30 April 2016

Liverpool at Swansea 05.01.16

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.29.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.15
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.29.14
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Villarreal (a); 2-2 Newcastle (h); 4-0 Everton (h)
Swansea: 0-4 Leicester (a); 0-3 Newcastle (a); 1-0 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Coutinho, Sturridge 8; Benteke 7; Milner, Origi 5; Lallana 4; Henderson, Ings 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Swansea: Sigurðsson 11; A Ayew 8; Gomis 5; Paloschi, Williams 2; Barrow, Fernandez, Ki SY, Routledge, Shelvey 1

Referee: Roger East

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Lovren Smith
Milner Stewart
Ojo Lallana Ibe

Another league match sandwiched between vastly more important European contests, another match where we'll see heavy rotation but little clue exactly who will be playing in what formation.

Sturridge is definitely starting up front, Stewart's definitely starting in midfield, Ward's definitely starting in goal, at least one of Ojo and Ibe (and probably both) are starting on the flanks, Smith and either Randall or Flanagan are probably starting at full-back, Skrtel's probably (sigh) starting in central defense. From there, it's a matter of who Klopp trusts to be able to play three matches in a week and what formation best matches Swansea's 4-2-3-1.

Central defense? Who's better able to play three times in seven days: Lovren, Toure, or Lucas? Will Lucas even play next Thursday, in midfield or central defense?

Full-back? Flanagan probably won't start, considering this article on his recovery from yesterday, but I'd still trust him more against Jefferson Montero than I would Connor Randall.

Midfield? It's probably either Allen or Milner with Stewart – maybe Lucas, in an even less attack-capable duo – unless Klopp continues with the 4-3-3 we saw against Villarreal or the 4-4-2 diamond we saw against Newcastle, or either Brannagan or Chirivella get a surprise start along with Stewart. I'm always in favor of playing players against their former club, but I still suspect Milner will get the nod over Allen just because of his fitness levels. Unless Klopp's initially planning on a Lucas-Milner midfield next Thursday, that is.

Attack? Again, who's better able to play three times in seven days, and to play in the #10 position behind Sturridge? Coutinho, who was ill on Thursday? An out-of-form Firmino? Lallana? Regardless, the attack is going to be the Daniel Sturridge Show, with a massive, massive point to prove after being left out at Villarreal. You thought his ten shots at Bournemouth was egregious? I wouldn't be surprised if he takes 15 tomorrow.

Maybe Liverpool go with a 4-4-2 diamond, something like Stewart; Allen, Milner; Lallana/Firmino; Sturridge, Benteke – pretty much the XI which started adequately but then threw away two goals and couldn't get back into the game against Newcastle – but that also seems doubtful, and leaves no place for either Ibe or Ojo, both fresh, needing game time, and with points to prove.

It will be a much-changed side. And, for the most part, these much-changed sides have done well, not counting last weekend's second-half capitulation. At this stage of the season, it's all about managing resources while still trying to accrue acceptable results. We know where Liverpool's priorities lie.

Swansea, at the bottom of the mid-table pile but almost certainly safe from relegation – but would be absolutely mathematically safe with a win tomorrow – have been decent at home and very, very bad away lately. They're coming off 0-3 and 0-4 losses against Newcastle and Leicester respectively, which hopefully is a sign that they're already on the beach for the summer, but they've also lost just twice at home in 2016: 2-4 against Sunderland back in January and 0-1 against Southampton back in February. Since Boxing Day, Swansea's home record is 5W-1D-2L, with wins over West Brom, Watford, Norwich, Villa, and Chelsea. All five of those wins have been 1-0. The aforementioned 2-4 defeat to Sunderland was the only time that Swansea conceded more than once in the last nine home matches, with six clean sheets during that stretch.

Incidentally, the result when these sides met at Anfield in November? 1-0 to the home team.

Will we get the "tough to beat at home, grind you down" Swansea or the "season's over, don't care" Swansea which conceded seven in its last two matches? Whichever Swansea it is will be missing both Fer and Paloschi with hamstring injuries, which certainly doesn't help their cause, but they have replacements: either Britton or Ki for Fer, either Gomis or Barrow or even Routledge (with Ayew moving into a striker's role). The most likely XI seems to be Fabianski; Rangel, Fernandez, Williams, Taylor; Britton, Cork; Ayew, Sigurðsson, Montero; Gomis.

We all know which is Liverpool's more important match this week. But that doesn't wholly detract from tomorrow's contest. A chance to put the Newcastle result right, a chance to put the Villarreal result right. A chance for players to force their way into contention for Thursday, a chance for players to force their way into contention for more meaningful fixtures in the future, both this season and next.

The season ain't over yet, the league campaign ain't over yet. There's still much for Liverpool to do, in both of the competitions they're still in.

29 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Villarreal

Previous Match Infographics: 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.)

This is the danger of playing for 0-0. Until injury time, 0-0 looked the most likely score. Liverpool had mainly stopped Villarreal from its game, preventing counter-attacks, limiting set plays, limiting mistakes. Both sides had a couple of chances – just a couple – and an equal amount of "reasonable to almost good" ones despite Liverpool's total shot advantage.

Villarreal had a spell of pressure in the 21st leading to Pina shots saved and blocked, Bakumbu's set play header hit the post just after halftime, and Mignolet's excellent save on Bakumbu in the 87th. Allen spurned an excellent opporunity in the 5th, when a deflected cross found him in space on the penalty shot, but he shot straight at the keeper. Firmino had a Danger Zone shot saved onto the post in the 65th. Moreno tore down the length of the pitch after a Villarreal corner in the 88th but wildly missed at the near post.

For the most part, it was a damp squib of a match. Which isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world in a first leg away European match. But one mistake and you're doomed, and that's exactly what happened in injury time. Bruno dispossessed Lallana in Villarreal's defensive third with pretty much every Liverpool player caught up the pitch. Lallana failed in his press, Milner failed in his press, Moreno failed in his press, and then Lucas failed in his press. With Moreno out of position, Denis Suarez was one-on-one with Toure, able to out-pace the veteran for Bruno's ball over the top, Toure choosing to stay with the attacker rather than play for offside. Moreno, now somehow in the middle of pitch, couldn't keep up with Adrian, tap in. Credit where due: it was a really good move, especially between Suarez, Bruno, and Adrian to break through midfield. Still, Liverpool didn't need to make it easier for them. Game over, plan ruined.

I rarely criticize Jürgen Klopp's decisions. Every day I wake up amazed and pleased that he's somehow Liverpool's manager. And he's rarely given me moments to criticize. Liverpool were missing key players, Liverpool had defended well, Liverpool were away in a first-leg European semi-final. But I do not understand yesterday's mid-game management.

The starting XI was understandable, even if it's not what I would've chosen. A more defensive side, a side better suited to pressing, a three-man midfield to better able to prevent Villarreal's quick transition attacks. All perfectly valid choices, and the first half, the first 60 minutes, even the first 90 minutes until added time bore them out.

Klopp didn't miss Allen's 5th-minute chance or Moreno's 88th-minute chance. Klopp wasn't one of five or so players caught out of position on Villarreal's winner. But I'm a little annoyed at Liverpool's passivity in the starting XI and exceptionally annoyed at the substitutions, or lack thereof, in the final 30 or minutes. And I can't help but think back to Liverpool's last loss, at Southampton, where Klopp seemingly sat on his hands in the final 30 minutes rather than making changes to – in that case – solidify the midfield or defense, and Liverpool ended up conceding two late goals.

This time, it was Liverpool's attack which needed the boost, and it was only one late goal, but it's still a loss and still a massive regret. It doesn't happen often – those are the only two matches where I remember getting mad at the manager's in-game choices, and Liverpool have seen a lot of goals and better play from substitutes this season, much more than from the previous manager – but the losses always stick in the memory longer than the wins.

Most notably, you leave out Daniel Sturridge in the biggest game of the season, and you deliver that attacking performance. Preferring Origi is one thing, as both legs against Dortmund demonstrated. Preferring a struggling Roberto Firmino is another. In the two months between Arsenal at home in January and United away in the Europe League in March, Firmino scored eight and assisted on four. 14 matches, 1233 minutes, 12 combined goals and assists; an average of 0.88 goals+assists per 90 minutes. Since returning from injury three weeks ago, he's got one tap-in rebound goal and no assists in 459 over seven matches. Aside from his work-rate, he's not been good.

And it's especially galling when, as predicted, the vast majority of Liverpool's attacks came from the flanks because that's where Villarreal's exceptionally well-organized two banks of four forced you to go. Liverpool's attacks seemed to go something like Moreno cross, Milner's cross, Clyne's cross, Lallana's cross, Toure's punt from defense, Milner's cross. And Firmino probably isn't heading them in. Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, and Allen almost certainly aren't heading them in. Firmino's 5'11", Milner's 5'9", Lallana's 5'8", Coutinho's 5'7", and Allen's 5'6". Those was Liverpool's five players yesterday. Sturridge at least gives you a chance at those, with headed goals against Villa, Stoke, and Bournemouth this season. He's 6'2". And his hold-up play from hoofed balls out of defense, which Liverpool played an awful lot of, is vastly better than Firmino's as well. Is Firmino's pressing really more valuable than that?

Sure, I guess, if you really are insistent on a) keeping it 0-0 and b) maybe scoring from pressing or quick passing moves on the break. At least for the first hour. And that it was Ibe first off the bench wasn't that surprising either. He was replacing the ill Coutinho, it'd only been 45 minutes, and – in theory if not practice – his pace may be able to stretch Villarreal on counter-attacks or when Liverpool hoof the ball out from the back.

But to not bring Sturridge on at all? Really? With Benteke for Firmino in the 90th minute as they only other substitution, supposedly as extra protection on any set plays? It's another thing if Benteke's brought on earlier; I'd heavily disagree, because he's often bad at the football, but at least he's an actual target-man. But for extra defensive protection in the final minute, with Sturridge still sat in his warm-up clothes? That's almost insulting.

This is going to sound much ruder than I mean, but that's brave football? You've got to dance with what brung you.

That Villarreal got the narrow win is marginally deserved. Neither side attacked well, but Villarreal attacked better and smarter. Liverpool took 15 shots, but eight of them came from outside the box, with all eight from outside the box either off-target or blocked. Villarreal took nine shots, and six of the nine came from inside the box, with two of the three from outside the box on target. Only nine of Liverpool's shots came from key passes; eight of Villarreal's nine came from key passes. One attack was less frequent, but more coherent, and that's the side that scored and that's the side that won.

To be slightly fairer to Liverpool, overturning a 0-1 deficit at Anfield in a week's time is doable. One Liverpool goal means extra time and two mean a win, as long as Liverpool keep Villarreal – a dangerous counter-attacking side if given space, as we saw in the 92nd minute – from scoring. If Villarreal score, Liverpool will need at least three, but this is a Liverpool side that's scored 14 goals in its last four home matches.

Of course, Villarreal aren't Stoke or Everton or Newcastle. And they're certainly not Dortmund, which was a performance and result we'll rarely see in our lifetimes. Next Thursday, there will be 11 Villarreal players in their own half for 90 minutes at Anfield, determined to defend, defend, and defend some more, and then counter-attack when Liverpool push too far forward too quickly. Which is exactly what Liverpool's struggled against multiple times this season, especially at home. And which is exactly how Villarreal scored, and won, yesterday's game.

Play for the 0-0, and get burned. Make one mistake (or, more accurately, multiple little mistakes on one sequence), and get burned. Stop getting burned, Liverpool. Stop burning yourself, Liverpool.

27 April 2016

Liverpool at Villarreal 04.28.16

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Newcastle (h); 4-0 Everton (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a)
Villarreal: 0-0 Real Sociedad (h); 0-3 Real Madrid (a); 1-2 Rayo Vallecano (a)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 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)
Villarreal: 4-2 Sparta Prague (a), 2-1 Sparta Prague (h); 0-0 Leverkusen (a), 2-0 Leverkusen (h); 1-1 Napoli (a), 1-0 Napoli (h); 3-3 Plzen (a); 1-0 Rapid Wien (h); 2-1 Dinamo Minsk (a); 4-0 Dinamo Minsk (h); 1-0 Plzen (h); 1-2 Rapid Wien (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, Origi 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Lovren, Sakho, Sturridge 1
Villarreal: Bakambu 9; Bruno, Leo Baptistao, Soldado 2; Bailly, Castillejo, dos Santos, Pina, Suarez 1

Referee: Damir Skomina (SLO)

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

How's your week been?

Not great, Bob.

Henderson, Can, and Origi remain out through injury, Sakho's not contesting his failed drug test – which means at least a six-month ban, and more likely two years – and Liverpool are coming off a humiliating draw against probably-will-still-be-relegated Newcastle.

So it's a smashing time to play a Europa League semifinal against a team that hasn't lost in this competition since September.

Cleverer people than I – Sky Sports' Rob Palmer in the Echo and Anfield Index – have noted that Villarreal look an awful lot like Leicester if you squint hard enough. While they've not succeeded in the league to such a degree, they've been a surprisingly good side considering their underlying statistics: good in defense, not good up front, massively over-performing Expected Goals. But they've been comprehensively excellent in the Europa League.

In this analogy, Bakambu is Vardy, Soldado is Okazaki, Denis Suarez is Mahrez, Bruno Soriano is Kante, Rukavina and Mario Gaspar are both competent fullbacks who can get forward but are better in defense. But it's the playing style that's most similar: an orthodox, compact, deep 4-4-2; a reliance on quick transitions through interplay and fast passing rather than long ball; pressing from the front before settling into defensive positions; and one key player who scores the majority of their goals.

So what did Liverpool do against Leicester? And what could and should have Liverpool done better? In both matches against Leicester this season – 1-0 at home, 0-2 away – Liverpool matched Leicester's formation, basically a 4-4-1-1 in both meetings. Firmino playing off Origi then Benteke at home, with Lallana, Coutinho, Henderson, and Can in midfield; Liverpool were wasteful in attack (surprise!) but completely shut down Leicester and eventually got its goal through Firmino crossing to Benteke. Away from home, Liverpool's options were more limited, with Lallana playing off Firmino, Henderson and Milner "on the flanks," and Can and Lucas in central midfield. Liverpool were wasteful in attack (surprise!) but also didn't create enough, before falling behind to a wonder goal on the counter from Vardy – the defensive line too high and broken too easily – then quickly and somewhat unluckily conceding a second.

Which leads me to think that Liverpool will match Villarreal's formation, especially considering the dearth of available central midfielders; not only are Henderson and Can out, but Stewart's not in the Europa League squad. However, Liverpool may want to play more cautiously away from home in the first leg, more of a 4-3-3 with Allen, Lucas, and Milner behind Lallana, Coutinho, and either Firmino or Sturridge. Villarreal are dangerous in transition and dangerous through the middle, with Soldado dropping deep to create space and create chances for Bakumbu. Lucas can stay deep and drop into the defense when needed, while Allen and Milner get forward (and wide) to supplement the attacking line of three. But Lucas may also be preferred as Sakho's replacement, and I'm also not convinced that 4-3-3 attack will do enough to unsettle Villarreal. Away from home, in the first of two legs, Liverpool have to find a balance, and finding that balance isn't easy, especially considering the absences.

Regardless of personnel or formation, Liverpool must also take advantage of the flanks, not only through quick transitions of their own, but also as Villarreal often attempt to funnel the opposition's attacking play out wide. Moreno and Clyne will be crucial, especially the former, Liverpool's best crosser of the ball along with Milner. It might actually be helpful that Benteke's back, potentially able to come off the bench in the target-man role that Liverpool so infrequently use.

Meanwhile, Valencia's XI is likely to be Areola; Mario, Bailly, Ruiz, Rukavina; D Suarez, Trigueros, Bruno, Castillejo; Soldado, Bakambu. Both Sergio Asenjo and Mariano Barbosa have started in goal in this competition as well, but Areola's played the majority of matches lately. Jonathan dos Santos could be an option anywhere in midfield, starting matches on the flanks and in the middle lately. Center-back in Villarreal's only slightly concerning position, with both Musacchio and Jaume Costa out injured. Which is another reason I'd like to see Liverpool play with two up front, even if it makes the side slightly more vulnerable at the other end.

Villarreal haven't been in great form lately, winless in their last three games, scoring just once in their last three games. Rayo, despite for points to avoid relegation, out-battled Villarreal, the first goal through a rebound, conceding a quick equalizer, then getting a late winner from a cross and header in a cagey second half. Real Madrid out-possessed and outgunned Villarreal, dominating possession, not allowing Villarreal any counter-attack opportunities, and finished their own chances. And last weekend, Villarreal and Real Sociedad played out a fairly dire 0-0.

But some end-of-season malaise isn't unexpected. Villarreal are fourth – not solidly fourth, but four points and +17 goal difference clear of Celta Vigo. A drop in league form with eyes on a Europa League semifinal? That sounds vaguely familiar. Eking by Napoli, who were joint-favorites along with Dortmund at that point, was impressive, as was their dismissal of Bayer Leverkusen in the next round, before easily stomping Sparta Prague in the quarterfinals.

Cedric Bakumbu's an excellent example of Villarreal's league v European form. Their top scorer with 12 goals, he's averaging 0.59 goals per 90 in La Liga. Quite good, but not "good lord" good; Sturridge is averaging 0.90, Origi's averaging 0.68 with a lot fewer minutes, Benteke's averaging 0.49, Firmino's averaging 0.43. But Bakumbu's averaging 1.06 goals per 90 in the Europa League; with nine goals, he's got as many as Liverpool's entire likely XI tomorrow. That's "good lord" good.

For the questions about Villarreal's league position, they've definitely earned their continued participation in this competition.

But so have Liverpool, mediocre but unbeaten through the group stage and first knock-out round, then thwacking Manchester United before that comeback against the competition's then-clear favorites Dortmund. It's a surprise that both sides are here, but both sides definitely deserve to be here.

One side knows what it does, and does it well; settled, mainly injury-free, and consistent. The other is more versatile, able to change formation and style to suit both personnel available and opposition, but also more inconsistent, due to scattered injuries throughout the season and a continuing change in playing style after the midseason managerial change. When they're good, they're better than most. When they're bad, they concede two in the second half at home against Newcastle.

It's much, much easier said than done, but be good tomorrow, Liverpool. Despite the players absent, be what you've been so far in this competition.

25 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: 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.

After a month where we'd mostly forgotten all of Liverpool's issues because of those results against United, Dortmund, Stoke, and Everton, it all came rushing back. Two steps forward, one step back.

19 points dropped despite Liverpool having the lead, the most in the Premier League. Seven of nine matches at Anfield. Three matches where Liverpool had a two-goal lead ending in two draws and a loss, against two sides threatened by relegation and one which sits just a point and place below Liverpool. Four matches where a 1-0 lead ended 1-1, which also happened three times in the Europa League and once in the League Cup.

In two of those nine league matches, Liverpool took the lead only to fall behind by a goal, but at least clawed a late point back from both West Brom and Arsenal. To be slightly fairer, Liverpool have gained 11 points from losing positions in the league, coming back from a deficit to beat Chelsea, Norwich, and Crystal Palace in addition to the draws against West Brom and Arsenal.

Incidentally, those three league wins from losing positions all came away from home. Liverpool also came back from a deficit in four Europa League matches (two wins, two draws; three at home and one away) and two League Cup matches (a win and the "draw" in the final which Liverpool eventually lost on penalties, at Southampton and Wembley respectively).

11 points gained from losing positions is certainly better than Liverpool did last season, with all of those points gained from losing positions gained this season coming under Klopp. But it still hasn't made up for the points which Liverpool dropped from winning positions.

The above graphic is the long, pictorial way of saying that Liverpool have been pretty decent when the scores are level. Which is good, because Liverpool have spent a lot of time with the score level. Unfortunately, Liverpool have been a lot less good with a one-goal lead. Which is little surprise given how many times that Liverpool have dropped points this season. 17 of the 62 opposition's goals have been equalizers – 13 of 45 in the league.

And more than a few have come in matches where Liverpool's goalkeeper made an error which directly led to an opposition goal. Mignolet's committed six this season, Bogdan two. And Liverpool won just one of the eight matches where the keeper committed an error: the 2-1 victory over Bordeaux in the Europa League, with goals from Benteke and Milner after Mignolet's blunder led to Saivet's indirect free kick. Bogdan's errors were probably more hilarious than costly: the first in the 0-3 loss at Watford, the Olímpico conceded in the 2-2 at Exeter – matches where Liverpool were losing regardless and a cup tie that Liverpool ending up easily winning on replay respectively.

Mignolet's, unfortunately, are a bit more meaningful. Aside from the 2-1 win over Bordeaux, Liverpool drew the other five matches where he made an error leading to a goal: 1-1 v Norwich, 2-2 v West Brom, 2-2 v Sunderland, 1-1 with City in the League Cup Final, and now 2-2 with Newcastle. Four Premier League matches against sides near the bottom of the table. Liverpool were leading in those four matches when Mignolet committed said error and went on to drop two points. All four of those errors happened at Anfield, with three of the four (all except Norwich) in front of the Kop.

If Liverpool holds onto its lead in those four Premier League matches, Liverpool have eight more points. Don't look at the league table. You don't want to know where eight more points would put Liverpool.

Again, no offense to Newcastle (well, not much), but the opposition doesn't really matter much to yesterday's result. Sure, Newcastle's defense was very Benitez, especially in the second half; Newcastle played without fear in the second half; and Newcastle's second half changes, especially Wijnaldum for Perez, improved the side.

But this is on Liverpool, and it's down to what Liverpool did or didn't do, and what Liverpool's done before in similar situations against similar opposition. We saw this game against Palace, against West Brom, against Sunderland, etc. A stingy, compact defense limits Liverpool's shots. Liverpool usually score at least once, sometimes twice, but Liverpool get comfortable, Liverpool make mistakes, and Liverpool's opponent takes advantage – often on either set plays or counter attacks. If Liverpool don't score in bunches, Liverpool struggle to see out the game.

Liverpool, to put it bluntly, are bad against bad teams at Anfield. In the seven Anfield matches against the bottom seven sides – West Brom, Swansea, Palace, Sunderland, Norwich, Newcastle, and Villa – Liverpool have taken just 10 points from a possible 21. They smashed a horrible Villa; narrowly beat Swansea thanks to Milner's penalty; drew against West Brom, Sunderland, Norwich, and Newcastle despite taking a one-or-two goal lead; and lost on an 82nd-minute set play goal to frequent bete noire Crystal Palace.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances for Saturday's result. Shit happens in games, even if it seemingly happens too often to Liverpool. It's still Klopp's first, partial season with a squad that's not his own which is missing key players. Sakho's suspension, not known until late on Friday, assuredly altered the XI and game plan. Clyne's illness forced Randall to step in for only his second start. Injuries in midfield kept Stewart in the line-up. Liverpool started with a diamond formation for the first time since the Southampton League Cup win, which featured a very different XI; it's usually only seen as a game-changing alteration and then with Origi playing a crucial role. The spine has been ripped out of the side by Henderson, Can, Sakho, and Origi's absences – four players who'd feature in the middle, near-certain starters, all unable to play.

But we've seen matches like this too often this season. It's easy to blame Mignolet, the defense, the side's focus in general. All are at fault. Liverpool simply need to do better: better in matches with a one-or-two goal lead, better at home, and better against opposition that Liverpool need to be able to beat if they're going to accomplish anything in the league.

23 April 2016

Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle

Sturridge 2'
Lallana 29'
Cisse 48'
Colback 66'

Remember all the good results over the last month?

No, me neither. Games like this have a habit of bringing out all the pessimism. All I can remember is Sunderland and Southampton, not Dortmund, Stoke, or Everton.

It was all set up to continue the era of good feelings. A fine first half performance with two supremely taken goals from Sturridge and Lallana. Outstanding hold-up play and finish from the striker on the first, outstanding quick passing and a left-footed long-range curler on the second. Liverpool weren't rampant by any means, unable to consistently create chances and scoring from low-percentage strikes, but it still seemed comfortable and still seemed secure.

Multiple Liverpool changes to the starting XI in a different starting formation again didn't seem to diminish the performance that much, this time a 4-4-2 diamond, with Stewart keeping his place in the league, Randall at right-back again, and Toure needed due to Sakho's looming suspension. Liverpool controlled proceedings, Liverpool scored twice, and Newcastle had barely threatened.

Newcastle had scored two goals away from home just once in 2016: at Norwich, a match they still lost 3-2. Newcastle hadn't taken a single point away from home since December 13, losing nine straight.

Did Liverpool relax because they'd thought the game was won at halftime, especially given each side's respective form? Benitez's halftime change – Wijnaldum for Perez – made Newcastle better, but not that much better. Is Liverpool really that fragile? Still? After what we saw over the last month?

All Liverpool needed was for Mignolet to pull a Mignolet, then all hell broke loose. Late to leave his line, completely missing a punch at Anita's lofted cross, an easy header for Cisse up against poor Connor Randall. And from there, tilt. Newcastle, not Liverpool, looking the more likely to score next. The home side struggling to complete passes to each other in the opposition half, let alone the final third. Sturridge denied what appeared a fairly certain penalty, then Newcastle counter-attacking right down Liverpool's throat, failing to score from the opportunity solely because of Cisse's poor touch.

Aside from the penalty claim, Liverpool were unable to conjure anything except a goal rightly ruled out for offside, with Allen's header saved and Firmino a yard behind the last defender on the rebound. And that was in the 59th minute. Not long after, another horror show, another Newcastle fast break through Townsend, his cross headed out to an open Colback, and what should have been an easy save deflected by Lovren past Mignolet. One keeper error, one unfortunate deflection. Three Newcastle shots on-target, two Newcastle goals. It's the bad old days all over again.

Bringing on Coutinho and Lucas for Randall and Allen, then Ojo for Lallana altered little, as Newcastle went full Benitez, Liverpool wholly unable to break through an unsurprisingly compact defense. After 37 shots against Everton, Liverpool took just 13 against Newcastle – just five after Newcastle's equalizer, with only Sturridge's tame header on target. At least Liverpool didn't concede a third? At least it was Sunderland rather than Southampton?

I probably shouldn't be all that bothered about this result. Not after what Liverpool's given us over the last month. Liverpool are in the Europa League semifinals, a competition that's become much more important than the league. Liverpool remain two points off sixth, still capable of qualifying for next season's Europa League if they don't win this season's. Shit happens sometimes.

But shit still happens too often to this side. The defensive (read: goalkeeper) mistakes, the second half goals conceded, the dropped points against sides Liverpool should beat, the dropped points from winning positions.

And that, and today's result, along with the Sakho news, along with the injuries to Henderson, Can, and Origi, has taken an awful lot of the fun out of the last month. Now, Liverpool need to earn it back on Thursday.

22 April 2016

Liverpool v Newcastle 04.23.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Newcastle (a) 12.06.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.13.15
0-1 Newcastle (a) 11.01.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.11.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a); 4-3 Dortmund (h)
Newcastle: 1-1 City (h); 3-0 Swansea (h); 1-3 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Coutinho 8; Benteke, Sturridge 7; Origi 5; Lallana 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Newcastle: Wijnaldum 9; Mitrovic 8; Ayoze 6; Townsend 3; Cisse, Lascelles 2; Anita, Coloccini, Dummett, Sissoko 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Milner Stewart
Ojo Lallana Coutinho

Even though Liverpool again had a midweek match – albeit one with fewer exertions than recent Europa League fixtures – I doubt we'll see the same highly-rotated side that featured against Stoke and Bournemouth.

Not only are there five days between this and Villarreal, compared to the usual four, but Liverpool's options are increasingly limited in both midfield and attack with Origi joining Henderson and Can on the casualty list and Benteke still a week or two away from returning (if Benteke even returns).

There will be changes, but not as many as we've come to expect.

As usual, the questions start up front. Can we trust consecutive starts for Sturridge, up front against both Newcastle and Villarreal after 40 minutes against Everton? I think we'll have to. Really, the only other option is reverting to Firmino as false nine, which we haven't seen since the 2-2 draw with Sunderland in early February. At the same time, Firmino's the only player to start the last four games. And he's looked it, failing to impress against either Bournemouth or Everton.

So, my guess is it comes down to just a couple of personnel questions in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Will Milner or Allen partner Stewart or Lucas in midfield? I suspect Allen's more useful off the bench, while Milner's in outstanding form, and I remain skeptical of consecutive starts for Lucas, which would almost certainly lead to three starts in eight days at Villarreal. Will it be Ojo or Ibe in the attacking line of three to give Firmino a break? Ibe was much more impressive against Bournemouth, and also looked good in his short cameo against 10-men very-beaten Everton, but Ojo remains bags of potential and bags of fun, and more capable of playing on the right opposite Coutinho on the left. Maybe there's also a defensive change or two, whether Toure or Skrtel at center-back or Flanagan or Smith at full-back, but that seems less likely.

There's also the small matter of welcoming Rafa Benitez back to Anfield tomorrow, for the second time as an opposition manager. I will remain biased until the end of my days, and still can't help wishing Benitez well, still can't help getting angry at every media and opposition supporter dig. His previous return to Anfield with Chelsea in 2012-13 was, uhhhhh, interesting, with Liverpool twice equalizing after Chelsea goals, the second in injury-time from Luis Suarez after he'd already bitten Branislav Ivanovic.

And there's also the small matter of Newcastle actually playing a bit of decent football in their last two matches – a 3-0 win over Swansea and 1-1 draw against Manchester City – giving them a glimmer of hope in their attempt to avoid relegation. But they need more points, quickly. two points and -1 goal difference from 17th-place Norwich with just four games to play.

They're not yet a Rafa Benitez side, but they've had a few more moments of looking almost like a Rafa Benitez side if you squint hard enough. At least against Manchester City, where an organized side held City at bay for long stretches, equalizing soon after Agüero's very-offside early opener, with a disjointed second half ending as Newcastle the stronger, more-likely-to-win side. Newcastle had lost the last 12 (twelve!) league matches against Manchester City before Tuesday's draw. They'll play compact, deny the opposition space, battle for loose balls, work hard, ugly up the game, and counter-attack every so often. Which is, ideally for them, basically a better organized, more Rafa Benitez version of what we saw when these two sides met in December.

Because there's also the small matter of Newcastle embarrassing Liverpool in the reverse fixture, where absolutely nothing went right – one of those abysmal shooting performances, an own goal from Skrtel, a perfectly good goal from Moreno chalked off, a too-easy counter-attack Newcastle second in added time – which remains one of Liverpool's most disappointing performances and results under Klopp.

However, Newcastle still haven't taken any points away from home – not even a draw – since beating Tottenham (Tottenham!) on December 13. Since then, ten consecutive losses, at West Brom, Arsenal, Watford (FA Cup), Watford, Everton, Chelsea, Stoke, Leicester, Norwich, and Southampton. They've failed to score in six of the ten.

If Newcastle stick with the same XI we've seen in the last two matches, it'll be: Darlow; Anita, Mbemba, Lascelles, Dummett; Tiote, Colback; Townsend, Sissoko, Ayoze; Cisse. The only difference between the Swansea win and City draw was Ayoze Perez for Wijnaldum.

I wouldn't been surprised to see Wijnaldum return, but otherwise, Newcastle have few options. Shelvey's all but been excommunicated, Saivet's infrequently featured since joining from Bordeaux, and Mitrovic's been used as a substitute more often than as a starter. They still have massive injury problems in goal and defense, with the top two keepers (Krul and Elliott) out injured, as well as Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Haidara, and Janmaat.

I'm pleased to see Rafa back in the Premier League, and hope he wins every fixture but this one, even if that means Newcastle stay up. But this ain't a testimonial. It'll be a tough match against a side that desperately needs points to avoid relegation versus a side in surprisingly good form, especially at home, and wants to keep it that way. Liverpool need to keep winning, need to keep playing to the level they've hit over the last three weeks, even if there are again multiple changes to the XI. And, not for the first time, Liverpool owe Newcastle.

21 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: 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.)

Chances are that you will never, ever see that level of humiliation in a Merseyside Derby again.

6-0 wouldn't have flattered Liverpool. 8-0 wouldn't have flattered Liverpool. Everton were outclassed, then outgunned, then embarrassed, then gave up. That it finished just 4-0 is another demonstration that Liverpool's finishing isn't where we'd like it to be. 37 shots – the most Liverpool have taken in a league match since August 2004, an average of a shot every 2.43 minutes – with just three goals, 19 of those shots from outside the box, clear-cut chances by both Lallana and Firmino saved in the first 30 minutes. Only five of Liverpool's 18 shots inside the box were on-target: three goals and the two saved clear-cut chances. Everton were down to 10 men and playing with two central midfielders as center-backs for the final half-hour and Liverpool only added one more goal, an outside-the-box strike from Coutinho which Sturridge is still trying to claim because it brushed his backside.

Here I am, "complaining" about Liverpool's finishing after the most comfortable of Merseyside Derby wins, after scoring four goals for the third time in the last three home matches. What a world we live in.

The list of mind-boggling, utter domination statistics is nearly endless.

While Liverpool took 37 shots, Everton took just three, the last in the 31st minute. Lukaku, Everton's attacking centerpiece, who'd averaged 3.0 shots per 90, 0.70 goals per 90, and 1.4 key passes per 90 in his first five matches against Liverpool for Everton, registered none of those things. All three of Everton's shots came from outside the box, none were on-target. Simon Mignolet could have spent the 90 minutes sat in a lounge chair, blind drunk on daiquiris, for all that he mattered to this match. A +34 shot differential is simply unconscionable, regardless of Everton reduced to 10 men for the last 40 of yesterday's minutes.

The fewest shots Liverpool had allowed this season prior to yesterday was four, versus West Brom. As you'll probably remember, Liverpool conceded twice, on two set plays, and drew 2-2 thanks to Origi's exceptionally fortunate 96th-minute equalizer. The last time Liverpool allowed just three shots in a league match was February 2013, the 5-0 win over Swansea (Chelsea took just two in the home leg of last year's League Cup semi-final, scoring with Hazard's penalty). And Swansea at least put two of their three shots on-target, took two of their three shots inside the 18-yard box. Everton did neither, limited to three half-cocked counter-attacking chances from outside the box, two well-off target from Mirallas, one blocked from Barkley. Everton's best chance saw them fail to take a shot, with Sakho's wonderful, timed-to-the-millisecond tackle on Lukaku in the 21st minute after the striker looked like getting clear. Maybe it's a different game if Lukaku gets away. It's definitely a least a little different if Sakho's slightly earlier or later with his tackle. But he wasn't. And that was it from Everton.

Those are the only times I've seen just three opposition shots in the league since starting these infographics in 2012-13. 147 Premier League matches. It's happened twice.

Put another way: four different Liverpool players – Coutinho, Sturridge, Lallana, and Moreno – took more shots than Everton.

Even in the early stages, long before Liverpool's first two goals or Funes Mori's red card, Liverpool controlled possession, created chances – the best the counter-attack long passes to Lallana and Firmino, but others after sustained control of play – and limited Everton to marginal opportunities. And they did so with a two-man midfield of Lucas and Milner, a personnel decision which absolutely terrified me when announced. Up against Barkley? Lukaku on the counter? Eek. Which again shows what little I know.

Meanwhile, 10 of Liverpool's 13 outfield players registered a key pass. 12 of 13 took at least one shot; the only who didn't, James Milner, created eight (!!!) chances, including two clear-cut chances, and had two assists. Milner's eight chances were the most created by a Liverpool player in any match since Luis Suarez in the aforementioned 5-0 win over Swansea in February 2013. That's the only time it's happened since I began these infographics in 2012-13.

Five key passes in one match? Not that uncommon: Milner, Coutinho, Lallana, Moreno, Firmino, Can, and Ibe have all hit that mark this season. Six? Milner, Coutinho, Can, and Moreno. Seven? Milner and Coutinho. Eight? Just Hamez Thrillner.

Incidentally, Milner also created seven chances against Dortmund, registering two assists while taking no shots, starting in a two-man central midfield. As he did yesterday. File this one under: "Things I didn't expect to work which are actually working." Yet both of his assists yesterday came from open play crosses, as did his assist for Origi's first against Stoke. He's somehow invented a new central midfielder + winger position, able to do so because Stewart against Stoke and Lucas against Everton offered enough protection in case of counter-attack – not that either opposition offered much of a counter-attack. Of the 14 goals that Liverpool have scored in the last four games, Milner's had the assist on six of them, as well as the assist for Origi's goal at Dortmund five games ago. Woof.

Origi's now averaging a goal or assist every 103 minutes in all competitions, Sturridge is averaging a goal or assist every 111 minutes in all competitions (88.75 in the league), Milner's averaging a goal or assist every 146 minutes in all competitions, Coutinho's averaging a goal or assist every 155 minutes, Firmino's averaging a goal or assist every 159 minutes (111 in the league). Liverpool are scoring open play goals and set play goals. Counter-attack goals, possession goals, pressing goals, crossing goals. When Liverpool's attack is in form, Liverpool's attack is actually good. Surprisingly good. And it could and probably should have been even better yesterday.

Everton's red card certainly exacerbated matters, but Liverpool were well on their way to a rout before Funes Mori's attempted manslaughter. Liverpool had outshot Everton 16-3 prior to the two quick goals just before halftime. The shot count was 18-3 before Funes Mori committed ALL THE EVIL. In a Merseyside Derby. It's seemingly never just a matter of time with Liverpool, but it truly seemed just a matter of time before Liverpool pulled away from a very much below-par Everton. And it was.

Everton clearly aren't in a good place right now. The defense, rarely Roberto Martinez's strongest area, is in a very bad place: two important defenders – Jagielka and Coleman (no, not Tony Hibbert) – were injured (which led to the odd idea that it was a good idea to play a one-footed left-back at right-back up against Coutinho and Moreno), Funes Mori saw red, Stones had to go off with "stomach cramps". They ended the match with Besic and McCarthy as center-backs. They've had a player sent off in four of the last eight matches. They're now winless in six, only two points above 16th place, with multiple blogs and forums calling for Martinez to be sacked just days before an FA Cup semi-final.

But the last time Everton lost a league match by four goals was the last time Liverpool beat them 4-0 at Anfield in January 2014. And that's the only other time they've lost by four under Roberto Martinez. The last non-Liverpool four-goal loss for Everton? 0-5 at Benfica in October 2009, in that season's Europa League. Ah, the days of David Moyes in Europe. And the last time it happened in the Premier League was two months earlier, 1-6 against Arsenal on opening day of 2009-10. Both of those losses were more than six years ago.

And, as mentioned above (and I'll keep mentioning it!), Liverpool have scored four goals in each of the last three home games: 4-3 Dortmund, 4-1 Stoke, and 4-0 Everton. That sort of streak hasn't happened since 2013-14, when Liverpool scored four, four, and five against West Brom, Fulham, and Norwich, then four, five, and four against Everton, Arsenal, and Swansea later that season. But not counting the Suarez-led aberration which was 2013-14, the last time Liverpool scored at least four in three successive home games was January 1996, against Nottingham Forest (4-2), Rochdale (7-1), and Leeds (5-0). More than 20 years ago. Divock Origi was just nine months old.

Including the 2-1 win at Bournemouth, Liverpool have now scored 14 goals in the last four matches. As a reminder – although I suspect you still remember – Liverpool didn't score its 14th goal this season until October 28th, in the 15th match of the season. Four matches after Brendan Rodgers was relieved of his managerial duties.

It's all coming together. An indescribably emphatic victory over the next door neighbors after an April of good results. It's all coming together at a very good time, despite the difficult-at-times season so far, despite playing some very tough matches during this stretch, despite injuries to some very important players.

But that, after the three weeks we've seen before, can't be the capstone to Liverpool's season. There's still much more to play for over the next month.

19 April 2016

Liverpool v Everton 04.20.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 10.04.15
0-0 (a) 02.07.15
1-1 (h) 09.27.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 01.28.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Bournemouth (a); 4-3 Dortmund (h); 4-1 Stoke (h)
Everton: 1-1 Southampton (h); 0-0 Palace (a); 1-1 Watford (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Benteke, Coutinho 7; Sturridge 6; Origi 4; Lallana 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Skrtel, Toure 1
Everton: Lukaku 18; Barkley 8; Kone, Lennon 5; Funes Mori 4; Naismith 3; Deulofeu, Mirallas 2; Cleverley, Coleman, McCarthy 1

Referee: Bobby Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Milner Stewart Allen
Sturridge Origi

There will be no resting of players in this league match. Not in the Merseyside Derby. Origi's fit after a minor back concern, which leads me to the main line-up question: to diamond or not to diamond?

Central midfield remains a massive concern with both Henderson and Can absent. I have doubts about both Allen and Milner in a midfield two, more the latter than the former. So it seems to me that the diamond is the safest way to protect the midfield while also allowing both Sturridge and Origi on the pitch. Maybe it's 4-2-3-1 with Allen and Milner behind Lallana, Firmino, and Coutinho, or Allen and Stewart/Lucas behind Milner/Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho. Maybe it's 4-3-3 with Allen, Stewart, or Lucas behind two from Milner, Allen, and Coutinho, and a front three of Lallana, Sturridge/Origi, and Firmino.

Liverpool have options in Can and Henderson's absence, but all of those options have potential weaknesses. So, my very-much-layman's opinion is "screw it, play the formation that puts both Sturridge and Origi up front and doesn't lead to a two-man Allen/Milner midfield." Go for the throat, but try not to leave the back door open while doing so.

Like Liverpool, Everton rested a number of usual starters on Saturday. They've struggled recently, winless in five, with two losses and three draws. And like Liverpool, a cup run has seemingly become more important than the league – Everton's winless streak dates back to their FA Cup quarterfinal with over Chelsea, and the semifinal against Manchester United is this Saturday.

Seamus Coleman and Phil Jagielka are definitely out, while Cleverley, Lennon, and Baines are doubtful. My usual suspicion is that anyone doubtful will still magically become available for a Merseyside Derby, but that's probably not the case with the semifinal three days later.

If the three doubtful players don't start, Everton's XI should be Joel; Connolly, Stones, Funes Mori, Oviedo; Barry, McCarthy; Deulofeu, Barkley, Mirallas; Lukaku. If available, Lennon could replace either winger, Baines would replace Oviedo, and Cleverley probably wouldn't start anyway. Regardless of personnel or form, Everton still have Barkley dancing through the middle and Lukaku – who's scored five goals in his last eight games against Liverpool for West Brom and Everton, including the equalizer in October – up front.

And, as cliché as it is, form often means next to nothing in this fixture. We've seen three consecutive draws, albeit all under Liverpool's previous manager. Six of seven derbies under Rodgers finished level, the lone exception the 4-0 Suarez-led mauling in 2013-14. And at the same time, Houllier was the last Liverpool manager to win his first Merseyside Derby, way back in 1999. Benitez lost (away), Hodgson lost (away), Dalglish drew (home), and Rodgers drew (away).

In Klopp's first derby, Liverpool will want to impress, and Liverpool will want to win. On a five-match unbeaten streak, having scored ten goals in the last three games, Liverpool will want to win. And with a win, Liverpool will move up to sixth, just two points off United in fifth.

The Europa League, in eight days, still overshadows what happens in the league. But Liverpool's recent form, notably in matches featuring multiple changes to the side, means the league still matters. And when Liverpool host Everton, it always matters that much more.

18 April 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Bournemouth

Previous Match Infographics: 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.

Maybe the Europa League's not so bad when you've got the ability to completely rotate your XI for the next league match and still win.

It's been a good ten days for Liverpool. An impressive draw in Dortmund, a thorough win over Stoke, that comeback against Dortmund, and now another league victory, this time at Bournemouth, fairly comfortable until Bournemouth's late goal in added time.

Only the XIs at Exeter, which was the second-youngest in the club's history, and at Bordeaux were less experienced this season. Five of Liverpool's starters – Ward, Randall, Smith, Stewart, and Ojo – had featured in two or fewer league matches for the club.

To put it another way: before yesterday, Lucas had made 217 Premier League appearances for Liverpool. The other ten starters had made just 260 combined, only 43 more. Take away Kolo Toure, and the other nine players equal Lucas' league appearance total.

And Liverpool won. It was a bit disjointed in the first half, and a bit frightening in the last half-an-hour as Bournemouth made changes and increasingly took the game to Liverpool, but Liverpool won. The inexperienced players did enough; a completely changed defense including a debutant goalkeeper, two kids, Toure, and Lucas nearly kept a clean sheet until King 93rd minute consolation; Joe Allen seemed everywhere in midfield; Ibe and Ojo ran at defenders and created chances; and Firmino and Sturridge provided the firepower up front. Mostly Sturridge.

Since 2012-13, we've seen a Liverpool player take 10 shots in a match just four other times: Suarez v Reading in 2012-13, Suarez v Fulham in 2013-14, Balotelli v Everton in 2014-15, and Coutinho v Norwich in 2015-16.

Rather than a sign of prolificacy, it's usually done out of desperation. Only Suarez against Fulham and Sturridge yesterday actually scored. None of those players put more than three shots on-target: again, Suarez against Fulham and Sturridge at Bournemouth. Suarez put just one on-target against Reading, Balotelli and Coutinho put two on-target. Yesterday's match and the fixture against Fulham were the only matches where Liverpool scored more than once. The last two times it'd happened: v Everton and Norwich, Liverpool drew 1-1.

Incidentally, the previous single-match high under Klopp came in two different cup competitions: seven shots, by Firmino v Stoke in the League Cup and Coutinho v Kazan – one barely a striker, the other most certainly not.

Sturridge's ten were, however, the highest proportion of the team's overall shots from the above list. Ten of 19 is 52.6%, the only the five occurrences where the player had more than half of the side's shots. Suarez took 37% and 31.3% against Reading and Fulham respectively, Balotelli took 41.7% against Everton, and Coutinho took 43.5% against Norwich.

But only one of Sturridge's ten shots truly seemed "selfish": from beyond the halfway line in the 75th minute, not even close to goal and with the keeper not that far off his line. And you can't even get mad at that one because it was so comical. Taking ten shots is truly a shot-monster performance, but its not as if they were bad shots with players in better positions. It certainly wasn't Balotelli against Everton, where eight of Balotelli's 10 shots came from outside the box.

Yesterday's XI and tactics were designed to get the best out of Daniel Sturridge with what Liverpool had available. The defenders supplied the fullbacks and midfielders, the midfielders supplied the fullbacks and attacking line of three, and everybody looked for Sturridge, whether through short passing buildup or quick long balls from the back. And for the most part, it happened. On another day, Sturridge scores at least two more, the most notable near-goals the two off the post and the wonderful back-heeled effort saved by Boruc.

Sturridge has played just 674 minutes in the league this season, and has six goals and an assist. That's a goal or assist every 96 minutes, otherwise known as 0.93 goals+assists per 90 minutes. The next step, clearly, is getting more 90 minutes out of him, with yesterday the first time he'd started four consecutive league matches in more than two years.

Simply put, if he stays fit, he's world class, one of the best three or four strikers in the league. It's admittedly a big if, but the reward far outweighs the risk. To be fair, Ibe, Ojo, and Obi Welsh Kenobi were also excellent yesterday, while Ward did good things in goal, but Daniel Sturridge was the rightful star of the show.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth had a surprising amount of shots of their own. Which isn't necessarily surprising given the venue and Liverpool's personnel changes. But 18 opposition shots is the joint-highest total against Klopp's Liverpool, along with West Ham (a) and Tottenham (a). Liverpool blocking nine opposition shots is their highest total in a match the season.

12 of Bournemouth's 18 shots came in the final 30 minutes, with Liverpool increasingly pushed back. Liverpool blocked six of them (Sakho 4; Stewart and Randall 1), including Sakho's 92nd-minute clearance off the line, while Ward excellently saved two more, most notably Grabban's 82nd-minute header. But that mostly inexperienced defense, with Sakho having replaced Toure – and mid-match defensive substitutes are always dangerous – held on.

Unlike the last time Liverpool were on the South Coast, Liverpool held onto to its two-goal lead despite late pressure from the home side. Sure, Southampton are a better side than Bournemouth, but not by as much as you'd expect. And Liverpool did it with that makeshift XI.

That sort of improvement in squad depth, and the potential shown by Liverpool's youngsters, is even more encouraging than the result. That players who rarely play, and rarely play together, were able to gel and to carry out Klopp's often-difficult tactics is no small matter. We said similar after the last three matches (and said similar earlier in the season, only to see set-backs), but there's truly a team here, one that might need fewer tweaks than we thought.

Also more encouraging than the result is the slow-but-sure return to form for Daniel Sturridge.

17 April 2016

Liverpool 2-1 Bournemouth

Firmino 41'
Sturridge 45+2'
King 90+3'

Liverpool can't go one game without giving me a heart attack, but other than a marginally frightening last half-an-hour, culminating in King's extra-time consolation, a radically different XI performed more than adequately. It wasn't quite last week against Stoke, but it was certainly enough.

We knew there'd be changes, but 10 different players from the side which started against Dortmund still surprised. A full debut for Danny Ward, a Premier League debut for Connor Randall, a first league start for Brad Smith, a second league start for Kevin Stewart and Sheyi Ojo, Jordon Ibe's first league since January, and a Lucas-Toure center-back pairing.

So, unsurprisingly, the first 40 minutes looked like an away match which featured a radically different and incredibly young XI against diligent opposition. Because Liverpool is still Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool, the side still pressed well from the front and defended well enough at the back. Liverpool limited Bournemouth chances, doing well to stifle a side that often starts matches quickly.

And because Daniel Sturridge is still Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino is still Roberto Firmino, and Sheyi Ojo is tons of fun, Liverpool created at least a little bit in the opposition half. Pressure from Firmino led to Sturridge's second-minute half-volley at Boruc; Ojo and Ibe's pace led to chances for Ojo and Randall blocked in the 24th; Allen's sumptuous chip to Sturridge three minutes later was saved by Boruc after a clearance deflected off the striker.

They were mostly half-chances, and not occurring with the frequency we'd prefer, but, again, that's little surprise. And then, with five minutes left until halftime, Liverpool's class up front decided the game. As in the 24th minute, the build-up from Ojo and Ibe created the initial opportunity, the latter finding Sturridge in the box with his back to goal. Somehow the striker fired off a fierce, blind back heel, well saved by Boruc, but with Firmino first to the point-blank rebound. Five minutes later, Ibe won a free kick, Ibe took the free kick, and Sturridge jinked away from Elphick to flick a 12-yard header low into the corner.

It was the fifth set play goal that Liverpool scored in the last three games; they'd scored 13 through the first 51 matches this season. It was the fifth headed goal that Liverpool scored in the last three games; they'd scored seven through the first 51 matches this season. When it rains, etc.

Liverpool, rightfully so, remained wary of a two-goal lead at a south coast side, and kept going for a potential third after the restart. Firmino acrobatically shot wide from a scrambled corner, then Sturridge hit the foot of the post with a delightful chip. Ibe fired over after cutting inside, then Firmino fired straight at Boruc after cutting inside.

But by the hour mark, Bournemouth increasingly pushed Liverpool back. They'd switched to a 4-4-2 to start the second half, replacing Stanislas with Grabban, but subs didn't truly change the game until Pugh replaced Gradel in the 59th, with Lucas put under increasing pressure by Josh King and Sakho needed to cover for an injured Toure. From there, it was Danny Ward's time to shine, with two saves on King and two on Grabban – all very good, but the fourth, on Grabber's header from Francis' cross, the most impressive.

Liverpool had a few minutes reprieve from defending beginning in the 83rd, as Sturridge again hit the post – released by Allen, turning his marker, and hammering off the upright – then fired over on the break from Lallana's throughball five minutes later, but Bournemouth quickly resumed their pressure in added time. It seemed too little, too late until King's shot from nothing – a lofted long ball out of defense, shrugging off Lucas far too easily before a 20-yard half-volley. And, of course, because Liverpool, that got the heart racing, and Liverpool immediately conceded a free kick in the final minute of injury time. Just like against Dortmund. Thankfully, just like Dortmund, Liverpool survived, the chance untaken as Cook headed Pugh's cross over rather than in.


We should expect nothing less from Bournemouth, having over-performed all season and having already given Liverpool two tough matches. Eddie Howe again demonstrated he's a more than capable manager, each substitution making Bournemouth more dangerous. The home side will also rue three possible handball penalties. I'm obviously biased, but I don't think any should have been given: Lucas and Toure had the ball flick onto their arms from next-to-no distance – seen and uncalled in more than a few matches – in the 45th and 61st minutes respectively, while Smith controlled a Bournemouth cross with his chest before the ball *might have* rolled down his arm in the 86th.

By the end of the match, Liverpool had had to defend for long stretches. Bournemouth's 18 shots were the joint-most an opponent's taken against Klopp's Liverpool, the same total as at West Ham and against Tottenham. Liverpool blocked eight of the shots, the joint-most they've blocked in a match this season, the same total as at Everton back in October. Liverpool were away from home with four unfamiliar starters in defense, after all.

But in the end, Liverpool did enough. On another day, Sturridge could have had a hat-trick. Joe Allen was everywhere in midfield. Ward, Ojo, and Stewart were the most promising of the kids – especially Ward – and for the first time in too long a time, Jordon Ibe looked capable of becoming the player we envisioned last season.

A much-changed side did enough. Liverpool won a third consecutive match, its fifth win in the last seven league matches. Since losing at Leicester at the start of February, Liverpool have lost just three of the last 16 matches: an FA Cup match at West Ham in extra time, the League Cup final against City on penalties, and the fluke-that-shall-not-be-named in the league a month ago. Liverpool are in a Europa League semi-final and in shouting distance of a Europa League place for next season.

Liverpool are slowly rounding into form, from the usual starters to the substitutes to the infrequent reserves to the rarely seen young players. Most importantly, these wins over Stoke and Bournemouth have demonstrated that Liverpool might actually have a reasonably full squad rather than needing to rely on the usual suspects.

16 April 2016

Liverpool at Bournemouth 04.17.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.15
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.15
3-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 12.17.14
2-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.25.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-3 Dortmund (h); 4-1 Stoke (h); 1-1 Dortmund (a)
Bournemouth: 2-1 Villa (a); 0-4 City (h); 0-3 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 8; Benteke, Coutinho 7; Sturridge 5; Origi 4; Lallana 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Skrtel, Toure 1
Bournemouth: King, Wilson 5; Afobe, Cook 4; Daniels, Gosling, Murray, Ritchie, Stanislas 3; Pugh, Smith 2; Arter, Gradel 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Lovren Sakho Smith
Milner Stewart Allen
Ojo Firmino

It seems way too soon for a Liverpool match; I'm still living off the fumes of Thursday. It'd take some incredible discipline for Liverpool's players to not feel similarly, with the added weight of actually playing those 90 ferocious minutes.

Given both physical and mental fatigue levels, and with Everton coming to Anfield on Wednesday, I suspect tomorrow's lineup will feature as many changes as the XI against Stoke did. Those XIs will probably look very similar. Everton, incidentally, have entirely changed its usual front six for today's match in preparation for Wednesday (and drew 1-1).

Maybe Lucas starts instead of, or alongside Stewart, now that he'll be needed in the Europa League because of Can's injury and without Stewart available for that competition. Maybe we'll get a diamond midfield: say, Stewart, Allen, Milner, Firmino/Coutinho behind two from Sturridge, Origi, and Firmino. Liverpool often look good in that formation, as in the second half of both legs against Dortmund, but it's a difficult formation to succeed with against an orthodox 4-4-2 like Bournemouth play. Maybe Klopp rotates one or both of center-backs and not the full-backs, as against Stoke, although I'd prefer to see the opposite; Clyne's played more minutes than anyone else in the squad and Moreno could probably use the rest as well. I doubt we'll see an entirely different back four, as that's often asking for trouble.

There will be changes, definitely to personnel and probably to formation. As usual, it's how Liverpool's players cope with the alterations; we know they'll be well prepared by the manager. It's a different match against different opposition, but it's encouraging that a changed XI did their jobs and took their chances in a similar situation against Stoke, albeit at Anfield, a week ago.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth have overachieved this season: firmly ensconced in mid-table, in 13th place and 11 points clear of the relegation zone, narrowly ahead of established sides such as Everton, Swansea, and West Brom.

They've been a better version of last year's Burnley: 4-4-2, a fairly set line-up as far as injuries allow, hard-working and direct. They've done well against their peers but struggled against the tier above, which is exactly what you need to do to stay in the league. That this Bournemouth side, predicted by most to finish bottom, could finish in the top half of the table is a massive achievement, overshadowed by the even more unlikely storylines this season. In the last month, Bournemouth convincingly beat Southampton, Newcastle, and Villa; impressively held off Swansea 3-2; and were hammered by both Tottenham and Manchester City.

Callum Wilson is back from a long knee injury, and could make his first start since September, but is more likely to be a substitute. Despite only starting six matches, he remains Bournemouth's joint-top scorer with five goals. Arter, Mings, Smith remain injured, while both Afobe and Stanislas are doubtful. Bournemouth's XI seems almost certainly the same seen in last week's comfortable 2-1 win at Aston Villa: Boruc; Francis, Elphick, Cook. Daniels; Ritchie, Surman, Gosling, Gradel; King, Grabban

Bournemouth made Liverpool work for both its narrow 1-0 Anfield victories this season. The first, the second match of the season, saw Liverpool even more wasteful than usual, needing a clearly-offside goal to win the match. When these sides met in the League Cup two months later, in Klopp's fourth match, a much-changed Liverpool eked out a victory through Clyne's early close-range rebound for Klopp's first win. Both were, however, a very long time ago as far as Liverpool's concerned.

Liverpool's victory over Dortmund demonstrated just how far this team's come in its ability to recover from set-backs and deficits, but how Liverpool start this match will still be a massive factor in how this match finishes. No side has scored more than Bournemouth in the first 30 minutes of Premier League games this season, with eight goals, level with Manchester City and Stoke. Liverpool, in comparison, have three.

Liverpool scored in the first 30 minutes in both meetings against Bournemouth – Benteke in the 26th in the league, Clyne in the 17th in the League Cup – and fairly easily held onto the victory despite a handful of chances and challenges from the Cherries. It seems simple to say, but just do the same tomorrow. We could use a game without the fear of heart failure.