25 May 2016

On Loris Karius

You have no idea how tempted I am to just post nothing but pictures of Loris Karius. Well, if you follow me on Twitter, maybe you do.

That's slightly a disservice to Liverpool's new #1, Klopp's third signing since taking over. Only slightly.

Both played 34 league games. Both conceded 42 goals. Loris Karius faced a lot, lot more shots than Simon Mignolet.

Mignolet still somehow gets by on his "shot-shopper" reputation, which is supposed to make up for his shaky command of the penalty box, mediocre-at-best distribution, and propensity for errors.

There aren't may shot-stoppers who average 63.1% save percentage, better than only Rob Elliott, Brad Guzan, and John Ruddy for regular goalkeepers in last season's Premier League. And he wasn't much better the two seasons before, saving 67.4% and 67.5% of shots faced in the Premier League.

Karius saved 74.4% last season, and in fewer games, 75.3% of the shots faced in 2014-15 and 76.2% in 2013-14.

Karius saved higher percentage of shots on-target in total, Danger Zone shots, Wide Box shots, and Outside the Box shots. He saved a higher percentage of Clear Cut Chances, as well as two of the seven penalties he faced (three scored, two missed). In every conceivable "shot-stopping" metric, Karius was better last season, and often by a healthy margin.

Command of the penalty box? Karius made 81 successful claims last season with just one failed claim, as well as 16 punches. Mignolet made 74 successful claims, but failed on nine (by far the most in the league), as well as 17 punches. Karius isn't the most awe-inspiring, just about average for Bundesliga keepers, but average remains better than Liverpool have done in the last few seasons. Especially last season.

Distribution? Mignolet has a higher pass accuracy (60.6% versus 54.1%) but that doesn't quantify a) Mainz's very different playing style or b) how many times I've screamed at the television as Mignolet holds onto the ball for five seconds while the opposition retreats into position before he plays a safe pass which gets Liverpool nowhere.

Defensive errors? Karius made three last season, none leading to a goal. Mignolet made six – joint-most in the league – four of which led to a goal.

There are disclaimers, because there are always disclaimers. Karius is only 22 (for one more month) – both a good and bad thing – and while he spent a little more than two years in Manchester City's academy (no, he doesn't count as a homegrown player), he's never played in the Premier League. A league where teams play a lot more crosses and defenders get away with a lot more contact.

More notably, and probably painfully, I hesitate to remind that I wrote similar three years ago. "Wow, look at this younger keeper who's saved a bunch of shots, including more shots in dangerous positions, compared to Liverpool's current mistake-prone keeper who faced a lot less shots and has gotten worse in each of the last three seasons." Mignolet's save percentage and error frequency in his last two seasons at Sunderland is almost exactly the same as Karius' last two for Mainz. And then the Simon Mignolet Era happened. So, caveat emptor, etc.

Do we blame Rodgers for Mignolet's decline? The difference in playing, and defending, style? Liverpool's ever-changing, often-disappointing defense? The presence of Martin Skrtel, whether or not he's playing? Unfireable, unkillable, will-be-here-with-the-cockroaches-and-Keith-Richards-after-the-nuclear-armageddon goalkeeping coach John Achterberg?

Yeah, probably those things too. And, hopefully, Liverpool will also upgrade on both defenders and goalkeeping coach this summer. Both are very much needed, and Liverpool have already started with the free transfer signing of Jöel Matip. Goalkeeper is a tough position. Good goalkeepers go through baffling swoons, mediocre goalkeepers all of a sudden play their faces off (often, amazingly, against Liverpool). Predicting how goalkeepers will play, and react to a new side and style, is not easy.

The short version is that Klopp signed his first-choice goalkeeping target, from a club and league he's very familiar with. Liverpool will pay all of £4.7m as a transfer fee, just about half of what Mignolet cost. Karius' wages will almost certainly be no more than Bogdan's, if not lower, as Bogdan signed as a free transfer. Karius has a lot of time to adjust to Liverpool, and the league, at only 22 years old. And it's only May 25.

It's a start to what'll be a very important summer for Liverpool. And it's a damned handsome start.

23 May 2016

Liverpool Goals Scored and Conceded 2015-16

Here are similar versions from 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15.

98 goals scored in all competitions isn't bad! 63 goals scored in the league isn't bad! Sure, it ain't great, but it's a hell of a lot better than last year's 52 in the league, 74 in all competitions.

Since Rafa Benitez took over in 2004-05, Liverpool scored more than 63 in the league in just four of 11 seasons: 2007-08, 2008-08, 2012-13, and 2013-14. Liverpool finished 4th, 2nd, 7th, and 2nd those seasons.

This was almost average in front of goal, at least for Liverpool. Average! Seeing as last season was pretty much historically bad in front of goal, and Liverpool switched managers mid-season, and Liverpool had all those injuries, and Liverpool competed on four fronts for most of the season, I'll take "almost average" as a first step.

Admittedly, it's a very, very small sample size for Rodgers this season – 11 matches, 1020 minutes – but those averages are both worse than last season's and didn't seem to be getting better anytime soon. Remember, Liverpool scored more than once in one of those first 11 matches: at home against Villa, an unnecessarily nervy 3-2 win thanks to Daniel Sturridge. Liverpool kept three clean sheets to start the season, but conceded two or more in three of the next eight matches.

To be slightly fairer to Rodgers, this season compares fairly poorly to Rodgers' first in 2012-13, where Liverpool scored more and conceded fewer.

Admittedly, Liverpool played a lot fewer matches that season, especially during the run-in (when Liverpool lost just once in the last 11 matches after the Europa League Round of 32 exit). Nine fewer matches in total, 1170 fewer minutes. And Liverpool still had Luis Suarez – not at the apex of his powers, but still Luis Suarez.

Liverpool did get better as this season went on, at both ends of the pitch, at least in the league. And that's including Liverpool pretty much giving up on the league in the last month with all focus rightfully on the Europa League.

Liverpool still don't score enough. Liverpool still concede too many – although not a disproportionate, unusual amount. Except on corners. 12 goals conceded from corners is a high since I started keeping track five years ago, with Liverpool averaging a goal conceded from a corner once every 483 minutes, once every five or so matches. At least goals from free kicks were down this season, making the set play goals conceded total pretty much in line with the previous four seasons.

With a full preseason, and more time between matches, it'd be surprising if Liverpool didn't continue to improve in every area. Buy a new attacker, a new center-back, and a new goalkeeper (this one seemingly almost done!). Maybe a few others. Score more, concede less.

It's a simple game, this.

19 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Sevilla

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (a), Chelsea (h), Watford (h), Villarreal (h), Swansea (a), Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), 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 for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.

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

Life is not fair. Sometimes there isn't a storytale ending.

Liverpool needed this. We needed this. And it's all set up perfectly.

The narrative's written. First, Manchester United. Then, that comeback against Dortmund. Then, a comprehensive victory over a similar, higher-in-the-table Spanish side in Villarreal. The overwhelming parallels with Liverpool's Champions League run in Benitez's first season 11 years ago.

Liverpool weather Sevilla's brief early storm. Liverpool are denied five potential penalties – three handballs, two fouls, a handball and foul on the same move in the 12th minute, the third handball seemingly stone-cold certain – but then Liverpool score one of the prettiest strikes you'll see, when Sturridge somehow breaks every one of Newton's laws of motion to score with the outside of his left foot in the 35th minute.

Sevilla had offered next-to-nothing after the first five-to-ten minutes of somewhat frightening possession with no results. Liverpool grew in control and confidence from then on. Sevilla took just one shot in the entire first half: Gamiero's overhead on a scrambled corner, covered by Mignolet if it was on-target at his near post. Liverpool should have made more of their dominance, should have created more chances – and it's not as if we're saying this for the first time this season – but between their control and the lead and the fact that the referee was the only thing keeping Sevilla in the game and THE NARRATIVE, it seemed as if Liverpool would be okay. Liverpool would continue to do good things in the second half, eventually get the second, and lift that much-needed trophy.


In the future, maybe don't concede 18 seconds after the restart.

It's hard to do more than scapegoat Alberto Moreno and ready the rocket to fire him into the sun. First, the weak clearing header to Mariano on Escudero's hopeful cross-field ball. Then, brainlessly charging in and trying to tackle rather getting into position to push Mariano wide or to the byline; he gave Mariano an angle rather than removing one, and reduced the amount of time Liverpool's other defenders had to get into position. He's got a record of doing similar over and over and over and etc.

To be slightly fairer, Moreno's not the only one at fault: Coutinho wandered into the middle on the kick-off, coming in to "track" N'Zonzi (who looking like coming forward but quickly retreated into his midfield position) rather than the right-back he should be up against, leaving Moreno to defend the entire side of his pitch when Escudero crossed; both Toure and Lovren were caught flat-footed on Mariano's centered pass, marking the same space which Can pretty much had covered; and at the last second, Toure tries to play the offside trap, which wouldn't have worked and he was the only one to do so. Sigh. And let's give credit where it's due: that was a lovely step inside and nutmeg by Mariano.

Most importantly, Liverpool still had 45 minutes to reassert themselves despite the set-back. There was still an entire half left.

Put simply – maybe too simply, but I doubt it – Liverpool lost their heads. "Oh shit, here we go again. And it's the final! Why, lord, why?!" Sevilla, who hadn't won this competition the last two seasons on blind luck, didn't lose theirs. They regrouped at halftime. They got the early goal and pushed for more. They got the needed bit of luck and combined it with an absolutely brilliant 25 minutes of football.

They broke Liverpool's lines, something they'd wholly failed to do in the first half. They beat and bypassed Liverpool's counter-press, most notably on the second goal. That was a thing of beauty. A bit of patience in their own half to draw Liverpool's attackers into the press then out of position, then Vitolo to Coke to Vitolo to Banega to Vitolo to Coke to smash through Liverpool's midfield. It was pass and move football that the all-conquering Liverpool side in the 1980s would've been proud of.

Sevilla should have scored a second long before then, with Liverpool given a short reprieve first by Toure's last-ditch recovery tackle in the 48th, then Mignolet's point-blank save on Gamiero in the 60th. The first with Can and the center-backs the only Liverpool players in Liverpool's half (and all three fairly high up the pitch) as Liverpool pressed too hard too fast to get back in the game and lost consecutive aerial duels in midfield, with Gamiero released by an easy throughball; the second from a set play (Escudero's long throw) because of course there has to be at least one set play involved.

And then there's Sevilla's third. A flawless, cue-Yakety-Sax, oh-so-Liverpool capstone six minutes after Coke gave Sevilla the lead: first, Can's slip and giveaway in midfield, then Clyne's tackle at the top of the box hitting Coutinho and ricocheting perfectly for a wide-open Coke seven yards from goal, onside because of Liverpool's touches, with Mignolet unable to do much about it. As many Liverpool players were involved in the build-up to that goal as Sevilla players.

You need that bit of luck in finals. And you need talent, which Sevilla simply had more of, fully on display in the 25 minutes after halftime. And you need self-belief, which seemed to completely evaporate after Sevilla's first goal.

The belief we saw against Dortmund simply wasn't there. Liverpool did not, could not regroup. Sure, Klopp probably should have made changes earlier (*glares at 2-3 Southampton and 2-2 Newcastle*), but you've got to credit Sevilla for a good bit of that.

Experience matters. Sevilla, and the majority of these players, had been here before. Have won things before. Five of Sevilla's starters also started last year's final, with three others involved as substitutes. Liverpool, the vast majority of these players, haven't. The first hill is always hardest to climb.

This is how far Liverpool still have to go. A young side, nowhere near built in the new manager's image yet. A new manager who came in midseason, had to work with this unbalanced squad, and had to cope with numerous injuries and more matches than any of his teams' have ever played in a single season.

Yes, Liverpool lost two cup finals. And it really hurts. You can't help but wonder what might have been: both the relief of rejoining the big kids' table and the doors that qualification to next season's Champions League could have opened.

But Liverpool hadn't been in a single cup final since 2011-12, when Dalglish's side won the Carling Cup against second-division Cardiff on penalties and lost in the FA Cup to Chelsea. Those are the only two cup finals Liverpool have been in since Athens 2007. Nine years ago. Since then, we've seen Hicks and Gillett's attempt to gut the club, Benitez coming close to in the league and Europa League then getting sacked, The Hodge, Dalglish, and Rodgers. We've seen league finishes of 2nd, 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd, 6th, and 8th.

And Klopp somehow got Liverpool to two cup finals in his first abbreviated season.

There is still a lot of work to be done. A lot of room for growth, for players individually and Liverpool as both a team and a club. And it's going to be a very interesting summer; in Klopp's first at Dortmund, they brought in 11 players (six for a fee, two free transfers, Schmelzer promoted from the youth squad, Kevin Prince-Boateng on-loan, and Sahin's return from loan) and sold or released nine.

It's been less than 24 hours, and I've mostly processed this. Accepted this. Mostly. As much as I can, and as much as I will. And I don't want to eulogize this match or this season (although, as usual, there will probably be a lot of season wrap-up graphics and stuff over the next few weeks). I just want next season now. Optimism, which still remains despite this setback and this season, is a hell of a drug. It's one we've been without for far too long.

Up the Reds.

17 May 2016

Liverpool v Sevilla 05.18.16

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 West Brom (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Watford (h)
Sevilla: 1-3 Athletic Bilbao (a); 1-4 Granada (h); 3-1 Shakhtar (h)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 3-0 Villarreal (h), 0-1 Villarreal (a); 4-3 Dortmund (h), 1-1 Dortmund (a); 1-1 United (a), 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)
Sevilla: 3-1 Shakhtar (h), 2-2 Shakhtar (a); 1-2 Athletic Bilbao (h), 2-1 Athletic Bilbao (a); 3-0 Basel (h), 0-0 Basel (a); 0-1 Molde (a), 3-0 Molde (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 3; Coutinho, Milner, Origi, Sturridge 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Lovren, Sakho 1
Sevilla: Gamiero 8; Llorente 3; Banega, Kolodziejczak, Konoplyanka, Rami, Vitolo 2; Iborra, Mariano, Tremoulinas 1

Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE)

Coincidentally, the last time Liverpool saw Jonas Eriksson was the last time Liverpool were in Basel: a 0-1 loss in last year's Champions League group stage. No, that wasn't the match where Markovic was sent off.

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Toure Moreno
Milner Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

Gulp. Has it really been nine years since Liverpool were last in a European final? Deep breaths, deep breaths, deep breaths...

We're all but certain what Liverpool's side will look like. Nine of the XI are nailed-on starters. Origi's in the squad, but almost certainly only available as a substitute. The only question seems whether Henderson's actually ready to start, and if he is, whether he replaces Milner or Lallana. Either way, it should be 4-2-3-1, with Henderson and Can in midfield and either Lallana or Milner ostensibly on the right.

If Henderson does start, I suspect it's Lallana left out. Milner can press and cross from an "attacking right" position – he doesn't press as effectively as Lallana, he's not as dangerous with the ball, but he's arguably been more important to the attack this season – with Lallana better suited to be an attacking change coming off the bench. But I still think it's Henderson left on the bench, just because he's been out for a while and has struggled with injuries throughout the season. Trust the line-up which won 3-0 against Villarreal. Dance with the one that brung you.

Either way, I'd rather not see Liverpool in a 4-3-3. That way lies Firmino on the right. That way lies less attacking cohesion and a more defensive Liverpool. That way usually lies a less impressive Liverpool. League record be damned, Sevilla are a very good side, especially in this competition and especially on the counter-attack. But Liverpool have gotten to this point by playing their game, not by reacting to the opposition.

But we're still less certain which Liverpool we'll get. The more defensive (and, yes, often 4-3-3) Liverpool who twice drew 1-1 and once lost 0-1 away in the last three knockout rounds, or the more attacking Liverpool who won 2-0, 4-3, and 3-0 in the home legs? It won't be Anfield, but I suspect it'll still be a fairly partisan crowd. As it was in Istanbul 11 years ago, in Athens nine years ago.

Rise to the occasion. Play your game.

Meanwhile, Sevilla gave up on the league even more than Liverpool, finishing seventh, 12 points behind fourth-place Villarreal (they finished fifth in 2014-15, 16 points ahead of Villarreal). They won just one of their last nine league matches – a 2-0 derby win over Real Betis – drawing one and losing seven. Seven. They lost the last two (since qualifying for the EL final) by margins of 1-4 and 1-3, with vastly changed XIs. And like Liverpool, Sevilla haven't qualified for Europe next season due to their league failings, although they still have the chance to be in the Europa League even if they lose tomorrow by beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

Sevilla didn't win a single away match in La Liga this season – nine draws and ten losses – and won only one of their seven European away matches. Let's hope playing in Basel still feels like an away match for them.

Having not watched Sevilla often (read: pretty much at all) this season, my best guess at their XI is the same which won 3-1 over Shakhtar to advance to this final. Soria; Mariano, Rami, Carrico, Tremoulinas; Krychowiak, N'Zonzi; Coke, Banega, Vitolo; Gamiero. Coke is usually a right-back, but started in attack against Shakhtar; if Emery chooses a more orthodox winger, it'll probably be Konoplyanka, who's fit again after an injury worry but started on the bench against Shakhtar despite being fit for that match. Jose Antonio Reyes and Michael Krohn-Dehli are their only injury absences.

Sevilla's goals in the 3-1 win over Shakhtar seem a good demonstration of what they're capable of in attack. The first came from Gamiero's awareness, dispossessing a dawdling defender then running straight at goal. It wasn't a concerted press, although they'll do that at times, but just paying attention. The second, Krychowiak's through-ball for Gamiero, came just after halftime to deflate the opposition, less than two minutes after the restart, less than three minutes after Shakhtar had leveled the score. The third, Mariano from distance with Shakhtar's defenders backing off, a first-time strike before the defense could get into position, sealed the match.

Sevilla don't play a possession game – averaging slightly less than 50% in La Liga – but not every one of their goals is a lightning counter-attack or a set play, like Liverpool's last Spanish opponent. They don't score tons, especially in the league, but they've scored 14 through the eight knockout matches: three matches with three (all at home), two matches with two, one match with one, and two matches with none. But they score when it matters, as they did against Shakhtar. And Kevin Gamiero is at the heart of it.

Gamiero, with 28 goals in all competitions, has scored more than Liverpool's top two players combined (Coutinho and Sturridge, each with 12). He's scored as many Europa League goals as Lallana, Coutinho, and Sturridge combined, and Sevilla's only been in this competition since the Round of 32.

The only starter in the above guess at Sevilla's XI under 26 years old is the goalkeeper, 23-year-old David Soria (34-year-old Beto's the usual keeper in La Liga, but Soria's started all eight in this competition). Rami and Tremoulinas are 30; Mariano, Coke, and Gamiero are 29; Carrico, N'Zonzi (yes, that N'Zonzi), and Banega are 27; Krychowiak and Vitolo (and Konoplyanka) are 26. They're an experienced side. And the majority of them have been here before.

Long story short, Sevilla just win in this competition. They do *just enough* in the knockout rounds, and then perform in the finals. They're the title holders the last two years running, and no side has ever won three years in a row.

This will be Liverpool's 63rd match of the season. It'll be Sevilla's 62nd, with the Copa del Rey final to come on Sunday. It is the culmination of both sides' seasons. If they win, the season's a success, league results be damned and forgotten. If they don't, it's a failure, simple as.

So don't fail.

16 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (h), Watford (h), Villarreal (h), Swansea (a), Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), 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.

This was Jürgen Klopp's 30th league match, and this was Jürgen Klopp's 30th different starting XI.

It has been a season of change. Of change in style, of change in sides. A season where Klopp has needed to use the entire squad: because of injuries, because of the amount of games, and because he's needed to see just how full or empty Liverpool's pantry currently is.

Yesterday was Liverpool's 62nd match of the season. The Europa League final on Wednesday will be the 63rd. Liverpool played 58 matches last season, just 43 in 2013-14, and 54 in 2012-13. Liverpool have played 63 matches just one other time: 2000-01, when Liverpool won the League Cup, FA Cup, and UEFA Cup.

It has been a long season. It has been a long league campaign, one which ended after the collapse against Newcastle three weeks ago, if not after the collapse at Southampton two months ago. So it's no surprise that Liverpool have stuttered during the run-in, at least in the league. That Liverpool stuttered during the long winter, when injuries and fixture pile-up was at its worst. That Liverpool stuttered at multiple times this season, that Liverpool stuttered in the final league game.

Or that Liverpool stuttered against West Brom, a side that Liverpool's beaten just once in the last five meetings. Liverpool's record against West Brom in the last ten meetings is just 3W-4D-3L.

Or that Liverpool stuttered against Tony Pulis, who has a better record (3W-9D-3L) against Liverpool than Mourinho, Wenger, or Ferguson, and probably more than a few others.

Pulls knows how to Pulis against Liverpool. Four matches in row – three with West Brom, one with Palace – all ending level, although that Palace match was about as flukey as they come and let's not talk about it any more. Liverpool had at least 66% possession in each of those four matches. Liverpool played at least 300 more passes than the opposition in each of those four matches.

But yesterday was the first time that Liverpool was out-shot in those four matches. West Brom's 13 is three shots above its average; Liverpool's seven is nearly 10 lower than its average. Liverpool's 67% possession led to just seven shots – just one in the second half and none after the 57th minute – which is Liverpool's lowest total in a league match this season. The only match where Liverpool took fewer in any competition was six in the dead rubber at Sion to close the Europa League group stage: a match as meaningless in the greater scheme of things as yesterday's was.

It's completely unfair, but I can't help but glare at Liverpool's #9.

And it's even more noticeable when you see who's responsible for Liverpool's goals and assists when Benteke plays versus when he doesn't.

He (and Liverpool when he plays) has actually been better under Klopp, a trend I'm almost totally crediting to his play as a substitute. Six of his seven league goals under Klopp came as a substitute, as well as two of his three assists. The only match that Liverpool lost when he scored or assisted as a substitute was at Swansea three weeks ago, a dire Liverpool performance where he was arguably Liverpool's best player.

But when Benteke starts, as he did yesterday, and even as a substitute (to much lesser effect), Liverpool have to play through him. Change their style to suit him. And it usually makes Liverpool worse. Yesterday, Liverpool switched Ojo and Ibe from their usual flanks, ostensibly for better crossing to Benteke. Not one of Liverpool's 13 crosses found Benteke. Only three of those 13 were "successful." Not one of Liverpool's 13 crosses led to a shot. At least Ibe on the right led to Liverpool's goal.

But, again, the majority of these complaints about both Benteke and Liverpool's overall performance – at least in regards to yesterday – aren't fair, because yesterday didn't really mean much. Liverpool's earlier failings in the league (and successes in cup competition) ensured yesterday didn't mean much.

Roll on next season. But first, roll on Wednesday.

15 May 2016

Liverpool 1-1 West Brom

Rondon 13'
Ibe 23'

That was a game of football. Two teams, 22 starters and six substitute, played some sport for 90 minutes. There were two goals. A couple of other things happened. And that's pretty much all there is to say about that.

It's the last game of the league campaign where neither side had much to play to for.

And it didn't take long to go downhill, quickly.

West Brom hadn't scored at home since March 6 – three and a third matches without a goal in front of their own fans. It took them just 13 minutes today, thanks to Allen's bad pass, an out-of-position defense not ready for the turnover, and Adam Bogdan's "goalkeeping." 17-year-old Jonathan Leko ran around and through three defenders before playing in Rondon, who unforgivably beat Bogdan at the keeper's near post.

But at least Liverpool responded. Jordon Ibe responded, picking up the ball in Liverpool's half, embarrassing Evans and running the entire way to West Brom's penalty box. Olsson et al thankfully backed off, which was probably a very bad idea, allowing Ibe room to shift sideways, find space in the area, and slot a left-footed shot

Okay, back to square one. 66 minutes left. A goal for each side. Time for an actual contest to break out.


To be slightly fairer, I've no idea how West Brom didn't score at least one more. I've no idea how Rondon didn't get a hat-trick. In the 47th minute, Rondon hit the post, a free header from a free kick, then missed the rebound when off-balance because he was already celebrating what he thought was a goal. 14 minutes later, the same player headed across the face of the goal from Dawson's cross. In the 66th, wide-open at the back post on a corner, Rondon missed his initial shot, then saw his second effort deflected just wide. And in the 82nd, when Liverpool again failed to clear a corner, Rondon saw his shot blocked by West Brom substitute Tyler Roberts, then Roberts saw his shot hit West Brom defender Craig Dawson in the face.

Meanwhile, Liverpool (read: Benteke) fouled up a couple of breaks, but that's about it. There were no real attacks of note. Obviously, there weren't any shots on-target, but Liverpool only took three shots in total after Ibe scored: Joe Allen low and well wide from 30 yards out in the 31st minute, Benteke's free kick into the wall in the 45th, and Ojo off-target in the 57th.

The second half was about Liverpool's substitutes: the returns of Ings and Henderson, a debut for Sergi Canos. No one really did anything – Henderson at least moved well, Canos was involved in one of Liverpool's half-assed counters which they eventually boned up – but that all three even played is a boost in and of itself.

No one played their way into discussion for Wednesday's final. Well, maybe Henderson, but just by being fit, not because of anything he did today. If anything, Benteke and maybe Allen played their way out of contention. But, still, it's hard to read anything into today's match. It's been hard to read anything into Liverpool's last few league matches, at least the ones played on weekends.

Looked at in a certain light, today's a hell of a motivation job by Klopp. Just a draw coupled with Southampton's win means the only way Liverpool are in Europe next season is if Liverpool win on Wednesday. It's Champions League or bust, without any potential consolation of the Europa League qualifying rounds.

So that's the 2015-16 Premier League campaign. Liverpool finish eighth, a joint-low for the Premiership era along with 1993-94 and 2011-12. Liverpool finish with 60 points, two fewer than last season and the worst since 2011-12, when Liverpool made two cup finals but Dalglish still got sacked.

And I'm not really that bothered. There's a lot to regret this campaign, there are multiple matches where you look back and go "hell, how did Liverpool drop points here?" But any time you change managers mid-season, the season usually becomes a wash. Noticeable improvement matters much more than results. And Liverpool have noticeably improved under Jürgen Klopp. Especially in cup competition, but even in the league.

I know we can't help but think that Liverpool lost a great chance to be a lot better and finish a lot higher in the league, given Chelsea, United, City, Arsenal, and Tottenham's seasons, given that Leicester (Leicester!) just won the league with the fourth lowest points total in PL history.

So be it. I'm biased, and sometimes surprisingly optimistic, and I can't help but think Liverpool will have more chances under this manager.

As for this season, it's a start. It probably should have been a better start. It probably should have been a better finish, at least to the league. But the ultimate eulogy for and lasting memories from this season will be decided on Wednesday.

14 May 2016

Liverpool at West Brom 05.15.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 12.13.15
0-0 (a) 04.25.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.04.14
1-1 (a) 02.02.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Watford (h); 3-0 Villarreal (h)
West Brom: 1-1 Bournemouth (a); 0-3 West Ham (h); 1-1 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Firmino 10; Coutinho, Sturridge 8; Milner, Origi 5; Lallana 4; Allen, Henderson, Ings 2; Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
West Brom: Rondon 8; Berahino, Dawson 4; Gardner, Morrison 3; McClean, Sessegnon 2; Evans, Fletcher, Lambert, McAuley, Olsson 1

Referee: Bobby Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Randall Skrtel Lucas Smith
Ojo Stewart Allen Ibe
Benteke Ings

I wouldn't start a single player you'd expect to start on Wednesday. Not only is the Europa League final the apotheosis of Liverpool's season, Liverpool are against a Tony Pulls side tomorrow. You have seen Tony Pulls' sides before, yes?

Playing some who might feature off the bench in Basel probably can't be avoided: Allen, Benteke, Ibe or Ojo, doubtful-but-in-case-of-oh-no-emergency Skrtel. But no starters. Not that Liverpool have played that many usual starters for weekend league matches over the last month.

And yes, even if that includes Adam Bogdan. Bogdan's certainly gone during the summer but Danny Ward's still injured, as are a couple of youth team keepers. Imagine West Brom have a free kick or corner tomorrow. Mignolet attempts to punch through all the surrounding, clattering mouth-breathers (and probably misses), and unluckily gets hurt by one of those mouth-breathers. And then Bogdan's starting in a Europa League final. Please no.

The above is basically the same XI we saw against Watford. Except in goal, at full-back (Smith's back from suspension and it's a toss-up between Flanagan and Randall at right-back), and hopefully up front. Guessing that the returning Ings starts, either with Benteke or as the lone striker, is probably fantasy. He's been back in training for a couple of weeks but hasn't played in a match since October. More likely is that he's used as a substitute, if he's even ready enough for that. But a boy can dream. I have really missed Danny Ings. Liverpool have missed Danny Ings.

More likely is that Liverpool play 4-2-3-1, and it's Brannagan or Sergi Canos or Teixeira behind Benteke. Or Allen, with Chirivella alongside Stewart in a deeper role, but that's probably not happening given the duo's performance at Swansea, with West Brom an even more physical side. Maybe we'll see Henderson off the bench as well; like Ings, back in training, and hopeful of being available for the final.

Despite playing against a Tony Pulis side – which, I'll always reiterate, is never fun – this match could be a lot more strenuous for Liverpool. Like last weekend's opponent, West Brom are firmly lower mid-table, safe from relegation for more than a month but not much more. And they've been pretty bad since sealing safety, winless in their last eight, dating back to March 6. There was an impressive comeback draw at Tottenham, an unlucky loss at Manchester City. But no wins, and no matches where they've scored more than once since March 1. It's been especially dire at home, where they've lost to Norwich, Watford, and West Ham since beating Manchester United. That 1-0 win against United on March 6 was the last time they even scored at the Hawthorns. But it's their last match at home and they've been bad at home and they'll want to go out on the right note and etc etc.

Fletcher, Evans, and Sessegnon are questionable for tomorrow's match, while both Brunt and Morrison are definitely out. If the questionable players are available, West Brom's XI will be Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Evans; Yacob, Fletcher; Gardner, Sessegnon, McClean; Rondon. If they're not, Peko probably replaces Sessegnon, Sandro probably replaces Fletcher, and Chester probably replaces Evans. Maybe Pulis 'goes for it,' starting both Rondon and Berahino, but that XI still looks a lot like West Brom's usual 4-5-1 with Berahino in his own half as much as he's in the opposition's.

It'll be frustrating, it'll be physical. West Brom will start four central defenders and two holding midfielders, West Brom will rely solely on set plays and counter-attacks. Pulls wouldn't have it any other way. It would be that way no matter which Liverpool XI Klopp decided to play.

So it'll be a good test for the second-team side. Can they create chances against this type of opposition, especially since Benteke will struggle to get on the end of crosses against West Brom's Uruk-Hai defenders? Can Liverpool break down deep opposition, defend set plays, prevent counter-attacks? You know, things that the first team's struggled to do at times, especially when these sides met in December, when West Brom scored twice from two shots on-target on two set plays. When West Brom held Liverpool to a draw despite taking four shots in total.

Liverpool have an outside chance at sixth or seventh – Liverpool need both West Ham and Southampton to lose, and to gain two goals on West Ham's goal difference – but that's basically moot given all that's come before over this league campaign. Sixth means the Europa League qualifying rounds, as would seventh if United win the FA Cup. But that's out of Liverpool's hands.

All of Liverpool's hopes for next season's European participation – for Champions League participation – have been with this season's Europa League for the last month. All Liverpool can do tomorrow is beat what's in front of them, and for the players involved to demonstrate their worth, both for Wednesday and next season.

12 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (h), Villarreal (h), Swansea (a), Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), 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.

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

A handful of things sum up yesterday's match.

Jurgen Klopp:
The first 15 minutes were great – wonderful football without scoring. I said to my players after the game that this was the most important game of the season because we could learn from most of it. We showed in the first 15 minutes what we are capable of but obviously we were surprised about ourselves. There was not enough trust and faith in our own quality. So we lost patience and when you lose patience in football it’s always difficult. With patience, we lost formation; we had a lot of moments around the box when we shot when we should have still passed. When you have three players around the ball and one of them shoots and the ball is blocked, you have no formation for winning the ball back.

• For long stretches, especially after those first 15 minutes, Liverpool looked like 11 players trying not to get hurt, fully conscious that they'll probably be starting a Europa League final in a week.

• Liverpool again came back to score late on, from a substitute, to at least gain a point.

• And Eden Hazard remembered how to play football. Or just decided to play football this month rather than the full nine months of the season. I haven't watched much Chelsea this season (thankfully), but has it been injury or tactics or he's just trying to force a move away? Because that was the player who won all of those awards last season. A team doesn't usually finish in 9th if they've got a player like that.

Once again, Liverpool frustrated with outside-the-box shots. 15 of 28 shots – 13 of Liverpool's 19 between the 29th and 80th minutes – from outside the area, with just three on target. It seems like Liverpool's firing from any and all angles way too often this season, to their detriment, unable or unwilling to work their way through a deep defense. And it's led to multiple opponents happy to sit deep, waiting for Liverpool to become frustrated, waiting for Liverpool to fail, and then counter-attacking. And then punishing Liverpool.

Only Tottenham have taken more shots from outside the box this season. But only Tottenham are the only team to take more shots than Liverpool in total. Only Stoke, Bournemouth, and Swansea have taken a higher proportion of shots from outside the box. But no one's scored more from outside the box than Liverpool, with 15 this season from seven different players: Coutinho 4; Origi 3; Firmino, Lallana, Milner 2; Can, Moreno 1.

And Liverpool aren't taking more shots from outside the box this season than they did in the previous two.

Maybe Liverpool need to shoot less from inside the box. That's where Liverpool have been worse, at least in accuracy, this season.

Regardless, Liverpool have now scored in 13 consecutive league matches. Only Leicester have registered a longer streak this season, scoring in 17 straight. It's obviously not 2013-14, where Liverpool scored in 28 consecutive matches in all competitions from November through April, but the longest run last season was eight. Liverpool are improving, have improved. We've clearly seen evidence over the last month.

And Liverpool are scoring late goals. 14 of them in the last 10 minutes of matches this season, with six of those coming in the 90th minute or added time: 2-2 v West Brom, 3-3 v Arsenal, 5-4 at Norwich, 2-1 at Palace, 4-3 v Dortmund, and 1-1 v Chelsea. They've earned Liverpool seven points in the league and got Liverpool past what was arguably the best team in the Europa League.

It's impressive. It's also almost exactly the same as last season, where Liverpool scored very late against Ludogorets, QPR (twice), Swansea (LC), Arsenal, and Bolton (FA).

Granted, the opposition's been a bit better this season. They were more meaningful goals. Liverpool probably are more confident and more resilient this season than they were last, and Liverpool are certainly in a better place than they were last season. But it's not an exemplary amount of late goals. And, I hesitate to remind, Liverpool have conceded 13 goals in the last 10 minutes of matches this season, including exceptionally punishing ones to Southampton (h), Sunderland (h), and Southampton (a), all three where Liverpool had the lead (twice) or a draw at the 80th minute and either drew (twice) or lost.

Swings and roundabouts.

One thing that has changed is the impact of Liverpool's substitutes. Substitutes scored just seven goals last season: Suso v Boro (LC), Coutinho v QPR, Balotelli v Swansea (LC), Lambert at Villa, Sturridge v West Ham, Balotelli v Tottenham, and Balotelli v Besiktas. Liverpool have scored 16 substitute goals this season – Benteke 6; Origi 4; Allen, Ibe, Firmino, Lallana, Ojo, Sturridge 1 – all since Klopp became manager. Seven of those substitute goals rescued a draw or earned Liverpool the victory, a total of 10 points gained by substitutes' goals. And a few more – e.g. Benteke at Chelsea, Origi v Stoke, Firmino v Watford – gave Liverpool a welcome two-goal lead to make the margin and match that much safer.

Klopp has shown much, much more aptitude for changing the game, through tactics – like yesterday's switch to a diamond formation – and/or personnel alterations. And it's a trait that Liverpool very much needed, and has served Liverpool quite well so far.

But the main takeaway from yesterday's match is that it's over. Liverpool got through it. The same starting XI we'll almost certainly see in Basel made it through with no injuries nor any truly disappointing moments. Liverpool didn't win, but Liverpool didn't lose either; the last match at Anfield this season saw Liverpool good enough to get a point, with the added bonus that it came so late, a fun stomach punch against opposition that's so fun to hate.

So be it. Liverpool are what we've known they are. A team that can frustrate, a team that has bad shooting games. But a team capable of fighting back and playing until the final whistle. A team and manager capable of changing proceedings when they aren't going Liverpool's way.

A team that can play a lot better, and has played a lot better, in cup competition, when the spotlight's on.

Yesterday decided nothing that hadn't already been decided. Liverpool have an away match to close the league campaign, with what will be certainly be the much-changed second team, before the match that will actually decide Liverpool's season.

10 May 2016

Liverpool v Chelsea 05.11.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 10.31.15
1-1 (a) 05.10.15
0-1 Chelsea (a; League Cup) 01.27.15
1-1 (h; League Cup) 11.08.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Watford (h); 3-0 Villarreal (h); 1-3 Swansea (a)
Chelsea: 2-3 Sunderland (a); 2-2 Tottenham (h); 4-1 Bournemouth (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 10; Benteke, Coutinho, Sturridge 8; Milner, Origi 5; Lallana 4; Allen, Henderson, Ings 2; Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Chelsea: Costa 12; Pedro 7; Willian 5; Fabregas 4; Hazard, Oscar 3; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Matic, Ramires, Traore 2; Falcao, Kennedy, Loftus-Cheek, Pato, Remy, Terry, Zouma 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Toure Moreno
Milner Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

It's awfully handy that the schedule worked out where the mid-week "first-team" gets Chelsea, and the shadow-side gets Watford then West Brom before the first-team comes back in for the Europa League final.

It's one of the few times the schedule has done Liverpool any favors this season.

I'd be very surprised if it weren't the same XI we saw against Villarreal. Maybe Allen keeps his place ahead of Can, more to protect the recently-returned Can rather than giving Allen - who has been quite good lately - another chance to prove himself. Maybe Liverpool play 4-3-3, as they did in the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge, with either Sturridge or Firmino up top rather than both, as well as Allen in midfield, but I doubt it. Liverpool will be at home, Liverpool won't be as reliant on counter-attacks as they were at Chelsea, Liverpool are better than they were in October (as are Chelsea, at least when they try to be).

Do what you do. What you did to Villarreal. What you aim to do to Sevilla next week.

Meanwhile, guessing Chelsea's XI seems fairly safe as well. John Terry's suspended (lol), Pedro's questionable, and Remy and Zouma are out. It'll probably be Courtois; Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Rahman; Matic, Mikel; Willian, Fabregas, Hazard; Costa - pretty much the same side we've seen in the last few weeks except for the missing Terry and Pedro. Maybe Chelsea finally decide to give youth a chance - Bertrand Traore, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy all seemingly deserve more playing time - but they haven't yet, even with the season already long gone. Which is baffling.

Of course, I'd rather Chelsea didn't. Better the devil we know. That inconsistent devil that can't finish any higher than ninth, which has taken fewer points than any other Premier League champion. Of course, that devil still poses multiple problems when they're on form: see the 2-2 draw against Tottenham to confirm Leicester's title, see Hazard's dramatic resurgence in that match. Spite is a hell of a motivator. Chelsea, unsurprisingly, seems to run on spite these days. And there's usually an awful lot of spite between these two sides.

It seemed as if Chelsea's form against Tottenham would continue into the next match at Sunderland, twice taking a first-half lead, but conceding two equalizers then Defoe's winner, utterly dire for the entire second half, culminating in Terry's very late second yellow. To be fair, Sunderland needed the points far, far more than Chelsea did. It was still very much a match and in keeping with Chelsea's bipolar season.

Let's hope Liverpool - at Anfield for the last time this season, in Klopp's 50th (!!!) game since joining the club in October - get bad Chelsea, at-the-beach Chelsea tomorrow. And if Liverpool don't, let's hope we get the Liverpool which beat Dortmund, Everton, and Villarreal in the last month, a Liverpool more than capable of beating in-form Chelsea, especially when in front of a roaring Anfield.

This will probably be the last match that many of Liverpool's starters play before the Europa League final. Confirm your place. Make it count.

09 May 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Watford

Previous Match Infographics: Villarreal (h), Swansea (a), Villarreal (a),Newcastle (h), Everton (h), Bournemouth (a), Dortmund (h), Stoke (h), Dortmund (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), 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.

A fairly comfortable, fairly routine late-season home win, despite multiple changes to Liverpool's first XI. Watford weren't great, but Liverpool scored twice, Liverpool didn't concede, Liverpool weren't really threatened. Everyone who played pretty much did their jobs when called upon; if we're doing player ratings, there weren't any 9s or 10s, but there weren't any 4s or 5s either. Show up, do the job, get the win, go home.

There's simply not a lot to say. And that's absolutely not a bad thing.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's 34th different starting XI in 36 league matches. Klopp has yet to name the same eleven players in any league match; there's always been at least one change, if not the multiple changes we saw yesterday and over the last few weeks. It was the 14th different defense we've seen – Skrtel and Lucas had yet to start a league match as a center-back pairing – and Liverpool still, somehow, kept a clean sheet, its 11th of the campaign.

Despite all these constant changes – in defense, in midfield, and in attack – Liverpool are playing reasonably well. Finishing the season well. Becoming more cohesive no matter who plays and, last week at Swansea not withstanding, more consistent.

Aside from a wonky, injury-plagued January-February spell, when Liverpool conceded three against Arsenal, four at Norwich, and two at Leicester and against Sunderland, Liverpool's defense has been fairly competent (if, yes, still sometimes error-prone and bad at defending set plays) this season. Not great, but basically adequate, and at times quite decent.

But the attack's certainly improved over the last couple of months. Liverpool have scored in 12 consecutive matches; the last time Liverpool were held scoreless in the league was at Leicester on February 2nd. Liverpool failed to score in two Europa League matches during that stretch, at Augsburg and Villarreal, but won both ties on aggregate because of their performances at Anfield. They've scored at least two goals in 10 of the 12 matches, held to only one by a strong Tottenham and in last week's aberration at Swansea.

It's probably not coincidence that improvement's coincided with Daniel Sturridge's return, but Liverpool have scored almost no matter who's started up front. We got Coutinho and Benteke yesterday, neither of whom set the match afire, but both at least had a hand in Liverpool's first. Sturridge and Firmino started at Villa and against Stoke (and Villarreal), Origi led the line against Everton and Manchester City (and Dortmund), etc.

There are still blips. There are still some struggles, individually and as a whole in certain matches. But as Liverpool – not just the usual starters but the entire squad – gets more used to Klopp and Klopp's tactics, Liverpool's performances have improved and Liverpool's results have improved.

Hell, Lucas and Skrtel were the center-back pairing and Liverpool kept a clean sheet. Benteke didn't really link up well with anyone but Coutinho, but still took eight shots (by far his most for Liverpool, but please put more on-target) and played a role in both goals: an assist for Allen's opener, a surprisingly okay run to give Firmino space to fire in the second. Firmino now has 10 goals and seven assists – 0.81 goals+assists per 90 minutes – in his sometimes-criticized debut season in England. Sheyi Ojo now has three assists in barely 300 minutes of Premier League football. Kevin Stewart, nominally a right-back when joining Liverpool after his release by Tottenham, just started his fifth league match in the last five weeks; Liverpool won three, drew one and lost one. Joe Allen's become a box-to-box hair tornado; he's now scored three goals since the start of 2016. He scored just four in the three-and-a-half seasons before.

There's still obvious room for improvement, in additions to the squad and from players already in the squad. But from top to bottom, from the best to the worst, we've seen almost everything and everyone improve under Klopp: individually and as part of the team.

And that bodes incredibly well for the future.

08 May 2016

Liverpool 2-0 Watford

Allen 35'
Firmino 76'

Hey, Liverpool actually held onto a 2-0 lead at Anfield!

It wasn't great, but it was fairly comfortable. It was an end-of-season match between a mid-table away side safe from relegation and a much-changed home side focused on their upcoming European final.

And that's all that Liverpool needed. The second-string side came in and simply did their jobs. They might not have done it with aplomb at either end of the pitch - unsurprisingly, Liverpool were best in midfield and in pressing (*winks at Joe Allen and Joe Allen's top knot*) - but they did it efficiently and securely.

A first half goal to take a lead into the interval, a second-half goal to make things safer. Mignolet had to make one enormous save at 1-0 on Ighalo in the 55th, while Skrtel, Lucas, and Moreno had to make a few important blocks, but this certainly wasn't the Watford attack we saw back in December. Liverpool controlled tempo and tenor, Liverpool did well to limit Watford's potentially dangerous counter-attacks. Liverpool kept a clean sheet with a back four of Flanagan, Skrtel, Lucas, and Moreno. Liverpool probably should have scored more, with notable missed chances from Coutinho and Benteke, but at least Liverpool created decent opportunities, something they'd struggled with at Bournemouth and Swansea, and against Newcastle, with a similar XI.

The fear was that Skrtel and Lucas would Skrtel and Lucas. They didn't. The fear was that Watford's speed would bypass Liverpool's midfield and defense. It didn't. Watford didn't press, which helped Stewart have what was probably his best game for the club, also aided by Joe Allen being Joe Allen.

The fear was that Liverpool would be blunt up front with Benteke leading the line, with Ibe surprisingly used at the #10 so Coutinho could continue playing on the left. And Liverpool was, a little, but not painfully so. Coutinho again appeared the best suited to playing with Benteke, each creating half-chances for the other. And both Benteke and Coutinho played a crucial roles in Liverpool's opener: the Brazilian's quick, clever deep free kick before Watford got into position, the big Belgian's a perfect knock-down for an on-rushing Joe Allen.

Coutinho should have extended the lead just after the interval, mishitting an open side-foot from Benteke's center, a nice break between Stewart, Ibe, Coutinho, and Benteke. Ighalo should have equalized from the aforementioned 55th minute chance, a wonderful save from Mignolet but also demonstrating why he's only scored one league goal in 2016, back in mid-January.

Watford's subs made Watford better - Guedioura, Berghuis, and Amrabat for Suarez, Jurado, and Abdi - the away side with much more possession in Liverpool's half, but it still didn't lead to concrete opportunities: Guedioura wide from distance, Abdi over from a free kick, Berghuis tame from wide right.

And then Liverpool's substitute settled matters. It was slightly fortunate, and slightly scruffy, as more than a few of Firmino's goals seem to be, but they all count the same. Ojo pressed Anya into a mistake, blocking his hoofed clearance, which fell directly to Firmino with space to run. He strode forward and smacked a shot from the top of box with good direction and decent pace, but Gomes still should have saved it. Gomes didn't. It's Firmino's 10th goal of the campaign, to go along with his seven assists. Not bad for an overpriced foreign flop.

From there, cruise control. Benteke missed a couple more chances, Ibe hit the post from no angle. Watford did nothing. We got a final 15 minutes without any heart palpitations. Which is exactly how I'd like my Sunday afternoon to go, thank you. Liverpool strolled to its first 2-0 league win of the season, neither conceding stupidly nor adding more, Liverpool made amends for last week's debacle at Swansea, Liverpool made amends for last December's debacle at Watford.

Job done, move on. No one really stood out (except Joe Allen and Joe Allen's hair, of course), but no one played anywhere near badly either. Liverpool are a point behind West Ham, two points behind Southampton with a game in hand.

Chelsea on Wednesday, in the last home match of the season.

07 May 2016

Liverpool v Watford 05.08.16

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 Watford (a) 12.20.15
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.13.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.23.06
1-0 Liverpool (a, League Cup) 01.25.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Villarreal (h); 1-3 Swansea (a); 0-1 Villarreal (a)
Watford: 3-2 Villa (h); 1-2 Palace (n); 1-3 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Benteke, Coutinho, Sturridge 8; Milner, Origi 5; Lallana 4; Henderson, Ings 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Watford: Ighalo 14; Deeney 11; Abdi, Watson 2; Ake, Cathcart, Holebas, Layun, Prodl 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Randall Skrtel Lucas Clyne
Stewart Allen
Ojo Firmino Ibe

*finally stops watching highlights of the Villarreal game*

Oh, right. Liverpool still have league matches left. Fine. Who's available, who didn't play on Thursday, who's usually featured in these fixtures over the last month?

There'll be no Europa League match next Thursday, but Liverpool still have a midweek fixture: the rearranged contest with Chelsea. As much as I'm tempted to think Liverpool will stop playing a weakened shadow squad in the league, it doesn't seem likely. Am I afraid we'll get last week's result at Swansea again? Of course – I live in a constant state of pessimism, after all – but a heavily rotated side still seems the smarter option.

Ward or Mignolet? Sure, give Danny Ward another chance. Brad Smith's suspended, so probably Clyne on the left with Randall on the right (or Flanagan? does Flanagan still exist?), but maybe it's Moreno, or maybe it's Clyne and Moreno. Center-back will be Skrtel (sigh) and someone else, probably Lovren (Skrtel and Lovren together are bad, please don't do that) or Lucas.

Midfield seems the easiest to predict. It'll be Stewart and Allen. Maybe Lucas instead of one of them, or with both if Liverpool play 4-3-3, but Can's definitely getting rested, Milner almost certainly is too, and Chirivella will be on the bench at best after last weekend.

And then there's the attack. Ojo and Ibe again? Sure. Benteke? Why not; Sturridge probably isn't starting again, especially with Chelsea to come on Wednesday. The only question seems whether Liverpool start Firmino, Coutinho, or Lallana behind Benteke – all three played at least 82 minutes on Thursday – because Liverpool don't really have a replacement for that position, or if Liverpool play the aforementioned 4-3-3 with *just* Benteke, Ibe, and Ojo up front.

As much as I'd love to see Danny Ings feature, if not from the start then at least off the bench, I'd imagine he'll be protected as much as possible, maybe featuring in the final league match against West Brom if at all this season. But I couldn't be happier that he's at least back in training.

Meanwhile, Watford have hit the late-season wall typical of over-performing promoted teams, winning just two league matches since the start of March, with one draw and five losses. And that's been exacerbated by Watford's FA Cup run. Like Liverpool, they've prioritized the possibility of a trophy with the league place pretty much secure. Unlike Liverpool, they fell at the last hurdle before the final, losing to Crystal Palace two weeks ago.

Maybe Watford will be better in the league now that they're out of the cup, without any "distractions" and trying to finish the season as well as possible. We saw that last week, twice coming back from a deficit, equalizing for the second time in injury time before a winner just a minute later. Of course, that was against Aston Villa, who also had Cissokho sent off with 20 minutes left, so maybe I shouldn't read too much into it.

Watford are without Capoue, who's been one of their best players this season, but will have Deeney and Ighalo. Which is pretty much all they've needed. They've been the Poor Man's Vardy and Mahrez, responsible for almost three-fourths of Watford's 34 goals. Watford will play 4-4-2, with a likely starting XI of Gomes; Nyom, Cathcart, Britos, Ake; Abdi, M Suarez, Watson, Jurado; Deeney, Ighalo. Anya or Amrabat are options on the flanks, Paredes could come in at full-back, Guedioura could play in midfield, but Watford's used a small squad this season, and has played a settled line-up when injuries have allowed.

Liverpool's loss at Watford in December was arguably Liverpool's worst performance of the season, along with the loss at West Ham two weeks later and last week's debacle at Swansea. It was Peak Everything's The Worst Liverpool: Watford scored early from a set play thanks to a from a goalkeeper error, Watford scored a second when Lucas and Skrtel were embarrassed by Deeney and Ighalo, and then Watford sat deep. Liverpool couldn't break through Watford's two banks of four, Liverpool's couldn't create a damned thing, with just two (two!) shots in the first half (both before Watford's second goal), and Liverpool eventually conceded a counter-attack third late on to cap off proceedings. Watford took just six shots, but put five on-target, and scored from three.

Liverpool have gotten better, sometimes only marginally but sometimes much more, against this type of opposition. They faced, and beat, an even better version of it last Thursday, albeit with a much stronger XI than we'll see tomorrow.

Let's be honest – the result doesn't matter much tomorrow. Sure, if Liverpool drop points, Liverpool probably end the season equalling their worst Premier League finish in eighth, but league results have been inconsequential for almost a month because of what came before. But even if the result matters little, performance does not. This is another chance for players to impress – especially Benteke, Allen, Ward, Ibe, and Ojo – to stake a claim, to demonstrate that they deserve more time and a place in the squad going forward.

And it's a chance for revenge, to make up for December's result, even if many of tomorrow's starters didn't feature. Vengeance can be the best of motivators, after all.