28 November 2016

Liverpool v Leeds 10.25.16

2:45pm ET, live in the US on beIN Sports.

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.22.09
2-2 (a) 02.29.04
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.25.03
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.23.03

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Sunderland (h); 0-0 Southampton (a); 6-1 Watford (h)
Leeds: 2-1 Rotherham (a); 0-2 Newcastle (h); 3-2 Norwich (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Tottenham (h); 3-0 Derby (a); 5-0 Burton Albion (a)
Leeds: 2-2 Norwich aet [3-2 pens] (h); 1-0 Blackburn (h); 1-0 Luton (a); 2-2 Fleetwood aet [5-4 pens] (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Firmino, Mané 6; Milner 5; Sturridge 4; Lallana, Origi 3; Can, Lovren 2; Henderson, Klavan, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Leeds: Wood 12; Antonsson 3; Bartley, Doukara, Hernandez 2; Denton, Jansson, Phillips, Sacko, Vieira 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Alexander-Arnold Lucas Klavan Moreno
Grujic Stewart Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Ejaria

It's been a long time since Liverpool faced Leeds, a fixture that used to be a serious rivalry, whether in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or very early 2000s. Leeds, mismanaged to near oblivion, have been bad for far too long, and I'm surprisingly pleased to see them at least getting closer to where they should be.

Pity this meeting couldn't happen under more favorable circumstances.

Coutinho's gonna be out for a while. Ugh. And this match comes too soon for Sturridge, Lallana, or Firmino to recover from their minor injuries.

So tomorrow's XI will probably look a lot like that which faced Tottenham in the last round: a seriously young lineup with 11 changes from Liverpool's previous league outing. 10 of those 11 are available – only Sturridge will be missing from that side – and I wouldn't be surprised to see them all. None of those kids – Alexander-Arnold, Grujic, Stewart, Ejaria, or Woodburn – were involved in today's u-23 match.

Who replaces Sturridge? I think it'll be Mané, with Klopp willing to risk one more senior player, but that could be dangerous given Liverpool's casualty list. Maybe it'll be Woodburn, who made his first appearance on Saturday. Maybe Ojo, who's been in training for two weeks now but is yet to even see the bench for the first team. Maybe Wijnaldum moves into attack with Henderson or Can keeping their place in midfield.

Liverpool *could* pick a stronger XI, with Henderson or Can or Matip or Lovren featuring as well. Klopp has often picked stronger-than-expected sides in cup matches. But the Tottenham game seems a more likely precedent. Liverpool have much, much bigger fish to fry this season and the squad's starting to look a little thin, especially in attack.

Currently fifth in the Championship, Leeds have lost just once in the last eight matches, against league-leading Newcastle. They don't score much – almost wholly reliant on Chris Wood – but they don't concede much either, allowing more than two goals in just two matches this season, and not since the end of August. They've a more than competent manager in Garry Monk, who lost all five of his matches against Liverpool while managing Swansea but gave Liverpool serious problems in four of them. They'll play 4-2-3-1, and they'll come at Liverpool, and it'll be up to Liverpool to deal and respond.

Chris Wood is the clear threat. Just 24 and a New Zealand international, playing well for his country each time I've seen him, he's scored 12 goals in all competitions this season. He had 13 in 37 appearances last season. He's a prototypical Championship striker: incredibly strong but skillful enough and quick enough to cause Premier League defenses problems, and very good from open play.

Otherwise, there's little I'm capable of telling you about their side. Rob Green will be in goal; he's often good for a laugh. Kyle Bartley, formerly of Swansea, will anchor their defense. Two former Premier League players, Liam Bridgett and Pablo Hernandez, will miss the match through injury. They've twice needed penalties to advance in this competition, but both of those saw a fairly heavily changed XI. Maybe it's hubris, but I doubt they'll do that when facing Liverpool, and my best guess is an XI similar to that they've used in the last few fixtures: Green; Ayling, Bartley, Jansson, Taylor; Phillips, O'Kane; Sacko, Roofe, Doukara; Wood.

As with every domestic cup match, it's icing on the cake for most fans. A chance to progress further as long as it's not at the expense of more important matters. A chance to see players we haven't seen enough of, especially the kids we've got such high hopes for.

It's up to those players to take their chance.

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

First and foremost, despite the struggles and frustrations, Liverpool won. Liverpool eventually scored and Liverpool kept their third league clean sheet (the first time they've done it in consecutive matches since December 2015) and Liverpool remain unbeaten over the last 11 league matches with eight wins and three draws.

Still, I can't also help but focus on the fact that this was a very disappointing performance from Liverpool's front three. That's going to happen, no matter how potent they've looked so far this season, and especially when the side's forced to shuffle due to Coutinho's injury a third of the way through the match.

27 Liverpool shots, but just eight from Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho. Just four shots on-target from the four, although one was Liverpool's notable and necessary game-winner. 19 chances created in total, but just four from Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho, and not a single clear-cut chance until Milner's injury time penalty won by Mané's pace.

Emre Can leading the team in shots taken, and Can and Henderson creating vastly more chances than the rest of the side is not ideal. Henderson and Can created 10 of Liverpool's 19 chances, more than half between just the two of them, and more than twice as many as Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho combined. Liverpool's four defenders took the same amount of shots as Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho, and created one more chance.

Only the 5-1 victory over Hull saw Liverpool attempt more passes into the penalty area in a match this season. Liverpool completed 55% that day – just below Liverpool's 56% average going into Saturday's match – but only 43% on Saturday. Only the match against Manchester United, against Mourinho's better parked and more talented double-decker bus, saw Liverpool complete a lower percentage of its passes into the box. Not one pass came from wide areas (and Liverpool's crossing wasn't good either), while Firmino (1/7), Henderson (3/10), and Can (6/14) were all notably profligate in this regard.

Still, Liverpool kept trying, rather than simply resorting to even more speculative shots from distance, ramping up the shot total in the second half, finally forcing Sunderland to start blocking shots – its first not until the 57th minute – rather than watching Liverpool miss its more tentative and tenuous efforts.

All that lead to an Expected Goals chart which looks like this:

Low value shots abound, against a defense designed to not give a single inch, needing a supremely unlikely strike to secure the victory.

That Expected Goals chart looks a bit familiar.

The Burnley loss from three months ago remains the closest comparison to Saturday's match. A similar discrepancy in passes, possession, and shot totals between the sides. Disappointing shot accuracy and a failure to create clear-cut chances, with Liverpool also missing a crucial attacker.

This time, Liverpool won. Because of Origi's solitary magic, because of Liverpool's patience and perseverance in pushing for the goal, because of Karius' save in the 20th minute and Karius' smother in the 68th, because Lovren, Matip, and Henderson refused to allow counter-attacks, because Liverpool didn't do anything dumb at the back, because Liverpool didn't give Sunderland the chances they gave Burnley.

Liverpool have allowed just nine shots in the last two matches combined, with just one shot on-target. That's after allowing 14 shots on-target (from 18 in total) in the two matches before, against Crystal Palace and Watford. It's not as if Sunderland or Southampton tried to attack often, but Liverpool also didn't let them, and Liverpool are impressively top of all five big European league in opposition shots allowed.

Because, three months later, while they're not perfect and they've a long way to go before being perfect, Liverpool are a lot better than they were in late August.

And that's really all that matters.

Despite the disappointing facets and performances, Liverpool won. Liverpool won a fixture they drew last season, now +11 points on last season's comparable fixtures, Liverpool won the type of match that they lost just three months earlier. Liverpool pushed and prodded and kept to its plan, even if that plan was partly thrown out of the window due to Coutinho's injury, Klopp cajoled and cheered on the touchline, the crowd got into it, and Liverpool made the breakthrough.

Heads down, get to work, and Liverpool did what Liverpool needed to do.

By hook and by crook, Liverpool took all three points to keep pace with Chelsea and Manchester City, despite all the difficulties, in a match they could have easily drawn or lost, and probably would have done so just a few months before. There's still clearly room for improvement, and improvement will assuredly be needed, especially if Coutinho's out for multiple months.

But rather than a lament or regret, it's yet another notch on the post, and another needed step forward.

26 November 2016

Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland

Origi 75'
Milner 90+1' [pen]

This team does not ever stop. And there's one man responsible for that.

Let's go back a little bit. We're just past the hour mark. It's 0-0. Again.

Liverpool are dismal in front of goal for the second-straight match, dominating tenor, tempo, and possession but held scoreless, flailing against a double-parked double-decker bus. It's even worse than at Southampton, a better side and away from Anfield, with Liverpool not only erratic with their shooting but misplaying multiple passes when in the final third. And Liverpool are without their best player, Coutinho stretchered off after half an hour with what looked to be a metatarsal injury or ankle fracture or something really, really bad.

And Liverpool's just misplayed another final third pass, well overhit by Henderson – who absolutely was not the only guilty party – when trying to find some way through nine defenders. You can hear the frustration around Anfield. You can hear audible groans. You can hear the inescapable increasing doubt, the belief that 'damn, it really is gonna be another 0-0.'

Jürgen Klopp isn't having any of it.

And Anfield becomes a cauldron of noise until Liverpool finally, somehow, superlatively make the breakthrough. What could have been – and, in previous seasons, what would have been – ever-building frustration and the game tepidly ebbing away becomes a deserved and needed 2-0 win to return Liverpool to the top of the table, at least for the time-being.

Liverpool still required a moment of magic, when Divock Origi – who came on in place of Coutinho – blasted past Pickford from no angle, an unconscionable finish from wide left after Liverpool again pressed and scrambled and pushed but were continually denied, blocked off, and forced to start again.

Sunderland did Sunderland, Moyes did Moyes. 27 Liverpool shots, and not one clear-cut chance until Milner's penalty in injury time to seal the game, with Mané sprung on the counter-attack by Origi and taken down by Ndong. Denayer had man-marked Coutinho wherever he went while the Brazilian was on the pitch, and afterwards, sat in the middle of three midfielders who sat in front of four deep defenders. Anichebe, ostensibly a burly striker you hit long balls towards, mainly played a second left-back. Sunderland set up to bend but not break, and Sunderland could well have achieved that if not for Origi's witchcraft.

To be fair, Liverpool do have history scoring from that angle against Sunderland in front of the Kop.

As if we needed more evidence that this is a different Liverpool team than in seasons past, look no further than Liverpool's manager today. That's the passion Liverpool, and Anfield, have too often lacked. He's creating an actual, honest-to-goodness team and this team is a machine and this machine does not will not can not break down often. This machine needs every cog to function, and that includes the crowd. This machine will need to perform at similar, if not better, levels as more and more sides decide that this is the only way they might be able to stop Liverpool.

The headlines and the credit will mainly go to Klopp and Origi, but spare a thought for Loris Karius. Today also could have gone as bad days have gone in the past if not for two crucial saves, on Pienaar in the 17th and Watmore in the 68th, as Liverpool's defensive organization went to all sorts of hell but Karius made the necessary stop, quick off his line in both situations. It goes without saying that going down 0-1, whether in the first or second half, before Liverpool made it 1-0 could have made today very Burnley.

That Liverpool again struggled in the final third is assuredly not a good thing. Nor is Coutinho's injury, which at least appears to be less debilitating than it initially appeared. Liverpool need to put more of its shots on-target, Liverpool needs to be smarter and simply better in the final third.

But Liverpool again demonstrated why they remain apparent top-four and title contenders. As in past matches, they controlled possession and limited opposition chances, but today they truly did it through little more than sheer perseverance and self-belief.

25 November 2016

Liverpool v Sunderland 11.26.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 02.06.16
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 01.10.15
0-0 (h) 12.06.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Southampton (a); 6-1 Watford (h); 4-2 Palace (a)
Sunderland: 3-0 Hull (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a); 1-4 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Coutinho, Firmino 5; Milner 4; Lallana 3; Can, Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, WIjnaldum 1
Sunderland: Defoe 7; Anichebe 3; van Aanholt 2

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Coutinho

Each week it feels as if it's getting easier to predict Liverpool's XI, but each week, Liverpool deploy a different XI, having gone 40 league games without starting the same lineup in consecutive matches. The last time it happened was in Klopp's first and second matches.

Tomorrow should see that streak broken. Adam Lallana's still out and as far as we know, there aren't any new injuries.

However, there is one potential alteration: Coutinho dropping into midfield, with Sturridge (or, less likely, Origi) starting in place of Wijnaldum or Can. Given Liverpool's expected dominance of possession, neither Can nor Wijnaldum really impressing against Southampton, and Sturridge seemingly more than due for multiple goals, it's worth considering.

But I don't really expect it to happen. Klopp likes the system he's settled upon. Liverpool have been good in the system he's settled upon. Liverpool will probably keep doing Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Sunderland. It's a bit early for their it-happens-every-season miraculous escape from relegation, but they've started on that path. Winless in their first ten games – eight losses and two draws – they've earned consecutive victories, albeit over Bournemouth and Hull. And they've done it despite having a player sent off in each of those matches. They're still mired among the dross in the relegation zone, but they're no longer propping up the table, and are just three points from safety.

Bringing Victor Anichebe into the starting XI has been the catalyst. All three of his goals came in those two wins, three of the five goals that Sunderland scored in those two wins. Ostensibly playing on the left but often the second striker along with Defoe, he's added a much needed goal threat. Defoe had responsible for pretty much every other goal Sunderland had scored this season (yes, van Aanholt has two, but that's it).

Injuries have played a large part in Sunderland's woes, and they'll be missing more than a few likely starters tomorrow. Djilobodji's suspended after being sent off against Hull. McNair, Borini, Cattermole are assuredly out, while Kirchhoff, Larsson, Rodwell, and Denayer are doubtful.

The starting XI will look something like Pickford; Jones, Kone, O'Shea, van Aanholt; Ndong, Kirchhoff; Watmore, Januzaj, Anichebe; Defoe. One of the doubtful midfielders – Kirchhoff, Rodwell, Denayer – probably has to start, although Pienaar (also recently back from injury) could be an option. Khazri and Gooch are options on the flanks, but Anichebe's certain to start and Watmore's work-rate will probably see him chosen on the other side.

These are the matches where Liverpool should roll. See: 4-1 Leicester, 5-1 Hull, 6-1 Watford. Even 2-1 West Brom, another home match, and one where Liverpool should have won by far more than they did. Other than 0-0 against Manchester United, flailing against Mourinho's parked bus after an international break, Liverpool have been really, really, really, really good at Anfield. Liverpool have utterly steam-rolled the lesser lights of the league. Liverpool have done exactly what Liverpool have needed to do in these fixtures, fixtures where Liverpool have failed before.

But Liverpool also haven't had the best time in this fixture lately, with draws in each of the last two meetings at Anfield: 0-0 in 2014-15 and 2-2 last season, with Liverpool letting a two-goal lead slip in the final 10 minutes. Sure, it's a different Liverpool and a different Sunderland, but the law of averages and my undying pessimism suggests that Liverpool are due for a fall at Anfield. Anichebe's on a scoring streak, Defoe is always a threat on the counter, and even if we've been pleasantly surprised so far this season, Liverpool can always Liverpool. The bad Liverpool, not the good Liverpool.

It's up to Liverpool to ensure that doesn't happen. This *should* be in the style of Liverpool's other big home wins; Sunderland were bottom of the goals scored table until last weekend, which was also the first league match where they kept a clean sheet. They've conceded three to Everton and Palace, and four to Arsenal, and those matches were all at the Stadium of Light. But Sunderland have been marginally better, at least defensively, away from home. They've the same record – 1W-1D-4L – but have conceded five fewer goals on their travels. That's Moyes. Playing for the 0-0.

Liverpool can't just turn up expecting par for the course. This is the start of an "easy" stretch, facing Sunderland (18th), Bournemouth (10th), West Ham (17th), and Boro (15th), and Liverpool need to make it count, especially since their top-four rivals all have at least one difficult fixture, if not more.

Thankfully, Liverpool 'just turning up' has become much, much less of a concern since Jürgen Klopp became manager.

21 November 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

Blame international breaks.

For the second time running, Liverpool stuttered after international fixtures, missing at least one key starter and with others obviously fatigued. So Liverpool, as they did against Manchester United, were as patient as possible – a patience they notably lacked in the loss at Burnley – slowly upping the tempo in an attempt to put their superlative fitness to use and win the narrow, difficult contest in the second half.

And for the second-straight time, it didn't quite work. But the signs were there.

Liverpool's attack clearly better in the second half, with Southampton pushed deeper and deeper, reliant on clearances and tackles where they were able to intercept in the first half. Liverpool increasingly dominating possession, with Southampton far less able to get out of their own half or even recover the ball.

But as against United, despite Liverpool's second half improvement, Liverpool just couldn't do enough to eke the victory. In that match last month, Liverpool had a couple of decent chances, through Can and Coutinho, but United had the best of the match, the only clear-cut chance, missed by Ibrahimovic. Liverpool were definitely better, in all phases, at Southampton, seemingly further proof of this side's continual improvement. And it's not as if United are that much stronger than Southampton, at least in this season's performances and results so far.

Unsurprisingly, it comes down to putting the damned ball in the damned net. We've seen this side score 30 goals through 12 matches and can still rightfully complain about missed opportunities for more. Admittedly, maybe it's only "rightfully" in my mind.

Liverpool's 13.3% shot accuracy is the joint-third worst since Klopp became manager. The two worse performances? 8.7% (two of 23) in a 0-2 loss at West Ham and 10.0% (one of 10) in a 0-2 loss at Newcastle. Two gut punch losses, because Liverpool completely failed at the back while struggling up front.

The match where Liverpool hit exactly the same amount – two on-target from 15 in total – last season? Against Southampton, albeit at home, in a 1-1 draw. Incidentally, Southampton's back four that day was Cedric, Fonte, van Dijk, and Bertrand, the same four players who started on Saturday. That's probably not coincidence.

Last season, Liverpool averaged 32.3% shot accuracy in the Premier League. It was 32.9% in 2014-15. Prior to Saturday's match, Liverpool had averaged 40.9%, an even higher mark than 2013-14's high water mark. As you may have guessed from Liverpool's goals tally, shot accuracy hasn't often been a problem this season. I doubt it'll be a problem in most of Liverpool's matches this season. But matches like Saturday's still happen.

Saturday was also the first time this season that Liverpool had created at least one clear-cut chance but failed to score. The two previous matches where Liverpool failed to score – at Burnley and against United – Liverpool failed to create a clear-cut chance. They created at least two in every other fixture and scored at least one. Prior to this match, Liverpool had converted 15 of 28 clear-cut chances (53.6%). Creating two on Saturday, they missed both.

It is both obvious and cliché in extremis, but you've just got to take your chances in matches like these.

Still, Liverpool's shooting could have been worse. Liverpool's shooting could have been Southampton's.

Parked bus or not, playing for 0-0 or not, Liverpool's defense held Southampton to that. As irrelevant an attack as they've had in the last four years.

This was the 12th match of the campaign, and it was the third time Liverpool's held an opponent to three or fewer shots. Hull took two, Burnley took three. I hesitate to remind – although I doubt I need to remind – that both of those sides scored at least once.

It's also the third time that Liverpool's league opponent has failed to put a single shot on-target since Klopp became manager. The other two? A 1-0 win against Swansea almost exactly a year ago and the 4-0 win against Everton last April. Both at Anfield. That Swansea match is a decent parallel to Saturday's: a fatigued Liverpool side missing a couple of key players, which won for the first time after a midweek Europa League match. Liverpool were the "better" side against a parked bus defense, starting slowly but improving bit by bit as the match went on, but still needed a soft penalty (only given by the linesman, not the referee) to get the win, putting just two shots on-target in the match.

Fine margins, etc. As there were when Ibrahimovic missed his clear-cut chance against Liverpool a month ago, or when van Hoorn missed his at the death in Liverpool's 2-1 win at Swansea. Football, eh?

So, yeah, this result's a bit disappointing. That Liverpool performance needed just one goal, whether it's Mané in the 28th minute, Firmino in the 66th, or Clyne in the 80th. Then we're again gloating about Liverpool's ability to win ugly and another weekend spent atop the table and up the Reds up the Reds up the Reds.

But Liverpool did exactly what they needed to in defense. Liverpool controlled proceedings. Liverpool improved as the match went on. Liverpool created chances, including two outstanding opportunities. All after an international break, with many fatigued and a crucial attacker absent. Against a side that's been one of the better defenses in the league in the last couple of seasons and on a ground where they conceded three and lost just eight months ago.

This ain't a set back. I'm taking it as further proof that we're watching a potentially very good Liverpool team, even if it's one that still has even more improving to do.

19 November 2016

Liverpool 0-0 Southampton

That was almost exactly the same match we saw after the last international break.

Liverpool underwhelmed, especially in the first half, controlling possession but creating next to nothing. The opposition did exceptionally well to smother Liverpool's usually potent attack, and that was all the opposition looked to do.

But Liverpool had chances to win. Liverpool probably should have won. Liverpool slowly ratcheted up the pressure in the second half as the opposition tired. Liverpool got behind the back line a few times, Liverpool had two clear-cut chances. Liverpool simply just didn't put enough of their shots on-target. Because Liverpool put just two shots on-target, from 15 in total. Forster did excellently to save the first, from Mané in the 28th, with the second from Firmino in the 82nd a bit easier.

You're not gonna win many matches with just two shots on-target. Unless you're Burnley facing Liverpool, but let's not go there sometimes I just can't help myself. You need to capitalize on the few mistakes the opposition makes or you create through a typically fevered press. You need Coutinho to not mis-hit his shot in the 49th. You need Firmino, put through by Coutinho in the 68th, to score when one-on-one with the keeper. You need Clyne to convert an easy back-post header set up by Sturridge in the 80th.

Incidentally, Adam Lallana missed that 0-0 draw against Manchester United as well.

At least Liverpool are getting their few-and-far-between clean sheets in the matches where they fail to score as well. Southampton offered almost nothing in attack, but we've seen opponents score from almost nothing before. Southampton failed to put a single shot on-target, taking just three in total, but Southampton still had one frightening chance: Austin heading wide from Cedric's cross in the 58th minute. It started from a giveaway in midfield, it came from a cross, it ended with Liverpool losing an aerial duel. We've seen this film before. But it didn't go in.

So, today probably should have been better, but today also could have been worse.

It's not as if we've seen similar, from Liverpool and from others, after an international break away from home in a cold, windy, rainy match with a crucial link player missing.

Credit where due: Southampton defended excellently, with Romeu denying space and opportunities for passes all over and van Dijk making critical blocks and winning critical headers. Meanwhile, only Matip, preventing a few potential counter-attacks with both pace and strength, stood out for Liverpool, with Wijnaldum the most disappointing for his lack of involvement, especially considering who he replaced in the line-up. I'd have liked to see Sturridge earlier – it's confusing that Klopp often waits so long to make attacking substitutions, but I know it's because Klopp Trusts The Process, seeing Liverpool's incremental improvement and hoping the original plan will come through – but I'm not sure it'd have made that much of a difference.

Not that I'm much for player ratings, but it's was a match full of sixes for Liverpool. Those matches happen, at any time and any place, but you're especially prone to them after an international break, away from home, etc.

Feeling the need to find silver linings, it is still an improvement on this fixture last season, where Liverpool stupidly threw away a two-goal lead. Liverpool have now gained nine points on last season's 12 equivalent fixtures. At worst, Liverpool will be one point off the top if Chelsea win at Middlesbrough tomorrow, level with Manchester City after their narrow win at Crystal Palace.

This may have been a disappointing performance, but it wasn't a bad performance. Liverpool did Liverpool things – most of the Liverpool things that have so impressed this season – but on the whole, it was mediocre, and mediocre wasn't quite good enough. Mediocre happens. Just don't lose when mediocre happens. It's an improvement on Liverpool's previous disappointing or bad performances: more patient and coherent than at Burnley, with the added bonus of not unnecessarily conceding, and creating better chances than against similarly parked bus in Manchester United.

This may be a disappointing result, but it's not a bad result. And Liverpool roll on.

18 November 2016

Liverpool at Southampton 11.19.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-3 Southampton (a) 03.20.16
6-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 12.02.15
1-1 (h) 10.25.15
2-0 Liverpool (a) 02.22.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 6-1 Watford (h); 4-2 Palace (a); 2-1 Tottenham (h)
Southampton: 1-2 Hull (a); 2-1 Inter Milan (h); 0-2 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Coutinho, Firmino 5; Milner 4; Lallana 3; Can, Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, WIjnaldum 1
Southampton: Austin 5; Redmond 3; Rodriguez, Tadic, Ward-Prowse 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Can Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Sturridge Firmino

Well, I guess that international break *could've* been worse. At least as far as football goes.

But, of course, injuries happen. At least they're minor? Because they happened to major players.

Both Coutinho and Lallana appear to be out. Lallana picked up a minor groin injury in England's friendly on Tuesday, just minutes after scoring. Coutinho traveled halfway around the world, played 165 minutes in Brazil's two matches, and then supposedly needed an MRI scan yesterday, although the club's said nothing about it.

So let's assume both Coutinho and Lallana will be absent, at least from the starting XI. Which will be a massive loss, considering they've been two of Liverpool's best players this season, although we remain spoilt for choice. Liverpool do appear to have two obvious replacements: Wijnaldum for Lallana and Sturridge for Coutinho, with Firmino moving out to the left. That's the same front three we saw in Liverpool's 4-1 shellacking of Leicester, but also in the 0-0 against Manchester United – the match Liverpool were held to season lows in shots and xG and just one of two matches where Liverpool were held scoreless.

Incidentally, those were the last two matches to follow international breaks. Even if Coutinho is/were fit, he probably won't/wouldn't start.

There is another alternative. Liverpool notably played a 4-Diamond-2 in the 6-1 win at Southampton in the League Cup last season. And you can make that work for the players available tomorrow – something like Henderson at the base of the diamond, Mané at the apex, Can and Wijnaldum as the shuttlers, two from Sturridge, Firmino, and Origi up front. However, that was the League Cup, with Klopp still experimenting with his new-ish club. That was before Liverpool signed Mané, Wijnaldum, etc. That was before Liverpool settled on the formation we've seen in every match this season. And a diamond midfield would move Mané deeper, behind rather than alongside the strikers, as well as put him in Romeu's zone. Oriol Romeu has been one of the better holding midfielders in the league this season.

I suspect, as I always suspect, that Liverpool will dance with what brung them, replacing missing starters with players who aren't necessarily like-for-like, but can be damned fine players in their own right.

At least there aren't any concerns in defense. Of course, I've written that before and then Lovren's gotten pink eye or the flu and we get Lucas or Klavan, but there's no suggestion of that right now.

Meanwhile, Southampton. Liverpool's frequent feeder club, and frequently Liverpool's bane, twice coming back from a deficit in last season's league meetings, earning a draw at Anfield and win at St. Mary's.

As usual for Southampton, it's been a season of change. Key players sold, a manager departing for a "bigger" club. Winless in their first four matches under Claude Puel, they then went on a six-match unbeaten streak in the league, highlighted by a 1-1 draw against Manchester City, before losing their last two against Chelsea and Hull. All told, Southampton have been much better at home, the lone loss coming to a red hot Chelsea three weeks ago.

Sometimes 4-3-3, sometimes 4-Diamond-2, they've been adaptable. They've been typically Southampton, replacing multiple losses with academy graduates and a couple of astute signings. Puel is a pragmatic manager, and one who's foiled Liverpool in the past, albeit seven years ago as manager of Lyon.

Southampton have struggled to score, even in victories – only six sides have scored fewer goals, and only Austin and Redmond have tallied more than once in the league – but they remain quite good in defense, with just four sides conceding fewer goals: Tottenham, Chelsea, City, and Arsenal. If Southampton play 4-3-3, which seems more likely, it's going to be a big day for Milner, up against either the pace and threat of Nathan Redmond or the guile of Dusan Tadic, with Southampton's "wingers" capable of switch flanks throughout.

Tomorrow's XI will likely be Forster; Soares, Fonte, van Dijk, Bertrand; Clasie, Romeu, Davis; Redmond, Austin, Tadic. Long, Targett, and Reed are out injured, while Forster, Bertrand, and Tadic all dealt with issues during the international break but are likely to play. Ward-Prowse is an option in midfield, in place of either Clasie or Davis, while Southampton's record signing, Sofiane Boufal, is yet to start a league match but could play on either flank in attack.

As has become usual, at least for me, this match is once again about defeating Liverpool's past demons. Liverpool have often stuttered after international breaks, at least in previous seasons; this year, they've won one (handily) and drawn the other. And playing away is far tougher than playing at home after an international break. Liverpool have often stuttered when missing key players, at least in previous seasons. And, most notably, Liverpool threw points away against Southampton in both games last season; 1-1 at Anfield in Klopp's first home match was regrettable, but it happens. Neither side really deserved to win that match. But conceding three at Southampton in March despite a two-goal halftime lead, twice conceding in the final ten minutes to finish off Southampton's unlikely comeback, is a bit bigger blot.

So far, with the exception of one, maybe two matches, this has been a very different Liverpool, a Liverpool that currently sits atop the table, and a Liverpool that's mostly succeeded where they've failed in the past. That'll need to be the case tomorrow as well.

Next one up, as it's been all season long. No matter the setbacks and absentees, Liverpool need to keep doing Liverpool.

07 November 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 6-1 Watford

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

It's only been 11 league games and it's already getting hard to find new ways to wax lyrical about Liverpool's attack.

Once again, I'll begin with amazement at how wonderfully balanced the attack is.

I first put up this table last week, and if Liverpool continue in this fashion, we'll probably have to make it a regular occurrence.

Anyone can score. Anyone can make the assist. Liverpool have 10 different goal-scorers in the first 11 games, and that's without either Sturridge or Origi registering a league goal.

Most teams have one or two players who shoulder the scoring and/or creating load: Costa and Hazard at Chelsea, Agüero and de Bruyne at City, etc. Liverpool currently have four, all putting up similarly impressive totals, and that's without Daniel Sturridge getting going. We know he's more than capable of putting up numbers. 20 minutes on the pitch and he had more shots on-target than any other player in the match, hitting the woodwork with his one other effort. Can has two in his last two games, three of Liverpool's four center-backs have scored at least once, Wijnaldum finally got his first, etc.

As in Liverpool's other two ruthless home wins, they started strongly, but didn't start truly turning turning the screws until the 15th minute or so. As against Leicester, as against Hull, Liverpool test the waters, slowly rev up the crushing machine, and make the breakthrough between the 15th and 30th minutes. And then make another breakthrough. And maybe another. And maybe one or two more. 18 of Liverpool's 40 goals in all competitions have come between the 16th and 45th minutes (45%), with another nine in the 15 minutes after halftime.

It's a second consecutive game with at least four goals. It's a second consecutive game with at least four different goal-scorers. It's a second consecutive game with two goals from corners, as well as one from a broken free kick. It's another game with two goals from regaining possession in the middle third. It's another game that demonstrates Liverpool can hurt you in multiple ways, and Liverpool proceed to hurt you in multiple ways.

Liverpool have now scored four or more goals in five of this season's 11 games. No other side's done it more than twice: Arsenal, Chelsea, and City twice; Bournemouth, Palace, Tottenham, United, Watford, and West Brom once. They've done it 10 times in Klopp's 41 league games, and 13 times in all competitions.

Watford simply had no answer. Watford didn't even know the question. Absolutely no presence in midfield allowed Henderson, Can, and Lallana to dictate play. The movement of the front three coupled with Watford absences in defense left defenders baffled. Watford attempted just 15 tackles all game, successful with just nine. That's by far the lowest for any Liverpool opposition this season.

They aren't the first side to run straight into this Mack truck. And they probably won't be the last.

Meanwhile, I'm not too concerned with Liverpool allowing eight shots on-target or losing a clean sheet to a late consolation for the third time in the last four games, having done similar – albeit with the score far closer – against both West Brom and Tottenham (in the league cup).

Sure, it'd be nice to keep a clean sheet once in a while. More than once in 11 matches, at least. Sure, eight shots on-target is a lot. Liverpool have only surpassed that total in four matches this season: 4-1 v Leicester, 5-1 v Hull, 4-2 at Palace, and 6-1 v Watford. Liverpool have only allowed more opposition shots on-target twice under Klopp: 10 in an 0-2 loss at West Ham and nine in a 1-3 loss at Swansea with the b-team.

Five of Watford's eight shots on-target came from outside the box. Liverpool didn't allow a single in-box shot until after scoring their fifth goal. Liverpool didn't commit a defensive error, Liverpool didn't concede from a set play, and Karius made seven saves.

Five of those six Watford shots after the hour mark came in the spell up until their goal. Once Liverpool conceded, Liverpool woke up, with Deeney's injury time blocked shot Watford's lone attempt after scoring. Liverpool took nine shots during that spell, finally scoring through Wijnaldum.

It shows what can happen when you lose focus. You can smash bash and crash a team to infinitesimal bits, but they're in this league for a reason. Any side has the ability to punish another if given the opportunity. It's best if you don't give them the opportunity. But it's hard to fault players for losing focus when up by five, and they sure rediscovered that focus quickly.

I'd be a lot more concerned if any of those dangerous shots, or Watford's goal, came at 0-0, 1-0, or 2-0. I'd be a bit more concerned if it was a goal we'd seen conceded before: a set play, a defensive error, a quick counter-attack after unnecessarily losing possession. But Liverpool didn't let Watford do any of that.

And I'm especially not concerned by allowing eight shots on-target when you take 17 (and score six) of your own.

Hell, it's almost helpful, at least from a statistical point of view. And from a goalkeeper confidence point of view. Prior to yesterday's match, Karius had a 58.3% save percentage, allowing five goals from 12 shots on-target. After saving seven shots yesterday, he's all the way up to 70%. That's marginally above league average! Woo hoo!

The frightening thing, at least for everyone else in the league, is Liverpool can still get better. There are still a lot of new players in this squad, in defense, midfield, and attack. Liverpool can and probably should convert even more of their chances in attack, Liverpool can and somewhat did get a lot more secure at the back, especially from its goalkeeper.

Liverpool are already impressively, unbelievably good. And Liverpool have the potential to be even better, which they'll need to be to truly achieve all that they're apparently capable of.

06 November 2016

Liverpool 6-1 Watford

Mané 27' 60'
Coutinho 30'
Can 43'
Firmino 57'
Janmaat 75'
Wijnaldum 90+1'

That it took until the 27th minute to open the scoring seemed excruciating.

Liverpool pummeling Watford from the opening whistle. Firmino's half-volley saved. Lucas heading wide and then saved from point-blank range. Coutinho into the side-netting. Firmino wide when put through on goal. Mané straight at Gomes from the top of the box. Milner denied at the back post after a wonderful move.

It's been a very different Liverpool so far this season, but it's not easy to forget the trauma of seasons past.

That many chances by the 25th minute and you should think "holy crap, this team is good and a goal's inevitable." Liverpool fans still think "crap how is this gonna go wrong." A few more performances like this and maybe we'll stop.

Amusingly, Liverpool's opener was almost certainly the most difficult chance they'd had to that point. Coutinho's short corner, Coutinho's cross, Mané somehow getting in front of his marker and stooping to flick a header that Luis Garcia would be proud of. For Liverpool's third goal from a corner in less than a match and a half. Yet another sign that the apocalypse is upon us.

And from there, the dam burst. The dam disintegrated. Three minutes later, Coutinho thumped a trademark shot from the top of the box after a beep beep roadrunner move from Clyne to Mané to Lallana to Firmino to Phil after Liverpool regained possession in their own half. Gomes' unfortunate injury slowed the pace for a few minutes, but then Karius' goal kick, Firmino's aerial win, Coutinho to Lallana crossed to a wide open Can at the back post. 3-0, goodnight and good luck before halftime.

Halftime and Liverpool had scored from a set play, with a blitz one-touch passing move, and from a direct long pass from the goal-keeper followed by a cross. This Liverpool team really can score in every single way.

And we got more of the same in the second half. As usual, Liverpool were a bit more patient, Watford had a bit more possession, Liverpool were a bit happier to control proceedings with a three-goal lead, but you can only stop the bum rush for so long. The fourth came in the 57th when Watford only half-cleared a free kick, Henderson finding Lallana's clever run into space, Lallana's perfect low cross finding Firmino for a tap-in.

Just like in the first half, a second Liverpool goal followed the opener within three minutes: Henderson wins possession from a rushed kick from the goalkeeper, finds Firmino with a throughball, who waits for support then finds Mané for another tap-in, nutmegging his marker with the assist.

I'll remind that this Watford team hadn't conceded a goal in its last three matches. Or, as someone cleverer than I put it on Twitter:

Facing Liverpool might be a little different than facing Boro, Swansea, and Hull.

We saw a bit of a dip at 5-0, Watford finally coming into the game, forcing three excellent saves from Karius before another clean sheet gets thrown away when an open Janmaat passed the ball into the net. And it's a bit frustrating. 11 games, just one opponent held scoreless. But it happened at 5-0. Watford didn't have a single shot in Liverpool's box until it was 5-0. Loris Karius made seven saves in total, three of them actually really impressive. And if it's not 5-0, Milner probably wins a free kick in the build-up, fouled by Amrabat before the wing-back set up Janmaat.

So be it. Watford probably shouldn't have poked the beast anyway, because, unsurprisingly, that goal woke Liverpool right up. Sturridge hit the woodwork twice, had two other shots saved. Coutinho blasted over when open from 12 yards. Firmino could have won a penalty when pulled down going for Coutinho's set play cross. Watford couldn't have been aggrieved had they lost by eight. Finally, in injury time, Wijnaldum scored his first for Liverpool, a rebound on yet another Sturridge effort saved.

It was the absolute least that Liverpool deserved for the previous 15 minutes. And, like the rest of the match, so enjoyable it's almost certainly fatting.

Liverpool have already scored 30 league goals this season, a total they didn't hit until the 23rd match last season. At the end of January.

Each of the front three scored at least once today: Mané's fifth and sixth of the season, Coutinho's fifth, Firmino's fifth. Lallana tallied his fourth and fifth assists of the campaign, Firmino his second and third, Coutinho his fifth. That Sturridge didn't find the net is more frustrating than anything else we saw today, a player who wants, needs, and fully merited a goal.

And Liverpool's 17 shots on-target are the most in a Premier League match since 2003-04, when Opta started keeping track.

Liverpool have had 10 different goal-scorers through 11 league games, and that's with both Sturridge and Origi yet to tally in the Premiership.

That attack was absolutely unplayable today, and not for the first time. And it was the first time they'd faced a back three. No matter.

But it's not just the front three and Lallana though, even if they deserve all the headlines. Henderson's thriving as a #6, Liverpool's new metronome in the build-up but also playing a crucial role in two of Liverpool's goals. For better and worse – usually better – Emre Can rolls through midfield like a boulder headed downhill, and his two goals in the last two games equal his league total from the previous two campaigns combined. Milner's arguably the best left-back in the league at the moment and Clyne's not too shabby on the other side. Even Lucas can come into the side and be mostly fine, admittedly against not the most dangerous of opposition. It probably helps to play alongside Joël Matip.

Now into the last international break for a couple of months while sitting atop the league. It's hard to fathom considering where Liverpool were a year ago.

But, yes, Liverpool have played just 11 games. Be excited what they've done and where they are, but be very aware that Liverpool haven't achieved anything yet.

But, yes, Liverpool have played just 11 games. And they already look this good. And the rest of the league should be very afraid.

05 November 2016

Liverpool v Watford 11.06.16

9:15am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 05.08.16
0-3 Watford (a) 12.20.15
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.13.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.23.06

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-2 Palace (a); 2-1 Tottenham (h); 2-1 West Brom (h)
Watford: 1-0 Hull (h); 0-0 Swansea (a); 1-0 Boro (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Firmino, Mané, Milner 4; Lallana 3; Lovren 2; Can, Henderson Matip 1
Watford: Capoue 4; Deeney 3; Holebas 2; Ighalo, Pereyra, Success, Zuñiga 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Firmino Coutinho

The Liverpool line-up guessing game's gone a bit stale. Milner will return from illness. Sturridge will almost certainly again have to make do with a spot on the bench. The front three's seemingly set in stone, and Lallana, Henderson, Lovren, Matip, Clyne, and Karius are all guaranteed starters as well.

The only question seems Can or Wijnaldum as the third midfielder. The former's played well in his last two starts, opening the scoring at Crystal Palace, and his height and physicality have helped when defending long balls and set plays, but the latter seems a better link player in attack, and I'm beginning to suspect it's not coincidence that Lallana's looked less effective in the last two matches that Can started.

Both Can and Wijnaldum are rumored to have suffered with illness this week, as Milner did last week, but rumors also suggest both will be available. In the small chance they're not, it'll probably be Coutinho in midfield with either Sturridge or Origi in the front three, as Liverpool had to do against United with both Lallana and Wijnaldum out.

I still have bad memories of Watford from last season. This fixture, at Anfield, was a routine 2-0 win during that end-of-campaign run-in, with a much-changed Liverpool XI and Watford basically on vacation after assuring Premiership safety. But that away match. Ugh. The absolute terror.

Watford have a new manager: Walter Mazzarri, previously of Napoli and Inter Milan, who had never before managed outside of Italy. Watford have a new system: 3-5-2/5-3-2. Odion Ighalo, who had seven goals by this point last season, has just one. And yet, just like last season, they've been one of the surprise packages so far, currently in seventh place, actually above Manchester United (who they beat 3-1).

For the most part, Watford have done it with defense, they've done it with that new system. They've lost just once away from home this season: a 2-0 defeat at Burnley, which sounds all too familiar. After conceding at least once in the first seven matches, they've kept three consecutive clean sheets, two 1-0 wins and a 0-0 draw.

In those last three games, Watford have a combined four shots on-target: two at Boro, two against Swansea, and none against Hull. And yet they won two of those, albeit the last with an own goal. As I'm sure you're aware, it doesn't often take many shots on-target to score against Liverpool.

They can score – bad attacks don't win 4-2 at West Ham and 3-1 against United – but West Ham's defending was laughably bad and United were twice exposed in the final 10 minutes when pushing forward for first a winner at 1-1, then an equalizer at 1-2. Defensive mistakes played a big part in goals against both of those sides. As I'm sure you're aware, Liverpool can be prone to defensive mistakes, especially when pushing forward in search of goals. Because Liverpool are always pushing forward in search of goals.

With defenders Prödl and Cathcart absent (along with Isaac Success and Kenedy), Watford's XI will probably be Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos; Amrabat, Pereyra, Behrami, Capoue, Holebas; Ighalo, Deeney. There's a small chance that Watford revert to 4-1-4-1 with those two central defenders absent, Janmaat and Holebas as orthodox fullbacks and Guedioura or Zuñiga replacing Ighalo, but I doubt it. Dance with what brung you, etc.

Either way, they'll look to clog the spaces where Coutinho, Firmino, and Lallana thrive, allow time on the ball but limit passes into dangerous areas, smother the middle third of the pitch and force Liverpool to play back and wide, force Liverpool into frustrated shots from distance. You know, all the things that Burnley did to such effect a bit more than two months ago.

Once again, it's a battle of systems, a battle that Liverpool won against Hull, Leicester, West Brom, and (eventually) Swansea, a battle that Liverpool lost at Burnley and drew against United. And it's a battle with Liverpool's past demons: last season's horrific, maybe-the-worst-of-the-campaign loss at Watford, as well as Liverpool's too frequent ability to fail when we expect success, at least in past seasons.

Liverpool have been beating those demons at almost every time of asking so far in this short season, aside from that one match that I'm sick of writing about and you're sick of reading about. Liverpool are unbeaten since then, with 20 points from 24. Liverpool have taken 10 points from a possible 12 at home. Liverpool have scored at least twice in eight of this season's 10 league matches and 11 of this season's 13 matches in all competitions.

So even though it may well kill us all long before the end of the season, just keep doing you, Liverpool.