22 August 2017

Liverpool v Hoffenheim 08.23.17

Liverpool lead 2-1 on aggregate

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Palace (h); 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 3-3 Watford (a)
Hoffenheim: 1-0 Bremen (h); 1-2 Liverpool (h); 1-0 Rot-Weiß Erfurt (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Mané 2; Alexander-Arnold, Firmino, Salah 1
Hoffenheim: Amiri, Kramaric, Uth 1

Referee: Daniele Orsato (ITA)

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Trent A-A Matip Lovren Robertson
Can Henderson Milner
Salah Firmino Mané

I'd expect to see at least three of those rested against Crystal Palace to come back into the XI: Emre Can, Salah, and Alexander-Arnold. Possibly Lovren as well, although Klavan did play well, and seemingly made Matip look better as well, even if it was just one match. Given his showing on Saturday, Robertson has to be likely to keep his place.

And I'm tempted to think that James Milner will as well, as much for what Wijnaldum hasn't done as for what Milner did.

That key players were able to miss Saturday's match, while Liverpool still won all three points, is of massive benefit. But fatigue remains an issue. Matip, Henderson, Firmino, and Mané are the only four outfield players to start all three matches so far. Matip's played every minute; Mané's missed just one, substituted late a week ago; Firmino has been substituted late in each match so far; and Henderson missed the last half-hour in Germany. That's a lot of minutes played in 11 days. And I can't see any of those players left out tomorrow. Maybe I just don't want to envision any of them left out.

Oh, and Arsenal's on Sunday. As much as we'd like that not to play a role, that will play a role.

Hoffenheim rested players during their weekend league match as well. Similarly three-at-the-back, but 3-5-2 rather than 3-4-2-1, and five changes as well – at wing-back, central midfield, and up front.

Your guess as to their formation and personnel is almost certainly as good as mine, if not better. My best guess is similar to what we saw in Germany, with maybe one or two differences. So let's go with Baumann; Nordtveit, Vogt, Hübner; Kaderabek, Amiri, Demirbay, Zuber; Gnabry, Kramaric; Wagner. Hoffenheim have no new injuries or absentees since last week.

Regardless of XI, Hoffenheim will attack. Hoffenheim have to attack. At Anfield, they'll probably have less of the ball than in Germany. But they need at least two goals, whether or not Liverpool get one. Two goals with no reply will see them through. Two goals while Liverpool score one gets us extra time.

Hoffenheim have yet to score more than once in their three matches so far this season.

Chances are we're getting "soak up and counter" Liverpool. Defend deeper than usual, hoping to prevent the gaps and mistakes which lead to long-ball and counter-attack concessions. Try not to give away any set plays. And then burn them with pace, with Salah, with Mané. As tempting as it is to go at Hoffenheim from the opening whistle, that Liverpool getting one goal wouldn't dramatically change proceedings will play into Klopp's tactics.

There is no way to overstate the importance of tomorrow's match. It is the difference between the Champions League and the Europa League. The difference between a celebration and a return to the big kids' table, or an unwanted Thursday night slog through remote locations.

And it is too early in the season to suffer such a setback.

21 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC



For all the talk of a new Crystal Palace, of Frank de Boer wanting his side to play football, that was about as deep a defense as Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool have seen. Very much a five-man backline, with both Ward and van Aanholt rarely out of their own half. Only five sides have had less possession in a league match against Klopp's Liverpool than Palace did – 0-2 Burnley (a), 5-1 Hull (h), 2-0 Sunderland (h), 2-3 Swansea (h), 3-0 Boro (h); all in 2016-17. Only two sides have made more interceptions against Klopp's Liverpool in a league match – Aston Villa, in Liverpool's 6-0 home romp, and Leicester, when Liverpool lost 0-2, both in February 2016, both wanting little more than to keep Liverpool out, one successful, one very much not so – and all but one of Palace's interceptions in their own half. Only four sides have taken fewer than four shots against Klopp's Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h) in 2015-16, and 0-2 Burnley (a), 5-1 Hull (h), and 0-0 Southampton (a) in 2016-17.

So, yes, yet again, Liverpool had to deal with a deep defense. And Liverpool struggled against a deep defense. Liverpool had to grind out a win against that deep defense without ever looking fluent. Liverpool are thankful that Tomkins and Benteke missed excellent chances, from a set play and from a long ball, in the 9th and 55th minutes.

But it was a much-changed Liverpool XI, with five alterations from the line-up in the first two fixtures. But Liverpool took 23 shots, nine more than they had in each of the first two fixtures. But Liverpool put 13 of them on-target. But Liverpool created multiple decent opportunities – few, but two clear-cut in the first half, both via crosses from the excellent Andrew Robertson, then increasingly more and more in the second half, especially after the substitutions and Mané's game-winner.

Incidentally, Sadio Mané has now scored the opening goal in his last three Premier League appearances. 3-1 Everton, 3-3 Watford, and 1-0 Palace.

Nonetheless, 10 of those 23 Liverpool shots came from outside the box. 15 came in the final 35 minutes, with seven after Liverpool finally scored (including six of the 13 on-target). As Andrew Beasley noted, Liverpool scored at least three goals in the three previous matches since 2008-09 where they put 13 shots on-target. Liverpool's xG per shot at Watford was around 0.13 when not including the penalty. It was 0.11 at Hoffenheim. It was 0.09 against Palace.

Liverpool had shots and Liverpool had some good chances – which is good! – but still needed a Palace error, a fortunate break of the ball, and Mané's individual brilliance to win the match. Liverpool kept its first clean sheet of the campaign and Liverpool held the opponents to a dismal shot total, with three new starters in the back line – which is good – but needed those two aforementioned bad misses to win the match.

It remains very, very early, but I'm inclined to continue to complain most about Liverpool's midfield.

10 of Liverpool's outfield players created at least one chance. It was fairly evenly split – most players just one, except Robertson with three (all in the first half), and both Firmino and Gomez with two. The three who didn't create anything? Wijnaldum, Milner, and Lovren – the latter only playing the four minutes of second half injury time.

That is a dire lack of creativity from Liverpool's two advanced central midfielders. Milner's inability, despite completing 100 passes, is one thing, and obviously concerning. But Wijnaldum's inability, despite playing a bit further forward, combined with only 28 attempted passes in 71 minutes despite Liverpool's 73% possession, is even more concerning.

Might as well break out the passing wheel again.


Four completed forward passes: two from his own half, and two short to Robertson on the flank. Six completed passes in the final third, all short and all sideways.

But even more infuriating than the passes played was his utter lack of involvement. Sturridge and Mignolet were the only Liverpool players to make fewer touches, and had Sturridge played 10 more minutes, as Wijnaldum did, he'd probably have surpassed the midfielder.

In three matches, a little more than 250 minutes played, Wijnaldum's had 127 touches. Andrew Robertson had 134 on Saturday. Wijnaldum's made one key pass in these three matches – spread wide for Salah's off-target shot early in the second half at Watford. He's taken four shots – two in each league match. At Watford, both came late, off-target and blocked. Against Palace – he probably could and should have scored, whether with the well-hit shot on-target from distance or when lingering on the ball before getting an effort blocked with his last touch of the match.

This midfield – without Coutinho for the rest of the month at best, without Lallana for the next three or four months, with Woodburn yet to be integrated as one of the creative hubs – cannot abide by passengers. Wijnaldum hasn't been the only disappointment in this area, but Wijnaldum has been little more than a passenger through all three fixtures so far. Irrelevancy is more infuriating than inferiority.

But as said in the match review, right now, just enough is good enough. Improvement's been necessary in all three phases – midfield, attack, and defense – through all three fixtures so far, but we at least got some improvement in the latter two on Saturday. Mané continues to Mané, Salah and Solanke made massive differences off the bench, Robertson impressed on his debut, Gomez did well in his first league start in almost two years, and Klavan and Matip looked more secure than Lovren and Matip in the first two games, against a player who often causes Liverpool fits.

And Liverpool won, against opposition they hadn't beaten at home in each of the previous three seasons. More, much more, will be needed, but that'll do for now.

19 August 2017

Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Goals:
Mané 73'

Just enough is good enough.

Of course, it was too close for comfort. Of course, we really would like and need Liverpool to be better and more coherent, especially in midfield.

But Liverpool made five changes, needing to rotate the side with injuries and fixtures already accruing at too fast a rate. I mean, just look at that starting XI. Robertson's debut, Joe Gomez's first league start since October 2015, Klavan partnering Matip, Milner's second league start in midfield since the beginning of last season.

But, after suffering for the first hour, Liverpool finally made necessary substitutions, with Salah for Sturridge and Solanke for Wijnaldum – and a switch to something like a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 – improving the side immensely.

But Liverpool more than quintupled Palace's shot total. Liverpool had three times as many shots on-target as Palace had shots. Crystal Palace's last shot came in the 55th minute. Liverpool took 15 shots – even if that total only included one goal – after that.

But Liverpool finally scored.

But Liverpool never conceded.

But Liverpool ground out a necessary win against the type of opposition who's given them so many problems over the last season and a bit more. Against a club that's given them so many problems in recent season.

But the home side hadn't won this fixture since Palace beat Liverpool on their own ground in November 2014. Liverpool hadn't beaten Palace at Anfield since October 2013; you know, the season they almost won the league. Liverpool hadn't kept a Premier League clean sheet against Crystal Palace since December 1997, 12 matches before this one.

But three points. And that's really all that matters.

So, yes, Liverpool weren't good in that first half. Liverpool's midfield – for the third straight match – was actually bad; or, at the very nicest, uncreative. Andrew Robertson was the only player creating anything of note. Once again, the match featured Liverpool running headlong into all those deep defenders and failing to break through them.

The 55th minute was the turning point. The second half had started the same as the first. Lots of possession, a couple of speculative shots from distance, and Liverpool seemingly no closer to finding the breakthrough. And then, what had been the sucker punch in far too many fixtures. One long ball forward. Loftus-Cheek beating Klavan far too easily, to the byline, and a cut-back to a wide-open Benteke eight yards out, with Matip in no-man's land and Gomez struggling to catch up.

And the player who'd scored seven goals in his eight matches against Liverpool skied his sitter.

Not long after, Salah replaced Sturridge, and Liverpool incrementally kicked up the gears in attack. Not long after that, Solanke replaced Wijnaldum, and Liverpool kicked them up a bit more. It was a revolutionary idea: the midfield and individual midfielders aren't playing well, so play fewer of them.

And not long after that – two minutes, in fact – Liverpool finally made the breakthrough. Once again, it's Sadio Mané. Once again, it's both a bit of fortune, a bit of talent, and a bit of individual brilliance. Another attempt to quickly link through the final third. Solanke causing trouble with his strength, Mané determined enough and clever enough to continue his run, Liverpool lucky that Milivojevic's touch was poor, and Mané quick enough and talented enough to finally beat Hennessey.

While we're all traumatized and expect the worst and probably rightfully so, Palace had no response. Their solution was to throw Scott Dann forward with Benteke and hoof more long balls. And Liverpool dealt with it just fine. No Palace shots, no Palace threats. Meanwhile, Hennessey needed to deny Salah (twice), Firmino, Solanke, and Robertson in the final ten minutes to keep the scoreline at 1-0.

So, yes, that'll absolutely do, pig. There are still real, discernible problems, problems with we've all screamed about already this season. There's still so much more improvement needed, and there are still transfers which need to be done.

But this early in the season, with this lineup, against this opposition, a win, any win is sufficient.

18 August 2017

Liverpool v Crystal Palace 08.19.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Palace (h) 04.23.17
4-2 Liverpool (a) 10.29.16
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.06.16
2-1 Palace (h) 11.08.15

Last matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 3-3 Watford (a)
Palace: 0-3 Huddersfield (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino, Mané, Salah 1
Palace: n/a

Referee: Kevin Friend (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Trent A-A Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

It's hard to see where any changes to the starting XI might come. Sturridge is fit again, but I highly doubt Liverpool want to mess with that front three, the only phase that's been without complaints so far this short season.

There's not much to be done in defense, at least personnel-wise. Clyne's still injured and Alexander-Arnold's done fine. More than fine for 89:30 of 90 minutes against Hoffenheim. Lovren and Matip have each had their issues, but are still probably a better idea than bringing in Klavan or Gomez. Left-back is where Liverpool could make a change, but Moreno hasn't been the problem area in the defensive unit, holding up well despite being target by both Watford and Hoffenheim.

I am, however, tempted to suggest changes in midfield, with Milner replacing Henderson – as happened for the last half-hour against Hoffenheim. It didn't show in preseason, but the first two games suggest something's not right with Liverpool's captain. But even still, without Coutinho and Lallana, with Woodburn not even named in the squad after understudying in the position throughout preseason, Liverpool have a desperate lack of creativity in the center of the pitch. There's a chance Milner helps with that, at least compared to Henderson, with Can moving deeper. At least with this match being at Anfield, Gini Wijnaldum may actually play.

Unless, of course, Liverpool changes are forced. Both Mané and Can appeared to miss training on Thursday, at least according to the training pictures released by the club. But I'm not necessarily sure we can divine absences from official club pictures. It's not as if the club will also announce injuries, but this still feels as if we're reading tea leaves here. Still, if they're both missing, we're getting Sturridge, Solanke or Origi up front with Firmino on the left, and Milner, Henderson, and Wijnaldum in midfield. Which is *shrugs*.

And regardless of who's available for the hosts, Liverpool will be facing a side with a point to prove, a side that will probably play the type of style which has hurt Liverpool in the past, and a side that's bedeviled them over the last few seasons.

Palace were absolutely rinsed by Huddersfield last week, a 0-3 loss at home not flattering the promoted side in the slightest. Huddersfield's crosses – both open and set play, both high and low – punished Palace, while Palace were wasteful – Zaha denied on a glorious chance from a long ball and flick-on, Benteke errant on a couple of trademark chances. Well, Liverpool won't attack Palace as Huddersfield attacked Palace, and Benteke is rarely errant when facing Liverpool.

I suspect Palace will stick with the same 3-4-2-1 formation we saw against Huddersfield as well, despite the result. Something like Hennessey; Fosu-Mensah, Dann, Riedewald; Ward, Puncheon, Milivojevic, van Aanholt; Loftus-Cheek, Townsend; Benteke.

Wilfred Zaha will be a massive miss for Palace, while Bakary Sako's also out. Cabaye, McArthur, Wickham, and Souare are doubtful. If available, there seems a small chance that Cabaye starts rather than Townsend.

I had almost forgotten that these sides met in Hong Kong a month ago. Liverpool's 2-0 win, with second-half goals from Solanke and Origi, was good for preparation but not for precedent.

When the fixtures have actually counted, Palace have won each of their last three matches at Anfield: 1-2, 1-2, and 1-3. The away side, whether Palace or Liverpool, have won the last six meetings. And, probably more notably given what we've complained about over the last couple of weeks, Liverpool haven't kept a clean sheet against Palace in the last 13 fixtures, since a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup way back in 2003.

When the fixtures have actually counted, Christian Benteke's run riot against Liverpool, with seven goals in eight appearances, including both of those scored in last April's loss. Five of those seven goals have come at Anfield. And, of course, I'll remind that his winner last April came from a Crystal Palace corner.

Liverpool know what Liverpool have to do. Better than they did at Watford, in attack, midfield, and defense. They'll need to do it when missing key players, they'll need to do it with a more important fixture lurking next Wednesday. And, as against Watford, they'll need to do it against a side and in a situation where they've disappointed far too often.

16 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Hoffenheim

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.



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

It's second-half injury time. Liverpool are clinging onto a one-goal lead. A Liverpool substitute who'd come on just moments before gives away a cheap free kick. And an opposition set play leads to an opposition clear-cut chance.

Four days ago, Britos converted his, which came from a corner following Gomez's foul. Yesterday, Benjamin Hübner sent his header from Demirbay's free kick just over the crossbar.

After Saturday's match, I wrote that "what goes around comes around." Here's yet more proof.

And to be completely honest, it's hard to argue that Liverpool fully merited its win, especially had it remained a two-goal margin.

Liverpool's goals came from the most unlikely of sources: Trent Alexander-Arnold's wonderful free kick and Milner's fortunately deflected cross leading to an own goal. The last time Liverpool scored at least two goals with none coming from Liverpool's front five was nearly a year ago, 2-1 over Chelsea with goals from Lovren and Henderson.

It took both heroics from Simon Mignolet and poor finishing from the hosts to keep Hoffenheim out for 86 minutes. Hoffenheim failed to score any of their three clear-cut chances. Had Kramaric converted his 12th minute penalty – which was admittedly incredibly soft – this is certainly a very different match. Mignolet did well to deny Gnabry in the 43rd, followed up by Wagner's rebound off the post rather than in an open goal-mouth. And then there was the aforementioned Hübner off-target header in the 91st minute.

To be slightly fairer, Liverpool also failed to take two clear-cut chances of their own – Salah's right-footed shot wide on the counter in the 15th and Firmino's close range effort saved in the 47th.

Liverpool's Henderson-Can-Wijnaldum midfield again suffered and again disappointed. All three struggled to get onto the ball in the face of constant Hoffenheim possession, and as at Watford, chances came when defenders found attackers, bypassing the central zone. Neither Henderson nor Wijnaldum created a chance or took a shot, and Liverpool looked vastly better when Milner replaced the captain, shifting Can to a deeper role.

Not that a lack of possession seems to hurt Liverpool. This was the 14th match under Klopp where Liverpool's had less than 50% possession. Liverpool's record in those matches is 8W-5D-1L – 2.07 points per game – with the lone loss coming due to an injury-time goal conceded in the 0-1 loss at Villarreal. But 36.6% possession is by far a new low, the first time Klopp's Liverpool have been held under 40%.

Once again, it's any port in a storm, especially in European competition. Liverpool's had done to them what they did to Hoffenheim far more often than the reverse has happened.

And despite that lack of possession, Liverpool still out-shot Hoffenheim, and could have scored more with better finishing of their own, especially from that vaunted front three. I'll almost always take 50% shooting accuracy – especially when compared to Hoffenheim's 30.8% – but Salah, Firmino, and Mané all left chances out there.

Aside from Lovren In The Time of Cholera (© Not Too Xabi) – responsible for the penalty, completely out of position and up the pitch for Gnabry's chance, and playing Uth onside for the goal – Liverpool defended reasonably well. As usual, there's at least one mistake you can point at for each of the four, but I was still pleased, especially with Liverpool's full-backs.

Special mention goes to Alexander-Arnold, who unfortunately stopped playing when assuming offside for Hoffenheim's goal, but was otherwise faultless, and gave Liverpool that indescribably important lead from a free kick which stunned us all. It's been too long since a Scouser scored for Liverpool – since Steven Gerrard in Steven Gerrard's last game, in May of 2015. This one's only 18.

And with that free-kick, Alexander-Arnold joins a short list of players who've scored from that situation over the last five years.



And while they all count in the end, it bears mentioning that both of Henderson's free kicks, as well as Milner's, came from left-wing crosses missed by both attackers and goalkeeper. In matches which ended 6-0, 6-0, and 4-0.

Long may this continue, Trent.

When all's said and done, Hoffenheim hadn't lost at home since the final day of 2015-16, unbeaten at the Rhein-Neckar through all of 2016-17, with 11 wins and six draws. By hook and crook and talent and luck, Liverpool broke that streak.

Liverpool now take an edge – albeit more slender than we'd like, because of failings we've seen in the past – into next week's match. Liverpool still have work to do, but they're in a position we'd have all happily taken prior to kickoff.

14 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Match data from WhoScored and Squawka.




Notate Bene: Without Stats Zone, the passing network I included last season is all but impossible for the way I do these infographics. Sorry. I'll miss them too; hopefully Stats Zone will be back in the future. Also, I have no idea how I'm going to handle Europe this season, because of work, life, etc crunch. Probably infographics the day after, but maybe no writing. We'll see. And while we're on the subject of Europe, no Hoffenheim preview later today because, again, work. I will try not to be a terrible blogger this season but we're not starting out well.


I feel as if I've written this before.

Liverpool conceded early, as they did against Burnley (a), Swansea (a), Stoke (h), Burnley (h), and Bournemouth (a) last season. Three of those four sides finished in the bottom half of the table.

Liverpool conceded from a corner, as they did against Hull (h), Swansea (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Hull (a), Everton (h), and Crystal Palace (h) last season. Three of those five sides finished in the bottom half of the table, West Brom finished 10th, and the other was Everton.

Liverpool conceded late and Liverpool threw away points, as they did against Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (a), United (a), and Bournemouth (h). Bournemouth and United at least finished in the top half of the table.

So, yet again, Liverpool dropped points against a side likely to finish in the bottom half of the table, as they did against West Ham (h), Leicester (a), Palace (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Hull (a), and Sunderland (a). Seven of the ten teams who finished in the bottom half of the table last season.

But there are a couple of differences worth mentioning.

Liverpool failed to take at least 14 shots in nine of the 12 matches against the rest of the top seven, but only three times against the other 13 sides in the division: the 3-4 loss at Bournemouth, the 2-1 win against Burnley, and the 1-0 win at Watford. One match Liverpool should have never lost, one match Liverpool were fairly fortunate to win, and one that Liverpool required an absolutely indescribable moment of brilliance from Emre Can to win. But it might not be coincidence that Watford's on this list, and Saturday also happened.

Liverpool conceded three goals in one game just four times last season: a 4-3 opening day win at Arsenal, 3-4 at Bournemouth, 2-3 v Swansea, and 1-3 at Leicester. The Bournemouth match was the only one where Liverpool had a lead but still lost. That Liverpool have already done so in the first match this season might bode poorly.

The last time Liverpool conceded from two corners in the same match was 2-2 against West Brom in 2015-16. 20 months ago. In Jürgen Klopp's 14th match. That's the only other time it's happened since Klopp became manager, but it also never happened during Brendan Rodgers' little-more-than three seasons.

To be fair, we're not really complaining about Liverpool's attack, at least once it finally got going. They absolutely merited those three goals. 13 of 14 shots from inside the box. 12 of 14 shots from key passes rather than unassisted. An Expected Goals total of somewhere between 2.2 and 2.4, depending on who's calculating, when including Firmino's penalty, which is a xG per shot total vastly better than Liverpool's average last season. A goal for each of Liverpool's first-choice front three: Salah on his debut, Firmino now that he's first-choice on penalties, and the second year in a row that Mané's scored on opening day.

I will, however, complain about one more thing.

Liverpool's midfield was nowhere near good enough on Saturday.

At the most basic, Liverpool's defense and Liverpool's attack took more shots and created more chances. Liverpool's three midfielders all attempted and completed fewer passes and had fewer touches than their averages last season, especially for a match where Liverpool dominated possession for the first 60 minutes. And then they offered little protection or help in the 30 minutes where Watford pressed for and finally got their equalizer. Can gave away the throw-in leading to Watford's second, Henderson completely failed to track Cleverley's run into the box on Watford's second. And I don't really remember anything Wijnaldum did except miss a fairly decent chance in the 86th minute. Oh, and completely messing up an attempted clearing header on the corner for Watford's late equalizer.

Liverpool's early problems going forward from midfield started at the base.



It was not a good day for Liverpool's captain.

• A surprising amount of long passes, although given Mané and Salah's pace, that was probably partly by design.
• A horrific pass accuracy when playing forward and directly.
• 45/65 passes completed – 69% passing accuracy – in open play.
• Only 17 passes – 13 completed – in the opposition half.
• Only one chance created – spread wide to Moreno for his shot tipped over by Gomes in the 64th minute, which was Liverpool's only shot from outside the box.
• And, while it's not passing related, no shots, two of four tackles successful (with none in the middle of the pitch), and only one interception.

I may be mistaken, but I can't remember Henderson with such a low pass accuracy when playing in this role. He's a player who averaged 86% pass accuracy last season, as well as 3.7 successful tackles and 1.7 interceptions per 90 minutes.

He was not Liverpool's only under-performer yesterday – Can only created one chance as well, although it was the assist for Liverpool's opener, as did Wijnaldum, in addition to two poor shots – but he was also nowhere near that player we've become accustomed to. I'm hoping it's mainly because he hasn't played a competitive fixture since early February, but I'm also increasingly worried that this midfield three isn't going to work in matches like these.

And Watford, like so many other sides, knew how they wanted to attack Liverpool. And took just enough advantage.




No one could have guessed they'd want to target Liverpool's left flank. Otherwise known as where Lovren and Moreno play.

To be fair, Lovren and Moreno weren't wholly terrible, and dealt fairly capably with Watford's repeated attacks down that flank. The second goal was obviously an issue, but there were others far more at fault than those two. Still, Watford won't be the last to try to exploit that area.

So, yes, there's a lot to be annoyed about, and a bit to be worried about. A bit to be pleased with as well, but probably more concerns than positives.

And while 3-3 is rarely ever a welcomed result, especially when it happens because you've conceded in the dying seconds, especially when we're complaining about the things we've complained about for months now, sometimes what goes around eventually comes back around. Even if it feels as if it comes back around far too often for Liverpool.

In this fixture last season, Prödl crashed a clear-cut chance off the crossbar in the 94th minute with Liverpool hanging onto a one-goal lead. This time, Britos converted his, albeit from an offside position, albeit arguably interfering with Mignolet.

I'd still prefer it came back around less often.

Those three points at Watford last season rather than one, with three games left, played a crucial part in Liverpool getting fourth place. If forced to choose, I'll take that and then this result.

Because Liverpool still has 37 games in this season to make this right.

12 August 2017

Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Goals:
Okaka 8
Mané 29'
Doucoure 32'
Firmino 55' [pen]
Salah 57'
Britos 90+3'

I can't even anything right now. Football must be back. Liverpool are absolutely back.

It is going to be a long damn season, for both better and worse.

Of course we get a microcosm of Liverpool in the opening match, the full spectrum of Liverpool in the opening match. Last season's first match set the narrative. I truly hope this one doesn't as well.

The first half was basically everything bad away from home against a bottom half side.

A parked bus, a big unit of a striker, and set plays. Conceding within eight minutes, conceding from a corner within eight minutes. The first opposition corner of the season, the first opposition shot of the season, the first opposition goal of the season: a point-blank header inside the six-yard box, indecision from Firmino and Matip as to whose at fault.

After 20 minutes, finally a response, neat interplay between Mané and Can, an even neater finish from Mané. But less than three minutes later, a Watford attack of Liverpool's own making, Cleverley in behind Moreno, a cross that Alexander-Arnold clears off of Matip which falls directly to Doucoure. A couple of daft individual decisions and an unfortunate deflection. And then 13 minutes of futility until halftime, with a couple of good chances but no goal.

But then we got good Liverpool. We got that attack. We got Salah winning a penalty off Firmino's pass within 10 minutes of the restart, easily scored by Firmino. We got Salah's tap-in less than two minutes later: Lovren's well-aimed pass over the top, Firmino in space, a chipped was-it-a-shot-or-pass to the Egyptian. Two clear-cut chances in the space of two minutes and two goals. 57 minutes into the new season and Liverpool's blitzkrieg front three have all scored.

For the next 35 minutes, we get okay Liverpool. A bit too frightening Liverpool, somewhat annoying Liverpool, but seemingly good enough Liverpool. Watford with far too much possession and Liverpool too focused on the counter-attack for comfort, but Liverpool still with all the chances. Between the restart and the 93rd minute, Watford had one shot: Holebas from nowhere not close in the 76th. Liverpool had six: Moreno tipped over, Matip off the crossbar, Lovren saved from a corner, Salah blazing over and into the side netting, and Wijnaldum's errant effort from the top of the box.

Any one of those chances taken – all decent, five of six from inside the box, but four of six off-target – seals the match.

Liverpool need one of those chances. Liverpool will probably always need to take at least one of those chances. Because three minutes into the five of added time, bad Liverpool happens.

It all starts from the injury time substitution. Which probably isn't fair, at least to the player coming on, but I'm far from fair and far from caring right now.

So, Joe Gomez replaces Trent Alexander-Arnold. I understand wanting to waste 30 seconds, but why change the defense? Why not Wijnaldum or Mané? And, of course, within 30 seconds, Gomez commits a soft foul deep on the right flank. The free kick's cleared, but Watford immediately regroup with Liverpool scrambling into shape, and Mignolet has to save Britos' blast from the top of the box.

And then the corner. Another corner. Another delivery towards the six-yard box from the player who assisted Watford's opener. Wijnaldum's missed header sets up Richarlison. Mignolet's flap leads to Britos heading in on the goal kick. Britos is arguably offside. Britos is absolutely interfering with Mignolet. There's a decision Liverpool's way in there somewhere, but it's ignored by both referee and linesman. And Watford are level. And Liverpool have thrown away points late in the game, as happened in four matches against bad teams last season, three of them away from home: Bournemouth twice, Sunderland, and Manchester United.

Arsenal snatch three points with two goals in the final ten minutes yesterday. Liverpool drop two. It's one of 38 here, but that bodes poorly.

You know what bodes even more poorly? Four Watford shots on-target, three Watford goals. Four Watford shots from inside the six-yard box, three Watford goals. Three Watford clear-cut chances – compared to two for Liverpool, and one of those was a penalty – three Watford goals. Three Watford corners, two Watford goals.

One game in, and we seemingly have all the proof we need that Liverpool really will have to outscore everyone to win, because that defense is going to try to kill us all season long. Meet the new season, same as the old season.

Liverpool scored three and failed to win just once last season: that away match at Bournemouth, where Liverpool somehow contrived to throw away a 3-1 lead in the final 15 minutes. At least this wasn't that?

But this obviously wasn't good enough. And we all know why.

And we're all increasingly less convinced that Liverpool will ever be able to consistently fix it.

11 August 2017

Liverpool at Watford 08.12.17

7:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 05.01.17
6-1 Liverpool (h) 11.06.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 05.08.16
0-3 Watford (a) 12.20.15

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Athletic (n); 1-1 Atletico aet [4-5 pens] (n); 3-0 Bayern (a)
Watford: 0-0 Sociedad (h); 0-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Eibar (n)

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Alexander-Arnold Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

Hey, football's back! If nothing else, it'll be a welcomed respite from the summer transfer window.

Yes, yes, Coutinho wants to leave. That sucks. Can't do anything else except take FSG at their word and assume he's not getting sold for any price, and hope he responds as Luis Suarez responded after the Great Arsenal Release Clause Fiasco of 2013.

Let's worry about the football instead. It's a much more tangible worry.

Coutinho wasn't likely to play tomorrow any due to a back injury (yes, you can put back injury in sarcastic quotation marks if you'd like, it makes no difference to the situation). Neither will Sturridge, Lallana, or Clyne.

We've yet to start the season and Liverpool will be missing two absolutely certain starters, one starter-if-anyone's-missing-in-the front-five, and one of Liverpool's best attacking replacements.

This bodes ominously.

With those four absent, the line-up pretty much writes itself, at least in 10 of 11 positions. The only other question is at left-back: whether Klopp sticks with ol' reliable Milner, rewards Moreno for his preseason performances, or goes with the new signing. It's probably going to be Milner, at least in the beginning, and I'd hope that Andrew Robertson makes the position his own by the end of the season, but, screw it, I'm guessing Moreno, for how much possession Liverpool's going to have, for his pace, for how he's looked over the last month, for his potential partnership with Sadio Mané on that flank, and, admittedly, for the LOLs.

Despite all the hand-wringing and absentees and THE SKY IS FALLING, Liverpool still have that front three. This will be Mohamed Salah's full debut, and he'll have it alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Liverpool have a reasonably secure and reasonably dynamic midfield, although it's okay to worry about the creativity without Coutinho and Lallana.

With that front six, even considering who's missing, and considering how Liverpool's defense ended last season, there should be reason for optimism. I know that's hard for us.

But Watford's more than ready to bring Liverpool back down to earth. A side that beat Liverpool 3-0 the first time they hosted Jürgen Klopp's side, in arguably Liverpool's worst performance of 2015-16. A fixture which Liverpool narrowly won last season thanks to Emre Can's unrepeatable acrobatics and Seb Prödl missing a clear-cut chance in second-half injury time. The type of side with the type of style which so often frustrates Liverpool. A new manager who embarrassed Liverpool last season, in charge for Hull's hilariously awful 2-0 win in February.

Watford have had a fairly busy summer – beside Marco Silva in the dugout, they've added Andre Gray and Richarlison up front, Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes in midfield, Kiko Femenia at right-back, and Daniel Bachmann as Gomes' understudy in goal.

If preseason is any indication, tomorrow's XI seems likely to be a mix of old and new. Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Doucoure, Chalobah; Richarlison, Cleverley, Pereyra; Gray.

Watford have options. Prödl could start at center-back, Kiko Femenia at right-back. We could see either Capoue or Hughes in midfield, either part of the deeper two or as the more advanced. There's Amrabat or Success if Richarlison's not ready. There's Stefano Okaka or Jerome Sinclair if Andre Gray's not.

Club captain Troy Deeney will, however, miss out through injury, while both Cathcart and Kabasele are questionable.

This is probably Watford's strongest squad in years. That's a diligent, deep, and rugged back-line, and similar goes for the two defensive midfielders. Pereyra's incredibly tricky, and Richarlison's billed similarly. Andre Gray has punished Liverpool before in an early season away fixture.

As happened 12 months ago, Liverpool need to start as they mean to continue. They laid down a marker at Arsenal, a raucous 4-3 which highlighted both Liverpool's scoring prowess and defensive insecurity, and also foretold Liverpool's unbeaten run against the rest of the top seven that season.

Tomorrow, Liverpool can demonstrate that they're capable of winning more these matches this season, the ones we so often worried about last season. They can put themselves in the correct stead and mindset for Tuesday's oh-so-important Champions League qualifier.

They can show that, for all the drama over the last couple of months, this is still Liverpool, dammit, and Liverpool will be again be a force to be reckoned with this season.

Football's back. Don't make us regret it.

08 August 2017

Liverpool Season Preview 2017-18

Liverpool should be entering this season on a high.

Liverpool took 76 points last season, 16 more than the season before, their second-highest points total since the Rafa Benitez era.

Liverpool finished fourth last season, in an incredibly difficult league, and will be in the Champions League proper this season if they get past Hoffenheim in the playoffs later this month.

Liverpool's underlying statistics suggest they absolutely merited that fourth-place finish last season. They were one of the league's best attacks, one which should be even better this season. Of course, they were also too often terrifying in defense despite strong shot suppression numbers.

Liverpool stormed through preseason, scoring 16 and conceding just three, never once playing what we'd guess as the first-choice XI when real football actually begins. They were technically unbeaten, only losing to Atletico Madrid in the Audi Cup final on penalties, and also won the Premier League Asia Trophy. The highlight was a 3-0 thumping of Bayern Munich on Bayern Munich's own ground, and yes, it's preseason, but it's also still further proof that this Liverpool side is quite good against other quite good sides. Not that that was anywhere near the top on our list of concerns.


But Liverpool doesn't seem to be entering the season on a high. At least not according to the majority of Liverpool supporters who populate the internet. Because, as per usual, the sky is falling.


Everyone Loves Transfer Windows

With the season starting in just four days, Liverpool have added just three players. One exceptionally talented attacker, one defensive signing in a necessary position, and one surprisingly promising young striker.


But Liverpool have also missed out on two of their top three targets, at least so far. RB Leipzig refuses to consider selling Naby Keita, despite Liverpool reportedly offering something in the region of double the club's record transfer fee. Virgil van Dijk remains a possibility considering his transfer request on Monday, but even if it happens – and that's still a rather substantial if – it's a deal that should have been done more than a month ago, and seemingly would have been had Liverpool not maladroitly attempted to tap him up.


Had Liverpool already signed those two players, this would be a very different preview.

And it appears that if Liverpool can't get those two targets, Liverpool are happy to keep their money in the bank and go with the squad they have.



At this point last season, Liverpool had brought in seven players and sold ten. So far, Liverpool have added just three – as well as Flanagan and Ward returning from loan – and have sold just three, with Randall already loaned, Ojo likely to be, and Manninger having retired. It's not quite three in, three out, as those coming in are almost certain to play a lot more minutes than the three departing, and play in different positions. Also, I had honestly forgotten that Andre Wisdom was still technically a Liverpool player.

The lack of turnover is not a bad thing. Liverpool added seven players in the summer of 2016. Liverpool added seven players in the summer of 2015. Liverpool added nine players in the summer of 2014. There has been an insane amount of change over the last few years. Last season's Liverpool was one of their best in the last decade, and a bit of stability isn't unwarranted.



18 of Liverpool's 27 most-likely squad players have or will have debuted within the last three seasons, including six of Saturday's likely starting XI. Liverpool's longest serving player had played just 50 games, and probably won't add many to that total this season. Jordan Henderson's the only player with more than 200 appearances for the club. Lucas Leiva, just sold this summer, had more than twice as many Liverpool appearances than every other player bar Henderson, Coutinho, and Mignolet. That will probably still be the case next season, too.

And this is still a fairly young team; last season, only Southampton and Tottenham had a younger average age. It's a Liverpool side that's just now entering its peak years.



There are two players older than 30 in this squad: Ragnar Klavan and James Milner. Both Mignolet and Lallana will turn 30 late in the season.

It is time for this team to settle. And prove what they can do in the prime of their careers.


That said, there's always room for improvement, and a couple of positions in need of upgrading. And we all remember how a title challenge turned into a race for top four during the winter because of injuries, absences, squad depth, and fixture congestion.


Squad Depth



Yes, midfield and wide forward might be understaffed. Probably are understaffed. Liverpool have a lot of players capable of playing in these positions, but they're potentially needed in other areas, and better in other areas. If both Mané and Salah miss out, Firmino's moved wide or Coutinho's moved forward. Sturridge, Origi, and Ings can all work from wider positions if absolutely necessary, but it's certainly not ideal. If both Henderson and Can miss out, Liverpool are reliant on Wijnaldum or Milner dropping deeper. Which, again, certainly doesn't seem ideal.

Incidentally, two of the three players sold this summer were holding midfielders, with one of those two also starting ten matches (six in the league, four in the cups) at center-back.

And center-back remains my biggest concern. By some distance. Maybe there's still hope for Virgil van Dijk, and he'd be an outstanding addition, but I remain convinced that Liverpool need someone, anyone. Liverpool currently have just four players capable of playing center-back. Matip's great. But the other three are the oldest player in the squad, a 20-year-old with 10 Liverpool appearances (the majority at right-back) who's missed big chunks of the last two seasons with injury, and Dejan Lovren.

Dejan Lovren has missed at least nine league games, if not more, in all three of his Liverpool seasons. Somehow, he has the exact amount of appearances as Alberto Moreno, having signed in the same summer, with Moreno barely even getting to look at the pitch last season.

P.S. – this is not license to start talking about Mamadou Sakho as if "Mamadou Sakho, Liverpool player" is a concept based anywhere near reality. You're just gonna get yourself all worked up for no reason.

We're already seeing some of these concerns bear out. Lallana's out for two or three months, Clyne apparently for a couple of weeks, and Henderson, Coutinho, and Sturridge all missed the last friendly with minor issues. And while, yes, preseason, the starting XI was a bit frightening: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Grujic, Can, Milner; Salah, Origi, Firmino. The team looks a bit better when adding Wijnaldum and Mané – who came on in the second half – but it's barely August and we're already fretting over injuries and depth.

That's not the best sign.

At a minimum, Liverpool are playing 48 games this season. 38 in the league, eight in Europe (two qualifiers and six in the group stage, whether it's in the Champions League or Europa League), and one in each domestic cup. And that's highly unlikely. You'd except Liverpool to win at least a couple of domestic cup matches, and at least get to the first knockout stage of the Europa League, whether by losing in the CL playoff round and progressing through the EL group stage or by finishing third in their Champions League group.


Liverpool played 47 matches last season.



Formation and First-Choice XI



We're pretty sure what formation Liverpool will be playing in the majority of those 48+ matches. The same formation we saw in almost every match last season, the same we saw in almost every moment this preseason.

And Liverpool have a very, very strong first XI. From basically front-to-back.

When everyone's fit, the attack is beyond reproach. I'll put it up against anyone in the league. Even Manchester City. Even Chelsea. The midfield's got a bit of everything: creativity, passing, tackling, dribbling, and players capable of scoring from both inside and outside of the box. Yes, the defense remains concerning. Lovren and Matip each have their issues, but were good together last season when they actually had a consistent run of games. Left-back is up for grabs – Milner will probably be first up, but I expect Robertson to make the position his own as the season goes on, and those two plus a rehabilitated Moreno should be enough cover. Similar can be said for the goalkeeping position. In theory, Karius has the most tools and the most room to grow, but there can and probably will be brain farts, and we can't forget how crucial Mignolet was in last season's run-in.

When there are more than a few players absent, well, *gulps, tugs collar*. But, to be fair, that's the case for almost every side in the division.

With five strikers on the books – as long as Sturridge and Ings are healthy, as long as Solanke and Origi continue to progress – a 4-4-2 formation seems a reasonable alternative if the squad becomes stretched.



Either way, Liverpool are going to attack. Liverpool are going to press. Liverpool are very much built for both of these traits. Liverpool are going to make it hard for the opposition to get shots, and hopefully Liverpool will make it harder for the opposition to get goals. Practice may well eventually make perfect.

Liverpool will have a lot of possession against 13 or so teams in the league, and will need to be better at breaking them down. Mo Salah should absolutely help with that, Coutinho in midfield should absolutely help with that. Liverpool will look to counter, thrust, and absolutely dagger the other five or six, just as they did last season.

To a certain extent, we know – and the opposition knows – what we're getting with Liverpool.


Oh, yeah, there are other teams too

And it's not as if the opposition's stood still. Chelsea have added Morata, Bakayoko, and Rüdiger, ostensibly an improvement in attack, midfield, and defense to last season's title winners. City have added Mendy, Walker, Bernardo Silva, Ederson, and Danilo, rebuilding the full-back position, fixing the weak spot in goal, and adding yet another attacking midfielder. Arsenal now have Lacazette. United now have Lukaku, as well as Matic and Lindelof, three more orcs for Mourinho's horde. Everton spent their Lukaku money on Pickford, Klassen, Michael Keane, and Sandro, and are still making cooing noises at The Gylfi. Only Tottenham haven't added anyone, yet, and it's not as if that team needs much work.

The Top 6, Top 7 if we're being charitable, gets stronger and stronger every season. But matches against their peers aren't where Liverpool have struggled. Sides that already gave Liverpool issues last season will be better too. Leicester added Iheanacho. Bournemouth added Ake, Begovic, and Defoe – two of whom scored against Liverpool last season. West Ham's got Arnautovic, Chicharito, and Joe Hart. Etc, etc, etc.

And there will be no easy stretches of games next season, whether it's the Champions League play-off followed by Arsenal and City in the next month; a back-to-back against United and Tottenham with Europe sandwiched in-between in October; a festive schedule against bottom-half sides, but with two matches against teams who beat Liverpool last season; or a trip to Chelsea in May with hopefully all still to play for.

I would appreciate the Premier League not being this good of a league.


In conclusion, Libya is a land of, wait, I made this joke last season

But the sky is not falling. And the internet being reactionary should be news to no one.

Sure, there are some genuine fears and complaints. But the complaints and fears aside, warranted or unwarranted, Liverpool do have a lot to be optimistic about. Liverpool were really good at times last season, and Liverpool still have all the players responsible for it. Mohamed Salah is one of the best signings any side's made this summer.

And Liverpool still have Jürgen Klopp, one of the best managers in the world, whose Dortmund team made the leap from fifth to first in Klopp's third season. Dortmund's goals scored total rose by 13 that campaign, and goals conceded total dropped by 20 – and that was with adding only one defender, a right-back, in that summer window.

This Liverpool side is a settled side, one that should be entering its peak years, with a settled style.

Everything may not be as perfect as we'd like it. This summer hasn't been wholly ideal. But the sky is not falling. And this should still be a very good team that has a very good season.

18 July 2017

On Lucas Leiva

The inevitable finally happens. After 10 seasons at the club – Liverpool's longest serving player by some distance – Lucas is moving to Lazio for a rumored £5m. It's a day long in coming, a day filled with happy memories, but also a day filled with regret. And sadness.

And with a couple of what-ifs.

What if Lucas Leiva scores on his league debut, coming on as a substitute for Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside Derby at Everton with the score 1-1? A goal-bound shot in added time, saved on the line by Phil Neville's handball. Dirk Kuyt scored the resulting penalty for Liverpool's win, but I still wonder if Lucas' career would've turned out differently had he been the hero.

More meaningfully, what if Lucas doesn't blow out his ACL in a League Cup match against Chelsea in November 2011? He's in the best form of his career after nearly being sold in the summer of 2010 by Roy Hodgson, notably dominant in the previous match, a 1-1 draw against eventual league winners Manchester City. He's the linchpin of Liverpool's midfield under Kenny Dalglish, a side finally returning to form after the Hodgson horrors. And it wasn't a stepped-wrong, would-probably-have-eventually-happened-regardless injury. It came from contact: first, a bad foul from Ramires, then a collision with Mata less than a minute later. In a League Cup match, more than an hour in, with the tie all but won. And Liverpool's medical staff sent him back on to play for three more minutes before he finally came off, unable to get off of Chelsea's pitch under his own weight.

That season, and the season before, Lucas might not have been Liverpool's best player, but there was a case to be made that he was Liverpool's most important. Gerrard had been dealing with injuries, and would do so off and on for all of 2011-12. Lucas' back-ups were Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing. Jordan Henderson, signed that summer, was used as a tucked-in winger as often as an orthodox central midfielder. So, unsurprisingly, Liverpool are notably worse without him, for the rest of the season. Liverpool end the campaign as League Cup winners and FA Cup runners-up, but finish eighth in the league. And Kenny Dalglish gets fired.

And, honestly, Lucas is never the same player again.

Lucas played more than 2800 Premier League minutes in each of the two seasons before that ACL injury, making 32 league starts in both campaigns. He never played more than 2000 league minutes in a season again.

Nevertheless, Lucas ends his Liverpool career with 346 appearances, the 46th-most all-time. He's 6th in Premier League appearances – behind only Carragher, Gerrard, Hyypiä, Reina, and Fowler.

Since World War II, there have been only four non-British or Irish Liverpool players to last at least 10 years with the club. Lucas Leiva is one. The others are Bruce Grobbelaar, Jan Mølby, and Sami Hyypiä. Grobbelaar, Hyypiä, Pepe Reina, and John Arne Riise are the only non-British or non-Irish players with more Liverpool appearances than Lucas Leiva.

Lucas has made the most Premier League appearances of any Brazilian player. Nobby Solano and Antonio Valencia are the only South American players with more than Lucas.

That's some company.

And no one could or would have predicted it ten years ago.



Incidentally, Lucas made his debut in the same match as Sebastian Leto: a 4-0 win over Toulouse in the Champions League qualifying round. Leto started. Lucas came on as a substitute, replacing Momo Sissoko. Leto made just four appearances for Liverpool, none in the league, mainly due to work permit problems. I'm fairly certain most would have expected Leto to do more in a Liverpool shirt than Lucas Leiva would.

Lucas would have to wait three months to make his first Premier League start.



There are some fun names in those two sides. And some very good players. It is safe to say he's seen quite a bit of change over the last 10 seasons.









It has been an eventual 10 seasons. As I suspect you remember.

Lucas has played alongside just shy of 120 different Liverpool players. For five different managers. Five very different managers: Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers, and Jürgen Klopp.

He came billed as a Bola de Ouro-winning box-to-box midfielder – taking the Brazilian league award a year after Carlos Tevez won it – then grew into an at-times-dominant defensive midfielder after a period of adjustment, and finished his tenure as a reserve splitting time between holding midfielder and center-back.

From young golden hope, to scapegoat, to under-appreciated internet darling, to one of the first names on the teamsheet, to useful squad player, to cagey veteran, to cult hero.

From this:



To this:



Time makes fools of us all.

He remains a still-valuable member of the squad, if only for his presence in the dressing room and institutional memory. Sure, he's still more than capable of putting in good games, even if it's mixed with poor ones and mistakes. One week, he'd stuff Harry Kane in his pocket. The next, he's being beaten all ends up by Jamie Vardy. He'd become serviceable but not great at both defensive midfielder and center-back, and he's probably not good enough to play more than a few games at either position in a side being built to compete for the Premier League title.

But, at this point in his career, it seemed the legacy that mattered more. He was the last player signed by Rafa Benitez still at the club. He made it through both Hicks and Gillett, and Roy Hodgson. He played a fairly substantial role in two of the best Liverpool sides in the last 25 years, and played for the side which tallied Liverpool's lowest points total in a league campaign since the switch to three points for a win (which, coincidentally, was Lucas' ACL injury season). He'd become a Liverpool fixture, wholly understanding both club and city. At the absolute least, I suspect he was crucial in helping Coutinho and Firmino adjust to life at Liverpool. And, I mean, the man did this. "Unluckeeeeeeee" will live long in the memory.

Liverpool's longest serving player is now Liverpool's captain: Jordan Henderson, who joined the club in June 2011. Who has made 107 fewer appearances for Liverpool than Lucas Leiva. Who is still only 27 years old. And who also embarrassed himself in all sorts of ways in that "Unluckeeee" video, but that's not really here nor there.

For better and for worse, one of the youngest sides in the league has gotten even younger.

To be fair, it's time for Lucas to move on. Long past time if you believe some, but the right time in my opinion. That doesn't make it any less sad. But I'm still proud that Lucas Leiva played 10 seasons for Liverpool. I'm still delighted that Liverpool didn't sell him in 2010, or 2014, or 2016. Lucas Leiva still is, and will always be, one of my favorite under-loved Liverpool players from the last 15 years, alongside Agger, alongside Kuyt.

Also, hey, Liverpool, when's the testimonial? You really need to get on that. It's embarrassing that it hasn't already happened.

Obrigado e boa sorte, Lucas.

20 June 2017

On Mohamed Salah

For all the hand-wringing and fears, Mohamed Salah is now a Liverpool player. For what might be a Liverpool record transfer fee, dependent on add-ons and accounting and who's reporting. And, to be fair to Liverpool, it is only June 22.



Well that's encouraging. Continual improvement from age 21 through now, an absolutely stunning last two seasons at AS Roma, and even his Chelsea tenure seems under-appreciated in statistical retrospect.



I enjoy this too. Incidentally, there are an awful lot of similarities in Salah and Mané's numbers from last season. Like Mané and Coutinho, that's an impressive goals + assists per 90 total, even better in both goals and assists than Liverpool's two best attackers from 2016-17. Like Mané, that's a heavy emphasis on in-box shots and clear-cut chance goals. More key passes than Firmino and almost as many as Coutinho. A better tackles + interception rate than Mané despite playing in a less fervent press. A dribble success rate also exactly at Mané and Firmino's clips, despite far fewer attempted. Fewer possession losses than any of Liverpool's primary front three from last season.

And lots and lots of goals.



Here's video of those 19 goals.

15 of 19 goals in the Danger Zone. Five in the six-yard box, five from rebounds. 14 of those 19 goals were from Opta-defined clear-cut chances, including 10 of 15 in the league.

That's not a winger's record. That's a striker's record. That's a poacher's record.



A lot of Salah's goals surprisingly fill what was a shallow spot for Liverpool last season. Middle of the Danger Zone, right side. Salah cutting in and getting his, whether from through-balls, chips, crosses, dribbles, or rebounds. Between Coutinho doing Coutinho, Mané moving where he wants, and Firmino mostly central, the right-side of the box was far less represented in Liverpool's scoring totals than you'd expect from Liverpool's goal return. Not that it truly matters where goals are scored as long as goals are scored, but more options and more locations (good locations, too!) is always better.

It's also absolutely clear that Mohamed Salah is very left-footed. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are only five left-footed players in Liverpool's squad. Three are defenders – Moreno, Sakho, and Klavan – two of whom seem certain to leave this summer. There's Sheyi Ojo, whose status is very much up for debate. And there's Daniel Sturridge. And that's it, no matter how two-footed Lallana is.

Liverpool scored 15 left-footed goals in the league last season: Lallana 4; Firmino, Mané 3; Can, Coutinho, Origi, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1. Mohamed Salah scored 11 on his own. Liverpool scored 19 left-footed goals in all competitions last season (three more for Sturridge and one for Klavan). Salah scored 14 on his own.

Salah is another crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle, both because of his abilities and just in the position he plays. Liverpool very much suffered from a lack of attacking depth last season. Sadio Mané missed 11 league matches last season. Coutinho missed seven, as did Adam Lallana – who played a lot more matches in midfield than in attack. Salah also missed seven – two through injury, four because of the African Cup of Nations, and one because he was left on the bench in a rout of Fiorentina, after just returning from AFCON. But just two were through injury, one fewer than he missed in 2015-16.

When Mané, Firmino, and Coutinho all started, Liverpool averaged 2.20 points per game in the league. When any of the three were absent, Liverpool averaged 1.87 points per game. Which wasn't as much of a drop-off as I expected, but a drop-off nonetheless – the difference between 84 points and 71 points when averaged out over a full 38-match season. Liverpool don't just need attacking depth – although it certainly doesn't hurt – Liverpool need another player capable of changing and winning games. And Mohamed Salah's certainly capable of doing so.

And, just as importantly, Salah aligns perfectly within Liverpool's ideal age bracket.



Salah, Mané, Coutinho, and Firmino – Liverpool top four attackers – are all 25, the first three born within two months of each other. Just entering their prime. Wijnaldum's 26, Henderson's 27, Can's 23. Clyne and Matip are 26, Lovren will be 28 in two weeks. This side, this squad, this starting XI, is coming of age now. Right now.



When everyone's available, Coutinho can and probably will play deeper, as we saw in the last two matches of 2016-17. Mané can and probably will play on the left, as he did in around a third of his matches for Southampton, as he usually does for Senegal.

But Coutinho will still get games in the front three. Mané will still get games on the right. Liverpool don't necessarily need plug and play superstars, although that rarely hurts. Liverpool need depth – more specifically, quality in depth. Liverpool need options.

Liverpool now have another very, very good option. One of the all-around attacking options in Serie A last season. One which helps all over the front six. It frees up Coutinho to play in midfield. Lallana will probably be an often-used utility player, capable of featuring in either midfield or on either flank. Mané can play on either flank. Both Henderson and Can can play either midfield role. And, if absolutely needed, I suspect Salah would do well enough in leading the line, as would Mané. It's weird, and it's also summer – that time of unavoidable optimism, where we all think the team is better than it actually is – but just this one signing makes the front six look so much deeper.

Of course, there are concerns. There are always concerns.

Mohamed Salah's best position is Sadio Mané's position. Sure, Salah can play as a second striker or as a more orthodox winger on the left. Mané can play as a striker or on the left. But best position is still best position and changing what's worked is always fraught with peril.

And, speaking of emulating Sadio Mané... remember when Mané and Matip missed an entire month while Liverpool were mired in a tailspin? Remember why? Yeah. If you thought you hated the 2017 African Cup of Nations, get hyped for the 2019 version.

Also, like most scorers, like most creative attackers, Salah can be incredibly streaky. And his streaks have come at the same time in his last two seasons at Roma.

Despite scoring 15 and assisting 11 in the league in 2016-17, Salah scored just once and created just two assists from November 20 through March 12, with his lone goal and both assists coming after February 7. Granted, that's a bit unfair because of his participation in the African Cup of Nations, missing the first five league matches of 2017, but it's not as if those were the only matches he failed to score in. Or that similar didn't happen the season before.



Put bluntly: Mohamed Salah failed to score or assist in the league from the end of November through the end of January in either 2015-16 or 2016-17. And I'm sure you remember how well Liverpool did during that stretch last season. How much Liverpool needed help – especially in attack – during that stretch last season.

Salah's drought lasted from Match 10 through Match 21 (October 20 – January 24) in 2015-16, and from Match 13 through Match 23 (November 20 – February 7) in 2016-17. And he only missed ten of those 23 matches: five because of AFCON and two through injury last season, three through injury and one through suspension in 2015-16. 13 games, during the often difficult, often treacherous winter period. No goals or assists. Yes, yes, sample size. Yes, yes, circumstances. Yes, yes, Serie A has a two-week winter break during that time. Yes, yes, Sadio Mané had a similar drought in his last season at Southampton. Still slightly worrisome.

I remember writing "now is the winter of our discontent" far too often last season. I'd prefer to not do it again.

There's also the fear that Salah won't be able to replicate those spell-binding numbers from the last two seasons. I'm not especially concerned on the goal-scoring front: that Liverpool attack – everyone involved – scores goals, often in bunches, when the best players are available. Even Divock Origi, who most will admit disappointed last season, put up 0.43 goals per 90 in the league last season. But I am a bit more concerned about goal creation. Eight of Salah's 12 assists in all competitions (seven of 11 in Serie A) and 22 of Salah's 71 created chances went to Edin Dzeko, and Liverpool won't often have a player like Edin Dzeko up front, at least when Firmino's the primary striker. Sturridge, Origi, Ings, and Solanke may be different stories, but I still very much expect Salah's key pass and assist rates to go down next season. Like Sadio Mané, he'll more often be on the end of what's created by Firmino, Coutinho, Wijnaldum, Lallana, etc.

He'll be playing with different players, different types of players, and he'll also be playing in a different league.

You're going to see and hear the words "Chelsea flop" far too frequently over the new few days, weeks, and months. At least this one's already rightfully debunked. If Salah's a Chelsea flop, so were De Bruyne, Lukaku, Sturridge, etc. But it's almost fair to worry about his past Premier League experience. It's probably fairer to worry about the league where he put up the numbers that are leading Liverpool to this deal.

Want to make a Liverpool supporter cringe? Here's a fun list: Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Alberto Aquilani, Andrea Dossena, Christian Poulsen, Daniele Padelli. Those are some fun Serie A transfers in the last 10 years.

Of course, there's also Philippe Coutinho, so let's hope the curse is limited to actual Italians and Christian Poulsen.

Past is obviously not necessarily precedent.

The hype may have been overwhelming and unreachable, but Paul Pogba just had a perfectly cromulent season. Graziano Pelle – by way of Feyenoord before joining the Premier League – and Manolo Gabbiadini did or have done well enough for Southampton. Marcos Alonso was excellent last season, Matteo Darmian seems capable every now and then, and Kolarov was terrifying in his prime. Shaqiri's been as advertised at Stoke, although his more formative years were spent in Switzerland and Germany rather than Italy.

But there's also Juan Cuadrado, who's once again thriving in Serie A after a failed spell at Chelsea – another one of those "Chelsea flops," one bought as Salah's replacement. There's Erik Lamela, the Lost Boy of Tottenham. There's Stefan Jovetic, who was more than capable but – like Lamela – injury-plagued and subsequently forgotten. And there are all those Liverpool washouts.

Past is obviously not necessarily precedent, but I obviously also worry. I worry about a lot of things; it's what I do.

And we're not getting out of here without mentioning the transfer fee. €40m, or whatever's eventually announced or achieved, is a lot of money.

But that's not something that actually worries me. It doesn't mean anything except let's pretend it actually gets Andy Carroll's transfer fee record off the books. Here's a more meaningful number: £8.3 billion. That's the current Premier League TV deal revenue. Liverpool received £148.4 million of that in 2016-17.

I've said it after almost every transfer in the past few seasons, and was especially vehement in regards to Sadio Mané's. Pay no attention to the fee. Pay attention to the player's talents, and how the player fits into the Liverpool side that Jürgen Klopp is building.

Mohamed Salah is egregiously talented. And Mohamed Salah absolutely fits.

14 June 2017

On Liverpool's 2017-18 PL Fixtures




Here's the actual game-by-game fixture list from the official site.

And a reminder: for comparable results between the three relegated and promoted clubs, it's in order of finish from last season. The 18th-placed side in 2016-17 matches up with last season's Championship winners, 19th with last season's runners-up, and 20th with the playoff winners. So, Hull = Newcastle, Boro = Brighton, and Huddersfield = Sunderland. It's certainly not perfect, but it's the closest we can get.

My initial thoughts:

It's finally sinking in that Liverpool are going to play a lot of games next season. Like, a lot; somewhere between 55-60 seems a safe guess, compared to last season's 47. But it'll take some doing to top the 63 in 2015-16, the joint-most Liverpool have played in one campaign (along with 2000-01, the cup treble season) since 1991-92. For comparison, Liverpool played 58 in 2014-15, 43 in 2013-14, 54 in 2012-13, 51 in 2011-12, and 54 in 2010-11. Weird how Liverpool's best two Premier League campaigns in the last eight seasons came the only times they've had fewer than 50 matches.

Even if Liverpool don't win their Champions League playoff, they'll drop into the Europa League. Plus, there's the League Cup. And when it looks as if the fixture list starts to ease in January, we'll have the FA Cup, potentially still the League Cup, and maybe even *crosses fingers* European knock-out rounds starting in February.

Yikes.

It feels like I should mention that Liverpool's squad wasn't even deep enough for 47 games last season.

But, on the whole, it seems a reasonably decent fixture list. The matches against last season's Top 7 are fairly spread out. There aren't any truly vicious back-to-back away matches. Liverpool start away from home for the third consecutive season, but against a side that'll have a new manager and almost certainly a fair amount of new players. Aside from away matches against United, Everton, and Chelsea, the final three months seem relatively tame, similar to last season's run-in where Liverpool won eight of the last 12, with three draws and a loss, to barely nudge their way into fourth.

Of course, as always with Liverpool, dig a little bit deeper and you start to worry.

Liverpool's matches prior to the all-important Champions League playoff round are Watford away and Palace at home. An away match to start then a fixture that Liverpool lost last season, against a side that somehow, bafflingly, often causes Liverpool problems.

The subsequent matches following European competition – whether it's the Champions League or Europa League – are Arsenal away, Burnley at home, Newcastle away, Tottenham away, West Ham away, Chelsea at home, and Everton at home.

Four matches against last season's top seven sides, two away and two at home. Four matches away, four at Anfield. Liverpool's record in those fixtures last season was 4W-2D-2L (remember, Newcastle away = Hull away and let's not talk about Hull away any more than we have to), which is more than decent (a 2.25 ppg average), but will also be hard to replicate. Arsenal's going to be better. Liverpool barely won against Burnley. An away match against a promoted side. Tottenham. One of Liverpool's bogey opponents. Last season's runaway league winners. And a Merseyside Derby.

There's only one back-to-back against sides from last season's Top Six, but it's a home match against Manchester United followed by a trip to Tottenham, with one of those European matches will be sandwiched in between. Liverpool play Arsenal in the third Premier League match and City in the fourth Premier League match, but there's an international break in between.

So let's also mention those international breaks. We get one before facing City. We get another before facing United. There will be matches against Southampton (H) and Crystal Palace (A) after internationals later in the season. And it will be hard to top Liverpool's record following internationals in 2016-17, when they beat Leicester and Everton at home, and drew with United and Southampton, two 0-0s that probably should have been wins.

And there's the small matter of December. There will be eight matches. Eight. Maybe nine; the League Cup schedule hasn't been announced yet, if Liverpool get that far (which they have in the last three seasons). There wasn't a League Cup game in December last season – Liverpool beat Leeds at the very end of November before resuming in January – but there was one in the first week of December in 2015-16 and second week of December in 2014-15.

But the Boxing Day – New Year's stretch isn't wholly awful. Swansea (H), Leicester (H), Burnley (A). Two home games and a short away trip and – for what little it's worth, at least last season – against sides who finished 12th, 15th, and 16th in 2016-17. Last season's holiday week was Stoke (H), City (H), Sunderland (A). 2015-16 was Leicester (H), Sunderland (A), West Ham (A). And I suspect you still remember 2013-14: City (A), Chelsea (A), and Hull (H), the first two ending in 1-2 losses which very, very much made a difference at the end of the season.

It does look better once Liverpool get through what will inevitably be the winter of our discontent. Liverpool went unbeaten in what will be next season's final 16 fixtures in 2016-17: from Manchester City at Anfield (a 1-0 win) through a victory over the second Promoted Championship side to close the campaign. 11 wins and five draws, an average of 2.38 points per game.

Of course, Liverpool almost certainly won't replicate that run. And, ideally, Liverpool will have more matches than those listed above, preferably the Champions League knock-out rounds but possibly the Europa League, and maybe an FA Cup run, and maybe the League Cup semi-finals and final.

Yikes.

But there really is little point worrying about the fixture list. Liverpool will play all 19 other teams twice. There will be cup matches, more than usual thanks to Europe, but that goes along with actually being good at the football.

Last season, we freaked out about playing top sides away from home early, and Liverpool beat both Arsenal and Chelsea and drew with Tottenham. We freaked out about the comparable run-in results – Liverpool were winless in the final six equivalent fixtures from 2015-16 – and Liverpool ended winning four, drawing once, and losing once in last season's last six matches to cement that Champions League qualifying place.

Once the season starts, you can only beat what's directly in front of you. You have to manage the inevitable fixture congestion and injuries. You have to be better than you were the season before, and we're all still well aware where Liverpool still need to improve.

And I can't believe we still have two months before it starts.

29 May 2017

2016-17 Liverpool Season Review

This was an okay season! Good, even! Really good when you remember the two before! It could have been better – and we all distinctly remember when, where, and how – but it could have been a lot worse. It usually is, after all. Liverpool scored a lot of goals – mainly in stretches, in spurts – and Liverpool let in a couple fewer than the past two seasons. Yeah, there was pain. It is Liverpool, after all.

When all was said and done, Liverpool finished four places and 16 points better than they did in 2015-16. Which is good enough for the Holy Grail. Good enough for fourth. Good enough for next season's Champions League, if only the final qualifying round.

If I wanted to make this short – oh, it's not going to be – that's really all that mattered this season, Jürgen Klopp's first full season at the club. Improvement. Improvement and fourth place. But mostly just fourth place, in a season where you needed 10 more points than last season to finish fourth. In a season where United improved by three points, Arsenal by four points, City by 12 points, Tottenham by 16 points, and Chelsea by a massive 43 points compared to last season's results.

And the league is only going to get harder.


Sure, let's start with some more stats


First, a quick and dirty comparison with Liverpool's 2015-16 league campaign:



Everything is mostly good. Everything is mostly better, and some notably so. There are two things that aren't: opposition shot accuracy and opposition clear-cut chances. It is safe to assume we will mention Liverpool's defensive issues again.

To see how Liverpool fared statistically in comparison to other sides, WhoScored's Premier League page is a good place to start, and for more in-depth, I recommend Ben Mayhew's scatter graphics and Objective Football's fancy stats.

In brief: Liverpool were very good in most shooting statistics, such as shot ratios (both total and on-target) and xG, both in taking shots and limiting the opposition's. Liverpool were not so good when it comes to things like PDO, save percentage, and opposition clear-cut chances. Liverpool were better in the first half of the season than the second, mainly because of a horrific start to 2017. Liverpool took lots of shots, and maybe could have converted more of them. Liverpool allowed very few opposition shots, but they were very good opposition shots, which the opposition converted too many of.

Having watched Liverpool this season, none of this should surprise you.


The lads, eh...


Liverpool used 28 players this season. 23 featured in Liverpool's 38 Premier League games, while five more played only cup matches.

23 different players are the joint-fewest used by a Premier League side this season, along with West Brom. Both Chelsea and Tottenham are next closest with 24, although to be fair, two of Tottenham's 24 played fewer than five minutes this season.

10 players made their Liverpool debuts this season: Mané, Wijnaldum, Matip, Klavan, Grujic, Karius, Alexander-Arnold, Ejaria, Woodburn, and Wilson. 16 players who made at least one league appearance in 2015-16 didn't play for Liverpool in any competition this season: Benteke, Ibe, Allen, Skrtel, Sakho, Toure, Smith, Flanagan, Brannagan, Bogdan, Teixeira, Chirivella, Caulker, Ward, Rossiter, and Canos.

That's quite a lot of turnover. I find it hard to believe we'll see anywhere near that much next season.

23 players in the league and 28 in all competitions is 11 fewer in both Premier League games and all competitions compared to last season. Only six Liverpool players managed to make 30 or more Premier League appearances in 2015-16 season: Mignolet, Clyne, Moreno, Firmino, Lallana, and Can. Eight did in 2016-17: Clyne, Milner, Wijnaldum, Firmino, Origi, Can, Coutinho, and Lallana.

As an aside, there are no central defenders on either 30-or-more-appearances list; no center-back played in more than 24 league games in 2015-16 and both Lovren and Matip each played 29 this season. At least one Liverpool center-back started 30 or more league games in every season from 1998-99 until 2014-15, whether Hyypia, Henchoz, Carragher, Agger, or Skrtel. There is something to be said for a settled defense. And it is safe to assume we will mention Liverpool's defensive issues again.

But, anyway, to return to the original point, fewer players in the Liverpool squad did make sense. Liverpool had fewer games without the Europa League, and there was clearly deadwood needing to be trimmed after 2015-16.

Having fewer players made a lot more sense before the season started.

Liverpool played 47 matches in 2016-17. Even with far fewer players in the squad, Liverpool used 40 different starting XIs.





You'll probably want to open the minutes played graphic in a new window.

Just 17 of Liverpool's 23 Premier League players featured for more than 300 minutes. That's a heavy reliance on an amount which isn't even enough to fill the match-day squad. And the average age of those 17 players is just 26.4 years old. Once again, Liverpool had one of the youngest sides in the Premier League this season. If you include the other six players who featured in league matches – Moreno, Alexander-Arnold, Woodburn, Grujic, Ejaria, and Stewart; you'd expect three or four of those players to see more minutes next season – the average age drops to 24.8.

The 11 Liverpool players who played the most minutes, both in the league and all competitions: Clyne, Firmino, Milner, Wijnaldum, Lovren, Can, Mignolet, Matip, Lallana, Mané, Coutinho. That's not a bad XI.

That XI hasn't been on the pitch at the same time this season. Ever. Not as a starting XI, not with someone coming on as a substitute. Either Liverpool were missing Mané or Coutinho or Henderson or Matip or etc etc, at literally every stage of the season. The closest Liverpool came to that XI was in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea, when a returning Sadio Mané replaced Philippe Coutinho. That's the only match that those 11 players all at least featured in.

We saw only four Liverpool starting XIs feature in multiple matches.

    
    

There's at least one player in all four of those XIs who makes you go, "wait, him?" And the XI closest to what's probably Liverpool's ideal, or at least closest to what we thought we'd see before the season started – the first, at Southampton and against Sunderland – had both Lallana absent through injury and Coutinho go off early in the second match, the incident which marked the beginning of the downward winter spiral, even if it took a few more matches for the rot to truly set in.

It is not coincidence that the two most-settled sides, the two sides who suffered the fewest injuries – more specifically, injuries to key players – have won the league in the last two seasons. But injuries happen.

And it is safe to say that injuries, absentees, and squad depth had a massive impact on Liverpool's season.


Now is the winter of our discontent...






Liverpool's slump didn't start when initially overloaded with matches – at least not in the league; there were more than a few unwelcome cup ties in January, even if Liverpool heavily rotated for those matches. But the month where Liverpool had the most matches, Liverpool were mostly good. Sure, Bournemouth and West Ham happened, immediately after Coutinho's injury, but Liverpool also narrowly beat Everton and City and throughly beat Middlesbrough and Stoke.

Liverpool's slump happened the next month, when fatigue set in and with key players still or becoming absent. Specifically, Coutinho either still injured or obviously nowhere near match fit after missing all of December, combined with Mané at the African Cup of Nations and Matip both injured then ineligible due to the African Cup of Nations.

Liverpool didn't win its first league game of 2017 until February 11, the sixth league match of the new year. Draws at Sunderland and United, and against Chelsea, with Liverpool taking a 1-0 lead in those first two away draws, ultimately conceding an equalizer in the 84th minute of both matches. Losses against Swansea and at Hull. Hull ended up relegated, with Swansea not far safe. That loss against Swansea was Liverpool's first home loss of the season, and came with Swansea 20th in the table having been out-scored 20-4 in their seven previous matches. And Liverpool only won one of the five cup matches during that stretch – the 1-0 replay at Plymouth – held 0-0 by Plymouth at Anfield, losing 0-1 in both semi-final League Cup legs against Southampton, then 1-2 against Wolves at Anfield.

Aside from Coutinho, Mané, and Matip, Henderson, Milner, Sturridge, Clyne, Lucas, Lallana, and Lovren also had minor injuries during that stretch, the majority missing at least one league match in the first six weeks of 2017. And at the same time, overuse set in with those who remained available, most notably with Roberto Firmino – limited to two goals and no assists in his ten starts in January and February, both goals coming in that 2-3 loss against Swansea – and Adam Lallana – who had seven goals and seven assists in the first 19 games of the league season, and one goal and no assists in the last 19 games of the league season.

The fatigue, especially in the front six, is likely a by-product of Liverpool's playing style, which makes getting more and better players even more essential. The fixture list isn't getting any lighter and the Premier League isn't getting any easier. I truly hope that the injuries aren't a by-product, though.

Also, I understand complaints about Liverpool's refusal or inability to strengthen during the January transfer window, but I've always been more sanguine about that period than most. It's not easy to add at that time of the season, and Klopp's not the first Liverpool manager reticent to spend in that window. Still, you can't help but wonder what could have been.

And Liverpool's squad, as currently built, isn't deep enough or strong enough to cope with missing that many players, or those players, no matter the opposition. Emphasis on "no matter the opposition."


Please stop giving away points as charity






Liverpool's only away losses came against 9th, 12th, 16th, and 18th. Liverpool's only home losses came against 14th and 15th.

In losses at Bournemouth and against Palace, Liverpool had the lead – multiple times and a two-goal advantage at Bournemouth! – and couldn't hold on. In draws at Sunderland and against West Ham, Liverpool had the lead and couldn't hold on.

We all remember why. Dumb, ill-timed goals conceded, often through defensive errors or set plays.

And at the other end of the pitch, a recurring inability to break down deep, determined defenses, especially when without Sadio Mané or, to a lesser extent, Coutinho and Lallana. Not enough movement, not enough pace in behind. Too many shots from distance, too many crosses. Then, too open against the counter-attack when throwing bodies against said brick wall, leading to said dumb and ill-timed goals conceded.

We saw a preview of all the evil in the second match of the season – 0-2 at Burnley – when, coincidentally, Mané's minor injury kept him out of the squad. An early goal conceded through a defensive error, a second through a counter-attack 35 minutes later, 80% possession and 26 shots but 65% of those shots from outside the box. And zero goals.

To be slightly fairer, Liverpool have dropped points, usually more than once, against at least one of the relegated sides in every season going back to 2002-03 except for 2013-14. Not that it makes this season's lost points any easier to stomach.

And Liverpool did, eventually, find a bit of balance at the end of season, first in cutting down on goals conceded while struggling in attack, then switching to a 4-Diamond-2 for the final two matches to blow past West Ham and Middlesbrough. Four consecutive clean sheets to finish the campaign, for the first time since Klopp took over. Just one goal conceded through a defensive error in the final 12 matches, and just three from set plays.

The defensive improvement was encouraging, and it is probably not coincidence that both Matip and Lovren started Liverpool's final seven matches, their longest stretch together this season, the longest stretch for any Liverpool center-back pairing this season. But the seven goals scored in the last two games were even more so.

The win at West Ham was especially encouraging considering Liverpool were backs against the wall, coming off a run where they'd scored just three in the previous four games, and facing a side they hadn't beaten in the five previous meetings. And it is hard to tell how much was due to "team with nothing to play for falls apart after conceding the opener, loses wildly" and how much was due to Liverpool actually doing good things. Still, after averaging 15 shots over the six previous games, going back to Sadio Mané's injury against Everton, Liverpool took 26 at West Ham and 25 against Boro. After averaging barely more than a goal per game over the six previous games, Liverpool scored four at West Ham and three against Boro.

And they did it against the type of sides that Liverpool threw multiple points away when facing earlier in the season, in matches that Liverpool had no choice but to win, and all without Sadio Mané. Those wins against West Ham and Boro were Liverpool's only Premier League matches where they scored three or more without Mané in the XI.

It came desperately close to "too little, too late," but Liverpool pulled through in the end.


One more thing about the defense...




Two center-back pairings played the majority of Liverpool's Premier League matches, the second thanks to Matip's long absence midseason. And both were mostly okay. Mostly. Matip and Lovren were the most consistent; Lovren and Klavan allowed the least and were a bit unlucky in goals conceded, but also saw the most errors; Matip and Klavan were very, very lucky but at least didn't make any unforgivable mistakes; and Lucas isn't a center-back.

All four of Liverpool's pairings had good matches – even Lucas, in keeping Harry Kane utterly silent at Anfield. All four had at least one very bad match – the most notable were Matip and Lovren at Swansea and against Palace, Lovren and Klavan against Swansea and Bournemouth, Matip and Lucas at Leicester, and Matip and Klavan at Manchester City. All four center-backs committed at least one Opta-defined defensive error leading to a goal: Matip in the 2-2 against West Ham, Lovren in the 4-2 at Palace, Klavan in the 2-3 against Swansea (and the first penalty in 2-2 Sunderland), and Lucas in the 4-1 against Leicester.

Which is in keeping what the majority of us already thought. Matip is Liverpool's best defender but – like Daniel Agger before him – is getting a reputation for not being available often enough. Lovren is Lovren, one minute a world-beater, in a full-blown panic the next minute, and he missed just as many matches as Matip this season. Klavan is serviceable but should be fourth-choice at best and, again, Lucas Leiva is not a center-back.

What was most important was a settled defense, whether Lovren-Klavan – five unbeaten games, from 3-0 Boro through 2-2 Sunderland, four wins and a draw only because of two stupid penalties – or Matip-Lovren in the final seven games of the season.

Liverpool haven't had a settled defense often enough, and that's down to the center-backs, because Clyne and Milner were all but omnipresent. Not that Milner's omnipresence was necessarily a good thing.


One more thing about the attack...






I would just like to highlight how many of Sadio Mané's goals and Roberto Firmino's assists came with Liverpool's preferred front three all on the pitch. Coincidentally, Liverpool's top assist-scorer combination this season? Mane and Firmino.

News Flash: When Liverpool had its preferred front three and settled center-backs, Liverpool were pretty good. Against the top sides and even against the bottom. And Liverpool's best players played better and did more when playing with better players. I imagine this surprises no one.

It's at the sharp ends of the pitch where this matters the most. The midfield's basically fine, even if – like in attack and defense – some players weren't available as often as we'd have liked. But Liverpool coped well enough with Can rarely playing in the first third of the season and Henderson out for nearly all of 2017. Liverpool have enough options in Henderson, Can, Wijnaldum, Lallana, Grujic, and Coutinho if needed, even if Lucas departs as expected; my only concern is if Henderson again misses half the season, as he's now done in each of the last two seasons. That's the only thing to explain the Naby Keita chase, but we'll let transfer rumor bingo lie for another day.

Unfortunately, Liverpool's best players at either sharp end of the pitch weren't available anywhere near as much as we'd like them to have been.


So, now what?


By now, we all know what needs fixing.

Breaking down defensive sides. Conceding dumb goals. Dropping points against the league's lesser lights. And most of it goes back to squad depth, but also starting XI quality in a couple of positions – left-back, center-back, one more top-level attacker.

There were times where Liverpool did well coping with all of those first three issues, both in the beginning of the season and at the end, and intermittently in-between. And Liverpool will assuredly attempt to further remedy these issues, as well as the last, over the summer transfer window. Everyone's already really really really excited for Liverpool to spend approximately seventy trillion pounds in the next two months.

As said above – probably not enough, at least in comparison to the complaints – Liverpool did a lot of good things this season. Liverpool improved a lot in comparison to the previous two seasons. At times, Liverpool scored a bunch of goals. At others, Liverpool strangled opponents, limiting them to exceptionally few shots and sometimes even few goals. Sometimes Liverpool even did both. Last summer's signings were almost completely successful, especially Sadio Mané, and if Liverpool can replicate or even surpass that in this summer window, hooooooo boy.

Because Liverpool will need to do all of those good things next season, in addition to less of the bad. With the league likely to get even tougher at both ends of the table and a return to European football after a year's absence, Liverpool will need to do all of them a lot better and a lot more consistently.