Benteke stepped up, stutter-stepped, and coolly slotted in after sending McCarthy the wrong way.

The Christian Benteke Experience is baffling.

Regardless, every single chance after the sending off came from Liverpool. Firmino from nowhere, but at least on-target, and Origi side-footing wide from close range before the equalizer; Benteke shooting at McCarthy from a well-worked corner, Moreno slamming a long-range effort off the inside of the post, and Benteke denied when put through by Coutinho in added time before the late late late winner.

When down to ten men, Liverpool suddenly had space to operate. With an extra man, Palace had more of the ball, especially when needing to attack after Liverpool's fortunate equalizer. Liverpool had more chances and more space to counter, most evident in the through balls by Coutinho and Can for Benteke late on. Liverpool had more space to operate in the final third by removing an attacker; unlike against City, Lallana, Firmino, and Milner constant interchanging simply compressed space instead of pulling defenders out of possession. Liverpool remain better without the ball.

And Liverpool had nothing to lose. Liverpool have disappointed us time and time again this season. Liverpool have tripped over multiple hurdles that you'd think they'd easily clear. Liverpool have repeatedly demonstrated the same failings.

But, under Klopp, Liverpool are learning to never give up. 2-2 West Brom, 3-3 Arsenal, 5-4 Norwich, even 1-1 City in the cup final. The've shown fight and spirit and all those intangibles we hadn't seen since the Suarez-led title challenge in 2013-14. It hasn't happened with any great consistency – like everything Liverpool does – but that's to be expected with a new manager, unbalanced squad, changing XIs, etc. It's still happening more than we'd come to expect.

Liverpool have now won or drawn despite falling behind in nine of Klopp's 35 matches (5W-4D, counting the cup final where Liverpool drew at full time but lost on penalties).

As far as I can tell, Liverpool have never come from behind to win when having a man sent off and already losing. They've won when the sending off happened with scores level or Liverpool already ahead, but not when losing. LFC History's complete red card stats only go back to 1990-91, and it definitely hasn't happened over that span, while club statistician Gea Rea also said, "According to existing records it is the first time ever that we have come from behind with 10 men to win a game."

All against a team that Liverpool hadn't beat since October 2013, who'd humiliated Liverpool in the last three league meetings.

What a way to exorcise the demons. And not a bad way to go into a European match against the Evil Empire.

05 March 2016

Liverpool at Crystal Palace 03.06.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Palace (h) 11.08.15
1-3 Palace (h) 05.16.15
2-1 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 02.14.15
1-3 Palace (a) 11.23.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 City (h); 1-1 City aet [1-3 pens] (n); 1-0 Augsburg (h)
Palace: 2-2 Sunderland (a); 2-3 West Brom (a); 1-0 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 7; Benteke 6; Coutinho, Milner 5; Lallana, Sturridge 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana, Origi 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Skrtel, Toure 1
Palace: Cabaye, Dann, Wickham 5; Bolasie 4; McArthur, Sako, Ward, Zaha 2; Adebayor, Delaney, CY Lee 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Toure Lovren Moreno
Henderson Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

It seems the best possible time for Liverpool to face Crystal Palace.

Crystal Palace's League Record in 2016: 0W-2D-7L, 8F 21A. Sure, they've won all three FA Cup matches and are favorites to progress to the semi-finals, but they've been absolutely dire in the league. From fifth on New Year's Day, one point ahead of Liverpool, to 14th today, eight points behind Liverpool. And it should be more, except for Liverpool continuing to Liverpool.

But there is never a good time for Liverpool to face Crystal Palace. 3-3, 1-3, 1-3, 1-2. The death of the 2013-14 title challenge. Two embarrassments last season. Klopp's first Liverpool loss.

Form doesn't seem to matter for either side. This match-up has gone badly – except for one Sturridge-led FA Cup exception last season – for almost two full years now.

And Daniel Sturridge will undoubtedly be back for this. As will Philippe Coutinho.

There are a few other line-up questions besides those two coming into the side. Will Coutinho replace Lallana, who was the man of the match against City, or Milner, who wasn't far behind? Will Flanagan keep his place, either ahead of Moreno or in order to give Clyne a rare rest? Is Skrtel fit enough to replace Toure, another who impressed on Wednesday? Or does Liverpool surprise us: Origi and Sturridge up front, a diamond midfield with Coutinho at the apex, Lallana/Milner and Henderson on the sides, Can at the base?

Liverpool (finally) have options, Klopp has options. Which will be the best to finally beat Pardew and Palace?

Crystal Palace have switched between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 in the last few matches. I suspect they'll choose the former tomorrow, the usual tactic of sitting deep and counter-attacking and set plays and daring Liverpool to find a way past a packed defense. Because we're all well aware how well that's worked against Liverpool. McArthur and Puncheon will be absent, Wickham and Hennessey will be late decisions.

Assuming both Wickham and Hennessey are fit, the XI should be something like Hennessey; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Kelly; Cabaye, Jedinak; Bolasie, Mutch, Zaha; Wickham. Adebayor could start up front, with or without Wickham, regardless of that player's fitness. Souare's back from his red card ban and could replace Kelly. Ledley and Lee Chung-Yong are options in midfield, most likely in place of Mutch.

All of these are players who've punished Liverpool in past meetings. I really hate matches against Crystal Palace.

So it's up to Liverpool to overturn recent history. I still maintain that fourth place is firmly gone, but Liverpool can't believe that. Liverpool are six points behind City and United, with a game-in-hand (v Everton) on the latter. It's closer than it should be, but it's not as close as it should be.

Build on the performance against City. The movement in attack, the fervent pressing work rate, the solidity in defense. Keep improving – necessary for both the short- and long-term – and see what happens.

Also, please beat Crystal Palace, for a change. Keep improving, and also exorcise those demons.

03 March 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

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

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

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

I'm not quite sure why Manchester City abandoned what worked so well on Sunday.

Don't get me wrong; Liverpool played much better – in every area, in every phase – than they did in the League Cup Final. Defended better, pressed better, and, most importantly – what defines every Liverpool match (and every match) – took their chances.

Let's play a quick game. It's called "Where's Otamendi Going?"

Goal #1:

Nicolas, why are you tracking Firmino that deep and that wide?

"Uh oh, time to retreat straight backwards even though it's away from both ball and goal!"

City's two-man midfield certainly didn't help, Fernandinho and Fernando completely vacating the space in front of the final third, leaving Lallana acres upon acres of space to run into. Lallana still needed to hit a perfect shot from 30+ yards, and needed Hart to be both out of position and to dive late.

City's midfield and defense – more than just Otamendi – created these problems for themselves, and certainly deviated from the plan which stifled Liverpool on Sunday, but there's a still more than a bit of fluke involved here. The next goal's even more Otamendi fun.

Goal #2:

Yep, we've decided to track a Liverpool attacker all the way to the flank again. It worked so well last time.

One back heel later, with City's midfield again too high up the pitch to help, and Kompany has to try to mark two players, caught between Origi and Milner, unable to cut out Firmino's pass, which Milner both takes and finishes beautifully.

This game is, admittedly, a bit unfair on poor Nicolas. City's midfield, without Toure and attempting to both press and play higher up the pitch, certainly didn't help. Without Toure, without Delph, and not wanting to put either of the two youth players on the bench, City simply didn't have options in midfield; when needing to change the game in the second half, Pellegrini withdrew one of the two available midfielders for another attacker, dropping Silva into midfield. Liverpool scored the game-killing third – through the middle of the pitch – less than two minutes later.

Liverpool's front four adjusted and played accordingly: Origi stretching play along with Firmino, Milner, and Lallana constantly interchanging repeatedly pulled City players out of position. But at Wembley, City didn't let themselves get pulled out of position. City's midfield stayed deep, City's back four stayed in an almost-constant line in front of the 18-yard box.

I've no idea why they didn't do similar yesterday. So many teams have succeeded against Liverpool by doing similar.

And Manchester City reaped zero rewards in attack for the change in play. City's four shots were the joint-fewest that any opponent has had against Liverpool in the league. The other was West Brom, who, I'm sure you remember, missed wildly with two open play shots and scored from two set play shots. Liverpool have held opponents to six shots in four matches: Newcastle (two goals, loss), Watford (three goals, loss), Norwich (four goals, win), and Villa (lol Villa).

Clearly, few shots doesn't equal "Liverpool win." Not with this side *glares at Liverpool's keeper, set play defense, defense in general*. But limiting shots certainly isn't a bad thing. And this was the first time that Liverpool have held this quality of opponent to that low. You have Agüero, Silva, Sterling, and Navas. I don't care how the midfield and defense play, or how the opposition plays. That's embarrassing. But that's also a huge credit to Liverpool. On Sunday, City took 20 shots (17 in 90 minutes). In November at the Etihad, City took 11 shots. Over the first 26 league matches, City had averaged 17.4 shots per match.

Once again, less Liverpool possession equals a better Liverpool result. Liverpool still needs to take its chances, with moments of supreme individual quality on each goal: Lallana's finish for the first, the back-heel and Milner's first touch on the second, Lallana's dribble and timing of the pass for the third. Liverpool still need Lallana, Firmino, and Milner to play like that in attack, both with and without the ball; quality when in possession, pressing smartly and viciously when City have it. For all the complaints about his play, his consistency, and (sigh) his transfer fee, it's no coincidence that Liverpool press much more coherently and efficiently when Lallana's in the side. Even at his worst, he dramatically improves that phase of the game.

City seemed flat and listless after their win on Sunday, but Liverpool needed to respond. It'd have been easy for players to shirk back after that defeat, give into fatigue, and go through the motions. Flanagan's tackle in the first minute set the tone, while Toure and Emre Can also delivered supremely confident, quality performances, in addition to the front four.

But again, the result seems as much what the opponent does as what Liverpool does.

Come out against Liverpool at your own peril.

01 March 2016

Liverpool v Manchester City 03.02.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 City aet [1-3 pens] (n; League Cup) 02.28.15
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.21.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.01.15
1-3 City (a) 08.25.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 City aet [1-3 pens] (n); 1-0 Augsburg (h); 0-0 Augsburg (a)
City: 1-1 Liverpool aet [3-1 pens] (n); 3-1 Dynamo Kiev (a); 1-5 Chelsea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Firmino 6; Coutinho 5; Milner 4; Sturridge 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana, Origi 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Skrtel, Toure 1
City: Agüero 14; de Bruyne, Sterling, Y Toure 5; Bony 4; Iheanacho 3; Delph, Fernandinho, Kolarov, Kompany, Silva 2; Nasri, Otamendi 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Lovren Smith
Can Allen
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

The fixture calendar loves to mess with Liverpool. Because of course Liverpool have to face the same opponent three days after said opponent beat them in a 120-minute cup final on penalties.

And, of course, because Liverpool, there are inevitable casualties from that final. Lucas is injured, Sakho may still be absent due to concussion, and there's no way Sturridge can start again after finishing 120 minutes with cramp following three previous successive starts.

So there will be changes. Replacements for the above three players, and probably a couple more. Henderson could probably use the rest and Moreno needs a spell out of the side. Thankfully, Lovren, Skrtel, and Allen should all be available after the respective injuries. Maybe Flanagan or Smith replaces Moreno – either can – but I wouldn't mind both getting time in the team. Again, wins are good, playing well is even better, but Liverpool are finishing upper mid-table pretty much regardless of how the next 12 matches go. Let's see some alternatives, and that includes maybe even starting Danny Ward rather than Mignolet. You brought him back from loan for a reason, yes?

I'd be fine with the diamond again. I'd be fine with the above XI in a diamond – Can at the base, Lallana and Allen on the sides, Coutinho at the apex, and Firmino and Origi as central strikers. I'd be fine with something completely different after the frustrating, often lukewarm last three performances.

City will have to make changes as well, but necessarily fewer. Not because of a more limited squad – even with injuries, they're okay in that department – but because they're still almost in the league title race, nine points behind Leicester, and are definitely still in a race for fourth, needing to hold off a Manchester United that impressively beat Arsenal last weekend and sit just three points behind their neighbors.

Let's assume City make similar changes as Liverpool, if fewer. Hart returns in goal, while both full-backs, Yaya Toure, and Agüero are rested. Which would lead to an XI something like Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Otamendi, Kolarov; Fernando, Fernandinho; Navas, Silva, Sterling; Bony.

With Delph still absent, City's others options in midfield are youth players who've only made cup appearances: Manu Garcia, Aleix Garcia Serrano. Demichelis could come into defense. City could switch to 4-4-2 with both Bony and Iheanacho up front, with Silva likely to be left out in addition to the above speculation in that set-up.

Regardless of formation or personnel, expect similar tactics as we saw on Sunday. No high defensive line. No permanent assault on Liverpool's goal. Deep, defensively organized, focused on smothering Liverpool and then counter-attacking at pace, with cross-field passes targeting Liverpool's full-backs and direct long balls.

One of these days, Liverpool will need to learn how to cope with it.